Archive for the ‘English Columnist’ Category
Recently, Imran Khan’s Q&A with students in Karachi was telecast in To the point on the Express channel. There were some good questions and some not-so-well-left dodges. To two questions in particular, on refusing to be critical of MQM and on articulating a succession plan for PTI, Mr Khan avoided any direct response. In the case of the latter, in fact, he digressed into the sher and geedar metaphor that he is so fond of. Mr Khan has begun to avoid assigning blame to the MQM in Karachi. He always refrained from blaming the Taliban and militant groups for the deaths of countless Pakistanis. And in spite of his apology to the Baloch in his Karachi rally, he has also shied away from questioning the role of the security agencies in violating the rights of the Baloch.
I find it curious that the PTI has been in existence for 15 years and consistently it has insisted that, unlike other parties, it draws on the expertise of professionals to formulate policy. Yet when pressed for policy prescriptions, Mr Khan gives only brief populist responses, followed by the refrain that think-tanks are working on it. If the full policy has not been unveiled in the last 15 years, what will change in the next year or so to make this possible?
Mr Khan appears sure of one thing. There is to be one system of education across Pakistan. But he has never clearly articulated which system this will be. Will the medium of instruction be Urdu or English? It would be unwise to do away with English and opt for Urdu as not only is professional education primarily available in English, but English is also rapidly becoming the lingua franca of our world. Even countries like Germany, that have advanced education available in their native tongue and are particularly renowned for their engineering, are now aggressively making English classes more readily available to their population. This would leave us with the conclusion that if we are to have one system, then the medium of instruction in our schools should be English.
There is a problem with this however. How will we ensure English-speaking teachers in rural areas far removed from the cities? Often, it is difficult to find teachers in those areas who are fluent in Urdu as Urdu is only the native tongue of a fraction of our population. Nevertheless, it is still far more possible to hire teachers who are competent in Urdu than in English. A few years ago, I visited some government schools in Sheikhupura, just an hour outside Lahore. The schools were being resuscitated by a joint collaboration between the NGOs ‘DIL’ and ‘CARE’.
Not only do we have an Urdu/English divide but we also have a Matric/GCSE divide. It will be next to impossible to find teachers for every district in Pakistan that could teach GCSE-level English and equally impossible to deny those who can afford this elite education for their children. Hence the divide will remain. Mr Khan would be wise therefore to talk about the uplift of the current education system but he is hoodwinking the people if he claims he can enforce one system of education in Pakistan.
Add to this the complication of the growing chain of madrassas which have introduced yet another system and enhanced divides among our population. Will it be possible for Mr Khan to convince the proponents of the madrassa system to dispense with their curriculum and priorities and follow those of the state? What will he do if they refuse?
Finally, Mr Khan also stated that he will double the education budget if he comes to power. This is great news but doubling the education budget means cutting down on something else as there are only so many pieces of the pie. Given that we have one of the lowest allocations to education in the world and have one of the highest allocations to defence as a percentage of our budget, it would make sense if the shortfall came out of the defence allocation. But does he have a green light from the establishment that seems close to him to go ahead with this very welcome change? If not, what prescription does he have to double the education budget? Surely, taxes must be raised on the rich and more people added to the tax net, but the effects of that will take a few years to materialise. It would be good for PTI to think through these tough questions and understand that if they make very tall claims, it will be very difficult to follow through on them.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 9th, 2012.
In light of the Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) recent move to bar dual nationals from contesting elections, one must ask whether such a decision would enhance the calibre of our parliament. The ECP has referenced Article 63 of the Constitution. However, it must be remembered that Articles 62 and 63, governing the qualifications and disqualifications for parliamentarians, were inserted into the Constitution under the auspices of a dictator called General Ziaul Haq. In addition, the wording of the articles is both vague and overbroad. For example, few would argue that a convicted felon should not be permitted to contest elections but how would one define something as vague as “good character” or being “sadiq and amen”? Perhaps it is time to revisit Articles 62 and 63 and to debate afresh whether disallowing dual nationals from contesting elections is really good for Pakistan.
Let’s first take a look at who dual nationals are. They comprise of a variety of different people, including, for instance, those wealthy Pakistanis who use birth tourism to ensure that their children are born with two nationalities and those affluent few who make foreign investments to ensure an opt out should conditions in Pakistan deteriorate further; but they also include those hard-working middle-class Pakistanis who go abroad in search of a livelihood and often sustain families back home. It is this latter category in fact that forms the bulk of dual nationals. When laws are made, they are not made to exclude a few people we may not like. They are made to apply to everyone equally. And thus it must be asked whether denying rights to this category of people and hence alienating them will harm Pakistan or help it?
