Posted by Mahim Maher
God can seem distant, inaccessible at times. In Pakistan, however, there are more tangible intermediaries to beg for intercession. They are the mystic Sufi saints – the face of a more affectionate Islam that preaches love and peace, uses music as a vehicle for remembrance of Allah. And no one hates this culture more than the puritans of Islam, the Deobandis. For them it is all Day of Judgment, fire and brimstone, sin and punishment, errant human nature, hijab and burka, shame and groveling.
Just a few days ago, on Oct 7, a Sufi shrine in Karachi was attacked by two bomb blasts. The investigators are not clear if they were twin suicide bombers. Two heads have been found but only one striker sleeve, which is the pin used by a suicide bomber to detonate his jacket. They think one bomb was planted because the ball bearings packed in it were not found with human flesh as is usually the case. Not much explosive was used and the damage was mercifully muted. Only 10 people are dead, a miracle given the fact that people throng the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi on Thursday nights each week. Thousands come to pray for help, get a free meal from the numerous charities that work there, seek solace from the grind of daily life.
In July Lahore’s world famous Data Darbar shrine was also attacked with bombs. This kind of terrorism disgusts Pakistanis, a majority of who subscribe to a more mystical Islam. Shrines and their saints are revered – even if you are not religious – for the culture they have given the Indian subcontinent. According to legend, Shah Ghazi was approached by fishermen who asked him to tame the wild Arabian Sea. And uncannily enough, Karachi has been protected for centuries from cyclones and Tsunamis. They always pass by at the last minute. We were on high alert for cyclone Phet recently, but it passed by. People mused that Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s hand was at work.
In Pakistan we tend to focus on the West, or the US etc. etc. But something we don’t talk about much is that the suicide attacks are carried out by men who call themselves Muslims. These men target public places such as Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s shrine where other Muslims are killed. It is simple Muslim killing Muslim action. It isn’t the great white Infidel.
I suspect, however, that something more is afoot here in this case. And it worries me. The timing of the shrine attack was strange. It happened a day after a big-shot Deoband (read orthodox) cleric was murdered in a drive-by shooting. This cleric was prayer leader at a mosque that the Deobandis and Barelvis had been fighting over for a while. The Deobandis do not get along with the mystic-loving Barelvis. A Barelvi leader is buried at the shrine as well. Was this retaliation? It seemed like a hastily thrown-together job, said some investigators. They didn’t use a large amount of explosives.
If, and only if, this theory is proven by investigators, I fear we could be looking at a sinister trend: groups in Karachi settling scores not just with gunfights but bomb blasts.
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. . .
September 4, 2010 | 2:30 pm
Posted by Mahim Maher
I get really angry that many of the people I studied with at school and college are now living in America. They are doctors and bankers, engineers and teachers. It’s a sweet sweet life, isn’t it? Even I’d like to have a small coffee shop around the corner, a secondhand bookstore that carries Agha Shahid Ali, a department store that sells proper underwear. What makes me angrier is that I live in Pakistan. And I’m not sure if it was a choice I made or one that never was.
I’m angry that all those Pakistanis, the rich 1% of privileged people, whose parents could afford to send them to college, aren’t back here to help rebuild our utterly devastated country. I’m angry with the brain drain. I’m furious it makes me angry.
For the most part, after all the briefings and personal tour of Sukkur and its surroundings, I have to say that it seems that the government did what it could given that land the size of England was inundated. Today, Sept 4, my state said that its losses in the flooding come to about Rs466 billion (which if I am not wrong is about $5.4b). While people are still evacuating flooded areas, the government is slowly rolling up its sleeves for rehabilitation. It’s going to cover all expenses of the people living in the camps for the next four months and then when people return home, it’s going to help them for a month after. Part of this plan includes providing them seeds and fertilizer so they can get back to work.
There are a few cities in Pakistan that are proper cities; the rest is mostly rural and underdeveloped. We never really had enough schools or hospitals in the countryside and after the flooding it is safe to say that the ones that did exist have probably crumbled.
