Azadi, Ayyan and Simulation | karachikhatmal’s blog

Sep 2014

karachikhatmal | BLOG

A few weeks ago, Pakistani model Ayyan Ali released a song. This was slightly odd, since Ayyan was not known to be a singer. She provides little evidence of this on the song itself, but then again it is quite typical of the various electronic, autotuned tracks that constantly play on every radio channel in the world. The chorus, “My life, life//I’m lovin’ it, lovin’ it//You know, you know”, pretty much captures what the song’s ambitions are.

The release of the song made me think of an article by Indian music critic Bhanuj Kappal for The Sunday Guardian titled “Priyanka Chopra & the exotic products of locally brewed idiocy”. Kappal argues in his piece that Priyanka’s “music and career are a great case study for how the global pop factory manufactures a star.” Here’s what Bhanuj wrote on the matter:

“First, American label executives look for untapped local markets that are ripe for exploitation discovery­ — in this case India and the Indian-American community. There are a lot of us, we’ve got money, and we still don’t have a bonafide desi pop superstar (M.I.A doesn’t count). Perfect. So the search for a superstar begins. Thanks to auto-tune and the globalisation of celebrity, the labels don’t have to deal with the hassle of finding and training a promising youngster. Instead, they zero in on someone who’s attractive, already well known to Indians home and abroad, and won’t let things like artistic integrity get in the way of making millions of dollars. Add an Americanised accent, a vapid public persona and a Euro-trash club beat and voila! You have Priyanka Chopra, the international pop superstar.”

Basically, he describes a process whereby music labels looked at India and its massive population at home and in the diaspora, factored in its devout adoration for Bollywood stars, put two and two together and made ka-ching. And it is easy to see Ayyan’s latest song as an extension of that same logic. Like Priyanka, she is an extremely beautiful woman who has gained a lot of fame for that reason. The fact that she is part of Ufone’s commercials ensures that she is very much a mainstream figure as well.

But in order to confirm this analogy, we need to look at the economics of the situation. Unlike India, Pakistan has little to no infrastructure for the business of music. While music is widely available, heard and sold across the country, this is largely pirated content. Beyond folk and regional musicians, very few artists in the urban mainstream make money from their music, and most of that comes from live performances, not record/album/etc sales.

Moreover, the company behind Ayyan’s release is Red Clover Media (RCM). RCM describes itself on its Facebook page as one of Romania’s “most important” independent record labels. Other than the Ayyan song (which features a guest artist that seems to be on the RCM roster) almost all other posts on its Facebook page are in Romanian. Now unless Romania has a huge Ayyan subculture (like David Hasselhoff in Germany) I would imagine that they made and promoted this with a view to grow in markets where there were lots of Pakistanis.

In one sense, the logic of this approach is similar to a sound, successful one used elsewhere – like with Priyanka. Yet unlike the Priyanka example, this one also seems to be largely constructed on a simulation of sorts. You have beautiful popular lady doing absolutely commercial music, but there is little to go on further than that. There is almost no real market in Pakistan for selling music legally, while Ayyan’s global appeal hasn’t quite arrived. It was almost as if Ayyan and RCM figured that if they follow all the steps on the recipe, they’ll end up with the brownie, even if they didn’t have any ingredients in the first place. [To be completely fair I should point out that RCM have done events in Dubai, which is home to a lot of Pakistanis as well as Ayyan’s birthplace, but since the release of the track their Facebook activity doesn’t indicate any Ayyan-related efforts.]

[Alternative link: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x22pbz9_ayyan-you-and-i_music]

Now I am about to talk about an idea which not only do I not understand very well at all, but also one that the readers of this particular website would be quite well versed with. So let me be clear that if I’ve gotten this all wrong, keep this disclaimer in mind when you subtweet about my ignorance. But over the past few weeks, one idea that has kept coming up in my mind again and again has been that of the simulacra. Wikipedia explains it as “A simulacrum is a representation or imitation of a person or thing.” Even on Wiki, it is a really complex idea, and one that has been referenced by philosophers such as Plato, Nietzche and Jean Baudrillard.

