Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

When I was younger, I was a fan of comic books. My brother and my shelves were often stacked full of beat-up and leathered Archie Comics, X-Men, Asterix & Obelisk, and Calvin & Hobbes editions. Our mom earned the nickname Suzy because her short hair resembled Calvin’s snarky and smart-mouthed friend, and though I always wanted to like the good girl Betty, I secretly preferred Veronica because we shared the same hair color (deep, I know). Comics were more than just escapist entertainment, they were characters we knew and loved. But often what was missing were characters we could also relate to, who shared similar backgrounds and stories. In Pakistan, those were few and far between.

Enter Kachee Goliyan, what the Express Tribune in October called, “The Pakistani version of Beavis & Butthead.” Launched in June 2011 by two friends in their early 20s, Nofal Khan and Ramish Safa, Kachee Goliyan began as Pakistan’s first online comic daily, aiming to “give Pakistan characters the masses could relate to,” notes the inside cover of their latest issue. When I sat down with Nofal in January, he told me how Ramish and he would carpool to college from North Nazimabad – a 45-minute drive – cracking jokes along the way. Their shared humor fueled and inspired the main characters in KG – JC & Sufi, who, in the first issue of the series, resurrect legendary folk warrior Maula Jatt.

Since January, KG has released three comic books, both online and in print, and have gained increasing popularity in recent months. Their Facebook page boasts nearly 20,000 likes, and Nofal said they will increase their circulation to 10,000 print copies by April. Kachee Goliyan will also be the first Pakistani comic to be showcased at the (first ever) Middle East Film & Comic Con, taking place in Dubai at the end of next month. One of their largest and most surprising fan bases is in Hyderabad, where Nofal joked they “got their first taste of stardom…signing 100 copies [of Kachee Goliyan] in one day.”

Currently, KG is in English, not Urdu. While the linguistic choice does narrow its audience, Nofal did indicate KG’s plan to translate their work into Urdu, especially as they gain more traction. The comics are (for now, at least) free, with all incurred costs covered through ads and sponsors.As start-up entrepreneurs themselves, Nofal and Ramish want to provide ad space to other small entrepreneurs, and so far, they have garnered a high response from sponsors.

KG is free, Nofal explains, to create a demand for these local comic books, particularly since the current market is relatively non-existent. The founders also want to inspire other young artists (Ramish is the comic artist of the duo), encouraging readers to post fan art on the KG Facebook page, and want to eventually use their platform as an avenue for other would-be comic artists to publish their work. Nofal told me, “Pakistan is full of potential. People are currently outsourcing their creative work to the country…we need to tap into that potential and channel it properly” to further build the animation industry.

While Pakistan’s animation industry is anything but saturated, there are other notable cartoonists, animators, and graphic novelists. Nigar Nazar is the first female cartoonist in Pakistan and the Founder of Gogi Studios. Jamal Kurshid is a graphic novelist who launched Wahid years ago, and Numair AbbasNumairical Studios will be bringing a Simpsons-like cartoon set in Pakistan, for Pakistanis. The overarching aim of these artists are similar: provide characters and stories a local audience can relate to. The cartoon medium is an added plus – allowing for many of these stories to be more approachable & digestible.

For Nofal and Ramish, there’s a plan – involving not just KG, but also building the market for local comic artists and consumers. Expect more brilliance from these young entrepreneurs – from merchandise to podcasts to – of course – more comics.

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The Palestyle Clutch (Source: Fashion Compassion)

When was the last time you looked down at your trendy-but-questionable harem pants and asked yourself, “Where did these come from?” No, they did not claw its way out of the ’90s, fresh from an MC Hammer video, as much as your friends might like to tell you (don’t worry, they’re just jealous). Aladdin didn’t call, asking for his pants back (honestly, you might need new friends). No, harem-pants person. Those pants were the result of a long and complex value chain, and in some instances, players (often the people making the garments in countries like Bangladesh or Pakistan), were exploited in the process. The ethical fashion movement aims to address and remedy some of these issues – many labels using fair trade or ethical practices or producing eco-friendly products. Ayesha Mustafa is the Pakistani founder of Fashion ComPassion, a UK-based ethical online retailer that markets socially responsible luxury brands. In the eight months since Fashion ComPassion was established, she has worked with companies like Polly & Me (with Chitrali women in Pakistan), Palestyle (with Palestinian refugee women), and Beshtar (Afghanistan). Below, she tell us more about her organization:

Q: What inspired you to establish Fashion ComPassion? How did your past interests or background converge for the creation of this innovative organization?

Fashion and giving back to society have been my two biggest passions and Fashion ComPassion is a combination of the two. I had been toying with the idea of creating my own fashion company for awhile, and just decided I needed to make that call and switch careers.

Growing up in Pakistan and the Middle East where one sees discrepancies in wealth, poverty, and a lack of opportunities for girls and women, I wanted to create a platform that could directly support the most marginalized. I also interned at Grameen Bank when I was 17 and saw the transformational impact it had on women, their families and society. This stayed with me and throughout my life, I have worked and volunteered with organizations that supported women causes/rights.

Q: Fashion ComPassion currently supports four labels with four different influences – Polly & Me from Pakistan, Palestyle that empowers Palestinian refugee women, Beshtar from Afghanistan, and Savannah Chic, which is designed by African artists. How did you go about forming these partnerships and did you initially want Fashion ComPassion to be global in scope?

The mandate of the company is to create a platform for women artisans in the developing world, i.e Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, so from the onset I wanted it to be global but focus on countries that are war-torn and where there is a real need to help and empower women. I started with a vision document about the company and first i approached Polly & Me, and the rest just fell into place with research and referrals from friends and family.

Currently, I have added new brands in the portfolio: (1) Bhalo is a limited edition clothing and accessories label that works with women in Bangladesh. The products are made from ethically hand woven and naturally dyed cottons and silks. Bhalo works with two fair trade organizations, and provides employment, healthcare, child care to women who otherwise would not be employed due to mass production. Bhalo works with the same fair trade organization as People Tree. (2) Lost City is a NY label that works with artisans in Lucknow, India to revive their traditional craftsmanship with contemporary style.

I am no longer working with Polly & Me and Savannah Chic at the moment and in the midst of creating a new online website for the garments and goods.

Q: According to your philosophy, “Not only do we source responsibly from brands that contribute to society and empower women, our aim is to also donate a percentage of our sales to charities that support marginalized women in various communities around the world…” How does Fashion ComPassion do the due diligence in ensuring their brands empower women? What charities do you currently support?

We have strict criteria when we look at brands to partner with and support. Some of the things we look at are:

  1. Why was the company formed? Was it created to address a social problem, and what is the mission or mandate of the company?
  2. Does it have a strong social development ethos?
  3. How is fashion and social development combined to form the label?
  4. Does the brand work or partner with any local fair trade or women right organizations?
  5. How are the artisans paid?
  6. What are their working conditions?
  7. Are the artisans trained and given creative guidance?
  8. Are they given any other assistance in terms of health care or child care?
  9. Does the label support the community and give a certain percentage back?
  10. Can the label provide evidence and documents to support how they are helping and empowering the women they work with?

Fashion ComPassion is also committed to give back 2% of its annual profits to various women organizations that are fostering positive change and impact on women. I am looking at three at the moment, but since I am part of Women for Women International’s Junior Leadership circle, I would like to help with one of the countries they are setting up a Country Office in or a project they are focusing on.

Q: Where do you see Fashion ComPassion in the next year? In the next five years?

