Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Year Special Photo Essay: Celebrating the Most Fabled Landmark of Lahore, Pakistan's Cultural Capital

Columnists, critics, students, travelers, and bloggers gather together to share their memories of Lahore’s fabled canal

[Pictures are by Mr. Usman Ahmed from Lahore]

To welcome the New Year, Pakistan Paindabad invited Pakistanis from different walks of life to share their memories of the fabled canal of Lahore, the country’s cultural capital.

The BRB Canal

Originally built in 1861, this 82-kilometer-long, tree-lined Banba-wali Ravi-Bedian (BRB) stream slices its way through the heart of Lahore - meandering through posh colonies, smooth highways, famous colleges, scenic student hostels and cheery cricket grounds.

Capturing the Canal - Coming Together

Here are the musings, observations and thoughts of few people nice enough to share their “canal moments” with us.

Capturing the Canal - 1, 2 and 3!

By Irfan ‘Mazdak’ Husain
[Pakistan’s most eminent columnist, Mr.Husain writes for The Dawn and Daily Times. He divides his time in Karachi and London.]

I have been lucky enough to have traveled to many countries over the years, and have driven across some spectacular landscapes that included mountains, sea-sides, valleys and lakes. But I can never forget driving along the Lahore canal, with its canopy of trees overhead, as the full moon's reflection followed me on the surface of the water.

Back in the 70s, there was little traffic, and one caught glimpses of couples sitting on the canal's grassy verge. On hot summer evenings, we would park and sip a beer or two while watching leaves glide by. Now, alas, traffic is heavy and the moral police would swiftly pounce on couples and drinkers. I suppose I'm lucky to have the memories of a more relaxed period in Pakistan's brief but turbulent history.

Capturing the Canal - All Roads Lead There

By Mian Naeem
[A painter, Mr. Naeem is also an art-critic. He lives in Lahore, with his vintage car.]

It starts from BRB canal, few yards away from the Khaira Village, dividing the poor neighborhood of Lahore from the trendy addresses of the privileged rich. After crossing the Thokar Niaz Baig it turns left and moves parallel to the Raiwind road. Flowing between the main highways, the canal also serves as the chief artery of the city. Despite receiving sewerage from (some) localities it flows by, the water looks and feel clean.

During summers, its very sight is a relief to the Lahorites. In those hot, simmering days hundreds of people come to swim. They eat watermelons and generally have good time in the canal. Young boys make the crowd but in the evenings one sees a good number of families sitting on the banks, the women with their feet in the water.

But not all is pleasant. The road on both sides of the canal is a traffic nightmare, especially during the working hours. The District government had decided to cut the thick trees to widen the lanes but the move was resisted. Thousands of trees still survive with ‘death markings’ on them.

As of now, the canal remains one of the few places in Lahore where I’m still able to inhale a gust of fresh air. So is my car which too is able to ‘breathe’ - what with the speedometer reaching hundred kilometers per hour!

Capturing the Canal - One Summer Afternoon

By Usman Ahmed
[Mr. Ahmed is a Lahore-based software entrepreneur. An excellent photographer, the pictures in this photo essay were his creations.]

When people in Lahore grow tired of their daily lives, they go to the canal to refresh themselves. I do not need to travel far since my house is situated a 5-minute walking distance from it.

One of my best memories of the canal is when I went for a swim during a fine summer’s day near the Indian border in Wagah. Since not many go that far, the water was very clean, and cold too. I was with Faisal and Sarfaraz – my best friends. A June morning, monsoon clouds were on the horizon and a fine breeze was blowing. The water level was only four feet deep and I could feel the soft sand crumbling against my feet. Everything was perfect.

Yeah, I think I’ll go there again.

Capturing the Canal - Here He Goes

By Tehman Lall
[Mr. Lall is a thoughtful, intelligent and articulate gentleman. Impressive and persuasive while delivering well-argued extempore speeches in public podiums, Mr. Lall is pursuing MBA in Lahore.]

It is Lahore's Sciatica nerve. Damage the Sciatica and a part of your body become immobile!

The canal is perhaps amongst those few purposeful, historical and valued structures of this city which might never loose its life and significance. And what a life it has lived! The canal saw the 1947 partition of India (and the consequent birth of Pakistan) when its waters turned red with blood. It has occasionally witnessed the negligence of our city government when the poor thing is sucked out of all the water. Besides, it has always been abused as a free dump by industries and cattle owners.

Nevertheless, the canal is valued most during the summers when it offers respite to the surrounding localities. It comes as a special boon for amateur swimmers and adventurous boy-divers who could not afford the pricey membership fees in club pools.

I do hope that the canal’s value and condition is improved further by our government. There still remain several ways by which this city could benefit from such an ingenious creation of the Mughals.

Capturing the Canal - Outside and Inside

By Maryam Arif
[A Lahore native, Ms. Arif is presently a student in Boston University. Fascinated by radical ideologies, she also has deep interest in social movements.]

My association with the canal spans over a decade. I grew up admiring the weeping willows lining its muddy banks. I remember the joy and excitement around national holidays when the canal was lit up, or decorated with floats.

But we Lahoris do not take our beloved possessions for granted. In the summer of 2006, we noticed huge red crosses painted on the trees that shaded the canal. The City District Government of Lahore and the Traffic Engineering and Planning Agency had planned to cut around 2000 trees to widen the highways.

The canal I had known since childhood was under attack. The residents of Lahore who saw this action for what it was – cruel, horrendous and scary – joined hands to save the canal and gave birth to the “Darakht Bachao, Lahore Bachao” movement. I will never forget the day my friends and I spent on the canal road, tying banners to trees. We had become a bunch of tree huggers out to save the Banba-wali Ravi-Bedian canal, Lahore's invaluable treasure.

Capturing the Canal - Something for Everyone

By Jawad Zakariya
[He travels all around the world, with his camera, but remain fond of hometown Lahore – “a city like no other”.]

The canal is a ubiquitous Lahore icon like the Mughal-built Badshahi Mosque or the more modern but equally historic Minar-e-Pakistan. Just like those icons it might not be perfect but it is what gives Lahore that soul which is so often missing in other places. Whether driving along it on a rainy monsoon day or going for a cold-water swim on a hot summer afternoon, the canal plays a vital role in the life of all Lahoris. Personally speaking, late-night drives along the canal are among my fondest memories of my city.

Capturing the Canal - What Fun!

By Mayank Austen Soofi
[He lives in Delhi, India.]

I had left India and the Daewoo van I was in was now speeding towards Lahore, some twenty miles away.

A canal gushed forth on the right side of the window seat. Grassy patches sloped down to the banks and trees on either side hugged together to make a comforting canopy over its length.

Haiku moments flashed past: buffaloes swimming in the waters; a green-turbaned Mullah lying on the grass and reading a book; bare-chested young boys splashing water on each other, their shalwars ballooned with water; fully dressed women blushing, laughing, and taking quick cold water dips in the canal; a family contentedly feasting on a picnic lunch, with men and women sitting in separate groups; a young man and woman whispering under a tree; a lone man throwing pebbles in the water; two woman holding hands and sitting quietly; a middle-aged man resting against a tree trunk; a pair of boys washing a bicycle...

Soon these enchanting scenes began fading and finally vanished. The fallen tree leaves, languidly floating on the water, gave way to polybags and tin cans. Lahore was approaching.

Wishing all the Pakistan Paindabad readers a very happy 2007.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The State of Pakistani Economy – It’s Time to Party

Pakistan has good reason to smile, though challenges remain

[By Mayank Austen Soofi]

Pakistan has reason to feel bright about 2007. The Economist magazine revised its 2006-07 gross domestic product (GDP) growth forecast for the country from 6.4% to 6.6%. In the previous year, the nation’s GDP had grown by over 8%.

According to Johan Wall, Country Director of World Bank in Pakistan, rapid growth has produced a sharp fall in poverty of 5%-10%, an increase in investment from 18% to over 20% of GDP. Not to be ignored is the great reduction in public debt from 85% of GDP in 1999-2000 to 55% at the start of 2006-07.

Both external and internal balances have strengthened, and reserves now cover five months of imports.

Tapping the Upturn

Expensive defense expenses notwithstanding, the government has used the resurge in economy in raising social and poverty-related expenditures from 3.8% in 2001-02 to 4.8% of GDP in 2004-05.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, a former Citibank Vice President, the government launched reforms to privatize public sector enterprises, liberalize external trade, and restructure the banking sector. For example, foreign investors are now permitted to own 100 percent of most businesses.

