Pakistani man from scarred borderlands finds refuge, and acclaim, in landscape painting 

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In this undated photograph, artist Safeer Khan is seen working on a landscape in his native town in Gomal Valley, Pakistan. (Photo courtesy: Safeer Khan)
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An undated photo of a landscape painting produced by artist Safeer Khan depicts houses in Kaniguram Valley in South Waziristan tribal district, Pakistan. (Photo courtesy: Safeer Khan)
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An undated photo of a landscape painting by artist Safeer Khan captures village life in South Waziristan tribal district, Pakistan (Photo courtesy: Safeer Khan)
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An undated photograph of a landscape painting by artist Safeer Khan in 2019 portrays the natural beauty of South Waziristan tribal district in Pakistan. (Photo courtesy: Safeer Khan)
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This undated photograph shows a house in South Waziristan, Pakistan, painted by artist Safeer Khan. (Photo courtesy: Safeer Khan)
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Updated 05 November 2020

Pakistani man from scarred borderlands finds refuge, and acclaim, in landscape painting 

  • Safeer Khan grew up poor in a tiny settlement of mud houses in Tank district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province 
  • With his family unable to afford his education, Khan was forced to drop out of high school until art saved his life

TANK: Safeer Khan grew up poor in a tiny settlement of mud houses in Pakistan’s Tank district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan and bears the deep scars of decades of militant violence. 
With his family unable to afford his education, Khan was forced to drop out of high school and had few prospects for a future.
But art saved his life, says the 26-year-old man who is now a landscape painter and recently found social media fame. 
“Safeer was in a miserable condition when he first met me,” Khan’s art teacher Ajab Khan told Arab News. “He had dropped out of school due to financial constraints, but I encouraged him to continue his education since I could see immense potential in him. I knew he was highly imaginative.”
Khan first began to produce commercial images and painted signboards until 2011. Now, under the tutelage of his teacher, he focuses on landscapes, inspired by the natural beauty and culture of Pakistan’s mountainous tribal regions. In 2018, he won a prize at a ceremony arranged by the Abasin Arts Council in Peshawar. He has also won prizes in similar competitions in cities like Faisalabad and Dera Ismail Khan.




An undated photograph of a landscape painting by artist Safeer Khan shows animals in a meadow in South Waziristan tribal district, Pakistan. (Photo courtesy: Safeer Khan)

“My ambition is to exhibit my work in museums and art galleries in Islamabad and abroad,” said Khan, who now has a master’s degree in the Pashto language and a diploma in drawing. “However, I can’t make that happen on my own and need government support.”
“I’ve embarked on this journey, though I know my destination is far away,” he added.

Khan’s work betrays little of the hardships and violence of the region from where he belongs. 




An undated photograph of a landscape painting produced by artist Safeer Khan shows South Waziristan’s natural beauty. (Photo courtesy: Safeer Khan)

Inspired by South African landscapist Anton Benzon, popular for his bold brushstrokes and passion for strong colors, the young Pakistani artist too has his own way of looking at the world around him, and mostly paints calm and serene scenes from pastoral and countryside life in his home region.
Khan’s teacher Ajab said his student loved his land, people and culture.
“All these ingredients are immensely important for an artist,” he added. “However, his future will be bleak if he continues to live in his native town since no one around him will have any appreciation for his talent.”


 


Pakistan expands COVID-19 vaccination to people aged 50 and older

Updated 17 April 2021

Pakistan expands COVID-19 vaccination to people aged 50 and older

  • Pakistan has so far vaccinated about 1.3 million people out of its 220 million population
  • General vaccination program for all citizens expected to start after the fasting month of Ramadan in mid-May

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan will start vaccinating residents aged 50 or older against COVID-19 from Wednesday next week, Planning Minister Asad Umar said on Saturday.

The country began its vaccination drive last February with doses of the Sinopharm vaccine donated by China, starting with health workers, followed by people above the age of 60.

