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Pakistani artists persevere amid increasing militancy

At a university in Punjab, the music department is off-campus, relegated to a dank basement. Singers and playwrights face the risk of attacks from militants who deem the activity un-Islamic.

September 14, 2009|Mark Magnier

LAHORE, PAKISTAN — To find the music department of the University of the Punjab, travel several miles from the main campus to a red-brick building, down some dark stairs, left through a shadowy corridor and into a warren of small, windowless rooms.

The dank basement befits a department exiled after a militant student group called it un-Islamic, un-Pakistani and unwanted. There were threats, protests, machine-gun-toting bodyguards. Then, the basement.

These are the front lines of Pakistan's culture wars, a very real battlefield with bombs and bloodshed where musicians, filmmakers, painters and theater groups face off against the Taliban and other militants.

But even as violence spurs self-censorship and spreads fear, it's also prompting some artists to push back, sometimes at great personal risk.

"We have to be prepared and dig in our heels," said Shahid Nadeem, an avant-garde playwright. "If we start retreating, there will be no end."

On a recent morning, students in the music department basement acknowledged that they feel beleaguered. Graduate student Nazia Muzaffar's mother warns her that she'll never find a suitor if she keeps studying music, which some Pakistanis see as salacious, immoral and a conduit for Western values. Classmate Sheraz Hector doesn't tell strangers what degree he's pursuing.

"If we had classes on the main campus, there would definitely be a problem," Hector said, sitting in a room littered with sheet-music stands, broken electronics and music-related posters. "Two bombs went off near here. Why they haven't hit us yet is beyond my understanding."

Several miles away on the university's main campus, Abdul Basit, 27, a member of the hard-line Islamic student group Jameer-i-Islami, sat with friends at a grubby outdoor cafe sipping Coca-Cola. Members of the group reportedly have beaten up male students for talking to female students and, in one case, for taking a co-ed group photo.

The young men, dressed in the traditional pants and tunic known as a shalwar kameez, viewed a foreigner warily before expressing surprise that the university had a music department.

"Our culture doesn't need music departments," Abdul Basit said before excusing himself to attend afternoon prayers. "If those people want to sing, they should go elsewhere."

Although the arts community in Pakistan has often come under fire from the government, military and religious fundamentalists, there's a general recognition that things are getting worse as Islamic fundamentalism makes inroads in a larger swath of the country.

Pakistan's creative types may be excused these days for looking over their shoulders.

Scores of cinemas in Lahore, Peshawar, Karachi and Islamabad have been bombed or intimidated into closing, leaving Pakistan with fewer than 200 movie houses by some estimates, compared with 1,500 several years ago.

"The entertainment business depends on peace, and cinema is the first to suffer," said Shahzad Gull, a film studio owner who is filming and releasing his movies abroad to survive.

In April, an art exhibition in Karachi was attacked by thugs incensed by a painting of assassinated former leader Benazir Bhutto sitting on the lap of the late dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq.

Late last year, Lahore's annual World Performing Arts Festival was bombed, undercutting organizer Rafi Peer Group's effort to show "Pakistan's softer side" and calling into question the festival's future.

An international Sufi music festival has also been threatened by extremists who abhor the tolerant Islamic sect, prompting cancellations by foreign visitors and performers.

"It's a huge setback when even Muslims from abroad didn't want to come to a country that's Muslim," said Faizaan Peerzada, the group's chief executive, now struggling to meet payroll. "I don't know what the future will bring."

In addition to fearing for their lives, artists say they find themselves more isolated artistically as foreign visas become harder to procure given the rise in violence in their country, even as fewer foreign artists venture here.

The social chill is producing some unintended benefits, artists say. Shuttered cinemas, concert halls and galleries means they have more time to paint, write, jam and experiment with fellow artists.

"Creativity, if anything, is more grounded now," said Zeb Bangash, a folk singer sometimes referred to as Pakistan's Joan Baez. "It's pretty underground again. It's very exciting."

Bangash headed over to a large house in a posh suburb of Lahore to cheer on several friends in niche rock group Coven. With gigs canceled and albums delayed, band members say they've used the time to start a school for wannabe rockers.

"Down from the mountains on their feet, sir, the militants have multiplied!" lead guitarist and vocalist Hamza Jafri shouted into the microphone as the three-man band jammed in a library filled with DVDs, empty beer cans and a hairball of wires. "We are ready, ready to die."

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