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Things Come (Almost) Full Circle

1 Mar

I started this blog in 2009 when I was deciding whether I wanted to come back to Pakistan or not.

6 years ago,  I wrote “Against the good and bad advice of a majority of friends and family members – I have decided to return to Pakistan. I dont know if this a wise decision – I merely know that it is the right decision for me at this time. With time, the correctness of my belief might change and this might become the wrong decision – but until it does, I hope to use my blog to keep track of this transition and use it to (hopefully) reaffirm the correctness of my decision for today and all my tomorrows.”

On some days when America offered great company and conversation, or interactions with people that were interesting and interested in things around the world I wondered if I wanted to return to a country that was fast becoming a bastion of bigotry and violence over things as insignificant as lawn suits or as profound as one’s religious beliefs.

Sometimes it was the walks in Central Park or the ability to blend anonymously into the humid New York summer nights that made me want to never leave the country I had come to know and love as a second home.

My decision to come back seemed particularly wrong when Parliament passed the Nizam e Adl Regulation and handed over Swat to the violent bigots. I was so angry that I punched a wall and typed out this long heartfelt article demanding that I want my country back from the bigots.

But when I did eventually return to Pakistan in 2010 and started work at the Jinnah Institute with Sherry Rehman – I witnessed first hand the psychosis that had gripped Pakistan. As we worked on things that seemed like no-brainers like the protection of minorities and religious freedoms, I realized that it was not just benign apathy and neglect that prevented Pakistanis from protecting fellow citizens. There were powerful forces of obscurantism that enjoyed popular support that would resort to murder and violence to silence all voices that dared to challenge their world view.

As these forces grew more powerful and brave, progressive voices like Governor Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were silenced; the rest of us who were no where near as brave or courageous also grew silent. I self censored and did not talk about religion in public.  I avoided arguments with the moral police. I bent my head over my phone and typed out a few furious tweets. But that was all. I went about my work every day. I tried to search for silver linings to reaffirm the decision I had made 7 years ago. But those silver linings seemed fewer and further apart.

Till today.

Things seem to have come full circle as justice has been done. The rule of law upheld and Mumtaz Qadri – the man who assassinated Governor Taseer for speaking up for the rights of a poor Christian woman accused of Blasphemy – has met the fate meted out to him by the law.

Many of us thought that given how powerful the religious right has become in Pakistan – the government would not dare touch their poster boy. We were wrong. Never have I been more relieved about being wrong.

The sordid saga that started in Pakistan’s history with the brutal murder of Governor Taseer for speaking up for the oppressed has almost come full circle today. It will be complete when Aasia Bibi the woman he spoke up for, is allowed to go free.

But till then, I am thankful to the Government of Pakistan for letting the law take its course and giving me a reason once again to believe I made the right decision  7 years ago.


10 years after 9/11

11 Sep

Its been ten years since 9/11 happened. But its memory has yet to fade from my mind. The disbelief, the shock, the grief, the fear and above all else – the silence – that gripped America that day, is a memory that I will never forget.

I attended town hall meetings, and I stood in candlelight vigils and I sat on unusually quiet dining hall tables with my American friends as they tried to comprehend the tragedy they had just witnessed. I did not want to speak up and intrude on their grief because other than sympathizing with the human tragedy I could not experience it in the same way as they did – an attack against their home country. I was an outsider, granted the privilege of studying at one of their schools courtesy of their money.

So I remained silent. I did not quite comprehend then that even though this had not been an attack on my country – I would live to see its consequences far more vividly than any American.

Once the initial disbelief had died down, it gave way to rage. People were looking for someone to blame and Muslims that lived in America were the easiest target. There were ugly incidents of violence against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslims. Security at airports went up and if you had a Muslim sounding name, chances were that you would get treated like a potential criminal. Horror stories rolled in faster than I could keep track. And I wasnt interested in keeping track because none of it touched my life at college. My roommates and I – who were all American (except for Catherine – who was Canadian) continued to be worried about what college kids worry about – the Freshman fifteen, what to wear to the eighties dance and boys.