Earlier this week, Umar, who also heads the National Command and Operation Center (NCOC), the country's apex body for coronavirus response, said Pakistan had so far vaccinated about 1.3 million people out of its 220 million population and intended to launch a general vaccination program for all citizens after the fasting month of Ramadan in mid-May.

"Decision taken in today's NCOC meeting to start vaccination of people in the age group of 50 to 59 from Wednesday the 21st of April," Umar said in a tweet.

 

 

He told the media on Tuesday that the country was immunizing between 60,000 and 70,000 people on a daily basis and planned to increase the number after Eid Al-Fitr.

The number of those getting their jabs is believed to have dropped during the first days of Ramadan as many fear that receiving a shot could break their fast.

Pakistan Medical Association secretary general Dr. Qaisar Sajjad said that despite the fact that religious scholars have endorsed the opinion of doctors to continue with vaccination despite the fast, more awareness is still needed.

“The government has done arrangement for vaccination during night but since we are going through the peak of a third wave and the cases of coronavirus infection are growing, the authorities should run a rigorous campaign with video messages of religious scholars so that the process may go fast all the time,” he told Arab News.

American media company Bloomberg recently reported that Pakistan would take a decade to vaccinate 75 percent of its population at its current immunization pace.


PM Khan says religious party banned over violence, demands apology from Western 'extremists'

Updated 17 April 2021

PM Khan says religious party banned over violence, demands apology from Western 'extremists'

  • Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik protesting since Monday to demand leader’s release, call on government to expel French ambassador
  • TLP and other religious parties have denounced France since October last year saying it defended blasphemy as freedom of expression

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan said on Saturday the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a rightwing religious political party that has held violent nationwide protests this week over blasphemous French cartoons, was being banned for using violence against law enforcers and citizens, but added that “extremists” in the West who hurt the sentiments of Muslims also needed to apologize.

Protests erupted in Pakistan on Monday, and quickly turned violent, after TLP chief Saad Rizvi was arrested in the eastern city of Lahore, a day after he threatened the government with protests if it did not expel France’s envoy to Islamabad over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) published in France last year.

On Thursday, the interior ministry said it was moving to have the party banned for attacking law enforcement forces and disrupting public life during its protests. The interior ministry’s decision has been approved by the federal cabinet but needs to be ratified by the Supreme Court for the TLP to be dissolved.

“Let me make clear to people here & abroad: Our govt only took action against TLP under our anti-terrorist law when they challenged the writ of the state and used street violence & attacking the public & law enforcers. No one can be above the law and the Constitution,” the PM said in a series of tweets.

 

 

However, the PM also called out “extreme right politicians” in the West who he said deliberately hurt the sentiments of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims in the name of freedom on speech: “We demand an apology from these extremists.”

 

 

In October last year, protests broke out in several Muslim countries over France’s response to a deadly attack on a teacher who showed cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to his pupils during a civics lesson.

During similar protests in Pakistan, the government negotiated with the TLP and met a number of its demands, including said it would debate expelling the French ambassador in parliament.

A deadline to make that parliamentary move expires on April 20.

The TLP gained prominence in Pakistan’s 2018 federal elections, campaigning to defend the country’s blasphemy law, which calls for the death penalty for anyone who insults Islam. The party also has a history of staging protests and sit-ins to pressure the government to accept its demands.

In November 2017, Rizvi’s followers staged a 21-day protest and sit-in after a reference to the sanctity of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was removed from the text of a government form.


French nationals in Pakistan refuse embassy call to leave

Updated 17 April 2021

French nationals in Pakistan refuse embassy call to leave

  • Embassy announcement came after days of violent protests by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) demanding expulsion of France’s envoy to Islamabad
  • French nationals question the timing of the embassy’s message as the Pakistani government had just announced the ban on the TLP

ISLAMABAD: The French community in Pakistan is torn between disbelief, fear and annoyance in reaction to their embassy’s call for them to leave the country after violent protests this week by a religious political party.

Most, it seems, have decided to stay put.

In a terse three-line email, accompanied by the words “urgent,” the embassy in Islamabad on Thursday recommended its nationals and French companies temporarily leave Pakistan, because of “serious threats.”

