Posted by Mahim Maher
Karachi is a primordial Gotham city of New York in my imagination, which has mostly been fed by Hollywood. When I watched the Dark Knight Rises a month or so ago, sketchy parallels emerged between the anarchic supervillain Bane and the faceless, unknowable killers who we know here as al Qaeda or the Taliban or the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi or Sipah-e-Sahaba. Our paralysed terror is directly proportionate to their evil.
The study of violence fascinates me and over the last year or so I’ve been scrounging around for answers. Bookshops in Karachi are a nauseating, unending permutation and combination of the words ‘holy’, ‘terror’, ‘dark’, ‘most’ and enemy. The War on Terror spawned an entire new genre of non-fiction. Some of it is written by non-Pakistanis and smacks of post-colonial fetish; their titles are all about looking in from the outside (Pakistan: Deep Inside the World's Most Frightening State), ‘understanding’ a terrible enemy (Pakistan, a hard country), or predicting its end (Pakistan on the Brink). The ones by the Pakistanis are just as bad. Whenever I sweep past those shelves in disgust, they reek of apology.
Karachi has long been called one of the world’s most dangerous cities (even though its homicide rate is up there with Ciudad Juarez’s). I had an argument with someone the other day over saying that the violence here, sectarian and political killings or those for extortion, is senseless and chaotic. In fact, it isn’t. It is extremely organized crime perpetrated by the ruling political parties, their youth militant wings, sectarian outfits (Shia/Sunni), groups of extortionists and kidnapping gangs. They have lists of targets in many cases, as investigations have proven.
But explanations of that side of violence don’t interest me at all. Other people love talking about it; if you sit down with journalists in Karachi or the police or even at a dinner with bankers and businessmen, all they do is try to one-up each other on how good their source of information is. Everyone knows Zardari, the president. Everyone knows the real story behind who killed Benazir Bhutto.
All of that talk seems pretty useless to me. What is instead more crucial is another element; how is this violence affecting us? For this too, you’ll get a good dose of pop-psych tch-tching around the dinner table. But no one has really been able to satisfy me on this phenomenon.
Until I chanced upon an interview of Judith Butler in the Columbia University Press blog (http://www.cupblog.org/?p=7692). Butler was in a bit of a soup recently over her critique of Zionism and the highly coveted German Adorno prize.
The controversy vis a vis Zionism didn’t interest me, but something she said bowled me over: “What is the condition under which we fail to grieve for others? Or the condition under which we fail to be able to acknowledge a loss and to grieve a loss?”
This is what I had been looking at for so long in Karachi/Pakistani society racked by different kinds of violence, anarchic behaviour, destructive social trends, extremism. Each day in the newsroom we have a debate on whether to make the killings in Karachi the lede. I disagree most of the time because I think people are just sick of reading about it. I know people don’t read about these ‘routine’ killings, as we call them. And while I hate to use the word, densensitisation is a thread that runs through this.
Prof. Butler frames this question against the Holocaust and postwar Germany. She also highlights how gay people could not, at one point in time, openly mourn the death of a partner.
The Jewish angle interested me; how do a people mourn such a loss of such magnitude? Six million people? How does Karachi mourn each day for the faceless victims? We don’t. Perhaps we can’t because it would be too much. But how do we live with ourselves knowing this is who we are. Does this not do something to us?
From Butler this line of inquiry led me to Hannah Arendt and her coverage of the Eichmann trial (Eichmann in Jerusalem). I confess I started reading her work on violence but it is taking time to absorb. She speaks of the banality of evil and I know there are answers here.
The philosopher Slavoj Zizek has also written extensively on violence, but his thesis focuses more on the systemic violence or unseen force that leads to violence in society. This book too is a tough read, but I’m on it.
