VERSE| MY NOISE-CANCELLING HEADPHONES

The below verse is somewhat farcical and maybe even a tad fanciful; but sometimes it takes a bit of a tongue-in-cheek nudge to arouse our fitfully slumbering consciences. May we all continue to persevere towards creating a better, nobler world.

I look at social media and I see anger and hate and prejudice;
I look at the television and I see propagandists, debauched messiahs and wily pundits;
I look at the newspaper and I see political intrigue, national fatigue and ceaseless power mongering -
It goes on, never ending, ignited with the fire from our fossil fuel stores …
I look within me and I see the mirror of my mind reflecting, deflecting, dodging and fending
The piercing, stabbing, blinding light from all this frantic, raving media commotion.

I look around me and I see love and peace and co-existence;
I look around me and I see people coming together to help, protect and build better;
I look around me and I see the universe weaving, constantly interlacing Harmony.
It goes on, forever, propelled by the spirit and soul of our humanity …
I look within me and I can feel my heart echoing, returning, rebounding and celebrating
The warm glow, the shimmer and gleam of the wonderful world around me.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . .


Oh, but it doesn’t end there. Some endings are just not fairytale-ish.
If I gave in to my easeful delusions, I would be naive and tragically remiss.
Here’s the deal: Human beings are sometimes cruel and that creates a gross impasse
And that’s when we need to use our own eyes and our moral compass
The world around us may glimmer and shine in serene equilibrium
While pockets of humanity elsewhere thrash in blood-letting delirium.
Look for yourself, seize your courage, tell your truth, play your part
This is our ONE world; our one chance. We don’t have the luxury of a Re-start.

OPINION | We, the Women of Pakistan

And so it was on another quite uneventful day that the PM of our besieged nation finally put in his two bits to exacerbate our social dilemma just a little more. The tenuous progress that we had made, all things considered (the “Aurat” [Women’s] March, the now audible Moderate social segment lobbying for change, the little everyday triumphs of the Pakistani woman) were pushed right out the window with a single damning sentence. With one unthinking response, Imran Khan gave license to 120 million of the nation’s denizens to judge, demean and assault the other 120 million based on nothing more than macho whims and fancies.

Still, I’m sincerely hoping it was a primal knee jerk reaction not entirely thought through (our patriarchy is copiously given to that). The alternative would mean that he’s been well and truly conditioned by the right wing brigade outside of his home; and by the crystal balls of a soothsaying spouse inside.

If I put aside all emotions and outrage (and believe me, that takes some doing in this case) and analyse it for what it is, it still comes across as grossly irresponsible coming from a Head of Government. More so, because so many of us who believe in a better, more progressive, more prosperous Pakistan have consistently jumped to his defense over the past not entirely scintillating 3 years. When his naysayers condemned him; when his detractors demonised him; when other global leaders criticized him, there was a bulwark of us who stood by him, defended him and made excuses for him. After all, he was a newbie in politics and he had the right to make his share of mistakes in matters of governance and international diplomacy.

But this…. this has really been heart breaking. Disappointing. Infuriating. Like the tragic submersion of the last lifeboat on a sinking ship. One would think that for someone who’s been married 3 times, who consistently exercised his right to seek the most optimal mate for himself; one who obviously appreciated a woman who knew her mind, was aware of her rights and who lived by those credos, would be more sensitive to the adversities that the average woman suffers in Pakistan. Whether it is exercising her right to education, to working, to her freedom, to her basic safety, to making every effort to be the fullest and best version of herself. Instead, Imran Khan behaved like the archetypal patriarchal male who’s been caught with his shalwar down and has to somehow deflect the blame elsewhere.

The truth is, there is still no one else out there to honestly attend to the matters of the State. Here the qualifying word is Honesty. In our nation mired as it is in subversive political antics and corruption; where every preceding head of State has somehow managed to defraud, snatch and steal from the ever suffering public, IK was an honest to goodness breath of fresh air. We the women have, through the unceasing trials and tribulations perpetrated by the men in and around our circles of life, learnt a wisdom that has also been our survival tactic: to look at the larger picture, put aside even monumental grudges and march on. That’s what makes us formidable but also vulnerable. So while we march on Mr.PM, we also look to you to do your duty: Apologize publicly to the 120 million women of the country that you’re leading. Not because we would wither away without those words of redress, but because we want to continue to feel relatively safe in the land we call home.

I raise up my voice—not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard. … We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.
Malala Yousafzai

VERSE|MY CHOICE TO MAKE

Day ends and darkness sweeps in,
Enveloping the ready and the unready into its blackened folds.
It scuttles into crannies and leaps into fissures,
Blotting out the light for another 8 hours ... or eternity...
Tonight, am I happy to be in its restful, warm embrace
Galvanizing my body and my spirit for tomorrow?
Or am i dreading the walk with Erebus* in the murky corridors of gloom?
The choice is mine to make.

Night ends and daylight marches in
Casting off the monochromatic grey-black silhouettes.
Lingering shadows disappear; the sounds of silence explode into daytime clamor.
Exultant photons ricochet through the air
As Earth waltzes around her own cosmic maypole; one dance done, another begun.
Am I ready to seize the day today?
Or am I dreading the tread of Helios* outside my bedroom window?
The choice is mine to make.

