In January, Elise Harris travelled from New York to Lahore, Pakistan, to interview Maryam Jameelah, a convert from Judaism who became a public intellectual affiliated with the Islamic political party Jama’at-i Islami. Harris kept a travel diary during her three months in Lahore. Some names have been changed. This is the second of two parts; part one is available in the previous issue.
Friday, March 2, 2007
Nadia’s mom Tahira is in the house with me today. I walk through the kitchen to the washing machine. She puts a carrot in my hand. On the way back, she makes me eat an orange. She watches me while I eat it. She slowly says the Urdu numerals for one, two, three, four, and I dumbly repeat them after her. Ek, do, tiin, chaar. She laughs. Tahira seems like an unusually cool person. We have a little love story going on here in a funny way.
Sometimes I come downstairs when she’s praying. She kneels on a mat in front of the sofa and the telephone. If I come downstairs while she’s ironing, cooking, or washing dishes I give her a hug or make a kissy face at her. One upside of our lack of communication is that Tahira enjoys my affection. She might not want it if she knew a little more about me.
I wonder how she is doing. Some days she seems fine. Today she seems depressed and lonely. Nadia says that her mother left her village for the city at age 14 or so to get married. Tahira married into money but her marriage was less than fulfilling. Her husband died in 2005. Her son moved to London a year later.
Nadia is here for a few years only, to open local offices for her American employer. She and her mother can barely stand each other. I’m not sure what goes on between them. The house is tense. Last night Tahira called her son in London and cried to him on the phone. Some nights I sit in my room and listen to Tahira and Nadia fighting. It’s depressing. When this happens I put on “Party Anthem” by Fat Man Scoop and dance around my room.
In the evening, I go to the house of a famous poet for study circle. The gathering is held in a beautiful drawing room with 14-foot-high ceilings. Three large-scale paintings by the poet’s daughter cover one wall. Two carpets hang on another wall. There are about 20 people present, about five or six of them women. Two or three arrivals greet the poet by kneeling before him and kissing his hands. A text written in classical Punjabi is circulated; it’s a discussion of the Book of Genesis by Sikh guru Baaba Naanak. The clerical terminology is difficult to follow, even for native speakers of Punjabi. The poet lectures in Urdu for 45 minutes, then there is an hour-long discussion of the viability of Marxist interpretation of religious idiom. Finally the poet’s wife enters the room and sings the text while a man accompanies her on the harmonium. Most of those present sing along. Afterward, servants bring out dinner. I chat with a social anthropologist visiting from Germany and an elegant female professor of Urdu literature. The professor lives near me in Defense and offers to take me home. She holds my hand during the ride and assures me that Lahoris have “open hearts.”
Saturday, March 3, 2007
Work at home. At 8pm, Shahid texts to say that he’s near my house. We get takeout from Pizza Hut and from a Pakistani fast-food chain and bring it to the lounge area that Nadia has set up for me. I’m PMS-ing and not at my best. Shahid, it turns out, is a former drawing room communist, now inclined toward developing a sophisticated and flexible political Islam. He is suspicious of the current zeitgeist, a youthful and bubbly capitalism that is sweeping the big cities. There is a faddish, manic feeling to it, not unlike the U.S. dot-com boom of the 1990s. The telecom sector has boomed, but otherwise it’s unclear where the growth is. The frenzy might also be related to the huge IMF and World Bank loans that have come to Pakistan since Musharraf got on board with the war on terror. I need an economist to explain it to me. If the economy plunges, there will be unpleasant consequences.
I tell Shahid about the poets and their Marxist readings of ancient Sufi and Sikh poetry. He throws up his hands in disgust. “Those poems were written for their specific time and place. The idea was to convert local people to Islam, by using their native forms and the themes of love and tolerance.” Shahid criticizes the drawing room communists, the young capitalists, and the “modernist” Islamists like Javed Ghamidi. He is very excited about the work of Muhammad Iqbal, the great poet-philosopher of modern Muslim India, who died in 1938. “For Iqbal, it wasn’t about standing in place being a dervish somewhere,” he said. “His version of Sufism meant you had to go out there into the world and get what you want.”
Shahid seems to have come from money, a landowning family. He said he was repulsed by their corruption and became a Marxist. But he has a hard time relating to poorer Pakistanis. They don’t use deodorant, for one thing.
Sunday, March 4, 2007
Interview MJ. A girl in her family, probably about 14, asks me if I want to hear a song she has written. In a sharp soprano she sings:
No one can ever see the anger
That’s inside me now
I am like a caged bird
That can’t fly
No one can ever feel the pain
That’s hurting me from the inside
No one will ever get to know
What I want from my life
No one can melt the layer of ice
That is around my heart
There would be no hope for me to live
I’d die with a shattered heart.
The people will forget me soon
I mean nothing to them
They’ll just know that a girl died
I’d know what caused my end
Of all the pain that has been caused
I just wanna say
I wish that all my dreams come true
I get for what I pray
When the song is over she makes a nervous little noise, like a titter.
When I come home at 6pm, there is a new cat in the house, a white Persian. Tahira took her because she felt her cat General Shamikebab needed a girlfriend. She apparently hasn’t eaten for ages so she is devouring everything in sight. She follows me as I walk upstairs and unlock the door to my room. While I’m in the bathroom she jumps onto my bed and pukes in the sheets.
Monday, March 5, 2007
Today is my trip to Faisalabad with Ahmad. We’re taking the bus. Ahmad is a terrible driver—the other day he did a U-turn directly in front of an oncoming van and almost got us killed—so the bus seems like a good choice. I wake up at 4:30, get a taxi at 5, and reach the Daewoo bus station at 5:15. Like almost all unmarried young Lahoris, Ahmad lives at home with his parents, who drop him off at 5:45. His mother wears shalwaar kameez and stays in the car. His father shakes our hands goodbye. He’s wearing a shirt and pants, along with a cravat.
Before we board, Ahmad buys two cans of iced coffee with a 500-rupee note. He is obnoxious to the guy running the food stand. He doesn’t make eye contact and he throws the money onto the counter instead of placing it in his hand. The guy shakes his head just slightly, as if to say, what a dick. Ahmad acts warm and friendly to me. On the bus, he starts off by saying, “You’ve seen the entire developed part of Pakistan, the rest is downhill from here.” He enthusiastically shows me the work his four-year-old advertising firm has done. There are a few high-end clients and many smaller ones from Lahore’s garment industry. He and a friend designed a line of men’s underwear, with the slogan “110% manly.”
Ahmad is wearing the same suit I’ve seen him in almost every time we’ve met. It’s Burberry. When he takes off his jacket I see that he is wearing suspenders underneath. He’s restless and workaholic, often distracted. He claims that he hasn’t slept in three days. He makes very little eye contact. He mentions that he needs to work out or swim daily, “because I can’t just work 24/7.” He wants to retire by the time he’s 30 and then do something “more productive,” not just “build an empire.” His phone rings often. The ringtone is The X-Files theme song. Somehow he combines the qualities of ’80s Wall Street and ’90s Silicon Valley. Yet his political views are those of Noam Chomsky.
He is skimming through a Bang & Olufsen catalogue while we drive through dusty, run-down villages. He begins to lecture me about the history of Pakistan. “The Muslim elite of India wanted Pakistan because they wanted a country to rule and exploit and live off of. But the masses wanted Pakistan because they wanted an Islamic state. All those people who died, it was because they were fighting for something they believed in, an Islamic state. So if I were a politician, my slogan would be, an Islamic Pakistan is a clean Pakistan. Half of Islam is cleanliness, that’s an Islamic saying. And Pakistan is a mess, it’s a dirty mess.” He grins, gesturing out the window.
Ahmad is of the opinion that democracies are easier to manipulate than dictatorships. In dictatorships, power uses force to maintain control. In democracies, power uses media to maintain control. The fact that the media are allowed to question or criticize government policy makes the media consumer feel that someone is opposing the government. This perception relaxes them. They don’t have to stand up and fight the government. Someone is taking care of it. “It’s easier to manage a democracy,” he says, “trickier, but easier.”
His tendency to monologue is clearly compulsive. These routines are like Chinese water torture for me. I’m staring listlessly out the window, but Ahmad can’t seem to stop. “The Moghul empire was pathetic. A country that was conquered by a corporation. The Taj Mahal was a human-rights violation as far as I’m concerned.”
I feel so tired I could cry. “Islam was founded by people who were making the world, the artists, doctors, businessmen. We’ve lost it to the people who are afraid of the world. If Islam doesn’t help you get out there, doesn’t make you better at who you are, what’s the point of it?”
All great lines. He could be a TV personality. Or a political guru. Maybe he will run for office down the line. Or advise someone who does.
He has been spending a lot of time with me. I don’t know why. Today he seems anxious. Maybe because he has a big meeting? He denies it. Says he goes to four meetings every day. We talk about our favorite movies. He likes Scarface and The Godfather. I like Scenes From a Marriage, Ingmar Bergman’s epic portrait of a Swedish middle-class marriage. Ahmad looks at me with interest. “How does it end? Does it work out for them?” He asks me if I’ve seen War of the Roses, another movie “about a love marriage.” Marriages for love are on the border of respectability. A marriage is something that’s for social networking and raising a respectable family. The divorce rate is far lower than in the U.S., lower even than in Europe. Nadia is pretty sanguine about marriage. “Eventually, both American and Pakistani women end up with the same understanding of marriage,” she told me. “They just take different routes to get to that understanding.”
We arrive. Faisalabad is much less modern than Lahore. A lot of the billboards are fading and look like they’re from the ’90s. Much more of the signage is in Urdu.
Ahmad’s friend Raza picks us up at the bus station. Raza is Zafir’s brother. Ahmad met Raza first, at military school, but ultimately became closer friends with Zafir, who seems quite ambitious. Raza has long hair and wears a brown suede jacket over shalwaar kameez. Raza looks at Ahmad’s suit. “Dude, why do you dress so ’80s?” he asks. Raza is the same age as Ahmad but seems like a more balanced person. He works in his father’s wall-clock company and is determined to keep it competitive. But he’s also planning his wedding to his fiancée of three years. Ahmad says a wedding is “too much trouble.” Raza complains that while they’ve been friends for five years, this is the first time Ahmad has come to Faisalabad, and it’s for work.
We drive to the headquarters of the textile factory. The iron grille gates are decorated with an elegant but fading logo that recalls the great European fashion houses. It looks like a dead logo now. The company’s legendary founder died four or five years ago under mysterious circumstances. He had built this local giant from scratch in the ’80s and attracted a huge bedding contract with an American mass-market retailer. After his death, an incompetent wife took over as CEO and has since run the company into the ground, bringing lowered standards, bad client management, unpaid invoices, unreturned emails, bounced checks, and embezzlement schemes among the staff. The American retail chain had demanded exclusivity, so its contract constituted 80% of the company’s business. When it chose not to renew, the company went into a tailspin. It now has a terrible reputation and no income.
The executive offices feel anxious. The factory is like a morgue. One worker says, “You should have seen us when we had [the big-box retailer].” Six weeks ago, a retired brigadier was brought in to rescue the company. He is known for having revived failing businesses in Sindh and Balochistan. The brigadier has already let go 5,000 out of 6,000 workers. I read the company’s literature and discuss it with Ahmad. He says, “Great content feedback!” and holds his closed fist up for me to punch.
The meeting with the brigadier goes very well. The brigadier, who seems daunted by the scope of the company’s problems, treats Ahmad like a long-lost son. Ahmad has the contract if they can agree on terms.
After the meeting, Raza picks us up at the gate. Ahmad is ebullient. Raza, who has family in the textile business, knows the direness of the situation. He foresees doom for the company. Ahmad does not want a buzzkill right now. He just wants to think positive. “I don’t care as long as the green keeps coming in.” We look at him. “OK, as long as the multicolored Pakistani bills come in.” He goes off to say prayers, and then we catch the 6pm bus to Lahore. I stare out the window while Ahmad talks. Ahmad says that even if he had the option to live in the U.S., he wouldn’t take it, because “Pakistan is where you’re home, you’re accepted.” I tell him I just feel like staring out the window. “Why do you look so happy?” he asks. I say that my default mode is happy these days. He says that “people who are sad will be less likely to take a risk than people who are happy, because they will be afraid it will make them sadder.” Then he falls asleep.
He wakes up a few hours later. When he does he’s like a different person, hilarious and playful. I like him again. Zafir picks us up at the bus depot. They drop me off at home.
Tuesday, March 6, 2007
Work at home. Marya picks me up for dinner with Massoud and his cousin Sameer. Sameer runs a sporting goods concern in Faisalabad and visits Lahore fairly often. On the way to Model Town, we drive across a bridge that passes over some railroad tracks. Nawaz Sharif’s brother used to drive this way to see his mistress. He always had to stop and wait for the train to pass. This annoyed him. So Sharif built a skyway that locals call “Honey Flyover.”
Sameer asks me what I came to write about. “Women and their problems?” he inquires. Most American women who come to Pakistan seem concerned with “women and their problems.” I mention that I’m here to interview a convert, an American Jewish woman who became a Muslim. Sameer says that convert marriages never last, since in Pakistan “you’re never married to just one person.” You marry the mother-in-law, the sister-in-law, and everyone else in the extended family. Many Westerners who marry Pakistanis find that they can’t accept this lack of privacy. Right before we reach the house, Marya mentions that in the last few years, “Jewish” has come into circulation as an all-purpose synonym for certain negative traits, as in “that’s a very Jewish remark you just made” or “how Jewish of him.” Sameer doesn’t want to discuss it. “This is a very sensitive subject! Adherents of different religions and their traits and characteristics.”
Over dinner, there’s discussion of how people have been coming around the house, writing down the car’s license plate number. It could be someone “marking” the house, planning to rob it.
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
Work at home. Get my period. Look through my notebook, trying to find the list Hassan Abbas gave me of five causes for the growth of Pakistan’s jihadi outfits: 1. Pakistan’s identity crisis. Is Pakistan a Muslim country or an Islamic country? It’s an unresolved question. 2. The Afghan war. Zia became the “founding father of modern extremism and militancy,” with help from the Saudis and the CIA. 3. Saudi Money. Wahhabism had been insignificant in Pakistan before the ’80s, when the Saudis sought to counter Iran by promoting its version of Islam. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” says Abbas. 4. U.S. abandonment of Pakistan after the Afghan war. Pakistan felt free to use the mujahideen elsewhere. It wouldn’t have felt free to do so if the U.S. had stayed involved with Pakistan. 5. Kashmir conflict. This continues in the present day. “The modern day jihadi responds to Indian atrocities in Kashmir,” says Abbas.
The U.S. is party to two out of five causes. Not five out of five. Make mental note to memorize list.
Thursday, March 8, 2007
Today is observed as International Women’s Day in every country except the United States. “Well, they don’t celebrate Labor Day in the U.S., do they?” says Marya. She means May 1, May Day, the celebration of the labor movement, not our late summer holiday. I meet Marya and Massoud at a big Women’s Day event at the Mehfil Theater on Abbot Road. About six speakers are seated behind a long table. Behind them, the stage is decorated for a play with purple and orange walls, a couch, chairs. There are four short pillar-shaped tables with flowers. A banner reads “End Exploitation of Home-Based Workers. Equal Work . . . Equal Wages.”
The huge auditorium is full of women in headscarves and shalwaar kameez, maybe 800 or 1,000 of them. Many have children in tow. There is a sobriety to some women here. I can’t tell if it’s the more understated personal manner or if it’s depression. Probably a little of each. The event is organized by Women Workers’ Helpline, which is promoting a bill to register home-based workers (they peel vegetables and take in piece work) and get them government services like social security and health care. A male singer comes out to perform. He is accompanied by harmonium and drum. Marya translates for me. He sings, “Mill owners and industrialists! Pakistan is ours too. You cannot stop us. How can you stop us we have the color of blood. Look how through ownership people’s human relations are shattered.” Another verse is: “Don’t wish me a long life. It’s hard enough living a short life.” He bashes the mullahs: “You can’t live life without resorting to unreligious means, but you can’t convey that to the mullahs.” Javed Iqbal’s wife speaks. “Men should support us. The men who don’t, they’re lost. . . . We have to learn how to speak up for ourselves. If a baby doesn’t cry it doesn’t get milk. Don’t let your husband boss you around if you’re the breadwinner in the house.” Tariq Ali’s mother speaks: “Until the poor laugh and the poor smile, Pakistan is a lie.” A male labor leader describes the history of women in the labor movement. The first women’s strike happened in 1820 in England, it was against the 18-hour workday. By 1844 they had it down to a 10-hour day. The first union was formed in the U.S. in 1900, for shoemakers. The labor leader bemoans that mullahs are in favor of keeping women at home. Home-bound women workers are easily exploited by middlemen. At first, it’s inspiring. But after about four speakers they just repeat the same things. Massoud wants to leave.
Marya, Massoud and I go to lunch at the Pearl Continental Hotel. There’s something so calm and reasonable about Massoud. It’s refreshing to talk to someone who is not a hothead academic or journalist, who has spent most of his professional life in business. I ask him about the current Pakistani economic boom. Pakistan has profound economic problems that make it a source of cheap labor for Saudi Arabia and other oil monarchies in the Gulf region.
But Pakistan has seen a fair amount of growth recently. Nadia told me that telecom started to grow because of WTO agreements signed back in the late ’90s, but what about the rest of it? Massoud explains a little guiltily that September 11 was “a blessing in disguise” for Pakistan. Beforehand, Pakistan had been spending a big chunk of its budget on interest payments on debts to the U.S., Japan, China, and the World Bank. But when it got on board with the war on terror, its debt payment deadlines were rescheduled and it got a major influx of U.S. cash. (It’s been more than $10 billion since 2001.) Massoud says that the first thing Musharraf’s government did with the money was to “give itself a big pay raise.” Then it made payoffs to the political parties through bloated contracts with important party members. “We will give you a contract worth X rupees but we’ll only demand accountability for half of that” is Massoud’s synopsis. This will protect Musharraf’s people from prosecution when the parties come into power later on down the line. After those two expenditures, the government spent money on roads, waterworks, and other infrastructure and development projects, kick-starting the boom.
The second effect of September 11 was that Pakistanis living abroad began to undergo investigation if they had made contributions to Islamic charities. Fearful of having their property confiscated, they withdrew their assets and bought property in Pakistan. This triggered a real-estate boom. Other growth spurts followed in construction, banking, and retail. Between these two stimuli, the growth rate shot up to 6% for a few years.
The growth has brought inflation. The income of the vast majority of the population has seen no improvement, but prices have shot up. The general standard of living has plunged. Poverty and inequality are on the rise.
I ask Massoud when the frenzy will end. “It’s already ended,” he says. Now Pakistan’s structural problems are becoming visible again.
