Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Not So Reluctant Editorialists

I know I may be going out on a limb here but what IS up with Pakistani English fiction writers becoming the prescriptive messiahs of Pakistan?

I mean, I know that novelists are storytellers and there's nothing as powerful as a good storyteller to bring out the humanity of such a massive disaster as the current floods - often drowned in dry and incomprehensible statistics - for a wider reading public, especially outside Pakistan. And some, such as Daniyal Mueenuddin, have done an admirable job of painting pictures with their words, (Incidentally, here's a well-written critique of the American press' obsession with the Taliban taking advantage of the floods, that many readers have taken to be a critique of Mueenuddin's piece, which to be fair only pandered to this obsession right at the end). But since when did Pakistani English language novelists, most of them with only a book or two to their names, become the "experts" on Pakistan's politics, economy, sociology, and everything else? So much so that you would be hard-pressed to find a piece on Pakistan by a Pakistani in the New York Times or other Western English newspapers not written by a Pakistani fiction writer.

The Usual Suspects: (clockwise from top left) Hanif, Mueenuddin, Sethi, Shamsie

Don't get me wrong: I enjoy a well-written piece as much as anyone else (though some of the pieces recently appearing don't even fall into that category - Ali Sethi, I'm thinking of you) and I can understand the Western press' natural reliance on people who can string together a sentence in English. What I find inexplicable is the total reliance on a handful of mostly urban elite, mostly thirty-something writers to explain everything about Pakistan, to the exclusion of almost anyone else (aside from the official line periodically trotted out by the Husain Haqqanis and the Wajid Shamsul Hasans). You want a piece on feudalism? Let's go to Mueenuddin (he's a farmer after all). You want a piece on corruption, let's ask Sethi. The music scene? Mohsin Hamid. Attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team? Kamila Shamsie. Afghan refugees? Mohammed Hanif. The Ahmadis? How about Bapsi Sidhwa? At least Mohammed Hanif can claim to be a reporter who has covered Pakistani politics for years. And I am sure these writers reflect upon their country and have quite intelligent things to say about a variety of topics. But are they the only people who do / can? What about activists, political economists, musicians, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, sports journalists... you know, the people who actually work in these fields and do the research? Or for that matter, why not poets or writers in 'native' languages who have far greater experience of "the Pakistani condition"? (If Marquez for example wanted to submit an op-ed in Spanish about Colombia, don't you think the NYT would get it translated?)

But the problem is not just that the pool of op-ed writers being drawn from by Western publications is small and stereotyped. The more insidious problem is that some of these writers end up believing their own hype and think they actually have it all figured out, going beyond humanizing stories with anecdotes and observation to presenting solutions. So we have Shamsie blaming these floods on the timber mafia (yes, deforestation is a factor but certainly does not explain the entire gamut of devastation caused by the floods, most of it in areas where timber theft is not really a factor), Hanif trying to make a point against the Taliban scare by claiming that there is no indigenous word for terrorism in Sindhi or Seraiki (really? and Pushto does?) and Mueenuddin raising the spectre of the radicalization of and revolution by the displaced and hungry to explain why those people should be helped out.

But a special place in all this must be reserved for Mohsin Hamid, whose every article on Pakistan seems now to be predicated on the belief that everything would be rosy in Pakistan if only everyone paid more taxes. What is perhaps even more strange is that it's a local publication, Dawn, that gives him pride of place on its op-ed pages to hold forth his economic prescriptions that under a little bit of scrutiny turn out to be mostly nice-sounding fluff. Here, for example is his solution to Pakistan's woes, from his latest piece in Dawn:

"Helping [the flood affectees] means taxes. We pay only a tenth of our collective income to our state, far less than most countries. India and Sri Lanka pay half again as much as we do. We need to pay more. We need a comprehensive flood tax programme. We need to cease our foolish bickering about whether taxes should be paid to the provinces or to the centre, by merchants or by landlords, on luxury goods or on shareholdings. The answer to these either-or questions is both. Let’s tax both locally and nationally, both trading and agriculture, both consumption and wealth."

