Archive for the ‘Contemporary Pakistan’ Category

A new battlefront has been created in Pakistan.

This war finds its roots in the plight of the ailing music industry in Pakistan. An article by Madeeha Syed published in Dawn on February 16, 2017 talks about an overcrowded internet where artists are struggling to be heard and it suggests that a better revenue model for musicians lies in live performances.

The rebooted first season of Pepsi Battle of the Bands, therefore, presents an opportunity for hope, not just for Pakistani rock bands, but for music and its powerful ability to engage, connect and enthrall. Whereas, in the past popular rock and pop bands – Vital Signs,  Strings , Junoon and Noori – had emerged one after the other over a long period of time, in Pepsi’s battle it was uplifting to see the performance of  a larger number of fresh bands in a single season.  Each band had its individual style and there was diversity within the members of the bands, from women vocalists to minorities, many wer represented.  It was encouraging to see this vibrant and modernized face of Pakistan, which we do not get to see much of in western media.

Kashmir Band

The Band Kashmir

I’m sure it was difficult for the judges to choose a winner out of a batch in which each band was outstanding. Nonetheless, the show was becoming exciting after each episode. The competition between the finalists, Badnaam and Kashmir delivered several heights of melodic excellence.  For me, personally it was hard to judge who performed better than the other. I was more involved in discovering two diverse approaches to  music –  a Sufi musical message by Badnaam, and a more westernized (I think judge Fawad Khan called it “atmospheric”) tone by Kashmir – and realizing that both are equally popular in Pakistan.

The Sufi tradition of music started with the ancient bards who popularized the songs of their beloved saints by performing at the shrines and festive occasions. This is how this rich tradition passed from one generation to the next and reaches us through Pathanay Khan, Allan Faqir,  Nusrat Fateh Ali,  Abida Parveen and several others.  Some twenty years ago, as judged by the popularity of Sufi lyrics and music by Junoon, it became apparent that Sufi  music engages the younger audience as well.

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The rise of Badnaam (check out their rendition of “Khwaja ki Deewani“) as runners up confirms the continued demand for devotional and inspirational music. But more than that what might have appealed to many in the Battle of Bands was a fusion of the eastern and western traditions, something Pakistani musicians are especially good at.

For me the best specimen was Kashmir’s version of Pathanay Khan’s signature song which shows how a classic can be reinterpreted with modern instrumentation and still be as mesmerizing.  Atif Aslam deserves recognition for requesting the audience and judges to stand up for a moment in the memory of that great Pathanay Khan, who was truly an avatar of our ancient bards.

I am eager to see how this new group of musicians enriches audiences not only in Pakistan, but the world over. And may all our battles be as musical and inspirational as this one.



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OWOS Talpur Cover

Ode to a Desert Woman

I remember, within the loose circle of a veil

A face-strong, striking, ancient and pale

Sphinx-like riddle its features bore

An expression so stoic, hard to explore

Chiseled sharply by piercing winds

Tanned copper by the blazing sun

It called for a scribe to write its story

To seek its history encrypted around

In the massive murky past, in the dunes that abound

In such enormity she stood; in distance she was lost

An eternal imprint on my memory she left

Aspiring life in the desert dead

A rare ore amidst the grains of sand

Unread, unnoticed, unnamed

How do I bring you toOzymandias’ fame?

A version of this Ode was first published inFootnotes,my  book of verse.  Later  it  appeared in the Purani Kahani, the ‘Old Story’ of the Desert Woman I published in A Pakistani Trilogy.

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Antiquity had always fascinated me, whether through archaeology or paleoanthropology. Mary Leakey was one of my first heroes, though her quest was to trace human origins and mine turned out to be the exploration of ancient civilizations. Going further back in time, even as a child I was intrigued by the rustic world that lay beyond the lofty walls fortifying my village house. My father had led me to that world.  A man born much ahead of his times, he had resolved to rid his daughters from the curse of purdah and educate them in an English school, hence us three sisters were allowed to explore anything we wanted. For me, almost everything around seemed to hold some secret. Ancient ruins, an abandoned river bed, impoverished shrines and isolated samadhis, aging trees with their massive trunks and the equally old peasants relaxing under their shade were all mysterious.  At my school when I learnt that only an archaeologist could hold the keys to such secrets, I decided to become one.  I never lost hope even when I was enrolling for my Master’s degree in the subject and discovered, at the last moment, that there was no department of archaeology at Karachi University.

