Posted by Mahim Maher
There’s a figure of speech among crime reporters in Pakistan, which pretty much anyone across the world can understand if it’s translated: Bæt’ti ke neechay bet’ha dena. Sit you under a light bulb.
I first heard it at Daily Times in Karachi when one of our Baloch reporters resurfaced with his head shaved after an odd absence. When I asked another reporter what had happened, he cryptically answered that they had put him “under a light bulb.”
It was later explained to me that it meant a little chitchat with the intelligence agencies. I suspect no tea was served.
In order for this story to make sense, I’ll have to explain what a Baloch is. The word refers to anyone from an ethnic Baloch background, most likely someone from the Pakistani province/state* of Balochistan, although Baloch people are scattered across the country.
Balochistan is a bit of the ‘dark’ province in Pakistan to borrow from an Orientalist reference to Africa. The reason is a long-simmering insurgency and separatist movement, primarily but not exclusively based on what many Baloch (and indeed other Pakistanis) call an unfair exploitation of the province’s rich natural resources. I am not an expert on the Balochistan situation, which is why I’m trying to be as careful as I can while trying to convey what I know.
The reason I bring Balochistan up today is because it is International Human Rights Day, which the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has dedicated to Balochistan, where hundreds of men have disappeared over the years, ostensibly picked up by the secret agencies, tortured and then killed. Ironically, reporters call the secret agencies ‘farishtey’ or ‘angels’ because they are invisible and hover from above. They come in and do their work and no one knows.
I’ll give you an example of the clampdown on reporting on Balochistan. It is difficult for even the HRCP, Pakistan’s most well respected human rights agitator, to pin down a proper figure of how many people have gone missing or were killed. According to its estimates, 5,000 to 6,000 people (mostly men) have been abducted. From July 2010 to November 2011, 225 bodies have been found – but as anyone can guess, this is well below what the actual figure could be. One of the Baloch separatists gave us a list of the missing and dead yesterday – it was 38 pages long.
Even if I would personally want to confirm each case, or dispatch a reporter in Balochistan to do it, that wouldn’t necessarily be possible. Reporters who ask too many questions get put under a light bulb.
One of them, who has been writing about Balochistan for a long time from Quetta and has since left the country, was repeatedly threatened not to stick his nose in places where it didn’t belong.
So, no one is really willing to talk and investigations, even by the HRCP, are extremely difficult to accomplish. Because of the security threat even international journalists can’t go to the province.
In a press conference at the Karachi Press Club (in Sindh), the chairperson of the Baloch Human Rights Organisation, Nargis Baloch, appealed to the Supreme Court to take suo motu action of human rights violation by state agencies in Balochistan. I reproduce here our reporting of it:
She lashed out at the role of Pakistan Army in the province saying: “Balochistan has been handed over to the army since former president Pervez Musharraf’s regime. Today there is just a dummy civilian government in the province.”
“Security forces have killed hundreds of innocent Baloch scholars, doctors, students, lawyers and Baloch leaders. Hundreds of Baloch are still missing from various parts of the province while decomposed bodies of people kidnapped from various areas are found on a daily bases,” she said…
Sometimes they (the state agencies) leave papers with decomposed bodies saying loyalty is with the state, Baloch said.
Aside from these press conferences where some information is given, it is a virtual blackout. But worse is that it has actually extended to the virtual world as well. I went to the website for Baloch Hal (which
I assume translates into the Condition of the Baloch). It showed up on a Google search, but when you clicked to go to the website it was blocked by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. I tried
Facebook and encountered the same thing. Scores of Baloch separatist websites have been given the same treatment.
The politics in Balochistan is dirty and all sorts of groups are involved. But someone in the newsroom said to me yesterday that it seemed like a never-ending attrition; the more the ‘secret agencies’ pick up Baloch men and the more violence that is perpetrated, the stronger the resentment and hatred will build.
Indeed, as with all violence, it begets more violence. The Baloch separatists blow up gas pipelines and railway tracks, damaging infrastructure in their own backyard. And worse still, they have been lashing out by killing Punjabis in Balochistan. Their ire is directed at Punjabis, as this province has traditionally been perceived as the seat of power in Pakistan, where all the decisions of government and army are made.
There is a relatively more contained separatist movement in my province of Sindh where ‘nationalist’ parties are forever haranguing the government over the distribution of resources – whether gas or water etc. Someone once told me that naturally resentment would build – imagine villages by gas fields have no gas themselves. They just see the gas pipelines pass through as silently as the people who have disappeared.
In the papers today there is an advertisement from the government. It says ‘Protection of Human Rights [sic] Symbol of an Independent Nation’. It mentions as one important initiative taken the ‘Aghaz-e-Huqooq Balochistan’, a package on the start of rights in Balochistan. But as reports continue to surface of missing men, reports that can’t be confirmed because reporters aren’t allowed to do their job opening, I wonder if this government and those before them have done its biggest province justice – ever.
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October 31, 2011 | 2:46 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
Each year an invitation lands on my desk from the US consulate in Karachi for the Daniel Pearl Music Day. And each year I marvel at this phenomenon. Even my sister, who was up by the time I got back from this year’s concert, remarked: “Man, I don’t know how his parents do it. If something like that had happened to my son, I wouldn’t have had anything to do with that city.” She was talking about Karachi where Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered ten years ago.
Unfortunately, even this year’s concert couldn’t be held for the open public, which would be ideal. Karachi doesn’t have many concerts for security reasons. The police and law enforcement agencies don’t like crowds gathering in one place because of the threat of bomb attacks, which is very real. As a result, young people have been missing out on what is otherwise a normal part of growing up – going to concerts for your favourite bands.
At the US Consul General’s residence on Saturday, Oct 29, I was introduced to an attaché called Kevin Murakami. I lamented that the concert wasn’t open to the public and he frowned in thought before asking me if I had any solutions. Suddenly, I thought, why don’t we try to live stream it next year via my newspaper’s website http://tribune.com.pk, which has all the bells and whistles. Ideally, our sister concern, Urdu television channel Express News, could also broadcast it live. And if we published it properly perhaps young people in Karachi could actually take part like this? Mr Murakami agreed that it was an idea. And I will definitely pursue it on my end.