Much has been said, for instance, about Husain Haqqani’s dual nationality. He has denied the rumours, insisting that he is only a Pakistani national. Irrespective, it must be pointed out that many countries appoint dual nationals as their ambassadors. An ability to speak the language of the host country well, understand its culture and promote greater understanding is what an ambassadorial role entails. This has often meant that dual nationals are better placed to carry out this function. In Pakistan, the precedent was set a long time ago when, in 1952, Muhammad Asad (born Leopold Weiss), an Austrian Jewish convert to Islam, took on Pakistani citizenship in addition to his Austrian one, and was appointed Pakistan’s minister plenipotentiary to the United Nations in New York.
Nor are dual nationals limited to ambassadorial positions in today’s global village. In fact, Rafik Hariri, former prime minister of Lebanon, widely credited for rebuilding the country after its civil war, held both Saudi and Lebanese nationalities. Former Canadian prime minister, John Turner, holds both British and Canadian nationalities. In addition, both the current Estonian president, Toomas Hendrik Ives, and the former Lithuanian president, Valdas Adamkus, had been naturalised US citizens. Ives served as Estonia’s ambassador to Canada and Mexico as a dual national but gave up his US citizenship before becoming ambassador to US and eventually the president. He was instrumental in facilitating Estonia’s membership in the European Union and growing its economy. Moreover, Arnold Schwarzenegger retained his Austrian citizenship during his tenure as governor of California. Dual nationals are sitting members of parliament in several countries. In the UK, dual nationals are defined as those who have two or more nationalities. They have the same political rights as others and thus can vote and run for office in the UK national elections as well as the European parliament elections.
Pakistan’s dual nationals have served the country extensively. If the argument against them becoming government functionaries is that they have also taken an oath to a foreign country and hence cannot be trusted, then why do we trust them to serve as heads of department in public hospitals or as vice-chancellors of universities? If we can trust them to teach our students and to treat our sick, why can’t we trust them to formulate policy or represent the country abroad? Indeed, building state-of-the-art hospitals, universities and large infrastructure projects relies on foreign expertise and hence Pakistan’s dual nationals can be an asset to facilitate development.
It is also important to note that Pakistan’s dual nationals are generously funding charitable endeavours in Pakistan and denying them the same rights as others could impede these efforts. For example, whether it is the Layton-Rehmatullah Benevolent Trust or the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Trust, dual nationals sit on the board of directors and provide key funding. A very large chunk of the Edhi Foundation’s funding and close to half of The Citizen’s Foundation’s funding comes from overseas. Other charities like Developments in Literacy and UK Association for Medical Aid to Pakistan are the exclusive brainchildren of dual nationals.
Perhaps only a select few of these well-meaning dual nationals may have political aspirations. But denying them the ability to pursue their aspirations is almost sure to dampen their zeal to transfer money and expertise to Pakistan. We have already alienated our non-Muslim populations by barring them from certain high political offices, doing the same with dual nationals is likely to make us more insular as a country. Instead of targeting dual nationals to assuage our collective anger over how rotten things have become in Pakistan, why not join hands with them to make things better?
Surely, barring dual nationals will not put an end to bonded labour in Pakistan or prevent nepotism or corruption. Instead, perhaps we can call for greater transparency and access to information about those contesting elections. And thus, if a dual national is contesting elections, this fact should not be concealed but presented before the public. If the electorate decides they would rather not vote for a dual national, then that is fine but it is not in Pakistan’s interest to comprehensively disbar dual nationals from participating in Pakistan’s politics.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 26th, 2011.
They gather on Fridays, after prayers, at London’s Regent’s Park Mosque. Trousers pulled up a few inches above the ankles, beards prominent, carrying black flags with the kalma written in white, there are women among them also, shrouded in black, top to toe, and converts, both black and white, bearded to fit in, the keffiyeh dangling rebelliously around their necks. Manifestly angry and intimidating, they rally to instil fear in the hearts of the infidels who surround them.
It is a vicious cycle. The English Defence League, every bit as rabid as the Muslims they take on, shouts anti-Islam and anti-immigrant slogans, while groups like Muslims Against Crusades burn poppies on Armistice Day or threaten to disrupt the royal wedding. Disgruntled and primarily under 40, these young Muslims across Europe use scare tactics. Waving sticks to call for Sharia in Britain is either delusional dawaa or payback for the racism suffered by their older generations.
