“We seem to still be struggling with our sense of identity. And this makes us prone to blocking all history and ethnicity that does not conform to a narrow conservative identity.”

A friend in the UK recently had a bizarre experience involving Pakistan Customs.

She had bought two volumes of a massive art book on the acclaimed and much decorated artist Sadequain. She assumed the whole process would be straightforward and that the books would arrive in two days so she could proceed to gift them to people who were interested in Pakistani art, but then the air shippers informed her that the Customs people at Karachi airport were refusing to allow the book through. Their reason? That it contained inappropriate/objectionable pictures or “na munasib tasweerain”.

It is a little disturbing that Customs officials should think it’s okay for them to decide what is and is not appropriate content in a book, in this case a book documenting the work and life of one of Pakistan’s greatest artists. Especially when the artist in question is nationally well recognised and the recipient of such national awards as the Tamghae Imtiaz and the Pride of Performance.


So, what does this incident tell us about modern day Pakistan? Does it indicate that everybody, at every level, considers themselves some sort of custodian of moral and social values? Or is this incident just an example of the absurdity of bureaucratic process and a red tape mentality?

It’s probably a bit of both: it is not just religious and social prejudices and a mindset of morality policing that are driving factors in such behaviour, it is also a culture of that strange mix of megalomaniac tendencies and job insecurity that exists within the bureaucracy.

Here the officials could have been playing it safe and working from precedent (the book had been stopped once before when it was being sent by DHL) or they could have simply been asserting their power to obstruct or approve – i.e. their ‘afsari’. Or perhaps in their personal role of moral custodians they were genuinely horrified by the content and the title (Sadequain ­– The Holy Sinner) and thought such “inappropriate” content should not be exported lest the pristine reputation of the country be sullied.

This incident is unsettling because it shows not just the arbitrary nature of official “approvals” but also the national tendency towards moral policing, censoring and disapproving. It is also a reminder that the nation has still not been able to come to terms with, and appreciate, its own history and culture. Any other country would have made sure that not just the world but also the people of Pakistan knew about the genius of Sadequain. Any other country would have encouraged publicity, research and work about the artist, any other country would have capitalised on the association. But we seem to still be struggling with our sense of identity. And this makes us prone to blocking all history and ethnicity that does not conform to a narrow conservative identity, insisting instead, that the history of the land began only with some Arab conquest.

This narrow definition of identity encourages people to be blind to the rich history of the country and to neglect and destroy monuments to early civilisations and peoples. It makes people close their minds to the work of those artists and writers who seek to explore ideas and question norms. It makes people ignorant of the art and culture around them and insensible to the fact that art and expression matter. Cultural censorship is a dangerous path to go down, but we are seeing a simultaneous resurgence and questioning of this all over the world. It is made worse by the rise of right-wing nationalist narratives and reactionary movements like the ones that portray the oppressors as the “victims”.

These are big questions and by this point you might just be thinking ‘well, perhaps the customs officials were just trying to make a quick buck?’ But even if that were the case, the fact that an art book should be considered an opportunity to do so underlies the issue of what is and is not “appropriate” for the reputation of a country (surely jihadists were a more negative export than any art books).

But this particular story might yet have a happy ending. The customs officials let the book through after my friend sent in as much information as she could about the artist and the book. She had asked them to put their objections in writing if they were going to stop the book, but this they had been reluctant to do. So perhaps to get rid of her noise, or perhaps because they were otherwise persuaded or perhaps because they had better things to spend their time screening and stopping (drugs, smuggled goods) they let the book through.

It hasn’t been received yet but hopefully it should be soon. In the meantime, we can both laugh and cry at the absurdity of the matter. And we can reflect on what it tells us about Pakistani society today.