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DAWN - Features; October 12, 2008

October 12, 2008


About calling a spade a spade

By Hajrah Mumtaz

No surprise that the news coming out of Islamabad – and increasingly, other parts of the country – is not good. So why be shocked that we are now taking a leaf out of, of all things, Iraq’s book? According to recent news reports, the great and the good have agreed that a Green Zone is to be established in Islamabad, encompassing much of Constitution Avenue and the Diplomatic Enclave, including, reportedly, Serena Hotel and extending as far as Embassy Road.

A wall is to be built around the whole area. The common man – or as common a man as you can find in Islamabad – is to be virtually barred from setting foot into this exclusionist ‘safe zone’. The Green Zone is meant to insulate and protect not only the elected or otherwise appointed representatives of the people and institutions of the state such as the Presidency, Parliament and the Supreme Court, but also the employees of various foreign embassies, missions and spy circles that continue to take the risk of working in what has already been declared the most dangerous country in the world. And so it must indeed be, for one hears from reliable sources that after the recent UN decision on the levels of safety in Pakistan, the families of some foreign workers have been evacuated, of all places, to Kabul (!) for safety.

Given these circumstances, it is not inexplicable (justifiable being another matter altogether) that such a Green Zone, along the pattern of that established in Baghdad, has been deemed necessary. This is a country, after all, where – if we were in the habit of being able to call a spade a spade – we would acknowledge that a civil war is in progress, where increasingly, suicide bombers successfully target installations that are supposed to be heavily and adequately guarded, and where heavy security contingents are required to guard the one institution that has, for over six decades, been advertised as the very raison d’etre of the country: the mosque. That fact, in itself, should seriously disturb those who still have their heads buried in the sand vis-à-vis the state of the nation and the success of the great advertising campaign to sell Pakistan to its own citizens.

These trends are disturbing, but far more worrying are the subtexts implicit in decisions such as the establishment of the Green Zone and other exclusionist areas. Such areas are conceptualised with the basic assumption of an ‘us and them’ reality which is, needless to say, always a dangerous polarisation. The walls – be they around Constitution Avenue, the Diplomatic Enclave, the Supreme Court or around DHA – will protect ‘us’: the president, prime ministers and other holders of high political and bureaucratic office, the army top brass, the foreign workers and the diplomats, the rich and the powerful. The walls will protect ‘us’ against ‘them’, a group encompassing pretty much everyone who doesn’t fit into any of the categories mentioned in the previous sentence: the poor, the sick, the powerless, the daily wagers – in fact, the awam – and, of course, the bearded ideologues with murder in their hearts and paradise on their minds.

It is worth worrying when elected representatives of the people – the ones brought to power in the recent elections, the holders of public and bureaucratic office (who are called ‘civil servants’ with good reason: their job, in actuality, is to serve the civilian population) – become an ‘us’ and the very people for whom they are meant to be working become the ‘them’ from whom protection is needed. When the vast population of a country becomes an alienated ‘them’ that is to be avoided, the main conclusion to be drawn is that the rulers, as represented by the government and its functionaries, has begun to behave like a colonial power. (And, more’s the pity, the current elected government has inherited all the animosity that was created by all the governments that went before.)

This conclusion is, of course, no great revelation. Not only has much of Pakistan’s life been spent under actual, no-gloss-required martial law that has often been imposed unconstitutionally, the elites of the country have also traditionally behaved as an imposed imperialist force: the power vacuum left in the wake of the British withdrawal from the subcontinent was filled gladly and ably by the landed gentry, the feudal elites and the brown sahibs.

Given these circumstances, however, it is vital to consider the war going on in Swat, in Waziristan, in FATA and in a host of other places, with a view to giving it a label. Is it terrorism? An insurgency? A civil war? A rebellion or a revolution? Unfortunately for us, a dispassionate analysis may well indicate that what is happening is a civil war of sorts. It is not mere terrorism, bartering a man’s freedom for the release of a prisoner. It has now grown far larger, and runs far deeper. Regardless of the factors that brought matters to this pass – and they were myriad – the fact is that it is now the institutions and the symbols of the state that are under attack: army check-posts, police stations and personnel, the FIA office and the anti-terrorism headquarters, the Marriott and Luna Caprice where the elite and their perceived western cronies hung out. And while the ubiquitous ‘foreign elements’ are complicit in the perpetration of such well-planned attacks, the fact remains that the passions of these foreign elements were fomented to no little extent by earlier establishments and their handmaidens, from the ISI to the CIA. Heavens, even the ideological pretext under which they work – Islam and the Shariah – was formulated for them by these very colluders, who projected the proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan as ‘jihad’ and glorified mercenaries they had armed with the title of ‘muijahideen’. No wonder, then, that people such as Fazlullah out in Swat think that they are fighting God’s war!