The gods of Myth and the gods of Now
Continue their battle in the sacred space of my heart.
They wrangle with each other, the twain never meeting;
Perpetuating confusion, torment and intrigue;
Shredding my soul as the spoils of their unholy war.
Will I continue to shed blood, lose hope and malinger for the false prophets within?
Or am I ready to make this day, this life, my own?
It is MY choice to make.
*Erebus: The god of Darkness in Greek mythology
*Helios: the god of the Sun in Greek mythology

OPINION| THE PRODIGAL SONS

Earlier this year, after decades, the island of Sri Lanka welcomed the Pakistani cricketing legend of yore. Thankfully, the political mantle is still too new to disenchant the international fan base. Not that I think he is a corrupt bag of officious bones in the manner peculiar to many of his South Asian compatriots and indeed, his very own predecessors. No, he’s just a little soft in the head; a natural affliction, I have come to believe, when one decides to not go down the oft trodden path of political corruption and depravity. The cerebral mush of course, leads to an entirely different set of bureaucratic disasters. The long and short of it is that Imran Khan’s heart is in the right place but his brain is an addled brew of eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog*... And so, even with the best of intentions, the empire double doubles, toils and troubles!* But i digress… and can you blame me! Like everyone else in our beleaguered country, I too am a devoted armchair warrior and am wont to vent.

So why did our PM Imran Khan visit Sri Lanka?

What an interesting question, full of intrigue and the promise of riveting conspiracy theories (rubbing my hands gleefully and wanting to quote more eccentric old world verse!)

So here’s my take on it. The global power structure is gradually changing, and the South Asian bloc wants to be ready to play its part. Colonially-seeded geographical antagonism is seeming more and more irrelevant and incongruous as our unipolar world dithers on its North American weighted axis. As the US struggles with its burgeoning domestic issues, its inconvenient truths, it seems less and less likely to hold the moral mantle of global leadership. And when that dignity, skin deep though it may be, is shaken, the fall of the rest of the edifice is not far behind. No one wants to be told what to do by someone who can’t keep peace in their own backyard. And so, when some little but worthy nation somewhere tells Uncle Sam to mind his own business, we need to be ready to play our parts in catalysing the new equilibrium. Who those game-changing tRICksters* will be, is anyone’s guess. What is pertinent is that success will depend on there being some semblance of peace and harmony between the mighty neighbours of the Eastern hemisphere. And that peace has to begin ground up; with the smaller warring nations politely brought to heel first, so to speak. And so it was that on a swarthy February day, in the golden arms of the south Asian tear drop island, Pakistan was brought into the loop of the Global Reset. Because having two bickering nuclear armed neighbours in the region is generally not favourable to the efficacy of grand plans. And so, a meeting of the two estranged sisters, India and Pakistan, was arranged.

It is also interesting to note that hot on the heels of the Pak PM’s visit, the citizenry was treated to rather strategic Indo-SL combined military aerobatics, showcasing the battling might of mostly the Indian airforce. A polite but stratospherically overt reiteration that while there is some appetite for absurd but fit-to-current-form alliances, it’s best not to forget who the Saber Holders are and who the Saber Rattlers are.

All this of course is a funny-feeling-in-the-gut conjecture; the waxing eloquent of conspiracy theories. But these days, when truth has so often been stranger than fiction, the civic mingling of sworn enemies is not such a far fetched ideal. The proof of the gesture will of course be in how the two neighbours deal with each other going forward. (Watch out for startlingly long periods of peace along usually tempestuous/ skirmish-ridden borders).

Wade Davis’ words are a reverberating mantra for our times when he said, “No empire long endures, even if few anticipate their demise. Every kingdom is born to die. The 15th century belonged to the Portuguese, the 16th to Spain, 17th to the Dutch. France dominated the 18th and Britain the 19th. [By the 20th century], the torch had long passed into the hands of America”.

Let’s hope America continues to scratch the surface of its domestic/ social inequities, leaving little power vacuums across the globe. Let’s also hope that the Prodigal Sons of the East (daughters are in scarce order!) rise to the occasion. When the time comes, it will take a concerted effort of going against the grain of everything we know to be our patriotic truths, to seed a new epoch.

*eye of newt.... verse quoted from Shakespeare’s Macbeth
*tRICksters: the RIC in the word stands for the 3 global powerhouses of Russia, India and China.

OPINION|CHILDREN OF MEN*

Our Earth, now home to almost 8 billion humans. Also home to 153 million orphan children. Also the nursery to 140 million new births every year. Empirical population statistics when you look at each one individually. But when you connect them via the human equation, one can see the bizarre manifestation of our humanity gone awry.

The need to procreate has been so essential to our culture, beliefs and even our biology, that to build a family unit without passing on our exclusive DNA to our progeny is unthinkable; even unchristian, unislamic. And so, we continue to go from generation to generation, bequeathing with unrelenting tenacity, not so much our values, ethics and a spirit of industry, but the genetic codes that cellularly define us. We proudly bring another nestling into the world, the amalgam of our essential genomic structures, while another child somewhere not far off, adds to the global orphan count. The latter faithfully, effortlessly remains a de-sensitised statistic.

Even organized religion has given in to its baser instincts; and via insidious cloak and dagger plots of familial temptation and intrigue, has summarily discouraged adoption. For how can an adoptive father not be carnally tempted by the fact of the unshared DNA; or an adoptive mother blame herself for her lack of love and care for the child who is in fact, not her child. These are the ugly predispositions that guide our belief systems. And so it has come to pass that some of the most devout nations on earth continue to have the highest birth rates in the world.