The line-up this year was fantastic, we had Mary McBride and her band, who became the first Americans to perform in Karachi for a
Daniel Pearl Music Day. It was a fitting choice for the 10th anniversary. I discovered that McBride sang for the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack and has even worked with Elton John among other big names. I couldn’t say that I fancied her brand of music much but she had a presence on stage and a great voice. I chatted with two band members backstage about their experience in Pakistan, asked them the usual boring questions of whether they were frightened to come etc. etc. And it struck me, that evening, how I was talking to Americans after so very long. You see, there are no white people left in Karachi because of the security threat. You’ll see the odd Russian at the supermarket really early in the morning, but that’s about it. Even the Chinese, who come here to work on development projects, keep a low profile. And they’re from a friendly country.
I realized it was important to keep talking and spreading the word about Daniel Pearl Music Days when someone who came to the event asked me to explain what it was all about. Apparently they had not been briefed about it. As the music played this person asked me, ‘So what is this all for?’ I had to explain as best as I could who Daniel Pearl was, what happened and how the music days came about. This person then paused, as if to digest this information and then leaned forward and asked me in a conspiratorial tone, ‘So, was he like a Raymond Davis?’ I nearly fell off my chair! ‘NO! NO! It’s not like that at all!’ I whispered back fiercely, my heart slamming against my ribcage. I wanted to pull my hair out. ‘No. Daniel Pearl was a CLEAN reporter… not an agent or spy or anything like that!’ I looked at their face again, to see if this person had comprehended what I was saying. ‘You’re a reporter right,’ they asked, looking at me with a tilt to the head. Well, actually I’m the city editor, I felt like saying with a bruised ego. But I sighed. ‘Yes, I’m a reporter, but we’re here to remember the reporters who have lost their lives. And Daniel Pearl was a reporter, a clean reporter.’ This answer and perhaps my demeanor seemed to satisfy this person. They leaned back, ‘OK, I believe you, but only because you seem honest to me and a nice person and you told me your name.’
As I walked away I thought how little it takes to misunderstand something you don’t know anything about. I thought about how important it was for journalists to get simple facts and truths out there enough in the public sphere so the record is set straight. I realized that this person had conflated two American names, personae, just because of inherent suspicions about Americans. Earlier in the evening, I was chatting with Mushtaq Rajpar, who works with the US consulate, and Razzak Abro, a reporter with Pakistan Today, who used to be my chief reporter at Daily Times. We had talked about Sindhi media and exposure and strengthening the hands of Sindhi journalists who need training. I thought, we really have our work cut out for us, not the English press or TV, but the local language media – Urdu and Sindhi – in particular. We need to be reaching people who can’t read or write English or want their news delivered in indigenous languages. I’d wager that the American PR machine in Pakistan needs to work closer with them. Perhaps the Daniel Pearl Foundation needs to have Sindhi and Urdu dubbed messages and invite more Sindhi and Urdu people who can spread the Pearls’ message of harmony for humanity.
(For my story in The Express Tribune, please go to: http://tribune.com.pk/story/285270/music-circles-the-world-to-make-a-pit-stop-in-karachi-for-daniel-pearl-once-again/)
Journalists recently killed in Pakistan and remembered on Daniel Pearl Music Day
Daniel Pearl (February 1, 2002) Wall Street Journal
Misri Khan (September 6, 2010) Ausaf and Mashriq
Abdul Wahab (December 6, 2010) Express News
Pervez Khan (December 6, 2010) Waqt TV
Nasrullah Khan Afridi (May 10, 2011) Khyber News Agency
Saleem Shahzad (May 19, 2011) Asia Times Online
Asfandyar Khan (June 11, 2011) Akhbar-e-Khyber
Wali Khan Babar (June 13, 2011) Geo TV
Shafiullah Khan (June 17, 2011) The News
Faisal Qureshi (October 7, 2011) London Post
October 18, 2011 | 6:34 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
She shut me down just as I started talking about women and their reputations in newsrooms and how I went to cover a fire at a prostitution den, a chakla. I remember once mentioning the word ‘chakla’ only to have male colleagues snicker and remind me of how it was a ‘bad’ word.
The woman who shut me down did it as I was speaking at a panel at the Second Women Journalists Convention at the Karachi Press Club last Friday. It was humiliating for me, someone for whom public speaking doesn’t come easy. She cut me off and announced that it was time to wrap up the session and have lunch.
The convention had a morning and afternoon session. I was there for the first one and my job was to provide a summation at the end.
The night before I sat down and used Lexis Nexis and JSTOR and other academic search engines to try and get a grip on any feminist/critical/cultural theory that I could possibly use. There was no work I could immediately find. The papers on women journalists in the Western media were only helpful for certain elements, but I’m always cautious when drawing on theory from the ‘West’ or ‘North’ as we should call it (according to postcolonial theorists).
Orientalism and a fetishisation of the people in the East is a minefield I could only cross if I were armed with more recent theory. It has been seven years since I wrote my thesis on Pakistani women writers at the University of Melbourne and I assume there have been advancements in theory. Given that, I believe that a good point of departure is a combination of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’, Homi Bhabha’s work on nationalism, Said’s comment on Orientalism/Covering Islam. I cross these works with Jurgen Habermas’s theory of the public sphere as it applies to newspapers/the media and Michel Foucault’s theory of governmentality. I also keep at the back of my mind Louis Althusser’s theory of interpellation by way of ‘diving into the wreck’ as poet Adrienne Rich put it. And while I am not that conversant with linguistics via feminist interpretations, I am cautious when it comes to the element of language in the entire picture. And then, to top it all off I hold Camille Paglia’s ‘Sexual Personae’ as a bible to undercut any self-sympathetic weepy woman-as-victim tendencies. (For eg. there’s no point in always hysterically blaming men for the hierarchies in society. For eg. on the day of the convention, I counted to find that out of 31 bylines in one major newspaper, only 2 were women’s. It was the same ratio for two other major newspapers, including my own.)
Ok, the point of that paragraph was not to throw theory at anyone – I would just like to be transparent about my moorings and limitations. I believe that much of the noise you will hear from people in Pakistan – mainstream public discourse, analyst babble and industry pundit self-analysis – lacks in a properly thought-out, rigorous deconstruction of the interaction between media and the public, the impact, effect of it and the two-way flow, precipitated by social media.
