Tag Archives: Pakistani society

Mohsin Hamid Rises to the Occasion

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Discontent and Its CivilizationsMohsin Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), gained the Pakistani writer a measure of well-earned global notoriety and indicated the scope of both his ambition and his ability. But, really, it was only a jumping-off point. Hamid has a great deal more to say than he has said in three short novels to date, or really than is possible to say in novels.

A writer’s occasional pieces are the flip side or reverse image of his or her fiction. As such, they hold a legitimate and even important place in his or her body of work, which can be defined as the statement that he or she spends a lifetime striving to make. Hamid’s novels are concise literary gems, self-consciously crafted in a manner reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro, and therein lies not only their durable merit but also their limitation. Hamid’s un-Ishiguro-like willingness, between novels, to put himself on the line by writing explicitly about current events brings to mind a truly great writer who for many decades wrote exquisite novels of global and lasting value with one hand and, with the other, stood always at the ready to leap into the breach with what one critic approvingly called “thin-skinned responsiveness”: Graham Greene.

Like Greene, Hamid rises to the occasion. At 44 he is still young, which bodes very well because his wonderfully-titled new collection Discontent and Its Civilizations suggests the potential for him to give us books of even greater importance, both literary and topical, for many years to come. And we will need him in those years, just as we need him now. For now this book is plenty important enough, and for David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times to praise it faintly as a “mash-up” lacking “weight” and “staying power” is to miss the point that rightly compelled its publication now. The times we’re living through are not conducive to staying above the fray, and indeed the relative slightness and datedness of some of the book’s pieces are also very much to the point; to read them collected in book form serves as an apt reminder of just how fast history is moving these days, how alert we must try to be.

The world’s peace party needs for its thought leaders to be as active and assertive as the bullies among both the terrorists and the imperial apologists. Mohsin Hamid’s reputation as a novelist grants him presumptive access to an American audience beyond the usual suspects of East Coast and academic “policy” types – those intellectuals who sell or rent their brains and command of language to the North American imperial state – and he puts that access to good use. I remember only too well my own lunch with a literary agent in New York circa 2004, soon after my book Alive and Well in Pakistan was published in London (that book could not have been published in New York). When I told him that I had written a book about Pakistan, the agent’s immediate question was: “What’s your argument?” As if writing about Pakistan required having an argument. The rejoinder that I lacked the presence of mind to offer at the time was: I’m not making an argument; I’m telling a story.

Pakistan deserves more telling of its stories, and far less hard-nosed, bloodless analysis. There is no half-baked notion in today’s world that’s more tiresome, indeed pernicious, than the notion that Pakistan exists primarily as a policy puzzle or problem for D.C.-based think-tank thinkers to think about. Pakistan – good, bad, and ugly – exists in its own right. I know this because, over two decades of traveling (and, for one five-month stint, living) there, that messy, damaged and complicated but fascinating country and its peoples have earned my love and respect.

Mohsin Hamid knows it more fundamentally because he is Pakistani, and he writes about it as a stubbornly hopeful liberal patriot. He loves his country; he is entitled to do so; and he is generous enough to take time out of his busy novel-writing schedule to explain to us the nature and meaning of that love. In today’s world Pakistani patriotism is a very important subject for us to understand. If Mohsin Hamid is kind enough to help us try to do so, the least we can do is to meet him halfway by hearing him out with curiosity and without prejudice.

The real problem, as Hamid rightly says, is that “both sides of the alliance between the U.S. and the Pakistani military share blame for the violence currently afflicting Pakistan.” An ancillary problem is that until we Americans are prepared to accept this correct premise, we will fail to understand well-informed explanations like this one Hamid offers:

By backing the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and then failing to include a meaningful representation of Pashtuns in a power-sharing deal in Kabul, the U.S. not only sided with India in the Indian-Pakistani proxy war in Afghanistan, it also elevated a coalition of Afghanistan’s smaller ethnicities above its largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. Conflict was inevitable, and since twice as many Pashtuns live in Pakistan as in Afghanistan, it was also inevitable that this conflict would spill over the border.

Or this one:

The problem, for those who wish Pakistan to take more responsibility for itself, is that these conspiracy theories [cherished by many Pakistanis] are not necessarily false. Indeed, many have elements of truth. India likely is striving to exacerbate the violent discontent in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province, to the south of the tribal areas. (That discontent is rooted in the Pakistani state’s long-term mistreatment of the province’s local population.) Afghanistan has in fact refused to accept the territorial integrity of Pakistan. Saudi Arabia and Iran do back Sunni and Shia militant proxies in the country. The U.S. has used a vaccination campaign as cover for an intelligence operation on Pakistani soil.

