The Land Before Time

by Hasan Altaf

Pakistan When we talk about Pakistan, generally what we talk about is change. Most conversations will involve headshaking and sighs and riffs on the idea that things – take your pick: security, economy, culture, education, health – are “getting worse”; most conversations also will have one person to point out all the things that are “getting better.” But whichever position one takes, progress or regress, growth or decay, what’s behind it is change.

This is of course true for most countries; we compare how they are now to how they were then. At an individual level too we tend to believe firmly in the possibility and even the inevitability of some kind of change, at some point, somehow: Today is not yesterday, and tomorrow will not be today; something will be different, because something has to be different. Politics, advertising, media, self-improvement; they’re all based on this belief.

It would be foolish to deny that Pakistan has changed over the years. It’s changed right in front of us. Everyone, I imagine, has their own metric for this, their own yardstick (for a lot of people it’s cell phones) but I think most of us see it. Sometimes, though, it seems that this might not be as true as we think, and in many ways, Pakistan is stuck in the past.

For a project recently I had to dig through several years worth of editorials in two Urdu newspapers, Jang and Nawa-i-Waqt, starting with 1995. The experience was actually eerie. Almost everything that was written fifteen years ago could have been written yesterday. Low literacy rates, insufficient power generation, strikes, ethnic violence, terrorism, Bhuttos, Sharifs, trips-to-America, foreign hands, poverty, misery, elegies, eulogies, laments, hope. When the subject was Pakistan, it wasn’t at all hard to imagine that they were talking about today’s Pakistan. It’s not time travel or even time-lapsed; it’s just as if time didn’t exist, and in some ways for Pakistan the past nearly two decades had never happened.

At one level this weirdness shouldn’t have been surprising. Literacy rates are still shamefully low, loadshedding is still a fact of life, the same people are fighting the same fights (now there are new fights, too, but the old ones aren’t gone), the same people rotate through the halls of power in the same time-honored dance. This is part of how we talk about Pakistan, too, but it was startling to be confronted so directly with this stasis. More than anything else, it reminded me of Cuba, another country that in many ways seems caught in a particular moment.

In Cuba, perhaps it makes more sense, since the country’s official narrative has been defined by a certain event and shaped by the same people since that time. The same might be true for Pakistan – the “story” of Pakistan has been given a particular shape ever since the formation of the country, and we have not really had any new leaders who are willing to question it, change it or correct it. But it seems irresponsible and almost tragic, too, in both Cuba and Pakistan – because people are changing, constantly, and want change, usually more change, not less.

What it made me think of, for some reason, was Tunisia and Egypt and Libya, Syria, Yemen. In all these countries, people are pushing back, and one of the things it seems they’re trying to do is take back control of the story. They’ve all been given a particular narrative and told to live within it for so many years, and eventually, like a skin that splits or a balloon that bursts, eventually they can’t do that anymore. Some of the problems will of course remain, because no revolution fixes everything overnight, and there will be new problems too, but the story will be different. In Cuba now, even the storytellers – the government – have begun to accept that there is a problem with their narrative.

I don’t see this happening soon for Pakistan. Perhaps because of its size and complexity, perhaps because the linkages between the different Pakistans are so weak, perhaps because we have just enough of everything (just enough “democracy,” just enough liberty, just enough safety, just enough electricity and literacy and hope) to keep us from revolting. But it was nice to put the editorials down, roll up the microfilm, and look for the smaller, individual stories that people tell, on Facebook and Twitter, in person, over the phone. Pakistan isn’t really completely stuck in a particular moment or a particular rut; there are just a lot of powerful people who would benefit from that.