There aren’t enough women journalists, especially reporters, out there in Pakistan. Their numbers are thin in tribal areas where militants and fighting both sides of the border. Given that, it is important to note that there are many powerhouses, such as Sherry Rehman, Rehana Hakim, etc. who have been editors of major publications.
But what I saw on Friday at a gathering which was meant to bring together women to talk about their ‘problems’ was a sorry excuse for self-promotion for older women who, for some reason or the other, seemed to want to position themselves in the limelight for one day.
The session opened with one journalist from the Urdu media recite Surah An-Nisa (The Women) from the Quran. She then went on to provide an explication. One of the surah’s messages is to tell the truth. And so, as I said while summing up, it was an apt choice for journalists in that sense. But in principle I disagreed with bringing in a Quranic verse because it pegged the practicality of the profession to religion. I need to remind myself, however, that if people want to use a Quranic verse to send across a message, then one has to be tolerant and accepting enough to give them the freedom of speech in that sense.
But then, next up was another female journalist, who, to my utter amazement, proceeded to sing a hymn (a naat). I did not understand what the relevance of that was aside from her getting a chance to show off her voice. And indeed she sang very sweetly. But I didn’t think that was appropriate for the forum. I certainly didn’t recite poetry when my turn came.
She then went on to tell the women in the audience that no woman can be harassed unless she allows it. This is when the hairs on my neck stood up. I could actually feel the roots heating up. Her argument is of the same ilk as ‘You’re asking for it if you’re raped’. I believe it is women like her who are completely and utterly unaware of the realities of newsrooms and male-female interaction in any workplace.
Let me give you an example. I was harassed at my office once upon a time when I was the only woman in an all-male newsroom of about 15. A young sub-editor came to work with me. I was his boss. But somewhere along the line, he developed some kind of emotions. He called me up one night, very late. I grew concerned, was there a problem, I asked him. He said, I want to go to bed with you. These were his exact words. I was speechless. Before I could say anything, he replied, ‘You don’t have to say anything, but if your answer is yes, then wear pink tomorrow.’
As he had called on my landline, there was no immediate way for me to track his number and call back. I decided to wait till the next day.
Let me make it clear that I was not overly friendly with the young man in question. I understand that sometimes you can give conflicting signals. I also understand that men in Pakistan can sometimes misinterpret certain clothing as ‘come-ons’. But I did not wear risqué clothes to the office and treated all the men there equally, and with respect.
The next day I was too frightened to go to work. My hands were clammy and my pulse was racing. There wasn’t even a single woman I could have talked to. And the one sympathetic friend I had, the newseditor, was in the head office in Lahore. I decided to stay quiet. In those days my boss, the bureau chief, was not entirely sympathetic to me. And because he was an older gentleman, I simply had no idea how I would be able to even broach the subject.
For a torturous afternoon I sat at my desk. The sub-editor came in and started his work. Everyone else came in and the reporters started filing. Then, out of the blue, the sub-editor said:
“Hey Mahim, there’s a photo on the wires of Benazir Bhutto. She’s wearing pink. Should we run it?”
Even as I write this my heart has started slamming against my ribcage. When I heard those words, I grew so frightened that I ran into the bureau chief’s room and told him what was going on.
I was lucky – and I know not many women are in newsrooms. The bureau chief said this behaviour was unacceptable and the sub-editor would be asked to leave. Fortunately, he had known me for a long time and knew that I wouldn’t like about something this serious. He called the sub-editor in after I left and asked him if it was true. Then he sent him packing. That bureau chief was an old Dawn man; he had been a star reporter at one of the oldest newspapers in the country. And that paper had a zero-tolerance policy for this sort of thing.
The perception that a woman cannot be harassed unless she allows it, is bullshit. You can be propositioned simply by virtue of the fact that you’re a female working in a newsroom – where in Pakistan you will always be outnumbered. You will be working with men from all kinds of backgrounds and beliefs.
Let me give you another example of a woman being harassed without her even ‘allowing’ it. There are two cases at least that I know of, of men making cell phone videos of women. In one case I heard that there was actual rape/assault involved and in the other it was a video of the girl’s derriere because she was wearing jeans.
Which brings me back to a ground reality. When men and women are working together, especially in a society where sex is taboo, there will be interstitial ruptures in the social fabric that will manifest themselves. It is foolish to believe that no sexual harassment will take place. In a city of 20 million people, Karachi, can you honestly tell me a woman isn’t being raped every hour, at least?
Which brings me back to the opening of this piece. I was cut off mid-sentence by a shrill woman, one of the organisers just as I started talking about covering a fire at a prostitution den. I reproduce the story below. You can find it at: http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2006\10\31\story_31-10-2006_pg12_1
Sex, lies and the house that Ali Gohar built
* All it took was a rumour of a Pathan girl at a prostitution den to attract a 2,500-strong mob ready to burn the house down in what police feared could have sparked ethnic riots across Karachi
By Abbas Naqvi and Mahim Maher
KARACHI: A mob of 2,500 incensed Bilal colony residents lunged at the door of the prostitution den. “Burn them alive,” they screamed as the eleven people inside the house, including four children and four teenagers, cowered and prayed for the police to do something.
Outside, 28-year-old TPO Korangi Sohail Zafar Chattha and his men desperately tried to negotiate with the fuming Pathans as the police called for backup. The men were insisting that one of their Pathan women from the neighbourhood had been taken into the prostitution den that they said was run by a Sindhi woman. The freshly appointed police officer had never dreamt that barely a month into his new assignment he would be facing ethnic violence of these proportions. “I’m willing to give you anything you want,” he pleaded. “I’ll pluck the stars from the sky, but please, just calm down.” If anyone died, he thought, there will be mayhem in Karachi. He knew who Bushra Zaidi was. Backup came in the form of 600 policemen from three other towns, hundreds of rounds of aerial firing and tear gas.
According to initial reports Daily Times received midnight on Sunday, the mob had gathered after someone saw a Pathan woman entering the house. However, the next day, a visit to the police station and the house revealed a very different picture. In fact, there had been no Pathan woman as the rumour suggested or a man who had taken a woman inside. According to our findings, the entire incident had been orchestrated for very different reasons.
