By Khurram Siddiqi
“If bombs don’t kill us, our fear of them will”
When we anticipated things getting uglier as the fight for Pakistan’s identity intensified, more bloodshed was the first thing we feared. On the other hand, perhaps something less obvious was how literally ugly our cities would become as well.
I teach at a university in Lahore. It’s got a great reputation as a technical institution, but amongst its more recognizable features, is the campus. In particular, large stone polyhedral domes adorn its pretty brick building in different sizes, forming its visual persona. These domes are actually replicated in miniature along the iron fence that forms the perimeter of the institution, as you can see, in the pictures here.
As the government compels schools and universities to comply with more stringent security measures and regulations, our university has to build a brick wall where only a wrought iron fence used to be. Basically, passersby will no longer be able to catch a glimpse of the institute as a consequence of this safety feature. High walls are now a requirement from the government’s side. I noticed that the brick wall wasn’t replacing the fence; it was in fact, enveloping it. This wall will essentially feature a built in reinforcement of iron, a consequence of this quick and iterative security measure. I also hear that grade schools receiving the ‘ok’ from local security authorities will have to paint their exterior a dark green, indicating that school is on again. All of these expenses must be budgeted by the institutions themselves.
Apart from the bare financial expenses, the visual pollution and psychological impact of these barriers is bound to cost our institutional creativity even further. Entering a university shouldn’t feel like entering an embassy. I know; the Taliban have brought this upon us, but despite this, I will still argue for the case of the un-walled institution. Why? Because our institutions of education are a symbol of progress and creative thought, regardless of where you lie on the religious spectrum. Once you drop the shutter, you’re effectively saying “We’re Closed”. Pakistan’s academic institutions have always been home to revolution, change and an urge to progress, even when bogged down by campus politics. Now, we are quietly snubbing this spirit, despite knowing that it is spirited youth who drive a country forward.
I’m writing this specifically because the repercussions of being a student in this day and age are likely to be felt a generation down the line.
Students today, compared to their seniors of say, ten years ago, are already performing in a situation where the stress and challenges are in all honesty, unprecedented. This is why today’s youth are truly the heroes of tomorrow; our role as educators and employed graduates, is to ensure that their educational momentum and creativity are not compromised.
By closing educational institutes down, we give in to terrorism, which we have never done before on this scale. We derail ourselves. Bombs go off, and if we survive, we get on with our lives as best we can, and do the best we can. Now, because a solid wall seems like the fastest logistical means to just ‘getting on’ with our lives, every institution is racing to build one in time and get their classes on as soon as possible, hoping that there’s no more homework to do.
When you fail to do your homework, you don’t fail a class immediately; you lose pace with the content, and everyone else around you, slowly. You find yourself trying to catch up, and when you’re thrown into the middle of a surprise quiz; that which you should have been somewhat prepared for; you blank out on. You write down whatever you can, in whatever way and form you can. You basically work at the most basal means of surviving what was meant to an enjoyable, learning experience; your coursework. This is exactly what we’ve done with life here in Pakistan.
We’re playing a slow catch up these days. Without sounding too negative, we’ve failed several milestones in convincing ourselves that as a nation, we can protect ourselves. If we had modern, up to date entry systems at most universities, we wouldn’t have had to rise to ambiguous government regulations set overnight. True solutions to these require more application of intelligence than brute force- the hallmark of academic training. The government’s assigning the homework, and it’s not really going to teach us much. Getting on with life is more than just picking ourselves up when we fall; it includes incorporating the lessons of the past.
In general, Pakistani academic institutions have always suffered from poor funding and therefore, poor planning and even poorer operation. Now adding to our regression is this current system of dealing with terrorism. I understand that the government was in the tightest of spots when the Islamic International University was bombed. It seemed no one was safe anymore, but haphazard responses to the attacks left our schools closed, signaling an unexpected victory to terrorists around Pakistan. Now, as we build walls around ourselves; we are losing our close-knit, innate hospitality; parts of the DNA that makes our society Pakistani. We’re not always nice, but when we are- we are ‘lovers, not fighters’. Above all, we are resilient people, and resilient people don’t go home when the going gets tough.
By shutting down schools to build big walls, we’ve inadvertently demoralized ourselves for the moment- beyond just the student body of Pakistan. In fact, we’ve provided terrorists fodder for the juvenile, thuggish techniques they’ve been arguing (read: bombing) their case through. A lot has already been written about the education sector’s response, but as I saw the foliage being cut in order to make space for uglier bricks and concrete, the fallout from this war began to hit me. Lahore, this beautiful city, is (literally) turning from a verdant, romantic capital of cultural activity, to a grey multiplex of concrete walls and barriers. If bombs don’t kill us, our fear of them will. It took years and years of God’s help and man’s planning to grow these trees, and a quick downing of a toxic cocktail of terror and knee-jerk policies to cut them down.
As this war on terror- our war on terror lurches on, things are indeed getting uglier, and not just from the loss of life. The real killer will be the morose adaptation life in cities and towns must take on, in response to the skyrocketing violence. So in addition to the loss of human life, we’re faced with the loss of creative life within: a slow, but steady chipping away at your resolve to come up with new ideas and concepts- precursors to progress.
Paulo Coelho, venerable author of The Alchemist, was once asked in an interview what he would like his epitaph to read. Unfazed, he briskly replied, “It should read ‘Paulo Coelho died while he was alive'”.
To have died while being alive, means to have met your last moment when living life to the fullest. It doesn’t mean dying healthy, or dying young; it means you lived bravely and with no regrets.
True, we are in times of unprecedented violence and confusion, but let’s get back to thinking with our heads, more than our bricks and mortar- because to be honest, if the bombs don’t kill us, these walls around us will. I’m asking all those holding decision power (in academics in particular) to keep the psychological future of our students in mind, and to think very, very hard before their next moves, because the bad guys are watching. We can’t slip again.
You already know how this story ends: long fought mental and physical battles rage on, but finally, the good guys win.
We have to.
Come; help write this ending with our youth now.