Saturday, 27 December 2008

Mirza Ghalib (27 December 1796 - 15 February 1869)

Remembering the Life of Mirza Ghalib...

Mirza Ghalib's
Ishq Mujhko Nahin,
Vehshat Hi Sahi*

"(You say) It is not love, it is madness
My madness may be
The cause of your fame
Sever not my relationship with you
If nothing then be my enemy
What is the meaning of notoriety
In meeting me
If not in public court meet me alone
I am not my own enemy
So what if the stranger is in love with you
Whatever you are,
It is due to your own being
If this not known then it is ignorance
Life though fleets like a lightening flash
Yet it is abundant Time to be in love
I do not want debate
On the sustenance of love
Be it not love but another dilemma
Give something O biased One
At least the sanction to cry and plea
I will perpetuate the rituals
Even if cruelty be your habit
Teasing and cajoling
The beloved cannot leave 'Asad'
Even if there is no union
And only the desire remains"
* Translation by Rajender Krishan

The Rose with its redolent petals
By Mirza Ghalib

"The Rose with its redolent petals
The Water lily with its robe of virgin white
These have surely come to us in transmigration
Of but a few of those
Endowed with sublime beauty and grace.
Some embrace death to sprout again
But most, forever, in dust remain."

Benazir Bhutto: "I have a choice to stay silent or stand up and say this is wrong"

Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007): One Year On

Written in the Daily Mail UK by Daphne Barak

TV journalist Daphne Barak has befriended many of the world leaders she has interviewed - from Nelson Mandela to Shimon Peres - but none became such a close friend as Benazir Bhutto. Here she reveals the private world of the murdered former Pakistan prime minister. “Daphne, you don’t want me to go back home?” asked Benazir Bhutto. She knew the answer - we’d been having the same debate for months.

Benazir was a close friend of mine and, even before an assassination attempt on her life in October this year, I was against her returning to Pakistan.

“You know how I feel,” I said. “It’s a trap! You fell into it, but you can still get out…”

“I can’t,” Benazir replied, sounding stressed. “You see Daphne,they are expecting me in Pakistan. They know Washington is supporting me. My photos are already all over the streets. Asif [her husband] and I are taking into account what you are saying. But how can I back out? It’s too late. And if I don’t go now, I might as well just quit politics forever.”

She was confident in the support of the Bush Administration. But I wasn’t so sure. I had a bad feeling about it and when I last saw her I became emotional. I knew I wouldn’t see her again. She came over and hugged me. I cried. She didn’t. She just held me tighter.

The Benazir I knew and loved was the most extraordinary woman. Everyone knows she was brilliant and extremely ambitious but what very few people know - and I am privileged to be one of those - was that she was also what I would call a girlie-girl who loved to talk about skincare and hairstyles.

Benazir, who used to sign off her emails to me with the name Bibi, was one of those rare women who had the ability to move a conversation from heavy politics to lightweight gossip in the space of a minute.

Benazir was like a big sister to me. I am still trying to come to terms with the loss of someone so close to me. We met for the first time while she was serving a second term as Pakistani prime minister when she gave me an exclusive interview in June 1995 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.

We got on well and met again in 2000 at the home of our mutual friend Esther Coopersmith, who is known in Washington as the hostess with the mostest. Benazir was no longer in power but Esther had arranged an amazing lunch for her, and everything from plates, napkins and even food was in either green or white, the colours of the Pakistani flag.

From then on Benazir and I developed an increasingly close friendship. When we met - usually in New York, sometimes in London - we talked about politics, of course. I knew she was determined to bring democracy back to Pakistan and I would sometimes arrange parties for her and make sure she met the right politicians in a private and relaxed setting.

But, as so often happens with powerful women I interview, like Hillary Clinton and Segolene Royal, I also had the great fortune to get to know her as a woman, wife, mother and friend, the sides she revealed only to people she could trust, and these are the areas I want to concentrate on.

