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