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Archive for August, 2008

Bapsi Sidhwa is the internationally acclaimed and award-winning author of five novels, including The Bride, The Crow-Eaters, and An American Brat. Her book, Cracking India, tells the story of India and Pakistan’s 1947 partition through the eyes of a young Parsi girl, Lenny, who was inflicted with polio. The novel, which won the NY Times Notable Book of the Year Award, was later adapted into the 1998 film Earth, directed by Deepa Mehta. In 1991, she was the recipient of the Sitara-i-Imtiaz award, Pakistan’s highest honor in the arts. Born to Parsi parents in Karachi, Sidhwa soon moved to Lahore. Bapsi Sidhwa currently resides with her family in Houston, Texas, although she returns to Pakistan often. Below, she tells CHUP what inspired her to write, how Pakistan has changed since Partition, and her opinion on the current state of women’s rights in the country.

Q: What inspired you to become a writer?

As a child, I read non-stop. When I went on my honeymoon to the Karakoram Highway, I heard this story of this little girl from the Punjab, who was taken across the Indus River into the un-administered territory. I was living in a little remote army camp at the time and they told me the story of how, after she’d been taken there, she had run away. And I realized in that area, she was obviously bought. And a runaway bride who is bought and the runs away is like stealing – the village chased her and killed her at the Indus. When I came back to Lahore, I wanted to tell her story [referring to her novel, The Bride] because I thought it reflected the lives of so many young girls in the Third World who have no control over their lives at all. And I also wanted to describe these absolutely gorgeous, mighty mountains and the mighty Indus River and what I saw there. I lived there in a state of [spiritual] exaltation because it was so beautiful and I felt that release of creativity to descibe my experiences, the people in the area, and the story of this girl. The novel wrote itself at this point. The writing of many of my novels [since then] have been instinctual.

Q: Your novel, Cracking India, was later made into the critically acclaimed film, Earth. Were u involved in the making of the film?

I was involved in the sense that I was there and I had a very good time. While everyone was working I was having a picnic and talking to the stars. They would shoot a scene and sort of look to me for approval. And in the very end, I appear briefly from a distance as the grown-up Lenny.

Q: The novel is ultimately about India and Pakistan’s Partition in 1947, but it also tells the story of Lenny, a young girl inflicted with polio from the Parsi community in Lahore. Given that you had very similar personal experiences, [Sidhwa, from a Parsi family, also contracted polio at a young age] how much of Lenny’s character is based on you?

Lenny is very different from me. If she was like me, I would have been very self-conscious and couldn’t have written the book because it would have become autobiographical. Someone once said that autobiography is always sort of a lie, whereas fiction has much more truth. You lose your inhibitions in fiction and you can therefore be more revealing. I was a very different child from the way I portrayed Lenny – that’s how I created distance from myself and that child. However, I did give her a lot of incidents from my life – like the polio, and I somewhat portrayed my parents, as I’ve done in most of my books. Some of the characters were people I knew while some are totally created.

People just did not talk about the kidnapping and the ravages that happened to women [during Partition], and it wasn’t until very much later when I did research while I was writing this book that I realized how many women were ravaged. And that became a center point in that book because at times of such anarchy, women seem to bear the brunt of the attack – they attack a woman because they are attacking a man’s honor. A woman is often used and misused for these purposes. A lot of Cracking India was imagination, research, and some of the memories I could build upon.

Q: You previously worked for the late PM Benazir Bhutto on the advisory committee on Women’s Development. Given this background as well as your experiences as a female writer, what do you think of the current state of women’s rights or gender affairs in Pakistan? How can the country progress on that front?

50% of the country has always been underprivileged and underutilized – so how can we really progress? What is happening with the Talibanization is really frightening [in the FATA and NWFP] – it’s scary because the brunt seems to fall on the women. When people talk of religion they often think in terms of “a woman shouldn’t do this or shouldn’t do that.” It’s not only Islam or in Islamic countries – in America the issue becomes the “woman doesn’t have right over her body,” etc. And in Pakistan, we go through a cycle of hope and despair. Right now we are in a place where we don’t know where we are headed.

Q: What would you advise the government?

