Thursday, May 31, 2012

Blogging from Pakistan: Power-outages versus mangoes

by Salman Hameed

I am in Rawalpindi for a few days. It has been 42C (108F) for the last two days. It is good for the mangoes - but not for the people. The bigger problem, however, is that power has been out 12-14 hours a day! This is not due to some electrical failure but rather is a planned load-shedding. So we have been get power for 1 or 2 hours with no electricity for the next 1-3 hours (As a write this post, the power has been out for the past 3 hours...). This pattern has continued for the last 3 days. I cannot imagine how businesses are operating with this level of power cuts per day. This particularly impacts small businesses who may not be able to afford big generators.

But I'm also trying to get a sense of the logic behind this kind of load-shedding. When the power is cut, you immediately start hearing the humming sound of the generators in the relatively well-off places. Big businesses also have generators that support their own electricity. Then there is a new housing colony, where the selling point is that they don't loose power. Why? Because they have their own power plant! Life is good, if you can afford to live there.

So couple of points here. First - and it is a no brainer - figuring out a solution to this acute power shortage is essential as it is directly tied to small businesses (especially tech-related). Second, this kind of power-outages may be creating a further imbalance between the rich and the poor. Furthermore, the fact that petroleum is being used to generate power for the affluent, such a division may be further contributing to the energy crisis. Third, the impact of power-cuts go beyond electricity. Yesterday's paper had a story about water shortage for those who depend on tube-wells (they are powered by electricity).

The mango season is here. But I hope power-outages don't challenge their appeal.

In the mean time, here is an excerpt about the division between the"cooled and uncooled" people in Pakistan from Mohsin Hamid's fantastic novel, Moth Smoke:
The first group, large and sweaty, contains those referred to as the masses. The second group is much smaller, but its members exercise vastly greater control over their immediate environment and are collectively termed the elite. The distinction between members of these two groups is made on the basis of control of an important resource: air-conditioning. You see, the elite have managed to re-create for themselves the living standards of say, Sweden, without leaving the dusty plains of the subcontinent . They're a mixed lot - Punjabis and Pathans, Sindhis and Baluchis, smugglers, mullahs, soldiers, industrialists - united by their residence in an artificially cooled world. They wake up in air-conditioned houses, drive air-conditioned cars to air-condit ioned offices, grab lunch in air-conditioned restaurants (rights of admission reserved), and at the end of the day go home to their air-conditioned lounges to relax in front of their wide-screen TVs. And if they should think about the rest of the people, thegreat uncooled, and become uneasy as they lie under their blankets in the middle of the summer, there is always prayer, five times a day, which they hope will gain them admittance to an air-conditioned heaven, or, at the very least, a long, cool drink during a fiery day in hell.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hoodbhoy on organ donations in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

Organ transplantations are saving and enhancing lives everywhere in the world. Pakistan is no exception. However, there is reluctance to be a donor. So corneas, for example, come to Pakistan primarily from Sri Lanka. Here is an article by Pervez Hoodbhoy from two weeks ago talking about some progress (and some challenges) in this regard on the ground: 
The news on organ transplantation is even better. The very thought of implanting another human’s organs inside one’s own body was once utterly abhorrent. But today, it is (almost) uncontroversial. Is your kidney about to conk out? Well, take a hike to the SIUT (Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation) in Karachi and get another one. The hospital motto reads: “No patient is turned away from our hospital or asked to pay for our services. The SIUT does it free — with dignity”. Indeed, the SIUT does hundreds of free kidney transplants a year. 
Fitted with a spanking new kidney, you can then hop across to one of LRBT’s (Layton Rehmatullah Benevolent Trust) 17 branches and get a corneal transplant. As at the SIUT, all treatment at the LRBT is “totally free so that no man, woman or child becomes blind just because he/she cannot afford the treatment. There should be no discrimination due to gender, caste, ethnicity, language, religion or sect”. 
The SIUT and the LRBT are superb charitable institutions; they do Pakistan proud. But, for those who believe in societal progress based upon science and reason, it is an additional delight to behold the triumph of pragmatism. The Enlightenment-era philosopher Rene Descartes should be especially pleased. About 300 years ago, this Frenchman had hypothesised that every human organ operates strictly on physical and chemical principles. With the Christian Church thinking very differently, what Descartes claimed had placed his life at great risk. And now for the bad news: we Pakistanis don’t seem to mind being fitted with somebody else’s kidneys and eyes, but almost none are willing to volunteer our organs after death. 
A young American-trained ophthalmologist, Dr Azhar Salahuddin, who spends his vacations in Pakistan doing free corneal transplants for the LRBT, told me that hardly any corneas (perhaps five to ten annually) are gifted by local donors. Although it is impossible to know true numbers, his guess is that most corneas come from Sri Lanka (80 per cent) and some from Canada.

The reluctance of organ donation is related to particular religious beliefs: 
Why won’t Pakistanis donate their eyes, kidneys, hearts, and livers after death? Are we less altruistic than Sri Lankans? I am not aware of any survey done in Pakistan, but one in Iran shows that most transplants are live donations; just 13 per cent of renal transplants performed in 2006 were deceased donations. Eyes are a particularly sensitive matter: some Iranians are told by their clerics that, having given away their eyes, they will not be able to see heaven. 
Dispelling such popular prejudice against organ donations was the focus of the 2010 International Congress of the International Society for the History of Islamic Medicine in Istanbul. Attended by some 200 experts on medicine and theology from 15 Muslim countries, the conference said that the majority of Islamic legal scholars do permit organ donations. But it noted that the general public remains distrustful.
I think this will change with time with a sensitive education campaign. The process may have a drag, but people are usually pragmatic when it comes down to dire needs. Hopefully there is a broader shift in this area as we have seen in the use of cadavers in medical universities. 

