[20 April 2008]
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
PESHAWAR, Pakistan - Everything about the show was secretive - the invitations given only to select women, and no prior advertising. When audience members sat in the new orange seats at the performance hall, they saw six odd shapes on stage, hidden under sheets of paper and tape.
Here in the heartland of Pakistan’s struggle with Islamic militants, the reason for the secrecy was hardly subversive: It was a flower show, and the paper only covered frames for the arrangements.
But in Nishtar Hall, the event was revolutionary. For five years the government-run performance hall had been essentially closed by the provincial government, run by conservative Islamic clerics who believed concerts, dance performances and plays had no place in Peshawar, once known as “the city of flowers.”
Since the election in February of a secular government, allied with the party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the hall has been reopened - one sign of how Peshawar appears to be coming back to life since the political clerics were pushed out.
“I pray we can put Pakistan on the track of democracy,” announced Syed Aqil Shah, the new provincial culture minister, one of the few men invited to the show and the only man to speak from the stage. “I say it from the core of my heart, because the last government would have taken us back to the Stone Ages if they had won the election.”
Beyond the doors of the performance hall, other signs of change can be seen. Women on billboards have started showing more skin and hair.
The previous government had said that using women on billboards was un-Islamic. Supporters had defaced women’s faces and bodies on billboards with mud, black paint and markers. Music on public transportation was banned. Female mannequins on busy streets had no heads, because the uncovered female head was considered suggestive.
Under the new government, even transvestites in Peshawar are hopeful to again be able to perform and sing publicly. Common in the cities of Pakistan and India, transvestites had performed at a musicians’ market in Peshawar for cash tips, but police raided the community where they lived and evicted many of them.
Performances at Nishtar Hall, the hub of cultural life in Peshawar, were banned shortly after the clerics won a surprise victory in provincial elections in 2002.
Abdul Jalil Jan, a spokesman for the religious party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, one of the two major parties in the former ruling Islamic coalition, insisted the coalition did not officially ban anything, although his opponents disagreed. Clerics simply made suggestions, he said.
“The dances they used to have, these were very vulgar,” Jan said. “And the dialogue the women, mostly from (the neighboring province of) Punjab, used to use - I can’t even repeat it to you.”
He also said women don’t belong on billboards because a woman is a mother, a sister or a wife, not an advertising gimmick.
“This is not respectable,” Jan said. “Everyone is staring and looking at them. They should be in a better, more honorable place, not on billboards and ads and TV.”
Although Peshawar and the North-West Frontier province have always been more religiously conservative than the rest of Pakistan, the culture of ethnic Pashtuns also has been known for dancing, albeit segregated, and folk singing. Pashtu movies and modern music are extremely popular. During the years of the Islamic government, many of Peshawar’s top artists moved to less-restrictive cities.
The Awami National Party, a Pashtun nationalist party that always virulently opposed the Islamists, won the most provincial seats in February and formed a ruling coalition with the moderate Pakistan People’s Party, now led by Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower. The Islamist coalition, hurt by the decision of one major member to boycott the elections and unpopular because of its failure to stop attacks by militants, won only 14 seats; in 2002 it won 65.
Awami leaders said they held concerts and performances in their own homes and halls during the rule of the Islamic clerics, also known as mullahs. Party President Asfandyar Wali Khan said the government plans concerts and dance performances at Nishtar Hall in the future.
“I am absolutely clear that an individual can combat fundamentalism,” Khan said. “We will certainly hold cultural events in this province. But if you think the mullah will take this lying down, no way will he take it lying down.”
Jan, the Islamic party spokesman, said the new government is allowed to do what it wants with Nishtar Hall.
“We can’t do anything,” he said. “We won’t attend the functions and we’ll say, ‘See, you gave your vote to these people. Look what they are doing.’ “
Many in Peshawar do not worry about repercussions from the province’s Islamist parties or their law-abiding supporters. Instead they worry that Islamic militants, whose influence spread during the rule of the Islamist politicians, could react violently. In recent years, militants often have blown up CD and DVD shops and threatened and attacked musicians.
Fareeda Nishtar, related to the Pashtun politician for whom the performance hall was named in 1985, said initially she supported closing of the hall by the Islamic politicians because, in some eyes, it was being misused to stage vulgar plays and concerts. But she said she wished the previous government had reopened the hall with appropriate performances.
A panel of community leaders and government officials will decide future programs.
“Nice plays. Why not?” said Nishtar, who organized the flower show. “There should be a certain caliber and standard.”
The hall reopened quietly, on April 7, with a women’s prayer to honor the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, followed by the low-key flower-arranging show the next day. About 300 women came, the largest gathering of women many had seen in years, outside of a wedding or a funeral.
The event, which lasted more than two hours, consisted of watching four women decorate six metal and wooden frames with colorful flowers, a purple cabbage and a glittery disco ball of chickpeas. It was not everyone’s idea of scintillating entertainment.
But just being there, in the newly renovated hall that smelled of fresh paint, wood varnish and perfume, was a revelation for women, the cream of Peshawar’s society, dressed in fine silks and the latest Pakistani fashions after more than five years of being kept outside.
Even more revolutionary, music occasionally played in the background, albeit pan-flute songs with chirping birds.
“Listen, it appears to me as if this is the first drop of rain in a desert,” said Saba Javaid, a professor at a nearby college, smiling as she looked at flower displays in the entry hall after the show. “And many, many more flowers will bloom in the future.”