Politics of Survival

Written by Taha Kehar  •  June 2013   

A strong cooperation between the international community and local socio-economic networks is required to ensure post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan. However, local variants of financial institutions in the region have come to be viewed with suspicion. Hawala - an ancient financial system operating in the Muslim world - has been wrongly condemned for funding terrorist outfits across the world. Despite growing concerns about its questionable political agenda, hawala may provide a suitable remedy for the war-torn country to climb out of its predicament and give it a new lease of life.

Edwina Thompson provides a detailed scrutiny on the extent to which the indigenous financial institutions can facilitate reconstruction, development and global economic governance. Trust is the Coin of the Realm aims to question and re-define the legitimacy of external mechanisms to enforce political change through unique state-building models. Based on primary research conducted in Afghanistan, the study demonstrates that any form of development in Afghanistan can only occur if the international community engages with socio-economic networks operating within the region. The politics of survival and change is vested in obtaining trust.

Although the book adopts a largely theoretical focus, discussions on the role of policy add a pragmatic touch to what would otherwise become a purely academic discourse. The author has painstakingly outlined the objective of her fieldwork, the scope of her methodology and the challenges involved in conducting research in Afghanistan. A careful explanation of these details highlights the inter-disciplinary context of the work and allows the reader to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the analysis. However, it is important to note that Trust is the Coin of the Realm is based on a series of underlying academic preferences and biases. Thompson’s starting point is the concept of the international system of states. While the decision to use this theoretical framework appears convincing, it is difficult to ignore the influence it has on the course of the study. The approach is skewed towards analyzing hawala within the sphere of international relations. As a result, the book is neither a comprehensive nor conclusive guide on the workings of one of the world’s oldest financial system.

Conventional wisdom on hawala presents an inaccurate view of its scope and functions. By providing a historical context of its institutional legacy, the author skillfully deviates from these myths and explores the reality of the system. The role of hawala in encouraging humanitarian efforts across the world has been used as an example to negate the misperceptions held about such institutions. This serves to show that Western biases about hawala need to be revisited and revised.

By turning her focus specifically on the operation of hawala in Afghanistan, Thompson has highlighted the social, economic and political issues that have affected its scope and influence. The role of the localized notion of ‘bazaar’ and ‘family firm’ has been emphasized as an important means of granting legitimacy to the institutions. Through such sensitive portrayals of hawala as a culturally determined system, a fresh and enlightening perspective on the ancient financial system has been achieved. The author has used this motif to highlight the flexible nature of the local financial institutions in the exercise of state-building. It propagates the idea that the ‘informal economy’ can bring Afghanistan out of its quagmire. While this notion appears to be somewhat controversial, it provides a far more effective solution to the introduction of largely unpopular formal regulatory measures.

A collaboration between the hawaladars and the formal structure of the global political economy can strengthen economic governance and encourage reconstruction. Thompson shows the accuracy of this position through a range of astute observations and interviews with ‘local money-men’ who act as agents to ensure development in the war economy. These observations provide a convincing argument for the overall integration of the informal socio-economic network within formal peace-building strategies. This is an innovative approach as it breaks away from mainstream literature on international relations and adopts a politically sensitive perspective on the issue.

Policymakers have realized that strategies provided by international agencies are gradually falling out of favor. In order to rectify the financial status of a war economy, regulators, aid practitioners and stabilization advisers must account for indigenous factors. Hawaladars have enjoyed a limited range of opportunities to bringing their businesses within the legitimate sphere of the formal economy. This is a major setback because hawala has served as the bastion of the humanitarian cause. The book puts the traditional financial system within the context of the overall reform program conducted by international agencies. It examines the subtle dimensions of the overall legitimacy of hawala and shows how the system operates to positively impact stabilization efforts in Afghanistan through a complex array of bargaining strategies.

Edwina Thompson has provided an integrated model that encourages international agencies to engage with local institutions in the war economies. The approach builds on the essence of trust that arises out of the integration of the political economy with the local sphere of finance. Trust is the key ingredient, which can guarantee economic recovery against the backdrop of counter-insurgency. It can be obtained through a culturally sensitive understanding of the prevailing system of finance. Hawala is a ‘complex site of governance and institutional local power’ and involves strategies that are based on religious, ethnic, cultural and economic factors. A realistic approach that accounts for socio-economic elements, the study offers various insights into the flexible nature of economic governance. It highlights the risks involved in failing to account for these factors in the overall state-building processes. Economic recovery is essentially a question of survival. There is an urgent need to break away from mainstream discourses on the subject. International organizations must explore the scope and potential of hawala to effectively implement post-conflict reconstruction, global economic governance and financial security in Afghanistan. 

