Courtesy of Nida Rehman
Haniya Aslam (left) and Zeb Bangash have won critical acclaim in Pakistan, where female musicians face challenges simply because they're women.
Listen to Zeb Bangash and Haniya Aslam perform a song live at their home in Lahore
In Pakistan, radical clerics have unleashed a religious fervor that is chilling secular voices and diminishing free speech.
Two high profile murders — the governor of the Punjab, Salman Taseer, in January, and the only Christian Cabinet minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, in March — have people from the political class to the artistic community feeling the pressure of the religious right.
We sat down with two flourishing female musicians from Lahore for their insights into making music in the time of extremism.
Singer Zeb Bangash and guitarist Haniya Aslam have chosen to write songs that are the antithesis of turmoil: Now working on their second album, the 32-year-old cousins have written a piece simply titled, "The Happy Song."
"Despite everything, there are beautiful things happening in this country," Zeb says, "there are moments of happiness, there's happiness all around, so we thought it might actually be nice to bring that together into a song."
The two women have won critical acclaim in a country where female musicians face challenges simply because they're women.
Their origins have also helped distinguish them. They are Pashtuns from the heart of the Northwest Frontier Province renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where tradition and custom have kept women largely out of the public eye. Pursuing a career in entertainment goes against the grain of the conservative Pashtu culture.
Haniya, a graduate of Smith College, however, says she doesn't necessarily see herself as "secular."
Zeb Bangash sings at a performance coordinated by the U.S. Embassy. The two musicians are competing to tour the United States, part of a State Department cultural exchange. The U.S. has spent millions on public diplomacy in Pakistan.
Zeb Bangash sings at a performance coordinated by the U.S. Embassy. The two musicians are competing to tour the United States, part of a State Department cultural exchange. The U.S. has spent millions on public diplomacy in Pakistan. Julie McCarthy/NPR
"I don't see myself as religious or secular," she says. "I think we all inhabit a space which really straddles both of them. I don't think anyone here is entirely this or that or the other."
Zeb and Haniya performed one evening this week at a U.S. Embassy event in Islamabad. They are vying for the chance to tour the United States as part of a State Department cultural exchange.
The U.S. is spending millions of dollars on public diplomacy in Pakistan.
There is alarm from Islamabad to Washington that tolerance for secular life in Pakistan is fast retreating as evidenced by the shocking murders of the governor of the Punjab and the Minority Affairs Minister.
The space for artistic expression is narrowing. Zeb says the obligation for artists like her is to keep "reclaiming" the space. Haniya says their work reflects the growing instability around them, but in an unexpected way.
"The more violence that starts taking place outside, the more sort of serene and calm our music begins to get. I think because it's a way of creating an alternate universe, right? You create work that would reflect the world that you want to be in rather than the one you are in," she says.
The two were educated in the United States — Zeb attended Mount Holyoke and Haniya went to Smith College in Massachusetts. They are of a generation of Pakistanis that is comfortable connecting with many worlds.
Haniya Aslam writes original songs and performs ones she and Zeb learned as children when musicians from across the region would gather at their grandmother's home in Peshawar. Despite the turmoil in Pakistan, Haniya is optimistic about the future, saying, "I have to be. Absolutely, I am."
Haniya Aslam writes original songs and performs ones she and Zeb learned as children when musicians from across the region would gather at their grandmother's home in Peshawar. Despite the turmoil in Pakistan, Haniya is optimistic about the future, saying, "I have to be. Absolutely, I am." Julie McCarthy/NPR
Their musical roots lie in a city where cultures have collided and merged over a millennium — Peshawar, a portal to Central Asia. Zeb says the intricacy of their culture gets lost in today's projection of Pakistan as "the most dangerous place in the world."
She rejects the perception of a Pakistan mired in backwardness and conflict. Zeb says it's a misperception that many Americans hold. And she says that makes it difficult to engage with Americans.
"Because they have their own idea, and then I think what's also happening is that the religion has come under attack," Zeb says. "And that is not something that we are completely comfortable with because no matter now progressive we might be, we have roots which are Islamic and we believe in those, at least a large part of us do."
Haniya joins in, "You don't have the good Pakistanis and the bad evil Pakistanis divided in half, and one wears black and one wears white. It's just not that simple."
Haniya says she is optimistic about what lies ahead for Pakistan. "I have to be. It's something I've worked at for about three years now," she says with a laugh. "It will absolutely get better."
They live comfortably in a leafy neighborhood of Lahore with Zeb's mother and father, a retired general. But the two musicians have gained a following with their fluid ability to incorporate traditional songs from Afghanistan and beyond with their own modern composition.
They continue to make discoveries about their own work. The hit "Paimana Bitte," or "Bring the Chalice (and Let Me Be Intoxicated)," was not the folk song they thought it was when they sang it as children in their grandmother's parlor. The daughter of the composer for the Afghan King Zahir Shah heard them perform the song and told them it was one her father had written for the Court 40 years ago.
Despite all of the turmoil in their country, Zeb and Haniya have no interest in living anywhere but Pakistan, exploring their vast musical heritage and interpreting it for a new turbulent time.