In the coming year, I would like to build greater awareness of Fashion ComPassion and its brands by focusing on various events and collaborations with organizations that have a similar mandate. The new website will be launched with an online shop which will allow customers to buy products directly. I am also looking at pop up stores to sell some of the brands.

In the long term, because my biggest industry inspiration is Joan Burstein, the founder of Browns, I want to make Fashion ComPassion follow Brown’s footsteps and be the one-stop shop for high-end and unique ethical fashion.

Q: The convergence of fashion and social impact is a really fascinating marriage right now with organizations like Elvis & Kresse and Goodone, which supply ethical and eco-friendly clothing to fashion stores. In the value chain, how does Fashion ComPassion market these brands to the larger or more mainstream markets?

Fashion ComPassion’s purpose is to bring together high-end socially responsible brands from the developing world and create a market for it in the UK and other countries like the US. We are starting with an online website that will sell to customers globally, we also organize events at galleries, boutiques, and form partnerships with other ethical fashion brands and women organizations. We have also taken part in fashion shows and plan to be part of trade shows for ethical fashion. With time, we plan to supply our brands to other online fashion sites in the U.S. and ethical fashion boutiques there.

Q: What has been the reaction so far to Fashion ComPassion? What has been your biggest success and failure so far?

The reaction so far has been phenomenal. I honestly didn’t except such a positive response from customers, press, retailers and other individuals. I think I wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I have had it not been for the help and support of numerous people that have believed in me and the company.

The Beshtar Burqa Dress (Source: Fashion ComPassion)

My biggest success was when Beshtar’s Burqa Dress was one of the pieces of Vogue’s Green Carpet Challenge. In less than three months since I started the company, the dress was included in this prestigious selection which included some of the most well-known designers that are working on their ethical lines.

I wouldn’t call it a failure but not being able to find the right socially responsible brand from Pakistan that I can work with and make a name for in the UK. This is something that I am researching and have talked to various individuals in Pakistan both in social development and fashion. I hope that very soon, I can get a brand from my own country and create a positive image of Pakistan through fashion.

You can become a learn more about Fashion ComPassion by visiting their website or joining their Facebook page

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Last year, Shahbaz Hamid Shigri and Aisha Linnea Akhtar of InCahoots Films brought us Sole Search, a short independent film that introduced viewers to the world of the Jinnah Boy. Yes, the Jinnah Boy. For those of you not from Pakistan’s capital, Jinnah boys are an intrinsic part of the Islamabad fabric – the guys that hang around Jinnah Market sporting slicked-back hair, loud knock-off designer clothes, and oft-cringe-worthy comments for passing ladies. In Sole Search, an American born Pakistani meets the quintessential Jinnah Boy, Candy Bhai (played by Ali Rehman Khan). Hilarity ensues.

This summer, Candy Bhai is back in the feature length film Gol Chakkar. Directed and produced by Shigri and Linnea (who starred together in Slackistan), the film reunites us with Candy and introduces us to a misfit cast of  merry characters, including Teddy (Hasan Bruun Akhtar) and Shera (Usman Mukhtar). Shigri told me,

[After Sole Search] We realized we weren’t quite done with Candy and his world. Sole Search was always an experiment. It was quite amateur, rushed, and I was a lot less experienced and knowledgeable on the whole process at the time… I don’t think [Gol Chakkar] really is a sequel. Candy Bhai is in it, but that’s about it. It’s a feature film with seven new characters. We just wanted to expand on what we thought was a pretty nifty idea the first time.

Khan, who reprises his role as Candy Bhai, discussed the chemistry among the Gol Chakkar characters, noting, “All of us were actually friends in real life, so it felt more like a family production than anything else…we understood each other’s characters so well that we would constantly give each other feedback in order to improve a line or a scene.”

On the development of his own character,  both from Sole Search and in this upcoming film, he said, “I think one of the main challenges I had while developing [Candy] was not to create a caricature of an already flamboyant archetype…a Jinnah Boy is a self-exaggerated segment of society. I had to be careful not to represent him as a cliche and give him his own personality.” Of course, having a grasp of Jinglish (Jinnah-style English, and yes, there should be a special Urban Dictionary) further helped in this portrayal, as well as his amazing wardrobe. Linnea, who not only dreamed up the Candy Bhai character but went on the hunt for appropriately loud and tacky clothing, added, “His outfits are all from Landa or Juma Bazaar, though when I’d ask the price of anything they’d hike it up like 150%.” She added, “I want to go back there sometime, though. It was a blast.”

Both Sole Search and Gol Chakkar possess a raw and gritty quality, which was consciously done to portray this world in a darker and more realistic light. Shigri noted, “The subject matter of these two movies is fun, quirky, even a little Bollywood-ish. We’ve seen movies similiar to them. I wanted to present this world and these characters in a new way, that it’s not just fun and games and bright colors and loud jokes. The way I chose to shoot it gives a certain contrast to whats going on, and the way it looks.” He added, “As a cinematographer, I personally favor shots in which the camera isn’t completely static or on a tripod. I like the frame to be breathing a little.”

Part of Gol Chakkar was shot in Rawalpindi, and while it proved relatively more difficult than [twin-city] Islamabad, both cast and filmmakers alike spoke of their incredible experience filming in Lal Kurti, one of the busiest hubs of the city. “It’s a beautiful place, in an unconventional way,” Shigri said. “I was seeing sights I never even knew existed, and meeting wonderful and hospitable people.” Khan echoed, “Lal Kurti spoiled us a bit with all the warmth and love we got, because as soon as we moved on to another location in Pindi – lets just say we missed Lal Kurti!”

Gol Chakkar will be released late this summer, and filmmakers Linnea and Shigri want you to be entertained. As the co-founders of InCahoots Films, they already have other projects in the pipeline, including music videos for artists Uzair Jaswal and Adil Omar, a short film called, “The Little Master,” featuring Hasan Bruun Akhtar from Gol Chakkar, as well as their next big project. Needless to say, it’s a busy year ahead for InCahoots, a name Linnea came up with to reflect the founders’ real-life relationship and ability to work extremely in sync with one another. Both directed and produced the film, while Linnea wrote the screenplay and Shigri was the cinematographer. Both were basically a two-person crew, supported by a cast who have all acted together and known each other for some time (several also starred in the recent film Slackistan).

You could say that type of magic can be likened to a Judd Apatow-style approach to film making, in which cast and crew are part of a family-style collaboration, and chemistry is genuine, organic, and comes from a very real place.

From the perspective of a Pakistani filmmaker, Shigri emphasized, “I hope to inspire other future Pakistani filmmakers to step outside the box, to not be conventional, and not be limited by a lack of resources and funds, to let their only limitation be their creativity. The most important thing I learned from shooting Gol Chakkar is when it comes to making a movie, short film, or music video, your limitations are only self-created. Anything is possible right now.”

To keep updated on Gol Chakkar’s release, become a fan of their Facebook page by clicking here.

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Copyright All rights reserved by Without Shepherds Film Inc.

As revolution continues to spill over the Middle East, some have questioned whether a similar rallying cry would erupt on the streets of Pakistan. But while we have certainly reached our own tipping point, it is not a moment defined by a call for regime change. It is far more complex. Pakistan is a country that suffers from an identity crisis. And ultimately, if we don’t know who we are, do we really know what we are fighting for?

