"Study cinema critically and in all its diversity"

March 6, 2016

Interview with Prof. Dr Ali Nobil Ahmad

Prof. Dr Ali Nobil Ahmad dons many illustrious hats: Currently, a fellow at the Zentrun Moderner Orient in Berlin where he researches Pakistan’s political ecology, Ahmad is also Assistant Professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)’s Department of Humanities and Social Sciences where he teaches history. Perhaps, the most interesting part of his work remains on cinema, chiefly Pakistani cinema, as it "combines art, popular culture, technology, industry and consumerism in ways that make it fascinating and very important for students of social and cultural change," he tells TNS, in an exclusive interview.

Ahmad has also taught courses on Pakistan and its cinema, in the capacity of the Visiting Professor of South Asian Studies at BrandeisUniversity, Boston. Earlier, in 2008, he was picked up for the Guardian Bursary for Journalism and, a few years later, as co-curator of ‘Winds of Change: Cinema from Muslim Societies,’ a festival of films and talks at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London.

Born, brought up and schooled in London, where his parents migrated from Pakistan -- his father from Lahore in 1958, his mother from Karachi in the early 1970s -- Ahmad says he "hadn’t spent serious time here before joining LUMS in 2009. My degrees were in History: BA and MA in Modern History at UCL, PhD from a little known corner of heaven called the European University Institute -- it’s in Florence, Italy." Subsequently, he did an MA in Journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London.

"Throughout my education and working life, I’ve tended to oscillate between academia and media practice, and hope to continue to be able to do so," he says.

A widely published author, Ahmad recently came out with Masculinity, Sexuality, and Illegal Migration: Human Smuggling from Pakistan to Europe and Cinema and Society: Film and Social Change in Pakistan. The latter, which he edited with Prof Ali Khan, explores the history of vernacular Punjabi and Pushto low-budget cinema as well as the dominant modes of Urdu production.

The News on Sunday: Could you tell us briefly how you became interested in cinema and co-curator of ‘Winds of Change: Cinema from Muslim Societies’?

Ali Nobil Ahmad: During the early 2000s, I used to write for an art journal, called Third Text, run at the time by artist Rasheed Araeen and Zia Sardar. The sharp rise in Islamophobia after 9/11 and the Iraq war led Third Text to commission me to edit a special issue on some aspect of Muslim culture. My role was to ensure the publication would be critical and accessible; its content was to be disseminated through some kind of public engagement.

I chose to work on cinema since I had developed a keen interest in Iranian and Arab film. With the support of co-curators Haim Bresheeth and Richard Appignanesi, I managed to get the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London to host a series of screenings and talks alongside the publication of the special issue, entitled ‘Cinema in Muslim Societies’. Shortly before the film festival at the ICA, the Arab uprisings occurred. Naturally, we programmed talks and screenings that reflected current events as well as our original concerns.

It turned out to be a stimulating but somewhat controversial project. Among the most interesting aspects of the special issue was the reaction it provoked from area and film studies academics who felt uncomfortable with cinema being brought under the ‘religious’ banner of ‘Muslim Societies’. I published the correspondence between myself and them in the introduction, titled, Is there a Muslim World? This was also the title of a talk held at the ICA as part of the festival. The special issue has recently been reprinted as a book with a new preface reflecting on the political changes that have rocked the Arab and Muslim world in the second decade of the new millennium: counter-revolution, the catastrophic war in Syria, terrorism, Daesh etc. In it I emphasise that we who live in Muslim societies have a good deal more to worry about than Islamophobia, US imperialism and the other issues that were stressed by the European Left in the first decade after 9/11.

TNS: Any special interest in cinema?

ANA: When you think about it, stopping your life for three hours to sit next to strangers in the dark and gaze at vast projections of the human body is a curious ritual. As an aesthetic experience, absorption by the big screen in the dark recesses of the cinema hall taps into a very particular kind of primeval pleasure, and elicits intense emotional responses. Although modern in setting, it recalls the manner in which humans related to the earliest known forms of art, cave paintings.

At the same time, cinema combines art, popular culture, technology, industry and consumerism in ways that make it fascinating and very important for students of social and cultural change. Going to the movies is a particularly intimate and communal cultural form. The collective aspect of public viewing makes it particularly revealing of the ways in which a given society views itself and the world: Its truest and often most unspeakable aspirations, dreams, desires and anxieties become apparent in its films.

