Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Smokers’ Corner: No country for old men

Published Dec 16, 2012 12:18am


Your Name:

Recipient Email:

I don’t just read books. I devour them. One of my favorite things to do even while I’m travelling is to spend hours on end in book stores. And yet, till only recently I had never visited the annual Karachi International Book Fair.

It’s an event that has been taking place for the past eight years and has grown in size and scope with each passing year. All leading publishing houses in the country along with those from India, Turkey, Iran and Bangladesh have continued to participate in the event.

But why did I continue to ignore it? I thought about this a lot and the only convincing answer I kept coming up with, was that instinctively I knew there was nothing special about the fair and that I would be disappointed.

Now that’s a major concern for a person like me. I actually get depressed at book stores where inspite of spending hours browsing across section after section of books, I come out empty handed.

Well, despite my instinctive misgivings about an event that I had never been to, I decided to finally go. And, boy was I stunned! No, I wasn’t gleefully and euphorically swept away by a tidal wave of books of all shapes and sizes.

Instead, my senses were bombarded by the kind of loud religiosity I had last encountered while doing a newspaper feature on the Tableeghi Jamaat in Raiwind back in the early 1990s.

As I entered one (of the three) main halls where the fair was being held, I was instantly swept in by a sea of (urban middle-class) humanity, largely made up of women in jet black abayas, men with long, curly beards, and kids. Very noisy kids.

Sure, nothing wrong with that (as such). But as I tried to make my way through this very pious looking crowd, the deafening PA system suddenly came alive with some guy shouting about how Pakistan was created in the name of Islam and then went on to literally scream: ‘Pakistan ka matlab kya… ? (What is the meaning of Pakistan?).

His rhetorical (and very loudly put) question was answered by what sounded like a bunch of kids about to storm an infidel’s castle: ‘Lailahaillalah!’ Answered the kids.

This went on and on and on, until I decided to check out where the chanting was coming from.

It was emerging (like a hurricane of disembodied voices) from huge amplifiers set-up at a big ‘book stall’ run by a religious publishing house.

There was this huge bearded man with a microphone addressing a group of cute little kids (with their abaya-clad moms).

He wasn’t just selling them books. He was selling them an ideology.

‘Pakistan ka matlab kya …?’ He bellowed. ‘Laillahaillalah!’ Answered the kids in unison, but without ever letting go of their lollipops, popcorn and packs of fruit juice.

I looked around to see if anyone else was as flabbergasted by this as I was. I found none.

And how could I? I finally realised that more than 70 per cent of the book stalls in this large hall were owned and run by publishers that only offered religious literature.

But wait a minute. It wasn’t as simple as that.

As I turned away shocked by looking at more than a dozen young kids mindlessly mouthing what some seriously warped elders of theirs had told them to, I came face-to-face with yet another bearded fellow who shoved two A-4 size glossy pamphlets in my face.

‘Take!’ He said. So I took. A casual, confused glance at the glossies told me they belonged to yet another religious publishing house. But that’s all I could understand because most of the pamphlets were in Arabic!

So, without taking names here, I must tell that the guy shouting in the microphone was representing a ‘publishing house’ associated with outfits advocating one particular sunni Muslim school of thought while the one who had handed me the pamphlets was representing another sunni sub-sect.

The Pandora’s box was now wide open. Stall upon stall that I passed had mountains of books, all on Islam, or rather, the Islam according to the stalls’ particular sub-sect and denomination.

A friend cynically said about the event, “There were 72 sects there, all trying to convert Pakistani Muslims to their particular strain of Islam.”

Baffled by what looked more like a recruiting ground for all kinds of Islamic evangelical outfits than a book fair, I frantically began to look for non-Pakistani stalls. And voila! I found one belonging to a Turkish publisher.

Ah, I thought. Good old secular Turkey. But, alas, it was Pakistan that the fair was being held in. But all that this particular stall carried was literature by Turkish Islamic author, Fetullah Gullen.

So amidst the loud chanting of aggressive sloganeering over the PA, abayas, beards and book after book after book claiming to contain the ‘true essence of Islam,’ (for mama, papa, Bablu and Baby), I loped out to check the other two halls.

