By Maria Amir
Talk about a revolutionary idea, but is Pakistan ready for a revolution?
Many have said that all it really takes to change the world is an original idea and enough people believing in it. This certainly holds true of CafÃ© Bol, a tiny establishment inspired by Faiz Sahabâ€™s classic poem by the same name. The joint venture by philosophy enthusiast / political science major Qalandar Memon and LUMS law professor Asad Farooq, looks to provide an â€˜independent thinking spaceâ€™ for young and old alike.
I recall being intrigued by the cafÃ© several months ago when I encountered the CafÃ© Bol Facebook page, showcasing a weekly â€˜Thus Spake Nietzscheâ€™ night. As I made my way to the tiny room in Main Market adjacent to a narrow street surrounded by tea shops, mechanics and tailors, I couldnâ€™t help but wonder why anyone would open a cafÃ© for young Lahoris where few would bother making the trip. Until I realized that the entire point of CafÃ© Bol was to weed out a â€˜genuinely motivatedâ€™ audience from the sloganeers.
The cafÃ© comprises of a small, rectangular room with no furniture, plenty of rugs and cushions, a â€˜Bolâ€™ poster, a bookshelf and a kaava station (read rickety table, with a portable gas stove). All in all, the menu consists of kaavas from all over Pakistan and beyond. â€œWe have Orange kaava, Irani kaava and Balochi, Sindhi, Peshawari blends,â€ Qalandar tells me, as he opens up an assortment of plastic bags and jars.
â€œCafÃ© Bol is really all about cutting across class structures; we are trying to provide a forum for ideas to be exchanged. Ideas that really donâ€™t find a space anywhere else,â€ he tells me and I immediately draw a parallel with Pak Tea House in the 70â€™s, but Qalandar says Bol isnâ€™t really about demagoguery. â€œThereâ€™s all kinds of talk, sure and the crowd tends to drive discussions towards politics and religion because thatâ€™s the way we are conditioned, but I lean towards philosophy and the arts, or obscure themes that arenâ€™t really touched upon in college classrooms or anywhere else,â€ he adds. â€œIdeas shouldnâ€™t be locked up in domains and boxes, they shouldnâ€™t be limited to drawing rooms,â€ he says, adding emphatically, â€œNot everyone has a drawing room. What about those voices?â€
CafÃ© Bol poses an intriguing nuance and both its location and premises only substantiate this. This tiny room with an open window overlooking the scintillating view of workers welding something or other as a red poster of Che Guevara hangs from the walls of Good Books right across represents a peculiar, uncomfortable and yet poignant buffer zone. â€œI never wanted to cover up the walls, I like the fact that we can see out and everyone else can see in, it builds in to what weâ€™re trying to do here,â€ Qalandar tells me, adding that quite often when the cafÃ© plays host to a film screening the workers from neighbouring shops come by and request we put on a film for them. â€œWaris Shah is by far our most popular re-run,â€ he adds with a smile.
I ask him about â€˜seating arrangementsâ€™ and logistics and he mentions that the size of the audience fluctuates. â€œWe have a few regulars who show up now and then but itâ€™s usually packed when we have a great speaker,â€ he says, adding that speakers like Rafay Aalam can draw a crowd of over 30. â€œPeople end up sitting shoulder to shoulder in rows, packed like sardines and for some reason thatâ€™s part of the charm,â€ he adds. The real draw for the cafÃ© has most definitely been its speaking events, where topics have ranged from Native American poetry to the environment and from Plato to photography.Â Magid Shehade who has spoken at the cafÃ© said â€œBol was one of the best experiences, the ambiance makes it one of the best sites to genuinely engage with the audience. The place exists with the goal of opening up space for discussion and intellectual debate, while remaining true to issues of day-to-day concern.â€
Sadly, Qalandar tells me that he feels there is little demand for high intellectual discussion. â€œI suppose our education system has a great deal to do with it,â€ he says, adding: â€œPeople are so geared towards being fed information that itâ€™s rare to find people who genuinely enjoy throwing around new ideas and challenging them.â€ He tells me that the cafÃ© originally envisioned an open forum for debates on Sunday, where people could just come in and speak on any subject no-holes-barred. â€œIt was a bust, no one really started a discussion: people here enjoy being lectured and responding to what theyâ€™ve been told rather than taking the initiative,â€ he said, adding the exception: â€œunless we get the types who have been fed and raised on the media conspiracy theory dietâ€¦ who tend to go on talking.â€
I am apprehensive about employing the term â€˜quaintâ€™ to describe this rough, weary and noble place but it fits. CafÃ© Bolâ€™s most marked characteristic is its unassuming simplicity. From the photocopied manuscripts of obscure texts on sale to hand-made pottery and stacked issues of Memonâ€™s edited â€˜Naked Punchâ€™ gazette. The place practically reeks bohemian independence with its lamps from Multan, the rugs from Bahawalpur and crockery from Sindh.
As I made my way to leave I asked Qalandar if he had any plans to expand, and he said he was barely â€˜breaking evenâ€™ as it was, â€œBesides it wouldâ€¦ruin something,â€ he mused. I asked why there had been no major events at the CafÃ© over the summer.
â€œWell, I bought an AC but Iâ€™ve spent most of the summer running after WAPDA to get a connection until itâ€™s up and running. I canâ€™t really expect audiences to show up in this heat,â€ he tells me. He has a point, CafÃ© Bol may thrive on being understated and unassuming but it has a long way to go before its audience is.