Saturday, May 28, 2011

Right, Said TED

TED is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment, Design. According to its web home:

"TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design."

TEDx, according to the mothership, is:

"designed to give communities, organizations and individuals the opportunity to stimulate dialogue through TED-like experiences at the local level. At TEDx events, a screening of TEDTalks videos -- or a combination of live presenters and TEDTalks videos -- sparks deep conversation and connections."

Karachi’s first TEDx event happened last year, and the second wrapped up a few hours ago. Here lies the unembalmed corpse of The Reluctant Teddy, and its well preserved diary. Any resemblance to real persons dead, alive or in charge of the events twitter feed are purely coincidental...

The TEDx Karachi Diary

12 pm: Don’t wanna go

12:15pm: Can’t make me

2:00pm: Still don’t wanna go

2:15pm: Still can’t make me

3:00pm: WTF am I doing in the back of this car?

3:15pm: I love it when Pakistanis queue. It’s like that moment as a parent when you realize your child is not mildly retarded, only too lazy to be buggered enough to make the effort, any effort, unless significant social stigma ensues.

3:25pm: So, let me get this straight. You made me carry this luxuriant invite – which by the way would make an excellent coaster/doorstop/non-sterile gauze for injuries incurred in buffet lines in non-queuing demographics – and a ticket print out, AND some form of identification, just so three random teenagers could highlight bar codes and put a tick next to the highlighted bar code at three different stops? Excellent. Now, when are we playing dodge ball in the high school gym?

3:30pm: It’s 3:30. I’m in my seat. On time. Are we having fun yet?

3:45pm: Nope.

4:00pm: Still nope. On the up side, the aunty with the ageless Vuitton on my left agrees that it is people who show up late and not people who show up on time who should be penalized. She must have gone to Kinnaird.

4:05pm: TEDx Karachi stage set consists of…

- two bookshelves with what might or might not be fake books
- two gilt edged mirrors punctuating fake bookshelves, possibly catering to Imran Khan’s peccadilloes
- two maps of what could either be the world or Karachi’s incestuous society’s idea of the world
- two bell-shaped leather-backed chairs generally seen in the lesser known fetish films, separated by a Victorian era skirted table topped with a gramophone, there is a metaphor here but I am too afraid to tap it
- a ship’s wheel
- a clock that doesn’t work
- a metal man on a metal horse, could be Tamerlane, could be the spirit of the organizers' time
- decapitated head of antelope, antlers included
- complete absence of any TEDx speaker, presenter, anchor

4:10pm: Ten seconds away from walking out and filing ‘I went to TEDxKhi and all I got was this lousy ripped-from-body-of-intern T-shirt’ post

4:10pm and some: Ah. It begins.

Fasi Zaka on the surreal TEDx Karachi stage

4:11pm: Dr. Awab Alvi introduces, badly, the notion of TED and TEDx, before introducing Fasi Zaka, the first speaker on the theme of ‘Making The Impossible Possible.’

The TEDious

4: 25pm: Fasi Zaka is funny. But I knew that already. So far he has told us that:

a) Pakistan has an education emergency.
b) An education emergency is a bad thing.
c) This Education Task Force he was a part of wanted to fight this bad thing with a month-long, sustained assault via the media because they felt that not understanding the effect of living with an education emergency was akin to being the person in a burning cinema whose charred corpse is found burned into a seat, still waiting for the moment when the rush to the exits abates and the panicked ‘flight’ response kicks in.
d) They were pleasantly surprised by how many Pakistani media anchors volunteered their time, space and belief to this noble cause.
e) Hamid Mir and Talat Hussain were cases in point. Hamid put aside his anger about the time Fasi called him a tool over email long enough to say "Anyone who is a friend to education is a friend of mine." And Talat’s munificence extended to volunteering to spend even more airtime against the backdrop of a school.
f) At the end of the day, the 170,000 signatures they gathered on their "Make Education a Priority" themed petition made no difference whatsoever.

4:30pm: Fasi’s central premise then, is that you can’t always make the impossible happen but you can always count on at least two people in an English speaking audience to laugh at a Yoda joke.

4:32pm: Awab Alvi introduces a TEDTalk by an Iraqi woman called Zainab Sabli. This was presumably meant to be an inspirational ‘I lived with bombs then I learned to channel that kinetic energy into positivity’ talk. I say presumably because a technical glitch meant the DVD got stuck and Dr. Awab had to scurry back on and introduce the next speaker instead. Don’t know much about him other than that he is an aerospace design engineer. Excited because I have always wanted to be the best space cadet I can be.