On the walk to the car I ask Massoud if he thinks that the policies of the World Bank and the IMF constitute economic colonialism. “Definitely,” he says calmly, laughing a little. His voice has none of the histrionic tone used by my left-leaning U.S. friends.
Marya cautions me not to internalize the anti-Americanism too much. I do feel like it’s contagious.
The other day I asked MJ in one of our interviews if these policies constitute usury, the ultimate evil in Islam. “WORLD BANK AND IMF USURY YES!” she said in a panicked squawk. Supposedly, the Prophet Muhammad’s primary conflict with his tribe, the Quraysh, was his opposition to their economic exploitation of the poor of Mecca. The Quraysh granted loans at exorbitant interest rates, forcing many people into indentured servitude and slavery. When Muhammad preached against this, other members of his tribe tried to kill him. He escaped to Medina, where he founded an egalitarian society. From there he conquered Mecca and peacefully imposed the values of his new society on his native city. To many people, the U.S. and the international economic institutions look like the Quraysh.
And the other night, Nadia described “American empire” as one of neglect more than abuse. “It takes what it wants and gives nothing back,” she says. But like Massoud, her tone is remarkably calm when she talks about this topic. “No other country has ever had a global empire before,” she muses, “except maybe the British.” She thinks that Bill Clinton was a much better emperor than George W. Bush. She says that the U.S. doesn’t share its knowledge and resources to help other countries develop. “Even if they know how to do it [i.e., run a government or a business], they aren’t going to tell you how to do it.” Nadia describes her politics as “hard left.”
I’m too embarrassed to say so out loud, but I’ve always thought it was up to “them” to get themselves together. To the extent that I’ve even thought about it at all.
Massoud, Marya, and I get into Massoud’s car. Massoud wants to teach in an MBA program, so I offer to introduce him to Dorothy at Forman Christian College, which will start an MBA program in the fall. After introducing Massoud to Dorothy, I take Massoud and Marya to see the library and then the church. While we wait for a custodian to arrive with a key, we sit for tea and conversation with the pastor, who is Pakistani but grew up in England in a non-observant Christian family. He worked in business for many years before being born again about 10 years ago. Dorothy once described this pastor’s Christianity as “what we had in the ’50s—fire and brimstone.” She attends a different church on Sundays.
Marya tells the pastor that she sees a lot to appreciate in every religion. She wonders whether people who are loving, kind, tolerant, and generous aren’t all equally close to God. This doesn’t go over well. Good works aren’t enough, the pastor says, you need to “know Jesus.” He’s disturbed by the younger generation, who are always promoting “postmodernism,” “relativism,” and “deconstruction.” He even sees it on his campus, this rejection of organized religion. The pastor says that initially he experienced it as a threat, but now he takes it as a challenge. A tense discussion ensues between the two of them. Thankfully, both parties are firm yet respectful. Marya can’t abide the idea of original sin. “A baby, that just looks like an angel to me,” she says. I say something morose about how none of us can escape our sinful nature. Massoud cites Romans: “Paul describes original sin in his letters. He asks, ‘Do I sin because of the law or without the law?’ It’s very complicated.” Marya loves all the conflict and confrontation. “Elise is going to convert by the end of her time here,” she says merrily. The pastor looks like he’s been stabbed with a knife. The guard arrives. We go to look at the church. It’s a very modest space, a square room with no decoration except a large cross. The pastor explains that he is writing essays for a degree from the University of Wales. If the essays are accepted he will write his dissertation. It’s not certain they will be. The University of Wales wants detached, academic prose, whereas his style is more devotional. His main interest is applying management principles to running a church. “The church hierarchy needs management, but it is scared of management,” he says. “That’s my thesis.”
On the way to the car I remember something the Australian said. She’s a big hippie and feminist and liberal and all that. She was trying to convince some fellow Anglicans from the Third World that homosexuality wasn’t a sin. While speaking with them, she came to realize that “they needed to do whatever they found spiritually necessary at the time.”
We leave the campus, drive to a bookstore, and then go to Marya and Massoud’s house. I call the Jama’at-i Islami headquarters and set up an appointment to go there on Saturday. Have tea on the balcony at sunset. Take rickshaw home. While I’m unlocking my door a small iguana falls on my head. Text-message with Ahmad for three hours. Watch Wake Up, Ron Burgundy on my laptop. Fall asleep.
Friday, March 9, 2007
Work at home. Read Stephen Philip Cohen’s The Idea of Pakistan in my room while a workman fills a hole in the wall from an air conditioner. The hole had been covered with a flimsy piece of cardboard. The other day a bird almost got inside. Lie in bed. Outside, rain and thunder.
List of economic problems: population explosion; corruption and bribery; government spending on defense; not enough government spending on development; no land reform; feudalism in rural areas where most of the population lives; anemic industrial production; women not in the workplace; underfunding of education precludes a service sector like India’s; poor-to-nonexistent tax collection; ongoing conflict with India scares off foreign investment; huge levels of foreign debt; textile industry faces new competition from China; local cartels hike up the cost of food and bribe elected officials not to pass anti-trust laws; wages are too high; military-owned businesses that get subsidies and preferential contracts; leaders’ questionable economic policies.
U.S. alignment: Is this good or bad? It comes with economic perks. But Pakistanis doubt the constancy of U.S. friendship. In the ’50s and ’60s, the U.S. patronized the very aligned Pakistan in a predictable Cold War fashion, but had to compete with the Soviet Union for the nonaligned India. There was an old joke about it: “India is your bride. We are your whore.” In the ’80s, during the Afghan war, a joke was: “We are the condom with which you fuck Afghanistan.” In 1989, shortly after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, the U.S. withdrew its financial support from Pakistan because of its secret nuclear-weapons program. Pakistanis saw this as cynical abandonment, given that the U.S. knew all about the program throughout the ’80s. To make matters worse, the U.S. withdrawal hit at the same moment when an oil recession in the Gulf lowered workers’ remittances. In 1998, Pakistan ran nuclear tests, and the U.S., Japan, and other countries imposed economic sanctions. In 1999, Musharraf inherited an economy on the verge of bankruptcy, with a foreign debt of $30 billion. By 2001 the growth rate had slowed to 2.6%. Then came September 11 and the renewed bond with Pakistan’s ex-friend the United States.
The actions of the West have contributed to Pakistan’s economic problems. But so have a population boom, the lack of formal tax collection, and the lack of natural resources. How much is the West responsible for? Two problems out of ten? Three? Maybe. One problem feeds into another problem. The same thing happens in politics. Early in Pakistan’s history, the military took over. The U.S. supported military leaders, who then prevented political parties from developing. Their absence strengthened the non-state actors, whose presence made the military seem more indispensible.
It’s really about all that history. But if you’re trying to craft a popular political language, you won’t get far by adopting a measured analysis of historical dynamics.
Tomorrow I am scheduled to go to Mansura, headquarters of the Jama’at-i Islami. Maulana Abul Ala Mawdudi, a journalist and Quranic commentor, founded the party in India in 1941, before partition. Mawdudi saw nationalism as a secular idea and opposed the foundation of the Pakistani state; this fact has haunted the Jama’at ever since. Nonetheless the Jama’at are considered the intellectuals of the Islamist sector—“centrist” and “intellectually attractive” says Stephen Philip Cohen. The Jama’at supports women’s education. It is the only political party in the country with internal democracy: the party’s membership elects its leaders, which is not the case in the Pakistan People’s Party, where Benazir Bhutto is “chairperson for life.” It currently leads the MMA, a coalition of religious parties that runs the government in the North West Frontier Province and jointly operates the provincial government in Balochistan. It sponsors a religious militia in Kashmir, something not considered unusually extremist. While most of its members are Sunni and Deobandi, the party has translated and published important work from Shia political thought, like Ali Shariati’s writings. The Jama’at has several publishing houses, hospitals, and a women’s wing. Their foreign affairs director is interviewed on al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya.
The Jama’atis aren’t religious bigots—that would be the other religious parties, the JUI and the JUP, who are close to the sectarians, militants, and terrorists. The “non-state actors.” Hassan Abbas said that the JUI and the JUP put out “exclusively hate literature.” But the Jama’at has had its less intellectually attractive moments. In the ’50s, the Jama’at instigated a wave of violence against a “heretical” Muslim sect, the Ahmadiya. In the ’80s, its militant student wing used intimidation and violence to take over several university campuses. In 2003, it was accused, and then exonerated, of helping coordinate an al-Qaeda safe house. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, allegedly the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, was arrested in the home of a Jama’at elected official. The MMA recently bought an ad in a Karachi paper to herald Osama bin Laden as a lion of Islam. The Jama’ati members of the National Assembly are boycotting the parliament to protest the Women’s Protection Bill.
I try to imagine the Jama’at HQ. I know it will be perfectly normal. But this is the most scared I’ve felt since the night when I left London.
Saturday, March 10, 2007
Go to Jama’at-i Islami headquarters at Mansura. It’s not how I had imagined it. A nice clean, well-maintained place, built in the mid-’70s. With Saudi money? Very carefully designed, like a corporate campus. About 200 people live here. I have a short meeting and listen to two leaders’ spiel about an Islamic welfare state, restoring the constitution, sending the army back to the barracks, and opposing U.S. foreign and economic policy. Most Jama’atis, like most Pakistanis, opposed the U.S. war in Afghanistan; they felt that there was no evidence that Osama bin Laden committed the crimes of September 11, 2001, and that the Taliban should have been given an opportunity to hand Osama bin Laden over to an international court. The Jama’at officers take pains to emphasize that they do nothing “underground” and tell me “you must only write what you see.” They seem slightly bored, maybe by me, maybe by repeating these statements thousands of times. I wonder if Islamists ever lose their faith when it becomes a job.
The Jama’at had two heydays, one as an opposition party in the ’70s and the other as a power player in the ’80s. The current phase is more ambiguous, being Musharraf’s handpicked “opposition.” In the 2002 elections, Musharraf sidelined the two major political parties, Benazir Bhutto’s PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, which are roughly equivalent to the Democrats and the Republicans. Musharraf’s action opened a space for the MMA to perform unusually well.
“The MMA is the opposition party because Musharraf allows them to be the opposition party,” is how one Western analyst put it. My professor friend at the University of Balochistan said, “On the surface, they seem like enemies. Underneath, they are together.”
If the MMA has some real electoral traction in the NWFP and Balochistan, there could be consequences in the future. But people tell me it isn’t going as well as that.
Before 2002, the Jama’at did poorly in elections. This does not mean that “the masses” disagree with their ideas. The meaning of Pakistan’s elections, in which the proportion of the vote going to religious parties steadily declined between 1988 and 2002, is ambiguous. Electoral politics is a game of patronage. Landlords use the votes they control to further their economic interests. Some big landlords force their tenant farmers and bonded laborers to vote for the candidate they choose, almost always from the PPP or the PML. I’ve heard that when the members of the religious parties stand outside rural polling places, voters tell them, “We wish we could vote for you, but our hands are tied.” As a result, there is a lot of uncertainty about how “the people” would actually vote. Many of those I’ve talked to tell me that the majority of the country would choose an Islamic state. That if there were true democracy in Pakistan, the country would swing toward the Islamic parties. Others, like Nadia, believe that the masses would vote for “one of their own,” someone who would deliver safe, drinkable water, sewage processing, and electricity. “The basic amenities of life,” says Nadia. Nazihsh thinks they would vote for a party that was truly committed to development and social justice. For eight years, Musharraf has marginalized the secular party that claims to hold those values, the PPP.
I can only find one decent academic study of popular opinion. It claims to find a 50-50 split between those who would choose Islamic democracy and those who would choose secular democracy. It sounds like they asked very abstract questions. I don’t know what to believe. My guess would be that the left-liberals are losing credibility fast but that the Islamic parties don’t have much left either.
The Jama’at-i Islami seems respectable, but there is an air of the “dead logo” to them. Maybe if they found a brash young leader, a clean and modern brand manager, they could bring new life to their party.
It seems like someone has told these Jama’at members that I might convert. They urge me to read the Quran and to seek out Muslim communities in Brooklyn. I don’t know what I’ll do when I get home. Something will probably change. I just hope it’s dignified. Before I left New York, I had dinner with a friend. I must have gone on too long about the injustices of the world. She looked worried. “What if you become one of those people who just writes poems about monsoons?” she asked.
Go home after the meeting. Sit on my kitchen porch at sunset. I have worked for two days straight; spent no time with friends. That would be all right in New York. Here, it’s not good. I scroll through the names in my phone looking for someone to call.
Sunday, March 11, 2007
Wake up. Ahmad sent me a text at 2am. I reply and he invites me to lunch with him and his friends. I tell him I’ll come if he wears something other than the Burberry suit.
His friend Bilal picks me up in his car; we’re going to eat at Subway. He’s been told that I have written for newspapers, so he starts grilling me about the U.S. media. Bilal doesn’t actually read the New York Times, he’s never held a copy of it in his hands, but he gets emails from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, which berate the newspaper for its uncritical reporting of Bush administration statements.
On the one hand, I agree with him. It might have been impossible for journalists to prove that Iraq lacked WMD, or that the Bush administration was using intelligence it knew was bogus, but it seems like most newspapers and networks didn’t even try. And why is it beyond the pale to ask whether the Iraq war was about oil and China?
On the other hand, I don’t agree. I try to explain that part of the problem is that “the media” is a real industry employing real people. Many New York Times editors are ashamed of their “liberal media” reputation. They want to counter that image. Market share is going to the internet, so newspapers compete by offering “softer” (and cheaper) opinion and think pieces. “Opinion” is a pugilistic argument culture. You’re required to act confident. You can’t say you don’t know what to think, that you don’t have enough information to have an informed opinion.
Bilal isn’t buying it. He says that the New York Times “destroys entire countries.”
The list of my country’s evils is growing. Our foreign policy is execrable. Our economic policy is colonialism. Our media is homicidal. I don’t totally agree with this, but sometimes I feel the full impact of anti-American sentiment here, and I have to think, wow we’ve been dining out on those old World War II stories a little too long.
Bilal runs a software company. He worked on a contract for an American client, who then said, “OK, it’s great, but how do I know that the money won’t go to terrorism?” I ask how long it’s been like this. I’m expecting that he’ll say since September 11. “Since the neocons came into power,” he says, pointing an accusatory finger in the air.
We get to Subway. Ahmad arrives soon after, wearing jeans and a button-down shirt. He critiques my outfit and Bilal’s. My top is apparently a combination gypsy and Pakistani shirt. Ahmad also thinks Bilal’s style is too feminine, kind of like Raza’s. (Raza has long, beautiful hair and looks like an actor in a Bollywood movie. The others call him SisterGirl, from the character in the Dave Chappelle movie Undercover Brother.) Ahmad tells Bilal, “If you were any more feminine I’d be attracted to you.” “That would be terrible,” I say. “Terrible is an understatement,” Ahmad says, laughing. “It would be . . . beyond terrible.”
Ahmad asks how it went with the “five Tablighis.” (The Tablighi Jama’at is an apolitical missionary organization created in response to Hindu and Christian evangelism a hundred-odd years ago.) I tell him they were Jama’atis, not Tablighis. He says they’re all the same, which they are not.
Ahmad seems gratified when I say it was boring, but he still thinks I’m talking about Tablighis. He says, “They just say the basics. Any Joe Muslim is going to know the basics. Pray five times a day. Give to the poor.” “Speak the truth,” says Bilal. “Honesty,” Ahmad nods. “Maybe they need a rebrand,” I say. “Exactly. It’s not enough just to say the basics. I need you to inspire me,” says Ahmad, gripping his hands in an “inspiration” gesture.
“We went through this, the marketing of Christianity, all throughout the twentieth century,” I say. “It’s filled up the megachurches.”
The Tablighi’s basics are religious prescriptions, while the basics of the Jama’at are political positions. But I wonder what proper marketing would do for them. Someone once said of al-Huda, the website and community promoting conservative Islamic values to upper-middle-class women, “These people always had money. I think they succeed now because they’ve been to the West and learned marketing.” Bilal proposes a Tablighi website, www.weforbid.com.
Today’s client arrives. His primary job is running his family’s rice mill, but he’s trying to start a Pakistani eBay. We all eat chicken fajita sandwiches and discuss why MySpace is cluttered but Google is clean and simple.
Ahmad drives me home. When we arrive he hits me lightly on the arm.
Monday, March 12, 2007
Go to meet a professor at NCA, Lahore’s art school. The NCA campus is beautiful, full of red brick buildings with arched windows. It was built in the nineteenth century for artisans and became an art school in 1958, after partition. Two young female printmakers stand around chatting in their aprons, their hair tied up in kerchiefs. A young man runs across the courtyard. Flyers for a skit night are taped to the walls. Through my professor friend I have met many NCA staff members, including a Swedish professor of acting and an Iranian professor of editing and screenwriting who has taught in Tehran’s prestigious film school, the one that produced Abbas Kiarostami. We leave go to a restaurant for lunch. We have to take a detour because a section of the main road is closed for protests.
Over the weekend, Musharraf placed the chief justice of the Pakistan High Court Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry under house arrest, citing a legal accusation against him and denying him a meeting with his defense attorney. Today a group of lawyers will demonstrate against Musharraf. From what I can make out, Chief Justice Chaudhry had heard (and maybe ruled on?) a very controversial and high-profile case filed against the government by the families of the people “disappeared” under charges related to the war on terror; this was amid hunger strikes by family members in Karachi and Islamabad. Justice Chaudhry is also slated to hear other controversial human-rights cases and lawsuits challenging various aspects of the upcoming elections. Some people see his arrest as a sign that Musharraf’s regime is in trouble. Others say that Musharraf is in an unbelievably difficult position, criticized from the left by proponents of human rights and democracy, challenged from the right by Islamists, and now undermined by the courts.
One of the professor’s NCA colleagues told me that Musharraf needs extra-constitutional powers to guide Pakistan through this complicated period. The person said that Musharraf was right to suspend the chief justice. I was surprised to hear a liberal-minded person say this.
Today’s protests will turn violent, with police beating male and female black-suited lawyers with batons. Tomorrow’s paper will show protestors with blood dripping down their faces.
