“I love India, but I own Pakistan”
October 24 2017 06:52 PM
Fatima Fasih, artist, teacher, social activist

— Fatima Fasih
, artist, teacher, social activist

It is not very often that you come across an unassuming 26-year-old, who is a reflective artist, eschews a comfortable life in one of the world’s most coveted places in favour of making a hard knuckle difference in her home country, and speaks with clarity and eloquence on the relationship between India and Pakistan.
It is even rarer to find a child of such gifts when she has had to traverse paths across India, Pakistan and faraway Canada with all its heterogeneous challenges and find a balance doing so. It is probably convenient to put that equipoise down to ‘rich experience’ but then, it is not given to every individual to forsake personal gain for a higher calling.
Fatima Fasih, who also teaches art to early birds, is unique in another sense, though for this distinction she would have to accede to a biological mooring. She has an Indian mother and a Pakistani father — a match she calls made in heaven. Even so, their lives — and those of their progenies — are worthily being lived down here!
Fatima has a Perfect Four pillar to count on:  Mother Ilmana Quraishi is a gynaecologist; father Dr Syed Fasihuddin a pulmonologist; brother Ismail Fasih soon to become a kinesilogist; and husband, Abdullah Faiz, an engineer. Three of them — Fatima, her mother and brother — are also Canadian citizens.
Beginning her academic journey from a British-Pakistani school in Jeddah and finishing with an MSc from the University of Toronto, Fatima is credited with winning the ‘Emerging Artist of the Year Award’ under the aegis of Mississauga Arts Council Awards 2016 as well as the Hazel McCallion ‘Volunteer of the Year Award’ for charity work — through her paintings that helped raise $20,000 — for both women in conflict, and refugees in Syria.
Like her father, who, invested every single penny of his life’s earnings to establish a medical facility — Taj Consultants Clinics in Karachi — in the country of his birth after his long journey abroad (devotedly helped by her mother), Fatima, born in Makkah, too, chose to return home to turn the page as a social activist in pushing for sustainable practices. The young Sustainable Development Programme Manager at the Centre of Excellence for Responsible Business even has a coinage for her home-return ‘mission impossible’ — ‘Vapistani’ or the ‘Pakistani returnee’.

Over to Fatima and her musings:
Tell us about yourself: where you hail from, where you received education, your family, travel…
I was born in Makkah and grew up in Saudi Arabia. Our parents tried to give us a desi upbringing so we went to a British-Pakistani school in Jeddah, which really instilled in me the love for art, culture and Urdu language. By the time I did my A levels, we moved to Canada and I started my BSc at the University of Toronto and soon also acquired an MSc in Sustainability Management from my alma mater as well.
It was a great experience to go to a prestigious university and it really helped me gain confidence in setting my life goals and priorities. I have one sibling, my brother Ismail, whom I consider to be one of my best friends. My parents always gave us well-grounded values about life and our roots. We travelled quite a bit as children and had a few opportunities to travel to Guatemala into my university years to explore coffee farming and its sustainability, and later, Thailand to explore sustainable tourism.
After my MSc, I decided to move to Pakistan and focus on bringing some change since there is little to no sustainability work or initiatives in the country. As soon as I moved to Karachi, I got a job in the renewable energy sector at EcoEnergy Pakistan to bring electricity to rural Sindh province’s off grid areas. Later, I got married and have now started working as Sustainable Development Program Manager at the Centre of Excellence for Responsible Business (CERB) to push businesses to work on adopting sustainable practices and increasing awareness in society.

Tell us about your experience growing up in Canada

My Canadian experience has been the most life-changing and has taught me a lot about myself and my values. My experience there was amazing in terms of making the most of my education, getting into the most prestigious university, having professors that are not just teachers, but friends and mentors, and making friends from all over the world. It was a great learning experience and made me very independent.
By being in Canada, I was able to learn from libraries, walk-in bookshops and community centres about art and watercolours.  It also provided a lot of exposure to my work. Being a Pakistani in Canada helped me reach out to many immigrant Pakistanis, who, felt it was imperative to let go of their ethnic values and culture to fit in to a Western society. I disagreed with many and still stayed very linked to my artwork which related to Pakistani culture. I was proud to show my roots and told them that they could do the same and still fit in the mainstream Canadian society — because that is Canada. Canada doesn’t require us to change ourselves to fit in, rather you’re already welcome as you are.

You have a unique family set-up; your maternal side hails from India and paternal Pakistan. How did this interesting match come about?

(Laughs)… I think this question should be answered by my parents, but I do believe it was a match made in heaven and their relationship is premised in understanding and accommodation for one another. It shows that no matter what the differences you can make it work if there is love and friendship.

Unique as it is, does the distinct identity feel like a privilege or burden in a geographical sense?

I always thought of it as a privilege and never a burden as I was fond of visiting both countries during summer vacations. I would wear clothes Made in India in Pakistani parties, and vice versa. I got to see both similar, albeit different cultures, and it was a good harmony of the mind for me. I had a phrase that I would say to explain this harmony: I love India, but I own Pakistan. Visa issues and police reporting were the cheap price we paid for this privilege. Some might think of these as a burden, but I was happy that I was able to discover another country, which most of my friends weren’t really able to.