To be fair, the Crusades are not a figment of the Muslim imagination. In fact, it was in fighting the Muslims that Europe consolidated its identity. In a fascinating Channel 4 documentary entitled, “When the Moors Ruled in Europe”, Bettany Hughes reveals that nearly 700 years of history, the time that Spain was an Islamic society, has been written out of European textbooks, “its legacy virtually erased from western history”.
As someone who has visited Andalucian heritage sites several times, it does not surprise me in the least that Queen Isabella and her husband Ferdinand chose to be buried at the Alhambra, surrounded by Quranic verses, in one of the most architecturally pleasing and serene spots created by man, even as they fought off the last 70,000 Muslims of Granada. Although 300,000 Muslims had been expelled, a million Arabic books burned, and all of Alhambra’s archives incinerated during the Spanish Inquisition, the beautiful buildings were not destroyed. These include those in Granada, Sevilla and the grand mosque of Cordoba that now serves as a church.
What is far more important, however, are the recent archaeological findings that reveal, contrary to previous belief, that there was hardly any evidence of violence in the four-year period that it took for the Muslims to gain control of all of modern-day Spain (then Andalucia). Instead, the Visigoths, who then inhabited the area, were so impressed by the superior ways of the Muslims that they welcomed their rule. The Muslims, in turn, turned Cordoba, the capital, into the largest, most civilised and cosmopolitan city in Europe, where Jews and Christians lived peacefully alongside their Muslim rulers. Greek texts translated and built upon by Muslim scholars were brought to the rest of Europe via Andalucia. Trade thrived and paper was introduced to Europe by the Muslims, replacing parchment, an innovation akin to the internet of today. The Muslim doctors of the time performed surgeries that were not seen in the rest of Europe till a few centuries later. Algebra, alchemy and advanced astronomy were Muslim inventions. Muslim laws were far sophisticated, providing contracts for ploughing, giving rights to those who did not own the land. And in the year 859 AD, the first university in the world was founded by a Muslim woman by the name of Fatima al Fihri, which still exists as the University of Al-Karaouine in modern-day Fes, Morocco. Even the city of Madrid was founded by a Muslim.
Islam, in its early years, was thus spread by reason and intellect, and not by the sword. After the death of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) in 632 AD, expansion in the seventh century was so rapid that by 711 AD, the Muslims, having already gained control of North Africa, crossed the straits of Gibraltar into Spain, which they ruled for centuries, until in 1492, coincidentally, the same year that Christopher Columbus set sail and discovered America, the last Muslim ruler in Spain, Boabdil, surrendered the Emirate of Granada. Going over this history, I cannot help but be reminded of what an African American convert to Islam who is writing a book on how Hazrat Khadija’s (RA) Christian relatives nurtured the Holy Prophet (pbuh) told me once. “We Muslims,” he said, “set Europe up for the Enlightenment and became stupid ourselves”.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 24th, 2011
How many more assassinations will it take for Pakistanis to unite, not just against the violence of a gruesome murder, but against the ideology that promotes such heinous acts? One cannot expect the JI or the JUI to condemn this ideology because their political success depends on it, but to see Shahbaz Sharif and Rehman Malik sparring at each other instead of collectively fighting the menace in our midst is terribly upsetting. It should be known to all parties that if they continue to blame each other, if they focus more on political point-scoring than on the intolerance that is being bred in our society, one day they too will pay the price. Banners inciting violence against Tehmina Durrani, for a book she wrote years ago have already been spotted in Karachi. Two PPP politicians have been assassinated this year and more are supposedly on the hit list. Several ANP politicians and their loved ones have lost their lives to extremism and military and police families have also paid a terrible price for combating terrorism carried out in the name of religion.
And yet, there is no collective stand against this disease that is destroying the fabric of our society. There is continual appeasement. Two steps forward, one step back. The PML-N, the PML-Q and the PTI, while acknowledging on television that the blasphemy law is misused, are not averse to promoting the law in rallies shared with banned outfits that fan sectarianism. The MQM, notwithstanding its claims against religious extremism, refused to participate in a fateha for the late Salmaan Taseer. Imran Khan cannot condemn the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti without bringing in unconnected issues like drones, which have nothing to do with the violence and discrimination that minority religious communities within Pakistan have faced since well before the drones hit our territory.
