All posts by Sonya Rehman

The Story of ‘Salam’ – An Overlooked Pakistani Hero

By Sonya Rehman

Having been screened at the Raw Science Film Festival (for which it bagged first prize for Best Documentary Feature), the Mumbai International Film Festival, the Charlotte Asian Film Festival and Oxford University, the phenomenal documentary, Salam, will soon make its way to film festivals in Paris and Barcelona, later this year.

Tracing the extraordinary life of Pakistan’s first Nobel Laureate, Abdus Salam, a renowned theoretical physicist who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979, the production shines the spotlight on the journey of an individual who was lauded for his remarkable contributions to the field of physics overseas, yet remained an overlooked outsider in his own homeland.

Part of Pakistan’s Ahmadiyya community, a persecuted minority, Salam’s name and his work remains tragically unknown in Pakistan today.

Abdus Salam receiving the Nobel Prize for physics from King Carl XVI Gustav of Sweden on December 10, 1979. Photo: AMA Sweden.

But both Omar Vandal and Zakir Thaver, the producers of Salam, hope to inspire audiences on home turf with their ambitious, poignant production, which took 14 laborious years to complete.

“We truly think audiences will find Salam’s story extremely moving,” states Thaver, “[It] has the same potential to inspire children not just in Pakistan, but in all developing countries because Salam worked globally to bring science to developing nations. When we visited his school in Jhang [a city in the province of Punjab], it was plainly obvious that his story is inspiring children there, so why can’t this be happening in all schools in Pakistan? When we talk to science students abroad, many will say Salam’s story is serving as an inspiration in their work; but why are we unable to capitalize on this?”

The poster of the docufilm, Salam by Arghavan Khosravi.

Given Salam’s unabating devotion to Pakistan during his lifetime, amidst the intolerance, is perhaps the most tragic aspect of this great scientist’s life: the continuous rejection from a country that he loved so deeply.

Physics laureates 1979: Sheldon Glashow, Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg. Photo: Sipa USA.

“Salam loved Pakistan. Unconditionally. We have a recording in which he says, ‘Pakistan can keep doing whatever it wants, it is after all, our country.’ To a lot of people that’s unfathomable. How a man could be so devoted to his country despite his maltreatment by it,” states Thaver.

“There’s this account that appears in the film of how a tailor in London stitched a suit for [Salam] in a matter of a week as he needed one to quickly wear at this inauguration at Imperial College,” Vandal reveals, “Salam had found a tailor for life. He felt the same way about Pakistan. It was his country. His love for Pakistan was his to give, never for Pakistan to take away. The story is one of unrequited love – of a fraught relationship between the most illustrious son of the soil and his motherland. There’s this prevalent conflation that if you’re Ahmadi you’re also anti-state. Salam’s story challenges this erroneous notion.”

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For The Love Of Classic Cars: Father-Son Duo Restore A Piece Of History

By Sonya Rehman

A well-known classic car enthusiast from Karachi, Mohsin Ikram, first came across two decaying vintage cars parked outside the city’s picturesque Mohatta Palace in 1992. The cars, once owned by Fatima Jinnah, the sister of the country’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, were gleaming beauties during their glory days, but when discovered by Ikram, they were a rusted and rotten mess minus their accessories and spare parts, all of which had been stolen over the years.

But after fighting to renovate the 1955 Cadillac Series 62 Convertible and the 1965 Mercedes Benz 200, by approaching countless government officials, bureaucrats and judges over the course of 25 years, the Government of Sindh finally commissioned Ikram and his son, Ahsan, to spearhead the project of restoring the pieces of history from scratch.

“Quitting was never an option, I had been after these vehicles for years,” Ikram, the founder of an automobile fraternity, the Vintage and Classic Car Club of Pakistan (VCCCP) states. “Since 1992 so many governments have changed that I can’t even recall all the people I had to approach for this project.”

Mohsin Ikram. Photo courtesy of: Ahsan Ikram.