Without Shepherds is a feature documentary that addresses some of these very complex and fundamental questions. The film, directed by Cary McClelland and made in partnership with Pakistani filmmakers [The Crew Films & EyeBee Films among others], offers a glimpse into the nuances of the country through the eyes of six diverse characters – Imran Khan, a cricketer-turned-politician; Vaneeza, a model/actress; Laiba, a Peshawar-based journalist; Abdullah, a truck driver; Arieb, a Sufi musician; and Ibrahim, a former Taliban fighter. Each character has a mission and their documented journey from February 2008 to November 2008 is a reflection of the broader struggle within Pakistani society.

Each of the people cast in Without Shepherds came from different regions and socioeconomic classes. They were selected to showcase the rich diversity of Pakistan, possessing different religious and political perspectives, as well as ideas about the future of the nation. However, noted McClelland, “the similar push among the cast was this desire for justice – to be more legitimately part of the social infrastructure and fabric of the country.” He added, “Each of these characters had significant obstacles in their path; some had  been robbed or cheated of things that were very dear to them, and as a result, had to bravely face these challenges head-on.”

The casting of the film was extremely important in demonstrating both the diversity of the country as well as their shared humanity. While selecting Imran Khan was relatively easy, given his boycott of the February 2008 elections and subsequent “outside-in” perspective, the Without Shepherds team took many trips around the country to discover other interesting narratives. Abdullah, whose struggle to provide for his family keeps him “chained to the road,” gives us a glimpse into the world and wisdom of Pakistan’s truck drivers, who have traversed the entire country and subsequently possess unique insights. According to McClelland, Abdullah was “the most empathetic and human character in the film,” a man who exhibited a sophisticated world view despite being self-educated.

Copyright All rights reserved by Without Shepherds Film Inc.

Laiba, a female journalist based in Peshawar, is courageous in her battle to humanize families living in northwestern Pakistan, but must also battle for respect and appreciation at work. McClelland noted her story had the richest twists and turns. “There was a real juxtaposition between how progressive she was politically and how conservative she was religiously.” He added, “The more I watched her push up against the people who ran her television channel, to get them to be more engaged and undertake braver programming, the more I grew to admire her.”

Another character in the film, said McClelland, required a sensitive ear during filming. Ibrahim fought for six years with the Taliban along the Afghan border. His struggle is one for peace, a journey complicated by family and friends who cannot look beyond his past. For McClelland, Ibrahim’s story constantly revealed new layers of insight. “He was a real student of the country – about its history and culture – and he could speak very beautifully and poetically about what was happening around him.” At one point during the film, Ibrahim is captured saying, “You can see many animals here, but you will rarely see a shepherd.”

Copyright All rights reserved by Without Shepherds Film Inc.

The filmmakers behind the documentary were really interested in juxtaposing the character’s private and public experiences. This was particularly pertinent for Imran, Vaneeza, and even Arieb, who are all public personalities. According to McClelland, though, some of the more human moments were captured in Imran’s interactions with his children. “Watching him as a father was analogous to how he viewed himself as a political leader and a philanthropist, making the narrative that much more rich.”

Each of the character’s journeys was unique, but their shared struggle for justice made the “film a very emotional experience” for those involved. There are connected because they all went against the mold, and each person at the end of the story arc either overcame their obstacles or came to peace with their situation.

Although the timeline in the film began before the February 2008 elections and ended with the U.S. elections in November 2008, McClelland emphasized that the interwoven themes in Without Shepherds are still very current today. “The questions that were posed to the country at the time were similar to those we were posing to our characters throughout the film – what direction do you see the country going, what values do you have, who are the people who best represent that,” he told me. “Pakistan is still similar to the country we left, as is America, and the questions we asked back then are still relevant today.”

Without Shepherds Director Cary McClelland

Without Shepherds aims to provide a more multidimensional perspective of Pakistan for an American audience. It is ultimately a human story. But the film is also an opportunity for Pakistanis to reflect on their common voice and hold a mirror up to our own society. Therefore, noted McClelland, the film will be shown to American audiences, “but we are also hoping to partner with Pakistani NGOs and set up grassroots screenings throughout the country. It is a great opportunity to use film to reach a diverse set of audiences.”

The documentary is currently at the mid-point in post-production, and hopes to premiere in the late summer/early fall 2011. However, Without Shepherds still must raise money to achieve this goal. Last week, the team established an online campaign on Indie GoGo, and is trying to raise $25,000 to bring the film into its next stage of post-production. It’s an enormous undertaking, but it’s for a character-driven film with a very significant overarching message. As McClelland said to me, “We really have the opportunity to help close the gap in a country as important and beautifully expressive as Pakistan.” You can get involved and help Without Shepherds reach this goal, by donating here. [Also, follow Without Shepherds on Facebook.]

WITHOUT SHEPHERDS Trailer from Cary McClelland on Vimeo.

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Source: Berklee.edu

Lahore-born and raised Arooj Aftab is an emerging musician whose music is influenced by an array of artists – from traditional Pakistani singers to contemporary sounds from the likes of  Erykah Badu. A self-taught guitarist, Arooj was one of four recipients of Berklee Music’s first merit-based scholarship, allowing this innovative musician to receive a formal music education at the acclaimed college.  Today, she lives in Brooklyn, and has plans to tour Pakistan and the region next year with a unique blend of artistry that encompasses a true spectrum of global sounds. Below, she answers a few questions for CHUP:

Q: You are a self-taught guitarist from Pakistan who received a scholarship to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. What was the transition like? Did you have formal training prior to your time at Berklee?

I actually received a percentage of my tuition as scholarship from Berklee on voice merit, and managed the rest through college loans in true struggling musician fashion! I continued to study voice as my instrument, and music production/engineering as my major at Berklee College of Music. I was teaching myself guitar through my A Levels, performing a bit underground and releasing cover songs on the internet. Right out of Lahore Grammar School (LGS), I won the Steve Vai Berklee Online school scholarship, which gave me a year to study Western music theory prior to actually attending the college.

The transition was pretty smooth- I was very hungry to learn as much as I could about music from everyone around me.Aside from the organized Western classical music and jazz theory I was introduced to, the college also had a large percentage of international students — so it really was incredible to be exposed to instruments, rhythms, sounds and messages from all over the world as well. However, I was the only Pakistani, and with no classical training I spent much time reading and listening to our own music – solidifying and familiarizing myself to old recordings, learning the root by ear so that I could reproduce, replicate and represent Pakistani music in the West.

Q: How have traditional Pakistani music and sounds influenced your music and growth as an artist? What other artists and genres influence you as an artist?

I think it is essential to know the root, and own it with whatever art form you chose to embody. I have always looked to our ancestors and the endless army of great musicians from all over the diaspora for guidance through my years of pursuing music. I would say that a lot of my vocal technique and phrasings come from repetitively and incessantly listening to recordings of Abida Parveen, Begum Akhtar, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali, Bismillah Khan, Nusrat, Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, and so forth. Brazilian fado and flamenco styles also inspire me, as do other types of music.

Q: In Pakistan, there isn’t much importance placed on musical training among youth, despite the popularity of Pakistani pop stars. However, shows like Coke Studio have become popular because of their fusion of traditional and mainstream sounds. Do you think these trends are changing society’s sentiment towards music in Pakistan? How important do you think it is to give youth access to such training?

Classical training is not easy. It requires years of solid dedication and being both physically and mentally present.

The skill is so intricate, intense and intimate that the relationship between teacher and apprentice is sacred. Everything has its own pace, knowledge is imparted in stages, hard work is noted and rewarded for – all together, it’s a very serious process.