As a woman she was very different from the tough politician she presented to the world. She wasn’t, as some have said, a brutal man in feminine clothing. She was just like so many women. She was always keen to lose weight and wanted to look younger and healthier. We discussed girlie subjects alone and when men were present.

Benazir had a very good appetite and particularly loved Italian and French food. When we went to restaurants together - only those that were off the beaten track so we would not be snapped by the paparazzi - she would always order three courses.She particularly loved desserts and cakes and chocolates. She also gained weight from stress.

No one would recognise her when we went on our dinner dates. She would dress very casually, usually in a blouse and slacks, and her hair would be uncovered. Sometimes she wanted to diet. I introduced her to my own private general practitioner Mark Hyman, who lives in New York, and he worked out diet regimes for her.

Dr Hyman would prescribe a powder that had to be made up into some kind of milkshake. You drank that and ate only vegetables for three days at a time. I found it disgusting, but Benazir persevered and would ring or email me from Dubai or wherever she was, thrilled when she’d lost a few pounds.

“Daphne,” she would say. “It’s wonderful I have lost some weight. Please send me more of those detox powders.” She always took vitamins every day, too.

She cared about what she looked like under her clothes. I introduced her to Victoria’s Secret, the sexy stylish underwear company, whose range she loved and always wore. She was very Americanised and wore her headscarf only when it was politically correct to do so.

I helped her with her hair,too.My hairdresser, Diego, who works for the Regency Hotel in New York,would style her hair when she came to some of my parties. When she was in exile, I introduced her to influential people and she wanted to look her best.

She had the most wonderful, lush, thick, dark hair and she loved, literally, to let it down. But, of course, only in private. Benazir was interested in the latest face and body creams and asked me for advice. I change brands all the time but my latest recommendation was Pria, created by a friend of mine. Benazir told me she loved it.

We often exchanged gifts - anything from the latest political books to very sensual candles. Of course we talked a lot about men, as all women do when they get together. She enjoyed hearing in detail about other people’s love affairs but most of all she was totally fascinated by Princess Diana.

She knew I was friendly with Hasnat Khan, the Pakistani doctor whom Diana fell totally in love with before she died. Benazir enjoyed speculating endlessly about the couple’s relationship.

“I am curious to know why their love didn’t have a happy ending,” she would say. “I wonder if Diana was serious in her intentions to go and live in Pakistan. It would be hard for her.”

I also remember her discussing Diana’s relationship with Dodi Fayed shortly before the Princess died. “I am sure it is just a summer fling,” she said. “I firmly believe it is her attempt to lure Hasnat back to her. It won’t last.”

As far as her own love life went, she was completely and utterly in love with her husband Asif. In him she knew she had found a man who was confident and secure enough in himself to allow a woman to be really powerful and not to feel threatened.

Asif is also very liberal and they behaved like teenagers together. In public they were very restrained, but in private or with close friends they were very demonstrative and would hold hands and kiss. You could feel the passion between them.

She could be very giggly when she was with Asif and I can tell you he was the power behind her throne because although she was very strong-willed, she always wanted to please him.

He is really the one who has been calling the shots. He is a brilliant man and she always did everything political that he advised her to do. He will certainly run for office instead of her to maintain the legacy.

Of course Benazir and Asif did not spend very much time together throughout their 20-year marriage and had to face major challenges that not many other couples would have survived. In a way it made their relationship such a romantic one.

Asif was a rich playboy when he met the heiress of the political dynasty and became politically involved when he fell in love with her.

But in 1997 he was jailed on corruption charges and she didn’t see him at all for the seven years he was in prison. She used to joke to me: “My life is strange. It seems that either I am prime minister or my husband is in jail. There can’t be many like me.”

During the last three years or so they saw each other only about 25 days a year. Asif lived in New York where he was undergoing heart treatment while Benazir was in exile in Dubai but they would speak and email each other all the time.

Both Benazir and their children - Bilawal, Bakhtwar and Aseefa - would travel to New York to see Asif. She would say: “They must spend time together. It is very important that they know their father.”