But a daunting task lay ahead of the motorheads. After bringing the cars to their workshop, Ikram Motor Works, one of the leading vintage car facilities in the country, the duo, along with their team first got to work by stripping down the vehicles’ bodies. “There were a lot of parts that were missing or had been stolen, so we had to import them from the US and Germany,” says Ikram, who mentions that the first few months of the project were solely spent on “denting the vehicles and getting the patchwork done.”

Before the restoration process: a mangled mess of metal, rust and decay. Photo courtesy of: Ahsan Ikram.

“Once that was completed, we treated the vehicle for rust using the best apoxy primers. When all the rust had been removed, the next step was paintwork using top of the line materials. Simultaneously, mechanical, electrical and upholstery work was being done on the cars,” Ikram explains, “After the vehicles were painted, we started my favourite part of the entire restoration process: the fitting work. It’s when you have to ‘dress up’ the vehicle with new, shiny parts. As a lot of hard work had been put into refurbishing all the original parts, this bit was especially fun and yet, extremely difficult.”

For Ahsan, renewing the original parts was a bit of a tricky process. “A lot of time and effort have been put into it as we didn’t want the vehicles to rust again, and also because we wanted to use the original parts; not copies made in China.”

Ahsan Ikram.

Having restored over a hundred vehicles owned by kings and maharajas, including a 1929 Packard (owned by the Maharaja of Patiala), 1912 and 1916 Merryweather fire engines, the Quaid-e-Azam’s Rolls Royce Silver Wraith, a 1947 Lincoln Continental Cabriolet (once owned by the last King of Afghanistan), and countless others, Ahsan reveals that the most thrilling part of their recent project was test driving Fatima Jinnah’s cars in Karachi.

The gleaming 1955 Cadillac Series 62 Convertible after being fully restored by Mohsin Ikram and his son, Ahsan Ikram. Photo courtesy of: Ahsan Ikram.

Currently on display at the Quaid-e-Azam House Museum in the city, Ikram discloses that the duo will be keeping a close eye on the restored vehicles.

“We will be maintaining and driving them from time to time to make sure nothing ever happens to them again. They are our country’s heritage on wheels and it’s our job to preserve them for the younger generations to come.”

A work of art. Photo courtesy of: Ahsan Ikram.

For the future, both father and son dream about opening up Pakistan’s first, one-of-a-kind museum for vintage and classic cars, in addition to persuading the government to allow for the import of classic cars into the country.

“It’s a tragedy that one cannot import vintage and classic vehicles,” states Ahsan, “Because of the law there are only a limited number of cars in the country that are sold for exorbitant prices. It’s nearly impossible for a young Pakistani to purchase a vintage or classic car here. Our country has yet to tap into this mammoth industry.”

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The Tragic Life of a Slain Social Media Star Chronicled In New Book

By Sonya Rehman

Released this month, The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch, explores the life of one of Pakistan’s most popular social media celebrities, whose life was tragically cut short in 2016 when she was brutally murdered by her brother over ‘honor.’

Book cover illustration by Rahema Zaheer Alam.

Based in Karachi, journalist Sanam Maher says that she was keen on writing about Baloch when the social media star’s popularity was at its peak on the internet.

While many were avid followers and fans of Baloch’s Facebook page, the star was consistently condemned for the kind of content she was uploading; labeling her posts as ‘vulgar’ and ‘un-Islamic.’

“It would be a challenge for the average Pakistani to recognize the faces of any of the hundreds of men and women killed for honour every year. Their stories and our dismay at yet another killing fades with the grubby newsprint from our fingers as we read about them,” states Maher, speaking about how Baloch’s murder opened up a much-needed dialogue in Pakistan – both online and in real life – about the subject of honor killing, “But Qandeel was different. There was a sense of having known her – or a facet of her personality – as many of us engaged with her frequently online, whether that was to bait her, shame her, secretly watch her videos at night, or share her videos with friends, imitate her and make a meme of her.”