The drone from a small college in the USA

4:35pm: Raja Sabri Khan makes drones. Raja Sabri Khan saved money for his first drone by supplementing his income with fashion photography. Raja Sabri Khan went to MIT. I know this because in his introduction he made an MIT joke along the lines of "I went to MIT, a little college in the USA." This told me a few things:

a) RSK feels he is in a space where he can make an in-joke about MIT
b) If humility and RSK met in a dark alley, RSK would win

4:40pm: Er, did whoever curated this talk bother telling this man the theme of the evening? Because so far I have heard a lot about what a prodigiously gifted scraper of model aeroplanes / fashion models he was, and absolutely nothing about how exactly he has contributed to making the impossible happen.

4:41pm: He did not just say “Saying no to drone strikes is something I support. Saying no to drone technology is something I do not support.” He DID NOT!

4:42pm: He did. And the smattering of applause has only encouraged him. And now we who have sat and watched authentic inspirational TED talks about how we can make the world a better place by focusing on solutions instead of problems must sit here and ask ourselves why it is that we are afraid of breathing air devoid of politics.

4:44pm: Oh yes, an anti-drone drone. Truly an idea worth spreading.

4:45pm: And behold, it is the obligatory PNS Mehran reference, brought to you by the last person you would have expected to hear it from, a featured speaker at a TED-connected event. Yes please, lets muddy the waters further some more, and work together as a people devoted entirely to the idea that we will never step out of the circumstances of our physical lives long enough to live our intellectual ones. In other words, if the Pakistani establishment had bothered realizing how much drone technology could do for internal security the attack would never have happened. So it is, in effect, a side effect of not worshipping aerospace design engineering as opposed to a side effect of being half-formed dimwits.

4:46pm: TEDxKhi co-organizer Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy just walked up to the most-visible-from-podium point in the auditorium and made the 'T' gesture. You know, when you hold one hand perpendicular to the other to indicate ‘Time’... How much do I have to pay her to make the hand-slashing-across-the-neck-indicating-‘Death’ gesture?

TEDx Karachi audience: an elite gathering 

4:47pm: Dr Awab Alvi is now telling us how badly he and the erstwhile fashion photographer turned aerospace design engineer (I could have you told about all the jokes RSK made about how drone technology in Pakistan was initially inadvertently funded by the fashion industry, but then I’d have to kill me) wanted to fly a drone across the South End Club jogging track and transmit a live feed into the auditorium but the administration would not let him.

4: 48pm: I’m a cynic. A heartless cynic. I have this great opportunity to feel like a part of the herd, to celebrate the way we privileged few float above the cluelessness of the general population / random Defence Club administration, and instead I sit here and lament the way everything is an in-joke, an aside to the familiar. I should hang myself from the nearest energy drink billboard with a rope of regurgitated gum. Die MSS Die!

4:50pm: Wait, Imran Khan is coming on. Maybe he will save me?

4:55pm: Imran Khan will not save me. I only said that to make you think I was open to the idea that he could. Actually, I have never thought he could. My first clue to this was the ‘I, me, myself’ speech he made in 1992. My last clue to this was the moment, a few minutes into his TEDx talk today, when he said “There was never a possibility that I would not become a test cricketer, it was just a question of when.

Imran Khan indicates his electoral prospects

To those of you who happened to be in the audience and might have taken this to be an insight into the mind of a natural leader, I say, yes, sure, let me take your thumb impression and plant it firmly on this here vote form. To those of you who happened to be in the audience and might have taken this to be an insight into the mind of a natural megalomaniac, I say yes, sure, let me take your thumb and plant it firmly on your nose and encourage you to waggle your fingers rudely in the air. And recite to yourselves the most telling sentence from his unfocused, rambling, practice campaign speech: “I am probably the only bowler in history to retrain my action to suit my ambition.

5:10pm: Teatime in a basement buffet. A man behind a friend and I in the line follows us to a table and, plucking up courage, asks whether we were invited, like most of the people around us, or applied successfully to attend, like the many he says he knows who are watching or will watch at home. “I don’t understand,” he says, “what criteria these organizers had to select who could attend. And why did they not have it at someplace like the FTC where people from all over could come easily instead of this place in phase 8?”

5:14pm: In a bathroom stall, having internal dialogue about the term ‘elitist.’ The original TED conference takes pride in the notion, because it is based on the premise that, in the modern world, there is a direct correlation between the financial success and the technological / artistic / entrepreneurial drive of those who attend. Is this a viable position to have in a society where pedigree / connections / inherited social currency still rule?

5:18pm: What do you mean the cake is finished you dumb waiter? Who ate all the cake?

5:40pm: Asad Rahman is a much better presenter than Awab Alvi. For starters, he doesn’t mumble. And is smart enough to understand spin. Just look at the way he introduces Noori as the second coming of Christ.

6:00pm: Noori earns brownie points for dressing down and acting, generally, like accountants with guitars as opposed to rock stars with brains. Much easier to do, for one.

