Jinnah’s Pakistan, eh?

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I wrote this piece for the Friday Times. Lets just that I was irritated by the vague thing you hear repeatedly in urban Pakistan. They want Jinnah’s Pakistan. So lets examine the idea of Jinnah’s Pakistan…

http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta2/tft/blog.php?blogstory=13

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Blog By Ziyad Faisal

To limit ourselves to an imagined version of what Mr Jinnah wanted would mean
limiting our political vision and perhaps the very frontiers of our political morality

Jinnah’s Pakistan

When a suicide-bomber targets a market-place, a rabid Islamist kills a figure who is not pious enough or Independence Day comes, we are reminded of the psychosis of the Pakistani state. We are reminded that in addition to shaky material foundations, the Pakistani state rests upon highly flimsy and contested ideological grounds. At such times, there is almost always a chorus from the literate urban middle-classes of the country: they want “Jinnah’s Pakistan”. For the more conservative sections of our urban middle-class, the Pakistan they long for is the “laboratory” which Jinnah claimed he sought, to implement Islamic values. For the more liberal sections of the urban middle-class, the Pakistan they want was described by a secular Jinnah in his speech on August 11, 1947. The more perceptive reader will already realize that while every historical figure can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways, if a single leader can be held up by secularists, conservatives, nationalists and Islamists alike, perhaps the leader himself was not so sure about certain things.

But what exactly was Mr Jinnah’s own vision for Pakistan, and how did it interact with the nature of the Pakistan Movement and the realities of post-1947 Pakistan? To understand the yearning for “Quaid-e-Azam ka Pakistan”, one must look at the founding myths of Pakistan and Jinnah’s place therein.

Almost any child who goes to school in Pakistan learns a certain story. The story involves a young man, burning the proverbial midnight oil as he studied at night, trying to shield the light he was using with cardboard sheets, so as not to disturb his siblings. When asked by his sister as to why he would not simply go to bed, he said something along the lines of how important this hard work was, for him to become a great man. The Pakistani reader will recognize immediately the young man we are talking about: the Quaid-e-Azam, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Most modern nation-states actively propagate their foundational myths: based on a kernel of truth but embellished greatly with fantasy, exaggeration and historical omissions. It is only natural that such myths centre around the integrity, heroism or ambition of one or more “founding fathers” who were instrumental in creating the state it in its modern, institutional form. So, for instance, Israel has its Bar Kochba and its Ben Gurion. Turkey has its Attaturk leading the fight for independence from barren Anatolia. The United States has its George Washington, who supposedly would not lie to his father about cutting a cherry tree, even as a boy. Latin American countries have their Simon Bolivar, Italy has its Garibaldi, Ireland has its Michael Collins. The Indian state has its own pantheon of founding fathers, from Asoka to the Rani of Jhansi, all the way down to Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose. Even Saudi Arabia has its epic tale of Bedouin raiders from the sand-dunes of Najd turning into majestic kings and defenders of the Holy Kaabah.

As for the foundational myths of Pakistan, let us bear in mind the following: every modern nation-state is ultimately a very artificial social construct, and the more artificial a state, the more artificial its founding myths.

And what is the Pakistani child taught about the founding fathers of the country? Well, if we put aside the valuable nation-building efforts of Muhammad bin Qasim and Mahmud of Ghazni, what we are left with is essentially Allama Muhammad Iqbal and, of course, the Quaid-e-Azam. Iqbal, as a brilliant poet and an aspiring philosopher, who dreamt of Pakistan. Mr Jinnah, the great political leader who brought this vision to fruition. Such is the clichéd narrative we are given. Read the rest of this entry

So I wrote this piece…

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…for the Friday Times. Sort of put down a few observations regarding Pakistani immigrants in Western Europe, with a focus on Italy. This is part of a larger collection of notes I’ve jotted down about immigrants from Africa, Asia and Latin America in Western Europe. Hopefully, a simple copy-paste from TFT’s website will retain reasonable formatting on WordPress.

**crosses fingers**
http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta2/tft/article.php?issue=20110624&page=20

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I ask Naseer if we should perhaps sit down to some coffee. The Tuscan evening is unforgiving and chilly. The neon lights of a cafe sing their siren-song for me, from across the piazza. To further convince myself that seeking shelter is best for both of us, I glance quickly at Naseer’s clothes: a woefully inadequate hoodie and a scarf. I muster all the politeness I can, painfully conscious that my Punjabi is rusty from months of disuse. I am doing a delicate balancing act between cosmopolitan etiquette and Lahori street gregariousness, offering to continue our conversation over a coffee.

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Successfully reaching Europe does not mean an escape from poverty
Successfully reaching Europe does not mean an escape from poverty
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Naseer is taken aback. He mutters that he does not usually drink coffee, then insists that he will still have it. I am furious at myself for not suggesting tea before coffee.

Within minutes, he is regaling me with tales of how effectively he can swindle Europeans once they begin drinking. He describes, for instance, a certain Italian beach party that he found his way into, and how lucrative it was for him. Having seen a lot of couples and noticed that amour was very much in the air, Naseer and other young Pakistani immigrant men descended upon the party with bottles of champagne. Bottles of champagne which were filled with water, and crudely re-sealed.