Though things were a bit quieter here, but here too, the majority of the stalls were piled up with books, DVDs and CDs about Islam for men, women, boys, girls, kids, old people, bankers, economists, wives, husbands and more wives…

I finally came to three stalls that had nothing to do with faith. Or rather they had more than just books about how to become a ‘true Muslim.’

The tiniest of these was a stall selling books on MQM chief Altaf Hussain. I moved on because I had already read most of the stuff that they were selling.

Next was a stall run by a Sindhi publishing house. Impressive stuff on Sindhi culture, politics, art and the poetry of Shah Latif was on display. But unfortunately, most of it was in Sindhi.

The third was an impressive stall run by ABC Publishers and Random House.

These guys too had a religious section (who wouldn’t in Pakistan), finally, I could look at books on politics, music, philosophy and history as well.

Forget about secular space in Pakistan. It vanished a long time ago. This book fair proves that now even neutral space too is becoming a rarity.

Also, never underestimate the myth of subliminal messaging. Guess which book I did end up buying at the fair: Islam in South-East Asia.


Your Name:

Recipient Email:

Author Image

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and He is also the author of two books on the social history of Pakistan, End of the Past and The Pakistan Anti-Hero.

He tweets @NadeemfParacha

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

Comments (78) Closed

G.A. Dec 17, 2012 04:55am
If they legalize alcohol then people won't need to get high on religion to escape the daily grind. Unfortunately, thats what religion has become for people - escapism - instead of a guiding light.
Ali S Dec 17, 2012 03:34pm
because nothing says secular and liberal like kicking out people who don't want to dress the way you do, right?
Murthy Dec 16, 2012 01:53pm
All religions, I believe as an atheist, are establishments/industries exploited by businessmen, politicians and, of course, 'religious men'. This is happening more in Pakistan than the world.
shehzad Dec 16, 2012 09:03pm
Whats the difference ..... i think you and those at the stalls are same in one way.... Both trying to spread their ideology using one Media or other..... Keep It up!!!!!
Cynical Dec 17, 2012 05:56pm
I agree with your opinion on Ayan Hirsi Ali.
Cyrus Howell Dec 16, 2012 09:03pm
Every small religious sect is like a tropical fish in a big aquarium. "Look at me. I'm unique. I'm special. Watch me swim. I am the prettiest. I am the smartest."
abbastoronto Dec 16, 2012 02:04pm
R U Surprized?
Karachi Wala Dec 16, 2012 11:51am
"Karachiwalla" Not sure what you are getting at, but, kindly leave my name alone. Thank you
Cynical Dec 16, 2012 05:49pm
Why not? One should read as much one can. Though my preference will alwaus be Hithins, Dawkins, Sam Harris and the like, I won't advise others not to read something I don't agree with.
Cyrus Howell Dec 16, 2012 08:58pm
These sects exist because everyone wants to prove everyone else is wrong. Shia and Sunni will never coexist. Tolerance must be jammed down their throats.
Karachi Wala Dec 16, 2012 12:01pm
"Despite my instinctive misgivings about an event that I had never been to, I decided to finally go. And, boy was I stunned!" You should not have been stunned as, your instincts had warned you in advance and very rightly so!
ak Dec 17, 2012 05:57am
this is a complaint i have had for a long time. one cannot find books worth reading in Pakistan. Amazon Zindabad
obaid qureshi, canada Dec 17, 2012 04:05pm
Indians should be thanksful to Jinnah. He took out the rotten apples from glorious India and put them in a jungle call Pakistan. Life in India has been so peaceful ever since!
Ali S Dec 17, 2012 03:56pm
Your beloved PPP is looting 'your' Sindh under your noses while you bow down to them
gary Dec 17, 2012 03:10am
If it is indeed between me and my maker, why are these 72 groups trying to convert me in 72 ways? Can't they leave it to err.. me and my maker?
Joe Dec 17, 2012 03:01am
'Divided' is not the whole story. There's more to it in NFP's article. Intolerance is imprinted early into children's minds to become divided from others, uncaring even to allow other voices to be heard. They learn from example: never mind the idea of attracting people by the content and human value of a message -- just turn up one's own loudspeaker volume to its maximum, so they can hear none else. .