The accountants with guitars look

6: 03pm: Dear Bulleh Shah, I hope you are well. I am glad you are not here to see massacre at Aik Alif Corral. In other news, Baby Noori (aka Ali Hamza) can sing, and most people did not mind that he referred to you as the "Che Guevara of his time" for "walking around dressed in women’s clothes telling people stories."

6:05pm: What a nice little riff these nice boys do on "fast" things. If I close my eyes I can almost pretend I am at a party and the Three Stooges are performing for chicks in the crowd who still buy the "inner self versus worldly goods" lines. Actually, I don’t think I have to close my eyes.

TED and Shoulders Above

6:30pm: For the first time today I am feeling the chill down my spine that one feels in the presence of the real. Dr Quratulain Bakhteari’s talk, hopefully coming soon to a TED channel near you, suddenly makes the sacrifice of the last two hours worthwhile.

Quratulain Bakhteari: The authenticity of the real

I don’t want to spoil it for you by doing a verbatim account but I will say this: inspired, inspiring and all those other things one has come to expect from an hour or two of communing with the spirit of TED. Is that focus, courage and vision I see before me? What is this ache in my chest cavity when she speaks of the "blunt knife twisting" constantly in the heart of a mother without her children? Who clapped these soft hands together when she refers to the shame of being a Pakistani after East Pakistan has been cast away? Wherefore this unbidden nodding of the head when she says we may be told to be fearless but we are hardly ever reminded that we must live with pain if we are to live honestly? Is it authenticity that is melting my cold heart? Are these tears trickling down my cheeks? And who put an empty water bottle on my seat to sit back down on when I got up for the standing ovation, dammit?

6:50pm: And now on stage in wheelchair, Sarmad Tariq, the first 6’ 3”quadraplegic to represent Pakistan in the New York marathon who makes his living with words and isn’t afraid to make you feel mildly uncomfortable about it. Again, this is a talk I think it would be infinitely preferable to watch rather than read about and I look forward to seeing it online soon.

Sarmad Tariq: sitting tall

7:10pm: Like Dr Bakhteari before him, his mixture of wisdom, charm, determination and clarity earn him a standing ovation, the irony of which is not lost on him, considering – as he points out once the hooting has died down – standing and clapping are both things he is no longer able to do. Both these speakers are on par with TED Talks I have seen on international stages. It occurs to me that it isn’t just that their struggle to make the impossible happen hasn’t been, unlike the gormless offerings of the first half, contrived, but rather genuine. It could also be that they benefited from focused, intelligent advice from a TEDx organizer who doesn’t see this local event as just an amateurish exercise in self promotion. I think this because there was in these two presentations the minimalist, subtle attention to narrative tension and dramatic flow that was wholly lacking in the first four. There was also a marked absence of the ‘Well we’re all in this auditorium so we must all be the same so I don’t really have to challenge myself or you’ attitude those four showcased. Kudos to whichever Teddy held their hands and walked them through it beforehand.

Then there is, out of the blue, a viewing of a TEDtalk by Salman Khan about The Khan Academy. I learn two very important things in this. One, technology can help us make the world a global classroom. Two, The Khan Academy is not run by an infamous Indian actor seeking to atone for running over homeless people and shooting endangered species but a former hedge fund manager in the US whose cousins inadvertently led him up a lucrative career path in remedial math. I think this was a great way to break the momentum, can relate completely to the idea of bringing things down to a more sustainable pace, and look forward to secretly doing some of his online tutorials so my brain stops short circuiting when faced with numbers larger than 2.

Better TED Than Dead?

7:20pm: The last speaker of the evening is Mukhtaran Mai. This is how TEDxKhi sold me on the idea of 'Making The Impossible Possible' in the first place, by putting Imran Khan and Mai on the same stage, and then pretending they were there for reasons other than the public personas they inhabit while simultaneously doing absolutely nothing to delve a little deeper into who they are.

Imran Khan’s slip accidentally showed when he talked about how his first foray into politics was a result of his party mates calling his bluff. He had intended to raise his profile and then announce a boycott of his first ever election, he felt comfortable enough to say, because "the match was fixed", but "they were new to politics" and insisted he go ahead. Mukhtaran Mai did not feel as comfortable.

Mukhtaran Mai: uncomfortable showpiece

Possibly because of things like the fact that, when she came out, was placed in a chair and asked her first question (her talk was in the form of a Q&A), her mike didn’t work so she had to be escorted off and brought back and start all over again (technical glitches were, sadly, a sub-plot throughout the evening). Possibly because the first question from 'society' was "What was your childhood like?" Possibly because, when the moderator at some point asked her how she felt about the situation she was in and she expressed her frustration and disappointment and wondered aloud whether she would ever get justice, the moderator changed the subject. And when talk resumed, Mukhtaran Mai had the sense to not bring it up again.

