Postcard From Pakistan: Cross-Cultural Friendships Drown Out the Silencing
INTERVIEW WITH OMER TARIN
The hills of Northwest Pakistan ~
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Omer, you are a poet, a university professor, research scholar and a social activist. Your studies are far reaching ~ from the military campaigns between North and Western Pakistan to the works of Rudyard Kipling. I imagine you have come up against censorship more than once?
Omer Tarin: Censorship is something, yes, we are quite familiar with here in Pakistan. Even though in recent years it has declined somewhat with the proliferation of new private media channels, it still persists in insidious ways.
The newly elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, despite coming to power in May of this year on promises of openness and tolerance, is now trying to censor the ‘net services in Pakistan ~ and are getting help from Canada for this purpose.
When I was a young college student, Pakistan was going through the long regime of the dictator General Zia, and any anti-establishment criticism was strictly banned. There was only one channel, the state-run, Pakistan Television Corporation, and all the newspapers and print media were regulated by strict media laws. Publishers who published any sort of literature, in Urdu, English, or any of the local languages or dialects were subject to severe checks and regulations, and authors had to give legal affidavits that their work was ‘legitimate’ and ‘non political’. Even children’s cartoons on TV were subject to official censorship. This was one of the darkest periods of our history, but people still found ways of criticizing the Zia regime and Zia himself, obliquely, in a sort of hidden resistance.
As idealistic college students, supporting the nationwide MRD (Movement for Restoration of Democracy), we were often handing out ‘dangerous’ material to people and even trying out our hand at writing articles, pamphlets and poems ourselves.
Between 1999 and 2005, we had the General Musharraf regime, which pretended to be more ‘open’ and ‘liberal’ and ‘democratic’, but that was all a sham; for behind the scenes, some of our national intelligence organizations were very active, even brutal. As a writer and professor, I was personally subjected to ‘official’ intimidation twice, and while detained, was asked ‘questions’ concerning some of my public lectures and talks, remarks I had made therein. It was not at all a pleasant experience.
Since 2008, this sort of thing has become more rare, thankfully, but that is not to say that it doesn’t exist and that government doesn’t have the power to bring into effect strict censorship in society. Many bad laws and regulations exist, that either seem to be remnants of our colonial past, or of later military regimes, which give all sorts of control over the media and literature and arts, to the bureaucratic establishment.
People here often opine that due to the steady growth of social awareness and education (particularly in the urban areas) in Pakistani society, it is now much more difficult to impose censorship here. To an extent that is true; yet, we are still very far from living in an ideal social milieu; a lot needs to be done.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What is your inside information on what’s happening now with the U.S. drone strikes in your country?
Omer Tarin: My independent sources here tell me that while both the U.S. and Pakistan government give casualty figures of between 500-1000, human rights people and non-governmental independent analysts estimate deaths between 2500-3000, and most of those being civilians, with at least 200 accounting for the death of children. Only around 400 of those killed in these attacks were actually the targeted militants.
It is very difficult at present, though, to get any accurate figures. Most of the tribal areas of Waziristan South and North where drone strikes occur, are out of bounds to reporters and the public in general, and also to most foreigners ~ only the Pakistan Army and some US special forces are allowed in. The US elements are also covert, as the government doesn’t want to rile people further there, and most people are now antagonistic to the strikes policy. This wasn’t the case, certainly, when the strikes began some years ago, as people then believed that the drones might be more accurate, saving lives of soldiers whilst slaying militant targets; but the civilian deaths seem to have grown.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Where is your personal focus today, Omer? I know you are an environmental activist in your country. What ecological challenges face Pakistan right now?
Omer Tarin: Yes, besides running a small non-profit organization that helps in research and in the training of university scholars and teachers, I’m also right now engaged in environmental activism in my native region, as there are serious issues facing us here with our population growing so rapidly. The ever-increasing need for rural farmland to cultivate food is pressurizing the forests and wilderness.
What’s more, we are a water-scarce country confronted by a terrible energy crisis, again as unchecked development and expansion create increasing power shortfalls and outages.
To make things worse, there is very little public awareness or official commitment to many of these problems. Things are just dragging on, getting worse all the time, and it is a genuine concern that soon enough this situation will reach a high crisis level. It’s a real uphill struggle, and very frustrating, trying to awaken people and prodding government towards long-term, sustainable solutions.
Yet, we’ve had some small success in recent years. Communities are now coming forward to salvage the forests they live in, realizing their commercial touristic potential. If militancy were to decline dramatically over the next four to five years, and a stable law and order situation emerged, then there is much more we could do.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Please tell me about Pakistan’s dearest cultural treasures.
