Posted by Mahim Maher
Nichola Khan, a senior lecturer at the University of Brighton, is a Chartered Psychologist and a senior lecturer in psychology. She holds a BA in Developmental Psychology, an MPhil in Cross-Cultural Psychology, and obtained a DPhil in Social Anthropology (2008) from the University of Sussex. Her book ‘Mohajir Militancy in Pakistan: Violence and Transformation in the Karachi Conflict’ (Routledge Contemporary South Asia Series) appeared in 2010.
I admired Dr Khan’s work, as she is one of the few academics working in this area. I interviewed her over email in March 2012 but was unable to publish the answers in my newspaper because of their length and other considerations. While the interview is dated, her points on how to view violence in Karachi are enlightening and still terribly relevant. I interviewed her because of my abiding interest in the violence in Karachi which I had to engage with on different levels daily as the city editor. I would like to clarify that in the course of my work in journalism I have seen that many parties and not just one are behind violence in Karachi and it is a much more complex phenomenon than one that merits finger-pointing. I cannot claim to begin to understand it but I ask the questions as that is the only way to begin.
Me: When will the violence end, is the question everyone asks. Do you have any comment on this? Do you think there is a way to end it?
Dr Nichola Khan: My view is violence will hardly end. Technically, one way to reduce it would be to disarm opponents, adopt some massive 'welfare' programmes, and let former enemies co-operate on some specific issues. Or a roundtable model - as they did in Spain after Franco or Poland in the 1980s. However, public debate can only achieve so much and I don't see any conditions.
As long as Pakistan is a heavily militarised country, and at the crossroads of many conflicts (Afghanistan, Kashmir, Iran, Central Asia, etc.), weapons will always be available and a fruitful business - including to political actors at every level. The problem has far broader implications than the MQM in Karachi.
Whilst Pakistan’s situation, and the situation in Karachi, are extreme, Pakistan is no exception. Take the Arab Spring - although undoubtedly there is immense public-political will for change, the discourse of ‘popular revolution’ obscures a deliberate strategy on the part of the US to secure economic power and resources in the region.
However, the problem in Karachi is that violence, politics and crime have become endemic to such a degree that although there is an enormous popular will for it to end, there are too many vested interests in keeping the situation going.
MM: Was the MQM violent before the operations or do you think that the operations just made it worse?
Dr Khan: Things were clearly made worse. Operation ‘Clean-Up’ of 1992 both intensified and alienated the violence. It produced a pattern of circular confrontation between militants and the police, of escalating ferocity, copycat and tit-for-tat killings. Consider Shakeel’s account from the mid-90s (quote from book): “We frequently heard news of MQM workers being killed by the police or Haqiqis. Our neighbourhood was a ‘no-go area’. Any stranger was interrogated. Some confessed their associations. We tortured to extract information about their operations - drilling, amputating limbs, chopping corpses into pieces and hanging them upside down. They were killed, put into bin-bags and thrown into dumps (Khajji Ground in Pak Colony). These were police tactics [my italics] we copied.”
First, though Shakeel no longer lives in Pakistan, and we cannot verify his account, what is vividly conveyed is the excitement these cycles of violence produced - how killings became elevated as a legitimate, politically enlightened response, to the abhorred practices of violence and exclusion associated with the state.
Second, (more frightening) is the extent to which violence worked to force the redistribution of power. Violence is a normative mode for conducting politics, and for securing power. Considering the state apparatus, its security methods and these militants were all violent, the sad paradox is that violence was and is far from radical or in any way revolutionary, but in fact deeply conventional.
MM: How similar do you think the Pakhtun violence is to the Mohajir one in terms of the realisation of selfhood or masculinities?
Dr Khan: The Pakhtun also seem to venerate the gun and the power it seems to give the person who wields it. I don't know! But I am sceptical about sweeping generalisations, especially when based in ethnic connotations. Even more so when such so-called ‘differences’ have been used to justify killings, violence, the irreconcilability of conflicts, and inequalities in wealth and opportunity.
Ethnicity is dangerous not because ethnic violence is ‘natural’ or inevitable, or because there are fundamental differences between groups, but because it acts as a smokescreen to obscure the political, economic (and military) forces and policies producing marginalisation, fragmentation and violence. There are parallels with similar arguments being made in Europe. Here the ‘problem’ of social disintegration has become ethnicised, and located within ‘Muslim culture’. This ‘culturalising’ tendency led Sarkozy, for example, to attribute the 2005 banlieues riots in Paris to deteriorating ‘Muslim’ family structures and absent fathers, with no acknowledgement of the poverty and racism facing many families, or for example the immigration laws that disrupt family life.
Similarly, David Cameron attributed the London riots last year to poor parenting and social support, singling out individuals rather than the harsh cuts his government have made in the current recession, and their effect upon employment, education and daily life in communities already demoralised. These kind of alarmist accounts made by Sarkozy and Cameron - of proliferating (Islamic or ‘black’) violence - bears similarity to many analyses being made about violence in Karachi.
