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Chronicles of our recent past

FS Aijazuddin’s new book is an erudite and introspective account of a turbulent decade


The past decade in Pakistan has been cataclysmic. Political upheavals and assassinations, the menace of terrorism that cost us more than 80,000 lives and over $100 billion; and a time warped foreign policy kept pushing the country into a vortex. All of this reproduced the curse of endemic political instability that has been a hallmark of Pakistan’s trajectory. Much has been written on this decade especially by foreign commentators given our global relevance as an American ally in the War on Terror. Within Pakistan, a handful of commentators and analysts have articulated more grounded, organic narratives; and FS Aijazuddin is one of the chosen few. His new book The Morning After is a collection of articles, essays and speeches he delivered in various capacities during the years 2006 and 2014. As the author tells us, the book is a fourth in the series of such compilations. The last one – When Bush Comes to Shove and other writings – was published in 2006.

Such compilations can be tricky for a reader as often the contents respond to time-bound events and explore topics that run the risk of losing relevance overtime. Given the structural constraints of Pakistani state and society, the issues covered in The Morning After appear relevant even in 2015. Take the case of a column entitled ‘Making Cartoons of Ourselves’ on the global outrage against Danish Cartoons. It is hauntingly familiar and newsy. In 2012, there were countrywide protests against a film made on Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and last year 14 staffers of a French magazine – Charlie Hebdo – were killed by fanatics in Paris. Aijazuddin’s conclusion is spot-on: “We are not the caricatures stencilled by the western press, nor the cartoons extremists make of themselves and of us by their aberrant behaviour.” […]

Book Review: South Asia 2060: Envisioning Regional Futures

My review for The Friday Times


South Asia 2060: Envisioning Regional Futures is a comprehensive volume of essays edited by Adil Najam and Moeed Yusuf. Given the importance of the South Asian region, this book attempts to fill in a huge gap that has existed for decades. Discourses on South Asia for reasons well known, have been obsessive about all things security and in recent times terrorism. The editors note that South Asia “sits atop a globally strategic location” and gladly move on to other important topics, which makes this volume a useful contemporary reference. The introduction notes the immense potential for energy trade as well as the significant regional security implications for the world at large. This is why the future of South Asia is not just important to those who live in the region; it is duly a global concern. The 37 papers authored by 44 experts, in the volume trace the multiple futures and mercifully avoid the common fallacy of reducing South Asia to India and Pakistan and their bitter rivalries.

The introduction summing up the book rightly identifies that the idea of South Asia is a contested one and its ownership – political and economic – would determine the future. Commenting on the term Southasia introduced by Nepal based Himal magazine, the editors state: “…the future of the geography we know as South Asia will depend, at least in part, on what happens to the idea of Southasia. We are not in a position to say what that will be just yet, but it is clear that the aspiration of Southasianness is entrenched more deeply in the South Asian mind than we had imagined. It is an idea that our regional politics has often rejected and fought against. But the resilience of the aspiration suggests regional politics may eventually have to embrace it.” Thus the emergence of Southasia, a regionalized identity, will be a political process and the book suggests that there is no one course or prediction to hold it.

In this context the paper, the paper by US based Pakistani historian Manan Ahmad Asif entitled “Future’s Past” contends that though the immediate history of Pakistan and India might broadly be cause for pessimism (such as the violent partitions of ’47 and ’71), there is nevertheless a greater, storied and shared history that can be recalled in order to realize how communities in South Asia can peacefully co-exist. […]

Understanding Contemporary Muslimness

A review of Naveeda Khan’s  book Muslim Becoming published in “The Book Review

I wanted to learn what it meant to know Islam in Pakistan and why this knowing was so easily brushed  aside.

It is a welcome addition to the rather scant literature on  Islam, identity and Muslimness in contemporary Pakistan. Khan begins by presenting a debate between four librarians of differing religious persuasions. Deep within the stacks of the Provincial As- sembly Library, four men take part in a dis- cussion that highlights the marked differ- ences in their belief systems. Of the four, one is a Shia and the other three Sunni. Among the Sunnis, one identifies himself as a Deobandi, one as a follower of Ahl-e-Hadis sect, and the third as a Barelvi. Akbar, the follower of Ahl-e-Hadis school of thought, speaks at length of the superiority of their mosques as ‘they allowed laymen to give ser- mons and encouraged women’s participation in congregational  prayer’. Despite his reverence for mosque culture, Akbar is derisive of the thought of praying at the Prophet’s mosque in Medina.