I don’t profess to being maternal. The sum total of my maternal instincts extends to my niece and my nephew (they’re as close to my own children as I’ll have), my team in my corporate past life, the support staff in and around my regular surroundings, and the animal world. (It would appear, there are vestiges of the instinct after all; just not in the customary manner of speaking!) However, I have seen many, many… too many snot-nosed little kids that have become a part of the crazy, conveniently distant tumult on our busy urban streets. And I have heard countless … heartbreakingly countless horror stories of the forgotten children that are manipulated and mauled in the same orphanages and sanctums of faith that avow to protect them. Somehow, somewhere down the line, we have forgotten that we, the human collective, are the nurtures and providers of all the children that we bring into this world.

I am also not a detractor of the traditional family unit. It is, in fact, still one of our conventional social constructs that constantly reminds us that we are innately compassionate, loving and tolerant. However, I am a detractor of every dogma, ideal and manifesto that equates those same human qualities with the sharing of DNA. I am a detractor of all the myths and parables that typecast the concept of adoption in anything but the most judiciously humane light. In our current existences where economic inequality is shamelessly rife, the right of every orphan to be loved and cared for, unassailably surpasses our own need to perpetuate our heredity. The traditional family unit has to evolve into a more conscionable, accepting and diverse whole. The patriarchal ego has to take a back seat as we gradually but steadfastly make the word “Orphan” obsolete.

We no longer have the luxury of compartmentalising the children of our planet into a hierarchy of care, based on genetics. It is high time in fact, that we rallied together like the proverbial village to raise all the children of our world.

*Title inspiration from a 2006 dystopian science fiction movie thriller of the same name.

OPINION|WHAT IF IT HAD BEEN ME?

Incidence at the Hammad International Airport at Doha

I am still unsure of how to absorb/ make sense of what happened to over 60 women at the Hammad International airport in Doha last month. I can’t seem to compartmentalise it anywhere in my head. In summary, a baby (a few days old) was found abandoned in one of the bins at the airport. The authorities found her and did the only thing that any despotic nation in an apocalyptic horror potboiler would do: They decided without judge or jury that all the childbearing women in all the planes bound out of the airport were guilty, culpable and punishable. So they summarily off-boarded these women, took them to a waiting ambulance somewhere in the airport, had them lie down and then proceeded to strip them down to nothing so they could be invasively examined to determine IF any of them was the mother. The ambulance was surrounded by male security guards and the only privacy was afforded by mostly sheer blinds on the ambulance windows. (I won’t go into the moral debate of why the woman felt such fear, helplessness, such choking compulsion to abandon the infant – ironically, these acts in themselves are the wretched backwash constructs of our “virtuous” male driven social systems and are richly deserving of a whole new rant).

Even more telling of how morally corrupt, power-driven and patriarchal our global collectiveness and the international media machine are, is the almost total silence on the issue from everywhere. The self righteous, voluble right wing media that has an opinion on everything has been as silent as the clock in our universal Halls of Justice. The only reasons that i got to know of the incidence was the fact that one intrepid woman came forward to talk of this physical (she describes it as sexual) abuse on foreign soil while she was en route to Australia; and that I’ve subscribed to Austrialia’s current affairs program “60 Minutes”, and so this video just kind of half heartedly showed up on my YouTube feed.

Since i saw that brave woman’s interview, this one recurring thought has been gnawing at me psychologically and emotionally: what if I had been on one of those fateful flights bound out of Qatar that evening? What if i or one of my sisters or my niece or any one of my female near and dear ones had been subjected to that kind of coercion, humiliation and gross invasion of my body? I’ve written about this incidence hoping for a bit of catharsis in not only thanking my lucky stars that as a woman, i was not in fact there at the time; but also to do my part in making it known that what happened was NOT ok. It was ugly, misogynistic and especially shameful for the stalwarts of a religion and an ensuing culture that almost a BILLION women are a part of worldwide.

(See the full 60 Minutes interview below)

https://youtu.be/JgIvt9nm_1M

VERSE|MARDANGI – My Patriarchal Burden

This is A sequel to my earlier verse “Ravaged”.
This piece looks at the complicated nuances of nurture and upbringing, as opposed to the static all-out denunciation of the individual perpetrating familial rape. This piece of writing attempts to highlight the grotesque patriarachy which we have allowed to perpetuate and which has damaged generations of both, our girls and our boys, in its terrible wake.
I am Harris Jan Saleem, the son of Owais Jan Saleem
I am the scion of the Saleem ___ family
I have been raised like all the men in my family:
To hold my dreams high and my head higher
I have been taught that nothing bends that proud bearing. Nothing.

I was 8 when I first saw my father. In Asma apa’s room.
Asma apa is my cousin; my father’s sister’s daughter.
She is 4 years older than me.
I saw him many times; he saw me see him many times.
I learnt tacitly like so much is at home. Nothing needs to be said for it to be understood and emulated.
“It” was a dutiful visit to Asma apa

I was 20 when i too knew that I had to pay a dutiful visit to a woman of the family
She was a feisty one; too independent-minded for her own good. Her mother said so.
I was going to teach her.
I was going to teach her to be Good. To ensure no harm came to our family honour if she got out of hand.
She was 11; she was old enough.

I first visited Sophia on a rainy monsoon afternoon.
The family was surrounded by a haze of food-satiated, heat-fomented stupor;
Each in their own space in the sprawling ancestral home.
That I knew was the congruous ground for the undertaking of such obligations
She was a handful. I almost came away without fulfilling the onus on me of safeguarding the family honour.
But I persisted - it took a chokehold (and I don’t generally believe in inflicting violence on women).
She ceded.
I learnt that the chokehold was a necessary evil. Every time.
(I also realized with time that it wasn’t really violence since I was doing my duty towards upholding the family honour).
There are a slew of such behavioural nuances no one tells you about; which you have to learn on your own.
All of which you perform for upholding the family honour.