Though Karachi’s problems of violence are long-term and more severe, one implication in both cases is that violence is an outcome of ‘ethnicisation’, of irreconcilable differences between ethnic groups, and that ‘all’ Mohajirs, Pathans, Baloch or Sindhis are the same. This view, which has also been a very effective tool of political mobilisation, has little to say about neighbourhoods in Liaquatabad for example - routinely portrayed as a hotbed of MQM militancy - where Baloch paan vendors, Pathan watchmen, Kashmiri labourers, Sindhi office workers and Mohajir shopkeepers trade and coexist peacefully.
Nor does it explain how mohallyadar belonging to different parties enjoy heated debates without resorting to violence, and are loyal to each other - warning each other of imminent attacks, as well as co-operating in the purchase of weapons that could be used between their respective factions.
The situation is complex. When the press also frames Self-Other relations antagonistically in terms of intractable differences and immutable characteristics, it is likely to reproduce the same terms (including violence) of ethnicisation/politicisation that it finds so troubling. In my view, the responsibility of a ‘free press’ exceeds the ‘freedom’ to expose and condemn political parties.
At some level it must address the uncomfortable paradox of its own fascination with the violence (including against the press) it condemns. This is the problem of a situation where violence has become so endemic and normalised. It is facile (and boring) to blame the MQM exclusively without a more discriminatory effort to consider the wider conditions that have allowed the situation to thrive.
Even if it were true that Afaq Ahmed, Shahi Syed, Zulfiqar Mirza or Altaf Hussain were plotting out the next round of killings, Karachi citizens are not passive victims manipulated into violence by villainous leaders. Those who condemn MQM for the violence most roundly - the state, media, public commentators, intellectuals and citizens - are not separate, or onlookers, but implicated too. It is very important to strive for a more holistic view. Although this might arise in proportion with an increase in press freedom, those who terrorise the press have little interest in cultivating a more vocal or sympathetic popular voice.
Me: The police and army or Rangers have acted against the MQM over the years in multiple operations but it doesn’t seem to make a difference. What are they doing wrong in their approach? How can Karachi’s other stakeholders possibly come up with a policy that doesn’t repeat their mistakes?
Dr Khan: Again, I have no idea, but it seems to me, first, that violent repression never works - any intelligent general or statesman knows that. Second, the security agencies in Karachi have a history of partisanship, being highly politicised, corrupt, demoralised and lacking in discipline. In the ‘operations’ of the nineties, the police concealed and fabricated evidence, were involved in extrajudicial killings, torture, the unlawful conviction of arrestees, dawn raids on homes, and provided ‘protection’ to warring groups.
Though this situation has definitely improved, the creation of a disciplined non-partisan metropolitan security force is still a critical requirement for sustainable security and peace. Just last week (March 2012), Rangers were allegedly involved in setting up armed ‘People’s Amn Committee’ boys in a house in Liaquatabad. This was interpreted locally as PPP-engineered pressure in the lead-up to the elections (of 2013), to keep the pressure on MQM in the arena of national politics.
Next, after Rangers arrested ANP workers in Banaras last night (March 30, 2012), Mohajirs were killed in retaliation this morning. As long as the state’s own security forces act and are perceived as an armed faction, as having vested interests in violence at critical political junctures, it’s ridiculous to talk about effective policy-making for peace.
Me: How did the violence affect you?
Dr Khan: Those self-proclaimed ‘militants’ I knew - now middle-aged - succumbed to the seductive, slippery appeal of violence, which pervaded their lives far beyond the flat surface of the ‘political’. In ways they were absolutely unprepared for the failure of their ‘revolution’ to achieve the free, just and equal society MQM promised. Left with broken lives, in no trite sense, they must face responsibility for their crimes, without the support of the leaders they idealised.
Though commentators speak from an array of political, intellectual and personal positions, I feel strongly that there is no appropriate ‘objective’ distance to take. The relationships I formed whilst living in an activist Mohajir community in the nineties produced tensions between empathy, partisanship, concerns for analytical ‘neutrality’, and presented me with a tough moral dilemma. How could violence become routine, unproblematic and logical to such a degree; how did I, like many, become simultaneously accustomed, fascinated, horrified and indifferent to terror occurring before my own eyes? What does it mean to present ‘killers’ as human?
There is a fine line between violence and ‘peace’- in those circumstances violence was all too easy. Personally, those years moved me to a radical pacifism. What possibility now for a ‘militancy for peace’ to be realised - for myself, those I knew, Karachi? There are no easy answers.
Me: The MQM used to react badly to media criticism but it has in recent times changed its public image quite a bit. But in politics its use of violence as a bargaining tool with the PPP seems to continue. What do you think prompts the party to behave this way and do you think it has been beneficial in the long run? (My additional note added May 2013: all political parties in Karachi are equally guilty of using violence).
Dr Khan: I agree, the recent disruptions in MQM-PPP alliances must be linked to an intensification of violence, the forthcoming elections (of 2013), and activities linked to the (now banned) People’s Amn Committee that was created by Zulfiqar Mirza as interior minister. These events underpin the spread of recent violence from SITE area, Katti Pahari, Lyari and other areas across the city. They also reflect the rise of political gangs in small localities, and the enduring marriage of bhatta and violence in the way political parties create and maintain power.
Whilst ‘Aman’ effectively took over small ‘rummy clubs’ and gambling networks in Lyari, there are larger stakes to play for in drugs, bhatta, weapons - linked, as always, to land development, real estate and transport.
The killing of an MQM Sector member in PIB Colony [in March 2012] reflects this intensification and has resulted in a greater perceived need for MQM to ‘protect’ Mohajir/MQM residents in PIB. As always, the techniques are to terrorise. A motorcyclist will hand a note to a shopkeeper asking for money; if he doesn’t pay, a car will drive by and shoot him. Then his neighbour will receive a visit from a well-wisher who will urge him to avoid meeting the same fate.
Whilst MQM is deeply unpopular on one hand - on the other hand, MQM is seen as not being able to deliver on its political promises because of the curtailed powers of local government — and is overwhelmingly the party of choice for Mohajirs.
Nonetheless, the climate is one of greater weariness, political and social ennui. Or at least it seems that way to the old guard who hanker with a strange nostalgia for a time when the violence was predictable, and bhatta was contained. Whereas MQM used to fight the PSF and PPI in KU or colleges, or in Shah Faisal Colony, Sohrab Goth, Pathan Goth, Orangi Town, Qasba Colony etc — or in the respective strongholds or boundary spaces of ‘no-go’ zones, now all the city’s outside space feels like a ‘no-go’ area. The same has happened with bhatta. In the old days it was big industrialists and businessmen who were targeted, now every paan seller or poor shopkeeper must pay up, or fear being killed. What happened?
Me: You book isn’t available in Pakistan and your published papers are not readily available or accessible to the average person on the street. Are there any ways in which your research is being used to inform or alter the situation on the ground? How would you like your research to be used or translated? What kind of impact would you like to see it have? Or is it too risky?
Dr Khan: My intention was to publish with a Pakistani publisher to ensure it reached a Pakistani audience (its most relevant critics). The Pakistani publishers I approached refused it on the grounds it was too ‘risky’.
Though there are signs of change, in a situation where the press is curtailed, silenced and hardly ‘free’, where violence is endemic to Karachi politics and all parties are violent, including the state, I am well-positioned as an ‘outsider’ to be made good political use of. This is not my intention.
I neither condone nor attack the MQM per se; nor do I wish to contribute to a ‘pornography’ of violence about Pakistan. [quote from book] ‘In a febrile geopolitical situation where ‘radicalisation’ and violence in Pakistan have pre-occupied a global community of policy-makers and practitioners concerned to both enhance and threaten security in the region, the need to counter dangerous homogenising tendencies that collapse Islam, Muslims and Pakistanis into the framing of a terrorist threat to Western security and liberal-secular democracy, is still pressing’.
Certainly, I have faced charges that “you Westerners are only interested in the violence in Pakistan”, as well been pleaded with to bring attention to the plight of Karachi’s Mohajirs, to counter the half-truths prominent in public discourse and the media. All this is good. At the least, if my book or I can contribute to changes that encompass a tolerance for open debate and criticism, whatever the terms, that is a good thing. However, the relation of open debate and a freer press to peace is only partial.
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. . .
May 10, 2013 | 12:52 pm
Posted by Mahim Maher
Updates: Saturday 8:44am - Army chief votes
It has never been seen on TV before: the chief of Pakistan's army, General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani, has just come to an ordinary polling station NA 54 and cast his vote. He could have done it by postal ballot, but as Geo TV reported, he chose to come out in public to do his duty. He was the first to do it at this polling station.
This sends the clear message that the army wants to see the democratic process continue smoothly. It is to President Asif Ali Zardari's credit that he kept his government together for five years. After being dismissed before it completed its term twice before, the PPP, Benazir Bhutto's party, wrapped up its five year tenure a month or so ago.
America and indeed the world is expected to closely watch the Pakistani elections today, May 11, 2013 Saturday. For me this is the biggest election yet simply because of the difference Twitter, Facebook and text messaging has been making in the run-up. As I write this Geo TV, a major Urdu news channel, has started its all-night transmission. Analysts and reporters are talking about what they think will happen. The buzz word this year is Naya Pakistan or New Pakistan.