The house in question is a double-story yellow building on the edge of a dried up and festering nullah in the predominantly Pathan Bilal Colony. Its ground floor appears to be built for shops as there were six rooms with six doors opening into the alleyway. A staircase from the side leads up to the residential quarters on the first floor. The house is enviably large by the standards of the area and is properly built on solid foundations, unlike the katcha slum dwellings around it. Just a stone’s throw away is the National Refinery.
The house is owned by a man named Ali Gohar who died four months ago. “If you ask any truck driver from Karachi to Khyber he will tell you that Ali Gohar ka Chakla is located in Korangi near the oil refinery,” said TPO Chattha.
Gohar’s teenage grandson Ali Reza told Daily Times at the TPO’s office that his grandfather died after gangrene developed in his leg from cancer and had to be amputated. Immediately after Gohar’s death, however, the Seraiki (not Sindhi) family left for Rajanpur, Punjab, where they hailed from. They only returned from the Punjab to sell their house this Eid. Thus, it appears that the prostitution business had ended with Gohar’s death and the house had been empty for four months.
However, according to Ali Reza, on Sunday night, three Pathan men from the area came to the house and demanded he release “their woman”. When he said he didn’t know what they were talking about and there was no Pathan woman inside, they beat him up so badly he fell unconscious. When he came to, a mob had set the house on fire and the police were trying to rescue the family from the rooftop.
The Korangi police later found out that Gohar’s prostitution den had been running in the area for ten years under police protection. The police have booked three police personnel Taous, Dawood and Arif under section 155 C of Police Ordinance 2002. They used to take an estimated Rs 20,000 per month as protection money, TPO Chattha said, but adding that he believed much more money had exchanged hands over the years.
The police believe that some people, who wanted possession of the house, spread the rumour of the Pathan girl, incited the mob and created a law and order situation in order to run the family out of the area. Ironically, however, the TPO has decided to make the house a police post for two weeks. By Monday, the police colours of red and blue were painted over the ground floor.
On Monday night, the Korangi police told the family to move to another place as their old house was not an option any more. As the family was rescued from the burning house the women did not have time to get their dupattas and the children their shoes and shirts. The family wanted to return to collect their belongings but the police said that it had all been burnt. The arrested police officers were ordered to fork over whatever cash they had to the family for a meal and slippers for the children. The red-faced and reluctant cops, who made thousands off the family, claimed they had barely a few hundred in their pockets which they took out and threw at the women and children. The next day an uneasy calm settled in the area, but this is an incident few, including the police, are likely to forget. The madness of Sunday night is a reminder of how vicious disputes for land and housing can turn and what lengths people will go to just for a house.
(The officer in this story then went on a year later to receive the president’s award for bravery)
I’m not sure if the organiser tried to cut me off for mentioning the ‘chakla’ word. But if she had allowed me to continue with my sentence, she would have found out that after I used ‘sex’ in the headline, some gossipy men at the press club had used that to comment on how I was ‘desperate to get laid’.
I wanted to use this anecdote to tell the audience of women sitting there that you will be faced with the question mark over your reputation if you become a female journalist. If you slightly deviate from certain norms, you are most likely to get some kind of
unpleasant reaction. I say ‘most likely’. There are no absolutes here.
I told the women, when I started speaking, that I do not have a reputation any longer. The shrill woman stood up at that point and asked, ‘What do you mean you have no reputation?! There is a difference between reputation and character. Which ones are you talking about.’
When I had started to talk about reputation I had wanted to reach out to the women in the audience who seemed to come from conservative backgrounds. Many of them were wearing the hijab, which either covered their entire head or even their face. I had wanted to talk about covering rape – which many people won’t touch with a bargepole because the police and authorities and men in the newsroom get upset when you ask too many questions. I’ve seen this happen time and again. We sometimes put our ‘reputations’ at risk when we even mention the sex word.
I also just simply wanted to have a frank discussion on how the women felt and if, at all, certain fears were preventing them from actually doing the kind of reporting that they wanted to do. It is entirely possible I’m completely wrong – but then I would have liked to have been corrected.
It was terribly funny when the microphone went dead the minute I mentioned rape. And while it came back on, I suspected (and I could be wrong) that the women in the audience and the organisers perhaps didn’t want me to discuss sexual politics at the Karachi Press Club. I suspect that’s why she cut me off. And then maybe it was just really lunch time. But then, I ask, couldn’t she have let me finish.
If I had been allowed to finish, I would have completed saying that when men and women work in close proximity, day in and day out, attractions develop and lines get blurry. This happens all the more in a society where sex and dating is taboo and yet women are thrust in the public sphere – out of the protection of their homes. Things they say will be misinterpreted. They will misinterpret things men say. Things get messy. Biology is always at hand, threatening to undercut our meticulously laid down social rules.
Chthonian forces are always swirling underneath the surface. Let’s just be honest about it and equip our women on how to negotiate these murky waters.
And so, yes, I do not have a reputation. I don’t care for a reputation. My purity and chastity and virginity etc. will always be up for speculation by curious men. But once I call it, no one can say anything.
I wasn’t there for the second session but in the story that our reporter filed, a minister made a speech. She said, if women can undergo labour pain, they can go to any pains to do their job. Even this statement made me queasy because it was premised on
biology. But what came next was the real show-stopper. The minister said: There is sexual harassment all over the world and in all societies, but we [in Pakistan] just highlight it because we want to get [NGO] funding.
October 11, 2011 | 4:27 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
I’ve got to hand it to the Alfred Friendly fellowship folks who work with the Daniel Pearl Foundation to train journalists. They picked what was possibly the farthest, most remote location in Karachi for their training sessions on working in a conflict zone: a country/golf club nearly two hours from the city. And when I arrived there on Monday for one of the panel discussions I asked why this choice of location. The reasoning was simple; they wanted the participants, 15 journalists from Quetta to Peshawar, to concentrate on the work at hand. I chuckled to myself because it was a wise decision. If we were in the city the group would have been distracted by their friends and family. Sometimes house arrest is a good thing.
And as I looked around the room I felt that this seemingly “strict” decision was a good one also because the young journalists should have a sense of the magnitude of the opportunity they are being given. One of the trainees will be selected as a 2012 Daniel Pearl Fellow and will spend six months in the U.S. reporting for an American news organisation. Previous fellows, such as Shahid Shah who came with me, got a chance to work and learn at the prestigious Wall Street Journal.
