Pakistan’s Mesmerizing Response to Propaganda – The New York Sufi Festival

23 Jul

Abida Parveen at Union Square Enthralling the Audience with her Vocal Vigor

In 2001, when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center located in the heart of America’s financial capital, New York City – Pakistan was catapulted from near anonymity to infamy within a matter of days. When I arrived in the United States for the first time to attend college in August 2001, many people did not know where  Pakistan was. I often had to describe it as the country right next to India. In a matter of one month, I did not need that explanation any more. And while my Pakistani pride had cringed as being described as the country next to India, in the fateful days following 9/11, I wished to go back to that simple explanation of my homeland instead of the rabid, angry and intolerant one that I saw each day on tv screens in the United States.

Since 9/11, Pakistan has suffered more so than even the United States at the hands of terrorists both in economic and social terms as well as sheer body count but somehow, despite all its suffering, it has been unable to rid its self of the label of terrorist state. The US media has not helped much in this regard either. Their obsessive focus on hate mongers ignores the millions that yearn and work for peace as well as  the thousands who have given up their lives for peace not just in their homeland but in the countries of those that they will never meet. Caught between the drones and the begging bowl, Pakistanis, despite their best efforts were unable to come up with an effective response to challenge the dominant image of the country in the United States.

The recent incident of Faisal Shahzad, only reminded Americans and New Yorkers in particular, who had been at the epicenter of the violent 9/11 attacks, of the damage that a man blinded by hate can wreak. And even though Pakistanis in America were quick with condemnations of the incidents, one man’s actions spoke a lot louder than the voices of thousands who are a peaceful and productive part of the American fabric. So we who lived here, lowered our heads and gritted our teeth and prepared for more difficult times to come for brown-skinned believers. And life went on with increased searches at airports and impassioned defenses of the Pakistan that we love and call home but not to any great effect.

Sometimes, the voices of hate and fear are more potent and powerful than the ones of reason and rationale, unless the voice of reason is being sung by Abida Parveen, the Faqirs from the Shrine of Sachal Sarmast or the talented Baloch singer from Kalat. For so many years, Pakistanis tried to politick their way into the good graces of Americans but with limited effectiveness. There were many high brow events conducted in the power centres of New York and Washington DC to introduce an alternate image of Pakistan to powerful Americans. But if the current state of affairs is to go by, none of this has been very effective. Mistrust runs deep within the American government of the Pakistani establishment and fear can be seen in the eyes of ordinary americans at the sight of bearded men – unless they happen to be Akhtar Chanal Zehri and they endear themselves to all of New York with their indomitable stage presence, their soulful voice and their graceful dancing.

The Sufi Music Festival held in New York’s Union Square, has probably done more diplomacy for Pakistan in the three hours that it lasted than all the work being put in by our missions in the US for the last ten years. On a bright and rather hot and humid Summer day, a large crowd had collected to hear the much awaited performers from Pakistan. Featuring an eclectic blend of modern fusion music in the form of Zeb and Haniya and the Meekal Hassan Band to the more traditional singing at sufi shrines in the form of Abida Parveen, the Sufi Festival boasted an impressive line up of performers. Friends drove for hours to see this concert. We arrived early and positioned ourselves in a convenient place with a good viewing point. And there was a large enough crowd already present.

The concert kicked off on time and Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN, Abdullah Hussain Haroon, who was instrumental in organizing it introduced the concert to the people of New York as Pakistan’s present to Newyorkers  in the wake of the Faisal Shahzad incident. Speeches were kept to a minimum and the focus remained on the performers. The concert opened with the soulful singing of Zeb and Haniya and then moved on to the classical singing of Rafaqat Ali Khan. This was followed by the more upbeat Meekal Hassan Band and then the brightly dressed faqirs from the shrine of Sachal Sarmast followed with an energetic performance. This led to my most favorite act of the evening, Akhtar Chanal Zehri – who the average New Yorker would probably run away from in fear. His face is framed with a thick, dark beard and his eyes are lined with dark kohl. He wears flowing white clothes and on his head he wears a turban made of white cloth. He has an air of seriousness about him that dissipates the moment he steps onto stage and begins an exceptionally animated performance. His facial gestures and eye contact with the audience quickly endear his to all, his strong clear voice reciting the melodic lyrics boomed over New York in absolutely perfect melodic harmony and he twirled like a whirling dervish lost in the beat of the music and in his devotion to God. And then came Abida Parveen, undoubtedly one of the greatest singers of the sub-continent. Her performance was breath-taking.

I have no words to describe what it felt like to stand in the very heart of New York city and see hundreds of heads nod to the beat and clap to the tunes of centuries old religious poetry. When we had first arrived and taken up our positions, the park was about half full but by the time, Abida Parveen took stage, there was not an inch of space to stand on or dance in – so packed was the once open space of union square. Thousands of hands clapped to the rhythms of Abida Parveen mesmerizing songs and hundreds of people broke into loud spontaneous chants of Ali Maula and Mast Qalandar. It seemed as if all of New York was reverberating with the beat of drums and dhols from the subcontinent spreading the message of love, peace and devotion to humanity. I have never seen such a sight in the city. It was heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. As my little Pakistani heart was overflowing with pride, it couldn’t help but be sad about why we could no longer preach and practise the traditions of our sufi saints and carry on the great intellectual debates captured in their poetry for fear of vengeance by the puritanical brigade who are leaving no stone unturned in the effort to alienate us from our rich cultural heritage.

It was a magical New York day, as people from across the sub-continent, from across the city, and all over the country, came to hear the messages of love and peace, written hundreds of years ago by our sufi saints. And it was also refreshing to read a piece in The New York Times about Pakistan that was not about what an intolerant and violent country we are. It was nice to hear the words of those Saints being spoken louder than the words of those satans who murder the innocent and hog the limelight. What I liked best was that for once, concerned citizens in New york (who have formed a group called the Pakistani Peace Builders) brought the songs of saints to all of New York in an event that was free and open to the Public. This was aggressive and impressive public diplomacy at its best and this is what Pakistan and Pakistanis living in the United States need more off in order to drown out the cacophony of voices of hate mongers. I hope New York will continue to witness the brilliance, the richness and sheer genius of Pakistani culture with greater frequency, not just behind closed doors catering to the elite but reaching out to all of New York and all of the world.

And while I hope such public events continue with greater frequency, I cannot help but be sad at not being able to be a part of them anymore as I leave for Pakistan this week. But I will always take with me the immense pride I felt as I stood amidst a sea of people from all over the world who clapped with one beat and sang in one voice the songs of our saints and their message of peace and love. It was inspirational.

For those of you who missed out, being there was like this:

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2 Responses to “Pakistan’s Mesmerizing Response to Propaganda – The New York Sufi Festival”

  1. skina August 17, 2010 at 11:34 pm #

    Nice post! thank you for sharing.

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    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Usama Khilji, Sehar Tariq. Sehar Tariq said: Pakistan’s Mesmerizing Response to Propaganda – The New York Sufi Festival: Abida Parveen at… http://goo.gl/fb/YvTTM […]

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