An apology for being a bit late to this but it was only yesterday that I found out my beloved country, my mumlikat-e-khudadaad, my sohni dharti is about to be blessed with its very own, localized version of Hello! (the international fashion/lifestyle magazine).
"The side of Pakistan that is projected time and time again is negative," said Zahraa Saifullah, CEO of Hello! Pakistan. "There is a glamorous side of Pakistan, and we want to tap into that."
The quote is one of many given by both the publishing editor and the consulting editor to an Associated Press reporter. From what I could gather from the news-report, the idea behind Hello! is to have a magazine that improves on the existing standard of fashion and lifestyle reporting in the country – i.e. the one currently being set by many existing publications. Naturally, being a glamorous, international magazine, its editor is hoping it becomes the market leader in a short space of time.
Before I’m accused of being a fashion-hater, or an elite-basher, or an armchair-socialist, I’d like to point out that I think it’s perfectly rational for anyone to cater to the demands of our English speaking elite. People want to see pictures of themselves in print, they want to know about the latest fashion trends, they want to know who is doing what with whom, and they want to know which cafes are worth being seen at, and which ones are worth sending the driver to. Having a publication that does a good job of covering all of these things is simply playing to the exigencies of its clientele.
Vive le Laissez Faire
So the problem, as I see it, is not with glamor magazines per se or those who run them. It’s actually with the crowd who reads them. Allow me to explain:
Newsline is an independent current affairs magazine that’s done some of the best reporting on socio-political issues in the history of this country. Their content is thorough, and of the highest quality, their reporters are innovative, their editors are highly skilled, and some of Pakistan’s best journalists, writers, and intellectuals have worked for it at some point in their lives. A few months ago, I was told that the magazine is having a hard time staying afloat - citing falling advertisement revenues, and low circulation. If, for example, Newsline were to close down, we’d be left with Herald as the only other current affairs publication of record. Currently, Pakistan has no existing English-language magazine that publishes more research-oriented work in the fields of social sciences and the humanities. We have a grand total of 1 English-language literary magazine (The Life’s Too Short review), and that too is published on an annual basis. To top it all off, two of our English-language dailies are on the brink of closing down.
Contrast this with at least 7 fashion/lifestyle magazines, which are chock-full of articles telling us how to do away with facial wrinkles, and bursting with advertisements selling designer clothes, chocolates, and beauty products. A long calendar of fashion shows and lawn exhibitions (but only one literature festival). Looking at all of this together uncovers a clear preference pattern amongst the English-speaking classes in Pakistan.
Part of the reason why the country shies away from any form of intellectual engagement/inquiry is because of the general disregard meted out to such activities. Public education in the social sciences is a complete mess, thanks to right-wing infiltration, rampant plagiarism, political interference, and the imposition of statist narratives. The private sector is busy catering to an increasingly service-sector oriented economy, which requires business and commerce graduates, not historians, writers, or sociologists.
The other part of the reason, and more specific to the elite over the last three decades, is that people are simply not interested in stepping out of their privileged bubbles – material or mental. Consumerism, accumulation, and social mobility hold much more value than the world of thinking – even in English. Kids go abroad, study at some of the best colleges and universities, and either end up never coming back, or seamlessly reintegrate themselves in the same gated, Body Shop/Godiva world upon returning. The tragedy is further compounded by the fact that some of our best English-language writers are from the same class of people and their idea of gauging public opinion is built on a brief chat with the driver.
Around a year ago, one of Pakistan’s premier historians, Ayesha Jalal, gave a talk on the need for Pakistanis to open up to the idea of critical thinking, especially in the social sciences. Her view, which I largely ascribe too as well is that many of our identity related problems emerge from a compromised intellectual environment. Professors would willingly parrot statist history, students readily accept these quarter-truths, and others who have the opportunity to branch out are too busy with more material concerns. As things stand, our crisis of intellect and thinking is fast approaching catastrophic levels and to be completely honest, I don’t see a way out on the horizon.
Originally published in Pakistan Today on 26/03/2012