Posted by Mahim Maher
Size matters, as I am keen on pointing out much to the irritation of friends outside the newsroom and reporters in it. Their snickers indicate to me that they are having non-Shariah compliant thoughts. What I am usually referring to is the size of cities, especially Karachi, which is an estimated 20 million souls spread over 3,600 sq km. This worries me.
I found out this last week that it happens to worry other people as well. I met this group of worriers in Italy at the Urban Land Institute and Citistates Group (of Neal Peirce of the Washington Post writers group) summit for four days of brainstorming on how to tackle the challenge of fast growing cities. The sexy line-up included Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, who could talk me out of my burqa and into a nun’s habit any day. He makes BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) systems sound like the highway to heaven. Except that he doesn’t like highways.
The challenge for these urban planners, CEOs, real estate managers, scholars, thinkers, innovators was how do we think about creating prosperous, opportunity-rich, sustainable cities through the lens of four critical building blocks: transportation, water, energy and public space. America is learning from its mistakes and now China is making them all over again (for eg, the Superblock).
As is usually the case, I was the least experienced person in the room, which is why I learnt more than I could contribute, but boy am I grateful. I saw that there were solutions. The crime is that Pakistani policymakers, planners and politicians are too taken up with the power struggle to actually look beyond their noses and into the faces of the people of Pakistan. Listening to these experts in Italy freed me from the despair that had grown over the last decade from trying to cover a city like Karachi with all its attendant horrors.
While not all solutions can be easily applied to Karachi, it became more and more clear to me that unless we start acting now, we will be looking at another wave of crisis in the next 50 years. And this will matter beyond our borders.
For example, the Election Commission of Pakistan released data on Saturday about the country’s electoral rolls and while we sort of always knew this, it was still a wake-up call to see that almost half of all registered voters (84.3million) are below the age of 35 years. A research group just said that 60% of Pakistan’s population is under 30 years old and if we don’t make sure jobs are there for them, “anarchy” could be unleashed. We are facing a youth bulge.
The numbers are there, staring us in the face and they are translating into rapid growth of cities such as Karachi. To give you an idea of an emerging problem, 600 cars are added to Karachi’s roads each day thanks to population growth and the ever so helpful banks whose new religion is consumer financing. (Although this is, I am told, waning). If we don’t need mass transit, then I don’t know who qualifies.
ULI/Citistates gave me hope because real practitioners explained how they did it in their cities. So for example, Penalosa explained that in Bogota they went to the existing bus drivers and owners and invited them to run the new BRT buses so they wouldn’t be rendered unemployed. In Karachi our mass transit has been pretty much held hostage to the private minibus network or transport mafia (union says we have 18,000 buses). What if we went to them and said they dump their old buses and come to buy and run the new BRT ones? This would involve a government subsidy and the existing drivers (most of who fall in the youth bulge) would need a massive reeducation and training retrofit. But we should be able to do it because Japan is footing the bill for
the new BRT system and Rs500m has been set aside by the provincial government. A World Bank expert, Ellen Hamilton, a Lead Land and Housing specialist, explained to me that in some of their projects the capacity building was the cheapest part.
I do believe that the youth bulge is strongly linked to extremism but understand that this can be a tenuous argument. I was reading Khaled Ahmed today in The Express Tribune’s opinion pages and he pointed out something quite basic: Violence is known to spring in primitive societies. This has compelled some sociologist to say that extremist personalities are usually possessed of low IQs. Pakistan has some level of literacy but here one must note that in 1947, when literacy was 17%, people were more tolerant; today, with literacy at over 60%, Pakistanis have embraced extremist views.
As our cities grow and our youth bulge manifests itself, Pakistan will have to spend more time focusing on the education of its young people, not just for jobs but for the welfare of society. As our population grows are we going to be able to provide an education system that leads to healthy and prosperous development? In a story this week in The News, it was pointed out that our education system is skewed towards the rich. So the average labourer is not able to afford an English-medium school for his children (if this is a benchmark). I’m not sure that O’ and A’ Level schools that run on the GCE/UK system and charge Rs10,000/month in tuition ($100) are creating better citizens than a madrassa that charges nothing and in fact provides room and board along with a religious education. But I do know that NOT ENOUGH of our youth are getting a good high school education in any of the systems. The ones who are privileged to make it to top notch universities usually leave the country. This brain drain means that we don’t have enough new leaders to help us cope with urban growth.