Roadblocks - The Poor and the Women of Pakistan

In spite of real successes, an average Pakistani could not be blamed for feeling far-off from the world of inflated statistics. According to the GDP, Pakistan’s per capita income comes to US$727. (Sri Lanka’s is US$1199). Poverty rates which had fallen substantially in the 1980s and early 1990s, have started rising again. The current inflation of 8% is still too high for the poor.

In addition, gender imparity continues to be Pakistan’s curse. Based on the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement Survey (PSLSMS), literacy rates of population 10 years and older have increased to 53% as compared to 45% in 2001-02. But female and male literacy in 2004-05 stood at 57% and 80% respectively.

If the women are not provided with education, Pakistan can never become a developed economy.

What a Ride

It has been an astonishing journey. During the dawn of 21st century Pakistan’s economy had weakened to critical-level vulnerability. Worse, 2005 witnessed one of the deadliest earthquakes to hit the country. Everything else that was terrible, like the ongoing war on terrorism, was followed by big oil price hikes. Yet, the economy spiraled up. A miracle!

Time to do a Salsa, but forget not the problem areas, please.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Photo Essay: Singing Christmas Carols in Pakistan

[By Usman Ahmed in Lahore]

"You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan.......We are starting with the fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State......."
Mr. Muhammad Ali Jinnah

Devout Christians throughout Pakistan spent their Christmas morning in attending church services. Christians constitute less than three percent of the country’s 140 million people. Special functions were arranged in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad to mark the day.

Rt Rev Dr Alexander John Malik, the Bishop of Lahore, said, "Christmas should be celebrated irrespective of one’s religion affiliations." The Bishop, who had recently landed in controversy following his daughter’s love marriage with a Muslim doctor, called for peace and reconciliation to lay foundation for a more tolerant society. Pakistan Paindabad wishes the same.

These pictures were taken in Lahore's Cathedral Church of Resurrection, popularly referred to as the Hall Road Church. Merry Christmas.

Singing the Bible Songs

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Following the Faith in the Land of Islam

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Dressing Up for the Day

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Singing Hymns in the Country of the Holy

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Christian Ladies in Hijab – It’s Cultural

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

You may want to peruse:
Interview - A Christian Citizen of Pakistan
The Runaway Bride and Groom of Pakistan - A Christian-Muslim Love Story

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Adventures in Pakistan: The Book Seller of Karachi

Sparks fly as a young book lover from India meets a moody Pakistani bookseller
[By Mayank Austen Soofi]

The author had made a trip to Karachi in April, 2006.

A small, dark, moldy shop, it was in Saddar - across the street from De Paris, my 273-rupees-a-day hotel in Karachi.

Despite its KFC, Pizza Hut and Atrium Mall, Saddar had the appearance of an oriental bazaar where all the jewelry stores were lined on one street; garment shops in the other and photo studios in yet another. The pavements were taken over by handsome Afghani beggars in greasy black shalwar-kameeze. A busy avenue choked with colorful buses — so unique of Pakistan -- sliced through the heart of the bazaar dividing it into two neat halves.

The Discovery

I had chanced upon it while searching for an inexpensive eatery in the merciless afternoon heat of Karachi. An old man, in a dark-brown formal suit, without a tie, was sitting in a wooden chair. Several stacks of old books were piled up carelessly on his desk, in the book shelves that hid the walls, and on the floor.

It was inviting and the gentleman nodded at me to step in. The eyes blinked as they adjusted to the gloominess of a sole electric bulb glowing faintly from the ceiling. The air, wet with the musty smell of books, dust and dead insects, was cool. I was pleased. Second hand bookshops are forever pregnant with the joyful expectation of spotting books whose existence one was never aware of but which happened to be exactly the very books that one had wanted all his life.

But alas, this was not that kind of establishment. The seemingly old books, suitably torn, were not very old. Most disappointingly, there were thick stacks of Danielle Steels and Robert Ludlums toppling over one another.

The Dejection

Pakistan was disappointing. It was my fifth day in the country and I failed to find even a single decent bookshop. A well-meaning acquaintance had suggested visiting Urdu Bazaar but that was cluttered with unhappy rubbles of pirated Sidney Sheldons and John Grishams, apart from xeroxed school books!

Nobody reads in Pakistan, or so it seemed. Even the newspapers were not easily accessible and if one did manage to spot them in the stalls, they were so expensively priced that it was better to read on internet.

The Dialogue

"What you looking for?" The old man said as I turned to leave.

"Ummm... some nice old book... umm... have you any old edition of Jane Austen?" I asked with no hope.

He shook his head.

Suddenly, on my right, I spotted an antique-looking hardbound with a dirt-green cloth cover. It was Wuthering Heights! I took it out and flipped through the yellowed pages. Yes, it smelled nice and looked romantic. Blood rushed into my head. Heart started palpitating, hands shivered, eyes twitched and cheeks reddened. I attempted to conceal my excitement from the gentleman. These booksellers are shrewd people. What if he sensed my excitement and hiked up the price.

But oh! The book was published in 1964. It was not old.

"Actually Sir, I need to take a memento from Pakistan. I wish to buy some good book before leaving."

"Are you from India?" He lifted his eyes.

"Yes, from Delhi."

Straightening up, he said, “Well, well, please look around. I'm sure you will find some book. You a student?”

"No." This was embarrassing. "I work. I have a job."

A silence followed in which I tried to find some worthwhile volume, but in vain.

"But Sir, do not you have any old Shakespeare? Or a cookbook? Some handsome copy of Pride and Prejudice hidden somewhere? Perhaps some thing on Afghanistan or Khyber Pass?” I was hungry for a book.

The man looked sad. "Nobody read anymore. Karachi has changed. Your country is growing fast while we are going down." He clicked his tongue.

I smiled. "Sir, if reading is the criteria then even my country is under-developed."

"No, it is not that.” He shot back. “Hindustan has big publishing companies of world standard. Bookshops are thriving. We are no competition. 'Til the '90s, there were eight excellent book shops in this circle of Saddar itself but they shut down one by one. Nothing’s left now."

The Intimacy

If there would have been a window around, it is certain that at this point the despairing bookseller would have longingly stared out into the street. But there was no window so we kept looking at each other. I took out an 1899 edition of Mansfield Park from my shoulder bag.

"See, this is the kind of classic I'm looking for. I had got it from Delhi's Sunday Book bazaar for just 20 rupees."

"Really? You are fortunate.” He was amused. “But why you carrying it here?"

"Well… uhh... actually Mansfield is my most beloved Jane Austen and this is my most cherished copy and well... uhhh... I do not feel secure without it." I mumbled.

The gentleman leafed through the pages. Suddenly standing up and hunching forward on the desk, he said, "I want to embrace you son. After a long time I have met someone so passionate about books. You have no idea how happy I am.” His eyes were moist and I was taken aback by the unexpected informality.

The gentleman appeared to be lost in memories. "There was a boy like you who used to come here almost every other evening. He would buy all the Enid Blytons from me… but the visits stopped - he had gone to Amrika..." There was a pause before he resumed. "...Some years back he suddenly appeared with his mother. He had a beard. He teased me that I had grown bald. The mother gave me his wedding card. They remembered me..."

I was uncomfortable and did not know what to say. The bookseller soon recollected himself and said, "What do you want to have? Tea? Yes, I will order tea." He barked into a phone, "Bhenchod, chai la. Jaldi. Haan, adrak wali, bhenchod!" (Sisterfucker, bring the tea. Quick. Yes, the ginger flavored. Fuck you.)

The Awkwardness

The gentleman settled back. Resting his head against the chair, he said, "You would have been dazzled by Karachi 30 years back. It was better then your Delhi and Bombay. But now… so many problems." He spread his hands and shrugged his shoulders.

"It is not that bad, sir. Karachi is an interesting city. I really liked the Clifton beach." Reeling under the spell of his kind compliments, I tried to utter all the polite things.

No response issued.

"But there is much poverty around," I said, and immediately wished to take my words back.

"Uh? You really think so?" The old man moved his head down, rolled his big round eyes, and stared at me. "You don’t know anything. Karachi has lots of money. We have people whose wealth is greater than your country's total GDP. But bastards have ruined this city. My Karachi..." He sighed.

I was intimidated. Just then a boy entered and the tea was served.

The Unease

The milky brew made me feel at home. This place had no good books, yet it was enchanting. I wanted to lay down on the floor and sleep. But it was time to leave.

"Sir, if you happen to visit Delhi, I will show you my private library,” I said. “I have more than 5,000 books."

He was not impressed. "I can take you to people whose libraries are larger than your entire house!"

Misinterpreting his words as playful banter, I challenged, "Oh, is it so? Then take me there."

He remained quiet and looked irritated.

