Save Palmyra From ISIS’s Rampage

26 June 2015


Photographs of Palmyra by Felix Bonfils, Myron Bement Smith Collection, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives.  Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Photographs of Palmyra by Felix Bonfils, Myron Bement Smith Collection, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery have placed on view a relic from ancient Palmyra in Syria. In addition, the galleries are displaying images of 18th century engravings and 19th century photographs from its archives. In the wake of Daesh or the Islamic State’s offensive in Syria, this exhibition has attained a symbolic significance. Being held in the capital of the world’s only superpower with a questionable Syria policy, the display reminds us of what is at stake.

It was exhilarating to be connected with this rich past of humanity and at the same time extremely devastating to remember that we live in a world where our ancient treasures can be wiped out while we look on helplessly.


Haliphat – a limestone funerary relief bust on display at Sackler- stares at you with an intense expression. Her two fingers on the chin represent modesty and virtue. For a moment it seems like a reflection on what is happening in Palmyra today. Halpihat has been dated back to 231 C.E. The almost-alive figure displays Roman and Aramaic artistic styles, reminding us of how Palmyra was the bridge between the East and West.

The Islamic State reportedly has planted mines and bombs in Palmyra. It is unclear if ISIS intends to destroy Palmyra or is using the threat as a strategy to deter attacks by Iraqi forces. Nevertheless, our collective heritage under grave threat. (more…)

The verse of freedom

7 February 2015

In a powerful exploration of resistance poetry in indigenous languages, I discovered marginalized poets challenging mainstream Pakistani identity in moving verse.

 PoetsFaiz Ahmad Faiz

Much has been said about the literary and artistic revolution of Pakistan. Undoubtedly Pakistani writers, artists and musicians are now recognised globally for their work which engages with the world and brings forth perspectives which alter the unidimensional image of the country. At home, the new wave of literary and creative output is celebrated each year at the Karachi and Lahore literature festivals which have emerged as major venues for conversation and showcasing of what is being produced in the mainstream.

Away from the spotlight of international media and TV channels, Pakistan’s regional poets and writers are waging a far more perilous battle by engaging with their subaltern, marginalised audiences in the local idiom, thereby putting themselves at risk. The days of Faiz and Jalib are not over as we often moan. Instead they have deepened and regionalised. Our region has had a rich, ongoing folk tradition and it continues in myriad forms and expressions now. In India, Bangladesh and Pakistan poets and artists continue to challenge power and injustice. More so in Pakistan where instability, extremism and uncertainty have impacted people in a profound manner for the past few decades.


Back in the Driver’s Seat

16 January 2015

Pakistan’s military retakes pivotal control, and the public does not seem to mind.


Pakistan’s military is back in the driving seat. This time, not through a conventional coup d’etat, but through an amended constitution that enables military tribunals to try civilians accused of terrorism.

On Jan. 6, in a joint session, the Parliament amended the country’s constitution to establish military courts. The Islamist parties, opposed to the inclusion of the term “religious terrorism,” backed out at the last minute. But the major secular political parties, ostensibly committed to democratic rule, passed on the judicial powers to special military courts for a period of two years. This is a significant blow to the democratic transition that occurred after Gen. Musharraf’s ouster in 2008, when the country returned to civilian rule.

The unenviable history of democratic evolution in Pakistan is well known. The military directly governed for more than three decades, and in the periods of so-called civilian rule (such as the present one), the military retains control over security and foreign policy. Pakistan’s military is also synonymous with the nationalist identity and therefore shapes the political discourse as well.

The current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, assumed office in June 2013. In November, he appointed a new Army Chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, thinking that he was consolidating civilian power. Sharif also pushed for the trial of former President Musharraf (who ousted Sharif in 1999) for violating the constitution by imposing emergency rule in November 2007.


A definitive history of Pakistan

13 January 2015

Pakistan’s best-known historian, Ayesha Jalal, is back with a new book: The Struggle For Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics. This book essentially synthesises much of Jalal’s earlier work that by all accounts is rich and comprehensive. In short, the new book presents an overview of Pakistan’s progression as a national security state, a lop-sided federation to its current existential woes fuelled by state-sponsored Islamisation. Jalal acknowledges that the country’s Islamic identity was not enough to hold it together and the continued cycles of military rule turned it into a polity that cannot provide full citizenship rights to all Pakistanis.

This emphasis on citizenship is an important perspective that Jalal has brought forth to a global reader, who views the country as an epicentre of terror and blowing itself as a jihadi state. As the premier scholar on the country’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Jalal refers to the origins of Pakistan as a “truncated … moth-eaten and mutilated state” in the most peculiar circumstances of 1940s and the breakdown of power-sharing schemes that were deliberated in that decade. Lord Mountbatten’s ominous sentence marked the start: “As far as Pakistan is concerned, we are putting up a tent. We can do no more.” And even today in many parts of the country, the tent exists without a responsive state structure. Sixty-seven years later, Pakistan is a country of 200 million people with no local governments that can assure accountable services (including security) to its citizens.

