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Nov 13, 2012 - published work, USA    1 Comment

The impunity to hope



Four years ago, when President Barack Obama became the first person of colour to be elected as the president of the US, the world was hopeful that a lasting change would come along. We all know how that turned out but there are still some positives from that election and the current election, where President Obama was re-elected, which have shaped and will continue to shape domestic politics in the US. People are less divided across race and gender lines and vote on social issues; these lessons provide an example for other countries.

However, an Obama-like victory for any individual is next to impossible in Pakistan. For starters, the middle class that played a key role in bringing this political change in the US, is limited to a few big cities (mostly Karachi and to some extent Lahore, Faisalabad, Sialkot and Hyderabad) and it is fast shrinking given the energy crisis and economic woes of the country.

In addition, our politics is caste/clan/ethnicity-based. The election result of February 2008 is a clear indication of that trend. The PML-N with its Punjabi leadership did well in upper and central Punjab. The PPP with its Sindhi leadership did well in rural Sindh and the Seraiki belt. Pashtuns voted for their nationalist party, the ANP, and urban Sindh remained loyal to the MQM. Chances are that the new elections, expected to be held in the first half of 2013, would be more divisive as more actors of the same hue have entered the political arena.

Pakistan, perhaps, is the only country where democracy, tribalism and feudalism have coexisted and still continue to coexist. Our parliament looks more like a national jirga council, where most of the elected representatives are tribal and feudal heads with fairly dubious histories. More often than not, they try to stall any progressive legislation with impunity and pride, usually in the name of religion and culture.

The American people moved away from centre right politics to centre left politics when they voted for President Obama back in 2008 and again in 2012. There is no chance of that happening ever in Pakistan. To begin with, we don’t have a middle class big enough in numbers and the urban population is too attached to religion to embrace anything different. A country where original thought is shunned and a parliamentarian had to remain in hiding after proposing changes to the blasphemy law has a long way to go before it starts hoping for change.

In a country suffering from the worst leadership crisis of its history, religious obscurantism is at its peak, the education system has failed and the youth is apathetic; the only change that can be predicted is more chaos, unless we produce a leadership that gives the whole nation a chance to hope, like President Obama did in 2008. Unfortunately, we do not have the system to produce someone like him. With an absentee foreign father and a family with meagre finances, Obama was able to attend an Ivy League school on the basis of merit and finished his degree with the help of student loans. Sadly, that’s not the case in Pakistan. Forget admission of a poor kid to an elite school, we do not provide a level playing field to our children in the same family as most families prefer to spend more money on the education of the male child. In such circumstances, we want to remain tied to a distant past.

Should we even have the impunity to hope for a better tomorrow?