The Farewell

While leaving, I noticed a red-colored book dumped on the floor. Titled The Dog Annual, it was printed in 1937 by The Church Army Press in Cowley, Oxford, England. The front piece had a black & white picture of a young Princess Elizabeth with her corgi. The bookseller asked for 40 rupees. I didn't engage in any bargaining.

"I like you boy," he said as I shook his hands.

"If I were staying for a longer period I would have visited you everyday." These were my final words.

Emerging into the blinding white light of Karachi, I looked back to have a last look at the bookseller. He was on phone. I think he had already dismissed me from his memory.

A board outside read: The Tid Bits Book Shop.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Transvestite Star Wows Islamic Pakistan

Pakistan enthralled by a bitchy TV host.
[By Mayank Austen Soofi]

Her voice bespeaks lust. The pose is suggestive. She prefers silk saris topped with sleeveless, low-neck blouses. Most conveniently, she is rich and single - her “colonel” husband long dead and gone. She is Pakistan’s bitchiest queen. She is a “he”.

Say hello to Begum Nawazish Ali.

Every Saturday night millions of Pakistanis switch over to Aaj TV, a privately-owned television channel, to watch the Late Night Show with Begum Nawazish Ali –“the meanest chat show on TV”.

The drag queen lures willing hosts – ranging from Islamic leaders to Indian film stars – into her “living room”, grilling them with queries and razor-sharp comments that render her prey with no choice but to admit that she indeed is the queen.

Saleem by Day, Nawazish by Night

It’s not easy to be catty, especially when you feel like a woman born by mistake into a man’s body. To be 27-year-old Ali Saleem - by day a handsome dude and by night the middle-aged Begum Nawazish Ali - requires far more than a dab of rouge and stuffed bras. In a traditional Muslim country like Pakistan, you need dollops of brazen to flaunt the thought it’s perfectly okay, actually cool, for a man to celebrate himself as a woman.

Photograph sourced from internetOf course, there were a few family problems with Mom – a former civil servant – and his Dad a retired polo-playing army officer. While growing up, the youngster infuriated Mom by dressing up in her saris or exchanging ladylike gossip with her friends. On many occasions the son tried to explain the familiar woman-in-a-man’s-body logic to Mom, but she could be difficult.

Even so, Mr. Saleem credits her as the strongest influence in his life. It could not have been otherwise - Begum Ali has a lot to thank her mother for learning impeccable lady-like tricks while Ali Saleem, the boy who wanted to be a girl, could not help but hate the same woman for not accepting him as he truly is.

Tracing the Journey to Stardom

Mr. Saleem idolized fellow sisters like Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana, and soon achieved drawing-room repute by perfectly impersonating Ms Benazir Bhutto – former prime minister and absolute goddess for every South Asian queer hankering to be a queen. The most memorable moment came when Mr. Saleem got the lifetime opportunity to perform his Benazir act for Benazir herself – at her personal request. Pakistan’s first and only female Prime Minister found him so funny that she chuckled aloud and congratulated Mr. Saleem for “making her day”.

His fame gradually spread from upper class salons, and with some prompting from an orthopedic surgeon, Mr. Saleem soon found himself as South Asia’s first cross-dressing television host.

Since then, the happy widow hasn’t stopped winking.

How Pakistan is Reacting

An Islamic society warming up to a transvestite? This has never happened before. A cross-dressing star would have been unthinkable, even suicidal, few years back. But the fascinated nation has responded warmly to the irrepressible queen who describes her role as “an expression of me as a woman.” The widow is “a socialite, very sweet yet bitchy.”

His stardom skyrocketed after Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf liberated the broadcasting media in 2003. The numerous infotainment channels that followed after that exuded fresh air in a straight-laced society. Entertainment-starved viewers lapped up anything and everything – including Begum Nawazish Ali. Although his popularity hints at a certain churning in Pakistan, it would be unwise to read too much into the phenomenon. Only 35 percent of the nation receives cable and satellite television. Outside the cities, satellite reach is barely 27 percent.

People’s Queen?

Meanwhile the TV hostess has started taking herself a bit too seriously. She interprets her saucy chat show as a medium “to inspire and educate people to do some good in society.” Her mission is nothing less than assisting thousands of seemingly macho man of Pakistan to open their closets and experiment with their feminine selves.

Despite these noble intentions, not everyone is happy. The country’s military leadership is thought to be upset with the attention she commands. There is also an online campaign raging against this madam who many believe symbolizes opposition to the “very values that this society holds dear.” Concerned that “what is vice today may be virtue tomorrow”, petitioners have informed her television channel that “Begum Nawazish Ali must pack ‘its’ bag.”

The lady refuses to be moved. ”It’s very easy for ten people to sit in a drawing room and criticize others,” she says. “We are too jealous of anybody who is even slightly better than ourselves.” Bitchy, bitchy.

Aaj TV - Late Night Show With Begum Nawazish Ali
Interview: A Fictitious Diva
San Francisco Chronicle - Pakistan's Late-Night, Cross Dressing TV Star
Interview: Ali Saleem - 'I Get to Have the Best of Both Worlds
Wikipedia - Begum Nawazish Ali
Pakistan Private TV Channels

Friday, December 08, 2006

Photo Essay: A Tribute to the Sporting Women of Pakistan

There are not many women in Pakistan’s sporting scene. But that may be changing; by Usman Ahmed.

[Photographs by Mr. Usman Ahmed. A resident of Lahore, Mr. Ahmed is a software entrepreneur with a passion for photography. He can be reached in his blog Random Picture Blog From Pakistan.]

On the evening of September 16, 2006, Lahore's Punjab Stadium burst into celebrations. The occasion was the opening ceremony of the 3-day Second Inter-Provincial Games. The most remarkable aspect of this event was the presence of women. There were 108 women players competing in seven disciplines. Although the number was not comparatively large (there were 1204 male players) but it was heartening to note their participation.

These stunning photographs by Mr. Ahmed are dedicated to the sporting women of Pakistan.

Sparkling Moment during the Opening Ceremony of the Inter-Provincial Games

Are You Ready, Girls?

Smart, Beautiful, and Smiling – The New Face of Pakistan

Cute Kids but Don’t Miss the Female Athletes in the Background

This Generation May Have More Opportunities, Inshallah


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Opinion: Is Pakistan Paindabad Website Really Pro-Pakistan?

[Text and picture by Jawad Zakariya; the picture shows the Pakistani flag flying high against the backdrop of Nanga Parbat]

A concerned Pakistani expresses disquiet about the intentions of Pakistan Paindabad.

After reading few articles in Pakistan Paindabad, I have to sincerely believe it is a great effort in the right direction. I whole heartedly agree with the creator of this website that more such efforts are required to understand the true sprit of Pakistan.

Yet, I seemed to get the feeling, while reading the opinions and features in the site, that it was slightly slanted towards the negative direction.

Of course, this may just be because there is so little good news coming out of the country at any time. There is a possibility that I may be finding negativity where none is intended. However, a case in point is the article on Pakistan cricketers – Playing Halaal Cricket in Pakistan. While the facts are all correct the tone of the article seems to be less so. From my point of view, the article’s author, Mayank Austen Soofi, could have examined some positive aspects, too.

In the referred article, he expresses anxiety about growing Islamisation in the world of Pakistani cricket and cites the conversion of the cricketer Yousuf Youhana - one of the few Christian players in the team - to Islam. Actually, I am quite averse to all things religious and was quite disappointed when Yousuf became Mohammad Yousuf, but at the end of the day it was his personal decision - something I should not comment on.

Interestingly, the author failed to mention that the cricketer, after his conversion, has become a far better batsman than he ever was!

Unfortunately, the rest of the article too has a similar tone. The author goes on to make some demeaning remarks about cricket star Shoaib Akhtar while completely ignoring his positive side. There were harsh observations reserved for other players, too.

My point is that this article, which was extremely critical of Pakistan, happens to be published in a site that claims to bring out the better side of this country. Isn’t that ironical?

Regrettably, other news features and op-ed pieces in Pakistan Paindabad carry the same slightly negative attitude – it seemed to me at least. For instance, the interview of the Pakistani Christian, incidentally with whose father Mr. Phillip Lall I have worked with, had that same pessimistic posture. Again, let me point out that the facts are all in accord but it is just the overall negative feeling one gets about the country from these articles that worries me.

I wish well for Pakistan Paindabad but I urge it to try to be more positive in its outlook. That is, if it really believes in its title.

[Mr. Zakariya is an accomplished photographer. He presently lives in Canada and can be reached on his website - Jawad Zakariya Blog.]

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Interview: Straight Talk with Khalid Hasan - US Correspondent of Pakistan's 'The Friday Times' Weekly and the 'Daily Times' Newspaper

One of Pakistan’s most acclaimed journalists gives his take on Musharraf & Mullahs, democracy & dictatorship, and on being a Pakistani in the US.