I remember walking into the office of the Vice-Chancellor of the university with the request to establish one.  The Vice Chancellor, Dr. Ehsan Rashid, responded with an Urdu verse that I do not remember but its gist was that I had the audacity to jump all the relevant authorities below and approach the highest with a trivial request. Nonetheless, he took my request seriously and assigned one of his staff members to help me.

The University could not open a department overnight, but on my suggestion Syed Muhammad Ashfaque from the Federal Department of Archaeology and Museums was hired to offer courses in archaeology.  This arrangement enabled me and my five colleagues, and many more after us, to study archaeology at one of the largest universities of Pakistan.

In 1979, I was given my first chance to read a paper at the International Symposium on Indus Civilization, sponsored jointly by UNESCO and the Government of Pakistan to help the “Save Moen jo Daro” campaign.  I was the only Pakistani woman who read a paper at that symposium and I was also the youngest speaker. Bridgett Allchin from Cambridge University, England was another woman who along with her archaeologist husband Raymond Allchin presented the paper on their joint research.

An excerpt from my book on Moen jo Daro


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Voter turnout was massive and so was the rigging, this time it was also blatant.  Media reporting was prompt and panel discussions impressive. Updates on social media were just overwhelming it was difficult to keep pace.  Some of the posts on Facebook were wise ‘Pathans proved that they are the most intelligent Pakistanis,’ some were cute ‘Naswar is good for brain’  and some were laughable for instance the outrageous  vote count of a winning candidate- 258 votes per minute in 11 hours of voting! And all this amid complains that many hours were lost as polling stations did not open on time. The voters were resolute this time and continued waiting under uncertainty and dangers.

“At least 13 people were killed and several others injured in two blasts in Karachi’s Quaidabad and Qasba areas.” This was just the first report on violence I read, more was to follow throughout the day.  By midday Jamaat-i-Islami announced a boycott of the elections in Karachi and Hyderabad. Arif Alvi, a candidate of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf , held a press conference to report the rigging in his polling stations. Election Commission ordered a re-election in his constituency while Altaf Hussain, Chairman of MQM,  threatened to separate Karachi. There were also complains about the overall performance of Election Commission but at the end of the day Fakhruddin Ibrahim, Chief Election Commissioner, declared he was a happy man as ‘people had been empowered.’ And he is right as this is the best that could be achieved in the worst moments of Pakistan’s political history.

The new trend in Pakistani elections is a call to move forward, if the polls were violent they were also marked with an unprecedented enthusiasm. A new generation of 40 million voters participated and a majority of the old and new voters casted their votes against the status quo.  There is a spirit of change in the air and that spirit will prevail, ballot papers can be engineered but the new mindset will be hard to manipulate.

As for the results, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz  emerged as the party with majority votes and Nawaz Sharif is set to form his government in the province of Punjab and at the center. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has a sweeping majority in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and it will form its own government in the province. Awami National Party (ANP), the avatar of the old National Awami Party (NAP), led by a grandson of the Frontier Gandhi, Abdul Ghaffar Khan has been wiped out from the frontier province. Votes in Sindh are divided between urban and rural, Pakistan People’s Party and Muttahida Quomi Mahaz (MQM), the two parties representing these divides will  form a coalition government in the province.  Nationalist parties have won the majority of seats in Balochistan, the only province with a very low turnout of only 10%. The overall results clearly show that each province will have its own government, the age-old demand of provincial autonomy has been fulfilled this time without even demanding it. According to Mohammed Hanif’s article in The Guardian of May 13, 2013. 

“Who needs a federation when you can have so much more fun doing things your own way. So in the post-election Pakistan, Khan will rule the north and shoot down American drones while discussing Scandinavian social welfare models with the Taliban. Sharif will rule in Punjab and the centre, try to do business with India and build more motorways all the while looking over his shoulder for generals looking at him. In the south, Bhutto’s decimated People’s party will keep ruling and keep saying that folks up north are stealing its water, destroying its social welfare programmes and secular legacy. And, in Balochistan…” Three days before the elections, Noam Chomsky gave his opinion on the restless province “There is a lot of exploitation of the rich resources [in Balochistan] which the locals are not gaining from. As long as this goes on, it is going to keep providing grounds for serious uprisings and insurgencies.”