TNS: Then you came up with ‘Masculinity, Sexuality, and Illegal Migration: Human Smuggling from Pakistan to Europe.’

ANA: Yes, a revised edition was recently published and launched in South Asia. A raw version based on my doctoral research originally came out in Europe and America back in 2011. The recent ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe has renewed interest in the book, which is one of a small number of empirical studies of human smuggling and illegal work that analyses the actual experience of migrants themselves -- in travel, transit and employment.

TNS: You interviewed as many as 90 persons for your research. What were the criteria to select these people?

ANA: My objective was to ensure the people I interviewed represented the bulk of Pakistan’s migratory proletariat in Europe -- not the minority of highly skilled migrants, diplomats, expats, political exiles and intelligentsia who have prominent voices in public life.

If you are travelling in any European country, you will instantly recognise the sort of men I interviewed driving taxis, street hawking, working in the service sector and doing other low paid jobs.

TNS: Why did you choose Chot Dheeran, a village in Punjab? Surely, people go abroad from all corners of Pakistan legally/ illegally?

My argument is that labour migration from Pakistan to Europe is not driven in any simple sense by poverty or even purely economic considerations. Foreign destinations are imagined as utopian sites of hedonistic pleasure and sexual self-realisation.

ANA: Actually, labour migration to Europe from Pakistan tends to be overwhelmingly from specific geographic areas in Central and Northern Punjab and Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa. Apart from the odd Karachi-ite, I have never encountered anyone from Sindh or Balochistan in low-waged European labour markets. Men from Lahore, Peshawar and other metropolitan areas are also relatively few. In the book, Chot Dheeran features as an example of the sorts of villages whence Punjabis have migrated to continental Europe.

The vast majority of recent arrivals I encountered in Italy were from two specific districts: Mandi Bahauddin and Gujrat. There is nothing surprising about this. Migration scholars have long understood that people movement is geographically uneven. Cultures of emigration, information about opportunities and social networks coalesce in particular places to establish migration systems that bind specific localities to others in the international system. Mirpur’s connection to Bradford is perhaps the best-known Pakistani example.

TNS: How do you link travel and masculinity to human smuggling? What is meant by irrational forces?

ANA: My argument is that labour migration from Pakistan to Europe is not driven in any simple sense by poverty or even purely economic considerations. Nor is it the outcome of purely rational choices made collectively by households, contrary to what is often assumed in migration scholarship. It is a highly risky and unpredictable endeavour undertaken by men using household resources.

Decisions to migrate are made outside the household, within youthful communities of men. They are certainly shaped by a will to accumulate capital and other worldly goods, but that is hardly the kind of cost-benefit analysis economists have in mind when they speak of income differentials and other material ‘push’ factors. Foreign destinations are imagined as utopian sites of hedonistic pleasure and sexual self-realisation. Close analysis of migrant testimonies point to conscious and unconscious sexual desires and drives as an important factor that is rarely factored into explanations of why migration happens.

Of course, the reality of Europe is very different from what the migrants imagine. Many of the men I interviewed looked back at their decisions to migrate as having been based on inaccurate information. Some expressed clear regret, and a number experienced little obvious ‘economic’ benefit. Many also conceded that return migrants grossly exaggerate their own success abroad in order to save face, because the truth of their own downward social mobility is impossible to admit. All of which leads me to conclude there is a fundamentally irrational element within this system as a whole. And, like the world financial system, this irrationality is tied to masculinity and men’s supposedly ‘economic’ decision-making.

TNS: Migrants have faced a lot of difficulties, particularly due to illegality. Why do people still take risks?

ANA: A number of the men I interviewed literally risked their lives to reach Europe. I don’t think it makes sense to think of people who cross the Mediterranean in small boats as being motivated only by some vague prospect of economic security. The reductionist prism of rational economics (or, for that matter, vulgar Marxism) does not consider the role of imagination, desire and ideologies of travel that motivate these epic overland and sea crossings, which often last weeks and months. Migration to Europe from Pakistan is less about alleviating poverty than an aspiration to improve oneself. Part of this is characteristic of the roaming entrepreneurial spirit that has always motivated labour migration and human mobility, but a good deal of it today is inculcated and inflected by the ideology of capitalism, or rather its mythology, which constantly tells us we need to be someone else.