Qandeel Baloch. Photo by: Azeem Sani.

For her debut book, Maher knew she didn’t just want to shed light on Baloch’s life, but to also scrutinize and understand the workings of Pakistani society, its imperfections and duplicity included.

“For instance, when looking at Qandeel’s fame as a viral star, I began to think about how my generation of Pakistanis has been connected to the world like never before – what are we doing online? What does it mean to go viral in Pakistan? How are we building communities online in order to speak in ways that we may not be able to ‘offline?’ What happens when we behave in a way online that seems to break the rules of how we are supposed to behave, particularly as women, ‘in the real world?’”

Since her passing, the author mentions that it is crucial to remember Baloch as a woman who had her own fair share of quirks, endearing qualities, dreams and ambitions. “It is easy to put Baloch on a pedestal now and use her as a hashtag, but it is important to never forget the living, breathing heart of any story about her: a woman who was funny, catty, charming, a wonderful friend who never forgot a birthday or a Valentine’s Day, a woman who told little fibs about herself, someone who was loyal, someone who was a naughty child who did very well at school and loved to play with the boys even when her mother scolded her for doing so, a woman who had played dress-up in her brother’s clothes as a little girl and who desperately wanted to learn martial arts.”

The author, Sanam Maher. Photo by: Sherezade Maher.

And for those hoping to read her debut book, the author states that she’d like her readers to first ask themselves what prompted them to buy a book on a slain social media celebrity.

“When I’m asked, even now, for a definite, incontrovertible answer to, ‘But who really killed her?’ I wonder what the person asking that question is hoping to get from my answer. I’ve tried to remember always that when the details of Baloch’s ‘real life’ came forward, it was by force – she never wanted to reveal her real name, or the fact that she had a son and an ex-husband – and something that was deeply distressing for her. I hope that by the end of the book, my [readers] leave knowing a bit more about themselves and the place we’re living in, rather than every juicy, dirty detail of a woman’s life.”

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Feeling The Music: A Pakistani Band’s Concert For The Deaf

By Sonya Rehman

Concerts in Pakistan that are inclusive of deaf individuals are close to none. However, there have been a sprinkle of events that were specifically organized for the deaf overseas. In 1984, for instance, the legendary Prince, once performed to crowd of over 2,000 deaf and blind students at a college in Washington, D.C. Moreover, in 2016, the then 19-year-old Dutch DJ, Martin Garrix, hosted a concert for the deaf community in a music venue that allowed audience members to feel the music.

But late last month, one of Pakistan’s most sought-after pop-rock acts, Strings, became the first band to put up a concert at Habib University in Karachi, which included roughly 300 deaf members of the audience.

A ConnectHear Sign Language Interpreter, Sumaira Warsani, on stage during the Strings concert at Habib University in Karachi, in April this year. Warsani was one of the interpreters during the performance. Photo by: Syed Talal Ali.

In collaboration with a local social entrepreneurial startup, ConnectHear – an initiative that endeavors to integrate the country’s deaf community within mainstream Pakistani society – and the university, the performance included the participation of Sign Language Interpreters, special lighting and vibrations by way of the sound system.

“All the songs were interpreted for the deaf in sign language and the music was presented by signs and lip syncing,” states Azima Dhanjee, the inspiring 20-year-old CEO of ConnectHear. “Even the facial expressions and body gestures of our interpreters take into account the vibe of the song. The beats and tunes are made adaptable through the sound system. The vibrations help individuals feel the music. Meanwhile the lights are adapted to the feel of the music and colors help the individuals identify the emotions of the songs.”

Dhanjee, who grew up with deaf parents, says it was during her second semester at college at an entrepreneurship class that she finally decided to launch a startup for the deaf community with a few of her close friends.

“We had 300 people of all ages,” she states, speaking about the event, “From young kids to adults; this was the first concert that they had ever attended in their entire life and I could see their enthusiasm and excitement! No one felt excluded and no one could identify the deaf in the crowd; it was truly an all-inclusive event which saw droves of people dancing, enjoying and feeling the music.”