It was hard for them all. Asif was trying to become a father and husband again, but he found coping with noise and even a lot of space very difficult after his years in confinement. Even going to a theatre was a problem and I remember him leaving one venue shortly after we had arrived because he couldn’t cope with the crowds.

Asif was living in an apartment hotel and initially wanted Benazir to stay somewhere else, mainly because he didn’t want to be recognised and also because it wasn’t romantic enough for her, but she gradually persuaded him that they should be together. They had two dogs - one very small and one that looked like a horse - who both chewed all the furniture. Benazir didn’t complain. She didn’t even seem to mind that the flat was sparsely and simply furnished.

No one besides family and extremely close friends were invited to visit and anyway she had other more important things on her mind. She would say: “My mind is on politics. My home in New York is temporary. I am not interested in making it comfortable.”

She was very patient with her husband and he brought out the feminine side of her and liked her to shine. After his time in jail it was as if they found each other all over again.

I remember having a meal with them and some other friends. I had just come back from interviewing Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate for the French presidency against Nicolas Sarkozy last May. Benazir wanted to know what Segolene wore and how was her relationship with her partner.

I told Benazir that Segolene resembled her. Asif responded forcefully and immediately. “Nobody is as beautiful as my wife,” he said. Benazir blushed deeply. She loved him saying that.

She was also a wonderful mother. I called her a cross between an earth mother and a Jewish mother because she was loving but also pushed her children to do better than their best. She was very hands-on with the children and they would tease and hug each other a lot. But she wasn’t at all strict.

She didn’t want to put any more pressure on them than they already had because of her political ambitions. I feel she was always trying to compensate. But even though she was easy-going, the children were very well mannered.

I met them all many times. When one of her daughters, I think it was Bakhtwar, decided she wanted to become a punk singer, Benazir asked me if I could introduce her to Puff Daddy, who I know, to give her advice about a career in music.

She wasn’t snobbish about it. Nor did she seem in the least concerned about the implications it might have on her own political future. Benazir was also particularly proud that her son Bilawal got into Oxford and made sure that both she and Asif took him up and helped him settle in, just as any parent would.

Benazir was a wonderful friend to me - the best friend you could ever have. I was staying at the Dorchester Hotel and was injured just as she arrived to spend a few days with me before her historic return to Pakistan.

Asif told her I couldn’t get out of bed but she wouldn’t take no for an answer and came up with creative solutions like going to Harry’s Bar wearing a jump suit to cover my injuries.

Despite what she was going through herself she would regularly email me to ask how I was and if I didn’t tell her exactly, she would remember to ask me again, and be very specific. Sometimes her emails made me laugh.

For ages it was impossible to use a Blackberry in Dubai, but that changed recently and so over the past six months she emailed me from it all the time. In an email about her plans for her farewell dinner in October, she wrote: “Wld u like to join me for dinner? I am having dinner at nine and cld collect you at 8.15. I am having dinner with a friend and I told him I wld like to bring you. Bibi.”

Later that day as we finalised our plans, she sent me another email: “Dinner at harry’s bar. Can u come in a jump suit? Do u want to check? If its not too late when we finish we will drop by for coffee. Let me know if harry’s bar allows u to come in a jump suit.”

After eight years in exile, Benazir finally returned to Pakistan on October 18 this year. There was an attempt on her life that very day at a homecoming rally in Karachi - a suicide bomber killed 140 people but Benazir escaped unhurt. I spoke to her on the phone and realised that she was suffering from trauma after the blast.

On November 3, Pakistan’s President Musharraf declared a state of emergency and suspended elections. Suddenly, after being snubbed for nine years, Benazir was being feted by Washington. She thought this was fantastic news and that President Bush’s support would help her win the election in Pakistan.

But Asif asked me to check with my own contacts in Washington and Islamabad. I did and the information I got was that as soon as Musharraf ended the state of emergency, the Bush Administration would abandon its support for Benazir. She would be left extremely vulnerable. I thought it was a death trap.