Deb Dec 16, 2012 09:36pm
Maharaj K Razdan,MD. Dec 16, 2012 09:12pm
Cyrus Howell Dec 16, 2012 09:07pm
"Should we emulate these foolish and fanatical people?" You will join them in war, or fight them in war. The fence you sit on is shaking. Airline tickets out of the country are still available for families.
Cyrus Howell Dec 16, 2012 08:48pm
The sky is falling. Attack India. Attack Bollywood. Attack Cinemas. Attack Joy. Destroy Fun. That will please God.
abbastoronto Dec 16, 2012 02:07pm
?The 21st century will be religious one, or it shall not be?: prophesied Andre Malraux (d 1975) a Minister in de Gaulle?s Cabinet and the darling of the godless Left. There will be no 21st century unless it is a religious one. Indeed. The world has becoming increasing ?religious? since Malraux departed. Even the US Democrats in and Canadian Liberals have started talking about god. Religion has always been more than salvation - political, about money and power. A religion is nothing more than a socio-economic system where rituals allow people with similar economic outlook bond together. Socialism, Marxism, Capitalism are religions, so is Secularism. Even Atheism is a religion, albeit a godless one. Every religion has the following traits. 1. A natural economic environment 2. An optimal building block 3. An central idea as the Axis 4. An investment source strategy 5. An output distribution formula Take for example the 3 Abrahamic religions of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed (AS). The Economic environments are Pastoral, Agrarian, and Trading, respectively. The optimal building blocks are the Tribe, the Family, and the Individual. The central ideas are Equity (Insaf), Love, and Justice (Adl) around which the whole system revolves. The investment is through horded capital with a price, through land inheritance, and through savings with no price on capital. The output distribution is through the Central Idea - Equity, Love, and Justice (giving each his due). Get used to religion. What religion do you belong to?
Cyrus Howell Dec 16, 2012 08:50pm
"Knowledge, not old age brings Wisdom."
Rani Sharma Dec 16, 2012 10:30am
Could anyone try to sell Dawkins, Hitchens and Hirsi Ali and still have his or her head attached to the shoulders?
ghaleezguftar Dec 17, 2012 12:45pm
very accommodating of your secular sense!
Cyrus Howell Dec 16, 2012 11:14pm
"Anything that might make the religious people engage in rational thinking is viewed as a threat." Yes, because Islam is closer to Totalitarianism than it can be Democracy. As pointed out at DAWN more Iranians are seeking asylum abroad than ever before. Asylum is the idea that your own government is cracking down on You. "Any thinking outside Mass Think will not be tolerated. SADDAM
Joe Dec 17, 2012 05:03am
So true. And the fish keep trying to eat each other.
Saeed Dec 16, 2012 11:37pm
Can anyone guess how many libraries and bookstores are in Karachi of 18 million+?
Imran Dec 16, 2012 10:16am
The question is : did anyone try to sell Hitchens or Dawkins?
EkNazar Dec 16, 2012 01:11pm
Pakistan appears to be a very messed up society especially for a non-Muslim. Do I see anything changing soon? NO... I can trace all it's ills to the very idea of 'Two Nation Theory'.. Jinnah sold the idea of differentiation and now people are more interested in finding differences than similarities. Add Muslim Superiority Complex to the equation and you have what you see in Pakistan....
ISeeIt Dec 16, 2012 09:28am
The power of subliminal message should never be ignored. There is a need to deeply study how subliminal messaging was used in Pakistan (during Zia's time) to convert a normal, multifaceted, and tolerant country into a chaotic and intolerant society which it has become. Just as they used religious connotations in all communications - and there were well designed tactics to it - in the same way secular and tolerant connotations could be transmitted to the general public to deprogram what has been fed to them day in and day out. But this requires political/security will which seems to be lacking at this point.
Kanwal Dec 16, 2012 10:38am
why is a loudspeaker allowed in such a place anyway? i suspect nobody must ve dared to stop that shouting man from doing it.
Zeeshan Qazi Dec 16, 2012 02:22pm
I do not think religion should be needed for anything except one's personal life to provide assurances to the person who needs it. The rest of us and the society as a whole is much better off without religion.
G.A. Dec 16, 2012 04:00pm
