Updated: Mar 1

When we sat in our concert seats, I told my other half, "I can't wait to tell our future kids that we were here, that we saw Arooj Aftab."

I wake up on the day of Arooj Aftab's London concert to the sound of Baghon Main playing from the lounge's speakers. "Am I dreaming?" I quickly ask myself. As I drag my feet through the corridor, I see my other half enjoying his morning coffee accompanied by the quiet intensity of Aftab's singing and the delicate combination of strings and keys. He remarks, "I'm getting my homework in for tonight. She's pretty good." I smile, thinking how lucky I am to not only be seeing Arooj Aftab tonight but that I get to do so with my fiancé. Even though Aftab's music are songs of longing in native Urdu and the language barrier between myself and my other half, Aftab's music is a love letter that is understood by all.

Arooj Aftab's poster for King's Place, London

Arooj Aftab, twice Grammy-nominated, A Pakistani Brooklyn-based singer, composer and producer, was a recent addition to my Spotify. Being her 3rd album, Vulture Prince rose to fame as her fifth track, Mohabbat, was listed on Barack Obama's 2021 influential summer playlist. The record helped her become the first Pakistani woman ever to be nominated for a Grammy as she picked up two nods: Best New Artist and Best Global Music Performance for "Mohabbat."

Barak Obama's 2021 Summer Playlist, Page 1

I spent the last two days refreshing my chrome tabs and my phone screen to purchase tickets for Aftab's performance in London. I had two tickets for her Bristol performance due to work commitments that I couldn't make. That wasn't going to stop me. After sending multiple emails between King's Place, my contact responded, "a lot of people trying to get tickets for this one!". Aftab confirmed on stage, "It was crazy to get tickets to tonight's show. I'm glad you are the chosen ones."

Her Leeds show was scheduled to be seated but having sold most of the tickets and fielding inquiries, Aftab and her promoters made the event standing only to increase capacity.

When we sat in our concert seats, I told my other half, "I can't wait to tell our future kids that we were here, that we saw Arooj Aftab."

Before the performance began, I started a conversation with the Pakistani couple next to me. One was a fan before Aftab's recent Grammy nomination, and one was new to Aftab's music like me. They both asked how recently I got my seats. I explained the struggle and success in securing my two tickets to then be told they refunded their tickets, which resulted in me having them. "My family couldn't make it in the end."

I thanked them for my tickets in time for the lights to dim. The room buzzed with excitement and high expectations, which were exceeded. A purple light from above shone on the stage; Aftab entered, introducing Maeve Gilchrist, accompanied Harpist, and Petros Klampanis on the Double Bass. She remarked that she was wearing trousers that she didn't own thanks to her new stylist and self-deprecatingly was amazed an audience of this size would choose to spend their Friday night listening to her sad music.

Nina Simone, Michael Ochs Archives

Aftab's introductory gambit was as humble as her attitude to the audience despite her recent album titled the most accomplished and interesting record of the year, which graced a plethora of end-of-year charts. Later, I learned that Aftab has signed to Verve's jazz powerhouse, once home to Nina Simone.

As the night continued, the performance felt like a timely and attentive three-way conversation between the double bass, harp and Aftab's vocals. I found Aftab's singing to be the star attraction. Her voice ascended to what looked like a ceiling less venue due to the darkness in the room. Vocally and visually, I felt like the audience was following the undercurrent of darkness towards the light that shone on the stage. On the surface, Aftab's devotion to minimalism masks the multi-layered and multi-faceted album.

I found it impressive that all seven tracks from Vulture Prince were composed by the guitar, violin and flugelhorn but were reworked for a live performance with a harp and double bass.

Gilchrist, Klampanis and Aftab took it in turns to dominate the stage with their performances. You could see Aftab closing her eyes and allowing herself to be carried by the harp and double bass. Whilst Aftab sang, Gilchrist continued on her harp, rippling arpeggios and swaying with her instrument. Simultaneously, my fiancé and I looked at each other and voiced, "I want Maeve to perform with her harp at our wedding."

I saw each performer giving ample time and attention to each other's segment. Every track from Aftab's performance captured me. I'm blown away by her command of Western Jazz traditions and experimental electronica balanced with South Asia's folk and classical music. There is a touch of reggae and blues to her discography.

I later learned that the ghazals are South Asia's closest equivalent to the blues.

Understood as a poetic expression of both the pain of loss and separation and the beauty of love despite that pain. Commonly ghazals are presented as Persian and Pakistani forms of poetry.

Aftab's album permeates the pain from the passing of her brother, Maher. The personal tragedy took place in Pakistan while writing Vulture Prince, to whom the album is dedicated. During her mourning, Aftab reached for the familiar Urdu ghazals. The ambience of the performance echoes the features of a ghazal.

"Diya Hai", the second track on Vulture Prince, is the last song Aftab performed for her brother. My heart experiences the emotional resonance that the strings and vocals create throughout the melody. I feel like a bird soaring through the sky, moving between different heights to sweep to the ground gently. As the track ends, I feel emotionally grounded after the melodic ebbs and flows Aftab's vocals carry me through.