On November 8, Benazir was placed under house arrest after threatening to join a protest rally against Musharraf. I rang several times before I managed to get my call answered.

I didn’t speak to her but she later called me back. She couldn’t talk freely as she knew her conversation would be overheard. She sounded frantic. I asked her if she needed anything, meaning a book, face cream, perfume or me to contact anybody. She replied: “Yes. I need a bulldozer.” I couldn’t understand what she meant and thought she was talking in code. Later Asif called me and said her house was surrounded by so many guards, Benazir needed a bulldozer to get out.

In one of our last phone calls, Benazir told me: “Washington is behind me. I can’t lose this opportunity. I have been waiting for it for nine years. We need to get Pakistan democratic again. I am needed here. It is now or never.”

I said: “There will be a better opportunity for you and I wouldn’t bet on Washington’s support. You have already been prime minister. Try something else.”

Again she didn’t listen. Once Benazir made up her mind about something, there was no way to change it. How I wish I could have made her think again. Bibi, I’ll miss you so.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Merry Christmas/ Jinnah Day

I've had a very busy Christmas, yet thoroughly fun and enjoyable! It seems a blessing that Eid and Christmas coincide in the same month with much joy and happiness between and amongst faiths. This year I was at midnight mass at Saint Peters Catholic Church in Partick, Glasgow. I go every year with my tennis coach, Frank Wilson, who enjoyed taking his Muslim friend with him for some spiritual upliftment.

And today I was at the Episcopalian Church in Dumbarton where Father Kenny Mcaulauy (Picture above and across) was preaching the morning service (see: I was there with Mrs Margot Rhead (and family) who were my students of Islamic Studies. We serve a beautiful example of how academics mixed with friendship can serve a great purpose in love and humanity. It was a beautiful sermon in which he preached a story about a girl who was scolded by her father for giving him a present that was empty only to be told that she had blown loads of kisses inside it! The story was heart breaking and it lead to Father Kenny telling everyone that an empty box, wrapped up, empty should be placed under everyone's bed and when we lose hope and think the worst is upon us we should turn to that box and know that God loves us!

It was also a busy day at my sisters where we were cooking a 7.6 Kilo Halal turkey! I wanted to have a joint celebration for Christmas which also coincided with the birth of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. I have read with much interest the life of Jinnah and his values and approach is something that I feel is lost in the sea of mullah-led initiatives in Pakistan, contrary to the beautiful vision that he had. God help us all in nurturing the land we call Pakistan.

I had a very special time with my family, friends and ex-students. Oh and no one can say I am a party pooper for I sang a few verses of a Noor Jehan song ;-) I hope everyone else had just as much fun! :)

Monday, 22 December 2008

Death Anniversary: Noor Jehan - The Pakistani Melody Queen (born September 21, 1926 – December 23, 2000)

Noor Jehan has been understood as one of the jewels of the Indian Subcontinent as she encapsulated her audiences in her mesmerizing voice. Singing both film songs and ghazals, she has become a household name amongst many who appreciated her inimitable pitch and tone. In 1957, Noor Jehan was awarded the President's Award for her acting and singing capabilities. Noor Jehan died on December 23rd 2000 in Pakistan.

Remembering one of her greatest ghazals, written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz...

Don’t Ask Me for That Love Again
mujh se pehli si mohabbat meray mehbub na maang

mein ne samjha tha kay tu hai to darakhshaan hai hayaat
I had thought if I had you, life would shine eternally on me

tera gham hai to gham-e-dahar ka jhagdra kya hai
If I had your sorrows, those of the universe would mean nothing

teri surat se hai aalam mein bahaaron ko sabaat
Your face would bring permanence to every spring

teri aankhon ke sivaa duniya mein rakkha kya hai
What is there but your eyes to see in the world anyway

tu jo mil jaaye to taqdir niguun ho jaaye
If I found you, my fate would bow down to me

yun na tha mein ne faqat chahaa tha yun ho jaaye
This was not how it was, it was merely how I wished it to be

