I have a piece of stale barfi in my fridge.
It has been there for six days. I know it is old. And I know, that every time I carefully unwrap it to take a tiny bite, and wrap it back up, I am probably risking a drastic case of food poisoning. But it is barfi, sweet, with the right amount of pista and badam. Each bite reminds me of home, of my father selflessly buying a small box of barfi so that we would eat some meetha, even though he is diabetic. It reminds me of the time that I turned my nose up at it, insisting that desi mithai was not worth risking obesity for.
Four months away from home changes everything.
There were mangoes, that were brought into the US. I had a box gifted as a present, courtesy of the Pakistan Embassy. On Monday morning, I opened the box, and inhaled the smell of the chaunsas, and then quickly looked around to see that no one was looking. Two hours later, another Pakistani friend told me that she had done the same thing.
A few months ago, I read this blog post. It seems crazy, right? Why would anyone, in a city in a first world country, forego sleep and the benefits of a thriving nightlife, and sit at home and watch a cricket match?
A few weeks after I moved to Washington, Pakistan and India played each other in a semi-final [that we will pretend never happened]. At 4AM, I dutifully woke up, found the shadiest website that was streaming the match, aware that this might be illegal, and began watching what turned out to be a massacre, but was part of the ritual that we call life as a Pakistani. Even know, the thought of Mohammad Aamir’s wasted career brings tears to my eyes. We stand united in our pain [and in our hatred for Ijaz Butt].
Today marks Pakistan’s 64th Independence Day. There is no other place I’d rather call home. Lekin iss mulk ka Khuda hi hafiz.
I apologize, to the few who still follow this blog, for the lack of updates. For the most part, I have been preoccupied with work thanks to the gift that keeps on giving aka US-Pakistan relations. I realize that is no excuse, but in part, it is also because I am still adjusting to life in Washington, and at the risk of being brutally honest, one tries to fill their free time here with as many activities as possible, so as not to face being alone in an unfamiliar city.
In May, I went to Chicago to cover the first week of the Tahawwur Rana trial, and discovered how the city can rapidly change in terms of weather, and one must always be well-prepared. No, seriously, you try braving the cold [read: rain, fog and winds at the same time] of Chicago clad in one measly sweater as protection.
But, coming back to the Rana trial, a man accused of helping David Headley [who's confessed to his role in the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai], and providing material support to Lashkar-e-Taiba, and then helping in the plot to attack Jyllands-Posten, the Denmark newspaper that had published the cartoons that led to protests, deadly riots, deaths, a ban on Danish products [remember that folks?] and more.
While Tahawwur has been found guilty on two of three counts, it was fascinating watching David Headley. I’m still not sure if Headley is a victim of his own neuroses – where he believed that by joining Lashkar-e-Taiba and then dealing with men associated [or retired] from the ISI, he felt he was doing the right thing, or if it was a case of trying to pretend like he was a big shot in this dirty game that is called the India-Pakistan war. There are many reasons for why people turn to extremism – poverty, circumstances, hatred. But for so many, many people, the conflicts in Pakistan dating back to decades now, have allowed those searching for any kind of identity, ideology, a direction, to be influenced by whoever screamed the loudest, or talked in a manner smoother than whipped cream. What Headley’s reasons were is something we’ll probably never know. But the core problems that have riddled our state don’t seem to be going away anytime soon, no matter how much we sweep it under the carpet. The problem is that no one seems to want to talk about it. Instead, terms are tossed around [also particular favourites of the Pakistan Army's] like “national identity” and “national interest,” which have been abused so often that one doesn’t even know how to reclaim these terms back.
Coming back to Washington, not one week passes by where Pakistan isn’t in the news. Somedays, it is more of the same: debates on aid, conditions or no conditions. Then, there is the news that makes you want to rip your hair out – the ISI allegedly telling militants about hideouts, Senators saying that Pakistan hasn’t fulfilled aid requirements ergo they can’t release any money, signifying that a desire to not be transparent is more important than allowing aid projects to be green lit. There is the ludicrous, which I’ve mentioned before: a Senator referring to people from Pakistan as “Pakistanians”. And then, there is the news from back home that breaks one’s heart – the daily incidents of terrorism, the reluctance of the military to cede control over anything, the utter failure of the civilian government to question, or at least attempt to question the military on anything and everything. I haven’t been away from Pakistan that long and I will never write a “The Pakistan I Knew” blog post, but judging by the way things are going, I am anything but optimistic about this country’s future. As I remarked to someone the other day, ab tau yeh lagta hai ke Allah Mian ne bhi iss mulk se apna haath utha liya hai.