One of Baudrillard famous concepts on the matter, the Desert of the Real, became a dialogue for Morpheus in the film The Matrix, which he utters when he pulls back the curtain of the matrix to show Neo the reality behind its simulation. (Before we begin, keep in mind that Baudrillard is not a fan of how his work was represented or interpreted in the Matrix, and my usage of this term is not based on his thought, but the pop-philosophy I encountered in the film).

“Welcome, to the Desert of the Real”

This very visual explanation, which places them outside the realm of the matrix, is emphasized by how it lacks all the shiny lights and sounds of the simulation. There are no ladies in red to distract anyone here, and this is one of the several ways it is distinct from the simulation.

Later on in the film, the character Cypher explains the idea of how the matrix gets this simulation to work. It knows enough to replicate the emotions and experiences – in that particular case, the taste of a steak – that a human feels to give them exactly what they expect. And Cypher concedes that even if he does know what the truth is, it doesn’t really matter enough to him. If he can taste the steak, what does it matter that this taste is a simulation? This is a crucial observation, because it implies that once the simulation reaches a certain degree of sophistication, there is little incentive to disavow it, and to snap back to acknowledging that this is a simulation and not reality. You can see this in this sequence below, where Cypher’s mind is already seeing chicks instead of code.

via zionites.tumblr.com

Let’s come back to Islamabad for a bit, where I am writing this piece from. The Friday before the week of 14th August, the simulation began. Widespread rumors that the city’s petrol pumps have been asked to shut down to dissuade marchers induced such panic that almost seven days before the March would begin there were massive jams on all petrol pumps. That same weekend, random parts of the city began to have containers placed across them, particularly the main roads connecting to the outside. These containers would also be removed at various times of the day, causing widespread confusion.

Stills from an Android app called Container Run.

A week after Islamabad had been set into panic mode, two marches named after Junoon albums left Lahore exceedingly slowly. First Javed Hashmi threw a phuppa-at-baraat fit, then Sheikh Rasheed got left behind in the #PishiPhadda. Eventually, the marches arrived in the capital, with the government now suddenly easing their entry into the city.

Daghi and Baghi (and vice-versa) via @memeabad

(As an aside, no band’s album names capture their journey better than Junoon’s, who suitably ended their career with the creative deadend called Dewaar)

via Deep Shit [https://www.facebook.com/pages/DEEP-SHIT/341433182621167?fref=photo]

The next three weeks saw an excruciatingly slow game of chicken, until the marchers stormed parliament, faced a police crackdown and the army ended up getting involved. With the entire country bracing itself for a coup, nothing of the sort eventually happened. I can give you far more details, but I doubt there’s anyone left in Pakistan who hasn’t discussed this whole scene to death. So let’s skip that, and move to what I found most interesting, which was how this whole affair was constantly caught between reality and simulation.

via @abdulahadjawad

For starters, there was, and is, the PTI and PAT, whose followers were mobilized on a slightly spurious notion, i.e. demanding the government resign due to the elections it allegedly rigged over a year ago. From the moment it chose the name for its march till now, the parties have constantly dealt in using phrases and terminology which is closely associated with transformative political change. Revolution – freedom – massacre – oppression – Yezid – Shaitan – Firaun – street power – consensus – intifada and Gaza – justice etc. Imran Khan’s fiery rhetoric has constantly pitted himself against the Sharifs, but also elevated/denigrated it to a personal battle, as he’s constantly promised what every gully-ka-gunda does “mei iss ko nahi choroun ga!” When the government launched its crackdown, the next 24 hours were abuzz with leaked Whatsapp conversations from doctors allegedly in PIMS (where the victims were taken) screaming about dozens of dying protesters forcibly turned away and scores of dead bodies hidden by the authorities.