Well they are not even functioning as a government as of yet. Let them function first, because even with Benazir, she didn’t have time to show herself there [on gender rights]. Naturally, its not easy to govern a country and address those issues. And although we tried at that time to weaken the Hudood Ordinances, none of the women in her cabinet had the power to do anything. The only person who did something was recently, when Pervez Musharraf under the Women’s Protection Act diluted the Hudood Ordinance. We must take away that whole Ordinance.

Q: You were in the country during the time of Partition in 1947. How has Pakistan changed since that time?

I was about eight years old then and my awareness during that period was the chant of the mobs. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it was a threatening sound and I knew they were burning places and killing people. Our neighborhood totally changed, our Hindu neighbors went away. Although I have written about how the color of Pakistan changed later, at that time, of course, I was not as aware of what happened because I was very young. As I got older, [in the 1960s], I could go to college wearing a dress on my bicycle – but after that time, the country got more and more stern. Women are being restricted more and more.

To visit Bapsi Sidhwa’s official website, click here.

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An interesting update on the controversial Dr. Afia Siddiqui case, the Pakistani woman currently held on U.S. federal charges in New York but who is also suspected of being Prisoner 650, a prisoner-of-war who was held in U.S. prison in Afghanistan for the past few years, [see related posts]. Siddiqui allegedly disappeared in Karachi along with her three children in early 2003. Although Dr. Siddiqui only reappeared after her reported arrest in Afghanistan last month [she was accused of assaulting and attempting to kill U.S. officers], the whereabouts of her children were still unknown. However, the Daily Times reported today that U.S. authorities said an 11 year old boy who was captured with Siddiqui last month is her son Ahmed. According to the Washington Post, “The boy was detained July 18 when Afghan police arrested Siddiqui in what they described as a shootout near a government compound in Ghazni.”

The Daily Times cited Siddiqui’s attorney, Elizabeth Fink, who said that Siddiqui will petition a federal court to have Ahmed placed in the custody of her brother in Texas. Until then, human rights groups have responded strongly to news of Siddiqui’s young son in U.S. custody. In a press release, Human Rights Watch asserted, “Whether or not his mother is implicated in criminal acts, Ahmed Siddiqui should not be held responsible. Under both Afghan and international law, he is too young to be considered criminally responsible for his mother’s alleged acts.” Moreover, the organization “expressed concern not only for Ahmed Siddiqui, but also for two siblings, Mariam, age 10, and Suleman, age 5, who have been missing since March 2003.”

CHUP will continue to cover developments related to the Afia Siddiqui case. Her court hearing will continue on September 3, 2008 at 2:00 pm [EST] in New York City.

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The recent negative developments in Pakistan has dominated media coverage of the country, with headlines focusing on coalition splits, impeachment debates, and the deteriorating economic and security situation.  However, the inspirational work of the Pakistan Disabled Cricket Association (PDCA) merits an opportunity to highlight something positive that is occurring in the country. On Monday, the PDCA announced that it “hoped its first-ever national league would pave the way for more world recognition as they eye a tour to neighbouring India.” According to a piece by the AFP, “The PDCA has just staged the first eight-team National League, which Rawalpindi won by beating Multan by two wickets in the final in the southern port city of Karachi on Sunday night.” The association’s president, Salim Karim, told the news agency, “We think it’s a huge leap for us, and the first-ever league would help us form a strong Pakistan disabled team and (make) our dreams of touring India next year come true.”

Karim, who can barely walk, (his right leg was affected by polio as a child while a motorcycle accident seriously damaged his left leg), has been called “the driving force behind disabled cricket in Pakistan.” He, along with Ameerudin Ansari, a former cricketer, and Mohammad Nizam, established the PDCA in 2006 with a vision “to make all physically impaired people realize that they can live a life without any worries.”  Ansari previously noted about the cricketers, “They come on crutches but leave their support to show they can play and give a lesson to all those who believe that life in imparity is useless.” A separate news piece noted, “The determination to overcome their physical impediments is a common theme amongst the teammates and they play an important role in a country where health facilities and opportunities for disabled people are rudimentary at best.”

