Jinnah’s dream is on hold, but Project Ziaul Haq is in full swing

Cartoon by Sabir Nazar

Artists see things others don’t, hues of reality that many are blind to or have long become numb to. I think this also happens when you go to a new place or visit a place after a long time, or periodically; you see more. I have lived most of my life in the United States and visit Pakistan periodically. Perhaps that’s why some things glare at me more than others. The converse is also true. If you were to visit the States you would see things that I stopped noticing a long time ago. All this is to say that I want to report some random observations, things I see and feel, from my visits to Pakistan.

The first time I came to Pakistan after a long absence was in 2003. I remember thinking that I had never seen so many beards before. People I knew, had grown up with, were now supporting lustrous beards, and some of them had their own peers and fakirs, spiritual masters. An entire generation had turned to religion for solace. Now, in today’s Pakistan, religion seems to have become a matter of display and ritual, and the whole body is its shrine. Beards are longer, shalwars are shorter, worn above the ankles, fingers slide the beads of a rosary like a banker counts currency, and there are a lot more women wearing hijabs and burkas. For all ills and ailments you can recite verses, bury or hang a trinket, or sacrifice a goat to please God and all will be fine. Doctors abandoning patients, others deserting offices scurrying to the mosque or the prayer room is a common sight. Whatever happened to the concept of seeing work as prayer (kaam ibadat hai). Jinnah’s dream is on hold, but project Ziaul Haq still seems to be in full swing, and gone are the days when faith was a matter of heart, between man and the Maker.

But I am really not here to talk about religion.

The strange nature of trash management practices in Pakistan baffle me. In every neighborhood a few open locations serve as trash receptacles; fetid air rises form these spots carrying with it germs and disease. Feral animals recycle some of the garbage. Crows can be seen congregating on top of these heaps picking through, and sometimes a random cat creeps up too, but she is not after the crows and digs in besides them; there is plenty to eat for all. Have you ever wondered why the neighborhood cat never eats your chickens? Well, now you know why. You may think I spend my time in Pakistan in the slums, but my parents, whom I visit, live in one of Rawalpindi’s better neighborhoods. But no one really sees these open sores or are happy to ignore them.

Next time you’re out and have walked or driven by the piles of garbage look at peoples’ feet, or more specifically at their sandals. You will see that everyone is wearing shoes a size too small, their heels hanging out from the back of the sandal. This is an observation so silly that I am sure you must be asking what’s the point, and I am here to tell you I do not know. And I doubt there is any point. May be a social scientist could come up with one. Once a fleeting thought did cross my mind— how can a people who cannot determine their own shoe size stand on their own two feet. Could this explain everything? That is an absurd thought, I am sure. Could it be that small feet are considered a sign of beauty, and so it makes people feel better, in a way, by being in denial about their real shoe size, about reality. Could it mean a disregard and unawareness of one’s own condition?

Here’s one more and I am sure you are familiar with this. Everyone in Pakistan is a victim of everyone else. Siblings of each other, children of parents and parents of children and so on. And this is in fact true; in a culture that approaches tribalism you can’t avoid it. Tribes are needed for survival when state has been all but absent. But the tribe impinges upon individuality and hinders self’s full development; trifles take inordinate proportions— sense and sensibility gives way to grudges and grievances, restraint is overcome by repartee, understanding is overwhelmed by umbrage. A productive life cannot have time for these self-harming evils. Without flourishing individuals striving for their passions unfettered by tribe and tradition, an innovative society and a robust sense of identity is not possible. Confident and progressive nations are nothing but an expression of self-actualized individuals.

And where are all the women? Go to any public place and you would think there are hardly any women in Pakistan, when in fact they are about half the population. And if they are almost absent from public spaces, they are probably not a productive part of national life. And every year, twice, when bearded men alight on top of a roof searching for an elusive moon, articles are written suggesting that the scientists can calculate the position of moon for next hundreds of years, but here is my question: where are the women, shouldn’t they have a say in locating that resplendent harborer of happy tidings?

Now you tell me how can a nation that is superstitious, detached from reality, consists of unfulfilled individuals, has rendered half its members ineffective— how can that nation get on the road to redemption and progress? To see reality is to be despondent, and to escape it we invent false narratives and half-truths, but the uncomfortable remedy lies in truth itself, in our real selves, a cold reading of our history, a penetrating inward stare.


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January 2018
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