Posted by Mahim Maher
I hear the helicopters flyover overhead and I know that Sean Penn is in one of them. He’s probably being taken to the airport in Karachi, Pakistan right now and then onwards back to the US. Sigh. He’s dreamy.
The Hollywood icon was in Pakistan for Pakistan Day to visit the Badin desert where the floods hit to distribute relief goods. He spent the morning in Karachi at other engagements, meeting people (story embargoed for print).
“What was totally incredulous for us,” said Razaq Khatti, the Badin correspondent for our newsgroup Express, “was that he came in torn jeans, and I looked at his shoes and he didn’t seem like a Hollywood actor at all. He seemed kinda down to earth. His shoes weren’t polished at all. He wasn’t wearing a suit.”
You’ll have to forgive Khatti. I called him up today to chat about what it was like to meet Sean Penn. “You mean Samson,” he clarified.
He had no idea who Sean Penn was. “Look, if he’s famous, then I didn’t really know,” Khatti said. “I was told that he was in some dead man movie. I don’t really watch art movies. I just watch action films… sometimes.”
Khatti did notice one thing. “You know the amount of money they spent coming to Badin, in helicopters, in Land Cruisers, with all those security people, cost more than the actual amount of goods they gave to the flood-hit people.”
In Pakistan, we have a contentious relationship with aid. It has become fraught with controversy and I believe people are so confused by its benefits or disadvantages that it is sometimes difficult to see through clearly.
We’ve held out the begging bowl so many times that, well, it’s made us angry. Mostly, our leaders are to blame. Trade not aid, many people say now.
In any case, Razaq Khatti’s observations need to be factored in at some level, to be fair.
Those of us who are a little more familiar with Sean Penn’s work figured that he probably came to learn about the place. I was impressed by the fact that he declined to speak to the media, saying that he was there to speak to the people of Badin who were hit by rain-caused flooding in 2011. This was the second year of devastation for the province. Many people are still displaced.
I figured that Penn was here to learn about Pakistan, talk to the people and perhaps he will go back and come up with some more ideas on how he can help.
Penn met the Kohli people of Badin. They are a tribe which has been mostly ignored in terms of development. There was only one literate man who could converse with Penn, I was told.
These people wake up in the morning and wonder how they’ll make it to midday, said Khatti. They watch the cars drive up, accept the boxes of aid and watch the cars leave.
I am grateful to Penn for visiting at a time when most Americans don’t think of coming here. I blame our government and myself and other privileged people for not helping the Badin people or less privileged. It is not Sean Penn’s job to come and help us if we don’t help ourselves. I just hope that Mr Penn visits again.
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March 22, 2012 | 2:02 pm
Posted by Mahim Maher
As the door opened and the orderly came in, the man I faced across the desk stopped speaking.
As the orderly left, he began speaking again.
This, I thought, was the hazard of doing a side interviews with former intelligence officers. (Although, they say once a spy, always a spy.)
In between these interruptions, doors opening and closing, he gave me a skein so fine, that I barely knew it had been cast in my direction.
In Pakistan, you have to be so careful about what the ‘officials’ feed you. Every reporter worries about the ‘planted khabr’ or planted story. The ones wet behind their ears run with them like excited puppies.
These stories bounce or bomb or at worst create the wrong kinds of ripples.
Something big is going to happen, he said.
I died a little inside. Sigh, I said to myself. If I had a rupee for every time I had heard that one, I’d be able to buy myself a donkey.
But yes, al Qaeda is very much alive and kicking in Karachi. If a few days pass without having been through a bomb blast crime reporters start itching and scratching and wriggling in their seats. “Ma’am, thanda para he,” they say to me. “It’s gone cold.” But the word thanda, or cold, has different shades of meaning. Cool in Pakistan is much sought after because of the heat. Thanda is also like a trail gone cold. Or if you like the Urdu short stories, thanda also echoes with the meaning of Thanda Gosht or Cold Meat by Saadat Hasan Manto, one of the subcontinent’s greatest short story writers. A man carries off a woman to rape during the pillaging of Partition only to discover that she’s been dead all the while. (http://www.chowk.com/Arts/Poetry/Cold-Flesh)
But I digress.
It’s all quiet on the Karachi front, for now. But tomorrow there could be a bomb blast. No one is under the impression that the extremists are not at work. Al Qaeda has invited everyone to the party and now bomb-making experts are passing on the trade to green thumbs, who don’t know the difference between getting laid and getting played.
But the reason why I bring this up is a larger context of extremism.
On March 20, the University of Karachi’s area study centre for Europe hosted the EU Deputy Ambassador for Pakistan Pierre Mayaudon to speak on security.
My subeditor (as in I own their souls) went to cover it. And as she expected, Mayaudon came sufficiently briefed to remain demure and non-confrontational. He missed out on a good opportunity to flex his diplomatic muscle and win over some hearts and minds. But when it came to questions on extremist outbreaks in the EU, he was disappointing.
The killing of Jewish people in Toulouse was noted in Pakistan, needless to say. And in Mayaudon’s audience were mostly faculty members, doctoral and PhD students and a good sweep of media with television channels and newspapers.
But as I edited the copy, I inserted that he did not use this chance to talk, really talk about extremism when he was questioned about it in European countries.