For four years at college – and then for a year afterwards – we lived together and loved each other without prejudice or consideration for color or nationality. Being a girl, and one who does not wear any overt symbols of religion, I never faced any prejudice on the streets either. There were no rude comments, no mean glares at airports or snide comments in stores or at the work place. I loved America and my life and friends there with all my heart. While 9/11 changed the world for many – it had no impact on mine – till I moved back to Pakistan.

I moved back in 2006 to a Pakistan very different from the one I had left behind. While the older pakistan had economic woes and political warts, it didn’t have suicide bombers. It wasnt a country held hostage by militants.

Common wisdom in Pakistan suggests that while 9/11 brought the twin towers crumbling in the US it brought the state and the entire state of affairs crumbling in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. The United States war on Terror unleashed a chain of events that have brought instability and insecurity to pakistan. It is undoubtedly true that the War on Terror has had a debilitating effect on Pakistan – but it’s really how we chose to deal with Pakistan in the wake of this War on Terror is what has brought Pakistan to its knees.

Its been ten years since 9/11 but we still can’t seem to get our own act together. We continue to fund and support known terrorists. Men like Hafiz Saeed roam free and no law in the land dare find them guilty. Mumtaz Qadri, a cold-blooded murder is a hero and the Punjab government through its budget provides support to the charity wings of banned terrorist outfits. This is either the worst case of complicity, duplicity or incompetence or all three. Have we not had ten years too much of the destruction that these men and their organizations have brought upon us and our country? We continue to quibble about Apples and bananas and one upping each other at press conferences but we can’t seem to get our act together to stop the bloodshed in this country. Corruption and mismanagement remain rampant and each day thousands sleep hungry and are denied justice. Yet we continue to blame America and its war on terror for all our ills. 

The suicide bombers and the militants that roam freely in our streets and detonate in our mosques are not a creation of the United States or the by-product of 9/11 – they are the creations of our own incompetence and failures.

For America, 9/11 is a painful memory. For us it’s a daily reality. And even though we experience that pain every day – we have not done anything about putting an end to it and moving on. Having lived through 9/11 in the US and through many such days in Pakistan – I can only hope and pray that we too will learn to band together the way America did after 9/11 to rebuild. In Pakistan, we only saw images of the American jets that bombed Afghanistan, we never saw the thousands of firefighters and citizens that came together to lift the debris of the two towers that were razed to the ground on that day. They were no different from the thousands that came together to offer Pakistanis shelter from the floods or opened their homes to them during the IDP crisis of 2009 or risked their lived after the earthquake of 2005. Such spirit and resilience is no stranger to us Pakistanis.

Ten years after the day that changed the world and my country more so than others, I can only hope and pray that we will have honest and sincere leadership that can channel this energy and resilience into rebuilding Pakistan. And one day I’d really like some Pakistani leader to say and more than say to mean what Rudy Giuliani Mayor of New York City said after 9/11.

Replace New York with Pakistan in the paragraph below and see if  you don’t agree:

“Tomorrow New York is going to be here. And we’re going to rebuild, and we’re going to be stronger than we were before… I want the people of New York to be an example to the rest of the country, and the rest of the world, that terrorism can’t stop us.”




9 Mar

On my way to work today, I saw a somewhat discreet advertisement for a new cafe-cum-art gallery-cum-designer clothes store in Islamabad. This is not the first of its kind. It might be the first to combine all three under the same roof but we have plenty of other establishments of the same ilk. Swanky eating spots, exclusive clothes boutiques and high-brow art galleries showcasing some heftily priced artwork – seem to be sprouting up with alarming speed and frequency in a country that by all accounts and estimates is headed for an apocalyptic social and economic meltdown along with a revolution led by self-serving bigots parading as men of God.

I’m confused.

Countries about to explode or implode (take your pick) shouldn’t be busy trying to provide goods that are unaffordable and potentially capable of being declared illegal in the near (shaped by a revolution led by bigots) future.

