Pakistani bagpipe business a throwback to colonial times

Updated 05 May 2013

Pakistani bagpipe business a throwback to colonial times

When it came time for a musical demonstration of the bagpipe maker’s finest product, the player wasn’t wearing traditional Scottish highland dress but rather Pakistan’s national outfit, a salwar kameez and sandals.
The piper produced a wince-inducing series of squalls and sharp honking sounds. “He needs more lung power,” joked Naeem Akhtar, chief executive of Halifax and Co., a musical instrument maker in this manufacturing city in northeastern Pakistan.
Bagpipe playing is largely a lost art in Pakistan, a remnant of its colonial past, but bagpipe manufacturing is not. Sialkot claims to be the largest exporter of bagpipes outside of Scotland.
Halifax’s small factory makes musical instruments — African-style drums and Irish folk harps among them — and wholesales them to countries around the world, but it all began with bagpipes.
Thirty-eight years ago Akhtar’s father started making reeds for the bagpipes. It is a family affair; he has two sons who are already in the business.
The signature Scottish wind instrument harkens back to the country’s imperial past. Prior to 1948, Pakistan was a part of British India. British regiments stationed in Sialkot included soldiers’ bands that played bagpipes they had brought with them from Scotland.
To avoid the costly and time-consuming process of sending a broken instrument back to Scotland to be repaired, one British soldier brought his bagpipe to the local market where Akhtar’s father was working and asked if the artisan could fix it. One week later, in Akhtar’s telling, his father made an exact copy of the bagpipes and challenged the soldier to pick out which one was the original.
Bagpipes made in Scotland are expensive to produce and are geared toward professional bagpipers. The ones made in Pakistan cost far less and are marketed for tourists and casual bagpipe fans. Halifax also makes toy bagpipes for children.
Sialkot is a bustling manufacturing hub where the per capita income is reportedly nearly double the national per-capita income.
Akhtar and other businessmen say it is a model of privatization and entrepreneurial initiative.
Rather than relying on government funds, local businessmen joined together to construct an international airport that boasts 32 flights a week — three for cargo. Operating since 2007, it is the first international airport in the country built by private citizens and a measure meant to boost business.
Successful industries in the region include those that manufacture medical and surgical instruments, leather jackets, martial arts equipment, soccer balls and of course, bagpipes. The reeds are all made from cane imported from France. The tartan cloth is domestic Pakistani stock.
Today, 65 to 70 people work in the Halifax factory, which makes more than 200 different items.
It is smaller companies like this that may suffer most if there is a mass exodus of Western retailers doing business in the region as some fear. The Walt Disney Co. has instructed its vendors and licensees to begin transitioning out of “high risk countries” like Pakistan and Bangladesh over fears of unacceptably low safety standards.
Disney’s decision came as a result of a fire in Pakistan’s financial capital Karachi last September that killed 262 people and another fire in the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, in which 112 people were killed.
Two weeks ago another devastating blow: A factory in Bangladesh collapsed and more than 500 bodies have been removed from the rubble so far. Dozens of people are still missing.
But Halifax proudly gave a tour of its facilities and insisted its workers are treated well.
The local factories have more jobs than employees, factory owners say, so they recruit in other communities and they train workers as young as age 15 to take up the trades.
“Everyone has money in Sialkot, even the factory workers,” CEO Akhtar said.
But daily power blackouts known as load-shedding have plagued factories for the past three years. Outages in the industrial city currently last about 16 hours a day and the increased costs have been bad for business owners. Once a price is listed in a catalog or agreed upon with a client, it’s impossible to raise prices, businessmen said, so factory owners absorb the estimated 10 percent profit loss from energy shortages.
“Everyone in the export business is facing the same problem,” Akhtar said.
There isn’t much demand for bagpipes here — the only players are ceremonial players in the Pakistani military or private band members that play at weddings or other occasions. The wedding players are all retired army men, he said.
The instruments Halifax makes are not meant for local markets, said Akhtar.
“You can’t buy bagpipes in Pakistan.”

‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).
Updated 19 April 2018

‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

  • Syrian artists-in-exile discuss their absence from their homeland and its impact on their work
  • For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief

DUBAI: “Being away from Syria is difficult,” young poet Maysan Nasser said. “Seven years later, it still feels like a phantom limb. It feels like the echo of white noise that is reverberating louder by the day.”

Nasser, a Beirut Poetry Slam champion, was talking separation: The idea that the loss of Syria is like an amputation. After seven years, she is still looking for answers to questions of home and belonging.

The first time I saw Nasser perform was last year during Zena El Khalil’s ‘Sacred Catastrophe: Healing Lebanon,’ a “40-day intervention” designed to permanently kick open the doors of Beit Beirut, a museum to the memory of the city in Sodeco. Her performance was raw and emotive.