With book fairs like these, thank God for the high illiteracy rate in Pakistan. We are saved!
Shayo Dec 16, 2012 04:01pm
Would they not be afraid to sell Hitchens or Dawkins? That seems to be open invitation to bombing or shooting.
Cynical Dec 17, 2012 05:53pm
@Deb 'Why????' Why of what?
Mustafa Kamal Dec 16, 2012 02:18pm
Its because the books written by Muslim intellectuals were stolen by Jews and Europeans according to Dr. Iqbal - The Eastern Poet!! Oolala!!!
TKhan Dec 16, 2012 02:49pm
@Karachiwalla; This song was written for you - read it as gender neutral. Kyun paisa paisa karti hain Kyon paise pe tu marti hain Karachiwalla to dukandar: Yaar zara toothbrush dena mere brush ka 1 baal toot gaya hai Dukandar: 1 baal toota hai to naya kyun le rahe ho? Karachiwalla: jo toota hai woh akhri tha.
Zeeshan Qazi Dec 16, 2012 02:26pm
I would say Amen to that. Long live NFP.
Zeeshan Qazi Dec 16, 2012 02:24pm
If anyone tries to sell books by Dawkins, Ayan Hirsi Ali or Sam Haris in Pakistan, I fear that the Pakistanis will probably end up killing such a person. Pakistanis I find are very narrow-minded.
does not matter Dec 16, 2012 08:11pm
Even an uneducated business man need those educated people to run his business until of course its a business man with a small stall on the road.
F Hyat Dec 17, 2012 01:19am
The pakistani people stopped reading a long time ago. Book stores like The London Book Company, in Pindi, where my parents would take us every weekend and where we spent hours browsing, instilled a love of reading. Yes, I also read books on islam as well. But more on the historical aspect of Islam and how people through the ages have railroaded the truth. Anyway it is the way it is. But what's with the nuns in black abaya's? Why are these people taking on the culture of a different country, maybe they should go and live in that country with their bearded husbands and leave us alone in pakistan.
Syed Dec 17, 2012 01:06am
NFP, unlike you, I have gone to each and every Karachi book fair since it started and I can tell you that the descent into religious fanaticism is steep during the past 2-3 years. I used to buy books worth thousands of rupees all on different subjects. However, this year I bought none. In 2009, while visiting the stalls, I predicted to a friend that almost 90% books published in Pakistan are religious in nature.
reality not selected truth Dec 16, 2012 03:39pm
Cant understand how one can have this observation. I have had a complete opposite observation. Nomatter where i went nowhere did i find anyone willing to talk about religion and most of the people mock if they find one to be religious. It was easier to find such people when one was young around in ones environments as every woman tried to teach you something nice. Now its sickening to see well grown women trying only to tell you how well informed they are about trends. It seems people dont grow mentally anymore. People in their mid thirties act as teenagers.
dr khan Dec 17, 2012 11:42am
very very true
Adnan Dec 17, 2012 12:43am
NFP, You are smart enough to know what this book fair would look like. It is being organized for the last eight years in Karachi. You wanted to write a piece on how the society's "true values" are being taken over by the "Islamic extremists" and you decided to go to the book fair to have good fun and then share it with your good readers. Now, everyone is wondering that what has gone wrong with our society? what is going on? and people have more reason to curse Ziaul Haq who died a quarter of century ago after changing our "true values" and usurping our "freedom" all alone! I have a sincere advice for you. If you want a book fair of your taste, then get it organized for yourself and the enlightened ones in Karachi. You must have the clout to do so. Also, given that you have a halo of a cultural critic, do something for the culture that you want to promote for yourself and your desperate followers in Pakistan. You will not be disappointed. Then, people will have fun reading Ansar Abbasi's article on how the society is being westernized, and its "true values" being razed by the book fair of yours. Good luck!
Karachiwalla Dec 16, 2012 03:34am
More education and more you read more you become foolish. What is required is business type attitude. Most people in Karachi , many businessmen are not book worms but they employ many educated people and provide food to them. They have 100 times more money than book reading babus.
Pradip Dec 17, 2012 12:39am
