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Archive for September, 2012

The recent violence in Karachi and the rest of the country reminds me of an alarming day in November 2007.

The General had declared a state of emergency in the country. There could have been a coup to oust him; a counter coup could have followed to restore him. People feared more bomb blasts, even a nuclear holocaust. I and my husband were cutting short our trip and driving down Drigh Road to the airport to leave for New York.

Memories of Drigh Road came rushing to me, competing with its traffic chaos. General Ayub Khan, Chou En Lai, Jawaharlal Nehru and Jacqueline Kennedy appeared in a flash as I passed by Gora Qabiristan. Somewhere close to it, waiting with the school children to welcome foreign dignitaries, I too had waved at them. Soon we reached the Embassy Inn.  There used to be a driving school where its building stands now.  As a teenager I had secretly enrolled myself for driving lessons. During those days my greatest fear was running into the car of my eldest brother against whose wishes I was learning to drive. How the dangers have multiplied.

On the morning of May 12, 2007 after a few hours of sleep, Nicholas Schmidle, a young American writer, had walked onto the roof of the Embassy Inn to have a look down over the city. Two years later he described in his book what he saw of Drigh Road, “The main road connecting the downtown area to the airport was empty… Gas stations had switched off the pumps and closed so that rioters couldn’t burn them down. Convenience stores, office buildings, and even the lobby of the Embassy Inn had draped thick curtains over the windows to prevent bricks from crashing through.” What Schmidle saw was just the beginning of trouble.

May 12 was a day of public and political unrest. A few months earlier, in March 2007, the government of General Pervez Musharraf had suspended the Chief Justice, Chaudhary Iftikhar. This had caused great resentment in the public and a countrywide Lawyer’s Movement was launched to restore the Chief Justice. The movement was gaining momentum and thousands were expected to welcome the Justice as he was scheduled to visit the city. Musharraf and his partners feared this massive crowd and hence the resistance which resulted in many deaths of the citizens. By November, things were out of control and Musharraf was left with no choice but to impose the Emergency to suppress the protests.

Thus it was ironic in those hostile moments to spot, out of all the places, the Friendship House. Located across from the Embassy Inn, during its heyday in the Cold War years, it was the House where friends of the Soviet Union were welcomed. It was also a great source of books on Russian writing, especially the Marxist-Leninist literature. Russian movies shown in its lawn were a great attraction for the intellectual class of Karachi. I remember the advertisement for a film called ‘Cranes are Flying’.

One evening I saw Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the well-known poet and his wife Alice standing at the gate of the Friendship House and receiving guests. Faiz was a recipient of the Lenin Peace Prize and I suppose an honorable member of the House. In a minute’s drive, we passed by the intersection of Shahrah-e-Quaideen and I looked for the P.E.C.H.S College from where I had graduated, it was no more visible. Once again Faiz appeared in my memory, walking in the corridors of the College. He was a regular visitor there, as Alice was an English teacher at the College. Across from the College was Khayyam Cinema that, on occasion, held students’ shows. It was at Khayyam where I saw Sophia Loren and William Holden in ‘The Key.’ I was too young to enjoy the movie but old enough to fall in love with Sophia Loren. Khayyam is no more there; the new building with the same name is now huddled with shops and offices, the roads around it crowded with trucks, taxis, and rickshaws.

At one point beyond the airport, Drigh Road converts to the highway that leads to Hyderabad and Mirpur Khas and my village, some 250 miles away from Karachi. Ah, those long journeys in the good old days when going to the village during each summer and winter vacation was a joyous occasion. Today, even reaching the airport was a punishing journey. I was tense, and so was the city. The car slowed down as we passed by Karsaz. “This is the site of the bomb blasts,” our driver informed us. It was only a month ago – a 139 people were killed and many more were injured.  Benazir was one of the survivors.

At a little distance from Karsaz is the Pakistan Air Force base, or PAF as it is commonly referred to. In its previous life, it was the RAF, or the Royal Air Force of British India. In 1927 when T.E. Lawrence worked in its Engine Repair Shop he found the environs dreary. “It is a desert, very like Arabia,” he complained in a letter. He was constantly reminded of what he was trying to erase from his memory. And yet this is where Lawrence the archaeologist, more known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ from David Lean’s epic film, had come to change his career. He had chosen to be an ordinary airman, a quieter career, to help run away from his fame. In the evenings he would go out to listen to the music of camel bells along Drigh Road, but that would bring back even more memories.