Read the full article here.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Results from the Arab Youth Survey

by Salman Hameed

Here is an interesting survey of Arab youth (between 18 and 24) tracking their concerns a year after the start of the Arab Spring uprisings (the findings are out now, but the survey was conducted a few months ago). You can download the summary of the report here (pdf). Here is a graph of some of the key findings (as an interactive flash here) (tip from Vijay Prashad):

Here are the top 10 findings:
  • Fair pay and home ownership displace desire for democracy as top priority
    Young people in the Middle East say that being paid a fair wage and owning their own home are their two highest priorities – displacing their previous number-one priority, living in a democratic country
  • High cost of living remains the greatest concern among arab youth
    One year after the start of the Arab Spring, the rising cost of living is the greatest concern among youth across the Middle East
  • Arab youth say that lack of democracy and civil unrest are the biggest obstacles facing them & the region
    Arab youth identify two equally significant and closely linked obstacles facing the Middle East today
  • Regional youth see the arab spring as a positive development and now feel greater optimism about the future
    Young people in the Middle East feel strongly that the region is better off, and so are they personally, as a consequence of the Arab Spring; they also continue to believe that things in their country are going in the right direction
  • Arab youth feel an increased sense of trust in government but have heightened concerns about corruption
    Nearly three-quarters of Middle East youth believe their government has become more trustworthy and transparent since the events of the Arab Spring – at the same time that concerns about corruption have increased
  • The arab spring will not spread further, according to the region's youth
    Less than one-quarter of Middle East youth believe that protest movements will spread to new countries; among those who believe that such movements will spread, Jordan, Morocco and Algeria are seen as the most likely sites of protests
  • Traditional values are being increasingly challenged by a modern outlook
    A majority of young people in every Middle East state agrees that traditional values are paramount; however, the percentage of youth who say that such values are outdated and need to be replaced continues to increase
  • The uae is seen as a model nation by middle east youth
    When Arab youth look across the region and the world, they see the United Arab Emirates as the country where they would most like to live – and as the country they would most like their own nation to emulate
  • Arab youth see france most favourably among all foreign countries; views of China and India are also increasingly positive
    One year after the start of the Arab Spring, young people in the Middle East have changed some of their views of major foreign powers, and now look more favourably upon France, China and India
  • News consumption skyrockets, tv viewership declines & blogs are booming
    After a period of enormous political change, Arab youth are following the news far more keenly than ever before – but less frequently on television and more often on the Internet; they have also developed a passion for the blogosphere
Couple of things to note here: It is interesting to see that UAE is increasingly seen as a model to emulate. That makes sense with the increasing concern over fair pay and home ownership. But UAE is also an odd case of a high income and low population area - something that is not possible for countries like Tunisia and Egypt. But a surprising thing is that almost 80% of respondents in Bahrain say that their government has become more trustworthy! That seems a bit hard to believe - considering that there is a significant ongoing conflict over there in particular over the mistrust of the government. The survey methodology does indicate that they took care of socio-economic status - so may be there is some fluke here. Also, the Bahrain case may be sharply divided on the Sunni-Shia line and that may also skew the results. And by the way, 86% of Saudis think that their government has become more trustworthy. I guess it depends on where one is starting from.

The other interesting thing is that there is a decreasing importance placed on traditional values. How will that play out with religious values? Will this lead to an emphasis on a more personal form of religion? How will global connectivity impact the society?

This is a time of amazing change in the region. Let's see how things change.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Blogging from Turkey: What are the cats and seagulls up to?

by Salman Hameed

Istanbul must be the friendliest place for cats, dogs and seagulls. The street dogs do look like in an existential daze, but still they appear to be calm and friendly. Seagulls are, of course, everywhere - and there is certainly no shortage of food for them. But cats really rule the city. They are everywhere - and judging from their friendliness, it seems that they are treated well. Here are a few pictures of what the cats and seagulls have been doing in Istanbul:

Here is the morning commute in Istanbul. The daily traffic situation has forced this kitty to look for alternatives to cars. 

But the commute of seagulls is slightly better. The Asian side of Istanbul is in the background.

I appreciated the cat reading culture in Istanbul. Plus, this kitten also reminded me of Billy the Kit.

But some cats are also behind bars. I hope these are good feline-correctional facilities!

Here is a seagull inspecting the Istanbul evening scene. The Golden Horn is in the background. 

 And some seagulls are checking out the evening storm clouds near the island of Buyukada in the Sea of Marmara. You will have to squint a bit to see the seagulls. 

 But then cats and seagulls also hangout together. Here is an evening dinner get-together at the island of Buyukada

But then may be Buyukada is an island from a David Lynch or a David Cronenberg film...

Actually the island is very nice. Apparently it is completely mobbed during the summer as it is only a short boat-ride away from Istanbul. But it wasn't that bad in May.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Friday, May 25, 2012

The reach of Gulen Schools

by Salman Hameed

There is a lot of talk about the Gulen Movement in Turkey. You can get as wide a range of reactions as possible. Some have said that this is a fantastic example of a group that preaches tolerance and emphasizes inter-faith dialogue. The schools it runs are good in math and science, as the founder of the movement believes that science is essential for modern Muslims and that building schools is better than building mosques. On the other hand, some people call the movement a cult and are concerned that it may have an insidious agenda. One thing is clear: The Gulen movement has a lot of influence in Turkey.  But how this influence is going to be used? I don't know. But it is interesting that Gulen schools are all over the world, including the US (they are called Harmony schools and are part of charter school system). They are indeed good in math and science, and couple of these are amongst the top schools in the US. But they have come under the spotlight because of visa issues. Now 60 Minutes has done a report on them. Here is the video (tip from Kamil Pasha - an excellent blog for all things Turkish):

Also, The Atlantic has a recent article about a visit to a Gulen school in Istanbul. I don't think it illuminates much, but here is a bit that is a source of friction in Turkey:

The methods and approach of G├╝len schools toward religious instruction has fueled lots of speculation about the movement's intentions. Governments in Central Asia in particular are suspicious that the Islamic values espoused by the Gulen movement could potentially pose a challenge to the political status quo in the region
Hoping to dispel misconceptions, the 37-year-old vice-principal of Fatih Koleji, Metin Demirci, who taught for five years in the movement's schools in Kazakhstan, stressed that all the schools closely follow the curriculum of the public schools in whichever country they are operating. 
In Turkey, he said the basic tenets of Islam are taught in a weekly class lasting 80 minutes that also offers instruction on other world religions. "Students learn our religious principles and other religious principles," Demirci said. Faculty members, he claimed, try to serve as role models of Islamic piety, leading by example. 
While Fatih Koleji has a prayer room, no student is forced to pray, Demirci continued. Out of 200 students at the school, only about 10 percent of the children follow the Muslim practice of prayer five times a day, he estimated. "They must want it."
One foreign teacher at another of the movement's estimated 30 schools in the Istanbul metropolitan area commented that most students are drawn from religious families, but their faith does not appear to "rub off" on more secular classmates. 
One ritual from Turkey's ardently secular public schools, though, appears less prominent at Fatih Koleji. Demirci played down the importance of "Our Oath," a nationalist pledge that students usually recite daily. "It is related to democracy and improving democracy," he said. "I believe in the next two years, we will stop saying this because we don't need it. With democracy, every small child has the right to say anything they choose."
Read the full article here.