One day my father saw me visiting Sophia
Like i had seen him for so many years, visiting Asma apa.
This time he looked at me - with a wisdom of the ages.
And i knew then that we are the MEN of the family.
We are expected to know; to be versed in the DNA prescription passed down in virtuous silence along the patriarchal line.
I felt i had been let into an ancient, sacred secret.
I felt an inexplicable pride in being a Man of the Saleem Jan family

It’s my wedding day today; I’m to wed Sophia
When I was asked if I would marry her, I had said yes.
Although she was ... tainted.
But I was a male scion of the family; a custodian of my family honour.
I was expected to bear that burden of protecting, of upholding the family name.

But I have been deprived of the consummaiton of my marriage.

Today her sister is coming to stay with us,
For the summer.
She is 10 and I think already very much like my wife, in her waywardness ...
Tomorrow I will do my duty to protect my family name
In whatever way i need to -
Tomorrow, and for as long as i live.

De Khudai pe aman

OPINION|THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

The 110 million Shadow People of the Pakistani populace: its WOMEN.

For to be fully alive and to be accepted as an individual in her own right, you would have to have control over your body and your life, and all movements/ shifts/ evolutions and inclinations thereof. And the Pakistani woman is the antithesis of all the above.

I won’t go into endless rants about the hideousness of the many recent episodes that have afflicted the women in our country; the Public Outrage Machine is doing quite a spectacular job of that, and as it should. That’s the positive glint-of-steel point of the double edged sword that is our digital social media these days. I will however go into the systemic, grass root level ideological and academic changes that need to be implemented to ensure events like these are prevented, not from the fear of being caught, but by the moral force of our collective social compass.

So where did we go wrong?

Let’s take a quick traipse through history. The advent of Islam some 1400 years ago in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, came at a time when women were considered little more than chattels to be bought, sold, used and abused. One of the main guiding constructs of the new religion then, was to bring some semblance of decency to the female equation, anecdotally exemplified time and again by it’s primary champion, the Prophet Mohammad. He himself fell in love with a successful businesswoman (Yes! They obviously met, interacted and got to know each other prior to their nuptials, contrary to the backwardness now associated with any interaction of familially unrelated men and women). Khadija Bint Khuwaylid was as proficient at commerce as Mohammad was at managing caravans along the frequently dangerous trade routes between Mecca, Syria and Yemen. The business partnership ultimately evolved into a marriage of 25 years which ended with Khadija’s death. It is interesting to note that at the time of their union, Khadija was 40 years old, while Mohammad was 25. It is logical to glean then, that the much younger man must have taken both relationship and business cues from the older, twice married and widowed, already successfully established business woman. Throughout, their relationship was underscored with equality, mutual respect and love. That is the legacy and the stature of women in Islam, consummately upending any patriarchal nonsense that has for so long now been affiliated with the role and station of Muslim women in their communities.

What we see now; the crude, revolting patriarchal version of Islam and it’s sordid view of women is a much more recent perversion brought about by unethical leadership, crude politics and power mongering.

So straight out, let’s leave the religious gerrymandering and filibustering at the door. After 1400 years, using religion as an excuse to justify the vile regression of the way we behave is a desperate ploy to perpetuate the unbalanced mess that is our society now.

In comes Society and Culture then – the sum total of our norms and customs. That ever-changing chimera that has made paupers into kings and brought us out of the dark ages. If it was not for social and cultural progress, the slave trade would still be thriving and women and minorities would still not have the right to vote.

Now that the two primary purported roadblocks to change have been laid to rest, where do we go from here?

Below is a pithy, grass root level prescription that can start paving the way for a more equitable, respectable Islamic society.

Change the culture in your homesteads: There is no greater or more effective education than that which is provided in the impressionable years in the sanctity of the home. For too long have we, the Pakistani (and in fact, the sub continental) parents fostered the preferential son treatment. Of putting the boys at the front and centre of the universe. Of promoting the bizarre idea that their sisters are convenient appendages to their superhero cloaks of getting ahead/ of progressing/ of “carrying on the (dubious!) family name”. You, the parents, know every time you faithfully abet and encourage this exploitation of the girls in your family; and you need to stop. In the name of all that is just and decent, you need to cease and desist playing your horrendous part in this patriarchal ploy. I won’t go into preaching what to do here instead. The prescription is as simple as it is clear: foster an environment of trust, respect, security and equal opportunity for all your children.

Make all schools and universities all-inclusive: The version of religion/ custom/ creed where girls and boys are kept rigorously separate during their formative years, has to change. It is not only that we do not have the economic luxury nor the academic expertise to run parallel systems of education segregated by gender, it is also the most counter intuitive manner in which to prepare these young women and men in becoming upstanding members of their communities. It is at these centres of learning that they will acclimatise to each other, to learn to respect each other and to live communally without the awkwardness that is currently a part of almost all adult inter-gender interactions. This convention of keeping “our girls safe” by keeping them distant from the boys, has led to the formation of a social system that is regressive, archaic and has shown to be unconscionably harmful to the psychology and well being of both genders. One has ended up donning the mantle of the victim and the other has become the perpetual perpetrator. Gender-unify our educational system, and while endowing our young boys and girls with “book smarts”, coach them equally on developing their “street/ community smarts” to enable each one to live a respectable, rewarding life despite the curve balls the universe tends to throw off and on.