The second time was in the basement of Riwaq Beirut, a coffee shop, cultural center and bar all rolled into one. She was addressing a small but appreciative young crowd and looked nervous. It was just a few weeks after she had launched the open-mic night ‘Sidewalk Beirut’ and the anxiety and jitters remained. In reality they shouldn’t. The crowd loves her.

“In this enforced distance from Syria, such communities have become my anchors,” she admitted. Yet her work, although deeply personal — sometimes painfully so — never directly discusses Syria or her home city of Damascus.

“I believe the distance of separation was the birth of my work,” she said. “It was in this distance that I was able to reconsider who I am, what my relationship to my family is like, what my relationship to my body is. I believe my poems to be attempts at understanding myself and my surroundings, but also my past.

“So when I speak about my mother and my relationship to her, I am also considering my mother’s past and the traditions she has internalized and passed on to me, which inevitably cast light on a time and place in Syria, and which inevitably expose my own connections and roots — or lack of, at times. This separation, in a sense, has coincided with a coming of age.”

At the same time as Nasser was hosting her early edition of Sidewalk Beirut, a mile or so away at The Colony in Karantina Zeid Hamdan, a pioneer of Lebanon’s underground music scene, was preparing to perform at Sofar Sounds. The venue —hidden up three flights of stairs in the Dagher Building — was little more than two empty rooms and an adjacent terrace. With him were the Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).

Hamdan has been performing with the trio since they left Damascus in 2011. Theirs is an energetic, sometimes harsh, alternative-rock sound, although that is changing. Their soon-to-be-released new album, “Human Reverie,” is as much about electronica as it is guitars and vocals.

“This pressure we’re living is kind of unique,” said Tarek Khuluki, the band’s guitarist and sometime vocalist. “You see people who are nagging about it or who are trying to use this pressure as a tool to escape the reality we’re living in, which can lead to unbalanced results. At the same time, you see people who are making the best they can with the little amount of nothing that they have. All they want is to see their ideas manifest themselves in art or in any other shape. 

“Psychologically, we’ve learned not to think too much and not to play the role of victims, but to focus on our own language, which is music.”

It’s hard to discern whether the war in Syria has had a direct impact on Tanjaret Daghet’s work, or whether the wider woes of the Arab world are partially responsible for their sound and lyrics. They sing of political oppression and societal pressure, the absence of feeling and the loss of voice.

“We do not live the state of war in the real sense of the word,” says Khaled Omran, the band’s lead singer and bassist. “What we’re living is a kind of internal war, which has arisen from our instincts as humans. It’s our right to express ourselves through art and music because it’s more humanistic, and this has allowed us to meet several artists and to exchange expertise. Who knows, maybe if we had stayed in Syria, none of that would have happened.” 

Outside of Beirut, up in the mountains of Aley, a series of old Ottoman stables have been converted into a residence for Syrian artists. Since it was first opened by Raghad Mardini in May 2012, Art Residence Aley has hosted numerous artists, including Iman Hasbani and Anas Homsi. Both now live in Berlin. Beirut, for some, is only transitory. 

“It has given me a wider vision of the world,” says the artist and film director Hazem Alhamwi of his own exile in Berlin. “Maybe it’s more painful, but it’s more real. It is training for how to change pain into creative energy. Since 2014 I have been painting a collection I call ‘Homeland in the Imagination’. It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination.”

Alhamwi is best known for “From My Syrian Room,” a documentary in which, through art and conversation, he attempts to understand how Syrians have learned to live with the distress and anxiety caused by war. It was while editing the film in France in 2013 that he realized he could not return to Syria, he said.

“I feel tired,” he told Arab News. “I feel as if I have one leg here — where I have to integrate, and want to — and the other leg in Syria, where I cannot stop being interested in what is happening. My family, my friends and my memories are still there. On the other hand, I feel like I am discovering another kind of violence, moving from living under a military dictatorship to the dictatorship of money. It’s a smooth violence written on smooth paper and put into a clean envelope. I feel myself in the stomach of the capitalist machine.”

For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief; a way to portray an overwhelming sense of loss. For others, those expressions are more subtle.

“We watch so many lies on TV, that it looks like art could be the only honest witness to modern times,” said Alhamwi, whose next film, produced by Zeina Zahreddine and Florian Schewe, will examine issues of identity. “Even many people’s facial expressions are not real. But good art is not only a mirror of the artist, but also of the spirit of the time they live in; or it’s at least the result of this reaction (of) the artist (to) the era.

“Art always tries to get people to pay more attention and not to repeat the same mistakes, but to learn from them instead. In wars, where the feelings of people are ignored and all the focus is on weapons, killing, fire and iron, art protects people’s real memory, away from any agenda or propaganda. It is this complicated memory that reflects the events, the emotions and the point of view of the artist. That is why art is needed in war as a special documentation. To tell the stories of people who didn’t get involved, because of position or fate,” he continued. “Art is a way for artists to survive in a world controlled by violence.”