I’ve been in Washington, DC for exactly a month now. And one thing that you have to do if you work here is networking. Which is an art form in itself. The networking is brutal (and tiring), and after a few weeks you’ll realize your spiel about what you do comes naturally to you. “Hi, my name is Huma, I work as a correspondent for Express, which is a (insert description based on who you’re talking to) would love to meet you and discuss (insert issue here). Let’s (insert: meet/i’ll call your assistant/email). ” Quickly whip out cards and exchange.
The next sound is of your brain cells dying.
But my gripes about having to do the meets and greets aside, DC is a wonderfully weird town. It is wonderful because its small and quiet, and has wonderful architecture, tree lined streets and some gorgeous sights. Everyone is friendly, and there is ample space to walk on the pavements. The food is fairly decent, and it is gorgeous in the spring.
The weird part is how everyone you meet either works for the government or a think tank or for the IMF or World Bank. As someone described it, its “like Islamabad with better restaurants and pavements”. You also witness how World Bank folks > IMF ones (will never recover from the experience of dancing with an IMF geek who gave me his business card afterwards. I suspect he is perpetually in networking mode, even at 2AM). Then, there is the abundance of shiny happy people. DC folks, sometimes its okay to look like slobs, and not as if you walked straight out of the Zara store.
And then, there is the part of being away from home, and you begin yearning for the small comforts. There are at least half a dozen of us looking for a place in DC that serves halwa puri in the morning (am convinced it exists somewhere). Watching the Pakistan-India match in a crowded room at a university and realizing how desperate the Pakistanis were to cheer on something that they clapped and roared when a shot of PM Gilani came on, and after the defeat, a boy turned to me and said, “why do we always have to bear this shame?” The raised eyebrow when you hand your green passport as ID at a bar. And sometimes, just wishing you were back in your room in Karachi, sipping chai.
So I wrote a short piece about my visit to the Liberation War Museum for Express Tribune:
As a Pakistani schooled in a sanitised version of history, the museum makes one cringe with revulsion. Skulls and bones recovered from a killing field in Mirpur, Dhaka, stare at you from a glass cupboard. A black and white image shows vultures picking at the bodies of those left for dead. In another image, a snake is stretched out on the back of a dead body — an unknown victim of the cyclone that battered East Pakistan in 1970, and led to increased feelings of alienation amongst East Pakistanis with the slow aid response from West Pakistan. Lewd sketches of women are among the graffiti found in a Pakistan Army camp.
My tour guide turns to me, “You tell me, how can we forgive or forget this?”
You can read the entire article here. But I also recommend that you read the comment section. And after you’re done banging your head against the wall at the state of some Pakistanis’ perception of history and the extent of denial, please take a look at some of these photographs:
You can see the rest of the pictures from the museum here.
In retrospect, I’m not surprised that some people do think that the fall of Dhaka was due to an “Indian” or “international” conspiracy – after all, this is what they’re learning in their textbooks. But one would think – and this is very important – that if one has access to the internet and can spend their time leaving comments on say, Express Tribune’s website, surely they’d have time to, I don’t know, Google Bangladesh? Maybe read a bit of alternative history as opposed to the one they’ve been subjected to? Or is that asking too much?
This morning I woke up, remembered Shahbaz Bhatti was dead all over again, and was quite looking forward to spending my day in a good, old fashioned funk.
Then, I saw this on a pole in Zamzama, Karachi:
I actually don’t know what to say, or think. Does one laugh at and admire the creativity of this man? Do I bemoan how there are barely any avenues for men and women to interact in an environment apart from the familial or educational? Or does one just sit down and sob about what this generation is up to in their spare time? You can choose any or all of the above options, or suggest more in the comments section.
Please ignore everything you’re doing at the moment, let the books on your side table gather dust and instead read Mirza Waheed’s novel The Collaborator. Waheed’s brilliant debut novel is not just a fictional tale of a boy who lives in Kashmir, and the death of his childhood, the disappearance of his friends, or the end of life as he knows it; it is a heartbreaking tale of the death of Kashmir. Reading The Collaborator has been one of the most painful experiences of my life. With every chapter, I’d have to stop and take a break, because I couldn’t take the grief anymore that hits the reader with every word of this book. At the risk of sounding like a wimp, I cried buckets of tears when I finished reading the novel, tears shed not just for the characters, albeit fictional, but for the generations of Kashmiris that have lived through decades of violence, with no end in sight.