If I were to tell you about the single most important and visible change I would have to mention Imran Khan. He was our face of cricket on the world stage and has returned to the public sphere with his political party - Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (The Pakistan Movement for Justice). The ladies love him and from what little I've been hearing, they are all getting dressed up to go out and vote for him. I expect the PTI to win big for two reasons. Imran has been talking about people voting for candidates who make sense and not, as has been the tradition, voting for your feudal landlord, your clansmen/tribe or your ethnic or religious group. Imran has also harnessed Pakistan's youth.
Just to give you a little idea. There are 86m voters out of which about 16m are between 18 and 25 years of age. If you take it to 35 years, the number grows to 40m. The election campaigning has not, however, been as robust as one would have hoped simply because the Taliban have been bombing everyone. Just a day ago the former prime minister's son was kidnapped at a corner meeting in Multan. News has just rolled in that the elections have been postponed in one constituency up north as militants just launched an attack. Benazir's son Bilawal has been forced to give video addresses because of security fears and a string of daily bombings in Karachi meant that no party really held the kind of rallies that usually colour a campaign.
The people have so far been disillusioned by the PPP, the party Benazir Bhutto brought to power through a largely sympathy vote in 2008. The party was led by her husband and had five years to prove itself. But given unemployment, inflation and terrorism, people are not likely to give them as much of a mandate. It is worth noting, as my friend Gulraiz Khan pointed out, no one has been campaigning on an outward-looking tack as such. Kashmir has hardly been mentioned. Neither has India. Forget Afghanistan. Politicians have been focused on domestic issues by and large.
These are the 10th parliamentary elections in Pakistan's 65-year history, half of which was dominated by the military in the driving seat while the rest of the country fell by the wayside. Still, people are feeling hopeful after a decade of bloodshed post-9/11. Pakistanis have paid a price for their own interpretation of the events of that day and the way the world wanted it to act. Still, the good news is that Pew did some research and this is what they found: "For the first time since the Pew Research Centre began polling on these issues, the Taliban is essentially considered as big a threat to Pakistan as longtime rival India."
Voting will be challenging for many areas. In the more conservative parts of the country, women can forget about it. Many more people simply don't have the ID cards to do it. In other places there will be corruption and violence. One of the tricks is to scare of voters as they approach the polling station by firing at them. Usually works. Other more devious types will cast your vote for you ahead of time. You arrive at the polling station only to be told that you shouldn't have bothered.
However, the good news is that the Election Commission of Pakistan is headed by one of our most honest retired judges. Also, they have been trying their best to get the message out, use technology to do it and ensure that there is as little fraud as possible. So, Pakistanis could text in to the number 8300 their computerised national identity card number and the ECP would text back the constituency and location of the polling station. It also has a mechanism in place to deal with fake votes. If you arrive and find that your vote has already been cast you can complain, put your fresh ballot in an envelope that will be sealed and cast it. All of this will be noted down.
Exit polls will also be conducted by Gallup. But after polling ends, we are expecting rough results by about 7pm. Official results come much later.
If you want to follow the updates here are a few websites that are recommended:
http://dawn.com/elections-2013/ (very jazzy, chock full of info/background)
http://elections.tribune.com.pk/ (my newspaper's clean guide)
http://www.ptvworldnews.com.pk/livestreaming.asp (if you can get it, PTV World is our only channel in English)
http://www.pakvotes.com/ (excellent map and breakdown) live.geo.tv/ (In Urdu, but will give you an idea of what it is looking like)
I will be filing tomorrow as many updates as possible...
March 29, 2013 | 7:51 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
At the Quetta Press Club's cavernous general secretary's room a relaxed senior reporter SZ explains how they actually like to kill people there:
"You see, we have a counter at the airport arrivals lounge," he says with a twinkle in his eye. "And as soon as you enter we check out if you LOOK Punjabi, pull the gun out of the drawer and... " He cocks his thumb and fires his index finger.
"No... no... wait!" interjects another senior reporter SS. "We don't wait till they come into the arrival lounge, we pick them off as soon as they get OFF the plane."
A round of guffaws circles the room.
I am more than familiar with the dark humour that develops over time in a city that the outside world has given a reputation more soiled than a brothel bed sheet. (Please note that I did not say 'earned' a reputation). The jokes highlight the absurdity of the way Quetta is perceived.
SZ had launched into the airport joke as he was telling us about an outsider Punjabi reporter who had refused to come to Quetta for a meeting of journalists because he thought that he would be instantly killed. As someone from Karachi, which has a reputation that competes with Quetta's as a bloody city, I am more than familiar with people's irrational fears about their security.
It was thus with great pleasure that I went on a romp to discover the real Quetta this Wednesday and Thursday.
Women, what women?