In Pakistan journalists who live in conflict zones (which is perhaps the entire country) struggle every day – often blindly – simply because there is no good school of journalism that will equip them to do their job. I often admit that even though I’ve been running a desk for a long time, even I don’t have the kind of training I would like to be able to manage a team and deal with the rapidly changing newscape in Pakistan. For example, I was at the spot during the Sheraton bomb blast in 2002 but had no idea how to even begin processing it. Since then there have been scores of terrorist attacks but each time I feel I’m still stabbing in the dark. Sometimes I wonder if we just learn on the job and it gets better with time. I look at the crime reporters around me and feel that they are a good example. But then, sometimes I stop and wonder if we’re really covering terrorism properly and telling people’s stories properly.
What doesn’t make it easy is that – since 9/11 – the escalation of crime, violence and terrorist attacks and the nature of this phenomenon has kept rapidly morphing. I was speaking to the chief of Karachi’s police in August and asked him if he agreed with the observation that the nature of crime in Karachi has changed. He said he did.
Which is why the training must continue and I’m grateful to organisations such as the Pakistan Press Foundation, the Alfred Friendly people and a host of other groups that keep working with young journalists in Pakistan. On Monday I was supposed to talk about working in conflict zones, but I was at a loss because I know that there is probably nothing I have to offer a reporter who has been working in North Waziristan’s Miranshah. The Taliban in Karachi are quite different from the Taliban in Swat, I sometimes joke. So in order to prep, I called up Akhtar Soomro, who is hands down, Pakistan’s greatest photographer. He has worked with The New York Times and is now with Reuters. He was picked up twice – once in Quetta and once in Mohmand agency – while working on stories, and I felt that he was one of the best people to perhaps comment on these working conditions and how media workers can keep safe.
Soomro said he had been given hostile environment training when he joined Reuters. And the idea is to assess risk while going out for a story. There are certain limits you should not cross if they put your life at risk and you need to know what those limits are. He told me that at Reuters the photo-editors and travel desk will not allow photographers to put their lives at risk for one shot. They are told to return to the office. There are obviously stringent guidelines and detailed instructions on the categories of risk.
I asked Soomro about fixers and stringers who could or who promise to put you in touch with a ‘terrorist’ organization. Often because reporters are not from a certain area, they need someone to hook them up. I was interested in this question because recently one of the reporters on our team had lined up an interview with a mafia gangster who was behind bars. I was afraid because I didn’t know if the people who were promising to take him to a safe place to talk to the gangster over the phone could be trusted.
Soomro’s answer was that if you have a fixer who is taking hours to line you up with the army spokesperson, the local political figure, the terrorist group, and seems to be asking around himself, then he probably isn’t very good. You can tell if someone is as green to the area as you are. A good fixer is also someone who has contacts in the lower and upper ranks of a group.
One of the trainers, a brilliant Masud Alam, who’s been with the BBC and is an Alfred Friendly fellow, was great fun to watch. He trashed the reporters when they cribbed about sources and how they had to use “sources” all the time because officials wouldn’t give comment on the record. He reminded me that this works against government or agent accountability. “Run it as sources,” is what some people say to you when you ask for comment. Masud reminded us that no one should tell journos how to do their job. “Do you tell the soldier how to use a gun,” he asked. “We then he shouldn’t tell you how to do your job either.”
Some of the reporters, from Swat, where the army went in against the Taliban, complained that if they gave the person’s name they would lose a source. They said that the ISPR guys, the army spokesmen, insisted that we used “sources” for information they were giving. But Masud, who’s been around, pointed out that no ISPR person would do that. Technically if they, as the spokespeople, are giving information, it’s actually on the record. “This sources business is a sickness we’ve contracted,” Masud quipped. “Can you imagine that reporters say, ‘Sources said that the Eid moon has been sighted’.”
And I agreed with him. I mean, jeez, they’re not giving us nuclear secrets.
In the end, I felt that our reporters had simply not been shown how to be brave when it comes to these kinds of people who want to suppress information. It is tricky because there is a limit to how ‘brave’ you can be in a hostile environment – but many of our reporters simply don’t know what they actually have a right to do in order to do their job properly.
I was speaking to one of the participants, Shehzad Baloch, who is from Quetta. He told me how only reporters from outside could parachute in and safely report because the ones who lived there could get hauled off. Places outside Quetta are virtual no-go zones. He is a young fella and ideally placed to actually do some really good work, but somehow we have to equip editors and reporters with the strength to write against injustice, cover-ups, terrorist organisations.
September 14, 2011 | 2:47 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
I’m listening to Adele’s ‘Set fire to the rain’ these days and leaving the radio on all night long in an attempt to latch on to any sort of different sensory input in the hope that it will compete with and eclipse the anxiety-riddled tickertape running through my head. I’m seeing my psychologist twice a week, my irritable bowel syndrome has flared up and I’m ready to punch the National desk in the face if they keep taking stories to discard them later on. To make matters worse I just learnt that the True Blood episode 12 I just watched was the last for the season. For now, it will be back to Chris Noth in the Law and Order episodes from the 1980s.
Thus, television and music barely provide a respite from the grinding realities of this life, this job, this city. The narrative of my life runs like a thread through the very similar coloured narrative of my country. Everything is falling apart. And the macro-script unfolding at the national level just keeps looking more and more like a surreal Quentin Tarantino film, replete with the gratuitous anatomical dismemberment and subverted characters masquerading as normal.
One example. In a bizarre directive, the president has called for a collective prayer today to help my province of Sindh, which has been buried by monsoon rains. Just last year we were swept away by floods in the worst natural disaster since the great earthquake. Millions of children and women have been displaced again. It is as if Nature is exacting some kind of sick revenge on us. As usual, the government was caught with its pants down. We are beyond prayer.
Karachi is flooded as well. It’s been raining for days and making it to and from work has become an azaab (or nightmare) as we say in Urdu. Because the fancy army-run defence housing society and city government can’t get their act together, the roads are potholed, rutted through and crumbling. Six decades of existence and we still haven’t figured out how to build a road.