Students of the JS Academy performing Pakistan’s national anthem in sign language at the concert. Photo by: Syed Talal Ali.

“It was a tremendously moving experience,” Faisal Kapadia, Strings’ vocalist, says. “We had provided our lyrics to the interpreters before the concert and it was magical to see how they translated our songs during the performance. It was an eye-opener for us as a band to be honest.”

From L-R: Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia of the band, Strings. Photo courtesy of: Strings.

Having currently hit three prolific decades in Pakistan’s music industry, since their launch in the late 80s, the band hopes to release a slate of new work, eight tracks (two of which have already been released), later this year.

“Live concerts should be more inclusive; not just for the deaf, but for anyone who enjoys music. After our Habib University gig we’ve realized how doable a concert like this is. We never knew something like this could ever be accomplished,” states Kapadia.

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She’s Standing Up For Pakistani Prisoners Sentenced To Die

By Sonya Rehman

In a country where 491 executions have taken place since December 2014, when the death penalty moratorium was lifted in response to the Army Public School terrorist attack in Peshawar, one organization, the Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) offers hope for the country’s 8,200 prisoners on death row.

Sarah Belal, a 39-year-old human rights lawyer, founded JPP in 2009 in the belief that Pakistan should not be the world’s “fifth most prolific executioner,” following China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. As executive director, she leads a small team providing free legal assistance to underprivileged prisoners battling mental illness, victims of police brutality or the war on terror, and Pakistani migrant workers incarcerated overseas.

In 2013, Belal won the prestigious Echoing Green Global Fellowship, making JPP the first Pakistani organization to be recognized in the fellowship’s 25-year history. Photo by: Behrouz Mehri, Getty Images.

On a Friday afternoon during prayer break, Belal, the recipient of the inaugural Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law in 2016, greets me at the JPP’s headquarters in a picturesque neighborhood in Lahore. Dressed in a sleeveless summer blouse and pants, she has a pixie haircut that complements her petite frame. Born to a family steeped in business and academics, she is the first lawyer on either side.

Belal studied law at Oxford University but didn’t branch out into human rights work until she was redirected by a postgraduate course in 2007. “[I knew] death penalty work was never going to be happy work,” she says plainly. “I think you have to have something that connects you to the cause, otherwise you can’t really do it — why would you?”

For her, that connection was Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Khan, an employee of the Pakistan Navy convicted in 1998 for killing two men — allegedly in self-defense. After reading an urgent letter of appeal from Khan in a local English newspaper in 2009, Belal worked the channels until she was put in touch with Khan’s brother. But the young lawyer had just graduated and the case was exceedingly complex; Belal’s mentors, criminal law experts, gave the prisoner slim odds of being released. Khan was executed in 2015.

Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Khan. Source: DAWN.

“It was horrific,” Belal says. “The reasons why people dedicate their lives to this field are as varied as the people in this line of work. I’m still trying to figure out what mine is. Perhaps it’s a basic fear of death … To me, imagining somebody knowing the time they’re going to die and being physically incapable of stopping it is just the worst thing you can ever do to a human being.”

In addition to representing the poorest Pakistani prisoners at home and abroad, JPP developed a mental health manual for the local law community, advocates against the death penalty and for freedom of information, and organizes workshops for judges and lawyers. Drawing on their own expertise and bringing in forensic psychiatrists and jurists from the U.S., they’ve already trained10 Lahore High Court judges and 200 district judges within Punjab (where 83 percent of executions occur). The next goal, Belal says, is to raise funds to reach the remaining districts in the province and begin training prison officials.

“Under our laws, mentally ill persons cannot be tried,” she explains. But without collaboration between mental health experts and legal practitioners, Pakistan’s lawyers and judges routinely overlook or misdiagnose mentally ill defendants, making it difficult for them to get a fair trial. “The fact that we have mentally ill and intellectually disabled persons on death row in Pakistan is because the stakeholders involved have very little understanding of mental illness.”