Purely from a reader’s point of view, how, if at all, does the identity bit play out at home when India and Pakistan are locked in a battle say, on a cricket field?
Mostly, my father, brother and I support the Pakistani team and my mother acts as a bridge since Pakistan has been the underdog for quite some time. Sometimes when India is winning, we actually get mildly annoyed by our mother for defending the Indian team (in her heart) and so she gets to hear, Zyada Indian na banein (Don’t try to be overtly Indian) from me.

What do you most like about Pakistan and India, respectively? The two celebrated their 70th Independence Day last August, but are nowhere near the next door neighbours they ought to be. What do you think keeps them apart, and what can possibly bring them close enough to at least live in harmony?

In Pakistan, particularly in Karachi, I love the resilient nature and warm spirit of the people. In India, I love the organised chaos and fast life of Delhi, its bright colours and handicrafts. In both places, I love the diversity and tolerance. I always wonder what a super power the subcontinent would have been if all of us were united. Brutal historic events and misunderstandings have kept the countries apart and only friendship, art and trade can keep them in harmony. Maybe, then we will be able to solve bigger problems that we both face together.

How do you relate to art? What best describes the medium?
I don’t ever remember a time where I wasn’t connected to art. I remember growing up, winning the ‘Artist of the Year Award’ at school every year besides ruining our home walls much before that. Hence, I relate to it by nature almost subconsciously; fortunately, I found a medium as versatile, challenging and meditative as watercolours. They have really become my identity.
What genre do you practice and what — or who — inspired you to get into it?

Watercolours — and that’s it. On a creative level, I work with stained glass art and some DIYs at home, but watercolour is the medium that I have been working on for the past decade. My mother was the one who helped me start watercolours when I was barely 16. She motivated me to paint at least one a day!
I also grew up inspired by (world renowned Pakistani artist) Sadequain’s incomplete painting on the ceiling of the famed Frere Hall (left in that state because he passed away). I still remember staring at it in awe as an 11-year-old and getting inspired by the immense detail and hard work that went into it. That’s how I pushed myself to work in detailed watercolour paintings.

What does it take to harness the craft?

Many people ask about how to become an artist — most think of it only in a commercial sense, but they do not realise the time that is invested in harnessing this skill. It takes time, perseverance, and then, a bit of courage to cross the hesitation that artists have within, in reaching their goal.

What themes appeal the most to you?

From most of my work, you can tell that there is a very South Asian/desi connect to it. In the global mainstream art, I feel a lot of Pakistan’s ethnic and cultural art and handicrafts are ignored and my work is a small attempt in showing how this country, too, has many cultures that radiate vibrant colours and ethnic traditions involving art that has existed since centuries, such as Sindh’s blue pottery, Balochistan’s tribal music and embroidery, and so on. Hence, my inspiration to start working on such art comes from the colours I see and how I want the world to see it.

What do you consider to be your best work and why?
My series of paintings for the exhibition on ‘Women in Armed Conflict’ was my best series, in my opinion, mainly because of how testing it was. I remember thinking so hard about the women that face conflict (for no fault of theirs) and how they manage to survive — or may be not — through the turmoil. My favourite painting of that series was of the Sudanese women fleeing South Sudan with kids tied to their backs and luggage over their heads. Through those series, I won the Women’s Centre Scholarship while I was doing my Masters in Sustainability Management at the University of Toronto.
My next favourite work is a series of Sufi paintings I made — those were the reason how my work got a lot of appreciation. They were also judged by the MARTYS 2016 (Mississaga Arts Council Awards) in Toronto which led me to win the ‘Emerging Artist of the Year Award’. I also did a lot of charity work through my paintings — both for women in conflict, but also refugees in Syria — raising about $20,000 and through that work I won the Hazel McCallion Volunteer of the Year Award as well at the MARTYS 2016.

Have you exhibited your work? Do you sell art?
Yes, I’ve exhibited my work at plenty of local art cafes and also in the Aga Khan Museum last year in Toronto. I hope to exhibit work soon in beautiful places such as the TDF Ghar in Karachi as well. I sell my work on Etsy, but also create commissioned pieces for art lovers and it has helped me hone and sharpen my skills even more.

What brought you back to Pakistan when it would have been much more convenient to enjoy the greener pastures in Canada?
I’m often asked this and each time my response is this: living in any part of the world or country is tough. There are pros and cons of living in every place and moving to Pakistan with a good education meant to me that I could bring some good to the country and also have an impact on the issues that matter to me, such as the environment. I assume I got this trait from my father, who, despite all fears and tensions, always wanted to set up a hospital in Pakistan that would provide quality and affordable care. Fortunately, I’ve found the same enthusiasm in my husband, Abdullah Faiz, who currently works as Project Engineer in P&G and wants to be a part of the workforce in Pakistan that gives back to the country with high mark work ethic. It’s been a great experience for me to be here and I proudly call myself a Vapistani (loosely translated a Pakistani returnee).

What is the most important life lesson that you think held you in good stead?
I remember when I was giving my O Level exams back in 2009, I was going through a tough time and my mother, using a calligraphy pen, wrote in Urdu, Himmat se badal jaata hai taqdeer ka dhaara (with resilience, you can change the circle of fate). Those magical words have stayed with me and helped me persevere through all tough times and, then some. They hold good even when I sit down contemplating an art work!

Last updated: October 24 2017 07:09 PM

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