July 16, 2020
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'They Understand That They Must Not Understand'

'They Understand That They Must Not Understand'

Manan Ahmed reviews three recent books on Pakistan for the National:

Pakistan is illegible outside of the military. Now, there is little doubt that this remains the case from a geostrategic point of view but does that really exhaust all manner of living in that corner of the world? No Pakistani in these books reads or thinks (other than about the Taliban and conspiracies) or paints or writes poetry or sets up a new shop or raises a family, or even walks in the park.

This absence of culture serves a dual role. It validates, in some respects, the primary focus on the military and it distances complexities that would potentially undermine the analysis. Take, just as an example, the poet’s voice – the reinvigoration of Habib Jalib or Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry in the past few years – which does explain something about Pakistan.

It explains the way in which a whole new generation (the majority are under 35) have discovered ways of understanding their cultural space and ways of reacting against both rank militarisation and Talibanisation. Or consider, the cultural effect of Coke Studio’s musical series, which celebrates diverse musical traditions to almost universal audiences in Pakistan. Its popularity tells us as much or as little about contemporary Pakistani society as American Idol and Big Brother do about the US and UK. In either case, it remains an important cultural artifact to consider.

A decade after the events of September 11, we continue to know little and understand even less of Pakistan. This despite the fact that we are entering a golden age of production of knowledge on that same nation. But there is a critical distance between knowledge and understanding.

Read on at the National: Pakistan: why the US must think outside the 'military' box

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