Thursday, December 6, 2012


logoThursday, December 06, 2012

Still magical

Still magical

Charms, magic and hocus pocus make way for the drama of local politics in J K Rowling’s long awaited book

The pretty little town of Pagford is any small English town, with cobbled streets and tidy houses, and this is how the residents wish to keep it. But in an act seen as a betrayal by its residents, land belonging to Pagford is sold, and ‘Fields,’ an unattractive, low income housing estate is built on that land. Eventually, as communities do, Fields grows to the doorstep of Pagford. The people of Pagford are forced to share their school and other facilities with Fields, and to interact with its residents. It is no longer possible to ignore the seamier side of life as lived by their council house neighbours, many of whom, to add to their undesirability, are on welfare. This inability to ignore is not for want of trying.

The Bellchapel Addiction Clinic provides methadone treatment for drug addiction. An overwhelming number of its clients live in Fields, but it is the Parish of Pagford that provides the funds for its programmes. Pagford has been lobbying to close the clinic years, without attempting to recognize its crucial role in helping addicts overcome their addiction.  The main protagonist of the novel, Barry Fairbrother, a local Pagford Parish Councillor, who dies on the second page, was fighting this closure. His successor will either continue Fairbrother’s efforts or oppose them.  
J K Rowling did say that she sometimes has ‘a tendency to walk on the dark side,’ and the dark face of poverty and middle class bigotry is what this book is about, that and terrible dysfunctional relations, between partners, and between children and their parents.
One of the factors that cannot fail to impress is the bleak similarity between different societies and cultures when it comes to poverty, addiction, and abusive relationships.  Few writers could have pulled back the covers to reveal the horror beneath as sharply as J K Rowling does, or with as much honesty.
Most people who have ‘been there,’ are unwilling to admit the fact, and prosperity blunts their recollections. This has not happened in J K Rowling’s case. Pagford is drawn with a sensitive hand and obvious firsthand experience, instead of the quaint lens through which England is normally viewed.
There is humour, such as the tail end of Fairbrother’s funeral when the congregation files out of the church trying not to walk in time to the strong beat of a song chosen by the dead man’s children. There is also Howard, who takes nothing for granted but is inclined to believe what a woman says because she styles herself ‘Ms.’
It is equally obvious that Rowling’s teenage years were unpleasant (‘You couldn’t give me anything to make me go back to being a teenager. I hated it.’)  It shows up in her portrayal of Fats, Krystal, Andrew, Gaia and Sukhvinder, dysfunctional teenagers from dysfunctional families.
Krystal Weedon of uncertain paternity is a sixteen year old from Fields, with a drug addict for a mother and a little brother who has scabs on his little bottom because his mother never washes him. Krystal pushes the limits of everyone’s tolerance with her smoking, swearing and easy sexual relationships. She is unable to speak without a four letter word and is unused to reading to the point of being barely able to do so. Most people in Pagford think she is despicable, even evil. However it is Krystal who displays the greatest courage and the most humanity where her old grandmother and her brother are concerned. Far from being evil, Krystal shows up the evil that is a society which fails to help and understand people like her.
No writer exists in a vacuum. If Rowling’s Harry Potter books bear similarities to Tolkien’sHobbit series, The Casual Vacancy has something in common with Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford. Both are gimlet eyed commentaries on modest communities of people and their daily lives. There are no fast paced plots in either, and no personalities of heroic stature, no Jane Eyres, or Heathcliffs; the character closest to heroism, Barry Fairbrother, is a short, dead man who had an unhappy relationship with his wife and was born in Fields.  The plot revolves around the power play within the community prior to elections to fill Fairbrother’s post.
Shirley Mollison’s is quite the most distasteful character in the book, because she has the least excuse for her faults.  Some may find others more distasteful, such as Obbo, the drug pusher and fence, but Obbos rarely exist in caring communities, while Shirley Morrisons are everywhere and are far more dangerous because they are insidious. Shirley, who is ready to kill a husband she thinks she loves, who ignores a lesbian daughter and idolizes a son, and then proceeds to sabotage his marriage; Shirley, the administrator of the council website who deliberately leaves defamatory remarks on the message board, and takes a ghoulish delight in being the first to convey scandal in dulcet tones.
Divided into seven parts, the book spans some 500 pages in hardcover, and has its flaws although it is eminently readable on the whole. Part one is rather tedious, dedicated to introducing the large palette of characters, but that may be an unavoidable process. The language used by the Weedon family is laboured, probably because Rowling has worked hard at reproducing it phonetically, and the effort shows.
In every way this is a good read, for adults. Just as Hannibal Lecter and Stevens the butler were so distinctively portrayed by the same actor, Anthony Hopkins, the only resemblance this book bears to the Harry Potter books also written by Rowling lies in her skill and the utter simplicity of language in both.
Rowling, who is the founder of ‘Lumos’ a charity for disadvantaged children, has supported the charity in the best possible way by means of this book, which graphically illustrates why such charities are worth supporting. It is an acid test of good writing if it provides a greater insight into large matters, or makes one think. This book does both. Read it. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012


