Reflections / 06.08.2014

By Anjum Altaf It was fall last year that I was teaching the introductory course in economics and had drawn four concentric circles on the board to illustrate how the market was embedded in the economy which was embedded in society which, in turn, was embedded in the extra-terrestrial outerworld.  The objective was to spark a conversation about how the outer spheres limited what could or could not take place in the inner ones as also to point out the fact that while the economy and society had always existed, the market as an institution was a relatively recent phenomenon. From there we moved on to discuss how the reach of the market was expanding and its ambit growing to include aspects that were previously never within its domain to the extent that reading the standard textbooks one could well believe that the market economy was all...

Miscellaneous / 31.03.2014

By Kabir Altaf In the US and in other developed countries, theater is often seen as a leisure activity, engaged in primarily by those with disposable income and enough time to spend two hours watching a play.  However, in many countries around the world, the importance of theater goes beyond entertainment. Rather, theater is a matter of life and death. As part of its “World Stages” festival, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts recently hosted a panel discussion entitled “Recasting Home: Conflict, Refugees, and Theater”. Moderated by Ambassador Cynthia Schneider, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the co-founder of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, the panel featured artists from Syria, Pakistan, Palestine, and the US.  All the panelists discussed the ways in which theater was essential to helping individuals cope with extremely difficult situations, including occupation and civil...

Miscellaneous / 01.07.2012

By Kabir Altaf Art does not exist in a vacuum. The artist lives in a particular social context and his or her work reflects the era in which it was created. Artists have long been concerned with exploitation and injustice. Rather than have their work simply reflect the society around them, many artists wish to use their work to change conditions on the ground. For example, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) believed that plays should not cause spectators to identify emotionally with the characters on stage but should rather provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the onstage action. Thus, Brecht used techniques that would remind the audience that the play was a reflection of reality and not reality itself. By highlighting the constructed nature of the theatrical event, Brecht hoped to communicate to the audience that their reality was equally constructed, and thus changeable. Two of Brecht’s most famous plays are The Threepenny Opera and The Good Person of Szechwan. Both these works reflect Brecht’s concerns with the exploitative nature of capitalism.
Behavior / 09.05.2011

By Anjum Altaf Patriarchy is the name given to social arrangements that privilege men and subordinate women. The desired end for many is an egalitarian structure that does away with gender bias. There are some obvious and some not-so-obvious facets of patriarchy and its contestation. In this article I will explore some of these with reference to Pakistan. I hope readers from other countries in South Asia would add to the discussion with observations rooted in their own realities. The most obvious point is that patriarchy is real. Its forms cover the entire range of gender relations. There are still places in Pakistan, I am told though I cannot vouch for it personally, where women are treated as property and bartered for various purposes.
Development / 07.10.2010

By Anjum Altaf   At the conclusion of the 2006 Asian Games I had written an article (Pakistan: A Downward Spiral) using performance in sports as an objective indicator of the structural changes that could have been taking place over the years in China, India, and Pakistan, respectively. The indicator pointed to a stunning improvement in China, an upward trend in India after a period of stagnation, and a steep decline in Pakistan. Readers questioned the validity of the indicator but offered nothing better as an alternative. Given how cavalier people are in their comparisons between India and Pakistan, using broad generalizations of poverty and corruption to dismiss the diverging trends in the two countries, I continue to believe the indicator yields valuable insights to those who wish to face facts rather than deny reality.
Music / 21.08.2009

By Anjum Altaf  In the second post in this series I had proposed looking at the organization of music to see what it revealed about the organization of society. This enquiry was motivated by the very stark differences in the organization of classical music in the Western and Hindustani traditions that are immediately obvious on attending concerts in the two traditions. I am going to rely almost entirely on the description provided by Yehudi Menuhin in his autobiography Unfinished Journey (Chapter 12) because being a musician he has a deep insight into the subject. Later I will come back to the issues that Menuhin does not address.
Music / 07.08.2009

By Anjum Altaf Is architecture frozen music? I asked this question because it consumed many years of my life and in arriving at an answer I discovered things about myself that I now wish to explore because they have a bearing on who we are, where we come from, and how we see the world. Think back to Macaulay’s child, the babu-in-the-making, desperately looking for architecture in music. Taught only reading, writing and arithmetic (in English) with a polishing of calculus and Fourier transforms, it was natural to assume that music was music was music and it was only a matter of diligent search that would reveal to me the architecture that Goethe had seen. And so it was a blinding (to an idiot) flash that opened up the possibility that there could be music and there could be music and that the two could differ and therefore the metaphor that applied to one need not apply to the other.
Ghalib / 05.02.2009

The beauty of language and the art of wordplay determine this week’s selection from Ghalib:   laag ho to us ko ham samjheN lagaao jab nah ho kuchh bhii to dhokaa khaaeN kyaa   if enmity would exist, then we would consider it affection when nothing at all would exist, then how would we deceive ourselves?   In last week’s selection (Heaven Unto Hell), the word laag had appeared in one guise. This week Ghalib uses it in a completely contrary meaning and then pairs it with lagaao to create the beauty of opposites. One can’t resist the temptation to say: lage raho Munnabhai!   Mehr-i-Niimroz will delve further into this intricate facility with words. The meaning, on the other hand, is quite clear: any kind of relationship is better than indifference; even enmity from the beloved is preferable to no relationship at all.   What interpretation can one extract from this in the social context?   We can...

Democracy/Governance, Governance, Politics / 01.03.2008

This is a companion piece to The Politics of Identity in which we outlined the views of Professor Stanley Fish on identity politics. In this post we present a critique of Professor Fish’s analysis, apply his framework to politics in Pakistan, and try to demonstrate the importance of context in such matters.  Professor Fish’s articulation of identity politics is most easily understood in the concrete context of the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party. An ideal non-identity voter would be one who behaves as if he or she is completely unaware of the “skin color, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other marker [of identity]” of the two candidates. The voter (visualized as an abstract “citizen”) selects the candidate best qualified to lead the country and advance the policies (say on the war in Iraq, the Middle...

Miscellaneous / 07.01.2008

“Already, more than 300 Kenyans are dead, 70,000 have been driven from their homes and thousands have fled to neighboring countries.” This is part of an editorial in the New York Times entitled Ambition and Horror in Kenya (January 3, 2008). First, some hand wringing: “It is particularly tragic to see this happening in a country that seemed finally to be on the path to a democratic and economically sound future.” Then some advice: “Mr. Kibaki should renounce that official declaration and the embarrassingly swift swearing in that followed. He should then meet with his principal challenger, Raila Odinga, to discuss a possible vote recount, election re-run or other reasonable compromise.” Followed by a suggestion for some “outside prodding.” “Urgent mediation by the leader of the African Union, John Kufuor, could help bring the two together before the violence gets worse.”  And finally, a hopeful conclusion: “Mr. Kibaki and...