Whether he had answers to offer or not, he would have impressed his audience by being honest. He should have perhaps said that yes, we have a problem with extremism and hatred across the world and it is manifesting itself in ways we had never imagined – some of them are relatively predictable in the face of al Qaeda and others catch us when we least expect it.
I do not believe for one second, at this point in time and given my exposure, that the way to ‘win hearts and minds’ comes with one lecture or talk but I think that every little bit of honesty has the ability to cut through the swathe of spin and doublespeak and the perception of perpetual lying that I see crushing young people in Pakistan.
When you are honest about, say, mistakes you have made, there will be a group of people who will use it against you, but there will be a group of people that will be impressed by the sheer attempt to be honest about what has been done wrong. This is a paradigm we pretty much never get to see on TV or read about in the papers as far as diplomatic positions are concerned.
I met people from a political party last week, representatives who wanted to lodge their complaint with my newspaper that they were not covered enough. I asked the men about a particularly controversial question: what do you think about this new mysterious group demanding a separate province?
Secessionist movements are regarded with a mixed bag of emotions in Pakistan at this particular time. But despite the risks one of the political representatives was honest with us about his personal (and not his party’s) stand on wanting a separate province. I did not agree or disagree with him but I admired his ability to be honest with me. I came out of that meeting with a slightly different perspective on him and the entire idea.
In Pakistan young people struggle with too much media, cloak and dagger intelligence agencies, what they perceive as the Great Game blah blah blah. It scares them that stuff is happening out there that is beyond their ken as Pakistani citizens. Their input on political or foreign policy decision making needs to be much stronger. But if people were honest, diplomats and local politicians, government officials,
I think that we would be able to at least reach them.
Mayaudon would have been eaten alive if he had admitted that certain parts of Europe have an extremism problem, but he should as a diplomat used his position and time with the Pakistani students and faculty to impress them with some line of argument that would have won them over.
March 18, 2012 | 3:19 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
Words fascinate me and so do origins. One of the experts in etymology for Urdu, the language of Pakistan, is Khaled Ahmed, who I had the pleasure of interacting with off and on at The Friday Times and Daily Times when I worked there in Lahore. He is one of the giants of Pakistan, the author of many books, a former newspaper editor, and prolific editorial and opinion writer. I once learned that all he does is read, go for his walk and write.
He is currently a director at the South Asia Free Media Association, Lahore.
When looking up a certain word, extortion, or bhatta in Urdu for the city pages I run this Sunday, I decided to flip through Khaled saheb’s excellent book ‘Word for Word: Stories behind everyday words we use’ (OUP 2010). This book is probably not available in LA, so I decided to take one of his chapters on Yom Kippur and copy parts of it here. His examination of the word is an education for both Jews and Muslims alike – they have so much in common:
Taken from pg 6. Anyone interested in the book can probably buy it online from OUP in Pakistan:
Yom Kippur was the day set for Atonement by the Prophet Moses. It brings to an end the Jewish High Holidays. God writes the Book of Life and inscribes the names of those worthy of a good year, but he leaves the last accounting till the final day…
…Yom is the same Arabic yom meaning ‘day’. What does kippur mean? It is written as keepoor in the Hebrew dictionary and is defined as ‘atonement’. It also means ‘to cover’ because the skull-cap that covers the head is keepah.
It seems that atonement is a kind of ‘covering up’ of the distance between God and man. English ‘atonement’ comes from two English words ‘at one’, meaning bringing God and man at ‘one’. Is this idea of ‘covering’ present in our Arabic and Urdu words too?
It comes to light that kippur too has the same counterpart in Arabic. In Arabic the root ‘kfr’ means to ‘cover’. The ‘p’ is changed to ‘f’ because Arabic has no ‘p’ sound. What are the words produced by this root?
The word we use in Urdu for ‘atonement’ comes from Arabic, kaffara. (Mishnaic Hebrew counterpart is kappara.) The root is ‘kfr’ which means to ‘cover so as to conceal’. Kafir is the person who ‘hides the truth’. It also means a ‘dark cloud that covers the earth’, and a ‘tiller of land (kafir) who covers the seed with soil’.
There are other words from this root that we use in Urdu. When we ‘hide’ a blessing of Allah from others so as to prevent them from benefiting from it, it is called kufran (nemat). When a feeling subsides and is covered by other senses, we use the word kafur.
Yom Kippur should not be a strange word for us. We could translate it into Urdu by using the same words: Yom Kaffara. In fact, in the last ten days of Ramadan we pray for forgiveness of Allah more or less in the same spirit.
The ‘beginning of the year’ in Judaism is called Rosh Hoshanah. This is the day when God opens the book of life and begins writing down out accounts. Rosh in Hebrew means ‘head’ or beginning. In Arabic, ras is ‘head’, which gives us raees or leader.
Hoshanah is a joint word containing ‘ha’ (of) and ‘shanah’ (year). The Arabic word for year is sann, which is also at times, used in Urdu. The root means ‘tooth’ and it is the tooth that conveys the year of the animal. Sann is also found in Sunnah (law).
Some scholars relate kippur to Arabic ‘ghfr’. Here again the sense is of ‘covering’. Allah ‘covers our sins’ when he forgives us and is therefore called Ghafur and Ghaffar. But I think kippur is more decisively related to the root ‘kfr’.
That English ‘cover’ which sounds like the root ‘kfr’ is accidental. It comes from Latin (co)perire (to shut) as an antonym of aperire (to open) through the French word couvrir.