The Dawn  11 November 2012

In memoriam: The Curie effect

By Rabia Ahmed  | 

Maria Slodowska
(Marie Curie)
On November 7, more than 600 years ago, the large Ensisheim Meteorite struck a field in France, but it was Maria Slodowska, born on the same day in 1867, who had a much greater impact, even to this day. She was one of three people who discovered radium which is used in the treatment of cancer, and to alleviate its symptoms. The process is known as radiotherapy.
Although Maria was Polish, Poland as a country no longer existed; it had merged into the Russian Empire. The Russians neither allowed women to enrol in the University of Warsaw, nor did they permit Poles to teach science. So Maria Slodowska became the French ‘Marie’ when she moved to Paris at age 24, as a science student at the University of Sorbonne.
Marie and Pierre Curie were married in 1895. Pierre earned a PhD in science, while Marie became the first woman to receive a PhD anywhere in the world, in any subject, much less at the Sorbonne. Her subject was also science, and her research (in which she was later joined by Pierre) was based on an initial observation of uranium by Henri Becquerel in which he discovered that materials containing uranium gave off unexplained rays. This was radium, officially discovered by the Curies in 1898. The discovery and beneficial use of this element was to become the focus of their lifetime work. In July 1898 they had announced the discovery of ‘polonium’. For these discoveries Marie and her husband Pierre Curie shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, with Henri Becquerel.
After Pierre’s death in 1906, Marie received another Nobel Prize in 1911, this time for Chemistry, related to their discoveries of polonium and radium.
The Curies spent their lives working under trying conditions, including gender discrimination for Marie, . Leaving Poland because women were not allowed to enrol in university was only the beginning. Later, Marie’s name was not added to the list of candidates for the Nobel Prize on the same grounds, although that was eventually rectified. Earlier that year, although the Curies were invited to London following the publication of their joint paper, it was only Pierre who was allowed to speak at the Royal Institution, once again for the same reason. France, Marie’s adoptive country, never formally acknowledged her achievements, in spite of her huge contributions.
It was only after she was honoured everywhere else that France rather shamefacedly offered her the Legion of Honour, which Marie refused.
Marie Curie died almost 80 years ago, on July 4, 1934, but she still serves as an inspiration for women scientists everywhere. Even in Pakistan, though we are not famed for treating our scientists with respect, there are several women who take heart from Curie’s experiences.
Dr Mariam Sultana, the first female PhD in Extragalactic Astrophysics from the University of Karachi, is not involved in research, but the fact of obtaining a doctorate in such a subject in Pakistan merits mention.
Sadia Manzoor works with condensed matter physics in Islamabad. Her research interests include applications of magnetic nanostructures in cancer treatment.
Then there are three Pakistani women who work at CERN in Geneva. Dr Shamim is involved in the search for quantum black holes. Dr Malik, after studying physics at Oxford is now at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, working at research which aims to provide further understanding of the universe. And Dr Jabeen, also a physicist, also with CERN, Geneva, is a research associate at Fermilab, in Chicago.
’That nation will remain the first,’ said Louis Pasteur, ‘which carries furthest the works of thought and intelligence.’
Obviously, we’re not out of the race yet, though we have a long way to go.

Monday, November 5, 2012


By Rabia Ahmed

Tired hooves
Barring exceptions like The Brooke, the Gandhian test of judging a nation by the way it treats its animals won't give Pakistan a glowing report card
Rabia Ahmed