anaginat sadiyon ki taarik bahimanaa talism
The dreadful magic of uncountable dark years

resham-o-atalas-o-kamkhvaab mein bunavaaye huye
Woven in silk, satin and brocade

jaa-ba-jaa bikate huye kuuchaa-o-baazaar mein jism
In every corner are bodies sold in the market

khaak mein lithade huye khuun mein nahalaaye huye
Covered in dust, bathed in blood

jism nikale huye amaraaz ke tannuuron se
Bodies retrieved from the cauldrons of disease

piip bahatii hu_ii galate huye naasuuron se
Discharge flowing from their rotten ulcers

laut jaati hai udhar ko bhi nazar kyaa kije
Still returns my gaze in that direction, what can be done

ab bhi dilkash hai tera husn magar kya kije
Even now your beauty is tantalizing, but what can be done

aur bhii dukh hain zamaane mein mohabbat ke sivaa
There are other heartaches in the world than those of love

raahaten aur bhi vasl ki raahat ke sivaa
There is happiness other than the joy of union

mujh se pehli si mohabbat meray mehbub na maang
...Don’t ask me, my love, for that love again...

The Scottish Terrorist Threat and the Scottish Islamic Foundation Solution?

I read with interest an article by a good ol’ family friend of mine, Azeem Ibrahim, in the Sunday newspapers this weekend. I have a lot of respect for Azeem but I felt compelled to respond to a few statements that he made. I have to say that I agreed with most of his thought in the initial parts of the article but I began to cringe a little when I read his solution to the problem section. So here it goes…

Azeem wrote, “There is only one way to beat Islamist terror in the long term, over decades. That is to reduce the motivation for young people to radicalise in the first place. Governments must redefine success against terrorism. Military objectives achieved and plots foiled are insufficient.

One way to do this is to undermine the intellectual conditions in which radicalisation takes root. We must discredit interpretations of Islam that permit the murder of innocent people. Western governments should draw media attention to authoritative Muslim religious and legal figures abroad who renounce violent jihad. This kind of tactic has been used successfully by Egypt and Saudi Arabia for many years. It is cheap or free. By drawing attention to authentic Muslim, and sometimes ex-jihadi, authorities who renounce violence abroad, governments can make it harder for radical groups to grow.

I am a little worried about the way in which Azeem seeks the support of ‘authoritative Muslim religious and legal figures abroad’ it is as if he has little faith in the work that western based academics of Islam are involved in. I may be biased but why seek that voice away from Scotland? Why must we seek solutions from figures that have little awareness or understanding of what it is like to be in the west? Will the threat of terror be diminished just by parading ex-Jihadists or moderates who grace the platform with ‘Islam is against terror and is a religion of peace’? After highlighting these messages it is as though they punch their cards, ‘work done’!? If you seek to ‘discredit interpretations of Islam that permit the murder of innocent people’ then why stop just there? What about all the other difficult interpretations that have created problems? Such as polygamy? Or wife-beating? To name a few. Terrorism is not the only disease that ails the Muslim communities in the contemporary world so let us set our parameters a little wider. Or maybe I’m reading this sentence too illustratively and Azeem just seeks to discredit the pro-terror interpretations but not seek a re-interpretation or re-reading of the Qur’an?

Well, it seems that moderation is the flavour of the month when it comes to Islam. I’m guilty as charged, I seek progress. If we seek a political quick-fix then fine but if we seek progress for a brighter, stronger future for Scotland then we must reflect further and seek a progressive solution. For that we must take bold steps.

I believe that the problem lies with the usual suspects who are far too moderate. It is the same ‘figures’ who diminish Islam to a set of right and wrongs with their politically laced so-called Islamic messages which leave a distaste of the religious experience to many Muslims. I am saddened when Muslims contact me to tell me how they walk away from Islam when these political Islamists stand up because they feel that their motives are led by a quenching of a current thirst and opportunism. Sadly it is these disenfranchised Muslims who I believe are the true partners in eradicating the terrorist threat and ideology because they have made a painful decision of thinking and reflecting over issues as they walk away. Those left are the ‘same old, same old’ moderates who keep all the issues stagnant. Where are we heading?