The email, which did not specify the nature of the risks, caused shock and consternation among the few hundred-strong French community.

Jean-Michel Quarantotti, who has taught French at the American school in Islamabad for three years, was first alerted to the embassy advisory by a student.

“I won’t hide from you that at first I felt a little bit of fear, panic,” he told AFP.

“It’s not my first foreign country — I did a lot before arriving in Pakistan — but I was really shocked. I didn’t expect to go through this.”

His first thought was to pack up and leave, but after discussing the situation with colleagues he said reason took over from emotion.

“The Pakistanis around me advised me to stay,” he said. “They told me that they would protect me.”

“It was very touching to see the solidarity around me, from people who told me: ‘We are here for you, do not worry, we will defend you’.”

The embassy announcement came after days of violent protests by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) after the arrest in Lahore Monday of leader Saad Rizvi, who had called for a march on the capital to demand the expulsion of the French ambassador.

Four policemen were killed in the rioting.

The TLP has been behind several anti-France rallies since President Emmanuel Macron defended the right of Charlie Hebdo magazine to republish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

Many of the French people contacted by AFP questioned the timing of the embassy’s message as the Pakistani government had just announced the ban on the TLP and seemed to have the situation under control.

“Yes, there are a lot of risks to live here,” said Quarantotti, “but we don’t need to panic the French community with words that are badly chosen.

“We wonder a little why France needed to publicize this message at the international level, when it could have given a much more discreet message to the (French) community.”

Fellow national Julien — an assumed name because he does not wish to divulge his identity — has also chosen to stay put.
“It’s a recommendation, so I won’t leave,” he told AFP.

He also refused his employer’s offer to repatriate him to Europe or put armed guards outside his home.

“Anyway, since October, November, it’s been all ups and downs. So we’ll wait for it to calm down,” the Islamabad resident said.

“The watchword is vigilance,” added Laurent Cinot, a consultant for the World Bank who arrived in the capital less than two months ago.

He said any threat was not from ordinary Pakistanis, but only the TLP.

Another Frenchman living in Lahore — who is not allowed to give his name or that of his French company for security reasons — has spent nearly ten years in Pakistan in two stints.

“Since I’ve been here a long time, I didn’t really panic,” he said.

Still, he is the only French national contacted by AFP who will leave — on the orders of his employers.

For Cinot, the embassy message will have the unfortunate effect of sending back another very negative picture of Pakistan to France.

“It does not deserve it because, honestly, it is a magnificent country with people who are quite fascinating and kind ... extremely kind,” he said.
 


Pakistan says Kashmir remains central to ‘meaningful’ engagement with India

Updated 17 April 2021

Pakistan says Kashmir remains central to ‘meaningful’ engagement with India

  • Recent media reports have suggested that Islamabad and New Delhi have reopened a back channel of diplomacy to normalize ties
  • Earlier this week, UAE envoy to Washington said the Gulf state had helped Pakistan and India bring Kashmir escalation down

ISLAMABAD: Any meaningful engagement between Pakistan and India remains dependent on a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir dispute, the Pakistani foreign office said on Friday.

Kashmir has long been a flashpoint between the nuclear-armed neighbors, both of which claim the region in full, but rule it in part. Tension was renewed after New Delhi withdrew the autonomy of the Himalayan region in August 2019 and split it into federally administered territories, prompting outrage in Pakistan, the downgrading of diplomatic ties and suspension of bilateral trade.

But recent media reports have suggested that the two governments have reopened a back channel of diplomacy aimed at a modest roadmap to normalizing ties over the next several months. Last month, the military operational heads of Pakistan and India signed an agreement to stop firing along the Line of Control (LoC) — their de facto border in the Kashmir region.

While he did not directly comment on the reported backchannel diplomacy, Pakistan’s foreign office spokesman, Zahid Hafeez Chaudhry, said in Friday’s press briefing that “Kashmir remains central to any meaningful engagement between India and Pakistan.”

“We believe durable peace, security and development in the region hinge on peaceful resolution of the long-standing Jammu and Kashmir dispute,” he said.
 
