As the door opened and the orderly came in, the man I faced across the desk stopped speaking.
As the orderly left, he began speaking again.
This, I thought, was the hazard of doing a side interviews with former intelligence officers. (Although, they say once a spy, always a spy.)
In between these interruptions, doors opening and closing, he gave me a skein so fine, that I barely knew it had been cast in my direction.
In Pakistan, you have to be so careful about what the ‘officials’ feed you. Every reporter worries about the ‘planted khabr’ or planted story. The ones wet behind their ears run with them like excited puppies.
These stories bounce or bomb or at worst create the wrong kinds of ripples.
Something big is going to happen, he said.
I died a little inside. Sigh, I said to myself. If I had a rupee for every time I had heard that one, I’d be able to buy myself a donkey.
But yes, al Qaeda is very much alive and kicking in Karachi. If a few days pass without having been through a bomb blast crime reporters start itching and scratching and wriggling in their seats. “Ma’am, thanda para he,” they say to me. “It’s gone cold.” But the word thanda, or cold, has different shades of meaning. Cool in Pakistan is much sought after because of the heat. Thanda is also like a trail gone cold. Or if you like the Urdu short stories, thanda also echoes with the meaning of Thanda Gosht or Cold Meat by Saadat Hasan Manto, one of the subcontinent’s greatest short story writers. A man carries off a woman to rape during the pillaging of Partition only to discover that she’s been dead all the while. (http://www.chowk.com/Arts/Poetry/Cold-Flesh)
But I digress.
It’s all quiet on the Karachi front, for now. But tomorrow there could be a bomb blast. No one is under the impression that the extremists are not at work. Al Qaeda has invited everyone to the party and now bomb-making experts are passing on the trade to green thumbs, who don’t know the difference between getting laid and getting played.
But the reason why I bring this up is a larger context of extremism.
On March 20, the University of Karachi’s area study centre for Europe hosted the EU Deputy Ambassador for Pakistan Pierre Mayaudon to speak on security.
My subeditor (as in I own their souls) went to cover it. And as she expected, Mayaudon came sufficiently briefed to remain demure and non-confrontational. He missed out on a good opportunity to flex his diplomatic muscle and win over some hearts and minds. But when it came to questions on extremist outbreaks in the EU, he was disappointing.
The killing of Jewish people in Toulouse was noted in Pakistan, needless to say. And in Mayaudon’s audience were mostly faculty members, doctoral and PhD students and a good sweep of media with television channels and newspapers.
But as I edited the copy, I inserted that he did not use this chance to talk, really talk about extremism when he was questioned about it in European countries.
Whether he had answers to offer or not, he would have impressed his audience by being honest. He should have perhaps said that yes, we have a problem with extremism and hatred across the world and it is manifesting itself in ways we had never imagined – some of them are relatively predictable in the face of al Qaeda and others catch us when we least expect it.
I do not believe for one second, at this point in time and given my exposure, that the way to ‘win hearts and minds’ comes with one lecture or talk but I think that every little bit of honesty has the ability to cut through the swathe of spin and doublespeak and the perception of perpetual lying that I see crushing young people in Pakistan.
When you are honest about, say, mistakes you have made, there will be a group of people who will use it against you, but there will be a group of people that will be impressed by the sheer attempt to be honest about what has been done wrong. This is a paradigm we pretty much never get to see on TV or read about in the papers as far as diplomatic positions are concerned.
I met people from a political party last week, representatives who wanted to lodge their complaint with my newspaper that they were not covered enough. I asked the men about a particularly controversial question: what do you think about this new mysterious group demanding a separate province?
Secessionist movements are regarded with a mixed bag of emotions in Pakistan at this particular time. But despite the risks one of the political representatives was honest with us about his personal (and not his party’s) stand on wanting a separate province. I did not agree or disagree with him but I admired his ability to be honest with me. I came out of that meeting with a slightly different perspective on him and the entire idea.
In Pakistan young people struggle with too much media, cloak and dagger intelligence agencies, what they perceive as the Great Game blah blah blah. It scares them that stuff is happening out there that is beyond their ken as Pakistani citizens. Their input on political or foreign policy decision making needs to be much stronger. But if people were honest, diplomats and local politicians, government officials,
I think that we would be able to at least reach them.
Mayaudon would have been eaten alive if he had admitted that certain parts of Europe have an extremism problem, but he should as a diplomat used his position and time with the Pakistani students and faculty to impress them with some line of argument that would have won them over.
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