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Why I won’t write about Pakistani politics

January 23, 2012

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.