Understanding is key, but Zainab Mahboob, who has worked with the JPP since 2014, says the greater obstacle is a failure of will to improve the system. “No one is willing to change anything in Pakistan,” she says. “Our work entails meeting a lot of government officials, and most of them … are not ready to take any responsibility.” What’s more, Mahboob says, there’s an absence of compassion. “When we visit local hospitals or the home department, the reaction always is: ‘Oh, so you’re here to save the killers.’”

To be fair, most of JPP’s clients and other prisoners sentenced to die have been convicted of very serious crimes and the victims’ families are entitled to seek justice. Take, for instance, the horrific rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl this past January. The man accused, Imran Ali — now on death row — was linked to at least eight similar cases involving minors. For such hardened criminals who exhibit a complete disregard for human life, many argue that capital punishment is the only solution.

“For desperate and dangerous criminals who show no mercy or remorse, a harsher view is adopted,” says Salman Safdar, a Lahore-based criminal lawyer who has handled roughly 1,500 death-penalty cases. “Wrongful convictions are very common in this part of the world, but despite all the controversies and shortcomings in the system, the death sentence is rightly kept and not abolished as there are a significant number of cases almost every month where extreme penalty is the appropriate solution.”

But the death penalty debate offers no easy answers — or room for middle ground. Asad Jamal, a lawyer based in Lahore, is staunchly opposed, calling it cruel, degrading and irreversible. “The idea of rehabilitation is simply excluded when you support capital punishment,” he says. He also points to the high margin for error in police investigations: “You can never be sure that the investigation leading to holding the accused guilty can be absolutely reliable.”

Perhaps this is why Belal seeks to educate the public through grass-roots efforts such as Intezaar (The Wait), a theater production based on real-life death penalty cases, and #BringItBack, a social media campaign highlighting the system’s potential abuses and calling on the government to restore the moratorium.

From the play, Intezaar, performed at a local college. Source: JPP.

“If you present the death penalty debate to the public in binary terms, it’s very easy for them to say that the death penalty should be supported,” says Rimmel Mohydin, a former journalist who heads the JPP’s communications department. “What we try to do through our projects is to … break it down. We say: would you support the hanging of someone who was 16-years-old when he committed a crime? And you’ll find that people are suddenly thinking about it.”

Still, Belal knows she’s fighting an uphill battle — 78 percent of Pakistanis favor capital punishment. And the struggle is both political and personal. “When I joined the profession, I was discriminated against more because of my socio-economic background and also because I’m a woman,” she says. There is a need, she says, to bring more foreign-educated lawyers into Pakistan’s legal system — along with greater female representation. “We need more women in the bar and the bench, in positions of power,” Belal says. “I think it’s absolutely atrocious that we haven’t had a single female judge of the Supreme Court in the history of this country.”

But Belal prefers to look ahead. Her goal is to build an institution that survives “the cult of personality” that dominates human rights work in Pakistan. “It should not be all about me,” she says, before hurriedly packing up her laptop now that the time for prayers has ended.

OZY

Pakistan’s Fashion Designers Tackle Stereotypes, Fear and Hate

By Sonya Rehman

For a country obsessed with weddings, Pakistani clothing brand Generation’s choice of a marriage ceremony as the theme for a campaign last December appeared unsurprising. But there was nothing regular about Shahnaz Ki Shaadi or Shahnaz’s Wedding, the campaign.

Shahnaz Ki Shaadi – Photo by: Zeeshan Abid

Revolving around the wedding of a woman in her 50s, the campaign’s images featured the to-be-married bride and groom along with their adult children, enjoying wedding festivities. In Pakistan, where divorce is still an awkward subject, especially for women, Shahnaz Ki Shaadi’s message was bold, loud and clear: You can find love at any age, and it’s time to take on the patriarchal pressures where choices are determined by what others may say.

