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Pakistan's antidote to extremism: first arts school

Last month, President Pervez Musharraf made an announcement that many here say could reshape the cultural landscape.

No, he didn't trumpet the capture of some one-eyed mullah. He opened Pakistan's first-ever performing-arts academy. This might seem frivolous in a country with endemic poverty and thousands of hard-line Islamist seminaries. But many liberal Pakistanis say this small step is downright revolutionary.

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The new National Academy of the Performing Arts (NAPA), opened on Feb. 1 by President Musharraf, has set itself a daunting task: to reawaken a tradition of music, theater, and dance, and by extension, to open up free expression.

Pakistan, like many parts of the Muslim world, is ambivalent about the visual and performing arts. Some staunchly conservative Muslims feel the arts border on blasphemy and take one's mind off of God. But others say artistic expression is a crucial safety valve for social frustrations that extremists like Osama bin Laden exploit for their own purposes. Indeed, Musharraf's opening address spoke of projecting a moderate image for his country, instead of its vexing reputation as a terrorist haven.

For many of the institute's founders, NAPA has been needed for a long time.

"It should have happened 60 years ago," says NAPA director Zia Mohyeddin, who spent most of his career on stage in Britain. The arts can open up minds and bring social change to a society where hard-line Islamists have gained an increasing hold, he adds. "I don't know any other way to bring social change."

Pakistan's arts scene has been at a low point for decades, but reached its nadir during the 1977-88 dictatorship of Gen. Zia-ul Haq. Citing national security needs during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, General Zia curbed artistic expression. Many artists went underground for fear of being declared "un-Islamic."

Changing Pakistan's cultural mindset and weakening the grip of Islamists will not be easy, Mr. Mohyeddin admits. "This Islamic influence is the sword of Damocles that hangs over our heads. Dancing, singing, these are anathema to the Islamists, for they can only lead to the further de-Islamization of our souls. The biggest thing is the stigma, the prejudice. This is still seen as disreputable work."

But the very fact that NAPA has attracted so many applicants - hundreds have applied for just 80 positions - suggests both the pent-up interest of students and the at least tacit support of parents, many of whom in the past would have preferred their child to pursue more gainful employment in engineering, medicine, or accounting. Still, supporters say it is only a first step in a long process of restoring a moderate Islamic culture that is tolerant of free artistic and political expression.

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After all, in the very week that NAPA was launched, politicians from religious parties in the Northwest Frontier Province announced a bill to ban all public music performances. Proposed punishments range from heavy fines to hard labor.

Yet all that seems far away on the impressive campus of NAPA. Set in the fairy-tale architectural landmark of the old Hindu Gymkhana - a former health club for Karachi's Hindu elite - NAPA has quickly become a magnet for talent. At the campus café, classical singers practice the scales of an evocative raga in the fading light of dusk. At a nearby table, drama students make a scene (naturally). And on the Gymkhana's rooftop, a cluster of acoustic guitarists share their favorite licks, before joining one of the most sought-after classes at the school, learning music theory from Pakistan's top rock and jazz guitarist, Aamir Zaki.

Their music is an exotic mix of Delta blues and Indian classical ragas, a blend that Mr. Zaki encourages.

"We're doing classical Western on one side and Eastern classical on the other side, and sometimes we mix it up," says Zaki, who has had 150 applicants for his class thus far, but has accepted only 10. "My advanced students are already stars. So if we increase the level, and the word gets around, it's going to be great."

Students, most of whom come from middle- and lower-middle-class backgrounds, say they are thrilled to receive formal training. The hardest part is convincing their parents that they can make a living with their career choice.

But students are optimistic that they can convince their parents, and improve the image of arts in a country struggling to define what it means to be Islamic.

"There is a lot of ignorance in this country, so whatever the mullahs are preaching, it is taken as the law," says Sami Siddiqui, a guitarist. "I've studied my religion very deeply, and it's not what they are saying."

Creating a school for performing arts from scratch is a daunting task. NAPA's director of programs, Arshad Mahmud, pulls out a scene from Barrie Stavis's play "Lamp at Midnight," he has had translated into Urdu. It's a play about Gallileo's fight with the Roman Catholic church, a battle of faith and reason that resonates with many secular Pakistanis.

"We don't have enough texts, so we have taken up the task of translating classic plays ourselves to give to students," says Mr. Mahmud.

Fatima Ijaz and her classmates in the theater program say that the most important thing to notice is how many young women have entered NAPA. It wasn't so long ago that Pakistanis looked at acting or music as a disreputable profession, not so much because it was un-Islamic, but rather because it was akin to the saucy nauch dancing girls of the Moghul times.

"Most of the girls are feeling more comfortable expressing themselves here," says Miss Ijaz, a playwriting student. "Our parents are supportive, that is why we are here."

"Anyway most of us are social rebels, and we're determined to improve the state of the arts in Pakistan," says Mehreen Rafi, an acting student.

Salamat Ali Khan, a top Eastern classical singer, says Islam is not the problem. The problem is that society has held onto ancient prejudices.

"When the Aryans came to India, they divided society according to caste, and the musicians just happened to come from the lower castes," he says. "When musicians used to come to the cities, they would sound the drums to warn people."

Even so, he says, society has always taken its higher ideas from the performing arts. In addition, the arts provide a natural outlet for the normal frustrations of daily life. "Our traditional music has a soothing effect, rather than what you get in the West, which makes people hotter rather than settling them down," he says. "Our society could use a lot of soothing right now."

Owais Tohid contributed to this report.