And then there are the supposedly liberal parties, the ANP and the PPP. Here we see a division and a troubling willingness on the part of the parties to distance themselves from members more willing to take a stand. When the video of a young girl flogged in Swat was released, there was a clear division in the denial that Mian Iftikhar exhibited and the reasonable wise reaction of Afzal Khan-Lala. And yet Mian Iftikhar later tragically lost his son to the same forces that flogged the young girl. This should be a lesson to the PPP as well. By distancing themselves from the stands of the bolder members of their party, the likes of Prime Minister Gilani or Babar Awan will neither ensure their own security, nor enhance their popularity.
Unless the powers that be, including, very importantly, the military, take a firm stand against appeasement of forces that breed violent extremism, we are doomed. The PPP government must act and exercise authority in order to be taken seriously. Unless the civilian and military leadership collaborates, speaks with one voice, refrains from a blame game and takes joint urgent action, we will have destroyed our very ethos.
Even if the civilian and military leadership fears speaking out or attending funerals, why can’t they take basic steps to reverse this fascist tide? For example, why can’t PTV continually air educational programmes promoting tolerant interpretations of religion and portraying the negatives of violence? Why can’t we put an end to banners and graffiti (wall chalking), especially as they encourage violence? Why shouldn’t proposed rallies require prior permission from a central authority which would ensure that their message is not one of hate? Why can’t Friday sermons be monitored? This happens in most Muslim countries. A Malaysian recently told me that all mosques in his country are ordered to give the same sermon every Friday. Why can’t we do the same? Why shouldn’t a unified sermon be drafted with government oversight and sent to every mosque? Why shouldn’t the state file FIRs and prosecute those clerics, media personalities and others who incite people to violence?
Serious steps must be taken to marginalise the forces that promote hatred. If the civilian and military leadership continues to backtrack and appease them, the state apparatus will soon become irrelevant and our country will descend into anarchy.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 16th, 2011.
So we’ve reached an impasse in the uneasy US-Pakistani alliance. Too many red lines have allegedly been crossed and thus the Raymond Davis affair has brought mistrust to an all-time high. There is gloating in certain quarters. Pakistan will not sit this one down, and, if it does, then it is the end of this government. The street will decide this one. Banners that say “Blood for blood” and “Hang Davis till death” are to be taken seriously as ‘public opinion’. To what extent that opinion is manufactured we are unconcerned with for now.
Let’s say we take America head on. Both countries call each other’s bluff. The US moves the International Court of Justice on the dubious matter of Davis’s immunity. Pakistan is obliged to present its case, hire expensive lawyers and fight for an uncertain outcome. America scraps Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid. Pakistan stops cooperating in Afghanistan. Then what?
How long will Pakistan ride on the high of protecting ‘national honour’? Will it fix our schools? Will it provide gas and electricity? Will it reduce inflation? Will it provide employment? Some degree of anti-Americanism exists in every society — resentment against US heavy-handedness, a disdain for American hubris — but the degree of anti-Americanism in Pakistan is reaching dangerous proportions. The public in urban centres is being rallied, orchestrated by design, to use America as a scapegoat for all our ills. America looks out for its own interests and these may, or may not, align with Pakistan’s interests but to think that suddenly, upon ‘standing up to America’, our problems will be solved, or even begin to be solved, is utterly misleading.
To the contrary, our problems will only compound. Multinationals will begin to pull out and downscale, resulting in even more unemployment. With oil prices rising, given the events in the Middle East, financial aid will become even more important for us. Expatriates, who are often touted as the key to spurring economic activity within Pakistan, will run further away from any such prospect. In fact, money will begin to flow out of Pakistan and into places like London. To give one example, just in the two-week period since the uprisings in the Middle East, property prices in London’s Mayfair have escalated by 15 per cent. On the other hand, Egypt has lost $1 billion in tourism revenue alone.
The loss may still be worth it for Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and others because for years they had been stuck with one-man rule, with no semblance of democracy or freedom of expression. The price they pay now to build their institutions, like Pakistanis did to restore a deposed judiciary, may reap benefits in the future. But what are we trying to achieve? Will confronting America build our institutions or harm them? Will it sustain democracy or end it?
Let’s face it. We are a weak state and weak states have no international clout. In spite of our military might, we are an economic mess. And thus, not only will we not be taken seriously at places like the International Court of Justice, but the banners calling for Davis’s blood will be used against us, Pakistan as an unstable terrorist haven where global investment is unsafe. In today’s world, ‘standing up to the US’ also means losing popularity with other countries and growing international isolation. What then? Who suffers?