Omer Tarin: We have geographical features of our land, especially in the North, in the Karakoram Range, that are very important to us ~ like K2, the second highest mountain in the world; or some of the vast glaciers like the Baltoro and Saltoro; or the Khunjerab National Park, where many rare wildlife species still exist.
We also have historical places that mean a lot to us as part of our ancient heritage: remnants of the Indus Valley Civilization and the Greco-Bactrian Gandhara Civilization; then, the later medieval Mughal heritage of buildings such as the Badshahi (Royal) Mosque and Fort in Lahore city, or the famed Shalimar Gardens.
Omer Tarin: Also the British-era buildings and churches and vast railway networks, that are very much part of our historical narrative.
Finally, we also have a rich repository of poetry and literature, in both Urdu and English, as well as some of the regional languages and dialects such as Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto etc.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What do you think would most surprise Americans to learn about your homeland?
Omer Tarin: I have many dear friends in the U.S., some of whom have visited my land and many who haven’t yet; but I hope they shall be able to one day.
Omer Tarin: Pakistan is a green and plentiful land, with a rich and vibrant intellectual and literary tradition. And, despite the recent attacks and violence, is in most parts suffused with the culture of spiritual love of the Sufi mystics.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Was it your father who inspired your scholarly and personal investigations?
Omer Tarin: Yes, my first mentor, my father, encouraged me to read good books from very early on, firing me with many of his own literary enthusiasms, for writers such as JRR Tolkien, Rudyard Kipling, and a number of writers from our own Urdu and Punjabi literary traditions. From a very early age, I was plunged into a world of literature and history and culture that enriched me and set my imagination working. Sadly, my dear father passed on at a very young age. But he left me a world that was full and alive and everlasting in its depth and variety.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What writers were you exposed to growing up who most captured your imagination? How did they influence your own writing?
Omer Tarin: I was deeply influenced by a number of literary traditions, from the the traditional English literary canon, including Shakespeare and the Romantic poets and other prominent writers of the 18th and 19th century, to the mystic, spiritual and meditative aspects of some of our South Asian literary traditions.
Such as the works of the Punjabi Sufi poets like Baba Farid, Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah; and also by the broader ‘Islamic’ Sufi poetic tradition, especially the classical Persian works of Rumi, Hafiz and Attar.
Looking For Your Own Face
Your face is neither infinite nor ephemeral.
You can never see your own face,
only a reflection, not the face itself.
So you sigh in front of mirrors
and cloud the surface.
It’s better to keep your breath cold.
Hold it, like a diver does in the ocean.
One slight movement, the mirror-image goes.
Don’t be dead or asleep or awake.
Don’t be anything.
What you most want,
what you travel around wishing to find,
lose yourself as lovers lose themselves,
and you’ll be that.
– Attar, translated by Coleman Barks in, The Hand of Poetry: Five Mystic Poets of Persia.
Omer Tarin: One of my own early poetic mentors in Pakistan was Taufiq Rafat, a poet who was also an authority on Punjabi poetry and an adapter of a Punjabi idiom into his own English poems.
All these influences found their way into my work.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What makes a powerful poem?
Omer Tarin: Many elements, in my opinion. A rich and splendid imagination, in the first place. A vivid sense of imagery and painting of scenes. An inherent musical quality within the poem, whether rhymed or ”vers libre.” A control and mastery of style and form. …So much more. It doesn’t hurt either if the poet is well-read. Like TS Eliot, I also believe in a cultural-literary tradition that combines with an ‘individual talent.’
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What are some of the great truths a poem can reveal, perhaps even more powerfully than straight intellectual discourse?
Omer Tarin: To me, a poem is something special that rises out of some part of our consciousness, in ways and patterns that even we, the poets, cannot fully understand.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Would you honor my readers with one of your poems?
Omer Tarin: The honor would be mine, entirely.
Had I seen the ghosts of this place
They would dance their victory dance;
The glacial streams
Empty into that lake
Quiet, ever so silent,
Rippling lyre, reflection;
Snows and rocks frame it —
I have no words
Which boil and rise
With the thunder of horses,
The sound of stick
And ball thudding
Across the turf;
The ghosts of this place,
Had I but seen them,
Pale as the snow
Cold as the lake
As vivid as the night-fires
That light the valley;
The whistle of wind
The throb of drum
The chant of song
Had I seen the ghosts dance
Their victory dance….
~ Omer Tarin
Two in My Garden
They stand together
The twin stalks
In my backyard,
Sometimes reminders Of some things not done,
Some weeds not plucked When it was time to do so;
Why I did not clear the yard
Is not so important now
As why did I want to?