The professor drives me a short distance to a two-floor building owned by Bapsi Sidhwa, a novelist and the screenwriter of the recent movie “Water.” On the ground floor is Croweaters, one of the first art galleries in Lahore. The woman who runs it used to work in advertising; she wears glasses with translucent blue-green frames. We look at a solo show of figural paintings in oil and acrylic by NCA lecturer Ahsen Asif. These paintings have some clichéd imagery, but I like a lot of things about them. The exhibition text says: “The narcissistic nymphets for which he has been both celebrated and reviled have matured into complex emotional dyads. . . . [Female beauty is] rendered both beautiful and frightening. . . . The unit of measure for Ahsen is the sphere or dot, eye, nipple, bud, bubble, bauble, tumour, brush stroke. These compositional molecules show off his mutant old-master skill and speak about conception, fruition, rot, and dissolution as phases of a polymorphous, universal fact.” Upstairs is a cafe serving Pakistani and Parsi food. (Parsis are Zoroastrians who migrated to Pakistan from Persia centuries ago; most live in Karachi and tend to be relatively well-to-do. Freddie Mercury of Queen was Parsi.) The meal is one of the best I’ve ever had.
I tell her I’m reading about the Zia years and their effect on Pakistan. “I’m not sure we really understand yet what happened to us during those years,” she says. In the evening we go to an opening of mostly photo-based work by an architect. The guest of honor is an industrialist who founded the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). I hang out a bit and then take a rickshaw home.
Lie in bed. Today was good. I ate good food, enjoyed charming company, and saw beautiful paintings. Feel restored. Ponder a bit. It is so hard to rise above seeing a foreign country in terms of American policy and American interests.
Before I left the United States, I met a Pakistani woman on a train. She was an engineer on a Fulbright. She was taking a long trip from Boston to Virginia to spend Thanksgiving with her family. She avoids plane rides because she wears the hijab. I told her I would be going to Pakistan soon. “When you really think about the history,” she said, “you will say to yourself, ‘I would have done the same thing if I were in their position.’ ”
Make a timeline in my diary:
1940s. Jinnah leads India’s Muslim League. Jama’at-i Islami is formed. A significant number of Indian Muslims oppose partition and stay in the Indian National Congress. Then partition. Mountbatten admits he “fucked it up.”
1950s–60s. Military dictatorship. U.S. alignment. Also patronage from China. Ayub achieves agreement with India over water rights. Economic development.
1970s. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. “Democracy and socialism and Islam.” Loss of Bangladesh. Separatist movement in Balochistan. Ban on alcohol.
1980s. Zia. Afghan jihad. CIA involvement. Three million Afghan refugees. Top-down “Islamification” by the state. Hudud laws. Women’s movement. Jama’at control of campuses. Only one TV station. Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. The withdrawal of American aid.
1990s. Four democratic administrations in short succession, each one corrupt and incompetent. Cultural hangover from Zia. Sponsorship of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Nuclear tests, then American sanctions. Musharraf.
2000s. Economic problems. September 11. Renewed American aid. Economic boom. Militants in the tribal areas defeat Pakistani military raids. Peace agreements. Continued support for the Taliban. Opposition to al-Qaeda. Increased religious dialogue in the media. Increased media freedom.
Early in my trip I heard a Pakistani official on TV talking about how Arab countries could learn from Musharraf’s success. He said that the rise of extremism means losing the middle class and losing direction. The term “enlightened moderation” helps because “the term ‘secular’ rings badly in the ears of Arabs.” The goal is to “put religion above politics” and to “shut down the privatizers of religion, those messianic or Mahdist [elements] who are predicting Armageddon in our lifetime. Leave the politicians to water, energy, and cohesion.” At the time I only heard the part about Armageddon in our time. Now I hear the part about losing direction. And the part about “water, energy, and cohesion.”
As I am falling asleep, Marya forwards a goodnight text message an admirer sent her: “Bed of trust, pillow of care, bedsheet of understanding, blanket of peace, and dreams of love.*good night.”
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
From the February 2–8, 2007, issue of the Friday Times, a respected weekly news and features magazine:
Among the Taliban in South Waziristan
By Iqbal Khattak
Local villagers told TFT that the three houses [hit by military air strikes] were being used by wood-collectors. They categorically denied the foreigners were using the houses. However, it did not seem that the villagers were being honest since TFT spotted masked men among the angry crowd who were moving about as if acting as minders. . . . Security sources in Peshawar told TFT that militant groups in Pakistan had copied the strategy from the insurgents in Iraq where suicide attacks have taken a very heavy toll in the sectarian war going on in that country.
A militant who has returned ‘safe’ from several missions across the border shared his fighting experience with TFT saying the Americans ‘fought poorly in the beginning but were now becoming good.’ Giving his name as Esmat Dawar, the militant showed respect for the adversary. His assessment was that the Americans were beginning to understand the ground and the tactics much better. He also said that the Afghan army was ‘tough to confront’ and ‘fights well.’ Of the three adversaries, the Afghans, Pakistan army, and the U.S., he ranked the Afghan army as the best, followed by the Pakistan army, and then the Americans.
Text message with Ahmad:
A: How be you dear friend? How is the world treating you?
E: I was just thinking of you my dear friend. The world is treating me very well. And you?
A: Please tell me you didn’t toss me off the cliff in your thoughts.
E: I ran you over with a truck actually.
A: I thought so.
A: Hey, once you run me over, do I make it?
E: There are several different versions of the story.
A: I’m assuming none ends with happily ever after.
Go to Nadia’s office in the Pakistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry building. Two of her colleagues have offered to help me meet people. One has Islamist family members I can interview; the other is the treasurer of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. The HRCP is basically the ACLU, Amnesty International, the NAACP, NOW, NARAL, and the SEIU rolled into one. The HRCP treasurer wears a tracksuit a la Russell Simmons. He has about five minutes for me.
Meet Marya and Y. for dinner at Carpe Diem. Y.’s best friend is having a stressful day so Y. takes a moment to text her. “She’s miserable, so I’m sending her some platitudes to make her feel better,” she says. Y. and Marya are both on the Yahoo group Pakistanidykes but have never met in person. They recognize each other’s screen names. After formal introductions and discussion of politics and religion we get down to business and discuss local high-class homosexualities. Many elite Lahori women marry and then have affairs. Those who are so inclined have lesbian affairs. It seems like this setup works quite well for some women but makes others totally miserable. Y. is bisexual and quite romantic, prone to unrequited and long-distance love. As a relatively overt person Y. is viewed as the designated affair provider. This seems to annoy her. Y. drives each of us home after dinner. “Queer women,” she says, thinking out loud.
Forwarded text message: “My silence doesn’t mean I 4get U . . . My disappearance doesn’t mean I don’t care about U . . . Bcoz U r always in my * * * P*R*A*Y*E*R*S.”
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Interview Suroosh Irfani, professor of cultural studies at NCA. I arrive early. On his wall are lots of posters, cartoons, and book jackets. I see a Proust quote about how neurotics are responsible for all civilization, a list of Rumi quotes, and Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art.” There’s an illustration from the New York Review of Books. He arrives. He’s a distinguished looking man with a moustache, a tweed jacket and a newsboy cap.
All around the top of his office walls are a series of paintings illustrating the arc of South Asian Islam: (1) Sir Sayyed Ahmed Khan and Hali. (2) Muhammad Allama Iqbal and Rumi. (3) Jinnah. (4) “THEN,” with a microphone to signify dialogue, next to “NOW,” with a string of ammunition. (5) Mullah Omar. (6) Saddam’s statue coming down. (7) Osama bin Laden. Next to Saddam’s statue are the words, “This age is awaiting its own Abraham,” an Iqbal verse. Osama faces the words, “Why shouldn’t Islam be gloried with the likes of what we have?”
The occasion for the series was a planned NCA visit by President Musharraf. Irfani and his students were up all night the evening before the general came to his office. He starts explaining with Sir Sayyed. “In the nineteenth century, after the failed revolt [against the British], many came to the conclusion that there was a deficit of knowledge. We had an educational reformist in Sir Sayyed Ahmed Khan, who founded Aligarh. Then there was Hali, who offered Muslims self-critique, openly and savagely. He was our first modern cultural critic. A pathbreaker. He said let’s get on with the new world. He was the voice of modernity in Muslim India. Hali is a pen name, it means that which belongs to the present. The Muslim voice struggling to be born in the nineteenth century.” Iqbal and Jinnah built upon this tradition in the twentieth century.
Irfani views this intellectual legacy as “a call for dialogue with yourself, with your own Muslim past, and with the West.” He mentions that Islam privileges Abraham as a major prophet because he broke with precedent. “You need iconoclasts,” he says, “people who are reconfiguring the human individual, the relationship with God, the universe, and others. Each individual is the Abraham of his own age. You, the individual, will make the difference through your own self/ego. Get on with self-formation, become through creative action. Bring new meaning and interpretation to old idioms. Prophets like Abraham are symbols of creative anguish. An emblem of the creative. Bring on the new, the new song, the new voice. You can do this when you sink into your own individuality. Be your own man. Your own person. Then there is the miracle, water comes from the dead earth. You can nourish your people, give them a new vision. Reclaim the imagination. Stem the Talibanization.”
I ask Irfani about al-Huda and other examples of media Islam. He seems kind of irritated by questions about uninspiring things. “It’s the package, it’s present, it’s visible.” The problem is that someone like Iqbal is not an easy sell. “Iqbal says, ‘What I’m offering you is creative anguish.’ ” Irfani sees two common but mistaken paths: imitation of the West and replication of the past. “During the Zia years, Islamization, it was the easy way out. In a void, it caught on. There was no substantial alternative. Even with Sufism, the substantive thinking ends with Iqbal. [Subsequent generations] produced some culture but it was not generalized. So instead we have these substitutes. Shortcuts to identity affirmations.” A small minority is into hyper-Westernization, “but you can’t disown who you are. It’s a matter of identity.” He sees South Asian Islam as an “Indo-Persian thing,” with a “built-in flexibility” and “space for the other.” Sufis have “transporter origins, foreign origins,” and Hinduism played a supportive role, because they “didn’t shun these people, they created a context supportive for Indian Islam.” The current supremacy of “the Wahhabi version” is due to the “Saudi factor” in the ’80s, as well as the Afghan jihad and Zia’s regime. “Islam became a ballgame,” he says. “Each party was getting mileage out of Islam.” But the confusion of today’s Pakistani youth has multiple sources. “In the ’80s, the younger lot was affected,” he says, “but that’s part of a global phenomenon. The onslaught of satellite TV, overt sexuality. [Young people] take refuge in a more traditional image. It’s part of globalization. It’s contextual, an assertion of your own identity. You’re not ‘that’—Western, promiscuous.”
He discourages me from writing about the Zia years—that’s negative, he says, why continue to lament the past—so I ask him to recommend innovative figures on the contemporary scene. This produces a lot of hemming and hawing and a few names. “A critical engagement with the world is harder than [being a] copycat,” he says.
I leave Irfani’s office and sit in the NCA courtyard for a while. His optimism and positivity contrast so much with my own negativity. He’s more fun to be around, that’s for sure. I wish I could be Mr. Brightside.
This is how I see it: for centuries, there was “traditional Islam,” the schools of law, the ritual observance, etc. A personalist creative idiom grew out of mystical poetry, and philosophy came from the writing of accredited scholars. Then, in the 1920s, Mawdudi wrote his books and articles that launched political Islam. This movement built up over decades, culminating in political parties and jihadi militias. These two strains, the creative and the political, continue into the present.
In the 1990s and the 2000s, media professionals started developing Islamic brands. Al-Huda is the most obvious example of commercialized spirituality, but al-Qaeda is like a great media brand in a way. There’s a formula to it. It’s like an underground, youth culture kind of thing. Radical, utopian, chic. Reminds me of my favorite Olivier Roy quote: “Islam can’t choose the form of its modernity.”
Ahmad texts me. We’re both between meetings so he comes to get me in one of his four cars, a 1974 VW bug. I propose a walk in Lahore’s largest and most beautiful park, Bagh-i Jinnah. He doesn’t know where it is. A workaholic freak. He’s in a bad mood because he couldn’t sleep last night but has to stay awake until a 5pm meeting. It’s with an advertising guy who makes “crappy commercials.” I tell Ahmad that Irfani seemed to think that my interest was too exclusively in the negative parts of Islam. And that reminded me of my own general negativity. “I have to agree with him about the negativity,” he says. “You need to come out into the light.” This hurts my feelings a little. I ask him if he thinks he has any negativity in his personality. He looks annoyed. “I have a lot of negativity in my personality,” he says. “I am a very cynical man. And cynicism is the lowest form of humor.”
A few hours later, Bilal meets me for dinner. He tells me a little about his childhood in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. “Saudi Arabia is naive and innocent,” he says. “It was slower, like a small Midwestern town. There was no email. Saudis are very racist to Indians and Pakistanis. Not to English or Americans.”
He had a tough transition when he moved to Pakistan. “It’s tough here,” he says. “In Pakistan, your first year you get bounced around. A Pakistani kid would take a Saudi kid and sell him on eBay within 10 minutes.”
Bilal went to a top engineering school with serious teachers. “Russian maths. Deadly.” The school suffered when it lost American funding after Pakistan ran nuclear tests.
He describes Pakistan–U.S. ties as “a long relationship. Not a friendship.” He mentions a dream in which he was a young man in a village in Afghanistan. “The young people were determined to fight the Americans,” he says, “but the tribal elders wanted to go along with the Americans, or maybe they got bought out by the Americans. The young people wanted to fight and did.” He says that Muslims believe dreams are one-eightieth of a revelation from God.
For at least a year, he’s been working as a programmer for a prestigious multinational and running his own company on the side. He loves programming, and he says that he will still do it “even if my company grows a thousand fold.” His own firm just made a bid for a gaming program to be played by 4,000 people at once, and he’s pleased because the bid was short-listed. He talks a bit about his management philosophy. He says that people make mistakes and errors; they wouldn’t be human if they didn’t. “You’re not with your first boyfriend, are you?” he asks.
He admires Scott Adams, the creator of the character Dilbert. He cites a favorite three-panel cartoon: “Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish and he’ll buy an ugly hat to go with the fishing rod. Talk to a hungry, dying man about fish and you’re a consultant.”
Bilal has a much calmer sensibility than Ahmad. But he seems far angrier at America. He drives me home. In the car, he says, “If your story didn’t include politics it would be very incomplete.”
At home, Nadia and Tahira are watching TV news. There are more developments related to the demonstrations about the chief justice. The TV channel Geo had broadcast the protests, and police apparently retaliated by entering Geo’s Karachi and Islamabad studios and destroying equipment. Musharraf condemns these actions and says that the errant policemen will be punished.
Nadia explains to me why she and her mother fight. Nadia is married but separated. Nadia tells me that Tahira thinks that someone has cast a spell on her and wants to take her to an exorcist. Nadia refuses to go. In fact she denies the existence of black magic altogether. Tahira insists it’s real. They ask me what I think. Nadia is giving me a cold stare as if to say, “don’t lie”; Tahira has a hopeful expression on her face. I feel bad but I shake my head no. Tahira looks dejected. “They have it in your country too,” she says.
Forwarded text message of the day: “Dictionary is only place where death comes before life . . . Success before work . . . Divorce before marriage . . . But relative come after friends . . .”
Thursday, March 15, 2007
Day of leisure. Marya and I make a plan to go to the Lahore Museum. Her friend Yasmeen will join us. Yasmeen is London-born, a TV producer, and a member of an organization for gay and lesbian Muslims. She’s only been here for two days so she’s still dressed London style: baggy jeans, a black long-sleeved t-shirt with skulls on it, and a Palestinian scarf. I arrive before they do. A crowd of Pakistani schoolgirls gathers around me. They giggle and ask me to pose for photos with them. The museum is amazing but after about an hour, Marya and Yasmeen are hungry and want to get food. We go to a hotel restaurant for lunch.
Yasmeen intimidates me. Boisterous, confident, loud hipster lesbians always do. She has a very strong East End accent. She tells a story about being on the London underground. Some English boys were harassing a Muslim man, saying they should move away from him because they didn’t want their legs blown off. She looked at them “evils” and they called her “Taliban.” I say that she should have told them, “Yeah! I am in the Taliban!”
“Yeeeaaaaahhhh!!!” she roars, vicariously addressing me as an English boy on the subway.
Yasmeen laments that Michael Jackson has converted to Islam. “Why do we always get the crazy ones?” she moans. Long chat about ex-girlfriends and the transgender moment. Marya wishes she could have some kind of arranged marriage with a gay man, “just to have some stability. I can’t handle being involved with yet another woman who’s just viewing it as a one- or two-year thing.”
It’s a huge relief to be around a woman with such a familiar sensibility, even if it’s not my sensibility. We search for tampons and pads for Marya, who is on her period. Yasmeen looks unbelievable walking around Lahore with no dupatta over her large breasts. Everyone stares at her. I get in a rickshaw and go home.
On the phone, I ask Ahmad if he believes in black magic. He says it’s real, “but that the people who claim to cure it are worse than the black magic.”
Forwarded text message: “What’s difference between girls aged: 8, 18, 28, 38, 48, 58 & 68. At 8—u take her to bed and tell her a story. At 18—u tell her a story and take her to bed. At 28—u don’t need to tell her a story to take her to bed. At 38—she tells u a story and takes u to bed. At 48—u tell her a story to avoid goin.”
Friday, March 16, 2007
Work at home. Remember another of Ahmad’s spinmeister remarks. I used the phrase “moderate Muslims” and he snapped at me. “Saying ‘moderate’ sounds like you don’t take your religion very seriously,” he said.
Interview Mrs. Rashida Yusuf, an older woman who lives in Defense and who is interested in Mawdudi as one among other Quranic commentators. She has a pamphlet of letters between Mawdudi and the woman I’m studying. Mrs. Yusuf is very stylish, with short hair, like an elderly Audrey Hepburn. She is a grandmother, a retired professional, and a former London School of Economics student.
“I hope this doesn’t hurt your feelings,” she says, “but Islam is the best religion in the world. Islam is very good, Muslims are not good.”
She expresses disappointment with Pakistan. She blames Muslims who stayed in the Indian National Congress for the small size of the country. Post-partition, she says, “the problem is that we haven’t had good leaders. Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan died too soon. Jinnah was the only one they obeyed. He had no axe to grind. I can’t blame Zia only. I blame lots of people, even Ayub. He was the first to undo our democracy. We [got military dictators], and we haven’t got rid of them even today.”
Mrs. Yusuf says that Zia made people less religious, which may be accurate for confident, educated people like herself. “People started going off religion after Bhutto’s time. Zia made life so difficult for Muslims. He [didn’t even pay] lip service [to poverty reduction], but he’s saying you have to cover your head. Who the hell are you to tell me to cover my head?” The way she generalizes about “people” reminds me of my mother, who articulates her own thoughts and preferences as being “what we believe,” referring to an imaginary peer group who thinks exactly as she does.
