Saturday, August 24, 2013


Express Tribune 24 August 2013

Americans and Brits are especially fascinated by the lota.
We miss many things when we’re living away from home - mangoes, bun kebabs, paan, the dust, the loadshedding. Okay, okay, just kidding! We miss some of these things, but we manage without them, one way or another.
There is one thing you cannot do without, though, and that’s the lota. It is such an integral item of sub-continental and Muslim culture, that even a short term visitor such as the famous American designer Charles Eames couldn’t help but notice it most particularly when he visited India in 1958.  He had this to say about it:
“Of all the objects we have seen and admired during our visit to India, the lota, that simple vessel of everyday use, stands out as perhaps the greatest, the most beautiful.”
There you go. Beautiful? Yes, he was talking about the brass lota that the village women clean and polish with tamarind and ash each day, turning the ‘brass into gold’. They are beautiful… and very heavy.
Most people flying out struggle with weight restrictions, so carrying a heavy brass lota in your luggage is an extravagance when there are achaars (pickles), chilli chips and bottles ofMushroob-e-Mashriq sherbet fighting for space in a suitcase. The ubiquitous, elemental, and exceedingly essential lota loses out in the process. You will not see brass lotas much outside Pakistan. Instead, you’ll see ugly plastic ones which replaced the bronze ones in Pakistan a while ago in any case.
So what do you do once you’ve reached your particular pardes and you have no lota in the new house? You reach for the nearest milk bottle, of course.
You’ll find all sorts of milk bottles in people’s bathrooms out there – full cream, low fat, skim, soya, chocolate, vanilla, or my favourite, strawberry. People are strangely coy about them.
“Why’s there always a milk bottle in your bathroom?” visitors have asked – always American.
They’re refreshingly forthright.
In England I caught a native looking bemusedly at my strawberry soya milk bottle (organic) before she shut the door to the powder room, and I waited with an array of answers provided by errant nephews (one of whom claimed to possess a folding lota that fit in his wallet, but it turned out to be only a zip lock bag) for just this purpose.
The answers included:
1) I use it all the time to irrigate my nose. I have a deviated septum.
2) I prefer strawberry soya, so I removed the chocolate you saw when you were last here; sorry.
3) Would you prefer the chocolate? I can put that back if you like.
4) It’s a Pakistani superstition.
5) In Pakistan we like to keep our cows in the bathroom, but we can’t do that here, and the milk bottle reminds the kids of that tradition.
Or simply:
6) Which milk bottle? (That one really freaks them out for a while)
Sadly, for one reason or the other, most of those responses were not used – firstly because the Americans are honest enough to ask without being oblique so you are not tempted to match delicacy with wit, and secondly, because the Brits would rather die before they ask any such question. They’d pick their way through 10 milk bottles in a single bathroom and pretend it was a normal feature of every bathroom decor. In fact, they would claim that “it was Aunt Doris’ favourite bathroom accessory too, wasn’t it, Anthea?”
Oh, why the fuss! Bring the lotas out of the closet. Let Ikea carry dismantle-able ones in their standard flat colours, and back here in Pakistan, how about Haji Karim Baksh carrying a line of lota gifts for relatives in the West?
‘Loin of the Punjab!’ (sic) proclaims a T-shirt in one of the shops in Lahore, alongside a gun-toting portrait of Sultan Rahi. The lotas could carry just that slogan, no Sultan Rahi required at all.