It’s a shame, but a sign of the times, that I have felt compelled to give over the lion’s share of this review to topical subjects rather than literary ones, such as Hamid’s admiration for Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, and Antonio Tabucchi, the Italian author of the unjustly obscure anti-fascist novel Sostiene Pereira (“I have never agreed with the claim that art must be kept separate from politics,” remarks Hamid in his piece on Pereira).

The particular value of Discontent and Its Civilizations is the way its selection and arrangement highlight the way Mohsin Hamid’s occasional writing has concerned itself with both literary and topical subjects, and how those interpenetrate and overlap. That, combined with the remarkably cosmopolitan perspective he brings to his humane concerns, is the sweet spot that defines his special value as a writer in these times.

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Pakistan and the Tragedy of Our Time

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AliveandWell-front-smThere’s a certain glibness prevalent in the discourse of the ostensibly liberal Western and Westernized world today that’s epitomized by the vapid Google slogan “Don’t be evil.” That’s much easier said than done. A few days ago Dick Cheney was all over America’s gravitas-laden Sunday talk shows, speaking as if for me and my country, claiming that there is no comparison between CIA “tactics” (yet another euphemism for torture) and the actions of terrorists. But is that a comparison we want to make, as if evil justifies more evil? My mother taught me long ago that two wrongs don’t make a right.

Moral and intellectual clarity about the world we live in are not compatible with self-exculpating glibness. Our adversaries’ wrongness does not mean we are in the right. The substance of the terrorists’ victory lies exactly in their indisputable success in having persuaded Western societies to endorse and empower our own authoritarian regimes, and to acquiesce in what seems certain to become a perpetual police state and de facto endless war.

It’s not either/or, nor is it “us” in the West versus “them” in the Muslim world. Terrorism is evil. So is the police state we’re constructing to combat it. The tragedy is that after 9/11 we did have a choice in how to respond, and we largely blew it, first and foremost by initiating the unnecessary and immensely damaging Iraq war in 2003. To reflect on that is to know the bitter irony in Cheney’s defiant assertion that he would do it all again. And if we don’t accept how very wrong we were, morally, politically, and historically, to invade Iraq, then we will never achieve either understanding or peace.

These things were on my mind already, and then the Sydney cafe siege happened … and then, early Tuesday morning in Seattle, I awoke to the news of the terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar. At 6:27 a.m. Seattle time I read a message from Shaheryar Azhar, who for years has been rather heroically doing his part to keep moderate discourse in and about Pakistan alive by running a thoughtful moderated email forum. “Once again, a great tragedy has struck Pakistan,” he wrote.

TTP [Pakistani Taliban] terrorists chose the softest target possible, one that would have maximum effect – a large public school in Peshawar that at the time was full of children. As of now more than 130 deaths have been confirmed, most of them of children between ages 9 and 16 with about 200 injured. A large number of the dead kids belonged to serving army personnel.  Media reports indicate that there are still terrorists holed-up in the school premises. This dastardly act was clearly a cowardly response from an emasculated TTP in response to Zarb-e-Azab, the military operation going on in North Waziristan against the militants.
Having myself studied at the Cantonment Public School in Peshawar and having worn similar striped blue and yellow tie that I see from chaotic images on the TV as I write these words I suddenly feel very old and very broken. My heart pierced, a gaping hole inside, barely able to muster enough energy to send this message. But this will not weaken us.
This Forum has from the beginning of the conflict called TTP, Taliban, terrorists, non-state actors, whatever name you want to give them, an existential threat to Pakistan. That is, all politics and all other economic and social issues collapse into this one single issue. If we don’t get this right, nothing will ever be right. If we don’t unite on this issue, there will be nothing left to unite for or against [his emphasis].

There is a profound poignancy in Shaheryar sahib’s words that any annotation from me would only diminish. The tragedy for the many patriotic Pakistanis I know and admire is that the state in which they still place their hope against the terrorists is itself severely damaged and compromised. Their best hope is not very good at all. But Pakistanis are not alone in having only bad options; that is the case for us Americans as well. The wheels are coming off here as well as there, and the only discernible upside is that, amid all the confusion and violence still to come, we might eventually arrive at a better understanding of ourselves and our situation.