The villages of Pakistan have been at the mercy of fat landlords for centuries in a feudal system that held them in its vice-like grip. It worked to their advantage to keep the farmers and their children illiterate so they wouldn’t leave the land. The small towns did not fare much better simply because the inefficient, unqualified bureaucracy was corrupt to the teeth. None of the young men and women I went to school with have, for example, joined the Karachi police force or government. This is not entirely their fault. No one wants to work in government because the rot extends all the way up. The educated young people mostly work in the private sector. As a result, we simply don’t have educated people running the show.
(As with most cases, I should add, that there are exceptions to the rule. I do know of a few talented bureaucrats and wise politicians who have PhDs, years of experience and are honest. But they are far and few between.)
I’m glad, however, that at least on the surface, the government is trying to ensure a measure of transparency in the management of the aid it has received. In Sindh, according to a member of the ruling PPP, Taj Haider, they have registered 90% of the people who flooded the camps. There are about 3,000 relief camps across the province. The authority that issues our equivalent of the social security card, has been at work. These cards are going to help ensure that the displaced families get the aid promised by the government. For now, Sindh has said that it will give each registered family Rs25,000 ($290). It’s having a problem with unregistered people who fled to their relatives, but the solution is to make a Rs5,000 payment and the rest upon their return to their village. This money won’t help them rebuild their houses but hopefully it will tide them over.
My question is how will the government rebuild our infrastructure network? It was abysmal to begin with. In fact in Karachi, I get irritated each day when I drive to work because my old car can’t take the potholes and uneven surfaces. There is so much corruption that for a one-million-rupee road, usually only Rs300,000 is spent – the rest disappears under the table. If this has been the case for years, it is highly unlikely that money allocated for roads and other infrastructure will be properly used.
I visited Shikarpur city when I was in upper Sindh to cover the flooding two weeks ago. This city used to be on the diamond route to Kabul. The Hindus built beautiful houses with lattice-work balconies, many of which are on their last leg but still standing. A friend told me that they once found a pot full of Tsarist notes (I think he meant Roubles) in the bottom of their back yard. This was a city where the roads were washed down once a day. But today, it’s a train wreck. There wasn’t a single proper road. We just bumped along ruts in the ground. Garbage wasn’t collected. Opens sewers ran by the street. What the hell was its mayor doing for the last five years? When I asked why he hadn’t fixed the city, my friend laughed. “He just drives around in his Lexus in Karachi,” he said. “These landlords don’t invest in their hometowns, they just live it up in Karachi.”
August 23, 2010 | 4:16 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
My cousin Musheer picks me up from the Sukkur airport. On the drive home we pass a tent camp under the moonlight. These days I cannot hear or think the word ‘camp’ without simultaneous echoes of ‘concentration’, ‘ghetto’, ‘misery’, ‘disease’ and ‘death’ in my head. The triangle tops, painted with dollops of white from the moon, remind me of WWII movies.
Sukkur is a very old city in upper Sindh province and because it is the largest in the region, most of the villagers who fled the waters headed here. My aunt closes the door to my room, saying that the flies will come in if I’m not careful. Indeed, as I discover while going around to several settlements the next day, flies are everywhere. In my state, only Karachi city has received attention over the years, the other cities have been left, like orphans to slowly sink into a decades-drawn out decline. There are no garbage collectors at work, raw sewage, the colour of disease, slops its way down pencil-sized open drains outside houses.
It is this criminal neglect of the poorer, rural parts of the province that has meant these cities and their government machinery have been unable to cope with the disaster. I understand if for a city like Karachi with 20 million people, you cannot completely manage civic services. But for Sukkur, a smaller place, what the hell have they been doing all this time? I find out a distant relative, Arib Mahar, was the mayor of Shikarpur, a city next door. When I visit it with a local landlord, I am stunned at the state of the God-forsaken place. There isn’t a single road, everything is ramshackle, storefronts are peeling off, the entire city is slowly crumbling. Everything is brown. No other colour exists in this part of the world.