Aftab uses ghazals and poetry on suffering and loss by diving into the work of Mirza Ghalib, one of the subcontinent's most admired poets. Similarly, Last Night, the 4th track on the album, is also one of Rumi's poems. It is the only song sung in English with the single line: "Last night, my beloved was like the moon."

From left to right: Painting of Mirza Ghalib, Painting of Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, Photo of Hafeez Hoshiarpuri

Mohabbat, now known as one of the best songs of 2021 by TIME magazine, is a ghazal originally written by Hafeez Hoshiarpuri in 1921. Aftab draws the evening to a close by announcing, "This will be the banger off the record." The eclectic demographic of the audience simultaneously shuffle in their seats to be 100% present for the last song of the evening. As Aftab sings, her voice fills the room with a shared feeling of sadness and love so expansive that I feel it is transcending realms beyond. Mohabbat bleeds joy, darkness, love, light and nostalgia from every string and key played and every vocal note hit. The song comforts my soul. The lyrics and Aftab's vocal stylings take me on a trip down memory lane. I see my childhood summers in Pakistan. My head stuck out of the car window waving my flag on Independence Day, the sky's colour palette during sunset, and the call of prayer punching through the humidity to my ears. I remember eating mangoes on my grandparent's rooftop and sharing secrets with my favourite great aunt late at night. As a child, I faced a language barrier with her, but every look at each other communicated our mutual love.

Arooj Aftab's music transcends me through the most meaningful memories in Pakistan. It equally lifts my heart full of love and hope for the beautiful life I'll pave with my other half, who is swaying along with Aftab's melodies. There is something powerful about spending an evening with others moved by Aftab's songs.

Accusations of sexual harassment by teachers at an elite Lahore school which surfaced last week on social media have raised the alarm over student safety.

Busy street in walled city, pakistan

The school administration quickly dismissed the staff, the Lahore District Education Authority launched an inquiry, and the Punjab School Education Minister promised to deal with the case personally and “bring the case to a proper conclusion according to the law”. 

But the real scandal is that we rely on brave students outing abusers on social media to protect our students in the first place. Scandal, outcry, followed by swift ‘justice’ is a merry-go-round that obscured the truth – that Pakistan has no effective system for vetting applicants for jobs in our schools. 

On August 4th 2002, in the UK, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were murdered by a school caretaker, Ian Huntley. Despite Huntley being arrested on suspicion of raping an 18-year-old woman, and other charges such as burglary, he was hired to work at a secondary school. Holly and Jessica were 10 years old.

The murders transformed the way that school staff are recruited in the UK. First, the Bichard Inquiry, published in 2004, recommended a system which vets anyone who may be working with children. Then the Home Office launched the Criminal Records Bureau, which became the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS), which provides detailed reports of an applicant's criminal history to certain employers. 

Pakistan does not have an equivalent to the Disclosure and Barring Service, nor is there a national database of those convicted of sexual offences. When India launched its national sex offender register in 2018 it included 440,000 names.

This is a failure of government and a disservice to every child throughout our school system.

A register or DBS equivalent is only part of the solution - as it is only as effective as the data it is based on. Even with a system in place, poor record-keeping would leave children at risk.

At present schools wishing to vet teachers rely on their local or state police department records, but these records are chronically deficient.

After the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, in 2010, the subject of education was devolved from the federal government to the provincial governments. This scandal falls within the jurisdiction of the School Education Department of the Government of Punjab. If a criminal complaint is filed against the four alleged harassers, then this will be recorded in the police station concerned in the investigation, usually the closest. It will not necessarily be available beyond that police station. 

But even if it is reported, when a criminal offence is reported to the police a First Information Report (FIR) is filed, however, it only contains the facts of the case and the applicable sections of the law. The Punjab Police department has a public record available, but it hasn’t been updated since 2016. In 2019, a rapist dodged two arrests before killing four children in Chunian. There was no record of the complaints kept by the police. 

Pakistan also desperately needs a national teaching regulator to maintain a register of qualified teachers and with a mandate to conduct misconduct hearings and strike individuals from that register if they are found to have committed misconduct. 

Each state's District Education Authority has powers to investigate professional misconduct, but often there will be no criminal penalties. 

Only a national regulator, with access to a unified and efficient criminal records system, can ensure that teachers disgraced in one state cannot simply move elsewhere. 

For example, the penalty under the Punjab Protection Against Harassment of Women At Workplace Act 2012 is civil law, not criminal. The only way these teachers would face criminal charges would be if the school, the victims or a public official, such the Chairperson of the Children Protection Bureau were to file a criminal complaint under the Pakistan Penal Code. And if a criminal complaint isn't filed by the school or victims, then there will be no criminal record on any file.

Right now, we can't estimate the number of teachers who are working with children who have criminal records or have been cautioned by the police. Neither is there an authority flagging inappropriate applicants. 