I realize this blog is a little all over the place but I myself am on a journey of discovery these days. When I read back up the page I see that I started off in a happy mood and by the time I reached the bottom the old despair had crept up again. Perhaps what I need is to do what a lot of privileged young women are doing here instead of using their brains; just decide that size doesn’t matter unless it’s of the diamond on your finger and that it’s better to just sit at home, not read the newspaper and pretend that everything will be ok. Perhaps I need to just sit back and hope that the millions of youth (40m of 18-35 year olds) who have registered to vote will show that their future matters.
11.22.13 at 11:32 pm | Salvaging a missed music day
11.9.13 at 9:43 pm | As told to me by an old colleague and reporter. . .
11.5.13 at 11:10 pm | Some reading resources
10.16.13 at 7:54 am | Eid Mubarak everyone
10.11.13 at 12:58 am | Her versus Them versus Us
10.6.13 at 6:30 am | Never a dull day in the newsroom - my personal. . .
July 12, 2012 | 5:44 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
I have not written for a while because I was away on the East West Center Jefferson fellowship to study urban solutions. I was away for a month with a group of 14 journalists from countries like Mongolia and Indonesia, places like Seattle and Atlanta, questions like what is the future for our megacities as they continue to absorb people.
Some journalists in Pakistan with the right connections are what some people call “conference whores” or fellowship junkies – they receive the invitations but instead of sending members of their teams who deserve the exposure, they hog them. I am happy to say that my editor, Kamal Siddiqi, at The Express Tribune and publisher Bilal Lakhani make sure everyone gets a fair chance.
That said, I turned down a lot of fellowships/scholarship/visits/junkets because they were all about terrorism blah blah. I don’t give a rat’s ass about terrorism because far more pressing urban problems exist. Violence in Karachi, yes, that worries me all the time. But even these issues are tackled by trying to find solutions for the city. Is the city a place where young men feel a part of the social fabric?
I jumped at this fellowship because it was not about answers but about questions – growing questions for me about Karachi, the city that I love. And I write this blog sitting at a Starbucks off Regent Street in London, a city I hate. Envy and hate. I hate all cities that have figured it out, how to serve their populations. And then I hate Karachi’s two main parties, the PPP and MQM, for NOT changing Karachi and instead fighting among themselves.
I learnt on my one month away from Karachi that the world has moved forward so impossibly far ahead that we are going to have a hard time catching up unless we really decide to alter our destiny. In Singapore, for example, the Jefferson fellows visited the city planning department and I realised that Singapore in the 1960s was Karachi in 2012. (See picture).
The fellowship studied waste management, transport systems, energy solutions in Hawai’i, Singapore, Guangzhou, Seoul, Songdo. And at the tail end of the trip I skipped over to Hong Kong with a friend to see how that city lived and breathed.
When you have lived in Karachi long enough something will happen to you. I am frustrated by my inability to articulate this phenomenon, but to put it crudely, your sense of up goes down and your sense of down goes up. I am reminded of Richard Farina’s great Beat classic ‘Been down so long it looks like up to me’. You lose hope that it will ever be better; despite all the tweets, all the platitudes, all the yapping on TV. We all feel hopeless deep down. We run around in circles with the same kind of rhetoric but in the end we all exit in survivalist mode.
Karachi is 20 million people and growing and the people in charge have completely ignored their duty to the city. We need to overhaul our mass transit, sewage and water systems – these are just three major ones (more on the others later). Before I went on the fellowship I was caught up with the idea that the government was trapped in a deadlock. Even if it wanted to make changes, like build the Karachi circular railway, there were squatters in the way. Trying to remove them would lead to protests, violence. Does anything happen in Karachi without violence? That is our new language.
