Disaster Strikes the World Performing Arts Festival

By Sonya Rehman

The Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop (RPTW), well-known for the (rather large) hand that it plays in keeping art and culture alive and vibrant within Pakistan happened to face two major set-backs this year, at its annual World Performing Arts Festival (WPAF).

Firstly, due to the prolonged security threats and bombs going off at every drop of the hat (recent case in point: the horrifying attack on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad), the RPTW had to pull off this year’s WPAF without an adequate sponsor.

Secondly, even though the Alhamra Cultural Complex (situated in Gadaffi Stadium – where the WPAF is held on an annual basis) was crawling with security personnel, three bombs were triggered on the 22nd of November leaving countless terrified. I was there, and it wasn’t pretty.

Thankfully, apart from a few injuries suffered by three people, there were no casualties. But it could’ve been a lot worse. And that is what’s truly alarming.

I recall watching Shazia Mirza (a well-known British comedian) at the WPAF this year. Her stand-up routine was fantastic, although it did manage to ruffle some feathers – but she was pretty hilarious.

I wouldn’t underrate, nor overrate her, she was comfortable in her own skin, and she truly wound up connecting with us, the audience. However I distinctly recall this one joke she made about suicide bombers. Instead of laughing, it scared the living daylights out of me. I found myself looking at the camp’s entrance with just a bit of trepidation, half-expecting a deranged yahoo to come running in jovially with bombs attached to his torso. I picked up a slight tension in the air too. But the audience laughed along to Shazia’s suicide bomber jokes nervously any way.

Can we really be blamed for being on edge at public events? The past few months have embedded a fear, so deeply-rooted within most of us, that we’ve either ended up being excessively paranoid, or, on the other hand, excessively desensitized. But being desensitized is also, in many ways, another form of fear – it’s just that the mind blocks out the paranoia and shrugs it off so that it can resume its cycle of normalcy.

But coming back to the 22nd of November, the first bomb went off in the Punjabi Complex’s basement. The Punjabi Complex, whose architecture matches Alhamra’s red-brick exterior, sits only a few meters away from Alhamra. Both infact, stand in the same vicinity of the Stadium, almost adjacent.

When the bomb went off, the sound waves hit everyone present, smack in the face, making it feel as if the bomb had exploded a mere few feet away.

It was jolting. I had been standing with my friends very near to the amphitheatre’s gate – where the WPAF’s ‘Fusion Night’ concert was due to be held. And even though we stood a safe distance away from the Punjabi Complex, we felt the impact. So much so, that it makes me wonder why the local newspapers have downplayed the bomb blasts.

Who cares how small the bombs were, or how minute their impact was, the fact of the matter is: the bombs were planted with malicious intent – to scare, to threaten, and possibly even, to kill.

Just imagine, what if the Punjabi Complex’s basement was full of people? What then? Some would have surely perished, if not all.

It’s just that everyone present at Alhamra on the 22nd of November was darn lucky and therefore got away unscathed.

The blasts on the 22nd of November, I will profess – broke my heart. This was because on that very night, scores of families with their toddlers and children in tow could be seen having a wonderful, wintry Saturday night. Besides, it’s not as if there’s much to do in Lahore any way – apart from eating at new restaurants and checking out coffee house/café franchises!

And when a festival just as the WPAF comes around, with the onset of winter, it gives one something to look forward to in these bleak, politically unstable, and economically crippling times.

The evening on the 22nd, after 10pm (when the first bomb went off a few minutes after 10), went by in a daze, in blotches of images which made up horrified faces, screams, and an exit gate which seemed too far away.

Running as fast as we could to safety, towards the exit gate, in the fear of additional bombs exploding just behind us, hysterical and imagining the worst; that some of us may wind up dead or without missing limbs, is the craziest and most unsettling situation one could ever be in. And we truly imagined the worst.

The WPAF was due to conclude on the 23rd, a Sunday, but after the blasts, it was announced that Alhamra’s gates would be shut given the security situation. Unbelievably, the RPTW – adamant and resolute – beefed up their security measures and carried through with the WPAF’s last day.

In such times, where absolutely nothing seems safe enough within Pakistan anymore, standing up to the spinelessness of terrorists seems like the only option we have left. Why back down and cop out? Why cower away? Why give in to their intimidation?

This isn’t a phony sense of bravado speaking mind you; it’s a sense of courage which stems from being pushed into a corner and continuously being beaten down. I think, as a nation, a majority of us have just about had enough.

And if things really have hit rock-bottom, one must remember, that with every downfall, there comes an even greater and more powerful uprising.

Sunday, Daily Times

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