Ajmal Kamal is providing a forum for Pakistanis of all backgrounds and classes to learn about and discuss pressing issues facing the country.
The New Idea
Ajmal has designed a set of interlocking activities, including a publishing house and book and film clubs, that make up a voluntary forum for learning and sharing experiences and opinions about development issues and social concerns. He sees that the rich discussions in which participants of widely different backgrounds contribute their perspectives openly and apply them to pressing issues happen only infrequently in present-day, conflict-torn Pakistan. The country needs spaces where people can participate in creative activities and generate debate on social issues.
A central element of Ajmal's work is a publishing house that prints local language and English materials, including a quarterly journal on social topics, as well as collections of essays, poems, and fiction about development issues. He is not only getting useful, highly relevant information to a large network through the publishing house, but also fostering a new generation of social thinkers and writers by encouraging professional mentorship and publishing new writers alongside acclaimed authors. Ajmal avoids the stigma associated with citizen organizations in Pakistan, by running his publishing efforts, book club, and film series as related for-profit ventures. And he provides financial incentives–primarily discounts and memberships–to encourage people to participate in all activities. All profits are reinvested in advancing Ajmal's vision of encouraging dialogue and informing development efforts. His model for improving civic participation through increased opportunities for citizen dialogue is widely replicable.
Pakistan, a country of great diversity, lacks public places that encourage participation of all, or even most, groups. While the major cities host a sprinkling of cultural centers–the Pakistan American Cultural Center, Alliance Française, and Goethe Institute are examples–these cannot hope to fill the needs of all citizens. Furthermore, the emphasis is more on celebration of culture rather than on sharing perspectives that advance development. It is always difficult for the middle and lower classes to come together to share ideas and experiences–a first step in solving some of the country's urgent problems. Instead, most Pakistanis interact with the people in their immediate circle of family and coworkers, thus leaving little room for sharing experiences.
Information about development issues is abundant in English, the language of the Pakistani elite and government officers, but not in the local languages. As a result, the local people lack access to the information and best practices that could help them as they develop solutions to the country's pressing problems. Also, there are few efforts aimed at encouraging and sustaining dialogue across ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
Ajmal's approach has two primary aims: making information accessible to people through a quarterly journal about social concerns and through other publications like books and reports; and convening Pakistanis of all backgrounds, not just members of the elite educated class, to talk to one another and share ideas in an informal setting. Through a niche publishing house, a bookstore, book and film clubs, Ajmal educates citizens and inspires constructive dialogue about current issues. He encourages and inspires closer understanding and constructive dialogue about the issues of today's world. He sees this as an important initial step in solving some of the country's problems.
Ajmal's City Press is based in Karachi and publishes a wide range of materials on development issues and social analysis. Journalists and authors, most from the subcontinent, write for his publications. The journals include a quarterly called City on social development issues stemming from the process of urbanization in Pakistan. Another is an Urdu language quarterly Aaj (meaning "today") that presents creative literature of the world–fiction, poetry, and essays–translated into Urdu. Launched in 1989, Aaj has acquired an appreciative readership and critical acclaim. The journal has managed to create a global understanding among its readers by using literary translation as a bridge between people of different cultures.
City Press is based in Karachi but connects to other cities and towns of Pakistan through mail and the Internet. Writers from the South Asian subcontinent as well as elsewhere are featured in the City Press publications and so make the development-related information available to a broad audience. City Press also provides translation, editing, research, and documentation services, which are valued by development professionals who want to disseminate the information about their work in the national and regional languages. Ajmal also distributes HIMAL, a South Asian journal of social and political issues printed and published in Kathmandu, Nepal, as well as several other periodicals from South Asia.
Ajmal's book and film clubs bring groups of people together to discuss social issues directly related to the challenges facing the country. In coordination with his staff of five, he recommends titles and documentary films that relate to development themes or social analysis. The book club relies on a well-equipped development library and interactive films featuring powerful, positive role models, contemporary writers, lawyers, development workers, media and entertainment personalities, and business entrepreneurs. This gives the book club members development experiences to emulate.
Reading literature from different parts of the world has been Ajmal's passion from a young age. At college, he trained as a metallurgical engineer and then he received a master's degree in business administration in Karachi. Working for 13 years in the engineering and banking sectors, he was always looking for a way to create a space for the public and so encourage broad participation in social development through literature, films, and other means. While the early months of the City Press were difficult, he pressed ahead, as he was committed to enabling informed dialogue about development issues. He has translated creative writing from Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia.