November 11, 2014. Appeared in Dawn Magazine.
Born to Korean parents and raised in Brazil, activist and film maker Iara Lee has a love affair with Pakistan — in part because Pakistan provoked her to channel her passions of art and culture into “something beyond art and culture.”
“I used to run an international film festival in Brazil,” says Lee. “Then somewhere along the way, I realised that it wasn’t enough. Art and culture has always been an essential part of me, but as I grew up, I realised we need to utilise art and culture for something ‘beyond’ art and culture.”
Lee left Brazil in 1989 for the United States (US) to pursue further studies and with a penchant to ‘see and explore the world at large’. In America, Lee ran Caipirinha Productions, a media company to explore how different art forms could better synergise for the purposes of storytelling and social justice.
In 2000 Lee landed in Pakistan to visit and film an Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar. She had been to the region before for other projects, but this visit turned into a life-changing trip.
“We were in this refugee camp where I wanted to focus on the plight of Afghan women and children when people started pelting stones at us and shouting. I heard an old man cry that every day, scores of media personnel arrive to cover them but nothing changes.”
Lee realised that the man was right.
“I felt that more needed to be done; something beyond merely reporting corruption, oppression and injustice; to report the plight in such a manner so as to bring about a positive change in the life of sufferers. I felt we needed to bring about a change, make a difference and so the documentary Cultures of Resistance was transformed into an organisation, the Cultures of Resistance Network.”
In Lee’s words, the Cultures of Resistance Network is all about ‘creativity with a cause.’ The organisation “endeavours to raise a voice, condemn and inspire people to fight against corruption, oppression and injustice in all its forms and to promote peace and justice through non-violent action and the creative dimension of cultures. To this end, CoR connects and supports activists, agitators, educators and artists all across the globe. In Pakistan, CoR has been actively pursuing its cause through Khubaib Foundation, Kalash People’s Development Network, Muhammad Ibrahim Memorial Society and Dawood Global Foundation.
“I especially like to focus on young people, who I feel are the future. I like to engage them, encourage them to step forward and take the command of their life in their own hands,” Lee says.
Much of the idea for the organisation, as Lee confesses, initially began as the documentary film: Cultures of Resistance was meant to explore the contours of how creative action contributes to conflict prevention and resolution around the world. The documentary was to encompass injustice inflicted in different parts of the world, from Iraq to Iran to Tunisia to Syria to Africa to Gaza to Lebanon and other places.
But as things progressed, Lee realised how other people and humanitarian organisations (Amnesty International, Green Peace) merged together in a global network and pursued the same cause. The commitment is endless; and not without its toll undoubtedly. This was a workable blueprint.
“My biggest concern regarding the Cultures of Resistance Network is its finances, of course, since we do not collect monetary donations. I have to keep the resources flowing by working all year long as well as investing in technology and renewable energy,” she says. Though Lee confesses to really putting her head down and generating enough resources to run the Cultures of Resistance Network, she loves the independence it brings: “I am my own boss and it’s a wonderful feeling of creative independence! There’s no one to tell me to make a film with a certain perspective or edit it down with a specific slant.”
But besides the flow of finances, Lee also concedes there are other impediments along the way; and of a much graver nature! “I’ve been detained in the ‘terrorist room’ by the US authorities who came up with all sorts of stupid questions like ‘What’s your religion?’ etc. I told them that I am not a Muslim but I do have a lot of Muslims friends, and no I am not with al-Qaeda, but yes, I am dead against Israeli occupation and aggression in Gaza. The main reason I left the US was when they invaded Iraq and then left the country wounded and bleeding; in a much worse state.
“I have also met with a lot of resistance from other governments as well like when I was working for the poor people of Sahara Desert in Western Morocco. I have been physically present in a ship which was attacked by Israel and I thought to myself: ‘maybe this is the end for me.’
“I had been through a lot of tough situations, and my work does involve a lot of stress and struggle, but nothing would stop me from being curious, getting to the core of things first hand, being active and contributing in my own humble way to make this world a better place; even if it is in a very small ratio.”
Her love affair with Pakistan has brought her to the country several times now. This particular visit of hers involved making a documentary on the K2 and the amazing Kalash people. Speaking of her ventures and experiences in the country, she says, “For a person like me, who has been travelling across the globe, Pakistan is one fascinating country. The cultural diversity in this country is mind boggling; from the traditional to the contemporary to the different linguistic and ethnic sects, it really is wide-ranged. Yes, with time things may have become a bit more complicated, especially for foreigners, but I definitely don’t think it is a monster country, full of terrorists, as projected by the Western media — a crazy country where nothing works.
“What has really captured me about Pakistan is the kindness of the people here; really they are so generous and hospitable with such magnanimous hearts which is even beyond the Arab world.
“My experience of Pakistani hospitality deepened even more when I went up north for my documentary on K2. People there are so pure and innocent and so helpful to tourists.
“I would also like to comment on the expertise and skill of the local trekkers who provide guidance to the foreign mountaineers: They are incredible people in an amazing place; they are so under privileged and underpaid but the risks they take in their profession, brace the impacts and with such genuine passion that it is really commendable.”
And what about some of the problems she might have faced here, I ask.
“I wouldn’t call them problems really; they are more like challenges,” says Lee. “One thing that I could not help but notice is the deep rooted family traditions which even the modern new generation adhere to still. I mean I cannot understand how young people can get married in an arranged way and not out of love!
“Also the political situation here is so unpredictable. There’s a palpable tension in the air — what’s going to happen? When? How? I call it nonstop excitement in Pakistan, for better or worse, I can’t say, but it is undeniably exciting! I think it is one of the most happening places in the world!”
Before we wrap up, I have two more questions for her. Lee has Korean lineage, was raised in Brazil, then studied and worked in the United States, and then trotted the globe on her journey for social justice. But which nationality or country does she really identify with as her native own?
“Yes all that is true; maybe I am a Palestinian woman at heart, but gradually becoming very Pakistani, as I spend more time here in your lovely country.”
Finally, my last question: How is it possible for a woman to trek such an absorbing pursuit and have a normal family life too? She takes a moment to let the words absorb but then answers simply yet very conclusively.
“You and many people around the world noticed I have no conventional family comprising husband, children, time to chit chat with friends and regular leisure time. But a life can take on other dimensions and I have consciously chosen a rather unconventional path.
“Many years ago I, realised we can only do so much and in life we need to make choices as there is no such a thing as ‘having it all’. So I decided that instead of having biological children, I would devote time to orphans from war-torn countries, youth from refugee camps or IDPs, kids from underprivileged societies.
“Children are so defenceless, they come to this world many times as product of parents’ irresponsibility or lack of planning and they suffer the consequences of being neglected or exploited. I feel for these children and truly resent that they become victims of abusive adults.
“For now, and forever, this is it for me. The Cultures of Resistance Network is my whole life and I intend to live it till the last of my breath.”