But I digress . . . the fact is that when factions from amongst a citizenry rise up and actively target symbols and institutions of the state, what they are saying in effect is that the state is unacceptable, unwanted and isolated from the needs of the citizenry. And usually, such a movement is referred to as a civil war, a rebellion or a revolution. We don’t have to go far for examples: forget the FLN in Algeria, the Falintil in East Timor or the Cuban Revolution. We’ve been though all this, back in 1947. As historians say, the point of view taken by history – where its sympathies lie – depends upon who is doing the writing. Was the 1857 conflict a war of independence, or a mutiny? It depends on who is doing the talking.


Jamal’s complete works launched

By Peerzada Salman

Ignore the mind-numbing absurdities of Pakistani politics. Switch off your TV sets to shield yourself from the verbal dingdong of partisan news anchors and their popularity-craving guests. If you really want to know how you can hold a mirror up to nature, read Urdu poetry. Jamal Ehsani’s poetry at that!

It’s been a decade since Jamal Ehsani breathed his last. Yet, like Elizabethan drama plots and Mona Lisa’s smile, students of literature find his ghazals contextually multilayered and technically startling every time they go through them. On Oct 10, 2008 Jamal Ehsani’s complete works (Kulliyaat-i-Jamal), a collection of three of his fascinating books – Sitara-i-Safar, Raat Ke Jaagey Huay and Taare Ko Mehtab Kia -- were launched at the Arts Council Karachi. Taare Ko Mehtab Kia was published posthumously.

Former information secretary Yousuf Jamal presided over the function while poet and critic Sahar Ansari was chief guest. Others who spoke on the occasion were Jamal’s friend Mohammad Ahmed Shah, artist Shahid Rassam, Khawaja Jaffer Raza and poetess Dr Fatima Hasan. Jamal Ehsani’s eldest son Ali Azar was also on the dais.

The marked feature of the book launch ceremony was Shahid Rassam’s astounding essay on Jamal Ehsani. The way Shahid – known for his brush-wielding ability all across the globe – described his association with the poet and the manner in which he narrated anecdotes from the time when he and Jamal used to work together and were going through a torrid financial period, was a piece of art unto itself. While recounting one such incident Shahid had a lump in his throat and his voice trailed off, which made a few eyes teary.

Shahid remembered the days when Jamal Ehsani and Jaun Elia would stay at the roof of his rather incommodious house in Korangi for hours, discussing vagaries of life in their inimitable, witty styles. One would like Shahid Rassam to publish his paper for the benefit of all literary aficionados.

Khawaja Jaffar Raza spoke on Jamal Ehsani’s link to his ancestral town of Panipat, which inculcated in the poet a certain spiritual sense.

Ahmed Shah shed light on certain personal aspects of the poet’s life.

Sahar Ansari spoke on the semantic facet to Jamal Ehsani’s ghazals, and then touched upon the remarkable onomatopoeic quality in some of his couplets. He said it wasn’t just personal predicament that made his poetry poignant, but also an insightful collective social sense that distinguished him from his contemporaries.

Ye shehr apney hareefon se hara thori hai

Ye baat sub pe magar aashkara thori hai

(This city hasn’t surrendered to its foes/

But this not many a man knows)

Yousuf Jamal talked about the days when he interviewed Jamal Ehsani for a job in the information department, and how his creative self endeared him in Yousuf’s eyes. He said at the age of 27 Jamal wrote couplets that could be bracketed with verses written by some of the greatest Urdu poets. To give cogency to his argument he quoted the following two lines:

Charasazon mein thi ik chashm-i-nadamat asaar

Ye maseehaon mein beemaar kaha(n) se nikla

(Among problem-solvers there was a sullen face/ A disease-stricken amidst messiahs?)

Dr Fatima Hasan conducted the entire event quite aptly. It was her heartfelt efforts that made the book launch a success.