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Archive for February 4th, 2009

badshahi-mosque1Jackie, an American working for a social enterprise in Karachi and CHUP’s correspondent, describes her recent trip from Karachi to Lahore for the Eid holidays and her subsequent observations:

My lack of reporting over the past two months was due in part to the very long holiday season which I took as an opportunity to travel. The beginning of December was Eid Ul Adha, followed shortly by Christmas/Quad-e-Azam’s Birthday, followed by Benazir Bhutto’s Death Anniversary, New Years and finally 10 days of Muharram.

I spent the Eid Ul Adha holidays in Lahore with a friend’s family.  After spending my initial months immersed in chaotic Karachi, Lahore was a much welcome change of pace. The weather was beautiful in December – cool, but sunny. The city is made up of wide boulevards lined with trees, lots of green parks, and, most importantly, I felt safe! I stayed in Model Town, an area developed in the 1920s for civil servants and middle class Pakistanis. Everyday, my friend and I walked to the park unaccompanied, without worrying about kidnapping, theft, or harassment.  There were tons of people at the park – families out for a stroll, kids playing on the jungle gym and even women out for a jog on the track, unaccompanied.  When driving in the streets, we didn’t have to take a guard with us and we were even able to wander the crowded streets of the old city late at night.

In addition to this more laid-back atmosphere, as the former capital of the Mughal Empire, Lahore has a certain historical charm that Karachi lacks. There are several remnants from the Mughal dynasty.  The most impressive are the Lahore Fort and Badshahi Mosque [see above photo of the Badshahi Mosque]. The mosque is mammoth, yet very majestic and is comparable in its splendor to some of the most famed Islamic monuments such as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and even the Taj Mahal.  The Old City, a very small area that comprises the original city of Lahore, is incredibly charming and full of life, and again, given that Lahore is relatively safer than Karachi, I actually had access to it. Lahore also has a very vibrant artsy scene.  While in town, we visited several art galleries.

As always, the most fascinating aspect of my trip was meeting new people. I stayed with my friend’s family members – an elderly, now-retired diplomat couple. My friend’s uncle, Mansur, was a career diplomat. He was born in Lahore before partition, joined the Foreign Service in the 1950s and retired in 1993 – returning to Lahore after 38 years abroad. I spent most of my trip grilling him on Pakistan, its role in the current geopolitical scheme and how politics have changed over the past 40 years.

Unfortunately, Mansur painted a grim picture of Pakistan’s future. When he joined the Foreign Service in the 1950s, he felt proud and agreed, in large part, with Pakistan’s foreign policy.  Things began to take a turn for the worse when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto rose to power and then really nose-dived during Zia Ul-Haq’s regime. Mansur actually spent more time out of Pakistan than is standard for a foreign officer as he belongs to a certain sect of Islam that was declared heretical during Bhutto’s time. In the 1970s, he was offered a chance to return to Pakistan to assume a position of prominence in the national government. This offer was later reneged at the highest level, and he was told to stay overseas due to his religious affiliations. As a result, he spent the last 17 years of his career abroad, without a single of the standard rotations in Islamabad. In addition to this unfortunate situation, as time passed, he felt it more and more difficult to represent Pakistan’s foreign policy.

Once Mansur retired, the Lahore he returned to was not the Lahore he remembered from his youth. Gone was the diversity – Christians, Parsi, Sikhs, made up his college classes, and now no one was left. Maulvis dictated rules and there was little room for discussion or disagreement. Mansur sees religious extremism as one of the greatest threats to Pakistan’s future, and expressed disappointment that this small segment of society had been able to chokehold the majority, as he believed most Pakistanis were fairly moderate people.

While this wasn’t the most uplifting perspective, this opportunity to speak with someone involved in Pakistan’s development since its inception, made my visit to the beautiful city of Lahore particularly memorable.

To read the rest of Jackie’s posts for CHUP, click here.