Overturn and replace archaic, female-victimising policies: Starting from the national and moral embarrassment that is the current Hudood Ordnance*, to all the primitive rural customs that put the female front and centre as the Pawn of Retribution for all the criminal actions of the men in their communities. This particular facet requires somewhat of a step-back because it compels our very lawmakers to recalibrate the way in which they perceive the status of the average Pakistani (Muslim?) woman. It requires unequivocally clamping down on the religious fundamental fringe taking women’s lives and the law into their hands to dispense their barbaric version of justice. It requires an end to Inquisition-era relics preaching to women on how to best fade into the scenery. Which brings me to the next point.

Re-introduce Civics as a compulsory university level course: Civics, that academic gem from yesteryear, teaching public propriety and communal sophistication, that has, with every other decent and ethical credo, been washed away by the corrupt tides of recent times. Enrich it with a Social Ethics curriculum, at the beating heart of which should be the steady progress towards true gender equality. Let the gender dialogue start in this Civics & Social Ethics class. Make it legitimate and appropriate to expose, debate and discuss the sexual discrimination that is rampant in every aspect of our society. Encourage both men and women to look within themselves and their communities for ways in which to counter the gender blight. For those already in sensitive policy making posts, this will mean a re-education on modern gender roles and in the case of Islamic republics, also highlighting the rich religious tradition on the status of women, that has existed for centuries.

Rejuvenate the CPLC: The Citizen Police Liason Committe has traditionally been a non-political, operationally independent institution, managed by dedicated and concerned citizens offering their honorary services. It is currently situated in Sind but can be expanded to the other provinces/ metropolises. Re-energise it with Neighbourhood Watch protocols of systematic local vigilance by householders to discourage crime. Liaise with the “good apples” in the community police force to ensure your environments and spaces are safe at all times. In the porous social and judicial fabric of our country where it is easy for perpetrators to get “lost”, this group can play a pivotal role in identifying and bringing to justice, locally based criminals.

Institute behaviour-changing punishment for perpetrators: Last but nor least, crime and due punishment. Unless the state makes an example of the consequences of gross physical abuse, it is impossible to bring about any real or lasting change in culture or mindsets. Justice has to be definitive and the sentencing swift and permanent. Whether it is lifelong incarceration or chemical castration for charges of rape and paedophilia, the decree must be carried out to the letter, every time, until both, the inclination and the behaviour are unlearnt and permanently purged from our societal DNA.

We, as a nation, are at a crossroad of reckoning on many fronts, our values and religious comprehension and followthrough being at the forefront of this reconnaisance. We cannot afford to remain mired in our current regressive impasse. It is time to get past the stubbornness of archaic customs; it is time to be honest with ourselves; it is time to reawaken some semblance of our socio-moral conscience; it is time to start real and difficult dialogue.

It is time to acknowledge the Elephant in the Room.

De Khudai pe aman.

*Hudood Ordinance: Gender-biased laws enacted in Pakistan in 1979 by the military ruler, General Zia ul Haq as part of an overall Islamization process. This was done, with American support as a part of a larger focused Islamic militarisation strategy to help fight the USA’s proxy war against Russia.

OPINION|In God we Trust, But Our Morals are Negotiable

US Hegemony, Its Lingering Pakistan/ Afghanistan Embarrassment and Media Morality

It was the early 80s. I still vividly remember as a child, standing on the side of the iconic Mall road in Murree (a mountain resort town situated about 30kms northeast of Islamabad in Punjab, Pakistan, and also home to a number of missionary boarding schools) with compatriots from my school and others, waving little Pakistani and American flags as President Zia ul Haq accompanied by the then US Vice President, George H. W. Bush (Bush Senior) drove by in their endless cavalcade of black luxury sedans. For us it was a joyous day out of the regular rigour of boarding school life; for Pakistan it was the beginning of the end of its Rising Star status in the region.

Pakistan, so geostrategically well situated to catalyse the downfall of the Soviet empire- the one thorn in the side of the Americans and the only obstacle to an all out USA dominated planet- was requested to become Ally Numero Uno. And we complied in the then considered most shrewd and cunning manner – through religiously radicalising, arming and mobilising an entire nation in a war that was to turn in on itself for decades after the USSR fell. By God, did we comply! And for very little in return. A statesman at the helm of affairs at the time (or even a half-way successful businessman like Donald Trump armed as he is with his career collage of bankruptcies), rather than a religiously devout military man, would have at least got us better trade deals to help shore up the economy once the dust of battle settled. But these are wishful conjectures…and the rest as they say, is history.

Soviet Russia sputtered and fell and the USA couldn’t get out of the region fast enough, leaving two countries with populations in the area of 130 million (circa 1992) to clean up the mess. But radical religion has a way of festering, sometimes out of sight, and emerging multiplied, more virulent, more destructive and deadlier than before. And that has been the dubious Vestige of Alliance bestowed on the two countries, the “rewards” of which we are continuing to grimly reap. Kabul, once considered the Paris of the East, is now a wraith of its former self, and the country has been declared a failed state. Pakistan itself has been teetering on the edge of the abyss of Pariah States. It’s people have undergone decades of global dismissal at best and damnation at worst. Despite being the fifth most populous country in the world and a nuclear power, it has fallen behind all its compatriots on almost every index of progress, prosperity and nationhood. The war on terror in fact, has purportedly cost the Pakistani economy a total of almost USD 130 billion since 2001.

