Tuesday, June 21, 2011


By Rabia Ahmed   Pakistan Today 21 June 2011

The issues on the ground are pretty basic: roti, kapra aur makan (food, clothing, and housing). The irony of course is that the political party that adopted this as its central manifesto is responsible for continuing and adding to the process whereby all three things have become completely out of the reach of the common man. In fact no political entity in Pakistan has taken steps towards resolving a single one of these three basic issues.

Sheikhu lives in a small village near Lahore. Nine persons live in his home, Sheikhu and his wife, their five children, and Sheikhu’s elderly parents. Sheikhu is one of the luckier ones, his monthly income of around Rs200 most days means that the family has more or less Rs6000 a month to live on. The two eldest children are at school, and once they have some basic education the plan is to send them out to work and then the next two or three siblings (depending on how much the children bring in) can be educated.

The family takes in one litre of milk a day. This is shared between the nine of them, the bulk being consumed by Sheikhu himself, since he works in the fields and brings in the money.

After the milk has done the rounds of the children and the aged parents in their daily cup of tea, there is none left for the mother, Sakina, who considers herself lucky to get a cup of tea with milk maybe once a week.

Sakina at thirty five with few sound teeth, could be mistaken for a woman of fifty five. Sakina would however be surprised if you told her that. Where she lives, she is no different to others her age.

Lahore is cold in winter, but in the villages among the fields and open spaces, temperatures are arctic. Yet few people dress warmer than a shawl, or at best a light sweater over their clothes, if they’re fortunate. In fact, one day, a woman stood at the edge of the Ravi with a baby in her arms, watching a boat come in. The baby wore a thin shift, and this was a bitterly cold day in January.

When asked why the child was dressed this way, she said, quite without bitterness that her child had better get used to hardship. If not, he may as well die while he was still young.

Village life for the underprivileged (what a tidy term) while pathetic has an edge over the life of city slums.

Acquiring a decrepit mud house is an upwardly mobile move for a city slum resident, since these slums are composed of mainly “anyhow ‘dwellings’”, shelters made of twigs, cardboard, odd scraps of fabric, grass or straw, whatever comes. The entire slum exists in close proximity and often in the centre of a rubbish dump. Also on the site is a stagnant pool of filthy water mixed with effluent abuzz with mosquitoes, and extreme noise pollution in the shape of a busy road featuring trucks on every side.

There is no provision for water, sewage, or any form of drainage whatsoever. Come the monsoons when luckier folks enjoy the scent of moist soil, these homes are in danger of collapse, and very often they do. The straw or twig homes of course flood, providing no shelter at all, while as for the mud homes, a caved in roof, a broken wall, an entire house dissolving into the water…all these are par for the course.

When this happens, the people who live in these homes take refuge under trees, beneath a bridge, or in any kind of shelter they can find. And with no money with which to feed themselves, they join the ranks of those who are cleared away when VIPs pass.

Over the years, these problems have only increased, and with this increase, the lifestyle of those with means has become more opulent, which is interesting, but then so have official promises turned more elaborate, and claims of success taller and ever more incredible.

The current budget promises to implement austerity measures that were given the go ahead two years ago, and to control price increases of basic commodities. Given that this goal has eluded the powers that be exactly as bin Laden did, we had best not hold our breath waiting for successful implementation of either of these measures.

A US intelligence report on Pakistan once summed the situation up by saying, ‘No money, no energy, no government.’

Faiz sums it up inimitably with these words:

Woh intezar tha jiss ka, yay who sehar tho nahin

(This is not the dawn we waited for, for so long)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


By Rabia Ahmed  Pakistan Today 14 May 2011

Both my daughter and son-in-law are left handed, which means that they do things preferably and better with their left hands. The full import of this particular form of dexterity had never hit me though until I found myself using a potato peeler meant for left handed persons in their home, or at least I tried to.

Have you ever used a left hander peeler? If you’re right handed like me, you won’t be able to, at least not without turning yourself inside out, and upside down.

Suddenly, as I stood there in the kitchen, peeler in hand, I felt alienated, almost as though I had stepped into a different world…their world, not mine. And as suddenly, without anyone intending to make me feel that way, I knew what it must be like to be part of a minority group; and most unusually, since one rarely has such metaphysical insights while making aloo gosht, my mind flew to people who were in this position as a norm, using the left handed potato peeler of life, as it were, on a regular day to day basis.

I’m not quite sure why the realisation hit me quite just then. After all I was in the US at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and was definitely one of a minority then, a minority that was certainly not very popular either. I suppose I was younger at the time, with the thick skin that goes with the age.