People were, after all, clearly wandering around wanting to feel it was possible to make the impossible possible. How the story of Mukhtaran Mai, as it was presented, makes that point is anybody’s guess.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Straight Talk Continues from KK

I don't really know what's happened to Kamran Khan. Since that day, a couple of days after the Abbottabad raid, he has been more outspoken about the failures of our military establishment and the hypocrisy of our "strategic" security policies than he has probably ever been in his broadcasting career. It does make a nice change from the one-sided diatribes against civilian bungling that had allowed his programme to become extremely predictable and monotonous over the past year. (Lest this be misunderstood, I am not at all arguing that the ineffectiveness or corruption of civilian leaderships and bureaucracy should not be exposed. Only that in matters of security and on foreign policies regarding Kashmir, India, Afghanistan and the US there should be an equally fair assessment of the military which sets the tone, if not the entire agenda, of these issues. And also that the electronic media needs to provide some perspective to viewers when discussing the multiple crises of the Pakistani state - let's just say in the most understated manner that it's certainly not all the fault of the civilians who have been in partial control of this blighted country for less than half its existence).

In any case, whatever it is that has happened to Kamran Khan, I hope it continues.

Watch particularly from around 5:55 through to the end of the clip (from today's show Aaj Kamran Khan Ke Saath on Geo)...

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Security Lapse? What Security Lapse?

I realize that everyone is now in a position to lecture our defenders on how to defend themselves. Shut down PAF Museum, close down the shaadi business, demolish Shah Faisal Colony, replace those security cameras, take away Rehman Malik's Blackberry etc. etc. etc.

Can I take the opportunity to share a minor security lapse that I was personally a witness to a couple of months ago?

Like most mid-career journalists I dream of real estate, basically owning my own little beach hut on Hawke's Bay. Occasionally I rent or beg my more resourceful friends but wouldn't it be nice to have a little one-room place there? I, along with a friend, found myself in a Colonel sahib's car in the pursuit of this beach fantasy. An enterprising real estate dealer had convinced us that Colonel sahib has a little plot on Hawke's Bay that he would like to sell for a bargain price.

As we reached that blighted turning on Mauripur Road from where you turn for Hawke's Bay and Sand Spit (you know the one which hasn't been paved for past 20 years, because truckers, you know, will ruin it anyway) Colonel Sahib kept driving towards Masroor Air Base. Much better road, he promised us. As we approached the gate, Colonel sahib rolled down his window and gave out his name and rank, and three layers of security melted away, and we started a very pleasant drive on a very nice road inside the base. It puzzled me as it was a private car with no security stickers or anything else.

"Colonel sahib, do you come here quite often?" I asked earnestly.
"Nahin yaar, haven't been here in six years."
"Is this an army car then?"
"No. Bought it myself."
"So why didn't those people ask for your ID? I mean, this is a very important operational base, how do they know that you are a colonel?"
"What?! Don't I look like a colonel?"

An aerial view of Masroor Air Base from the Federation of American Scientists' website

Colonel sahib lowered the volume on Anoop Jalota's sharabi ghazal and stared at us. He wore a white, starched shalwar qameez and Raybans. Okay, he had the fauji haircut, but I have seen lots of non-colonels who look exactly like him.

"Of course you do, Colonel sahib," I reassured him.

The drive through the base was uneventful. It wasn't as posh as we hacks think these things are. We passed by signboards that pointed to Mirage squadrons, the Senior NCO Mess, and lots of empty fields. Colonel sahib admitted that the security was a bit of joke. I wasn't sure if he was indulging potential customers or actually believed it. We exited through a tiny gate which was manned by two sleepy unarmed men in a uniform that we had never seen before.

"They are not soldiers, just chowkidars," Colonel sahib explained. "Somebody has just given them some uniforms."

As we hit the main civilian road we were reassured to see that we had managed to avoid the truck-congested part of the route but not missed the famous snack shop called

And that beach plot? It turned out to be too expensive for me.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Some Thoughts on Imran Khan's Dharna

I have been greatly amused by some of the speculation around the reasons for our blog being untended for the past couple of weeks. Unfortunately none of the speculation centred on us being part of OBL's support staff who could not update the blog because we were currently on the run. That would have really made my day. Sadly, the truth is not only out there, it is decidedly prosaic. Anyhow...