Both understanding and comfort are available to us from history, and our most urgent compulsion is to seek out and amplify the most humane voices and witnesses, both present and past. I just bought and plan soon to read Albert Camus’s long-neglected Algerian Chronicles, recently published in English for the first time. As an Algerian-born Frenchman, Camus watched helplessly as his two countries fought a war to the bitter end, loss and bloodshed the only result for all involved. In her 2013 review in The New York Review of Books, Claire Messud writes that

Camus’s profound rejection of terrorist violence is obvious in all that he said and wrote on Algeria, not least in his famous (and often misquoted) exchange with the Algerian student in Stockholm, where he said, “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” Acutely sensible to pain and suffering, Camus could not condone it anywhere: “I am not made for politics,” he wrote in his notebooks in November 1945, “because I am incapable of wanting or accepting the death of the adversary.”

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Pakistan: “It’s happening right now”

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PHOENIX – On Sunday here I was the main speaker at the annual Daal Saag Luncheon of the local Pakistan Information and Cultural Organization (PICO). I had just sat down after giving my speech, when the Pakistani man sitting to my right informed me that an attack was taking place on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi. “It’s happening right now,” he emphasized.

The news, available via the smartphone of anyone and everyone in the room, brought home the surreal immediacy of the events unfolding on the other side of the planet, even as we tried to say good things about Pakistan for the sake of invited guests such as Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. This is the meaning of terrorism, especially in the hyper-connected 21st century: there’s nowhere we can go to get away from it. At the same time, it was also true that those of us in the ballroom of the Phoenix Airport Marriott were a lot farther from the immediate danger than were the travelers and staff at Pakistan’s busiest airport.

In my writing and public speaking I try to stress to Americans the most important thing I discovered in getting to know Pakistan and Pakistanis: our common humanity. That sounds, and is, very earnest and feel-good, but its dark underbelly is the potential and reality of human evil. I’m often asked whether, in my nearly two decades of visiting and living in Pakistan, I’ve ever felt myself to be in physical danger. The answer is yes, at least twice: in a town in the North-West Frontier Province in 1999, and at an arts festival in Karachi disrupted by a political party’s goons in 2009. Age and experience have made me more sober about the real possibility of danger, and I also keep in mind something my friend and colleague Mary Kay Magistad told me years ago in Cambodia: that you can’t report the story if you’re dead.

But the Karachi airport attack is sobering anew. I’ve been telling anyone who asks that I plan to focus my next trip to Pakistan on Karachi, because that huge but oddly neglected city is so clearly at the epicenter of all that’s happening in and to Pakistan today. The airport attack not only renders my rather glibly expressed intention a statement of the grimly obvious, but also forces me to wonder not only whether I would actually travel to Pakistan again, but even whether I could. Will the airport be safe? Will it even be open?

The paradox of our times is that we’re at once more immediately and intimately connected than ever before, and more isolated and paranoid. My pitch to the Phoenix audience was that we can’t count on the authorities or established institutions to do for us what needs to be done, which includes first and foremost reminding ourselves and each other of our shared humanity. For my part, I’m continuing to take the story and message of my book Alive and Well in Pakistan to readers and audiences around America. It’s what I’m in a position to do.

I really don’t claim to know what policies either the Pakistani or the U.S. government should pursue, in response to this attack or anything else. What I do claim is that the most important thing for Americans to know about the Karachi attack is not any geopolitical upshot, but the fact that innocent Pakistanis died.

Ethan Casey is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan (updated and expanded 10th-anniversary edition, 2014) and Home Free: An American Road Trip (2013).

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Alive and Well in Pakistan relaunched – spread the word!

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AliveandWell-front-smDear friends and supporters,

The updated 10th-anniversary edition of my book Alive and Well in Pakistan was launched earlier this month, and I’m now very actively working to give away 3,000 copies to students, opinion leaders, and elected officials around the United States:

  • Dr. Rick Halperin of Southern Methodist University is distributing 1,000 copies to students in SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program and at other institutions nationwide.
  • Pakistani-American friends in the Washington, DC area are making plans to distribute 1,000 copies to members of the U.S. Congress and other influential people in and around the nation’s capital. (I will be visiting Washington, and thanking that community in person, in late September.)
  • Hundreds of students at Texas Christian University will be given copies as part of my participation in  TCU’s campus-wide focus on Central Asia throughout the 2014-15 academic year.
  • Pakistani-Americans in Arlington, Texas will give 100 copies to all Democratic members of the Texas state legislature, and others, at the state party convention in June.
  • Others in Illinois, Arizona and California have taken delivery of copies to give away.

I am hoping to do another printing as soon as August, from which I would give away another 3,000 copies. To do that effectively, I need your help. If you want to help influence mainstream Americans to gain a more accurate and sympathetic human appreciation for Pakistan and Pakistanis through Alive and Well in Pakistan, please contact me.