Just yesterday, Pakistan's Express Tribune also carried an oped piece that talked about Gulen schools in Pakistan as well as the relief efforts of the movement after the earthquake a few years ago and the floods in 2010. I know that Karachi definitely hosts Gulen schools. The author of oped piece was invited on a trip to Turkey by the Gulen movement (don't know why...) and the article is about the trip. Here is a bit about aid connection to Pakistan:

The movement is run by volunteers and our visit was no exception. Almost every evening one of these volunteers, all personal friends of Koken, used to invite us for dinner. This enabled us to savour genuine Turkish cuisine and to see the homes of middle-class professionals. What impressed us was the warm hospitality of which food was just one aspect. Most people, especially the few women whom we met, could not speak English but the translation was always available and the conversation never slackened. What impressed me most was a visit to Kimse Yok Mu. This humanitarian organisation has 23 branches in Turkey and around 200,000 volunteers. They have carried out relief work in 63 countries out of which one is Pakistan. Soon after the 2005 earthquake, 29 trucks were sent to Pakistan and eventually $11 million worth of aid was provided. The most enduring legacy is the establishment of 12 schools which will benefit thousands of children in the years to come. Nor was this the only time Kimse Yok came to Pakistan. In 2010, in the wake of devastating floods, they came again with $12 million worth of goods and services. The Turkish volunteers were both courteous and efficient, something I witnessed myself during my two visits to Muzaffarabad in 2005. 
The Fatih University, although a private, fees-taking body, charges foreign students less than those who live in Turkey. It teaches most subjects in English and, therefore, may become a likely destination for Pakistani students who are on the lookout for higher education at lower cost.

Well...okay. Yes, but we also need to know a bit more about the organization. Also, I hope that they focus on developing scientific thinking rather than just the applications of science and hope they keep religion out of science. In addition, I'm curious if they include biological evolution in their biology curriculum - otherwise, their science will stay quite limited, especially for the 21st century. If they don't have an agenda beyond providing a good education, then, yes, it may turn out to be a good destination for Pakistani students.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Film Autopsy and a Discussion of the movie "Footnote"

by Salman Hameed

Israeli film Footnote was one of the Oscar nominees for foreign films last year. It is categorized as a comedy about two Talmudic scholars who also happen to be father and son. While the movie does have some very funny moments, the second half of the film takes a more serious turn. Here is our review (autopsy) for the film (of course, you can find all our reviews here)

We also did something different this time. After the regular review of the film, we also discussed some of the political undertones present in the movie. This discussion contains plot spoilers. Here is our Film Essay (aka Micro Autopsy) about Footnote. Hope you enjoy it.

And as a bonus, here is a film autopsy of Coriolanus - the fantastic film adaptation of a Shakespeare's play by Ralph Fiennes:

See other autopsies at our Film Autopsy website or at our Film Autopsy Facebook page.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Ben Kingsley: First Gandhi and now Ibn-Sina

by Salman Hameed

It is pretty cool that Noah Gordon's historical novel, The Physician, is being turned into a film. And Ben Kingsley will be playing Ibn-Sina. Too bad Anthony Quinn isn't alive. For a long time, he used to be the go-to ethnic guy in Hollywood. In particular, he played a fascinating historical trilogy of Muslim characters in Lawrence of Arabia (a hot-headed tribal leader Auda Abu Tayi), The Message (Hamza - uncle of the Prophet) and Lion of the Desert (Omar Mukhtar - the Libyan rebel who fought against the Italians in the early 20th century).

Ben Kingsley has played a number of "ethnic characters" in his long acting career. Of course, his most famous role is of playing Gandhi, but he also played an Iranian in a pretty decent film, House of Sand and Fog. But more recently, he played Al Jazari in a short film (about 13 minutes) for the exhibit 1001 Inventions.

So I guess, the transition to Ibn Sina may not be that difficult. Here is the news item:

Ben Kingsley, Stellan Skarsgard and Tom Payne have signed up for "The Physician," UFA Cinema's adaptation of Noah Gordon's bestseller about a medieval healer who travels from England to Persia to study medicine. 
Directed by Philipp Stoelzl ("Young Goethe in Love") from a script by Jan Berger, the film begins production in June in Morocco and Germany. 
"The Physician" tells the story of Rob Cole, a penniless orphan in an 11th-century English mining town who journeys to Persia to study medicine under Ibn Sina, the philosopher-scientist known as the "doctor of all doctors." 
Payne, the young English actor who most recently appeared in HBO's "Luck," plays the titular protagonist, while Kingsley stars as Ibn Sina. Skarsgard, who currently appears in "The Avengers," plays Barber, Rob's first mentor. The pic also features French thesp Olivier Martinez as the Persian shah. 
"The novel is not only a great adventure revealing the fascinating world of medieval medicine," said Stoelzl, "it also explores some of life's big questions -- about the meaning of death, whether religion is a liberating force or a prison of the mind, and the culture clash between East and West -- all topics that concern us more than ever today."
Published in 1986, "The Physician" has sold more than 21 million copies worldwide.

Blogging from Turkey: In a local newspaper...

by Salman Hameed

As I mentioned before, Berna Turam and I conducted our research interviews last week at one of the local medical hospitals and then by chance had an opportunity to attend a creationism conference in Istanbul. The evolution debate is a hot topic here, and a writer from a local newspaper, Taraf, talked to us and wrote a story about our experience so far. If you read Turkish and have access to the newspaper, you can find the article here.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Blogging from Turkey: The renovated Suleymaniye mosque

by Salman Hameed

When I first visited Istanbul in 2005, by guide-book downplayed the 16th century Suleymaniye mosque in favor of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. I think that is a mistake. In fact, the Suleymaniye mosque somehow creates a nice balance of splendor and modesty at the same time. Built in 1558, the genius of the Sinan's architecture in this mosque is hidden in the details and the interior decorations are relatively simple. On my last trip to Istanbul, the mosque was closed for renovation. But now the main part of the mosque is open and the newly renovated colors (including that of red marble) really stand out.

Here are some pictures to give you a taste. But you can also take a fantastic 3D tour of the interior of the mosque at this website.

This is a view from the mosque courtyard. Here you have the Bosporus minarets and a satellite dish.

A glimpse of Sinan's mosque architecture.

 The main dome of the mosque. Also, note the bright red marble in the arches.

You can see one of the arches more clearly here. In addition you can see one of the side domes.

 There isn't too much tile work and frescos in Suleymaniye. But here is an exquisite example from the front side of the mosque. 

