Michael Jackson in Muridke

Earlier today, I saw this video. At that moment, I felt an urge to write about it but couldn’t. When I came home, I was still thinking about it. I don’t ever write for myself these days, and so one always thinks of an angle to pitch to a publication before writing. But I wanted to just write, so without even looking at the video again, I wrote down what I wanted to.

It’s a dusty alley in one of those pale-yolk-sunshine mornings in Pakistan — when it’s already too hot despite still being early. Or maybe it’s an afternoon in the dry part of the year. (Or maybe I don’t know shit). There is a man is dressed in a way that is instantly recognisable, and dancing in a way that is instantly recognisable. There is no sound for the vast majority of the video, and when it eventually comes on you are a bit surprised by the song he had been dancing to. I thought it had been “They Don’t Really Care About Us”. The title tells us that the man is dancing in Muridke.

Muridke Jackson.

There was a time in Pakistan, at the peak of MJ’s mania, where anyone who sought to emulate him would get the name Jackson affixed to them. I recalled one Tariq Jackson who used to do some riff off MJ, but Youtube only showed a standup routine where he mimicked English accents during a flight. I guess Tariq’s genius was with interpreting the general onslaught of the West, and MJ was topical when he rose to fame.

Muridke Jackson thus makes sense in the context of the pop culture history of Pakistan.

The only thing I know about Muridke is that this was where the terrorist group behind the Mumbai attacks was based. I wondered if a Pakistan existed where I knew of Muridke because of this dancer, and not because of terrorists. It reminded me of Gojra, a place I only knew of because of mobs targeting Christians before learning that it was famous for producing world class hockey players. I wondered if any of those Jamat-ud-Dawa types had ever run into this dancing man, and if they confronted him or chose, like many others in the video, to ignore him and walk past.

In a way, the audience’s ignorance elevates the performance, because it becomes clear that their apathy doesn’t affect him. I enjoy public speaking, and particularly hogging attention in social situations. The moment you sense you’re losing a crowd is one of the scariest things you can feel, even if you are confident. It can cause you to panic, and your performance begins to suffer. I’ve experienced this in speeches, in sales pitches, at parties, teaching classes — wherever there is an audience for a live performance, a performer can’t help but react to their reactions. Or can they? Our dancer here has zero fucks to give about who chooses to stop and gawk, and who chooses to walk away, perhaps with condescension.

I think being condescending in this situation is acceptable. Muridke is one of the hundreds of ‘other’ places in the collective national imagination. People like me, the urban elite, don’t know or care about it beyond random trivia. And the gully visible in the video is ubiquitous across Pakistan, from the largest cities to insignificant towns. Places like these don’t offer many opportunities and survival can be difficult. Art may well feel like a luxury, and so some might find this performance indulgent and wasteful. I think that’s okay.

What’s not OK is being blatantly disrespectful. Early on in the video, you can see a bike appear behind the dancing man, being driven by a boy below the legal age and seating a few other children. The boy breaks, and his posse all start watching the spectacle. A little while later, another man shows up behind him, and quickly decides that he needs to pass. Now, I understand and respect that. I just spent a paragraph empathising with those looking to get a move on on what is after all a public fucking thoroughfare.

But as this man twists his bike around, he can see what we, the viewers, can’t yet. There is a bike on the other side, and it now enters the frame, and chooses to go to the Muridke Jackson’s right. All this asshole had to do was wait for it to pass, and go the same way. But instead, he chooses to cross the dancer from his left at about the same time. After several rewatches, I realised that our MJ not only reacts to the bike coming in front of him by restricting his moves, but was also aware of the one coming from behind him.

But the asshole in question wasn’t just cutting him from the other side, but was also doing so in a hurry. Up until now, everyone who had passed had chosen to pass had worked with the dancer, who adjusted as well. This guy didn’t give any chance to adjust, looking to zip through.

The first time I saw him crash, I laughed so hard I had to start running to expel all the emotion gushing out from me. And yes, I laughed at him. After I had laughed a lot, I felt pity. Here he was, having put together what he could to perform his passion on a slightly ill-advised venue and not only was most of the public not giving a fuck, but someone just almost ran him over. It is great slapstick comedy, which in a silent video works especially powerfully.

But after a while, I began to read what had happened, and I felt so much contempt for the asshole in the bike. I mean, he represents the worst manifestation of how we treat the arts. It’s one thing if you don’t care for them and choose to ignore them. That is your choice and your right. But it is quite another to blunder your way through because you decided to be an ignorant chutya and run over whatever comes in your way.

I came across this video because I was looking up videos of Pakistanis doing Michael Jackson homages for a tribute to him. I had gotten so moved by how many videos there were of the completely forgotten and ignored. I was blown away by their commitment, their passion and the fact that they expended all this effort with zero-to-none opportunities available for them to do something about it.

And so when I really thought about Michael Jackson in Muridke, it hit me what a gigantic dick move that bike wala pulled, and moreover how it felt like something I had seen, in various forms, in many other public displays of the arts over the years.

I don’t know how to end this, so I’m sending out a prayer to that man in Muridke, and to all other people in this country chasing dreams instead of agendas.