A view of the PTI dharna in Karachi (Photo: Nefer Sehgal / Express Tribune)

Today marked the first day of Imran Khan's grand show of farce force in Karachi. He had vowed a two-day dharna (sit-in) to block NATO supply routes from the Karachi port in protest against continuing American drone strikes in the tribal areas and, by God, he kept his word. Or at least that's what his party faithful will have you believe. Here's what I have been thinking after making a quick round of his dharna site:

1. This must be the first dharna in the world where chairs were provided for the angry revolutionaries. Under shamianas, erected no doubt to protect the angry revolutionaries from the scorching sun. You know, so that the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Imran Insaf (PTI) supporters 'garmi mein kharaab na ho jaayein.'

2. This also must be the first populist gathering where the awaam were divided into three sections, ostensibly in order of their importance. Or as a wag put it, into VIPs, IPs, and Ps.

3. It's rather convenient that the dharna is taking place over the weekend, in order to cause the least amount of inconvenience to not only the PTI's weekend warriors but also to the actual businesses operating from the port, most of which shut down on Sunday anyway. The transporters who actually run the supply trailers that carry the NATO containers announced their support for Immy bhai's mission by proclaiming a two-day suspension of their work over... you guessed it, the weekend.

4. It's also rather convenient that the organizers were able to negotiate with the city administration to stage their sit-in on a side road so as to not actually block any of the main thoroughfares or the Native Jetty bridge that actually are used to transport the goods.

5. In his delayed speech to the thronging seated crowds (estimates vary between a couple of thousand to around 7,000, including the Sunni Tehreek workers who had joined in, once the sun had set on Saturday), Immy bhai pleaded with the gathered faithful to not forget to "return again" on Sunday. Which of course adds another layer of uniqueness to this 'sit-in': the protestors can go home, sleep in their comfy beds (preferably with their ACs on), have a nice leisurely brunch and come back to resume their 'blockage.'

6. In his speech, Immy bhai - who was constantly being fed lines in his ear, in plain sight, by the PTI Secretary General Arif Alvi - once again castigated the President and Prime Minister for following a hypocritical policy on the American drone strikes. He called their private support for drone strikes - as detailed in WikiLeaks revelations from last year - while publicly condemning them, as evidence of their "match-fixing" (oh! those cricket metaphors never stop do they?) and "noora kushti" in connivance with the Americans. Fair enough. I don't know about anyone else but I think he could have said a word or two about some recent WikiLeaks revelations too. We know that he's read them since he was kind of forced to acknowledge them in a press conference a day ago. Oh, but wait, that would be just so inconvenient now, wouldn't it? Especially when you want to remain on the 'right side' in more ways than one.

7. I don't want to get into the question of who exactly the casualties of the drone strikes are but suffice it to say there is plenty of contradictory information / opinion on this point. Immy bhai may also want to back up his claims of "overwhelming" civilian casualties with some real facts, especially since his claims contradict what even Pakistan army generals believe. Of course it is easy to whip up emotionalism on this issue - and Heaven knows that's about the only thing that has happened so far - but if you're out to run a campaign based on claims of civilian casualties and not legality, one would hope you have the hard data to back it up.

As a final thought, you might want to read this recent piece by Herald editor Badar Alam on Immy bhai's politics. It's probably the best piece you will read about the man and what ails him.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Signs Of The Times?

Let's get some things straight. There are still a large number of BIG questions unanswered about the killing in Abbottabad of Osama bin Laden. Many in Pakistan are choosing to obsess over how the American Navy SEALs team managed to come in and go out of Pakistan without being detected by the vaunted and financially over-indulged Pakistani military. Others are also questioning whether one should take the US government's and the ISI's word that OBL was indeed present in the compound that was attacked and whether he was, in fact, killed as stated. These are NOT the questions I am talking about.

The question that really needs to be answered is how it was possible for the most wanted man in the world to be living literally under the nose of Pakistan's men in khaki, whose leader had declared almost at the same spot only a week ago that his men had broken the back of terrorism and that Pakistani "dignity" would not be compromised for the sake of "prosperity." The question that really needs to be answered is why we - the people of Pakistan - should take anything he says with any seriousness if, in fact, he and his boys are really that incompetent. And why the Pakistani people should continue to give up their prosperity to fund such incompetence. The question that really needs to be answered, if the boys in khaki are not to be taken as the most incompetent people on the face of the earth, is what they were hoping to gain from such brazen duplicity. Because that really is the only choice available in their defence: nincompoop-ness vs two-facedness. Thanks to whatever their defence may be, Pakistan has a choice of being considered either a failed or a rogue state.

But if any good can come out of this fiasco, it had to be what I witnessed while watching Aaj Kamran Ke Saath on Geo tonight. The tone was in remarkable contrast to what most of the Pakistani electronic media (with a couple of notable exceptions) had decided to feed the Pakistani public over the last two days. The 'line' seemed to be completely reversed from what the Pakistani public has been force-fed generally over the last decade. And if it means what I think it does, coming from the well-connected Kamran Khan, it might just indicate some sort of silver lining for a future that looked increasingly bleak.

