Pakistan’s ‘Oral’ Society

Public library of Hulwan, Baghdad

M. Shahid Alam

(Note: This essay was written nearly twenty years back, in April 1991. A great many changes have come to Pakistan since then, but I am afraid that the observations I had made then about ‘orality’ of Pakistani discourse still hold true. Pakistan’s best young minds do not go where their hearts and their talents lead them. Instead, overwhelmingly, they still pursue job security. Sadly, education – even for the brightest – is still mostly vocational education. With the introduction of multiple private cable channels, however, orality has entered a new age. The oral discourse, previously confined to drawing rooms and campuses, is now led by ‘talking heads’ in television studios. Is this discourse now more solidly rooted than before in the written word, in history and the social and natural sciences? I doubt it: and why should it? Pakistan’s brown Sahibs continue to drag the country deeper into dependency; they work overtime to trap Pakistanis in the most superficial consumerism, without the capital, technology and skills that support this malaise in developed Western societies. In other words, Pakistan is still caught in the disease that Jalal Al-i Ahmad had described in his book, Gharbzadagi Occidentotis: A Plague from the West.)

I first became aware of differences between ‘oral’ and ‘literate’ societies when I returned to Pakistan in 1979 – after an absence of some five years in the United States and Canada – to take up a fellowship at the Applied Economics Research Center, affiliated to the University of Karachi.

During my first few weeks at the University, and in meetings with friends and relatives, I was at first quite charmed by their eagerness to engage in what appeared to be serious discussions on politics and religion. All conversations eventually turned to the momentous issues of the day in Pakistan and around the world. To my relief, they evinced a curiosity about the world which I had missed during my years in the United States and Canada.

However, these impressions did not last very long. Soon the discussions I heard began to stale. They conveyed less and less in-formation and even fewer fresh ideas. There was little evidence that my interlocutors were reading anything beyond newspapers. After a while, it appeared that everyone was talking about the same things, saying more or less the same things. An irritating monotony crept into the questions asked and solutions proffered. More discouraging, the discussions never led up to anything. No plans on which work might begin here and now.

It was as if the problems of the world demanded endless vocalization. We had to talk about them obsessively. It was as if everyone had to describe his or her encounter with this or that problem, as a way of coming to terms with, making his or her accommodation with what could only be endured but not overcome. It was as if everyone was engaged in a collective ritual, participating in some cathartic act, exorcising their problems, making them vanish by talking about them. This train of thought led me to conclude that these endless conversations were the incantations of an oral society. The art of mending the world by talking about it.

I can think of a ‘literate’ society where oral discourse is used more sparingly, where problems are more commonly sorted out in written discourse. The important difference between oral and literate societies does not consist in the proportion of those who can read and write. It hangs the attitude of those who can read and write to the written word, and on the relationship of the written word to society. A literate society uses the written word to understand and change the world. Talk is ephemeral, and more often than not shallow. The written word gives it power and permanence. The ability to reach out to minds across space and time. The ability to change it across space and time.

Oral and literate societies are manifestations of nearly opposite states of mind. In one the word is cultivated as incantation, a few simple texts rehearsed endlessly to come to peace with a world one cannot change, the better to endure its ‘whips and scorn.’ It represents a social abnegation, a refusal to belong to the world, to take responsibility for it. It reflects a defeated will that feels no joy in engaging, acting upon or changing the world for the better.

It is the opposite in a literate society. Here the world challenges the will to action. Here the understanding engages the world in order to change it. Those who labor with the pen are exercising their will to change it. Scriptures, treatises, tracts, manifestoes, essays: in all its incarnations, the word is a declaration of intent to change the world. Here the will to change society first manifests itself in the will to write about it.

Oral societies have no use for books. They do not read, collect, lend, borrow, hand down, treasure books. Overwhelmingly, educated Pakistanis experience their final and definitive encounter with books when they appear for their last college examinations. The only books you are likely to find in their homes are what their children use at school. There are very few bookstores that sell anything other than textbooks and news or fashion magazines. There are even fewer libraries, whether maintained at public expense or operated for profit. Book clubs are unheard of.

There are fewer new books published in Pakistan today than in eighteenth century Japan. Most are collections of love poetry or short stories. There are few serious novels. Books on history, sociology, politics or economics are almost unknown. Even the political parties have little use for the written word. They communicate their programs through speeches, slogans and jingles. Political pamphleteering is rare. The official biography of Pakistan’s founding father was written by Hector Bolitho, an Englishman. More recently, Benazir Bhutto commissioned Stanley Wolpert, an American scholar, to write the biography of her father and Pakistan’s slain populist leader.

All this is oddly paradoxical for a society that was conceived more than any other around a book. More than Christianity, Judaism or Hinduism, Islam is a religion of the Book. The central miracles of Christianity are the death and resurrection of Christ. The essence of Judaism is the history of a ‘unique’ people, whose seminal events are recreated every year in a procession of rituals. Hinduism is defined by its social hierarchy, by the social order, rituals and etiquettes appropriate to its caste and sub-castes. In Islam alone God talks to mankind through the written word. And yet that Book and others are peripheral to Pakistan’s society. A curious reversal brought about during the past two hundred years of Western domination over Islamic lands – converting Islam’s long and rich tradition of literacy to the present-day fossil of an oral society.

– M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. His most recent book is Israeli Exceptionalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). You can reach him at

7 thoughts on “Pakistan’s ‘Oral’ Society”

  1. I enjoyed reading this commentary. I had never considered the argument(s) that in contrast to oral societies, literate societies use the pen “to change the world.” I disagree with a few of the claims*, but it contains many interesting linguistic observations. Perhaps look at what is happening with literature in Egypt; news in the publishing world is that publishing is thriving there.

    Nicolette Ladoulis

    The claims about oral vs. literate culture in other world religions, including the claim about Islam and the written word, should probably be developed and supported more. Interesting, but I couldn’t accept it, unfortunately.

  2. I have tried to post a comment here and every time I try the form refreshes the comment or gives an error. Do you think someone possibly look into why there is a problem?

  3. Excellent piece!
    I would be failing if I did not mention a good book I recently read
    ‘People Places & Pickles” (Mavra Publishers, Lahore) written by Dr Aamer Sarfraz. It is an excellent collection of published and peer-reviewed articles which were interesting and educational. It is also written in a lucid manner. I enjoyed this book – I am not surprised to learn that the book is sold out

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