Sindhi writer read out short story to make his point
A four-year-old 2:18 minute video of Sindhi writer Amar Jaleel reading one of his short stories to demonstrate a point about the lack of freedom of expression in Pakistan at a literature festival has attracted the ire of rightwing circles with one cleric openly calling for him to be murdered by offering millions of rupees in head money.
The snippet with Urdu subtitles of his Sindhi reading from the main session at the second Sindh Literature Festival in October 2017 was posted on Twitter on March 30.
The moderator asked him about what he was comfortable talking about and he said that it was “rubbish” that there was “bandish” on freedom of speech and that he could say whatever he wanted. “Where is the freedom of expression,” he said. “Where is it?”
He said that there were many people in the audience with notebooks who were taking down his words and would add to them later on to twist them.
He brought up Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian and urged the audience to read it if they had not already. He asked if it were possible for anyone to write something like this in Pakistan. He spoke of the forces unleashed during Zia’s time that made it impossible today for such debate. He said that hypocrites flourished.
He gave a hypothetical situation: Even if I am not a Muslim and I lie to you that I am a practicing Muslim, then I am safe. But If I am not Muslim and I say it, then I live. “Then this whole life is a lie.”
“Khushwant Singh’s End of India is a book I can relate to,” he went on to say. “I thought I should write a similar book called the End of Pakistan especially after the separation of Bangladesh.”
Some of his friends said that he should not worry and they would find him a foreign publisher. That’s all well and good, Jaleel said, but I am too old to apply for asylum.
He said that if he had questions, and did not ask them, it would be hypocrisy to sit quietly. “I am 80 plus, and know what is the state of democracy in this country and how much freedom of expression we have.”
The moderator then asked him to read out his short story in which he asks questions of the Creator on the state of affairs.
Jaleel’s work was written in the apostrophic style, in which the poet or writer directly addresses an entity or being that does not respond in reality. In this short story, he takes a satirical tone while discussing the status of women.
Jaleel, 85, is a renowned poet and columnist in Sindh and his work has been published multiple times in both Sindhi and Urdu. He was awarded the Pride of Performance for his contribution to the world of letters.
It is not clear why this four-year-old video surfaced over this weekend and went viral. A number of right-wing religious parties such as the Sunni Tehrik and JUI-F demanded Jaleel be arrested. JUI-F Sindh’s Information Secretary told SAMAA Digital his party made no threats to Amar Jaleel. He said the JUI-F was considering taking legal action.
Qibla Ayaz of the Council of Islamic Ideology told SAMAA Digital that he hasn’t watched the video so won’t be able to comment on it. He said people are not allowed take the law into their hands and it is the responsibility of the government to investigate the matter and if blasphemy is committed, the courts should punish whoever committed the offense.
On the other hand, supporters of the writer decried the open call for his murder and asked for the authorities to take action.
On Saturday, a video of a cleric, identified as Pir Sarhandi, from Umerkot surfaced on social media. It showed him speaking against Jaleel in front of a charged crowd. Later, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan announced a rally against the writer. In a press release on Sunday, TLP spokesperson said that the party will take the matter to court. Following this, activists across the country demanded the government, both federal and provincial, take action against Pir Sarhandi.
According to an encyclopedia published by the Sindh Language Authority, Jaleel was born in Rohri on November 8, 1936. He completed his primary education in Karachi and did his Masters from the University of Karachi.
Jaleel’s first story was published in a Sindhi magazine in 1956. He wrote multiple dramas that were aired on television and radio. His work was published in newspapers such as Jang and Dawn. The writer was given the Life-Time Achievement award by the Karachi Arts Council in 2019 and was a recipient of the Pride of Pakistan award.
He served as the vice-chancellor of the Allama Iqbal Open University as well.
There is a long-standing tradition of religious and literary debate in the Subcontinent along these lines. In 1924, philosopher Iqbal (1877-1938) published a collection of poetry called Bang-e Dara (Call of the Caravan) which included his famous apostrophic poems Shikwa (Complaint) and Jawab-e-Shikwa (Answer to the Complaint) in which he addresses the Creator.
Much in the same vein as Milton, who wrote the famous Paradise Lost, Iqbal wrote Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa “in order to justify the ‘ways of God to men’” as Nasir Mehmood and Hazrat Umar of NUML put it in their 2019 paper published in Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences. Iqbal did this “within the context of the woes of Muslims and their complaints”.
They wrote: Shikwa (1909) exalts the legacy of Islam and its civilizing role in history, but it laments the fate of Muslims in the modern times. Shikwa arises from the anguish of the poet’s heart as the poetic plea to Allah on the pretext of the predicament of Muslims and Jawab-e-Shikwa foregrounds Allah’s response to the forceful voice of the poet. Moreover, it was not something unusual as even the prophets of Allah had complained to Allah Almighty—the Only One Who could listen to their troubles and make solutions to their problems.
In support of Jaleel, award-winning writer M Hameed Shahid said that it is sad that we have turned the concept of God into something so small that we misunderstood the words of Amar Jaleel. What he said was a reference to the Creator speaking which is a tradition common among Sufi poets and writers. I believe we should evaluate our own faith instead of Jaleel’s, he said.
In a joint statement released Monday, over 290 writers, poets, intellectuals, human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, rights organizations and other professionals strongly condemned the recent hate speech and life threats to Jaleel.
“The undersigned strongly condemn recent hate speech, life threats and instigation against one of the most prominent writers of Pakistan Amar Jaleel and demand from the State and the Government of Pakistan and Government of Sindh to provide security and protection to Amar Jaleel and take stringent action against those instigating violence against him,” the joint statement read.
They said the hate speech was aimed at “instigating violence, causing lawlessness and social unrest in Pakistan and especially in Sindh which is against the spirit tolerant and plural Pakistan”.
“All those people and groups should be immediately booked and arrested under Anti-terrorism Act who have announced Head money for Amar Jaleel in Umerkot, which is a direct attempt to instigate terror and divide the society,” it said.
It demanded that those groups and people be investigated and apprehended under cybercrime laws.
With additional reporting by Roohan Ahmed.