Meet the inventor of Cyberkhilafat

September 27, 2020

Lahore-based Arafat Mazhar, the director of Shehr-i-Tabassum, an animated short which predicts a dystopian future for the city, is trying to get a new sub-genre of science fiction off the ground

Earlier this year, I was at the British Council Library on Mozang Road for a film screening. The film in question was titled Shehr-i-Tabassum, an animated short set in a dystopian future city of Pakistan. The city shown in the movie, though alien and not explicitly named, somehow seemed familiar; and then, an on-screen sound in the film is heard saying, “Hawai Qingqi ki dus minute mein Nayi Anarkali se rawaangi!” (The air Qingqi will leave New Anarkali in 10 minutes).

My suspicion appeared to be correct: this movie is closer to home than it lets on.

The film itself was a larger story about a fascinating blend of ideas: a speculative thought experiment about a technologically advanced, oppressive political realm — the hallmark of mainstream science fiction about late 21st century urban life — applied to the context of Pakistan and its social realities.

This concept has been given a name by Arafat Mazhar, the director and soundtrack composer of Shehr-i-Tabassum: Cyberkhilafat.

It’s a new paradigm within science fiction, dreamt up by Lahore-based filmmaker, artist and researcher, Arafat Mazhar, who is the director of Engage Foundation for Research and Dialogue (EFRD), which conducts research on blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Mazhar has also created multiple educational online platforms like Shehri Pakistan, which produces civic and legal literacy animations; Soch Videos, an award-winning online news platform; and, most recently, Hashiya, a history channel with focus on critical approaches to history. He is currently working on a documentary on the history of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, scheduled for release by the end of 2020.

In 2019, Mazhar launched the animation studio, Puffball, where he directed and scored the studio’s debut film Shehr-i-Tabassum, the first ever work in Cyberkhilafat fiction. The film was highly acclaimed at the time of its release and was screened extensively earlier this year too, both in Pakistan and abroad where it was shown in more than 40 universities around the world.

Shehr-i-Tabassum has since been made available online in its entirety. Puffball’s second animated film, Swipe, is due to be released in October.

In anticipation of the release of Swipe, and for a deeper conversation about Cyberkhilafat, I sat down with Mazhar for a chat about the inspiration behind his work and his aspirations.

I learnt that Mazhar uses Cyberkhilafat as a catch-all term to describe stories that “explore modern forms of Islam, technology and power combined to corrupt language and dictate political and social norms to mute individual identity.” It is meant to be a critique, not of Islam, but of the misuse of religious ideology in an authoritarian vein through literalist interpretations of religious doctrine and tradition.

The idea of Cyberkhilafat came to Mazhar over time, but is rooted in one of Pakistan’s darkest moments. “I would say everything [story-wise] that… I am telling as a person can be traced back to 2011, to the murder of [Punjab] Governor Salmaan Taseer,” said Mazhar.

“I realised that over time we had allowed a corruption of language which hid violence behind ethical and moral goods such as honour and love. For example, the last thing you’d want to associate with ‘honour’ is ‘killing’, yet when you say ‘honour’ in Pakistan, the very next word out of your mouth is ‘killing’.”

This personal observation led Mazhar on a nine-year journey to investigate the roots of what he described as “systemically violent interpretations of love” — of your family, country and faith — which then appeared to become instruments of control; it only worsened with the wider use of the internet and social media platforms.

“When hashtags became crosshairs, that’s when I started to feel that I needed to tell a story, as fantastical as it may be, which reflects this [aforementioned] corruption [of language]. Not just in the way it is happening right now, but in the way that it might happen.”

“Cyberpunk belongs to a very different city. It belongs to Tokyo; it belongs to America and its anxieties in the 1980s. But… our anxieties of what happened with Lahore, what happened to the sufi traditions [were] very different.

Cyberkhilafat, then, was a way for Mazhar to express how he saw a society using a modern interpretation of a major world religion and was combining it with the use of technology to dictate stringent, dehumanising norms for its people.

Science fiction offered the perfect space for such a narrative, which is evident from the term “Cyberkhilafat,” itself a play on the much more common “cyberpunk” genre of science fiction. Cyberkhilafat, however, is meant to refer to the cultural realities of Pakistan, where people support the notion of living in a republic, but still long for a supremacist form of khilafat.

“Cyberpunk belongs to a very different city. It belongs to Tokyo; it belongs to America and its anxieties in the 1980s. But… our anxieties of what happened with Lahore, what happened to the sufi traditions [were] very different.” Cyberkhilafat, according to Mazhar, aims to explore precisely those anxieties along with the undercurrent of violence that appears to have become endemic to religiosity in our part of the world.

Mazhar explained the influence Lahore had had on his work: “The idea of the ‘city’ plays a crucial role in both of our films [and] Lahore, for me personally, plays a role because that is where my journey began.” A graduate of FAST National University, Mazhar saw what was happening in colleges and universities across the city, the discourse among religious clerics and in religious jalsas and noticed a disheartening decline in spirituality that he sought to reverse. “[I wanted to] talk about my relationship with what this city gives me and what this city takes away from me.”

As Lahore is the city that is home to Puffball, Mazhar also touches upon the experience of running an animation studio here, describing it as very rewarding. He saw his studio as an opportunity to harness Lahore’s unique place in contemporary Pakistani art to meaningfully advance local animation. “I want to create a culture. And I’ve been able to get people from Rawalpindi and Karachi to move to Lahore as well [to this end].”

This influx of artists from other cities is not due to lack of local availability, however. “Lahore itself has such incredible artists, who are not necessarily animators. So, there is a challenge first where our animation supervisor, Haseeb Rahman, has to train folks. But the brilliant thing is… that people get it very quickly.”

Mazhar sees this potentially as a huge factor in creating an animation industry as big as Lahore’s IT sector, an opportunity for which, he suggests, Lahore is uniquely positioned.

Cyberkhilafat, and the fiction created under this moniker, is an ambitious creative undertaking. It is a vital and timely reflection of the 21st century Pakistani culture, with its themes of isolation and oppression, but also hope and resilience in the face of an ever-shrinking space for personal freedoms. The genre’s creator hopes that other people will take up the mantle of creating more fiction — books, comics, even music — under the Cyberkhilafat moniker, which opens the way for its widespread acceptance.

The writer is a Lahore-based researcher, photographer and culture enthusiast. Find him on Instagram @ab.mueed

Meet the inventor of Cyberkhilafat