It is the same pattern every year as Valentine’s Day – February 14 – approaches. One part or another of the state machinery deems it necessary to crack down on this “Western practice” that corrupts “our culture”. This year, it was the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority that barred private television channels from promoting Valentine’s Day. Last year, the Islamabad High Court – the upholder of our Constitution, in which many laws are a direct legacy of the colonial state – had barred such celebrations in public spaces. And in 2016, the president, wearing a suit and tie, had advised Pakistanis to desist from marking this day because it was not part of our culture.

In all these cases, the rationale was to preserve our indigenous culture from Western influence. But what exactly is this indigenous culture that we are so bent on preserving? What aspects of Western culture can we borrow and what needs to be shunned? Is the entire modern state not a product of this Western system – parliamentary politics, judiciary, army? I often wonder why lawyers wear black coats even when the temperature outside is touching 50 degrees Celsius. Why does a traffic warden standing in the middle of the road with the scorching sun directly above him need to wear a shirt with full sleeves? Why are trainees planning to join the Pakistani bureaucracy still taught “table manners”? Even some of our laws, such as those dealing with homosexuality, are a direct product of this Western influence.

For that matter then, where does west end and east begin? Where exactly does the Arab world lie? Is Morocco part of the east despite lying west of Italy, Greece, France and England? Is it even possible to disentangle the Arab world from this Western world? Where would the west be without the Arabic scholars who preserved for them the works of Plato, Aristotle and other Greek philosophers as religiously charged hordes burned the writings of these ancient “pagan” scholars?

Pakistan's state machinery has cracked down on Valentine's Day celebrations in recent years. After the president in 2016 and the Islamabad High Court in 2017, it was the turn of Pakistan's media regulator this year. (Credit: AFP)

Celebrating love

If we are east, then how east can we afford to be? Is the Indus Valley Civilisation part of our culture? If yes, then how do we address several religious and cultural traditions of that civilisation found today in one form or another in Hinduism? What should we do with the folk stories that suggest the sage Valmiki gave refuge to Sita when she was banished from Ayodhya and that the first version of the Ramayana, Valmiki’s version, was written on the banks of the Ravi river? How do we explain to our children that Lahore is believed to have been founded by Lava, the son of Ram, but Hinduism is still not part of our culture? While identifying what is part of our culture and what is not, how do we explain the story of Prahlad Bhagat, the origin of Holi and Multan?

What should we do then with our folk religious culture as exhibited in the shrines of various Sufi saints across the country? How are we to interpret the tradition of dhamaal – a dance performed as an expression of devotion – whose origin, according to prominent anthropologists, links back to Shiva’s tandava or dance of destruction?

Is Waris Shah, the Punjabi poet who celebrated the love between Heer and Ranjha, not part of our culture? How do we explain this to thousands of devotees of Heer who gather at her shrine in Jhang, praying to her to intercede on their behalf with the divine? How do we tell hundreds of young lovers who have written their names on the walls of the shrine that celebrating Valentine’s Day is not part of our culture – that celebrating love is not part of our culture?

Charms adorn a tree at the shrine of Heer Ranjha in Jhang, Pakistan. (Credit: Khalid Mahmood / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0)

How are we to explain these interpretations of culture to Waris Shah, who equated the love between Heer and Ranjha to that of a devotee and the divine? How are we to understand the spirituality of the relationship between Heer and Ranjha without reflecting on that between Radha and Krishna? Doesn’t Bulleh Shah in his poetry blur the difference between Ranjha and Krishna? Is there anyone in Pakistan today who would dare claim that Bulleh Shah is not part of our culture?

No isolated culture

How do we address Sikhism, which was born with the birth of Guru Nanak in a town called Talwindi (modern-day Nankana Sahib) a short distance from Lahore? How do we remove Islamic influences from the philosophy of Nanak – Syed Hassan, Rai Bular, Baba Farid and Bhai Mardana? How do we explain Nanak’s passionate emphasis on monotheism? Is Nanak part of our culture?

But if none of this is part of our culture, then what exactly is our culture? Can we put a finger on it, identify it as a tangible object? If we are to do that, can this culture be preserved, isolated from all its other influences? If that had been the case, would Urdu, an amalgamation of a number of languages, exist? What would our culture look like without Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz? Or perhaps I have missed the point. Perhaps we have reached our cultural plateau. Any outside influence will only bring us down from our summit. In that case, please excuse my rant as I change my position to completely justify yet another ban on Valentine’s Day.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail