The State of the Union
Nadia Rahman Khan
My impending departure from Pakistan, coupled with the nation’s 62nd independence anniversary is making me feel like a deserter. The past year I spent in my country brought upon me the most fragmented states of mind. It constantly felt like an acid trip that had gone on too long; or a badly scripted film with far too many anti-climaxes. In a severe paradigm shift from when I was studying abroad, I’ve spent the year desperately wishing I could leave the country I didn’t recognize as mine anymore.
I came back to Pakistan with a starry optimism to finally be involved in the polities of my country, as opposed to watching the action- so to speak, from the bleachers. It hadn’t been a Knicks game. Nor did my cheering, or hooting, or disapproving from the sidelines help shape, in any way, the course of events in the past few years. I felt like a member of the chorus, watching a Greek play unfold, and narrating its tragic events to the audience; in this case, my English and Welsh friends who couldn’t relate. That’s the second thing that I was looking forward to coming back to: familiarity with those around me of things happening around us. There was only so much my hippie friends studying English literature and enacting plays about Alice’s discovery of her secret and carnal desires during her adventures underground, could understand about the Lal Masjid scenario. I needed to be home, and around people who were living in this banana republic, and facing the issues our government was forcing them to confront.
What I didn’t know was that my homecoming would function as the prologue to severe nationalistic angst. Since last September, I’ve watched my beloved Islamabad change from the suburban, laid-back Capital it used to be to a heavily guarded, regulated Camelot-like (less glamorous though, and the ‘Piplias’ are no honorable knights of the round table) city with internal fortresses. All embassies, and UN buildings have massive concrete blocks in front of them- smack in the middle of the city; serving more as eye-sore against the backdrop of the glorious Margalla Hills – It’s disgusting- as are the security check-points on every single street, road, and intersection. And dangerous, too; imagine: you’ve memorized out of habit, every slight dip and low of Margallah road; you can drive from one end to the other with your eyes closed, only, now- after every few kilometers, there are blockades, and traffic flowing every which way, on a one way road. As if we didn’t have enough bad drivers in the country already that we now need to test their driving ability with real-life security hazards, which function more against their physical well-being than protect them from any terror threat. By now, I should be an ace driver, capable of expertly avoiding the new low, yellow and black striped cement blocks which crop up after every twenty-odd feet. Sadly, I’m not. And like several others I know, I’ve rammed my car into far too many of these road blocks put up for my own security. Legal action for damage to property caused by the Islamabad traffic police, anyone? I don’t think so.
Fear and Loathing, minus the bats, in Islamabad. Fear, because all of a sudden, Islamabad isn’t the safe, diplomatic, bureaucratic neighborhood it once used to be. It is a city where now, every other car has a bunch of fairly dangerous looking passengers. Not that I’m saying they’re all representatives of extremist Islamic elements. But that this is something you didn’t see before. You saw froebelian boys in their uniforms bunking school and heading to Rana Market for some samosas on foot, but never hordes of bearded men in shalwar kameez walking the streets of my city, like they own it. Islamabad is now also a city where my colleague and I, on one of our trips to Adiala jail, were accosted by about 15 Burqa-clad women who threatened to beat my counter-part (who was dressed in a shalwar kameez, with her dupatta on her shoulder as opposed to her head) till all Indian notions of dress were taken out of her, and she learned to cover her head. Ironic, because these were all women who were visiting their sons or husbands on death row, which inevitably meant that their relatives had done something far worse than my colleague had by not covering her head. And loathing; loathing because Islamabad never used to be like this, and I hate what it’s become. And because it scares me to think what’s next.
Pakistan is also a country which is currently led by what Fatima Bhutto in one of her writings, describes, and quite aptly too- as ‘the thievery corporation’. Richest man in Babylon substituted for Mr. 10% in Pakistan. In a cringe-worthy Independence Day celebration at the Presidency on the night of 13th August, we saw the President of our corporation—no, country, bearing a heart-shaped green and white badge positioned on his own black heart- umm sorry; I meant sherwani. He stood there flanked by his son and daughter, waving a Pakistani flag. This was our President’s way of reminding us onlookers who, or what political dynasty, his presence in the presidential seat represents. Another one of his reminders is far more nausea inducing: Instead of putting up national flags furthering the patriotic sentiment in Pakistanis, my capital city of Islamabad has a sky that cant be seen as it’s blocked by PPP flags; a fluttering representation of a mockery of a government.
Barring unconditional love for what is one’s own, over the course of the past year, I began viewing Pakistan as a country which has far too much wrong with it. It’s a country which has over 7000 prisoners on the Pakistani death row; and the crimes for which this noxious penalty can be afforded- a whopping 27 in number. They range from murder and rape on one end of the spectrum, to the most recent, i.e. cyber crimes on the other end. Truly ridiculous in the face of international law which heavily propagates the abolition of the death penalty or insists that its existence should only be limited to the ‘most severe crimes’.
Through the course of my work, I’ve come to view Pakistan as a country where justice can do extraordinary things, such as when two innocent British Nationals of Pakistani origin came to Pakistan for summer break to visit family, they were picked up by the local police, tossed into a holding cell in a police station, and thrashed senselessly till they admitted to a crime they didn’t commit. This is what happened with Naheem and Rehan, two young boys who were both tortured for 15-18 days in Dadyal police station, after which they were threatened of further physical violence unless they signed a piece of paper. Neither of the two could read Urdu, and so had no idea that what they were signing to was a confession of committing two murders; murders, for which they are awaiting trial five years on from the date of their arrest. Naheem and Rehan, like the other over 7000 prisoners on the Pakistani death row, deserve a fair and immediate trial. But one look at their court records tells you that they’re getting anything but that. Its one delay after another, one adjournment after the next. The prisoner, after weeks of anticipation, walks into court, only to be looked at by the judge and told, before he can even have a seat, that his hearing won’t take place that week because of one rubbish reason or the other. If it isn’t the lawyer’s mother falling sick, then it’s the judge who can’t appear because he has a stomach ache. It’s heart-wrenching and so, so frustrating for me to be hearing this from the prisoners, or on reading it from their court records; imagine what it must be like for them living this torment week in and week out.
It isn’t just Naheem and Rehan. There are- as I said, thousands of prisoners, many of them innocent, languishing in prisons around the country for crimes a lot of them did not commit. Or crimes they committed, but only if they had proper legal representation, they would have defended.
Like Dr. Zufiqar Ali Khan. This is a man who, since his incarceration eleven years ago for a crime he committed in self defense, has successfully completed 33 Diplomas, Certificates and Degrees. He has also educated hundreds of prisoners. From these hundreds, he tutored 12 of his students in jail to earn a graduation degree, 23 to pass their F.A. exams, and 18 to complete their matriculation. If this man pleads the President of his country, in his open letter to him published in The News on the 1st of April 2009, to invoke the power given to him under article 45 of the Constitution and change his death sentence to one of life imprisonment so he can devote his life to educating other prisoners, one can only wonder why the President wouldn’t comply.
While I was assisting Dr. Zulfiqar’s brilliant lawyer in her attempt to grant him redemption from his then impending date of execution, we went to meet a top government official in his office; an office which served better purpose as a photographic gallery for the martyred Benazir Bhutto and her husband’s framed portraits. We were treated exceptionally well by this gentleman who, looked at us- two lawyers, with fatherly concern and blasted the lawyer’s movement. He also told us to stop the work we’re doing and become journalists instead (now you see where the inspiration for this piece is coming from). In relation to our case, we were told that our only hope of keeping Dr Zulfiqar, our client, alive, was to pray that Asif Ali Zardari stays in power. Because till the time he does, he will not allow any executions to take place. Sure. I believe you. Firstly, there have been executions since he’s come into power- four of them, actually, as recorded by the Asian Human Rights Commission. Secondly, if President Zardari wishes to stay true to the spirit of the Pakistan People’s Party, he should, as both- Zulifqar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto did upon coming to power, commute all death sentences to life sentences. If President Zardari is attempting to continue Benazir and her father’s legacy, then why not follow their legacy here too, instead of hiding behind the suo moto action against the death penalty which may or may not work in the Supreme Court? I don’t get it.
I kept hoping that this independence day, through some miracle, the President would announce a commutation, granting liberation from the gallows to these prisoners. But he didn’t. Instead, he had photographs of himself taken and published while puckering up to kiss the cheeks of an internally displaced orphan; a child who looked repulsed by the Presidential moustache’s intimate plunge.
It scares me to think that this is my country. A Taliban infested, drone attacked, load shedding, bomb exploding, corruption ridden conundrum. And as the war in the north rages on, the Taliban continue to gain entry-points into other parts of Pakistan, whether by posing as IDPs, or by gaining support from a public jilted by the government. This is indeed, my country, where politicians are either defamed by CCTV tapes played back on national television of them committing credit card frauds, or by videos being released of them scratching their privates during the course of important discussions on live TV. It can only be Pakistan where the nation has to suffer 12 hours a day without electricity, and where an innocent 10 year old boy lost his right hand due to operating heavy machinery at work while the electricity suddenly went out, chopping his hand off, in the process.
What a travesty.
But then I drive past a check-post, a road block and the architectural nightmare that the UNICEF building in Islamabad is now, and I see Pakistani flags being sold on the streets, given that this is the month my country gained independence in- so optimistically, 62 years ago. And I see the relentless ambition in the people of this country, as despite all, they still don their green t-shirts on our independence day, and venture out shouting slogans with full faith and fervor, and help cause severe traffic jams, making any ambulance’s journey with a dying patient to the hospital next to impossible. The warm fuzzy feeling within is given birth.
And I see my packed suitcase, awaiting the flight out of here, and towards a post-graduate qualification which was once meant to be geared towards helping out the poor and the needy upon my return to Pakistan. But which- within the past year, came to be seen by me as just an escape route out of this country where I experienced more than a life’s share of explosions and power outages. And I can’t help but feel, as a said, like a deserter. And its this very feeling of running away from what was described, perhaps a little too pessimistically as a ‘failing state’- which gives birth to a belief, which I cant help but pray is a redundant one- but I know it isn’t- that I need this country far more than it needs me. And I know that regardless of its failings, Pakistan is all I’ve known. And being Pakistani is all I can be. Regardless of any attempt at discipline, I will still skip queues, criticize the leadership, harbor an inherent skepticism towards Indians, revere the scenic Northern Areas of Pakistan, hold relentless expectations from the Pakistani cricket team, embrace the enormous Pakistani talent of hospitality, still be blindly trusting of people and governments, and find refuge in Islamabadi sunsets, long drives on Margalla Road, Roll-parathas, and Coke Studio.
Being Muslim doesn’t bind us anymore, given the divides, divisions, and elements; but being Pakistani does. That’s all that’s familiar. Islamabad with its two way traffic on one way streets, and police on every corner peering into every car that drives past, is home.
That’s when the patriotic trip kicks in. It’s a downer.