 I think Ataturk must be frowning at the construction-truck blocking the view of the Bosporus. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Saturday Video: Umair Asim's observatory highlighted on Samaa TV

by Salman Hameed

Regular readers of the blog would be familiar with the burgeoning amateur astronomy scene in Pakistan. In particular, Umair Asim in Lahore has been doing fantastic work (see his website here). Here is a segment from a Samaa TV show that shows his observatory and some of his astrophotography (it is in Urdu):

By the way, it beats me why do they always have relatively loud music (with vocals) playing in the background. It is unnecessarily distracting - especially when one is talking about galaxies :). 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Blogging from Turkey: Protests at a creationism symposium at Marmara University

by Salman Hameed

I have been in Istanbul only for a few days, and it already has been quite eventful. The research interviews with physicans and medical students about evolution have been going well. But yesterday, we were at the epicenter of the evolution-creationism struggle in Turkey. A university youth group organized an anti-evolution conference at Marmara University (see here for a news item on this). So of course, we decided to go and attend the symposium at the Marmara University. We took a boat to cross the Bosporus - and that already makes this the most picturesque travel route to a creationist conference. Take that Tennessee!

On the way to the symposium: Here is a Bosporus seagull wondering if it was suddenly created as is -  or if it was a product of evolution over billions of years. 

We took a cab from the pier to the campus. But when we got close to the campus, our cab driver cautioned us that there is some protest going on at the entrance of the building we wanted to go to. I guessed that it must be for some political stuff. But nope - it was against the creationism symposium. The crowd was boisterous and the security guys were checking university IDs to let people in. We used our college/university business cards to get in. The scene was intense. There were cops, placards decrying the inclusion of religion in the sciences, and faculty and students against the symposium. Their main point was that if you want to talk about religion, you should do that in the mosques - but don't bring religion in the science departments. Things remained calm, but the presence of cops was intimidating for such a protest at a university. Here are some pictures of the protest:

The opening of the symposium itself got delayed for an hour. The main theme of the symposium was about scientific evidence against inter-species evolution. Here is the audience at the symposium: 

Of course, I sympathize with those wanting to keep science and religion separate and in keeping religion out of science classrooms. There is no serious dispute about the acceptance of evolution amongst biologists. But one of the main points of the organizers was to seek out space for critical expressions - and I think this is a criticism that we should consider seriously. On the other hand, the symposium talks were mostly about endorsing creationism (the whole forum was about refuting inter-species evolution (for most, evolution was limited to only within species). This is a tricky and a really difficult issue - especially within Turkey's changing political and cultural landscape. Nevertheless, I think ignoring it or organizing a competing symposium may have been a better strategy. But I do have to wonder how I would feel if the students at my college decided to host an astrology conference on campus. 

Here is a report from the Hurriyet:  Huundreds protest anti-evolution meet in Turkey.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

God and Hockey

by Salman Hameed

I'm in transit to Istanbul, so this is just a quick nod to Shalom Auslander's article in yesterday's NYT. I loved his book (and the title) Foreskin's Lament. It is now being turned into a film and I'm looking forward to it.

Here is Auslander talking about the game 7 of Rangers and Capitols and trying his best strategy to influence God over the results (by the way, now we know that the Rangers won). I love the beginning of the article:

Religion, someone once said, is what goes through your mind as your plane taxis down the runway. It isn’t. What goes through your mind as your plane taxis down the runway is mortality. It’s aeronautics. It’s the space shuttle Columbia. 
Religion is what goes through your mind during the N.H.L. playoffs. 
Nobody is immune. Richard Dawkins himself would sit at Madison Square Garden, squeeze his eyes shut, and whisper, “Dear God, let the Rangers close this out already and move on to New Jersey.” Then, like everyone else, he’d tap the “30” on the left sleeve of his Lundqvist jersey two times, the “30” on the right sleeve three times, kiss the N of “New” on the front of the jersey and the Y of “York” and wait for God to come through. 
“I’ll never,” Dawkins would add, “write about you again.” 
That’s hope. That’s fear. That’s desperation. That’s (and I know because I’ve been there) spiritual prostitution. 
That’s religion. 
And we all do it. Mock him all you want, but the only thing that separates you and me from Tim Tebow is that Tim doesn’t seem to realize he’s supposed to be ashamed of this sort of behavior. 
So you promise to give more to charity. 
You swear off masturbation. 
You pledge to go to church or synagogue or mosque; if it’s Game 7, you might pledge to go to all three, because why take a chance. And when the Rangers take to the ice, and the referee prepares to drop the puck, you clasp your hands together and you pray: 
“Dear God,” you beseech him, “let the Rangers win and make Washington lose because the Caps totally stink and this thing never should have gone seven games in the first place so I don’t know what you were thinking but stop screwing around and get this thing over, amen.” 
For me, however, it’s a little more complicated because God hates me. I don’t mean in a mankind sense — I don’t mean in a flood-the-world, kill-all-the-firstborns way. I mean, he hates me. Personally. “Man plans,” my mother told me, “and God laughs.” That this suggests God is a punk didn’t concern her, and as it turns out, she was right. God makes things go wrong for me. They just do, oftentimes just as they seem ready to go right. One’s hopes must be raised if they are to be brutally dashed, and that, it turns out, is precisely God’s M.O. 
We don’t get along. 
Trust me. 
I’ve tried to make it work.
Oh he has definitely tried!

Check out his strategy for Rangers' win in the rest of the article

Friday, May 11, 2012

Manto at 100! Still relevant and riveting

by Salman Hameed

Saadat Hasan Manto - considered as the finest Urdu short story writer would have turned 100 today (image on the right is a stamp issued on his 50th death anniversary). Unfortunately, he lived for only 42 years and died in Lahore in 1955. But in his short life, he wrote over 20 collections of short stories and redefined the genre in Urdu. His writings challenged the norms of the society - be it on the issues of gender or class exploitation, or in exposing the hypocrisy of the intellectuals. Some of his most famous short stories deal with the partition of Pakistan and India in 1947. He sympathized with the victims irrespective of their religions (Hindu, Muslim or Sikhs), while mercilessly satirizing the nature of humans that lead to commit heinous acts of violence. So here is the beginning of the english translation of his most famous short story, Toba Tek Singh (for Urdu, you can follow the link here). If you haven't read any Manto, check it out:
Two or three years after the 1947 Partition, it occurred to the governments of India and Pakistan to exchange their lunatics in the same manner as they had exchanged their criminals. The Muslim lunatics in India were to be sent over to Pakistan and the Hindu and Sikh lunatics in Pakistani asylums were to be handed over to India.