I think it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around such an intense dedication to music-  and it is something that is not given much social or monetary value in Pakistan right now. Initiatives like Coke Studio are creating a new found appreciation and fresh direction for music listeners, but young people will not feel confident making solid commitments [to pursue music] unless attitudes towards musicianship itself change.

Q: What do you hope to achieve through your music? Has there been a difference in people’s response to you in the West versus in our part of the world?

Well to be honest, I have yet to perform properly in Pakistan— it has been almost five years since I moved to the U.S. for my degree and have been performing throughout this country, representing Pakistan, while learning, experimenting and developing my sound. Appreciation will always be warm and ample in the U.S., people approach music with a great deal of etiquette and respect. Even when the audience is unfamiliar with the language, they have always been keen on taking in whatever they can get via instrumentation, energy and vibe of the pieces. I am excited to book our debut Pakistan tour soon! Next year we plan to fly through all the main cities with the full band– and also possibly do a few cities in India [my guitar player and co-composer Bhrigu Sahni is from Pune]. I want each concert to be like a big shaadi, as if we are wedding all the cities together. It is a really romantic peace healing concept.

Q: What role can music play in bridging divides? Do you hope to play a role in such forms of public diplomacy?

As an activist in Boston and New York, I have found it very difficult to rally people here towards pro-Pakistan activities. The media misconceptions and general fear of what Pakistan even is, has laid a bed of silence over activist communities here. That’s why it’s important for everyone who is Pakistani and has creative, peace promoting, healing agendas– to be louder than ever before. Be present on the web even if you hate Twitter or Facebook— really get the color, the alive, the humor, the heritage and all the love out there. There is much diplomatic power in unifying and celebrating creativity throughout the diaspora.

Collaborative projects are also a great tool that we arent using enough- I have been working with a lot of incredible South Asian artists in the Brooklyn/New York scene recently, including Tamil Sri Lankan Dance/Spoken word artist YaliniDream. There are other amazing artists doing incredible work that should be celebrated, and one of my upcoming projects will be a blog that aims to showcase new South Asian/Diaspora artists each week.

To learn more about Arooj Aftab and her music, visit her website.

Arooj Aftab – Man Kunto Mola [for the initiative Rebuild Pakistan]

And for the Xmas spirit, her cover of Hallelujah:

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Last week, I attended a screening of Slackistan, an independent film by director Hammad Khan. The film, which screened in London, Abu Dhabi, New York City, and San Francisco [Pakistan screenings are coming soon], was recently described by the NY Times as, “a pitch-perfect comedy about restless youths in Islamabad,” and is a raw embodiment of 20-something angst, superficiality, and existential musings about life. As someone who grew up in “the city that always sleeps,” Slackistan was – ironically – a very real treatment of Islamabad’s detached reality.

That, in many ways, was director Hammad’s point – to organically create something that was closer to a documentary than a film. Slackistan‘s characters to an extent even mirror the actors who portrayed them – somewhat like art imitating reality. Hasan, the narrator and main character in the film, is a 20-something who dreams of becoming a filmmaker, but instead drives listlessly around the city with his friends, hangs out at coffee shops, and waxes philosophical about where his life could be going instead. He is played by Shahbaz Shigri, also a 20-something, also an Islamabadi, and also an aspiring filmmaker, though he is making that dream come true rather than slacking alongside the city’s affluent class.

Hammad told me, “It was really important that the casting was right, and that we cast people from Islamabad who could at least embody the attitude of the character. It was important that I didn’t try to impose characters on the actors, but allowed it to organically happen.”

Ali Rehman Khan, who played Sherry, Hasan’s best friend in the film, echoed, “It was easier for me to relate to my character because I grew up in Islamabad and have been through many of those same experiences. It was important that Islamabadis were a part of the film because it gave Slackistan authenticity – we weren’t really characters as much as people in the film.” The making of the film, he added, was also a collaborative process, with Hammad mapping out a scene while the cast and crew were at a cafe or  another site, always keeping his camera on him at all times.

The interesting thing about Slackistan is its lack of political commentary or real mention of the volatility and violence that often shape Pakistan’s image in the news media. Instead, current events were pushed into the periphery, mentioned in passing conversations or playing on the television in the background. This was done on purpose, noted Hammad, “to reflect a narrative that was based on perspectives of young characters where the political situation and militancy are not the focal point in their daily lives.” He added, “It was very difficult for me not to be political because I am a very politically charged person. In fact, in the first draft of the script, Hasan would have monologues that would then connect back to a current event in Pakistan. However, we realized that this was artificial because a typical 21 year old wouldn’t necessarily think like that.”

Hammad didn’t want Hasan’s character to live entirely in a bubble, though. Perhaps the most telling part of the film was when he stumbles onto one of Islamabad’s many Christian colonies – or slums that house the marginalized Christian minority. The colonies are located amid some of the city’s nicest neighborhoods, but they are a far cry from the well-paved roads, pristine houses, and fancy cars outside their walls. The slums are dotted with cramped and dilapidated homes, and suffer from poor sewage and a lack of electricity. Hammad noted, “I wanted to make the point that these slums are basically a stone’s throw from some of Islamabad’s best houses and streets. It is an adjacent world that is literally right outside our door.”

Of all the days of filming, shooting the Christian colony was one of the cast and crew’s best experiences. “It wasn’t like we were shooting a movie,” Hammad told me. “For me, it was quite a transformative experience to see the joy and the sense of community among this minority, and then outside the slum’s walls to feel the sense of detachment and affluence in the city.” Ali added, “This is the reality of Islamabad in many ways, that we ignore the things that are right in front of us.”

That, ultimately, seems to be the biggest criticism of Pakistan’s elite – the apathetic divide between the rich and poor, the detachment from the jarring reality outside their doors. While this appears to be a criticism of Slackistan – that its attempt to show another side to Pakistan is still only depicting the affluent class, both Hammad and Ali argue that this is still a very real side of Pakistan. Ali noted, “We are such a bubbled society in Islamabad. There are lots of bureaucrats, diplomats, and politicians, and we’re the offspring of that. And this is how some people live – it may not be reality for the majority of the country, but it is a very real depiction of this slice of society.” In an interview with PRI’s The World, Hammad stated,

It’s important to say that it’s a personal film…it [Islamabad] always used to frustrate me that well, we’re pretty modern, we’re pretty connected, but the town and the environment just doesn’t lend itself to any kind of creative growth or progress. You know, we had nothing to do, nowhere to go. So that was something that I thought, what do you do? How do you move forward? And that sort of extended itself into this kind of metaphor for the country as well because these are young people living in a bubble and they can’t really move forward and in a sense that’s kind of how Pakistan is right now in the world.

In an interview with the Guardian last year, Hammad further noted, “Slackistan should be a wake-up call to the wider youth base, both in and outside Pakistan, to redirect the future of the country.” The film, though it depicts affluent young 20-somethings with no sense of purpose, does have a purpose and a solution – to take action, even if it means taking small steps to achieve that goal.

If there was one thing Hammad would like us to take away from the film, though, it’s to keep in mind this is only one film, one snapshot of life in the country. “Judge the film all you want,” he noted, “but judge me after watching ten of my films. Because the next one I am working one will be a drastically different lens of Pakistan, as will the ones after that.” Moreover, he added, “I am entirely dedicated to supporting anyone who wants to make films about Pakistan,” given the need for different perspectives and the power of imagery in changing perceptions of the country. “Cinema isn’t part of our culture in Pakistan, but images can be educational and they can be socially useful in showing a nuanced side of Pakistan. That can and should be imparted to Pakistan’s youth.”

