The approach of the festive winter season heralds anxieties about what to wear. Luckily, while kurta lengths may rise and fall and palettes change hues, there seems to be one style that’s here to stay: patriotism.

A wander through Karachi’s malls yields outfits emblazoned with images of Jinnah, five paisa coins, the Pakistani flag. Madam Nur Jehan, the masthead of newspaper Jang, and heritage building Frere Hall have been rendered as accessories. Fab­rics, jewellery, and purses bear large "made in Pakistan" or "made in Karachi" labels. Nationalism has become a fashion statement.

This is by no means a new phenomenon – nationalist cultural products have emerged in recent years and are manifest across various mediums. The most obvious example is the slew of films made in Pakistan, tackling Pakistani themes, most of which are implicitly in defence of the nation.

Think of Shah, which follows the boxer who made it from Lyari to the Olympics to bring home the bronze medal – a tale of forgotten past glories. Or Moor, a lament on the state of national infrastructure, which has fallen victim to corruption and cronyism. Such messaging extends beyond film to architecture, children’s cartoons, and the launch in recent years of literary, culinary and other festivals, as well as urban policy.

Cultural shift

There are many reasons for this cultural shift, driven by Pakistani expatriates who found themselves jobless after the global financial crisis or visa-less in the context of the war on terror, and returned home armed with global exposure and an entrepreneurial spirit. The rapid growth of Pakistan’s urban middle class has provided consumers for cultural products, and investment in venues such as malls and auditoriums where such products can be purchased or exhibited.

The increase in the number of working women with a disposable income has further expanded the size of the market. Moreover, the poor enforcement of intellectual property rights means that locals can adapt ideas picked up abroad, appropriating them in a Pakistani context without fearing lawsuits. These trends coupled with access to cheap labour, Chinese goods, and an existing capacity for craftsmanship in various mediums explain how the nation’s nightingale has proliferated as a digital print.

But this does not explain why the content of local cultural products is informed by national pride. The reasons for this are also complex. These products emerged during perhaps the darkest period of Pakistan’s history, defined by violence, terror, hate and hopelessness.

Positive spin

In this context, these products are an attempt to project a better national image – hope offerings, reminders of what was, straws to cling to. The cultural products seek to have the same effect as increasingly popular news pieces on "positive Pakistan" – the stories of resilience and courage that have captured the national imagination in the most bleak of times. They are the mass market or cultural response to heroes such as Aitzaz Hasan, the teenager from Hangu, who prevented a suicide bomber from entering his school, losing his life in the process.

The "made in Pakistan" label is also a strong response to over a decade of brewing anti-Western sentiment, steeped in US foreign policies, drone strikes and incidents such as the Nato attack on Salala and the unilateral raid in Abbottabad, but also deepened through conspiracy theorising, the ever wider circulation of extremist narratives pitting a clash of civilisations, and strategic manipulation of media discourse to support Pakistan’s security and foreign policies.

Nationalist products are also the cultural articulation of a concerted top-down effort to revive patriotism and quash the existential crisis thrown up by a decade of conflict. As Pakistani soldiers are killing and dying on Pakistani soil, the state is confronting all the old questions about our national identity: is Pakistan secular or religious? Whose Islam is the right Islam? Is Indian hegemony really the greatest threat? Such difficult questions are best handled with simple answers – and what can be simpler than jingoism? Pakistan with a capital ‘p’ is the one strong message that trumps questions of sectarian difference, ethnicity, and class.

A familiar identity

The wave of patriotism has created an appetite – and more importantly a market – for indigenous cultural products. Today, these cultural products have a feel-good factor, instilling pride and hope, and providing comfort in a familiar identity after years of doubt.

But as creative producers increasingly turn to our country’s history and politics for inspiration, they are bound to unearth more complexities. In time, rather than provide simple answers to difficult questions, these cultural products will themselves start to ask the difficult questions.

If our state’s experience with things it thought it could manage – from jihadi groups to the mainstream media – is anything to go by, these products will inevitably become more subversive and transgressive. And that’s when things get interesting. Because you can ban groups and block channels, but how do you censor markets?

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