It was difficult to say whether the proposal made any sense or not. However, the decision had been taken at the topmost level on both sides. After high-level conferences were held a day was fixed for exchange of the lunatics. It was agreed that those Muslims who had families in India would be permitted to stay back while the rest would be escorted to the border. Since almost all the Hindus and Sikhs had migrated from Pakistan, the question of retaining non-Muslim lunatics in Pakistan did not arise. All of them were to be taken to India. 
Nobody knew what transpired in India, but so far as Pakistan was concerned this news created quite a stir in the lunatic asylum at Lahore, leading to all sorts of funny developments. A Muslim lunatic, a regular reader of the fiery Urdu daily Zamindar, when asked what Pakistan was, reflected for a while and then replied, "Don't you know? A place in India known for manufacturing cut-throat razors." Apparently satisfied, the friend asked no more questions. 
Likewise, a Sikh lunatic asked another Sikh, "Sardarji, why are we being deported to India? We don't even know their language." The Sikh gave a knowing smile. "But I know the language of Hindostoras" he replied. "These bloody Indians, the way they strut about!" 
One day while taking his bath, a Muslim lunatic yelled, "Pakistan Zindabad!" with such force that he slipped, fell down on the floor and was knocked unconscious. 
Not all the inmates were insane. Quite a few were murderers. To escape the gallows, their relatives had gotten them in by bribing the officials. They had only a vague idea about the division of India or what Pakistan was. They were utterly ignorant of the present situation. Newspapers hardly ever gave the true picture and the asylum warders were illiterates from whose conversation they could not glean anything. All that these inmates knew was that there was a man by the name of Quaid-e-Azam who had set up a separate state for Muslims, called Pakistan. But they had no idea where Pakistan was. That was why they were all at a loss whether they were now in India or in Pakistan. If they were in India, then where was Pakistan? If they were in Pakistan, how come that only a short while ago they were in India? How could they be in India a short while ago and now suddenly in Pakistan? 
One of the lunatics got so bewildered with this India-Pakistan-Pakistan-India rigmarole that one day while sweeping the floor he climbed up a tree, and sitting on a branch, harangued the people below for two hours on end about the delicate problems of India and Pakistan. 
When the guards asked him to come down he climbed up still higher and said, "I don't want to live in India and Pakistan. I'm going to make my home right here on this tree."
All this hubbub affected a radio engineer with an MSc degree, a Muslim, a quiet man who took long walks by himself. One day he stripped off all his clothes, gave them to a guard and ran in the garden stark naked. 
Another Muslim inmate from Chiniot, an erstwhile adherent of the Muslim League who bathed fifteen or sixteen times a day, suddenly gave up bathing. As his name was Mohammed Ali, he one day proclaimed that he was none other than Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Taking a cue from him a Sikh announced that he was Master Tara Singh, the leader of the Sikhs. This could have led to open violence. But before any harm could be done the two lunatics were declared dangerous and locked up in separate cells. 
Among the inmates of the asylum was a Hindu lawyer from Lahore who had gone mad because of unrequited love. He was deeply pained when he learnt that Amritsar, where the girl lived, would form part of India. He roundly abused all the Hindu and Muslim leaders who had conspired to divide India into two, thus making his beloved an Indian and him a Pakistani. When the talks on the exchange were finalized his mad friends asked him to take heart since now he could go to India. But the young lawyer did not want to leave Lahore, for he feared for his legal practice in Amritsar. 
There were two Anglo-Indians in the European ward. When informed the British were leaving, they spent hours together discussing the problems they would be faced with: Would the European ward be abolished? Would they get breakfast? Instead of bread, would they have to make do with measly Indian chapattis?
Read the rest of the story here.

Couple of other things. I have always found the story of his epitaph amusing and funny. He had written it six months before he died, but it does not feature on his grave - and you'll see the reason why. This is what he wanted on epitaph:

"Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried all secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short story writer: God or he.”

Ha! Here is an excerpt from Mohammed Hanif's tribute article for Manto in today's Dawn. This is the bit that connects with the epitaph request:
Have you settled that old argument with your creator: Who is a better short-story writer? You do realise that that this kind of claim hurts people’s sentiments. Especially sentiments of people who don’t read stories, who can’t read stories or who think reading and writing stories was a perversion. I hope you understand why your family didn’t inscribe that God vs Manto argument on your tombstone as you had wished. Censorship even in my death, you protest. No Sir, just common sense. I hope that you are up there with your creator, being argumentative, still carrying on that debate about who is better at the storytelling game. (That kind of thing, by the way, is called a creative-writing workshop these days). If your old friend Ismat Chughtai drops by while you are having that debate, you and your creator should take a break from arguing and say to her: we’ll both go in the kitchen and make tea, why don’t you write us a story.
And definitely check out this fantastic article by historian Ayesha Jalal: He wrote what he saw - and took no sides:
Any attempt to fathom the murderous hatred that erupted with such devastating effect at the time of the British retreat from the subcontinent, Saadat Hasan Manto remarked, had to begin with an exploration of human nature itself. For the master of the Urdu short story this was not a value judgement. It was a statement of what he had come to believe after keen observation and extended introspection. Shaken by the repercussions of the political decision to break up the unity of the subcontinent, Manto wondered if people who only recently were friends, neighbours and compatriots had lost all sense of their humanity. He too was a human being, “the same human being who raped mankind, who indulged in killing” and had “all those weaknesses and qualities that other human beings have.” Yet human depravity, however pervasive and deplorable, could not kill all sense of humanity. With faith in that kind of humanity, Manto wrote riveting short stories about the human tragedy of 1947 that are internationally acknowledged for representing the plight of displaced and terrorised humanity with exemplary impartiality and empathy. 
Manto’s Partition stories are a must read for anyone interested in the personal dimensions ofIndia’s division and the creation of Pakistan. Pieced together from close observations of the experiences of ordinary people at the moment of a traumatic rupture, his stories are not only unsurpassable in literary quality but records of rare historical significance. Unlike journalistic and partisan accounts of those unsettled times, Manto transcended the limitations of the communitarian narratives underpinning the nationalist self-projections of both Pakistan and India. There is more to Manto than his Partition stories to be sure, but there is no denying his remarkable feat in plumbing the psychological depths of an epic dislocation with telling insight, sensitivity and even-handedness. He did not create demons out of other communities to try and absolve himself of responsibility for the moral crisis posed by the violence of Partition. A cosmopolitan humanist, he rejected narrow-minded bigotry and refused to let distinctions of religion or culture interfere with his choice of friends. During a brief life that fell short of 43 years he lived in Amritsar, Bombay, Delhi and Lahore, forging friendships that survived the arbitrary frontiers of 1947. The constellation of friends he left behind in India included the trendsetters of progressive Urdu and Hindi literature, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander, Ismat Chughtai, and Ali Sardar Jafri as well as icons of theBombayfilm industry like Ashok Kumar and Shyam.
On his 100th birthday, Manto stands taller on the literary horizon than others who wrote about the mass migrations of 1947. Where he needs greater appreciation is in the role he played as a witness to history through his chilling narratives of Partition. In a country where history as a discipline has suffered from calculated neglect in the interests of projecting statist ideology, Manto’s Partition stories are an excellent entry point for enquiring minds eager to understand the past that has made their present fraught with such uncertainty and danger. The ever-percipient Manto had anticipated the problems of treating religion as a weapon rather than a matter of personal faith and ethics, which have over the past three decades surfaced with a vengeance in Muslim Pakistan. His words of warning have a resonance that is louder than when he said: “Our split culture and divided civilization, what has survived of our arts; all that we received from the cut up parts of our own body, and which is buried in the ashes of Western politics, we need to retrieve, dust, clean and restore to freshness in order to recover all that we have lost in the storm.” If there is a birthday present Pakistanis and Indians can jointly give Manto, it is to admit the reality of the problems he spelt out in his writings on Partition. It may then become possible for them to take the requisite steps towards recovering what has been lost by the myopic refusal of their respective nation-states to understand each other’s position, rectify past errors, and strike a mutually beneficial and sustainable historical compromise.
Read the full article here.