Indeed, I see no petal
Half as nice as those two
That grow together, in their awkward fashion,
And they have some part of me
Where it wouldn’t do;
It doesn’t matter anymore, of course,
When other weeds have grown
Along them, only not like them at all,
And choked the petunias
Out of their shallow beds;
And there is some justice
In my garden going to seed,
Them standing tall and together
Once I’ve ceased to tend.
~ Omer Tarin
Mists over Thandiani
Tonight on the verandah
The crystalline hill-tops
Sublimate into an avalanche of snowflakes,
In turn dissolving into the haze
Of silent mists;
Trees stand frozen
Like stiff sentinels,
Mantled in unstirring ranks,
Braced for some dire consequence
A wolf’s eldritch howl
And night-birds trill their alarm,
As the sickle moon glides away
Behind its many veils;
Owl-flights haunt my dreams now
And your long green hair
Bewilders me with witchcraft.
~ Omer Tarin, originally published in Bitter Oleander Review, USA, 2012
In Memoriam: Stephen Spender (1995)
Let prayers and bells ring out
Loudly proclaiming grief
For the vanished, vanished dreams
of a vanished generation,
of poets who embraced their vocation
with virginal passion.
They were never old;
Great edifices fell in their life times,
Enraptured in their song,
Encaptured in arcs of blood,
Shuffling their broken, dusty wings
to new flights, new things,
like the vaporous ethers
tremulously on the brink of
Young gods they were,
who worked their magic within,
blazing their words, like galaxies,
across the threshold of time–
Words of water,
falling with the rain;
Rising with the mists,
Hovering like hawks,
Fierce-eyed and beautiful,
beautiful immortal birds;
They have all gone now,
the last hawk stooping
like a stream to the hillock;
Erased by lightning,
Cleansed by thunder,
delivering words to the wind,
the windowpanes of our being
into new visions of hope;
on a field of gold
this fluttering banner
~Published in the collection Burnt Offerings, 1996
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Please tell me about your connection to Japanese culture. What resonates with you most deeply?
Omer Tarin: Many years ago, as a student, I became very actively involved in learning a Japanese martial art, Aikido. At that time, there wasn’t much interest here in such arts, but the Japanese embassy ran a class and those of us who attended went on to grow very fond not only of Aikido and its unique philosophy as enshrined in the words and deeds of the founder Morihei Oeshiba (O Sensei) but of many facets of the same Zen philosophy, reflected in other arts too, such as Haiku poetry, the Tea Ceremony, Brush Painting, and more.
Ultimately, all of these arts are geared towards achieving a state of enlightenment that allows us to be free of many shackles and to stand outside of ourselves and simply ‘be.’ To live in the fullest sense, mindful of all our states and conditions and attuned to the larger web of natural existence.
This sort of training also appealed to me as a Pakistani Muslim practitioner of the Sufi way of life, which has several parallels. I think that both Aikido and Haiku-writing have helped me in particular in my Sufic spiritual exercises too, helped me deepen and focus my meditation and self-discipline and awareness of nature. I know that this explanation might not be a sufficient explanation but it’s not easy to talk about such things, which I believe are better felt and experienced.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: If you could see one change brought about in society today, what would it be?
Omer Tarin: I think that three changes are vital to Pakistan at this point in time:
1. A need for internal, mutual tolerance in sectarian and religious matters, to bring back law and order and stability and to stop those who are promoting violence.
2. A need for large scale, proper education for all ~ not just a sham literacy but an education which brings along with it public awareness of many issues plaguing us. In the end, only such an education can help us out to help ourselves; but it won’t be something easy to achieve.
3. I think that also, very significant, is the need to give women their proper place in our national life, especially in the areas where tribal culture still has a strong hold and where a narrow-minded patriarchy reduces women to the level of beasts or possessions. People abroad are only aware of the tip of the iceberg. The real situation is too terrible to contemplate since no one has access to the tribal women and their circumstances.
Omer Tarin, born Omer Salim Khan on March 10th, 1966) is a Pakistani poet in English, research scholar, and social activist.
Born to the Tarin (or Tareen) family, or clan, of the Hazara region of the North-West Frontier (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), the distinguished poet’s father served as a high-ranking administrator in Peshawar. From his maternal side, he is related to the Hayat family of the Khattar tribe of Wah, in North Punjab. He was educated at the Burn Hall School (now Army Burn Hall College), Abbottabad and the Aitchison College, Lahore, Pakistan, prior to graduating from the University of the Punjab, Lahore. He later obtained advancedr degrees in English and History/Post-colonial Studies from Pakistan and the United Kingdom respectively.