In Pakistan, Artists Undeterred By Jihadists' Attacks

A Pakistani Sufi Muslim dances in Lahore i i

A Pakistani Sufi Muslim dances outside the Data Darbar, shrine to the patron saint of Lahore, during a three-day annual religious festival in Lahore, Feb. 4. Gatherings at the shrine have been curtailed since July, when suicide bombers killed more than 40 worshippers there. Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images
A Pakistani Sufi Muslim dances in Lahore

A Pakistani Sufi Muslim dances outside the Data Darbar, shrine to the patron saint of Lahore, during a three-day annual religious festival in Lahore, Feb. 4. Gatherings at the shrine have been curtailed since July, when suicide bombers killed more than 40 worshippers there.

Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

The city of Lahore in Pakistan has long been known as one of the artistic capitals of South Asia. But in recent years, religious extremists have set their sights on urban artists and staged attacks aimed at stifling their expression.

Despite the chill that has settled over the arts community, local artists are rising to the challenge.

In 2008, Sufi minstrels, puppeteers and actors gathered for the World Performing Arts Festival in Lahore. The festival organizers had received anonymous threats, but they went ahead with the shows.

On the last night of the show, three bombs went off in succession, injuring several festival-goers.

The only real casualty was the festival itself — it's been discontinued.

Chilling Effects

Festival organizer, painter and puppeteer Faizaan Peerzada says that to the extremists, his outfit, the Rafi Peer Theater Workshop, "is an organization which is spreading non-Islamic culture in this country and bringing nations that are not Muslim countries with their strange culture, which has been imposed on the minds of our civil society."

Peerzada finds that notion absurd. But multinational corporate funding for his cultural exchanges has dried up. And Peerzada is now building a concrete wall to protect his puppetry museum and arts center.

Lahore musicians cite another sign of the chilling effect of religious fundamentalists. Last year, concert promoters tried to gather Pakistan's top bands for a Woodstock-like concert, but security concerns forced the whole event out of the country and to Dubai.

Taimur Rahman, leader of the left-leaning folk-rock band Lal, says that in Pakistan his concert audiences have shrunk drastically.

"The overall climate of the country has changed so dramatically," he says. "Because of the campaign that these organizations have undertaken in the cities, our outreach is significantly challenged as a result. We can't hold big concerts, we can't hold open concerts, we can't hold street concerts — although we do, but they have to be, sort of more guerrilla-type of concerts."

On one of his albums, Rahman sings: "No daughter's life in this land shall be destroyed by fundamentalist rule."

He says that extremist attacks have backfired, publicly discrediting the extremists. They've also rallied activist artists, including himself, to set their sights on a new threat.

"In an earlier period, the focus of our work was to roll back military dictatorship," he recounts. "And once that was rolled back and we had some semblance of a democratic government, or at least an elected government, then we felt that our new main focus would change to addressing the issue of religious extremism."

Artists Hopeful

In a class at the school of visual arts at Lahore's private Beaconhouse National University, students and teachers are discussing projects.

The school's dean is prominent painter and writer Salima Hashmi, daughter of the famous Urdu-language poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. She says that she must sometimes advise students to consider whether their artwork will provoke a response from extremists.

Hashmi remembers growing up in a Lahore that was the "Paris of the East," with vibrant music, theater and cinema, and a lively intellectual scene. She notes that during the subcontinent's painful partition into India and Pakistan in 1947, Lahore lost many residents who migrated to India.

But the city, Hashmi says, "still retained that flavor of being a place where writers would meet, coffeehouses where artists and writers would fight themselves blue in the face over some very tiny issue about abstract art or free verse, or whatever it was."

She also remembers the all-night concerts of Sufi Muslim devotional music, or Qawali, at the Data Darbar, shrine to the patron saint of Lahore.

"And there'll be thousands and thousands of people who come from small villages," she explains. "They come with their whole families, and they're there to listen to the music, to participate in the music, to move to the music, to go into trance to the music."

These gatherings have been curtailed since July, when two suicide bombers blew themselves up amid the crowds of worshippers, killing more than 40 people. The shrine is sacred to Sunni and Shiite Muslims alike, but Islamic fundamentalists consider worship of shrines and saints idolatrous.

Hashmi has seen the political seasons of repression and expression in Pakistan wax and wane. She and other locals are hopeful that when the current winter of extremism lifts, Lahore will be the first to burst into full artistic bloom.

"Lahore still knows how to party," she reassures with a knowing smile. "It is a city that loves to eat, as anybody will tell you. It is a city that is very discerning at a cricket match. Lahore is a city that enjoys a good laugh, and when times are tough, the best jokes come out."

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