They lasted five minutes: a series of surreal, random insights while on the road and route from my mother’s house to my own. They began just a few seconds after I sat in my car and slowly pressed on the accelerator.
I soon slowed down so I could navigate my car around an ominous looking puddle of dirty water that had spilled from a choked gutter onto an already crumbling road.
Understandably disgusted, my eyes instinctively tried to search for a more pleasant sight. My face turned right and I saw a religious inscription on a wall. I didn’t understand what it meant because it was in Arabic.
The face and eyes now turned left and caught the sight of three burqa clad women trying to find a passage around the dirty puddle. Within a matter of seconds these images came together as one quick and fleeting surreal Polaroid shot in my mind.
Crumbling road, overflowing gutter, burqa clad women restrictively hip-hopping around the filthy water, and a holy inscription scribbled across a wall.
I didn’t know what to make of it, really. A snapshot symbolically capturing the existential angst Pakistan society is quivering in; especially in matters of ethics, identity and morality?
The burqa clad women may have been successful in deflecting the namehram stares of unrelated men, but maybe wondered what kind of divinely sanctioned attire and ‘protection’ was required to ward off the possibility of unholy gutter water from touching their sandals and burqas.
The religious inscription on the wall clearly did not help. And anyway, merely a few feet on the right side of the inscription sat a garbage dump.
‘Religious sense’ had triumphed over basic civic sense. Nobody was really bothered by the fact that perhaps both could actually be one and the same.
So as I drove on and then stopped at a traffic signal I quietly asked myself: was the religious inscription, so painstakingly painted over that wall, a reaction to the garbage dump and the overflowing gutter? As if the dirty water and the dump would then consequently vanish?
Or was it a micro-example of a rather macro occurrence in the Islamic Republic: that is, every time economic, political or social problems and fissures start to bulge out into the open from underneath that convenient carpet of incompetency, the easiest way in the Republic to pacify a concerned populace is to evoke faith.
Give them nice, feel-good lectures about the fruits of the hereafter and how the Almighty has chosen them and them alone for the honours to enter paradise; respond to their economic and civic woes by producing huge billboards with beautiful calligraphic verses from the holy book.
Pat them into submission, as if suggesting, why do you care about electricity shortage, unemployment, broken roads, crime, garbage dumps and corruption. Do not think about the here. Think about the hereafter.
Well, I now prepared to accelerate the car once the traffic signal turned green. But not before I was mildly pulled back a bit by a bearded young man on a motorbike which zoomed across and in front of me, breaking his side of the signal. Late for prayers, I thought.
I was assuming this, of course. But I was once told by a traffic sergeant that this is what a lot of motorists and bikers usually said after he caught them breaking a signal: ‘I was late for prayers.’
So you see it’s not only reactionary military dictators or wily politicians who exploit and use religion to meet their ends; a common biker or a motorist is quite capable of doing the same. When in trouble or caught breaking the law, evoke God. It always works in the Republic.
And anyway, it’s perfectly fine to break ‘secular’ man-made laws to do God’s good works, no? I mean, what have religious dictates to do with civic rules? I turned right from the signal on the road leading to my house.
Within a minute or two I reached the roundabout near which my humble abode stands and on the left of which begins a road that directly leads to one of Karachi’s most posh areas, the DHA.
A little unknowing glance at the said road triggered the recent memory of a news item that had appeared in an English daily.
The administration of DHA had floated a memo to the healthy, wealthy residents of the area informing them that DHA authorities would not allow the residents to hold any ‘dance parties.’
The notice, however (and of course), made it clear that religious gatherings (like dars and milads) were entirely allowed.
As I reached home and was in the process of parking my car in the building’s compound, I realised, wow! What a coup. No, not by a military tyrant or a manipulative political maulvi, but (since it was the DHA), by rich aunties! Or what I decided call the Farhat Hashmi Begum Brigade.
Unable to do anything worthwhile about the rising cases of street theft and burglaries in the area, the DHA authorities had cleverly decided to do the next best thing: give the paranoid aunties a morally-pop (a figurative lollipop laced with synthetic, sugary morality).
Many of such aunties were/are some of high-flying evangelist Farhat Hashmi’s leading and most generous clients.
Thus, if so-called ‘dance parties’ in DHA were these aunties’ gutter water and they were the more decked-up, posh equivalents of the petty-bourgeois burqa women that I encountered earlier, then DHA’s action in this regard was like that religious inscription on the wall near the garbage dump.
The economics of the theme had changed, but the basic dynamics of the matter hadn’t. Hide your incompetence and hypocrisies behind an elaborate façade and then call it faith. People will fall for it. Pakistanis always do.
Pile on the garbage, let the gutter waters spill; ban dance parties and let dictators, politicians, televangelists, judges and maulvies make a mockery of morality.
People might react. But just take the Almighty’s name (in utter vain) and they’ll stop in their tracks.