I was invited by the Women Media Center's Fauzia Shaheen to help give young Quetta women journalists and mass communication students some tips on how to cover an election. Yes, I know what you are thinking: women journalists and Balochistan cannot be used in the same sentence. Indeed, there are only two women reporters working in television channels in all of Balochistan: Seema Kanwal (Dunya) and Saadia Jehangir (SAMAA TV). But there are plenty of other women in print and many aspiring reporters. The only problem is that they are not necessarily that visible as they work in the Urdu or vernacular press, which excludes them from the mainstream English-medium visibility. Indeed as we got into our session I had invited reporter ZB from my newspaper, The Express Tribune, to come have a chat with them and Hashim Kakar from The News was also present. Both men remarked that they had never seen so many women journalists and mass communication students in one place before.
And thus it was delightful for me to be able to go around the city and actually get a first person feel for the place. I went with an open mind and was rewarded. Naturally, just like any city in the world Quetta has its troubled spots and yes, I do not want to suggest for a second that it is not faced with some extreme challenges from terrorists and death squads. I do not want to belittle the grief of the Hazaras of Quetta. That is a reality and sadly now a part of the city's history, but so is Abbas Town in Karachi. But living in Karachi has taught me one thing: you cannot and should not write off an entire city, its history, culture and people because of the small groups that want to destroy precisely that - its spirit.
And so, I thought I would write about what I saw and heard in Quetta to tell you of the absolutely wonderful time I had there in two days and that I would return there whenever I get a chance and no matter how dangerous it becomes.
Quetta is a 1.5-hour tiny plane ride from Karachi and the service is kind of erratic. As soon as I landed and walked out of the small terminal I was stunned by the quiet peacefulness of the airport that is ringed on one side by the hills. When you exit the Karachi airport, for example, you are instantly hit by the frenzy of the city at the intersection on to Shahrah-e-Faisal. But in Quetta as we trundled down airport road and turned on to Shahrah-e-Zarghun all I could see were dreamy hills in the distance, mud walls the colour of crème caramel and men whizzing by on motorcycles with mittens (more on that later).
Two check posts later I was deposited at the Serena Hotel, which is built like a mud fortress (no large windows) and gives you an unnatural insulation from the outside world. I was warned that it was haunted and should not take a room that overlooks the swimming pool. Fortunately I was on the ground floor.
The entire day was spent with the young women at the Lourdes Hotel on Staff College Road (built by a Britisher, owned once by a Parsi and named after the French, according to the man at the front desk). They still use an old black telephone in the reception area and the tea is cardamom-laced and soul stirring.
Once free from work, my newspaper's reporter ZB took me around to see Quetta. I was told that the Yaseenzais, Kasis and Kurds and Shahwanis were the original tribes of the city and that Quetta - the name - is, according to Robert Jackson, a variation of the Afghan word kot, meaning court-house or fort. I think that Sir Charles Napier was a scoundrel and a racist and ethnicist and imperialist but it was interesting to read that he once bitterly said that when God made the world He shot all the rubbish into Balochistan because the landscape is wild, stony and infertile.
Liaquat bazaar: earthquakes and mandirs
We started in Liaquat bazaar, which is a delightful area because you park your car and walk around in streets built exactly for walking. We dropped in to Arya Samaj mandir, chatted with Ravi Kumar there who showed us around inside. There is a spectacular wall of deities and the Shiva Linga (mark or symbol of the Lord Shiva) on the regenerative properties of Nature. I was struck how, unlike the Swami Narayan Mandir in Karachi, this one was closed. A new community hall is being built in the centre and to the left there is also a space for the Sikhs. We chatted with Rana Singh, a severe-looking Sikh devotee, with a theatric turban and lean frame. The general consensus was that there were about 500 Hindu families in Quetta and there was a slow drip of exits to India.
Back outside in Liaquat bazaar we wove in and out of the streets. It is here that you can see the old houses of Quetta with their clever ventilation systems. "They help with the smell from the gas heaters as well," ZB explained. "But a lot of these old houses are empty now and this is prime property." Negotiations are going on these days between the owners and shopping plaza builders. Soon this heritage will disappear.
For the most part in this area the old houses are limited to the ground floor. This rule was made after the 1935 earthquake which has been written about in detail by Robert Jackson in his book 'Thirty Seconds at Quetta; the story of an earthquake' (published by Sohail Ahmad and Rohail Ahmad, 2002). Thirty thousand people died that day in what was then the largest garrison town in India with 12,000 soldiers.
Later in the Express News office, which is also old style, the reporters joked about how if there were an earthquake again they would all die because the old style of architecture has gone. "The houses used to be made of gatta and teen," said senior reporter IR. "So if there was a quake and the roof fell it wouldn't crush you." Not like the anti-seismic cement and concrete and girder system used today.
