Culture — A Basis for National Identity and Image Building

by Yasmeen Lari

Keynote speech at the opening session of UNESCO-Government of Pakistan Seminar on Culture, Cultural Heritage and Cultural Tourism, Islamabad 9-11 December, 2003.

 In an age when globalization is all pervasive, it is Pakistan’s ancient lineage that provides us with a distinct identity. Lest we forget —since this seems to be our best kept secret from the outside world — Pakistan is a treasure-house of ancient heritage, spanning over scores of centuries. 

It is home to Mehargarh, Moenjodaro and Harrappa —it is the land that beckoned Alexander to sail down river Jhelum with purple flags fluttering; the spectacular Gandharan civilization as the seat of Buddhism; the devotional carvings of the Hindu Shahi temples of the Salt Range and Tharparkar; the stately funerary clusters of Makli, Multan and Ucch Sharif, a fusion of local trabeated and imported arcuate, representing successive Sultanate dynasties; the heart-expanding chahar-baghs and jewel-like edifices of the greatest kingdom in the world, established by the young ruler of Farghana; the Sikhs emulating the Great Mughals, and the shared legacy of eclectic architecture with its European overtones, a bequest of the British who colonized this land.

It is not only the ancient sites and historic monuments, but equally the historic urban cores, stretched from the peaks of the Khyber in the farthest north to the southern-most edge of the mighty river Indus — Peshawar, Multan, Thatta and Karachi, and scores of other living cities with their historic environments, all valuable in our search for, and understanding of our cultural diversity.

There are the Walled Cities, a depository of irreplaceable architectural heritage, with their organic morphology and the meandering streetscapes, which need to be saved from destruction, and revitalized to continue to endow our fast-growing urban centres with distinction, and historical flair. These footsteps of history are a reflection of a traditional value system, tempered over centuries, but needing support to meet the demands of contemporary life without losing their inherent radiance — the traditional lifestyles determined by, and themselves determining the historic environments. 

This is our heritage that we need to safeguard as if family silver to be passed on to future generations to maintain our distinctive identity.

This is the land of Sufi mendicants and mysticism, tasawwaf, the great spiritual current, providing the security of the heart and generosity of the soul, spreading the consciousness of One Reality in the pursuit of peace, regardless of religious orientation — the folklore, traditional and religious music, devotional, ecstatic dance emanating from the veneration and celebration of the Sufi saints that traversed this land.  

As we know, it is culture that creates a bond between diverse communities, providing them with strength and vigour — woven on the loom of tradition, fashioned by the seasonal crops and verdant trees, reticent before the skies and humble before seasons, orchestrated with melody in the hearts of men and women of this country. 

It is this culture, likened by a Sufi to the fragrance left behind when the incense stick of life has burnt out — distinct from social prejudices and religious taboos — that we need to pass on to our successive generations to provide them with sustenance of ht soul and the distinctive characteristics of their identity.  

Tangible and intangible heritage, crafts, art and performing arts, oral history, languages and dialects, our diverse communities, their celebrations and festivals, cuisine and folk art, are our cultural reserves with their cross cutting nature, binding the communities, and providing the basis for national integration and cohesion. 

Already in 1968, the Faiz Ahmed Faiz Report identified culture and cultural activity as a socio-political activity providing opportunity for full participation of people and a pre-requisite for nation building, as well as being the most organic component of the country’s image. It is ironic, that three-and-a-half decades later we are debating whether culture maters rather than how it matters in the context of identity, image building and development.

Where we are striving for a scientific, technological Pakistan, there is a parallel vision we need to pursue, that of a Creative, Cultural Pakistan. As has been recognized by nations mindful of the double-edged sword of globalization, in a homogenized world of mass communications and emerging technologies, there will be an increasing global deficit of creative and cultural forces. If we in Pakistan, with our treasure-house of cultural resources, are able to safeguard and capitalize upon our traditions, heritage and creativity, we could be among the most sought after nations in a century, which is equally likely to become a century of Culture and Creativity.

Let us strive for an image of Pakistan which is underpinned by our cultural moorings, to become a favoured destination for both culture and commerce. Let us develop a framework of human development from a cultural perspective, focusing on achieving a better quality of life through nurturing our cultural diversity. Let the word go forth that the safeguarding and promotion of our heritage and culture is not the responsibility of the government alone but of each one of us — for each one of us carries the duty of care for the heritage that has been passed on to us from earlier generations. 

Let us create a structure in which each Pakistani, regardless of gender or age, learned or non-learned, urban or rural, whether affluent or from marginalized sections of society, is able to participate in heritage and culture-related activities, thus developing pride in our cultural roots.

Just as the people of Pakistan are expected — and I believe they are ready — to participate in this cultural campaign, it is equally the responsibility of a democratic government to protect the nation’s cultural diversity by providing us with cultural rights, mechanisms for social and cultural inclusion and creation of cultural space around the country. Each community and each locality must be enabled to hold heritage- and art-festivals for the involvement of the general public.

Instead of the top down trickling from the upper echelons of politicians, academia and public institutions for promotion of heritage and culture — let there be facilitation for involvement across the length and breadth of the nation — in the remotest communities and the farthest hamlet. Let us invest in cultural workers, cultural and creative industries, local crafts and cultural institutions, as also in marginalized sections, women and youth for cultural empowerment. the government can play a definitive role by providing access to financial and technical support to help them safeguard and celebrate the most valuable cultural assets they would have identified around them.  

All cultural activities can be perpetuated through private-sector support by providing incentives and tax breaks. Let there be encouragement by the Government for partnerships of commerce and culture, for sustaining and promoting a positive, cultural image of Pakistan. The government needs to do a lot but it needn’t do it alone — through a strategic plan each Pakistani can be encouraged to become a cultural worker. 

Pakistanis today at a cross roads due to challenges posed in the post 9/11 world — the world of so-called Clash of Civilizations — with an increasing polarization between the Muslim and Western world. the effect of negative images flashed around the world can only be counteracted through a cultural offensive. To achieve our objective of becoming a favoured country for investment, culture will need to be placed at the core of our development policies and propagated with every possible means.

It is not only political and diplomatic strategies that will create a better image for our country, but equally the propagation of our cultural agenda that is likely to pay dividends. Let us promote our vision of a Cultural Pakistan — to provide another window to Pakistan, a world removed from violence and negativism, promoting instead an image of a pluralistic Muslim country, a depository of rare cultural assets, along with historical memories and spiritual orientation of its people. Each public sector organization, and private sector too, can be engaged in promoting our cultural resources, through even simple means of films, posters, images and leaflets: PIA within aeroplanes and national and international offices, Pakistan Railways by utilizing its countrywide stations, Pakistan Post Office through its innumerable outlets, the technological gateways and countless websites, to name a few. 

Let us not fritter away our family silver and the fragrance of the incense stick, but safeguard them and utilize them for creation of a Cultural Pakistan for not only human development and well being of our people but equally for social and economic advancement of our nation.

Let us strive and search for the Simurgh, the mythical bird of Faridud din Attar’s ingenious poem Mantiq-ut-tair, for as we know from the elect few that reached the farthest mountain, this search will provide the means to find ourselves.