Friday, June 30, 2017


this was printed in PT in hardcopy but not online

By Rabia Ahmed

How right is it to install blockades against a helpless country?

Eid in Pakistan will of course take place when the relevant departments succeed in sighting the moon. While those attempts to spot the moon are ongoing, in a world that has studied the moon’s effect on the magnetic field of the Earth, on emotions, the universe and landed on it too, the government has announced a three day holiday for Eid. Comments on this announcement ranged from ‘Well done!’ to ‘Good job!’
Yay for a government able to achieve so much.
Meantime Saudi Arabia has already performed the incredible feat of spotting the moon, meaning it is Eid in that country today, Sunday. On Eid, the Saudis, already given to taking it easy will be taking it easier still.
While all this happens, Yemen is facing the world’s worst outbreak of cholera.
Yemen the second largest country in the Arabian Peninsula is the poorest country in the Middle East. As an ultimate irony, in ancient times Yemen was called ‘happy Arabia’ by the Romans, as opposed to ‘deserted Arabia’ for the rest of the peninsula. The Romans seem to have been skilled at puns. And Yemen has clearly seen better days.
Cholera is an infectious disease caused by infected water. It leads to severe watery diarrhea due to which patients become badly dehydrated. In the worst cases this leads to death. It is mostly children who are affected. In India between the years 1900 and 1920 around eight million people died of cholera.
Risk factors for cholera include poor sanitation and poverty. Yemen as a desperately poor country proves this is true.
Yemen has been subject to political crises including civil war for the past five or six years. Mr. Hadi the President of Yemen has had a tumultuous tenure. In 2015 he fled to Riyadh  but after a bombing campaign conducted by a nine member coalition led by Saudi Arabia in his support, he was able to return to Yemen a few months later.  
This coalition led by Saudi Arabia is composed of mostly Sunni Arab states who have been alarmed by the rise of an opposing group (Houthis) who, the coalition believes, is backed by Shia Iran. The reason behind this coalition’s existence is therefore mainly sectarian, its aim is to restore a Sunni leader, Mr. Hadi of course being Sunni.
According to the BBC, the coalition receives logistical and intelligence support from the US, the UK, and France.
Air strikes by this coalition have led to the death of almost 8,000 Yemenis since 2015. The air strikes, the crises, and the blockades put in place by the coalition have led to a massive humanitarian disaster in Yemen.
A blockade should not be confused with an embargo, or sanctions, which are legally imposed trade barriers. A blockade is ‘an effort to cut off supplies, war material or communications from a particular area by force,’ a prevention of all ingress and egress into and from that area. Blockades lead to famine and medical epidemics since food and medicines are not able to come into the country. It is what happened in Iraq when children died untreated, and it is happening now in Yemen.
Historically there have been many, many instances of blockades around the world. Some blockades in the recent past were the Indian blockade of East Pakistan during the Bangladesh War in 1971, the American, British and French no-fly zones against Iraq 1991 - 2003, and the 2001 - 2007 attempt by the Australian Maritime Border Protection agencies to ‘disrupt, deter, and deny’ the entry of boat people into Australia.
None of these blockades were popular internationally, with a substantial number of opponents even in the countries that set these blockades in place. All these blockades were condemned in Pakistan by those who were aware of the news. None of these blockades were humane and none of them produced any positive results. The only results were death, destruction and misery. In short, they led to humanitarian disasters. The blockade in Yemen which began in 2015 and is ongoing is no different. With this fresh humanitarian disaster in the shape of the massive cholera epidemic, it is time we re-examined our priorities.
Saudi foreign aid to Pakistan since that country came out of the desert so to speak has been substantial.  In the ten years since 1976 it was USD 49 billion, second only to the aid provided by the US, although at present they both face competition in the shape of China.
In a blog written a couple of years ago for the Rand Corporation by Jonah Blank, Mr. Blank says that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have major reasons for seeking each other’s friendship. Pakistan’s seems to be financial aid (isn’t it always?) while Saudi Arabia views Pakistan as a major ally against Shia, oil rich Iran.
But in the case of Yemen when the Saudis asked for Pakistan’s support in fighting against the Houthis two years ago, Blank mentions that Pakistan refused.
It will remain one of Pakistan’s few sensible decisions.
Since then, Gen Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s retired Chief of Army Staff has this year taken over command of the forty one nation Saudi led military coalition.
Any Saudi led coalition is likely to have an anti-Iran thrust, and these days also an anti-Qatar thrust. And it is also likely to have a major patron in the shape of the US, which is as mentioned before, a major financial donor to Pakistan. It is a complicated swirl of khichri (kedgeree) with one flavor supporting the other in a myriad ways.
Given this new involvement in a Saudi led many different coalitions can a country have with how many different will be difficult for Pakistan to make a choice based on what is right. The chances are high that as usual it will pick what is expedient. That has always been this country’s ultimate tragedy. In the end it is the mockingbird the innocent, helpless segment of humanity that suffers. And to kill a mockingbird is not just a crime, it is a sin. It is not just Harper Lee who said that.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


A little sickening all around

Political doublespeak is sickening. And Republican doublespeak doubly so, not that Democrats are much better. But in this truly nauseating respect they stink a little less.

