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Why I won’t write about Pakistani politics


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Even as a neophyte in journalistic writing I have been asked why I don’t write about this or that specific political issue. My answer typically is that in Pakistan politics is a sport and cricket is a religion, and I am not much of a sports commentator neither a religious exegete. Of course we have an ample supply of very able ones in the profession, so why should I further crowd up the field?

But seriously, I guess everything I do, from teaching, research, writing to even everyday living including personal relationships, I would like to believe is pervaded by politics — defined differently. I mean politics as the world view and a practice that involves empathy, thinking about collective challenges, staking out intellectual positions, and then directing actively engaging socially in the service of those positions.

It is just that in the case of Pakistan, the drawing room and journalistic political discussion is about personalities and almost never about issues or positions. That personalities stand in as surrogates for political ideologies is not unusual. Any political debate in Pakistan, however, does not stick to the merits of a political position or manifesto for the society, but instead inexorably descends into a discussion about the relative virtues of the personalities that are the avatars of assorted political visions.

Take the example of middle class angst and its articulation and impersonation in Imran Khan. He will save Pakistan. He is honest. He is better than the lot. Not that his ideas are better than others’ or that Tehrik-e-Insaf’s manifesto is good for Pakistan.

Or take the discussion about the Sharif brothers or President Zardari. The discussion is never about the political positions they represent but rather about their personal standards of rectitude or the lack thereof. If Nawaz Sharif reportedly had amorous ambitions towards a western journalist, that is a sure sign of his unsuitability as a leader.

Will there be a coup or not a coup? I don’t know, I have never met President Zardari, Prime Minister Gilani or General Kiyani. I don’t know how their brains function, or what their fears and ambitions are. The point is that the way the public and the political commentators go off in the media, I suspect that they have a better grasp of human psychology than I do. Being a social scientist I stick to what I know best — thinking about ideas, social trends and the collective energy that propels our country and society.

In my work and research I have found the extraordinary stories of the ordinary people of Pakistan the real inspiration and something worth talking about. I would like to talk about the courage of the residents of Killi Pesha Morezai, tehsil Muslim Bagh, District Pishin, Balochistan who welcomed my research team in their midst after I had been chased out of 12 villages in the tehsil by the Taliban. They welcomed my female enumerators despite the threats of the Taliban because they did not want to cede control of their lives to the Taliban. For me, they are the real bulwarks against extremism.

It is also the resourcefulness of the women in the slums of Rawalpindi, almost all of whose men were either heroin addicts or unemployed — that is the real economic story for me. One woman would make 500 plastic bags a day to get food for her children. Others would work as quilt makers to put their five children through school. There is the real contribution to the economy of Pakistan not the University of Chicago economic drivel espoused by our economic pundits. As the inimitable Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi helpfully points out and I humbly translate here:

“All the characters that emerge as central, secondary or minor [in the stories I tell] are in a general sense quite ordinary and unremarkable in terms of social status, and therefore merit the [readers’] patience and indulgence. I have seen, understood, explored and loved life through such people’s perspectives. Call it my misfortune, but every successful or big person I have seen closely, I have found to be incomplete, devious, and unidimensional.

A sage once said that the profligacy with which God has created ordinary people must mean that He takes special pleasure in creating them, otherwise why would He create so many — and has kept creating them for millenia on end? When we start liking and loving these [ordinary people] we will know that we have found ourselves. This is a tale of such ordinary people. Their Alif Laila (Arabian nights) won’t end in even one thousand and one nights.”

I aspire to tell tales from and about that Alif Laila.

Daanish Mustafa is a Reader in Politics and Environment at the Department of Geography King’s College, London. He has seen the world but still maintains that makki ki roti with mustard greens, butter and lassi on a hot summer afternoon is the greatest pleasure in life. He can be reached at