Certainly not Nawaz Sharif’s son, who is spotted shopping regularly at John Lewis and Selfridges; not Shah Mahmood’s son, who was not pushed about national honour when he got himself an internship with John Kerry; not Gilani’s son, who is said to spend summers gallivanting around London town in a sports car; and not Imran Khan’s son, who has been photographed genuflecting as a ring bearer at royalty weddings. It is, in fact, the average Arif who will suffer the consequences and pay the price for our zealous anti-Americanism.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 27th, 2011.
Is the Raymond Davis murder case our biggest issue? Or is the 24/7 coverage symptomatic of a nation that is unable to prioritise? Surely, the families of the victims have a right to demand justice, but is that the primary concern of those who seek political gain out of a tragic incident? That’s the funny thing about the ghairat brigade. It seems to only be outraged if the perpetrator is American. Lest there be any doubts, there is little concern for the victims.
Pakistan is still reeling from the floods that devastated our country six months ago, yet it would seem we have overcome the misery that befell roughly 20 million of our people. But that is far from the case.
The UN appeal for $2 billion to rebuild Pakistan remains only 56 per cent funded. According to an Oxfam report, hundreds of thousands are still homeless, over 200,000 cases of influenza and pneumonia were reported in the second week of January alone, and one in every four children in Sindh is malnourished. It should be noted that Pakistan spends a measly 1.8 per cent of its paltry budget on health, when even Nigeria spends 4 per cent and the UK spends 15 per cent.
We need foreign aid simply to trudge along, which is unlikely to be forthcoming in the event of defiance. What makes the ghairat brigade think it can confront the US eye-to-eye is a matter that continues to perplex me.
Some assert that the US is losing control of the world as it knew it, with uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and cannot afford to destabilise its relationship with Pakistan. It is true that the US has paid lip service to democracy while supporting dictatorships and for this reason, along with its double standards on matters of human rights and civil liberties, it has earned the ire of Muslims across the globe.
However, it is also true that Egypt, much like Pakistan, is severely dependent on US aid. US military aid to Egypt totals $1.3 billion annually. Much of this aid was the result of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty of 1979, just as military aid to Pakistan was bolstered when both the Zia and Musharraf regimes cooperated with American policy on Afghanistan. Since 1975, moreover, the US has provided $28 billion in economic and development assistance to Egypt. Thus, no matter who comes to power in Egypt, its relationship with the US is not terribly at risk.
No Egyptian government can afford to dispense with US aid in the absence of alternative funding. This is the question our ghairat brigade must answer. What will be their sources of alternative funding if they believe they can run the government by shunning US aid? And I mean real workable plans and not grandiose rhetoric.
There are only a few models out there. There is the Iran/Venezuela model of confrontation, which is not feasible because we are not an oil-producing country. There is the China model, which is also not feasible because we are not willing to adopt a one-child policy and accept government heavy-handedness. And then there is the East Asian model.
The US was ruthless to Japan, Vietnam and Cambodia, but they simply put their heads down and worked hard. Ghairat didn’t really cloud their vision.
And today, they are way ahead of us, their people far more prosperous. Do we want to be a South Korea or a North Korea, is the question we need to ask ourselves.
Finally, Pakistan has no international voice. Davis has virtually not been covered by international media, where events in Egypt have taken precedence. So instead of the misdirected energy employed in whipping up anti-American sentiment by an overactive media at home, we would do ourselves a favour if like China, Iran, India, Russia and France, we had an English channel beamed abroad, airing the Pakistani perspective. That is where it is really needed.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 21st, 2011.
On a recent visit to Pakistan, I couldn’t help but notice the general despondency. With food prices escalating, gas loadshedding making a cold winter unbearable, unemployment growing, law and order deteriorating abysmally, life is undoubtedly hard. Perhaps this has always been the case for many. But what makes it worse is that after a successful lawyers’ movement and the ouster of Musharraf, a new democratic era was hailed, with the expectation that rulers would be responsive to the woes of their people. The media was far more vociferous and visible, claiming to represent the concerns of the average person. And yet, there is a complete disconnect between the real Pakistani and those who shape the national discourse.
Speak to empowered elite, listen to government officials and aspirants or tune into talk shows, and most conversations are irrelevant to the country’s people and its future. Social dialogue mostly revolves around elaborate décor and menus at weddings, dresses, jewellery or expensive gifts exchanged between relatives-to-be. Political discussions hover around sensational stories of corruption and yearning for the messiah who will fix it all, not to mention, of course, the conspiracy theories of foreign involvement. Although public opinion on complex matters is frequently sought, little effort is made to engage on basic issues affecting everyday life. There is naturally nothing entertaining about gutters overflowing to produce unfathomable stench, insects mixing with tap water to spread disease, or women suffering from fistula becoming pariahs to their families.