TNS: Would you like to throw light on ‘criminal networks’?

ANA: The media’s obsessive focus on ‘criminality’ and the terminology of trafficking are misleading and detract from some basic truths about illegal migration. Smugglers are not necessarily criminals. The various facilitators or brokers of any given migrant’s journey might include members of their own family, legitimate travel agents, corrupt state officials, or freelancers who house and transport migrants for some part of their journey. To describe these various actors as traffickers is often inaccurate since they rarely use coercion. I suppose you could say some smugglers commit criminal acts; but often that is just a small part of what they do.

The idea that illegal migration is controlled by gangs and mafias is far fetched, and perpetuated to detract from various embarrassing truths -- that illegal migration is a product of state policies, inequality, ideological distortions and other intractable issues no one wants to address.

TNS: Do you think Pakistani law can deal with human smugglers or should there be new anti- human trafficking laws?

ANA: It is doubtful that smugglers or traffickers even exist in the sense such laws presume. Given that a number of such laws do exist, the real question is, how are they being implemented? Criminalisation tends to detract from the reasons why smuggling happens, and does little to prevent it.

The fact is that the Pakistani state has encouraged all forms of emigration as a means of generating remittances since the 1970s. Like many other countries of the global South, Pakistan has little incentive to halt outflows of labour, legal or illegal, and is unlikely to be moved by the prospect of rising migrant deaths.

Of course, the Pakistani state does act to stem outflows when pressured by the European Union and other destination countries; and immigration to Europe is now quite tightly controlled by laws and border patrols. We shouldn’t forget the numbers that head towards Europe are actually quite modest in relative terms.

TNS: There is no doubt that migrants’ contribution to the Pakistani economy is considerable but what was its impact on society?

ANA: Economists and policy-makers tend to get excited by remittances. Certainly these have helped the economy stay afloat, though the extent of Pakistan’s dependency on remittances is a cause for concern. In social terms, remittances can be and often are used to pay for health care and education for the families of migrants. But there are also some ambivalent aspects: they tend to reinforce inequality and raise property prices without creating employment opportunities. The kind of human development they bring is rarely based on productive investment and not always progressive: remittances can be used to shore up patriarchal relationships and have been known to reinforce female seclusion among some communities.

Religious conservatism has probably been reinforced by migration to the Gulf; possibly elsewhere too, though more research is needed on this.

As for its political role, the diaspora has been largely supportive of military coups and unhelpful interventions such as Tahir-ul-Qadri’s and Imran Khan’s 2014 dharna (sit-down) which was arguably damaging to the democratic process in Pakistan. Buffoonish jihadis from the UK are prominent in Islamo-fascist cults across the world. It’s important not to generalise too much, of course. There are some interesting studies about the role of the Kashmiri diaspora which has used the British political system to assert its autonomy from both Pakistan and India. Then there is Altaf bhai, who has played a significant and complex role in Pakistani politics from London for decades.

TNS: Your new book is on Pakistani cinema. How do you see the recent revival of film in the country?

ANA: Despite regular (premature) pronouncements of its death, cinema’s universal appeal as a medium somehow endures -- even in Pakistan where it has been systematically undermined for much of its history. This is testament to its power and importance as a medium. These last few years, we have seen a boom in production linked to technological and other changes in production, distribution, marketing and exhibition. Equally interestingly, cinema has become socially acceptable following decades of stigmatisation. Of course, I’m glad to see it being ‘revived’, and very impressed with some of the films that have come out -- especially Na Maloom Afraad, Jawani Phir Nahin Aani and Zinda Bhaag.

However, I am concerned about the exclusionary aspects of its recent gentrification. With the establishment of multiplexes in malls and disappearance of awami film theatres, it seems the cinema in Pakistan is becoming reclaimed by the affluent classes and integrated into consumerism. The point is we should study cinema critically and in all its diversity. The book I have edited with Ali Khan explores the history of vernacular Punjabi and Pushto low-budget cinema as well as the dominant modes of Urdu production.

"Study cinema critically and in all its diversity"