There are about three ways the displaced people manage now. Some of them have headed to the homes of relatives in the city. These people are not being registered for aid. Others have taken up in relief camps where government officials and NGOs are active and hence able to map and assess needs slightly better. Then there are the people who have set up along the roadsides. In a way, they are the worst off.
Across Pakistan you will encounter the charpoy, a wooden frame with legs that becomes a bed when you string a thatch of rope across. In the villages they don’t have beds like you will find at Sears. Today the villagers living on Sukkur’s roads have propped them up with one stick to form a shelter of sorts. If you prop two charpoys against each other, they form a rudimentary tent, that you can cover with blankets and sleep under. When I took a boat to village Rahimabad, we saw one man salvaging his belongings in a floating hamlet. He had converted his charpoy into a raft.
In all of the visits it becomes eminently clear that the water, in some places almost 6 feet deep, doesn’t have anywhere to go but up – as in evaporate. This means that the farming communities won’t be able to do anything till next March. Landlords are discussing how to drain the water back into the river but no one has the money to pay for those many pumps. The good news is that when you look at some of the houses in the floating fields, a watermark confirms that the water is going down.
This means that till March these families need to either be given a way to earn a living or be given a steady supply of rations and healthcare. The USAID’s Miriam Lutz told me earlier on that they have cash-for-work projects that can help people. It is clear to me that somehow donors will have to prop these people up until they can get at least one crop in the ground.
It is also really important to get these people out of the camps and off the roads and back into their villages. One landlord had a speed boat brought in from Karachi so that it could slowly and painfully ferry the people back to the main village. It just doesn’t make sense for them to stay in camps because there aren’t enough toilets and that is spreading disease. What makes more sense is to get them back to their villages and create a network of aid to them. The burden of disease can be avoided like that. Any boat donations are welcome.
Irrigation engineers say that they will have to wait for the water to go down to a certain level before they can rebuild the levees. This is going to take time and money. The barrages will also need an overhaul and I’m really hoping that the government will have the brains to make up for years of neglect. In the Sukkur barrage, for example, several of its gates were jammed shut by a buildup of silt. For years no one cleaned them and as a result there was, I believe, an uneven distribution of pressure of the open gates. The British left us with one of the biggest and most extensive and best irrigation networks in the world and we never bothered to look after it.
This is also a good time for the Pakistani government to register children and families. Across the board, wherever I went I realized that Foucault was right when he said that the management of a population was crucial for government and that can only happen if you know how many people there are and where they are located. In Pakistan, our equivalent of social security cards are the national identity cards (NICs) that is the responsibility of Nadra (National Database Registration Authority). I was shocked to find out that no new maps of Shikarpur or Sukkur city are readily available much less the surrounding villages and their road networks.
In Khanpur, a town whose outskirts sank, I meet Faisal Edhi, the son of Pakistan’s most famous charity organisers Abdul Sattar Edhi. Faisal was at Khanpur’s government high school No. 2 where Watan Foundation was at work. However, he found that the town officials had done a miserable job of registering families. Sometimes there were 1,200 people, sometimes 1,400. The numbers yo-yoed throughout the day. Fed up with the uncertainty, the Edhi staff put together a form and started registering people themselves so that they would be able to distribute aid properly.
Vaccines are needed, mosquito repellent, mosquito nets, cooking utensils, clothes, shoes and the usual medicines for diarrhea. The Aga Khan University Hospital, which is one of Pakistan’s best run, has dispatched doctors such as Dr Zulfiqar Bhutta to these areas. They should be contacted for need assessments as well as the USAID, UN, WHO, Unicef, Hope International, Edhi Foundation, ICRC. Vets are also needed. Desperately. The animals are dropping like flies and they are one crucial element of the economy for these people.