Each of these claims were not wholly false, which is why they could resonate. Yet almost all suffered from a complete absence of scale and proportion. Yes the government was wrong to kill protestors, but in a country like Pakistan calling two deaths a massacre is gravely insulting to so many others. What was happening here was something which wasn’t real, yet not quite unreal. A simulation, in other words.

via Deep Shit

The PTI was not alone in this. Indeed, the very reason we were able to witness such an event was because of a host of existing conditions and dynamic reactions which allowed for the creation of such a pervasive simulation. The N-League government’s biggest fault was acting like it was a stooge setup for a dictator, and not a party which had that rarest of beasts – a parliamentary majority. The initial response to the march (i.e. the hamhanded attempts to shut down highways and roadways) was worse than anything under the PPP or Musharraf (an actual dictator) while once the marches actually arrived they were caught between being super accommodating to cautiously apathetic. It was this constant dithering and indecision that contributed to the simulation of a popular revolution besieging an autocratic government.

via @abdulahadjawad

via Deep Shit

A great example was that of the ‘attack’ on PTI in Gujranwala. It was the sort of non-fatal aggression which is almost innocent relative to how dirty politics gets in Pakistan. Yet the fact that it happened on air contributed to the prevailing, if impossible, notion that the Sharifs ran their government primarily through muscular Butts.

All three by @abdulahadjawad

Yet a far greater role in this process was played by the electronic media. After the boom years of 2007-09, news channels have slowly but steadily been losing their hold on ratings. Popular dramas, cooking shows and reality programs have eroded the once impenetrable hold that talk shows had over the audience. Where there was once a semblance of solidarity and an eagerness to be independent, news channels – or more specifically – media houses have  descended into internecine warfare.

via @abdulahadjawad

Following the clash between the ISI/Army and Geo, the battle lines were drawn clearer than ever.   Now if you’ve worked in a channel, you will know that there’s nothing that anyone likes more than cutting to live. Once that happens, the only people who are on call are the crew on location and the producer and anchor who standby. Everyone else – the business, sport, international, culture desks can chill out, while most of the desk editors can retire for some tea. Moreover, despite being far easier to produce for the channel as a whole, live coverage also guarantees more viewers than regular programming.

Actress Mawra Hocane at the march

The marches then were a godsend for the electronic media, which desperately needed something to work with. For days on end, there was almost a constant live feed from Islamabad, where floating jobs, whirring drones and mobile anchors were constantly able to contribute to the idea of the ever present march. One of the most irritating examples of that was the dozens of ‘deadlines’ offered by the politicians, NONE of which amounted to anything. Yet each call for a deadline would be accompanied by giant clocks on channels ticking down the time. Even though they counted down to nothing, it gave the impression of an impending crisis where time was running out.

via @memeabad

One of the constants in this media coverage was debating the size of the march. Asides from the obvious phallic implications, the logic behind determining the number of marchers was to determine the popular strength of the revolution. Given that even with a million people (a figure no one believed was reached) would only stand in for 0.5% of the entire population, this was a rather flawed premise. Yet every day, Pakistanis across the country gave their estimates for the number of people they could see.

via @abdulahadjawad

Once again, it was as if the simulation of many people expressing a choice should be accepted as the reality of many people’s choices – which were of course expressed via the elections. Ultimately, the events reached a narrative conclusion once a couple of things happened. Imran Khan – who had refused to meet with anyone else – jumped at the chance to meet the Chief of Army Staff when he offered to mediate. A little while later, Javed Hashmi quit the march for the second time, this time appalled that his leader was following the whims of the boots.

via @memeabad

This was also the time when the government had finally used force on the marchers after having threatened to do so for a very long time. Consequently, for about 48 hours everyone stood around to see who would blink first. With blood on the government’s hands and tacit support from the opposition, it appeared the stage was set for a coup. But the coup didn’t come, and then perhaps the greatest example of the simulacra I keep talking about took place. The marchers decided to storm the headquarters of PTV. This was no ordinary decision – ask any Pakistani about the first thing they remember from the 1999 coup, and they’ll tell you of footage on national TV showing soldiers scaling the tiny walls of the PTV offices.

First Kargil, now this.

