The War at the End of the World
After an October of attacks in Pakistan, at a UN office in Islamabad, Army Headquarters in Rawalpindi, and police academies in Lahore and with the Pakistan Army backed by the US attacking the tribal areas of Pakistan—I decided to have a conversation on Skype with a Pakistani writer I spent some time with in Lahore last winter. We decided to extend the conversations we had back then, a time when a similar cycle of violence occurred: the militants brought the war into Pakistani cities in the heartland (that’s Punjab) as a preemptive response to Pakistan army actions in the Swat Valley.
We talked about why Pakistani realities and attitudes towards the war are more often than not incomprehensible to a Western audience. Senator John Kerry was visibly frustrated in Islamabad in October, where he defended the bill bearing his name (a promise of $7.5 billion to civilian Pakistan over five years). He essentially said he doesn’t understand why the country is not grateful for the money.
“You don’t HAVE to take it,” he declared.
My friend, formerly an editor of the literary review of an English newspaper, grew up in Muridke, a small town in Punjab mentioned in the original Kerry-Lugar Bill as a place where “militancy has to end.” Besides spending his formative years in Muridke, where Lashkar e Tayyaba, one of the most violent jihadi organizations has its headquarters, my Pakistani friend grew up with a father who is an ardent follower of Wahhabism. As an MA student he was drummed out of a university because some of his classmates thought he had been too disrespectful towards religious traditions. He wishes to remain anonymous and wishes to be referred to as RS, a Pakistani writer.
Rehan Ansari (Rail): Tell me why Muridke is unforgettable for you?
RS: I am 38 and I am still trying to get rid of the ghosts of a childhood spent in Muridke. No amount of THC, or Xanax, or Cipralex has been able to erase these memories.
One afternoon, after school ended, I went to my grandmother’s home on the canal that divides Hadoke from Muridke. As I came towards the water, the kids started shouting, “Oye laash!” (A corpse!). It was. Its throat was slit in such a way that the head seemed to be floating above the body. I ran back home and told the aunts and uncles. They all told me to forget about it. I asked why nobody was taking the murdered human being out of the water and informing the police. The unanimous answer was this: Whoever tells the police will become the suspect. For a kid it meant there was nowhere to turn to if somebody beat you to a pulp on the way to school.
Another image that I have been trying to get rid of is linked with the absence of healthcare. I don’t even know to which disease I lost three brothers when they were infants. There are memories: a bunch of relatives looking for a doctor in the middle of a foggy winter night, carrying a child, still unnamed, wrapped in blankets and going from one closed clinic to another. With the morning appears another mound of dirt in the Hadoke graveyard.
At another time, after my parents had tried several shabby clinics, somebody suggested the sacrifice of a rabbit as penance. A rabbit was slaughtered in the middle of the unpaved yard. Under the afternoon sun the sharp red outline of the pool of blood soaked through to the core of the bright brown earth.
I have a story associated with the drug trade of General Zia’s era. Some families had found heroine a profitable business and soon were fighting turf wars amongst themselves. At nights, when the meek of the earth bolted their doors, outside were the sounds of smugglers sneaking around—the panicked whispering, the bustle of weapons. Then one night there was an insistent knock on our door and a hoarse voice saying: “Hurry up. Open up. I have bumped him off.” We all stayed put. In the morning it was a normal school day as if nothing had happened.
Rail: Can the fight between the Taliban versus the Pakistan Army and the Americans be likened to that between the Nazis and the “Inglourious Basterds”? I dislike the Tarantino movie, but I am sure everyone has seen it there on pirated DVDs, from generals to the militants and maybe even Senator John Kerrey, as he spent his nights in the fortress that is the American embassy in Islamabad. Are people taking pleasure in the pounding of the tribal areas by the Pak Army? What analogies are people around you using? Who will be seen by Pakistanis to be honorable and who redeemed? You and I are people who are the kind that find fault with all these three players—the Islamists, the Pakistan Army, and the Americans. Are we hoping that all three will knock each other out? The Pakistan Army campaign is called Rah e Nijaat. That’s a term from the Quran that means “the road to the end of things?” What is at the end of the road?
RS: Most people want to be moderate and have fun. Whoever took that video of the Taliban whipping that woman on a street in Swat, and then uploaded it on YouTube was a genius. It turned people’s stomachs all over the country and it was public opinion that turned the Army’s hand and they went into Swat to fight the Taliban in the spring. Also I think the Taliban overreached when they attacked the sufi shrine of Rehman Baba in NWFP. That lost them a lot of support. My friends are for the Army when it attacks the Taliban, but against them when they take over parliament. Some argue for efficiency and not Islam. A person might say that he is against the delays prevailing in Pakistani courts and that is why he likes the tribal system of justice. I see that as an argument for efficiency and not tribal or extremist values, because the same person loves his Nokia phone. People are tired of the red tape that comes with modernity and its bureaucracies. They are yet to be convinced that modernity can be humane. They have no problems when they see modernity in mobile phones, the television set, or the microwave oven. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan loved their Japanese SUVs.