Azeem wrote, “Bilal Abdulla's path from Glasgow doctor to terrorist shows that undermining the conditions for radicalisation is no less important in Scotland. Until recently, there has been no Scottish Islamic organisation working on a national level. But now, initiatives like the Scottish-Islamic Foundation are filling the gap. It works closely with reputable Islamic scholars to increase the theological resistance of young Muslims to violent jihadist interpretations of Islam. At the same time it gives them the confidence and skills to make a positive contribution to Scottish society. In the long term, the challenge is not to stop radicals striking. It is to stop young Muslims radicalising, and that is what the Scottish-Islamic Foundation does. We must all start thinking about terrorism long-term. It is freelance now, and it relies on a pool of young radicals more than ever. The key to beating it is minimising the motivation to radicalise.”

Who are the Islamic scholars? In the words of their own spokesperson they are ‘a broad church’ so I wonder how broad is broad for the Scottish Islamic Foundation. It has been a few months now since I asked a few simple questions to the Scottish Islamic Foundation and the Scottish Government but they failed to answer them. Infact all I did get was a slap on the wrist from the same spokesperson who said that the Scottish Islamic Foundation do not aim to speak on my behalf but on the ‘pressing issues affecting Muslims’. Hmm, well, I am a Muslim and if it’s taxpayer’s money which has rolled out to pay for your seats then I have every right to ask these questions!

Oh, point to note, the same spokesperson said the questions I raised were ‘old debates’ – could someone please enlighten me on which of these relate to an ‘old debate’? Maybe the fact of the matter is that the Scottish Islamic Foundation is not ready, or maybe incapable, for the real debates! So here goes the questions, again. Answers on a postcard…

Does SIF represent the diversity of Muslim denominations in Scotland such as the Ismaillis, Ahmediyyas and the Shi'ias too? Why is it that all of these 'supporters' of SIF we keep hearing about are strongly inclined to views and understandings of the 'Muslim Brotherhood'? Where are the diverse voices? Is SIF a true indication of the reality in which Muslim communities thrive? There are too many voices that are overlooked in this debate. This reminds me of a lecture at Glasgow University a few years ago by Dr Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan High Commissioner to the UK, in which she said, "the loudest voices are not representative and must be challenged". Muslims are not a monolith, so stop bundling us all in the same package.

The Scottish Government has stated that funding SIF will help 'celebrate diversity'. Is it that ill-informed by its political advisers to understand that there are multi layers to diversity within any faith group? What problems would the Scottish Government experience if they funded a small group of Protestant Christians to establish a Scottish Christian Foundation? Would there be dissenting views among Scots or would such a foundation be welcomed with open arms by all Christians of Scotland? In what way do SIF endorse a cross section of the Muslim communities? In what way do they show the bare bones of a political Islam that is both presentable and palatable by our Scottish Government?

The crux of the matter is that SIF may do an excellent job in providing moderate (or modern) views to the Scottish Government and those wanting to hear the usual 'Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance' platitude but this just not good enough in 21st-century Scotland. What we must accept is that change and progress in Muslim communities will only happen when there is a critical internal debate, silence is unacceptable and no issue must remain out of the question. It is only when this takes place that we will see a clear distinction between the extremists, political Islamist moderates and the Muslim progressives. I smell worry in the words and actions of the political Islamists, Mosques and our so-called Islamic leaders who want to cage and control the sentiments of the true progressive Scottish Muslims, but this new wave will emerge in full force, and time will then be the judge of who are the best partners in creating a flourishing Scotland.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Pakistan Girl Band Creates a Stir

By Syed Shoaib Hasan
BBC News, Islamabad

"We have been doing music together since we were six years old - as long as I can remember," says Haniya Aslam, as her cousin Zeb (Zebunissa) Bangash sits beside her. "It started out as a fun thing at family functions. "Music was very much a part of our family set-up - my father was an aficionado and all my uncles could play an instrument. "Our grandmother was also a big influence - she was a poet and was fluent in three languages."