Slackistan, though not without flaws, was a unique and telling film told through a Pakistani lens, one of many into the country’s rich and vibrant society. As a fellow Islamabadi, it was not only a very real depiction of life in the city that always sleeps, but it was also  a genuine attempt to capture the uninspired underpinnings of this slice of society, a wake up call for the apathetic and the affluent.

To join Slackistan‘s Facebook page and learn about screenings in your city, click here. [You can also visit Mara Pictures for more information on UK and future Pakistan screenings of the film. ]

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Violence in Karachi 102


NYT: AFP/Getty Image

Back in January, I wrote a post entitled, “Violence in Karachi 101,” in which I attempted to break down the players in the  then-conflict, the root causes, and potential solutions, thanks mainly to interviews with journalists covering the issue on the ground. In Karachi, violence and political tensions have erupted time and time again, cloaking the city in bloodshed and garnering momentary headlines.

Huma Imtiaz wrote in the NY Times yesterday, “Targeted killings of various ethnic groups and political parties’ workers have left more than 300 people dead since 2008.” In recent months, noted Dawn Newspaper, Karachi has suffered “the worst such violence in years with 85 people killed after a lawmaker was shot dead in August.” Since Saturday alone, more than 70 people have died in the city as the result of such killings. Imtiaz reported,

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), representing the city’s Muhajirs, and Awami National Party, (ANP), with a dominant Pathan support base, have had tense relations. The MQM has accused the ANP of supporting organized crime and the ANP charges that its opponent is a terrorist organization that is responsible for the killings of Pathan residents. Both parties are coalition partners with the ruling Pakistan People’s Party in Sindh.

But what are the nuances of this conflict? Are the players involved the same as previous spates of violence and are they motivated by the same root causes? For those of us not from or currently living in Karachi, the nuances of the conflict seem daunting to comprehend. Below, two journalists – Huma Yusuf from Dawn (currently the Pakistan fellow at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars) and Shaheryar Mirza, a Karachi-based reporter for Express 24/7, provide insight and help answer some FAQ’s related to Karachi’s most recent outbreak of violence:

Q: News agencies report that unrest first broke out in Karachi on Saturday, a day before a by-election was slated to be held for a provincial assembly seat left vacant after Raza Haider from the MQM was assassinated in August. Was the by-election the cause of this recent outbreak of violence or was it merely a catalyst following months of escalating tensions?

According to Yusuf, the mechanics of the conflict are the same as always – ethnically driven conflict over turf and power in Karachi. Although the by-election can be seen as the “catalyst” for the recent violence, political/religious/ethnic tensions are always simmering in the city. Orangi Town, the site of the by-elections, is the “tensest district in Karachi that is divided between the Mohajirs and the Pathans,” and the assassination of Raza Haider led this to be a very emotionally-charged election among MQM’s constituents.

Mirza added, the MQM has held the provincial (MPA) seat in Orangi Town since 1988. Although mostly Urdu-speaking communities live in Orangi, “it borders many different areas which have absorbed the large influx of Pashtun immigrants. Therefore, the two communities, as they expand, run into each other and begin to overlap.” As a result, he added, “some votes are won and lost in the new overlap,” leading to competition for power or “turf.”  Competing groups subsequently use violence and extortion to rule certain areas. “It is a lot like the way gangs exert their influence in other countries except that in Karachi, political parties are behind it.”

However, noted Mirza, this “political turf war” is only one aspect of Karachi’s violence. The drug mafias, criminal organizations, militant groups, student organizations, and ethnic violence “all overlap and link with each other through politics, ethnicity, and religion,” creating a complex web of unrest and tensions.

Q: This is obviously not the first time tensions in Karachi resulted in violence – is this spate of killings part of the larger trend from the past or is it different? (Are the killings less targeted and more indiscriminate?)

According to Yusuf, this recent outbreak of violence appear to be more brutal, mass killings, inclusive of people other than party workers (like the assassination of shopkeepers near Shershah).  She noted, “This could indicate two things; (1) Since the MQM has been worrying about shifting demographics in Karachi (in favor of a growing Pashtun voting block) the stakes of this round of violence are higher, and the parties are trying to give each other sterner/more violent messages than before. And (2) the involvement of other criminal groups and gangs (i.e. the Lyari gangsters that MQM has complained of). This is not a new phenomenon, but indicates a worsening level of security, law and order control.”

Mirza also noted the conspiracy theories surrounding the killings. “Amongst people who have been reporting on crime in the city for a long time, it is a common assertion that intelligence agencies also play a part in the violence – whether it is to raise tensions and pit certain groups against each other or for small-time political assassinations.” Another conspiracy theory, he added, “is that a certain political party will assassinate members of their own party (if they want to get rid of them in any case for instance) to basically show that their leaders are getting killed and trigger an ‘operation’ in an enemy area.”

He also noted another important aspect of these killings – the resulting perception amongst people within the community.

I was in Orangi town during the elections and a man came up to me and asked me where I was from. I told him I’m Urdu-speaking. He became comfortable and said, “First it was the Sindhis that were killing us, then the Punjabis and now the Balochis.” He was not affiliated with the MQM but was Urdu-speaking. This is important because this is felt by many who are directly affected by the killings. Political parties have ethnic foundations in Pakistan despite what they may proclaim. But when these killings take place, people will forget about the turf war and think simply that it is a matter of ‘wiping out’ their ethnic communities or oppressing them. The parties play on these emotions and the people support their parties as a result of this.

Q: What role do politicians from these parties play versus the supposed political agents that are perpetrating these killings? How does this impact the political sphere?

According to Mirza, “It is hard to say exactly how much role the politicians play in the actual ‘ordering’ of killings and the like.” Much of the violence is perpetrated on a more local level through local actors and agents from political parties, with “some resulting from personal enmities within rival parties in an area.”

He added, “The PPP has a greater disconnect from its lower cadres than the MQM. In Karachi, it is said the MQM is so well disciplined and organized that it would be unheard of that any action is taken without the direct consent of its supreme leader.” However, Mirza added, “I find this hard to believe and the rapid spiralling nature of violence contradicts the fact that every killing can be ordered from such a high place.” The political sphere is impacted a lot through the blame game. “The MQM has specifically identified politicians and political agents it thinks are responsible, bringing them into the public sphere. The politicians seem to be immune from a lot of the personal attacks, except for how they are viewed within their rival’s minds.”

Q: Much like before, Army rangers were deployed in the city to restore order. Is this productive in breaking the cycle of violence in Karachi?

According to Yusuf,

The Rangers’ presence historically has succeeded in reducing incidents of violence. The problem, though, is that deploying the Rangers is not a long-term, systemic solution to the deep-rooted problems of Karachi violence. It’s just a temporary band-aid, one that loses effectiveness once the elite forces step away from tense areas. In some ways, reliance on the Rangers over the years has worsened the problem, because that means the police have remained largely inept and corruptible in the face of Karachi’s complicated ethnic and turf wars.

While it is good that the federal government and politicians have been taking increasing note of Karachi’s violence, added Yusuf, “the truth is that this is a local problem, with well entrenched powerful local actors. The solution will have to come from within Karachi, not from Islamabad.”

Q: As a journalist reporting on this issue on the ground in Karachi, what are some obstacles or frustrations you face in your coverage?