“People are getting more [religiously] conservative after 9/11,” she explains, because “they feel Muslims are being crucified at the moment by the Christians. The Bush statement about a ‘crusade,’ the word won’t go away. They’ve ruined Iraq and Afghanistan, they’re going to attack Iran, and they’re thinking about us also.” She says that there is obviously a “war on Islam” by the U.S. and its allies, that the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan and Iraq because they are “just wanting to kill Muslims.” As for Saddam Hussein, she says, “He’s your friend not ours,” and that his hanging video “is no way to convert people to Christianity.” I mention that Osama bin Laden is on video saying that he planned 9/11. She counters that “many Muslims would have been glad to say that they had done that, would be proud to have done that.” She asserts that bin Laden could have been bragging and thus that his confession doesn’t prove his guilt.
She starts to say something about Christian civilization but stops herself. “Your civilization isn’t really Christian,” she says, “it’s hedonistic.” I feel stung by her remarks, probably because I hadn’t anticipated them. This old, upper-class woman is far more forceful and antagonistic than the members of the Jama’at-i Islami were.
After the interview ends, Mrs. Yusuf and her daughter-in-law drive me home. We politely discuss Lahore’s various sightseeing destinations.
Shahid and I go for dinner. I tell him about the begum (matron) who thinks the U.S. has declared war on Islam. Shahid pauses and says it’s a serious topic for another time. He clearly thinks that there is some substance to it. I would not have expected him to think so.
Forwarded text message: “World’s most beautiful sentence: ‘. . . BUT, I LUV U’ — and world’s most selfish/painful sentence: ‘I LUV U, BUT . . .’ ”
Saturday, March 17, 2007
At 11am, go to interview a father and son who are relatives of Mrs. Yusuf. The father, Tariq Mustafa, is a little emotional; the son is more intellectual. They are both very thoughtful and careful about politics and religion. The son, Abdul-Rahman Mustafa, is a 25-year-old Oxford graduate. He’s now studying to be an alim at a Lahore madrassah, where he has qualified as a sixth-year student because of readings he did in study circles at Oxford; he has two more years to go. He wears a long beard, a small turban, shalwaar kameez, and sandals. He teaches Muslim personal law at LUMS.
The three of us discuss Islamic economics, sharia law, Islamic leadership, democracy, “enlightenment secular fundamentalism,” and convert intellectuals. Both Tariq and Abdul-Rahman want to live under Islamic law; Tariq clearly thinks democracy is not the way forward. It’s not clear to me what Abdul-Rahman thinks. They both deplore Zia and consider Pakistan’s religious parties to be corrupt and hypocritical. Tariq encourages me to visit impoverished villages to understand how badly Pakistan has been governed. I say that I don’t need to go to a village to see squandered human capital in Pakistan, and that I don’t see the point in going somewhere I can’t speak with people. “It’s like Wittgenstein says, you need a common language,” says Abdul-Rahman.
“I’m a bit cantankerous,” says Tariq. “An older relative of mine once asked, ‘How’d you get that way? In my days, if I saw a British bobby, I didn’t have the courage even to ask him for directions.’ With that kind of attitude, what exchange could there be? It was the colonial and the non-colonial. It’s a relationship of subservience. You have to accept the superiority of the ruler before you are accepted. Very much what is happening today. The clash between democracy and Islam will get a lot worse before it gets any better. Unless each society acts according to the beliefs it professes to live by.” Tariq believes that an Islamic polity should choose as its leader someone who is “God fearing, [who shows] God awareness. Who is virtuous in life, not who has doctorates, masters, wealth, or popularity.” I ask Tariq and Abdul-Rahman if there is someone they wish were running Pakistan instead of Musharraf. They don’t name a candidate. “A righteous leadership would exist were it not for the interests of other countries,” says Tariq. They both ask me why America is so isolated. I wasn’t aware that I had an opinion about this, but quite spontaneously I say, “It’s our history, it’s our culture. We don’t want to know about other people. Our country was started by people trying to escape religious craziness. America thought it was the place where humanity could start over.”
“For a long period of history, there had been no one better than [America],” says Tariq. “They had the opportunity to take over in the moral and spiritual sense, but they missed that, because of a lack of sincerity.” Abdul-Rahman sees a loss of American intellectual freedom. “There was a time in American universities when there wasn’t a question that couldn’t be asked. [The new era] will have an effect on American scholarship.” Abdul-Rahman invites me to his class on Muslim Personal Law at LUMS.
Take rickshaw to interview a poet who wants to be off the record. He says that during the Zia years, he was so depressed that he could neither write poetry nor do scholarship. But that’s all over now. He feels that it is no longer helpful to lament the Zia years. “We’ve lamented it so much.” He feels that the current moment is a very optimistic one.
Go to Dorothy’s for movie night. The three Forman college boys know that I love South Park so they bring the DVD of the movie. Dorothy is disturbed by the swearing and explicit sexual references. I still think it’s an amazing film. I ask everyone to send me any text messages they receive—love letters, jokes, corny sayings. “Don’t put the corny ones in your thing,” says Hassan. “Corny isn’t cool.” He asks me to help him write his Orkut profile. He wants girls to think he is “an interesting jerk.”
Sunday, March 18, 2007
Lovely three-hour lunch at a filmmaker’s house. Present are the professor from NCA, her daughter Tanzila, and many of Lahore’s art and film people. It’s an ultra-civilized afternoon. One person speaks Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, French and English. A novelist tells the professor that a U.S. publisher has rejected her novel because there isn’t enough victimization or enough sexuality in it.
Chat with Tanzila about the U.S., where she went to school, LUMS Islamists, local clothing stores, and the current chief justice debacle. She seems to feel that Musharraf is in a difficult position and that suspending the chief justice may be justified. She adds that the U.S. government can’t understand a lot of things about Pakistan, like the fact that the tribal areas have always been semi-autonomous but also part of Pakistan. It isn’t a black-and-white thing.
I need to read more about Pakistan’s military. I wonder if coming up through certain military academies and serving in certain units is the Pakistani equivalent of going to Harvard or Yale, the place where you do your major social networking. I heard that that was true in Israel.
Take rickshaw to Food Mood to meet the three Forman college boys plus the long-awaited Hafiz Sahib. A hafiz is someone who has memorized the Quran. Hafiz Sahib is the nickname the boys gave their fourth best friend who is an ultra-positive and very pious hafiz and a student at Government College. He’ll turn 20 next month. I sit and interview him while we all eat pizza. He thinks it’s weird that I’m so focused on politics and economics. He insists that the worst evil coming from the West is the media. It put “bad things” on TV, “naked girls” and such. He cites MTV’s hyper-sexuality and the news channels’ “pessimism.” He wants to find more ways to focus on the positive; his goal is to do human-rights work. I ask about U.S. foreign and economic policy. Hafiz Sahib doesn’t really put his thoughts out there—he seems ambivalent, or maybe there’s some cultural reticence about saying negative things—but he concedes that most of the students at his madrassah are anti-American. Many of his madrassah mates say Musharraf has sold Pakistan to the Americans for a bounty, but Hafiz Sahib refuses to believe that any leader would truly betray his people on that level.
The boys drive me home. Hafiz Sahib expresses dismay that the Democrats wanted to withdraw U.S. aid from Pakistan because of the 2005 peace treaty with Waziristan. “We’ve seen our soldiers dying at the hands of villagers there,” he says. “We don’t want more of that.” He pushes me about the Iraq war. “Madame Dorothy won’t tell us what she thinks. What do you think about Bush and the war? Why did he do it?” I say, uh, each person in the administration had a different reason. Some had neocon convictions, some had human-rights concerns, some had fears about WMD, and some wanted, uh, the oil, the oil to, to not go to China? “I knew it!” says Hafiz Sahib. Hassan, who is a little too clever, says, “I think 9/11 convinced some people to read about Islam and convert. So in that way it’s a good thing for Islam. Also it started a dialogue.” It’s a lot to talk about and we’ll have to finish it another time because we’re at my house. I say good night and get out of the car.
Monday, March 19, 2007
Do laundry. Read from The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad. Eqbal Ahmad was born in India in 1933 and moved to Pakistan at partition. After graduating from Forman, he researched trade unions in North Africa, where he became an active supporter of the Algerian revolution. He earned his PhD from Princeton in 1967 and became a perceptive writer on revolution, counterrevolution, imperialism, and the nuclear-arms race. He worked at an anti-proliferation think tank, taught history at Hampshire College, wrote a column for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, and remained a political activist until his death in 1999. Eqbal Ahmad is standard reading for many educated Pakistanis. Until recently, I had the book but it just sat there. I couldn’t read it.
From “Islam and Politics,” written in 1984:
The often publicized ideological resurgence of Islam (social scientists and the American media spoke as much of ‘resurgent’ Buddhism in the 1960s) is a product of excessive, uneven modernization and the failure of governments to safeguard national sovereignty or to satisfy basic needs. In the ‘transitional’ Third World societies, one judges the present morally, with reference to the past, to inherited values, but materially in relation to the future. Therein lies a new dualism in our social and political life; the inability or unwillingness to deal with it entails disillusionment, terrible costs, and possible tragedy. One mourns Iran, laments Pakistan, fears for Egypt.
General Zia and the Afghan jihad had profound consequences for Pakistan’s political, cultural, and intellectual life. It makes me wonder what our leaders have done to America that we don’t really understand. The diminished scope of what we can imagine, think, and say. Standards are hard to resuscitate once they’ve been compromised.
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Today is Abdul-Rahman Mustafa’s class on Muslim Personal Law at LUMS. As I shower and get dressed, I remember the discussion of homosexuality we had. I said that Orthodox Jews believe you should follow Torah law even if it doesn’t make sense to you. God has reasons you can’t understand. Tariq said that “homosexuality has been there since the dawn of humanity and all religions prohibit it.” For years, he said, “it was difficult to understand the rationale behind the prohibition of homosexuality,” but that the AIDS epidemic made the reasons clear. Abdul-Rahman disagreed. He said that there’s a basic “de-ontological” step required to embrace Islam as an intellectual, legal, and political order. I had to look up “de-ontological.” The definition is: “Relating to philosophical theories that state that the moral content of an action is not wholly dependent on its consequences.” Orthodox Muslim heterosexuals make this “de-ontological” move and then choose to accept “that a man can have four wives but a woman is allowed one husband.” Similarly, an orthodox Muslim gay man might struggle with the Quran’s verse on homosexuality, but he would ultimately accept that it means that he “is allowed no one.” The key thing is the possibility of spiritual equality, not worldly equality. “Whether you’re a man, a woman, or a homosexual,” said Abdul-Rahman, “you all have the same access to heaven.” A lot of people are willing to “suspend” worldly freedoms in favor of spiritual security.
Abdul-Rahman said that a Muslim has an obligation to consider the judgments of the four (formerly 19) schools of Islamic law, think hard about whom to consult, and how to decide. Sharia makes a spectrum of legal determinations: actions are obligatory (wajib), recommended (sunna), permissible (mubah), offensive (makruh), or unlawful (haram). A secular state, he said, restricts the rights of religious communities to live under these laws. “An Islamic state allows diversity in law because it has unity in religion. The earliest caliphs let Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians be governed by their own laws. Secularism has a greater problem with that. In a secular state, the law binds people. That’s why [secular states won’t] let Muslims have their own laws.”
Go to LUMS library to do the reading before class starts. Ask librarian for the course book for Muslim Personal Law. The syllabus is all accredited scholars of Islamic law; I see Sheikh Nuh Keller’s translation of “Reliance of the Traveller” on the list. Read from “The Conclusive Argument from God,” by Shah Wali Allah, an eighteenth-century South Asian Muslim writer and philosopher. Wali Allah was very influential for later Islamic movements. The section I read addresses causes of disagreement among the Companions of the Prophet. I write in my notebook:
One Companion heard a ruling of a Judgment or legal opinion while another did not. Retreats from his own reasoning in favor of the transmitted text. A Companion comes to know of a hadith but not at the level which brings with it the rank of being highly probable, so that he does not abandon his ijtihad but rather impugns the authenticity of the hadith. The hadith hadn’t reached the Companion at all. Disagreement if some saw the Prophet carrying out an action, and some interpreted it as a means of drawing nearer to God (qurba) and others as being (merely) ethically indifferent. Inattentiveness and forgetting. Disagreements of judgment. Their disagreement over the rationale for legislation behind the ruling. Disagreement over resorting to two conflicting rulings.
Walk from the library to the academic block for the 2pm seminar. About 20–25 students sit at four tiers of desks. As Abdul Rahman mentioned, some wear a turban or a hijab, others Western clothing or the traditional shalwaar, kameez, dupatta. Abdul-Rahman says that some of his students are religious and some are “secularist.” He has to pitch his lectures at both types. This class comes halfway through the course; everyone throws a lot of technical terms around. I can’t always follow. It seems to focus on varying philosophies of legal interpretation. Abdul-Rahman draws a graph on the blackboard. He writes “taqlid” on the extreme left, and “ijtihad, everyone’s a mujtahid” on the extreme right. (Taqlid is blind acceptance of juridical precedent; its opposite is the idea that everyone can interpret the law.) In the middle of the board he writes, “Have to rely on more than one school.” “We say one should rely on as many schools of thought as possible,” he says. “We don’t say ‘I’m a mujtahid,’ but [we say that we] have the right, the obligation to consult as many schools as possible. [Then we] ask which reasoning is closest to Quran and Sunna.”
Not all hadith, or sayings attributed to the Prophet, are authentic. One hadith scholar claimed that he invented 50,000 fake hadiths, perhaps in order to make people use their reason to root them out. Abdul-Rahman mentions a famous hadith: “My Companions are like stars, whichever you follow, you’ll be rightly guided.” He tells his students it was fabricated, which shocks them since they’ve heard it all their lives. “Don’t believe everything you read!” he says. He jokingly fabricates a pseudo-hadith himself. “Say, did you know the Prophet said LUMS was going to be the best university in the world?”
“There’s no issue about which the Companions didn’t disagree, whether it was eating snow while fasting or temporary marriage,” he says. “It was completely free, there was no right or wrong answer.”
Class ends and I get a phone call from a LUMS administrator. I want to extend my visa, and a friend had recommended that I ask this person for help. He gives me the name of a visa officer in Islamabad who will process my paperwork without demanding a bribe.
Go to meet a 50-something newspaper editor. I give him a report on my work so far and ask him for his advice and his thoughts. He calls the younger generation “Zia ul-Haq’s children,” and says that “younger people are more inclined to political Islam” and that “there is also far more religiosity in that generation.” He was once a man of the left, but now he has the air of someone who has resigned himself to pure pragmatism.
Take rickshaw to Coffee Tea & Company to meet Marya, Yasmeen, and their new friend Nazihsh. Nazihsh is the first Lahori lesbian I’ve met. She looks to be in her late 20s, very pretty, slim, educated and sophisticated; she works on monetary policy for a think tank. She met her first girlfriend when they were schoolgirls. They were together for 13 years, with some breaking up and getting back together. She had other girlfriends during the off-periods. The real problems began when the girlfriend consented to an arranged marriage. They continued to see each other, but it became “hell” for both women. When they could no longer abide the lying and deception, they broke up for good. In a depressed state Nazihsh also married a man through an arrangement, though she told him she “didn’t fancy men.” She disliked heterosexual sex and she did not have a friendship with her husband. It didn’t last long.
After the divorce she went to London for graduate school. She found an open and organized gay community and lived with a woman for the first time. She insists that now that she’s lived with a woman, “that’s the only way I’d want to live.” She has mixed feelings about the culture of London, the parts of her personality that it drew out. She’s not sure she likes the person she became there. I’m reticent to ask her what she means. “But I know that if I went back there, that I would turn into that person again,” she says.
I ask her how lesbian relationships get started in a culture like this one. “It happens,” she says. “Body language, small cues.”
We go to Freddy’s for dinner. We discuss whether gay identity is something universal for all cultures. Yasmeen says that organizing around homosexuality is not possible here because sexual modesty is such a central virtue. The consequences of being convicted are serious. Men arrested on homosexual vice charges in Egypt are tortured, not just given light sentences. So you have to make common cause with people who oppose torture rather than focus on the gay identity angle. You have to work on their issues so that they will consider working on yours. She is being insistent and passionate. She doesn’t lower her voice when she says “queer” or “lesbian.” Marya and I ask her to keep it down. Yasmeen responds by talking even louder about “being silenced by my fellow queers.” Jesus Christ. Marya shrugs and says that gay identity is a western construction anyway. Nazihsh is notably quiet.
Go home. Lie in bed thinking about our conversation at dinner. Yasmeen texts me. What’d you think of Nazihsh? I reply that Nazihsh reminds me of Marina on the first season of The L Word. She’s elegant, suave, and sophisticated. Yasmeen asks me what characters she and Marya are like. I say they remind me a bit of the guys on The Young Ones. Marya is a spacey hippie like Nigel, and Yasmeen is a hothead like Vivian. I don’t get a reply from Yasmeen after that one.
Eqbal Ahmad, from “Terrorism: Theirs and Ours,” written in 1998:
What is my recommendation to America [for fighting terrorism]? First, avoid double standards. If you’re going to practice double standards, you will be paid with double standards. Don’t use them. Don’t condone Israeli terror, Pakistani terror, Nicaraguan terror, El Salvadorean terror on the one hand, and then complain about Afghan terror or Palestinian terror. It doesn’t work. Try to be evenhanded. A superpower cannot promote terror in one place and reasonably expect to discourage terrorism in another place. It won’t work in this shrunken world. . . . Please eschew, avoid covert operations and low-intensity warfare. These are breeding grounds of terror and drugs. Violence and drugs are bred there . . . the structure of covert operations, whether in Afghanistan, Vietnam, Nicaragua, or Central America, is very hospitable to drug trade. Avoid it. Give it up . . . Please focus on causes and help ameliorate causes. Try to look at causes and solve problems. Do not concentrate on military solutions. Do not seek military solutions. Terrorism is a political problem. Seek political solutions. Diplomacy works . . . Please help reinforce and strengthen the framework of international law.
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
I am walking to get a rickshaw when Tahira’s neighbor pulls up beside me to offer me a ride. “We can’t have our foreigners fainting from the heat,” she says. I get in, she drops me off at the supermarket, and I buy two bags of groceries. I walk out of the store, and up ahead I see a rickshaw parked at the curb. I am walking across a sidewalk when the pavement gives out underneath me. Most of my leg falls into a hole in the ground, but I catch myself on another piece of concrete, which holds. I pull myself up. I’m badly bruised and in a slight state of shock. Get into the rickshaw, go home with my groceries, and work. Now I know that construction sites are often unmarked in Pakistan.
