Pakistan 2013: The uncertainty is real

by Omar Ali

6a00d8341c562c53ef01901eddde01970b-320wiThe first thing that strikes you on landing in Pakistan after a few years is how much more “modern” it is and how dramatically (and frequently, painfully) it is changing with every passing day. One is reminded that Pakistan is as much a part of “rising Asia” as India, Bangladesh or Thailand and is not all about terrorists, conspiracy theories, Salafist nutjobs or the clash of civilizations. But since more qualified people are writing about the economics of rising Asia, the destruction of the environment, the breakdown of traditional society, the future of the planet, and the meaning of life, I will try not to step too much on their turf. And since there are countless articles (and more than one famous book) detailing the Westernized elite’s view of how the underclass lives and dies in rising Asia, I will not intrude too far on that well-trodden terrain either. Instead, without further ado, here are my personal and entirely anecdotal observations from 3 weeks in Pakistan.

1. The uncertainty is real and deep. Not only are people unsure about what may happen next, they are unsure about how uncertain they are! Someone can start off by saying life will go on, it will probably be more of the same, things will slowly get better but there will be no big sudden transformation. Then, as the conversation proceeds, report that he (or she) is afraid it’s all going to fall apart next year in one big apocalyptic disaster. A few minutes later, the same person confidently assures you that we are about to turn the corner and Pakistan will be the next China (or at least, the next Chinese colony, which is pretty much the same thing). If asked which of these three theories (more of the same, impending disaster or turning the Chinese corner) he thinks is more likely, he seems genuinely surprised to learn that he has just confidently predicted three different outcomes. This seemed like a new trend. Different people used to have different theories about what may come next but now the same person has many different theories and seems equally unsure about all of them. It did cross my mind that maybe this happens everywhere but is just more noticeable here. But the fact remains, it was more noticeable this time than it has ever been in the past.

2. “Real life” economic calculations so consistently trump ideology that one can be excused for starting to believe in the crudest forms of Marxism. Of course, no one I met actually believes in crude Marxism because the people I met were anything but crude. A number of them claimed to be Marxist, but mostly in the latest postcolonial postmodern post-industrial sort of way. Anyway, coming back to “real life” in Pakistan: Islamists and anti-Islamists seem to run very similar (and similarly profitable) schools and colleges all over Pakistan. Friends who were in the Islamic student parties and friends who led their leftist opponents and battled on the streets with club and guns, now run the same private clinics and hospitals and take the same pharmaceutical junkets. Their children go to the same colleges and take the same Cambridge and SAT examinations to go to the same elite institutions of higher education in the developed world (of course, a world that now includes Shanghai and Singapore in addition to New York and London). They start businesses, launch careers and file patents the same way, though the Islamists all say Allah Hafiz and the leftists still resist by saying Khuda Hafiz. In short, capitalism is thriving. But the environment and social harmony are not. The water is literally undrinkable all across Pakistan. No one can drink tap water and avoid typhoid or hepatitis, but even if you only drink genuine Nestle bottled water, your dishes are still washed in tap water, your veggies are grown in raw sewage and your milk may be mixed with it. This probably sounds like typical expat griping, but this was the universal opinion of every doctor I met. Public health is a nightmare and since an unhealthy proportion of public intellectuals is either waiting for Mao or dreaming about the caliphate (see below), no one seems to be able to fix mundane things like water and sewage.

3. But while public health and anything for which the local or state government should be responsible (like water or sewage) is an unholy mess, the urge to give back, to do good and to help others at a personal level is widespread and heart-warming. Not that people weren’t charitable in the good old days, but society was organized differently then and charity tended to stay closer to home. Now society is increasingly organized in modern terms, so the charity is also visible in more modern ways. Imran Khan’s cancer hospital is not the only such institution in Pakistan. There are an amazing number of such initiatives all over the country. Edhi’s decentralized and nation-wide network is by now known (and admired) the world over, but initiatives like the SIUT, the Indus Hospital, the Al-Shifa network of Eye hospitals and countless others are all run on (mostly anonymous) donations and none is close to running out of money. Talk of these “band-aids” is anathema to those still waiting for worldwide revolution, but one cannot come into contact with these institutions without coming away impressed and awed by their dedication and the generosity of the vast pool of donors who support them.

4. While it is hard to meet someone in Pakistan who is happy with the situation of the arts, it is also possible to overestimate the impact of Islamist thuggery and capitalist “commodification”. Things are far from ideal, but not necessarily hopeless. Everything from Kathak and classical music classes in Lahore to teenage rock bands in Islamabad to Riaz (practice) sessions with Fareed Ayaz Qawwal Fareed ayaz
in Qawwal Gali in Karachi were alive, if not always in the pink of health. Life, it seems, stubbornly refuses to lie down and die. While the moribund Lollywood film industry is still mostly dead, enterprising youngsters are even producing some interesting looking independent movies. It's true that Punjabi culture is in serious trouble and that classical North Indian Islamicate culture is dying out, but 200 million people cannot live without art. Something will survive, and something may even thrive if peace is restored. And , as a friend helpfully pointed out, great tragedies and oppressive regimes can produce some very great art. I wouldn’t look for tragedy and oppression just for that reason, not being that much of an artist at heart, but he did have a point.

Zinda Bhaag (2013) – Theatrical Trailer – PakistaniCinema from Pakistani Cinema on Vimeo.

