Monday, 30 June 2014

Are the Taliban fighting a cosmic war?

The recent attack on Karachi Airport on 8 June was claimed by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a militant group with bases in North Waziristan which is affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. See the BBC story about this claim of responsibility here: "Karachi airport: Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan claims attack." 

One of the main objectives of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is to overthrow the government and establish Sharia law. The Pakistani Taliban have the same objectives.

The attack on the Karachi Airport is bold to say the least and, demonstrates:

1) The vulnerability of the Pakistan state
2) The organisation and determination of the militant groups
3) The transnational character of Islamic militancy
4) The futility of negotiations with this type of militancy

What drives Islamic militancy? What drives international Jihad? 

The roots of 9-11 prompted more than a decade of analysis and study. The plane hijackers were all reasonably adjusted and educated persons. It was the same for the perpetrators of the July 7 attacks in London. A clash of civilisations has been a popular theory. The rise of non-state actors in a post-Cold war context is also used as analysis. A fall out of the roll back of the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1908s is used to explain the rise of Al Qaeda. America left Afghanistan to the very warlords which it used to kick out the Russians; moreover, bin Laden was an ex CIA agent himself.  The repression of Islamic parties in Arab states is also cited. And, I'm sure everyone has heard the 4,000 Jews did not come to work the day the Twin Towers were demolished?

For us in Pakistan, the rise of the Pakistani Taliban and their terrorist activities also gave way to theories about how and why sucheinous crimes could be committed in the name of religion. Many times, poverty and a lack of education has been cited as the core reasons why an ordinary human being would be willing to not only take the lives of hundreds of innocent people but also die in the process. His /her family would probably be taken care of. A combination of drugging and indoctrination of youngsters has also been reported. The misinterpretation of Islam is also lamented. 

I recently found How to Win a Cosmic War by Reza Aslan to be a very useful analysis of international jihad and violence in the name of religion. The title is telling: the individuals who carry out violence in the name of religion believe they are fighting a cosmic war. They believe they are doing God's work in a war of good versus evil. Aslan's conclusion is that fighting such a war on these crusader's terms is never going to be successful. 

If you want to understand the present, consult history. Aslan traces the history of jihadism as follows: 

"As a social movement, Jihadism traces its historical roots not to the Prophet Muhammad but to the Arab anticolonialists of the twentieth century, such as Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. It looks not to the Quran for its doctrinal basis but to the writings of the thirteenth-cuntry legal scholar Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah. It has more in common with the Bolsheviks and the French revolutionaries than it does with militant Muslim nationalist groups such as Hamas and Hizballah. To talk about Jihadism as Islamofacism is to misunderstand both Jihadism and facism. Facism is an ideology of ulranationalism; Jihadism rejects the very concept of the nation-state as anathema to Islam." 

What exactly is a cosmic war? 

"A cosmic war is a religious war. It is a conflict in which God is believed to be directly engaged on one side over the other. Unlike a holy war - an earthly battle between rival religious groups - a cosmic war is like a ritual drama in which participants act out on earth a battle they believe is actually taking place in the heavens. It is, in other words, both a real, physical struggle in this world and an imagined, moral encounter in the world beyond. The conflict may be real and and the carnage material, but the war itself is being waged on a spiritual plane; we humans are merely actors in a divine script written by God.  
A cosmic war transforms those who should be considered butchers and thugs into soldiers sanctioned by God. It turns victims into sacrifices and justifies the most depraved acts of destruction because it does not abide by human conceptions of morality."

We struggle to understand horrific violence in political terms and context.  We often focus on the propaganda of jihadist groups who use causes such as the suffering of Palestinians and, somehow believe that if Israeli occupation and apartheid was properly dealt with, jihad would be have no raison d'etre. We blame the Americans for using mujahideen to drive out the Soviets from the US; in fact, the Cold War was for the Americans a cosmic war. Didn't US President Reagan call the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and the mujahideen "the moral equivalent of our founding fathers "? (How many times have you seen that meme in your Facebook Newsfeed?) Sometimes we even convince ourselves that the Americans created modern-day jihad. We blame the Americans for providing jihadists ample ground when they invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. Recently, as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham  (ISIS) has started waves of assault in Iraq, the Arab League's secretary general's 2003 warning to the US has been cited several times: “You will open the Gates of Hell”. See this opinion piece "The Gates of Hell" in the Dawn. 

Unfortunately, none of these common and lay theories explain the phenomenon of jihad or how globalised it has become. Nor do they explain how militant groups manage to rationalise the slaughter of innocent people. Will a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict quell all jihadi aspirations? No. Did the withdrawal of Americans from Iraq usher in peace? No. Can jihad ever be wiped out? Probably not.   