So are these entrepreneurs completely clueless or callous or both? Or are we all just kidding about impending doom? Continue reading

Writer’s Block and More

5 Feb

Sometimes, words fail you. Sometimes, you fail them.

They’re clamouring in your head, they’re sticking in your throat; they’re fighting to get out. But you just cant string them together into coherence. Sometimes angry phrases escape. But no fully formed thoughts can be hammered out from the shrieking, sobbing, angry mob of words in my hurting head or heavy heart. 

Dramatic? Sure.

But that’s how I’ve felt since the assassination of Salmaan Taseer.

I am confused and angry. A murderer has been crowned hero and the man he slaughtered is the villain. I am told there is a murder of this ilk proudly walking down every street of Pakistan waiting to slay anyone he, in his own head, accuses, tries and finds guilty of blasphemy.  And then there are the hordes who will not only defend him but shower him with petals. Then there are those who will sit in their plush drawing rooms and say the murder shouldn’t be glorified but the victim was asking for it. There are those who will tell you that Pakistan is now a failed state spiraling into the abyss of religious fanaticism. Some will incite you to take to the streets against the illiterate cleric propagating intolerance and violence. Others will invite you to a candle light vigil or a facebook group for the slain Governor where they will collectively wish that they could swat the mullahs back into their caves with their Prada bags.  The blood lust and hysteria of the masses that cheered the governor’s assassin has me mourning for the flight of reason, tolerance and the rule of law from this country. The small band of people advocating that liberals confront this bloodthirsty mob in the streets has me worried for their sanity.    

I’ve tried to write many times since it happened. But everything I had to say seemed to utterly inadequate that I couldn’t. I havent been able to find the words to express my disappointment with Pakistan. I know the words exist and others have used them eloquently, but I have failed in finding them. Maybe, I don’t want to hear what I really feel and think. Maybe it’s not the words hiding from me but me hiding from the words that will spell out in cold, indelible ink, what Pakistan has become today.

Escapist? Sure.

You have to be one if you want to live in a country where 500 lawyers will sign a petition to defend the murderer but not one lawyer can be found to prosecute him for the crime he has proudly confessed to. When the religious right brings out thousands on the road and civil society responds by sending out thousands of emails (the majority of which involve fighting with each other over semantics and ownership of documents!) you have to escape to another place in your head where those leading the charge against intolerant are not busy being intolerant and dismissive of each other.

I’ve thought about writing some brilliantly eloquent response on one of these email lists but then I’ve never found the words to criticize those who have done much more for this cause in their own way than I ever have. What social contribution do I have to give my words the legitimacy they need when lashing out against those who have come out on the streets when I have stayed at home.

Coward? Sure.

I’m not the only one. There are hordes of us lurking about in the op-ed pages of English dailies. Our pens (or keyboards) churning out clever little eulogies for the country lost, preaching sermons of realism,  hiding our cowardice under the garb of “reality,” or taking refuge behind facebook profiles and pages. Some of us have been to the odd protest or two for a more “tolerant” Pakistan. But it was little more than a Sunday afternoon schmooze with friends and statements to the TV. But that’s all we’ve done.

But what more could we have done in the face of such violent opposition? I don’t know. We can’t bring out thousands onto the streets. We can’t take up arms. But maybe we could have found one lawyer to represent the Taseer family. One man or woman to stand up for the Rule of Law in a country that just experienced a great movement in its name should not have to be such a tough ask.

Sad? Infinitely.

Say No to Conformity

28 Nov

A friend of mine told a famous member of the Islamabadi Chatterati that she disliked the Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan. She thought these laws were unjust and were used to persecute minorities. She was of the opinion that these laws needed to be repealed. He, famous columnist and policy analyst, was of the opinion that since she did not like the laws in the country, she should get on a plane and leave; travel to more liberal shores where such laws do not exist and neither is there popular support for them.

“Get a green card and go,” she was told. Apparently, her criticism of the state and its laws, that enjoy support from the masses, makes her unworthy of being a citizen of Pakistan.  She also wears jeans and speaks in English and this also apparently detracts from her Pakistani-ness and makes her less worthy of holding the hallowed green passport or living on the pious shores of the great Islamic Republic.