[By Mayank Austen Soofi]

Mr. Khalid Hasan is the US correspondent for the Lahore-based newspaper Daily Times and the weekly The Friday Times. His columns - Postcard USA in Daily Times, Private View in The Friday Times, are published on Sundays and Fridays respectively. Author of more than 40 books, including Rearview Mirror - four memoirs, The Return of the Onion, and The Umpire Strikes Back - People and Politics in Pakistan, Mr. Hasan lives in Washington DC.

Breaking the Ice

I’m glad to have veteran Pakistani journalist Khalid Hasan for an exclusive interview. Khalid sahib, welcome to Pakistan Paindabad. Since how long you have been stationed in US?

I have been living here since January 2000.

I understand you were born in Srinagar which is the capital of a part of Kashmir that is under the Indian control. So how come you end up in Pakistan?

Like hundreds of thousands of Muslims from the former State, we were among those who found refuge in Pakistan.

Since your birthplace remains in India, which Pakistani city do you consider your hometown?

I spent my growing years in Sialkot. It is in Punjab province, situated close to the Indian border.

In your website, there are pictures of you with many noted figures of Pakistan. In fact, you served as press secretary to the then Pakistan Prime Minister Mr. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto till he was overthrown in a coup. (Later executed by General Zia-ul-Haq.) You have seen Pakistani rulers like Ms. Benazir Bhutto, Mr. Nawaz Sharief, and General Pervez Musharraf from close quarters. Which leader did you find the most dynamic? Who among these was able to capture your imagination?

I think there can be no two opinions about it. No one that I have known had Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s charisma, his brilliance, and his sense of history. He was not without his faults but no matter what measure is used to judge him, he was a great man. He continues to remain a hero to countless millions nearly 30 years after his execution, the consequence of a trial that was neither fair nor legitimate.

Politics in Pakistan

Pakistan's present military ruler, is definitely more progressive than its last dictator. The current handpicked Prime Minister, Mr. Shaukat Aziz, is not as tainted as the democratically-elected former Prime Ministers. Pakistan's relations with India too have improved tremendously. Besides, no foreign power can dare to attack this nuclear-powered country. The economy is also spiraling up with unprecedented growth. And still, most of the Pakistani journalists, including you, continue to be critical or cynical. Why?

There may be an element of truth in all that you say, but it is not to be assumed that these things would not have happened with a civilian, elected government in office. Military rule, no matter in what form or for what reason, is wrong and unacceptable. The people of Pakistan reject it. General Musharraf remains in power, but not by leave of the people of Pakistan, I can assure you.

In one of your columns, you described certain Muslim women in the west, for insisting on wearing the hijab, as 'exhibitionist' and 'deluded'. You called them 'hooded bandits'.

I consider the abhorrent practice of burqas as more tribal than religious. In that column, I was referring to women in Europe, especially England, who have created yet another unnecessary controversy around Islam and Muslims by going around in Niqabs. The attempt, sometimes it seems to me, is to convey that “we Muslims cannot live with you Westerners". But they have no intention of moving back to their countries of origin.

Pakistan is ruled by a dictator but if you read its opinionated newspapers, watch its activist news channels, and listen to its people holding a wide variety of views, it appears to be the most democratic country in the Islamic world. How do you view this dichotomy?

It may be the most democratic country in the Muslim world, but that is not good enough. I want Pakistan to be known as a democratic country, not “democratic” in a comparative sense when pitched against other Muslim countries. Pakistan came into being on the basis of a democratic principle and through a constitutional struggle, so it is ironic that it should have remained under more or less chronic military rule.

President Musharraf has intended the 2007 general elections to be the ‘mother of all elections’. You are an experienced observer of Pakistan politics. Whom do we expect to see as Prime Minister by the end of 2007? Who is the most likely candidate in your opinion?

Frankly, half the time I do not know what General Musharraf means. From what has so far become apparent and, given the General’s own stellar record in holding democratic elections, the 2007 elections are going to be rigged. He is not holding them to be thrown out of power.

You are not a soothsayer but what is the probability that President Musharraf will remain at the helm till his last breath?

Things are getting difficult for him. The ruling alliance of sycophantic and time-serving politicians, diehard Mullahs, and a compliant army, with whose help he has been ruling Pakistan, is beginning to come apart at the seams. The most honourable course for him and the best thing for Pakistan would be that he step down and let a fair and free election with the full participation of all political parties and their leaders take place. That is his one chance of going down in history. However, it is unlikely he will take it.

Watching Pakistan

During my recent trip to Lahore, I visited the red-light district of Heera Mandi. Taking a midnight stroll in its streets was a strange experience. Many of the foreigners imagine the Islamic Republic of Pakistan as a regressive nation where people are supposed to be intolerant about singing, dancing and pleasures of the flesh. And yet, places like Heera Mandi survive. How is that possible?

Why is that not possible? That is the way Pakistan – and India too – is. Pakistan is not a country of long-bearded Mullahs. The people of Pakistan are like people everywhere. No attempt to impose obscurantist regimes on them and make them intolerant of such diversions and traditions that you observed in Lahore will succeed because it goes against their grain and their native good humour and love for the good life.

It has come as a relief that Hudood laws have been moderated. It will help the raped victims claim justice. Can you think of other laws you wish to be changed?

The entire body of such laws should have been scrapped long ago. What also needs to be scrapped is the 1974 constitutional amendment that declared the Ahmadis community as non-Muslim. No one has the right to pronounce a judgment on who is or isn’t a Muslim, or a Hindu or a Sikh for that matter.

2007 will be observed as ‘Visit Pakistan Year’. You have been very sarcastic about it. The title of one of your recent columns was titled 'Visit Pakistan in 2007’ — and get shot'! Were you being funny?

No, I was not being funny. We need to have better law and order and security than we have. We also have to make Pakistan fun to visit. Not everyone comes to look at mountains or lakes. Most tourists want to cool their heels, have a drink in the evening and visit a good night spot. We used to have it all well into the 1970s. Those facilities need to be brought back. Also Pakistan’s hotels are either five-star establishments or dumps. We need a lot of low-priced and clean hotels with good food and decent comfort. We ought to realize that the average tourist is not loaded with dollars. We should learn from the Indian experience and study how India has promoted its tourism.

Who, in your opinion, are the greatest Pakistanis since the year 1990?

Imran Khan won the Cricket World Cup for Pakistan in 1992 at Melbourne. So being a cricket fan, I would place him among the best men we have produced. He has also built the commendable cancer hospital in Lahore in the memory of his mother, Shaukat Khanum, who herself had died of cancer. A lot of poor people, who would otherwise not get treated, are treated there free of charge. I only wish Imran Khan was as successful at politics as he was at cricket and in building his hospital.

Pakistani Diaspora in US

There are frequent news reports of British citizens of Pakistani origin being suspected of plotting terrorist attacks. Some of the mosques there are accused of preaching extremist ideologies that foment terrorism. Fortunately, this lamentable impression of Pakistanis in the UK is not the fate of their counterparts in the US. How do you explain this difference?

Fortunately not, or at least not so far; but there is a more than fair sprinkling of the fire-breathing Mullah in this country too. These clerics are retrogressive in thinking, uneducated, ignorant but good at spreading confusion and pulling people back into the Middle Ages instead of propelling them forward. Muhammad Iqbal, Poet of the East, wrote: 'the religion of the Mullah is to spread strife'.

You have been working in America since 2000. What, according to you, are the major negative misconceptions held by Americans about Pakistan, impressions that you feel are quite unfair?

The problem is that Pakistanis do not mix. They live in their own cultural ghettos and thus remain uninvolved in the larger life of the community. There always can be a happy marriage between our own traditions, culture, way of life, food, music etc. and the norms, requirements and obligations of the societies in which we live.

Following 9/11, have you faced any serious discrimination in US because of your name or your passport?

Yes, “Traveling while Muslim” is now a fact of life. I myself have been subjected to special attention almost every time I have returned from abroad. I am sure that has to do with my name and my looks. Such discrimination is abhorrent and it is against what we knew as the American Way of Life. Hopefully, with time it will pass, but who knows?

There are many great things about America which, if adopted, can make Pakistan a still better place to live in. But what are those aspects about the West that you do not wish to be emulated by your country?

It has to be that American instinct for rank commercialism to the exclusion of all else.

Reading Pleasures

Did you read General Musharraf's memoir In the Line of Fire? What do you think of it?

It is a third-rate book, and it would have been better if he had not written it or had it ghost-written. It also contains many untruths - Kargil war with India for instance - and it makes some uncalled for and most unfair attacks on individuals, including Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Let me put it this way: General Musharraf may have many talents, but writing is not one of them.