In Pakistani law, there is no requirement that educational institutions conduct a background check on employees. Sohail Ayaz was a convicted paedophile deported to Pakistan from the UK. He worked as a consultant on the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Governance and Policy Project and was undetected for four years until his arrest in Rawalpindi. He later confessed to raping at least 30 boys while working in Pakistan. There was no government inquiry or reforms proposed off the back of Sohail Ayaz's case. The only positive was that an NGO, Sahil, started collecting data from newspapers noting the number of cases of child abuse cases reported in Pakistan. However, this doesn't prevent any individual convicted of sexual harassment move to another part of Pakistan and continue working with children. 

We need to find where our legal system falls short, introduce a sex-offenders register and a national database monitored by a teaching regulator. We need wholesale reform if we are to effectively protect children. 

365 days ago, we launched naveenofficial.com. As cliché as this sounds, it feels like yesterday when I took the plunge.

Busy street in walled city, pakistan

This post reveals why I wanted to create a public awareness production house—one where we could produce documentaries about Pakistan's impact-orientated initiatives and individuals. After a year of creating digital content for the website and our social media platforms, I had a few thoughts to share about the experience.

I started with an ever-evolving idea. Met the right people who could do what I could not. And I put the hours in alongside a full-time job and social life to sustain our audience's interest.

Altering the Starting Point 

Starting with an idea is great. But to turn that into something tangible that people can interact with takes a great deal of work, time, and patience. The sheer workload and required self-motivation were not anticipated.

There are times where I enter a spiral of self-doubt and crumble when I explain my goals to strangers. But, in moments like these, I realise it's part of the process. With each setback, I've bounced back sooner than the last one—an accomplishment in hindsight.

Our first filming round dated back to August 2018, and I pitched my idea to a videography team who specialise in covering high-profile weddings. The idea was to create a fashion blog about Pakistani couture. I know – very different from what we are now. We did three weeks of filming, created hours of footage, and spent a considerable chunk of change.  

After I reflected on the video footage, I realised that this wasn't what I wanted to do. I went back to Pakistan in October 2018 to start again.

The point here is that it's ok to toss out the first pancake. The experience told me something equally important – what I didn't want to do.

Meeting the right people. 

I pitched my idea to several Paksitani videography companies from across the pond. This meant researching different companies and making decisions based on the content they had shared online. However, none of the research prepared me for those meetings.

One day over dinner, I ranted my frustrations to my family. My cousin's husband, Asim, recommend me to meet Shahrukh and Shahzeb Bhatti. I succumbed to my bad mood and dismissed the idea. Fortunately, Asim pushed me to a moment of clarity and convinced me.

I remember the first meeting with Shahrukh Bhai because it was the moment everything became real. I pitched my half-baked and fragile idea. He said 'yes' and we were doing a trial shoot in the next two days.

My cousin and Managing Partner Sahar Abbas sorted out the logistics, and before I knew it, I was standing in front of the camera. Without Sahar's constant support, each filming round wouldn't have been possible. 

The take-away here is finding the right people to work with can make and break your goal. Shahrukh and Shahzeb Bhatti are open-minded, experts in what they do, time-efficient problem solvers and follow through with their commitments. 

Jim Dethmer, the founder of The Conscious Leadership Group, said in a podcast with Shane Parish that "Most people in organisations keep between 40% - 60% of their agreements."

I didn't want to work with people who were unable to follow through. The age-old adage that

"a stitch in time saves nine." Meaning, if you sort out a problem immediately, it will save extra work later. Equally, I also wanted to work with people who would make me a better version of myself. As they say:

"You really are only as good as the company you keep." My team keep me on my toes throughout.

In turn, Shahrukh and Shahzeb continue to adapt to my feedback which meant we were able to change the initial idea. Shifting from creating a Pakistani Couture knowledge source to becoming a public awareness production house was the 180-degree turn nobody expected. And I'm pleased that this is the case because what we have created is better than what we imagined.

I gave a great deal of artistic license to Sophie Chittock, our Operations Director, who has a wealth of knowledge about digital marketing that I could only dream of having. Whatever idea or task Sophie works on, she produces a result which is above and beyond the limits of my imagination.

Sustaining self-motivation and self-discipline

When I started out, I thought that I would be 100% driven all day and every day. I was wrong. A new project is novel, but over time novelty runs out, and you must keep working when sometimes you don't want to. The desire not to work doesn't reflect that you aren't fully invested. It shows that you are human and that life sometimes gets in the way. We all have highs and lows that we pass through. 

Sometimes, my full-time job means I have to work beyond the 9-5 schedule, and this means fewer hours are available to work on the blog. 

Sometimes, personal struggles consume your headspace, and you aren't motivated. 

Sometimes, the lack of support from people who you expected it from can make you doubt what you are doing.

But then there are those moments of success which outshine those dark ones, in quality and quantity. You have family members who celebrate each accomplishment as if it were their own. You have virtual strangers advising you in how you can do better. Your work gets recognised by newspapers that you dream of having your name in.

To close, my team and I stuck to our principles and created something that we believed in. I remember sharing dreams of being mentioned in Propergaanda and Dawn's Newspaper and waiting to reach 1000 followers organically. Now those dreams have become accomplishments.

But, each accomplishment means more when you are sharing it with a team of people. People who believe in you, and who you believe in too. I hope you feel inspired to take the plunge.