March 3, 2013 9:31 am
In 2007, a Pakistani-American friend of mine was moving back to Pakistan for the first time. In one of our many conversations discussing her return, we had a long talk on how wonderful it would be if there was a public space where people could go to see and experience the history of Pakistan.
The conversation left an impression on me and I decided that we needed to trace and archive the tumultuous history of this country in a way that it would answer existential questions in the minds of the new generation of Pakistanis.
A few days later, I sent out an email to about twenty people, with an outline of the idea and an invitation to a discussion on how we could make it possible. All of them responded and we gathered at my parents’ house. Eventually, the group narrowed down to ten people who would make it to every meeting and were just as enthusiastic about the idea as I was. We all agreed that the entire nation has a right to its culture and heritage, which is why it wasn’t enough to simply document our history but also disseminate it.
With that, eight of us got together to register the Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP) as a non-profit organization in February 2007. The founding board comprised photographer Amean J, sculptor Durriya Kazi, global health and international development specialist Minal Rahimtoola, social entrepreneur Sabeen Mahmud, actor and choreographer Omar Rahim, corporate lawyer Altaf Qureshi and the CEO of a Pakistani media house Sara Taher Khan.
We began planning out The Oral History Project (OHP), through which we aimed to collect eye-witness accounts of the earliest generation of Pakistanis – those who had lived through the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. We were in 2007, which meant that we were running out of time as most of those people were now at least 60 years of age. For the moment, we thought it better to limit ourselves to Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan and the one where the most migrants had decided to settle. We planned that we would collect their stories in their voices and just take our archive to schools and colleges, so that more people could share these unique and deeply moving stories.
Although the board comprised dynamic and highly respected professionals, we received a skeptical response because most of us were still in our twenties. So, we wondered if we needed an advisory board of “older, more experienced” people to guide us. In the end, we decided that we would seek advice from people who had worked on Karachi and history for a long time, but the board needed to be made up of young people who had the energy to persistently pursue such an unconventional goal.
We didn’t have the answers for all the questions posed to us, but we didn’t want all the answers and learned along the way. We knew that we were both collecting and creating history. I can proudly say that CAP has now become a unique repository of history, photography, newspapers and stories that are not available anywhere else in Pakistan.
With our goal of mass dissemination in mind, we began working on the Shanaakht Festival in the summer of 2007. From fundraising to planning out sessions and coordinating with volunteers, we did everything ourselves. Now, Shanaakht, which means “identity” in Urdu, has become the nation’s first free and open festival of art, photography, music, theater, storytelling and much more.
The first Shanaakht was highly successful and introduced us to the people at large, who were fascinated with the interactive and exciting way in which we had presented our shared heritage. Through the festival, we wanted to show what our history could look like and start a cultural discourse on who Pakistanis are as a people. That message shone through in the festival’s programming and public interest began piquing.
That is when we began putting together a list of people to interview for OHP. We sought recommendations from people on potential interviewees, by sending out emails to people in our networks, putting messages on our Facebook page (which had surged after the success of Shanaakht) and hanging posters around the city. As the list began to take shape, we hired sixteen enthusiastic and highly devoted volunteers for a summer internship in 2008 to kick off OHP. We set up a small, make-shift office in my parents’ house and these interns, who were high school and college students, were given a pre-set questionnaire and a recorder to go out and conduct oral history interviews all over the city.
Eventually, as word of mouth spread and our interns began to make an impression, the old and young combination began to work to our advantage. Never before had someone spoken to these senior citizens about their memories from 1947 with such wonder and most of their old photographs and documents were stashed in unopened trunks under their beds. With us, they began to relive those memories both painful and beautiful. Our pitch was simple and it resonated with them: if you don’t share your stories with us, they will die with you.
In line with our mission to share our heritage and culture on a mass scale, we now use information from our archive to influence future generations. Through our CAP Outreach Tours Program, we design and conduct educational programs for low-income schools and colleges. The program is currently reaching out to over 8,000 students in Karachi and Lahore and our curriculum includes history, geography and English Language, with a strong focus on inculcating independent and critical thinking skills.
CAP has now become an extremely valuable resource. Once this generation is gone, we will be the only organization to have their voices and a version of history that cannot be distorted. We have now grown to three cities and have over 1,200 hours of oral history and more than 45,000 photographs and digitized documents in our archive. I remember the way officials at a public library had scoffed at us when we first asked them for old newspapers but it was a rescue mission that CAP undertook and even they are now impressed by the preservation work we have done. CAP’s Oral History Project is like a patchwork – when you put all these pieces together, you get the overarching history of this resilient nation that is struggling to carve out an identity for itself.
Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy is an Academy and Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker. Her work centers on human rights and women’s issues. She has worked with refugees and marginalized communities from Saudi Arabia to Syria and from Timor Leste to the Philippines. By bringing their voices to the forefront, she has often helped them bring about a critical change in their community. Sharmeen has made over a dozen multi-award winning films in over ten countries around the world and in 2012 Time Magazine included her in their annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. In 2013, Sharmeen was the recipient of the Crystal Award by the World Economic Forum for her work in documentary filmmaking, making her the first Pakistani to receive this honor.