A steel magnate who bought a house in my neighbourhood had it renovated but forgot to remove all the construction material and sand the workers dumped at the back of the house. Now that it’s rained this mound of his ex-house turned to sludge and spread all over the road I take to reach my gate. When they had initially started dumping the ripped-out toilets and discarded brickwork in an empty plot near my house I had gone to complain and ask them to have it removed. I got told that this man was a real close buddy of the president. In Pakistan that is what we understand is a “shut-up call”.
My neighbourhood has still been spared any actual devastation this monsoon. Go to inner city Karachi and you’ll see water – mucky grey water that is slick and slimy, something straight out of Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.
The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.
About, about, in reel and rout
The death-fires danced at night;
The water, like a witch’s oils,
Burnt green, and blue, and white.
The problem, says the man temporarily running Karachi, is that people have built over our stormwater drains, 70% of which have been reduced to one-fifth of their actual size. My question is, did the city government not know that the rains were coming? Could they not have prepared? Why am I talking to myself again?
The irony is that when it comes to Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city and economic engine, the political parties fight over it like cats and dogs. Their new thing is the marathon press conference, that runs so long that my reporters’ phone batteries die and we worry if we’ll make it press in time.
When it comes to the turf war in Karachi we’ve got rockets and grenades, mortar and TT pistols. It got so bad this summer that the Supreme Court was forced to take suo motu notice and start hearings on the violence which has claimed 300 lives. If you’ve watched ‘In the Name of the Father’ or any IRA film you’ll know what they can do with electric drills. Decapitated bodies were dumped all over the city in potato sacks. Karachi is the world’s most dangerous city – and not because of the Taliban or militants but because of the political parties that all want a piece of it, whether it is extortion money or land grabbing. Or votebanks.
Let me give you one example of how bad things are: the two major political parties cannot even agree on a system to run the damn city. General Musharraf, who came to power in a bloodless coup, imposed a system of local government. When Benazir Bhutto’s party, the PPP, swept to power in 2008, shortly after her assassination in 2007, they tried to bring back a system of commissioners inherited from the British. In the end, it’s 2011 and we still don’t know if we want a mayor or a commissioner.
In the beginning I was really excited about writing this blog. But then I realized that I keep putting it off each week – not just out of sheer exhaustion – but because I really have nothing nice to say about where I live. I’m a perpetually depressed journalist in the world’s most violent city. Suddenly True Blood’s true death and Sookie Stackhouse’s decision to walk away from Bill and Eric is starting to make a lot of sense.
August 1, 2011 | 2:41 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
A new product has hit the Pakistani market – Hijab shampoo. It’s meant for women who cover their heads tightly in hijab that leaves their faces exposed. The hijab is not like, say the Afghan shuttlecock burqa, which covers a woman from head to toe.
I think this product is brilliant because it caters to a large part of the urban (only urban) population in Pakistan. In the last ten years or so I’ve seen more and more women adopt the headgear, burqa and abaya, which are used in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, Saudi Arabia. The abaya is more of a full-length, mostly black coat-like ensemble. In some countries women wear the niqab as well, which sections off the face from the eyes down.
The people who are marketing the new hijab shampoo are capitalizing on what say that is the excess production of oils, build-up of scalp dirt etc.
All my life I’ve seen Muslim women – whether in London, Montreal or Pakistan – labour under these garments. And I’ve often wondered how the hell they manage to pull it off, especially in the Pakistani heat.
I myself do not even wear a dupatta, the long scarf that you’re supposed to cross like a V over your chest in an attempt to distract menfolk from your rack. I find the swathes of cloth distracting when I’m busy in the newsroom. I try, instead to wear clothes that keep me covered in all the right places. Gone are my days of mini-shirt glory in Montreal winters.
I would like to think that I am tolerant enough to not comment on women who make the choice of covering up a certain way. Indeed, in Karachi, especially if you are coming from certain neighbourhoods, taking public transport or taxis, you need to adhere to this code for simple protection (even if it is not your religious belief). Wearing a full-length black abaya sends a message across to men on the street.
But I feel conflicted about the women who may be forced to make this choice by their families. I feel sad when I see little girls, who have not hit puberty, wearing the hijab. They’re barely high as your knee and yet they’re being trained to cover up. I wonder about the invisible interpellation, the enforcement of social codes that are unspoken but become entrenched.
But more so, a gynaecologist recently told me that a lot of these women who were coming to her clinic for obgyn consults were turning out to be massively deficient in Vitamin D. These hijabis, she said, aren’t getting enough sunlight. They are covered up the entire time they go out and when they aren’t covered they are indoors where they don’t get sun. This leads to migraines, bone trouble, and aches and pains that they keep popping pills for.
Interestingly, the boys in Karachi say that it is the girls who wear the hijab and abayas who are most likely to “put out”. I’ve often wondered if they are aware that it seems a little bit like a double standard if they cake their faces with makeup but decide to cover their heads. Isn’t the purpose of the hijab modesty? In fact, in Islam, as far as I know, the principle is that men and women should lower their eyes and behave modestly. When driving home, down Sunset Boulevard, I often see the sex workers in a full burqa standing in the shadows, waiting to be picked up. A reporter told me that the way to tell is if they are standing at an odd spot where there is no bus stop or taxi stand.
And so I wonder, I wonder about a product that is full of chemicals that some company is peddling to women who are developing a condition from wearing what some scientists would call an “unnatural” shield to sunlight and air. My grandmother has always worn a dupatta all her life. But the large cloth is loosely wrapped from her shoulders to her head, leaving just enough for fresh air to circulate as it were. It covers the same amount of flesh.
One of our sub-editors commented on the segregation of men and women the other day. At a special celebratory gathering at her house, I believe after her parents had performed the Hajj or Umra pilgrimages to Mecca, they had invited a senior cleric and scholar. When her father invited him up to say a few words, the gentleman said to the guests that while he did not in principle attend mixed gatherings he agreed this time to honour an old friend. He recited the prayer and stepped down. The sub-editor’s father then came forward and remarked to the gathering that as far as he knew, one of the biggest mixed gatherings that takes place in the entire world is the Hajj. Men and women walk together in the House of God, the Ka’abah and it is strictly laid down that the women’s faces must be uncovered. Makes you wonder if we have had it wrong all along.
