Sunday, August 29, 2010

Letter from London - Why I Love Pakistan

"Pakistan Paindabad has set others a model of what a blog/site should be."
Late Khalid Hasan, US correspondent for the Lahore-based Daily Times and The Friday Times

Jiye Pakistan

Pyaasa for Pakistan.

[Text by Catriona Luke; picture by Mayank Austen Soofi ]

I've worked in Mumbai and been in India many times, but have always had an ill-concealed soft spot for Pakistan, which sits in the west of the subcontinent.

Pakistan has a much longer history than its three-generational link to 1947 -- it's the land of Gandhara Buddhism, Ashoka and his pillars, the lovely city of Lahore and the archaeological remains of Mohenjo Daro as well as the Indus Valley civilisation. And, like India, it's a land of stunning landscapes, peaceful farming lands and a tight bond between land and people.

It is also at this moment a troubled part of the world. Like India, Pakistan has been able to do little about the rising poverty of its rural poor. Unlike India, it has a long way to go to expand the educated middle class which, over the border, has been responsible in great measure for a buoyant and expanding economy.

Pakistan trains fantastic lawyers (often called to the Bar in London), doctors, engineers, bio scientists, economists and statisticians, teachers and IT specialists, but they often struggle to find the rewarding careers that would be theirs in the west. However, this is beginning to change, largely due to the return of a young generation of American-educated go-getters.

Crucially, the middle classes have also found it difficult to penetrate politics through the National Assembly, where zaminder (landowning) interests and opaque power deals between the army and religious parties predominate. As in India, you need deep pockets and good connections to enter politics. As Salman Rushdie said in Shame (1983): "You can get anywhere in Pakistan if you know people, even into jail."

If India mutters about the ever-present "foreign hand" interfering -- with justification, as both the KGB and the CIA have held sway in New Delhi at different times -- Pakistan has it for real.

Saudi Arabia's charming export of Wahhabism (latterly in the form of the Taliban and al-Qaeda) has been wreaking havoc in the region for decades, destroying the indigenous and centuries-old subcontinental Sunni Sufi mysticism and putting pressure on Pakistan's courtly and aristocratic Shia intelligentsia as well as its Ahmadi, Hindu and Christian minorities.

It would have needed an exceptionally strong, moral, good, worldly and intelligent leader of Pakistan in the 1970s to avoid the lure and trap of Saudi money, which was accepted to improve the country's infrastructure and real estate. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was not it.

While Pakistan's international image has suffered immeasurably in the intervening years, I would urge all who love the subcontinent to look past the headlines and the international analysis, and see a country which, for the moment at least, is cut off from its continental neighbour. Here are my own reasons for loving Pakistan:

1. Women are noisily at the centre of Pakistani life. Challenging and vocal, they sit at the heart of the family and have made good progress into professional and political life.

Declan Walsh reported the terrible attack on the Ahmadi community in June, and noted that it was three women from different parties -- ANP's Bushra Rehman, MQM's Khushbakht Shujaat and PPP's Farahnaz Ispahani -- led by the former PPP minister Sherry Rehman, who crossed the floor in the National Assembly and made sure the legislature said "no".

In human rights and the state's nurturing of all religions and religious minorities, Pakistan has never gone far enough. But with 30 per cent of seats in the National Assembly occupied by women (India has 10 per cent), they are playing a more significant role in the legislature. That may help bring the country back to Jinnah's original ideals of a tolerant, secular nation.

2. Pakistan has a line in very attractive men, from old heart-throbs such as Tariq Ali and Imran Khan to a younger generation such as Lahore's most happening export to Bollywood, Ali Zafar.

Outlook India recently ran a fascinating piece about the film history of Peshawar: Shashi Kapoor and Shahrukh Khan's families were from this region. I very much hope that Sanjeev Bhaskar won't mind if I put his handsome features down to west Punjab, where his family lived for centuries (his father's ancestral village was Badhoki Gosaiyan).

And you will be hard pressed to find sweeter coverage than the respectful and affectionate writing about women in the weekend papers.

3. Pakistan has a varied and lively media, though perhaps not always on the side of the angels. But probably more than India, it has a range of sophisticated English-language newspapers (firmly on the side of the angels), including Najam Sethi's PEN Award-winning Friday Times and Karachi's Dawn. (Their closest competitors in India are Vinod Mehta's Outlook India and the Hindu.) Both are written in classic, poised prose and boast incisive columnists as well as world-class books, arts and cultural coverage.

In Mohammed Hanif, Ali Sethi, Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie, Pakistan has a growing raft of writers (some of them Harvard-educated) who explore political and social themes.

4. The country survives daily life on humour, a curious cross-blend of the subcontinental and something rather like Oxbridge Private Eye. But if in the west the well of ribaldry comes from the misfortune of others, in Pakistan, the humour is rather more subtly how people try to find their way out of that misfortune.

It's a richer hoard altogether that provides endless material at social gatherings, as well as for TV star transvestites such as Begum Nawazish Ali.

Over the border in India, the vaudeville slapstick of Mr Bean appeals greatly to audiences. Pakistan finds itself closer to Yes Minister.

5. Pakistanis adore their children: to be born into a settled family in the subcontinent is to enter a very happy world of love and adoration. Only Italians compare in their child-worship. It's not such a strange thing to mention, because in the west there are still hints of Victoriana in our upbringing -- don't talk with your mouth full, don't point, it's rude to stare, say you're sorry.

If you're a boy in Pakistan or India, you're on a winning ticket. Not only will be you adored and pampered, but you'll be allowed just as rich an emotional life as the girls. By contrast, British boys are expected to rein it in. Pakistani fathers are proud as Punch of their girls and their ability to outshine the boys with top marks at school and university.

