Public spaces no more

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A great cultural loss

In a society where citizens have public places available to them, they can assemble, meet and gather together to discuss and debate socio-political topics in a free atmosphere. If there are restrictions on their meetings in public places, it shows the fear of rulers who do not want to provide any opportunity to people to meet and express their opinions on important issues. People enjoy such freedoms only in a democratic system as these liberties are an inextricable part of a functioning and healthy democracy. Dictators and despots are the ones who are always afraid and in fear of the reactions of the people; thus, they put restrictions on the movements of people by enacting laws which prohibit the meeting of people.

In ancient Greek society, we find that such public spaces existed for the citizens of Athens so that they could express their opinion in an unencumbered manner. When Pericles rebuilt the city of Athens, he especially planned for such fora for the airing of public voices to be constructed. It was Agora or the market place where politicians, philosophers, scholars and religious leaders came and met with each other. The place became important when the laws of the City Republic were engraved on a stone and placed there for the knowledge of the people. The square was surrounded by buildings of the judicial court. The atmosphere made the citizen conscious of the law and their legal rights. The place greatly contributed to the strengthening of the political consciousness of the people and made them acutely aware of their right to challenge and question the authorities.

The Romans followed this tradition and in the city of Rome, there was a wide and open space known as The Forum. It was the meeting place for people. Politicians from different groups delivered lectures on current politics and exhorted the people to support them. Scholars and thinkers engaged in public debate over moral and ethical issues. Sometime, there were gladiator fights. Musicians and dancers entertained people. It became such an important place that all politicians and generals came there to win the hearts of people. When Caesar was assassinated in the Senate, his nephew Ocatvian and his loyal friend Antony brought his dead body in the Forum and won the support and sympathy of people.

Both in the Agora and the Forum, people belonging to all sections of society came and mingled together. Such public spaces provided a chance to the leaders to attend the gatherings of common people and have direct contact with them. On the other hand, people also acquired confidence and played an active role in politics. In Europe, during the Middle Ages, when monarchical governments were formed, a widening chasm opened up between the people and nobility. Common people were isolated and there was no common ground to meet with each other. The cities of the Middle Ages of Europe encouraged merchants, traders and artisans to play an active role by organising their guilds. These united members on the basis of their professions. There were guild halls in the cities but restricted only to the members of guilds.

In the 15th century, when city republics came into being in Italy, they again provided public spaces to the people. City governments especially took steps to communalise the people politically and encouraged them to take part in politics.

In the 16th century, coffee houses emerged in Europe which became the meeting places of writers, scientists, artists and scholars. They not only met with each other but also exchanged their views. French cafs were very famous for the fact that readers could meet their favourite authors over there and discuss their love of literature and the authors writings with them.

In the Middle East, in spite of dictatorial regimes, the culture of caf not only survived but flourished. These cafs catered to all classes and sections of society. There were indoor games which kept the visitors busy. Fresh poetry was recited by peoples favourite poets. The only problem was that most of them were exclusively for men which led to an exclusion of women from public spaces and therefore public discourse.

This culture of cafs also became popular in the Indian subcontinent during the colonial period when there were coffee houses where the intellectuals of the city assembled and discussed literary issues in every big city. In Lahore, we can find interesting accounts of Arab hotel and Nagina bakery and other hotels and cafs which were popular meeting places for the intelligentsia of the city.

After Partition, there were many such places where people could meet in the cities of Pakistan. In Hyderabad and Karachi, there were Irani hotels which catered to the lower middle classes and students. Besides these, there were Zealen Coffee House, Frederick Cafeteria and Eastern Coffee House in Karachi where writers, students, and politicians used to come regularly.

Sadly, slowly and gradually, all such places have vanished. There are some expensive hotels and cafs which are beyond the reach of the middle classes. In the absence of public places, there is no common ground where people of all classes can meet. There is no interest in making people politically and socially conscious.

However, in the old cities, people still come out from their homes and sit in the corner of the street and discuss political and social issues. This culture is dying in the modern residential areas where even neighbours hardly know each other. This is a great cultural loss.

The writer is one of the pioneers of alternate history in the country.