If Karachi had a super hero who she/he be, I wonder. A cursory search turned up Buraaq by Splitmoonarts.com that created a Muslim super hero. (Buraq is the mythical steed that took Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) on the Night Journey). Reuters has reported that DC Comics created a new Green Lantern in the story of Simon Baz, an American of Arab ancestry raised in a Muslim family, who leaves behind street racing to join an intergalactic police force.
But for now, it just seems as if the people of Karachi have to contend with a sad population of microvillains – disillusioned young men blinded by testosterone and ideology fed to them by deranged clerics. I’d still have grudging respect if they were absolute Evil. At least that would be a pure form of something than just an outlet for teen angst.
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September 22, 2012 | 1:21 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
Yesterday was one of the saddest days in Karachi’s history. Six of its downtown cinemas were attacked by mobs and set on fire. That’s pretty much the major ones completely destroyed. Only two big ones remain, one at the edge of downtown and one by the seaside.
The mobs, which were in the thousands, swept through the centre of the city on Friday setting banks, businesses and the cinemas on fire as part of protests against the Innocence of Muslims film. The pillaging and arson was condoned by our toothless and two-faced ‘religious’ leaders heading the protests. Whenever anarchists sweep through the crowd, these clerics disown them and have the gall to later say that the men were not part of their group but were ‘criminal elements’ as if this was a lesson from the periodic table.
The mobs wanted to storm the US consulate in Karachi, which was protected from all approaches by the police and strategically placed shipping containers. The protesters first swept through the main financial artery of Karachi, MA Jinnah Road, to converge at Native Jetty bridge which leads to the consulate. Along the way they ransacked the banks, kicked in windows, stole money, even food from the cinema’s bars.
In the morning as I turned on the TV the violence seemed to be mostly concentrated in Islamabad and Peshawar up north in Pakistan where cinemas were attacked as well. The government had made the mistake of caving in to the extremists and declaring Sept 21 Ishq-e-Rasool (pbuh) day, or Love for the Prophet (pbuh) Day. You see, in Pakistan we have to beat our breasts about these kind of things.
The government’s reasoning was that it would save itself by appearing religiously correct. What I don’t think it had bargained for was the protests that were planned. This was a failure of police intelligence. Also, since we only have about 3,000 cops we can actually use in Karachi of 20m people, they are stretched to thin. As far as I understand, via our reporter Saba Imtiaz, the police did not have orders to take action unless the US consulate was attacked. We’re trying to find out what exactly happened there and why the police did not have the kind of backup they needed from the paramilitary Rangers force who we pay billions of rupees to keep.
The irony is that we showed our love for Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) by setting our own city on fire. I’m sure he’s really happy and all the ‘criminal elements’ will get a special place in heaven for the great work they did.
The non-violent residents of Karachi watched on in dismay at the complete anarchy that descended on the city. We are a cursed metropolis, unable to get through any day without some kind of disaster. Just last week 289 garment factory workers perished in the worst fire in our history simply because the exit doors were sealed.
As the city editor of The Express Tribune, I’m supposed to know by now the way events will unfold in Karachi. But I confess, each day for the last month has stripped away my naiveté. I never thought it would get so bad and this happens to me each time. I’m never prepared to predict the extent of the depravity. I feel like a fool because I err on the side of the goodness of human nature. But as the footage rolled, I realised that there was no limit to the madness.
The same thing happened to me when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in 2007. All of us in the newsroom were unprepared for the fires that would sweep through the province. Each time I’m caught on the backfoot.
The neighbourhood where I live in is relatively protected but as I drove to work I had to pass through a shopping strip where tyres were burning on the road. A group of young men were gathered at the end. I had to somehow get through them by driving carefully around the scattered flames. “Stop her!” I heard one of them scream. “Get her!” cried another. I was wearing my press badge but I had a feeling it wouldn’t help. I rammed my foot against the accelerator.
My subeditors had a hard time getting to work as well. One of them found mobs around the office and turned back. He went home, changed into a shalwar kameez, grabbed a skull cap and pretend to be a protester to reach the office.