When Zabreen Hasan came in to work recently at the WWF, she spotted a horse limping and clearly in distress near her office gate. A co-worker offered the horse a bucket of water and an apple.
That evening the equine was still there, but further, at the edge of the road. Suddenly it limped right onto Ferozepur Road, these days busier and more chaotic than usual, and was immediately hit by a car.  As the horrified people from WWF watched, it fell to the road in a welter of blood, hooves and metal, from which the car emerged to resume its journey.
Because the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) works towards conservation, it is not equipped to deal with situations such as this. Zabreen, therefore, picked up the phone and left a message for the staff at the Brooke, a charity whose motto is ‘healthy working animals for the world’s poorest communities.’
It was not very long before the Regional Manager of the Brooke himself arrived on the scene, with a team that included a vet. The horse was examined, but it was clear that its injuries were irreversible and it was in great pain. A van was summoned from the Brooke hospital, and the horse, carefully placed on board, was taken away.
Impressed by the skill and dedication of the team from the Brooke which had arrived at the scene at a late hour, Zabreen followed up on the case.  She found that the horse had been taken to the euthanasia unit at the Brooke hospital, and anaesthetised.  Once it was sufficiently sedated, an intravenous injection was administered that took away the animal’s pain.
In the period between the two World Wars, Dorothy Brooke arrived in Egypt, the newly wed wife of Brigadier Geoffrey Brooke who was stationed in Cairo by the British Army.
Dorothy was a notable horsewoman growing up as she did in Scotland and England, in a family that rode for recreation. She loved and cared for horses, and in Egypt this passion was exercised in an entirely different way.
The Armistice in November 1918 ended the First World War, but only after the death of more than thirty million people, around ten million of which were soldiers. More might have died had it not been for the million or more equines (horses, mules and donkeys) that carried them, their supplies and weapons into battle, and later, helped rescue them. These animals had fought the war as much as anyone else.
Almost half these equines died; those that were injured were purchased, often for flesh, and the rest were taken by various persons for whom horses served as work equipment, not a recreation.  It was these hundreds of equines, now old and sick, that Dorothy Brooke saw when she arrived in Cairo.
These old war horses were not always well treated by owners themselves struggling to make ends meet. This spurred Dorothy on to establish a charity that would alleviate the pitiful condition of working equines in poverty stricken communities around the world. She wrote to the British newspaper, the Morning Post in 1931, a letter in which she made a plea for financial support for her cause. Funds poured in and the first Brooke hospital was set up in Cairo in 1934.
Dorothy Brooke worked with great dedication for this charity until she died in 1955.  The Brooke flourishes, now in several countries. It restricts its services strictly to working equines, according to Dorothy Brooke’s vision. Owners of polo horses and such must contact private vets.
Pakistan was the first country chosen (in 1991) after Brooke found its feet in Egypt. To qualify, it had to meet certain criteria, of possessing:
•     great numbers of working equines (horses, donkeys and mules).
•     high levels of poverty.
•     organisations which can potentially partner with Brooke to further its goals.
•     adequate security, for the organization to be effective.
Pakistan certainly meets the first three criteria.  With more than four and a half working equines at the last census, (2.8 million in the Punjab alone), Pakistan is surpassed only by Ethiopia in possessing great numbers of working equines. In addition, almost a quarter of Pakistan’s human population lives under the poverty line, as determined by the United Nations’ Human Development Index.  The Brooke has also been able to partner with several organisations in Pakistan, such as the Livestock and Fisheries Department, and the Rural Support Organisation in Sindh, the Rural Support Programme and the Faisalabad University of Agriculture in the Punjab.
The fact that Pakistan fails to adequately meet the fourth criteria is probably why the Brooke keeps a low profile in this country.  In a poor country where human welfare falls so short of the mark, this is probably wise, when you happen to be a charity that provides free medical treatment to animals.
When we visited Brooke Lahore for the first time, we rang for further directions while unwittingly parked right outside its head office.  The building lies within four unremarkable, whitewashed walls with no identifiable signs or boards.
The Brooke began operations in 1991, in Peshawar, with a single Community Mobile Veterinary Clinic (CMVC) which is a large van equipped with a team of personnel including a vet, and first aid gear.  Today the Brooke runs thirty one CMVCs in twenty one cities across three provinces of Pakistan.
The Brooke also provides other services such as the invaluable ‘rescue trains’ it organised following the 2005 floods in Pakistan: chains of mules and donkeys that trekked across otherwise impassable terrain, carrying crucial supplies to flood victims, bringing them to dryer ground where required.