In 2004 when George W Bush, a Republican, was re-elected to office, his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described Cuba as one of the few ‘outposts of tyranny’ remaining in the world. How well the term evokes old Western movies where the good guys (now a Trumpism) fight the bad guys (ditto) somewhere in some cavalry outpost…in fact wasn’t there a film,  ‘The Last Outpost’, starring, why what a coincidence, Ronald Reagan, another star on the Conservative horizon?
So, Cuba is one of the few remaining outposts of tyranny in the world?
Cuba remained under Spanish rule until the Spanish American War in 1898, when, as a result of the Treaty of Paris it became an American Protectorate which gave the US economic and political dominance over Cuba. But then along came the Cuban Revolution in 1953, led by Che Guvevara and Fidel Castro, and in 1959 Batista, Cuba’s authoritarian President, was ousted and replaced with a socialist state, organised along communist lines.
The Revolution had important repercussions on the country, and also on its powerful neighbour to the north because it meant an end to the economic and political benefits enjoyed by the US in Cuba.
However, Batista returned to power once again by means of a military coup in 1952. Once again American organisations were given preferential treatment. This time around Batista was far less responsive to public welfare. He even established organised links to criminal groups that were unabashedly in his personal interests and to his benefit. Yet it seemed that the outpost of tyranny had become suddenly less tyrannical.
Batista’s government fell again in 1958, and this is when, following a revolution, Fidel Castro became Premier.
Castro’s government introduced antiracist laws. It made strides in crucial fields, health, communications, employment and education – for all citizens regardless of race. All races in the country became functionally literate. Corruption dropped, and the country enjoyed better sanitation. The government also supported arts and entertainment.
Castro considered biases such as gender and racial bias hypocritical. Woman participated strongly in the revolution. Contemporary Cuba provides equal constitutional rights to women. Women hold 48.9% seats in the National Assembly, they represent almost half the scientific and technical sector, and more than half of bank employees are women. ‘The National Association of Innovators and Rationalizes sees the contribution and participation of women on the rise.’
According to geographer and Cuban Commandant Antonio Jimenez, at the time of the revolution the bulk of Cuba’s arable agricultural land was foreign owned, mostly by American companies. The government implemented land reforms and nationalized all U.S. property in Cuba in August 1960 leading to greater social equality.
In response, the Eishenhower administration froze all Cuban assets on American soil, severed diplomatic ties and slammed a trade and economic embargo on Cuba, including a travel embargo. In case anyone is interested, Eisenhower was Republican.
It was Obama who tried to roll back this embargo but it appears since to be rescinded by his successor, whose favourite solution to world problems takes the shape of travel bans – generally bans, reminiscent of the most bearded of extremists in Pakistan.
So, if the prime villain Cuba is tyrannical, let’s take a look at Saudi Arabia, the prime favourite.
According to Reuters, only 30-40 % of working Saudi’s hold jobs, and as few even wish to seek jobs. Most of those working are employed by the government. The IMF has warned that the wage bill is not viable in the long run. The workforce in the private sector consists of 90 % non-Saudis.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights expects every person to possess the right to leave any country including his own. Anyone working in Saudi Arabia however must possess a sponsor. This sponsor is empowered to permit the worker to enter or to leave the country, to the extent that the worker’s passport is retained by the sponsor. At times the sponsor also holds the passports belonging to the worker’s entire family if they reside within the country.
The first time women voted in elections in the Kingdom was in 2015.
Women’s employment options are severely restricted in Saudi Arabia. It was only in 2003 that a woman did not require her male supporter’s testimony to obtain an identity card. Now, although women do not require that testimony to obtain an identity, they still require it to travel abroad. Domestic violence was legally criminalized for the first time in the country in 2013. And Saudi women are not allowed to drive. Manal-al Sharif, a woman’s rights activist started a right to drive campaign in 2011. She was jailed for nine days for driving a car.  Also in 2011 a court sentenced a woman to ten lashes for driving. The ruling was overturned by the King. The Kingdom considers women drivers to be a threat to security, employment and morality, not to mention a well-publicized fatwa that said women who drove were no longer virgins.
Despite all these factors, Saudi Arabia and the United States remain close allies, and enjoy a ‘special relationship.’ They have, according to Wiki, been allies in opposition to communism, in support of stable oil prices, stability in the oil fields and shipping, and in the economies of Western Countries where Saudis have invested  – which is of course the crux of the matter.
There is no mention of the two supporting democracy around the world (Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy) or any talk of human rights (think sponsor keeping the passport), or human rights (remember the lashings for a female driver). So whither outpost of tyranny, in this case?
Certainly it is about all about money, which is not to make a new or shrewd observation by any means.
An interesting point is whether by supporting tyranny a country becomes tyrannical itself, or itself an outpost of tyranny?
Political doublespeak is sickening. And Republican doublespeak doubly so, not that Democrats are much better. But in this truly nauseating respect they stink a little less.
Pakistan’s friendships in the region, for all our moralizing in the public arena are as two faced as any Republican government’s. Meantime it serves the Saudis to have a huge Pakistani workforce working for them.
But even petro dollars have their limits. Has anyone prepared for a time when they are not as readily available? Also, it will be interesting to see Pakistan’s stance with regards to the sudden fiasco surrounding Qatar. Will Pakistan choose its position based on its Saudi and American advantages, or will it base its stance on what is right?