I can not resist sharing an interesting if irrelevant observation on this entire book hype. Mr. Musharraf’s memoir was first released in English, then in Hindi, and lastly in Urdu - Pakistan's national language. And the Urdu version was titled Sabse Pehle Pakistan (Pakistan First)! Wasn’t that ironic?

The entire book, and what preceded and followed it is best described as an embarrassment.

You are also an acclaimed translator and have translated many important works of the great Urdu writer Saadat Hassan Manto into English. Now, Mr. Manto was a writer who generously sprinkled sex in his short stories. But he is perhaps best known for articulating how religious passion could turn a decent man into a beast. In such context, what example this legendary writer holds for the young generation of the present-day Pakistan? What can they learn from his writings?

Manto was a humanist and that is what we need to learn from his writings.

Please suggest a few books to help us understand your country better?

All you have to do is seek your answer through 'Mr. Google'. I would only add that those interested in Pakistan should read Pakistani literature – fiction and poetry. But people only seem to read books on politics or recent history. That can at best provide a single dimension, if that.

Khalid sahib, thank-you for spending time with us.

My pleasure, Mayank. I wish you the best of luck with your commendable effort to enlarge friendship and understanding between our two countries: India and Pakistan.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Congratulations Mr. Musharraf, Pakistan's Raped Women Are Safe Now

[By Mayank Austen Soofi]

In Pakistan, if a woman gets raped the first step in her aborted journey for justice would be almost impossible to make. She would have to search for male witnesses who had watched her being sexually penetrated against her wishes. If the said gentlemen remain untraced, it would be automatically construed that the woman had consented to have sex on her own free will. To make the irony more bizarre, such an unlucky rape victim, and there are many, run a further risk of being sentenced to death for the crime of extramarital sex.

Not surprisingly these stipulations force most of the victims to stay away from reporting this gross violence, committed on their bodies, to the police authorities.

This law is about to change. On November 14, 2006, National Assembly - Pakistan's lower house of Parliament – tabled the Women's Protection Bill (WPB) that included crucial amendments to the country's rape laws. It was successfully passed by a majority of the 342 members. After the bill is approved by the Senate and formalities are completed, appropriate laws would be correspondingly changed.

The Possibilities of the Amendments

These inhumane laws, known as the Hudood ordinance, were introduced in 1979 by the country's late military dictator General Zia ul-Haq. He had brought them as a part of his carefully cultivated strategy to win favors with the influential Islamic fundamentalist clerics.

The proposed amendments provide the judges with special discretion to hold the trial of rape cases in a criminal court, instead of being conducted in the otherwise mandatory Islamic judiciary. This discretion, presuming that the judges would be inclined to exercise it, intends to do away with the infamous clause of four witnesses, a necessary requirement in the strict Islamic courts.

The amendments have proposed the dropping of the death penalty and flogging for people convicted of having consensual sex outside marriage. It would also deny the police the right to arrest anyone on accusations of extramarital sex. The suspected people could still be tried in the courts but would not be detained.

Sex with girls under sixteen has also been recommended to be outlawed. The Islamic code had merely banned sex with girls before puberty.

Caution Suggested

Except fanatical Islamists, most of the Pakistani society, including its media, NGOs, military, and progressive political parties have welcomed the move.

However, it will be wise to recommend restraint in the relief. Religious fundamentalists exercise powerful influence in a large section of the society and no government in Pakistan is insensible enough to upset the social equilibrium. In fact, contrary to demands of several activists, the WPB has not scrapped all the features of the Hudood laws. For instance, consensual sex outside marriage remains a crime punishable by five years in prison or a $165 fine.

Nevertheless, a beginning has undoubtedly been made with the passing of these amendments. If Pakistan has to become a better place to live in, this path towards ‘enlightened moderation’ must not be abandoned.

Who’s the Hero?

The credit for the partial repeal of these anti-woman laws deservedly goes to thousands of committed human rights activists and concerned citizens of Pakistan who, for years, bravely confronted their country's unreasonable religious establishment for this just cause. But the biggest share of the applause must be reserved for Mr. Pervez Musharraf.

While Pakistan might display all the pretensions of a functioning democracy with its farcically elected parliamentary representatives, prime minister, and judiciary, the country continues to be a despot's delight. Nothing moves in Pakistan without the assent of its dictator Mr. Musharraf.

Now, this man has accomplished something that he had earlier promised. The repeal of the ordinance was courageous on his part and well-meaning in purpose. The potential danger of his unprecedented progressiveness could be ascertained by the observation that no president, prime minister or military general in the past had dared to mess around with the Hudood laws. Surely, Mr. Musharraf must not be grudged any of the accolades he is bound to receive.

Pakistan Paindabad – Long live Pakistan.


The New York Times - New Pakistani Rape Laws Anger Islamists
The New York Times - Pakistan Moves Toward Altering Rape Law
Pakistan's Daily Times Newspaper - Well done President Musharraf

Friday, November 10, 2006

When Pakistani Pop Stars Dazzled the Indians

[The review of this Pakistani concert, held on October 2006 in Old Delhi, was originally published in The Delhi Walla.]

Shehzad Roy - The Youth Icon from Karachi

The next thunder was not an item girl. It was an item boy - Shehzad Roy, a Pakistani pop star from Karachi. We had never heard of him before but some girls behind us screamed and sighed. We distinctly heard one of them moaning - "Oh, these Pakistani men, I tell you...."
Read more.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Runaway Bride and Groom of Pakistan

A Bishop’s daughter, Nadia Malik, and a Muslim doctor, Danyaal, fall in love and bewitch all of Pakistan.

[Text by Mayank Austen Soofi; Picture (The runaway couple, with a friend in between) sourced from internet]

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingNadia was Pakistan's most glamorous model. Danyaal was an eminent doctor. They were young and attractive and belonged to two of the most prestigious families in the country. They fell in love. But there was a problem. He was a Muslim. She was a Christian. Nadia's father, Reverend Dr. Alexander John Malik, was the Moderator of the Church of Pakistan and the Bishop of Lahore. Danyaal was the scion of a prominent Muslim family.

Love in the Time of Warring Gods

It was inevitable that this match invited snags. It was made in a country where religion is a delicate point. According to CNN, Christians constitute less than three percent of the Pakistani population, where ninety-seven percent of the citizens recite verses from the Koran. The country is the only nation apart from Israel to have been founded on the basis of religion in the aftermath of World War II.

Nadia, a graduate in Social Sciences, had stepped into modeling only after confronting the reservations of her bishop father. She had met Danyaal during a theater production in Lahore. He was one of the actors and she helped backstage. Their meetings, friendly at first, blossomed into romance with time. Then life took an interesting turn – for them, their families, their religious communities, and ultimately their nation.

Predictably, such daring multi-religious affairs are never easy. The heart is stupid to not recoil from these kinds of heretical diversions. It surely didn't help that both the lovers were stubbornly loyal to their faiths. Obstructions were further compounded by the reality of living in a society that, like most, was conservative at best and intolerant at worst. And both the families concerned were devoted to their different faiths and had difficulty accepting the relationship of their black sheep.

God or Child – Double Dilemma for the Parents

The parents of the love birds had to carry their own burden of disappointment and distress. The boy's parents considered themselves true believers of Prophet Muhammad's words. They had a hard time overcoming their reluctance in accepting a daughter-in-law brought up with the Bible, Jesus and (Allah forbid) modeling. And the girl's father was one of Pakistan's most senior Christian leaders. His priestly profession was at stake in the event of his daughter settling down into a Muslim household.

Fortunately, both god-fearing families cared about their children, who had to wait for five full years to witness a happy conclusion to their romantic agonies. The model finally got to marry her doctor on August, 2006.

The finale of the wedding was a sweeping flourish in a function held at an imposing cathedral in Lahore. The ceremony was led by the proud Papa-Bishop. The curious guests, among whom were the who’s who of Pakistan's fashion and film circuit, noted with awe and appreciation the gracious presence of the groom's family who must have broken many emotional and social taboos to participate in the Christian rituals of their Muslim son's wedding.

The Clash of the Civilizations

Soon all hell broke loose. The wedding left many people agitated and offended. A section of Pakistani Christians wasted no time in accusing Bishop Malik of betraying the belief of his flock. They claimed his daughter had already converted to Islam and had a discreet Muslim wedding, and that the church show was merely a blessing to trick the Christians. Bishop Malik has 'deceived' his followers, they screamed, and they demanded nothing less than the man’s resignation.

Meanwhile, as usual Islamists were deeply upset. It bothered them that Nadia underwent a church ceremony after her alleged conversion to Islam. Scriptures were dutifully cited to prove the ceremony had made her an infidel. They were also outraged that a full-fledged Muslim boy like Danyaal actually agreed to attend a service in a non-Muslim place of worship! At least one of the heartbroken Muftis was moved enough to ask for Nadia's death.