Working equines hauling massive loads in blazing heat are a familiar sight in Pakistan. Under such conditions any living creature would sweat copiously, and equines do. The fluid must be replaced very frequently, but whether because their owners lack water or time, are ignorant or plain callous, this rarely happens, and these equines are perennially dehydrated. The CMVCs therefore always include a tank of drinking water for thirsty animals. The Brooke also builds eight to ten water troughs and shelters around the country every year, which are maintained by the community thereafter.
There are six Brooke static clinics around the country, in areas with a high ratio of ‘Transport of Goods by Cart’ (TGC) to other forms of transport. In Lahore, Shahdara with its iron, brick, timber, sand and fodder wholesale markets (mandis) is the site for the Brooke Hospital, in the midst of these bustling market streets.
There is a ‘wayside facility’ at the hospital entrance, as small outpatient clinics are called, where equines are provided care ‘on the hoof’, please excuse the pun. Several such clinics are located across the country, as well as other smaller, rather sad pens where animals are euthanised. Strict conditions apply to the euthanasia process to prevent abuse such as the use of these dead animals for animal feed or leather, and owners are reasonably compensated to encourage them to bring their terminally ill and suffering animals in, rather than discarding them to roam the streets.
Animal owners in dense communities of working equines such as at Tahlianwala near Jhelum are identified, and educated in the attitudes and processes involved in caring for their animals. They are taught to load carts and tackle humanely. Grooming kits and other equipment is provided at rates much lower than the market; they are given access to vets trained in equine care, and treatment is free.
These communities are then monitored to ensure that the Brooke’s efforts translate into the wellbeing of working equines. In fact the entire organisation is regularly monitored by neutral auditors both from home and abroad to ensure that funds donated to the charity are used as intended.
Ahmed Umer Chaudhry works for the Brooke, Lahore, and provided us with transport and information. With a Masters in Sociology and Computer Science he is well placed to manage Communications and Information for an organisation that works within a community. He pointed out that the Brooke is the only animal charity that works in Pakistan, and spoke with pride of his organisation.
It is easy to share this pride with him. In adverse conditions, it is a pleasure to see the dedication with which the people at Brooke work towards the wellbeing of working equines.
It is a challenging job.
Lt. Col. (Retd.) Muhammad Arshad Ansari, the Central Regional Manager and a qualified vet is based at the hospital in Shahdara. He runs a tight ship.
Upon entering the hospital, each equine is weighed to establish a baseline and then treated. The hospital building is utilitarian and clean, offices along one side of a large yard, with a green space in the centre where the animals graze at certain times. The other three sides consist of spotless pens equipped with fans and water troughs, each labelled with its occupant’s details. The occupants, horses, mules, and donkeys, sport horrific injuries that are treated by the staff at the Brooke…a bandage here, a splint there, and even a horse with facial injuries blinking through a face mask.
The Brooke provides free fodder, housing, bedding, treatment and medication to these animals at the hospital. It is the Promised Land for equines, the greener pastures where they can rest and recover.
Is it possible for people in Pakistan to treat animals humanely without the guidance of organisations such as the Brooke? If the religious teachings of most people preach kindness to animals, and if that attitude is somewhat thin on the ground in this country, it can only be the crushing poverty of its people that is responsible. they may do what they can to minimise its fallout.  
 Grooming kits
A grooming kit is a small box containing a curry comb, a brush, and a hoof pick. The curry comb is used to clean the brush with which an equine’s coat must be regularly brushed to remove dirt, although it is often itself mistakenly used in Pakistan for grooming, which results in the coat becoming rough and abrasive.
The Brooke distributes these kits in the wider community at a fraction of the market price.
 Horse Bits
A piece of metal called a ‘bit’ is placed in a horse’s mouth, resting at either end on a space between the horses teeth. It leads to reins that the rider/cart driver handles, and with which he controls the horse. In rough hands, these bits can be harsh on the horse’s mouth, causing blisters, sores and abscesses.
‘The bits used in Pakistan are generally hinged in the centre of the metal piece that goes across the equine’s mouth,’ Col. Ansari told me. ‘This works like a nutcracker, crushing the animal’s tongue or gum, causing terrible pain.’
It is almost impossible to imagine someone touching, even lightly, a mouth sore, much less crushing it with a nutcracker, yet this is what equines endure. The Brooke workers has designed a more humane bit without the pinching hinge, although even this causes great pain if pressed against a wound. But these are the problems the Brooke works so hard to eradicate, by educating the owners of these animals.
The Brooke hospitals possess exemplary farrier shops, since, like humans equines require shoes that fit each particular animal. The little farrier shop at Shahdara has horseshoes neatly tacked to a wall. Some have a cross bar to prevent the centre of the hoof from damage, others have lifts to prevent pressure behind the equine’s foot, if that joint is sore, or has been broken. And since shoes are fitted either cold, or hot, there is provision for a fire, and a little anvil where the farrier works, the air ringing with clanging sounds as his hammer shapes each horseshoe to its required shape.
The writer is a journalist based in Lahore