Automobiles have replaced the camels since long. The road itself has gone through many changes including its name. It is now called Shahrah-e-Faisal, and the PAF base is PAF Faisal – both named after Shah Faisal of Saudi Arabia. I am still used to calling it Drigh Road, its original  name and I am not the only one. Its traffic through the years has increased; its chaos has killed many people, and the dangers are multiplying. I dreaded a traffic jam, a sudden blockade of the road, the stoning and burning of the cars by angry protestors. What if we missed the flight, or worse yet, if the airport was closed and the flights cancelled. Our son and daughter made a frantic call from New York to check if we had made it to the airport. “We are almost there,” I lied.

Miraculously we did reach the airport and in another two hours, from the window of the airplane, I was gazing down at Pakistan’s troubled land. The view below was changing fast. The buildings were shrinking and the roads narrowed. On one side of the city huge clouds of black smoke floated.

But I had already drifted from the enflamed city. Writing notes for my article on Moen jo Daro, had taken me to the serene pastures of the past, when the land below bloomed with good harvest. The River running through the land had given birth to the largest civilization of the ancient world. It was also the most peaceful of civilizations, having lasted for seven centuries without a single war. The ruins of the 5000 year old metropolis have not revealed any military barracks, any prisons, or any weapons.

The story of Pakistan begins with the birth of that civilization.  But where will this narrative end? I still hope for the Karachi that Sir Charles Napier had hoped for on his departure from Karachi: “Thou shalt be the Glory of the East, would that happen I could come again to see you, Kurrachee, in your grandeur.”

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Rimsha Masih, an 11 year old Christian girl has been arrested on blasphemy charges. According to some reports, she is suffering from Down syndrome and is a minor, between the age of 11 and 16. Even if she is 18, it is laughable. Isn’t the law supposed to consider the maturity level of the accused? Even in criminal trials, the insanity defense has a place. At least in such cases where it is so easy to distinguish between maliciously framed charges and genuine, a speedy justice should be allowed to save the anguish of the innocent.

I am reminded of a Proclamation of Sir Charles Napier wherein he warned the men against killing their women in the name of honor. Those who violated will be lynched, he threatened, and that’s when the killings stopped. Proclamation was issued in 1844, a year after he had conquered Sindh. Such drastic measures, however cannot be expected in today’s explosive Pakistan. Salman Taseer, the powerful Governor of Punjab and Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister in Pakistan’s cabinet were assassinated just because they protested against the death sentence of a Christian woman charged with blasphemy. The woman still survives in prison. And languishing in another prison – the notorious Adiyala Jail – is Rimsha. The killer of Salman Taseer is also imprisoned in Adiyala.  Officials claim the girl has been kept in custody for her own security; one hopes that is true. However, there is some hope in the twist of fate that has lead the the cleric to custody. He is the mullah who had been inciting the neighborhood against the girl, ironically he has been charged with blasphemy. According to a witness, he had tampered with the evidence and added pages of Koran to make his case stronger. If this had happened in ancient times, people would have considered it God’s intervention to save the girl, there would have been no further proceedings. But here we have to wait and see what the man-made law has to say.

Persecution of minorities has been on the rise since the birth of militant Islamist groups in Pakistan, It is now taking a bizarre turn as Muslim minorities are being targeted. Since September 2011, there has been a chain of Shia killings in Balochistan and Northern areas.  In the latest incident, 21 Shias have been killed in Gilget-Baltistan. After the Shias, who is next on the hit-list?