I have always, like many other people, detested the treatment meted out to minorities particularly in Pakistan, since what happens in this country concerns us most closely. Yet it was because of that epiphanic peeler that I understood, even to such a superficial extent, some of what it must feel like to be Ahmadi, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Parsi, or Shia …physically disabled, dyslexic, senile…whatever, and living in Pakistan. Always having thought of it as a mercy previously, I felt my homogenised status to be an evil now, an obstacle in the way of being a more sensitive person.

Sensitivity does not come naturally to human beings, and therefore the need for religion, which is a reminder of the finer side we lose touch with while we live out our mundane lives. Like anything else, though, religion has its flip side, and persons tend towards either side, depending on where they are as a people at that particular time.

As Pakistanis, we are in rather a smelly place today: uneducated, unhinged, unmitigated oafs have our heads locked under their arms. These are people who supposedly know what Islam stands for, and who have taken it upon themselves to teach us. Are there none among their families, who march to the beat of different drums, who have other aspirations and goals in life? Heaven forbid. Life for such persons would be intolerable, as it is for those who are ‘different’ in the rest of the country.

Religious minorities in Pakistan lead a perilous life. The draconian anti-blasphemy law in force in the country is open not only to misinterpretation, but to every kind of abuse, which means that statements, however innocuous, can be twisted around and given meanings which can land the speaker in prison, in peril of his/her life, and this often happens. Matters have come to the stage where judges, government officials, politicians, journalists, anyone who speaks out against this law is threatened, subjected to assault, even murdered, and the police, under similar influence, is neither willing to register cases against such abuse, nor investigate them with any semblance of impartiality.

The fact that voices raised against injustice are silenced so brutally is probably the greatest injustice of all, because this protects all brutality, not just the one.

The Jinnah Institute published a report recently focusing on minority issues in Pakistan, particularly the problems faced by Hindus, Christians and Ahmadis, three of the most prominent minority groups in the country. The report is entitled: ‘A Question of Faith: Repeal the Blasphemy Law or Make it Flawless.’ The report recommends that if this law cannot be repealed, it should at least be couched in more precise terms, so as to make it less open to abuse. The report also points to a marked increase in violence against the three groups mentioned above, and attributes this increase to maulvis “promoting such attacks and inciting violence in their sermons and in the media.”

According to a Pakistan defence journal online, several recommendations have been put forward in this report, including the removal of impunity for the imams of mosques, police and judicial reforms and clarification of the status of Federal Shariat Courts and the Council of Islamic Ideology. The report also calls for an appointment of a “Special Ombudsman” to protect the rights of women and minorities in Pakistan.

Whether or not these recommendations are followed, the courage of those who have compiled this report must be commended.

For the rest, who I hope are right handed, I recommend a pile of grubby, tough potatoes, a left handed potato peeler, and the prayer that my own particular epiphany may overtake them all.


Thursday, June 9, 2011


By Rabia Ahmed   09 June 2011

Dear Mr Khan, some of us are rooting for you, mainly because the other options are worse. People say you appear to care about this country, even though you’re rather muddled. Well they are correct at least as to the last where for example on the one hand you rightly point out that Gen Kayani has no authority to negotiate with foreign governments, and on the other you threaten to block NATO supplies if American drone attacks on Pakistani territory do not stop.

May we point out that you have as yet no mandate to take any such action?

As for caring about the country, it is hard to get much out of you beyond a ranting tirade against just about everyone, and you’ve made your point. We know they’re all crooks, and going on about it is bringing you to a silly point.

How about a clear indication of what you and your party aim to achieve, and how you’re going to achieve that aim. Give us some valid reasons for giving you that mandate mentioned above, for trading Mr Ten Percent for Taliban Khan. To put this in cricket speak, you’re zooting around, all the while the asking run rate has gone up. This is not a five-day Test match, but a tense One Day game playing out on an international arena. It is not a game you can play by marching long marches, or lying around on the ground, pillow or no pillow.

It is time to play with the meat of the bat, a well aimed double wicket maiden, maybe even a hat trick, with a well considered field placement. Please note, I’m trying to use your language, which, if you ever form a government (which appears highly unlikely at present), I foresee creating some misunderstandings vis a vis the Americans…say if you described yourself as playing an ‘orthodox game’, after Abbottabad, that is.

Coming back to the present game and to the batter now on strike, he’s a real match-fixer, which you called him yourself. The aim of his side is nothing beyond staying on the field and out of the pavilion, even at the cost of the rest of the team, the game, and the country. They’re proving too expensive.

So what’s your strategy since you wish to play against them? Which players are you picking, what will your field look like? And how are you going to get the stands to support you instead? The hoi polloi in the stands may be undiscerning, yet it matters. If nothing else, it tossed the coin that brought that team in to bat, and they could do the same for you, or not.