Shahnaz Ki Shaadi – Photo by: Zeeshan Abid

Generation is particularly aptly named, but it isn’t alone. A set of new-age Pakistani fashion designers are using their creativity and craft to tackle stereotypes that have for decades defined society and have held back vulnerable sections and deepened fissures instead of healing them.

In December, fashion designer Ali Xeeshan’s show at the HUM Bridal Couture Week in Lahore featured a 9-year-old girl model, dressed in a “bridal uniform,” walking the ramp with a school bag. The designer had teamed up with UN Women to shine a light on child marriages in Pakistan.

Photo by: The Videographers

Designer Zara Shahjahan gave a face to the men and women who work for her, featuring them in an #IMadeYourClothes campaign on Instagram in 2016, inspired by the global #IMadeIt campaign by the popular blog Fashion Revolution that encouraged designers to highlight the work of tailors and artisans.

Designer Zara Shahjahan gives a face to her staff in her 2016 #IMadeYourClothes social media campaign. Photo courtesy of: Zara Shahjahan

Despite tensions with India, Pakistani designers are regularly collaborating with Bollywood stars across the border. Designer Faraz Manan frequently works with actor sisters Karisma Kapoor and Kareena Kapoor. Quantico star Priyanka Chopra has posed for designer Fahad Hussayn. And Generation makes it a point to feature in its campaigns ordinary women of all shapes, sizes and skin tones, encouraging body positivity and self-confidence in contrast with apparel brands and high-end local designers who emphasize only professional models in their campaigns.

These designers are trying to reshape society through their craft at a time fashion in Pakistan has truly become “democratic,” says Xeeshan, with the industry catering not only to the rich but also to the middle class.

“Right now is the ideal time to be in the fashion industry,” he says. “Since the Pakistani film industry is not as big as Hollywood or Bollywood, fashion gets the spotlight here. That’s why we can really make use of the situation by highlighting social issues.”

For sure, Pakistan’s fashion industry has had recent moments of embarrassment too. Earlier this month, retail brand Sana Safinaz released the campaign for its 2018 summer line, shot in the Maasai Mara in Kenya. The campaign featured Maasai men and women either holding an umbrella over a model’s head, or as props in the background, sparking charges of racism. The brand – which in 2012 had controversially featured coolies at a railway station – apologized in a statement, while insisting it was “proud of the work we did with the Maasai.”

Source: Sana Safinaz

But the criticism Sana Safinaz faced points to the slow but definite shift in attitudes that others are trying to simultneously cultivate and tap.

Located in Gulberg, Lahore, Generation is housed in an expansive three-storey building. The ready-to-wear clothing brand has dressed generations of Pakistani women since the early ‘80s. But with its recent campaigns, the brand has taken on an additional mantle – the challenge of earning profits while also breaking stereotypes. In October 2017, the brand launched a campaign titled Greater Than Fear that featured 20 unlikely women – from a hairstylist to a chef and a transgender model.

Women of different ages, skin tones and sizes pose for Generation’s Greater Than Fear campaign. Photo by: Umar Riaz

“I think all fashion brands have a responsibility about how women see themselves,” says Khadija Rahman, Generation’s Creative Head, whose parents Nosheen Khan and Saad Rahman launched the brand in 1983. “Women can be seen differently – they’re all beautiful, dark, fair…There’s no one, fixed standard.”

Fashion has long helped young Pakistanis define their identity. In the early 1970s, Karachi-based brand Tee Jays shaped what the average Pakistani woman wore, as their clothes formed the wardrobe for soaps on the country’s state broadcaster, Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV), says Lahore-based journalist, Mehr F. Husain. That’s why the use of fashion to communicate complex social messages makes sense, suggests the journalist, who has just wrapped up a book on the country’s fashion industry – an Indian publishing house is bringing it out in 2019.