There are a few people who have, nevertheless, taken it upon themselves to work for the benefit of the masses. Dr Shershah Syed, since returning from abroad, has set up the Koohi Goth Women’s Hospital and is working hard to combat maternal mortality. At the impressive 16-acre facility on the outskirts of Karachi, he told me, “Our issues are very basic. We need nurses and lady health workers far more than doctors.” In training midwives and health workers from remote parts of Pakistan, he is assisted by the likes of Dr Shabbir Safvi and his English-born wife, Seara, who remain committed to Pakistan and their cause, in spite of suffering through Dr Shabbir’s kidnapping.
It may be unrealistic to expect large numbers to follow in their footsteps but, at the very least, we must change the focus of our conversations. We need to come out of our bubbles and start facing reality. Only by talking about issues that affect large sections of Pakistan and constantly reminding ourselves of the squalor and misery that surrounds us, can we ever hope to pressure the government into meaningful change, or develop a democratic alternative to existing practices. As Dr Shershah said, “This work should not be mine, but that of the government’s”.
Pakistan’s case is not like Egypt’s. We have risen up against dictators repeatedly, elected our leaders, freely criticised our government and fought for an independent judiciary. Yet our economic indicators and literacy levels are pathetic. Our population is exploding and our resources are scarce. Thus, we must concentrate exclusively on human development and population control. It may be exciting to talk about Blackwater operatives shooting at would-be robbers or power tussles between various branches of government and political bigwigs, but such conversations are as unrepresentative of Pakistan as the foreign media’s portrayal of it as a country comprised primarily of bigoted crazies.
We must engage society and pester the government on the following: How can we overcome obstacles to population control? How can we provide clean drinking water to our people? How can we meet our energy needs? How can we assure basic health facilities in every locality? How can we achieve functional literacy and train people in simple trades? How can we ensure women-friendly transport? Equality does not exist in any society but we have an exceedingly long way to go before we can dispense even basic human needs. There are no easy solutions but we have not even begun to brainstorm.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 8th, 2011.
If anyone thought Pakistani drama was dead, make way folks, “Humsafar” is here to rock your world. It feels good to see our audience come back home after being distracted for a while. I, for one, am not surprised at this revival of Urdu drama as I have always known that this particular form of story-telling is a gift we Pakistani’s own and no one can match it, regardless of other markets having bigger budgets, better production facilities, more resources, etc.
Urdu drama is particular to our nation in every sense — from its timing, script structure, performances to the technical style. In these times of national depression and distress, Pakistani drama has made us proud yet again, and given our people something to look forward to regardless of all else.
Before I begin to share with you how my character ‘Fareeda’ in “Humsafar”, came to life, let me first thank all the wonderful people who made this serial into a true international phenomena. As you know, a project always belongs to all that are a part of it before it is gifted to the audiences to enjoy; so, thank you God for our writer, director, producer and an extremely talented cast that brought so much life into the project in their very own special way. Also, let’s not forget the other really special people behind the success, the technicians, musicians, stylists and editors. What you see on screen is a contribution of a large group of specialists that come together to make on-screen magic — and magic is what we made with “Humsafar”.
Many have asked me why I decided to play Fareeda, the nasty mother-in-law. The answer, my dear friends, is a very simple one. Fareeda was a great and exciting character to develop from script to screen. As an actor, one always looks for challenge and I believe, Fareeda has helped me polish my craft as an artist further. Not being one to repeat my work in various roles, I felt my work as Fareeda would give viewers a new ‘me’ as an actor to watch. Sitting here, I am so glad I decided to bring her to life as she was definitely the cause of high drama all along.
It has been wonderful to see how people have identified with all the players in “Humsafar”, as each and every character in it actually exists in our society. My firm belief, while performing Fareeda, was that as a role it was a great project to do, but from a popularity point of view I was expecting her (and myself) to be extremely disliked. It may come as a shock to you, but Fareeda has a huge fan following! This initially troubled and then eventually amused me, as I realised over time that, many millions of Fareeda’s do actually exist in any eastern society. How often have we seen obsessive and controlling mothers hang on to their sons? So Fareeda pulled in her own fans across the world. I have met ladies with sons of all ages who absolutely adore Fareeda, as they feel she has pulled at their heart strings. Finally, a woman they can all relate to. This is strange and yet so funny. Playing Fareeda has taught me so much more about human behaviour on and off screen. Lesson learnt — never predict an outcome as drama reflects all aspects of character.