Ironies and hypocrisies are rife as the countries in the West continue to strengthen themselves in nuclear armament while using every tactic in the book and outside of the realms of international law to bully the weaker/ developing nations into maintaining their globally vulnerable positions. The touted purpose: because these countries cannot be trusted with independent nuclear arms for they may wage globally destructive wars. The ironic truth: almost all the wars of the 20th century and the 2 decades of the 21st century have been initiated or aggressively intervened in by the USA, whether it was Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria; or Cuba, Panama, Kenya and Yemen. We, the developing nations, have sat on the sidelines, watched our economies bled dry, our social systems dragged into the Middle Ages and our international reputations ripped to tatters. The 20th century has indeed been a bloody epoch despite all the noble peace-promoting intentions of the victors of the 2 world wars. We as the human species have remained true to our baser instincts: power has tended to corrupt; and absolute power has corrupted absolutely.

And now enter the new devil! The mainstream digital and broadcast American media which in the blink of an eye can school millions of viewers around the world onto any hypothesis, conspiracy theory and interpretation of facts…and fiction. For the Global Village such as it is, besides making the world that much smaller and more accessible for its citizens, also ensures that current affairs are copiously and constantly coloured only with the pens of the victors of the 20th century, the USA.

Case in point: A few months ago, Pakistan displayed quite remarkable success in not only reining in the Covid-19 pandemic in the country while the wheels of economy continued to turn; but it was also reported to currently have the best performing stock market in Asia. Hot on the heels of this positive press, the major American media conglomerates began blitzing their screens with how Pakistan and Afghanistan are still the only countries in the world which still had rampant wild strains of polio. And so there it was again – the habitually insidious carpet-pulls from under our beleagured feet….

The Avengers of the Digital Age then, are not the politicians nor the military Strongmen. They are the Media. And granted that on the Information Super Highway, it requires great ethical tenacity and character to claw through the putrefying onslaught of political bias, power and oneupmanship. But never have the stakes for the preservation and endurance of our collective ethics and morality been higher than at the present time. Now more than ever, this fraternity needs to people itself with the most courageous visionaries, opinion makers and informers who bring an unwavering moral predisposition/ force to the sacrosanct task of building a higher globally shared ethical instinct and awareness.

God save the Queen, the USA, the Sheikhs, the Despots and the Champions of our collective moral integrity!

De Khudai pe aman.

OPINION|The Consciously Blazing World*

A Post-Colonial/ Post Abolition Prescription for Healing and Moving On

2020 has become the proverbial skeleton in our collective human closet that has been, quite clamorously, wanting out. From the Australian bushfires to the Californian wildfires to the south Asian locust infestation, to flash floods, to the still raging Pandemic, Nature has been rapping her well worn knuckles at us. The seeds that we have sown ourselves, such as they are, in our socio-economic evolution of the past 500 years, are finally also bearing insidious fruit. And some of us are being plated out with that toxic “manna” much more generously than others. The world is in a peculiar state of flux as systemic and institutionalised biases and inequities raise their ugly heads, demanding attention and exacting blood.

With the Northern hemisphere facing its most vocal and vehement push-back yet of institutionalised racism, it seems apt to look into the whys and wherefores of how this monster is still not only alive and well, but traipsing around the globe. The dubious start-up credit, of course, rests with the two most notorious schemes employed by the West to own, manage and use entire swathes of humanity: Colonisation and Slavery.

While the colonists eventually exited their colonised domains (for the most part), it is compelling to note that the enslaved were never repatriated or given a homeland to call their own. Most notably, post the American civil war, they were clumsily declared “free men” (the “free women” movement is, arguably, still a work in progress around the world) and left largely to their own devices and spirit of enterprise to assimilate into society. There was no state-sponsored Integration Scheme, no Reparation Act, no real organised effort made by the enslavers to economically lift and psychologically release tens of thousands of men and women from over two centuries of being treated like chattel. Fast forward 200 years and the vestiges of that national lethargy has taken on an even more insidious anatomy in the form of systemic racism and marginalisation. This scarlet thread has woven its treacherous way through every aspect of the fabric of society, leaving citizens feeling like illegal aliens in their own country. This is being exemplified loud and clear in the current state of world affairs, and so effectively described by the black American actor Will Smith when he said “Racism has always been around. Now it’s being filmed for all to see.”

The colonisers departed from their dominions after demarcating entire continents with the assiduity of a baker cutting a cake with the straightest edges possible. There was almost no political, socio-economic or ideological science applied to demarcating borders. Nations were cut up overnight changing not only the cartography of the world but also the lives of millions of people. Thus seeding a post colonial wave of civic and religious unrest that has continued to simmer and boil over between previously congenial neighbours. Case in point: the Indian subcontinent. With its current combined population of 1.7 billion, 40% or 680 million of which comprises the middle class or the engines of economic growth of a country, the south Asian collective would have been a global force to contend with. The Durand Line and the Radcliffe Award ignited fires that are being stoked to this day in the form of radical religious militarisation and exclusionary nationalism.

So where do we go from here?

There is a critical healing/ advancement process that is integral to moving forward from the grass root levels.