I didn’t notice them at first, but as ZB and I walked around Liaquat bazaar I started doing double takes on the motorcycles. “Oh, those,” said ZB. “They are dastanay.” Gloves. The ingenious Quetta residents have attached mittens, often felt lined, to their motorcycle handlebars to protect their hands against the cold. They cost about Rs120 a piece.
It was poetically ironic that I came across Shinney in the bazaar. I dare you to try and eat them if you go to Quetta. The tiny alien-green coloured balls are sold on thellas in the market. They are stored in glass aquariums and big glass jars. They cost about Rs80 a pao and come from Afghanistan and are cultivated locally too. You don't eat the green surface but crack the 'nut' to get to the meat inside which is sweet. But I gotta say, while it tasted great, it was too much hard work. How ironic, I thought, so much like Quetta, hard on the outside but sweet on the inside.
I was told that Quetta was built for 50,000 people but now has 2.5 million inhabitants. The 1980s brought an influx of Afghan refugees and that put pressure on the housing market. The telltale signs of a city straining at the seams are beginning to show - the first being its car population. There is no proper parking system in Quetta.
But I was delighted to note that whoever built its footpaths knew what they were talking about. On main Jinnah Road especially, I noticed that they were just the right height and sloped at the end to enable wheelchair access. And just in case you were wondering, of whatever I saw of Quetta, I have to say it is a superbly clean city. I didn't see a lot of people wearing trousers but I have to say the men look much more handsome in their full-pleated shalwars and headgear; it gives them much more character.
Dinner - the Lehri magic
It takes 3.5 hours for Sajji to cook and damn it tastes fine afterwards. Meet Kamran Lehri, one of the brothers Lehri, who own Quetta's best Sajji joint. His father Haji Amanullah Lehri started the business in 1973 and they are looking to expand today. "We just rub salt in," he told me in the Prince Road original outlet when I asked him what made their sajji the best.
Before I left Quetta I blew a month's salary on a Balochi frock and embroidered neck pieces. Much of my enthusiasm can be misplaced, I understand, for I am not that stupid to assume that I can know Quetta in just 24 hours. But doesn't it say something about the city that it won me over in less than a day despite everything I had heard and read about it?
March 25, 2013 | 12:49 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
Elections are scheduled to take place in Pakistan - one of the world's most troubled democracies - on May 11.
A little over 85 million people are registered to vote. The largest chunk, 20%, is the 31-40 year group.
The world is watching.
On Sunday, the caretaker prime minister's name was announced: a retired judge, Mir Hazar Khan Khoso. This choice is significant because the politicians could not agree on it unanimously and had to give the list of nominees to the election commission to finalise. Khoso is from our most ignored province/state, Balochistan.
Khoso will, as my newspaper The Express Tribune put it, over see "the first democratic transition of power in a country which has seen three military coups and four military rulers" in its 66-year history.
Indeed, the day the caretaker PM was announced, a former military dictator, former president General (retired) Pervez Musharraf, arrived in Karachi to hold a rally. Barely anyone turned up.
It promises to be an exciting time for journalists. We are all waiting to see how the new election rules will benefit the country. Our chief election commissioner, Justice (retired) Fakhruddin G Ebrahim is an honest man who has battled through to maintain the commission integrity.
The most interesting changes have been made to the nomination papers. Anyone hoping to stand as a candidate has to give their financial history, which will be cross checked by the Federal Board of Revenue, State Bank of Pakistan and National Database and Registration Authority. They will see if the candidate or their dependents has defaulted on loans, taxes or other government dues. Given that corruption has plagued the country and the same faces keep returning, it will be interesting to see how many names are discarded and potential candidates fall by the wayside.
Security is a huge concern for everyone during this election. There are several areas where it is not clear how people will be able to cast their vote. One of them is the southern province of Balochistan where I have heard women's identity cards are kept by their men and they aren't allowed to cast their vote themselves. Similarly, there is my city, Karachi, where spasms of violence run through it depending on which political party is upset. We are also worried about Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa where the Taliban are active. Will they let people vote?
The old faces are around but there are new faces too. Here are just a few of the parties to watch (I will be updating this list):
The others are:
I am also worried about how extremist outfits will figure as characters in this election. In particular, I am watching the area in southern Punjab called Jhang. It is from here that Sipah-Sahaba founder Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi's emerged. The Sipah is a militant outfit that targets the Shia minority. It was banned in 2012 but re-emerged under a new name: Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ). Its new chief Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi may stand this time round.
Reuters has pointed out something important worth mentioning here. "Government finances may also be approaching crisis point," the news agency said on March 18. "In March, the Asian Development Bank said Pakistan has reached a critical balance of payments situation and will need another package from the International Monetary Fund, this time of up to $9 billion, before the end of the year."
February 22, 2013 | 11:36 pm
Posted by Mahim Maher
I try not to write about these things because I'm not on the ground reporting. But the news is important for Pakistan and well, for reasons I cannot explain, it was played down in my newspaper and others.