To further complicate matters, Nadia addressed the mess by insisting she had never converted to Islam in the first place. The couple, it was understood, had entered into an inter-faith marriage. They would co-habit as husband and wife while not ditching either Christ or Muhammad - a convenient arrangement to them and their families, but perhaps not to the aggrieved outsiders!

Run, Nadia, Run

With pervasive death threats from the Mullahs and no respite in accusations of betrayal by numerous Reverend Fathers, the just-married couple wisely decided that the best way to avoid any danger would be to flee the holy hothouse that is Pakistan.

So the Muslim husband and his Christian wife moved out of the country. They are presently sewing up the fabric of their new lives in Glasgow, Scotland. Apparently, both are relieved. The runaway couple of Pakistan is safe at last. May they live happily ever after!

Times Online
Nadia's Interview

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Interview: A Christian Citizen of Pakistan

Are minority Christians discriminated against in Pakistan? Are they free to pray in their churches? Do they enjoy the same opportunities as their Muslim countrymen?

[The interviewer, Mayank Austen Soofi, was introduced to Mr. Tehman Lall, a young Lahore-based MBA student, during his trip to Pakistan in September, 2006.]

I'm glad to have Mr. Tehman Lall with me. Mr. Lall, you are a Christian citizen of a Muslim Pakistan. Are you a pious believer?

Hello Mayank. To be honest, I'm not very religious, but I do consider myself a practicing Christian. There are, however, some weak and strong points in the way I practice my faith, but that I believe is every individual's personal choice.

A Catholic Church in the Heart of Lahore*

Who are in your family? Please tell us about them.

I have my parents - Philip and Priscilla. Their young lives were different from mine. They grew up and got married during an era when Pakistan was relatively a better place.

I'm not boasting, but my parents happen to be some of the very few respected and well-educated Christians left here in Pakistan. Most of the good families have migrated to the US or Canada. My father is a known figure in corporate Pakistan while my mother heads a women graduate college in Lahore.

I have two sisters. Sandhya lives in California while the younger Ratna works in an Islamic multinational bank.

Mr. Tehman Lall (right) with Family

Tehman, I found the comment about your parents having a different life rather interesting. What about your life? How was the environment you grew up in?

We children were raised with good Christian values. In fact my parents are living examples of those ideals. But at the same time we are secular in outlook, very different from traditional Pakistani households, Christian or Muslim.

Now let's come to the meat of this interview. How does Pakistan treat its minorities? What is the attitude towards Christians, Hindus and Sikhs?

Well, objectively speaking, minorities do have the legal right of practicing their religion. There are churches, temples, and gurudwaras (Sikh temples) for most of the Christian, Hindus, and Sikhs respectively. We are free to go there and do our prayers.

But in recent years, fanatic Islamic factions have tried to create religious unrest and terror for the minorities, especially towards Christians. Rape, blasphemy charges, and church attacks have increased over the years. But these are more prevalent in the rural and semi-urban areas of Pakistan.

Do you feel Christians are discriminated against? Do you have any personal experience of this?

Christians are not discriminated against overtly on a large scale but there have been and will remain instances of minority discrimination in this country. I have no personal experience of such discrimination but my father and my aunt's husband had.

My father was due to become the National Director of a prestigious management training institute but was succeeded by a junior. There was obviously a lot of politics involved, but it all revolved around religion. How could a Christian be at a senior governmental post! My father subsequently resigned. Something similar happened to my uncle, too. He was employed in the Foreign Service.

A Panoramic View of the Sacred Heart Cathedral, Lahore

I wonder if it is an apt observation that Christians here are second rate citizens.

Sorry Mayank, I won't back your observation. It's my belief that if one behaves and lives like a second rate citizen then he will be treated like one. Christians are given voting rights in national elections and share almost the same constitutional rights as Muslims.

There are Christians occupying senior posts in the corporate, government, and education sectors of this country. True, there have been people who had to face discrimination, but there are many who fought back and rose to a higher status in the society.

Is it true that the worth of a Christian witness in a Pakistani court of law is half of that of a Muslim man?

It is indeed true. According to the Islamic law of Shariat, which is implemented in the Pakistani courts, a non-Muslim's testimony is considered incomplete in many cases. It is only considered valid under the Pakistan Penal Code which entails Criminal Law as well.

Cross Looms High in the Citadel of the Crescent - Sacred Heart Cathedral, Lahore

In international media, we frequently read reports of violent attacks against Pakistani minorities, especially on Christians. Do you have a relative, or somebody you were acquainted with, who was a Christian and had to suffer violent attacks due to his religion?

I do not know anyone personally but there have been cases where uneducated young Christian boys have been tortured and killed by Muslims for reasons of blasphemy.

There have been also reports of forcible conversion to Islam. Tehman, do you have any relative who converted to Pakistan's state religion?

No, Mayank. I do not have any such relative nor do I know anyone personally who converted to Islam.

I know it's a private question but would you have preferred to be born as a Muslim in Pakistan? Life is less complicated if one belongs to the majority religion of his native country, whether the nation is religious or secular.

Well, considering the religious turmoil the world is facing I would have preferred to be born a Christian, and if it is all right to confess - somewhere in Europe!

But if the basis of religion is the betterment of mankind, then why should anyone opt to convert to other faiths? Why not instead read and understand all faiths with an open mind? Animals, as we know it, probably don't abide by any religion, and yet they live peacefully, much more than us humans.

That is well said. You are an educated, eloquent man and, considering your background, quite well-off. Obviously, the state of Christians in Pakistan can't be that bad?

Mayank, I'm educated and well-off because my parents worked their way up and made it possible. Unfortunately, a large part of the Christian minority in Pakistan belongs to the lower-middle class who have had to go through our degenerative and regressive education system.

But now, many young Christian graduates, both male and female, are aspiring to be professionals. Many of them hold degrees and teach in Christian institutes as well as work for NGOs. And there are also a small proportion of Christians working in big multinational companies.

Since it is unwise to generalise the state of Pakistani Christians by conversing with you alone, I'll try to desist from making a definite judgment. What views do you hold of your fellow co-religionists? Are they mostly poor, jobless, and uneducated as it is made out to be?

As I said earlier, a large part of them belongs to the lower-middle class. Most of them are illiterate and live in ghetto-like Christian colonies.

Let me give you a clearer idea of Pakistani Christians. Out of ten Christians, for instance, you'll find three who clean the sewers, sweep the streets, and work as alcohol buying agents; three who work as teachers in schools and colleges; two employed as clerks; one as a well-educated working professional; and the last as a high-ranking government official or as a senior doctor.

Of course, this is not an absolute representation of Christians, but you'll get an idea.

Yes, it helps in understanding the Christian society here. But is there a Christian leadership in Pakistan? Do Christians have a political organisation or a common platform from where they make themselves heard?

The leadership is in the form of our church leaders: Bishops, Priests, etc. Quite frankly, they have rarely stood up for Christian rights, especially for those who were victims of the state's legislative atrocities, but there have been some brave priests who did fight for our rights.

As for the political organisations, there are not many and the ones which do exist are unfortunately a bit too political and often known to over-politicise issues for there own benefits.

Were you upset when Pope Ratzinger recently quoted that Islam was spread by the sword? Or were you more upset by the violent reaction of the Muslims?

I had pretty much expected the reaction of the Muslims, but was upset about the Pope later shifting his stance. If he thought whatever he'd said was true, he should not have apologised to the Muslim community. Instead, he should have given a reasoned clarification justifying his statement and the purpose behind it. Either that or he should not have said anything which he couldn't justify or defend publicly.

That makes sense. Let's shift to more pleasant things, like who is your greatest living Pakistani hero?

I think (cricketer) Imran Khan is perhaps the best thing Pakistan could have asked for in this decade. And I say that in a sporting, social, and political context.

Another internationally prominent person coming to my mind is Salman Ahmed, the lead-member of the rock band Junoon. He has done far more than others to give Pakistan a more secular and realistic image. Otherwise, everyone thinks that we are a country swarming with terrorists and fanatics.

Tell us five things you love most about your country?

Mayank, five is a very large number for me in this context. I probably like just two things that also happen to be the most valued cultural traits here: one is hospitality, especially in rural areas, and the second is our respect for elders.

Okay, how about five things you will like to change about Pakistan?

Eradicate all fanatic and extremist factions, remove the prevalent Maulvi culture, cut the armed forces by half, provide progressive education to the youth, and probably introduce public-execution as means of stricter law enforcement in this lawless land.