PDCA’s achievements have caught the eye of Pakistani cricket stars, including Younus Khan, who said he was amazed at the enthusiasm of the disabled cricketers. He told the AFP, “I am amazed at their courage and passion…I was behind forming the Peshawar team, and when we announced trials we thought some 10 to 20 players would come, but there were over 100 players in the trials.” Khan has urged both the International Cricket Council (ICC) as well as the media to take time out for the cause and contribute to its development. He emphasized, “It is eye-catching to see a player with just one hand hitting sixes, and that was on display during the league…I think ICC must support this type of cricket and give encouragement by arranging series for them.” Last month, Shoaib Malik, captain of the Pakistani national cricket team, also voiced his support for this cause, and called the formation of the PDCA, “a great achievement.”

The mission and work of the PDCA is significant because it allows us to look beyond these people’s handicaps and focus instead on their achievements. Howzzat for inspirational?

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Today, I ran across an interesting article in the Financial Times. Entitled, “Doubts Cast on Zardari’s Mental Health,” the FT’s Michael Peel and Farhan Bokhari reported, “Asif Ali Zardari, the leading contender for the presidency of nuclear-armed Pakistan, was suffering from severe psychiatric problems as recently as last year, according to court documents filed by his doctors.” The co-Chairman of the PPP was reportedly diagnosed “with a range of serious illnesses including dementia, major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder in a series of medical reports spanning more than two years.” Zardari, noted the FT writers, spent 11 of the last 20 years in Pakistani prisons, where he claimed he was tortured. The FT cited a NY-based psychiatrist, Phillip Satiel, who said in a March 2007 diagnosis that Zardari’s imprisonment had left him suffering from “emotional instability” and memory and concentration problems. [Image from the AP]

Despite this diagnosis last year, Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Pakistan’s High Commissioner in London and a longstanding ally of the Bhutto family, told the FT yesterday that Zardari’s subsequent medical examinations and his doctors “declared him medically fit to run for political office and free of any symptoms.” He added,

You have got to understand that while he was in prison on charges that were never proven, there were attempts to kill him…At that time, he was surrounded by fear all the time. Any human being living in such a condition will of course suffer from the effects of continuous fear. But that is all history.

However, despite Hasan’s assertions, such reports of mental illness were publicized at a significant time – less than a week from today, Zardari is slated to run for the country’s presidential elections, a development that has sparked questions and skepticism among many Pakistanis, [so far, 78% of those who voted in yesterday's CHUP poll deemed "President Zardari" the worst decision for Pakistan]. In an op-ed in today’s Dawn, Kamran Shafi asserted,

Bad idea, Asif Zardari putting himself up for election as president, and worse, to do it without consulting the PML-N…Yes, sirs, a very bad idea indeed as Asif will find to his own and the party’s cost sooner rather than later with Nawaz Sharif stalking out of the coalition. It will be interesting to see how the PPP runs the country without the help of the next largest political party.

According to The News on Tuesday, Zardari, “who till Sunday was quite comfortable in the presidential race, has now certain hurdles to cross to clinch the top slot.” Following yesterday’s decision to exit the coalition, the PML-N announced its own presidential candidate will be former chief justice of Pakistan, Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui, and media outlets have indicated the party is attempting to “woo” the PML-Q over to their camp.

Officially, the United States has been neutral in the contest over who succeeds Pervez Musharraf. However, a piece in today’s NY Times reported that Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations [and former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq], is facing angry questions from other senior Bush administration officials over what they describe as unauthorized contacts with Zardari. The Times noted, “Mr. Khalilzad had spoken by telephone with Mr. Zardari…several times a week for the past month until he was confronted about the unauthorized contacts.” U.S. officials, including Asst. Secretary of State for South Asia, Richard Boucher, reacted with outrage to such news, fearing such reports “could leave the impression that the United States is taking sides in Pakistan’s already chaotic internal politics.” [Image from the NY Times]

Ultimately, today’s developments – from reports of Zardari’s mental state to the PML-N’s presidential candidate – may show that the PPP co-Chairman’s ascendancy to the presidency will not be without its obstacles. As political infighting continues, other issues facing the country are ever-increasing. Media outlets reported the stock market reacted negatively to the recent political developments – slumping four percent on Tuesday, and severe load shedding in Karachi, Quetta, and Peshawar has drastically affected daily life and business activities.