August 16, 2010 | 1:43 pm
Posted by Mahim Maher
At The Express Tribune we’ve dispatched reporters from our small team to cover the floods that hit Pakistan about two weeks ago. And the strangest of stories are coming in. One that Fawad Ali Shah filed from Khairpur in upper Sindh was that young men were killing pigs.
Not cops. No that lingo doesn’t swing here. Actual pigs. Wild boar actually. The animals are a menace for villagers because they eat crops and destroy stored produce. Fawad, who went to Khairpur from Karachi, hopped a ride with a navy rescue team that went around in a boat. They found some young men who had stayed back in one abandoned village. The women and children and elderly had been sent to safer ground already, thankfully. These boys kept some rations and hung out in the half-submerged village because the flooding had brought the pigs out in the open. Fortunately the men had a place to stay because their houses were built on slightly elevated ground.
These men keep dogs specifically for protection against the pigs. Fawad saw them having a stroll with them on Monday and when he asked, they replied to his amazement that they had deliberately stayed back so that they could catch the pigs once and for all. That, I suppose is the sweetest revenge.
Another great story, from our Express News television channel came from reporter Rehan Hashmi who found an elderly woman who had arrived at one of the relief camps set up in Karachi. She had threatened her family that she would kill herself in Jacobabad. But get this, not because she had lost everything she owned in the flooding. Because she wanted her hookah.
The cameraman got a great shot of the woman with the hookah, which is perhaps better known as the nargile or water pipe, or if you’re an American college student, a huge bong. Yup. Many women in the countryside, small villages and towns are awfully fond of tobacco. In a way, as I’ve seen it, people sit around in the evenings passing around the hookah and chewing the fat.
We also got some terrible, terrible photographs from our guy Athar Khan. He went to one of the relief camps set up on the outskirts of Karachi and caught a woman and two kids fighting over a bag of flour. I cannot tell you just how many photographs of crying, fly-covered babies have flooded us in the newsroom. Some of my sister’s friends returned from distributing relief in Rahimyar Khan. One of them was a young man, who had four packets of biscuits left. He leaned out of the window of the truck to give it and saw one hundred hands outstretched. He was crying as he told the story.
I basically belong to Sukkur in Sindh but have very weak links to my ‘hometown’. When this flooding hit Sindh I told myself every five minutes that I should go there – not just to take medicines and food – but to write about it. Unfortunately, I need to do my duty at the newspaper. It’s my job to work with the reporters and photographers.
Pakistan is never really going to properly recover from this disaster of epic proportions. Our government is so corrupt that everyone is skeptical that the money for rehabilitation will be properly used. There is talk of the government falling. Someone told me that Chaudhry Nisar will be the new prime minister. Someone reminded me that the cyclone of 1971 had a similar effect.
We spoke to a schoolteacher in Sindh who said that because the schools have been turned into relief camps, kids are obviously not going to start the semester on time. He also said that the displaced people were ruining the schools. They were chopping up its furniture for fire.
Some good news trickled in. The Americans flew in two flights of tent material from the USAID warehouse in Italy. The plastic sheeting is the same kind that became popular with the people displaced by the earthquake in 2005. I remember, at that time, we thought it was the worst thing that could have ever happen to a country already at its knees. Not any more.
(For these stories please visit http://tribune.com.pk and go to the Sindh section)
August 15, 2010 | 2:34 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
The flooding in Pakistan is the worst possible thing to have happened at this point in time. There has been so much destruction from the top of the country down to the bottom that we’ve been set back a few hundred years. And as usual we’ve been caught with our pants down. The governor of my state (or province as we call them) admitted on Saturday that the authorities had misinterpreted the actual amount of water heading down south. Great. Just great.