You need to play a captain’s innings once again, so take the time off rhetoric to get your eye in and consider the field.

This is a very poor, an impoverished wicket. There are too many players near the boundaries, too far away from the game. The ball never goes their way, and the wicket is a distant dream. They must be brought in, given an opportunity to bat and toss the ball. As matters stand, they wait all day in the sweltering sun never getting a touch at the game, sawn off if ever they do. Can you change that?

Make it a level playing field. Get some good rollers and decent grounds men; make a difference. Ensure that your team plays the right shots. We’ve had too many agricultural shots and feudal cricket which uproots the turf and ruins the field. We’re sick of such play. We want an educated game, a good match. Can you provide that?

Give us some first class cricket; farm out the ferrets, the free hitters, the gougers and the hacks. It’ll be a bit like trying to pick lice out a dense matted coat, but you could at least try.

We need peace within our team and on the field. We crave a good leader, a captain who’s not in league with the bookies, one who will bend his back to the job himself. In this game of limited overs we need some fours, plenty of sixes, and as many centuries as possible. Otherwise, we lose the match. And yes we remember your great match all those many years ago, but its no use reminding us about it unless you can do it again. As a start we’d be happy with some regular singles, so long as you can stop the ducks and outright collapse. Are you in form for that?

Sunday, June 5, 2011


Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Collins
Elizabeth Bennett (referring to Mr Collins' ability to pay compliments): Do these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are they the result of previous study?

Mr. Collins: They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time. And though I do sometimes amuse myself with arranging such little elegant compliments, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.
— Pride and Prejudice

Which only goes to prove that saying the right thing is not something learnt by study alone. Instead, it is the innate wish to avoid saying the wrong thing, a natural sense of what is ‘right’ and an understanding and empathy of situations and people, coupled with conscious effort that lead to most effective communication.
People who say the wrong thing set many undesirable consequences in motion, dislike being just one of them.

There is the indefatigable tryer who tries very hard but manages to say the wrong thing every time. ‘This,’ remarked Nixon, not generally noted for his social sensitivity, when he visited Paris on the occasion of the French president Pompidou’s funeral, ‘is a great day for France.’

And the time America’s ambassador to the UN urged Jews and Arabs in 1948 to sit down and settle their differences ‘like good Christians’.

There is the dueller, who thrusts and parries, always trying to drive a point home, and it is generally a barbed one. ‘Avoid all needle drugs. The only dope worth shooting is Richard Nixon,’ said Abbie Hoffman, and no it isn’t kick Nixon day today. This may not be the best example, being funnier than it is nasty, but we all have better examples around us.

There is the human bomb, who loves the sensation of saying something startling, dropping a statement in the midst of a gathering, then sitting back to watch the result. Of course although this can be an unfortunate tendency in a private capacity, it can be a useful skill for a public speaker, who manages to get his listener’s attention by starting his talk with a statement that grabs their attention. Ronald Reagan, a skilled orator began one of his speeches by saying, ‘Before I refuse to take your questions, I have an opening statement.’
What skills should one develop if the goal is to ‘say the right thing’? The first of course is to learn to listen well. This is more than plain hearing sounds with acuity. It means listening, with the mental ear to people’s words, tones and undertones, and to their pauses; to what they have said as well as left unsaid. A pause is often more pregnant with speech than words themselves. ‘Of those who say nothing, few are silent’.

The second skill is learning to use one’s eyes. Body language is oft times more eloquent than a person’s words. It has been said that feelings are 55 per cent body language, 38 per cent tone and only seven per cent words, probably the best argument for the ineffectiveness of communicating with persons with shrouded bodies and covered faces.

A smile that does not reach the eyes, a folding of the arms, a nervous tic or other jerky movements, are all indicators of a person not being in earnest, feeling defensive or uneasy.

One of the most common results of unskilled communication is misunderstanding. A tense, nervous or otherwise uncomfortable person imputes all kinds of misplaced motives to a speaker. No amount of precise speech will dispel these impressions, unless the underlying reason for the discomfort is tackled first.
Understanding the situation is the third important factor. When unexpectedly finding oneself in the midst of a conversation between relative strangers, it is an unwise person who offers a remark without first observing the situation and persons involved.

Lastly, one of the most important skills is being able to empathise with other people. While it is well to have a quick grasp , and to be able to respond with clever words, it is empathy that provides a true understanding of what may be going through the other person’s mind, and of what may be motivating him or her. It is empathy that provides the right words for the occasion based on this knowledge; empathy, which is said to be the most radical of human emotions. Without the understanding it provides, whatever is said will lack sense and heart, and may be hurtful. Such a statement will have about as much depth as anything Mr Collins could say.