VIEW: Identity confusion: who are we? —Lubna Ramay - Monday, October 11, 2010

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Culture means sharing common values, religion, attitudes, language, dress, food, etc. Is culture static or forever changing? In order to understand culture and define our true identities, we also need to have a better sense of history

“A national culture, if it is to flourish, should be a constellation of cultures, the constituents of which, benefiting each other, benefit the whole.” — T S Eliot.

A culture, according to Eliot, requires unity and diversity with respect to regions, religious sects, and social classes. By this he probably means that there should be a constellation of cultures sharing a common core as, let us say, South Asia (read India or Pakistan), but with enough diversity to provide stimulation for each other.

Pakistan may be 63 years old but the history of this land itself dates back to the Indus Valley civilisation, which is 5,000 years old. It is a country where people are living in many centuries at the same time. As you drive down the various roads and streets of its cities, you see donkey-driven carts alongside Mercedes Benz cars and Range Rovers. In shops you may encounter veiled ladies as sales persons dealing with jeans-clad girls. The European style coffee shops that have recently cropped up in the upscale areas of the big cities have not been able to discard the chai khanas (tea shops) downtown in these same cities. It is all very fascinating. This is what makes Pakistan so interesting and diverse. The question arises: why is the tourism industry totally non-existent here but booming in India, despite having the same cultural flare and hues? Why is Pakistan stereotypically viewed as a fundamentalist state and not a country with diversified cultural traditions?

The answer to these questions is simple on the surface but complex deep down. In a vicious struggle for power, the rulers of this country have tried to give their own shape and meaning to culture. When Ziaul Haq tried to limit culture to the Islam of the 14th century whereby women were told to stay within the four walls and dress in a particular way, the culture of this land became the biggest casualty. All of us who were raw during this time became confused. I often asked if culture meant wearing chaadars and not pursuing careers and if entertainment meant listening to just naats and qawalis — undoubtedly beautiful but limited within the vast realm of music. Was culture essentially cruel to women? Whatever happened to the music and dance that originated from the dancing girl of Mohenjo-daro? Who are we, and what is our identity?

Millions like me were confused — and still are — as we have been brought up to believe that religion and culture are one and the same. While culture is the key to one’s identity, religion is one of the important components of it. Culture means sharing common values, religion, attitudes, language, dress, food, etc. Is culture static or forever changing? In order to understand culture and define our true identities, we also need to have a better sense of history.

It is diversity that makes culture interesting. Our land — the land of Moenjo-daro’s ‘dancing girls’ — has embraced different cultures over centuries, starting from Genghis Khan to the Mughals, the British, and finally the West (read the US). It is a mixture of all these cultures that makes Pakistan so rich and diverse. It is unfair to wrap it up or freeze it in one particular time just because it suits those who rule us.

The connection to Genghis Khan goes back centuries. When he came to the Persian Empire, Genghis Khan assimilated its culture and enriched the Persian language, which at that time was dwindling. He brought with him the martial and administrative skills that the Mughals adopted later when they came to India in the 16th century. The court language of the Mughals also remained Persian. Ghalib’s Persian poetry is considered his greatest, while we can see a glimpse of Rumi in Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Urdu, for that matter, is itself a mixture of so many languages — Turkish, Hindi, Persian and Arabic, with its base being Sanskrit. Hence the journey of another culture started in this land (then India), and till today is visible in our food, music, poetry, architecture and dress.

Though we negate western culture vehemently, we cannot deny that the British left a great mark on our land as well. While the Mughals brought sophistication through poetry and music, the British brought a semblance of systems and discipline. Our bureaucracy still runs on the rules laid down by them (corruption and lethargy excluded). Look at our infrastructure, the roads, the Malls and the railways — all built by the British. The British system of education is still considered the best here, and the need of the hour in these competitive times is to know the English language.

Coming now to recent times, the pop culture of the US is equally visible here, especially among the younger generation. Despite condemnation from certain quarters, it is here to stay. While my children listen to western rock music as opposed to my taste for classical eastern music and ghazals, we have no conflict. Music is also an important part of culture and thus cannot remain frozen in one particular genre. Culture has its own way, I suppose, of filtering out the unwanted. There should be no confusion between fads and culture. What remains — the residue — is what matters.

No matter how strongly we try to preserve our ‘own’ culture, it finds ways to diversify itself. For example, when the USSR tried to keep its people “behind the iron curtain” and resisted any outside influence, it disintegrated. I have come to the conclusion that we cannot define who we are in black and white. It is simply not possible. Our system of governance is also imported from the west. Democracy first originated in Greece and was later adopted by other western countries. Therefore, nothing belongs to any one region, country or continent. Arts, crafts, skills, food, dress, political systems and war strategies are all age-old but constantly evolving and spreading from one corner of the world to another.

Pakistani culture is an accretion of so many different influences — ethnic, linguistic, artistic — an amalgam of centuries-old values and ways of life. Let us not create any hindrance in its development. The development of a culture comes from change, and it is by embracing the flavours of other cultures that we can really diversify and enrich our identities and begin to know who we really are.

Lubna Ramay is a freelance columnist. She can be reached at

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