Tehman, I have reservations about your idea of public executions, but I do hope that the rest of your wishes do come true. This has been an enlightening interview. You are young. What are your future plans?

Lord knows what I aspire to do later in life, but I could tell you where I plan to be in about another five year's time: getting another specialised degree from a foreign university after having worked for about 3-4 years and then settling in the west.

You want to emigrate to West! Why? Why not stay in Pakistan?

Mayank, I'll love to stay in Pakistan if there was even a slightest inclination towards some sort of positive change in our society and politics. However, considering the past and the current situation, God only knows how long it will take for the world to stop seeing this country as a 'failed state' and as the 'most corrupt nation.'

So being a practical person, I wish to settle in the west for my family's betterment and for my own sake, too. There are not many opportunities here. Frankly speaking, it has always been my sincere wish to reside in some part of Europe at some point in my life.

A Nation's Loss - A Family Intending to Leave

Good for you, Tehman. Do not forget to invite me for Café au lait once you are living in your Paris apartment. Meanwhile thanks for this interview.

You're welcome, Mayank. Thanks for talking to me.

*Pictures of the Lahore Cathedral were taken by the interviewer.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Opinion: Playing Halaal Cricket in Pakistan

The dilemmas Pakistan confronts today is clearly...and ironically...reflected in its primary pastime - cricket.

[By Mayank Austen Soofi; Pictures sourced from internet]

Pakistanis love watching song-and-dance films but are tormented by the guilt of having to rely on the great rival India and its bustling Bollywood to sustain their DVD pleasures. Pakistanis find politics entertaining, but the alternate regimes of corrupt politicians and big-mouthed army generals tend to leave them depressed and exhausted.

But there still is left one driving passion that all Pakistanis are proud of without being weighed down by any baggage.

It is cricket.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Pakistan Cricket Team Offering Prayers

From London to Lahore, from Lamb Chops to Lamb Kebabs, from Gentlemen to Pathans, it has been a long and consequential journey for this quintessentially English county game. Inherited from the British masters, nurtured in and adapted to the hot dusty grounds of their colonies, cricket in Pakistan has come to acquire a unique Pakistani distinctiveness.

In Pakistan, Cricketers and Dictators are Always on the Edge

In contrast to the kingdom of its origin, cricket has undergone a complete osmosis with its adopted country: it has seeped out as much to Pakistan as it has soaked in from the nation. The relationship has interfused to an extent that now cricket almost perfectly mirrors the turbulence of this republic.

Just like the Pakistani establishment, its cricketers too have a dangerous tendency to step into the line of fire. They are always daring, always adventurous, and sometimes outright foolish.

In October 2006, when the Pakistani players descended in India for the ICC Champions Trophy Cricket Tournament and were still in a tourist mode enjoying the Rajasthani cuisine and palaces, a scandal broke out and shamed the team. Two players were called back following the medical results of testing positive for a banned steroid.

One of the disgraced players was Mr. Shoaib Akhtar.

If the charges are indeed true, and Mr. Akthar has to be given a mandatory banishment of two years, it will be highly unlikely for him to crawl back into the field. At 31, he is too old, and the exile will be a sad end to his blazing career.

Mr. Akhtar, an excellent cricketer by all accounts, can blame no one except himself for landing in this soup. In fact he has been constantly trailed by a clouded reputation: there have been unaccounted reports of sex romps in foreign tours, of smoking cannabis in hotel lawns, and dancing in discos - harmless diversions but apparently not in accordance with Pakistani codes of conduct. Besides, Mr. Akhtar is said to have a massive chunk of ego bundled within him that makes it difficult for co-players.Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Now this talented cricket star has put his entire career on jeopardy. Why did he take drugs? Why was he so careless with his public image? Why did he decide to risk it all?

There are no answers at this stage but Mr. Akhtar's fate resembles the daredevilry of his country's ruling establishment.

In the spring of 1999, Pakistan had everything going for it: a working democracy, an atom bomb and Indians on the talking table. By the summer it had infiltrated its army into the Indian-held Kashmi, imposed itself into a low-key battle with its giant neighbor, lost the war, had its nose rubbed off by US diplomats and diluted the goodwill of the world for its Kashmir cause.

Why was the country, particularly its army, so careless? Why did not it's strategists study harder on the possible implications of such reckless behavior? Why did they decide to risk it all?

Pakistan Cricketer's Doomed Marriage with a Westerner Mirrors Pakistan's Failed Relationship with the WestPhotobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Handsome, toned, hairy-chested Mr. Imran Khan was the international playboy. Once voted as the sexist man of the year by an Australian magazine, he continues to be Pakistan's most respected cricketer.

Mr. Khan's life is the very epitome of what the new ideals of Pakistan as a modern Muslim nation should be. Being born in the Pashtun tribe, his origins are thus inexorably linked to the soil of Pakistan's heritage; raised in a conservative Islamic household, he was nevertheless instilled with the secular values by being educated in a school run by Christian missionaries.

In his cricketing life, it was under his captainship that Pakistan went on to won its first and only Cricket World Cup victory; later he displayed his kinder instincts by opening a cancer hospital that provides free treatment to poor patients. Gradually he even shed the trappings of his colorful life and started inclining towards Islam - in a powerful but subtle manner. Mr. Khan is deeply religious but never flaunts his born-again religiosity in public.

And finally, Mr. Khan jumped into politics. Though unsuccessful, he is one of the very few uncorrupt politicians in the country whom Pakistanis genuinely admire.

Undoubtedly, Mr. Khan possesses the essence of the best the east and west has to offer. Even the woman he married could not have been a better choice - Jemima Goldsmith, a London-based woman of Jewish origin!

Unfortunately, the marriage ended in a divorce in 2004.

Does Mr. Imran Khan's short-lived affair with the west reflect in Pakistan's on-off relationship with USA?

Pakistan enjoyed a close camaraderie with Ronald Regan’s White House during the cold war years. With the retreat of Soviets from Afghanistan, the American warmth disappeared; the lowest point was reached during Bill Clinton’s state visit in 2002 when he pointedly did not shake hands with Pervez Musharraf in front of the TV cameras; however since 9/11, US has again fallen in an uncertain love with Pakistan.

A Cricketer Related to a Terrorist; A Country Linked to Terror

Another cricketer Mr. Javed Miandad was the greatest Test run-scorer Pakistan has ever produced. Known for being extremely abrasive, he was infamous for uttering foul abuse at his co-players, and especially at players from the rival team -- particularly so when the rivals happened to be Indians.

In 2005, Mr. Miandad married his son Junaid to Mahrukh, thereby making his boy the son-in-law of one of the most dreaded terrorists in South Asia.

Mahrukh happens to be the daughter of Dawood Ibrahim, an Indian gangster-turned-terrorist believed to be sheltered by Pakistan. Mr. Ibrahim allegedly masterminded a series of single-day bomb blasts in the financial hubs of Bombay in 1993 that left more than three hundred dead and one thousand injured. This worst terrorist attack in India's history was the first draft of 9/11!

Disturbingly, many respectable people of Pakistan's high society attended the various wedding ceremonies, apparently not minding the possibility of being hosted by a terrorist.

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Mr. Miandad, in White, during his Daughter's Wedding Banquet

This close affinity of an acclaimed cricketer with a criminal of Mr. Ibrahim's repute, and society's sanction on top of it, confirms the fear of many that Pakistan has a high tolerance level for international terrorists.

Growing Fanaticism - Inside the Stadium; Inside the Country

Gone are the good godless days of ODIs and three-day cricket test series. Allah's army has invaded the pavilions. Beards, and not grass, now sprout on the pitches. The empty corners of cricket stadiums in Multan and Quetta reverberate with the sound of azaan, not cricket commentaries. The might of Islam's glamor has spread from minarets to wooden cricket bats.

Lately there have been observations concerning 'not-so-observant' Muslim cricketers being pressured into performing prayers if they wish to retain their place in the team. At least one Pakistani newspaper has expressed concern about the growing 'Islamisation of our cricket team.' Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

For instance, Mr. Mohammad Yousuf is a pious cricketer with a long, flowing beard. After hitting a century, he prostrates himself towards Mecca in gratitude. However, it was not always like this. The cricketer was originally not Mohammad but simply Yousuf and was one of the few Christians in the Pakistan cricket team. In 2005, he converted to Islam. Incidentally, he is not the lone bearded mullah among his colleagues.

Talk about turning the playing field into a proselytizing field!

This gradual Islamisation of the Pakistani cricket team is reflected in the changing values of the country, too. Noted Pakistani columnist Irfan Hussain recently commented that the society in the sixties did not require women to be draped. He observed that as the country has slid backwards, "unkempt beards have sprouted, green turbans have mushroomed, and millions of square yards of black fabric shroud millions of women."

