By Sonya Rehman
I’ve just walked into Omar Rahim’s apartment after he greets me at the door. It’s a spiffy, spacious apartment on the Upper East Side in New York City.
With Persian carpets, an assortment of paintings hung up on the walls, large windows and a green kettle whistling away on the stove. Tea is ready. Two pastries from a popular bakery, Magnolia, sit festively in a little white box. He cuts one of them in half and hands it over to me on a square plate, embossed with intertwined blue and white flowers.
The pastry, he mentions, is a pumpkin pastry. I don’t have the heart to tell him how averse I am to pumpkin pastries and politely slice my fork through the edge of the sweet, albeit, wobbly, semi-circle on my plate.
Given the apartment’s earthy, serene ambience, you’d expect a fat tabby with large, glassy green eyes and a chubby pink nose to be purring away on the couch somewhere. Turns out, Rahim’s allergic to little felines.
Dunking his tea bag into a mug till the water turns a toasty brown, Rahim’s eyes are intent. Rahim, a Pakistani dancer and choreographer living in New York City walks like he’s dancing. His gait isn’t eccentric in any way mind you, rather, it reflects Rahim’s personality – light, lithe, adaptable…amiable.
Born in Karachi, Rahim, with his parents soon moved to Abu Dhabi and remained there while he was still in school. From there, Rahim’s family traversed to New York City – where they made their home.
In New York, Rahim, still in school, began dabbling in performance art – he acted in fifteen plays in high school – till he discovered his true vocation, dancing. In 1997, Rahim joined Susan Marshall & Company, a dance collective where Rahim worked closely for three years with the well-known dancer/choreographer after whom the group was named.
“The average age of dancers there at the time was thirty-four,” Rahim says without any hint of pretentiousness. “I must’ve been twenty-three.” Initially he was challenged – as an artiste Rahim was flexing his creativity, honing, learning and re-learning new skills and techniques of dance.
During those three years, Rahim mentioned, the group traveled a lot but he felt restricted somehow – that, in addition to the fact that “it wasn’t hugely lucrative.” Financially, Rahim was struggling, but during that period he performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Jacob’s Pillow (a dance festival), the Joyce Theater and the Edinburgh Festival. As a young artiste, he was growing fast. And back home in Pakistan, unusual things were taking place.
When the government was overthrown by the army in 1999, with the subsequent imposition of martial law, Musharraf began the ‘enlightened moderation’ drive which led to TV channel and radio station licenses being handed out in optimistic abandon. The arts, which had always been somewhat stifled, were given room to breathe. Society unfurled. “Pakistanis gained multiple platforms upon which to explore culture and identity, and I have certainly benefited as a result,” Rahim says, “My work as a choreographer/director as well as performer has been in demand as hundreds of private TV channels have sprung up in the last 5-7 years.”
Having never lived in Pakistan for extended periods, Rahim began coming ‘home’ to partake in projects as a result of the media boom. He choreographed award shows in the country – the biggest award ceremonies that the country has ever seen to date – the ‘Lux Style Awards’. Rahim choreographed segments for the shows first in 2004, then in 2006, and more recently in 2008. Rahim realizes that the local media industry in Pakistan is still at a fledgling stage – but it’s getting there – it has its fair share of loop-holes but it’s now portraying a softer image of a country known for terrorism and terroristic activities.
“Pakistan has been and continues to be a country both blessed and cursed with strategic importance,” Rahim says, “From the CIA’s covert Afghan war in the Eighties, to the current campaign in Afghanistan, Pakistan has been and continues to be a launching pad for American-led military campaigns in the Central Asian region. The vast majority of American news reporting about Pakistan is filtered through a lens tinted by the geo-political interests of the US. I remember reading a spate of so-called ‘soft-image’ articles about Pakistan in the NY Times and Washington Post shortly after Pakistan pledged support to the US-led coalition in Afghanistan in 2002. As suspicions about Pakistan’s intelligence agencies including the ISI grew, stories about Pakistani philanthropists, preservationists and artists disappeared, replaced by stories about double-dealing agents and firebrand mullahs.”