Soon after the results, for a moment, the dream of a New Pakistan seemed shattered by  nightmares of a rigged republic with regional governments ready to secede. But those are the ghosts of a past election, Pakistan has come of age. After 6 and a half decades of its checkered history cessation, war with India and fear of a military coup has diminished as for the first time an elected government has completed its term and will be handing over power to the next. 

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At a local ladies book club in Columbus Ohio, during a talk on my eBook Obscure Women Obscure Stories: A Pakistani Trilogy, the following passage from Purani Kahani, one of the stories, came under discussion and a question was asked.

“Bhaag Bhari would go in the hut to fetch her small chest of jewelry. It was metallic painted green and had a latch from which hung an oversized iron lock. Haji Hussain would reach for the key tied strongly to the tassel of his trouser string. Next, he would reach for the money in the side pocket of his shirt. He would count it, wrap it in a silken scarf with the rest of his savings, place it in the box and lock it again.”

Anybody could have stolen the box, how was it kept safe? I was asked. Here is my expanded answer:

Theft is a universal theme. It took 17 years and more than 1300 pages for Victor Hugo to scrutinize it in his novel Les Miserables wherein Jean Valjean suffers 19 years of imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread.  The novel is not only about an ex-convict and his heroic struggle for redemption. It is also an appeal to law makers to look into the atrocities of law and the risks of judicial errors. For those who do not have the patience to read the novel, here is a theatrical first look of the recently released filmic adaption of Hugo’s classic.

Purani Kahani, however, is a short story about an ancient race of people who did not have any concept of theft. It is hard to imagine a person under severe hunger who would not steal a loaf of bread. Even the birds fight over a worm, but a man or woman from Thar would not resort to such an approach.

So who are these noble people and why am I writing about them since last twenty five years? It is true that being the inhabitants of my home district of Tharparkar I have special bond with them. It is also true that being a historian and archaeologist their antiquity fascinates me – but there is more to it. In an article published in the daily Dawn’s Friday Magazine, dated February, 27, 1987 I had warned: “It is alarming that nothing concrete is being done to record and document the cultures of the tribes living here (in the Thar Desert) who will hopefully undergo an irreversible social and economic change due to the upcoming development projects in the district. The government has not paid any serious attention towards the cultural preservation of Thar though its importance has been emphasized at the highest level.”

The article was actually part of my speech at the Goethe Institute where I was invited to speak on the launching of a photo exhibition of Thar and its people. The exhibits were by Ayaz Rashdi, a high government official, who was also an amateur photographer. It was an individual’s effort to document the life of a dying culture. Such efforts have been made by other individuals in the fields of film, television, journalism, history and artwork.  “Purani Kahani” is an attempt to do the same in fiction.

Thar is a part of the Great Indian Desert lying between Sindh and Rajasthan. It is also the worst section of the desert where temperatures can rise to 120 degrees. In olden days natives called it Marusthali, the region of death, where disasters and diseases were personified into mother goddesses. Out of fear and reverence small pox was called Mata, mother; famine was Bhukhi Mata, hungry or famished mother.  Goddesses in ancient worlds are known to play dual and opposing roles of being healers and killers.  Hundreds of terra cotta figurines discovered from Indus Civilization suggest that they had been ruling the spiritual realms of Sindh since those remote times; 5000 years later their concept survives crudely in the collective subconscious of Thar. There are many more ancient traits retained in Thar communities, perhaps because they have lived in splendid isolation, away from the world and close to nature.   Even in this day and age they accept calamities as part of a natural cycle. Along with their cattle, they arrive in the fertile patches of Sindh during the long spells of famine and return as soon as they see lightening in the East.

In 1987, Thar was in the third year of its famine and Rashidi’s photographs were exhibited to draw the attention of Karachi elites towards the miseries of Desert folks. As a result of the famine a large number of them had migrated to the irrigated and fertile parts of Sindh, some of the families camped outside my village. It was one of the shelters they had been using through times immemorial; they were not strangers to the villagers and I could remember their earlier sojourns  from the 1960s and 70’s (due to the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war).