July 9, 2011 | 6:39 pm
Posted by Mahim Maher
“Do you sometimes feel someone is there,” the woman asks me. Her name is Asma Begum. She does full Ninja-turtle style hijab, smells of incense and the tips of her fingernails are just growing out henna from three weeks ago. She is lower-middle class or middle-lower, I can’t decide. After all, she must be taking money from an aunt in whose swanky clinic I was forced to do this “consultation” – even if it is spiritual.
“Do you sometimes sense that someone or something is in the room with you,” she presses on.
Up till this point I had been an amused sceptic. But this question of hers makes my blood run cold.
I have a habit of staying up late at night. I emerge from the newsroom at about midnight. By the time I get home, eat dinner and finish watching two back-to-back episodes of Law and Order Season 1 (from the 1980s), it is already about 2am. Then, when I still can’t sleep I start reading. These days it’s the Bund Manual for irrigation engineers, a kind gentleman sent all the way from Larkano. The floods last year were one of the worst disasters Pakistan has seen. I’ve been working with reporters on a series of articles on embankments or levees or dykes. And for the life of me have no idea what stone pitching, sluices and aprons entail. Thus the late-night reading. I’m boring like that.
But as I read – and I’ve been noticing this for the last six months or so – I’ve been seeing things from the corner of my eye. All this time I had been dismissing it as a cockroach scurry past, or a lizard. Sometimes it’s the swish of the muslin curtain or the flutter of a book cover because of the fan rotating ahead.
I had a feeling I was ignoring something. As a Muslim, as non-practising but believing as they come – I firmly acknowledge the presence of djinns in our lives on this earth. During my worst phase of skepticism, I still held that there are phenomena that we do not understand in this world. Energies are invisible. Just because we don’t see them… you catch my drift.
And while I know that the all of two people who read this blog (who happen to be my enemies with mistake-seeking missiles up their sleeves) believe that I just mention Jewish stuff because it’s for the Jewish Journal, it is actually true that I have been quite influenced by certain aspects of its “culture”. So when Herky Halpert told me in Montreal years ago that it was not kosher to say the name of God (YWH), I believed him when he explained that it was because of how powerful the word is. While I may have misunderstood his explanation, and have not independently verified it from a rabbi as such, I did at the time and have since then believed this element of what I perceived to be Jewish faith. I figured that the sonic energies of that particular combination could be supremely powerful. It had an energy – unseen – that could do things beyond my ken.
This was not too far from what I had been taught about Islam. After all, we recite the 99 names of Allah, verses and prayers to various ends. If you recite Surah Falaq, you are protected from evil. The same goes for Surah Nas. The sound, the sonic energy must matter here at some level.
Thus, the unseen, the Golem, the djinn, and other bits and pieces of folklore, religion, grandmother’s tales were all embedded in me. (To add for good measure I had the Russian Baba Yga who had a house that spun on chicken feet in the forest).
Coming back to Asma Begum. When she asked me this question, I froze. What if some djinn were in my room, around me? I had been reading a book on the history of these forms. It was in my room. Was it attracting something from the toilet? Apparently they hide in sewers.
I did not answer Asma Begum. But she had seen my face.
Let me explain why I was having a “consultation” with her in the first place.
My family believes that there is some curse as a result of which I have not gotten married yet. Yes. Deep down, there is a fear that someone has done black magic on me. I’m 34 years old and well, chronically unmarried. It’s abnormal. Forget the fact that I have a robust newsroom career and became the youngest ever female city editor in the country (at least from what I have been told).
Asma Begum is a special kind of woman. She has managed to make friends in high places. Bored housewives in the upscale Defence neighbourhood have her come over and dispel the magic or remove the evil eye.
“I know the D___s,” she told me while referring to a family I happen to know. “I never take money from them, from anyone. I just do what God has gifted me with.”
Right. And I’m from Riga and sell Matryoushka dolls for a living.
A worried aunt (who is a doctor) had met Asma Begum whose talent is to close her eyes and see the future. She told this aunt that there was some “rukawat” or “deliberate” obstacle in me getting married. As I did not want to offend my aunt for going the extra length to ensure I get married (sic) I was forced to see Asma Begum.
She started off with giving me a spiel about her special talent, naturally bestowed by God. What she didn’t realize was that I was a journalist.
“Where do you live,” I asked.
She first responded by saying far away, but didn’t realize that I had trawled most parts of Karachi. Liaquatabad was just a hop skip and a jump away from Teen Hatti and Gurumandir, Martin Quarters, where I had spent a fair bit of time.
I kept asking questions and it surfaced that she was from the Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat (“People of the traditions of Prophet Muhammad [pbuh] and the broad community”). This is the Barelvi school of thought (as opposed to the reformist Deobandi). But I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that I baulk from any kind of differentiation in Islam these days. I am not impressed by any “sect” that says they have it right and the others will go to hell.
As far as this belief goes, I will sit and listen to anyone from any sect or religion or belief as long as they make sense to me. I’ll mull over what they’ve offered. But I still have my beliefs which develop because I think that Islam, even if you’re born in to it, is a lifelong journey of discovery.
I asked Asma Begum about the black magic. She said that she had seen something like this. She had also predicted that one of my sisters would get married at X time and the other at Y time etc. etc. She does this thing by closing her eyes and covering them with her palm as if to shield herself from sunlight.
She then makes pronouncements.
The cure, she went on to tell me, was that we’d have to remove the evil eye from me. She took a spool of blue thread from her purse and asked me to stand up. She then measured one length of it from the top of my forehead to the tips of my toes. This was then multiplied 11 times. This skein was then held out and 11 knots had to be tied from its length. But before she closed each loop of each knot, I had to breathe Surah Falaq through it. I obliged.
After this was done, I offered to drive her home. The clinic is located in the upscale neighbourhood I mentioned. When I told my aunt that I was going to drop Asma Begum home, she retorted that there was absolutely no need to traipse halfway across the city. It wasn’t safe.
Well, obviously, I had to then.
When I dropped Asma Begum home, I met her husband who was a Hari Pagri wallah (as street slang goes). The ASWJ followers have a uniform – white shalvar kameez and a green turban. People stared at me in the neighbourhood. 1. I was a woman driving a car and 2. I wasn’t wearing a dupatta scarf across my chest (which she lectured me on all the way there).
Back at the office, I first went to fulfill her instructions to burn the knotted thread. All the subeditors stood around to watch, snickering.
