Monday, November 1, 2010

Two German scholars fascinated by Pakistan’s cultural diversity

By Rauf Parekh
Tuesday, 09 Mar, 2010

“Yours is an interesting country; it is full of surprises. You never know what can happen next in Pakistan, and I am saying this in a positive sense. ‘Regulated’ countries are somewhat boring. That’s what makes Pakistan a very ‘colorful’ destination, even from a researcher’s point of view. And what makes a visitor stand minor irritants is the hospitality and general regard for guests in Pakistan,” says Prof Dr Conrad Schetter while sharing with this writer his excitement about Pakistan. He is a professor of development studies and senior research fellow at the Bonn University’s Center for Development (abbreviated ZEF in German). The areas of his interest are quite varied and diverse as they include oriental studies, ethnicity, cultural identities, geopolitics and local governance.

Dr Schetter and Katja M. Mielke, his colleague at ZEF, are on a visit to Pakistan to conduct ‘a fact-finding survey’ for future research projects and bilateral cooperation with Pakistani universities. They are going to visit several universities in Sindh and Punjab. During their visit to Karachi University last weekend, they shared quite interesting views and had scholarly discourse with members of the arts faculty. Later, they took some time out from their busy schedule for an informal chat and here are excerpts from the conversation.

“Regretfully, Pakistan has been a victim of stereotyping in world media and the moment one hears the word ‘Pakistan’, one starts imagining military regimes, nuclear bombs, militants, Taliban and terrorists and what not. But my experience is quite different,” says Dr Schetter. “I have been here four times before and I feel Pakistan is a fascinating place to visit. Quite contrary to the general perception, it is an ‘open’ country. I have been to Iran, Afghanistan, many Central Asian states and I found Pakistan much more open than what the world believes it to be. I have been to Afghanistan around 15 times and have written four books on it. I feel there is a huge difference between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In certain areas and attitudes, they are poles apart.”

He later lets me know that he has written a book on Pakistan too which is going to be published shortly.

“Pakistan’s diversity is amazing, not only from the geographical point of view but also from cultural and lingual perspective. The people of this country seem to live in harmony despite all the ethnic and cultural diversity. We can see them dealing with one another quite amiably in everyday life but once the time for mobilizing them for some purpose comes, especially a political one, the question of ethnicity arises and disturbs harmony.”

His precise and profound analysis of Pakistani society based on his vast study of ethnic and linguistic issues faced by Pakistan was indeed startling.

Talking about their plans for the research projects in Pakistan, he says: “We would love to know the local perspective. We have seen in some cases that society organises itself quite well on a community or ethnic basis and this aspect of development has not been fully studied. By meeting local academics and researchers, we want to know how they feel about their own country. To understand the context and perspective, ethnicity and culture can play an enormous role. Secondly, great changes have taken place in Pakistan in the last few decades which have not been fully taken account of. Our proposed research projects would be taking note of it.”

Katja M. Mielke is a research fellow at ZEF and has taught at different institutions, including German and Russian universities. Besides her native German, she knows Hungarian, Tajik, Russian, Dari, Persian and Uzbek. She has done a course in Urdu and can understand basic Pashto, too — not to mention her fluent and impeccable English. Currently, she is working on her PhD dissertation for which she has conducted the research. The topic of her thesis is ‘Local governance in northeast Afghanistan’. To carrying out the research and conduct field work for her doctorate, she lived in Afghanistan for two years. She has published several research papers in international research publications, including papers on Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Bacha Khan) and cultivation of poppy in Afghanistan.

Sharing some of her interesting experiences in Afghanistan while discussing the surveys conducted for research, she said: “Sometimes people tell the researchers what they want to hear.”

Talking about her impressions of Karachi, she smiled and said: “I have been to Karachi before and it is my fifth trip to Pakistan. I feel Karachi is a ‘liberal’ city. It looks quite peaceful, though I was expecting traffic jams as over 15 million people live here. But it is not that difficult to move around. The campus of Karachi University is quite huge and frankly speaking I was not expecting that much big an area. It was nice to see that many departments and institutes had their separate premises.

“As for research projects for Pakistan in collaboration with German universities, we do not want to give the impression that we are the ‘wise’ guys from the West and are here to tell you people what to do. Rather, we hope to get some local partners to understand the local perspective and study the developmental issues. I feel that most of the attention of the development studies had been concentrated on the tribal areas and the NWFP.

“But I am very hopeful that certain issues can be addressed successfully as we observed during our visit to the Orangi Pilot Project. I was impressed with the pragmatic approach of the OPP. It has really motivated people to solve their own problems by taking the initiative for the waste water management and providing people with the technological aid which they lacked. It is a sphere where some other projects had failed.”

The two scholars are planning to revisit Pakistan next autumn.