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Diversity in the Stacks: Collecting as Resistance: Khajistan and the Shaping of Pakistani Cultural Histories

The Penn Libraries and Khajistan have collaborated to bring several groupings of ephemera, popular magazines, pulp fiction, and rare books to campus, and we’re currently working to make these available to researchers from around the world.

A colorful movie poster depicts several men in action poses with weapons as well as women lounging. A yellow dog is also shown.

For the past two years, the Penn Libraries has been collaborating with Khajistan, an organization committed to the preservation of cultural production from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. Founded by filmmaker and collector Saad Khan, the initiative began more than five years ago as an effort to locate, acquire, and thus save at-risk and often overlooked content, particularly works from those living beyond the margins of polite society. Such materials have historically not been collected by libraries and archives, but they nevertheless tell important stories about the peoples who produced and consumed them. As stated in their mission, Khajistan strives to “save and cherish the unwanted, the unnecessary, the unusual, the unsavory” as an intentional form of resistance. They raise important questions about collection development in their manifesto: “What is really worth preserving in this world? Who decides what should be preserved and what should be discarded?”

The Khajistan logo is a drawing of a rooster with purple text.
The Khajistan logo.

Guided by this ethos of inclusivity and a dogged enthusiasm, the Khajistan team has been sourcing and documenting a wide variety of ephemeral materials from South Asia and the Middle East. As their collections began to accumulate in their first years, however, they realized the unique challenges for long-term preservation and began to explore solutions; they ultimately sought an institutional partner that could offer the necessary resources and expertise to ensure that these materials will remain part of the historical record for generations to come. Recognizing the Penn Libraries’ collection strengths in South Asia, our commitment to equitable representation in the Center for Global Collections, the phenomenal preservation work in our Steven Miller Conservation Laboratory, and the digitization capacities of our Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image (SCETI), Khajistan trusted that these rare materials would find a good home at Penn. Thus far we’ve collaborated to bring several groupings of ephemera, popular magazines, pulp fiction, and rare books to campus, and we’re currently working to make these available to researchers from around the world.

Given Saad’s passion for cinema, it’s no surprise that much of the initial stages of Khajistan’s efforts focused on film-related ephemeral content, particularly items from Lollywood (the Pakistani film industry). The first two caches of materials acquired by the Penn Libraries included more than 750 Pakistani film posters from the 1980s and 1990s, nearly 300 Lollywood film booklets, approximately 50 historical Lollywood promotional photographs, and a collection of documents related to film production and distribution in Pakistan and India in the latter half of the 20th century. 

A colorful movie poster shows men in fighting poses, often holding guns. One has a pacifier in his mouth. In the background is a woman wearing elaborate jewelry and hair accessories.

The posters are particularly relevant for the study of popular visual culture, an increasing topic of interest both on campus and beyond; they contribute meaningfully to these conversations by providing input from an underrepresented region and from overlooked segments of society.  

Largely featuring Pakistani cottage industry films, these posters in Pashto, Urdu, and Punjabi reveal a playful spirit through their vibrant and bold imagery.

A selection of locally-produced posters for Hollywood films also demonstrates an interesting interplay of the hegemony of American society with regional interpretations, packaging the international film content within a visual vocabulary appropriate for the domestic audience. This unique ephemeral content is rarely held by institutions in either North America or South Asia, and thus remains at considerable risk of being lost to time; the Libraries’ acquisition, preservation, and ongoing stewardship activities will ensure that these materials remain available to researchers and enthusiasts. Additionally, these collections connect with and broaden similar holdings, such as a large group of Egyptian film posters (in process), a recently acquired collection of Central American political posters, and two groupings of Indian cinema pressbooks: one in Hindi, Urdu, and English and one in Bengali.

Our Khajistan acquisitions also include more than 500 issues of numerous magazines from South Asia, covering popular arts, culture, and society ranging from the 1940s to 1990s. Accounting for nearly half of this content is the magazine Shama, an eclectic Urdu film and literary magazine published in both Delhi and Lahore throughout much of the 20th century.

