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View of Jinnah Avenue from Uzbek Hotel

January 28, 2013

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Uzbek Hotel is not really a hotel, and it’s not in Uzbekistan. It’s a popular ethnic restaurant in Islamabad. The owner is a Punjabi but the majority of the cooking and serving staff is Uzbek. Some of you who have enjoyed our specialty – haddi pulao, which is rice cooked in beef broth and served with a gigantic bone and long handled spoon to scoop out the marrow – have been waited on by me, and likely took me as an Uzbek boy.

And that is the point of me working here.

I am a Hazara from Quetta. I moved to Islamabad with my mother and two sisters while my father stayed back to look after his shop, that is our only source of family income. We were sent away because my father feared for our lives. Hazaras have the unfortunate distinction of being the face of the Shia sect, though not all Hazaras are Shia. My family is atheist – my father believes in no religion, my mother believes in him, and we, the children, are trained to believe that we were not born into a religion and as adults can decide for ourselves – but that does not make us any safer. If anything ‘they’ might kill us for looking like Shias AND for being atheist kafirs.

It’s difficult to hide anywhere in Pakistan if you carry a Hazara face on your shoulders. The Uzbek Hotel gives me the invisibility I need. I am usually taken for an Uzbek because a majority of men who work here look like me, and I have no reason or intention to correct that impression. If you can lay low and stay low, you are counted as a successful person among the Hazaras, one who is more likely to die a natural death. I am studying for a journalism degree in the day, holding gainful employment in the night and not known to murderers as a Hazara from Quetta. At 22, I am brimming with potential to do well. For myself, my family, and my country.

I will graduate next year, and have built up a sizeable collection of academic awards and my published letters to editors, to get an internship in mainstream news media. I want to be a journalist. Not an ‘ethnic’ journalist; just a professional, trustworthy, Pakistani journalist. Through news media I want to inform, educate, entertain, and inspire my audience to have hope and dream big. And I plan to do this by reporting the truth.

I read two newspapers every day, follow prime time current affairs programmes on television, and frequently scan the evening tickers. There is very little truth in what they tell us, especially about us.

Uzbek Hotel is popular across social and cultural classes. Its patrons include students and clerks, shop keepers and industrialists, and everyone in between. Outside, on the pavement and in the ground next door that is used as a parking lot, beggars, cabbies, personal drivers and guards representing every district of Pakistan; and vendors of roasted corn, balloons, flowers, fruit and azaar band; far outnumber the customers inside. Together, the restaurant and its ambiance becomes a microcosm of Pakistan – a small number of people eating and a large number waiting for crumbs to be thrown at them. A general opinion picked from this mini-Pakistan is a true reflection of the public mood. Also, diners tend to be relaxed and uninhibited in their conversations around a bunch of Uzbeks who likely don’t know the language and if they do, don’t care.

My world also includes hundreds of young men at college who come from all parts of the country. For about 10 days, before, during, and immediately after Dr. Tahirul Qadri’s march in Islamabad, everyone in my world – students, middle class families, the rich and powerful, the beggars and vendors, men, women and khawaja saras – went through a whirlwind of emotions that was largely missed by the media. There were animated discussions in the college cafeteria, laid back conversations in the VIP marquee of the restaurant, more open and irreverent exchanges in the hall, and swear words-laced analyses offered by drivers in the parking ground. That is where the big story was, that every journalist searched for on Jinnah Avenue and under the rug of Dr. Qadri’s container.

By day two when everyone was secretly wishing for a miracle that would deliver them from the tyranny of those who exploit them in the name of democracy, the media was abuzz with speculations about who was backing Dr. Qadri. When the crowds were talking about the interior minister’s public assurance that whoever it was, the army and its intelligence agencies were not behind Dr. Qadri, the media was greeting the Declaration as a sign of political maturity. There are only two powers on the streets of Islamabad – the army and the government. If the government says it’s not the army, this is ample admission that the government and its allies set the stage for the visiting doctor, people deduced, but by that time, the media had moved on to the next story.

There were very few people who openly showed their liking for Dr. Qadri. In fact, the only patrons who admired him unreservedly were a UK family that had come to Pakistan specifically to be part of the march. (They gave me Rs 1,000 tip, very nice people). Many publicly called him a cheat and a liar. Those who’d never heard of him viewed him with suspicion. But when buses full of people started pouring into the capital, the conversations grew excited. Thoughtfulness replaced doubt as Dr. Qadri took on the political elite and explained away their democratic credentials as gimmickry at best and criminal behaviour at worst. People took notice when he beat the big parties with their own stick: democracy as revenge. If putting together a large gathering and organising a sizeable long march is democracy, welcome me, the new democrat on the scene, he seemed to say.  People let him into their lives, whether or not they liked him. He was being discussed in every office and every household that had access to a television.

After a dramatic announcement from the Supreme Court to arrest the prime minister, an element of hope surfaced in the public sentiment. People continued to disbelieve Dr. Qadri but started punctuating their arguments with more ‘buts’ followed by an affirmation of his words, like: ‘… but he is right about the politicians.’ I heard loyal party workers admit to friends and family that they found the conduct of their leaders indefensible. The strictly anti-military groups conceded that the people’s coldness towards democracy is not caused by military rule or the mullah’s influence as much as a gradual and consistent nurturing of criminal activity among the political elite. They talked about the dilemma of having to side with morally corrupt politicians to ward off constitutionally corrupt generals.

All major political parties routinely blame the military for all ills. Dr. Qadri’s was the counter narrative: That generals are transparent in their disregard for the document called the Constitution, but mainstream political parties are criminally devious in upholding it. That political leaders use the military as a bogie to justify their own shameless incompetence and blatant mega corruption.

Dr. Qadri may be a scoundrel, an agent of this or that power, a sort of Pakistani James Bond or a Barelvi Santa Claus, but he set in motion something much bigger than him and his backers: the awakening that generals and politicians are both after power and both are ever willing to break or bend laws in their favour. That the choice before the people of Pakistan is not between military and civilian rule, it is between two dictatorial and anti-democracy mindsets.

The anti-climax was brisk and rather dull. When Dr. Qadri waved the Declaration to the crowds, called Rehman Malik the Satan one more time, and announced the march over, people fell quiet. They were not angry or flustered; just quietly hurt. They’ve been here before. They had promised themselves that they wouldn’t believe in any slogan for change, that they are condemned to a life of misery and servitude whether they are ruled by generals or politicians, or a combination of the two. And here they are, fooled again, by their own desperation.

I want to become the journalist who reports on the hopes, aspirations, challenges, desperation, and hurt of the people when the next savior shows up and the Qadri episode is repeated all over.

We know the Qadris well, thanks to the media, what we don’t know is ourselves.

 


Masud Alam is an Islamabad-based writer, columnist and journalism trainer. He can be reached at masudalam@yahoo.com

 


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.