Haligoli, (2001), a miniature by Saira Wasim â€“ collection of
Peshawar, a city destroyed
IDPs returning to their homes
Wherever I went to eat, there was a meat-fest in waiting. There comes a time in life when you want to give up meat forever and that moment arrived on a dark, load-shedded night in Peshawar
My recent weeks have been consumed by travels to the capital and to the grim frontiers of Paktunkhwa. As part of an unwieldy team undertaking a survey of the wretched internally displaced persons returning to their homes, I was in and out of Peshawar several times. Other than encountering the depressing stories of a people trapped by their history and geopolitics one had to struggle for a vegetarian meal in good old Peshawar. Wherever I went to eat, there was a meat-fest in waiting. There comes a time in life when you want to give up meat forever and that moment arrived on a dark, load-shedded night in a cloistered guest-house reeking of cigarette-smoke and untreated sewage. Thank God for my friend Ahsan, who like a good comrade humoured me and regurgitated the lessons of being patient and calm. I must not complain too much for Iâ€™m not an ungrateful wretch. There are many in the subcontinent who cannot even afford a basic meal, let alone pleasures of the flesh. But there has to be a limit to the carnivorous instinct that we are so given to in the Land of the Pure, Purists and Puritans.
As if a non-vegetarian diet was not enough, the scare of being smoked out by the Al-Qaeda goons was even more disturbing, dare I say, indigestible. A happy-go-lucky and overly-healthy host, as he drove us into the by-lanes of the old Peshawar that must have been beautiful once, his gregarious references to all the sites where bombs had erupted were a little disturbing. Not that I am scared of dangerous places, for I have braved a post-war Kosovo with a fair measure of bravado. But the hysterical â€œoutsidersâ€ ranting about how insecure we were in Peshawar was a little dampening for a Lahori soul. We do live in interesting times, made even more interesting by naÃ¯ve security experts and people fed on Western media reporting on Pakistan being a truly dangerous pit-hole of the world. Sometimes the propaganda war does conquer your senses, I must confess.
So we visited the camps where thousands had been packed like sardines and where women recounted stories of bereavement and heavy-duty terror-mongering by the good Taliban as we are told that there is a clear distinction between the good and the bad Taliban. Now if the good Taliban, referred to as â€œpatriotsâ€ not long ago, are such barbarians, I shudder to think what the bad Taliban might be like. The children at these camps were suffering even more. The heat could be unbearable and drinking water was not always available. And to top it all, recreation and education were non-existent. But all of this is well-known and I see no point in re-hashing what has already been told umpteen times.
What I can safely say after a first-hand encounter with the affectees is that we are an unkind, cruel society and are unable to provide citizen rights equally and without discrimination. Most provinces and their rhetorical leaders refused to give shelter to these unfortunate victims. This is why my visits have been an eye-opener about the sheer beauty of the traditional Pakhtun culture. The host families, regardless of their limited means and trying conditions, did not raise an eyebrow when they had to take care of the IDPs. More importantly, the displaced people themselves had such a remarkable understanding of what is going on in the Frontier and its neighbouring country, i.e. Afghanistan. They bore the scars and dealt with the wounds with immense grace and perseverance. True heroes, Iâ€™d say.
And what have the other regions been doing continuously: denigrating the â€œPathanâ€ stereotype akin to the way Sikhs are the butt of jokes in India and elsewhere. We have ascribed every possible quirk to these brave people and love to call them names every now and then. About time that I admit to the ingrained prejudices and offer my salaam to Paktunkhwa.
A new friend that I have made is from the erstwhile ruling family of Buner. An urbanite to the core, with spiked and gelled hair, Qaisar is an information-technology professional who is candid about the troubles that engulf his beloved Buner. There was not a single moment of justifying the Taliban under the imagined banner of Islamism or imperial resistance. He narrated how his entire family had left the district and was found in relativesâ€™ homes in Islamabad and how the nexus between the Holy Cow institutions and the Taliban was a widely-known secret. Qaisar and his generation inspires me and instills hope in my cynical heart that has been wounded each time a TV anchor propagates Talibanization as the panacea for our ills. Or when a leading maverick posing as a journalist defends the lashing of a 17-year-old as a kosher act under the man-made Shariah. Not to mention that each Talib is an un-circumcised Hindu btard. The only saving grace is that perhaps the Israelis and the Ahmedis have thus far not recruited the Taliban.
As I reached Islamabad and entered a posh restaurant for a little congregation, the unreality almost took me to the level of de-realization, which a friend tells me is a psychological phenomenon. A couple of days ago, he even accused me of sporting the syndrome caused by stress and sleep deprivation. All I could tell him was that he was wrong, for Pakistan itself was in the process of de-realizing itself. How could its inhabitants remain unaffected by it?
As I scramble these lines, the mindless euphoria of Independence Day celebrations is about to break out on the streets of Lahore. There will be the usual hooliganism, the negligence of those who have to protect the roads and a plethora of press reports and usual editorials on what an unruly mob we have turned into. Platitudes will pollute the television channels with little introspection. The IDPs will continue to search for their looted belongings and the liberal elites will continue to bemoan what an unlivable place Pakistan is. Life, as they say will roll on.
And readers, your Man Friday will sleep through the day and alleviate the sleep-deprivation syndrome.
Raza Rumi is a development professional and a writer based in Lahore. He blogs at www. razarumi.com and edits Pak Tea House and Lahore Nama e-zines