First published in The Express Tribune

Nov 6, 2012 - published work, Sandy, USA    6 Comments

The spirit of volunteerism



People with access to internet have all seen photos of people returning to their homes after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in USA and parts of Caribbean last week.  We have all seen pictures and footage of people helping others out in getting their lives back together. 
In the aftermath of a disaster, most people with empathy would want to reach out to the others and try and help them in whatever way they can. We saw it in Pakistan after the earthquake of 2005 and in Haiti in 2010, the 7/7 bombings in London and the 2004 tsunami that affected many countries in Asia. A friend who lives in New Jersey wanted to volunteer in the disaster relief activities but did not know how she could contribute with two children under the age of three. Nonetheless, she was seen asking around if there was any place where children can also be taken for volunteer work. It is all very commendable that people want to contribute in whatever way they can to make the lives of others a little bit better. The difference between developed nations and others such as ours is that the spirit of volunteerism is seasonal and only comes out when we are struck with a disaster.
In most developed countries, there are established volunteer programmes and people are generally encouraged to take part in volunteer activities in their communities. School children volunteer, housewives volunteer, retired people volunteer in whatever way they can; they visit the terminally ill in hospices, work in soup kitchens or schools, help immigrants assimilate in society, manage traffic during rush hours in the towns where the town administration cannot afford full-time traffic police, help raise funds for their communities and assist in keeping the atmosphere clean among other things.
A country like Pakistan can benefit immensely from such a spirit of volunteerism. There is so much that needs to be done and there are so many people who have the time and ability to make a difference in the lives of those who are less fortunate. There are many people who need to be taught how to read and write and other life skills, the state-owned schools and hospitals are always under-staffed and if a greater number of organized volunteer groups, which want to help others, step up to help build the skills of such people, not only will it help in meeting the human resource problem, it can also work as a stepping stone for establishing training programmes for those who want to enter a particular field.
Volunteerism does not just help a small group of people who are the direct beneficiaries but also works for society in general and the individual who volunteers. Their efforts build stronger ties of trust, harmony and reciprocity among its citizens through creating opportunities for participation for groups and individuals who would have remained either indifferent or on the fringes.
There are many groups in Pakistan where Pakistani volunteers can register and contribute in their own way; there is the United Nations Volunteers programme, the Pakistan Youth Alliance, the Pakistan chapter of the World Volunteer Web, The Citizen’s Foundation’s Rehbar programme, among others. There must be several other options in all the towns and cities of the country where one can contribute. Volunteerism is great; not only does it help in building societies; it also tells the volunteers that they don’t have to be rich, famous or perfect in order to make a difference.
First published in The Express Tribune
Jan 18, 2012 - rant, TTP, USA    11 Comments

Another foul murder; RIP Mukarram Khan


On my way back home last evening, I received a text from my colleague that Mukarram Sahab has been shot and was taken to a hospital in Peshawar.  So stunned was I with the news that I did not realize when the signal turned green and only moved when the cars behind me honked. An hour later, I found that Mukarram Sahabb has succumbed to his injuries. 
Mukarram Khan Atif was a senior tribal journalist from Mohmand Agency and was killed on January 17th 2012 in a targeted attack after receiving repeated threats to his life. He was offering evening prayers in a mosque when he was shot in the head by two gunmen. 
I have known Mukarram Sahab for only a few weeks but he made a profound impact in that very short time. I am city girl, from Karachi, with my fair share of prejudices about the tribesmen and how they behave. Mukarram Sahab was one of those people who helped me in looking beyond the stereotype of a stern and unyielding tribesman with his intelligence, valour, grace, and self effacing sense of humour. He humanized the area and its people for me, a city dweller who only conjured up images of Hakimullah Mehsud and the likes in reference with the tribesmen from FATA. 
Mukarram Sahab had many interesting stories about his time as a reporter in the tribal region, be it about interviewing suspected suicide bombers, traveling to remote areas on foot for stories and sneaking into difficult areas as a goat shepherd. Back in 2001, Mukarram Sahab was taken hostage by Afghan Taliban along with a French and a Pakistani journalist. All three of them were charged with spying for USA by the Taliban government.  As none of the other two journalists could speak Pashto, he was asked to interpret for them by the Taliban government in Afghanistan. He said that he would do it but he would want to be paid for his services.  He actually managed to charge the Taliban govt. for interpreting for the two journalists in captivity. I asked him how he pulled off this incredulous feat and he said that he takes his work very seriously and believe in being paid for whatever he does.  I asked him to write all such fascinating stories and share it with the world.  Mukarram Sahab agreed and said that one day he would sit down and write. He kept an archive of all his radio reports for Deewa and thought that he would transcribe it all when he can spare the time. Unfortunately, he was killed by the TTP for not giving them enough coverage on those radio reports and the world will never know about his hard to believe escapades. 

Deaths and journalists’ murders are a sad reality in Pakistan, but what irritates me most is the way local media reports these incidents. Dawn, a supposedly responsible newspaper came up with the headline “Pakistani journalist working for US media shot dead. The News, a generally horrid newspaper came up with the headline “VoA journalist assassinated in Charsadda.” What are these reports trying to imply? That he was working for a US media house and in some way responsible for his own murder? Are we absolving his murderers of their brutality?  Does his employment for a foreign news organization make him less of a Pakistani or less of a human?  Mukarram Sahab was a Pakistani journalist working as a correspondent for Dunya TV and a stringer for VoA’s Pashto service Deewa Radio. It’s about time we claim our people and heroes and give them due credit for their courage, fearlessness, and bravery. 