Manto: Happy centennial!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

In Istanbul next week...

by Salman Hameed

It is always a pleasure to be in Istanbul. My last visit was in late 2010 (see posts about food and friends,  on headscarf controversies and smoking, and on the stunning views of the Bosphorus from the Bogazici University). I will be there as part of our ongoing National Science Foundation (NSF) study to interview physicians and medical students about biological evolution and the relationship between science and religion. My research collaborator, Berna Turam, will also be with me. She is a sociologist at Northeastern University and is originally from Turkey (check out her book: Between Islam and the State: The Politics of Engagement). That should make things a bit easier. Last time I had a chance to talk a to a number of students at the Cerrahpasa University, and this time we will be going to the medical schools at Capa University. If you know of any medical students or medical doctors who would be interested in talking about biological evolution, drop me a line.

I will of course be blogging from Istanbul for the next two weeks. And of course, I am looking forward to watching Fatih 1453 (or Conquest 1453). Yes, it is about the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, and yes, I know that the history depicted in the film is quite a bit sugar-coated. But it is the most expensive Turkish film ever made and I have a soft spot for it as I grew up reading historical fiction of Naseem Hijazi (in Urdu), and one of his books focused on this very episode.

Here is the trailer:

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Video: How do Muslims around the world view science and evolution?

by Salman Hameed

Here is the video of a talk I gave this past January at the Tech Museum in San Jose, California. The title is a bit misleading as it is hard to fully express the diversity of Muslim views on science and evolution. However, my goal here was to use the title to hit home the point on cultural and social plurality of the Muslim world. I actually enjoyed the format here - lecture for the first half an hour and then a conversation with host Angie Coiro. I think Angie was absolutely terrific and covered a lot of territory in her questions - ranging from evolution acceptance to Muslim freethinkers (on the last topic, also see the recent post on Radical Enlightenment and its connection to Islam).

Here is the video of the talk:

Monday, May 07, 2012

Pakistan's art on wheels

by Salman Hameed

While growing up in Pakistan, it was hard to appreciate the elaborate artwork on each and every truck and bus that was on the road. It was ubiquitous. That was the norm. But, of course, now there is a new appreciation. And several books have now addressed the topic of Pakistan's art of wheels. The newest book is On the Wings of Diesel: Trucks, Identity, and Culture in Pakistan by Jamal Elias. He used to be at Amherst College but is now is a faculty member at UPenn. His book uses this truck art to find the story of contemporary Pakistan. He provides a nice background on Pakistan's history, education structure, religious varieties, and then takes on the role of trucks in Pakistan, those who drive them, and those who decorate them. The strongest part of book, apart from the spectacular pictures, deals with the analysis of the images - from religious symbols (Shi'a truck, tablighi truck, etc) to political signifiers (Saddam Hussein, AQ Khan, etc) on the back of the trucks. In fact, Jamal also discusses why this very truck art is now a celebrated topic amongst the educated-elites of Pakistan. Check it out - it is a fantastic interdisciplinary book.

Here is a slide show of the truck artwork and Jamal Elias provides background for his book:

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Problems with Nature editorial on Bilbliotheca Alexandrina

by Salman Hameed

Bibliotheca Alexandrina is a fantastic library in Alexandria. I had a chance to visit the library as part of a conference a few years ago (see an earlier posts here). Now it seems that the Director of the library, Ismail Serageldin, is facing heat because of his close ties to the Mubarak regime. I have heard Serageldin talk before, and he seems like a reasonable and progressive guy. I don't know the politics behind the pressure to remove him nor do I know the nature of his ties to the previous government. But an editorial in last week's issue of Nature argues that he should be allowed to serve his time as the Director until 2015. It commends for his prior work and sees a lot of positives if he stays on for a few more years.

This sounds quite reasonable and I actually happen to agree with it. However, then the editorial wades into two troublesome areas. While talking about the upcoming Egyptian elections, the editorial writes:
Serageldin retains the support of the library's 26-strong board of international trustees. In practice, however, a decision on his future will be made by Islamist MPs, who dominate the parliament, and by whoever wins the presidency in June. But they should remember that Serageldin's predicament has many parallels in Islamic history.
Why bring the term "Islamist" into the mix? Does Nature know the views of "non-Islamist" MPs? Why not just say that the new parliament will be making the decision regarding the Directorship of Bibliotheca, and leave it at that.

Second, and perhaps a more serious problem is in invoking despots in Islamic history for the support of Serageldin:
During the golden age of Islamic science, scientific advances were often associated with repression, principally because scholars had to rely on the reigning despots to support and fund their work. Important contributions to algebra and optics, for example, were made during regimes in the ninth and eleventh centuries AD that were repressive even by the standards of the time. And yet the scientists who worked for them, such as the mathematician al-Khwarizmi in Baghdad and the polymath ibn al-Haytham in Cairo, are now celebrated as pathfinders. Similarly, Serageldin could not have achieved what he did at the library without the support of the Mubarak regime.
Really? How far does the journal Nature go in history to comment on British science policies? Does it take into account the policies of Charles II at the time of Isaac Newton? May be if there are some budget-cuts, Nature can find parallels from the time of the Richard the Lionheart, and argue for tough times because of wars overseas.