“Pakistan as a nation takes great pride in its clothing,” Hussain says. “It’s only natural that if one is to communicate something on a grand scale, then one does so through a medium that reaches as many people as possible.”

That it works, and that one step leads to the next, is something Generation’s Rahman now knows. It was during the Greater Than Fear campaign that one model stood out for her as a “natural choice” for a winter wedding story featuring a second marriage in Shahnaz Ki Shaadi. But she hadn’t expected what followed. The campaign resonated with the brand’s audience.

A 35-year-old firm took a bold decision in a conservative nation, and it paid off. “It was mind-blowing,” says Rahman. “Fashion definitely makes a social impact.”

OZY

The Truth About These Ads

By Sonya Rehman

They’re young, they’re cool and they have a flair for advertising. Ali Rez and Assam Khalid, long-time friends and colleagues at the international advertising agency, BBDO, have worked on some of the most well-known advertising campaigns, such as the Asia Pacific Transgender Network’s ‘Change The Clap’ campaign (aimed at tackling transphobia), UN Women Pakistan’s ‘Beat Me’ anti-violence campaign, the award-winning ‘Not A Bug Splat’ campaign (which gave a face to Pakistan’s drone victims), and Moltyfoam’s award-winning ‘Billbed’ campaign (which targeted the homeless by providing DIY beds made from billboards), and many more.

Ali Rez and Assam Khalid

In an interview with The Friday Times, the two trailblazing admen speak about their work, the challenges being faced in the Pakistani advertising scene today, and how their field can be used as a tool to make consumers more mindful and socially conscious.

You faced a lot of criticism on social media for your UN Women Pakistan’s ‘Beat Me’ campaign…

Ali: One thing that we’ve realized in this field is that no matter what you make, there will always be some kind of a backlash. Even with the ‘Not A Bug Splat’ campaign we knew there would be people who wouldn’t share a similar view as us; but as long as you’re bringing a subject to the table and getting people to talk about it – it’s a good thing. You have to understand that social media is liquid, it always finds its own path, you never know which way it’ll go. You can strategize, research, make predictions, but in many cases, you will be very surprised by the outcome.

The ‘Not A Bug Splat’ campaign: a giant art installation (as seen from a drone) of a little girl whose family was killed by a drone attack in 2010

Does provocative advertising still sell?

Ali: It depends on the target audience you’re marketing to. I think in a lot of countries it still works, even in the United States. On a very subliminal level, psychologically speaking (and I hate to say this), but brands do it with beautiful people. But now people tend to see through the bullsh*t; they know when something is too trite.

So would you say consumers are more perceptive about what they’re being marketed?

Assam: There was a time when consumers would have to watch commercials on television and take the advertiser’s word for it. But nowadays it’s more difficult to lure consumers in because people are more aware and can access information more easily. The power is with the consumer. Marketers, today, have to be more responsible with advertising.

Assam Khalid – Photo by: Tom Dulat/Getty Images

Okay, but what about this new trend of advertisements carrying a social bent? Remember that Pepsi commercial featuring Kendall Jenner? It received a lot of flak online.

Ali: The Pepsi advertisement is a good example of how tone deaf advertising can be even though it featured beautiful people. Consumers saw through it. It was a major disaster. The strategy was to do something good but along the way they didn’t know how to put the message across. On the other hand, there are advertisements such as the Heineken [‘World’s Apart’] commercial. Heineken made it feel real, Pepsi didn’t. Another thing that’s becoming more and more important in advertising is how authentic you can be – when somebody believes the brand and message, they wholeheartedly believe in it. People truly thought Heineken was trying to do good for the world and not just trying to tell its product; but in reality, they were trying to do both.

What are the biggest challenges being faced in the Pakistani advertising scene today?

Ali: Pakistan right now is still pretty far behind the rest of the world in terms how it approaches advertising and a lot of that has to do with how the media works here. We’re still basing our campaigns on the model of bombarding audiences with television advertisements.

Ali Rez

But it works doesn’t it?