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Can the jirga and women co-exist?

October 30, 2012
"Tahira is never allowed to set foot outdoors," Shifa's mother snapped, scrubbing her dishes, "And here are Shifa and Sidra walking to school?" PHOTO: REUTERS
A loud screech from the speakers drowned out the last word of the lecture ─ the word which happened to be ‘peace’. Nervously, the girls leaned forward to make sure they missed nothing else. They were to write an essay.
Their teacher, her voice thick with distaste, pronounced the words,
“…the existing judicial system and its failings, and how the jirga can help…”
But the rest was lost again as a throat was cleared explosively, and the azaan burst onto the airwaves.
Shifa rubbed hard at her eyes. Damned if she did and damned if she didn’t, this was the gist of her thoughts ─ turbulent images that broke her mental barriers only too often, frequently into reality.
The drones had come again last night, and there was screaming within and without. This time no one was killed. However, the week before, one moment a young cousin was scattering grain for her chickens, and the next, a tail of sound whipped through the air and she was gone, like a comet.
“It is a curssse from Allah (SWT),” the mullah had said softly, one hand beside the shrouded body on its bier.
Then, as now, everyone leaned in to catch his words. It was not normal for mullahs to whisper, and this one’s sibilant delivery invested his speech with an undercurrent like a slither on frozen undergrowth.
Shifa’s father had frowned and looked at his feet, and from behind the curtain, Shifa hugged him in her mind. She knew his thoughts, and shared them, but in this they were alone.
Shifa’s mother had never learnt to appreciate her freedom. She wanted ‘normalcy’, which to her mind was the way her sisters lived. Each of them was a prisoner and a slave in her home, and often upbraided her husband for what she perceived as his laxity and indifference in his rearing of their daughters.
“Tahira is never allowed to set foot outdoors,” she snapped, scrubbing her dishes, and throwing them aside. “And here are Shifa and Sidra walking to school (thump!) and back every day (clatter! crash!). Why can you not teach them at home? (crash!) Why do they even need school? (bang! thud!) I never went to school, and look at me! My only problem is you, and….’
It was the daily tenor of their home life ─ a repayment for her father’s wisdom. Shifa wondered which would give way first, their very existence, or her father’s spirit? Both were battered so mercilessly on every side. Although it was his strength that bolstered her resolve, there was, for now, little else he could do.
Shifa yearned to know the reality of things, about why some things were presented in clean wrapping when inside they were otherwise.
She believed there was a reason for every problem and a solution. This, her father had taught her.
Once when she cut her finger and it bled, her mother tried to bandage it immediately, but he stopped her for a while.
“Look, Shifa, see how you lose blood, more when you hang your hand limply by your side than when you hold it up?” he raised her hand above her head, her fist clenched, “Like this,” he said, looking into her eyes. She understood.
“It will not stop until your cells makes a little net like your muslin chaddar, to trap the blood inside the cut,” he said, and they smiled at each other, each knowing that the other thought of the various ways, good and not so good, in which nets trapped things.
Every day when he changed the bandage, he showed her the skin knitting over the wound.
“It takes time,” he said softly, his whisper a promise.
So Shifa knew the jirga was no solution, because a year ago in one of several instances in Shifa’s short life, her 14-year-old friend was trapped in marriage to 70-year-old Tahir from another tribe, since the jirga said that her brother had seduced Tahir’s sister.
“The big court in the city has still not even given a date for the hearing,” Shifa’s mother scoffed, “and here’s the girl married and settled already.”
Shifa would rather be shot than be ‘settled’ with Tahir, but she knew she was wrong even to think in such terms. Only the day before she ceased to exist under the drone, her cousin had wished for something out of the way to happen to her, for once in her life.
So, “A jirga is not a solution to the deficiencies of the judicial system in our dear watan (country),” she wrote that night. “It is cruel…”
But for the first time in her life, her father disagreed. He snatched her book from her, and tore up the page. Pale and shocked, Shifa’s hands balled into fists by her side, and the blood thundered in her ears.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