Now, said commentator also wears jeans, western garb and hob-nobs quite frequently with the white folk; those dushmans of Islam and those busy in plotting the downfall of the shinning beacon of Islamic light – Pakistan. But, this is not of consequence, because Mr. Chatterati despite all of the afore-mentioned is committed to upholding what the masses of Pakistan believe in and conforming to and promoting “mainstream” and therefore “authentic” Pakistani sentiments. Hence, he is worthy of being a citizen, but furious friend is not.

He believes that all the noise created by the “liberal elite” for the repeal of the laws is out of touch with reality.  And there should be no calls for repeal (those people should leave Pakistan). He agrees with supporting a move towards amending the law to prevent their misuse.

There are a couple of problems with this dangerous call for conformity.

While I agree completely with Sir Chatterati that calls for repeal are unlikely to be met with success and that we should focus on building support to amend the laws, I disagree completely, that those who demand repeal of the laws should be silenced, ridiculed or asked to leave the country. For far too long, liberals in this country have been asked to conform to the mainstream – a mainstream that is not appropriately educated or given access to diversity. People like my friend are forced through coercion, bullying and social exclusion to become like the majority in this country who do not believe in human rights, or free speech or even condemning hate speech. Just because they are a majority does not make them right. And sometimes, instead of the saner fringes being asked to become part of the madding crowd, maybe we should be working towards moving people from the mad mainstream into the saner fringes. Why must the upholders of free speech or tolerance be asked to conform to or put up with the intolerance of others?

The conformist chatterer, in his zeal to save Pakistan, has gotten it all wrong. In order to reduce social conflict, he thinks the way to go is to ask the liberals who believe in things like repealing the Blasphemy laws and the Hudood Ordinance and all those laws that make the average Pakistani (Wait!! Not every Pakistani – just the average Muslim Pakistani) sleep better and remain more Muslim and therefore more Pakistani at night; to shut up or ship out. However, we encourage dialogue with and appeasement of those who have brutally and indiscriminately murdered innocent Pakistani citizens. We call them a reality that is not going away and must be accepted and brought into the mainstream political arena – but those liberals with their high ideals – they are truly dangerous and not worth appeasing or listening to and should just be told to shut up or ship out. I’m appalled – to say the least.

And while these political pundits might have their pulse on what’s current, they seem to totally have forgotten, what has been forced onto the dung heap (it’s really no dust heap!) of Pakistani history. Since 1947, support for conforming to and accepting one idea of citizenship and Pakistani-ness have been seen as the only way for Pakistan survival. It was believed that a country, pulled together but the vision of a few and not glued together by one language, religion or even continuous geographical mass would never survive. The separation of East Pakistan is held up as testimony by those who predicted the downfall of Pakistan. What they fail to acknowledge is that East Pakistan became Bangladesh because we told them to conform to and bow down to the will, wishes and the culture of West Pakistan. Apparently, East Pakistan was not Pakistan enough. Demanding conformity of language and culture and obedience to the policies of one ethnic sect became the reason for the partition of Pakistan in 1971. Had we been more accepting of plurality and embraced it instead of fearing it, we could have been a country brought together by historical circumstance but held together by respect for diversity. 

But clearly, we have not learnt our lesson and we insist on demanding conformity to the mainstream – a fluid concept at best – as the only way to our salvation.

And then when cornered, all liberal chatterers parading in their “mainstream man of the masses garb” resort to the conciliatoryand apologetic argument of “extremism of all kinds is bad for the country and the liberal extremist are just as bad as the religious ones. What they forget is that God has not made all extremists equal; one has a gun, a grenade, a suicide vest and a mission to use them. The other only has lofty ideals.

I wonder which one you would prefer to get rid off?

Pakistan Schizophrenic Forum

15 Nov

Holbrooke at Hafeez Shaikh at the Pakistan Development Forum 2010

Today Pakistan put on a great show – it was called the Pakistan Development Forum . Pakistan Schizophrenic Forum might have been a more apt name.