Growing up in Sindh, Pakistan’s most cosmopolitan province had been a blessing for me, but visiting it after 17 long years in 2007 had been a nightmare. Let me begin with Karachi. Orhan Pamuk says his city, Istanbul, is drenched in Huzun, melancholy. I would say my city is haunted by macabre. Did it devour the minorities? Where are the Goans and the Anglo-Indians who walked on the streets of Saddar; the girls in dresses fluffed with can cans; teddy boys occasionally wearing tuxedos – they were the pioneers of rock bands. Christian men were doctors, teachers,clerks and railway and radio employees; their women worked as stenos, teachers, governesses and nurses, a few of them were doctors. In those days some of them looked as beautiful as Ava Gardner in ‘Bhowany Junction’ and many of them dressed as Ava. Even as a little girl, I knew it was the Christian community crowded around Capitol Cinema during the days when Ben-Hur was released. And what about the Parsi women in their colorfully bordered sarees worn in a distinct style strolling at the Old Clifton and shopping at Fashion Arcade and Ghulam Mohammad Bros on Elphinstone Street, now appropriately named Zaib-un-Nissa Street after Pakistan’s first woman editor who published Mirror and daringly wrote against martial law. I also remember an evening spotting my Burmese professor on Clifton road. Slim and effeminate, almost an Aung San Suu Kyi, she was in her signature lungi and blouse. I can even recall the colors, peach and cream, and I am sure she had a matching fresh flower pinned in her hair. Yes, there is still an Anglo-Burmese community in Karachi but like many other small communities it is invisible.

Rural Sindh is even more mottled. The Hindu community’s sub-divisions were distinguished by the colors and prints of the ghaghras, cholis and chunris that women wore. Upper and middle class ladies followed the trendiest fashion of the day. Hindus in Sindh are not divided by caste but by occupations -blacksmiths, shop keepers, shoemakers, sharecroppers and landlords; in the cities some of them owned ginning factories and cinema houses. One of them, from Omarkot, was Rana Chandra Singh, the member of the Sindh Assembly. Hindus in Sindh lived in harmony with each other and with the Muslim community. After Partition, most of them preferred to stay back in Pakistan. Today Sindh has the largest Hindu population of Pakistan and most of them are concentrated in my home district Tharparkar.

Sindh has not only sheltered its pre-Islamic population but even some of the pre-historic specimens. Tribes like shikaris (hunters) still live under its sky.  “The Shikari is neither Moslems nor Hindoos” writes the well-known orientalist Richard Burton in his Sindh and the Races that inhabit the Valley of the Indus. “They are very numerous about Omerkot and the Thurr, where they subsist by manual labour, agriculture and hunting. In these regions there is something remarkably wild and savage in their appearance.” The last I saw shikaris was in 1990. Oud is yet another ancient tribe, the survival of Oudki language in lower Sindh is similar to the survival of Brohi in pockets of Balochistan and Afghanistan, but as a specimen of Dravidian, it’s not as popular as Brohi is with the linguists and anthropologists.

During a visit to my ancestral village in 2007 I observed the younger generation of Oud women had discarded their traditional dress. “The bus driver will not allow us to board,” they told me. They were shy to speak Oudki, they had been mocked enough for speaking it. This is just another way a minority looses its distinct identity, through time and through social change, and this cannot be helped. Loosing minorities, nonetheless is loosing a part of our heritage and a part of the heterogeneous character of Pakistan. Much before its birth many races and religions had already merged on its land-Persians, Greeks, Scythians, Parthians, Afghans,Turks, Buddhists and Jains. Not a single Jain now lives in Pakistan, you can meet them only on the pages of gazetteers and you can feel the aura of their non-violent spirit in their abandoned temples in Nagar Parkar. What was once a majority is not even a minority now. We must remember, what we call minorities today, their ancestors have lived and died here, their bones mingled with the soil on every inch of Pakistan.  Let’s not sift the dust and let’s not loose whoever is living now. Pakistan is still blessed with a variety of cultural, ethnic and linguistic groups  Step out of Sindh and you will come across many more. Recently in news were the Kalash, another endangered community.

The most encouraging fact in this grim situation is that the majority of Pakistanis, even the most religious Pakistanis, have a secular attitude. Imran Khan, Chairman, Tehreek-e-insaf, has been bold enough to ask the Supreme Court to take a suo motu notice of Shia killings. There is a group of lawyers who has filed the petition for the restoration of a Jain temple in Lahore and there are many more who are holding demonstrations in support of Rimsha. According to her lawyer she may be released on Friday (tomorrow). This should happen; the longer she stays in captivity the deeper will be the scars of the horrifying experience.

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