Ali: In terms of sales, most of the times, but a time will come when you will have to build better content because once you give people the power to choose what they want to watch, then it has to be entertaining. In markets abroad you’re forced to make campaigns that are interesting. Rather than spending so much on repetitive advertising, why not make good, meaningful advertisements that people talk about?

Assam: One major challenge that we face in Pakistan vis-à-vis advertising is a cultural problem. As children we’re conditioned not to do anything risky that is far from the average. It’s important for us to break that risk-averse mindset as marketers and convince people to step out of their comfort zones. Nothing extraordinary can ever happen without taking a risk.

Winning big: Ali Rez and Assam Khalid bag the Gold Clio Award that they won at the Clio Awards in 2015.

Assam, in your TEDxIslamabad talk in 2016 you mentioned that you work with a lot of psychologists and magicians – could you tell us something we don’t know as consumers, that’s used on us in advertising?

Assam: It’s not a big secret and it’s so obvious but we keep missing the point that the brain can only process one task at a time. Yet, we keep thinking we can multitask. But magicians keep you occupied with one task and right under your nose they’ll do something else because your brain is already engaged. This applies with advertising as well; it all boils down to the process of priming.

Ali: Have you read Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari? I highly recommend that book. There’s a part in it where the author talks about how we’re all algorithms, a set of instructions – from genetics, family conditioning and societal instructions. When you think about it, nothing you do is your own decision – think about how profound that is. Every single thing you’ve chosen in your day is from some other source which feeds into your algorithm. Advertising and marketing itself is the most powerful form of that – it can shape a society. It will determine how things are run; the people you elect are because of advertising. All of us are basically running on suggestions.

But what about the concept of free will?

Assam: There is no free will!

Ali: I don’t think it exists…

Jeez, that’s a hard pill to swallow…

Ali: Think about milk for instance: for the longest time we’ve been told it’s good for our bones. But in actuality, human beings have evolved to digest it. It’s the same with the fat versus sugar debate. Even diamonds – we’ve been told that when you propose, you do it with a diamond ring…diamonds are advertising’s creation.

Don’t you find human beings very predictable and boring as an advertiser?

Assam: Nooo [Laughs].You know, it’s funny, but whenever when my wife, Nariman, and I go shopping, Nariman will be busy buying stuff from the shopping list and I’ll just be there observing people; what they’re buying and how they’re making decisions. But I too pick up a product and not know why I buy it. But I think I’m more aware as a consumer.

Teach us then, how can we be more aware as consumers?

Assam: Eat before you go to a shop. The hungrier you are, the more you’ll shop for things you don’t need.

Have you ever had an existential crisis working in the field of advertising and how deceptive it can be vis-à-vis creating the desire for products that aren’t really needed?

Assam: Incidentally, this is the same topic you cover in grad school – is advertising ethical? At times, in Pakistan, that boundary is crossed; if there’s a product you know won’t work, will you advertise it? There are a lot of negative aspects attached to the field which is why I started focusing on the non-profits. Advertising can be used as a tool to change the world and can be used as a power for good, be it through a corporation’s CSR activities or to make people aware of issues that haven’t yet been highlighted.

Ali: I think whichever field you get into; you have the option of using it to do good. Personally, I wanted to get into advertising to build beautiful things. I remember my first internship with an advertising company in the United States that only worked with socially responsible clients. It had an effect on me. I don’t think there’s any other applied art form that has so much influence over people. If you think about it, every decision you’ve ever made today is because of an influence directed by peers or directed by advertising.

One Pakistani advertisement that you’ve never forgotten?

Ali: I was 17 when I saw an amazing advertisement made by Javed Jabbar for the Department of Tourism. The headline read; ‘Guess who came sight-seeing to Pakistan the other day? Alexander.’ It was brilliant.

Assam: The Dentonic advertisement because it was Pakistan’s first animated commercial. There are so many jingles from that era that I still remember to this day.

The Friday Times