If these analogies seem pointless from modern perspectives, then so should be the appeal to Islamic history in the case of Ismail Serageldin. There is nothing wrong in arguing in support for his Directorship using current political canvas. But please spare us this simplistic historical narrative which assumes that nothing much has changed between the medieval Muslim world and contemporary Egypt. One expects better from the premier journal of science!

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Mystery solved? The dino sequence in "The Tree of Life"

by Salman Hameed

A few months ago, I had a post about the ambitious Terrence Malick film, The Tree of Life. The movie contains an odd scene with dinosaurs (yes, the movie not only has dinosaurs, but it also gives you a rundown of the story of the universe from the Big Bang, to the end...). On the opening day of the film at our local theater, a number of people walked out of the film in reaction to the dino scene. And for those who didn't, the scene has remained an enigma. In our film autopsy (review), I interpreted it as the larger debate over grace and nature in the film. But now we have a more definitive answer from the screenplay: It is about the origins of consciousness. Here is a bit from Jim Emerson's Scanners blog about the person in charge of creating the dinosaur scene:
Since, as he acknowledged, the CGI dinosaurs are painstakingly created from 0s and 1s and therefore has to be meticulously planned in every detail, what was the intent of the pivotal scene in which the one dinosaur stomped on, and then seemed to caress/stroke, a smaller dino who was lying in a riverbed? 
Turns out, Michael was in charge of that very sequence, and discussed it thoroughly, on many occasions, with Malick himself. The premise of the four-shot scene was to depict the birth of consciousness (what some have called the "birth of compassion") -- the first moment in which a living creature made a conscious decision to choose what Michael described as "right from wrong, good from evil." Or, perhaps, a form of altruism over predatory instinct. 
Here's the relevant passage from a 2007 draft of Malick's screenplay:
Reptiles emerge from the amphibians, and dinosaurs in turn from the reptiles. Among the dinosaurs we discover the first signs of maternal love, as the creatures learn to care for each other.
Is not love, too, a work of the creation? What should we have been without it? How had things been then?
Silent as a shadow, consciousness has slipped into the world.
Leaving aside the question of whether the science behind this depiction of dinosaur life is sound (or, at least, generally accepted), that is the intention of the scene.
Hmm...okay. This is an interesting way think about consciousness (if you are interested in exploring this messiness around this questions, here is the entry on Consciousness in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). This particular scene in the film doesn't negate altruistic behavior amongst animals that "succeeded"dinosaurs, all the way from bats to primates, even if the process can be explained from naturalistic evolution. And the scene continues one of the central themes of the film: How (both as a direct question and as in the sense of methodology) do we make sense of the universe that we find ourselves in?

As I have said before, this movie may not be everyone's cup of tea. But if you like ambitious, challenging films, on the scope of 2001: A Space Odyssey, then definitely give it a shot. By the way, Roger Ebert recently included The Tree of Life as one of the 10 greatest films of all time.

Here is the dino scene from The Tree of Life:

And here is our review of The Tree of Life (you can find our other film reviews here):

Saturday Video: Just how small is an atom?

by Salman Hameed

This is part of TED education videos and makes a good use of animation:

And now think about a star with the density of the nucleus of an atom - and you have a neutron star. These are the leftover cores of stars much bigger than our Sun, and form in supernovae - some of the biggest explosions in the universe. Here is a short primer on neutron stars and pulsars (pulsars are spinning neutron stars). This is a bit dryer, but it will balance out the cheerfulness of the TEDed video:

Friday, May 04, 2012

Radical Enlightenment and its connection to Islam

by Salman Hameed

Here is a fascinating talk by Jonathan Israel about how Radical Enlightenment scholars viewed Islam. First of all, he cautions against considering the Enlightenment as a unified movement. He includes Voltaire, Locke, Hume, and Motesquieu in Moderate Enlightenment while Spinoza, Bayle, and Diderot as part of Radical Enlightenment. The latter was mostly underground in the 18th century but its ideas included not only a fundamental primacy of reason, but it also called for freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of conscious, and considered democracy as the best form of government.

What is interesting is that these Radical Enlightenment scholars looked up to medieval Muslim freethinkers, and considered Islam to be a tolerant and progressive religion. These connections were sometimes accurate and deep, and sometimes not - but it gives a broader sense of how these set of scholars viewed Islam. About 40 minutes into the lecture, Jonathan Israel talks about the references to al-Warraq, al-Rawandi, and al-Razi and also about the positive perception of Ibn-Rushd. In addition, he suggests that al-Arabi's sufi ideas of unity may have inspired pan-theistic philosophies in the 17th century (for Spinoza?). Here is an illustration from 1727 by Bernart Picart for an encyclopedia of comparative religions - the first of its kind, and note that the person at the front-right is a Muslim scholar, depicted in a positive light (the first few minutes of the lecture are dedicated to this image):

Also, check out the last couple of minutes of the lecture video. In answering one of the questions, Israel once again draws a line between moderate and radical Enlightenments. While Voltaire, Hume etc. were okay with racism and an the basic imperial ideas, much of the values of the modern world have been shaped by this underground movement of the 18th century.

Here is the video of the talk (Sorry - I can't embed it): The Islamic World and the Radical Enlightenment: Toleration, Freethinking and Personal Liberty by Jonathan Israel.

Also, the Warburg Institute is hosting a series of talks this month on the theme of Islam and the Enlightenment. Here is the schedule:

Thursday 3 May, 6.15 - 7.45 p.m.Jan Loop (The Warburg Institute), Islam and the Enlightenment. An introduction.
Wednesday 9 May, 4.15 - 5.45 p.m.Rolando Minuti (Florence), Islam in Montesquieu’s writings and thought.
Monday 14 May, 4.15 - 5.45 p.m.Jonathan Israel (Princeton), An Islamic Radical Enlightenment? The Philosophes and their perceptions of the Arabic world.
Thursday 17 May, 6.15 - 7.45 p.m.Maurits van den Boogert (Leiden), Sir James Porter (1710–1776) and his 'Observations on the Religion, Law, Government, and Manners of the Turks' (1768)
Tuesday 29 May, 6.15 - 7.45 p.m.Simon Mills (Cambridge), Joseph White (1745-1814) and Arabic Studies in eighteenth-century England.
This is very cool! Hope there are videos of these talks.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Future, Funk, and Cascading Pews

by Salman Hameed

Last Saturday I had a chance to visit Mass-MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art). Every time you visit, there is at least one exhibit that blows your mind. This time it was Sanford Biggers' The Cartographer's Conundrum. In some ways it is hard to describe. There is interesting sound, broken mirrors in the shape of 5-pointed stars, a piano to welcome you, a cascading pew, an exploding pulpit containing musical instruments and an upside-down piano surrounded by pipes from a church organ, a floor with a design of platonic solids, some spectacular quilts. The pulpit is either exploding or coming together. Don't ask me about art, but according to the exhibit, it is a metaphor for the African experience in the Diaspora.