Rail: You said you have gone around talking to policemen after an attack in Lahore. The policemen are young men from small town Punjab who must know that they have been attacked by other young men much like them. What do they make of that? It was not Indian commandoes that hit them, nor pashtun tribesmen. They also know that these Punjabi jihadis are usually killing Shias or fighting in Indian Kashmir so what do they make of the fact that these jihadis are now fighting the state in Lahore?
RS: Why are you asking questions like a white journalist? I asked a policeman and he said that death will come one day and so it came. I think his answer means a job is a job. His friends were just doing theirs and they got killed, there is nothing more to make of that.
Rail: Does he have nothing to say about the cause of the killers? Isn’t the army establishment having trouble selling the war? During the spring operations in and around Swat there were reports of government leaflets that claimed that the Taliban have to be resisted because they were a Zionist conspiracy. Musharraf didn’t succeed selling enlightened moderation.
RS: There is a lot of confusion about causes here, the whole country in the 80s was led to be anti India, compelled to be conservative (pro prohibition and the segregation of the sexes, against the performance arts—General Zia had entertainers taxed at 75 percent) and condone jihad. Now the country is coerced to be the opposite. I think that the policeman is like the whole country: We are mercenaries. Pay us to be jihadi, pay us to be moderate, just pay us! The army is paid for by the Americans, the liberals work for foreign NGOs. We all know that poverty works, it works for the World Bank consultant. Let me say it another way: Ordinary Pakistani citizens have been paying taxes directly and indirectly for every cola and cigarette, but they don’t get anything back. There is all this aid from different governments for the Pakistani establishment. People have only seen the establishment’s greed and it has been going on for decades so now it has changed the people. The idea of dignity for everyone has disappeared.
Rail: So we take the money and are humiliated by that act as well? For the first time in decades the Americans are saying that they want to give money to the civilians, not just to the army. In fact the money for the civilians is in addition to that for the military. The army has complained that all the money should be for them, but why are so many civilians whining?
RS: Nobody knows how real national dignity is going to come their way and they are all complaining.
Rail: The Americans should visit Af-Pak dressed in rags, instead of in SUVs and with Blackwater security. Kerry should read War at the End of The World, by Vargas Llosa. It’s playing out almost chapter and line for two decades in this part of the world. The story is about how a guy, tall and princely looking but dressed in rags, goes to a desolated place and performs acts perceived as giving dignity to the wretched. He does this for years. Eventually a community forms around him and they became a fighting force that defeats every Republican army sent against them. Kerry could at least have said that he will personally make sure that Muridke gets functioning primary care clinics for the next five years.
RS: Will Pakistanis get humane treatment in the world when the problem of the Taliban is over? Probably not. The other day a friend, who has just come back from Japan, observed that domestic violence is commonplace in Japan, but because Japanese men are not Muslim they don’t have thousands of NGOs going in to reform them. People here think they are being treated a certain way because they are Muslim.
Rail: But the world was fine by Pakistanis through the 70s and 80s, except in England. What about the fact that our own concepts have got us into trouble?
RS: Pakistanis had to fight the American war in Afghanistan and at that time Islam and capitalism were friends because the Soviets were the enemy. I wonder who will be the enemy after all these bearded wonders are eliminated. I am against fundamentalisms of all kind whether it be the fundamentalism that sends you to Guantanamo Bay or the one that beheads you because you are a Jew or a freethinker.
Rail: Anymore Muridke stories?
RS: My dad asked me to take a translated copy of the Quran to the local mosque and leave it there and come back. The mullah saw me and came over to look. Then he yelled at me that that Quran was a translation by Maududi and this is a barelvi mosque! I felt really strange that one can also be marginalized for possessing a specific translation of the Quran. I also realized my dad was using me to infiltrate the local mosque with his Wahabi ideology. It also meant that my schoolmates labeled me Wahabi from then on.
Rail: How did you get thrown out of the Pakistani university you were enrolled in?
RS: The Satanic Verses protests were exploding here and we had Midnight’s Children in the syllabus (the first chapter). Some classmates demanded it be purged. The teacher put it to a vote. All raised their hands in support, except me. My point was that the book was not blasphemous so why bother. I was denounced as “an agent of Rushdie.”
Rail: They did not mean literary agent.
RS: They meant that I was a “promoter” of Rushdie. Ha! Come to think of it promotion is what a literary agent does for an author.
Rail: The institution did not move against you. It was your peers who wanted you out.
RS: They threatened to behead me and the university saved me through expulsion. I was in post-traumatic therapy for years afterwards. Luckily I left for a Ph.d. in a country where I got free therapy for years. I am seriously in love with the welfare state. Without a safety net I know now how low humans can fall in a society.
Rehan Ansari, former Editor of Independent Press Association-New York's Voices, writes a weekly column about post-9/11 New York for Mid-day, a paper in Mumbai, India.