Amongst the many who came was a man named Qasim, so soft spoken that only he could speak with the animals. He knew ways to diagnose their diseases and heal their wounds, even the bulls and buffaloes would cow down to him. There was an old woman who knew the art of dehydrating all the vegetables under the sun; you need to store a lot for the droughts in desert.  One day I saw her picking up a piece of roti from the floor, kissing it, looking at it with reverence and savoring it bit by bit.  Whole wheat bread is a delicacy for those who survive mostly on millet. There was yet another woman, a seamstress with perfectly carved features and dexterous fingers.  She had no idea of geometry but she could create thousands of geometric patterns in her embroidery and her quilts. She had a chest, her most prized possession, a mini storage that accommodated her colored beads and threads, mirror pieces, cowrie shells, cloves, and a few pieces of silver jewelry. ‘It was metallic painted green and had a latch.’ It looked out of place like a luxury item discovered in the ruins of a civilization that used baskets for storing items. No one robbed her of her precious box but I did steal its image and used it in Purani Kahani.

Thar Desert was incorporated in the Tharparkar district during British rule.  Today in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan it remains to be the home of the largest Hindu population. In a region where the instinct of theft is non-existent the concept of co-existence thrives. There is an unwritten social contract (going beyond the social contract theories of Hobbes and Locke) between Muslims and Hindus, between neighbors, between family members that keeps them contented with their own share of grain. Let’s not create conditions where a Jean Valjean is born; the land lacks a Victor Hugo and the news is not good.

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A recent article by Shah Rukh Khan describes what it is to be a Muslim in India.

It was published on January 29 in Outlook Turning Points 2013 (Published by the New York Times).  In a prompt reaction, the Pakistani interior minister Rehman Malik urged the Indian government to provide security to its well-known Muslim actor. Malik’s statement is laughable and what followed is embarrassing. The Indian spokesman responded by advising Malik to take care of his own citizens. Shah Rukh’s response was even stronger “I would like to tell all those who are offering me unsolicited advice that we in India are extremely safe and happy,” said the actor.  “We have an amazing democratic, free and secular way of life.”  When Jyoti Malhotra, a senior Indian journalist, was invited to comment on the situation on Hamid Mir’s talk show she was surprised that a high official would give such an irresponsible statement. She even doubted if Malik had read Khan’s article. The Telegraph summed up the controversy as “a senseless diplomatic row between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan.”

By building this blog on Shah Rukh Khan’s article I am not trying to say that India has not committed any crime.  In fact more sectarian violence is recorded in India than in Pakistan. But that is in the political arena in which I do not wish to venture. Mine is an observation of the cultural front where Pakistan has repeatedly failed to make its mark. If history can be a teacher it is about time that Pakistani officials should learn to discover and nourish their own stars. For this is what the founder of the Pakistani nation would have advised as evidenced from his recently discovered letter, published in the Tribune.

It will be fair to begin with the history of Pakistan and see how the authorities treated talent who migrated from India’s film industry?  To begin with only a handful had migrated during Partition, whereas the list of those who remained behind is too long. Most of them not only flourished but dominated the Indian cinema. Mughal-e-Azam, considered to be the greatest Indian film, was made by a team that consisted mostly of Muslims – K.Asif, Yusaf Khan (Dilip Kumar),  Madhubala, Nigar Sultana, Shakeel Badayuni, Naushad,  Mohammad Rafi  and even  Ustad Bare Ghulam Ali Khan who rendered a raag. To judge the outcome you can watch the 3 hour long film condensed to 15 minutes here. Such magnum opus is not possible to create under dangerous conditions at least they were not around film industry.

Mirza Ghalib, a biopic on the great Urdu poet, made by another team of Muslims – Suraiya, Talat Mahmood, Nigar Sultana, Iftikhar Khan, Murad, Mukri, Ghulam Mohammad and Saadat Hasan Manto who wrote the story and screenplay and who migrated to Pakistan.  Out of all his writings Mirza Ghalib seems to be most dear to Manto, he had taken several years to complete this masterpiece. There were moments of frustration – and inspiration – during the scripting process.  Manto had complained about the dearth of material on the poet’s life and he had enjoyed walking through the streets of Delhi, the beloved city of Ghalib. Manto even named his son after Ghalib’s adopted son Arif and finally convinced Sohrab Modi to produce a film on a slice of Ghalib’s life.