See this clip of the first 12-odd minutes of the programme and decide for yourself (you can watch the whole programme here):

Can one still hope to dream?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Pakistanian Defence And Its Alternatives

Pakistan Today's cover May 3, 2011

It can be argued that the world’s most powerful countries are those that understand the difference between perception and reality, and attach equal importance to controlling both. Pakistan’s reality is a harsh, challenging one, but unless we move proactively and immediately to counter the further degradation of our already distorted image, it is about to get a lot worse.

Consider this, from Al Jazeera English:

“The Arab Spring has eroded many of the conventional assumptions about the relationship between dictators, Islamists and the West. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, we heard dictators playing the Islamist card for three decades – "support us unless you want the terrorists to win".
The reality has been quite different...Today, the US continues to lavishly fund the Pakistani military, while using drones and secret soldiers such as Raymond Davis to attack the extremist forces that the same regime supports. It is up to the US to stop feeding the beast.”

Or this, from The New York Times:

“... Bin Laden’s death near Islamabad has rekindled suspicions in Afghanistan…“Pakistan is the problem, and the West has to pay attention,” said Amrullah Saleh, the former intelligence director of Afghanistan, who resigned last summer. Though jubilant at the death of Bin Laden, he said it was time for the United States to “wake up to the fact that Pakistan is a hostile state exporting terror.”

Or this, from Salman Rushdie for The Daily Beast:

“ There is not very much evidence that the Pakistani power elite is likely to come to its senses any time soon. Osama bin Laden’s compound provides further proof of Pakistan’s dangerous folly.
As the world braces for the terrorists’ response to the death of their leader, it should also demand that Pakistan give satisfactory answers to the very tough questions it must now be asked. If it does not provide those answers, perhaps the time has come to declare it a terrorist state and expel it from the comity of nations .”

Despite American and British efforts to diffuse the situation, this hard-line ‘enough is enough’ stance is being echoed across the globe. It is neither surprising nor unexpected, and in the long run questions of whether it is justified will remain, as they are now, relevant only to Pakistan’s internal dialogue, but more on that later. The world, like the mob, is ultimately uninterested in the nuances of things. Can it, like the beast, be lulled into stillness with the right tune?

I cannot comment with any authority on the PR plan our politicians, military, past/future leaders and broadcast journalists are currently following. I know that most of the politicos are sticking with the ostrich routine, most of our leaders are rechecking their visa-to-safer-climes status, most of our broadcast journalists are continuing to miss the forest for the trees, and that the ISPR is shooting a feature film, written possibly by the official behind the 'We're good, but we're not God' line featured in this BBC report. The two sole Pakistani voices who have spoken for us internationally today, then, are the rather Laurel and Hardyesque pairing of novelist Mohsin Hamid and President Asif Ali Zardari; Hamid in an opinion piece for The Guardian and Zardari in a comment for The Washington Post.

Both have chosen to follow what I would like to dub ‘The Pakistanian Defense’ (a nod to George Bush, which is also interestingly often a feature of the PD, as is the kind of ironic self referencing you see here). The Pakistanian Defense has a few standard features, some of which are listed below, which can be tweaked to accommodate word length, timing and audience.

1) More of my countrymen have died than all of yours combined.

Zardari, or his resident ghost writer, does it with: 

“Let us be frank. Pakistan has paid an enormous price for its stand against terrorism. More of our soldiers have died than all of NATO’s casualties combined. Two thousand police officers, as many as 30,000 innocent civilians and a generation of social progress for our people have been lost.”

Hamid does it with: 

“Less well known is the statistic that since the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan, terrorists have killed nearly five times that number of people in Pakistan. The annual number of Pakistani fatalities from terrorism has surged from fewer than than 200 in 2003 to almost 1,000 in 2006, to more than 3,000 in 2009. In all, since 2001 more than 30,000 have died here in terror and counterterror violence; slain by bombs, bullets, cannons and drones. America's 9/11 has given way to Pakistan's 24-7-365.”

Zardari’s piece is simple in structure and word choice, much like a lot of the hostility currently emanating from the pens of opinion makers in other countries. It, like Clinton’s ‘you cannot wait us out, you cannot defeat us’, outlines the outer limits of the diplomatic dance. Hamid, on the other hand, co-opts the linguistic weapons of choice of the other side (surged, counterterror, America’s 9/11 has given way to Pakistan’s 24-7- 365) and in doing so creates a space where nuance may one day live.

2) Pakistanis want peace, not war.

