Walled City: death of a dream

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Sep 05, 2010

The month of August 2010 has been an utterly depressing one for every Pakistani. We face floods never seen before by mankind leaving over 20 million homeless - a greater tragedy than 1947 – and we face terrorists leaving countless dead or maimed, and worse of all we have corruption from the top to the bottom, and now our cricketers – and our cricket - is in deep trouble.

To be honest in my entire life I have never felt so lost. On a personal note the happening that shocked me the most was that His Highness, The Aga Khan, decided to pull out from the only hope that we had of saving our amazing and ancient Walled City of Lahore. He was disgusted by the utter neglect of the Punjab government towards the project. He had promised US$200 million over 10 years if the Punjab government and all other donors combined could match his contribution. It was a mortal blow to this great city of culture and poets and gardens and universities. Just when a great Muslim leader of the world decided to protect and save our heritage and culture for us with his generosity and concern, we find that the Punjab government of Shahbaz Sharif and his pampered and corrupt bureaucrats are not interested in saving the Walled City. The Sharif brothers have a political interest in the city decaying because of expanding trading presence. The bureaucrats just wanted the massive salaries over and above what the government gives them - dead city or alive city they are not pushed - plus four-wheel trucks called Pajeros and Land Cruisers. After considerable effort and no result, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture reluctantly has ended its partnership agreement with the Punjab government. Lahore, in my humble view, has been orphaned.

Not a single rupee did the government put into the project, and all we saw, and continue to see, is a 'pro-Taliban' bureaucrat heading the Punjab government side of the project called 'Sustainable Development of the Walled City of Lahore', a fashionable name for loot, a lot of noise and no work. The man who heads this 'project management unit', his own staff claim, has “virtual disdain for the work at hand”. He has no time for this absorbing work of a life time. Instead, he spends all his time, Yes Sir, all his time on seeking self-promotion through religious TV programmes. I have seen these 'pro-Taliban' programmes and newspaper columns, and it is best that they be ignored. How a bureaucrat is allowed this licence is not surprising. Let me explain.

Once when the current chief minister, whom is by any reckoning a weak 'monitor' not a thinker, questioned the dubious abilities of this bureaucrat and him not working on the project, he allegedly threatened with his 'pro-Taliban' credentials frightened the political boss into utter submission. The only 'work' being shown as progress is the reprinting of an 18-year-old publication, with absolutely no relevance to the situation today, at immense public expense. Every Pakistani knows why such massive 'reprints' are made.

It is, in my humble view, an utter waste of time and public money, a sort of corruption that kills nations, not to speak of the low intelligence output that this stands for. Surely, by using the latest information that the Aga Khan Trust for Culture has, a remarkable book could have been created. But then our bureaucrats are prone to daft ventures for personal 'glory', short-lived as it always is.

I wanted to write about this sad matter earlier, but the floods prevented me from doing so. Let me explain the background to the Aga Khan pulling out of this massive Lahore project. To put it very simply, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture selected five great cities of the Muslim world whose heritage and culture all Muslims should be proud of and should enjoy in the centuries to come. These five cities are Fez in Morocco, Cairo in Egypt, Damascus in Syria, Delhi in India, and Lahore in Pakistan. To recreate the decaying cities and to rebuild them to lost glory calls for not only a lot of money, but also great learning and technical expertise and refined aesthetics. The Aga Khan was willing to do all this at his own expense.

The Fez venture has been, undoubtedly, a great international success. The Al-Azhar area of Cairo stands rejuvenated and stands for the scholarship of Muslims of the past, with the urge to propel them into a glorious future. The AKTC has restored three citadels in Syria - in Aleppo, Masyaf and Salahuddin - under a partnership agreement with the Syrian General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums. Today they present a picture of a great past, especially of the Crusade period. The tomb of Emperor Humayun in Delhi has acquired a new 'high culture' status in India, where, luckily, cultural matters get the importance due to them.

But in Lahore the Aga Khan had not calculated the forces of corruption and illiteracy that are rampant. Had the good man known the problems he was to face, almost all emanating from massively corrupt bureaucrats and politicians, and especially from the utter disinterest of our 'enlightened' civil society and media, he would never have landed on our airfields. When he did come the Pakistan government handed him a massive security bill. Imagine, the bill included his food costs. What an utter insult.

On a personal note, I sent emails to the Aga Khan Trust for Culture head office making it clear that because of one disinterested bureaucrat, or his corrupt government, even given their undoubted failings, it does not mean Lahore and its people should be abandoned. After all we are among the five top Muslim cities of history, and that after laying the foundation of so much good work, it is pointless to walk away. I am sure other people must have also persuaded the Aga Khan to return to the city where his grandfather loved to spend time. He was, after all, among our freedom fighters and Mr. Jinnah had the very highest regard for him, not that that matters much in today's Pakistan.

Then come the floods and a very angry Aga Khan immediately melted. He was the very first man to fly in with assistance. By that time the floods were hitting the north and had not arrived in Punjab and Sindh. He brought with him funds for the complete rebuilding of 900 houses, complete with furniture, bedding, food and other needy things. These houses his organisation will reconstruct themselves with immense care and love. He had had enough of government. He has sponsored a survey of the damages in the north, and will, probably, fund the expanded plan. Luckily, what the Aga Khan says, the Aga Khan does.

The effort of a lot of concerned persons has also borne fruit in that the Aga Khan Trust for Culture has agreed to remain in Lahore, but only for ongoing 'project specific' work. A little more effort has made them agree to work in the future if their funding is matched. His love for Lahore just cannot go away, no matter how hard our bureaucrats and politicians try.

On a personal level, I condemn the so-called “enlightened civil society and media” forces of Lahore, who just have no time for their city, and merely because in this work there is no money to be made. The dismantling of the 1851 Barrack to give plots to army generals is a case in point. The present COAS, sadly, turned a deaf ear to demands to build a 'War Museum' in its place. He ignored an earlier order of a former Corps Commander, Gen. Tikka Khan, in this regard. One assumes land plots is the new culture of our age.

On a different note, Mr. Shahbaz Sharif needs to be questioned as to why he is, deliberately, not allowing “The Walled City of Lahore Act 2010” to be presented in the Punjab Assembly. Machiavelli was spot on when he said in 'The Prince': “when a trader becomes a prince, he knows only one thing, and that is to sell the State”.




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