I made a friend named Emily about a month ago. She’s a woman from New Zealand who is here because her boyfriend works for the government agency that modernizes dairy farms. Not long after we met, Emily went home for a month to visit her family. Today she’s back. We go for coffee. Because of my fall, endorphins are coursing through my body, so I’m in a very upbeat mood. I ask her how she’s doing. Quite badly, it turns out. She and her husband rent the upper floor of a house in Cantonment from a man named Mr. Rashed, who occupies the lower floor. Mr. Rashed had lived most of his adult life in Denmark, where he ran a number of small grocery stores; he had recently returned to Pakistan and was enjoying being a “big man” here. He kept his money in a safe under his bed. Emily describes him as a wonderful, friendly, open-hearted person. One night while Emily was in New Zealand and her husband Grant was away on a work trip to Balochistan, Mr. Rashed’s servants murdered him in his bed. His maid put sleeping pills in his drink and then suffocated him with a pillow. She then called her mother, who alerted the male family members. They came over, strangled the guard, and made off with the contents of the safe. The police easily traced the phone call from Mr. Rashed’s house to the conspirators’ house. The police caught one family member but the others are on the run. Emily says that this experience has altered how she sees Pakistan. It seems like a far darker place. “The house feels cold now,” she says. Mr. Rashed’s entire extended family has moved into the house. They stay up all night, cooking things in the kitchen, talking on the phone with police and lawyers. Mr. Rashed’s son says it’s God’s will. The widow is in a 40-day mourning period, praying with beads to get Mr. Rashed’s soul to heaven faster. She had hired the servants herself.
From Eqbal Ahmad, “At Cold War’s End: A World of Pain,” written in 1993:
The international environment today resembles the imperial century which followed the end of Napoleonic war in 1815, the period of British preeminence in world politics. Europeans saw it as a period of ‘long peace.’ Asians and Africans experienced it as a time of torment. Like Britain earlier, the United States now holds world power. And, as a rule, those who control the status quo do not like to change it.
Thursday, March 22, 2007
A few days ago, Ahmad’s friend Amna called me. She and her husband Osama run a software startup in Islamabad. This weekend they are filming four commercials for their new word-processing program. I want to go to Islamabad for interviews, so Ahmad recommended that I meet up with them and play a role in their commercial while I’m there. This is a happy coincidence for me. I need social connections in a new city in order to feel comfortable going there. Amna and I agree that they will pay for my bus fare, food, and cab rides while I’m in Islamabad. I will also stay with her and her husband. I prefer staying with people to staying at a hotel.
Pack, go to bank, cash $600 in travelers’ checks. Go to housemate’s workplace, pay rent. Go to Daewoo bus station, pick up ticket for 2pm bus to Islamabad. Eat lunch at fast food place by the bus station. Take bus for four hours to Rawalpindi. In the bus station I buy some gum. I look up at books and DVDs for sale. One has Osama bin Laden’s picture on the cover. Maybe it’s a biography or a collection of his writings. It’s in Urdu so I can’t read it. Take van about a half-hour to Islamabad. Arrive at the bus station at 7:30pm. The cab Amna ordered isn’t there. I find a local cab driver and call Amna on my cellphone. She gives him directions to her office. He hands me back my phone.
When I’ve been in the cab a few minutes, the driver starts to look antsy and keeps looking into the rearview mirror. “You’re being followed,” he says. He does a rapid U-turn and indeed, the car right behind us also does a U-turn. He drives a bit and then makes a second U-turn. The other car also makes a second U-turn. My driver talks to Amna on my mobile in Urdu. Then he passes the phone to me. Amna tells me that three men in a car are following me. For some reason the driver thinks they’ve been following me since Rawalpindi. He has decided to take me back to the Daewoo station, where I am to go inside and wait for Amna’s friends to come and get me. The three men also return to the bus station, where they get out of their car and spread out in three different directions. I have to presume that they are intelligence agents, who I guess are still following me, although I have not seen any evidence of them for a long time. I suppose the worst-case scenario is that they are robbers. After a few minutes, Amna’s friends come into the bus station. They are Amna’s husband Osama, Abdul, a theater director who will direct the commercials, and Muhammad, a dentist. All three are stylish and attractive, which will definitely scare off any potential kidnappers. They are surprised that there was a car chase; Islamabad is generally a very safe city. When we’ve been in the car a few minutes, it is clear that no one is following us. Muhammad puts his watch back on (“I thought we were going to fight so I took it off”), and we drop him off. Osama and Abdul take me to the office.
At the office I meet Amna, who is angelically beautiful. She is also one of the most stylish women I have ever seen. She covers her hair with a large, brightly colored piece of fabric her sister brought back from overseas, a long kurti, slim but loose black silk trousers, and blue sneakers that look like Vans authentics. She bought them at Wal-Mart. We eat pizza and go over the script for tomorrow’s shoot. Then we go home to Amna and Osama’s apartment. I fall asleep on a mattress on the floor of their extra room.
Friday, March 23, 2007
Get up at 8am for interview with Pervez Hoodbhoy, professor of physics at Qaid-e-Azam University and a prominent public intellectual. Hoodbhoy is considered the successor to Eqbal Ahmad. Amna has ordered a cab for my trip to Qaid-e-Azam. The ride is my first real glimpse of Islamabad. It’s a modernist city, built in the ’60s by a Greek architect. Qaid-e-Azam’s buildings are futuristic looking but also slightly dilapidated. Cows graze on the hill next to the physics department. I tell Hoodbhoy that I’m studying someone affiliated with the Jama’at-i Islami. He says that while religious parties don’t dominate his campus, “the Islamic attitude is very much present. It has grown substantially over the last six to seven years. The rising tide of Islamism is not about the religious parties. It’s the Tablighis, [al-Huda leader] Farhat Hashmi, spontaneous [religious] gatherings.
“In physics here at Qaid-e-Azam, I thought, ‘We must have student activities here, to create a healthy, broader perspective.’ So I asked a colleague to start a film club. One month ago we showed A Beautiful Mind. I was in the auditorium. When the picture started, I left. An hour and a half later, I see students streaming out. Some were very upset. Some scene there, John Nash’s wife approaches him. She attempts to touch him. This was so offensive, one bearded guy, he said, ‘This is obscenity.’ He cut the electricity. The guy was frothing. The next day I get a petition with 80 signatures from the bearded people against un-Islamic activities. They demanded that the film club be stopped. The conservatives called their meeting with a sign that said ‘for Muslims only.’ Then I announce a meeting. My colleagues are very scared. At this point, they feel this could lead to violence. The meeting attracts 150 people. There are set rules: no clapping, no booing, let’s be decent people. Let’s hear both points of view. One side says films are haram. They impose western culture. There’s no need; it adds nothing to what we come here to learn (physics). OK, that’s one point of view. Now, the other. There were young women in hijab who said, we don’t understand what they’re saying. Who are they to say that if we watch a movie, we’re not Muslims? One guy then said, ‘Frankly, the truth is we all watch movies, but not in public. It’s wrong to do it in front of our sisters here.’ The meeting ended without major problems. I said to them, ‘I apologize if some scene had crept in you found distasteful. In the future we will censor our films. In the future we will delete such things found socially unacceptable.’ Then we showed another movie four days ago about global warming, The Day After. There was a scene with someone kissing someone. Now we will show no movies unless they’re documentaries.
“It’s gone so far that [I encounter the] view that science originated with Islam. Students believe that science is to be found in the Quran. On 8 October 2005, there was an earthquake that killed 100,000 people. Part of [our duty as physicists] is to tell people that earthquakes don’t happen because of the wrath of God. There are reasons that have to do with the laws of physics. The earth formed, plates crystallized, tectonic plates move around, causing earthquakes. It’s geology. You can’t predict it. They said: wrong. I had a tough time in my class. There were 45 on the other side. Several were so vocal. ‘In the Quran it says, we punish those who deviate,’ [they said]. I wasted my whole class on that. None took my side, they were afraid. Later four or five students said [privately], ‘You’re right.’ ” This religious explanation for the earthquake was so widespread that TV channels arranged a debate on the question between three ulama (2 Sunni, 1 Shia) and Hoodbhoy. This is a totally different Pakistan than the one that faced a similar earthquake in a tribal area in 1974. The interpretation that was fringe in 1974 is ubiquitous now.
“It’s the rebirth of orthodoxy. Now I face girls who have gone back to purdah. I face row after row of these ninjas [slang for fully covered women]. A frightening change is sweeping through Pakistan. It’s got something to do with politics, but it’s much more than that. It’s part of Islam’s general cultural regression. It’s a river fed by many tributaries.”
One tributary is U.S. foreign policy, both our support for the jihad in Afghanistan and the royal family in Saudi Arabia and our destabilization of secular governments in the region. The CIA organized a coup against Mossadegh after he nationalized Iran’s oil industry. Lyndon Johnson undermined Indonesia’s Sukarno and Egypt’s Nasser because of nonalignment, good relations with the USSR and the PRC, and interference with U.S. strategic goals. All three were secular. I definitely understand what he’s saying about Mossadegh and I’ll give him Sukarno. I thought that Nasser survived American opposition quite well. Need to look into it.
What are the other tributaries? “First,” Hoodbhoy says, “religion is growing as a force in society globally, because of alienation, fear of science. The excessive rate of change is psychologically unsettling. It’s Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock syndrome. Second, manifest political injustice, the No. 1 example being the Israeli-Palestinian issue, it’s the primary case of Muslims being targeted. Third, the subversion of secular governments by Western powers and [the support of] Saudi Arabia. These are not in any order, by the way. The fourth cause is the internal failures of secular Muslim governments. In Pakistan, [Zulfiqar Ali] Bhutto. Bangladesh today. Any of them really. Internal failures allow the rise of Islamism.”
He pauses to think. “Why do Muslim states fail more often than others? The value system for Muslims emphasizes adherence to the rule of God. It treats deviation from divine law as more serious than [breaking] man-made laws. Eating an apple in Ramadan is a much bigger issue than going through a traffic light, or stealing from the government. It’s a very different thing, to build the institutions of a society meant to serve people, rather than God. The left was never able to get to the people. That’s really the crux of the matter. It was never able to grow, even in the ’70s when we had people in government not hostile to it. I was a Marxist. When we’d go to the workers and read Marx to them . . . well, imperialism everyone agrees on. But [when it came to] redesigning society and the role of God, then people start becoming uneasy. Our opponents would relentlessly characterize us as ‘not good Muslims,’ as ‘the other kind of people.’ There were some left-wing movements in Muslim countries, but they were few and far between. The internal failures [of secular governments] are related to leadership, and leadership is related to attitudes inside society.”
Hoodbhoy acknowledges “a political passivity that’s grown,” but he says, “The greatest event is this Supreme Court issue. It’s broken that passivity. The day the chief justice was thrown out, some said, ‘Will something happen? Or will it be the same as before?’ I was of the opinion that nothing would happen. Much bigger things have happened: After 9/11, a decade of foreign policy went down the drain. Three months ago a seminary was bombed by an American drone, it killed 80 students. It killed children. The way people have been disappearing, carted off by the authorities. Our passivity on the Iraq war. The killing of Akbar Bhugty in Balochistan. That led to fire fights in Balochistan, but there were [no protests] here. Anyway, this [uproar about the] chief justice shows the unpredictable nature of politics.”
The chief justice was inspiring because he stood up and lived to tell the tale. In general, eight years of media freedom have given some people the impression that liberties are on the rise. I mention the poet who saw the current period as an optimistic one. “Optimism now?” Hoodbhoy says incredulously. “I’d like to hear them defend their optimism. [It might be] because of the Women’s Protection Bill and the blasphemy law. These are trivialities. I see things very differently. The exploding population is the biggest problem. It’s now five times higher than [it was in] 1947. In 30 years it will be 10 times bigger. Resources are simply unavailable in terms of water and land. Education is not improving, it’s not going to improve. Islamism is going to grow and become still more important. Musharraf has neither the will nor the capacity for [development]. He represents the corporate interests of the army. They are the biggest owner of real estate. They’re also in insurance, banking, sugar, cement, airlines, and transportation. They even make breakfast cereal. [Looking out for them is] necessary for Musharraf’s personal survival.”
I’ve covered all my questions, but I don’t really want to leave. Hoodbhoy shifts around in his chair and looks a little uncomfortable. It’s been an hour and a half. “Excuse me, but I have to work,” he says politely. I accidentally say “dude” under my breath, meaning, “I totally hear what you’re saying,” but inappropriate in this context. Then I apologize. “Thank you for your time, Prof. Hoodbhoy.” I apologize again. We shake hands and I back out the door.
The cab is waiting for me in the parking lot. We go back to Osama’s office and I get started on the commercial. I sit in front of a makeup artist who puts heavy stage makeup on my face. I’m playing a dementedly sweet rehab counselor, treating people who are addicted to cigarettes, alcohol, and research. Icky-sweet is easy for me to play. I act that way sometimes when I’m feeling insecure. Osama and his team of programmers have created a word processor with a lot of “value-added” new “functionalities.” Most of the other actors are friends of Amna and Osama’s, although a few come from a local theater company that just finished a successful staging of Some Like It Hot. They are lots of fun, young and sweet. One guy has a shirt that says ATTITUDE! Today we will make four commercials that will be posted on YouTube. Amna hopes they will “get viral” from there.
I tell the director Abdul that I just interviewed a serious Marxist social critic who was very pessimistic about Pakistan’s future. Abdul recognizes Pervez Hoodbhoy’s name and says, “All those guys are very pessimistic.” He says that it’s hard for left-wing people who lived through the 1970s, when Bhutto was such an inspiring presence, to adjust to the current era. I guess it’s an era of lower expectations.
We do four or five run-throughs and then a few hours of actual taping on a digital camera. When we’re done, I go online and research a local Islamic policy think tank while everyone else tapes two other commercials. The computer is in the same room as the makeup studio so I overhear one of the actors flirting with the makeup artist. She complains that she’s fat. He tells her she’s perfect. “Your arms and legs are tiny, your face is tiny, you just need to tone it up a little and you’ll be perfect.”
After the taping ends, Amna and Osama take me up to see a gorgeous view of Islamabad from a beautifully landscaped park at the top of a mountain. We eat some french fries. I listen to a bit of their life history. Amna spent her first 10 years in Libya and then moved to Lahore. Osama grew up in Austin, Texas, and moved back to Pakistan in 2003. They have been married for two years. They ask me about the woman I study. I say that she is a transitional figure from one era of Islamist thought to another. To get to know what preceded the Jama’at, I’ve been reading Iqbal and thinking about different historical periods. Shahid said that there was something in Iqbal’s character that reflected the time when he lived. We couldn’t be that way today. We wouldn’t be capable of his way of thinking.
“That level of spirituality,” says Amna.
We go eat at a restaurant designed to look like the inside of a cave. “You were talking about historical periods so we thought we should go all the way back to the beginning,” says Osama.
Saturday, March 24, 2007
At 10am, interview Ayesha Siddiqa, a writer on foreign policy and security issues, at her home. She is ex-military and now a writer and independent scholar. I saw her speak at the conference at the University of the Punjab last month. She is short and attractive, a fast talker, exceptionally self-assured. She is the author of the book Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy (forthcoming from University of Michigan Press), which documents how the Pakistani military sets up “welfare-industrial” foundations that provide for military retirees and military families with the profits from real-estate holdings and industry. While we do the interview, her son sits in an adjacent room doing homework at a dining table. When she spoke at the University of the Punjab she was forceful and vehement. Today she is calmer and more measured in her tone.
“I would call Pakistan an insufficiently imagined state,” says Siddiqa. “A political army is what we’d inherited [from the British]. India and Pakistan inherited the same institutions. Before and after independence the Indian political leadership imagined the relationship between different institutions and sectors of the state. Our leadership didn’t. Their leadership went out of its way to discipline the military, bring it under civilian control. In the long run, Nehru’s socialist agenda did harm India, but it defined the relationship between institutions. India did abolish feudalism soon after independence. We didn’t do it till the late ’60s or ’70s, and then half-heartedly.
“[Here in Pakistan] no one thought through what the relationship should be. The civil and military institutions are far more developed in Pakistan than the political class. In 1947, 75% of government expenditure went into defense. [Today] Pakistan’s defense budget is a one-liner; there is no transparency.”
At the time of Pakistan’s founding, she says, “there was hardly any private capital. It was pretty feeble. So we didn’t have a robust industrialist class. It had to be created by the state itself.” The military started its involvement with industrialization “to fill in the gap.” Ayub Khan created the Pakistan Industrial Development Association, the first mechanism to create capital and an indigenous bourgeoisie. After that, “a huge amount of industrial houses came up,” she says, but there was a shift during the 1970s, when Bhutto checked the military’s autonomy. Zia’s coup in 1977 brought another reversal. The military, like the landowning and industrial elites, learned well from the Bhutto experience.
Siddiqa says that military people typically think that civilians are inept and inefficient. They don’t have faith in civilians to run the government, and now they also have economic interests to protect. “They haven’t created a monopoly,” she says. “What they do is monopolize resources in collusion with the rest of the elite. They are not going to block others from going in. But they have preferential access to information and influence on decision-making. [Military real-estate interests] can influence decisions as to where something—a road, water canals—has to be laid.”
Under Zia, the military also started to develop new hybrid entities in the political sector. “After 1977 there was a fundamental change in thinking; the military decided to have a legal, constitutional mechanism to protect their interests. They started to think of mechanisms whereby they could, not visibly remain in politics, but operate through the head of the government. I call it the ‘parent-guardian’ model. In the ’80s and ’90s, an alternative system was being established. Finally, in April 2004, the [creation of the] National Security Council gave the military a legally accepted role in politics, government, and decision-making.”
Unlike the U.S. military, which is the “junior partner of the more aggressive corporate sector” that “has used the military as a tool for profit-making,” the Pakistani military is the senior partner and uses the private sector for its purposes.
Siddiqa is quite pessimistic about Pakistan’s future. “My prediction is that you can say goodbye to the future of democracy in this country. The [solution requires] identification of the cycle: the military had political power, developed economic interests, and then had less ability to give up political power. You would need a near consensus in civil society that it’s bad to have the military there. The problem is that civil society is so divided. Most liberals and progressives support Musharraf because of the perception that he’ll fight the mullahs. You would really need almost a consensus in civil society that it’s bad to have the military there. [People] are conscious [of the problem], but where is the leadership? They’re busy negotiating [with the military].” She’s talking about the recent news reports that Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf are secretly planning a power-sharing agreement.
Many analysts, and several Pakistanis I’ve spoken with, say that Pakistan’s military periods were by and large better than the democratic periods. The military is a more professional institution than the parties. There was more development, less corruption. Of course that could be changing. While Siddiqa talks, I feel claustrophobic, as if I myself am caught under the multiple ceilings that constrain Pakistan’s economy and society. But my emotions may be heightened by the fever I feel coming on.
