Composite Illustration by Saad Arifi
Composite Illustration by Saad Arifi

These last three weeks have made several additions to the list of things this country needs saving from, threatening ‘the culture’ and its enthusiastic custodians.

First it was a women’s rights movement, their placards and their slogans, then two students getting engaged on a campus in Lahore, then TikTok, then TikTok again and finally an academic conference in Lums. Academia is definitely against our culture because who needs critical thought when you have the fifth largest nuclear arsenal in the world.

In the past too, the social fabric of Pakistan has remained chronically unwell, threatened on a weekly basis. It was almost destroyed by a Sarmad Khoosat film, a biscuit advertisement, a video game, online dating apps, Malala’s Nobel Prize, human rights organisations, NGOs and even the theme song to this year’s PSL cricket tournament.

There seem to be far fewer things that don’t threaten our social order, such as F-16s, ballistic missiles, blasphemy allegations and tax evasion — those are all fine. There’s a reason value-added or sales tax wasn’t mentioned in scripture, it’s an inherently immoral and sadistic tool of Western oppression; and only a social fabric built around thousands of dollars worth of military hardware is durable, resilient and not prone to destruction — it has to be, to survive the collateral damage.

As if things were not strange enough in the Land of the Pure, Pakistan became one big Zoom meeting of senility

Just this month, a Muslim evangelist from Jhelum survived a murder attempt over some things he said. He’d been preaching in his digital sermons that maybe we shouldn’t kill people over blasphemy, and the first thing someone did after hearing that was try to kill him over blasphemy. But at least it didn’t threaten our culture.

Meanwhile, Pakistan took a turn for the even more surreal when the Senate elections became more like the senile elections, with a group of people who forgot how to vote, who to vote for and where to go afterwards. The only thing missing from the coverage was a laugh track and some theme music.

Just a few hours before it all started, opposition members found so many cameras overlooking the secret ballot process it was like they were filming an episode of Big Brother in there. The National Stadium in Karachi doesn’t have this many cameras during televised cricket. I haven’t seen this many cameras at the Fujifilm shop in Lahore.

At this point the question isn’t who did put cameras in the parliament building, the question is, who didn’t. Everyone from the establishment, to the government, to the opposition, to the staff who run the building, to the first guy living at the end of Constitutional Avenue seemed to have cameras in there.

By the way some anchorpersons were explaining what really happened that Wednesday, it seemed they had cameras there too. Pakistani politics was now just one big Zoom meeting.

The rigorous debate that followed the cameras exposé was not, however, on positions of legality and ethics, but the much more important question of what kind of cameras they were. Government officials said they looked like CCTV cameras more than spy cameras. Police officials said there are no CCTV cameras in Islamabad, otherwise they’d have to process the missing persons kidnapping videos.

A minister tweeted that spy cameras don’t look like normal cameras, they are hidden in things that look like screws. And then someone in the Senate found a thing that looked like a screw. Then supporters of the government said that was just a normal, everyday screw. To which the opposition said we weren’t talking about Faisal Vawda.

Of course, the opposition couldn’t complain too much, because the film Room Full of Cameras had a prequel called Bags Full of Money; a senator’s son was captured offering to disburse funds to try and affect the election outcome too. And in the by-polls, a man — in what looked like a rubbery face-mask — was seen absconding with votes in favour of the incumbent government. But, at least he was being Covid careful.

It’s just been a really strange month for this country, and that’s saying something about a place where Amir Liaquat is on primetime television and our Interior/Railways/Cigar Minister habitually plays truant with the police on the back of a motorbike.

So how many senators does it take to change a light bulb? Well, now that we have cameras, we’ll find out soon enough, won’t we?

The writer is a medical adventurer who has almost died on three continents

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 28th, 2021

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