When we started filming “Humsafar” in July 2011, I was personally going through one of the most difficult times of my life. You may recall my real life drama thanks to the very Honourable you-know-who. In case you are now distracted by Fareeda and friends, let me refresh your memory. My real life drama had something to do with me having the privilege of becoming the first and perhaps the only Pakistani woman to be made the individual subject of a suo motu notice.
While I was struggling with the shock of having to deal with how ‘anything is possible in Pakistan’ becoming a reality in my case, nothing was really making sense around me those days. So confused and anxiety driven, I infused life into Fareeda.
The first day I went to the set of the play, I started my work by performing the climax scene of my character. I was tense with stress at the time and my director, Sarmad Khoosat identified my need for therapy in the form of creative expression, hence, we did the difficult scenes first. So when you watch the last few scenes where Fareeda becomes a complete victim of neurosis, you know who we can all thank for such violent emotions.
What has made the play so successful? I ask myself this question all the time, since its really an old story and we didn’t say anything new in this project. Perhaps, the key ingredient is ‘love/mohabbat’. This emotion is obvious in so many forms, through the characters of the play. Maybe our audiences have connected to the ‘love’ story between Ashar and Khirat, Basirat’s ‘love’ for his sister, Fareeda’s obsessive ‘love’ for her son, Asher’s ‘love’ for his mother and daughter, Sara’s ‘love’ for Asher and Khizar’s ‘love’ for Sara or Zarina’s ‘love’ for her daughter. The play is all about a whole lot of ‘love/mohabbat’ depicted in different forms. So how can a society like ours, that thrives on emotion, not connect to it?
Or perhaps, the other key ingredient in the plot is the value of the male member of a family (Ashar) being projected as the central figure in a male-dominated society, such as ours. Since all the women in the play are fighting for attention from the ‘Man’ (and what a handsome one at that), people can easily relate to the issues addressed in the storyline from several aspects. Wives sympathise with Khirat, Mothers sympathise with Fareeda, cousins relate to Sara. The point I am trying to make is that maybe its all about basic eastern values, but packaged in a very western style.
Whatever the reason for it’s success, I feel another big thank you is due to all the fans for giving us a sense of being artists who try to work hard to reflect real issues of our society. Ultimately, it is the fans that make or break a project and here it is the fans, who have made it possible for this project to reach such great heights.
The difference between a good drama and a great one is where the actors always remember that the fans are their true ‘humsafars’. As the play’s theme song says “Kya dhoop chaaon ka alam raha/Judai na thi”. God bless the fans for always being there with us.
The penultimate episode of “Humsafar” will air today on Hum TV
Published in The Express Tribune, February 25th, 2012.
One of the most disturbing things about Salmaan Taseer’s tragic death is the manner in which his party, the PPP, has reacted. Whether it is fear, misjudgement or sheer opportunism, I don’t know, but to call this assassination a ‘political conspiracy’, when it is yet another violent act of aggression against a dissenting voice, is a grave disservice to the nation.
There is no doubt that Governor Taseer was targeted for his views on the blasphemy law. Others, including religious scholars like Mufti Sarfraz Naeemi and Dr Muhammad Farooq, have suffered a similarly fatal fate simply because there is a frighteningly large armed population of intolerant extremists in our society who would go to any length to stifle alternative viewpoints.
It is baffling if the PPP thinks that it can ride off this martyrdom and use it for political advantage instead of tackling the biggest problem in our country head on. Equally disappointing is the judiciary’s silence. When threats were made to Salmaan Taseer and Sherry Rehman, why weren’t suo motu actions taken? Why has no action been taken against those who have offered head money to kill Asia Bibi extra-judicially? Could there be more contempt and disregard for the very function of the court? And yet, we have become so accustomed to ceding space to these draconian forces that hardly anyone is willing to take them on. As a result, the few who do pay dearly, most often with their lives.
The question more and more people are asking is: are we doomed? If the devastation caused by the floods took us back a hundred years, allowing armed groups and individuals, misled into narrowly interpreting religion, to dictate policy will take us back 400 years. But how can we reorient society? How can we use religion as a force of good rather than a force of evil? How can we rectify the severe damage that has already been done? For starters, the media, especially the electronic media, must mend its ways.
