Feisal Naqvi

Archive for June, 2009|Monthly archive page

What a night!

In Uncategorized on June 23, 2009 at 2:04 am

Over the past two weeks, pundits from around the world have run out of adjectives to describe the Pakistani cricket team. “Unpredictable” was the clear favourite followed by “mercurial”. Then came erratic, impulsive, volatile, fickle, irregular, capricious and surprising.

Yes, we can be all of those things and indeed, we often are. But on the night that it mattered most, we were none of those things. Instead, as one shell-shocked commentator put it, our performance was “clinical, professional and un-Pakistani”.

Cynics may ask why victory in a game, and that too in a format often described as pure chance, matters so much. The average Pakistani is no richer or healthier today than he was yesterday. But that is to miss the point.

Pakistan is a country which, to put it mildly, suffers from a serious conceptual crisis. From the very beginning, we have claimed that we are both democratic and Islamic. And yet we have failed to figure out exactly how those two ideals are to be realised without conflicting with each other.

The fact that Pakistan’s birth was bloody and marked by the death of a million people has only raised the stakes in this game of existential navel-gazing. We cannot be a secular democracy because that would be no different from India, which would in turn mean that a million people died in vain. On the other hand, we cannot be a theocratic state like that desired by the Taliban because that is just not who “we” are.

Who the hell then are “we”? More importantly, is there a “we” out there or are we just kidding ourselves? Are Pakistanis a real people or, as per Ayesha Jalal, Pakistan is what we got stuck with once Jinnah’s bluff got called?

This may well be a circular definition, but “we” are the people who celebrate when Pakistan wins. We are the people who boogie in the streets when Pakistan wins. We are the people who stripped off their shirts and wiggled their extremely undefined bodies to Dil, Dil Pakistan at three in the morning outside Liberty, the same place where the Sri Lankan team was ambushed three months ago. We are the people who danced to forget that black day. We are the people who were happy last night.

The truth is that nations do not spring fully formed from the womb of history. Nations are forged, one event at a time. And in the past two years, we have come a great deal closer to defining ourselves as a people by clarifying both what we want from democracy as well as what it means to be Muslim.

On the democratic front, the grand bargain put forward by Musharraf was this: take the good times economically and put up with army control. That Singapore-style bargain was rejected because people insisted that they wanted it all, that they wanted both good governance and accountability.

The movement started with a reaction to the removal of the chief justice on March 9, 2007, crested with his restoration on July 20, 2007, swelled again with the declaration of emergency on November 3, 2007, surged further with the elections of February 18, 2008 and then reached its final heights with the Long March on March 16, 2009 and the second restoration of the chief justice.

On the Islamic front, developments have been more recent. There has been a groundswell of emotion, first rising in disgust at the tactics of the Taliban, then in reaction to the federal government’s capitulation in Swat and then in sympathy with the plight of the IDPs.

In comparison with the tightly focused demands of the lawyers’ movement, the anti-Taliban movement has been more diffuse, its tactics perhaps best encapsulated by the song produced by the music and film industry titled “Yeh hum nahin”, or “this is not us”.

To say that we are not a nation of terrorists, or to express one’s opposition to suicide bombings, may not seem like much, but it is.

First, expressing opposition to suicide bombings is a dangerous business, as shown by the assassination of Maulana Naeemi. Second, the fundamental problem with Islam in Pakistan’s public discourse has always been that the right to determine the appropriate Islamic answer has always been demanded by and granted to the mullahs. What we are seeing now is the people demanding the right to define themselves as Muslims. And Pakistan’s Muslims are a very different proposition from Pakistan’s oil-money lubricated, hate-sprouting preachers.

In short, what the public now wants is a Pakistan defined by the faith of its people, not a Pakistan defined by the faith of its mullahs. And that too is a very good thing.

So, what does it all boil down to? Who are we?

Well, we want a functional justice system, we don’t want the Taliban running our lives and we really, really like winning at cricket. At least for last night, that was enough to make all of us proud Pakistanis.

TFT in the dark ages

In Uncategorized on June 10, 2009 at 2:05 am

My original plan for the summer of 1989 was to research my bachelor’s thesis, preferably in the immediate vicinity of a pool with something tall, cool and heavily spiked in my hand. But by the time I showed up in Pakistan, I had already blown half my grant and consequently needed a job. The Friday Times’ first chief reporter, Aamer Ahmed Khan, was a friend of mine from previous summers in the reporting business and with his enthusiastic prompting, I decided to jump onto the bandwagon.