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (18) Closed

Ahmar Qureshi Jan 31, 2012 12:31pm
Dear Daanish, You wont write about, but you did so! :-D Your article is well articulated lexically vis-a-vis highlighter to multiple issues! Reader could be in a prima-facie that you'd really like to write about Policitcs, but a Silent Warrior! Great Work dost! :-)
Bilal Kayani Jan 31, 2012 01:51pm
A good article, but just one point I would like to opine on: "Any political debate in Pakistan, however, does not stick to the merits of a political position or manifesto for the society, but instead inexorably descends into a discussion about the relative virtues of the personalities that are the avatars of assorted political visions." I agree it should not be like this in an ideal world. But comparing manifestos is useless if you don't believe they will ever be implemented. First we need to find and develop leaders who have the right intentions and are honest - because until they are just that, their words (and their ideas) are meaningless. Only once we know we are listening to people who actually mean what they say, can we start comparing different manifestos and arguing over which method is better - first we need to find someone who means what he says
Suraj Jan 31, 2012 02:00pm
One line caught my eye in the entire story. Why should a quilt maker have five children - isnt it the reason for the growing rich poor divide - isnt it because the poor produce more poor people than the rich produce rich.
Khurram Jan 31, 2012 02:50pm
Dear quite nice writing. Keep it up.
Akhlesh Jan 31, 2012 03:44pm
For the poor, more children are not necessarily more mouths to food but more hands to work and earn money for the family.
Umer Jan 31, 2012 05:05pm
vry true picture taken by mr.danish
Muhammad Kashif Jan 31, 2012 06:18pm
Good piece of writing, writer has smartly given the central place to the ordinary people of Pakistan as compare to well-known figures in the country believing that it must be the order of the political agenda in the poor country for everyone and he seems to be more focused on idea generation rather than personality generation because there is no shortage of personalities and leaders in the country but rather we are short of ideas to change the system that could lead us towards the survival. I think its a good start for writer, he must be more focused on the special stories of the common Pakistanis in order to create an environment for poor people where both ideas and leaders should be from poverty in order to better serve the poor people of this country who are materially poor but very rich in intelligence, heritage, culture and in other aspects of the life
khalid saeed Jan 31, 2012 06:38pm
and remember, more hands in poor man family mean also possible enhanced security in late part of life
karim Jan 31, 2012 07:12pm
You are right. Nobody wants to talk about issues. Even in political parties people always defend their leaders. They have no clue what they are talking about. Our leaders are not worth talking about.
Agha Ata Jan 31, 2012 07:23pm
True. The ordinary people are the most extraordinary people! That is also true that a woman may not know what kind of relationship there are between China and Europe, and she may not know the importance of NUKES in the context of defense of Pakistan, but ... she can feed her children, no matter what, with the sheer power of her precise focus and concentration; MEN, on the other hand spread themselves too thin.
Solomon2 Jan 31, 2012 09:25pm
Very educational. You've given me a lot to think about.
Kdspirited Jan 31, 2012 09:54pm
Danish I appreciate your spirit and your resolve to write about the ordinary people of Pakstan. But why be selective. Dont just write about what the poor are doing to get by. You should instead focus on the solution on how to improve their lives. If you are going to reach out to these people open the doors to their lives then also try and bring some stability to them. Its all about connecting the dots. Also not to marginalise our politics in anyway. The way to bring prosperity to our people is not through Micro economics but throgh Macro. The decision to improve the country lies in the hands of our Government and the right people at its helm will bring prosperity that will trickle down to our people. The precise misfortune of our nation is that our people are too tied down by the daily vows of providing for their 5 children they have no interest in their own future vis-a-vis their nation. They are just surviving
Mohammad Jan 31, 2012 10:18pm
Keep writing, Daanish! Your article resonates with most of people. One thing bugs me when media gives too much coverage to politicians and ignores the ordinary people-the ones who have worth-telling stories. Another thing which is missing from Pakistani media, they tell... they don't show. Don't tell me, show me. Articles and stories are very structured. Mohammad Seattle
Pankaj Bose Jan 31, 2012 11:20pm
How is security possible in later life when you dont have the resources to give the children basic facilities to succeed in life. All of them will be making quilts for generations to come.
Nasah (USA) Feb 01, 2012 01:06am
But you just did.
STH Feb 01, 2012 07:02am
You both believe in quantity and not quality. So many children with no education so no brainwork but only handwork or handiwork. Where in the world there is so much hand work. So you want poverty to multiply with that more feuds and infightings. Please think correctly
Arim Feb 01, 2012 01:20pm
Well done Danish Mustafa. Yours is a unique blog. Different but better than other on Dawn (and other media groups).
Allahdino Channa Feb 01, 2012 03:31pm
Extremely well written article. Hats off Danish Mustafa. Well done, keep it up. The crux is "... political discussion is about personalities and almost never about issues or positions." Our media sensationalise every issue, irrespective of its consequences on persons and society.