Within minutes, he is regaling me with tales of how effectively he can swindle Europeans once they begin drinking

“We sold that water and made 20-30 euros off each bottle. They were too drunk to notice that what they were buying was just water, not champagne!” he shouts through hoots of laughter.

But that is what happens on a good day. An exceptionally good day. Otherwise, Naseer may be found at a certain piazza in Florence, selling trinkets and cheap sunglasses. He lives in a small apartment shared with several young Pakistanis. They share a common situation: they left their country and came to Europe illegally, and now find themselves caught between destitution here and poverty back home. Read the rest of this entry

What you can’t miss when you look at the Arab revolutions…

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What we have witnessed in the Arab world over the past few months is unbelievable, yet understandable.

One by one, regimes which we thought were “stable” for the foreseeable future faced revolts from a politically conscious population. The rulers in the Arab world have used various slogans from monarchist filial piety to secular nationalism in order to maintain hegemony and deprive millions of people of democratic rights.

But clearly, this will not work any more. What we see in the Arab world today are millions of people who seem to have suddenly become conscious of history itself and their role in it. Rather than back off, they seem to have realized that this particular moment in their history is an opportunity: one which they cannot afford to loose.

While the uprisings have taken a very different direction in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain, they spring from similar social roots. Populations deprived of a democratic platform to express their demands for inclusion and social justice are taking matters into their own hands. The rumblings of revolt are beginning to be heard in Syria, Yemen, Jordan and even in the heart of conservatism and reactionary politics in the Arab world: Saudi Arabia.

By trying to temper the radicalism of Egypt’s revolution using the Egyptian military, by allowing Saudi Arabia to invade and help the Bahraini monarchy crush protesters and by trying to co-opt the Libyan rebels through military action against Qaddhafi, at every step Washington has shown that it was taken by surprise just as much as the rest of us.

And in the meanwhile, Israel’s rulers watch with apprehension. The Arab people have already proven that popular revolution is still a relevant political concept in the 21st century, that it is very much on the cards in the Third World. All of this threatens the very basis of Israeli (and American) strategic thinking.

The Arab revolutions, in short, remind us of something which years of corporate media and state propaganda tried to make us forget: i.e. the universality of demands for democracy, social justice and human rights.

There are other lessons too, and nuances which I would like to go into at a later time. But that will be some other time…

Dystopia and the City: part 2

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Note: In this part, I continue rambling on. These are more extracts from my notes on urban life, jotted down at various points. Here I tried to compile them into something readable.

 

I begin with the literary definition of “dystopia”, provided by Wikipedia, because it is just what I need:

dystopia (from Ancient Greek: δυσ-: bad-, ill- and Ancient Greek: τόπος: place, landscape) (alternatively, cacotopia,[1] or anti-utopia) is, in literature, an often futuristic society that has degraded into a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian. Dystopian literature has underlying cautionary tones, warning society that if we continue to live how we do, this will be the consequence. A dystopia is, thus, regarded as a sort of negative utopia and is often characterized by an authoritarian or totalitarian form of government. Dystopias usually feature different kinds of repressive social control systems, a lack or total absence of individual freedoms and expressions and constant states of warfare or violence. Dystopias often explore the concept of technology going “too far” and how humans individually and en masse use technology. A dystopian society is also often characterized by mass poverty for most of its inhabitants and a large military-like police force.

One of the things that I’ve realized about dystopian fiction is that even though it is supposed to show a possible future, many of the things it depicts are realities in the present. So in a way, we need not wait for (and fear) what is being depicted, because so much of it is already happening. The question is not so much about how to avoid this happening in the 23rd century, as much as how to deal with it in the here and now.

Dystopian fiction, if its done properly, becomes a stark reminder of how many of our civil and individual liberties have already been taken away by the state. And when I say “the state”, I mean any modern nation-state: one which exercises sovereignty in the Westphalian sense and employs legitimized coercion in the Weberian sense.

The most alarming aspect of our Dystopian existence is everyday city life. Think about it: one cannot walk down a street in a major European city without seeing a video surveillance warning on every corner. One cannot walk into a commercial flight without being scanned to the depths of their underwear. One cannot get a residence permit (for Heaven’s sake) without first registering with the local police: even if you are in a country legally.

Here’s the feeling I get:

All around us is a concrete jungle. In this concrete jungle, we all live our boring little lives in a compartment for which we pay a monthly rent (or perhaps save up enough to buy the compartment). In that compartment, there is a screen on which Big Brother (the state) tells us his side of every story. Outside on the street, there are screens from which Big Brother watches our every move.

And the worst part of this urban existence is: nobody seems genuinely happy. Everyone is biding away their time. Waiting for that big break: just a few more months (and then years) of your current drudgery, then you’ll be fine. Just a few more of your rights as a human taken away, and then you’ll be free.

Big Brother knows what is best for you.