But then, I learnt in Singapore that Lee Kwan Yew, its first prime minister, oversaw the transformation of the nation state from a relatively underdeveloped colonial outpost with no natural resources into a First World Asian Tiger. In China, and yes, you can laugh later, the central government decides on something AND IT IS DONE. I agree that this is a slippery slope. But I wonder if some sacrifices need to be made to save Karachi. Who will be Karachi’s Lee Kwan Yew?
That leader would have to take a decision to go ahead with the mass transit projects. The problem with the Karachi Circular Railway is that the government flubbed up with compensation to people in earlier projects in which land needed to be cleared. That was the Lyari Expressway Project, which sent people to far-flung wastelands like Scheme 33 and Taiser Town.
But now, the debate is, can the government go ahead with this mass transit despite resistance. After all the Japanese government is footing 93% of the bill. The time is now. If we don’t have mass transit our traffic jams will get worse, and the costs will rise each day economically.
(For more details see our latest on the KCR by Saad Hasan http://tribune.com.pk/story/406990/circular-railway-japanese-govt-will-cover-93-cost-of-kcr/)
Note: My Jefferson fellowship was funded by the US consulate and was brilliantly organised by the East West Center’s Ann Hartman and Meril Fujiki.
May 8, 2012 | 1:47 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
If Hillary Clinton’s schedule is to be followed, Pakistan should pencil in May 2013 as a possible time next year when Ayman al Zawahiri, who inherited al Qaeda, will be ferreted out and killed by American forces - on Pakistani turf.
Jokes aside, Pakistanis watched the Secretary of State on Tuesday, May 8, 2012 make an all-too familiar pronouncement that was televised from India.
AFP reported that she called on Pakistan to do more to crack down on violent extremism - a day after she said Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri was believed to be hiding there.
“Combating violent extremism is something we all agree on,” Clinton said during a press conference at the end of a trip to India, PTI reported. “We look to the government of Pakistan to do more. It needs to make sure its territory is not used as a launching pad for terrorist attacks, including inside Pakistan.”
In 2010, also in May, Clinton had said the same thing about Osama bin Laden, while she was on a trip to India. PTI reported that she said some people in the Pakistani government knew where bin Laden was. Pakistan has long been accused of playing a double game on terror suspects.
A year later, on May 2, 2011, Osama bin Laden was killed in an Abbottabad safehouse by elite American forces.
So it seems a trend has been established. Clinton makes a pronouncement in India about most-wanted men and a year later they are found and killed in Pakistan.
Naturally, the OBL killing was a huge embarrassment for Pakistan. The question now is, will the country learn from the past?
For its part, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said on Monday, May 7, that if America has any solid intelligence information on the presence of al Zawahiri in Pakistan, it should be shared so that the country can look into the matter accordingly.
These developments are taking place as the Pakistani parliament meets on drone strikes as part of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS). Lawmakers are struggling to come up with policy on ties with the US.
In November 2011, Pakistan ordered a review of all co-operation with the US and Nato after the alliance struck a Pakistani army checkpoint, killing at least 24 people. Nato supply routes were closed and protests erupted. Statements were made by the far-right wing groups who seized on the opportunity.
Last month, the Pakistani parliament unanimously adopted a resolution setting new terms and conditions for the reopening of Nato supply routes. It had linked the reopening of supply routes to an end to drone strikes.
America has said, however, that it will continue to carry out drone strikes against militants even if Pakistan opposes it.
Some analysts were talking about Clinton’s comment on Zawahiri in Pakistan on Pakistani television channels on Monday night.
The Americans have been very clear about their strategy to go after al Qaeda. But has Pakistan been able to keep up, they asked.
Analyst Ejaz Haider was critical of the way that Pakistani parliament goes about discussing and dealing with the issue. This is what he said as a guest on Talat Hussain’s News Night show on Dawn News:
“In Gen Musharraf’s time one or two people took decisions and then we took this giant leap and now we have 340 foreign ministers,” he said. Too many cooks spoil the broth?
He said that what should happen is that the members of parliament should have staff who do their research so that there is an informed discourse on the floor of the house.