It was an excellent display of the government’s ability to organize and govern over a conference of local stakeholders and donors. The conference was so well organized, that you could almost delude tyourself into thinking that this was the product of aa government that excels in the business of organization and governance. Security was courteous and polite. Signs marked the way to the conference. Each delegate was given a security tag with a unique serial number. Conference bags, filled with materials were handed to all attendees. Tables were laden with printed materials and research on the condition of Pakistan after the floods. Beautifully printed and bound booklets were waiting to inform the average participant about Pakistan’s needs and challenges. Large screens in the foyer, carried a live video feed of the proceedings in the conference room for those milling about outside. Screens with the agenda, informed you of upcoming sessions and upcoming speakers.

It looked very professional and very well managed.Inside the conference room, things were even better. Top government representatives and donors sat in rectangular formation around tables covered with crisp white linen and laden with thousands of crisp and fresh, beautiful white blooms. Powerpoints flashed on the screens as successive provincial governments presented their damage assessments, their challenges and plans for the future. Sitting in that room, one could almost believe that everything was under control in Pakistan and progress was being made towards betterment each minute. Common citizens should rejoice. Aaall iz Well! And the government of Pakistan is working exceptionally hard to make better, what is currently not. And then there were tea breaks where more polite conversation and dainty pastries were consumed. In the sunny inner courtyard of the Serena, where people from numerous countries talked to each other which such great ease and comfort, it was easy to forget the brutal and violent realities of Pakistan.

Continue reading

Talat Hussain, You Genius You (via Kala Kawa)

25 Oct

A great deconstruction of popular journalist Talat Hussain’s latest column for the Express on Angelina Jolie’s wicked ways and—- oh btw — the even wickeder ways of the current government

This blog is quickly changing into an extended rant. However, when the Islamic Republic throws up cretin after cretin and provides them with substantial media space to air their views one can’t help but rant. Talat Hussain, lovingly known as Flotzilla in some circles due to his ‘heroics’ on the Gaza Peace Flotilla, has recently penned a column in the Urdu Daily ‘Express’. The subject of this column was Angelina Jolie’s recent report to the United … Read More

via Kala Kawa

Hope: Lost or Not?

22 Aug

Being back has turned out to be everything I had hope for it to be in not the best way possible. Since my return there has been a plane crash, a wedding, interesting job offers and the most devastating floods the country has seen since 1970.  I always wanted to come back to Pakistan so that I could be a part of everything that happens here. Well, Pakistan has not disappointed! Its given me a lot to do and a lot to think about. As the country is ravaged by floods, there is no dearth of ways to get involved in helping fellow Pakistani citizens. But as the outpouring of help by citizens is inspiring, the floods are a reminder of the enormity of the task of national reconstruction. In times of national crisis, when the spirit of national generosity is unable to trump the corruption, fatigue and inefficiency in society its easy to lose heart and hope.

And I can see people loosing hope every day. This is why two boys were brutally beaten to death in Sialkot today. They became victims to the frustrations of citizens who have been abandoned by the state for far too long and have now resorted to taking matters, including the law, into their own hands. Surely, these are signs of a failing state. They are reason to lose hope and be ashamed.

The Show Must Go On: Farmers in Swat unfettered by the Floods

But then as I was wallowing in national misery, our favorite national sport, I saw a news story on BBC urdu that made my flagging, flailing, gasping for breath national spirits soar again. Groups of farmers in Swat, also abandoned by the state, have also taken matters into their own hands. They are not beating or torturing anyone. They are busy building boats and rafts and carrying on their backs, the agricultural produce to market that they have worked year round to produce and which would have rotted away had they not taken matters into their own hands.

The absence of the state doesn’t cause all Pakistanis to resort to violence. It inspires some to use their strength and skills to find productive ways to overcome the absence of the state. And as long as we have people innovative enough to turn tyre tubes into river rafts and strong enough to wade through water with sacks of onions on their backs, there is hope for us.

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