The talk show, a staple and increasingly static form of discourse, needs to broaden its horizons. It is not advisable to invite bickering politicians or analysts who rely on inflaming emotions. They add nothing to the discussion and it is best to black them out till they can learn to present arguments dispassionately. There is a need, instead, to build up rational discourse.
Religious programmes need to be strictly monitored so that there is no inflaming of emotion, no discriminatory interpretations and, most importantly, no incitement to violence. Running advertisements on tolerance while simultaneously providing a platform to those preaching the contrary is counterproductive. Efforts should also be made to show Pakistani viewers how other Muslim countries run their affairs. We are, after all, not the only Muslims on the planet. For example, Saudi Arabia is mandating veiled women be fingerprinted and have their identities verified by male immigration officers, in light of security concerns, and spending enormous amounts of money on jihad rehabilitation facilities.
The media can also be a tool for adult and child literacy. English, science and math lessons can be offered via television. Television does not need to be a reflection of society. It can be a teaching tool to uplift the masses that have been robbed of a quality education. Ratings may not immediately skyrocket because of this policy but, in the long run, it will reap benefits for society that will positively affect us all. The hypocrisy of feeding readers of the Urdu press one thing and those of the English press another must end. If media owners send their own children to enlightened American schools and universities, then it is not fair to dumb down the average Pakistani viewer with nonsense.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 8th, 2011.
The question everyone seems to be asking in the aftermath of London’s recent riots is: why were they rioting? There is no logical answer to this question, but the politicians of course have found a new issue to politicise. For me, the most obvious reason is: they were rioting because they could get away with it. London’s policing leaves much to be desired. Hard-working, law-abiding citizens are often victims of burglaries, car theft and even assault. Hardly ever are the perpetrators of these crimes caught. Speak to anyone who has been the victim of these crimes and they will tell you about the ineffectiveness of London’s police. Compared to cops in other megacities like Los Angeles or Paris, London’s law enforcement simply does not have the aura of authority or the requisite preparedness.
On the other hand, while London lacks a respect for authority, it does have a welcoming feel to it, at least much more so than America or France. Land at Heathrow as a visitor and the process is far less intimidating than the gruelling secondary inspections many innocents must endure at American airports. One would be hard-pressed to recreate the immigrant-friendly feel of Edgware Road in a posh area of Manhattan or in the fashionable arrondissements of Paris. While other countries have ghettoised immigrant culture, the policies of the Labour government since the late nineties have made London more open and diverse, more tolerant and resilient than rivals like New York. This is a good thing.
But the attempted justifications of the rioting by some Labour politicians and their reluctance to embrace a new policing culture is not such a good thing. To blame capitalism for criminal behaviour, as some lefties have done, is simply nonsensical. Surely, capitalism has its failings, not the least of which was evidenced by the credit crisis and tragic home foreclosures. Yet the rioting in London may well be a failing of socialism. This has nothing to do with race or not caring for an underclass. Those who rioted are looked after far better by their government than many in other parts of the world. In fact, the immigrants and indeed indigenous English whose businesses and property were ransacked may have overcome far greater obstacles in life. Could it be that by providing freebies like government housing and benefits, people are encouraged to develop a sense of entitlement and expect goodies without having to work for them?
It is in striking that elusive balance between capitalism and socialism, in ensuring rule of law and avoiding police brutality, that London must show leadership. UK Prime Minister David Cameron thus had the right idea when he approached Bill Bratton, former American police chief who is best known for gentrifying the streets of Manhattan under former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. Anyone who lived in New York pre and post Bratton’s term will attest to the reduction in crime. Yet insecure politicians like UK Home Secretary Theresa May insist on giving preference to nationality over expertise. Bratton, who has reduced crime in Boston, New York and Los Angeles, is willing to take British citizenship for the job, according to The Guardian. Not that hiring an American for a top job in the bureaucracy is new to London. Former mayor of London Ken Livingstone had appointed American Robert Kiley as commissioner of transport for London at a controversial sum of £2 million over four years. Expertise comes at a price. More recently, American Andrew Altman, former deputy mayor of Philadelphia, has been hired to help with the Olympics.
Bratton’s task would be far more difficult. Not only would he have to bolster the police force in the wake of budget cuts, but also tackle the lax policing culture which is far too accepting of criminal elements. As a fellow Pakistani who had to undergo facial surgery after being mugged in London a few years ago said to me, “They need to jumpstart the system, American style.”
Published in The Express Tribune, August 19th, 2011.