I did find this discomforting…its only the trailer, but the associations and presumptions are a offensive combination of Orientalism / Historical revisionism. Indeed, as someone pointed out, they are fantastic musicians, but this fact is entirely irrelevant to the issue at hand i.e the appropriation of Western symbols of liberation and freedom, juxtaposed against highly curtailed and crafted ideas of ‘religious’ fundamentalism and barbarism. We have seen this very often, and as well made as this film is, and as well crafted the narrative, it really doesn’t seem to want to get past this dichotomy, and to find a way to convince the international movie-going circuit that there is a longing to be more like them, and a desire to speak more like they do. And in that process, all sorts of liberties have been taken to construct the freedom vs. barbarism narrative.
We are told that Lahore was a great center of culture…until the Taliban came. We are shown a group that courageously defends its ‘culture’ by playing…wait for it…Western jazz music! The West’s culture is one we appropriate to signal a desire and search for ideas of freedom, civility and modernity. So these musicians – talented as they are – become foils against the ‘barbarians’ who just came to destroy culture.
And in the rush to give it Western film awards and screens, in the rush to imagine that playing jazz is an act of resistance, certain historical truths are elided. That before the Taliban came, we had a nation that was intentionally veered towards obscurantist religious interpretations by an American ally dictator, who exploited the American needs for a religious war in Afghanistan to strengthen his own hand, and destroy all and any institutions of democracy, dissent and protest. That the nation of jazz, the USA, was the financier and coordinator of global jihadi sentiments and ideologies as it galvanised, brain washed, funded and transported them from around the worked to come to Afghanistan to fight the great communist evil. That the Taliban emerge from this very miasma and cesspool of imperial design, cynicism and short-sightedness. That the ‘culture’ that they are defending is part of belongs to a nation whose military and civil bureaucratic professionals were enthusiastic and profit-making members of this cynical game. That we created, trained, organised and collaborated with the Taliban / fundamentalists for decades. And still do. That Lahore’s culture perhaps died a greater death because of the exploitation of religion that our political leaders have made fir decades, to say nothing about the many progressive artistic, literary, intellectual and political voices murdered, arrested, exiled and humiliated in the 1970s to appease American anti-communism and later in the early 1980s under the American-backed Zia regime. As the writer / academic Saadia Toor pointed out in an interview:
The Cold War played an incredibly significant role in determining the trajectory of domestic politics in Pakistan—this is not news to anyone familiar with Pakistani history. However, to the extent that people in the West do make this Cold War connection, they tend to do it with regard to the Afghan War of the 1980s. I wanted to remind people that the relationship between the Pakistani ruling establishment and the US, which was born of and sustained by the Cold War, went back to the very beginning of Pakistan’s history as a newly-independent postcolonial nation-state and influenced its political trajectory in crucial ways. I felt that it was important to highlight the link between this relationship and cultural politics within Pakistan for several reasons. First, because I felt that it was important to talk about culture in the Pakistani context, since part of what makes the discourse on Pakistan in the West so problematic is that it is seen as a place without culture, and hence, a barbaric place. Secondly, culture and politics are intimately connected, and nowhere has this been more obvious than during the Cold War. In fact, there is now a very rich scholarship on the Cultural Cold War, and on the cultural organizations and initiatives such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom and the influential magazine Encounter, which the CIA created or supported as part of a cultural front against the Soviet Union and international communism.
The reduction of a people’s history to caricatures where they desperately appear to want to be like the West to be free as the West and rid of the barbarism of the East. The jazz is the thread to civility, because south asias thousand years of musical heritage can’t quite express those Enlightenment ideals we so want to believe we possess. This is a rather typical arrangement of facts where entire local struggles and histories are bypassed to find ways to connect to Western histories and ideals. For it is only then that products for the Western audience can find salience and value.
Such depictions are cruel and dismissive of the lives and struggles of thousands in Pakistan who have faced death and danger fighting against US backed dictators, crass industrialists and religious fundamentalists. It is a convenient lie, one that usurps the desire and ideas of civility and justice, freedom and agency, from the Pakistanis, and garlands it to the White man elsewhere. And therein lies the problem: the problem is the caricatures of history, geo-politics, imperial reach and Pakistan’s decades of political collusion, that are entirely erased in these simplistic depictions. We find it easy to reach for the West to appease it with our longings to have its freedoms, but are silent to point out the ways in which it has had a powerful if not definite hand in undermining our freedoms. From the destruction of the left progressive, the coddling of military dictators, the undermining of national sovereignty, the burdening through debts, the constant prioritisation of its imperial interests over the interests of our citizens and so much more. We can’t seem to find the courage to say these things as well. We can’t seem to say what Eqbal Ahmed so clearly and beautifully argued:
There is an increasingly perceptible gap between our need for social transformation and America’s insistence on stability, between our impatience for change and American’s obsession with order, our move towards revolution and America’s belief in the plausibility of achieving reforms under the robber barons of the ‘third world’, our longing for absolute national sovereignty and America’s preference for pliable allies, our desires to see our national soil free of foreign occupation and America’s alleged need for military bases.
Eqbal Ahmed in a dialogue with Samuel Huntington, from No More Vietnams: War and the Future of American Policy
Yes, we all want these feel good stories, of good, talented and committed people fighting against obscurantism and barbarism. But in our rush to create these stories we are also silencing truths. I hope, once I see the film, that I will revise this opinion. I suspect not. We must celebrate our struggles, but why do so by silencing truths? Why not speak about the fact that there is no ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ dichotomy? Why not point out the many ways in which American political and military power has created, funded and sustained these ‘barbarisms’ we wish to confront? Why not point out the massive violence and destruction of life that Pakistani’s have suffered to appease the American imperial machine? Why not remind us that these pathologies do not emerge from the ether, but are a direct result of the policies of the USA, and the ways in which it played the game on the ground? Why not demand, if the freedom and liberty and security of Pakistanis is such a concern, that ‘the perceptible’ gap be closed? Why appease the West, coddle it for its worse narcissisms and delusions? Why erase its ugly hand in the mess that Pakistan is in? Why so cowardice, and such carefully constructed narratives of separation and isolation? Fine musicians indeed. But do we have to continue to cower and lie about what is going on? Have we not found the courage to speak back, and to rightfully reveal the whole picture, rather than polite and acceptable ones? Can we not reveal the connections, the inter-relationships, and the collusions of power? Can we not speak truths that aren’t necessarily about ‘good’ vs. ‘evil’, but about the ways in which power cooperates across geographies and political interests, and schemes to achieve goals that have little or nothing to do with liberty or democracy? Can we not speak as people speaking back, and holding to account the most powerful military and political force in the region, and the many ways in which Pakistan’s military, bureaucracy and political figures have stood with it for decades to create one hell of a massive mess in this country? So if our best and brightest, free and liberated are unable and unwilling to speak with complexity, and with courage, who will? The musicians certainly aren’t!