As is common with most types of war/conflict reporting, noted Mirza, the people who get killed become a statistic in the news process. He added, “We aren’t given the space to pursue the families and give the victims a face or their families a voice. The reporting is very simplistic when it comes to targeted killings.” Moreover, he noted, a lot of killings that take place during a long spate of targeted killings “get falsely reported and lumped into the overall death toll.” This exacerbates the situation, making it seem worse than it is, and panicking the public even more.”

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Roshaneh receiving Vital Voices’ economic empowerment award (Marie Claire)

In 1996, the Kashf Foundation became Pakistan’s first microfinance institution, empowering both women and families in an attempt to replicate the Grameen Bank model in the country in a nuanced way. Today, 14 years later, Kashf has 152 branches nationwide, boasts 305,938 supported families, and operates its branches using a franchise model, allowing for closely managed growth. Below, Kashf’s founder, social entrepreneur Roshaneh Zafar, describes what inspired the microfinance organization, its successes and obstacles, and the young Pakistanis involved in the process:

Q: Kashf was started in 1996 and was Pakistan’s first microfinance institution. What inspired you to establish the organization?

Many factors impacted me in making the plunge in 1995 to set up an organization that specifically catered to women’s financial needs.  The first imperative was of course the fact that women in our society do not get the due acknowledgement they deserve for their contribution to the overall economy.  Time and time again, during my travels while I worked for the World Bank in Pakistan, women from all walks of life – rural women, urban women, educated women, illiterate women, working women, home makers – would tell me the same thing, that they wanted a better life for themselves and their families, however, they lacked economic opportunity.  This resonated across the country, from when I sat with shy and veiled women in Kalat in Balochistan to when I engaged with highly empowered and articulate women from the plains of the Punjab.  The second was related to my own commitment, I had grown up in a Pakistan where I had not faced any discrimination on the basis of gender.  I was and am strongly committed to the notion that we can build a world free of gender discrimination – that comes with two strategies, empowering women economically (providing them a financial voice) and investing in their social status (through education and health).

Q: Although the Grameen Bank model has been tremendously successful in Bangladesh, there were many who believed that microfinance would not be as successful in Pakistan. Why do you think this may have been true in the past and how is the Kashf model different?

There are many firsts in the Kashf model, which can highlight some of the success factors of our approach. Our approach to financial services delivery has always been to build the business case for investing in women’s economic development.  There is no doubt that societies that fail to invest in their women – essentially 50% of their work force – can never prosper or develop.  This continues to be a major hurdle for the development of Pakistan and Kashf’s first and primary objective has been to prove the business case for investing in women.  There have been many firsts in Kashf’s life:

  • We were the first specialized MF programme in Pakistan targeting women (essentially we were the precursor to the microfinance ordinance of 2001)
  • We were the first to offer an array of women friendly products: loans for productive purposes, for consumption needs, insurance products and housing loans.
  • We were the first to replicate Grameen’s solidarity lending methodology successfully in Pakistan and subsequently the first to move to individual lending as the market matured.
  • We were the first MF entity to become financially sustainable (2003)
  • We were the first MF entity to raise loans from commercial banks (2007)
  • We were the first MF institution to undertake a credit rating and to get an investible grade rating from an independent company
  • We were the first MFI to look at introducing and scaling up a responsible finance approach

Q: Have any of Pakistan’s endemic issues – from the volatile security situation, its political upheavals between military to democratic rule, to its rampant corruption – hindered Kashf’s growth? What have been some of the major obstacles Kashf has faced in the last 14 years?

Until 2008 we were able to grow our programme at an average rate of 40-50% annually, however, the economic meltdown in 2008 combined with rapid inflation led to a major slowing down of operational outreach.

Furthermore in 2008, much like other sectors, the microfinance sector was impacted by the deteriorating economic and political situation. Pakistan’s economy shadowed the meltdown of the global financial system, through the second half of 2008 and 2009. While this impacted the entire economy, households at the bottom of the pyramid, which form a majority of microfinance users, were especially hurt.  Overall inflation had a regressive impact on low-income households, i.e. the increase in food prices eroded their purchasing power, since they tend to spend a large proportion of their income on basic consumption needs; a food security research conducted by Kashf Foundation in August 2008 reveals that households were spending up to 70% to meet monthly food requirements. Thus, low-income households’ ability to invest in the overall needs of their families has been severely constrained and strides made in the past decade to improve the economic conditions of low income households have been negatively affected.

Additionally, the ability of microfinance users to make payments on their existing loans has been somewhat impaired, due to business failures and decreased economic activity that has reduced the quality of the microfinance portfolio in Pakistan. At the same time, the demand for microfinance loans has increased multi-fold, as a result of inflation and the decline in the exchange rate, which means that people need larger loans to set up small businesses. The economic recession coupled with rising defaults and business failures amongst microfinance users has increased liquidity and refinancing risk for microfinance providers, both in terms of being able to raise additional funds and to meet current debt obligations.  The recent “Banana skins” report taken out by Citibank and CGAP has revealed that credit risk is an emerging issue across the global microfinance sector, while costs of undertaking microfinance operations are negatively affecting the sustainability of many institutions.

Moreover, the economic turbulence has been coupled with socio-political disorder at multiple tiers, and microfinance providers face a high level of political risk as there is an increased perception of the dwindling writ of the state and a deteriorating security situation. Additionally, a precedent for popular mobilization has been set which increases the risk of political intervention in the microfinance sector as different tiers of government are largely unclear of the role microfinance has on pro-poor growth. There has also been an increased tendency of governments and political parties to introduce populist unsustainable income support programs, which suffer from typical targeting and rent seeking symptoms, and are contrary to the spirit of sustainable financial services. Consequently, uncertainties stemming from the political set-up have adversely affected the economy, especially microfinance providers.

Q: Kashf Foundation hires many young Pakistanis who work as loan officers for the organization. What has been your experience working and mentoring these young officers and what has inspired them to work on the ground?

I would not describe it as any other way but inspirational. It is for us to give hope, encouragement and positivity to the youth of Pakistan.  At Kashf, we hire men and women fresh out of college, who then become harbingers of change within their communities.  The fact that they are part of a socially responsible institution unleashes their inner and latent potential – I have seen loan officers get promoted to Area managers in a matter of years.  In Pakistan we don’t lack talent, we lack good institutions to harness that talent.  We have to focus on building institutions that can provide opportunities to young people, and at the same time we have to build their entrepreneurship skills. For this reason, we decided to initiate a youth empowerment programme at Kashf.

Q: What have been some of the organization’s greatest successes? Where do you see Kashf in the next 5 years?

The most rewarding part of my work has been seeing real life changes.  Only a few weeks ago I was visiting Kasur, an area hemmed very close to the Indian border, and which is famous for its leather works.  I had the opportunity to visit a mature client Baji Jamila, who had been working with us for the past seven years.  I entered the courtyard of her small house which had an uneven brick flooring, part of the house had been newly constructed and was built a little higher than the rest, creating two levels of access.  When I arrived, I saw Baji Jamila busy in small ante chamber that she had converted into a mini loom factory.

Six years ago, Jamila had invested in a small spindle machine, which she purchased secondhand for US$150 to spool thread, package it and sell it in the local market.  This business had proved quite profitable and she now has four such spindles working simultaneously, spooling different colored thread on small spools.  Jamila’s husband Muhammad Mansha, seeing the success of his wife’s business left his job as a small time clerk and began working for her, taking care of purchasing the raw thread and getting it dyed, while she ran the spindles and managed the 20 women who work for her to package the thread.  It’s stories like these that really warm one’s heart and make one realize that the impossible is possible.