Title: Trust is the Coin of

the Realm - Lessons

from the Money

Men in Afghanistan

Author: Edwina Thompson

Publisher: Oxford University Press (2011)

Pages: 354, Paperback

ISBN: 978-0199062980


Poetry in Stone

Written by Sabih Mohsin  •  June 2013   

A plethora of literature exists about the Taj Mahal: one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The sheer number of books, written over time, have discussed the historical background of the iconic edifice, the details of its design and the team of architects, who undertook great pains leading up to the monument’s construction. The book under review, The Taj Mahal: Poetry of Love in Marble, discusses these aspects, but from a different perspective.

The book consists mostly of photographs of the Taj accompanied with brief write-ups that shed light on its various characteristics. Most of the literary work about the Taj admires its beauty but also praises the King who built the monument as a symbol of his love for his deceased wife. However, the rebel poet of Urdu, Sahir Ludhianvi, was perhaps the only critic to pass a negative judgment on King Shahjehan’s extravagant show of love, when he said:

Aik shahanshah ney daulat ka sahara le kar,

Ham ghareebon ki mohabbat ka uraya hae mazaq.

[A King of Kings has, on the strength of his riches, ridiculed the love of we, the poor]

By setting the opulent illustration of love aside, the Taj Mahal is certainly a mystical piece of architecture, which has compelled writers and poets, over the years, to dwell upon and explore the various facets of its construction.

The author of The Taj Mahal: Poetry of Love in Marble, Maqsood-ul-Haque, captures the majesty of the Taj through the lens of his camera, which is indeed a breath of fresh air. Maqsood explores the grandeur of the Taj from many angles in his photographs; taking pictures of the structure in different seasons, with various foregrounds, and at different times of the day makes this book a worth-while read. Maqsood, a skilled photographer with several national and international photographic awards to his credit, visited Agra several times to conduct research on the construction. The result is remarkable, as the book presents some  impressive and artistic photographs such as those showing the Taj’s reflection in the serene waters of Jamuna, or the early morning Sun rising behind the majestic Taj, making it glitter with all its glory. The photographs that particularly stand out consist of unusual foregrounds, such as a herd of buffaloes walking past the Taj, or the monument photographed from the eastern bank of Jamuna, which serves as a dhobi ghat. Images such as these remain memorable due to their juxtaposed nature.

Author-photographer Maqsood-ul-Haque, through his photographs has projected both sides of the Taj: the beauty of the structure and the unattractiveness of its immediate and surrounding environment.

A particular image that catches ones attention is a photograph of the Taj, seen through the arches of the Agra Fort, where Shahjehan (the Emperor who had the Taj built) was forced to spend the last seven years of his life after his son, Aurangzeb, deposed him. History also narrates that Shahjehan spent most of his time at the Agra Fort, gazing at the Taj through the same arches. Pity the King who made the Taj Mahal, poetry of love in marble, which has kept the world bewildered for its splendor yet found himself in uncomfortable solace, observing it from captivity for seven years. 

Title: The Taj Mahal: Poetry of Love in Marble

Author: Maqsoodul Haque

Publisher: CM Printing Co. Ltd

Pages: 84, Art Paper

Price: PKR 2,634

ISBN: 9781467511261


Melodies of the Heart

Written by Atiya Abbas  •  May 2013   

The introduction of Coke Studio and the arrival of rock bands such as Overload have bought hidden gems like Arif Lohar and Pappu Saeein back into the limelight. The practice of expressing devotion through music has been alive for generations in Pakistan and India. Keeping this in mind, Jurgen Wasim Frembgen chronicles his journeys in Pakistan and his emotional association with Sufi music in his book “In Nocturnal Music in the Land of the Sufis: Unheard Pakistan.”

Frembgen, a German anthropologist, was always fascinated with Pakistan as the transition region between the south, west and central Asia. He extensively studied devotional Islam and Sufism in the 1980s and during 1996 to 2010, he travelled across Pakistan, participating in melas and urs at the shrines of prominent Sufi saints while attending festivals which included devotional music and dance.

It is not easy to write about music, which is an entirely transcendental experience. In these five chronicles, Frembgen captures the essence of devotional dance and music to show man’s love for God through the rhythms of musical instruments, denoting that the musician and the instrument become one. It is interesting to read Sufism from a foreigner’s point of view as this book brings to life a side of Pakistan, which many Pakistanis might never have seen before.