Zardari raises the facts that: 

“Radical religious parties have never received more than 11 percent of the vote. Recent polls showed that 85 percent of our people are strongly opposed to al-Qaeda. In 2009, when the Taliban briefly took over the Swat Valley, it demonstrated to the people of Pakistan what our future would look like under its rule — repressive politics, religious fanaticism, bigotry and discrimination against girls and women, closing of schools and burning of books. Those few months did more to unite the people of Pakistan around our moderate vision of the future than anything else possibly could.”

Hamid reinforces that with: 

“If Osama Bin Laden's death means that the war in south and central Asia can now begin to end, that America can begin to withdraw its forces from the region, and that Pakistan and Afghanistan can somehow rediscover peace, then one day there may be celebrations here as well.”

3) They will be gunning for us even more viciously now.

Zardari points this out with: 

“Only hours after bin Laden’s death, the Taliban reacted by blaming the government of Pakistan and calling for retribution against its leaders, and specifically against me as the nation’s president.”

Hamid says it with: 

“As news of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden's death reverberates in Pakistan, embassies here are shutting down, hotels are ramping up security, restaurants are reporting cancelled reservations and public gatherings like plays, concerts and lectures, are being postponed. The feeling in Lahore is familiar: it is like the dread that lingers over the city in the days after it has suffered a massive terrorist attack. This time, though, the attack has not yet happened, and the dread spans the entire country. Pakistanis know they may pay a blood price for Bin Laden's killing. A purported mirror has been broken. Bad luck is to be expected.”

Zardari makes the mistake of sticking with the royal ‘we’, demanding an acknowledgement of worth nobody currently wants to give us. Hamid comes in from the other end and makes us ordinary, human, sketching life for Pakistanis in details The Other can understand, even if they are details actual ordinary, human Pakistanis would scratch their heads at (hotels, restaurants, plays, concerts, lectures…er…what?). A universal symbol of bad luck, the broken mirror, is weaved in too, to reinforce the pathos and significance of ‘dread’ and ‘blood price’. Zardari invites you to stick a sock on your hand and pillory his pomposity. Hamid invites you to sit down, listen and sympathize.

4) Why on earth would we want to make the most trigger-happy nation in the world angry with us?

Zardari feels the best way to make this point is:

“The war on terrorism is as much Pakistan’s war as it is America’s…My government endorses the words of President Obama and appreciates the credit he gave us Sunday night for the successful operation in Khyber Pakhtunkhawa. We also applaud and endorse the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that we must “press forward, bolstering our partnerships, strengthening our networks, investing in a positive vision of peace and progress, and relentlessly pursuing the murderers who target innocent people.”

Hamid goes with: 

“But there are other, truly frightening theories, such as that even in a town with as dense a military presence as Abbottabad, Bin Laden managed to elude Pakistani security forces, suggesting a remarkable degree of incompetence. More terrifying still would be if there were official complicity in harbouring him, putting Pakistan on a collision course with the US. Pakistanis must hope that neither of these is true.”

The royal megaphone of royalty sticks with the moving speechwriting software writs and having writ moves on. Hamid establishes the difference between the sheep and the shepherds with one fluid reference to the ‘incompetence’ of the state within a state that consistently fails to protect its charges. 

To be fair to President Zardari, this is where the difference between a novelist and a head of state is, governed by realpolitik as much as it is by style. The privilege of implying, publicly, that their nation's army is either incompetent or duplicitous rests only with one. This is evident also in the contrast between Sir Salman Rushdie's Down With Pakistan and David Cameron's more measured public stance.

5) Forget the past, it is not in our power to change it. Lets talk about what happens next.

According to our president: 

“We can become everything that al-Qaeda and the Taliban most fear — a vision of a modern Islamic future. Our people, our government, our military, our intelligence agencies are very much united. Some abroad insist that this is not the case, but they are wrong. Pakistanis are united.”

According to one of our brightest literary lights: 

“In the meantime American, Pakistani, Afghan, and terrorist commanders will go on conducting their operations, the slaughter will continue, and human beings – all equal, all equal – will keep dying, their deaths mostly invisible to the outside world but at a rate evoking a line of aircraft stretching off into the distance, bearing down upon tower after tower after tower. Bin Laden is dead. But many Pakistanis sense the impending arrival of yet another murderous plane, headed their way.”

Zardari takes the opportunity to tell people Pakistanis are united against ‘terrorism’. Hamid points out that Pakistanis are united only in being the direct target of everybody else’s cross hairs.

The defining characteristic of The Pakistanian Defense, finally, is that…

6) People are no longer buying it.

And that, really, is the point of the deconstruction. It doesn’t matter how well or how badly written our responses to this situation are, what notes we hit or don’t hit in our explanations, the rest of the world no longer gives a shit.