Despair Not Desired, For Now

However, despite the religious conservatism leaking out of mosques and private spaces, Pakistan has reasons to remain optimistic.

Remember, Mr. Yousuf had converted to Islam willingly and the popularity he enjoys among Pakistanis dates back to his life as an infidel man.

Remember, Mr. Miandad had to go all the way to Dubai to marry his son to a terrorist's daughter. Even Pakistan was uncomfortable by this relationship and did not let the wedding to be performed on its soil.

Remember, it was Pakistan's National Cricket Board, and not a foreign sport authority, that took the initiative to conduct the medical tests on the basis of which it recalled Mr. Shoaib Akhtar, its star player. This proves that Pakistan has the willingness to correct itself. The country has the courage to confront its demons.

And remember, Mr. Imran Khan's ex-wife may be presently dating Hugh Grant in London, but the proud tribal Pathan still consider her a friend and has announced no plans of an honor killing.

Most interestingly, Ms. Goldsmith's two sons - Qasim and Sulaiman - are residents of Pakistan. That the half-Jewish and half-Muslim blood is flowing through the veins of two boys whose father can be Pakistan's future Prime Minister spells good omen for the world peace. Doesn't it?

Meanwhile, hope continues to float.

Pakistan Paindabad - Long live Pakistan.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Photo Essay: Street Walking and Jinnah Watching in Karachi

Karachi is Pakistan's New York City - its biggest and most important commercial metropolis. After Pakistan came into existence in 1947, Karachi was the new country's capital until it was replaced by Rawalpindi in 1959.

These snapshots of Karachi were taken by Mr. Usman who describes himself as an amateur photographer. Mr. Usman, through his blog, is bent upon debunking the myths, often derogative and insulting, that foreigners tend to carelessly associate with his country Pakistan.

Karachi Express in Making?

This child works as a servant in the residential complex of Karachi’s Mohammad Ali Society. He was stilled in these frames while playing cricket with the privileged children of this neighborhood.

Preaching Love, Sketching Heart and Playing Cricket in Karachi

Mr. Usman, the photographer, found this child "to be the most interesting subject of all the kids".

And Here Sleeps the Man Who Created Pakistan

Mr. Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948), one of the greatest statesmen of contemporary history, is buried in this mausoleum in Karachi. Founder of Pakistan, he gave a voice to the aspirations of millions of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent.

In his address to the future legislators of Pakistan on August 11, 1947, Mr. Jinnah had laid out the governing philosophy of his new nation in the following words:
"You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State ......We are starting with the fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State.......".


Thursday, October 26, 2006

Who Says Pakistanis Are Intolerant And India-Haters?

[Text by Mayank Austen Soofi; Picture courtsey: Mumbai Mirror]

Pakistan captain Younis Khan (left) and wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal in Chandigarh. They are presently touring India for the ICC Champions Trophy.

They are Pakistanis; they are Muslims; and they are firing crackers to celebrate Diwali - a great Hindu festival of India.

An eye-witness evidence of the graciousness and open-mindedness of the general people of Pakistan.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Daring to Dream – What To Do When You Want Indians And Pakistanis To Come Close To Each Other?

Indians say Pakistan is a terrorist nation; Pakistanis say India has hegemonic tendencies; both say peaceniks are fools.

[By Mayank Austen Soofi]

"My only dream is to take my old mother to Lucknow before she dies", Zulfikar said. I was talking to him as he tried to trim my prematurely graying hair one evening in Karachi.

Zulfikar had a small hair cutting saloon in Saddar, a commercial district in Pakistan's biggest city. He was the only child of his widowed mother. Suffering from tuberculosis, she wanted to visit the city of her birth. She was born, before the Indian partition, in 1945 at Lucknow, an aristocratic Muslim metropolis in North India.

I shrugged my shoulders. It was unlikely that the son would be able to realize his mother's wishes.

An Impossible Fantasy

It was not that Zulfikar was poor. His salon was crowded with waiting customers and the shelves were equipped with all types of facial creams and foreign deodorants. Even if he were financially disadvantaged, it wouldn't have been an issue.

Traveling from Karachi to Lucknow doesn't require much money or resources - an overnight train to Lahore; a short drive across the Indian border to Amritsar; again an overnight train and finally waking up in Lucknow.

Yet, it was foolhardy for the dying lady to torment her young son by fantasizing about visiting a city in India.

The governments of India and Pakistan do not encourage giving visas to their neighborhood citizens in large numbers. Excluding the cricket fans when matches are held here or there, the only people fortunate to end up with travel documents are always diplomats, politicians, journalists, film stars, CEOs and resourceful peace activists.

This is sad.

The Other Side of the Mirror

There are many people from both sides of the border who do not hold pleasant opinions of their counterparts on the other side. In India, Pakistanis are considered scheming plotters bent on breaking the country by aiding terrorists and sheltering dangerous gangsters. Pakistanis are perceived as Muslim fundamentalists following the severest strictures of Islam who like to keep their women enslaved and make their children constantly recite the particularly violent verses of Koran.

These impressions are true.

But this blogger was fortunate to visit the 'enemies' and saw them with his own eyes and heard them with his own ears, only to learn - if the worst opinions of an average Indian about Pakistan are true, the opposite is also a widely-spread reality and is a part of the bigger truth.

Both in Lahore and Karachi, and all the tiny towns in between (this blogger traveled on the road), there were warm hearted people whose kind opinions of the blogger did not change after learning that he happened to be an Indian Hindu; there were intelligent ladies, inside or outside the burqas, who conversed articulately, drove their own cars and were commanding and independent in their personality; there were young people, like young people everywhere - fluent in English with definite ideas about films, theaters, and music. Most interestingly, they all were curious about India. They wanted to visit cities like Delhi and Bombay.

But most of them would not be able to do so.

This is sad.

The Myth of Vegetarians

Pakistanis too have certain unflattering opinions about Indians - they torture Kashmiris, they are self-obsessed, Muslim-haters, arrogant, and that they are vegetarians. While all of this is true, the opposite is also a wide-spread reality.

There are many Indians who do not despise Muslims, do not look down upon their neighbors, do not shy from objecting to the human right abuses against the Kashmiris, do not desire the present grimness of relations with Pakistan to continue. Besides, most Indians are actually non-vegetarians! But since the people of these two countries hardly get to meet each other on a personal level, they are doomed to know only one aspect of each other's character.

This is sad.

The Saddest Dream in the World

There are many Pakistanis who 'dream' of visiting India. There are many Indians who 'dream' of visiting Pakistan. Actually, there could be nothing easier or less expensive than crossing into each other's country. India and Pakistan are not separated by a vast ocean; the traveling would not involve even air travel. The preparations do not need the complexities that occur while planning a dream trip to Europe or America. Ideally, there is no need for a Pakistani or an Indian to 'dream' about crossing the border. Yet, it remains a dream.

This is sad.

If They Can Gate-Crash into Each Other's Country

Indeed, traveling is the surest way to understand a country, its culture and its people.

Earlier this year, this blogger had barely managed to pass his way through Lahore while on his way to Karachi. In that short stay, Lahore appeared to be an unattractive, filthy, backward city full of auto fumes and tonga-clogged streets. But this judgment was reached after passing through certain districts of the town, which though real, did not make the whole city; and definitely were not the entire reality.

This blogger made a sudden trip to Pakistan, again, later this year and spent three days in Lahore. This time he drove by the wide avenues, noticed the clean bazaars, felt the absence of pathetic poverty so prevalent in Indian cities, dined in the glittering midnight restaurants, cruised in the first-world malls, browsed in the impressive bookshops, and walked in the chic art galleries. All of this was also reality. Not the entirety, but a significant part of it.

Unfortunately, most Indians and Pakistanis will never be able to view the complete picture. They will never get visas. There are serious problems of terrorism and distrust between the two nations and it is difficult for the governments to take bold measures for a peace in our lifetime.

This is sad.

Never Say No

But this blogger does not believe in karmic acceptance of the depressing present. Through his writings, though conversations with Desis - both Indians and Pakistanis, he is determined to bridge the chasm between the two people in whatever way he can, whether his articles receive many hits or not at all.

Make no mistake. Do not mock the blogger for being an unrealistic, foolish peacenik. He's not romantic but conscious of the vast divide between the two nations; he's familiar with the disturbing nuances of contemporary history, and aware of the terrorist camps and bomb blast conspiracies; he's not deaf to the hate agendas of both the sides.

He accepts it all as a reality. But he also knows that it is only a part of the reality. The opposite is also true. This blogger is committed to brining that 'opposing reality' - the one which is beautiful - to to the forefront.

He desperately wants the wishes of the dying mother of a Karachi barber to come true.