These chronicles cover Frembgen’s journeys in Sindh and Punjab. The first chapter, Musical Nights in the Wilderness, charts Frembgen’s visit to a famous saints’ festival in the Salt Range. His description of getting a haircut and a massage from an Irani barber attracts the reader’s attention and seems as if he is conveying his admiration for the Land of the Sufis. His writing style gives detailed accounts of the culture, immediately grasping the readers’ interest and fascination. For instance, Frembgen describes how believers entrust their children to spiritual mentors, who guard them from demons and jinns. These children have their heads shaven with a single lock of hair on the right side, which they must wear until the age of 12. Many tales surround the saint, Imam Gul, known for loving animals and taking care of all the chickens in his parents’ courtyard. He taught one rooster the call to prayer and, as legend has it, from that day on the rooster would give the Azaan. One day, a farmer caught the rooster and slaughtered it. Imam Gul ran to the pot, knocked it over and put together the parts of the rooster and revived him! Such tales might appear unbelievable to skeptical Muslims but Frembgen’s documentations place the readers in an environment of peace, mystical stories and dancing dervishes. He takes the readers to the hidden highlands of Pakistan away from city violence, where people simply want to devote themselves to God.

Frembgen also describes the beautiful music played by the devotees, the complicated ragas and ghazals with devotional lyrics, such as the following written by the poet Aatish:

“Darkness blessed me with the sweetness of a wedding night

My spirit was blissful, happy was my heart

Seeing thus my eyes perceived the presence

of the nearness of God…”

“Nights spent at saints’ shrines and graves fill the spirit with deep, serene satisfaction and are considered to be full of blessings,” he writes, “their thirst is quenched by the wine of God’s love, as the Sufis would say.”

In the next chapter, The Music Rooms of Lahore, Frembgen details how his real initiation into “the traditional musical culture of the Indian subcontinent” began in a hotel room in Lahore. At the old Dehli-Muslim hotel he was drawn in by the sound of the tabla, coming from the inner courtyard. When it was confirmed there would be a mehfil, he decided to stay to watch the famous Maharaj Khatak perform. Frembgen’s anthropological training allows him to vividly recreate the scene to achieve ecstasy of a different level. The music reaches a fever pitch that enchants the listeners and cries of Wah wah! and Kya kehnay, fill the courtyard. For the reader who may not have experienced this kind of devotion, Frembgen provides an intimate look at an Islam that is completely devoid of the fundamentalist interpretations that it has become infamous for.

The chapter titled The Voices of the Fakirs at the King’s Court, focuses on the shrine of the Red Sufi, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan. Frembgen brings to life an amazing sight, where Hindus, Punjabis, and Sindhis come together in devotional prayer and dance to one of the greatest Sufis in this region. For those who are on a spiritual quest, they will find their calling in this setting, as Shah Latif explains in these verses,

“Whoever yearns for Saahar

Seeks not a ferry or boat

For whoever thirsts for love

The rivers are only steps”

“Only love leads the true Sufi to the truth and union with the Divine Beloved,” Frembgen writes. “If only the bigoted mullahs and others who disdain music would realize that music opens hearts and lifts the veil between man and God.”

As noted in recent interviews, Frembgen staunchly believes that the future of Sufism is bright because of the interest shown by the younger generation, “We should note that there is an increased interest in the East – take Pakistani music as an example. The Pakistani young generation finds interest in Sufism through the music of Junoon, Mekaal Hasan, the great Sufi poets and their interpreters such as Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Sabri Brothers and, of course, through Abida Parveen. The younger generation can find their identity reflected [in the music].” Through this book, Frembgen highlights an important part of Pakistan’s culture and provides useful information for those who may want to embark on such journeys themselves. 

Title: In Nocturnal Music in the Land of the Sufis

Author: Jurgen Wasim Frembgen

Publisher: Oxford University Press (July 2012)

Pages: 168, Hardback

ISBN: 9780199065066

Price: PKR 625


Rise and Fall of the Civil Service of Pakistan

Written by S.G. Jilanee  •  May 2013   

Rise-and-Fall-of-the-Civil-Service-of-PakistanThere was a time when the Civil Service was the most coveted and most envied in India and Pakistan. Its glamor made it the ultimate aspiration of all educated young men. When the East India Company had dug its feet in India and turned from just traders to rulers, they needed people to look after the law and order, settle land issues and collect revenue. Thus was born the covenanted Civil Service (CSS).

After India came under the direct control of the Crown, the British government created a class of people who acted as “interpreters” between the British rulers and the millions they governed. This was the Indian Civil Service, (ICS), controlled directly by the Secretary of State for India at Whitehall. Their duty was to assist in the perpetuation of the Raj. The common perception that the ICS was completely apolitical and only the CSP “played politics” is, therefore, not correct,

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