By Sonya Rehman
Three young Pakistanis – Qasim Aslam, Ayyaz Ahmad and Zoya Siddiqui – are providing schoolchildren in India and Pakistan with an opportunity to critically analyze, evaluate and question significant events in their nations’ shared history and heritage.
The History Project, comprising excerpts from three Indian textbooks and nine Pakistani textbooks, provides students an illuminating comparison of the ways that key historical events – leading up to partition – are taught in schools in both countries.
Last month, Aslam, Ahmad and Siddiqui visited four schools in Mumbai – officially launching The History Project in India. Next month, the trio plans to introduce the project to schools across Pakistan, in the hope that it will spark healthy debate, underpinned by curiosity, impartiality, and an open-minded look at the tumultuous epoch that is India and Pakistan’s shared history.
According to Aslam, the inspiration for The History Project came in 2005 from Feruzan Mehta, the then Country Director (India) for Seeds of Peace, an international NGO that seeks to inspire and train new leaders from conflict zones to build a more peaceful future. The inspiration grew in the ensuing years, and Aslam and Ahmad finally decided to make their shared dream a reality two years ago.
In an exclusive interview with The Diplomat, the founders of The History Project speak about the laborious process that went into the compilation of the book, the importance of a solid artistic element to complement the book and their experience of formally introducing their project to children in India last month.
What inspired you to undertake The History Project?
Qasim Aslam: It informally started off around 12 years ago when we met Indians across the border for the first time in our lives. We were at this conflict resolution camp [Seeds of Peace, hosted in Maine, USA], where a dozen Indians and Pakistanis were brought to live together for three weeks.
Over the course of that time, in addition to playing sports and indulging in other activities together, we found history to be a recurring discussion in our interaction. In some cases, the conversations resulted in flared emotions. Over those three weeks, we didn’t quite reconcile our versions of history, but we did find it in ourselves to respect the alternative reality, its existence, and the fact that it was as authentic as ours.
In an effort to scale this process, as it is super expensive to fly a couple dozen kids from the region to the U.S., we came up with the concept of The History Project; which, in essence, is taking the process to the kids themselves.
Was compiling the book a difficult process?
Qasim Aslam: In retrospect, it was. It definitely was. We probably underestimated the task at hand when we set out to accomplish it. The first few months, we went around from expert to expert, trying to finalize the direction of the project. Everyone seemed to have an opinion – a legit, daunting contribution that sent us back to the drawing board more than once.
We finally reached a conclusion after four months of extensive deliberations. Mid-way through the project, we realized that we couldn’t put out a book in pure text. We’d lose the interest of our target readership, kids between the ages of 12 and 15. The prospect of finding a decent illustrator turned out to be a journey in its own.
And then came the grand finale of selling such an idea to the Indian High Commission for the purpose of visas, coordinating with schools across the border and a dozen other hoops that somehow got sorted out and we found ourselves in Mumbai one fine Monday morning in April this year.
Zoya, as the illustrator, tell us a little about the artistic element of the book. What did you visualize initially for the book and what did you think would work for your audience?
Zoya Siddiqui: I knew from the very beginning that the task would not be easy. An illustrator’s job is to very clearly show and reaffirm an opinion, whereas our idea for the whole project was to refrain from propagating our personal opinions and simply reproducing what information already exists in textbooks/history. The idea of a faceless man immediately struck as the solution to the problem.
The faceless man essentially depicts what we, the team, are doing: displaying established opinions as clothes or symbols that can be easily adopted, worn and shed. The faceless man has no symbols or opinions of his own, but he theatrically demonstrates both histories. History is thus shown not as absolute truth or “fact”, but rather as variable opinions and stereotypes. The truth is unknowable, like the faceless man.
Do you think children in Pakistan and India will be able to formulate their own opinions about their shared history after reading the book?
Zoya Siddiqui: Actually, we have not aimed for the children to formulate an opinion on Indo-Pakistani history when they read the book. Our goal is to trigger a thought process, to unsettle the students and confuse them, which is somewhat like what we went through after our Seeds of Peace camp experience. Even after all these years, we ourselves are struggling for answers.
However, the struggle is good, important and healthy. Having answers and well-formulated opinions, I personally believe, is dangerous. We wish for the students to get started on that journey to critical thinking, beyond textbooks.
Ayyaz, you and your team visited four schools in Mumbai last month. What was the response?
Ayyaz Ahmad: The response was phenomenal. The children and the teachers both were extremely interested to know and understand the Pakistani perspective. They also had a number of questions about Pakistan beyond the scope of history. They were quite curious about how Indian history was viewed in Pakistan and also about the cultural similarities between the two countries.
How did you go about contacting schools in India to introduce the book? Were they initially hesitant?
Ayyaz Ahmad: In India, Seeds of Peace put us in touch with the local schools. In Pakistan, we are reaching out to different schools through friends involved with educational institutions.
When will you introduce the book to schools in Pakistan?
Ayyaz Ahmad: We have already started a round of presentations in Pakistan. In the next month, we hope to visit a number of schools to introduce the initiative.
Through your research, what were some of the major discrepancies that you found in the textbooks?
Ayyaz Ahmad: The primary difference is in the way different aspects of the same event are highlighted. This also became our focus as we worked on the book. The idea was that instead of imposing another narrative or our opinion, we would simply lay out what has already been written, to show that history is extremely dynamic and is a combination of numerous perspectives.
What do you hope your initiative achieves?
Ayyaz Ahmad: The History Project initiative has a two-fold objective; first, to enable the youth in conflict-stricken countries to have access to the other side of conflict history in their formative years. And second, to get youth to question the generally accepted stereotypes (not just pertaining to history) which form the foundation of their ideologies. We hope that the books will instill in the youth, the importance of recognizing alternative perspectives; that there is always another side to every story.
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