It’s open-mic night at a cultural center in the Pakistani city of Lahore, run by a group calling itself the Knowledge Factory. A group of young comedians takes the stage and asks the audience to suggest figures for them to poke fun at, using the tag-line “the world’s worst…” Somebody shouts out “lawyer”, another suggests “politician”, another “terrorist.” The performers take turns to take center stage and do a quick slapstick impression. The audience, crowded onto chairs and the floor of a cramped basement room, cheer, clap and roar with laughter.
Nothing unusual about that, you might think. But in Pakistan, people have been physically attacked for less. Due to a growing number of Islamic fundamentalists, there is little space in the city for cultural expression, and criticism of the establishment is risky. It wasn’t always this way. Lahore, the capital of the state of Punjab, was once known as a center for the arts and enlightened intellectual debate.
A creative oasis in a climate of fear
When Ayeshah Alam Khan, an actress and talk-show hostess from Karachi, moved to Lahore two years ago she became determined to create a creative oasis amid the climate of fear. So last year she set up the Knowledge Factory, inspired in part by foreign institutes like the British Council and the American Cultural Center, which had been educational hubs in Pakistan before they had to retrench after 9/11. The center organizes a variety of educational activities and cultural events, including the open-mic night. Khan and her two business partners set it up with their own money and run it as a business, charging customers.
“I was disappointed to see there isn’t actually that much happening in Lahore. There aren’t really any places where people can come together and express themselves through music, dance, writing, or whatever,” Khan said. “That is why I felt very strongly about why we should create that space and make that possible.”
She blames growing conservatism and security jitters, exacerbated last year by the assassination of Punjab governor, Salman Taseer, who lived in Lahore. His own bodyguard shot him for defending a Christian on death row for charges of blasphemy.
Lahore itself is famous for its Sufi tradition, a mystical, tolerant form of Islam. But the strictest interpretation of Islam prohibits singing and dancing and Taliban militants have bombed Sufi shrines known for hosting devotional music sessions.
Security for the “Dishonorable Brigade”
The city’s arts and intellectual events are often discreet and exclusive affairs now, advertised only by word of mouth or Facebook. Khan had to take extra security precautions when she invited a liberal religious scholar to hold a talk on Islam, and was forced to withdraw plans for a Christmas bazaar at the Knowledge Factory.
Comedian Daniyal Malik complains it has become harder to get government permission to arrange concerts and other events in Lahore. “It’s difficult for artists to find a platform and there are a lot of security issues now,” he says. Apart from being part of a comedy troupe that regularly performs at the open-mic sessions, the 24-year-old runs a theater production company and plays in a band.
After appearing at the Knowledge Factory last summer, his band, the Beygairat Brigade, went on to become a YouTube sensation with one of its songs garnering almost 700,000 views since October. Its name means the Dishonorable Brigade – a reference to Pakistan’s self-appointed moral watchdogs known in the media as the Gairat (Honor) Brigade.
The hit song “Aalu Anday” (Potato and Egg Curry) lampoons the country’s powerful military and religious establishment and laments a country where the governor of Punjab’s killer is “treated like a hero.” In between the singing, which veers between the serious and the silly, the band members hold up signs emblazoned with political slogans. In a nod to Pakistan’s troubled relationship with the United States one says “Your money + my pocket = we’re still enemies haha …”
Ambigious attitudes towards the U.S.
The 20-somethings that frequent the Knowledge Factory reflect the ambiguous attitudes that young middle and upper-class Pakistanis have towards their country’s biggest aid donor. Many have studied in the U.S. or had American teachers. “You get the accents, the clothing, maybe even the values,” Khan says. “But there are certain foreign policies of the U.S. they would not agree with – drone attacks have been very strongly condemned for example,” she adds, referring to U.S. drone attacks on Taliban targets in the northwest of Pakistan.
Malik says he was heavily influenced by a trip to the U.S. with the Global Youth Leadership Forum in 2008. “I met people my age from all over the world and many of them knew very little about Pakistan,” he said. “It made me feel more responsible about my own country.” Inspired, he set up a Pakistani version of the program aimed at sharing his experience and helping students enhance their leadership, oratory and presentation skills.
Malik’s generation is expected to be crucial in elections that the government may call later this year in Pakistan, where two-thirds of the country are under 30. Many of them have never voted before. And many of these first timers are now looking towards the party of former cricket superstar (and international playboy) Imran Khan. It has taken Khan a while to translate the veneration people feel for him as a cricketer into political popularity but his promise to crack down on corruption and to take a strong stand with the U.S. is exciting even the usually apathetic elite. His Tehreek-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice) is now the fastest growing party in the country.
Knowledge Factory founder Ayeshah Alam Khan certainly hopes that the young participants at her center can strengthen the democratic process. In a bid to encourage the growing enthusiasm for political debate, the center is running courses on critical thinking and has organized a voter registration program.
“You are seeing more and more of the youth getting up and saying ‘Yes, we want to be part of this,’ ” she told me.