Sorry dumb question but it is not a rhetorical one...are there people in Pakistan who even know the name of Chris Hitchens (what a loss with him gone) or the commentators here are Muslims but living abroad? I also agree that Ayan Hirsi Ali, though a brave woman and I enjoyed her book much, is not in the league of Hitchens or Dawkins.
dr khan Dec 17, 2012 11:43am
kick these Molvis out or they should kick us out but i worry no one wil take us , because these snakes can hide among us and destroy them as wel .
Asif Majeed Dec 16, 2012 03:56am
Books of Hitchens and Dawkins should also have been sold at the Fair.It's highly discriminatory that you have thousands of religious books and religious publishing houses peddling their wares but nothing by Dawkins,Ayan Hirsi Ali or Sam Harris at the book fair.
observer Dec 16, 2012 04:04am
NFP possesses a gift of talking about tricky subjects in a way that is not a direct attack (unlike JI or Taliban), does not show malice (JI again), or does not show ambition to change (say like Imran Khan or current CJP). NFP is a true thinker. NFP is an asset. The best thing I like about him is that he is an individual with keen observation of society (I use nick name 'observer' but NFP is a star of observation). This column is one of his best, or is it his best ever so far? For sure this article is most relevant to the society. It is huge tragedy that Pakistanis have complicated their lives and society by forcing religion into things where religion is not needed. Long live NFP.
obaid qureshi, canada Dec 16, 2012 03:11pm
Nadeem, I thank you. As usual a very good article. Makes you think. For Pakistan I have one word: INNALILLAHWAINNAALAIHERAJIOON!
hitesh Dec 16, 2012 04:20am
So what is the point Mr. Karachiwalla (seems Gujarati) ? Should we emulate these foolish and fanatical people or enlightened person like Mr. Paracha ? Awake ! We need religion to function our society smoothly, not to commit societal suicide.
Circumbulator Dec 16, 2012 04:30am
It's not about money, mister.
FZ-1 Dec 16, 2012 04:40am
Hitchins, Dawkins, Sam Harris...but Ayan Hirsi Ali? You got to be kidding.
Saima Khan Dec 16, 2012 04:41am
It's very difficult to find books of Dawkins,hitchens,wafa sultan or Hirsi Ali in Pakistani book shops.Our public likes to live in denial & viciously attacks those who don't agree with the populist narrative.Anything that might make the religious people engage in rational thinking is viewed as a threat and so attacked.We like to keep our heads in the sand & pretend alternative viewpoints don't exist. The Books of Dawkins,Hitchens,Wafa Sultan should have been sold at this fair and should be offered for sale in our bookshops as well.
Seema_US Dec 16, 2012 04:45am
Bashing Islam and Muslims, even if done indirectly, is not "enlightened person". The whole world is doing it. Nothing new.
Umer Dec 16, 2012 04:46am
Karachiwalla whats your point ? I do disagree with NFP alot but he is an intellect to value ! who has originality in his ideas ( thought I dont agree with most). Reading is one amongst many good habbits Pakistanis lack. Money cannot be yardstick of civilisation progression.
ahmed41 Dec 16, 2012 10:52am
"------A friend cynically said about the event, ?There were 72 sects there, all trying to convert Pakistani Muslims to their particular strain of Islam.? Why this hang up about sects and religion ? Why is Islam displayed on ones shirt sleeves ? Can one not be a believer within the inner recesses of ones heart and mind ? A private affair between the individual and his MAKER.
Vishnu Dutta Dec 16, 2012 04:09pm
Please be a guest at Jaiput Lit Festival in january. I cant wait to talk to you or attend your sessions
Liberal Sindhi Dec 16, 2012 05:42am
Agreed. There used to be good books on engineering and medicine subjects for university students. Now, it is so difficult to find them. What is happening to my Sindh? :(( Why is it losing its secular culture? :((
Condemned Dec 17, 2012 12:11pm
Why you have words in Arabic for Pakistan? :-) And mind you, what you wrote are six words, not one! I'm a Pakistani and I learnt Arabic for general knowledge, not as an obligation :-)
Sarosh Dec 16, 2012 06:02am
by highlighting that the two stalls belonged to different sects, do want to show us how much divided we are? we know it already NFP, do something constructive please.
AAK Dec 16, 2012 06:02am
So i money everything in your life. What a pathetic life model
Shumaila khan Dec 16, 2012 08:38am
