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.

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This is what the Only Democracy in the Middle East Looks Like

This Friday, International Human Rights Day was marked for the first time in Israel. In Tel-Aviv, some 5000 people marched in a general human-rights march. It was a quiet event that was covered very favorably and widely by the press. What wasn’t being covered by the press? The second March to Sheikh Jarrah, which ended up with 24 arrests and one demonstrator in the hospital.

Putting Sheik Jarrah in Context
In 1875- Ottoman times- the Committee of the Sephardic Ethnic Group bought these lands. There was a small Jewish community living there until they gradually started fleeing, during the violence, in the area, during the 1920’s and 30’s and up until 1948. From 1948 to 1967, the land was under Jordanian control. At that time, 28 Palestinian refugee families were given lodging on this land by the Jordanian government, under the condition that they give up their UNRWA benefits and pay symbolic rent, for three years, by which time the houses will be passed under their names. The last part never happened.

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Copenhagen, Danish Hospitality and The Elements

It took some time, almost a whole week, but Danish riot police have finally been given the chance to greet the thousands of climate justice activists visiting Copenhagen with some traditional elements of Scandinavian hospitality – a mass pre-emptive arrest of almost 1,000 people and the ‘kettling’ of hundreds of others, forcing some to “urinate themselves while detained on the ground.” The churnalists who have converged upon Copenhagen seem satisfied too, eagerly engaging in the media ritual of filling the headlines with the standard litany of cliches about “anarchists running street battles with the police. Sadly, it seems beyond their intellectual capacity to use the occasion to even mention the existence of a parallel People’s Climate Summit – the Klimaforum 09 – taking place in Copanhagen at the moment. But if the arguments and policy alternatives presented by the likes of Naomi Klein (see video below the fold) are too rational for the mainstream press to digest, perhaps they’ll find this wonderful bit of creative subversivness produced by artists at the Klimaforum more palatable.  Here’s episode 5 of The Elements, where our hereos take on the The Paramount Public Opinion Distortion and Confusion Data Processor:

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Allama Iqbal, God’s Command To Angels

translated by – M. Shahid Alam

 اٹھو میری دنیا کے غریبوں کو جگا دو

Marshall the meek of my world. Arise, set them free.
Seize the towers of the rich. Shake their tyranny.

Lift the slaves. Ignite them. Instill a faith that rocks.
Teach the feeble sparrow to fight the taloned hawk.

Power belongs to the people: their kingdom has come.
Burn the totems of tyranny: their history is done.

Why do toiling peasants reap death and misery?
Capture the gilded castles. Seize the granaries.

These minders, meddlers, ushers play for a fee.
I do not need priests to parse my words for me.

I have no use for painted walls and ornamented frieze.
Build me a tabernacle with mud, thatch and leaves.

This age of smoke and mirrors: is this modernity?
Move the poet. Make him rage. Hitch him to Eternity.

_________________________________________________

— M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He is author of Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Palgrave Macmillan: 2009).

Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism

This book discerns in the history of Zionism the plot of a Shakespearean tragedy. A small band of European Zionists enters the world stage in late 19th century, determined to create a Jewish state in Palestine. This is their solution to the ‘abnormal’ condition of European Jews, who are without a land and are not a nation. To achieve this, they must seize Palestine; induce Western Jews to become colonists; and, above all, recruit Western powers to sponsor their colonial project. Zionists can only succeed by creating Islamicate enemies; they need resurgent anti-Semitism to send Jewish colons to Palestine; and they must persuade/coerce the West to sponsor their colonial project. In succeeding, the Zionists merely transplant Jewish abnormality from Europe to the Middle East – and make it worse. In Europe, Jewish-Gentile frictions were local problems; in Israel, ominously, they have come to form the pivot of a global conflict that pits the West against the Islamicate.

Cover Image GIFThis is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Palgrave Macmillan, November 10, 2009). Publisher’s link

— M. Shahid Alam

Why is an economist writing a book on the geopolitics of Zionism? This is easily explained. I could have written a book about the economics of Zionism, the Israeli economy, or the economy of the West Bank and Gaza, but how would any of that have helped me to understand the cold logic and the deep passions that have driven Zionism?

Zionism is a historic movement that emerges from the guts of Europe’s turbulent history. It is propelled by the dialectical interactions between two intertwined streams of Western civilization, the Jewish and Christian. And, as it has unfolded, Zionism has brought both these Western streams into a dangerous collision with the Islamicate. It would not be easy squeezing this tragic history into an economic model or a set of econometric estimations.

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The Absurdity of the Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama: "I love President George W. Bush"
Dalai Lama: "I love President George W. Bush"

He has been quoted as saying “Sleep is the best meditation.” May I suggest his holiness wake up to the fact that the two wars started by his friend George W. Bush are the clearest violations of his own espoused principles of peace and non-violence. Really, does no one else find it absurd that the Dalai Lama has on multiple occasions since 2001 stood unopposed to the brutal, barbaric and illegal wars first in Afghanistan and later Iraq? This sought-after personality loved by celebrities, the CIA, political leaders and civilians alike restated today in Calgary that “It’s hard to tell which category the current military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq will eventually fall into.”

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Iran – The War Dance

An important interview with Scott Ritter, the former UN chief weapons inspector in Iraq, on Democracy Now!, debunking some of the myths spun around Iran’s nuclear programme.

In a frightening replay of its pathological gullibility for state propaganda, the mainstream press (with honourable exceptions, as ever) has once again adopted the dominant narrative set by Western governmental officials, with journalists and other members of the intelligentsia dutifully performing their role as Gramsci’s “experts in legitimation”.

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Genghis Khan

M. Shahid Alam

“I think this is a very hard choice,
but the price, we think the price is worth it.”

Madeliene Albright


When Genghis Khan swept through
Samarkand, he did not shrink

from the hard choices. His men carried out
a general carnage, not sparing women

or children. Afterwards, when Genghis
inspected the mounds of dead bodies,

skulls piled into pyramids, he knew
instinctively (he had been honed for it)

that the price was worth it. Genghis
did not care for carnage – he did not always

see the point of it. But it was Mongol mothers
he had to answer to. If the terror

in Samarkand produced one fewer body bag,
he thought, the price was worth it.

first published in Black Bear Review (January 2001)

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