Consider this, from an Economics Times report on our President’s article:

“Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari defended his country on Monday against accusations it did not do enough to track down Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, but made no direct comment on alleged intelligence failures…Zardari provided no detailed explanation on how bin Laden managed to live for years undetected in Abbottabad, a hillside retreat popular with retired Pakistani generals just a few hours drive from Islamabad. “

Or consider this, from one of the responses posted to Hamid’s article in The Guardian:

“I once referred to Pakistan as the classic informant, who tells the thief about the whereabout of the owner of the property and then informed the owner of the property the thief is coming…Pakistan as I have also posted before is a country the world should fence off and throw away the key. It is a country that its only contribution to the world is misery and danger to lives and limbs. In fact it is terrorist country. The most dangerous terrorist country on the planet.
Every western gov't including ours should not only cease aid to Pakistan, immigration from Pakistan should also be stopped. The world should let Pakistan sleep in the bed it made.”

Back now, to the question of whether the bile and revulsion this ‘rogue state’ and ‘terrorist sanctuary’ is currently provoking is justified. You can choose to find your answer amongst the six points of The Classic Pakistanian Defense outlined above. You can find it while channel surfing, watching someone like Ansar Abbasi holding forth on how Osama Bin Laden was a Muslim Hero. You can find it in the pages of an Urdu paper as a columnist obsesses over the burial ritual of one murderer and not the mass graves of the multitudes of innocents he, and those he was a figurehead for, killed. You can find it in the online edition of an English one detailing how the banned Laskhkar-e-Taiba held funeral prayers for Bin Laden in Karachi today.

People of that ilk make Pakistan’s image crisis worse by openly exposing their – and by extension our - tolerance for intolerable positions. If what the foreign commentators I have quoted above said offends you, and you think they are refusing to distinguish between Pakistanis and those elements within Pakistan that gave Bin Laden shelter, acknowledge the role those elements play in shaping the outside world’s refusal to make that distinction. This, from outside the bubble, is a country where a sentence is blasphemy but a murder is not, rape victims are vilified for attempting to challenge patriarchy, terrorists are sheltered after slaughtering innocent civilians, and the challenge to sovereignty by a western force is always more important than the steady, decades long erosion of sovereignty by some imported, medieval hogwash.

Once, there might have been room in the world for an ideology that thinks it is special, God gifted, exempt from the rules and norms of the comity of nations of which one commentator speaks, but that place has already been taken. Certain Pakistanis need to accept that we are not Israel. By this I mean we cannot defend an indefensible position by virtue of association with unshakeable allies because really, at the end of the day, we have none. Even Saudi Arabia had the sense to let its most notorious son slip quietly into the sea, we on the other hand built him a home in a hill resort.

Today, we have a twofold crisis. One, the incompetence, exposed, of a bloated institution that has never lost an opportunity to enrich itself and steadfastly refused to fix itself. Two, a perception that Pakistan is populated by illiterate Muslims who will come out on the street to protest Danish cartoon strips but not to protest an almost comical, internationally inflammatory misstep. How do we fix the first? The rogue state within a state needs to be broken, examined forensically, and rebuilt in the shelter of a democratically elected civilian government, never to take a step without a popular mandate again, and then only to protect our citizens not endanger them further. 

How do you fix the second? For a start, apologize. Apologize Mr. President, Mr. Prime Minister, to the world for not keeping your side of the bargain, to your country for letting us be shamed on your watch. Apologize even if it kills you. Because your subsequent loss of face might embolden you enough to hold others accountable. And because somebody or the other is always trying to kill you anyway and you might as well die on the right side of the line.

Monday, May 2, 2011

What Passes For Political Debate

Only a couple of weeks ago, I had posted a couple of exchanges on live television which provided a sad commentary on the levels political debate in this country had sunk to. One of those exchanges involved Jang columnist and Geo presenter Hasan Nisar and the PML(N)'s Senator Mushahidullah. We had no hesitation in laying the fault for that disgraceful verbal sparring at the feet of Nisar and had called on him to offer apologies.

But it seems Mr Mushahidullah is no stranger to crudities on television. See the following clip from News One's Bang-e-Dara programme with host Faisal Qureshi from April 28 (thanks to Jalal Hussain for bringing it to our notice). The target of Mushahidullah's seemingly petty wrath (thankfully, we are spared the worst of it because of News One's bleeps) is Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf's Secretary General Dr Arif Alvi.

Having watched the entire programme here, I can safely say that no one in the programme comes away with flying colours. Dr. Alvi's smugness and self-righteousness is grating as are the host's overtly partisan interjections once he too loses his cool. Dr Alvi's snipes when Mushahidullah first tries to answer the host's questions precipitate the eventual free-for-all. The less said about the screeching Nargis Faiz Malik, PPP MPA in the Punjab, the better. However, none of the political provocations provides an excuse for Mushahidullah's final descent into bazaari language.  Some people, it seems, just don't know the meaning of the phrase 'earning respect.'