6. It is a country that thrives on mixed metaphors. So, for those to the west of the border, the song I choose for you is the hauntingly beautiful "Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai" ("What Is This World to Me?").

It comes from the film about mistaken identity and lack of life's essentials Pyaasa (Thirsty, 1957), directed by and featuring Guru Dutt, a Hindu whose melancholy perhaps made him an honorary subcontinental Muslim. The melody was written by S D Burman (a Bengali Hindu), the lyrics were written by the Urdu poet Saahir (Abdul Hayee, a Punjabi Muslim) and they were sung by Mohammed Rafi (another Punjabi Muslim). You can watch it here.

It's worth remembering that although the song does not have a happy ending, the film does.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Pakistan Floods - Is Indian Media Blacking Out Pakistan’s Worst Natural Tragedy

"Pakistan Paindabad has set others a model of what a blog/site should be."
Late Khalid Hasan, US correspondent for the Lahore-based Daily Times and The Friday Times

Pakistan Floods - Is Indian Media Blacking Out Pakistan’s Worst Natural Tragedy

Pakistan's tragedy doesn't move India.

[Text by Mayank Austen Soofi; picture by Faisal Mahmood of Reuters; the man is consoling his family members after they returned to find their homes destroyed after heavy floods in Nowshera, located in Pakistan's northwest Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, August 3, 2010. ]

On the evening of August 16th, 2010, I was in Delhi’s Ambassador Hotel. The Indian capital’s leading opinion makers, including the Prime Minister’s wife, gathered to celebrate the launch of author Khushwnat Singh’s yet another book. If somebody mentioned Pakistan’s harrowing humanitarian flood crisis over cocktails, I did not hear it.

The same night I got this distress e-mail from Navaid Husain, an architect friend in Karachi. “The floods have knocked Pakistan to the absolute bottom. 20 million displaced people. So many houses, schools, roads, bridges, factories knocked out. Loss of so many cattle, goats will push up the price of milk & meat. On the pictures taken by satellite shows so much water all over. Much of this water will stay stagnant & will take months to settle down. Lack of clean drinking water is already causing sickness.”

I immediately called Saeeda Diep, my activist friend in Lahore. She had just returned from Amritsar, the biggest city of the Indian side of Punjab, where she had gone to light candles in the border post of Wagah. Diep was shocked that the biggest tragedy of her country was not causing even a whimper with the neighbour. “Except Lahore and Karachi, my entire country is gone. Pakistan is being wiped out. It’s worse than the Indian Ocean tsunami and Haiti quake but for two days I read the Indian newspapers and found nothing, absolutely nothing, on Pakistan’s flood crisis. The Indian news channels were busy bashing Pakistan on terrorism.”

Is it true that Indian media is silent on Pakistan’s worst natural disaster?

"Understandably, there is a considerable coverage of the flash floods in Leh but so little space has been given to a far far greater natural disaster across the western border,” says Andrew Buncombe, the Independent’s Delhi-based Asia correspondent who had just returned from flooded central Punjab. “There may be several reasons for this. One of which is that Indian and Pakistani journalists have difficulties of obtaining visas to visit and work in each other’s countries. However, it does seem as if there is a blind spot within the Indian media towards the current, obvious suffering of the Pakistanis. Instead, the stories that have come out have largely focused on issues such as the weakening of Pakistan’s civilian government, the increased power of the military and procedural difficulties in processing India's donation of $5 million – which, while something, is not a massive amount given the scale of the floods.”

Indian journalists may not agree. “In Hindustan Times, we are carrying 7-8 column space daily on the floods,” says Samar Halarnkar, the Delhi-based newspaper’s editor-at-large. “You can’t do more because your readership doesn’t care about calamities such as floods, unless it’s happening in their own backyard. This is a modern media issue. It’s not about Pakistan. How many people know that Bihar is reeling under a severe drought currently?”

I then e-mailed Indian Express columnist Taveel Singh known for her harsh views on Pakistan. “The truth is that there is very little sympathy for Pakistan in India after 26/11,” she wrote referring to terrior attacks in Bombay by Pakistan-based terrorists in 2008. “With the floods in Leh causing considerable loss of life people are more concerned about that. Also you may not be aware that after the Kashmir earthquake Indian construction companies working on rebuilding houses on our side offered their help to the Pakistani government and it was rejected. As far as I know the Indian government's offers of aid this time have also been turned down.”

I checked out the latest issue of India Today, the country’s leading news weekly. There was no story on the floods in its thick 152 pages. The last page, though, had a small anecdote on Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani being an admirer of Bollywood singer Lata Mangeshkar. The other reference, on page 22, had a weekly column by the magazine’s Editor-at-Large, S. Prasannarajan, in which he blamed the ongoing Kashmir unrest being “played out under the gaze of Pakistan, which has unarguably become the unofficial headquarters of jihad.”

“The fact is that the tragedy has stuck an enemy. The corporate media is there to serve the market or so they say. The market demands jingoism and that they focus on our ‘own problems’, you know ‘Peepli Live’ and Aamir Khan kind of Bollywood subjects,” says Gaurav sood, a Stanford University scholar.

I logged onto the website of Tehelka magazine, known for its activist-ridden stories that dares the establishment by presenting the alternative truth. I searched for the word ‘flood’ and found nothing.

“In Amritsar, I watched the live telecast of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s 40-minute-long speech in Delhi’s Red Fort,” says Diep. “If only he had mentioned about our tragedy… just one line on how sad he is… it would have made us Pakistanis think that yes, Indians care.”