Author Mohsin Hamid: obsessed with taxes

Yes, Mohsin, we know you were a banker and we know that Pakistan's tax collections are abysmally low. But could you go and check with any economist how much of what we do collect is actually utilized? And I'm not even talking about corruption here, the other favourite bugbear of armchair theorists. I'm talking about the state's lack of capacity in even making the most of what it has. It is a favourite pastime of the intelligentsia to moan about how Pakistan allocates only 1.5% of its GDP to education and health and how we need to raise this number manifold. All well and good, but what about the fact that more than 50% of even this meagre allocation goes un-utilized because the state does not have the ability to use it? Yes, of course there should be more schools for children and health units in the rural areas, but what about the fact that even the ones that exist are often without teachers and medical staff and supplies? Mohsin alludes to this major issue with the throwaway line, "if we can... then spend for our impoverished majority..." Ah, yes, great idea, it's a pity nobody ever thought of it before.

Could we move beyond the safe generalizations to understand the complexity of the issues? Or am I just being a Wish Maker?


Anonymous said...

You are just being a Wish Maker.

Anonymous said...

Nuance? nah!

stfu said...

I'm tempted to agree with you in so far as you claim that these few individuals aren't the ONLY ones who have anything half-intelligent to say about Pakistan's socio-economic conditions.. but to rubbish, amongst other things, Hanif's suggestion that our tax base needs to be broadened or that people need to pay more taxes, is unwarranted. I respect the views on this blog tremendously most of the time but I feel that this kind of nit picking doesn't do anyone any good, and at the end of the day, everyone's trying to contribute towards making a change in this country. Let us all please try to get along and pick on.. Aamir Liaquat instead.

Rabayl Memon said...

Spot on analysis of Mohsin Hamin. In my opinion though, Ali Sethi's was a good piece. It was conversational, easy to read and moving, everything one expects from someone who tells emotive, effective stories. What did you not like about it?

Meera Ghani said...

Fine I give you that much....but talk is cheap...provide actual solutions then, what would you do would you ensure that the taxes the little that the state gets are utilized properly....with every Gov. thrown out every two years...each one with a very short-term agenda...can you expect anything more....we need to restructure our systems, institutions and bring about transformational change. taxes are a good place to start but we need actual tax reforms.

Btw anyone can submit articles to these international onlines news sources.....even dawn and the international tribune have blogs set up for people who want to ones stopping the "activists, political economists, musicians, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, sports journalists" or even poets from sending in their contributions...its just that they dont....and these young thoughtful writers do....i may not agree with them on everything they write but I am surely grateful to them for at least raising their voice...when all we have is a complacent majority that loves nothing better than to moan and complain. So speak up, be heard....send your well written blogs to these news agencies. I for one would love to read your pieces.

Nabeel said...

I actually agree with stfu here...I think this is nitpicking. The articles mentioned here have not been perfect - but nothing is.

Daniyal Mueenuddin's piece was ruined by his last paragraph that kind of dramatized the potential for fanaticism, but we can't deny that the potential exists. It would be foolhardy to believe that some people would not be more susceptible to taking up extremist positions than before - driven, perhaps, not by anti-West rage, but by anti-govt rage. You can already see how the relentless (and biased) portrayal of the civilian govt as completely inept is stoking resentment.

Mohsin Hamid has some excellent points - one that both armchair theorists and 'real people in the know' (the Pyalas, perhaps?) would agree with - for example recognizing that the army vs govt distinction pushed by the media over the past few weeks is both wrong and dangerous. Few people seem to understand that both institutions have been working together and that both represent the state - and that the necessity of the state cannot be denied. And we can't deny that people need to pay their taxes - yes, it's a cliched solution by now, but the truth is that it has to be A PART OF any progress, notwithstanding capacity and governance issues.