The big news is that the chief of the most violent Sunni outfit, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, was detained from his home in Punjab on Feb23. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi or Army of Jhangvi takes its name from Haq Nawaz Jhang from Jhang in Punjab. This outfit is linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban. It has been blamed for the kidnapping and beheading of US Journalist Daniel Pearl.
Malik Ishaq is the chief of this outfit that has claimed responsibility for two recent deadly bombings in the city of Quetta (province of Balochistan). Nearly 200 Shia Hazaras died in those attacks. The Hazaras are a minority ethnic group.
After the first bombing, the Shias refused to bury their dead. Social media and the news networks exploded with anger over the government's callousness in dealing with the problem. The provincial or state government was dismissed and Governor Rule was imposed.
But that didn't make any difference as a second bombing took place weeks later, specifically on the 40th day after the first one. Muslims commemorate a death on the 40th day with prayers. It is called the Chehlum.
Balochistan province has long been troubled by a secessionist movement of the indigenous Baloch. The sectarian war in its capital of Quetta is an additional problem. My city of Karachi also suffers from extreme sectarian violence. The two militant outfits are fighting a bloody war of attrition in the south of Pakistan. The Sunni Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is pitted against the Shia militant outfits.
It's pretty simple. I don't understand why the government, law enforcement agencies and the courts cannot just convict these terrorists once and for all. The politicians are so scared of them and indeed so are the police that no one takes action against them, writes against them or convicts them. Even the judges are afraid because these killers never forget and never forgive. No one has the courage to deal with this problem. And all those mothers and wives who lost their loved ones, those children who lost their fathers will not forgive us for it.
January 6, 2013 | 5:32 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
My newspaper in Pakistan, The Express Tribune, published this Sunday, Jan 6, 2013, a stellar piece on the Jews of Mumbai. T magazine's editor Zarrar Khuhro commissioned the story 'Where the Crescent meets the Star' that was written by Shai Venkatraman and included some beautiful photographs of Shaare Raason syngagogue and Gates of Mercy syngagogue.
I am sharing here their work, but would urge you to read the whole story online here.
Where the Crescent meets the Star
by Shai Venkatraman for The Express Tribune
With a green kippah, the traditional Jewish cap, on his head, Isaac Talkar cuts a striking figure as he winds his way through the crowded by-lanes of Dongri in the heart of Mumbai city.
Most of Mumbai’s eight Jewish synagogues are located in the Muslim neighbourhoods of Byculla, Mazgaon and Dongri
Eighty-year-old Talkar, a Bene Israeli Jew is heading to the local synagogue, a daily ritual. Dongri, a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood in south Mumbai, has been his home from birth.
“I have lived here all my life,” says the retired bank manager.
“My entire family, including my parents and siblings, migrated to Israel thirty-five ago. I have no relatives left here. They kept calling me for a long time but some sort of attachment keeps me here. I want to die in India and be buried here.” (The rest of the story is on the newspaper's website)
December 26, 2012 | 9:21 pm
Posted by Mahim Maher
Today all eyes in Pakistan are on Bilawal Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto’s son, who is expected to launch his political career at a massive gathering in Garhi Khuda Bux – the place where his mother was buried five years ago.
December 27 marks Benazir’s death anniversary. Slowly, as the date approached, billboards started going up across Karachi and wherever I drove BB, as we all refer to her, looked down on us. It still seems unreal.
She was killed shortly after her triumphant return from self-exile in London to Pakistan in 2007. Her homecoming parade from Karachi airport was targeted by twin bomb blasts. Three months later they assassinated her in Liaquat Bagh in the city of Rawalpindi up north.
This time, at least I had thought, after being prime minister twice, BB would have been different. She returned a seasoned politician with a different agenda. But the gun-and-bomb combination ended that speculation.
Given the tide of sentiment over her death – and almost every Pakistani mourned her in some way - her political party swept the 2008 elections soon after and her husband, Asif Zardari, was made president. Bilawal was put in charge of the party, even though he was still in university. Zardari chaired the meetings in his absence. And while it was clarified yesterday that Bilawal would be too young the contest the elections that are around the corner in 2013, he is expected to make some kind of announcements today at the gathering.
Bilawal has spent most of his life outside Pakistan and I hear that his Urdu speech has been written in English lettering. I’m not sure he speaks Sindhi and will be watching to see if he ventures into this linguistic territory.
Benazir Bhutto’s party, the PPP, has for the first time completed a full term in office running the government. It was not as lucky before. In 1986 she returned from exile to lead the PPP in a campaign for fresh elections. In 1988 the PPP won the elections, but she was dismissed as PM by 1990. In 1993, the president and PM at the time resigned under pressure from the military. General elections brought Benazir Bhutto back to power but for a second time her government was dismissed in 1996.
