NON-FICTION: THE QUARANTINE OF THE HAZARAS

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Hazara children at school in the enclave of Hazara Town 
in Quetta | AFP
Hazara children at school in the enclave of Hazara Town in Quetta | AFP

The extreme social difficulties resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic remind me of Quetta’s Hazara community, who have been living their lives for over a decade within two isolated and ghettoised towns of the city called Alamdar Road and Hazara Town.

Other than other members of their own community, most have no truck with them. If anybody from the community should step out of his/her enclave, he/she would have to wear a mask, glasses and a cap, so that they may conceal their mongoloid facial features for the sole purpose of not being recognised as Hazaras, for security reasons. Hazaras have, of course, been the target of multiple terrorist attacks over the past decade and a half. This is one of the reasons that community members from the two towns are hardly able to interact with each another, as Alamdar Road and Hazara Town are cloistered at the extreme eastern and western ends of the city of Quetta.

Ordinary Hazaras feel vulnerable all the time, anywhere in the city. Over the years, the situation has deteriorated to the extent of pushing them to the wall. Their education, businesses, properties and means of economic gain have been adversely affected by the sectarian violence raging through the province of Balochistan. Beyond the recent temporary peace in the city, Hazaras have lived in constant fear and isolation. Many cities of the world are only now experiencing a new struggle with isolation because of the pandemic lockdowns, but the Hazaras have lived a similar situation for years. Forget coming outside, they are afraid for their lives even within their own ghettoised towns. This is why, in the era of the coronavirus, I am reminded of the term ‘quarantined’ while reading Hazara Urdu writer Hasan Riza Changezai’s Qissa Haaey Natamaam [Unfinished Stories] on the persecution of his beleaguered community.

Changezai’s book is a collection of articles, most of which he has written on members of his community. I was introduced to the author through his writings on Dawn’s Urdu news portal, to which he would regularly contribute. At the time, maverick journalist Musadiq Sanwal, who passed away in 2014, was the editor of Dawn.com. Writing in his book, Changezai notes that

Sanwal once advised him: “Since for a long time Hazaras are being killed, so why don’t you write on this topic?” Changezai took the advice seriously, and the result is this book.

Like many new writers, Changezai was fond of using very difficult words and it was in such language that he wrote ‘Sultan Rahi Ka Pakistan’ [Sultan Rahi’s Pakistan] in which he associated everyone in the country — from the rulers and politicians to the common man — to Rahi’s 1996 film Zamana 420. According to Changezai, it was as though Rahi’s film were being played out in real life everywhere in Pakistan. Although Sanwal published it, Changezai recalls Sanwal’s comments in his book: “Our new generation has grown up watching Indian films. They do not understand difficult and un-understandable words. If you want to convey your message, you have to speak to them in their language.” Since then, Changezai has toned down the formidable language and now most of his writing has become much easier to grasp.

In one of the first articles in the book, Changezai is in conversation with his 12-year-old daughter. The child has entangled her father in questions to which he knows the answers, but cannot share with her. Maybe he is afraid the answers may make her uncomfortable, or maybe he feels she will come to an understanding herself as she grows older. He writes, “After lunch, I asked my daughter why she is in such a state of despair. She told me that today, two people were targeted and killed while on their way to their offices. One of them was the father of my friend with whom I go to school in the same vehicle. Today, she went home crying.” Then she goes on to ask Changezai, “Abbu, why do they keep killing us these days?”

Changezai is disabled. He spends most of his time at his tiny house on Alamdar Road. Through his writings in the book, one can feel his pain for his community, city and the province. He believes, with all his heart, that Quetta is not the same Quetta he has lived in since his own childhood and boyhood, where there was harmony, peace and pluralism in the city, despite the fact that seeds of sectarianism and religious fundamentalism were being sown in the country at the time. But he points out there was hardly any Shia-Sunni division amongst the locals of Quetta. In this context, Changezai recalls, “none was concerned who was a Shia or Sunni, nor would we discuss those topics with our Sunni friends.”

At the time, Quetta’s peace was linked to the overall developments in the region. During those days, in 1977, former dictator Gen Ziaul Haq had come into power through a military coup d’état. In 1979, political developments also took place in Pakistan’s neighbouring countries of Afghanistan and Iran — the former Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, which brought jihadist forces from all over the world into Afghanistan to further the United States’s interests.

As for Iran, in 1979, Shia mullahs had taken power after a revolution had dethroned the reigning Shah. After this, Iran wanted to export its Shia revolution to Pakistan. These developments — among other things — transformed the landscape of the entire region, including Quetta, which fell into the grip of sectarianism and religious fundamentalism in the form of terrorism. Changezai sums this up in his book, writing that, in Quetta today, there is not a single Hazara who has not shouldered the coffin of a friend, relative, or loved one who has fallen prey to terrorism.

Changezai is well aware of the issues his community is confronted with, but his book, unfortunately, lacks research. He could have written a very well-informed book because who else could be more knowledgeable about the Hazara community than the writer himself? However, he does take a balanced approach, choosing not to pick sides. He equally laments Shia extremism and the contribution of the Shia state of Iran towards it, which he could have expanded upon. Perhaps because of this fact, Changezai has titled his book the way he has, acknowledging that his stories are incomplete.

Like the Hazaras, other vulnerable groups of the world have faced similar uncertainties at the hands of their killers, which the whole world is facing now in the shape of Covid-19. Because of the fear created by this virus, people are compelled to wear masks, restrict their movements and remain confined to their homes. Everyone is afraid of others as the potential cause of transmitting the virus, so much so that they would readily move house and home away from virus-hit localities. Despite that, the threat remains imminent and intact.

Changezai’s book is a reminder to all those who remain unbothered about a particular community under constant persecution, about how such a fate is never far off for other communities either. Besides relating the stories of the Hazaras, he also highlights and criticises the ill-conceived policies of the state that have brought Pakistan to the verge of destruction. While scientists may be successful, sooner or later, in developing a vaccine to defeat Covid-19, it is also worth wondering whether the states of the world can develop a vaccine to protect their own vulnerable communities, like that of the Hazaras, from their governments’ own ill-conceived policies?

The reviewer is a member of staff

Qissa Haaey Natamaam
By Hasan Riza Changezai
Sanjh, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9695933084
165pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 17th, 2020