That is how they lived

By Zubeida Mustafa

THERE has been much talk of late about the distortion of history in Pakistan. Another feature of our historiography that our eminent historian Dr Mubarak Ali has lamented is the excessive focus on rulers and not enough being written about the ruled. We need more of ‘popular history’.

In that context I have found the Citizens Archive of Pakistan an innovative and commendable enterprise that should fill this void that has been growing as the primary sources of history — the people who lived through an era — are drying up. Founded by the Oscar-winning filmmaker, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, CAP, to use its acronym, describes itself as the “first ever youth-led private initiative to collect, archive, study, disseminate and exhibit all aspects of Pakistan’s history both before and after partition”. It claims to be playing a value-added role in creating national awareness and identity.

A lot of this archive is in the form of oral histories recorded by a dynamic team of youngsters who locate people they feel would have something to say. This is a worthwhile endeavour because a few years ago when families were more integrated and members would spend hours sharing thoughts and experiences, a lot of oral history was passed down from one generation to the next. That is not the case anymore.

Of late, people with the propensity to write have taken to putting their life history on paper. Of course, most of them never think of publishing their writings, unless they are accomplished writers, such as Qurratulain Haider who published a voluminous family chronicle titled Kaar-i-Jahan Daraz Hai. Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family was widely acclaimed — having been translated into 37 languages and screened by television as a miniseries. It inspired many and is said to have created a public interest in genealogy writing.

Haley’s research was spread over 10 years and took him to The Gambia from where his ancestor Kinte Kunta was kidnapped in 1667 and sold as a slave in Maryland.

Those who write as a hobby record their history primarily for their family — immediate or extended. Many of these pieces of writings contain gems of information that shed much light and not just on places where the author lived and the numerous personalities who played a role in his/her life and his/her ancestors. Depending on the style of writing and the writer’s skills as a storyteller, a lot more emerges from such accounts.

Take the case of Qaiseri Begum (1888-1976) who was an obscure personality in the realm of Urdu literature. She wrote her memoirs that were published posthumously by her granddaughter, Zahra Masroor Ahmad, in 2004 under the title Katab-i-Zindagi.

Her life was full of events and she had an eye for detail and a memory for anecdotes. So what the reader gets is a delightful cultural history of Muslim families at the turn of the 19th century in Delhi. Rituals, customs and beliefs are described fully which shed light on the lifestyle and cultural practices of people. A historian’s delight!

In this context, I was fascinated by an unpublished family chronicle I was given to read by a friend, Rabab Naqvi, who I visited in Montreal where she has lived and worked since 1969 when she migrated after her husband’s death.

A library science graduate, Rabab set up the Documentation Technology department in a Montreal college and in recognition of her services the Rabab Naqvi Achievement Award was instituted. She writes with flair about her ancestors in a non-judgmental style. She laces her writing with humour that has a charm of its own. She is not disparaging and one would not take offence at her anecdotal narration exposing the naivety of some family members, along with her own.

There is no attempt to gloss over weaknesses or resort to gimmicks that we see among some professional family chroniclers. No Uncle George’s execution had to be dressed up by describing it as his “occupying a chair of applied electronics at an important government institution, where he was attached to his position by the strongest of ties, and his death came as a real shock”.

In her honest style, Rabab has a history to narrate in the pages of her chronicle which traces the origins of her ancestral village, Kajgaon, and contains a vivid account of the UP Shia culture. The writer has done a lot of research to describe how her forefathers migrated from Iraq and Iran several centuries ago. She is at present writing a chapter on her own migration experience to the New World.

It was a coincidence that when I called up another friend who has moved over to North America — the former principal of the Habib Girls’ School in Karachi, Zubeida Dossal — she informed me that she was also working on her family history. I do hope she will dwell at length on her experience as an educationist in Bombay and Karachi.

Many of these family chronicles will never be released for public circulation. CAP would do well to trace out such writings which are potential sources of history and scan them for its archives, if the authors agree. They may come in handy many years from now when no one is there to tell us those stories which our mothers and grandmothers narrated. That is how we learnt how they lived a century ago.

Source: Dawn

12 thoughts on “That is how they lived

  1. Very interesting piece. I quite agree. We are too focussed on formal history
    — Rulers or Islamic heroes and not enough on ordiinary people.
    The Citizen's Archives of Pakistan has done a very good job recording the
    personal histories of people who migrated from India in 1947. It should now exfend
    this to include the second wave of refugees — those who came during the break-up of
    the country in 1971 and also those who settled in Pakistan after the Soviet
    invasion of Afghanistan.

  2. Excellent idea. Follow CAP already. Have been preparing to write my memoirs but have not started. If there are more family histories, we could build a better history of Pakistan. Maybe we could build a common group where we could share events as we saw it. Best to do it on Facebook or Google+.