Much of the talk today is about Bilawal’s speech, but I do not expect him to say much aside from some emotional recall of his mother’s sacrifice. He may go over the ‘achievements’ of the PPP government at the federal and provincial levels.
What would have really made an impression and indeed given Bilawal’s career a real ‘debut’ is the disclosure of who killed BB. There have been investigations but till today no one has clarified to the country who was behind her murder. For the PPP government there has been little excuse insofar as they have been in power and could have pursued the matter properly and made it public.
All I can assume from the lack of disclosure is that either the information implicates people/entities they cannot disclose for security reasons or they simply don’t know. I find both scenarios hard to believe. I don’t feel we will ever gain closure until we actually know.
As for the men, women and children on the street and in the neighbourhoods of Pakistan’s cities and villages, conspiracy theory is all they have to go by.
My grandmother told me just yesterday that she was convinced it was an American plot with Jewish/Israeli undertones. I didn’t really have much to counter her theories because no hard facts have been properly brought to light.
I would have hoped that as the PPP government wrapped up its tenure for the first time in history, they would have commemorated her sacrifice by naming her killers.
December 24, 2012 | 11:24 pm
Posted by Mahim Maher
My three nephews, aged 1.4, 3 and 5 years, are on school break. Their mother is going out of her mind. “I’ve got to get them out into a green space to run around till they drop,” she said. And then, before I could even perish the thought, she added in a stiff voice: “I don’t want to take them to a mall.”
I started thinking, green spaces, green spaces, green spaces in Karachi. There is a beautiful small park near my house, in fact just a stone’s throw from Benazir Bhutto’s residence, 70 Clifton. I had noticed that its boundary wall had been pulled down and some kind of reconstruction was going on. But every time I passed I couldn’t help but think it was so much better just borderless. A boundary wall and gate deterred people from thinking of entering. And it seemed closed all the time. With nothing between it and the pavement, it was just a lush green expanse. I decided I couldn’t take them there with all the construction material spilling over.
A few weeks ago a non-profit in Karachi that works to save its environment, Shehri-CBE, published an 11kg two-volume exhaustive listing of Karachi’s parks and how they have been taken over the land mafia. Take the example of Huzuri Bagh (bagh being garden), which was six acres in the late 1960s.
Satellite images prove how it was completely constructed over by 2010. “Can you imagine the Central Park in New York allowing citizens build houses over it?” asked Shehri’s Roland deSouza at the launch of the book which was covered by The Express Tribune reporter Rabia Ali on my desk.
To give you an idea of how parks have shrunk I’ll give you the example of the neighbourhood of North Nazimabad that is one of Karachi’s few well-planned schemes, dating to 1953. Five decades have passed but the proportion of parks to layout has not gone up in line with the population growth. It has dropped from 4.48% to 4.26%. This area was meant to accommodate a population of 71,244 people but now has 0.2 million people. (Classification and Standardization of Parks North Nazimabad Town - Karachi, Pakistan in the Australian Journal of Basic and Applied Sciences, 3(2): 853-865, 2009).
I was in London over the summer with my sister and she kept exclaiming in amazement how there was a park every two blocks or so. There was no entry fee either. And they were kept clean and green by municipal staff.
But it would be unfair not to mention one park in Karachi. Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim near the sea front and Lady Lloyd Pier in Karachi is still a good space. It is spread over 130 acres and is beautifully landscaped but every time I’ve gone there it has felt kind of fake. I suppose I like rough, overgrown and natural greenery. Still, this park is amazing for the inner city kids and large families who can’t afford to pay to enter other entertainment spaces like the cinema. They often head there in the hot summer nights to catch a bit of the sea breeze. It’s a safe space and only families or couples are allowed to enter, no stags. But it’s not enough.
Neighbourhood parks just don’t have enough for children. They are not well maintained and in some cases have been taken over by drug users, rag pickers and the homeless.
But I had to take my nephews somewhere. A little research revealed the University of Karachi botanical garden. My sister’s face lit up. Biscuits were packed, water bottles filled and mosquito repellent was applied. The botanical garden is open for vistiors 4pm to 7pm Mondays and Thursdays. It is located off university road just after NED university and has a gate of its own. There isn’t much parking space, but as we discovered, not a lot of people actually go there. Aside from one decent greenhouse, the rest of the botanical garden was quite disappointing. A broken air conditioner wheezed in the alpine house where a few weeds straggled. I couldn’t find the pond the man at the gate had pointed to vaguely.
Still, my nephews had a good romp. They rolled down the hill, which amused them to no end. They had to be wrenched away from the cactus. They drew a few fronds much to the delight of their mother. Next we plan to take them to Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s mausoleum, which is set in a huge space in the center of the city. Safari Park offers a train ride to a zoo enclosure. The Karachi Zoo is also on the list. There might not be enough out there but for whatever it is worth, we’re going to hit them all.