Saturday, August 17, 2013


Zamarud Khan tries to pin Sikander to the ground. PHOTO: FILE/ EXPRESS
It was downhill from the start. The weak security that enabled Sikandar, a man armed to the teeth to gain entry into the most sensitive area in the country, the Red Zone in Islamabad. They allowed him and his family to hang around for hours in a bizarre stand-off with the entire police and security of the area. 
Casually smoking cigarettes and firing occasional shots into the air, Sikandar sauntered around easily, while his black clad wife trotted between her husband and the authorities delivering messages from one to the other. Meantime those in charge of security just stood there.
There are several things one could comment on here; the inability of the local security personnel to disperse the civilian gawkers surrounding the scene, the numerous missed opportunities of removing the threat when the armed man was sauntering around on his own, and could have picked off using rubber bullets, or by drugging the water that was provided for him and his family to drink. Eventually it took the intervention of one Mr Zamurd Khan to bring the standoff to an end.
Exactly who is Mr Zamurd Khan?
Like you and me, Mr Khan is a civilian. He is a lawyer by profession and has been a member of Parliament in the past. He is neither a member of any security agency, nor a specialist in the field of anti terrorism, combat, or even a psychologist.
While watching events unfold on television at home that day, Mr Khan was horrified (like you and me) and felt he had to do something about the situation. So he upped and arrived at the scene (potentially like you and me) and asked to be allowed to speak to the terrorist, and incredibly, amazingly, was allowed to do so.
In a script written for Inspector Clouseau, Mr Zamurd Khan walked on centre stage, passed his hand paternally on Sikandar’s wife’s head, shook hands with his children and then leapt onto that heavily armed man, slipped and fell, and lunged for his legs. Sikandar jumped backwards when Mr Khan suddenly collapsed on him, fell down himself, fired his guns, was fired at, and was eventually and mercifully captured.
Pakistan has an unlikely rogue’s gallery and an even more amazing gallery of heroes. The latest inductee appears to be Mr Zamurd Khan, who when interviewed after the event said that his ‘ghairat’ appealed to him and did not allow him to sit back and do nothing in the situation.
Pakistan’s ghairat brigade has to be its most beghairat component. It uses honour or ghairatto commit the most blasphemous acts. Maybe it was a similarly flawed concept of ghairatthat prompted politicians to interfere in the job of the security agencies, something they apparently do quite regularly.
I suspect that the SSP Operations, Dr Rizwan, is actually the man to be commended because he was doing the best he was allowed to in the circumstances when he stood there, determinedly calm, trying to persuade Sikandar to lay down his arms.
If Mr Khan’s ghairat prompted him to do what he did, then there are several things that I too would like to do and the precedent set by Mr Khan must allow me to do them. Please note that it is nothing but the ghairat of every militant that prompts him to circumvent the law and take it into his own hands, and bomb/shoot/kill his way towards the acceptance of his demands. No person commits such acts without some conviction however flawed, and it is only a set of rules and the law that prevents (or should prevent) individuals from taking matters into our own hands.
It was not Mr Khan’s job to do what he did and he should not have been allowed to do it, however dedicated he may be to public interest. He was lucky his actions did not cause serious harm and it was that luck that played in his favour, not his act.
It is Pakistan’s unexpectedness, not its capabilities, that makes its enemies eye it with caution. There is no saying how Pakistan’s cricket team is likely to play or how the Pakistan Army is likely to respond to any given situation. Now, however, we have yet again another unpredictable act to add to our list; where else in the world would a civilian be allowed to intervene in police negotiations the way Mr Khan did and leave wreathed in laurels the way he did?
In my opinion, the only reason he cannot be arrested and charged for posing a potential threat to security is that he had permission from the police to do what he did. Mr Khan should at the very least be charged for placing public security in jeopardy.
It was not heroic, it was dangerous and against the law – there are no two ways about it.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


By Rabia Ahmed

I wrote recently (the post below this one) about children being given out for adoption on national television, and one reader, himself an adoptee, pointed out that the very presence (of homeless children) is a condemnation of society. It’s an important point.

A certain number of orphans in any given society is tragically normal, therefore I presume the comment refers to the presence of the overwhelming number of homeless and abandoned children in Pakistan, which is definitely a condemnation of this society. Why does this occur?

Anwari, an eighteen year old was raped by four men. When subsequently she fell pregnant, her family removed her to a distant village until her child was born, which was then given away. The reason she was unable to keep her child was that even though Anwari was the victim of rape, she brought shame on the family, and her plight, if known, would prevent the marriages of Anwari, and even her sister. The perceived criminals in this case and others like it are actually the victims. The real criminals are nowhere in the equation.

The comment also says that ‘the ‘hyper-mediation’ on behalf of needy orphans’ focuses on the adoptive parents ...’simply because they are on the other end of the scale of economic power.’ This means that those who can afford children are the ones whose suffering catches public imagination, while the sufferings of the rest, the actual victims, do not.

While suffering is suffering whoever suffers, the comment is justified. While childless couples suffer whichever end of the economic scale they belong to, the suffering of women like Anwari who must give up their children is unimaginable, and is largely ignored; as is the suffering of couples who are forced to relinquish their children because of poverty; the sufferings of the orphans of war, drone attacks, and home grown terrorism.

As the reader pointed out, ‘were everyone to adopt a dozen children, this would do nothing to correct poverty, homelessness, unemployment, hunger, war, strife, etc,’  which result in the existence of those orphans in our society today, whose presence in such numbers is tragic, and definitely not normal. ‘Allah Malik hai’ although true, does not cut it always.

The important pattern that emerges from that discussion is that it is repeatedly the victim who is cast in the ‘evil’ role, the criminals themselves go free.

Society forces its members into boxes, a different one each for: minority groups, victims of disease, poverty, rape, and others, all innocent victims of circumstance. These boxes are labelled based on skewered values and then condemned. There is a great deal of vested interest in this process.

