Notes from Pakistan

Today was my first full day here in Rawalpindi. I saw a few old friends, sat and shared some tea at a dear friend’s  shop, talked to another friend who attempted to teach me the virtues of true faith. It was, overall, a typical day in my life of visiting the home country.

The streets are busier than before but probably wider and a bit better maintained. There seem to be more concrete barriers around even in front of school gates, especially girls schools; a stark reminder that in this endless war of ideas and interpretations of the sacred, even the lives and bodies of the very innocent are not safe.

The morning news covered yet another drone attack, tis time in Khyber agency: Five terrorists killed, they said. A family friend asked me my opinion about the drone attacks and my answer, as usual, was that I am opposed to them. His next question was very interesting: why doesn’t America worry about the loss of innocent lives caught in the crossfire. I gave him the email address of Christine Faire, who, being a specialist on drone attacks, would probably inform him that the Pakistanis, by and large, support the drone attacks and that no “civilians have been killed in drone attacks.”

The restructuring of the Pakistani economy is in full swing and the promise of neoliberalism has finally reached Pakistan in its true nakedness: the rich are getting richer and the poor have no hope. My friend who owns a drug store says that people cannot afford to buy their full prescriptions and come to buy one tablet or two capsules at a time. Meanwhile, our politicians and generals and mullahs keep offering their own interesting remedies. It does not take a genius to see that people are suffering, poverty is increasing, and all these policies so efficiently sold by Milton Freedman and his pupils are not worth a damn for the poor and the wretched of the earth.

My home town is now surrounded by new developments: The Behria town (Navy Town) and the Defense Housing Schemes. These are different worlds with tree-lined streets, functioning streetlights, and paved sidewalks. This is where the owners of this nation live as if it is their birthright. Rest of the urban areas have become slums of the people who serve this overfed and corrupt  elite.

As I sat and had a conversation with my friend at his store, three members of the local political party sat at the back resolving a particularly thorny issue. They had just been allotted some aid money for their area but there seemed to have been some distribution dispute. It seemed that the amount had not been evenly divided between the three and the offended person wanted an equal share. The money, obviously, was theirs and the fight was not about whose constituency deserved more, but rather which one of them deserved more. I had a feeling that their people would never see that money. But this is not odd at all in a country run by a president who was once called Mr. 10% and a country whose military still has not acknowledged their war dead from the Kargil misadventure.

As one of my sources informed me, one of the Indian generals actually derided his Pakistani counterpart by saying: “ Your soldiers died bravely, and you must give them the honor they deserve by accepting their remains, for we have honored them for their valor. But since the war was illegal, there can be no legally dead soldiers. And, as Kurt Vonnegut would say it, “so it goes.”

Not surprisingly, Wikileaks has become the most talked about “news Source” in the public sphere. You can hardly have a conversation with anyone without hearing some version of a Wikileaks (vikileak here) reference. In case of Pakistan, the Wikileaks has provided the unchallengeable proof to the existence of the proverbial stinking dead rat called the US-Pakistani relations. everyone knows now, on a popular level, that it is actually the US ambassador in Pakistan who is running this country. And she has made such a mess of this country the general consensus is that she should be fired immediately and be replaced with a more efficient US overlord.

One thing I really admire about my people: they see bullshit for what it is and call it so openly. So, our dear army is no longer capable of hiding behind its own illusions and mirrors; its implication in the slow death of the nation is public knowledge and people mostly now equate them with police, not an admirable Pakistani institution.

There are about sixty private channels mostly selling things but they are doing some good work too. They are at least covering the remotest areas of Pakistan and pointing to the inadequacies in public services to the general public. At least people  now know that there is a place called Khaplu where the temperature is below zero  and children are expected to study in unheated classrooms. Some good would probably come out of this kind of knowledge. [This observation is based on a news story about Northern Areas].

Meanwhile, in that artificial city called Islamabad, our admirable president sits like a spider weaving his webs while his people hope that he would either suddenly discover a spine or else get hit by lightning: anything would be better than bearing the embarrassment of a 10% presidency.

By M R

Originally from Pakistan, Dr. Masood Ashraf Raja is an Associate Professor of Postcolonial Literature and Theory and the editor of Pakistaniaat: A Journal of Pakistan Studies.
Raja tweets @masoodraja

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