Monday, August 13, 2007

"Writing columns often moves me to tears" - Independence Day Interview with Kamran Shafi

Independence Day Interview with Pakistan's Wittiest Columnist Kamran Shafi

One of Pakistan’s most acclaimed columnists and commentators, Mr. Kamran Shafi writes for Lahore-based Daily Times. A former officer in the Pakistan Army, he was Ms. Benazir Bhutto's press secretary during her first stint as Prime Minister. Some of his columns are archived here.

On the eve of Pakistan’s 60th Independence Day, Mr. Shafi talked to Pakistan Paindabad.

[Interview by Mayank Austen Soofi; picture courtesy - Kamran Shafi]

Welcome to Pakistan Paindabad, Mr. Shafi. How was your July holiday trip to Europe?

Good, thank you. It was great meeting old friends again, and visiting quite stunning places: Cordoba, Granada and Seville, and the great architectural monuments that even today leave one speechless. Not to forget some of the most beautiful and elegant people in the world! On the cutting edge, so to say, it was instructive to see how far small countries like Sweden have progressed technologically, leaving one asking why India, and far more than India, Pakistan, lag so far behind.

Why do Pakistani columnists mostly write negative things about the country? Is there nothing left to celebrate?

Due to authoritarian rule, there is so much wrong with the country. Yet there is much to celebrate: such as the good-hearted, resilient Pakistani people and their honest labours.

Your writing, spontaneous in tone, is witty and dark at the same time. Just what effort goes in the making of a weekly column?

Very little time is spent on the actual writing if I happen to be incensed about something, which is usually the case. Emotionally, the toll is greater. It drains me completely, quite often moving me to tears.

You were an officer in the Pakistan army. Why did you choose it as career? What made you leave it after few years? How you became one of the country's liveliest and most popular columnists?

While I am not so sure about the “liveliest and most popular” bit, and while I thank you for the compliment, I joined the Army to prove to my family, and more importantly to myself, that I could hack it on my own. Later I left the Army when I realised it had become too big for me.

I began writing when one of our very senior retired generals said in a press interview that while he was “number four in the army" at the time of the East Pakistan tragedy, he did not know the “full extent” of what was going on there. This was something like twenty-seven years ago but I remember writing a response that, even though I was only "number 7,844th” in the army, I was quite aware of what was going on in East Pakistan! Some of his friends reacted to what I had said; I responded; and my writing career started.

Please share some of your experiences in the army life. How that institution shaped you as an individual?

I spent some of the best years of my life in the Pakistan Army. I learnt to work with comrades in very close proximity; to tell the truth at all times; to stringently follow the law come what may; and to handle responsibility, at a very young age. I was a Company Commander at the age of 19 after the 1965 war with India. More than anything else I was humbled by the sheer loyalty and courage of the common soldier.

Many are identifying the army's hold on power as the key problem facing the nation? We even have a book by Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa with some unflattering observations about its commercial entanglements. How has the character of the Pakistan Army evolved?

It has become more commercial, dabbling in business, which is not what armies should do.

ln the book Twice as Good: Condoleezza Rice and Her Path to Power, there is an account of how the US Secretary of State refused to be taken by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz's "Savile Row-suited gigolo kind of charm ...” … If you were in place of Mr. Aziz, what would have been your rebuttal to this offensive description made against a top Pak leader?

I take it you mean had I been in place of Shaukat Aziz, what my response would have been to this bizarre charge. If I was an elected leader and not the hand-maiden to a military dictator (who is beholden to the United States), and if Ms. Rice (or her biographer) had been wrong about the charge, I should have got my government to protest most vehemently. In this case, Shaukat Aziz is neither here nor there in the scheme of things. Who takes him seriously anyway?

On a Former Colleague

You served as Ms. Benazir Bhutto's press secretary during her first stint as Prime Minister. How was it like working with Ms. Bhutto when she was still a Daughter of the East and was not tainted with corruption scandals?

I have always thought of Benazir Bhutto as a good woman and a highly gifted politician who more often than not said and did the right thing. As to corruption scandals, they are not peculiar to Pakistan - only the way the Pakistani Establishment reacts to corruption scandals alleged against politicians (not generals, not bureaucrats) is most peculiar.

Look at India and at the Bofors scandal. If I have it right the CBI is still investigating the scam. While the Hinduja Brothers are off the hook, Sonia Gandhi's Italian friend is still under investigation. Yet, she remains the leader of India's governing Congress Party and a member of the Lok Sabha. More than anything else she has not been chased out of the country under threat of imminent arrest.

What do you feel about Ms. Bhutto now? Is she still a credible leader for the country?

I am completely against her making a deal with the dictator; but she will remain a credible leader so long as the people of Pakistan support her.

There are hints of her return but everything appears uncertain. Since you have worked with her, do you have some idea what must be going through her mind presently?

The available evidence points to the fact that she has made the deal and will soon return. Unless Musharraf reneges, which too is being talked about in the bazaar, and which he is quite able, Sancho Panza-like, to do.

Personal Choices

Who would make the best Prime Minister: Benazir Bhutto, Imran Khan or Iftikhar Mohammed Choudhury? Is it okay to skip Nawaz Sharif?

Mr. Justice lftikhar Chaudhry is a great jurist and has handed down some important and ground-breaking judgements. He has halved the pending cases before the court and one hopes and prays that he continues to enjoy good health and remains the Chief Justice for many more years. As to who will make the best prime minister, it is not for me to say – let there be a free and fair election and let the people decide. No body should be left out of the electoral exercise.