My first memories of TFT are of immense and utter confusion leavened with an immensely welcoming atmosphere. More precisely, I remember that as we laboured to put together TFT’s second ever issue, there was a moment around about 2am Wednesday morning, approximately eight hours or so after we were supposed to have gone to press, when we were still trying to figure out what to put on the front page. For some reason, Najam was very keen on running a photograph upon which some quite unfunny quips were to be posted cartoon style. The rest of us were not convinced about the merits of his scheme and we eventually managed to get a more sober front page agreed upon, but not before another couple of hours had passed and several of us were close to passing out.

To say that TFT’s technical side was a bit lacking would be an understatement. The general modus operandi was to write whatever one thought appropriate, print it out in a long skinny column, and then cut and paste the column on to the proof page. Not surprisingly, the length of the column and the available space quite often did not match. The normal solution was to eyeball the remaining space, march back to the computer and try to come up with some brilliant summation in the inch or so left for that purpose. Some times one succeeded and sometimes one didn’t – as one would be reminded by irate authors whose pieces had been radically shortened.

Still, the mixture of opportunity and intellectual ferment brewing in the offices of TFT was too much to resist. By the time I finally returned to my research obligations six weeks later, I had determined to return. And a year later, I headed back to TFT as one of the first in a long line of valayti babus.

By the time I came back, TFT had shifted from its original home on Turner Road (behind the Lahore High Court) to fresh lodgings on top of the Vanguard book shop on the Mall. Being on the Mall had many advantages, at least as compared to Turner Road which in those days, as today, was a foetid little street choked with lawyers busily figuring how best to earn their daily bread. From a journalistic perspective, the best part of being on the Mall was that you never needed to go to the action: instead, the action came to you. Every day, or other day, some collection of loonies would band together in solidarity and march down the Mall towards Governor House protesting about the injustice being done to them. And on most such days, weather permitting, I would take a cup of tea and hang out by Vanguard’s front door to watch the loonies go by.

The problem with being in the centre of the action was that sometimes the action didn’t leave you alone. On one occasion, I remember turning my neck to the left only to see a policeman about forty yards away aiming a teargas gun at my head. A few seconds later, a teargas shell went whooshing past our noses and clonked some poor school kid on the head, who, like us, was simply picking his nose and watching the world go by. Anyhow, much drama ensued. The TFT staffers, all revolutionaries to the core, promptly charged the policeman in protest. This was not such a good idea because a few seconds later, the same policeman, now reinforced with comrades, charged us, whereupon the TFT staffers all jumped back into the office and promptly brought the shutters crashing down. We all thought we were safe but the pall of teargas outside the office had gotten sucked into the building and for the next few hours no work got done as everybody sat around putting wet handkerchiefs on their eyes until the tear gas finally dissipated.

Technically speaking, my designation at TFT was managing editor, and while I even had business cards printed with that title, I don’t think anybody other than my mother really bought the concept. For one thing, I was 21 at the time and I looked like I was, max, sixteen. Secondly, a newspaper really only has one editor and at TFT that person was unquestionably Najam Sethi. I suppose a more accurate description of my task would have been “features-wallah” but my turf covered everything other than news. It was my job to make sure that every week when the paper went to press there were seventeen pages of entertainment and my instructions were to get that material whether I had to beg, borrow or steal. If anything, stealing was preferred because the “lifted” material was normally of very good quality, usually complete with pictures, and did not require payment. All in all, a win-win situation for both reader and paper!

The people at TFT were certainly an eclectic bunch. In addition to Najam, Jugnu and Aamer, there was also a skeletal and very scruffy looking Englishman by the name of Ben who had been sent off by his father (Andreas Whittam Smith of The Independent) to go and try his luck in the wild wild East. Ben was of some indeterminate post-collegial age and whilst a brilliant writer, worked at the approximate pace of a three-toed sloth and aspired to much the same in terms of personal hygiene. Ben also had the charming disability of not being able to sleep in any condition other than the nude. At Najam’s house, where he was living, the staff had apparently worked out how to handle him but the rest of Pakistan had not been forewarned and more than one reporting trip by Ben almost ended in calamity as a result.

TFT, in general, was a haven for old khabbas of all shades. You could have swung a dead cat in TFT’s offices and probably hit half the membership of the Communist Party of Pakistan. I could tell, though, that the revolutionary fervour had started to fade by the time I returned in 1990 because Jugnu no longer addressed me as “comrade”. I thought only members of the KGB used to call each other “comrade” and acted as if my thoroughly capitalist soul was mortally offended whenever I was so addressed. Deep down, of course, I was thrilled.

