Asia-Pacific, Headlines

PAKISTAN: An Unexpected Tribute to MJ

Beena Sarwar

KARACHI, Jun 29 2009 (IPS) - In this South Asian nation, people fondly remember a pop-singer who stole many hearts.

One of the most unexpected tributes to Michael Jackson after the superstar’s sudden death in Los Angeles came at a session of the provincial assembly of Sindh, Pakistan’s southern-most province on Jun 27.

‘Sindh Assembly approves Rs327 billion budget’, ran a prominent headline in the Karachi edition of daily The News the following day, sub-headlined: ‘One-minute silence observed for Michael Jackson’.

The report detailed information about the budget, with a brief postscript on the ‘one- minute silence for Michael Jackson, the famous pop singer who died in Los Angeles, USA.’

Assembly sessions in Pakistan, a Muslim-majority nation in South Asia, routinely begin with a recitation from the holy Quran, followed by a dua, or prayer, led by a Muslim priest. Here, members can move a motion requesting the priest to include any deceased person in the dua.

On the morning of Jun 27, Salim Qureshi Khokhar, a Christian minority member of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), asked the house to "observe a minute of silence for the entertainer Michael Jackson, internationally acclaimed in Pakistan."

What followed was even more unexpected: the Minister for Local Government Agha Siraj Durrani got up to state that since Michael Jackson was a Muslim, he could be included in the prayer, according to Gibran Peshimam, City Editor of The News, Karachi, who regularly attends assembly sessions.

"Jackson’s brother may have been a Muslim but there’s no confirmation about Jackson having converted to Islam," Sindh Minister of Information Shazia Marri interjected, according Peshimam’s first-hand account.

"They then settled on minute of silence but it was probably just about 20 seconds. Five minutes later, the atmosphere became tense they began discussing the finance bill."

News about Jackson’s unexpected death hit Pakistan on the morning on Jun 26, a little too late to run in the morning newspapers. Pakistani blogs and tweets were soon abuzz with reactions of fans, many expressing shock and sadness. Many Pakistanis uploaded Jackson’s videos on their Facebook profiles and blogs and passed on links through cell phones and emails.

Over the last decade, cell phone and internet usage has risen rapidly in this nation of over 160 million. Over half the population, which includes women and people across rural Pakistan, are estimated to have access to a cell phone, according to the World Bank’s booklet, "Bringing Finance to Pakistan’s Poor". The country’s broadband internet subscriber base crossed 170,000 in December 2008 and Pakistan is ranked fourth in terms of broadband internet growth in the world.

While Michael Jackson’s music has rocked parties in urban Pakistan since the 1970s, his fan-following goes beyond the English-speaking elite.

"There was a time when – irrespective of your economic and social class – the way to be ‘tich’ was to be like Michael Jackson," recalls Adil Najam, who grew up in Pakistan and teaches International Relations at Boston University

"From Saab ji’s son to Saab Ji’s driver’s son, if you were ‘in’ you had to be MJ: the hair, the walk, the white socks, the tight pants, the persona at large. And no stage show from Peshawar to Karachi would ever be complete without the ‘performance’ of a Michael Jackson clone," Najam wrote recently in a tribute to Jackson on his popular website All Things Pakistani (

The magic of MJ – or Michael Jackson — even made it to the television comedy series ‘Fifty Fifty’ which had huge mass appeal in Pakistan in the 1980s.

‘Disco Chor’ (Disco Thief), one wordless skit, featured a thief played by Ismail Tara, a popular comedian. With Jackson’s hit number ‘Billie Jean’ playing in the backdrop, the masked thief sneaks in through a bedroom window and moves rhythmically through the room mimicking Jackson’s trademark dance moves. Oblivious to this, the room’s occupant sleeps through this foray.

Frustrated at finding nothing of value the thief wakes up the sleeping man and mimes his disgust before dishing out some money to his potential victim and exiting as Jackson’s Billie Jean fades out. "To those not familair with the Fifty-Fifty mystique or with the music of the time this may not seem all that funny," commented Najam, who uploaded the video on his website in 2006, "but when these were first telecast the whole country – quite literally – were talking about them."

Jackson’s influence in this part of the world is widely evident in the slickly choreographed synchronised dance sequences common in India’s ‘Bollywood’ films.

"[In] Bollywood, and Lollywood, dance sequences [often] copied Jackson’s style," commented Jaleel Akhtar, a television and producer in Karachi who managed Pakistan’s first rock band in the 1980s. "That form of dance simply didn’t exist before," he added. "Now we have our own version of Michael Jackson!"

He was referring to ‘Sonu Jackson’, a young choreographer who has become famous in Pakistan’s entertainment industry in recent years. "He is phenomenal; he does a lot of improvised stuff."

"He is the first Pakistani artist who performs in Michael Jackson’s style," Lubna Ahmed, the choreographer’s manager, told IPS.

Sonu, whose original name is Imnan Ahmed Shah, first came across a Michael Jackson video in 1999. "I was a normal student until then, but when I saw him, it was like something awoke inside me. I became obsessed. I started teaching myself by watching him," he told IPS.

This self-taught dancer and singer from a humble background began calling himself Sonu ‘Jackson’, a surname that he changed to ‘Dangerous’ after releasing his first album ‘The Dangerous’ in 2007.

One of Pakistan’s most sought-after choreographers for music award shows as well as film sequences, he is rehearsing for seven Michael Jackson numbers that will be shown next week on a private entertainment channel here.

He also plans to tour USA in early July, to pay a tribute to Michael Jackson through his performance at different shows.

Republish | | Print |