Pakistan’s insecurity is rooted in that phase when it was widely projected that it may just collapse under the burden of its inherent contradictions. Over 40 million Muslims stayed in India; its two wings were 1,000 miles apart and the task of creating a nation-state was even more onerous given the diversity — ethnic, linguistic and religious — of the new state. Nearly 25 per cent of Pakistanis in 1947 were non-Muslims (today only four to five per cent are). The perennial debate on Pakistan’s national identity has not ended. (more…)

Don’t expect a miracle to happen

24 December 2014

The ignoble massacre of children and teachers in Peshawar has led to unprecedented anger and grief across the country. The state has responded by ending the moratorium on the death penalty and convicted terrorists are now being hanged. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has announced that the days of differentiating between the good and the bad Taliban are over. A parliamentarians’ committee is reviewing counterterrorism measures that need to be adopted. The military leadership has undertaken the diplomatic-security initiative to engage with Afghan authorities on potential action that can nab the Taliban leadership based in Afghanistan.
All these measures are important and noteworthy. The ongoing Operation Zarb-e-Azb is here to stay and perhaps, is likely to be extended to other areas. But the central question is, whether these tactical moves are sufficient to tackle the hydra-headed Frankenstein’s monsters that Pakistan’s flawed national security policy has created, sustained and nurtured, sometimes with outside support and on occasions totally on its own. There is a name for this Frankenstein’s monster and it is known as jihad — a narrow, self-seeking interpretation of an otherwise lofty and ethereal religious concept. The struggle embedded in jihad — according to most scholars and not semi-literate clerics — is self-improvement. Instead, this has turned into a spectator sport where private militias carry out state objectives in the region and within the land of the pure.
This trajectory is an old one. It did not happen overnight nor was it a ploy of the Unites States and other powers to get Pakistan into a royal mess. In 1948, ‘jihadis’ from the tribal regions started with the battle of Kashmir that continues to date. Conventional wars or private ‘jihad’ efforts have brought neither glory to Pakistan nor relief for the Kashmiris, most of whom are sick of India and Pakistan treating their land and rights as national fiefs. (more…)

Conspiracy Theories as ‘History’

29 October 2014

Pakistan’s official historian in a book on education has to say this about 1971 tragedy when we lost half of our country. I don’t blame the minds who cite ‘external’ conspiracy at the drop of the hat because this is what we have popularized. Overlook the failings and crimes of Pakistani state and blame it on everyone else. Three generations have internalized this and I guess this is enough time to shape norms and ‘truths’. ‪History‬ and its teaching is farce. It would have been funny had it not resulted in such disastrous consequences for a populace esp the young minds.

Image via Manan Ahmad, a professor at ‪Columbia‬ University.


“Lahore broke my heart”

5 October 2014

Author Reema Abbasi spoke to me about her travels across the country while researching for ‘Historic Temples in Pakistan’. Some excerpts from the conversation.

Reema abbasiReema Abbasi with her book

What was the inspiration to author a book on Pakistani temples?

For the last 10 years my reporting, columns and editorials concentrated on socio-political issues with a strong focus on secular values already enshrined in Islam. The tide of Islamism eclipsed Pakistan’s happy confluence one grew up in. So I felt it was time to make a concrete contribution through a topic that fused history through antiquated symbols of unity — which, in this case, belong to the ancient faith of Hinduism — and an essentially tolerant populace that believes in humanity and the pull of history.

This is why the book is “Historic Temples in Pakistan: A Call to Conscience” as it documents structures that can challenge time and shuns the idea of the supremacy of any singular faith. Every call to prayer demands respect.

Your book tells us multiple stories. The temples are endangered but there are positive stories as well. How would you give an overall view?

By and large, Pakistan and its communities deserve much praise for the upkeep of these age-old treasures. Many are now heaps of stones such as Tilla Jogian or Suraj Kund, but then disuse does that all over the world. Our over a year long journey across the country was an eye-opener. It sprang one surprise after another and assailed many presumptions with Kali Ki Gali in Peshawar, Shivala Mandir in Mansehra, a pujari’s words in Pindi:  “Yeh mutthi bhar dehshatgard kitna bigaar leingay?” to name a few.

But Punjab broke my heart, especially Lahore, a jewel layered with many diverse eras, has forced its Hindus to live with the greatest of burdens – false identity. They live lies by adopting Christian names.

Has the Sindh government proven to be a better guardian of the Hindu places of worship than other governments? Or is it the same story everywhere?

Sindh has done a tremendous job of maintenance, restoration, and reverence, so has Balochistan with Hinglaj and much of KPK honours its shrines. Punjab has lost over 1000 pre-historic emblems to neglect, greed and bigotry. (more…)

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