By Ayaz Amir
A few days ago the Islamabad Police launched one of its periodic crackdowns on ‘foreign sex workers’. A handful of suspects were rounded up and a few were deported. The interior minister, who is greatly into these things, gravely announced that there was no room for such immorality in the Islamic Republic – a claim which must be taken with a large amount of salt.
Ladies associated with the profession from the Central Asian republics have long tried to establish a foothold here. From the reports one hears – although I have no direct experience, which is not to say that, given the choice, I would not like to have the experience – they manage a temporary presence in Islamabad…before the police, seized by another fit of morality, go after them again.
About the only two Ataturk reforms Gen Pervez Musharraf was able to facilitate were: a) the easing of liquor intake in some of the capitals better restaurants – you could carry your bottle and have it served at table, without eyebrows being raised; and b) the licence allowed for the opening of a few Chinese massage parlours.
From the way these reforms took off, and the encouragement they received, anyone could be forgiven for thinking that better days lay ahead…and that the police would pay slightly more attention to law and order, investigation and prosecution, than sniffing breaths or examining marriage certificates.
Even fierce democrats who flayed military rule and held that the restoration of civilian rule was the panacea for our problems – from the economy to terrorism – were not above appreciating the ‘social liberalism’ of the Musharraf era. For myself, I would sit in a restaurant in Super Market and take mine ease by the window, my stuff by my side. (I never got to the massage parlours because, call it my poor sense of geography, I couldn’t discover their location.)
Then came the vigilantism of the Lal Masjid Brigade, burqa-clad maidens, mostly maidens, armed with staves raiding and putting the fear of God into ‘houses of ill-repute’. An alleged ‘madam’ had her premises near Aabpara visited by these fearsome Amazons, which made a great splash in the media. I couldn’t find out where the massage parlours were but the Lal Masjid teams – call it their superior geography – had all the addresses.
So just when things were beginning to look up the curtains came down on performances that had barely started. The Lal Masjid clerics should have rested on their laurels. But it never happens like that. Having tasted success and sizing up the Islamabad administration – all pomp and show and little else besides – the maulvis went overboard and seemed intent on nothing less than setting up their own parallel administration in Islamabad.
Assuredly, that quasi-insurgency could have been handled better. But the newly-established or newly-empowered media – for which expect not the media’s bravehearts ever to thank Musharraf – was baying for blood. Where’s the writ of the state, thundered every evening a dozen anchors, the new consciences of the Republic.
Musharraf, as it is, was at the end of his tether because of the lawyers’ movement – “Chief tere jaanisar, beshumar, beshumar”. What heady times those were, and we thought what was happening was nothing less than the French Revolution. So the embattled general, cup of patience full or panic getting the better of him, let loose the army on Lal Masjid.
Thus what began as shuttle-cock vigilantism was drowned in an orgy of blood, amidst rising smoke and the sound of gunfire. And frenzied flag-bearers put the figure of the dead depending on the strength of their imaan (faith) – anything from a hundred to 200, to 1200, mythology and faith taking over from the real and actual.
For all ‘jihadi’ forces which were then on the march thanks to the American invasion of Afghanistan, Lal Masjid became a battle-cry, and the very media which had called for blood and enforcing the writ of the state turned on Musharraf, sparing no words in denouncing him.
Musharraf’s goose was cooked. His time was up and his own generals were tired of him – as Ayub’s generals towards the end were tired of him and Zia’s generals had had enough of him after eleven and a half years. But more germane to our purpose, the massage parlours and the Ataturk reforms were also screwed.
Sensible societies try to regulate and manage vice. They don’t set out to eliminate it because vice and the attractions of sin are part of the human condition. Might as well try to eliminate desire about which – if authority must be cited – here is Saint Augustine’s powerful testimony: “Does it (sexual desire) not engage the whole soul and body, and does not this extremity of pleasure result in a kind of immersion of the mind itself…(allowing) no one to think, I do not say of wisdom, but of anything at all?” (I came across this just a few days ago and couldn’t resist putting it in.)
Furthermore, since the dawn of civilisation, men and women, seeking release of mind and body, have turned to the ecstasy induced by the worship of Dionysus – god of wine and intoxication. Through all cults there run common strands. The dancing of malangs at shrines, of devadasis in Hindu temples, of Greeks and Romans when paying homage to Dionysus (or Bacchus, the name the Romans favoured) what in essence is the difference between these? Ecstasy is the common element in them all.
Ecstasy indeed is the indispensable quality of all art – whether painting, sculpture, music or literature, or anything else besides like architecture. Ecstasy means being touched by the divine, by the fire of the gods. Without it nothing that is enduring or permanent was ever created.
It goes without saying that not everyone is touched by this divine fire…otherwise wouldn’t we all be Shakespeares and Ghalibs? The closest that mortals, ordinary mortals, can come to feel the heat of this fire is through the trance of the dancing malang or the intoxication of the wine-drinker. For lowly mortals this is all that is vouchsafed.
The Islamic Republic, however, has its own definitions of virtue and vice. Crime and corruption are not only tolerated. They are deified and worshipped. There is no art or artistic accomplishment worth the name in the hallowed spaces of the republic. There is not much by way of real learning. So it is but natural that the heroes and supermen of this society should be owners of shopping plazas and housing estates. In the hierarchy of talent and standing they are at the top. In the drama and the novel plot means outline of the story. For ninety out of a hundred Pakistanis a plot means something quite different.
Pakistan has beauty of land, water and landscape. But as far as the beauty of artistic accomplishment is concerned it is a dreary wilderness. Its foremost problem thus is to create something enduring, something for the ages – whether in the realm of the arts or of knowledge – on this blank slate on which as yet no flowers are drawn.
We won’t achieve this by closing our minds or by letting the interior ministry and the Islamabad Police become the arbiters of taste and culture. There is going to be no opera house in Islamabad over the next 50 years, no concert hall, no symphonic orchestra. The Bolshoi Ballet is not going to visit the city. The spirit of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan will not return to these haunts. If none of this is going to happen, why do we get so worked up over the arrival of a few Central Asian ladies trying to spread some joy and light in this Sahara Desert of the imagination?
A strange republic, with no shortage of tanks and missiles, whose foundations and high walls are threatened by ladies of the night…which other country can lay claim to this distinction?
Courtesy: The News
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