It  is  commendable to  pray at  the Prophet’s  mosque, but it isn’t  necessary. Some among us have made it into a re- quirement by saying such things as, the Prophet is alive there, he can hear your prayers and he can grant you your wishes. Such claims are bid’a. One cannot pray there until such time as this bid’a has been vanquished… […]

November 1st, 2013|books, Islam, Islamophobia, Pakistan, Pakistani Literature|2 Comments

Book Review~ Nobody Can Love You More: Life in Delhi’s Red Light District

Writing about the lives of “fallen women” is a problematic endeavor, especially in South Asia where the morality of the middle classes defines the views of the “educated”. There is too much romance, tragedy or judgment in such writing. So for an English-language writer to humanize women (and increasingly men) who pursue sex work as a source of earning a livelihood is often quite difficult.

Three years ago, when Mayank Austen Soofi told me about his project, I could not tell him how difficult it would be to write a book about the sex workers of Delhi’s GB Road. Of course there have been some interesting books about South Asia’s sex workers in recent years. British author Louise Brown, for instance, wrote a wonderful account of life in Lahore’s Heera Mandi in her celebrated book ‘The Dancing Girls of Lahore’. Pakistani writer and activist Fouzia Saeed wrote another important book on the subject appropriately titled ‘Taboo: The Hidden Culture of a Red Light Area.’ Another book, though a work of fiction, is Feryal Ali Gauhar’s novel ‘The Scent of Wet Earth in August’. It tells the moving story of Fatima, a mute girl from the red light area, and her romance with one Maulvi Basharat from the mosque nearby. I liked Gauhar’s book for exposing the hypocrisy of a moralizing society while adding nuance to characters that were both victims and perpetrators of injustice.

Nobody Can Love You More: Life in Delhi’s Red Light District
Mayank Austen Soofi
Penguin Books Ltd, 2012
250 pages

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Mayank Austen Soofi with his bookMayank Austen Soofi with his book
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It was a chilly evening in Delhi when Soofi made me read the first five chapters of Nobody Can Love You More: Life in Delhi’s Red Light District. My trepidation vanished into thin air as soon as I read the prose, which was nothing like what I had read before on the subject. This book was about characters from the universe of a GB Road kotha, the North Indian equivalent of a salon, a place of performative art and sexual pleasure. I lost touch with Mayank for nearly a year, but having re-read those chapters now, I find them even more visual and melancholic than before. Soofi spent endless days, and sometimes nights, at one particular kotha. He immersed himself in the everyday lives of the women, their children, their pimps and clients, and saw it all not as an outsider but with an empathy and humanity that can only be garnered when you leave your preconceived notions before the act of writing. […]

2011- A year that will haunt us

From Paper Magazine 2011- a year in review

A journalist recently remarked that 2011 was the year that no one will remember. Alas, this will not be the case, as the year will haunt us for some time to come. The process of forgetting will not be effortless. Pakistan has undergone several such moments in the past. However, 2011 brought it all together in a chaotic fashion, exposing the blood-lined fissures within the society and the long-term crumbling of the state.

The year started with the gruesome murder of Salmaan Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s largest province as he championed the cause of a poor woman booked under the blasphemy law. His death was a shocking event in multiple ways: the murderer Mumtaz Qadri was a man supposed to protect him, the killer was garlanded and elevated to the status of a hero by many segments of the society especially the clerics. A tragedy of this proportion at one level appeared to be an epitaph of a society that had buried its humanity. Even worse the political parties, civil society and media remained cautious in the aftermath of the assassination; and the hope for a collective resistance was missing.

It took several months for an afraid judge to deliver a verdict against this heinous act and now the judge lives outside Pakistan to escape the wrath of clerics who find his act of sentencing Qadri abominable. The executive did little to punish errant officials who had allowed for things to come to such a pass; and the Parliament could not even offer prayers for the slain governor. Pakistan has never appeared so unkind and insensitive to murder, and that too in the name of a faith that preaches peace. This murder was followed by the assassination of Pakistan’s minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti ostensibly at the hands of Taliban and to date the killers remain at large. Bhatti’s death marked the end of activism against the Blasphemy law silencing most of the voices calling for reform to the man-made laws which persecutes both Muslims and non-Muslims in Pakistan.

Bruised by this ghastly incident, the country displayed another kind of a collective neurosis when a trigger-happy CIA contractor Raymond Davis killed three Pakistanis in Lahore. Davis’ act was despicable and he ought to have been punished. But Pakistan’s right wing and media manifested a rare kind of blood thirst against this operative of a notorious agency. The calls to hang Davis without a due examination of international and domestic laws came as another affirmation of a society, which has abandoned rule of law in favour of chaos and paranoia. It is a separate matter that the state bailed out Davis applying the Islamic laws introduced by Gen Zia ul Haq by paying blood money to the families of the victims. The executive was in overdrive and the judiciary also delivered a speedy judgement. The incident left Pakistanis more xenophobic and resentful of its long-time patron and ally, the United States.