Here is a picture of part of the exhibit, but it really doesn't do justice to the installation.

This exhibit is a part of a sub-culture called Afrofuturism:
Afrofuturism was a phrase coined in 1995 by cultural critic Mark Dery in is essay Black to the Future, where he links the African American use of science and technology to an examination of space, time, race and culture. In this text Dery defines afrofuturism as: "Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture - and, more generally, African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future…" The movement began in earnest in the mid-1950s with musician Sun-Ra, whose music blended science-fiction, mysticism, African culture (with a particular focus on Egypt) and jazz fusion, all of which coalesced in his 1972 film Space in the Place. In 1975 George Clinton formed his bands Parliament and Funkadelic, which took afrofuturism to new and often absurdist heights. Today the movement is still strong, encompassing contemporary musicians like Saul Williams, Janelle Monae, OutKast and DJ Spooky along with writers like Paul Beatty, films like the Matrix, Blade and Chronicles of Riddick and visual artists like Sanford Biggers.
Well, if you get a chance, go see it at Mass-MoCA (and you will also get a chance to see Sol LeWitt wall drawing retrospective. Some of it is quite amazing (and you can even see a timelapse video of how they did these wall drawings).

And as a bonus, here is an earlier installation of Sanford Biggers called Big Ass Bang!:

From the Brooklyn Museum description:
The title of this piece humorously plays on the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. Footprints outlined on the floor and walls of a corner in the gallery suggest exuberant dance steps that would animate the space. A spinning disco ball placed near the floor heightens the sense of dynamic movement as well as suggesting a celestial explosion. Calenda, a form of martial arts practiced in the Caribbean, had its origins in Africa. It is believed by some to have evolved into a dance performed by enslaved Africans in the antebellum South; the various movements might have been used to send coded messages between dancers without their owners’ knowledge. 

New Technology, Old Education Mindset

by Salman Hameed

I think there is little debate over the usefulness of education. This is one thing that most world leaders would agree on. And many are also willing to spend a lot of money on it. But what does it take to turn around education standards in a developing country?

Some of the Gulf states in the Middle East are, of course, in the midst of an education experiment. Last year I had a chance to visit Doha for a conference and saw branch campuses of a number of American universities, from Cornell Medical School to Carnegie Mellon University (see this earlier post: Education City in Qatar). As far as I understand it, most of the costs for these campuses is paid for by the government of Qatar. Will these campuses transform the higher education landscape in Qatar? Perhaps more importantly, will it create a body of students with critical thinking skills necessary for the sciences, and creative independence necessary for the humanities? I think we have to keep an eye on this and we should be able to assess some successes and failures in the next few years.

A few days ago, Pervez Hoodbhoy raised a similar question about the school education. One of the political parties in Pakistan have recently called for giving away free laptops to kids. Pervez, rightly, asks the question, is it the laptop that is fundamentally going to make the difference? He points out that at one point television was considered the singular solution to the education problem, at another time, Apple 2C computers. And so now, we have the laptops:

Instead, the central question is: how exactly are these laptops to combat poverty and ignorance, or improve education? The answer is not clear in any developing country but is even muddier in Pakistan. The purchased computers did not come loaded with school books, supplementary educational materials, or programmes like “Comic Life” which make math learning fun. There are no locally-developed programmes, and none in Urdu or any local language. Nor have schoolteachers been trained to deal with computers as a teaching tool. Of course, there will be some Google searching and perhaps some educational material will be downloaded. But overwhelmingly they will be used for chatting, surfing, or video games. 
The false notion of technology as a magic wand has made our rulers euphoric from time to time. Few Pakistanis will remember the bulk purchase of Apple-II C computers for schools at the end of the 1980s. General Ziaul Haq’s minister of education, Dr Muhammad Afzal, (now deceased), was a progressive man in a religiously-charged government. Somehow he was seized with the notion that computers would revolutionise everything. In one of my occasional meetings with him, I unsuccessfully sought to persuade him that his idea was fundamentally flawed. Sadly, the warning turned out to be correct: it is likely that many machines were not even turned on before they were junked en masse 10-15 years later.
Earlier on, a still bigger revolution had been promised. Pakistan Television was founded on the premise that its core purpose would be education. At the invitation of the Pakistan government, a Unesco team visited Pakistan and met with the ministers of law, broadcasting, and education. In a subsequent report the team leaders, HR Cassirer and TS Duckmanton, wrote: 
“We arrived in Lahore on October 10, 1960, where we were the guests of the Regional Director of Radio Pakistan, as well as the Provincial Department of Education. We pursued our consultations with officials concerned with the following: university and college education, primary and secondary education, vocational education, village aid, broadcasting, the Arts Council”. The report document does not even mention entertainment or news broadcasts, but has paragraphs on how telecourses should be conducted. 
But PTV never made a sizeable contribution to education. For 50 years its broadcast content has been almost exclusively entertainment and news. In this period PTV has produced only two documentary serials that sought to popularise science for the general public, one in 1994 and the other in 2002.
Though to be fair, PTV did start showing education programs from the Allama Iqbal Open University aimed to increase adult literacy. These were first shown in the afternoon, and I think later as part of PTV2. I don't what happened to  PTV2 and Open University programs. Are they still on? But I think if done properly, that can still be very effective. I know that Indonesia used its satellite channels to provide educational programs across the archipelago. And televisions are indeed available across the board. But that success in Pakistan via this route has remained relatively limited. However, there may exist a study that has looked at it more systematically. If anyone knows the reference, drop me a line.

Pervez doesn't dismiss the use of new technology for education. But his emphasis is on good education values - a system that encourages learning over memorization - and that requires a change of mindset:
The bottom line: good education requires planning, organisation, integrity, resources and, above all, a mindset that is oriented towards the future and not the past. Techy hi-fi stuff has glitz, but it’s really the sub-stratum of thought that matters.
And that may apply to the experiments in higher education in the Gulf states as well.

Read the full article here.
Powered by Blogger.