Before heading out to work, I had to raid my fridge to get food together as my subeditors at work messaged me that they were hungry and there wasn’t going to be any access to food that day. Plus I had reporters out in the field who I knew would return hungry.
So I’ve learnt my lesson and have decided to stock the office with food supplies. Petrol is another concern. In Karachi you can never let your tank be close to empty because what if you need to drive reporters or subeditors home?
Sometimes even water runs out at the coolers and you need to keep bottles in your car. I can only imagine it was much worse for newspaper offices that are located downtown.
But perhaps the worst part was that the government decided to suspend cell phone services on Friday. Two of my reporters were downtown covering rallies and protests and the cinema burnings. When we lost contact with Saad Hasan for an hour or so our hearts were in our mouths. All I could say to his wife, Rabia Ali, who is also my reporter, that he’s smart, he’ll always know what to do to protect himself.
September 21, 2012 | 12:37 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
UPDATE: A private television channel’s (ARY) driver succumbed to his injuries after he was shot during a protest in Peshawar. His name was Mohammad Amir.
Clerics on an Express News talk show defended violent protests as Muslims expressing their feelings. Destroying two cinemas is probably not the answer. And I'll bet, those very same protesters who burnt the cinemas went there regularly to watch films.
The government of Pakistan announced Sept 21, Friday, Ishq-e-Rasool (PBUH) Day or Love for the Prophet Day as a national holiday. The ostensible aim was to try and cap the violent protests that have erupted thanks to the Innocence of Muslims trailer. The plan didn’t work.
A mob attacked a cinema on Grand Trunk Road in Peshawar, tear gas and baton charge were put into action in Islamabad and elsewhere rallies, some with school children, marched with banners declaring sentiment for the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). Similar scenes were reported from Lahore.
Cell phone services have been cut off in 15 major cities in Pakistan to prevent people from organizing violence. This is the second time in a month that the government has resorted to this tactic. On August 19, the government did the same thing in a bid to prevent a bomber from attacking Eid morning prayer congregations on the big day. The last time I think I remember such drastic measures being taken was when I was a teenager in 1992. Nawaz Sharif was prime minister and a military operation was being conducted in Karachi against a political party. If memory serves me correctly, cell phones had just been introduced but were being used, among other things, to coordinate killings and help activists go underground.
The government’s attempts to prevent violence from breaking out aren’t working. On the radio special messages from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been running to clarify the US stance: it condemns the wretched ‘film’ but also decries violent reaction.
Shipping containers have been used to block the road to the US consulate in Karachi. It came under attack last week, when Molotov Cocktails were chucked over the wall as a mob managed to get close. The consulate’s compound is a quasi fortress with double concrete barriers. It is located at the end of an isolated road through mangrove swamps but unfortunately it is flanked on one side with an unplanned settlement. My reporter who covered it told me that people emerged from that side. He was hit in the face with a rock himself.
As I write this, Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf spoke at a seminar or convention in Islamabad, saying that the government would take the issue up at the UN level.
The government is running a message on television channels reaffirming that it had announced a national holiday for the Love of the Prophet (PBUH). It asks people to refrain from violence as this was not the way of the Prophet (PBUH).
My question is, though, that there were scores of prophets who are mentioned in the Holy Quran. Do we get a national holiday for all of them?
September 12, 2012 | 2:03 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
Your master is your master, but even your master’s dog is your master. The Pakistani protest song may not have the grit of Ohio by Neil Young or the soul of Strange Fruit, but it sure has kick. Two music videos, by young guns Ali Gul Pir and Faris Shafi, have gone viral with their fusion rap takes on the canker of Pakistani society.
Comedian Ali Gul Pir’s ‘Waderai ka beta’ (Song of a Feudal Lord) http://youtu.be/OruEoqKftUs rips apart the oppressive hierarchical culture of the Pakistani countryside where all-powerful landlords and their sons have held sway for decades. It is here that many parallels can be drawn with the American south during slavery as indentured labour persists in Pakistan.
