Full disclosure: The writer, as a representative of DWL, was a member of the jury that selected the contest’s winners.
Islamabad – Time ran out before Manto could “put a ring on it.”
Islamabad-based communications professional Eissa Saeed won the Dramatic Reading Contest, organised by the United States Educational Foundation in Pakistan (USEFP) on Monday, with his performance-based reading of American singer Beyoncé’s song All the Single Ladies.
Saeed’s innovative spin on Beyoncé’s song helped him edge past social scientist Raza Naeem’s hilarious recitation of Saadat Hasan Manto’s prescient Urdu essay “Allah Ka Bara Fazal Hai” in what turned out to be a close contest for the first place.
The USEFP held the contest at its Islamabad office to mark the International Literacy Day, which falls annually on September 8.
In the end, the contest’s winner was decided by the time factor. Naeem, who went one minute over the time allotted to each contestant, lost despite his success at eliciting rounds of laughter from the crowd with Manto’s sharp satire.
The performance of Beyoncé’s song, with the chorus “if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it,” ensured Saeed, who currently works at the Citizens Archive of Pakistan, went home with the top prize, an Amazon Kindle.
“I had prepared Beyoncé’s song, Why Don’t You Love Me, for a school performance some time ago and for that performance, All the Single Ladies was my backup,” Saeed told DWL. “Today I went with the backup option and I’m happy that it worked out.”
Saeed used the song’s lyrics with calculated pauses, tone variations and effective use of the performance space.
Naeem, who travelled from Lahore to participate in the contest, was upbeat after the results were announced. He said he was happy that he introduced Manto’s essay to an audience which might not have been familiar with it. His humorous, soft-spoken delivery of Manto’s prose worked in his favour.“I am a moody person so I had prepared three essays, all written by Manto and all equally good, for this dramatic reading contest,” Naeem, an active member of the DWL Lahore Readers’ Club, said.
One of these three essays was Manto’s Eighth Letter to Uncle Sam and the other was “Darhi, Moonch, Burqa Unlimited,” Naeem, who was also the 2013-14 Charles Wallace Trust Fellow at the University of Bradford in UK, told DWL.
He went with the third option, “Allah Ka Bara Fazal Hai” (or “We’re Blessed with Allah’s Grace”), a dystopian satire narrated by a mullah who is celebrating the removal of poets and artists from society to purify the land.
Amna Gillani, a schoolteacher, won third place for her performance of a song from Disney’s The Lion King, and, for his performance of Al Pacino’s speech from Scent of a Woman, Arsalan Qureshi took the fourth position. The participants included children, teenagers and adults, with most contestants selecting English texts for reading.
The contest attracted around 60 participants, said contest organiser Sameea Butt, who is an EducationUSA Adviser at USEFP.
“I was hoping for a good crowd response. I always had belief in the people of Islamabad, that they are looking for opportunities in the city to express themselves and can’t find them,” Butt said.
The idea of hosting a dramatic reading competition, in particular, originated from Butt’s personal observations about the reading culture or lack thereof in Pakistan. “We needed an event to celebrate the International Literacy Day and this seemed like a good way to get people engaged,” she said.
Butt said many contestants requested USEFP to hold similar events in the future. However, there might be an “e-Reason” for the interest generated by the contest.
“We’ll have to test if people were saying it because they wanted the Amazon Kindle or if they are really interested in the promotion of a culture of reading,” she quipped.