  • Accept that it happened: Currently, the baseline of “popular history” is all wrong. There is an almost smug evasion of the truth; smug, because the pall of racial ignorance and apathy has been allowed to thrive for the past couple of centuries. It is time to come face to face with the reality of what happened, starting from the highest government platforms right down to the man on the street. The facts need to be overtly stated and accepted so that the collective social conscience can finally start kicking in.
  • Embed an ethical awareness: Once the truth has been told and confronted, the moral dialogue needs to start, spearheaded by the nation’s academicians and legislators. A Code of Race Ethics needs to be formulated for the body politic at large, to systemically unlearn and then relearn their moral sense around the subject. Building grit and gumption around commemorative events like Juneteenth* in the United States and probably the Amritsar tragedy* in the United Kingdom, will help to embed the mindset. In the spirit of Veterans’ Day, these memorialisations too will serve as a reminder of the courage to have overcome, safeguarded and progressed, while also ensuring the keen cognisance of the atrocities of the past. The goal being to ultimately bring about a sea change in the “racio-moral”* compass of the world.
  • Make Colonial/ Slavery studies a compulsory part of the school curriculum: This is fundamental for both, the colonised/ the enslaved, and the West. For a systemic national mindset change, race related instruction and knowledge sharing has to begin in the impressionable years. Together with the many glorious battle wins vanquishing sundry foes being featured in History books, a thoughtful, insightful study into their dark historical pasts by the largely western/ white nations is essential to methodically build universal understanding, acceptance and empathy.
  • Encourage ongoing dialogue: This is critical to ensure that the mindset change that has begun, is made permanent. Discourse is important on every aspect ranging from the moral issues inherent in the concepts of the “Colonial Imperialists” and “Slave Masters”, to reparation, to active assimilation and advancement of the affected populations in the 21st century.

Humankind appears to be on the brink of another revolution – this time, a moral and ethical one. This modification/ re-formulation of our global conscience will affect how we survive and indeed, thrive in the 21st century.

The question is, are we up for this challenge of an epoch, or are these difficult high-minded decisions best left to God and the Trumps and Johnsons of the world?

De Khudai pe aman.

*The Consciously Blazing World: Title adapted from a 1666 work of utopian fiction titled “The Blazing World” by Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle.

*Juneteenth: A holiday celebrated on June 19th to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved people in the USA.

*Amritsar Tragedy: Also called the Jhallianwala bagh massacre took place on April 13th, 1919, when Acting Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered British Indian army troops to fire their rifles into a crowd of unarmed Indian civilians in Jhallianwala Bagh, killing at least 379 people and injuring over 1,000 others.

*Racio-moral: the global ethics of race and morality

POLITICAL FARCE|Gone With the ‘Tind’*

The “Brown Sahib” Aspirations of the 45th POTUS

Until very recently, i thought that the Brown Sahib* state of mind was the social cross borne by certain privileged demographics of the previously colonised and the enslaved. After 500 years of seeing the White Man do his thing, while ruling and owning large swathes of humanity, even the most tenaciously dogmatic among the brown and the black populations learnt to emulate their white coercers to survive, and in fact thrive. Over the ages, this brand of social exposure to both, the colonially enforced ways of the West and the doggedly defiant cultural elements of the East produced a quite unique post colonial urbanity, exclusive to the 1.5 billion indigenous people of the Indian subcontinent.

But turns out, mindsets are fickle things in our current bizarre, beleaguered world. The character and cultural traits that have been the sole tokens of the Brown Man for the past few hundred years, are now raising their sun-kissed heads in the pale white hearts of the colonists and the enslavers. Or at least one. And so, we bear bemused witness to an almost karmically apologetic social course correction, as the 45th POTUS (once the most powerful man on earth – makes the mind reel!) decided to make unwitting amends for his colonial predecessors, through personal example.

The Foreign Bahu*: If you’re a progressive and privileged brown person, you’ll do your Western Hemisphere stint and come back home, armed with not only a foreign degree but possibly a foreign wife too (Caucasian of course). Mixed race children, we believe, are known to better the family prospects in an ethnically and racially divided world. And so, if we give him the benefit of the doubt, the 45th POTUS married an Eastern European woman to even out the playing field for the rest of the world to aspire to greatness by association. And if we go with just our good old gut instinct on this POTUS, because eastern exoticism is a thing.

Misogynistic Ambitions: If you’re a Brown Man anywhere, you’ve been raised to believe that you’re the centre of everyone’s world, especially all the women that wittingly and unwittingly occupy your universe. The gruellingly paternalistic environment (from archaic Panchayat* codes to the gender despotism inherent in the Hudood Ordinance*) has been carefully maintained to consistently fuel that ego. And so, marvelling at the subcontinental man for knowing and showing what a tremendously huge gift from God he is, the 45th POTUS has frequently and passionately tried to “put women in their place”. From sexual misconduct to name calling, he continues to frenziedly negotiate his way through all his political and social interactions with the opposite gender.

Brown skin complex: 500 years of the White Man’s dominion has understandably wrought some social psychosis in its wake. One among them is the Brown man’s continued, thriving quest for white skin – literally. It may have started off as “if you can’t beat them, join them”, but over the ages, this ardour has taken on a life of its own. From the multibillion dollar fairness cream industry, to the “fair bahu*” syndrome, a laundry list of overt and covert skin colour stigmas has taken root and spread like gnarled old ivy over our social fabric. And so, the 45th POTUS, since he can’t get any paler, and deciding that racial irony is the best form of praise, has embodied a bullheaded brownness that is both unprecedented and scary. The resultant orangeness in fact, rivals a fiery tropical sunset during a duststorm.

Hirsute Motivations: We are a race that is (mostly!) endowed with and proud of an abundance of dark luxurious hair. So when we do experience a dearth in the follicular territory, we jump right on to the bandwagon of toupees, transplants and wigs. The resulting downiness ranges from the barely perceptible, all the way to the absurd and the ridiculous. And so the 45th POTUS has with all his heart, embraced the Brown Man’s tenacious hair love affair, and taken it into realms of comb-over inventiveness that no modern day tempest can rip asunder!

