‘Lahore was never like this’

Lahore, which was once a hub of cinema, fashion, food and music, is now becoming a shadow of itself. Matthew Tabaccos for The National

For Aamir Mazhar, an event organiser, Lahore used to be the ideal city in which to live and work.The cultural capital of Pakistan, Lahore has long been known as the place to preview the hottest styles of the season, the latest cinematic releases and comedy shows guaranteed to keep the audience in stitches for hours.

The bazaars of the city, splashed with colourful graffiti adulating Lahore, would draw eager shoppers from all over Pakistan.

“This was the best city in the whole world,” said Mr Mazhar, 29, who organises fashion shows and parties. “There was an energy, an enthusiasm and a life to Lahore which no other city could rival.”

As Pakistan became caught up in the throes of a powerful militancy, the leafy boulevards of Lahore initially seemed immune to the chaos playing out in the North West Frontier Province, where Taliban militants were slowly exerting their extreme version of Islam.

Music concerts, poetry performances and late-night parties all continued to draw crowds of Lahore’s westernised elite.

But last year, things began to change.

First it was the night-time warnings to shop owners selling music and films; then threats against artists and performers; and finally, the bomb blasts.

In October last year, three small bombs exploded near juice shops in the neighbourhood of Garhi Shahu. The shops were well known as “dating points”, offering space for young couples to sit unchaperoned.An unknown group called Tehreek-ul Haya, or Movement for Decency, claimed responsibility and threatened more attacks against “centres of immorality”.

A few days later, traders on Hall Road – one of the largest commercial districts in the city – held a public bonfire, burning thousands of VCDs and DVDs.

The Anjuman-e-Tajiran, the trade body which represents many of the shopkeepers, admitted they had received threatening letters and phone calls warning them against selling such materials.

Malik Shabeer, 45, ran a shop selling Bollywood, Hollywood and Urdu films, as well as music CDs and, he grudgingly admits, some pornographic material.

But after October, Mr Shabeer, along with many of his colleagues, began scaling back their businesses, both out of fear of attacks and because fewer people were now shopping there.

“I am so scared of the Taliban targeting my shop that I want to just close this business and do something else.”

In an op-ed in a major daily newspaper at the time, analyst Rafay Alam decried the traders’ move and said they were allowing the local Taliban their first victory: “a foothold in their war against immorality”.

Faizaan Peerzada, a well-known puppeteer, warned that it would not be the end of attacks on culture.

A month later, three more bombs exploded outside the Alhamra Cultural Complex, where world musicians were playing as part of the World Performing Arts Festival.

Mr Peerzada, who was organising the event, said: “Some force greater than our police and our government and indeed ourselves is taking over this city. What was once a hub of culture and music and dance is now becoming a shadow of itself,” he said.

A few weeks later, in early January, five explosions rocked two Lahore theatres, causing damage, but no injuries.

Irfan Khan, who owns the Tamaseel theatre, one of the venues hit, said the biggest casualty had been the arts scene. “I don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “Theatre has been a part of our culture forever but it seems for some people it has now become objectionable.”

The Rafi Peer Theatre workshop, a non-profit organisation that promotes music, dance, drama and puppetry, used to manage more than 200 artists. Now, however, most are too scared to perform, said Mr Peerzada, its chairman.

“After hearing about artists being persecuted in Peshawar, our clients in Lahore have also become petrified,” he said. “Some of them have received threats. They don’t want to sign up to do gigs and people don’t want to attend these events for fear of bomb threats. The result is that at this time in Lahore, almost no cultural events are taking place.”

Yasmeen Rahman, a member of the national assembly, said many of her friends have moved to Dubai, a two-hour plane ride away.

“They are sick and tired of the extremism sweeping this city and the constant barrage of bomb blasts and threats,” she said.

“I never thought the climate of fear would become so strong in Lahore.”

Mr Mazhar, the event organiser, said that up until 2007 he was handling more than 30 events a year. Now, “the number of events has drastically reduced and fashion shows are either cancelled or being held in discreet locations far from the city centre.”

Hassan Askari, a political analyst, said Lahore had become unrecognisable.

“Lahore was never like this,” he said. “Never. This was a cosmopolitan city where women could dress as they liked and walk freely in the bazaars, where movie premiers were always well attended and where both conservative and liberal streams of Islam freely existed.”

The change in Lahore has been more than just the threats and attacks. About a decade ago only a minority of Muslims prayed in mosques in Lahore, and the majority enjoyed secular pastimes such as watching soap operas, listening to live music or betting on cricket matches.

Graffiti scrawled on walls was on unrequited passions and the misery of love. Today it bashes the United States and compels the youth to take up arms in jihad.

And instead of advertisements promoting the latest fashion in shoes or handbags, there are adverts inviting the faithful for Umrah or religious classes in Lahore.

“Lahore has changed,” said Ali Imran, a Harvard graduate who returned to Lahore this year after six years abroad. “And I am not sure where we are heading now. It seems this secular city is becoming a shadow of Swat.”

Asadullah Ghalib, a newspaper columnist, said the change in Lahore could be traced back to the unpopular policies of Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s former military ruler, and his alliance with the United States.

“Pervez Musharraf’s pro-American and pro-West policies brought about this transformation,” he said. “Anger at the United States for pursuing the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, along with strikes in Pakistani regions, led to the strengthening of extremist groups.”

Mr Ghalib said Lahore was being targeted for obvious reasons. Its physical proximity to the North West Frontier Province makes it easily accessible to extremists there. And the city is surrounded by huge expanses of impoverished villages where, because there is little education, madrasas have taken hold.

“Also Lahore would be a strategic victory for the extremists,” he said. “After all, it’s the capital of Pakistan’s largest province.”

But not everyone is prepared to flee or accept the changes in their city. In a show of defiance, more than 3,000 activists, artists, students and journalists turned out to demonstrate against extremism earlier this month.

“This is our city,” said Anita Khan, 20, a student in Lahore. “And we will not let any extremist or terrorist dictate the way we live.”

* The National

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