Nothing has been more turbulent than the trajectory of Pak-US relations during the year. The two allies turned into frenemies by the end of the year. The Davis saga set the stage for stranger things to come.

On May 2, a special team of US Navy seals almost invaded a part of Pakistan in a surgical strike to capture and kill the leader of Al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden (OBL). The location of OBL’s hideout was most embarrassing. The chief patron of a global Islamist movement was living apparently for years near a garrison town in Abbottabad, close to a prestigious military training academy.

There was uproar in Pakistan and the earlier shock and unanswered question – what was OBL doing there –was replaced by a nationalist outrage. The US had violated our sovereignty and if our security forces were negligent or complicit there was an issue. The contradictions within Pakistan’s policy and its domestic civil-military relations were at once laid bare under international spotlight.

The domestic crisis which emanated out the May 2 strike on OBL’s hideout deepened by the end of the year when the civilian and military power-wielders were playing out their conflict in the courts. The memo-gate affair, as it is now known, finds its roots in the writing of an unsigned memo allegedly written by Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US calling for US intervention and support for the attempts to establish civilian control of security and foreign policies. By the end of the year, the Ambassador had resigned, faced a court petition, which culminated in the formation of a judicial commission to probe the charges, and been placed in virtual imprisonment beacause of fears for his safety.

Between these events, there were two other acts of violence. One against the state by a well-planned attack on a major naval base in Karachi in May 2011, and the second, the abduction and murder of a journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad around end of May 2011. Both acts disparate in their intensity and nature underlined one thing in common: the power of militant groups, a reality to be reckoned with. The naval base attack by the militants (or non state actors) apparently had inside support while the slain journalist was reporting regularly on the activities of extremist non-state actors as well as the operations of Al Qaeda in Pakistan.

These organised groups also abducted the son of the late Salmaan Taseer from Lahore and an American aid worker Warren Weinstein in August. On the issue of latter, a video was released by the current Al Qaeda chief claiming that his network had the American citizen in their custody. For the release of Weinstein, Pakistan and the US have to meet several demands of the militants. […]

March 11th, 2012|governance, Pakistan, Politics, SouthAsia|4 Comments

Pakistan’s foreign policy: Escaping India?

By Raza Rumi:

As Pakistan negotiates with a critical moment of its 64-year-old existence, there is nothing more urgent than to review its foreign policy goals and the assumptions that define them. It is an open secret that the unelected institutions of Pakistan for decades have designed controlled and implemented its foreign policy, often at variance with Pakistan’s own pragmatic self-interest. Such have been the contours of Pakistan’s foreign policy perspective, that the institutional interests of its all-powerful military and the allied intelligence complex dominate the definition and outcome of an imagined “national-interest”. Considering how Pakistan finds itself locked in a battle of nerves with the United States since the strike on Osama bin Laden’s compound in the garrison town of Abottabad, on May 2, 2011, there is perhaps no better time for its elites to review and redefine what passes for foreign policy. […]

October 17th, 2011|Culture, India, Pakistan, Published in The Friday Times|4 Comments

Regressive governance (book review)

“…the pasture of stupidity is unwholesome for mankind.”– Ibn-e-Khaldun

 Pakistan’s ‘crisis’ of governance has now acquired an axiomatic status. Local and foreign experts have been grappling with the precise nature of how the Pakistani state has transformed over the past decades. In particular, the state’s inability to turn into a citizen-responsive, accountable entity is a major tragedy of our times. Ilhan Niaz’s award-winning book, The Culture of Power and Governance of Pakistan 1947-2008, is a significant narrative on the philosophical and historical dimensions of governance or lack thereof. Perhaps the most impressive part of his endeavor is the fact that his is an indigenous analysis, emanating very much from a Pakistani scholar who has chosen to rough it out in a public sector university.

The book uses a wide range of declassified records available at the National Documentation Centre in Islamabad and, therefore, posits a fresh perspective on both the political history of Pakistan as well as how the culture of exercising power in South Asia permeated the insular, mock-Weberian state created by the British. In this respect, it is worthwhile to say that Niaz has also ventured into exploring the marked regression of Pakistan’s ruling elites – something that few studies before his have attempted. As he puts it, the state apparatus has over time become arbitrary, proprietary and delusional. […]