Despotic Tendencies: The urge and capacity to rule with an iron hand has traditionally been the way of the South, Central, Pacific and Middle Eastern blocs; with many countries having the dubious honour of martial law as state administration for more than half their independent existence. It is not so great a secret and opinion, that the Eastern and Southern hemispheres just do better with a hybrid democracy/ autocracy approach. And so the 45th POTUS, in his most outstanding tribute to the Brown and Black Man yet, established a unique First World dictatorship that set new global despotic standards. Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and even Kim Jong-un seem lumbering and lethargic in the wake of the autocratic inclinations and machinations of the Trumpian zeal.

To the (predominantly white) American populace at large we say a big Thank you for this peculiar apology in the shape of Donald J. Trump, for all the centuries of Black and Brown skinned subjugation. For providing so much comic relief when the world needed it most. For mortally endangering your nationhood and your political and economic progress built over hundreds of years. For racing, like sporting martyrs, to relinquish your identity as the leaders of the Free World.

But even we, the historically conquered and crushed, feel it’s a bit much. So please feel free to abandon any more such zealous, self defeating presidential level attempts at reparation. We will be happy with anyone sane, reasonable, half way eloquent and racially colour blind. Scratch the last; even the most delusional of us know that’s a big ask.

De Khudai pe aman.

*Brown Sahib: a colloquialism meaning brown master in the nature of his white predecessor. Now used farcically to define people from the subcontinent who behave like white people trapped in brown bodies.

*A wordplay on the 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell, set amidst the American civil war and reconstruction period, entitled “Gone with the Wind”. (Screen-adapted in 1939).

*Tind: Punjabi/ Urdu colloquialism for ‘noggin’ or head or baldness.

*Bahu: Urdu/ Hindi for Bride.

*Panchayat: A village council of elders

*Hudood Ordinance: Gender-biased laws enacted in Pakistan in 1979 by the military ruler, General Zia ul Haq as part of an overall Islamization process. This was done, with American support as a part of a larger focused Islamic militarisation strategy to help fight the USA’s proxy war against Russia.

OPINION|The Year (or 4) of Scholastic Irrelevance

The more I’ve thought about this phenomenon, the more convinced i have become of its current urgent relevance. And the more i have marvelled at yet another capitalist economic powerhouse that is the traditional university/ college degree for all manner of non technical accreditation. Here’s a not-so-hidden secret folks: It’s a convoluted plot to bankroll a few and encumber a host of others as they pass out, armed with not only a humanities degree but also a formidable college tuition debt. And thus begins the spiral downwards into living paycheque to paycheque, paying off money you could have nest-egged, into a system propping up the very same cycle of academic debt accrual, masquerading as vital subsistence training.

But those are the tangled economics, made thus so I’m sure, for us to lose the plot on their inherent Gangster capitalism. Had to get them past the Muses of Controversial Opinions before i dived into why, now more than ever, is the right time for you/ your child to consider boycotting the hallowed halls of higher education. A bit of a sweeping statement, but I’m getting to the specifics; just a flash in the sensationalist pan, thank you.

It doesn’t take a sage or a twice tenured professor to tell you that it is the glorious age of the Gap Year(s). With the universe and its myriad of events too conspiring to make it so, the time has never been more right for on-location academia to take a back seat. The penny has dropped on a lot of critical thought and ideology spaces in the recent months and the quest for academic enlightenment is not excluded.

It is also a fabulous time for the ambiguous amongst us to explore our future livelihood options by participating in the practical arena. Get an internship, an apprenticeship, a shadow-ship if you will, with people who are ostensibly living your dream jobs. Absorb the work environment, read the professional vibe, be cognisant of the not so professional machinations, be sensitive to the ethics, be aware of the deviations thereof, all the while, soaking up the full gamut of the workplace experience.

We are now living, nay quite firmly entrenched, in the digital age as we rapidly shift from traditional industry to economies based on Information Technology. The resultant information super highway has changed everything about how we access knowledge – facts, fiction, statistics, controversies, conspiracies and also (and here’s another not-so-hidden secret), entire cornucopias of erudition imparted across a 4 year liberal arts degree. From Shakespeare to the Cosmos; from critical race theories to the question of God and morality; from colonialism to capitalism to socialism to despotism; from the geography of K2 to the Diplodocus habitat; from political science philosophies to socio-religious studies. The World Wide Web is now replete with enough credible, encyclopaedic information to arm a would-be scholar of the Humanities to source, procure and do well at a job of their liking. Even some technical savants pursuing careers in Health care administration, Criminal justice, Animation and graphic design, Engineering and Business administration to name a few, can adequately equip themselves for the job market. The requirements: personal drive and energy, a perseverance to see the online learning through, aided by a robust ISP*.

Maybe together with all the other puzzles and predicaments of life that have of late created a holy clamour for change, the current mainstream institution of academic advancement has also seen its day. Maybe a revolution is needed here too, to re-sanctify the cause of learning and remove it from the realm of capitalist profiteering. And the will and ability to bring about that metamorphosis lies yet again with the young populace at large. You can lead the charge – Gerontocracies* are as bound for oblivion as picture tube televisions.

So, to the Class of 2020 (and to the intrepid adult scholars) i say: don’t be afraid to break with tradition. No equitable, ethical system meant to provide the inalienable right to education is meant to encumber you in your pursuit of joy, health and prosperity. Put on your digital super hero mantles and go against the grain, because you triumphantly can. Embrace the hallowed halls of your public libraries, your homes and your neighbourhood coffee shops and learn. And maybe, in a couple of generations, mercenary educational institutions would be as offensive a concept as ethnic bias and colonialism.

I leave you with these words from Mahatma Gandhi: Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.

De Khudai pe aman.

*ISP: Internet Service Provider

*Gerontocracy: a society where the young do as the old say.

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