I cannot express how depressing this is for everyone. As it was, we were a country at our knees, and now this. Billions of rupees will be needed to rebuild the roads, highways, schools, homes and other infrastructure that has been destroyed or damaged by the water. The North-West Frontier Province (renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) estimates two trillion rupees in damages. Down south, in Sindh, 3.7 million people are homeless, and this is just an official estimate.
On Friday, the World Bank estimated that there has been $1 billion in crop damage. The UN estimates that flooding has destroyed 1.4 million acres of crops in Punjab province, Pakistan’s breadbasket. Cholera outbreaks are feared. The government relief camps are deserted in many places because people just don’t want to eat the rotten food they’re providing. Six million people need immediate food and water. Where do we go from here?
Once again with the begging bowl? Well, guess what. A lot of people don’t want to necessarily give us money because of such a poor track record of spending aid. The Daily Telegraph just published a damning report that 300 million pounds of help meant for the 2005 Pakistani earthquake survivors never made it to them. Still, the US has been at the forefront of donors. In an editorial in The Friday Times, Najam Sethi pointed out that China and the Organisation of Islamic Conference countries had yet to make their presence felt.
The latest news is that our prime minister is setting up a national commission or panel of well-trusted men to oversee aid spending. Two of the names shortlisted are Edhi, the man who runs one of Pakistan’s biggest and most successful charities, and Justice (retd) Bhagwandas, a former judge with an impeccable reputation. We can only hope that the money reaches the people who need it.
The good news is that young people from universities and schools have been working tirelessly to start small groups to collect donations. They have been heading off to the flood-hit areas in Sindh with truckloads of bottled water, biscuits, dried milk and medicines. Almost everyone one I know, poor and rich, have been giving money or other donations to people and groups they trust. We also know, based on what happened in 2005, that banned militant outfits and their charity wings are also active. These groups are incredibly organized (which the government is not) and they fill the gap the state leaves open.
I spoke to some people in the flood-hit areas, men who have been growers and tribal decision makers for decades. They are fearing an outbreak of violence when food supplies dwindle. We lost one rice crop in the monsoon rains and initial flooding and now we won’t be able to sow the next crop, which is wheat, in November. The water won’t dry by then. That said, however, other experts pointed out that once the water recedes the next seasons should be good as alluvial soil will have spread over the land, making it fertile.
As perhaps happens with natural disasters, it seems as if the worst and best of humanity surfaces. On one hand, armed men are looting the abandoned houses and farms of flood survivors who left for safer ground. Grownups are drinking the milk meant for children. Influential landlords are breaking through canals to divert water away from their lands, thereby flooding entire towns. However, on the other hand, young men and women are working day and night, while fasting, to organize and distribute food and water and cooked meals to people. Doctors have headed out from the cities into the water-hit heartlands to treat children. There was a report that a 12-year-old boy was going out on his little boat to keep rescuing people stranded in villages. The scouts, army and navy have been constantly at work.
The next year is going to be a very difficult one. I only hope that somehow at my newspaper we can keep doing the kind of stories that prevent donor fatigue and reader fatigue. I keep going over hurricane Katrina coverage to try and learn and refresh our own approach. I’m hoping we can keep going.
August 3, 2010 | 3:33 pm
Posted by Mahim MaherKarachi is on fire again. Body after body is being rushed in to the city’s three main hospitals, the one and only morgue has run out of space. Young men waving TT pistols are roaming the streets and picking off random targets. Buses, trucks, cars and rickshaws are being set on fire. Petrol pumps, markets and shops have all closed down. You couldn’t find a place to buy a packet of cigarettes, lamented one desk editor.
August 1, 2010 | 4:26 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
Ramadan is two weeks away and I’m already dreading it in the newsroom. Life slows down to a crawl in this month in Pakistan and while trying to keep your mind off food, the fast is made all the more difficult by the nausea induced by the fake piety of people around you.
“Are you fasting or feasting?” You will be asked this question by anyone who crosses your path with the exception of a few sensible people who understand that fasting is a personal matter and not something to flog in public. I generally hate being put on the spot about religious choices or matters of faith. And in Ramadan, each day becomes a battle to preserve the sanctity of this private decision.