He referred to the warning signal that Clinton discussed the man linked to the Mumbai attacks on India soil. “Hafiz Saeed was also brought up on Indian soil. What does this mean, what should we be aware of. Do we [Pakistan] believe that al Qaeda is dangerous for us?” He asked if it was not appropriate for Pakistan to work with America, which is for all intents and purposes a superpower and is likely to stay one. Should we not work it out so our common interests are dealt with in tandem? We should work it to our advantage.
What for example is Pakistan going to do about Hafiz Saeed? Clinton said we have not taken the “necessary action” against the man suspected of masterminding an attack by Pakistan-based gunmen on the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008.
India has repeatedly called on Pakistan to bring Saeed to justice, an issue that has stood in the way of rebuilding relations between the nuclear-armed neighbours since the carnage in India’s financial capital, where gunmen killed 166 people.
India is furious Pakistan has not detained Saeed, despite handing over evidence against him.
Washington has offered a reward of $10 million for information leading to Saeed’s capture.
Another guest on the show, a parliamentarian, commented on how Pakistani foreign policy is often said to be based on the emotion of the people. He questioned if this was the correct approach given that countries make their foreign policy given global realities and their national interest.
“We can’t give a figure of how many innocent people and terrorists were killed in drone strikes to the public. We need to decide where we stand in this war?” said the parliamentarian. This is perhaps an indication of the lack of transparency in the public sphere. People are not being taken along when it comes to the realities.
Most Pakistanis seem to have their head in the sand when it comes to terrorism, which is killing their very own people. Perhaps one step in the right direction has been the government’s creation of the National Counter Terrorism Authority.
Talat Hussain quipped, “The country is on auto-pilot.”
April 6, 2012 | 3:06 pm
Posted by Mahim MaherSo the joke with Pakistani Twitterati is that if Hafiz Saeed were on Twitter he could take the handle @HMS_Bounty. For those who may not be familiar with him, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed carries as much head money as Mullah Omar. He has hit the headlines because the American government has offered 10 million dollars for information against him that will stand up in court.
March 24, 2012 | 1:19 am
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.
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.
February 29, 2012 | 2:43 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
Karachi has made violence important to me, not just as a resident of this city but as the metropolitan editor of a newspaper. After reading Susan Sontag on ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ (2002), I began to wonder how we were unknowingly, as journalists, covering Karachi’s violence. Reporters wander back to their desks, bewildered after a chat with me: “I was thinking of doing a story on the victims of the bomb blast,” they’ll say, pitching the idea.\
“Boring.” I will reply. “Focus on something else.”
They hate me for this. They say I am insensitive. But I have not been able to explain that I do not want them to touch a story like that with a ten-foot bayonet unless they can prove to me that they will do it justice.
We tend to fetishize violence, I argue over and over again. I have no idea what I am talking about. But I know that we cannot speak for others who have suffered. I’ve seen too many badly written sob stories to know this much.
In my quest to read about violence, I’ve been recently drawn to the work of Slavoj Zizek. His book ‘Violence: Six Sideway Reflections’ has alerted me to systemic violence that makes so much violence possible. I think I see this in Karachi each day in the outbursts of street violence, drive-by shootings etc.
One form of systemic violence that we are not taking seriously enough is a topic that has gripped the media of late: the enforced disappearances, not just across the country, but specifically in the province of Balochistan.
A long-running insurgency or fight for freedom and separation has been running in this part of Pakistan. Part of the problem is that the province’s rich natural resources have been plundered, or there are plans to extract them, for the benefit of other provinces. Balochistan is suffering economic colonialism by its own government, in a way. It is Pakistan’s largest province/state but it’s least developed.
The development has been stunted not just because of the tribal landlords and chiefs, but because of the absence of the State’s attention. To make their sense of deprivation worse, over the decades, the non-indigenous paramilitary and armed forces have clamped down on the people and land there. The intelligence agencies use government guest houses as torture cells.
One of the many myriad and complicated problems of Balochistan and its Baloch and Pashtun people (among other ethno-linguistic peoples) is of enforced disappearances. The nationalists/freedom-fighters/insurgents/terrorists are picked up and go missing for years. Their bodies turn up mysteriously. (Much of the same thing is happening in my neighbourhing province/state of Sindh as well).