Working at TFT was always a joy. I loved going to work there and I was normally the last person out. The only time that I recall things getting hairy in the office was when I rolled into Najam’s room and swore at him, much to the shock and surprise of the entire staff, and then stormed out after slamming the door. Fortunately for my future journalistic career, I was diagnosed with malaria later that day and when I returned a week later from shivering and sweating, Najam was too much of a gentleman to bring up my earlier fit.

As it turned out, TFT was not only the high point but the end of my journalistic career. After I left TFT to go to law school in 1991, I found out that going to law school meant that you got turned into a lawyer. Uh duh. Even today, there are occasions when I fantasise about heading back to the world of journalism but unfortunately, fiscal sanity always intervenes. So, for all the good times, TFT, I say thank you.

This is an article I did earlier for TFT’s 15th Anniversary. The article is reproduced here with the permission of TFT for which I am duly grateful.

Way to go, ladies!

In Uncategorized on June 9, 2009 at 3:07 am

There is a website by the name of Gigapan which specializes in giant zoomable panoramas.  Type ‘Münster’ in the site’s search engine and you get what looks like a standard street-view of an average German town, complete with the requisite Gothic steeple in the background.

Now zoom in on that church steeple till you find three hanging metal cages. Because therein lies a tale.

In February 1534, the town of Münster was as solidly bourgeois as it looks now. But to a group of radical Christians, Münster represented a priceless opportunity which they exploited to the hilt. After seizing City Hall, the radicals set up a regime in which all property was to be held in common. After a brief period of communal glory, Münster dissolved into a madness where the “elect” were able to force women into marrying them, dissenters were executed and all normal life ground to a halt.

In June 1535, the forces of the Church finally succeeded in taking back control. The leaders of the uprising were tortured to death and their bodies were hauled up for public viewing in three cages hung to the spire of St Lambert’s Church. After 50 years or so, the bodies were themselves removed. But as the internet testifies, the cages remain there till today.

Except when viewed from a great distance, history’s progress is never smooth. We are too prone as a nation to comparing our plight with the West in which all seems as serene as the unruffled surface of a pond. But go beneath that placid façade and it turns out that things were once as bloody and as confused there as they are here.

Those boring streets of Münster ran with blood 500 years ago and the half-millennium since has not been all milk and honey either. Between 1900 and 1945, Germany was the centrepiece of two world wars. Between those two wars, Germany first went financially insane, destroying its economy through hyperinflation, and then went politically insane, giving vent to its darkest urges through the nightmare that was Nazism.

The point of all this history is not to say that everything will turn out fine. That platitude may or may not be correct but it is certainly irrelevant. Instead, the point being made is that life is to be lived, not just endured: the fight is now.

All of this brings me naturally enough to the charity event recently organised by the Pakistan Fashion Design Council.

As a fund-raiser, the show was spectacularly successful, raising Rs 4 million to go along with the Rs 8 million worth of goods already sent to Mardan by the umbrella group, Hum Pakistani. But the true importance of the event was not in the amount it raised but in who did the raising, and how they raised it.

The PFDC event was organised almost entirely by women. One could, with some justification, refer to the organisers as socialites. But the throwaway cynicism of that tag would be unjustified. Yes, they are all women who are social. But they are also all women who are successful professionals. And that is an important fact because while militant sympathisers present the current conflict as being between true believers and a corrupt elite, it is also a war between a small group of men and pretty much most of the women in this country.

The PFDC event was therefore an important function because it showed that those women of this country who will have the most to lose when the fundos come to town are determined to fight back. And the way they fought back is also important.

Fashion may seem light years removed from the theological debates between liberals and extremists but it is not. Extremists believe that there is only one way of being Islamic, which is to act like a well-armed 10th century goat-herder. The rest of us believe that there is no limit to human expression, that one can be both modern and Muslim, and that Islam is a religion for all times and all places, not a template for reproducing one place and one moment in time.

With its devotion to the ephemeral, the fashion industry represents the most complete rejection of the fundamentalist ethos possible. At the same time, our fashion industry is one of the few things in this benighted country that is uniquely Pakistani — as in not Indian, not Arab, not ‘Islamic’, but simply, specifically Pakistani.

Celebrating Pakistani fashion is therefore not just frivolous escapism but a defiant gesture that rejects those who wish to enchain all of us in an arid time-warp. In the case of the PFDC, that defiance was more than symbolic because the organisers had received several bomb threats. But even in symbolic terms, the PFDC’s defiance was many-layered: not only was the event organised by women of all ages, but it featured the work of many extremely talented female designers which was in turn presented by the best female models of Pakistan.

Perhaps all of the above is too complicated. If so, let me put it more simply: the PFDC function was an extremely public, well-manicured finger from the (mostly) female fashion designer community to the militants. Way to go, ladies!