Islamabad Mourns MJ

By Sadie Bass

Jun 26, 2009 11:34am

ABC's Nick Schifrin reports from Islamabad: For anyone who thinks Pakistan is completely consumed by bombs and bullets, that people here only think about terror and the Taliban, know that Michael was a god here, too. Know that pirated Michael Jackson tapes used to be sold in the bazaar in Mingora, Swat, where the Pakistani army is currently fighting the Taliban. Know that an entire street culture exploded after “Thriller” hit Pakistani stores. Know that countless Pakistani musicians still emulate his sound, his moves, his fashion. Know that Pakistani children woke their parents up at 4:00 a.m. today to tell them, “Oh my god, he’s dead. Michael Jackson’s dead.” Know that there might have been a suicide bombing in Kashmir today and an attack against the military in the tribal areas, but private news channels devoted hours of coverage to the departed King of Pop.   “There are many people in Pakistan who don't know that the world is round but know who Michael is,” said Munizeh Sanai, the general manager of the country’s most popular English language radio station, City FM 89, which has been playing almost nothing but Jackson songs all day. “He is the only international, non-Indian artist that people from all walks of life connected with — his style, his moves. This is mostly in urban Pakistan of course, but yeah — if  Michael had ever performed in Pakistan, it would have been the biggest concert the country has ever seen.” For Pakistanis who grew up in the 80's, like Saqib Malik, a well known director here, Jackson was much more than an American artist. “He really popularized, at least in this generation, American pop culture,” Malik said. “He became an idea for anything that was western pop culture… He embodied, in terms of popular imagination, the best of what the west had to offer.” It is not only the well-heeled here who knew who he was, either. Cooks, drivers, guards – Pakistan’s middle class, most of whom don’t speak English — have been talking about Jackson’s death all day, aware not only because his face has been on local television, but also because of Jackson’s own presence within Pakistani culture. Back when there were no private news channels and all televisions were tuned to the sole, state-run channel, almost everyone in the country watched a skit show called “Fifty-Fifty,” basically the equivalent of Saturday Night Live in its heyday. One of the all-time great scenes is being passed around today via You-Tube: a skit featuring Ismail Tara, one of Pakistan’s most famous comics in the 80s, dancing to the sounds of Billy Jean. His props include a couple of suitcases, a pan, and a pair of very tight pants.  “Michael impacted us on every level. He transcended everything – countries, religion, boundaries, everything,” said Mashaal Gauhar, a self-professed “huge” Jackson fan and the editor of a business magazine in Islamabad. Jackson’s popularity, perhaps, was particular in Pakistan because he was not white, or because he had done work in the developing world, or because, much later, he converted to Islam. Or perhaps, as Malik suggested, because the persona he played in his videos was “A guy on the street, trying to find his identity. That made him instantly appealing to everyone here.” But in Pakistan, like everywhere else across the world, it was the music that people loved. It was the bootlegged records and tapes of Beat It and Thriller, the VHS copies of the Thriller music video, that cemented Jackson as an icon in Pakistan. I posted a note on Facebook earlier today asking whether Pakistan was upset about Jackson’s death. After an American friend wrote that he thought any kind of outpouring of emotion would be unlikely, a Pakistani friend of mine countered: “Make no mistake — we might be Pakistan. But we moonwalked as much as you did.”

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