To purchase your own personal copy for $18.95 plus $3.95 U.S. shipping, use this button:

You also can help by rating or reviewing Alive and Well in Pakistan – the new edition, at this link – on Goodreads. You can also like it on Facebook. I’ll have it for sale on Amazon soon too, but frankly I’d rather you bought it directly from me.  🙂

Many thanks to my wonderfully supportive friends Talat Rashid, Mir Ali and the Chicagoland Pakistani community for hosting a wonderful launch event May 9 at the Bolingbrook Golf Club. Special thanks to Mayor Roger Claar of Bolingbrook, who was kind enough to attend the dinner and to provide a great endorsement printed, along with one from Congressman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, on the book’s back cover. Thanks also to Faisal Tirmizi, Consul General at the Pakistani consulate in Chicago,  who also attended the dinner.

I’m making plans to print and distribute the new edition in Pakistan. I will try to get it stocked at Saeed Book Bank in Islamabad and other major bookstores, but I also want to give it away to students at Pakistani universities and secondary schools. I can’t make any money from selling books in Pakistan, so I’m glad just to make sure that the new Alive and Well in Pakistan is widely read there. If you are in Pakistan and think you can help, please drop me a note.

Finally, here are links to two recent articles of mine:

 – Ethan

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See acclaimed Pakistani film “Josh” on DVD!

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Josh imageOn March 5, 2013, I had the memorable pleasure of attending the North American premiere of the wonderful Pakistani feature film Josh (English title: Against the Grain). It happened to be in my home city of Seattle, and director Iram Parveen Bilal was present. Josh is the story of Fatima, an elegant and well-bred elite Karachiite who involves herself in village society and politics – thereby endangering herself and others – when she insists on finding out why her beloved maid has gone missing. It’s a cross-cultural story but emphatically a domestic Pakistani one, with minimal reference to the world outside Pakistan. In my review of the film published in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, I reflected:

Americans are accustomed to seeing other countries, especially Pakistan, as refractions of our own national worries and self-regarding obsessions. That is our problem, not Pakistan’s, and Josh serves us well by declining to pander or spoon-feed. It is a very good film, well conceived and executed on a small budget, and the question in my mind as I left the cinema was whether and how it might be possible to shoehorn such a serious piece of Pakistani storytelling into the awareness of some measurable fraction of the millions who know Pakistan only through TV news and Hollywood movies such as Zero Dark Thirty. I was very nearly the only gora [Westerner] at the Seattle screening.

In a q-and-a session following the screening, Iram told the audience: “I felt that there are a lot of doctors and engineers in Pakistan, and there are not many storytellers. Everybody makes documentaries about Pakistan. I wanted my first feature-length film to be from Pakistan. We worked with a completely Pakistani cast and crew.”

In the year since, Josh has been screened in a number of other U.S. cities and has garnered much well-deserved acclaim, including the ARY Viewers Choice Award for best independent film. As of May 7 it is available on DVD and online through iTunes, Netflix, and Amazon. The ARY award, Iram told me on May 5, is “a sweet ending for the theatrical journey.”

But she continues to have aspirations for Josh and its impact. With the DVD release, Iram is hoping to reach a wider audience. “There were some really great screenings,” she told me. “More than ten of them sold out. So there are definitely more people who want to see it than saw it.” In particular, she hopes that Americans who lack personal exposure to Pakistan will see Josh. “I definitely feel satisfied in terms of the Pakistani diaspora,” she says. “In terms of the Western audience, not really. Western audiences need to watch it. It’s like a ticket to Karachi, a journey to Karachi in 100 minutes. It’s a very realistic portrayal of Pakistan; I pride myself on that. In some ways, I feel non-Pakistanis are a better audience for the film, and that’s why I’m looking forward to the DVD release.”

When I asked Iram about her hopes for the film’s impact, she reflected: “I don’t think that I’m trying to initiate a huge peace agreement, or anything like that. But it’s not really modest. You don’t know what type of wheels are going to turn in the viewer’s brain, and that could lead to a big change in someone’s life. What we can hope is that people consume our art and then move a bit. The more people watch it, the more people will maybe initiate a peace agreement or something.”

If making Josh was a journey for Iram as a first-time filmmaker, all the grassroots promotion she’s done has been another adventure in itself. Her enthusiasm and work ethic are impressive and make clear how strongly Iram believes – as well she should – in the value of her art.

“I think, as independent artists, we’re both artists and business people now,” she told me. “There’s no two ways about it, so you might as well embrace it. It’s very exhausting, but there’s a certain amount of empowering that can happen when you work from the ground up. And when you work from the ground up, you build a wide base for yourself. And then maybe even some of the people at the top start paying attention.”

Visit the Josh website to support independent Pakistani filmmaking by purchasing the DVD, or contact Iram to inquire about screenings.

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