PEACE NEWS No. 2450, March-May 03
By Michael Shank

“So how was Pakistan?” Friends eager to know more about my recent work in the Islamic Republic have had to wait patiently as I search my vocabulary for the appropriate words. My silence surprises me as well. Usually words do not escape me but this rare moment finds me struggling to do my experience justice.

Shall I take this brief exchange to explain that not all Pakistani women wear burqas (as some Americans believe) that cover their entire face? Shall I seize this opportunity to contradict the notion that Pakistanis are hostile and violent and want to put a gun to my American head? Shall I counter the idea that Pakistan is one big desert with many shades of brown and grey with little expression of vibrant colours? Or shall I address a western perception that believes Muslim fundamentalism is an accurate representation of Islam by citing similar radical acts and beliefs by Christian fundamentalists who fail to accurately represent the Christian majority in the US?

Taking risks for peace

Instead of taking on the political nuances of the above questions I end up telling stories; stories of people taking risks for peace, freedom and justice.

In fact, all thirty-five participants (from seven countries – Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Maldives) who arrived in Lahore, Pakistan in December to discuss peace in South Asia took risks in order to attend the Focus on South Asia youth peace conference. Some delegates from Nepal and India struggled with the same stereotypes regarding Pakistan that western media continues to freely distribute – that you may be shot in the streets of Pakistan if you’re not careful! Other delegates struggled to be free of their parent’s incessant dismissal of peace and justice as a legitimate career choice. Taking risks for peace and justice soon became the theme of the week.

They were in Pakistan for ten days to be trained in the tools of arts-based activism and to develop feasible and effective waysof addressing pervasive conflict and injustice in their home communities. The conference model worked something like this: morning workshops to explore historical conflicts and deconstruct prevailing biased views of that same conflict; afternoon workshops to hear from professional artists/activists in the region currently using their art to promote peace; and evening workshops to brainstorm creative ways to bring about peace in the region.

As a theatre artist and activist working in the US, I was invited to serve as one of the lead trainers and facilitators for this conference – and how willingly I accepted the invitation.

Spirit of the age

I love this work, particularly when it is with youth, because the purity of their energy is contagious and motivating. Youth seem to be more mobile, more willing to take risks and more willing to undergo a metamorphosis of character and career pursuits. Adults seem to rely on a plethora of past experiences to justify their present lack of idealism or their lack of willingness to uproot their comfortable lifestyle.

How exciting it was for me to see a radical transformation (in just 10 days) in these youth who were thirsting for support as peace workers emotionally, spiritually and tangibly through practical skills training. Their willingness to shed parental, societal and governmental expectations to pursue human rights work was so contagious and inspiring. Only seventeen years on this planet and they’ve now got a game plan for their home communities in Dhaka, Kathmandu, Kolkata, Male, Columbo, Karachi and Thimphu!

What kind of peace initiatives will we be seeing organised in South Asia thanks to this peace conference? Start looking in the headlines folks because my dear brothers and sisters in South Asia are planning the following: a Fair Trade office in Pakistan for peasant farmers, an urban waste cleanup effort in the streets of Nepal, a substance-free clubhouse in Bhutan, and a live television forum in Sri Lanka that will bring together youth from the segregated Sinhalese and Tamil communities. How do I know all these initiatives will come to fruition within the next year? How do I know that I’ll soon hear about the new hotline for substance-users in Bangladesh, the rock concert in Dhaka to promote dialogue on substance abuse,the child-care centre for working women in Karachi, or the youth resource centre in Orissa? Because even before the peace conference in Pakistan finished, the participants were already exhibiting their willingness to take risks for the promotion of peace and justice.

Border patrol

On the last day of the conference we visited the Pakistan-India border; a border heavily guarded by each country’s military. In fact, everyday at 1600 hours the Pakistan and Indian military “face-off” in a show (read: government propaganda) of bravado, might and resistance. Thousands of people apparently flock to the border each day to chant, cheer, yell, hold candles, weep, and wave as the military stomps, frowns, and celebrates the divisiveness the border has created.

We were advised to keep a low profile at the border. Our conference hosts (the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and two powerful women’s rights organisations in Lahore) asked us to refrain from singing, performing street theatre or chanting freedom poetry because they themselves were already banned from the border due to similar forms of expression and were fearful that our association with them (if we became loud and unruly) may provoke more restrictive action from the government against our hosts.

We agreed to this request. Oddly though, after we arrived at the border and witnessed the angry nationalistic chants and slogans we were over whelmed with silence and tears. Our willingness to keep a low profile aptly suited our quieter, visceral reaction to the militaristic fervour so pervasive at the border.

Approaching the white line that divided the two countries I stopped to wave at the Indians standing far on the other side. Pakistan officials quickly ushered me down the path, not wanting me to offer such friendliness during their show of guarded nationalism.

Divide and rule

The national press of Pakistan showed up at the border to broadcast our visit. After interviewing a few of the conference participants they asked if I’d be willing to speak. What was I to say?

I thought a while. I thought about the food I ate that week – remarkably similar to my experiences with Indian food. I remembered the music of the tabla player and the singer and the dancing that reminded me of my Indian friends in Singapore. Such seemingly common interests were divided by a barbed-wire fence, a fence that had thoughtlessly cut through houses and property fifty years ago dividing relatives and families. Fifty years later relatives are still not permitted to speak with each other at the border. And as I found out, waving is even discouraged.

I opened my mouth to answer the reporter with the only suggestion I could muster – that amidst this militaristic zeal we should take the risk of conversing with each other here at the border. Why not provide Indians and Pakistanis with the opportunity to communicate at the border? I wasn’t suggesting that the governments lift the travel ban between countries, nor was I suggesting that Pakistanis be able to cross over to Indian land or that the government allow Indians to traverse the big white line to enter Pakistan’s territory. (Though I think all of us believe these options desperately need to happen.) I was merely suggesting that we take a small risk and transcend boundaries by talking across borders and hopefully, in the communicating of a common and shared love for music, dance and food, a better place and a better way could exist.

Get talking!

I realised that a handshake, a smile, or “Assalam alaikum. Tum keise ho?” wasn’t dealing with the issue of nuclear weapons, terrorism or in this case, the controversial issue of Kashmir. But good communication also implies that both sides are speaking truthfully and respectfully while (hopefully) attempting to understand the other side’s perspective. No longer is the simple recommendation that we talk with each other an easy task but it is a necessary and very accomplishable one. The gap that currently stands between the possibility of US President Bush and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein talking with each other is 250,000 US troops wide, 6,000 oil fields deep, 200 US F16 Fighter planes high, and 500,000 dead Iraqi children (thanks to sanctions) long. I call upon US President Bush to bridge that gap immediately.

Michael Shank is an arts-based activist. He lives in Seattle. FOCUS ON SOUTH ASIA – was organised by Youth Initiative for Peace in Lahore, Pakistan, in December 2002 – with generous support from the South Asia Foundation, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Shirkat Gah, and ASR.