October 23, 2012

Express Tribune  

Pride of the Wagah Border, "Chacha Pakistan" passes away at 90. PHOTO: ONLINE
A man called ‘Chacha Pakistani’ was at the flag lowering ceremony at the Wagah border every single day of the year.
The flag lowering ceremony, a ceremonial thumbing of the nose by the troops of India on one side and Pakistan on the other, has taken place at the Wagah border since 1959. Even though the contempt has since been toned down, it remains a sort of civil baring of the teeth on either side, or as Michael Palin described it, a ‘carefully choreographed contempt,’ of one neighbouring country for the other.
Born Mehar Din ninety years ago, Chacha Pakistani moved to Pakistan a bit after 1947.  Never married, or, as  far as one can tell employed, he lived with his nephews and imposed this border routine upon himself after the 1971 hostilities between India and Pakistan. He donned his special clothes every day: the greenPakistani flag complete with the crescent and star made into a long shirt, a white shalwar, and a green hat. His white beard and erect bearing, coupled with his resonant patriotic slogans audible well across the border, rendered him somewhat larger than life, as much a distinctive feature of the ceremony as the exaggeratedly turbaned soldiers on either side. So much so that the Pakistan Rangers were moved to confer an award upon him for his services to the nation.
When he recently failed to appear at the border for some days, however, officials do not appear to have enquired why. The reason of course was that sadly, following a period of illness, Mehar Dina akaChacha Pakistan died yesterday (Sunday, October 21,  2012) at the age of 90.
When larger than life personalities die it is almost too mundane an act for them to be caught at, something they’d never do while alive, not but what a person only ever dies while alive… but you know what I mean.
It appears that Pakistan can boast more than a single ‘Chacha’. There is the other Chacha Pakistani, a Mr Jawed Akhtar…and aChacha Cricket, a Mr Abdul Jalil. Jawed Akhtar is known for travelling from mausoleum to mausoleum (Jinnah’s to Iqbal’s) on his motor bike, every year, trying to raise patriotic sentiment among the youth, while Mr Jalil is a sort of live cricket mascot, adopted by the Pakistan Cricket Board, a familiar figure at every cricket match played by the Pakistan team.
It makes it an interesting reflection…all these Chachas, why do they do it?
Why did Mehar Din, make such an effort to get to the border daily for the past 40 years and shout his support for Pakistan every single day?
Is this being a patriot?  Which is what, exactly?
Mark Twain was not too impressed with patriots, because he defined a patriot as a person who hollered the loudest without knowing what he was hollering about.  Adlai Stevenson, on the other hand defined patriotism as the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime, rather than short, frenzied outbursts of emotion.
Chacha Pakistani lived in the small Pakistani village of Chandrai near the Wagah border. When I say ‘near,’ I mean in terms of a comfortable ride in one’s own car, because Chandrai is just 40km from the border.  For Chacha however, who neither owned nor drove a car, to attend the flag lowering ceremony meant a hitched ride or two and even a walk part of the way every single evening, for the past 40 years.  Surely, this is a tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime, even though he did holler louder than everyone else once there.
The origin of the saying that ‘there is more than one way to skin a cat’ is lost in the mist of time, but every so often someone comes along who lives the idiom. The various Prophets of history have stressed that each man worships according to his ability, and worship manifests itself in different guises. Was it the Prophet Moses who received a divine reprimand for chiding a woman on her very personal method of demonstrating devotion to God? The same surely applies to other sentiments, including patriotism.
It is not within every man’s power to build bridges, or lay down his life for his country (in fact not everyone who can does build bridges). Patriotism, like religion, has to be an expression of love for a homeland to the best of a person’s ability. And against such a definition, Mehar Din was a patriot, because he was steadfast in the expression of his love for his country, to the best of his ability, almost all his life.
May his soul rest in peace: Amen.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


By Rabia Ahmed  16 October 2012 Pakistan Today

Around the world, change was a while coming, but it arrived eventually

Education in Pakistan is not a right, it is conferred as a favor for which the female student must be eternally grateful to the father, hallowed be his name, his kingdom come, his will be done, on earth and never mind what heaven says. I see it at the school I teach, the difficulty some of the girls have in obtaining permission to study, and once there, to remain. At the slightest transgression, or what is perceived as such, the ‘favor’ is withdrawn, and back the girl returns to her stove to await the transfer of papers that will see another man take possession of her life.

Resistance emerges from unexpected quarters. There was Veena Malik’s wonderful
Altaf Hussain
‘Mufti Sahib, yeh kya baat hui?’ response a year ago to Mufti Abdul Kawi’s ‘baigharat’ remarks, and now here’s Altaf Bhai calling the Taliban ‘inhumane, illiterate, stone age people’. It is a bit rich coming from him though, when you remember the Stone Age tactics often resorted to by the MQM, safely incited by Altaf Bhai himself over the airwaves.
There is little will for change at the top, and although there is undoubtedly anger among the public against the TTP and its dreadful crime against Malala, this has yet to filter through and translate into a general attitudinal change. Obviously, it is early days yet since this particular incident, but such crimes as the attempt on Malala’s life are not isolated or new. The lack of sufficient response can only indicate the depth of support these inhumane, illiterate, stone age people have, and the extent of its spread across society. The scary thing of course is opposing the access the other side has to the same hearts and minds. Before people can process such events, before they can marshal their arguments, much less change, the local Stone Age person scatters these arguments by roundly condemning even the thought as the work of the devil.