Mukarram Khan Atif in Islamabad


Reporters Sans Frontier has declared Pakistan the most dangerous country for journalists second year in a row. I never thought that the first journalist to die this year would be someone I knew personally. Mukarram Sahab, you were a fine gentleman and a brave soul. May you rest in peace.
Jan 6, 2012 - published work, TTP, USA, Waziristan    7 Comments

More equal than others in death

In the wake of the cross-border Nato attack in November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in Salala, the whole country was up in arms against the aggression of the allied forces. From the political parties to lawyers associations, from banned militant outfits to student organisations, from the head of the armed forces to the aunties in drawing room; everyone thought it fitting to lambast the US — especially since most people cannot really distinguish between the US and Nato — for attacking Pakistan’s sovereignty, its land and its people. As if protest of the people living in the country was not enough, Altaf Bhai decided to join in the condemnation of NATO forces all the way from London.

A few weeks later, 15 Frontier Constabulary personnel who were captured in Tank on December 23rd were taken to Waziristan by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and killed after a dozen days. Unlike the deaths in Salala, no one is mourning the loss of lives of these 15 men because we do not cry at the atrocities committed by our so called strategic assets – the TTP – who not only claim these deaths with impunity, they justify it as an act of revenge.  We only lament, or maybe we are pushed into lamenting for those who are killed by foreigners – be it individuals (victims of Raymond Davis) or troops (victims of Salala bombings in November) to get maximum political and material leverage out of it. It’s a slur on national integrity if soldiers die in cross border skirmishes, but if the strategic assets – or more likely the strategic liabilities – murder a group of soldiers in cold blood, it only merits a brief press release with no mention of the names of those who died. 

The victims of Waziristan will also not be grieved because there were no officers and gentlemen amongst them. They were ordinary soldiers; and we do not mourn the deaths of mere soldiers who die in the line of duty by their compatriots. 

Did any political party called for protest against this act of barbarism? No.

Have we seen the footage of flag covered coffins set in manicured gardens for all to pay respect to the dead on the tv to fan the public anger? No.

Has there been funeral prayers for the victims of Waziristan where who‘s who of the country offered condolences and vowed to avenge their deaths? No.

Did lawyers boycott their activities? No, it was business as usual for them. 
Were distressed family members, wailing mothers and fathers with slumped shoulders interviewed to fan public outrage against this barbaric act? No.

Did anyone ask the TTP for qisas for the families of the 15 victims? No.

Were there any TV anchors frothing at the mouth, dishing out sermons dripping with moral outrage calling people to stand up against the effrontery of TTP? No, the debate on TV was about memogate and contempt of court notices dished out to PPP leadership. We sure have our priorities right. 
 
Why bother, when there is no financial compensation to be had, where no effigy-burning rallies can be organized for political gains, and no other nation is to be blamed. It is known that some animals are more equal than others in the animal farm called Pakistan, but what is now being learned is that some animals are more equal in death as well.

First published in The Express Tribune, this is the unedited version.

Dec 1, 2011 - USA    6 Comments

So this is how they are spending the Kerry-Lugar Money

Every pole on the Constitution Avenue is sporting this banner announcing a conference by Competition Commission of Pakistan (weirdest government body name ever ). I have a message for whosoever is at the helm of affairs at this competition commission: If you had so much money to burn, you should have done something else, like take a ride in a hot air balloon. You do not announce a conference on every nook and cranny of the city as if it is a fair with clowns and a big fat Ferris wheel, it is in extremely bad taste. 
PS: The USAID should take the tagline “From the American People” off as soon as they can; I have a feeling that American people will not to be too happy donating money for useless banners in a country where most people can’t read.

Nov 30, 2011 - USA    8 Comments

Anyone protesting outside the GHQ?


Sometime last week one of my former students asked me to help her with a protest in front of US Consulate in Karachi against the latest NATO attack on Pakistani soil killing 24 soldiers. Now don’t get me wrong, I am as fond of protesting against the injustices as the next person, but I have serious questions about the whole brouhaha that surrounds the latest development. 