Overall all, we have seen a successful ramping up of our programme and since 1996 have disbursed loans to 1 million entrepreneurs across the country and provided US$225 million in working capital.  We have also seen that over 60% of our clients invest in new businesses, which has a multiplier effect on the local economy. Within the family this leads to higher income, higher savings and lower food vulnerability and often it translates into better education and healthcare of children.  We often see evidence of improvements in women’s self esteem (90% of mature clients state that they feel more empowered) and easing in tensions between family members.  On a financial level, Kashf Foundation has demonstrated a sustainable approach to delivering MF to low-income communities especially women.

Our aim is to reach out to 650,000 active clients by 2014.

This interview first appeared in Dawn Newspaper on Friday, May 14, 2010.

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In the United States, the debate over health care reform is still raging. In Pakistan, there are approximately 40 million low-income employees and family members. 99.3% of this population is uninsured and 97% of their health care expenses are out-of-pocket. Enter Naya Jeevan, (meaning “New Life” in Urdu), a social enterprise dedicated to providing urban low-income families affordable access to quality, catastrophic health care. Founded in October 2007, the organization utilizes an innovative micro insurance model to promote a vision of collective social responsibility, fostering “scalable partnerships with corporations, schools and individuals that employ low-income individuals, to leverage an existing, quality inpatient and ER-trauma health care delivery system.” Below, CHUP sits down with Naya Jeevan founder and CEO Asher Hasan:

Q: What is the current state of health care in Pakistan? What are the biggest obstacles facing low-income families in accessing health care?

There is a slow but emerging private health care system in Pakistan which is fairly high quality and meets international hospital standards (such as Shaukat Khanam in Lahore). Pakistan’s public health care sector, in comparison, is under resourced and overwhelmed. Most physicians in the public sector only show up at hospitals or clinics for one to two hours a day because of a lack of financial incentives and a lack of resources (in terms of medical equipment and auxiliary care).

The biggest issue for low-income families is affordability, particularly in terms of catastrophic health care (pertaining to large medical expenses for illnesses like cancer, pregnancy complications, etc.). Therefore, though families are conceptually entitled to free health care in the public sector, in practical terms they end up having to borrow money to take care of costs related to medical supplies, equipment, lab tests, and medicines. So their access to health care is subsequently impacted.

Q: What has the journey been to forming Naya Jeevan? What have been your biggest challenges and successes?

I was trained in surgery before I began working in biotechnology. I kept coming back to Pakistan on a yearly basis, and it struck me that we had to do something that was institutionally transformational in Pakistan. At the time I was thinking about Naya Jeevan, I serendipitously met Irum Musharraf and Saad Tabani who came to form the founding team of Naya Jeevan. Our ideas gelled and we set up a social enterprise that tried to attack the problem of affordability and quality health care in Pakistan for low-income families.

Our biggest challenge has been the restrained access to the kind of capital we need to become truly have a social impact. We would ideally like to raise much more growth capital. Another challenge has been establishing trust and credibility, since in Pakistan you’re often guilty until proven innocent. In the beginning, a lot of our potential clients engaged in watchful waiting. We are now beginning to see the results of patience, with our involvement rate accelerating significantly this year.

Naya Jeevan has been successful at adapting quickly to changes in the global economy, especially given that investor appetite has changed. Our visibility has been great and we have been invited to forums like the Clinton Global Initiative and received recognition like the TED fellowship. Moreover, our low-income beneficiaries feel that we are making a difference in their lives, which has been incredibly rewarding.

Q: According to your website, Naya Jeevan “offers its insurance program at subsidized rates under a novel national group health insurance model (underwritten by Allianz-EFU and IGI Insurance).” Could you tell us a bit more about this innovative approach to health insurance? How do you market these rates to urban low-income families?

One of our biggest innovations has been the structure and introduction of an HMO [Health Maintenance Organization] for the marginalized in Pakistan. We leveraged what was already on the ground and what was working for 600,000 lives in the private corporate sector, and expanded it to include a much wider potential target market of 40 million Pakistanis in the urban sector.

Naya Jeevan approached Pakistan’s major underwriters with a proposal that took what they were doing and customized a health plan that targeted a much larger group of low-income individuals who have historically been ignored by health insurance companies – including domestic household staff, contract workers, low-income workers in corporations and their families. In the past, companies have focused on the top of the pyramid, the corporate elite. We inverted that pyramid and told them to focus on the base because it is a much larger population. As long as costs are shared, it is a win-win for all stakeholders.

Another one of our innovations is our distribution system. Instead of going door-to-door to individuals, we are going to their employers, taking a more centralized approach and leveraging these organizations as distribution networks to reduce cost of collection and cost of distribution. Because employers do have an understanding of what health insurance is and their benefits,  it is much easier to convince them to purchase health insurance on behalf of their employees. In comparison, employees may not have as much of a comprehensive understanding. Naya Jeevan can therefore access low-income people through this distribution network.

Naya Jeevan’s fundamental premise is that a critical mass of employers in Pakistan (at an individual or institutional level) are philanthropic.  We discovered that many corporations either through CSR initiatives or through employee funds, pay for the healthcare, education, wedding, funeral expenses of the low-income staff affiliated with these organizations.  We sit with HR and finance managers, open their books and work out current health care cost as compared with the umbrella protection of health insurance coverage.  Such encounters drive our sales.

Q: Where do you see Naya Jeevan in the next year, five years, and ten years? Is it a model that you hope can be replicated in other developing countries?

We designed our organization to be scalable, sustainable, replicable and globalizable. Naya Jeevan is a social enterprise meant to be sustainable once it hits 100,000 insured lives. That has always been part of the philosophy  – to expand aggressively to other emerging markets. So many emerging countries have social hierarchical systems and health care issues similar to Pakistan, such as Brazil, South Africa, and the Palestinian Territories. We plan to expand this model to other countries. India is next up on the cards,  and we have already had discussions and done market research. That is our next target country and we hope to expand Naya Jeevan there by 2011 or early 2012.

In the next five years, we hope to expand to five continents – North (Mexico) and South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. And in the next five to ten years, we hope to hybridize into a two-tier model consisting of a non-profit wing focused on low-income families and a for-profit arm targeting the upper class and the “missing middle,” individuals who are vulnerable but still have a purchasing capacity. There is a healthy opportunity for a for-profit enterprise that could enhance the non-profit side.

To learn how to get involved or donate to Naya Jeevan, click here. Below is Asher’s presentation at TEDIndia 2009, where  he relayed a message of peace from Pakistan:

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Tamreez & Asim on the trek

The Citizens Foundation (TCF) is a not-for-profit organization that provides education opportunities for underpriveleged families in Pakistan. As of 2009, TCF has established 600 purpose-built school units nationwide with an enrollment of 80,000 students. TCF also encourages female enrollment and boasts a 50% female ratio on almost every campus. From October 16-25, 2009, Friends of The Citizens Foundation, a UK-based organization that fundraises for TCF schools in Pakistan, organized a trek of Mount Kilimanjaro, in which participants raised money and awareness about the organization’s work in Pakistan. The team as a whole raised nearly £80,000 – enough money to run nine TCF schools in Pakistan for a year, educating approximately 1350 underprivileged children. Below, CHUP talks to Tamreez Inam and Asim Khan [click to see their blog], a married couple who completed the trek in October and raised nearly £6000 for TCF:

Q: The Kilimanjaro Trek was such a unique fundraising idea developed by Friends of The Citizens Foundation (FTCF), and participants ended up raising nearly £80,000 for TCF schools in Pakistan. How did you get involved with the project and what inspired you to do it?