In 1954 Mirza Ghalib was finally released in India. The film was a huge success and won the prestigious National Film Award in India.  Unfortunately by that time Manto was rotting in Pakistan. He was writing short stories for pulp magazines and selling them for Rs. 30 each.  The Pakistani bureaucracy, instead of lending patronage, charged him with writing obscene material. Yes, Manto also had a passion to write on the sub-culture of the sub-continent.  Prostitutes, pimps, tongawalas, and street urchins were some of his most memorable characters but he used them not for any sensual reasons but to highlight the ‘disease’ of society. People loved his short stories and Faiz Ahmed Faiz defended him in a courtroom.  A year after the release of Mirza Ghalib Manto died at the age of 42.

Mirza Ghalib was never released in Pakistan but Pakistanis enjoyed its songs on the radio. It must be admitted that many Pakistanis and Indians came to know Ghalib’s poetry through the ghazals of this film sang by Talat Mahmood, Suraiya and Mohammad Rafi.

Another irony.  The Pakistani government did not even allow the exhibition of its own film on Ghalib. I also came across this piece of information on Wikipedia: “The Pakistan government in 1969 commissioned Khaliq Ibrahim (died 2006) to make a documentary on Mirza Ghalib. The movie was completed in 1971-72. It is said, that the movie, a docudrama, was historically more correct than what the official Pakistan government point of view was. Thus, it was never released. Till this date, barring a few private viewing, the movie is lying with the Department of Films and Publication, Government of Pakistan.”

For most countries film has been a powerful medium to portray culture.  Hong Kong, at the tail end of British era, was marketing its culture of martial arts through films.  The French Ministry of Culture under the Socialists (1981-86, 1988-93) made films to highlight sensitive issues; India is known to the World mostly through Bollywood films; Venezuela makes four films a year, Pakistan can do at least half of this number to correct its distorted image. But film is at the lowest priority in Pakistan’s cultural policy and culture in general is ruthlessly neglected by policy makers. The only effective cultural policy, it is said, was authored in 1970s by Faiz Ahmad Faiz.  Perhaps he saw some hope in the new democratic government. I came to know the fate of his policy in one of his interviews. “It was neither accepted nor rejected by any regime,” Faiz revealed. “They accepted the parts which suited them and rejected the rest.”

Once again a new government is in sight. We can hope to have a sane cultural policy that is capable of creating an environment where quality films can be made and a profound culture can flourish.

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The recent news of 14 year old Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen, had shaken the world. But life goes on, Malala is recovering and I got distracted to a Sufi music ensemble. For the “first time in Midwest” said the advertisement while describing the event as “mystical fusion and mesmerizing Sufi songs.” Star performers were Ustad Hidayat Hussain Khan (son of legendary late Ustad Vilayat Khan) on Sitar and vocals, and the Grammy winner, Steve Gorn on flute. But what has Sufi music to do with terrorism?

Power of music can be calming and inspiring, it can be furious too. Raag Deepak, they say, is capable of igniting fire and can set forests ablaze; Raag Malhar can come to the rescue by bringing in rains. Legend and the film have it that Akbar the great Mughal emperor tested if it could also melt rocks. He ordered a competition between Tansen, one of his nau-ratans (nine gems) and Baijnath Mishra, a young obscure musician. And he let his anxious courtiers witness the supernatural spectacle.

In reality, however, Akbar believed in the powers of the saints and had walked barefoot to the shrine of Saleem Chishti to beg the great saint for the birth of a son. (watch the first scene of Mughal-e-Azam).The miracle did happen, Akbar was blessed with a son, he named him Saleem after the saint; Saleem the Moghul is popularly known as Jehangir.

Sufis and music go together. Sufi songs are hymns to the divine and odes to the beloved saints; set to music these can stir hysteria. Some of the Sufi saints have been poets and some of their disciples have written devotional verses that are still recited around their shrines and beyond. When Ustad Hidayat recited Amir Khusro’s evergreen “chaap tilak sub cheen lee mujh say naina milaikay” (here is a recording from one of his earlier concerts) it mesmerized a versatile crowd mainly consisting of Indians, Pakistanis and Americans. If music is the universal language it can be the binding force between nations, we can turn the pages of history to confirm this.