The video, which was uploaded on June 14, has already crossed 150,000 hits on YouTube and elicited a raving response from listeners, my newspaper, The Express Tribune reported on June 18. “The video shows Pir singing in front of a Hummer next to armed bodyguards. He raps about the luxurious brands he wears and the attention he gets because of his money and power, and also refers to how the social status of those around him changes because they are his pals.” According to Pir, The track is a dig at influential people who misuse their authority. The subject could be anyone from the sons of bureaucrats to tribal leaders.”
Young people love it because finally someone is using the language they use, talking about the rot in society and very simply making fun of the people in power. The line, Saeen to Saeen, Saeen ka kutta bhi Saeen, (Your master is your master, but even your master’s dog is your master) has nailed the way networks of power operate in Pakistan where the rule of law has been shot to hell. If you are connected to someone powerful you use their name to get what you want by bypassing the law. Combine this with vast income inequalities and you have a country of 180 million people who are left at the mercy of a top 5%.
The second song, Faris Shafi’s “Awaam” (The Masses/The People) http://youtu.be/tq0Ml-Z3kP0 is much more raw but just as funny. In one week Awaam got over 85,000 YouTube hits. It features Taimoor Salahuddin (aka Mooroo) and no-holds barred lyrics peppered with expletives. Here too income inequality emerges as a theme; Faris plays a labourer and Mooro a factory owner. Faris is clearly having a killer time dancing in the baggy shalwar trousers and wife-beater vest. He has reclaimed worker cool.
The song uses the same satire as ‘Waderai ka Beta’ to sweep over hot topics. He skewers Jihad (you’ve got an itch in your beard) and pokes fun at Pakistanis who boast about having the bomb in a country where rolling blackouts last up to 15 hours. In another stanza he takes a dig at the war against extremism which occupies public debate but the fact that no one wants to talk about the dirty secret of Muslims killing Muslims: “Nato’s army has got us by the balls/ It’s costing us an arm and leg/ But we’re at each other’s throats.” The lyrics are extremely difficult to translate as they use an Urdu rhyme scheme overlayed on a rap beat, but I guess you get the point.
It’s easy to understand why these young artists have taken as their point of departure the rap form. Protest poetry has a rich tradition in the Indian Subcontinent but the classical (Persian, ghazal or couplet) style is not just difficult to digest for its high diction but also lacks the modern urgency, appeal and pace of rap. Rap is also, very simply, sexier.
We’ve grown up with revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ‘Bol ke Lab Azaad hain Terey’ (loosely translated as Speak, for you are Free), an anthem of sorts warbled at left-wing civil society rallies and protests here. But it was high time something new emerged and the generation of today claimed some space on the cultural landscape.
English translation of Waderai ka Beta
Akbar Jatoi Jalbani is my name
Driving a Pajero and chilling is my dream
I’m so rich I can f*&t out money
I’ll show you now (f*&t) see?!
A gold Rado watch and my black suit is starched
Girls look at me and say, “Ooh la la”
Hair all set, with oil in it
Compared to my moustache, yours has failed
The cool boys always want to hate me
Cause I get all the cute girls
Girl, I will make you the princess of Dadu (my village)
Verssis (Versace) shoes and Armaanri (Armani) sweater
A feudal lord’s son, a feudal lord’s son
I am a feudal lord’s, a feudal lord’s
High five! Your *** is black
All my results from nursery to grade 10 are fake
I have a different way to impress the ladies
“Come over here I’ll show you a real man”
My dad wants me to become a parliamentary minister
But I want Sharmeela’s younger sister
I have lots of power and control
“Dad can I get my allowance today?”
I have 10 bodyguards who are always ready
Will put a false case on you and put you in prison
Once you’re in jail, you will yell out “NOOO!”