Siddiqa shows me a text message on her phone. It jokingly proposes some new military ventures: “*BREAKING NEWS* Govt plans 3 new Corps for Pak Army to rule Forever . . . 1. JUDICIAL CORP: Next Chief Justice will be a Serving general. 2. DISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH CORP: To conduct dacoities [muggings], Cell phone snatchings. Serving JCO’s and Capts will conduct. 3. LIGHT ENTERTAINMENT CORP: Heera mandis [prostitutes] will be managed by Major’s and Col’s. Quaid Azam [Jinnah] has also been upgraded to General & will now be referred as General Mohd Ali Jinnah. PAKISTAN ZINDABAD!”
Siddiqa’s new line of research is the economics of conservatism, the political economy of identity politics. When Pakistani upper-middle-class people get into religion, she says, “They [are saying], ‘I identify myself in the larger world system. I do not accept a secondary role.’ For the rest of the population, I have a hunch that there is a hidden class conflict within religious identity politics.” Between Siddiqa and Hoodbhoy I feel like I’ve got the materialist perspective covered.
During the cab ride back to Amna and Osama’s place, I start to feel extremely sick. It’s food poisoning from yesterday’s fast food probably. I’m not sure. I have a very high fever. Lie down when I get back and sleep for almost 18 hours.
My sleep is interrupted only by a two-hour visit with Ahmad, who is in town today for meetings and a wedding. Bilal took the Daewoo ride with Ahmad today so we commiserate about being a captive audience to Ahmad’s ranting. Bilal is very impressed that I spoke with Hoodbhoy, who is one of his heroes. Ahmad considers Hoodbhoy “old school.”
We go to meet two friends at a Pizza Hut. I still feel horrible. My headache is brutal. Bilal is engaged and tells me a little about his soon-to-be-wife. She’s a Fulbrighter and an economist. While I’m listening to Bilal I can vaguely hear Ahmad joking about someone he knows whose business is in China and who is getting married to a woman there. I tell my friends that I need to lie down. Ahmad buys me some aspirin and a bottle of water and takes me back to Amna and Osama’s apartment, where I pass out.
Sunday, March 25, 2007
I sleep late. I pull myself up in the early afternoon. Osama insists that I see more of Islamabad, so we go for a nature day. We are joined by a German friend of Ahmad’s, Alexander, who also came up from Lahore to be in the commercial. The four of us drive to a beautiful lake where local celebrities like cricketer Imran Khan and “the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb,” A. Q. Khan, own homes. We row out onto the lake and return to shore. It’s a beautiful day, and I haven’t been out in nature for almost two months. Lahore is in a valley; there are no mountains or lakes nearby. After the boat ride, we drive to a small park. I mention that I’m surprised by how often people complain about the U.S. media. I came here with questions about how people feel about U.S. government policy, but many people seem to feel that the media is just as powerful as the government. “More powerful,” says Amna. “I mean, if you were writing about extremism, any magazine would offer you lots of money for your story.” It’s true that editor after editor wanted a story about “what makes jihadis tick.” The conservative religious orthodoxy of my primary subject wasn’t extreme enough for them.
I tell them Pervez Hoodbhoy’s take on the U.S. media. He said that he admired Seymour Hersh, but that “Fox ultimately influences middle America. It’s about the tastes of American readers, what they’re willing to hear.” Alexander says that his government created a magazine called Deutschland, showing the daily life of Germans. Makes sense. If ever a country needed a continuous rebrand, Germany would be it.
Monday, March 26, 2007
Amna stays home sick. Osama and I go to his office in the morning. I ask him why some Muslims think that dating is wrong. He says that “the problem is if it’s just for fun, if you just want someone to call four times a day,” rather than if it’s getting to know someone you might marry during “a nice, decent engagement period.” He also says that it involves “spending too much money” and that Valentine’s Day “throws the economy off.” Osama explains that on a semester off from college, he put himself through an “eight-month process” of reading the Quran and Islamic philosophy, studying idealized examples of how to behave and trying to apply those ideals in his own life. He applied precise rules like keeping his stomach one-third empty and speaking with a low voice. “The hardest thing in the world is to change yourself,” he says. He came to Pakistan in 2003, thinking it was his destiny. But then he found it hard to be a Muslim in this culture. Because he was so observant, his friends called him a mullah and asked him why he didn’t grow a beard. He joked that he had a mental beard so he didn’t need to grow one.
Osama thinks that both the liberal and conservative ends of the religious spectrum are wrong. He thinks that Pakistan needs to distinguish itself economically, in the high-tech sector especially. This accomplishment will be “because of, not despite” being a Muslim society. “I know, that’s too idealistic for the times we live in,” he says.
Osama asks me to meet with two of his programmers (he calls them engineers) to do a beta run with my recent research on their software. I type up some of my interviews with Hoodbhoy and Siddiqa for the team, two recent computer science college graduates who seem excited to see their program being used by a real person. I explain what’s intuitive and what’s confusing about the software.
Osama and I go for lunch. We fax the ministry of information about my visa extension. Return to office. The audio track of the commercial had too much echo, so we re-record. Afterward I realize that I need to go back to Lahore to change the date of my plane ticket to London. I stupidly left the ticket (an old-fashioned paper one) in my room in Lahore.
Go home to the apartment. Amna is feeling better, but not totally. She asks me about whether I might marry. I demur.
“You could still meet a good man. Or woman,” Amna says. Which is nice of her.
Amna and I start to watch Before Sunset with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Osama goes to bed; he can’t understand why anyone would watch a movie about a conversation. Amna and I both cry a little during the film. Go to sleep.
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Drive back to Lahore with Y. and Julie, a French political science PhD candidate who fell in love with and married a Pakistani. Y. and I joke about how harsh and blunt Pakistanis can be. I tell her that people have told me that I have a moustache I need to wax, that I’m negative, and that I’m stupid. She says that people have told her she’s too fat and should lose weight. They just want to help, she insists.
They mention that when September 11 happened, they were both teaching in Pakistani schools. Y. was teaching upper-class middle-schoolers and said that among her students, “half were excited, half were horrified.” “It’s like when the bully gets it,” she explains. Julie was teaching at LUMS at the time. They had a campus meeting where the various factions—Tablighis, liberals, and western-dressing Islamists—took different sides. She said that the western-dressing Islamists were the most aggressive and anti-American.
I tell Julie that I interviewed Ayesha Siddiqa. She thinks that Siddiqa’s take on the military is overly harsh and negative.
We arrive in Lahore. I go to Etihad with my ticket. Very relieved that I can change it. It’s getting hot, so I go to Main Market to look for summer clothes. Ahmad picks me up and we go for a non-alcoholic pina colada at the Pancake Lounge.
I tell him about Osama’s explanation of why dating is wrong. “The general problem with dating is there tends to be a lot of lying, deception, and false promises in it,” says Ahmad. This casts a pall over the conversation.
Eqbal Ahmed, from “Jihad International, Inc.,” written in 1988:
Pakistan is distinguished [from other states where Islamist elements fight against a secular government] in several ways. . . . [First, it] is the original staging ground of jihad as an international movement. . . . Two, unlike Algeria and Egypt, it has had a parliamentary system of government, with four elections since 1988 in which the percentage of votes for religious parties has been declining. Three, unlike Algeria and Egypt, where Sunni majorities predominate, Pakistan is a multi-denominational country where non-Sunni[s] constitute an estimated quarter of the population. Furthermore, even the Sunni are divided by theological disputes—the one between the Barelvis and the Deobandis is the primary example—which have tended to turn violent. Hence there is a proliferation here of violence. . . . Four, Pakistan remains Islamism’s “frontline state,” so to speak [since it is still involved with the mujahideen in Afghanistan]. . . . Finally, Pakistan’s is an ideologically ambiguous polity; here, political paeans to Islam have served as the compensatory mechanism for the ruling elite’s corruption, consumerism, and kowtowing to the West. As a consequence, the ideologically fervent Islamist minority keeps an ideological grip on the morally insecure and ill-formed power elite. It is this phenomenon that explains the continued political clout of the extremist religious minority even as it has been all but repudiated by the electorate. Yet horrors escalate by the day, and neither their original sponsors nor the victims are doing much about it.
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Go to Etihad office. Formally change my ticket. Go home. Tahira asks me where I’ve been. I say, “Islamabad.” She gestures to ask why. In pidgin Urdu I say, “I went to Islamabad to meet my friend Ahmad’s friend Osama.” She says, “Osama bin Laden?” “Yes,” I say, nodding. “My friend Osama bin Laden.” We both laugh guilty laughs.
“I went to Islamabad to see my friend Osama bin Laden.” I think I used the right possessive pronoun with the word “dost” (friend).
The New Zealander Emily’s husband Grant picks me up for dinner on Food Street, a big row of restaurants with outdoor seating and a festive atmosphere. We have a lovely time. They went up to Peshawar and the Khyber Pass the previous weekend and said it was amazing. I tell them about my Islamabad trip and the car chase. I just adore Emily. I can have a serious conversation, a good time, or a heart-to-heart with her.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Go fabric shopping with Tanzila. I buy gorgeous stuff, enough for two shalwaar kameezes, two long kurtis, and three dupattas.
Friday, March 30, 2007
Ahmad takes me for lunch at Freddy’s. This is wedding season because the evening weather is very nice. He went to one last night and will go to another tonight. He is wearing shalwaar kameez and looks a little uncomfortable. I say that I don’t know if I want a family. That having children is great, but it precludes a lot of other things. He launches into the “religion is a way to rationalize your life” monologue. I say that there are many ways of organizing your life. “Doing the right thing, being good and nice to everyone, making the world a better place, all of that is only thinking in this-worldly terms.” I should follow a more orthodox line, he says, because “even if you don’t achieve your dream, your life will still make sense on these other terms.” I say that I don’t really believe in an afterlife. “You should look into it,” he says. “What if you’re wrong and there is one? Because ‘helping others’ doesn’t really help others. At best it provides you with an opportunity to challenge yourself.” I sort of agree with that, but I also think it’s too cynical and easy.
I go for a meeting and then join Emily for dinner at the International Club, an expat haunt. Meet a lovely English couple doing HIV work for an NGO. I hope to see more of them. The Englishwoman tells me that African Muslim men are the most likely to have multiple wives. The proverb she’s heard is this: the first wife is for family, the second is for love, the third is for youth, and the fourth is because you’re mad . . . who would want four wives??
Saturday, March 31, 2007–Monday, April 2, 2007
Work at home during the day for three days. On Saturday night, I try to go meet Marya, Yasmeen, and Nazihsh for sushi at the Avari Hotel but I can’t get a rickshaw. I’m stuck at home eating ramen noodles. On Sunday night, Ahmad and I go out for strawberry milkshakes. He’s in a bad mood because he lost several big contracts this week.
On Monday evening, Tanzila, the professor, and two of their friends take me to Race Course Park for the annual fair. There are amusement park rides, camel rides, trained goats and monkeys, handicrafts, and cheap stuff for sale. Everyone has been talking about the haunted house. We see it close to the entrance. The Bengalis who run it keep insisting that it’s a real ghost inside. We enter and stand along a wall. A man covered in a black cloth, wearing a handmade mask leaps out from behind a curtain. He walks around in a menacing way behind a metal fence. He growls in a low, guttural voice and then barks in a creepy, high-pitched cry. Then he starts to crawl through the fence toward us and punches his fist close to our faces and bodies. He grabs a stick and hits the end of the stick against the wall, landing close to our heads. “Don’t do it,” one of my companions calmly says to the ghost when his stick lands a little too close to her glasses. The other four women are not impressed. I’m screaming my head off.
The show is over, so we exit. “Maybe some illiterate villager would be scared by that,” says the professor. “I was scared by that,” I say. They all laugh at me.
Tuesday, April 3, 2007
I have set up an appointment at the Ministry of Information to discuss my application for an extension of my visa. I take Daewoo bus to Islamabad in the evening. Get text message from X, the elusive founder of the Pakistanidykes Yahoo group. She tells me to contact her for dinner tomorrow night. I call Marya to let her know that I have heard from X. Marya is glad to hear it because X. has semi-legendary status among us. She tells me that Yasmeen and Nazihsh have started “a torrid affair.” She claims that it’s “about the South Asian thing, Yasmeen has never been with a Pakistani woman before so this is making her very emotional. She’s head over heels.” Marya hates going around with them now because she feels like a third wheel.
When I reach Rawalpindi, the owner of the guesthouse where I’ll stay picks me up in his car. He has a beard and no moustache, the “fundo” look. But he is very friendly and his guesthouse is plastered with U.N. logos and imagery.
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
Meeting at Ministry of Information with Mme. Pahira. I explain that I need more time in Pakistan because my research is taking longer than expected. The elderly woman I interview can only meet with me once a week. Mme Pahira says, “So I hear that you’re writing about someone who converted from Judaism to Islam and then back to Judaism.” No, I’m not, I tell her. Her information is totally wrong. My woman is still very much Muslim. Mme. Pahira says that somehow the culture officer in the New York office got the impression that Maryam Jameelah had reconverted. So did the intelligence agencies. Her boss wants to meet with me to discuss all this, but he isn’t in today. I should come back to the ministry tomorrow to discuss my request.
Go to the Institute of Policy Studies, an Islamist think tank associated with the Jama’at-i Islami, to interview Ershad Mahmud. Mahmud is Kashmiri and an expert on Kashmir and India-Pakistan relations.
I ask Mahmud to explain the different political movements within Kashmir today. The current moment is a hopeful one in Kashmir, with an Indian-Pakistani peace process underway. “I see the glass as both half-empty and half-full,” says Mahmud. “I generally support dialogue and a peace process. But at the end of the tunnel I see no light. Indians say, ‘We’re big, we can surpass anyone.’ They will be able to in 10 years. They’re not willing to give up [their part of Kashmir]. They’re talking because they want peace. They can’t attract investment [because of the ongoing conflict]. They need corridors to Central Asia for their markets and for energy. They need to become a good neighbor to Pakistan. But their economic interests conflict with the fact that they don’t want to show that any insurgency can kneel India. It might catch on with other populations. Musharraf’s proposal will bring some comfort [for Kashmiris]. More services, more investment. More people-to-people contact. There is a huge number of divided families.”
Does he foresee more success in the future for religious parties? “Religious parties will do better in the future. Because of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq [and] the Musharraf regime’s unconditional support of [U.S. policy]. Attacking Geo [during the chief justice debacle] was a big blow for the government.”
Mahmud recommends that I speak with Tariq Jan, an expert on political Islam and the media. His background is in copywriting and advertising. He attributes the Jama’at’s lack of electoral success to their inability “to manufacture people’s consent.” He says, “The press is dominated by people opposed to us, secularists. The establishment is opposed, feudals and secularists. When you have so much against you, continually brandishing you as if you’re evil personified, it doesn’t give a favorable image to the people.”
I ask him to explain the difference between the policies and programs of socialist parties and the emphasis on social justice in religious parties. What is the difference between creating a society to serve God and a society to serve humankind? He says that he sees serving God and serving man as the same thing. But that you yourself know what your motives are. You know if your goal is primarily to please God.
He thinks that another obstacle for the Jama’at is their “anti-conventional approach to problems. We don’t tell lies to the people. [In politics] you have to make false promises.”
Meet X. and her sister for dinner. I enjoy their company. They are brainy, bookish types. Upper-income, well-educated. They say that their relatives hate them and think they are arrogant. X. was an “ultra-hijabi girl” before she came out as an “ultra-political lesbian.”
“That’s why I got into psychology,” she says.
Thursday, April 5, 2007
Eat breakfast at my guesthouse with three Afghan men who work for the World Bank. Two are talkative and one is quiet. The talkative one says that he feels put in an impossible position. “To support the World Bank and democracy, this is a big sin” in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban is now in total control. He recalls that in the ’80s, a man threatened someone he knew by saying, “I can beat you like a drum.” Meaning, “I have sons in the communists and sons in the mujahideen, so I can beat you on both ends.”
“That’s how we feel,” he says. “For us, the one end is the Taliban, the other end is U.S. officers who are suspicious” because of our tribal affiliation.
His friend describes the hope felt by the Peshawar Afghan exile community. “After the war, a house you rented [in Peshawar] for 10,000 [rupees] wouldn’t go for 2,000. There was so much hope and excitement. Then the Taliban came back.”
“This is life,” says the quiet one.
Go to the market to get pictures taken for a new visa and to copy my paperwork. Wait for a call about my visa. It never comes. Dinner with Y.’s father and stepmother. Y.’s father says that being followed by intelligence agents is a commonplace experience. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the great Pakistani socialist poet of the 1930s, developed a fairly affectionate relationship with his spy. Apparently once when Faiz’s agent had shirked his duty and been caught, Faiz himself spoke with his boss and told him that the agent was doing a great job.
Y.’s father talks about atheism. “You are never just an atheist,’ he says. “I am an ex-Muslim atheist, or post-Muslim, or an atheist from a Muslim background. Someone else would be an ex-Christian or post-Christian. The Muslim image of God is very different from the Christian image. You’ll notice it’s more abstract.”
Friday, April 6, 2007
Meeting at the Ministry of Information. The information officer says that the ISI thinks my woman is Jewish again and that’s why they have been so invasive. Two BBC reporters are talking to another information officer nearby. I hear a cameraman say that he has been to Pakistan thirty times. My officer asks me, “Why do all you people come here to do your articles about Islamic extremism? Why don’t you go to Egypt or Indonesia?” I tell him it’s because so many people in Pakistan speak English. He nods and looks satisfied, as if that explanation makes sense. Regardless, he won’t be recommending an extension to my visa.
Visit the new National Gallery, which is still under construction. A very beautiful building.
In the evening, interview Irfan Moenuddin Khan, an intellectual historian. Khan went to McGill and is now professor of Islamic Studies at International Islamic University in Islamabad. His dissertation was on the role of print in the construction of religious authority, in particular a journal published by Karachi’s premier madrassah in the 1960s. This journal, Bayyinat, refuted both modernists like Fazlur Rahman and political Islamists like Mawdudi. He has a subtle and informed take on religious history.
I ask Khan about the intellectual diversity among the ulama, or accredited Islamic scholars, at traditional Islamic madrassahs. “Everyone begins with the idea that the ulama are fanatics. But there is a logic behind what they think. The ulama denounce the idea that there is any one Islam, that any one person [can define it]. The way Musharraf is repressing the madrassah now, it reminds me of the colonial framework. Whatever is decided to be not friendly [to the state] is regressive, terrorist.
“The madrassahs represent continuity. There are debates in the West about the classics, how should the classics be taught. Yet this is not looked at as a classical tradition that needs to be protected. People’s attitude is so utilitarian. ‘What use is it? A thirteenth-century text? We need to update Islam!’ It’s hard for liberals to understand.