Sufism is a phenomenon of the vast and diverse non-Arab Muslim World. South Asian Sufism is immersed in poetry, music and dance, and nowhere it has been as effective as in India where it made Islam thrive in a climate of religious pluralism and where Sufis came to be venerated by non-Muslims. Even today the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti at Ajmer, attracts both Hindu and Muslim pilgrims from all over the country. The age old mystique continues in Pakistan where shrines such as of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar and Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai in Sindh are equally revered by the Hindus of Pakistan. Let’s not forget that Sufi saints themselves lived above religious and ethnic prejudices. Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi, is known to have practiced yoga and meditation. Shah Abdul Latif of Sindh, traveled with the yogis to perform pilgrimage to Hinglaj Mata, the western most holy place of the Hindus. Sufi saints of Kashmir are even confused with Vedic rishis.  The legacy of tolerance continues as the musicians from India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Trinidad and United States ended their concert in Columbus, Ohio, by paying tribute to Lal Shahbaz Qalandar of Pakistan. And this reminds me of Runa Laila, a Bengali singer, singing the same song in the seventies of Pakistan.

The concert was a fundraiser for Asha Ray of Hope, a non-profit organization that protects women against domestic violence. Sufi music ensemble was just the appropriate choice as shrines had always been sanctuaries for women in South and West Asia. In their hours of anguish they often wail at the shrines and invoke dead saints through songs and dance. Women can even rise to sainthood in Sufi Islam, Rabia may be the most known women saints of the Muslim World but there are obscure women scions of ordinary saintly houses in rural Pakistan who are symbols of comfort to the many distressed women of their neighboring villages. Militant Islamist groups are certainly against this brand of Islam. In 2009 few days before bombing the shrine of Rehman Baba in Peshawar, they had warned the custodians to stop women from visiting the shrine. Three years later they have stooped to the level of targeting young girls who advocate education. Talibans eventually destroyed the Rehman Baba shrine, the grief and anger bought Afghanistan a step closer to Pakistan as the Afghan government responded by bearing the costs of reconstruction of the shrine. Rehman Baba is revered in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the tribal belt between the two countries; his poetry echoes in the Pashtun land.

Sufi saints continue to keep the countries united even in the worst of times. Sufi bondage between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India is worth recognition by the foreign policymakers of these countries. Perhaps this can be one of the strong pillars of the Afpak policy of Obama administration. Sufi music is equally evolving, it has the power of conquering the youth as it adjusts to the new trends and even creeps in the contemporary non-religious realm. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan from Pakistan has set the trend. And here is the Bollywood version, enjoy.

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Imran Khan’s Interview on CNN by Christian Amanpour

In his book ‘The First Afghan War 1838-1842’, J.A Norris quoted one of the relevant descriptions of the Afghan character. The quote from the Asiatic Journal states that the Afghans “are neither irritable nor implacable, but retain a long remembrance of injuries not retaliated: revenge is esteemed a duty.”  Norris emphasized that “we should remember this in all that we read about the First Afghan War.” There were two more Anglo-Afghan wars, a decade long Soviet occupation and now we are at the tail end of yet another inconclusive war between the Afghans and the NATO forces.  How much did the western world care to remember what Norris and many others had advised?

Most of the Afghans are ethnically Pashtuns or Pakhtuns. Apart from Afghanistan a large number of them live in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan and even larger numbers live in the Federal Administered Tribal Area (FATA) a semi-independent region between the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. When it comes to foreign interventions, Pashtuns and non-Pashtun tribes of the region fiercely resist their enemy. But why is revenge their most powerful weapon to date? Part of the answer comes from their history, which is yet another avenue neglected by military and political strategists.

Since centuries the region is known to be a world where even tribal and family quarrels can easily turn into blood feuds giving birth to endless cycles of revenge.  Revenge is therefore, ingrained in Pashtunwali  (literally, the way of Pashtun), the unwritten moral and social code that predates Islam. The code has evolved through the centuries hence historical currents, along with socio-cultural forces, have gone in the shaping and making of the Pashtunwali.  Each new invasion and occupation, beginning from the Achaemenid kings of the Persian Empire to Alexander the Great and from the Moghuls and Nadir Shah of Iran to Runjeet Singh of Punjab, had only sharpened the vindictive instincts of a people who value independence above all.  So it is logical for revenge to replay its role with more vigor in the present Great Game between the new contenders. Each drone attack gives a new life to the resolve of revenge against the US army, and the bloodshed continues. Is there a way to put an end to the cycle of revenge?