Good writing. If secular book houses like oup and feroze sons also participate as enthusiastically as ones nfp came across at exhibition then needs of more readers will be catered. Write up also throws light on the uni-polarisation in our academic and teaching system.
Azhar Dec 16, 2012 06:17am
I would agree if you say that neutral space is becoming rare in Pakistan, but don't you think that the social media is wholly responsible for promoting such acts? Don't you think that channels and journalist who cover them, give them fame and such fame makes the uneducated mass follow them blindly?
Cynical Dec 16, 2012 06:22am
One who can, but do not read is no different from the one who can not read.
ashjbw Dec 16, 2012 06:49pm
Hi asif fantastic set of atheists who i admire too.Their reasonings are full of logic and common sense.Add to them the brilliant historian Nial fergusson and his lecture on the 6 apps for countrys to thrive ,prosper in the modern world.He set out these factors as to why the west was ahead of the rest for the last 400 years.Now the BRIC countrys are following this path with China way out ahead and forcast to surpass USA within next 30/40 years .Will Pakistan ever join them....not while religion is so pervasive and deeply entrenched in society.
Azhar Dec 16, 2012 06:32am
and liberalism, conservatism, socialism, fascism, feminism, communism were less that they are promoting mullaism...
gir na Dec 16, 2012 06:42am
@Mr. Paracha Still you call it a book fair ? Religion doesn't make a person wise , education makes . Doesn't feed a person , money does . Doesn't bring a good life style , money and etiquette does . Doesn't bring NATIONALISM , only creates religious cluster through out the world . So time to dump this religion and make some good stuff for humanity.
observer Dec 16, 2012 06:53am
Businesses sell what the market has demand for. Who would buy (or let people sell peacefully) book by Hitchens called God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything or buy material from Dawkins and others you have named (who essentially advocated and propagated antitheism). What NFP has lamented is lack of interest of public in non-religion books. You talk about selling material in book fair that is most probably banned in Pakistan already.
faraz Dec 16, 2012 06:42pm
well NFP, i managed to find The God Delusion in the midst of all that tableeg
observer Dec 16, 2012 07:04am
When I was growing up in Pakistan, I knew many people who would either watch every new movie released, buy or read every new book of genre of their interest, listen to all new music of their favorite type, and so on. These were enthusiasts with borderless interests. I wonder if such people exist in Pakistan any more or they too are victims of the lifestyle NFP has described in his column. A society is alive only when there is a variety of people actively pursuing things of their interests at the same time. With advent of internet, pursuing one's hobbies has become a lot cheaper and accessible. I remember spending hours in libraries looking for a piece of information that is now just a 10 minute google search away or is a matter of just buying a e-book. Things are much more conducive for pursuing one's interests as class barriers have been largely been taken down by the internet.
observer Dec 16, 2012 06:38pm
No single person or party will solve complex national problems of a big country. Please stop giving a false hope in the name of no Zaradri or no Nawaz Sharif. The reason our nation has issues is not corruption of politicians. Corruption is a problem indeed. But our society is conducive for crime as there is no consensus on basic things as Constitution and provincial autonomy.
Sandip Dec 16, 2012 07:22am
No we don't need religion for our society to function. We need people to keep religion in there house for this society to function.
Karachi Wala Dec 16, 2012 06:36pm
I hope you are right, but it seems more like vote PT and PREY.
W Burke (@BurkeAsim) Dec 16, 2012 07:26am
These truly are dark times but CHANGE is coming vote for PTI and pray!
sja Dec 16, 2012 07:35am
I think the perfect point is that there is no country for an old man like NFP in RAIWIND? LOL
Anoosh Khan Dec 16, 2012 07:46am
There is nothing wrong with religious literature; there is a big problem with the tacit ideological underpinnings. When will we realize that we cannot practice religion in a vacuum; it has to be practiced in this world with the good and bad realities. Some not-so-religious literature too is a good teacher!