Chaudhry’s comments come after the United Arab Emirates’ envoy to Washington, Yousef Al-Otaiba, said in a discussion with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution earlier this week that the Gulf state had been mediating between India and Pakistan and had helped them bring Kashmir escalation down.

The foreign office spokesman did not confirm the UAE’s role but said that Pakistan “has never shied away from talks with India.”

He said: “As for the role of third parties, we have always maintained that the international community has an important role to play in averting risks to peace and stability in the region and facilitating a just and lasting solution to the Jammu & Kashmir dispute in accordance with the UN Security Council Resolutions and the wishes of the Kashmiri people.”
 


Livin’ on a prayer: Meet Pakistan’s champion Qur’an reader 

Updated 17 April 2021

Livin’ on a prayer: Meet Pakistan’s champion Qur’an reader 

  • Qaris require perfect Arabic pronunciation, a difficult feat in Pakistan where Urdu is the national language
  • Ali Kasi practices yoga to master breath control, and stays away from fatty food

ISLAMABAD: To master the art of Qur’an recitation, 21-year-old Hassan Ali Kasi had to follow a strict regime of yoga, hours of rehearsing vocal scales — and a total ban on biryani.

His dedication is paying off, and he was recently named champion of an international online qari competition hosted by Afghanistan, where he was up against men from 25 other countries.

Revered in Pakistan, qaris are professional reciters of the Qur’an, called upon to lead prayers at mosques and also to teach the Muslim holy book to students.

In this picture taken on March 26, 2021, Hassan Ali Kasi, a qari or professional reciter of the Koran, practices yoga as part of his training regime in Islamabad. (AFP)

They are in particularly high demand during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting currently being observed around the world.

“It was a job of the prophets,” Ali Kasi said.

“One of the very first elements of preaching was recitation. It is as old as Islam.”

Qaris require perfect Arabic pronunciation, a difficult feat in Pakistan where Urdu is the national language.

A finesse of rhythm and intonation produces the slow, melodic sound similar to the distinctive adhan, or call to prayer, delivered through loudspeakers from the top of mosques five times a day.

In this picture taken on March 26, 2021, Hassan Ali Kasi, a qari or professional reciter of the Koran, exercises as part of his training regime in Islamabad. (AFP)

Recitations during competitions can last for 15 minutes, so Ali Kasi practices yoga to help with breath control, and vocal exercises to strengthen his voice.

“A qari should be able to recite for a minimum of 50 seconds without taking a breath,” said Ali Kasi, an Islamic Studies student at a university in the capital.

“The throat is very sensitive, a qari should avoid cold water and fatty food as it produces too much mucus, which causes abrasion when you touch high notes,” he cautioned.

He was tutored in the Qur’an by his father, and his recitation skills quickly earned him recognition at the national level where he won numerous awards before making it onto the international stage.

Many qaris emerge after being taught at religious schools known as madrassas, where young boys are taught to memorize the Qur’an — often with little understanding of the Arabic language and also at the expense of other subjects.

Education activists say the colossal effort that can often take years to master fails to prepare students for the workforce.

But for millions of boys in impoverished and deeply conservative Pakistan, it is the only schooling available, providing free shelter, clothes and food.

In this picture taken on March 26, 2021, Hassan Ali Kasi, a qari or professional reciter of the Koran, recites verses from the Muslim holy book in Islamabad. (AFP)

Very few madrassas are open to girls.

Boys who complete their studies can go on to become teachers or lead prayers at mosques around the world — even if they earn little money from it.

“One has to be meticulously hardworking,” said Abdul Qudus, from the Wafaq-ul-Madaris Al-Arabia, the country’s largest group of madrassas.

“The voice is a gift from God, but one has to polish it.”

He said hundreds of prayer leaders in the Middle East are madrassa graduates, while others are now teaching the Qur’an online to Pakistanis living overseas in Europe or America.

Ali Kasi, who spends hours practicing verses ahead of competitions, said quality teachers were the key to his winning voice.

“When you follow a good qari, you can spread your voice across the world,” he said.