Law of revenge – an eye for an eye – is engraved on Hammurabi’s code. It may have existed as a convention even earlier but so has the desire to erase it. There are only bits and pieces of circumstantial evidence scattered in mythology, folklore and literature to support the existence of such a desire. Greek trilogy Oresteia tells us that Goddess Athena succeeded in replacing it by law of mercy. In recent past Truth and Reconciliation Councils have been advocating forgiveness to resolve conflicts.  Imran Khan’s peace march to demonsterate solidarity with the drone victims by all means is the beginning of a process which might lead to the ending of drone attacks and the chain of revenge.  His march is also a reminder that Pashtunwali has another potent component- hospitality.  That is why even in the days of deadly drone attacks peace is not altogether disregarded. The elders of the tribes had welcomed the march, Americans refrained from bombing, the Talibans promised a safe passage; decades of war must have worked a change in their thinking. Khan’s mission was to draw world attention towards the heavy ‘collateral damage’ of civilian killings caused in Waziristan by American drone attacks. An investigative report prepared jointly by Stanford and New York Universities has already revealed harrowing accounts of the victims and  recommended a serious re-evaluation of current policy of target killings by drones. Participation of CodePinkLauren Booth  and Clive Smith  in the march is symbolic of the fact that American, British and Western people are equally against civilian killings.

Now that the United States is already in the process of withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan it is time to sit around the table and plan future relations. This calls for some degree of mutual trust between the participants – Americans, officials from Afghanistan and the Pakistan governments and  representatives of different tribes and militant groups. Once again we need to turn the pages of history to see how receptive Pashtunland is to peace. Surprisingly, non-violent religions Jainism and Buddhism had lasted here for centuries under the Mauryan and Kushan dynasties.

The fact that the largest Buddha images in the world are carved in the mountain walls of Bamiyan, that Buddha came to be represented in human form under the Kushans and that the most beautiful specimens of Buddhist art were sculpted in the Gandhara region of Pakistan and Afghanistan, proves that peace must have lasted long enough for all these accomplishments. History mostly highlights the mountain passes, large enough for armies to enter and exit, but again if one cares to look into its margins it shows the Silk Road that merchants frequented to barter their goods, exchange culture and enjoy exotic stories. So there is more in the region  than mere revenge and bloodshed. Today there are graveled roads waiting to welcome any messenger of peace and there are institutions, experienced in conflict resolution, ready to assist. Conflicts between tribes are solved by Jirga which is a body composed of the elders of the tribes who draw their authority from the people. Perhaps these can help in reconciliation, already there is a thinking that the institution of Jirga should be allowed a role in the present governance of Afghanistan. Why can’t it play its role in the global conflict that involves its people?

It’s about time global makes room for local in the process of peace. It is also expected of representatives of the tribal world to move a step forward and follow certain global norms and who can be the most effective representative of the region than Khan. Hailing from the Burki tribe, long settled in Punjab, he has returned to his ancestral troubled region of Waziristan to nurse its wounds. He has already written a travel book on the region and  he now plans to demonstrate against the drone policy in front of the United Nations. Though Khan was barred from marching in Waziristan but he has shown the road that leads there. Hopefully, the World will see the troubled region beyond the blazing images of drone attacks and will register the positives of the tribal society. Women are inconspicuous in that society which is a shame but there are seeds of democracy.  Jirga, at the moment addresses the grievance of each individual involved. Pashtunwali looms large over these indigenous courtrooms, it stresses on community consensus and expects decisions to be unanimous.  The system goes beyond the western concept of democracy.  To explain this I can only borrow the words of Nelson Mandela – the words he used while describing the tribal system of justice practiced in his native land:

“Democracy meant all men were to be heard, and a decision was taken together as a people. Majority rule was a foreign notion. A minority was not to be crushed by a majority.”

Hopefully women in this part of the world will rise above the status of minority.

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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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