Purani Jeans | Butcher’s Block

Feb 2014

Legendary jazz saxophonist and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, playing his sax with a Sindhi snake charmer at a public park in Karachi in 1954 | Photo credit: Dawn

Legendary jazz saxophonist and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, playing his sax with a Sindhi snake charmer at a public park in Karachi in 1954 | Photo credit: Dawn

It is popular among liberal Pakistanis to nostalgically invoke the more socially liberal Pakistan of the 1950s and 1960s as a country that was on the path to peaceful prosperity. They fondly recall a time before Pakistan was “The World’s Most Dangerous Nation,” when it was safe for memsahibs to wear bikinis – a time before conservative moral policing took kulchur hostage. Photographs of the era circulate widely among the country’s liberal social media community and in like-minded columns of many print publications.

And, certainly, in as far as these images advocate for a more tolerant society, their circulation is welcome. However, the sentiment behind sharing them is sadly afflicted by the pervasive tendency of reducing contemporary Pakistan’s problems to religion, in particular, the idea that religiosity–Islamic religiosity–is at the root of our ills. Privileging this particular narrative of Islamization, such nostalgia invariably suffers from historical amnesia.

Particularly troubling are images of American cultural exports to Pakistan during those early decades because they disassociate culture from politics, and mask a very political American cultural diplomacy as benign and apolitical. Here are three such images with a bit of corrective history next to each.

The first two appeared in Dawn columnist, Nadeem F. Paracha’s multi-part photo-essay, Also Pakistan. The third belongs to the JFK Library archives and has been circulating widely in liberal Pakistani social media. It was recently featured in a Friday Times piece by Dr. Syed Amir.

The first image seen here is the legendary jazz saxophonist and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, playing his sax with a Sindhi snake charmer at a public park in Karachi in 1954. Eager to counter Soviet cultural influence, the US State Department funded cultural missions to increase its sway among those countries amenable to its Cold War politics. Many among these nations were recently de-colonized countries seeking to shore their futures by becoming a willing periphery to a super power benefactor.

It was with such State Department funding that in the first half of the 1950s, Gillespie formed a large band to tour Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, Turkey, Greece, and Yugoslavia on a cultural mission for the US government. Such cultural overtures were accompanied by the now infamous modernization schemes, most notoriously implemented in Pakistan during the late 1960s at the advice of Harvard economists during the military dictatorship of General Ayub Khan.

Among the many deleterious consequences of the vast income disparities created by these policies was the increased economic destitution and political marginalization of the largely peasant East Pakistani (now Bangladeshi) population.

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Hollywood actors Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger arrive in Lahore in 1955 to film Bhowani Junction | Photo credit: Dawn

In this photo, Hollywood actors Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger arrive in Lahore for filming scenes for Bhowani Junction. Based on a novel written by a British colonial officer with a familial history of colonial management stretching four generations, the story for the film was set in the year 1946, in fictional Bhowani Junction, most likely Jhansi, in a colonial India on the cusp of independence.

The film’s production studio, MGM, originally wanted to film in India. However, uncomfortable with the film’s theme, and judging the materials insulting, the Indian government refused to allow filming. Indian insistence at seeing the script pre-shooting, and its tax collectors’ demand for greater share of the film’s profit also contributed to the tension. The Pakistani government, however, was more amenable to American overtures and offered MGM ready assistance, a waiver of all taxes, and even the provision of army soldiers to assist in filming.

When released in the United States, the film’s premier featured Jones kissing her Sikh love interest, played, of course, by a white man. Nevertheless, American audiences found this interracial sexual interaction unacceptable, and the scene was excised from subsequent showings.

The film’s trailer is here.

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Jackie Kennedy and her sister ride a camel in Karachi in 1962 | Photo credit: JFK Library Archives

Nine months after Ayub Khan’s 1961 summer visit to the US–where he and JFK declared their mutual satisfaction with the decade of American modernization schemes in Pakistan, and their shared concern for encroaching communism–Jackie Kennedy visited India and Pakistan.

The 14-day visit, beginning in Delhi and concluding in Peshawar, was as tightly scheduled as any high-level diplomatic trip. Despite being billed as a “semi official, good-will visit,” the American First Lady and her entourage were treated as official guests in both countries.

For President Kennedy, an eager proponent of warmer relations with India, Jackie’s visit was a chance to right the sour mood in India caused by American calls for restraint as India militarily reclaimed Goa from still-colonizing Portugal in late 1961. The warmness was not one-sided. While Cold War politics drove America closer to India, Prime Minter Nehru also warily watched the growing power of communist China.

Meanwhile, landing in Pakistan after a visit to rival India, Jackie’s job was to convince Pakistanis about American fidelity. In a marital simile that was popular among Pakistani administrations of that decade, Pakistan was still smarting like “a prospective bride who observes her suitor spending very large sums on a mistress [i.e. India], while she herself can look forward to no more than a token maintenance in the event of marriage.” The insecure Pakistani government was happy to go “all out” for Jackie, noted then US ambassador to Pakistan ,Walter P. McConaughy.

In Pakistan, as Jackie moved from Karachi to Peshawar, throngs of Pakistani well-wishers were becoming increasingly sparse. McConaughy was quick to attribute this to “Muslim conservatism”. In Karachi, where Jackie did receive a more gracious welcome from some Pakistani women, McConaughy happily reported Ayub Khan’s observation that it was a result of “the realization by Pakistani women that this notable recognition of one of their own sex is a symbol of the growing status of women in Pakistan.”

As Jackie Kennedy was leaving Delhi for Pakistan, Air India had presented her a pair of baby tigers. Not to be outdone, Ayub Khan, a keen equestrienne, gifted Jackie a fine horse named Sardar who, despite being suspected by Jackie of having hoof and mouth disease, outlived the tigers, Mohan and Mohini, which died within a few days. Pakistan’s relationship with the US, however, failed to manifest Sardar’s longevity, and things were soon to turn sour. Jackie’s promises of American support rang false to Pakistani ears when the US provided arms to India in its conflict with China conflict later that year. In fact, so strong were Cold War exigencies that JFK was a proponent of using nuclear arms to defend India.

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Sharing such pictures sans context encourages a blinkered history. In line with Pakistan’s official narrative, it forgets the peasants brutally disenfranchised by the laissez-faire economics implemented under American tutelage. It also forgets that these American cultural imports, together with nationalist Pakistani intellectuals, cannibalized progressive indigenous cultural trends. This amnesia is central to maintaining the fiction popular in Pakistani and American liberal circles of a once mutually beneficial relationship that took an ill-fated turn in the 1980s. The history of earlier decades is lost in a rosy glow.

While the Afghan War undoubtedly devastated Pakistani society, the noxious consequences of the American-Pakistani relationship were equally palpable in earlier decades. The cultural overtures these photographs capture were part of a larger diplomatic effort  during the Cold War that created an atmosphere which sanctioned economically devastating enterprises such as Ayub’s 5-year plans and his Ataturk-esque attempts to modernize Pakistani education by Romanizing the scripts of all languages.

Without this history, bus meethi meethi baatin reh jati hain.

Butcher’s Block is the Tanqeed editors’ blog. It is a space for considered commentary and polemics.

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2 Responses to Purani Jeans | Butcher’s Block

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  2. jawad on Jun 2014 at 5:00 AM

    I agree, but I think you miss the bigger point. They include the 70’s in their nostalgia, all the way up to Gen Zia. They forget that 70’s was the most brutal and hateful part of our history. The big difference is that the elites were sheltered from this brutality. Now its at their doorstep.

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