These days the Supreme Court of Pakistan is hearing cases of the ‘missing people’ – a misleading phrase. Let me bring up one case, being called the Adiala jail case.
Eleven civilian suspects were facing court martial under the Army Act on charges of attacking the General Headquarters (GHQ) and spy agency’s Hamza Camp base.
They were picked up from Adiala Jail by intelligence agencies after they were acquitted of charges by the court.
The secret agencies have now admitted in the Supreme Court that the 11 men were kept at internment centres. Four of them died in custody of ‘natural causes’. The remaining ones were brought to court with urine bags sticking out of their trousers.
Everyone is hoping that the Supreme Court will take the intelligence agencies to task. How could they pick up men who were acquitted? If a court has set them free, what business does anyone have to take such extra-judicial measures? Do the intelligence agencies not respect a court’s verdict? Are they above the law?
The issue of the ‘missing people’ is not a new one. It has returned to the spotlight because of the chief justice. But just a few years ago, our former president, Pervez Musharraf, (who was once America’s darling, post-9/11), suspended this top judge precisely because he insisted on tracking down these missing people. The chief justice now wants the spy agencies to produce these seven suspects.
There is hope that as the chief justice hauls up the chiefs of the dreaded intelligence agencies (the Inter-Services Intelligence and Military Intelligence etc), he will apply the same rule of law to them as they do to civilians.
Meanwhile, a judicial commission in Karachi is recording the statements in the cases of 54 ‘missing’ people. Yesterday my reporter returned frustrated because the media wasn’t allowed inside. She did manage to speak to some of the families when they emerged. One man said that this was the sixth commission he was attending. In the end, isn’t it clear to all of us that the intelligence agencies have these people. They should just give them up.
Yes, this sounds incredibly naïve. But brutalizing people just creates more violence in its spin-off forms.
For me, this open secret, this lie, this silence is one of the many forms of violence people face in Pakistan. And it spins out to implicate many spheres. All of the people who go about their daily lives not thinking about all the people who have disappeared are complicit. All these people are complicit for not exerting pressure on the courts, police, agencies, authorities, president, prime minister, elected representatives to give these people justice. It is here that, for me, Hannah Arendt’s words ring true, for several reasons.
Hannah Arendt, a German-born Jew who escaped the Nazis in 1940, went on to become the first woman professor at Princeton University. In 1961 she was sent by the New Yorker to cover the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Her articles were put together in a book in which she coined the phrase, ‘the banality of evil’.
Historian Dr Yaacov Lozowick, a former director of the Yad Vashem Archives explains the term: The ability to commit evil in a way that sounds almost rational or familiar. People who are not actually monsters or particularly ideologically motivated can become cogs in a machine that, under particular extraordinary historical circumstances, makes them commit unbelievable acts of evil.
The banality of evil helps me understand how the members of the intelligence agencies, actual Pakistani men, are able to follow orders from the high command to pick up these people and torture them.
There are no circumstances in which any citizen of Pakistan should be held like this and not produced in a court of law 24 hours after arrest and made aware of the charges against them.
There is NO comparison here between the Holocaust and these enforced disappearances of a few thousand people; I am just saying that Arendt’s theory, which sprang from her intellectual examination of a particular evil, can be, in part, used to explain some forms of evil today. Arendt’s words can be a lesson for us.
Most of all, the banality of evil signals to me, the unthinking ways in which we react to this systemic violence in Pakistan. I used to try to explain this to myself by using the words ‘reader fatigue’. It is a strange phenomenon – our newspaper’s readers react with horror to our coverage of the missing persons trials but little more happens than a few comments on the website.
Eichmann’s story reminds me of Musharraf as well – ironically because the Pakistani government is preparing to ask Interpol to issue red warrants for his arrest. They want to try him for Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. He is perhaps not technically a war criminal – but as many of the Baloch people believe, when it comes to murder of tribal chief Nawab Akbar Bugti during Musharraf’s tenure, our former president should be forced to give us some answers for what he did.
Hannah Arendt felt that Eichmann never realised what he was doing, part of the banality of evil. For Musharraf and all the men in the intelligence agencies, however, I doubt that this is the case.