By Sonya Rehman
If the Pakistani Peace Builders (PPB) wanted to make a positive impact by organizing a free-for-all concert in New York City this year on the 20th of July, they sure did – completely surpassing expectations.
The PPB, spearheaded by Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, Abdullah Hussain Haroon, hosted a Sufi Music Festival in downtown New York, in Union Square that featured some of Pakistan’s best singers and musicians, mainly; Abida Parveen, Rafaqat Ali Khan, Akhtar Chanal Zehri, the Soung Fakirs from Sindh, the female music duo Zeb & Haniya and the Mekaal Hasan Band.
The PPB organization came into being after a conversation between the Ambassador, and two Pakistani professionals from New York; Mahnaz Fancy and her friend, Zeyba Rahman. A day before, Pakistani-born Faisal Shahzad had attempted to blow up Times Square – the city’s most popular tourist spot – by planting amateur bombs into an abandoned car.
“We were discussing how important it would be to make a peaceful public statement that would give voice to the majority of Pakistanis and Pakistani-Americans,” Fancy said, “And give an alternative image to the media which has defined us in a limited manner.”
Both Fancy and Rahman felt it was imperative to host a free concert, in the aim to foster peace and chisel away at the Pakistani Muslim terrorist stereotype in America.
“PPB’s goal is to declare to the world that; ‘This is our Islam and this is our Pakistan!’”, Fancy stated, “We also felt it was important to explain the influence of Sufism and its values. And the rich cultural heritage of our Sufi music traditions permits us to demonstrate it in the most peaceful way.”
After their discussion with the Ambassador, Haroon without delay rang up the office of the Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and got a date reserved for the concert to take place in Union Square.
They were lucky, Fancy had said, because a majority of the city’s street festivals and fairs take place in Union Square, given the influx of tourists in the summers.
“PIA and the Roosevelt Hotel were our lead sponsors and the Mohatta Palace Museum played a key curatorial role for the festival,” Fancy stated, “The blessings of the Sufi’s stayed with us throughout and 98% of our visa applications were approved, and this festival came together in less than two months.”
Fancy also said that with the help and support of their outreach partners such as Pakistani-American, Muslim-American and Human Rights organizations in New York, an “enormous grass roots effort” was established – spreading the news of the concert all over the country, resulting in a massive crowd on the day of the concert.
“We hope to continue this effort, the public response and support has been incredible and we hope to announce next year’s Sufi Music Festival soon as well as other similar cultural programs that will help us show the true face of Pakistan,” Fancy said in conclusion.
Pakistani filmmaker, Mehreen Jabbar stated that for her, it was a matter of “immense joy and pride” to witness the musical splendor at the concert. It was “a treat for the senses,” Jabbar said, “to hear such powerful, soul-stirring music from our provinces in the Big Apple.”
Arooj Aftab, a Pakistani musician living in New York was supposed to perform at the festival but due to time constraints, it didn’t pan out. However, Aftab was in attendance. She stated: “It was a beautiful show. I went to see Abida Ji. That woman sings to the sky, she is incredible. I’ve never seen her live before and it is really something else. The Sindhi and Balochi ensembles were also great – dangerous and fun vibes at the same time.”
“It was great to see people from other cultures attend the concert and sway to the music,” Natasha Jahangir, a student in New York said. “I remember when I’d go around the stage to take pictures, people walking on the sidewalks would just stop and stare at what was going on,” Jahangir continued, “It was a brilliant idea to have the concert during rush hour in such a busy area, the music was loud and made everyone pay attention.”
Festivals and concerts such as the PPB’s Sufi Music Festival should not only be commended, but also, encouraged. Through art and culture, the pain and disharmony between countries can be eased.
In addition, promoting local Pakistani art and culture aids in bringing together disenchanted Pakistanis and disillusioned youngsters.
It binds and heals, spreading its balm through the open wounds of the world that we live in today.
Photos by: Khaula Jamil