If society is callous towards such people, it should be remembered that society is an amorphous group of people which came into its values with some aid from its leaders, its politicians, teachers, and religious scholars. They, far from leading people towards enlightenment, teach them to uphold outdated and superficial values such as feudalism and a distorted ‘honour’; to point fingers, hate, and destroy, then prevent them from debating these issues in their lives. As a result victims of rape and children are the ones condemned while the rapists go free.  If members of minority groups and different sects are murdered, if the public is incited to commit such murders, and children are handed out as though they were so many sacks of flour (sometimes the same persons are implicated in more than one of these crimes)... there will be more wars, poverty and rape, and there will be orphans.

These faults in society that create orphans are man-made and the attitudes that devalue their status and of their birth families are equally created by man. In Islam and civilised societies the State must prevent victimisation, protect the weak, work towards the rehabilitation of victims, and punish the criminals who create them. If the girl child, the children born of rape and incest, and their mothers, were given their rightful place in society, huge numbers of children would not be homeless.

 To adopt is honourable and encouraged in Islam. The Prophet himself had an adopted son, Zayd, whom he brought up with as much love and care as his own.  Zayd was made aware of his adoption; he met his natural parents and retained his birth religion until he voluntarily entered Islam.  This is what Islam requires of adoption. Adopted children are unable to inherit. They can however be bequeathed any amount during a parent’s lifetime, or from a third of the property as a written bequest, afterwards.

According to Imam Yusuf Badat of the Islamic Foundation of Toronto, ‘adopted child can (also) take the adoptive parents’ last name as long as they do not “falsify or lie” about the adoption.
Values filter down from above. In a society like ours, yes, the presence of these homeless children is a condemnation, but of whom?

Sunday, August 4, 2013


    EXPRESS TRIBUNE  (Op-ed and blog)

How can a baby be handed out of TV? Have we lost all sensibility? PHOTO: AFP

It takes a long time to come to terms with some diagnoses, and the fact that you may be unable to conceive a child is one of them, but there is a solution: adoption.
It offers couples the opportunity to raise and love a child, and give the child a loving home and family that it did not possess. And yet, even though adoption generally turns out to be a mutually happy solution, it is a serious process, and an emotional one; the journey is not easy.
Prospective parents looking to adopt a child are vetted in a notoriously rigorous manner. Their ages, health, social reputation and financial standing are thoroughly investigated before they receive a child. But this initial investigation is only the beginning.
Imagine the agonised soul searching of an adopting couple.
Should their child be told? Islam advises parents to tell the child very soon, which is a good idea in most cases. The premise is that every human being has a right to his past, to know about it. A young child is quicker to accept the information compared to an older one, while it may come as a great shock for an adult to discover that he was adopted after a lifetime of assuming otherwise.
It is often an outsider who is aware of the adoption, and who has no qualms about crushing everyone else in the stampede to be the ‘first to tell,’ who is responsible for the child being given this information in an inappropriate manner. There are such people in every society.
Sometimes the child finds out not as a deliberate act on someone’s part, but because that someone may have spoken of the matter in front of their child and that child blurts it out as children do. It is impossible to contain the information genie (something that our Ministry of Information and Technology would do well to remember).
When and how should a child be given such information? Above all, what should he be told so that his trauma is minimised?
Family and friends of adoptive parents are taken into confidence selectively, only so that the circumstances of adoption are not insensitively revealed to the child. Revealing such information is done carefully, after deliberation and at the right time.
The last place in which to do this is (as happened to someone I knew) at the time of marriage when the bride saw her natural parents’ names on the nikkah nama; or on public television, as is being done these days.
“This is a beautiful girl who was thrown on a pile of garbage by somebody,” cooed the presenter of a show, displaying a baby in his arms to the camera before adding, “See how pretty and innocent she is?”
I wonder if he realised that in addition to be being pretty and innocent, she was also a human being, with a life purpose beyond the presenter’s personal ratings on television. Surely there is something distinctly sick about such ruthlessness.
The adoptive parents’ identity was not hidden from the public. It is easy to imagine a day in the future when this innocent, unwary child is taunted at school by other children in ways that I cannot bear to mention here. A brilliant way to find out, isn’t it?
Where is Pakistan Electronic Media Regulation Authority (PEMRA) when you need it?
PEMRA, for once rightly, put its foot down and took a commercial advertising Josh contraceptives off air, although its exact motives are unclear, whether they were against contraception, or the distasteful angle from which the product was advertised. Either way, who will make the manufacturers of Josh contraceptives apologise for this commercial? And exactly who is going to stop such irresponsible personalities, who in their ruthless stampede for ratings hand out children for adoption on national television?
Sometimes, when authorities fail, the public can achieve the desired results, such as when the British magazine OK printed what it called the ‘Duchess Diet’, and readers threatened to boycott the magazine for its tasteless discussion of the duchess of Cornwall’s weight, right after she had been delivered of a baby. The magazine was forced to apologise.

