Mohammed Ziaul Haq’s military rule was doubtless the worst totalitarian regime in our country’s history.Surprisingly, however, fields such as literature, poetry, film, television and the theatre had quite a lot of space and freedom to work in. Was this space unintentional or by design? As fiction writer and playwright Abdul Qadir Junejo once put it, “writing under martial law is like holding a pen in one hand, and wearing a handcuff in the other.” Many believed Zia allowed the arts to flourish because they would keep people busy and prevent them from protesting against his rule. The theorist of this Franz Fanon — esque belief did not absolve even Junejo or Noorul Huda Shah — whose TV serials and plays like ‘Deewarain’ and ‘Jungle’ were considered blockbusters of their time — from working in tandem with Zia. For conspiracy theorists, the plays were meant to distract people from participating in the movement to restore democracy. Other than ‘Deewarain’ or ‘Jungle’, a plethora of screen plays emerged under Zia’s rule. Be it Amjad Islam Amjad’s epic serial ‘Waris’ about the decaying feudal values of Punjab, or ‘Sona Chandi’ of Munoo Bhai, there was much to see on television. Even PTV’s annual award distribution ceremony turned into Pakistan’s version of the Academy Awards. The political minds cum TV watchers would look for the ‘party line’ in the dialogues of these dramas and shows. The class struggle, the movement for the restoration of democracy, and Bhutto’s trial, execution, and aftermath were all decoded. “We are going live tonight from the Fort while no one has ever returned from the Killa (the fort) alive”, were the opening remarks of satirist, actor and writer Anwar Maqsood while compeering the annual PTV awards ceremony which was being broadcast live from Lahore Fort. The Lahore Fort is infamous for having dungeons cells which held political prisoners who were tortured, in many cases, even to death. Oh the Fort of Lahore, Another of your prisoners died, Quietened the noise of prison, Feet chained in the fetters stopped The poet Habib Jalib penned this many years before Zia’s rule. In reality, film, theatre and dance were brought to a state of coma in Pakistan under Zia. This was merely the beginning of the end of the fine arts in Pakistan. Doyen of Urdu literature, Intezar Hussein has written in his memoirs chiraghon ka dhanvan that sometimes Zia would himself watch the films as part of the censoring board. The other members of the film censor board included poet and writer Kishwar Naheed and Islamist novelist Nasim Hijazi. The songs that became popular during this time were politically charged songs such as Bija Teer Bija and jiye Bhutto Benazir. Jiye Jiye. Many believed Zia allowed the arts to flourish because they would keep people busy and prevent them from protesting against his rule Very few people are familiar with the anecdote of a Mehndi ceremony at the wedding of an army generals’ daughter (married to my friend)at Islamabad where the ‘jiye Bhutto Banazir’ song was played and would only be stopped when Begum Shafiqa Ziaul Haq joined the ceremony. Zia had already passed away by then. Theatre groups such as Talat Hussein and Rahat Kazmi’s ‘Theatre Group’ and ‘Ajoka’ and the group Dastak under Aslam Azhar, amongst others, were the most active during Zia’s tenure. Although the Zia regime severely oppressed the media, some English language dailies such as The Muslim and The Frontier Post were allowed to function. This is nothing short of a miracle and why this was allowed to happen continues to remain a mystery. The advent of vibrant and liberal English print media which employed pro democracy, secular and independent minded journalists and staff changed the course of the print media’s history in the country. Poetry was another field which flourished. Mushairas were held in memory of Allama Iqbal under the auspices of the Allama Iqbal Memorial Committee in various parts of the country. Prominent progressive poets like Ali Sardar Jafri, and even Ahmed Faraz and Habib Jalib recited their poems. In most cases, Habib Jalib and Ahmed Faraz were removed and expelled from the districts. “On every round of five lashes, the doctor inspects the pulse and declares the prisoner healthy and gives the go ahead to the executioner to complete the punishment of fifteen lashes. Is this humanity?” wondered Sindhi fiction writer Muneer Ahmed Manik in his novella ‘Saah Muthaa Mein’ (‘living in fear’) In reality, the space Zia gave to the people of Pakistan and to the fine arts was the space between the doctor and the executioner. The space for us to breathe our last. The writer is a journalist, poet, lyricist, writer and human rights defender, living in New York. He has worked with the Newsline and the BBC Published in Daily Times, July 12th , 2017.