Monday, June 12, 2017


What are our laws achieving today?

The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) believed in and lived up to everything God taught him, the teachings of Islam. Seeing that all but one chapter of the Quran began with the words ‘In the name of Allah, the Beneficent and the Merciful,’ he tried to be incorporate those attributes of Allah within himself as much as humanly possible, to be himself beneficial and merciful towards everyone who crossed his path in every way he could. Therefore when he was once asked to pray for the destruction of a people who were being more than usually vindictive against the Muslims, as well as being cruel to him personally, he refused. The reason he gave for his refusal was that he was sent as a blessing and a mercy for mankind, not as a curse.
What a man. Who could fail to admire him?
There are countless examples of the Prophet’s mercy (PBUH), and his forgiveness. There is a short video doing the rounds which details just five such examples.
Thumama Ibn Uthal was one of the most powerful men at the time of the Prophet (PBUH). He was the leader of Al Yamamah, an area east of what is now Saudi Arabia, and one of eight leaders who were sent letters, inviting them to accept Islam. Thumama responded by killing several of the Prophet (PBUH)’s followers. Yet the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) forgave Thumama Ibn Uthal. Thumama converted to Islam following the Prophet’s forgiveness.
Safwan Ibn Umayyah belonged to the Qurraysh tribe of Mecca. Both he and his father opposed the Prophet (pbuh), and tried to assassinate him. After the battle at Badr, Safwan paid someone to assassinate the Prophet but the plot failed and Safwan himself was captured alive. Yet the Prophet (pbuh) gave him amnesty after the conquest of Mecca and in fact gifted him several camels. Safwan too, converted to Islam.
Abu Sufyan Sakhr Ibn Harb was a leader of the Qurraysh of Mecca, as a result he was one of the most powerful persons in Mecca. When they were boys, Abu Sufyan and Muhammad (PBUH) were friends. When Muhammad (pbuh) declared prophet hood Abu Sufyan’s enmity began. He showed it in several ways, writing satirical poems against his childhood friend and his people and leading military campaigns against the Muslims, including the battle at Uhud. He tried to assassinate the Prophet on several occasions. He too was forgiven by the Prophet (PBUH), and afterwards when he became Muslim, granted a pension.
Wahshi Ibn Harb was appointed by Hind bint Utbah to kill one or all three men, the Prophet himself (pbuh), his cousin Ali, and his Uncle Hamza. During the battle of Uhud Wahshi succeed in killing Hamza, the Prophet’s beloved uncle. The Prophet (PBUH), in spite of his grief, forgave Wahshi when he repented, although as with Hind, he asked Washi not to appear in front of him, presumably because the thought of the desecration Hamza’s body had suffered after he was assassinated was painful to him.
Hind bint Utbah ordered Hamza killed in retaliation for the death of her uncle. Afterwards, when Hamza was martyred by Wahshi during the battle, Hind climbed on to a rock and shrieked out her triumph. She and some of the other women mutilated the dead bodies and hung the ears and noses around their necks. Hind also cut out Hamza’s liver and tried to eat it. When she could not, she spat out what she had bitten into. And yet the Prophet forgave her at the time of the conquest of Mecca, although the sight of her was so painful to him that as with Washi he requested her never to come before him.
Today, we like to think that we carry the torch on the Prophet’s behalf (PBUH), and believe we are spreading the light of Islam in the world.
On the 9th of June, just a few days ago, an Anti-Terrorism Court sentenced a man belonging to the Shia sect living in Okara to death for posting something blasphemous against Islam on Facebook. The man, apparently posted something derogatory against certain prominent Sunni persons, the Prophet (PBUH), and his wives.
We like to practice Islam today by paying flowery compliments to its prominent figures while paying no heed whatsoever to their teachings. In a glaring example, if the Prophet (PBUH) forgave people who tried to assassinate him, fought against him, wrote against him, against his people, his family and his teachings, it is interesting that we can sentence a man to death for doing something as silly as posting derogatory comments on social media. Surely, that would be classified as being more pious than the Pope, or as the Persian saying goes, the bowl being hotter than the soup?
The people the Prophet (PBUH) forgave were invariably so impressed by his magnanimity and dignity that they accepted Islam, going on to become important figures within the religion they once rejected.
What are our laws achieving today? Is anyone impressed by their dignity and magnanimity?