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The recent developments in Swat Valley [see here for CHUP’s related posts] have garnered significant media attention, both among Western and Pakistani media outlets, [not to mention among Pakistani blogs – see Grand Truck Road and A Reluctant Mind]. What is both notable and significant, though, is the media’s continued portrayal of the oft-neglected, human side of the conflict. Recently, Al Jazeera English released a piece by Kamran Rehmat of Dawn News entitled, “Swat: Pakistan’s Lost Paradise.” He quoted Zubair Torwalli, a social activist in Swat, who noted, “The police are escorted by the army personnel and come out of their hideouts for a couple of hours…One of the busiest squares, Grain Chowk, was renamed by shopkeepers as Khooni (bloody) Chowk because when they come to their shops in the morning, they find four or five bodies hung over the poles or trees. The bodies are usually headless.” Rehmat also relayed a story told by GEO Television talk show host Hamid Mir:

Mir describes an episode in which a widow, who taught at a private school in Mingora, was warned by the extremists to stop coming out of her house, let alone teach. Having no other means to feed her three children, she begged a religious scholar to intercede with the extremists, one of whom was a former student of the scholar. However, the commander of the extremists was so annoyed that he had the scholar arrested immediately, before banishing him from Mingora. Days later, the widow was executed by the extremists after being declared a prostitute.

A recently released documentary by ActionAid Pakistan entitled, “Voices Unheard – Behind Politics of Conflict,” provided some startling statistics – more than 400 schools have shut down in Swat alone – “depriving almost 10,000 girls of their right to education.” An ongoing BBC News series, “Diary of Pakistani schoolgirl,” follows the story of one of these females. On January 22, the seventh grader wrote:

Maulana Shah Dauran also said in his speech on FM radio that three ‘thieves’ will be lashed tomorrow and whoever wants to see can come and watch. I am surprised that when we have suffered so much, why people still go and watch such things? Why also doesn’t the army stop them from carrying out such acts? I have seen wherever the army is there is usually a Taliban member nearby, but where there is a Taliban member the army will always not go.

[Taliban public flogging in Swat]

In her most recent entry, dated January 28, she reported that her family safely left Swat for Islamabad, where they are staying with her father’s friend. The schoolgirl spoke of an encounter with a popcorn vendor at Lok Virsa, who “said that he hailed from Momand Agency, but because of an ongoing military operation was forced to leave his abode and head for the city. At that moment I saw tears in my parents’ eyes.”

The conflict in Pakistan’s northern areas has translated to an increasing number of IDPs – Internally Displaced Persons. According to The News, the aforementioned ActionAid film found that over 40,000 IDPs are living in inhuman conditions in camps. The news agency added, “The film captures people living in deplorable conditions in IDP camps, looking at the government to control extremists’ activities so that peace can prevail in their hometowns and their lives can return to normalcy [and] …return home someday.” The Daily Times, in its coverage of the film, noted, “Without emphasizing expert opinions, the film was meant to initiate an analytical dialogue about socio-political and economic consequences of conflicts. At one place, a woman grieved the death of her three grown-up sons, while another chokingly narrated how bombs had smashed her husband.”

The on-the-ground coverage and the civilian testimonies are important because they humanize the conflict. Reading these accounts, the fear these people  experience on a daily basis is almost palpable – it practically jumps off the page. The stories should motivate all of us to take some kind of action, whether it’s initiating a dialogue or providing warm clothing and funds to the people in these camps. Dawn’s Irfan Husain, in his recent piece, echoed my sentiments exactly:

In a sobering piece on this page last week, Zubeida Mustafa underlined the plight of the people of Swat, and asked why there were no large protests against the killers who were terrorising the valley. Why not indeed? It is a sad fact that while we Pakistanis are (rightly) incensed over the recent assault on Gaza, and other attacks on Muslims by non-Muslims, we choose to turn a blind eye by even worse Muslim-on-Muslim atrocities.

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