Tamreez: I had gotten in touch with FTCF because I was interested in finding out more about TCF’s work in Pakistan. As a side conversation, the trek came up. I thought it was such an exciting opportunity and for such a great cause, so I thought “why not?” I decided I would probably only do it if Asim would be willing. To my surprise, it hardly took any convincing before he jumped in as well! It was later we realized what we had gotten ourselves into when we had to start fundraising and training! But it was the adventure of a lifetime and I’m so glad we did it.

Our greatest inspiration was the work of TCF in Pakistan. Their schools are run to the highest standards, competing with elite private schools. For example, the high school pass rate of TCF students is 99% compared to the national average of 60%! They hire only female teachers to ensure high ratios of female enrollment in their schools. Some of the schools have evening shifts for children who work during the day to supplement the family income. The organization maintains high levels of professionalism, transparency and financial accountability. So what really inspired me was their professionalism combined with their ethos that caters to the poorest segments of Pakistani society in very innovative ways.

Q: How did you prepare mentally and physically for the trek?

T: Mentally, I don’t think it really sunk in until we were in Africa, but we tried our best to read up as much as we could before we went. We spoke to people who had already done the trek. I read online blogs of people’s experiences and their tips for making it through the grueling six days of the trek.

Coincidentally, we also read Three Cups of Tea which is American mountaineer and humanitarian Greg Mortenson’s incredibly inspiring story of his commitment to building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan’s remotest areas. That story really inspired both of us and it was an added coincidence that Greg climbed Kili at the age of 11 and spent the first 12 years of his life in the town of Moshi (our base camp for the trek)!

However, nothing could have prepared me for summit night (on the final day for the summit climb, we had to trek eight hours through the night in temperatures that went down to -22 C°). The last hour of the climb, I was crying from exhaustion and the biting cold. I was absolutely convinced that I had frostbite and when I returned, my fingers and toes would have to be chopped off! It’s surprising that I still didn’t give up and kept going. The fact that we were doing it in a big group and saw others who kept climbing, motivated us as well. Also, Asim and I kept pushing each other through the night and somehow when one of us would feel particularly weak or tired or cold, the other would get a surge of protective energy!

Physically, we trained for about three months prior to the trek. We would go to the gym a few times a week and also went on long walks. However, the main change was that we started living a more active lifestyle. Gradually, we saw our stamina improve. However, during the trek we realized we should have trained a lot more! For others who want to go on the trek, I would advise doing aerobics and definitely do a few climbs and treks in the months prior to Kilimanjaro.

Asim: Looking back, I wish we had done a lot more training than what we did. I personally felt mentally strong from the very beginning; the cause itself was a huge motivation and when the funds started flowing into our JustGiving page, we felt more and more into it.

Q: Given that you and Asim raised nearly £6000, how did you go about fundraising for the trek? What kinds of responses did you receive?

Asim & Tamreez: Most of our fundraising was online through our JustGiving page. We sent email reminders to friends and family who passed on the link to others. We also organized a bake sale and a Pakistani handicrafts sale, both of which got really good responses.

The month of Ramadan came during our fundraising as well and as we all know, we’re all particularly generous during that month, so that helped too! We made sure TCF was eligible for zakat and that we paid for all the costs of the travel and expenses ourselves. That assured people that their money would be going directly to the organization and not funding our trip in any way.

More than anything, we were impressed by the generosity of strangers or those who had just met us and found out about the cause. Friends we hadn’t spoken to in ages were some of the first people to donate. Friends of friends came forward and donated anonymously. Family members donated anonymously! It was quite touching. Honestly, the whole experience of fundraising from May to October really strengthened my belief in humanity.

Q: About 25 other people were also climbing for TCF – what was the dynamic like among the group and how did that evolve as the trek went on?

A & T: We were very lucky that we had an amazing group and that we all got along well. Everyone was really nice and friendly and they all believed in the cause. We would laugh and joke and motivate each other to keep going. The scenery was breathtaking throughout the trip and we would stop for photos which led to many memorable moments.

There were about 13 people who joined us from Singapore for the trek and there was a friendly rivalry that developed between the UK group and those from Singapore. As the trek went along, we all started looking out for each other and helping those who weren’t feeling well. It’s quite interesting that when taken away from your usual surroundings and sharing tents and camp toilets with people, you open up and trust each other a lot more than you normally would!

We had about 60 local porters and guides on the trek who were absolutely amazing. They would be singing and laughing and teaching us Swahili words and phrases.

The organizers from the tour operator, Action Challenge from the UK, who came with us were all really great people as well. They made sure we remained on schedule but still had fun. We had a representative from TCF, Hina Suleman, undertaking the trek with us. She was absolutely wonderful. Despite being as tired as the rest of us, she would still make sure everyone was doing well at the end of the day and even on days when she wasn’t feeling well herself, she would still be motivating and taking care of others!

Q: What was the most memorable experience about the trek itself?

T: I think the people we met made it very memorable for us. Honestly, if we hadn’t somehow all gelled, we might have been miserable through the ten days of the trip. Climbing and trekking isn’t easy and add to that altitude sickness, dehydration and hypothermia and you could have a potentially very miserable time ahead of you. But like I said, given we all got along so well, we really enjoyed ourselves and knowing that others were going through similar experiences, it really kept us motivated.

A: Each day of the trip was unique. We experienced almost all climatic zones, from tropical weather in Moshi to extremely cold conditions on the summit. We saw thousands of unique plants in the rainforest. It was amazing to see the tree line disappearing behind us. Reaching the summit was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. But the most memorable experience for me was our daily conversations with the local porters. Each one of them had life story of his own to tell. It not only gave us great insight into the local language and culture, but we learned a lot about the plight of a porter. They have a very tough lifestyle and some are forced into it due to their circumstances. From their strife to earn a day to day living to their determination to achieve the best for themselves and their families; it was an eye opening reminder for me.

Q: Do you think creative initiatives like the Kilimanjaro Trek can help not just raise funds but raise awareness about the work of NGOs in Pakistan? How necessary are charities like FTCF in leveraging support for local NGOs?

T: Oh absolutely! Friends of The Citizens Foundation, a UK registered charity and independent from TCF, serves as TCF’s fundraising arm in the UK. Similarly, TCF-USA does the same for it in America. These organizations go a long way in building support for the TCF and creating awareness about the cause. They are one of the most transparent, professional and efficient organizations I have ever come across. Working with them is a pleasure. So in a sense, they restore your faith in Pakistani organizations and those working for Pakistan. Also, because they genuinely care and translate it into actual work on the ground, I think they serve as great ambassadors for not just the NGOs, but our country in general.

A: It’s definitely a great way to raise awareness and hence more funds. It worked in our case. So many people we approached never heard of this charity before and that included Pakistanis. FTCF organized a similar trek to K2 base camp a couple of years ago and that team raised a similar amount too. FTCF no doubt is doing great job in raising awareness in this region. It is one of the biggest fundraising wings of TCF.

If you would like to learn more about The Citizens Foundation, visit their website. If Asim and Tamreez’s story inspires you, you can donate via their JustGiving page, or if you’d like to donate directly to TCF, please visit their website, TCF-USA, or FTCF.

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