“The traditional education was dry and scholastic. There’s a different decorum, students are not supposed to question much. It has its own dynamics. There’s a different way that a student engages and refutes [a point]. But I went to hear a discussion at a great madrassah. In class the teacher was lecturing on a classical legal text. The students sat in a circle. The level of analysis was so erudite I had difficulty following it. The discussion was about the linguistic and hermeneutic complexities of a 300-page commentary in Arabic. In the oral tradition, the teacher transmits the text and the white lines between the text. I had yet to attend a lecture that boggled me so much. The logic was so fine. The students then had a tutor and had to go over the lecture again.
“In Pakistan, education went on a different route. The British education was designed to produce secretaries and clerks, not profound thinkers. Pakistan continued that [British] tradition [after partition].”
The British also uprooted the Islamic legal system and the judges, or qadis. “They put in another system. The [Islamic legal infrastructure] traditionally came from below, as opposed to the top-down modern nation-state. Liberals see things in rationalistic terms; they want a prescriptive Islam. The real law is what a judge does with it in court. The problem with Pakistan implementing Hudud laws is [with the people being appointed] to judgeships. They are not competent.
“This was a grand intellectual tradition that people completely ignored. Now [all that anyone asks is], ‘What’s wrong with these people?’ Some [madrassahs] are struggling, economically—and perhaps they’re confused. Scared, paranoid. They’re locking themselves in.”
Outside of the madrassahs, at LUMS, a secular Pakistani university, Khan has encountered the phenomenon of the “born again” young person: “One day he’s a normal kid, he plays music. The next day he comes on campus in headgear and shalwaar kameez. I try to see him as someone who is fragile and confused. They get born again and then have to talk about it compulsively, obsessively. How it saved them from the path of sin. Light has come to them. They’re very fragile psychologically. The secular ones are not kind to them. It’s viewed as a sign of weakness by the more intelligent students. But one goes through many stages. [I would say to a secular student], ‘For you, being radical left was a phase in college. You were taken in by other theories. You read existentialism, you produced plays on the meaning of life. If the kid needs to go through it, he needs to go through it.’ The way I teach, I don’t rub things in my students’ faces. A lot of students believe what’s taught in schools. I need to earn their trust before I smash the narrative they’ve heard [all their lives]. I make it clear that my opinions are as fragile as theirs.
“When people speak about [religious] issues, both sides are harsher than [on other subjects]. Everyone gets very opinionated. I’ve seen religious people be understanding and sympathetic and secular people be mean and hostile. I would say that liberal people are more hostile to the religious than the religious are to the liberal. It’s amazing. When it comes to someone’s own [academic specialization], they can be so eloquent. So why does the intellectual level plummet when the subject comes to Islam?”
Khan feels that the intellectual level of the public debate about Islam has been exceptionally low. And that lots of charlatans are hawking books about Islam. “You know how in Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd goes on ‘Duck Season’? It’s ‘Islam Season.’ Anyone can write about this. There’s fame to be found in this area.”
He thinks that televangelists like Zakir Naik are very destructive. “Print fashioned a new Islam. This led to reform and revivalist movements. As for media Islam, it remains to be seen what will come out of it.”
After the interview, I go for another dinner with X. and her sister. X. mentions an article about Iranian allegations that Pakistan sponsors Balochi terror on the Iranian border. They think it’s funny that Pakistan is sponsoring cross-border terrorism against 3 of its 4 neighbors: India (jihadis in Kashmir), Afghanistan (the Taliban), and now Iran. Only China is not aggressed.
Saturday, April 7, 2007
Home to Lahore by Daewoo bus. When I get back, Tahira and I watch TV. The news shows some extremists at the ultra-radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad freaking out about something. In February, female students from the women’s madrassah attached to the Lal Masjid took over a children’s library to protest some mosques being demolished. Now the Lal Masjid has set up a sharia law court and proclaimed a separate Islamic government. In the footage, veiled, masked women all carry large wooden batons and shake them at the camera in a threatening way. This must have been what Ahmad meant when he said “chicks with sticks.” He said it in English while talking in Urdu to a friend.
Tahira watches in disbelief. She exclaims, “Pakistan finish!” and waves her hand dismissively at the TV. She looks at me and laughs sardonically.
Sunday, April 8, 2007–Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Interview MJ. Work at home. Wait for word from a friend who promised to ask the minister of information to grant me an extension on my visa. It doesn’t come.
At lunchtime, I go buy some Sprite Zeros at the market down the street. On my way there, two transgender women going in the opposite direction walk past me. They are wearing women’s clothing, but their makeup is only partly done. Khusra is the Urdu word, the Hindi is hijra. I wonder if there’s a brothel in our neighborhood. They smile at me and say, “Assalam alaikum.” They are deep in conversation.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
The heat is coming. Today a high of 104, tomorrow 116. The highest it gets is 120. Cut my hair short in the bathroom.
At home Nadia comes up to chat with me. She says, “You know if we all got together and really put our minds to changing Pakistan, we could do it. The problem is we can’t be bothered.”
Thursday, April 12, 2007
Go to LUMS to interview Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, professor and activist with the leftist People’s Rights Movement.
“If I were to say to someone, I’m a political activist, the first thing people would say is ‘Stay away from me.’ You must be self-aggrandizing. [In politics, you] vote for a gangster who can get things done. A bigwig in the area. Because you will have to go to the police, the courts, to deal with a land dispute. People still perceive the state as a place of power in society.
“Young people say, ‘What can we do about it?’ Politics is not [seen as] a set of ideas and values that can change things. I encounter kids who run away from it. They’re more concerned with their mobile phones. People are scared. They grew up [under Zia] seeing unprecedented levels of political repression. Colonialism . . . mapped and reified parochial identities. People adopted the identities the state had set up for them.
“There were popular movements in the late ’60s. This was pretty standard [in the] Third World. One such movement forced Ayub out in 1969. Students and industrial workers, to some extent professionals. This was the movement that Bhutto rode to power. Society was pissed at the military for Bangladesh, it was the perfect opportunity to demilitarize. But Bhutto squandered it.
“The elite was scarred by Bhutto. Afterward, they said to Zia, reestablish political balance of power. Use Islam, do whatever you have to do.
“What’s crucial is who controls the state. I’d say in many post-colonial societies political power precedes economic power. Even the dominant powers act like clannish groups. The military and bureaucracy have a life of their own. It’s a function of colonialism. Bhutto started it, then Zia took this to its natural conclusion. He banned labor unions, student unions, intelligentsia, artists—general cultural repression. We’re never recovered really. It’s been a long road back from that.”
I ask him how much responsibility the U.S. bears for this. “Without saying it’s all their fault, it’s largely their fault. They ensured the rejection of space for secular progressive alternatives. Just being nonaligned was a problem enough. It was along McCarthyist lines: ‘Anything that’s possibly a threat is a threat.’ [You see this loss of secular models all over] the Muslim world in the last 20, 30 years: Egypt, Algeria, Pakistan, Indonesia, Palestine. It’s a systematic pattern. Yet there are different reasons in every place.”
“Your goals are . . . no, it’s too instrumental. With Americans, it’s not ‘let’s worry about this polity, the children of this polity.’ It’s their control, geo-strategic and resource extraction.” I mention the USAID money going to Pakistani schools. “Twenty years ago, USAID gave money to Islamize education, now they give it to de-Islamize,” says Akhtar. “In 10 years, it’ll be whatever.”
What are the major differences between the Islamists and the leftists? “Islamism is a nativist cultural critique. There is no structural analysis. How will an Islamic state deal with capitalism as a world system? The Jama’at was never considered a major anti-imperialist [force]. The JUI was. It’s not left [however]. Not even Fabian socialism. Still it’s broadly anti-imperialist.
“The Jama’at doesn’t cater to the underclass. The focus is not on resolving the economic contradictions. The Jama’at was trained to bash or to say our biggest enemy of state is socialism.” The Islamic commitment to private property is a major difference between the two ideologies. “In 1990,” he says, “a sharia court said that land reform is un-Islamic.” (I ask around the next day and apparently land reform is an unresolved issue within Islamic jurisprudence.)
“The crux of the matter is that Islam is the identity that people associate with Pakistan. If you take Islam out of the Turks, Persians, Arabs you still have Turkey, Persia, Arabia. That’s not true for Pakistan. Most people are not orthodox, scripturalist Muslims here in Pakistan or Palestine. But the state used Islam [to legitimate itself]. Since the ’80s, you have to overtly be very Muslim.
“If you ask the people at Lal Masjid what they believe, they will say it’s good that sharia is being imposed. They will say the biggest problem is immorality. My wife went in there and asked them, ‘What’s the biggest problem in your household?’ They all said inflation and unemployment. ‘Will sharia address those concerns?’ ‘No, we don’t think it will. But when God’s will structures society all will be good.’
“There are social ills: brothels and drug running with the complicity of the police. Hamas knows what’s not being addressed, they go in, and create a constituency [on that basis]. It’s the lack of anybody else being around.
“The more insidious phenomenon is non-state actors. Militants, orthodoxy, religious groups. These are not going away. They have a life of their own in a society never open to that before. There is a larger cultural struggle in the coming decade.
“The nature of the Pakistani state remains a consistent question. It has been for the past 60 years and it will be for the next 60 years. The nature of the state itself is that the question will never go away.”
Go to the office of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan to interview I. A. Rehman, a former journalist and now the HRCP’s director.
The HRCP documents and works against domestic violence, child labor, bonded labor, sectarian violence, the intimidation of journalists, poverty-related suicides, and other issues. Reading the HRCP literature about bonded labor makes me remember the time when I heard Marya affectionately teasing Nazihsh by calling her “my choorie.” I asked Marya what choorie means. She looked embarrassed and said, “It's like a serf. A Christian serf.”
The HRCP began in the mid-’80s. I ask Rahman if they started with fewer issues on their roster. “No, we had the full plate, same as today,” he says. “Zia started retreating in 1985. Before then, there was no opening. People were struggling to open heavy doors. We had succeeded because there was a movement since 1981 for democracy. We forced the 1985 elections, they elected a cabinet, and martial law was withdrawn. But it continued in some respects.
“First of all, I personally believe that if you don’t have democracy, the right to choose your ruler, it’s the beginning of the denial of human rights. We are a nation deprived of that key right. Secondly, as more and more people become aware of their rights, traditional pockets of power oppose that. It affects [the dynamic]. Slaves don’t pose a problem. As long as women do not demand their rights, [abusive men are] happy. If you make the demand, you get beaten. During the last few years, economic factors have been significant. People who are hard up get desperate. They take out their desperation on ‘the weaker ones.’ ”
Given Pakistan’s population growth, inflation, and unemployment, Rahman fears for the next 10 years. He predicts that Islamism will increase. When he looks at the younger generation of educated people, “I see plus and minus both. At LUMS, more young girls are attending university than ever before. At Punjab University, it’s more than 50% women. But now the discourse has become restricted. The space for free discourse has contracted. The sense of commitment to public service has gone down as the rat race has become more intense. The values we held are under pressure. Learning is down, money is up. When I was a young person, the thinkable space was vast. The unthinkable space was small. Now it’s the reverse. It’s a crime to say anything against Pakistan’s state ideology, Islam, the judiciary, the army. Even my capacity to speak for women is limited. You can’t protest child labor.
“It’s been [this way] from the very beginning, when this state came into being. The custodians of state power faced problems, but they couldn’t deal with the problems. So they suppressed discussion. In the 80s, the Afghan war, Zia, various factors aggravated that. [The media revolution] has made censorship impracticable. But politics is not allowed in the society. [The episodes of democracy] were bogus democracy. The army was ruling all the time. None of the politicians were allowed to finish their terms.
“The relationship with the United States has been impinging on Pakistan adversely since the early ’50s. We were part of the Cold War. Things considered contrary to the struggle against communism were repressed, martial law was justified if it keep the communists at bay. The natural evolution of thought was suppressed.
“The Afghan war completely destroyed Pakistan. It distributed arms, created mullah power, narrowed political space. America had no problem with Zia, just like it has no problem with Musharraf if he’s an ally in the war on terror.
“The quality of political leadership is declining. Because [leadership] grows out of practice. Here, they keep political leaders alive but ban politics. The result is no change. So the leaders get stale and irrelevant. It becomes easy to abuse them. I see no change [for the younger generation]. It would take a popular movement for the military to leave politics.”
Friday, April 13, 2007
Go to LUMS to interview Abdul-Rehman Mustafa more formally about his class. He has ordered me a copy of the course packet, which comes in two volumes: the first is theoretical writing, the second scholarship on the law of marriage, divorce, and trusts. He studies governments’ efforts to change classical Islamic personal law. Pakistan has had exceptional success in altering Islamic law, perhaps because of the state’s purported “Muslim” nature.
“Every time the Indian government has had to change Muslim personal law, it had to back off,” he says. “Anything done by this country must be OK.”
Islamic law has gone through multiple transformations in different times and places. “The traditional [procedure was], go to a qazi for judgment. Both sides could bring people from as many schools as possible to influence the decision. An alim would [offer the equivalent to] an amicus brief.”
The British came and looked at the complexity of Islamic jurisprudence with dismay. “If you see the other as essentially disorganized and incoherent, you can’t have 50 opinions,” says Mustafa. “You need one law. You can’t expect the British to master the pluralism of the tradition. So they found a translation of the Hedaya, one of the texts on Hanafi law, from the late 1700s.” The British used the book as Islamic law. “They left out what in Islamic law would be the most important part, ritual affairs. But they left in personal law. So they did pick a Hanafi book, but they messed with Hanafi law.” This reductive and oversimplified legal hybrid is known as Anglo-Muslim law.
“I don’t think that legal culture has changed much,” says Mustafa. “[Under the British], Islamic law existed but it was distorted. In Pakistan it continues to be the same.” There have been considerable changes in Islamic family law, over many centuries and under many different governments. In the late 1860s, the Ottomans made the first attempt to codify Islamic law, the Mejalle. In 1961, Pakistan passed a family law ordinance limiting the right of a husband to issue a divorce and take a second wife. In 2006, it passed the Women’s Protection Ordinance taking crimes related to non-marital sex out of the Islamic legal portfolio and into the civil code. These changes were not made according to the classical methodology but were done in a more statist way.
Many in the West assume that Islamic law is bad for women, but Mustafa says that “Hanafi jurisprudence might be better [for women] in other areas, such as maintenance,” the support owed women and children.
Mustafa will probably write Western-style scholarship about Islamic legal history. But his time studying law at the madrassah is also a personal religious act. “At one level, I just consider it to be an act of worship, but I hope it will give me some background about these legal debates. The maximum one can read is 10 to 15 texts over several years. It’s not enough to understand one school, let alone four. But it does let you understand the hermeneutics.”
He questions absolutist positions about how to interpret a text. He espouses a contextualist approach and the idea that one can change legal schools if an opinion from another scholar makes more sense. Many of the more tradition-minded students in his class have dropped out because they dislike this style of textual interpretation.
The more flexible way of interpreting Islamic law has been used by activists in the movement to reinterpret the law to legalize homosexuality. “These debates become very polemical,” says Mustafa. “[The idea that homosexuality is wrong] has the power to unite everything. Some scholars have written favorably about homosexuality. They don’t condone practicing it. But they say that it is rational and natural and comes from God. Someone with that mindset might say that [having homosexual desire] leads to more faith because you are more tested. It’s like Kierkegaard. The idea that torment can be a faith experience.
“It’s interesting that Ibn Taymiyya, a role model for jihadis, was a lifelong bachelor. He never married. His student Ibn Qayyim was asked for a fatwa by someone who considered himself tormented by the disease of homosexuality. He said that this is a rational thing. It’s not irrational or arational. You have to ask for a higher punishment, but in a way it’s much more respectful.”
Very religious people feel a lot of ambivalence about living under the Pakistani state. Mustafa says that sometimes people move to England for religious reasons, which I find hard to understand. “In England, ‘the enemy’ is more clear,” says Mustafa. “Here it’s undefined. [The English are] not going to hurt Islam through Islam. Here the changes are much more sinister. ‘Islamic justifications’ for changing Islamic law.”
I ask Mustafa one last question about land reform. He says that it’s an unresolved issue within Islamic jurisprudence. He doesn’t seem to think it will happen anytime soon. “The elite here, they won’t annoy each other very much,” he says wryly.
Go home to tape an episode of “The Week That Was,” a week-in-review show that airs on the Business Plus channel. Nadia knows the producer, who thought it would be fun to have an American perspective on the show. We go over the list of this week’s topics: recent comments from the U.S. State Department’s Richard Boucher about Pakistan’s lack of democracy, the outlandishly elaborate wedding of Liz Hurley and an Indian business magnate, the death of a famous classical singer, the latest cricket news, and a few other topics.
The producer prepares me for the tone of the show and for the topics. He is worried that “what’s happening now [i.e., Musharraf’s leadership] won’t continue.” Who is Richard Boucher to tell Pakistan what to do? He declares, “Anyone who has been in Pakistan for five minutes knows that if they were given real democracy, the masses would vote for a Taliban-type Islamic state.” He says that the large popular vote for the PPP and the PML-N reflects the pressure of the landlords, not the will of the people. Whether he is right or not, he is frightened about the idea of premature democracy, and he takes his anger at Boucher out on me. I know he’ll hate me, but I say that democracy is needed in a society. He replies testily that under Musharraf, the National Assembly will complete a full term for the first time in Pakistan’s history.
I had told Tahira that I would keep General Shamikebab on my lap during the interview so he could give the military perspective. She is sad when I don’t actually do it.
Saturday, April 14, 2007
In the morning I go downstairs to send an email. Tahira is watching a women’s TV show on Indus Vision. A cosmetologist explains the homemade facial she is giving to a model. Tahira gestures at the TV and then mimes typing with her fingers. She wants me to write down the ingredients so that we can make the mix and give each other facials at home.
Write up yesterday’s interviews. The legacy of 200 years of British presence equals a political military that runs the country, often in its own interests. The legacy of 60 years of U.S. Cold War alignment equals decades with no real political process, plus an armed and organized jihadi sector. Emigration to England, the U.S., Canada. The economic interests and lack of transparency of the military plus—what else? —equals what the Pakistani people are up against.
Read an article in the Friday Times about the Bhutto and Musharraf power-sharing talks. A cartoon shows the two leaders playing a card game at a table. I wonder why the U.S. government has chosen Bhutto to be the crutch to prop up Musharraf’s faltering regime. Was there really no other candidate? I heard that a rival PPP leader was also shown around Washington, but that she put the kibosh on it. If this goes wrong it will really be bad news. I just hope the U.S. doesn't misread the tea leaves. The reputation of the Pakistani military is already floundering because of its association with the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, its meddling in politics, and its inability to control inflation. Now the country's only semi-viable political party looks a little craven and corrupt, and might lose credibility as well. Invasions, occupations, and coups are obvious and get lots of attention. But there are lots of ways to mess up a country.