The Storming of PTV – II

In essence, the storming of PTV was one of the great symbols of regime change in Pakistan. Without wishing to attribute intention or motive to anyone, it was apparent to me that this was the logical conclusion of the marchers’ desire for changing the government. After having tried everything else to force their resignations, I am sure many saw the ability to takeover PTV as a sign that the government had fallen. Yet storming the PTV is a symbol, not the act, of a regime change. And what we saw, and continue to see, are events which are trying to approximate themselves to a reality via its symbolism without actually generating the conditions for that reality to occur. To return to the Matrix, the past few weeks has seen a range of various political actors come together to create a simulation of a revolution or regime change, all the while hoping that if all the symbols are recreated, then the end goal will emerge from them.

Change Wifi name to #GoNawazGo

Post by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.

So why did this happen?

For starters, there was the clumsy, apathetic leadership of the N-League, which was so insecure in its own performance that it acted like it had no legitimacy, let alone a heavy mandate delivered just 12 months ago. Then there was the PTI, which in my opinion is a party that requires the spectacle in order to exist. While it lacks the experience and entrenchment of older parties, it is unsurpassed in its ability to create media-friendly mega-events. The march was another installment of the spectacle, which the party needs as its oxygen. The electronic media was looking for ratings, for settling scores, for testing new equipment and for elbowing back some relevance on the political arena.

Drones are so hot right now! [Permalink: http://isakeena-pak.tumblr.com/post/96265451379/azadisquare-go-nawaz-go]

And then there was Bobby and his boys.

Bobby has always dealt in the simulacra. It creates one for the nation, one for the Americans, one for the Saudis, one for itself and many others for its various clients and patrons. Bobby likes to be in power, and likes people to fear it. But Bobby hates being unpopular, and in the last few decades it has lost out some of its popularity in the only province that matters to the Nooners.

via @memeabad

So Bobby did was Bobby does best. If it didn’t create this episode of the simulation, it certainly encouraged it and gave it life when it needed it most. The reason it did that was simple – Bobby runs Pakistan in a way that maximizes prestige and minimizes responsibility. Here is how Babar Sattar described it:

“Today, Pakistan has two systems: the feeble and struggling de jure system backed by the Constitution; and the all-powerful yet invisible de facto system backed by the khakis. While there remains a constant tug-of-war between these two, the history of Pakistan so far is a history of the de facto system being in effective overall control. None of this is meant to suggest that the de jure system is a well-oiled machine only malfunctioning due to disruptions caused by the de facto system.”

At various points of the crisis, Bobby’s claims of being ‘apolitical’ and impartial were shameless attempts at perpetuating the simulation. Eventually, Imran didn’t get what he wanted while Nawaz lost what he had, but Bobby walked away looking better than ever.

via Deep Shit

A great example of this reality was provided by the actions of a self-proclaimed Pakistan chapter of global hackers Anonymous. Acting under AnonOpPakistan, the group was created the night of the so-called Islamabad Massacre. At that time, the army was perceived as having failed to protect PTI/PAT marchers against police aggression, and AnonOp began by taking down both government and military sides. A few days later, the group seemed to back-away completely from the military and focused on the government only. The last I checked, they had now become firmly pro-military while having attacked PTI’s online assets as well.

via Deep Shit

So now we return to Ayyan, with whom we had began this journey. As I had said, Ayyan’s video release seemed to mimic the actions of how modern music careers are launched, even though the financial infrastructure for one didn’t exist. The two marches were almost entirely similar, having approximated the language and culture of a revolution without having the social and material conditions to cause one. In contrast, Bobby ended up like Piggy Chops. In both cases, we can see a cynical attempt to circumvent ideals and go straight for the bottom line. And like Piggy’s record company, Bobby laughed all the way back to the throne.

Special thanks to all the meme-makers. If you enjoyed these, check out the following accounts where I got most of these from

The Facebook page Deep Shit

@abdulahadjawad (Twitter) and his Facebook page: Mahir-e-Memeyaat

@memeabad (Twitter) and their FB page: Memeabad

karachikhatmal is the Brian Lara of his generation. He’s a genius but his team usually loses. He’s also a freelance journalist, who writes on cricket, music and film.

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20 Responses to Azadi, Ayyan and Simulation | karachikhatmal’s blog

  1. Eli on Sep 2014 at 4:59 AM

    Whoa! Never saw that coming in the End. Fantastically emphatic this. KK you rule..

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