But it wouldn’t burn.
I’d light it up and it would die out, just blackening the thread.
That’s when the laughter died out and they scurried back to their desks.
It took me 20 tries. And even then, it was a bad burning. My heart sank. I was definitely cursed. Someone did point out, however, that perhaps the thread had some kind of coating or had been soaked in something to delay the burning.
After work, after I had my dinner and lay in bed, I started thinking. About the entire episode. About everything I believed and what this encounter had meant.
And then it hit me.
As children we are told the Islamic story of how black magic was done on the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Someone had tied knots and hidden them in a well. I forget what material it was. Apparently the magic was extremely strong. But then Allah revealed the verses. And the knots started to come undone as they were read. From that day on, all Muslims are taught that all you need to counter black magic is Surah Falaq, Surah Nas and the Ayat-al Kursi among others.
In the Indian sub-continent, however, as we are essentially (going way back) a brown people who were Hindus and other assortments and converted, and continued to live among people of other beliefs, certain cultural practises, beliefs and superstitions never quite went away.
Thus, we try to break black magic with more black magic. Even though all you really need to do is recite some specific surahs straight from the Quran.
When I recalled the knot episode from the Prophet’s (pbuh) life, I grew perplexed. That was an undoing of knots. Why the hell did Asma Begum make me MAKE knots. Then I started to grow paranoid. Had I unwittingly participated in the black magicking of myself?
Then I really started thinking. I went back, back into my mind. All the tales my grandmother told me came floating back. She had once seen someone rise from the dead. There was a good djinn who used to pray on the rooftop of their old house.
But then I remembered one thing that I had read clearly in the Quran. We are not supposed to try and predict the future. Horoscopes and tarot cards, soothsayers and astrology for these purposes are not kosher. Palm reading, the dark arts. Er… widgee boards. You cannot divine things from the stars.
So how could Asma Begum purport to tell my future? [On a side note, I should mention an older man I know who told me once that when he was young he used to read Tahajjud - which is regular prayers you say in the middle of the night out of love for God. The idea is to give up sleep for Allah. He did it regularly for 11 years and then he says he started to see things. One night he saw his best friend in a car crash, and it happened the next day. So I believe that - like all the things we do not understand - some people are closer to God than others] But perhaps it is what they do with that, that matters.]
While the Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat affiliation bothered me at some level, I wasn’t going to hold it against her. Until, while driving back, I passed the Old Sabzi Mandi to get through to a shortcut to work. I passed the Faizan-e-Madina or the Dawat-e-Islami headquarters where the ASWJ people congregate. In 2006 there was a stampede in the building and nearly 20 women died (I think). They had gathered for a large event and all the women were in the basement. Someone yelled bomb! and all these women and children panicked. We had covered it when I was running the Daily Times city section. The men in the green turbans didn’t let the rescue teams get to the women because they were na-mehram or not meant to be touched or seen by men outside the family. This was an organization that couldn’t make proper exit/escape routes in the building by following established worldwide codes for safety.
The tricky thing about religion is that you can start feeling superior real fast – as if your reasoning and beliefs, your interpretation of the Quran is the better one. I took a step back from the hubris. To Asma Begum her religion, to me mine.
June 17, 2011 | 4:00 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
It has been an unusual week in Karachi. Three things have happened, which I’m almost tempted to define as change. It feels like an imperceptible shift in the way things are done in Pakistan.
The first case: The murder of a journalist
A Pakistani journalist called Saleem Shahzad was killed for the work he was doing. Our spy agency, the ISI, has come under fire for this killing. The criticism is severe. Opinion pieces have appeared across the media and in talk shows but one of the strongest ones was Ejaz Haider’s open letter to ISI chief General Pasha.
It talks about how there is no accountability for the ISI: “And what has the agency you head done so far [in the Saleem Shahzad murder case]? Nothing, beyond getting an unnamed official to say that while the “unfortunate and tragic death of Syed Saleem Shahzad is a source of concern for the entire nation”, “the incident should not be used to target and malign the country’s security agencies”. Well, sir, to me this is totally unacceptable. What makes the security agencies exempt from criticism or accountability, especially if they are considered enemies by the very people they are supposed to protect?”
There has been mounting criticism for years on the ISI’s support for radicals and militants. The blowback is hitting our cities, especially Karachi where I face a daily onslaught of unsolved terrorist hits. I hope that somehow our policymakers and government are able to see that this cannot continue. No matter what the US wants.
The second case: A budget discussion
The second happening that made me consider for a split second that perhaps a new thinking is emerging, or a new kind of fearlessness is emerging was closer to my turf. We’ve just emerged from budget season. In my state’s (province) legislative house, the Sindh Assembly, elected representatives opened a discussion on the budget for 2011-2012. In all the 10 years of editing Sindh Assembly budget discussions, never have I (as far as I can remember) come across such apt criticism: An MPA from the ruling PPP stood up and asked how come the socio-economic lives of people in Sindh had not changed for years even though each time the government announces a “people-friendly” budget?
I wanted to cheer MPA Dr Sikander Mendhro (who is generally a well-respected and educated politician). He had hit the nail on the head. While what he said was not new insofar as the word on the street is concerned, what was new is that he had articulated it in the house of lawmakers. That was a first.
He also pointed out that even though we give more and more money to development schemes, 40% of them are embezzled by corrupt officials. If you ever travel to rural Sindh – to the villages outside, say Sukkur – you will wonder where the hell the hospitals, clinics and schools are. Where has the money been going all these years?
The third case: An extrajudicial killing
The third thing that happened to make me believe that something was changing was the extrajudicial killing of a young man in a park where a paramilitary force was on patrol. Violence in Karachi means that our understaffed police need a helping hand. The Rangers were on duty and one of them shot a young man they thought was mugging people in the park. The Supreme Court took notice of the killing, whose gruesome video surfaced. The chiefs of police and the Rangers were removed from their posts. Justice may not have been entirely served for the families but for the first time ever, as far as I can remember, heads rolled.
The fact that there were three instances of candid calls for accountability, including one that went through, made me believe that if just kept pushing – civil society, the media, the courts – then somehow it would stick. Are we finally reining in the institutions that should serve the people? We may be a long way away from the kind of oversight that you see in other countries, but I’m glad that this week something changed, finally.