Tuesday, June 6, 2017


The mind boggling idea of plague in Karachi
There’s a story about a wife who tots up her husband’s total spending on beer for twenty years and tells him he could have bought an airplane with that money. He asks how much beer she’s had in the past twenty years to which she proudly responds: “None!” So he asks her “Where’s your airplane then?”
You’re reminded of that story when the PPP…and another P’s juvenile political aspirant Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and his less than salubrious parent sneer about the PML-N. Without in any way shape or form being a PML-N supporter, one nevertheless feels that criticism from the PPP’s leadership is a bit rich, when having had their stint in government not once but several times with Karachi as their ‘home base’ as Lahore is for the Sharif family they managed to do squat for its welfare. Well, look at that port city, once the capital of the entire country. Or smell it. And this does not refer to the recent worse than usual stench that has been enveloping that city, which as the WWF informs us is due to the decaying ‘bloom’ of a marine species, which occurs twice a year, and has occurred a bit earlier and much smellier than usual this time. No, that ‘look at Karachi and smell it’ referred to the usual every day muck, also composed of dead and decaying matter in which that city is mired and is mired all year round, and the increasingly higher piles of that dead and decaying matter that have accumulated in every available spot, and the particular smells that arise from them.
Karachi used to be a wonderful city. It still is, despite its lack of leadership. Or even simply despite its leadership. Sir Charles Napier, the first governor of Sindh is quoted as saying:
‘You will be the Glory of the East; Would that I come
 Again to see you, Karachi, in your grandeur!’
Karachi remains Pakistan’s most diverse city. It is also Pakistan’s most liberal city. And although Lahore was once that, it is now Pakistan’s most intellectual and culturally vibrant city. Most of all, believe it or not, Karachi was once Pakistan’s cleanest city, perhaps the cleanest city in all of Asia. No kidding.
Plague, the disease, was not restricted to seventeenth century London. In London about a 100,000 people died during the Great Plague, almost a quarter of that city’s population. Two centuries later, at the end of the nineteenth century, the citizens of Karachi were faced by the results of lack of sanitation in the shape of another epidemic of bubonic plague. The fleas carrying the disease found a congenial environment in the city’s filth, and thousands of citizens of Karachi died, presenting a very real challenge for the British, then the rulers. But that government rose to the challenge. The plague was contained in a few years, largely because henceforth the British provided the city with an effective garbage collection system, and once it was collected with an efficient garbage disposal system. And they constructed decent sewage, and made sure the city was regularly cleaned. Which is, you know, the sort of stuff governments are supposed to do.
All that however is in the past. Today, Karachi is a garbage dump. Rather an egalitarian one because it isn’t just the ‘lower class’ areas (nasty phrase) that have the rubbish problem, it is also the ‘upper class’ areas (another nasty phrase) that do. There are piles of rubbish bang in front of Bilawal House, in fact. Clearly the inmates are among those who chuck their rubbish over the doorstep, happy so long as the mansion is clean.
So now some expensive garbage collection equipment has been imported by the government in power in Sindh, no doubt with the usual kickbacks. This equipment apparently includes tricycle refuse vehicles, handcarts, dustbins, tree cleaning showers, mechanical sweepers and street-washing vehicles. Whether Pakistan makes mechanical sweepers and street washing vehicles is a moot point, but it is incredible that equipment such as handcarts and dustbins were also imported, but we’ll let that pass. A Chinese firm is to be paid…wait for this…Rs2 billion a year to lift and process the incredible amounts of waste produced by this massive city. But we’ll let that pass too. Anyone who has an idea of the scale of work involved would agree that that is a justifiable and unavoidable price to pay. Garbage disposal is a crucial and integral aspect of life in any city, small or large. In a place Karachi’s size it assumes imperative dimensions.
The thing is that if the plague could strike once, it could strike again. The various components are all there: absence, and I mean ABSENCE of sanitation, rats, ignorance, and close living as a result of poverty. Is a government that was unable to perform a function as basic as waste disposal without foreign aid equipped to handle a health crisis of the dimensions one would assume if it (God forbid) struck the largest city of Pakistan? It is a question that the Department of Health should add onto its agenda on a priority basis, as well as looking into some kind of cooperation with sanitation units.  Hospitals in Karachi are doing a good job, with several run philanthropically offering wonderful service to citizens. But the plague…?