5. Young people in particular seem to live in a new world; whether it’s a better world is a question we can argue about, but to me at least, it seemed like the average middle class youngster in Pakistan today is a far more knowledgeable, capable and connected person than we ever were in our miss-spent youth. Gender relations are the most obvious example; right-wing, left-wing and even Salafist, they all seem to be comfortable talking to girls their own age and engaging in normal relations with them. Pakistan_youth_2013_7_9This may not sound like much, but if you are a Pakistani of a certain age, you will know why I bring this up. And its not just gender relations. They know more about the world at large and seem to navigate it much better than we could. But there are no gains without losses, so there are some obvious losses in this area too. While knowledge of “practical” subjects is undoubtedly far greater than it used to be, and while gender relations and international awareness are far more normal and sophisticated than in the past, high culture has not done as well. NONE of the youngsters I met (unrepresentative sample?) could recite more than 5 verses of Urdu poetry. In all likelihood, the number for regional languages (“mother tongues”) is even lower. Nor did they seem to be much into English literature or other aspects of Western high culture. While an interest in Islam is commonplace, it has little in common with what Islam used to mean to generations past. The Persian, Arabic and Urdu tradition that had grown and developed over 800 years in Indian Islamicate culture seems to have entered a very narrow dead-end at partition and is now lost to most young Pakistanis. Ironically, the very effort that was meant to safeguard it (i.e. the creation of Pakistan) seems to have driven a Punjabi-military-bureaucratic stake through its heart. I can hear some friends saying “good riddance” when I say this, but good riddance followed by what? half-baked , ignorant, anti-intellectual salafism from Arabia? or (for a narrow segment of the elite), an even more superficial and moronic collection of “sufi-progressive” crap? And the blessed government of Pakistan has done its part by promoting some concoction called the “ideology of Pakistan” and “the thought of Allama Iqbal”. Its nothing deep or serious, but there IS an opportunity cost. Attention paid to these delusions is attention not paid to more useful things. Still, Allah may be kind and the unusually superficial nature of Pakistani myths may save us from their worst depredations. One can always hope.

6. Violent crime and terrorism were a constant backdrop to everyday life. Of course, life goes on (as it must) and people have stopped noticing or commenting on incidents that are now “routine” (unless they hit someone you know) but the effects of the collapse of law and order and the ongoing civil war are not trivial. At an everyday level the effect of crime is greater than the impact of terrorism, since almost everyone has been robbed at least once and everyone is affected by fake drugs, adulterated food and a million clever scams and frauds (many being run in association with the so-called law-enforcement agencies). And at the macroeconomic level, the impact of everyday crime is probably exceeded by the impact of religious terrorism. Lost investment and the flight of local capital being obvious examples. Incidentally, If you move in the right circles you can also meet people who will tell you that since capitalist development is a bigger evil than underdevelopment, all this violence and crime actually helps Pakistan, since it obstructs further evil development! I am not kidding, though I must note that even in Pakistan, this remains a minority view.

7. Much has been written about why Pakistan is such a center of terrorism (law and order is not uniquely bad in Pakistan; the causes and solutions may have much in common with similarly situated third world countries, it is in terrorism that we have achieved a unique position). I will not rehash all those old arguments in detail today (though there may be a follow up post on exactly that topic) but I will say a couple of words about some half-developed thoughts that passed through my mind as I sat through a number of such discussions:

A. The opportunity cost of fringe left-wing delusions. The elite left in Pakistan is small and inconsequential, but the Westernized elite as a whole gets a disproportionate number of its ideas from the fringes of the Western Left (incidentally, this problem seems even worse in India, so its not just us; hooray!). Perhaps it is natural that after having been colonized by Western powers, we are suspicious of mainstream Western ideas and find it easier to identify with those in the West who claim to be its most determined opponents. But unfortunately the obsessions and priorities of that group are mostly about their own little world (i.e. the world of liberal academia or the world of left-wing political activism in the West). When they talk about the darker nations they are mostly fighting political battles in their own small world, not in the third world itself. And their knowledge of this world is third hand and heavily colored by the views of “native informants” like Tariq Ali and Arundhati Roy (whose firm grasp on reality is well known to anyone who has followed their punditry; and who are getting their own theoretical glasses from their ill-informed and sometimes delusional mentors in the West…a vicious circle of ignorance and self-reinforcing delusion!). The end result is that many Pakistanis who are well-educated and are in a position to influence policy and choices, are fighting battles whose terms and whose framework are completely unsuited for their surroundings. They (and their Western sources) are all well-meaning, but that is about the best one can say for them. A few people like that would probably be a good influence on society; too many and you are in trouble. And we are in lots of trouble.

B. “Islam is the solution” delusions suck up far too many of the remaining educated people. By no means all, but still far too many. The argument is simple: that in everyday mundane decisions, people in Pakistan use common sense like anyone else in the world. But their deeper understanding of society and culture is drowning under the endless repetition of meaningless and delusional ideas about “Islam”. Not Islam as it has actually moved and developed in the world for 1400 years, but Islam as a slogan and an excuse to stop thinking. Protected by blasphemy and apostasy laws, this meaningless and hypocritical conversation sucks up far too much brainpower and argument time. The result is an elite that is not just unaware of the unknown unknowns but that also remains unable to pay meaningful attention to the vast ocean of known knowns that the world has accumulated over thousands of years. Now magical thinking is all well and good, and maybe we all need some of it, but to rely on that and NOTHING else of substance, in a country with 200 million people and so many problems, is not healthy.

Last but not the least, our sense of humor is alive and well. With newly elected prime-minister Nawaz Sharif apparently floundering without a coherent national security strategy 2 months after taking office, the following joke was making the rounds: there is a new position in the kama sutra; its called the Nawaz Sharif. You get on top and do nothing.

Sunset changla
Sunset over Changla Gali, Northern Pakistan

(prayer for Pakistan, with apologies to those who cannot speak Punjabi)