Among the Pakistani columnists, whom do you never skip reading?

Mr. Khalid Hasan, Mr. Irfan Husain, and Mr. Ayaz Amir.

You live in Wah. Was there any special reason behind this move to a 'rural life'?

Wah is my mother's family's ancestral village. I was brought up by my maternal grand- mother. As for my opting for rural life: we are a rural people. However, Wah can hardly be called a “rural” place anymore considering the rapid and unchecked urbanisation which has turned our quite beautiful valley into a virtual bazaar.

In some columns we read passing accounts of your friends visiting from the West. How did their impressions of Pakistan evolve during their travels?

Since our friends have always stayed with us there is not much difference in their impressions of the country.

Mr. Musharraf and Co.

It seems another age when Mr. Musharraf had the good will of many. Did you not support him when he took power through a coup? How do you justify it now? Can the removal of an elected government, no matter how inefficient, be welcomed?

One thought he could and would break out of the mould, but in hindsight I was always wrong in supporting a military dictator. And no, there is no excuse for the military to remove an elected government. And no, a military coup should never be welcomed.

We know you found his memoirs In the Line of Fire “extremely ludicrous”. If you were the editor, what portions you would have deleted or amended? What alternative title you would have suggested?

I would never have supported Musharraf writing his memoir. Pakistan has made no giant strides during his time in power – if anything it is a far more fractious country than it was when he seized power. In the unlikely event that I was the editor, it would have been a very short book indeed.

Let's say you were Mr. Musharraf’s deputy who carried out a successful coup against him. What would have been your top priorities as Pakistan's new dictator?

Heaven forbid that I should be a dictator's 'Deputy'. Heaven forbid that there are any more coups d’ etat in our unfortunate country. Pakistan needs a free and powerful judiciary, fair and transparent elections, and the hand-over of power to the people’s representatives.

How different things would be if Mr. Bush and Mr. Musharraf exchange their official posts?

Not much; sadly they are quite similar. Only Bush is slightly the better because he is (somewhat) elected.

Readers always look forward to your Bushisms of the Week. Which is your all-time favourite?

There are so many that show the man to be completely stupid and without any human feeling whatsoever. He has said so many foolish things. This is one of those that I put very near the top: "God loves you, and I love you. And you can count on both of us as a powerful message that people who wonder about their future can hear."

What have you been reading of late?

Kargil by General VP Malik and Driving Over Lemons by Chris Stewart.

Journalism remains a poorly paid career in Pakistan. How do you support yourself?

My sons look after their old Abba. Bless them.

Final Questions

What effect do you think your columns have had on decision makers?

One that I do know is when the Pakistan Army enforced the Army Dress Regulations as regards the dimensions and shape of the beret when I repeatedly wrote about the ugly chapatti the 'smart and tight' beret had become over the years. It was heartening to see that change happen over a very short time.

This is personal. Just who is Charlie's Aunt? She appears very often in your columns.

Mr. Khalid Hasan, who was my English teacher at school (he was a very young man then), chided me once for referring to George W Bush as 'Dubya'. He said that even 'Charlie's Aunt' had stopped calling him that. I use it now to stress a point and to poke fun at whoever is in my sights that day.

Any sentiments you wish to share with the readers on Pakistan’s 60th Independence Day?

I fervently wish that Pakistan and India grow up and learn to live with each other like good, responsible and affectionate neighbours. Just yesterday, my friends and I went by train from Regensburg, Germany to Salzburg, Austria for the day. There was no passport or Customs control between the two countries. Why can´t I drive from Lahore to Amritsar to eat Thandi Khui wali poorian, and visit my great-grand aunt’s house there; why can´t my friend Alpana and her husband Rajeev climb into their car and drive to Lahore for tikkas? When will these two countries, both nuclear powers (I ask you!!) grow up?

Thank you for talking to Pakistan Paindabad, Mr. Shafi.

Thank you, Mayank. Be happy; and in the words of Mr. Spock of Star Trek: ‘May you live long and prosper’.


Anonymous said...

interesting questions and engaging answers. how and why Mr. Shafi took to writing was a good read, as were his ideas on the current situation in pakistan and what possibly lies ahead. especially loved the star trek sign off!

here's wishing all the readers in pakistan a very happy independence day and a prosperous future ahead.

Anonymous said...

I always read Kamran shafi. I am a big fan of his columns (i also like ayaz amir). this was a excellent intreview. i saw sides of him that are not read in his newspaper.

Anonymous said...

down with mush! down with bush!

Raza Rumi said...

thanks for the interview. It was quite thoughtful as well as entertaining - Shafi has an inimitable style of putting things across.

PP is doing a great job of bridiging the divide. It might be useful if there were more pieces on other subjects as well..

Anonymous said...

Really like the way Mr. Shafi put things together.
One thing I liked was people in pakistan as well want good relations with India. Even India does believe me, it's just the trust thats an issue right now.
So much terrorism going on in India that opening border might mean even more trouble. Not blaming pakistanis for it. Its just the fact that they enter india trough Pakistan.
I am from Jammu and Kashmir and today none one the terrorists captured in India are from Kashmir, most of them are frm Afganistan, that makes me wonder whoes freedom fighter are they? Kashmir's? definately not. they are not freedom fighters they are just professionals hired to do the job of spreading terror.