If I say I’m not fasting, at the very least I will get a judgmental look dripping with moral superiority. At the other end of the spectrum I will get an unwelcome lecture on how it is the duty of every Muslim to fast (Yes, I know, but buddy I’ve got my period/am on medication/am pregnant/have cancer/have diabetes – I’m exempt). We are less obsessed with Islam, I think sometimes, than with the Islam of others. Muslims can be the cruelest measurers of morality. They think they’re passport control and immigration at the Gates of Heaven.
My sister once pointed out, when I went on a rant about an overly judgmental Islamist boyfriend, that in a sense it was blasphemy to sit yourself at the same table as God, who is, in Islam the only one who can and will be deciding who is going to heaven and who to hell. If you judge people you are purporting to set yourself at that level. In fact, this reminds me of Asma Barlas’ stellar work on interpreting the Qur’an (Believing Women in Islam) that when we refer to Allah as Him, we are assigning gender and thus blaspheming ourselves as God as no gender – we cannot give God human attributes.
So I’ve decided this Ramadan to give the Period answer whenever anyone asks if I’m fasting. It shuts men up at least. The Qur’an very clearly specifies that each person will be accountable for their deeds on the Day of Judgment. No one else can intercede for us.
That said, however, Ramadan is one of those times when charity visibly peaks in the city. I am amazed by Memon Mosque off MA Jinnah Road where each day anyone fasting can walk in and break their fast with hundreds of other believers – all for free. Lines and lines of steel trays are laid on the marble floor and bankers and bakers can sit together, shoulder to shoulder to sup together. Individual people and organisations put up trestle tables at bus stops across the city and set out jugs of flower cordial, bananas, melon slices, fritters, samosas and dates for any weary traveler who has not been able to make it home in time.
Ramadan is also a great time to see another side to Karachi. Last night, while driving back from the middle-class Gulshan-e-Iqbal after a night of Qawwali with Fareed Ayaz and his party at a friend’s house, I passed three sets of boys playing cricket at 3:30am in the street. After the break of fast at sunset and the subsequent Taraveeh prayers, young men stay out till sehri or the time to keep the fast again before sunrise. In fact, the Karachi Electric Supply Company even has a deal according to which you can put in a request for extra streetlights in your neighbourhood.
The problem with people in Ramadan is that they take the fast as an excuse to shirk work. I’ve been planning ahead for weeks because reporters simply can’t get enough material for the city section when Ramadan rolls around. People refuse to meet, government offices empty out at 11am, cell phones are turned off 4pm onwards. It is considered impolite to call after the break of fast because it’s family time.
The local wire services go dead and even the press releases dry up. Each page needs about 3,000 words with pictures and art. You’re lucky if you get people to file 300 words. And this doesn’t include fatigued reporters, pagemakers and photographers who don’t always have the energy to work. There is a tacit, silent understanding that pervades the newsroom that you won’t really assign any stories because it’s too hard to get them done. I, on the other hand, fasting or not fasting, have to ensure three pages are produced and sent to press each day. Some days I’m so desperate I’ve even considered using family photos.
And it’s simply unacceptable to actually call people on it. Hey, buddy if you’ve chosen to fast, that isn’t my problem. You’re doing it for God. And fasting doesn’t mean that you sleep till one in the afternoon, wait crankily till sunset and then doze off again. My father, a surgeon, has seen doctors leave patients open on the operating table just so they can go break their fast.
And yes, I do realize that I’m angry and sound angry. I hate how other people get me so worked up about religion. I only hope that this Ramadan I get to meet calm people, who add to my knowledge of Islam rather than my fear.
July 21, 2010 | 2:24 pm
Posted by Mahim MaherMere anarchy may be loosed on my world, to borrow from Yeats, but there must be something to stem the blood-dimmed tide.