Haven't read Shamsie's article, but as long as she recognized that the timber mafia is only partly to blame...I can't really disagree. Hanif's article, too, was (on the whole) a strong defense of the victims and their need for donations. To dismiss it because of some faulty reasoning is a little harsh, because he was right, generally speaking.

Anonymous said...

Wow cafe pyala has become really shallow recently. This was pathetic. Why don't YOU write a piece for some international publication which prescribes all the solutions others can't seem to offer? Or a perfect analysis of all our problems which the above writers are too "elitist" to realize?

guest pyala poster said...

Although I disagree with the entire premise of this article, for the reasons outlined in previous comments, I want to make a specific point regarding your critique of Hamid.

We do need to broaden our tax base. I think we would both agree that at present, the tax base is quite limited. You state that the taxes Pakistan already collects are underutilized but I want to point out that this is precisely a *consequence* of the fact that the tax base is so limited.

Broadening the tax base means giving citizens a direct financial stake in the future of the country. Why do I care if the state misuses or fails to use taxes if I'm not paying them? But if I am paying them, then it is more likely I will pay attention. If taxes don't end up where they should belong (i.e. towards helping the poor, improving infrastructure, etc.), the citizenry will take notice and try to bring some accountability to the process.

Of course, this is not the only solution to Pakistan's woes but neither I nor, I believe, Hamid, are arguing as such. But it *is* an important part of the solution.

Saad said...

isn't Hanif a journalist first and a writer second?

Saad said...

oops! i see you mentioned it

Anonymous said...

This is close to what Nadya V wrote in Tribune blogs! Can't standdd mohammad hanif!

aamir said...

....finally some one risked his or her social political acceptability by taking on this expat-syndrome, fix it all, or holier than thou approach. World does not operate in black and white rather in shades of grey, and this perspective we are so afraid to accept. Though i respect some of the writers mentioned, but would agree with the article without reservation.

Munazza said...

Finally. Someone with the sense to distinguish between an intellectual and a propped-up pseudo-intellectual. And a word of caution for those who comment anonymously: readers would be sane to assume that you are either among those criticised or someone close to them.

TLW said...

I agree with much of what you say, but I think you forgot to mention that it's mostly US newspapers who rely on this approach. The British newspapers (having had much experience screwing up the region) generally have a much more professional approach. The only one who deserves opprobrium would be Ali Sethi (nepotism anyone?) and Mohsin Hamid always did strike me as someone who had his head up in the clouds.

On the credit side, I think Mohsin Hamid has generally done well, if Kamila Shamsie stuck to blaming the timber mafia only for Swat she's ok (and at that time people were only worried about the KP effected areas of the flood) and you guys missed out a good part; Cyril Almeida was there too!

So there's hope for everybody who works hard and gives honest analysis ;-)

Mackers said...

"Yes, Mohsin, we know you were a banker and we know that Pakistan's tax collections are abysmally low. But could you go and check with any economist how much of what we do collect is actually utilized?"

Irony of ironies, Mohsin Hamid's father is a Stanford-educated economist who got his doctorate in development economics

AM Jaferii said...

you are wrong about us spending 1.5% of our GDP on education. that would be bloody brilliant.

we spend 1.5% of our BUDGET on education.

and if you are capable of such a blunder, how are you writing about a banker not being an economist with any sarcasm?

Sara H said...

I never liked Mohsin Hamids fictions, but his opinion are not too off.

But Ali Sethi! That novel was the like shewing rubber. And he like to think himself as middle class... Harvard educated with dad being a media tycoon. I feel downright poor with parents working shifts at government hospitals.

Going off the point here. The point is that this is how media works.. shameless self promotion. Sethi, Hamid, Shamsie they all do it to a degree.

Sethi is now editor at The Friday Times. I hope the paper can save itself from becoming a dull like The Wish Maker.