Three covers of the magazine Shama feature dramatic images of film stars.
Sample covers of Shama.

Although a widely popular magazine in both India and Pakistan, only a handful of North American institutions hold any issues of the publication, so Penn’s acquisition is filling gaps and providing broader access. Similarly, more than 50 issues of Eastern Film and Film & TV Sun further supplement this emphasis on Pakistani cinema and television broadcasts, offering an English-language perspective of the region’s entertainment of the era. Apart from these film-related titles, we’ve acquired scattered issues of magazines covering a variety of topics; these include an adult magazine in the 1970s and 1980s that published articles on sex and relationships, as well as several sociopolitical magazines that presented alternative perspectives on culture and current events within the context of increasing censorship and religious fundamentalism. The repressive crackdowns and conservative shifts brought about by the regime of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s resulted in many of these magazines being censored or discontinued in the wake of declining sales. 

Another notable collection of content from Khajistan is approximately 150 Urdu mystery digests from mid-20th century Pakistan. This emerging genre of popular literature placed new forms of thriller and spy narratives within the cultural context of a newly independent country, resulting in a unique set of stories about honor, justice, and suspense. At the time of production, academic libraries and archives generally eschewed collecting this sort of genre fiction, viewing it as lowbrow rather than scholarly. In recent years, shifting conceptions of what’s worthy of study have piqued some appetite for collecting pulp literature, though most of the older publications have long since disappeared from the market. Working with Khajistan has thus opened opportunities for filling collection gaps, contributing to the long-term documentation of the trends and influences circulating in the popular imagination of the region in that period.  

The leaflet shows a photo of an American family over an image of the United States, a photo of an Afghani family over an image of Afghanistan, and a drawing of two hands clasping each other in the center.
A copy of a propaganda leaflet the United States military dropped over Afghanistan.

The most recent acquisition from Khajistan is an incredibly unique collection of American propaganda leaflets from the 1990s and 2000s. 

These materials were dropped by the U.S. military over Afghanistan following 9/11 and throughout the subsequent invasion, as well as over Iraq during the Gulf War in 1990-91 and when the Iraq War started in 2003. Produced locally in Pashto, Dari, and Arabic languages, the leaflets were intended to malign the Taliban in Afghanistan and the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, to encourage alliance with U.S. forces, and to call for peaceful unity. The majority of these leaflets were subsequently gathered and destroyed to prevent further dissemination, so these rare survivors are an important glimpse into the strategies the U.S. government pursues to influence public opinion in foreign countries during times of conflict.

Additionally, Khajistan has been setting new ambitions and expanding into other arenas, including the preservation and distribution of film and audio content, as well as the releasing of original titles under their new publishing wing. Just last month the Penn Libraries’ Center for Global Collections hosted Saad for a screening of Aurat Raj, a 1979 Urdu film that addresses issues of misogyny and gender inequality in Pakistani society; after facing censorship and scrutiny, the film was nearly lost, but Khajistan located a rare copy of the original film, digitized it, obtained the rights, and is now distributing this important—if overlooked— contribution to Pakistani cinema. Similarly, the newly formed Khajistan Press is aiming to publish provocative works that platform topics and lives from the margins, particularly covering issues of sexuality and LGBTQ+ peoples.

All of the materials we’ve acquired from Khajistan are still awaiting cataloging, though we expect to begin processing the collections in the new year with the assistance of cataloger Arzoo Sidiqi, who arrived from Afghanistan in September to join the Penn Libraries as our new Perso-Arabic Metadata Fellow. We will continue collaborating with Khajistan on additional acquisitions and expect the current collection to grow and broaden in scope. Khajistan has much exciting work ahead, and we at Penn Libraries anticipate fostering a productive, ongoing relationship in the years to come.



December 18, 2023