  3. That is so true about the common history that children get to read in school. History has almost always been written to glorify the ruler of the time and writers who cringed for favours were tasked to write about the powers that were. The way the lesson of History is taught in school is more a hard chore of remembering by rote events and dates as described in the text. There is never any attempt to make it interesting and so the students learn history in order to pass the exam without taking lessons from it. We have failed to highlight the importance of history. we think it is the unfolding events of the past and do not are are not explained that history is essentially the lessons for the future. I am reminded of a couplet by Sehba Akhter: Jo qom bhula deti hai tareekh ko apni. Us qom ka jughrafia baqi nahi rehta. Distorting history will have the same affect. Would like to know more about CAP and maybe somehow contribute to their efforts.

  4. CAP is an interesting initiative. In a similar vein, you can use your blog to begin a series where women can record their experiences of gender discrimination and abuse at home, in professional settings and in public life. These accounts need to be included in the larger public discourse so that disadvantaged women get the opportunity to articulate the problems they face. Currently, I don't see any media outfit which has seriously attempted to work on such a project. You can be the first!
    –Zoya Saeedy

    1. Thank you Zoya for your excellent suggestion. But I would be very careful about using any account sent in by any woman — even the most heart-rending one. Being a journalist I like to check the veracity of what is reported. As for the blogger unknown to me, I have no means of checking the truth and the context of what she is saying. A newspaper worth its salt is expected to do that. Iknow of women who have brought up false charges against men with a big show of emotions. At a later stage some of them have admitted that it was not entirely true and they had some motives for doing what they did.
      The problem with the new technology in the media is that while it facilitates the spread of information it has the potential of creating misinformation and disinformation as well. You are correct about women not having an outlet to tell their story. But the above caveat is always present.
      Do you have a suggestion?

  5. It is not difficult but it requires leg work and making alliances across organizations. First, you can contact lawyers who claim to advance women's rights (Zia Awan, Samya Burney, Hina Jillani, Asma Jehangir, Rasheeda Patel and many others). They should be able to come up with a strategy to verify whether the accounts of sexual harassment are genuine or not. Second, the organizations which claim to fight sexual harassment in the workplace should be able to come up with a checklist to confirm the facts of the narrative. In fact, they should volunteer to make inquiries. Some of these organizations are: AASHA, WAF, WAR, AURAT FOUNDATION, SHIRKATGAH, NCSW, NATIONAL IMPLEMENTATION WATCH COMMITTEE, PILER. Other than the strictly legal techniques, certain common-sense strategies always work. For instance, if you contact the workers' union and a couple of co-workers of the women in question, you are sure to get the information you need to verify the facts of the narrative. Contacting the perpetrator of harassment is a sure way to get a sense of the situation. This is how reporters get information when they produce investigative stories and most times they succeed. –Zoya Saeedy

    1. Dear Zoya,
      This is so much easier said than done.How much can a single person do, especially a person who has seen seven decades of her life and is nearly blind. Yes I can write to people ou have mentioned and hope to get replies from them basically because they are all known to me and very very cooperative. Even they have their limitations. When I was working with Dawn I had the whole network of reporters — literally hundreds of them to fall upon. I just had to pick up the receiver and the relevant reporter was extremely kind and provided me more information than I could digest. Now that I am not there it would be unethical of me to do that.

      I will just point out one caveat in what you write above. You say I could contact a human rights lawyer for information. You must remember that Information is not something easy to handle. It needs a big team and not Zubeida Mustafa sending out emails or calling up some well known lawyers who may not even have heard of a particular case. See yourself. You ask me to contact Rashida Patel. Sorry I can't because you probably did not know that Rashida Patel died in 2009. I did invite you to volunteer in providing support to women.

  6. Thank you for introducing such treasure as CAP to us. Frankly admitting, I was unaware of it.
    On a different, though related note, why doesn't Mrs Zubeida Mustafa join the ranks and files of 'historians'. She is, as I know, an eyewitness to many events that have taken place in Pakistan. Besides, being a renowned journalist, her knowledge base about the history, particularly of Pakistan, is very broad. If not to the text book, she can at least make contributions to reading material available outside the curriculum.
    The irony about the text book history is that every ruler wants to teach his own version of history in schools, particularly in government controlled schools.

  7. Thank you for the invitation and I am very sorry to hear about your eye-sight. As I mentioned in one of my earlier comments, the organisations/persons I have listed don't even have operational email addresses on their websites. In the past, my friends and I have tried to contact them on several occasions. Mostly, they did not reply. Even if a couple did reply they dodged my questions and requests for advice and help. It was obvious they were not interested in the issues they claim to promote. Perhaps they are cooperative when you approach them because you are a well-known person and that is the reason I pitched this proposal to you. If I do find sincere women's rights lawyers and activists (very hard to locate in Pakistan), I will certainly launch the blog myself. –Zoya Saeedy

  8. well tonk was a pathan state in rajputana-but it produced people like dr.mobbarak and 2 other persons -one of them was founder of the new modern business administration system -my mother noor us sabah begum was born in rampur state in 1908-she was married to my father zaheer uddin khan of sherpur-who did 2 opposte things-employed a british colonel col ward as his manager and joined the khilafat mother noor us sabah begum learnt a lot in sherpur but she developed an aristocratic savoire faire-finally when she had to migrate to pakistan as she took part in pakistan movement she started writing in urdu and she wrote at least 5 books in urdu.sameen khan of sherpur barrister at law.

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