Kishwar Naheed’s textbook explanation of Pakistan   | Pakistan Today

Kishwar Naheed’s textbook explanation of Pakistan  

Book review: “The culture and civilization of Pakistan”

The chapter on artists? A retelling of names in chronological order. The chapter on the literary scenario of the country? A reiteration of the most basic facts about the country’s most recognisable poets and writers, with a few choice verses picked from Faiz and Jalib. The chapter on vegetables? Well, need I say anymore than that there is a chapter on vegetables?

Translation is never an easy task. Almost always thankless, and rarely satisfying for a reader of the original language, it is a labour of necessity taken up by a few brave souls.  

Iconic literature becomes mediocre and awkward in a different language, often losing its gravitas, and always losing its aesthetic appeal. The nature of translation, after all, is that of a hack job. Cutting sentences and shifting tenses, it is a great achievement on its own merits when a work of translation manages to retain the original meaning of the writer.

Naturally however, just as translating good literature is a gigantic ask, translating something with little substance is that much easier. A simple job for anyone with competent language skills.   

So with very little substance to work with, Amina Azfar must not have had a particularly hard time with the translation of Kishwar Naheed’s “The culture and civilization of Pakistan”

Kishwar Naheed is of course a name of some weight in Pakistan’s literary scenario. The feminist writer and poet has done some great work in Urdu and has broken many barriers, so the natural assumption would be that this new book in English bearing her name is simply an unfortunate circumstance of bad translation. It bears no resemblance to the work she has done in the past, after all. But pinning this one on the translator would be a cop out, because Amina Azfar has, in fact, done a commendable job in composing the English edition.It is clean and does its best to present simple arguments with as much finesse as possible.

Rather than anything to do with the language, it is the structure of the book itself, invariably copied from the original, which makes it such a head scratcher.

Naheed’s writing in this can almost be described as anthropological, let alone the poetics her readers would expect from her. And even though the idea of a local being a participant observer simply seems silly, perhaps the only audiences who might find it useful will be Western school children being forced to do a project on Pakistan, for the details are tedious and of little interest to the general reader.

A laborious yet completely factual read, what should have been a discussion on the finer nuances of the Pakistani identity is little more than a spiel of names and lists.

The chapter on artists? A retelling of names in chronological order. The chapter on the literary scenario of the country? A reiteration of the most basic facts about the country’s most recognisable poets and writers, with a few choice verses picked from Faiz and Jalib. The chapter on vegetables? Well, need I say anymore than that there is a chapter on vegetables?

Reading it feels almost like reading a Wikipedia page or a Pakistan Studies textbook with the political propaganda removed. A look at the list of contents reasserts this idea. One understands the inclusion of chapters such as “Our literary scenario” and “Our Fine Arts” in a discussion on “The culture and civilization of Pakistan.” In fact some pertinent points have been raised in these chapters. But one is completely at a loss as to the purposes behind the bland yet elaborate discussion on “Pakistan’s fruits,” “Our vegetation” and “Vegetables of Pakistan.”

There is, of course, the question of what Naheed’s goal behind writing the book was. Knowing that she is a competent writer with well developed if not complex ideas, the book can be seen as a simple survey on Pakistan. In her prologue, she herself describes it as the result of “prodding the memories of friends.” But for a woman who was part of the generation that was to have built Pakistan, Naheed’s account is more fact than reflection.

Not to poke fun at the great tradition of horticulture and vegetable eating in the country, but the discussion at hand produces a singularly dull narrative, devoid of anything but the most basic of information. This filler material also takes away from some of the more important observations that Naheed has made in her book, including her discussion on Pakistan’s english writers.

There is, of course, the question of what Naheed’s goal behind writing the book was. Knowing that she is a competent writer with well developed if not complex ideas, the book can be seen as a simple survey on Pakistan. In her prologue, she herself describes it as the result of “prodding the memories of friends.” But for a woman who was part of the generation that was to have built Pakistan, Naheed’s account is more fact than reflection.

When reading it, one feels that the style in which it has been written has a distinct hint of travel writing. Yet as a travel guide it would be utterly useless, which is why it is perhaps best to describe it as a travel guide through Pakistan’s cultural, artistic and even political history.

It is a simple recording of Pakistan as Naheed has seen it in her lifetime, and that recording is devoid of any pretense to opinion or any overt or covert agendas. And even this is a noble thing to do in a ever divisive world.

For what it is, it is a fine attempt. But what it is, is unfortunate, for it was always going to be a dull read and not one for the Pakistani reader, who has heard about the different types of vegetables and fruits that grow in the country countless times before.

One of the salient feature of this treatise on Pakistan, which takes off with the country’s inception, is that it encompasses a large amount of information on an even larger amount of things without any fuss or explicit need for detail.

It is a simple recording of Pakistan as Naheed has seen it in her lifetime, and that recording is devoid of any pretense to opinion or any overt or covert agendas. And even this is a noble thing to do in a ever divisive world.



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