“In the case of Pakistan,” Rahim goes on to say, “A country generally misunderstood abroad, creative artists can serve a valuable function in representing aspects of Pakistan that remain unknown to most of the world beyond Pakistan.”
When I ask Rahim about the social stigma of being a male Pakistani dancer, he says, “I think that there has been a dramatic change in how dance is perceived in Pakistan. While the extreme ends of Pakistan’s class continuum have historically always been easy with dance, much of the middle class would rather their children not dance beyond the confines of their family home.”
In Pakistan, Rahim believes that the MTV culture is pretty strong. “Clubby dance music is ‘very cool’. People will be challenged when they see my music video. But Pakistan has come a very long way in the past ten years.”
The music video that Rahim mentions is the one he was featured in for a well-known Pakistani girl band, Zeb & Haniya. Featured in Newsweek, amongst other publications, the band’s success soared when ‘Aitebar’, the first music video of their bluesy ditty hit the airwaves.
In the video, Rahim is featured in a smooth, sexy dance dialogue with a female dancer in an old, aesthetic house shot in Karachi. In ‘Aitebar’, both dancers playfully, teasingly, drift from empty room to empty room.
Currently, Rahim has finished shooting for a Bangladeshi movie, ‘Meherjaan’, a love story told from a woman’s perspective in the face of the gruesome 1971 war.
From a cast full of Bangladeshi and Indian actors (one of them being Jaya Bachan), Omar Rahim is the only Pakistani actor in the film. He plays the role of Wasim Khan, a Pakistani soldier, and when I probe Rahim about Khan’s character, he answers; “I won’t give too much away, but the character I play is actually not negative. Rubaiyat [the Writer/Director of ‘Meherjaan’] and I decided to play with the perception that he might initially be perceived to be negative in the very beginning, but then learn that in fact Wasim Khan is a young man to admire. The truth is often complicated and we tried to keep my character complex.”
Asking Rahim how working in the film changed his perception about the 1971 war, he says, “I was already fairly aware of and sensitive to the Bangladeshi perspective as I had been there before in the late nineties, but as the theme of ‘Meherjaan’ is the 1971 War, I had the opportunity to deepen my understanding of that time.”
The plots within ‘Meherjaan’ are based on a true story, Rahim explains before going onto saying; “Even understanding the characters and plot of the film was a lesson in history for me and should be for audiences as well.”
Through our conversation, Rahim shares with me an experience which had impacted him. In the nineties, on a trip to Bangladesh, Rahim had visited the Dhaka Museum. In the hall, Rahim had seen large, black and white grisly photographs. Till this day, Rahim finds it hard to forget the images which featured “swamps full of dead bodies and body parts, bayonets piercing limp bodies and the like.”
Walking through the galleries, Rahim says; “As a Pakistani I felt as if I had to bear some of the burden of history – stories of exploitation, injustice, racism and violence committed by the West Pakistani rulers and Army over the East Pakistanis. And yet, I was unprepared for the exhibition on Bangladesh’s liberation.”
“I felt burdened and a bit ashamed,” Rahim says, “To some extent, my work on ‘Meherjaan’ seems to be the resolution of that experience – confronting the past, acknowledging the truth and spurring on reconciliation.”
Considering the sensitive subject of the movie how would Pakistani and Bangladeshi audiences take to ‘Meherjaan’? “I’m hoping audiences all over South Asia appreciate the film,” Rahim says, “Because it attempts to bring to light stories from a painful period in the history of South Asia with the aim to spur on dialogues that can help our region move toward honest and true reconciliation.”
Rahim’s mug, now empty, and my half pumpkin pastry is still staring up at me from the china.
Looking over on my right, from the wooden table we sit at, I study a large painting. It has an azure background and depicts a long-haired young man blowing three eggs out of his mouth. He’s posed side-ways. “That was made by a friend of mine, Rahim says, “It was her thesis work.”
My eyes rest on the couch again, half-expecting a green-eyed tabby to prance out from underneath, but then I recall Rahim’s allergies.
He looks at the pastry on my plate with a maternal smile that encourages me to take another bite.
The Friday Times