While certainly not a typical Pakistani upbringing, it's hardly exceptional among educated urbanites. Despite the growing threat of Talebanisation across the country, most Pakistanis remain a serenely liberal and tolerant lot. The country's top music acts such as Junoon, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Adnan Sami and Atif Aslam are South Asian superstars and have a strong international following as well. Addicted to their Bollywood movies and Pakistani pop music, many are at ease with privately imitating their idols.

But, like all other professions in the country, music remains male-dominated. For women it is another matter altogether - raised eyebrows are the least possible obstacle. Some have broken the barrier, none more so than the late Nazia Hassan, who took the sub-continental music scene by storm with her pop music in the early 80s. There have been others who followed in her footsteps, although none have been able to reach those dizzying heights. That may account for all the hype surrounding Zeb and Haniya, Pakistan's first all-female music band. Another is the fact that their debut album, Chup (Quiet!), was recently released to rave reviews in Pakistan's major newspapers.

But the most startling fact about these girls, for Pakistanis and the world at large, is their origin. Both Zeb and Haniya are ethnic Pashtuns, and their families hail from the town of Kohat in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. That region has, of late, become synonymous with the Taleban and al-Qaeda. "We've never lived there, but we do keep going back for family functions and get-togethers," Haniya explains. How accurately the militants represent the cultural identity of the Pushtuns is one of the mostly hotly debated topics in the region. Zeb and Haniya are a living and vivid example of how much more there is to the Pushtun sensibility than the images of gun-toting renegades.

But that is all by default - the girls say they are here to be recognised for the quality of their music, not their background. So far they seem to have struck all the right chords as the praise keeps on coming from the media. "It all started five years ago when we were in college in the US and starting writing songs," Zeb explains. The girls were then undergraduate students at Smith and Wesleyan college. "I started experimenting with different instruments and sounds," Haniya recalls. "Zeb had been taking singing classes for a while and we got together to record some songs."

That might have been that, Haniya says, if not for the decision to upload the songs on to the internet. "When we got back to Pakistan, we found out that some of the local FM radio stations had actually been playing them." Since 2001, Pakistan has seen a boom in local radio channels which broadcast both local and international talent.

"That got a lot of our friends encouraging us, so we decided to do it more seriously," Zeb continues. "That is when we decided to try and make and album. "Before we knew it Haniya had put together 10 songs and we had taken the plunge." While the girls work as a team when it comes to the music, Zeb says Haniya is the main music writer and sings in a few of the songs on the album. "I help out as much as I can, but I am basically a vocalist," she says.

The pair say that local musicians have also helped them out a lot in the making of the album, which generated a response greater than the girls ever expected. "We were a bit overwhelmed - it just took a little while to sink in," says Haniya. "The first time we played in a concert, we were hooted at initially. "But when the music started the response was stupendous. It was gratifying as our music is not typical Pakistani pop."

The pair say they felt especially pleased when Pushtun boys and girls thanked them for promoting the culture. In fact, that may well be part of the girls' appeal - their music blends western and eastern influences seamlessly. Paimona, a Pushtun ballad about love, rendered with a blues influence, perhaps best illustrates this.

The music is soft with a lot of blues influence and some eclectic pop flavour. Nadeem Farooq Paracha, Pakistan's leading music critic, says the pair have "broken new ground being an all-female band" but cautions that the music is good, not extraordinary. "I wouldn't like to discourage them though - they need to keep on working. I think they can produce better music than this." Both Zeb and Haniya are self-deprecating when it come to their musical career. "It's just started and while it's going well I think we have much room for improvement," says Haniya.

"We are not into politics, but as Pakistani women we feel it is important to dispel the stereotypes abroad. "Pakistani women do face problems and discrimination, but I think we are strong enough to stand up for ourselves. "As musicians, I think this is especially clear when people get to know we are from Pakistan."

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2008/12/21 05:37:11 GMT