Boy, Saeen (master/sir) is Saeen but even Saeen’s dogs a saeen
September 3, 2012 | 11:47 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
Till today I confess that the militant network in Pakistan stymies me. When I used to work at Daily Times, I had a chart drawn up: Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Lashkar-e-Tayba (of the Mumbai Chabad House attack), Sipah-e-Sahaba, Sipah-e-Mohammad, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Afghan Taliban, Ahle Sunnwat wal Jamaat, Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi…. But no matter how elaborate the chart, I always had to turn to the court and crime reporters and ask: So, LeJ hates the Shias or Sunnis? Is Hizb-ut Tahrir militant or just ideological? Is Jamaat-ud Dawa still banned?
I don’t blame American readers of the Jewish Journal if they aren’t particularly interested in the intricacies of how these groups operate. And I won’t bother to explain it here in this space as there are several excellent websites that go into depth on these matters. I am writing about them here today because of a mish-mash of news developments.
The Twitter joke these days in Pakistan is that our prime ministers have been in court (and one dismissed from office) but we have almost zero convictions of men who incite violence based on their extremist views. But I have some good news to report today.
Our Asad Kharal reported in The Express Tribune that the leader of one group, the outlawed Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a man named Malik Ishaq, has been sent to jail after being arrested upon his arrival back home. A case has been registered against him for delivering a hate speech against the Shia minority. (Shias are a sect of Muslims. The other main one being Sunnis.) The prosecution’s records cite his involvement in more than 40 cases in which 70 people were killed, with a majority of the victims belonging to the Shia community.
This is not Ishaq’s first run-in with the law. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court granted him bail in July 2011 after 14 years of imprisonment in the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore.
Indeed, 2012 has been the year of the threatened minority in Pakistan. These smaller groups in our Sunni-Muslim majority population are almost always under threat.
The summer has been fraught. In one of the more recent attacks in Gilgit (the north of Pakistan), Shias were pulled off a bus, identified and shot. In two months, the toll from this type of killing has risen to 37. In today’s newspaper, Sept2, Hazara Shias were mowed down in an attack in the southern city of Quetta in the impoverished fourth province of Balochistan. Gunmen just opened fire at a market, killing five vegetable sellers.
It is imperative that men like Malik Ishaq, who spread their poison among the already susceptible male youth population of Pakistan, are stopped in their tracks.
There was another good piece of news this week as well, after a frightening development. A Christian teenager named Rimsha said to be suffering from Down’s Syndrome was accused of blasphemy for burning pages of a Quran reader (meant for kids). The cleric who made the accusation, it has turned out, framed her. He was just arrested. A witness has come forward to testify that he planted the material in her hands. A lot of people are hoping and praying that he is given the most exemplary punishment.
The blasphemy cases are notorious in Pakistan and have given the country a really bad reputation. The religious right is unparalleled in its fervour to pursue these alleged cases against Christians but are almost always silent when one of their own is caught like this. I’m interested to see what develops.
As you may recall, one of the saddest blasphemy cases was that of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, who was gunned down by his own bodyguard for defending a Christian woman named Aasia. Taseer’s only crime was that he stressed that blasphemy laws are abused by people – as indeed the Rimsha case demonstrates. In the same year, 2011, Pakistan’s minister for minorities, the Christian Shahbaz Bhatti, was also gunned down for speaking out against the draconian law.
Another minority in Pakistan are the Hindus who have also had a bad year. In my province of Sindh there has been talk of them migrating to India as they are not protected by the state here. The biggest problem they face are kidnappings for ransom and forced conversions before marriage to Muslim boys. In what is possibly the sickest television I’ve ever seen, a talk-show host undertook the live telecast of the conversion of a Hindu boy.
“The religious minorities’ continued migration from Sindh and Balochistan is a reflection of the state’s failure to save these citizens from violence, discrimination and disgusting excesses such as forced conversion of young women,” writes the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “The live telecast of a recent conversion of a young Hindu man on television is a particularly reprehensible and indefensible manifestation of the attitude towards non-Muslims.”