For starters, NATO has been violating our borders for quite some time now and quite a huge number of Pakistani citizens have died but no one barring the leadership of Jamat-e-Islami and Tehrik-e-Insaaf uttered a single word against those deaths. The victims of drone attacks were called collateral damage. Pakistan army’s silence was especially baffling considering it is their responsibility to defend the borders and its citizens, but ISPR never issued any statement over the serious death toll that occurred due to drone attacks – even when a baraat (wedding procession) was attacked. If the wikileaks’ released cables are to be believed (and there is no reason we should not believe them), it is evident that instead of protesting against the drone attacks, the army actually requestedthe US government for greater drone back up to support their own military operations on the ground. What I find most surprising is that such duplicitous policy of the armed forces did not result in country wide protests against them. Apart from the five usual suspects who decry military’s role in country’s foreign and domestic policy, no one took much notice of it. If inviting another military to attack your own soil without disclosing it is not the betrayal of highest order and a seditious act, then what is?
I am just as saddened by the deaths of 24 army men as anyone who has respect for human life, but the lives that we have lost in Pakistan as the result of the same military’s tacit acceptance of drone attacks by another country and its oppressionin Baluchistandemand the same empathy and compassion, if not more. I hardly see it anywhere.

Instead of protesting in front of US embassy (chances are that we will be stopped from doing so by our own law enforcement agencies) we need to indulge in a little introspection and ask the following questions: 

– What provoked this attack? According to reports, cross border skirmishes and exchange of rocket fire between Pakistani and NATO forces in not something new. According to NYTreport, there have been 55 ground-to-ground rockets fired between Pakistan and NATO forces.
– What was Pakistan air force doing? The attack apparently went on for an hour. They were nowhere to defend our borders. What’s the point of spending a bulk of the tax payers’ and foreign aid money on the armed forces when they cannot quickly come to defense of the troops under attack by the foreign forces? 

I am horrified at the US nonchalance and the super cavalier response from their government – it took President Obama a good three days to offer condolence and express regret at the loss of 24 lives – but I do not see any point in protesting in front of the US consulate. I would, however, love to stand with those who want to protest in front of GHQ, taking them to task for their repeated incompetence and many treacherous acts. 

PS: How can anyone take these protests seriously when Jamaat-ud-dawa activists dupe children into participating in anti-US rallies by conning their parents into believing that they would be attending a science fair?

Jul 3, 2011 - USA    16 Comments

LGBT rights, brought to you by Uncle Sam

So the United States Embassy hosted first ever LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual &transgender) Pride Celebration in Islamabad last week and somehow it ended up being the front page news in Jang’s Rawalpindi edition. 
According to the press release issued by the embassy, the event demonstrated continued U.S. Embassy support for human rights, including LGBT rights, in Pakistan at a time when those rights are increasingly under attack from extremist elements throughout Pakistani society.  
Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against LGBT people and I truly believe everyone has the right to live according to their own wishes but something does not feel right with US embassy hosting this event. For starters, LGBT rights are one of the most divisive and hotly debated issues in US. There is no recognition of same-sex unions and no laws forbidding employment discrimination against LGBT persons at the federal level. Yes, some states have enacted laws for LGBT persons and same sex marriages conducted in those states are recognized in other states, but there is no uniform federal policy. I personally know a few American LGBT citizens who have moved to Canada, Belgium and Netherlands for more personal freedom.
I find it kind of ironic that a country which cannot assure equal rights to its own LGBT citizens and where Christian Right is getting increasingly aggressive against civil privileges of LGBT persons and a woman’s right to abortion is showing support to LGBT movement against the religious right in another country.
I also find it odd that an event that took place on June 26th 2011 gets reported a week later on July 3rd on the front page of the largest selling Urdu newspaper. Does it not raise too many questions? Is it not inviting trouble for the LGBT persons in the country? I mean everyone gets labeled US agent in a jiffy and declaring LGBT persons US agents can kind of legitimize their persecution. Is it not stirring things up on purpose? Do people think LGBT movement (if we have any) in Pakistan would be better off without foreign support or do they think foreign donors are the only way LGBT persons can gain acceptance? 
Does it all look fishy or am I a paranoid psycho who, after living in Pakistan for so long, cannot take anything like it seems any more.
PS: For a newspaper that uses the term liberal fascists against progressive folks a little too liberally; this news report is remarkably neutral. 
PPS: Jang wrote ‘bisexual’ in Urdu letters as ‘high sexual’ which I found rather entertaining. 
Oct 30, 2009 - religion, USA    22 Comments