The suppression of discussion about such incidents only allows such acts to proliferate. Pakistan, with its mind boggling population should learn to encourage adoption, and also to be more sensitive towards the problems inherent in the process, to protect adopted children in this society.

Friday, August 2, 2013


Happy things in sorrow times

August, 2013

Happy things in sorrow times

by Tehmina Durrani

The only statement even mildly approaching profound from the author’s pen is to be found in the last chapter of Tehmina Durrani’s latest book, ‘Happy Things in Sorrow Times’, where she writes: ‘Death is an invincible bodyguard.’ There is nothing to equal  this anywhere in the book, except what is incidental to the theme and the situation in which the characters find themselves. Durrani is up for no global awards for this book. National awards are, however, entirely possible.
What could well attract recognition and even awards are the illustrations--some thirty eight of them, endearing water colours that beautifully illustrate the novel and point to the author’s relatively unknown talent.
Tehmina Durrani has an unerring eye for subject. For the international reader, the shenanigans of a feudal lord and the travails of his wife hold a certain awful fascination. To the Pakistani reader, the interest is undoubted given that all these people, the feudal lord, his wife and their family and friends are well known figures in this country. ‘My Feudal Lord,’ Durrani’s first book, offers an insider’s tour of their lives.
Durrani’s second book ‘A Mirror to the Blind’ is a biography of the wonder Abdul Sattar Edhi.  Her third book ‘Blasphemy’ deals with abhorrent religious institutions and male tyranny, a sure fire subject for audiences everywhere.
Happy Things in Sorrow Times, Durrani’s fourth book, deals with the heartbreak that is Afghanistan and the tragedy of a child Basrabia’s life when Russian bombs destroy her home and family.  Nothing in this book explains its title.  The story traces the upheavals in that country’s history, from the Russian occupation to Taliban rule, to Afghanistan’s role of victim to American bombings and intrigue. Durrani touches on a few exposed nerves along the way which adds interest to the story, such as here in the conversation between children belonging to different countries now together in a refugee camp in Pakistan:
‘Why are you in our refugee camp?’ Basrabia enquired, and the boys replied, ‘The Amreecans recruited us from Muslim countries, trained us in Pakistani madrassahs, and dispatched us as soldiers to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.’
Elsewhere, the girls realise that ‘had they not felt used and discarded after the Soviet retreat, there would have been no terrorism and therefore no war today.’ It’s an overreach as a complete explanation of terrorism and war, nor is it a novel thought, but it makes you say ‘hmmm’ because you’re hearing it out of the mouth of babes who would have been barely born when the Russians arrived, and who, as the woman who runs the school realises have no understanding of the political situation whatsoever.
Basrabia, the heroine of the story is an endearing child who realises with the abruptness of a bomb that her world has changed, and that her mother is dead. She takes refuge with another Afghan family, and eventually at a school run by an American philanthropist in Peshawar where she grows up amongst other refugees of various nationalities.
You get the unmistakable impression that the characters in this book are supposed to have been drawn with a touch of whimsy and with an eye to the bewildering wonder of the world as seen through a child’s eyes.  Certainly, that is the vantage point from which the story is told, but it remains an impression.  It is as if an inebriated person, lurching, misses his mark. Basrabia can safely be called ‘weird’. Childlike and wide eyed, she has a habit of skipping instead of walking.  Clearly not unintelligent, when older and at the brink of applying for American Ivy League Colleges she retains the habit of skipping instead of walking. The impression is of a somewhat hysterical, slightly insane girl, one who speaks her native Pashtu, and also Urdu, English, French, and Arabic, pretending to be Alice in a mad world. Perhaps Durrani lives vicariously through this child because her own grasp of language, English, is somewhat tenuous. She skips and muddles through punctuation very much like Basrabia’s gait, and at one point she produces the following,: ‘Celavie!’ he mused, with a wide sweep of his hand that symbolically encircled the whole of Aghanistan. Clearly, either her grasp of French is equally nebulous or the publisher failed to get a good editor for the book.
Somewhere towards the end, the book morphs into a love story, although that is not strictly true.  Basrabia has yearned for her childhood friend throughout the book but at the end, the valiant young lady who has braved horrors is ordered to ‘look after her children, which is what women are supposed to do.’
And she’s still skipping.