Could someone please give me a realistic assessment of: 1. the best-case scenario; 2. the worst-case scenario; 3. the likeliest possible scenario. Are all the generals younger than Musharraf in the Islamist camp? Could any of the political parties truly run the country? How could democrats force transparency?
Go out with Marya, Yasmeen, and Nazihsh for food at Coffee Tea & Company, and then to an elite party with a bar set up. Three gay men dance around to house music. One offers us poppers and weed. Marya smokes the weed. A different gay man passes out on the dance floor.
Nazihsh and Yasmeen certainly make for an interesting couple. Nazihsh is quiet, subtle, and understated. Yasmeen is funny, opinionated, and bawdy. Apparently they have broken up and gotten back together three times already.
Nazihsh and I sit on a couch together. She is worried that someone she knows, a gay male hairdresser who loves to gossip, might be at the party. She complains that Yasmeen is pressuring her to be open about their affair. “Yasmeen and Marya can’t understand why I’m not out. I’m not and I don’t want to be,” she says. But this secrecy “creates a conflict” with “meeting out women and living a full life in a relationship.”
I ask her, what is a major difference between dating an English girl and a Pakistani girl. She says diplomatically, “Well, no matter what, you find something to love in a person if you spend enough time with them.” But she adds that when she’s spending time with a British girl, she misses the sensibility of Pakistani women. “You know,” she says, “not everything needs to be said.”
Monday, April 16, 2007
Go to LUMS to interview Yasser Hashmi, a psychology professor. Hashmi researches and teaches cognitive science, writes witty newspaper columns, and is friends with Y.
“I see lots of kinds of polarization. There is social-cultural polarization. On the one hand are those who are interested in joining multinationals and who have taken an ethos similar to that kind of path and career. People who take summer internships. I used to laze and read in the summer. That’s one strand. The other (personally to whom I’m more sympathetic) are persons searching for another meaning. They find the Islamic point of view convincing. It’s a doctrine and an ideology. It provides a comfort of knowing, for every chaotic decision, a look-up table, a set of solutions. [But it’s also appealing because] no one has any moral authority except for the Islamists. They have by far the most idealism. We can agree on issues but not solutions. The others can’t agree on the issues, let alone the solutions.
“Polarization means mutual incoherence. People don’t understand each other. Sometimes it’s comical, sometimes not. [The discussion is governed by the] indolent laid-back philosophy of life typical of central Punjab. Extended families, matriarchs have a great role. Both sides can exchange jokes. But this won’t last more than 10 or 15 years because of the rate at which the divergence is happening.
“[All this occurs during] a time when a lot of cultural change is taking place. What worked for their parents and grandparents is not just useless, it’s meaningless. The upper class is the strata in which the contrast shows itself more clearly. This is much more the part of society that is eroding the fastest. Values are losing force, extended families are becoming meaningless, and there is less time for extended socializing. Economic change is slower than the cultural change. [When the economic change happens] that’s when we’ll see what will really become of us.
“Pakistan basically runs on injections of foreign capital. We generate a local crisis, and we get money. In the ’60s, it was the Soviet Union, China. In the ’80s, it was the Afghan war. Now it’s the war on terror. In between, when there’s no cash flow to be milked, the army hands the country over to the democrats. They deal with the blowback. Then the next [cycle] starts.
“The war on terror doesn’t make sense. The consensus in American makes it impossible for anything good to come out of it. The U.S. consensus is that terror is something that is either defeatable by military or by political policy. [To the U.S. population] it doesn’t require fundamental restructuring of American policy in the Middle East. But while Saudi Arabia is there, while Palestine is there, while the policy toward Iran is there, the source of the stream will not be cut off. You can fight what comes out of it, subvert that with political and financial means, [but it won’t stop].”
I ask him about the American public and its engagement with its country’s foreign policy. He’s not optimistic. “Americans are not deeply interested in their government’s foreign policies,” he says, “let alone the last 40 to 50 years of history. Pakistan gets pushed around because of its location, so Pakistanis are aware of all these things. We have an international history. That’s why a small country produces big poets: Faiz, Iqbal.” But he does find reasons for hope. “I put my faith in the general humanity of people, their sense of humor, their lack of vindictiveness, and their indolence, rather than anything else.”
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Go to Etihad office, change my ticket. Now I’m booked on a flight for the evening of April 22. My visa expires the next day.
Meet Ahmad for lunch at Croweaters. He asks me, “You’ve talked to all these people. Have you figured it out? Have you decided what’s wrong with Islam? Why is it so rigid?” Does he really think I think that? I say, “Look, I’m writing about politics, economics, history . . .” He looks at me as if now he’s finally got me pegged. American imperialism, etc.
“Oh come on, that’s normal,” he says, “that’s how life is, it’s how it works. You don’t want your people to be unemployed, you move the unemployment over here. That’s how we would be too if we had the opportunity.” He says that it’s the fault of his country’s being dominated. “It’s internal problems. Our military is corrupt, our bureaucracy is corrupt. We have to get our house in order.”
Ahmad tells me that he doesn’t enjoy most people’s company, which makes this a painful situation. The same is true for me.
I take a rickshaw home. Go for a walk in the small park in cc Defense. Women in shalwaar kameez speed walk around a circular track. Men pray in a small open-air mosque just off the park. On the way home I stop at a grocery store and buy water and toilet paper.
I spend the evening with Tahira and her cousin. The cousin shows me a text message that amuses her: “Man is such a NO FUSS person . . . he has only two emotions, he is either Hungry or Horny . . . if u see him without an Erection, make him a sandwich.”
Thursday, April 19, 2007
Interview Arif Jamal, a print and radio journalist who has studied Pakistan’s jihadi training camps and political Islam for a decade. Jamal has a book on the history of jihad in Kashmir forthcoming from Melville House, and a second book in manuscript on Pakistan’s 200,000 armed and trained Salafist jihadis. This is a movement that has been peaceful to date, but he says, “When it comes into the street, you will see what terrorism is.” Next year he will be a fellow at Harvard.
“Most Muslim extremists feel, before joining the jihad, that they are excluded from power. Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri were excluded from power despite being very rich. They are redundant, they can’t play any role in society. When [a Jihadi group] hands a Kalashnikov to a young boy, they give him a role. He is proud of what he does for society and for God. He gives medical aid to people who wouldn’t know of medicine otherwise. They bring [villagers] the first doctor they have seen in their lives.
“Unfortunately the Americans don’t understand the Muslim world. For six years they believed that Musharraf was a great leader. Very recently they are getting to know him now. In 2002, it was impossible to talk about Musharraf with Americans in the State Department, senators, intellectuals. They were so mesmerized with him. I’m sorry but the president of America should understand these things. Now they understand: he has done very little to rein in the Taliban. They are asking him to do more.
“At this time in history, Pakistan and the world can be saved only if Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, and al-Taf Hussein unite and decide to rule this country together for five years, the tenure of a Parliament. Things have deteriorated so much that no single leader can save Pakistan. You need a coalition government. Only democratic and liberal forces have an interest in destroying fundamentalism. The least—and the most—that the U.S. can do is to stop supporting dictators. Withdraw every kind of support to a dictator: financial, military, cultural. [After that], it’s our problem.
“I am writing about how 9/11 pushed Pakistan to being a more fundamentalist state, on a society and a state level. Musharraf has consciously pushed Pakistan toward extremism. It is not the ‘enlightened moderation’ it seems. Musharraf has not abandoned jihad as an instrument of policy, although [that is what] he has been claiming. Pakistan has an institution, that institution has its own plans. He can’t deviate from what the Pakistan army stands for. If he deviates too much, he will be taken away. Jihadist infrastructure remains intact. He did not stop their fundraising, gatherings, training, to the extent that [it all goes on in public view]. There are marginal extremists in every society, but here they function very openly. Less than before 9/11, but still very openly. They have offices, trusts, publications, they advertise on the walls of cities. 90% of the jihadist infrastructure is intact. Musharraf crushed only those jihadists who misunderstood him in the beginning. Those who believed [his statements] and tried to kill him.
“There is no commitment to eradicating the jihadi infrastructure because Pakistan wants to use it in the future jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir. It doesn’t want to alienate them.
“People are looking for anti-American icons. Osama bin Laden is a hero in the Muslim world not because of what he stands for but because he stood up to America. Post-World War II, there is an economic system, the World Bank and the IMF, that defines American empire. Show me one country in the world better off for World Bank policy. To some extent, people are looking for a scapegoat for their own wrongdoings. It is not the case that American empire is the root cause of all problems in the Muslim world. The real problem is that the Muslim world has not been able to develop into a democratic world. For various historical reasons. Americans played a part in the status quo. They supported repressive and obscurantist rulers in the Muslim world. They still do.
“American Cold War foreign policy was one of the factors. It was not the principal factor. Most [important] was that we were colonized in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The process of decolonization has not come to an end as far as intellectual freedom is concerned. The least violent Muslim country is Malaysia. They have had some kind of democratic system.
“The U.S. should stop supporting repressive and obscurantist dictators. If the U.S. stopped supporting dictators, in the short term, most of the Muslim world would come under the rule of Islamists. In the short term, they have the moral authority. It is a byproduct of the colonial system. If the U.S. stays neutral, it wouldn’t survive long. The Muslim world has to go through a very bitter experience of being ruled by Osama bin Laden and Khomeini. It can’t survive very long.
“People in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are as democracy-loving as in the United Kingdom and the United States. Democratic forces will win out.”
Jamal is right. But all I can think is, fat chance. Not in a country as strategically located as Pakistan. A neighbor to Iran and China and a conduit for war matériel for Afghanistan. I feel a constant internal debate about this. We have to do this. We will never do this. I also wonder how much can be averted at this point. The Pakistani military and the intelligence agencies will do what they want whether there is a dictatorship, a pseudo-democracy, or a real democracy. The Islamic emirate in the tribal areas is a fait accompli now. They don't even use the Pakistani flag there. The other day I Google-imaged the Taliban flag; it is black and white, with the calligraphic text of the declaration of faith on it. I have no idea how this will play out. Many Pakistanis don't really seem to think it's in their interest to go to war with these people. Many Pashtun soldiers are uncomfortable fighting their cousins, countrymen, and former comrades in arms. While most Pakistanis feel that extremism is a problem, some believe that this is really America's war.
I leave Jamal’s house and get in a rickshaw to go into the center of Lahore. Nadia’s cousin, a major feminist activist, has organized a rally against “Talibanization” on the mall. Nadia and I go separately. Despite constant cellphone calls, I can’t find her. Crowds of PPP activists wave the party’s flag. The crowd is smaller than I had expected it to be.
On the way home, I go to Y Block market. Buy a goodbye present for Ahmad. A teddy bear. Separation will be hard. I can feel it.
Friday, April 20, 2007
Interview Javed Ghamidi at his home. Ghamidi was initially a Jama’ati and a close disciple of Mawdudi. Later, he came under the influence of another teacher, Amin Ehsan Islahi. I have been reading his books. He argues that something can be a moral evil, and yet perhaps the person who committed the act had no alternative. The religious obligation is to create the circumstances where moral action is possible. His TV program is respected and popular.
His son Muazz Ghamidi speaks to me for a few minutes while Ghamidi finishes his lunch.
“My father is not very social, he wanted to do research only. But with the recent media revolution, it became apparent that people were having questions but were afraid of the questions. They were dying to know the answers. They inherit [answers] rather than find them on their own. They were not satisfied with this. So on his television show he had atheists and agnostics as guests.” This was controversial and unprecedented.
“In Asian countries, parents try to impose [on their children] rather than communicate,” Muazz says, adding that his father did not do this with him. He was allowed to go through a long period of doubt and agnosticism, after which he decided to be a Muslim.
“Sir Seyyed, Iqbal, and Jinnah asked questions. [The paradox of] the Asian idea of hero worship is that the very thing that Jinnah did we can’t do. His followers can’t question him. Why doesn’t the silent majority of moderates [in Pakistan] speak when radicals are trying to impose something? There was a rally yesterday against Talibanization. There were not more than 1,000 people there, even though 60% of society [opposes Talibanization]. But Jamia Hafsa can get 20,000 or 30,000 people to a rally, even though they are only 4% of society. Certainty can’t come without questioning. Comfort can.”
Ghamidi arrives. Asif Iftikhar, a scholar at LUMS, translates for us. I ask Ghamidi what an Islamic democracy would look like.
“It would be something similar to the Iranian experiment. Controlled democracy, but with qualified decision makers. These developments are the product of historical change. For different peoples, different governments are suitable. Democracy is one of the finest achievements of mankind. What the Quran is telling Muslims is that they have to form a government on the basis of the democratic process. But until a really congenial culture pervades a society that would allow a religious [democracy], it’s better to be in a secular environment than in a very distorted religious environment that contradicts religion on the one hand and democracy and basic norms of ethics on the other. We need free speech, free communication of ideas.
“You have to make decisions based on reality. Even right after the Prophet himself, governments established were not romantic ideals. They were the outcome of the realities of those times. But premodern and modern Muslims romanticized it.
“Around the colonial period, what the Muslims inherited wasn’t a foundation in democratic traditions and institutions. The post-colonial period had a very weak foundation in modern education and democracy. The dominant powers as always took advantage. They used this not for furthering democracy but for furthering their own interests. Hardly any superpower in terms of foreign policy was concerned with democracy. Military dictators, Saudi kings: apparently this setup suits their interests. [You have to compare] the ideals they profess and the reality on the ground in the Muslim world itself.
“My prognosis is a possible repetition of earlier military dictatorships. After six or seven years the foundations [of a regime] are undermined by the vagaries of time. The interests of the external powers that brought people to power change. Politicians will try to take advantage, their activism will increase, this could lead to a tougher stance. There isn’t a possibility for true democracy. Even if a political government comes to power, it is bound to be so fragile that it couldn’t survive without military support.
“What is different is the mass media, these private channels. It is making the public more aware. The results will be visible 10 years from now. It’s a major development.
“There are three problems: first, the dearth of true political leadership; second, military power has taken such firm roots in the overall fabric of society that it’s very difficult for politicians to undermine it; third, the U.S. itself won’t see the interests furthered with true democracy. It will continue to support military dictators wherever they support its interests.
“Unless two basic ingredients for change in Muslim societies are brought into play and take effect, there is quite a strong likelihood of extremism growing. One is true democracy. The second is education. Unless the Muslim people are educated and have true democracy, it’s very difficult to imagine that the dream of lost glory will not manifest itself in extremisms. Most names involved in 9/11 were Saudis, because Saudi Arabia is a police state, a dictatorial monarchy. If the U.S. is truly sincere in ending extremism, the antidote is for the U.S. to expend all its energy on educating the Muslim people and ensuring that true democracy really prevails in the world.
“Has it really become an issue that the U.S. perceives as a matter of life and death for itself? Or are they apprehensive that true democracy is not compatible with their own interests in the region? There is an Islamic saying about self-interest: ‘On the one hand is the faith, on the other hand is the temptation.’ ”
After the interview, I go home and pack my suitcase. Everything that won’t fit goes into a large shipping box to be mailed back to New York. Books and clothes. Go to DHL and ship the box. Come home and clean my room. Same feeling as at the end of college.
I try to explain to Tahira that I have to leave, but that I’m angry about leaving. I’m upset about the Ministry of Information. What about my rights? Tahira is laughing at me. She tells me I look like an elephant in musth.
Saturday, April 21, 2007
I haven’t yet done any tourism here. So I go to see the Wazir Khan mosque, the Badshahi mosque, and the Lahore Fort. At the Lahore Fort a loquacious tour guide asks me where I’m from. I say I’m American.
“Why didn’t you lie?” he asks incredulously. “Americans always lie about that.”
I’ve been lying for three months and I’m sick of it. He also asks me if I have a husband. I’m sick of lying about that too, so I tell him the truth.
He is a chatterbox and a socialite—every tour guide and shoe minder at the Fort knows him. “Is there something you noticed about me?” he asks while showing me the derelict bedrooms of long dead Moghul princesses. “Is there something you knew about me right away? What is that?”
He tells me that he went to Karachi last weekend to see a friend’s play. It was staged as a college project at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. The play was “amazing” and “fantastic.” The premise was a sculptor looking for an answer to a magical riddle. She goes to a series of fantastical figures to get the answer. She goes to an angel, she goes to Confusion, then to Disbelief, then to the “know-it-all,” after that to Perfection, and finally she ends up with Hope.
He shows me the program from the play. The program has an epigraph: “It feels like they’re judging me, telling me what to do . . . Listen! I think they’re doing it right now!”
Go to the Y Block market McDonald’s for dinner with Ahmad. In the parking lot, he sees the bag with his present in the car and grabs it. When he opens it he nods silently. I guess I got the right thing.
When we’re on line for food he greets a 12-year-old boy he knows from his old job at a private school. “Hello my friend!” he says to the boy. Ahmad looks happy. “You wouldn’t recognize me when I’m with kids,” he says. “I’m no longer an overly serious jerk. I turn into someone else.” I am sad that I won’t get to see that.
At dinner I tell him that I wrote about him in my travel diary. He looks like he suspected as much. “Zafir wanted you to write about him,” he says bitterly. I tell him I will write the truth, that nothing happened. “Your readers will be bored,” he says.
He’s polite, but he is angry. After he drops me off at home he drives away without saying goodbye.
Cry alone in my room.
Sunday, April 22, 2007
Ahmad picks me up to take me to airport. He looks upset. At one point he gets out of the car and walks around for a minute. When he gets back into the car he says he was looking for someone who could point in the direction of Mecca.
Bilal will come to the airport with us. We reach his house and he comes outside. Bilal gets into the car and sees the teddy bear. “Did you give this to Ahmad?” Bilal asks me. “Oh, I’ll make sure that he keeps it forever and ever!”
On the drive to the airport they discuss where they might buy their homes. Ahmad likes one new housing development in particular, because it has single-point entry and will be particularly safe. “One entry. Good,” he says.
When we get to the airport, Bilal says goodbye to me on the curb. I will miss him. Ahmad pulls my suitcase to check-in and then walks me over to security. While I’m on line for the metal detector, I hear him behind me, saying, “This is where I leave you.” I turn around and blurt out “I’m going to see you again, right?” I don’t understand what happens next. He disappears in the crowd.
I turn back again and walk through security. I sit at the gate for about 30 minutes. A few chairs down, a bearded man reads a book called Stress Proof Your Life. Over the intercom I hear the call that boarding will begin. I join the line to get on the plane.