It takes time to bring about change, and some space in which to germinate, some slight help in the methodology of building supportive arguments. It is no help, for example, that the daily debate diet on television consists of people who do little beyond scream at each other without remit. Where are the programs and the curricula teaching people to reason from the Quran, from textbooks, and life, without emotion or sentiment? Where is the language that promotes such reason? Yes, the Taliban and all such groups and persons are inhumane, illiterate, stone age, but why should they be considered as such, with concrete supportive examples? And above all why, when people in areas where such groups are most active are being pounded to death by exactly those who supposedly agree mostly to that they are inhumane, illiterate, stone age people?

Around the world, change was a while coming, but it arrived eventually. The war against militants in Pakistan itself has received international support as we saw at the time of the PTI’s recent foray upto Tank. The movement to end gender discrimination is being fought probably in every country except Pakistan. Remember the time when airhostesses were supposed to be pretty? Well, anyone who has travelled British Airways or any of the American airlines will attest to how far those days have been left behind in many places. On my last flight on Delta I was served by a little uniformed grandmother with moustaches who stumped along the aisle chucking peanuts into everyone’s lap.

The racial war is still being fought, but societies have moved miles away from racial segregation, although there are plenty of Christian Taliban still around, such as Pastor Mark Downey who writes, ‘It is a misnomer to call other races or species ‘mankind’. In the book of Genesis, God’s Law of kind after kind was established, meaning species. The Bible we have in our hands today repeatedly teaches about ‘seed after its own kind’ in which each and every species of plants and animals propagate within their own kind. In the case of Adamkind, it is clearly the White race.’(sic)

Such people and their opinions can never be totally weeded out; in fact their existence is a foil to more enlightened philosophies. They will always have their adherents, but their stranglehold can be broken, only if there is the will to do so. As long as there are vested interests in preserving the status quo, such as feudals in places that bring about change, this will is likely to be thin in the ground and in Pakistan the Stone Age will continue; there will be other girls and women who share Malala’s fate, only because we allowed them to.

Monday, October 8, 2012


By Rabia Ahmed   Pakistan Today   08 October 2012

Defining that elusive and misunderstood term

It was amusing to read, what can only have been a cub reporter’s assessment of the President’s speech, when he, Mr Zardari, denounced the movie recently made by an American, at the UN. The reporter writes: ‘These bold and candid utterances of Asif Ali Zardari have satisfied the people in Pakistan including those who would mistake Zardari’s party, PPP, as the party that symbolizes liberalism.’ Ouch.

I wish people would refrain from speaking for all the people of Pakistan because last time I checked I am definitely a Pakistan person, a liberal one, and I may or may not agree with a self-appointed spokesperson. Definitely I disagree in this case because I remain eminently dissatisfied with Mr Zardari and his party, while agreeing (if reports are accurate) that the movie was probably unwise, distasteful, and blasphemous, as far as my beliefs are concerned.

Actually that reporter is not alone, many people in this country have a deep-rooted misconception about certain words and ‘liberal’ is just one of them. ‘Secular’ is another, and the list is long and includes some tantalising words such as ‘religious’, ‘patriot’, and of course that bastion of Pakistani culture, ‘honor’.

There is a quote by Thomas Sowell, economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author that, ‘If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, it would have gotten you labeled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago and a racist today.’ He talks, of course, of the wider world. In today’s Pakistan, determinedly straddling centuries, the word ‘liberal’ is synonymous with a person who does not speak madrassah. I apologise for falling into the crime of stereotyping (a habit I normally dislike) with this way of using the word ‘madrassah’, but there’s no doubt that it saves explanations when required.

There are times when one is in danger of falling into another quoted definition of ‘liberal’, which is that ‘a liberal is a person too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel,’ perhaps because there are so many definitions of ‘liberal’, although none appears to be as damning as the one most commonly held in this country.

Without going into the Latin, ‘liberal’ in the dictionary is synonymous among others with the words ‘abundant’, ‘advanced’, ‘progressive’, ‘avant-garde’, ‘generous’, ‘eclectic’. Politically the word is used in conjunction with the political ‘left-wing’.

I find it too generous when ‘liberal’ encompasses the word ‘Catholic’, at least there was little liberal about the Catholic nuns at school, but it gets closer to the heart of its meaning when it includes the word ‘free’.

Free, its closest definition is based on the concept that all human beings are free and no man is another man’s master; the opposite is slavery. However, no man is ‘free’ to trample on the rights of others or do whatever he pleases. That is a definition of ‘chaotic’. It is this that in Pakistan is confused with liberty along with the word ‘non-conformist’, another definition of liberal.

