From boredom to sheer inspiration

One arrived about five minutes late at the TEDx Karachi event and was greeted by a queue that was at least half a block long, comprising of attendants patiently waiting to enter the premises on a sweltering May afternoon.

Last year, TEDx Karachi was an ‘international affair’, with speakers including TED’s curator Chris Anderson and Jacqueline Novogratz along with Pakistan-based Indo-Aussie performer Joshinder Chaggar. In comparison though this year’s line-up was all Pakistani, and with the inclusion of the likes of Imran Khan and Maukhtar Mai, had an activist-political slant.

Once past the requisite list check and QR code scanning (a truly geek touch), which might have been responsible for the large holdup outside, it was time to let the show begin. The event started with TEDx senior fellow Awab Alvi’s welcome note.

The first speaker was columnist Fasi Zaka. Armed with a razor-sharp wit, Zaka easily captured the attention of the audience within minutes. “Education is like tinday, you only eat them when you have to!” Zaka proclaimed, and then proceeded to give a good sound-drumming to all the eager minds hanging on his words about how important education is for Pakistan.

Speaking of hanging, next up was the TEDx Talk, a collection of videos from the original TED event, but rendered completely incomprehensible due to video glitches.

Abandoning it, the organizers invited the next speaker. Raja Sabri Khan, an engineer and an inventor, proudly introduced himself as a “drone maker”. Sabri, though articulate was a bit too cautious about his own talk and repeatedly mentioned the non-military aspects of making drones, which included the customary “I am against drone strikes” each time he glanced at the anti-drone Imran Khan in the audience. No one was expecting a dharna in any case.

As soon as he got done, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy came on stage and invited Imran Khan. And this was the moment from where the tone of the evening changed. Much had been written about inviting Khan to speak at the forum well before the event even commenced; indeed, both Facebook and Twitter buzzed with statuses and tweets for weeks in and weeks out about how he would bore us all with his idealistic politics.

However, Khan surprised all the naysayer when he indulged in self-depreciating humour and gave the crowd what they wanted on this forum. On their part, the crowd found his talk entertaining and warmed up to the ‘star’ Imran that they all adored and want more often to see.

One thing though, Khan was clearly under-prepared in both his delivery and focus. He wandered off once too often, speaking about so many different aspects of his life that it became quite difficult to follow him. In the words of an attendee, “He seemed a bit lost quite frankly.” Clearly, even after his 18 minutes of TEDx were done and as he kept going on and on about why we must never give up, Khan himself wasn’t giving up!

Tea break happened right after (may be thankfully?), and as ever became a social-blogger mixer in about 30 seconds. Everyone wanted pictures or get a word in with the speakers, who happily enough indulged the people and interacted openly with them. This only added to the slight delay in the proceedings! Once the schmoozing was done and over with, we trooped back into the auditorium and took our seats.

Noori was the next act and even though their ‘long lost band member’ never showed up, they managed to do a stellar job. Although it would have been even better if they would have just performed and not indulged in Sufi philosophy and tried to explain the basic of Sufism as if the audience comprised of ninth graders.

The musical act was followed by Dr Qurat ul ain Bakthiari, and TEDx Karachi switched gears again. Yes she made a very emotive figure as she told us so many details of a life spent working for refugees, replete with gems regarding her personal life and the pressing need for equality between the sexes – but she stretched it too long.

By the time her talk ended, a couple of feminists (are we allowed to call them that?) had gone into complete rapture but there were those who were getting shifty on the stage. The final straw perhaps was when her head-mike expressed its boredom in rapid fire shrieks and gave her the cue to take a bow amidst a standing ovation.

The irony of the evening was not lost, when Asad Rehman, the least flamboyant of the three organizers, presented Sarmad Tariq, the most powerful TEDx speaker, of the evening to us. A wheelchair-bound quadriplegic, Tariq did not have us pity him – rather he inspired all with his courage. For those who complain about how things go wrong in their lives, Tariq is a man who best sums up the adage ‘when the going gets tough, the tough gets going’. Sitting there and sharing his life, he is living proof that superhuman strength comes from within. It was indeed fitting that he got the most loud and vibrant standing ovation of this night.

As the finale to TEDx Karachi, there was a question-and-answer session with Mukhtar Mai, which fizzled out for many due to the ‘lack of stage presence’. Chinoy seemed inconsistent as she questioned Mai with questions that had been tweeted earlier by the participants and touched on different aspects of her life and struggle.

Mukhtar’s voice got lost due to the bad sound system but still some answers were comprehendible. The simple line by Mukhtar that she had “believed the Supreme Court would provide her justice and now she has left her case on Allah” sums up how the society and legal system fails on many counts. She also described the backlash as she is jeered by the freed men in her village when she is walking back from her school or back to her home from somewhere “I just pretend that it [the insults] didn’t happen and I walk on.”

“Hats off to the lady for standing up again the inherent prejudice and speaking out loud against injustice,” said a young attendee, summing up the feelings of those present.

And then that was that. The much-hyped event with its completely Pakistani line-up and nature, displaying little fissures of sound faults and slight miscues but proving to us all something very important: The knowledge that this nation of eccentric and varied talent still has it in its power to inspire!



As published in “Features”