Pakistan and US: the unholy matrimony? *

Pakistanis in general and Jamat-i-Islami in particular, have always had a problem or two with USA and its meddling ways in Pakistan. Whether it is linking the terror strikes in USA to Pakistan’s tribal belt (which was proved yesterday when passport of one of the terrorists involved in 9/11 – a member of Hamburg cell – was found by Pakistan armed forces in South Waziristan – detailed reports can be found here and here) or the infamous Kerry Lugar Bill and reigning in of military establishment through it, Pakistanis bemoan the US presence and its wily ways in every development.
While reading today’s newspapers, I noticed that Pakistan is not far behind as far meddling in US affairs is concerned. Not only do we meddle with impunity, we also whine a lot and beg for assistance without shame. For instance, during the meeting with Prime Minister Gilani Secretary Clinton apparently called him a ‘magician’ (the jury is still out whether it was a compliment or an insult). All PM Gilani could do in response to being called a master of political wizardry was request for stepping up support for financial problems, the early payments of the dues out of the accounts of terrorism compensation funds and the release of Dr Aafia Siddiqui.
I fail to understand why Pakistanis in general and Jamat-i-Islami and Imran Khan in particular are so hung up on the release of Aafia Siuddiqui. What irritates me even more is that she is called “Quam ki beti” (Daughter of the nation) when she is not even holding a Pakistani passport. She is an American citizen who was found involved in activities against her country and US has every right to try one of their own citizens, but Pakistanis must not only meddle, they must also do it at the top of their lungs. Perhaps Imran Khan and Jamat-i-Islami call her Qaum ki beti for being involved in money transfers for Al Qaida and endangering the life of her under age children by exposing them to terrorists in Afghanistan when they could have stayed with their father in a much more secure environment in Karachi?
Do we hear American government whine like we do? No, we don’t. During her recent trip to Pakistan, all we got from Secretary Clinton were some bitter home truths. She showed annoyance with Pakistani officials’ inability to nab the Al-Qaida top brass. ‘I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn’t get them if they really wanted to,’ she added.
She also criticized Pakistanis for slamming the non military aid bill and said that Pakistanis do not pay taxes and raise funds locally to invest in public services, health and education and when someone else does, they create ruckus. She also pointed out that the percentage of taxes on GDP in Pakistan is among the lowest in the world.
She also expressed concern about Pakistan’s huge population – 180 million people and counting – and said that unless Pakistani government starts planning for this challenge, the projected 300 million populations will need the resources that no one will be able to assist them with.
While we are meddling in US affairs by asking for the release of a shady character like Aafia Siddiqui, the US Secretary has uncovered some home truths for us. Unless we tackle all these issues and more, everyone with 5$ to spare will come and tell us what to do and we will have to oblige them. The thing is, we have proved, time and again, that we need someone to keep us in line and that we cannot manage to take care of the business of running a state. Pakistani elite desperately want US to meddle so that they can blame the chaos on someone else. Its been 38 years’ since Bangladesh cessation, but I still hear some Pakistanis who lament the fact that US marine did not arrive when we needed its help most, all the hue and cry is only for public consumption.
* Secretary Clinton likened relations between Pakistan and US to a tumultuous marriage but she was also at pains to point out that the US does not want a divorce.
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Jun 2, 2009 - USA    31 Comments

The baby daddy of the mostest

A few days back, I was watching TV where residents of a low income locality in Lahore were protesting against high electricity bills and were ripping them off in protest. Most people protested against paying for a utility (electricity) which is not available to them half the time, but there is one old lady who refuse to pay the bills because she has too many children. Her exact words were, “I have six daughters and 4 sons, I can barely feed them, the state should pay my electricity bill so that I can at least feed my children.”