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UPDATE [930 EST]: Media outlets reported Monday that former PM Nawaz Sharif announced he is withdrawing his party from the ruling coalition. The Associated Press reported, “Sharif said Monday that he is pulling out of the five-month-old alliance because it has failed to restore judges ousted by ex-President Pervez Musharraf.”

Original Post Below:

There was a great deal of speculation this weekend over the future of Pakistan’s ruling coalition government. On Saturday, PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari emerged as the party’s official candidate for the presidential elections next month, reported media outlets. Although an AFP report Saturday noted that PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif said “he was ready to accept” Zardari as president “if he does away with powers to dissolve parliament,” other media outlets, including Dawn and the UK’s Guardian, provided slightly different accounts. The Guardian reported, “Nawaz Sharif, leader of the other major party in the coalition, is furious that he was not consulted over Zardari’s bid for the presidency.” Dawn noted in its coverage, “Nawaz linked his party’s support for Zardari’s candidacy “to the restoration of the judiciary by Monday and also called upon the government to repeal the 17th Amendment [slashing the presidency's powers] before the presidential elections.”

However, such demands are unlikely to be fulfilled, “putting the future of the coalition at stake within a week after the ouster of president Pervez Musharraf.” The Associated Press cited an aide to Nawaz, Pervez Rashid, who told the news agency Sunday that “general opinion” in the PML-N “favored an exit from the coalition and that party leaders would meet on Monday to decide.” Moreover, noted the AP, a PML-N leader, Javed Hashmi, indicated that “he was willing to run in the Sept. 6 election to succeed Musharraf if his party asks him to.” Currently, news sources have implied that Zardari “is almost certain” to win the presidential election, since his party has the required votes in parliament to get him elected. However, a collapsing coalition will surely complicate the already volatile political environment in the country.

With nomination papers for the September 6 election due Tuesday, much hinges on Monday’s judiciary deadline and the slated PML-N meetings [on whether or not to exit the coalition]. A PML-N spokesperson said Sunday, “There is no need for the party to be part of the coalition government, if one party is taking decisions unilaterally.” For further coverage of this developing story, watch this space.

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On Thursday, two suicide bombers blew themselves up outside of Pakistan’s main army munitions factory, killing 59 people, reported the Associated Press. News sources (as is expected after major attacks) varied in their reports of casualties and few identified which group perpetrated the bombings. However, the Associated Press, Reuters, BBC News and Dawn all reported the attackers were from the Pakistani Taliban. According to Dawn’s coverage, “Pakistani Taliban militants have warned in recent days that they would launch attacks on the military in revenge for an ongoing army operation in the troubled tribal region of Bajaur on the Afghan border.” Speaking to the BBC, Mullah Omar, the spokesman of the Tehreek-e-Taliban [the umbrella organization headed by Beitullah Mehsud] further affirmed that today’s bombings were in retaliation for the deaths of “innocent women and children” in Bajaur. The news agency added, “He said more attacks would take place in Pakistan’s major urban conurbations unless the army withdrew from the tribal areas.”

Today’s bombings, noted the AP, “hit one of Pakistan‘s most sensitive military installations”  and was framed by news agencies as, “the deadliest attack on a military installation in the country’s history.”  The factory is located in the town of Wah, located just 18 miles outside of the capital, Islamabad. Wah, the BBC noted, “is a strategically important town normally under heavy security as it is home to a large industrial complex producing conventional arms and ammunition.” Reuters also quoted Mullah Omar, who justified today’s attack by asserting, “The Wah factory is a killer factory where arms are being produced to kill our women and children.”  

Officials tell news agencies that casualties are likely to rise. Just prior to the bombings, PM Yousaf Raza Gilani had appealed to Pakistani lawmakers to urgently draw up a national strategy against terrorism “even if you have to sit together for a week.” Addressing a ceremony for police officials who received counterterrorism training through the U.S. State Department, the PM said, “The threat that we are facing today has no precedent…Our enemy lurks silently within our society. This is our war.” Today’s attacks therefore, should further affirm such commitment. It should also emphasize to Pakistanis that a fight against terror within our own borders is not a U.S.-driven policy, but a strategy by our government and the military for the protection of its people. A successful anti-militancy policy will therefore not only require the support of the Pakistani people, but also a coordinated effort by both the government and its security forces. Only then can we have any hopes of success. [Image from BBC News]

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