Dystopia and the City: part 1

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Note: Yes, you’re very clever indeed, dear reader. The title of this post is inspired by “Sex and the City”. I’m not above watching trashy shows at times. This post is about how I feel, sometimes, on a pensive, lonely evening in Milano. It was written recently, on such an evening, as I sat with my laptop in my lap. My desktop was on my desk, you see, and I have no palmtop for my palm. Anyhow, I digress. The point is that I wrote this post staring out of my window, at the city. My life is not always so pathetic, but hey…everyone has their highs and their lows, no?

I’ve been thinking a lot about urban existence in today’s world, and what it means for an individual. This of course raises, for me at least, the issue of social alienation for the individual living in an urban environment.

The classical Marxian approach is to view alienation of the individual in economic terms: i.e. how they have a subjugated position within the relations of production in a society, and how this results in a lack of control over their existence as social beings. While I accept this as valid, I am particularly fascinated (and disturbed) by other aspects of how an individual is alienated: i.e. the psychological impact of an urban environment on a person. David Harvey touches upon some of these issues brilliantly in his work on  spatial allocation in a city and the social-psychological factors involved there.

In a way, my reading of Harvey’s work on urban areas leads me back to the classical Marxian framework for understanding social alienation. The way I see it, the city is structured in a certain way to facilitate the productive processes of capitalism at any given time, and its spatial arrangement is geared towards reinforcing the relations of production in society.

If you haven’t followed all I’ve said so far, imagine we were looking at the map of a city, with me pointing at various points on the map:

In order to maximize profits, this is how the city has to be laid out. The rich neighbourhoods must be right here, next to the beach, but not too far from the mega shopping mall here, with good roads and easy access to the boulevards here with the fashion-clothing chains. And the cheap apartment blocks must be here, close to the bus routes that lead into the industrial area here, but not too far from the cheap super-markets here, so those plebes can stock up on huge and tasteless vegetables and starchy food and have enough energy for another day of work at the assembly line. And the ghetto must be right here, in this godforsaken part of town, and it must not get anywhere close to the boulevards, and the routes leading out of the rich neighbourhood must not intersect with the narrow lanes here that take you out of the ghetto.

Of course a serious study of urban development is a lot more complex than this, and many more factors come into play.

And who does all this planning? Some of it happens by itself: an urban environment evolves a certain way under commercial pressures. Over time, changing commercial realities lead to a thorough re-structuring of most of today’s large cities.

But of course, there have been instances where a lot of this was done with a “master plan” too. There there have been examples of massive urban re-structuring in many parts of the world. Harvey provides a fascinating study of how this happened in Paris, including a social history of the work carried out by 19th century urban planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann. Harvey and others have understood the “renovation” of Paris in the light of capitalist modernity, its social pressures and its imperatives.

The reader will be fascinated to learn that one of the reasons why Haussman was so interested in building wide avenues through Paris was to ensure better policing. Narrow, constricted lanes were the scene of many of the iconic barricades set up by the urban poor of Paris throughout the 19th century during periods of revolutionary turmoil and revolt. Widening the urban routes helped Napoleon III’s regime in “controlling the mob” and allowed for suspicious activities to be observed more easily by state officials.

Dystopia, dear reader, took root the moment modernity came to the city. 🙂
But more on this later…

Rage Against the Taliban

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Note: This is something I wrote a long time ago. I cleaned it out and posted it here, because I was thinking about some of the issues I discussed here.

There can be no happy man on earth,
No one can work well on this planet
While that nose continues to breathe in Washington
Asking the old bard to confer with me
I assume the duties of a poet
Armed with a terrorist’s sonnet

Because I must carry out with no regrets
This sentence, never before witnessed,
Of shooting a criminal under siege,
Who in spite of his trips to the moon
Has killed so many here on earth
That the paper flies up and the pen is unsheathed
To set down the name of this villain

Who practices genocide from the White House
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Many educated young people today, having been raised in a de-politicized cocoon on a diet of ultra-consumerism, would probably attribute such words to an Islamic fundamentalist. After all, only a raving Jihadist lunatic could be so firmly opposed to US militarism and aggression, right?

But these words are not from the latest video-tape which Osama bin Laden mailed to Al-Jazeera. They were written by Pablo Neruda, the iconic 20th century poet of social justice and passionate love. The practitioner of genocide who he refers to is none other than Richard Nixon.

This is a poet, a sensitive soul, a thinking soul. Surprising, isn’t it? It turns out that all sorts of people can be very angry at the US for its policies in the Third World.

I was immediately reminded of this poetry by a recent New York Times video report, about some Pakistani pop musicians and their opposition to US policies in the region, entitled “Tuning out the Taliban”, by Adam B. Ellick.

For those who haven’t seen it, take a look:

Never in its history has Pakistan been the focus of so much Western media attention. Just recently, Hillary Clinton launched a “charm offensive” against our people, amid a flurry of coverage by the Pakistani media.

Ellick’s original report in the NYT and the Pakistani responses to it have made for a fascinating case study on how political leanings, cultural critiques, music and the media interact in the deadly battleground of America’s War on Terror. Read the rest of this entry