Let me make it very clear that I have no respect for any electricity providing unit; be it WAPDA, KESC or IESC, but I thought her request was really strange. I mean why should the state pay your utility bills because you have been careless and produced far too many off springs? While I was lamenting about this to my colleague, she pointed out this story where a 29 year old man in United States has fathered 21 children with 11 different women. When asked why he had so many children, he responded with the wise & scholarly reply: “it just happened.”

Yes, It just happened – 21 times.

I am just a little confused though, if this was his level of intellect, how did he score with 11 women, had unprotected sex with them and managed to produce 21 children in 11 years time?

The very wise Mr. Desmond Hatchett (baby daddy of 21 children to date) makes minimum wage and his lawyer believes that the state of Tennessee has had to step in because Hatchett can possibly not support all his children. At least the amma ji from Lahore was only asking for free electricity but this fellow has gone on a massive procreation spree (He boasted of fathering four children by different women in the same year.) in a country like US with better health care facilities and more outreach and awareness programs and still is shameless enough to ask the state to step in to take care of the children he carelessly brought in the world!!!
I seriously can’t believe that there are women stupid enough to have unprotected sex with a man who has numerous partners at the same time.

Nov 10, 2008 - USA    23 Comments

The American way of life !!!

A couple of months back; I was attending school in Europe and was snoozing in the class when my reverie was broken by the whole class breaking into laughter. I asked the girl sitting next to me and she said that someone made a joke about Americans and their obsession with fast food. I smiled and thought, there goes a couple of ‘super size me’ jokes. Please remember, it was back in September 2008, before Barrak Obama got elected and people were still ridiculing United States of America for all things ludicrous.

I wanted to go back to dozing off, but one of the American guys said something which woke me up, and a few others, fully. He said that Americans eat more fast food than the rest of the world because they work harder than everyone and don’t get time to make home cooked meals. He actually believed that eating fast food is an “American way of life” because they are so damn hard working.

I literally bristled and said that the rest of us work as hard as Americans, at times harder, but still cant make enough to get two square meals a day, so please don’t give the hard-working-Americans-eating-burgers-because-they-cant-make-salads argument because it is stupid. Again, back in September, it was almost politically correct to crack jokes about Americans being stupid (how the world changes and so fast). My friend Maja and I laughed at the ‘American way of life’ comment for the next three days.

A few years ago, I was out shopping with girl friends in Toronto when some American high schoolers (yes, I checked, they were Americans and on a school trip) broke into a food fight at the food court of that shopping mall. In a couple of minutes, everyone joined in. A doughnut flew dangerously close to my head but I decided not to take part in the food fight and ducked. When I lamented the fact that so much food was wasted in a few minutes, I was told that it was “the American way of life” (yes one of my friends there was from United States).

Last night, while browsing through ‘The Independent’, I saw Joan Smith’s comment where she said that Obama might be enlightened, but a liberal, he is not. She quoted Obama verbatim where he said, “We need Christians on Capitol Hill, Jews on Capitol Hill and Muslims on Capitol Hill” to oppose taxes which favour the rich. In her words, Obama was calling for ‘an injection of morality’ in the political debate as though believers have a monopoly on fairness and justice.

She further cited research conducted by University of Minnesota which claims that Atheists are the most despised people in the USA, way ahead of Muslims, homosexuals and Jews. They are regarded as “a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public” and almost half the country wouldn’t vote for an atheist as president.

I am sorta confused. What is truly the American way of life? Is it eating more fast food than the rest of the world, getting engaged in more fights (food fight as well as real fights that drains their economy and has a humongous collateral damage) than the rest or being more centre-right than the rest of the Western world?

Is “American way of life” that radically different from the rest of the planet that it needs to be emphasized time and again or the current economic melt down would force the Americans to live more frugally (responsibly)???

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