‘Non-conformist’, at the extreme end of the liberal scale means a dissident, a freak, malcontent, separatist, or (hold your breath): a misbeliever. But to define a liberal as a ‘freak’ or ‘misbeliever’ is stretching the definition in the same way as to define a Muslim as a terrorist. Most of the time a liberal is a good thing, just as most of the time a (true) Muslim is a good person (there I go, setting conditions to my own side in an argument).

So to revert to the issue of that movie in passing, a liberal is a person who does not agree with the views presumably expressed in the movie ‘Innocence of Muslims’ (I wouldn’t know, I haven’t seen it). Yet, being liberal, he is able to understand that everyone does not hold the same views on every issue, and his response is tempered by this understanding. A non-liberal, on the other hand, is a person who violently disagrees with the said movie and is willing to break and kill to push his point. The response of the liberal thus defined is more likely to result in such movies being relegated to the rubbish heap where they belong just as any amount of destruction caused by the other is likely to give them undue importance.

An ‘opportunist’ on the third hand is a person who boards any ride that goes his way; it is this label under which you will find the President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, although there are those in his party who would rather walk.

Monday, October 1, 2012


By Rabia Ahmed  Pakistan Today 01 October 2012

No planning in urban planning

There’s a penguin near LUMS in Lahore. Well, it’s a statue of a penguin, a full sized one, on a patch of grass between two busy roads.

So why does a penguin live between two busy roads in a country that has nothing to do with penguins?

You might also ask why those two penguin roads have been designed the way they have, without any access breaks between them, and little convenient access to LUMS. Those living close behind LUMS are forced to drive the distance to Wateen Chawk before turning around again, when for LUMS they cannot take a simple right to its entrance. They must perform a complicated manoeuvre around the penguin and a couple of houses that moonlight as a roundabout, and then cut immediately across a road that leads to the main gate. Before that point they are in danger of taking an unmarked fork that would take them right back to Wateen Chawk once again.

As a consequence, many drivers, mainly cyclists and motorcyclists, drive along the wrong side into a blind corner, all to avoid the long trek in the opposite direction. It’s shorter, but exceedingly perilous, both to themselves and to the cars turning the corner from the other, the correct side.

I’m told on good authority that these roads are laid out like this, following accidents on that stretch of road, but this solution is no solution, without any consideration for convenience, safety, or the Pakistani psyche.

Similarly, the ‘backside’ of LUMS has a burgeoning population, and many schools. Almost no one stops at the traffic lights there, not even in front of the Lahore Grammar School, and they drive on the wrong side again, because once more, to get to the other side is too long a detour. Obviously the new colonies were not planned for, and once they mushroomed into existence no one bothered to accommodate them, or enforce any safety rules, here or anywhere else.

Alas Pakistan and its lack of planning and enforcement. These examples but illustrate that point. In today’s expensive times with current prices of fuel, to expect commuters to drive so far out of their way is unrealistic, yet it happens with monotonous regularity throughout the country that anyone who can make life difficult for anyone else, does so. But we’ll come back to that later.

The lack of planning extends to almost every sphere of life, but since we’re speaking of construction the other obvious example is buildings. The recent heartrending tragedies in Karachi and Lahore where so many lives were lost were apparently a direct consequence of a lack of planning and a singular lack of enforcement of safety regulations: a single access point into a congested building with dubious electrical wiring and most of electrical equipment is that well worn cliché: a recipe for disaster, and a disaster it was.

Seeing that the Pakistani public observes rules only to break them, the solution lies in the three Es: Engineering, Education, and Enforcement, properly implemented.

Roads and buildings designed by civil engineers and architects are not just about walkways, flyovers, walls and windows. They are also about people, their mentality, and their interaction with civic amenities. Designs must reflect this aspect too.

If the public does not understand safety, it must be educated. Until then, there’s enforcement. In the case of roads, the sharp metal spikes in Karachi’s Khadda Markets streets have forced people to use the one way system, proving that money is better spent on enforcement rather than on penguins and kalmas at chowks.

So about making life more difficult for everyone, I have a theory which you may call the Obstruction Theory. It says that people have such an unfailingly miserable time getting the most mundane work done here that they’ve come to think of it as the norm. To acquire legitimacy, a thing must be hazardous and obtainable only after overcoming many obstacles. That, according to popular perception, is how life is meant to be, and therefore, they make things difficult and hazardous on purpose. Which in a sense means that all this haphazard planning; it’s really people working very hard in the only way they know best, to do what they think is right. And we thought we never planned, worked hard, or did what is right. It just goes on to show how wrong one can be.

Also, you know that penguin I mentioned earlier? Well I forgot to tell you, it wears a hat. It’s only a bowler hat, but never mind.