Deftly demonstrated by Aslan, modern-day jihadism takes its inspiration from a 13th century Islamic legal theorist, Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah who grew up during the time of the Mongol invasion of the famed cities of Baghdad and Damascus. Belonging to a family within the  Hanbali School of Law, he became a cleric at the age of 13. His family had to flee Haran and moved to Damascus. He was born three years after the Mongols sacked Damascus. As the Mongols settled in Arab lands and adopted Islam,  ibn Taymiyyah did not accept the Mongols as rightful lords, challenging the Hanbali doctrine that the leader of an Islamic state was placed there by God. According to ibn Taymiyyah, the Mongols were not true Muslims and therefore must be defied. Like the Kharijites who challenged the third caliph's rule several hundred years before him, ibn Taymiyyah declared that it was every Muslim's duty to wage jihad against suchipocrisy. He cast jihad as an individual obligation and not a collective one as commonly understood in the  Quran.

Anwar al-Sadat's assassination was inspired by the very writings of ibn Taymiyyah centuries later. Following the assassination, radical organisations were rounded up and during the trials, a document "The Neglected Duty," penned by Abd al-Salam Faraj, was produced by prosecutors that used ibn Taymiyyah's writings. Faraj criticised the influence of the West on Egypt. Re-establishment of the Caliphate was a goal of this "nascent jihadist movement" as Aslan writes. 

But overthrowing of the government in Egypt was eventually replaced by more global concerns. Ayman Zawahiri, one of the suspects arrested and jailed for Sadat's assassination, fled from Egypt to Afghanistan where groups from North Africa to Central Asia had come to fight the Soviets. According to Aslan they had nothing in common. It is there that Zawahiri met Osama bin Laden and the former's radical Salafism and the latter's Saudi Wahhabism were merged. And as Aslan writes, "Jihadism, it seemed had gone global. The rest, as they say, is history."

Global jihadists use the doctrine of takfir, proclaiming who is and who is not a a true Muslim thereby justifying the spilling of fellow Muslim blood. They exalt jihad to the status of personal devotion. 

The 9-11 attacks, as analysed by Aslan, achieved no real victory. Neither the United State's financial or military might was diminished. Instead, the goal was to awaken the Muslim nation. By its use of propaganda and highlighting causes such as Palestine, Al Qaeda created a global audience. As Aslan writes, "Yet, as undeniably dreadful as the plight of the Palestinian may be for the Jihadists, Palestine is a mere abstraction, a symbol whose sole purpose is to draw Muslims to their cause." The Al Qaeda rhetoric for example even cited the US' refusal to sign on to the International Criminal Court! This is hardly a grievance  but "a means of weaving local and global resentments into as wide a net as possible." Al Qaeda and other jihadists groups do not have concrete plans but vague ones. They by pass traditional Islamic structures and law. They are completely convinced that they are fighting a cosmic war that transcends border, race and cultural identity. 

Aslan devotes some time to exploring how Muslim youth in Europe is recruited for jihad. There does not seem to be any common thread amongst the known terrorists who were involved in attacks in Europe or went to fight abroad except that they are mostly young and are frustrated with imams and mosques. Increasing Islamophobia and anti-terrorism laws have also fueled alienation amongst Muslim youth. Apparently, they do not feel their Muslim identity can exist in Europe. In America, on the other hand, Muslims can practice their faith more openly and freely. Also, Muslim immigrants in American are "solidly middle class" while those in Europe hail more from working class backgrounds. 

I would be interested in reading a text on the structure and recruitment methods of the Tehrik-i-Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, cited at the beginning of this post. Extrapolating Aslan's main ideas, I think poverty and a lack of education would play a bigger role in explaining the rise of this group. The TTP's stated objectives are to resist the state, install sharia and wage war against the West in neighbouring Afghanistan. These are similar goals to the global jihadists':  overthrow states and fight against the hypocritical Muslims and infidels.   A target of the TPP and other groups such as  Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have been the Shiias.

Read these words of Jordanian Jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as quoted in Aslan's book "Shi-ism is patent polytheism. The Shi'a are "the most evil of mankind...the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy, the penetrating venom." As Aslan states, "Through random kindappings, torture and beheading of Shi'a civilians, Zarqawi almost single handedly launched a sectarian civil war in Iraq."

The targeting of the Shi'a in Pakistan invoke equally blood-curdling horror.

So, where does that leave us in understanding jihad in Pakistan? Extrapolating some of Aslan's ideas, it is apparent that jihad is being waged in Pakistan by multiple groups, some transnational in character, Their targets include sects within Islam and the state. They rationalise the indiscriminate killing of innocents because they truly believe they are engaged in a sacred war. Their practice takfir and kill all they deem to be infidels, apostates, or hypocrites. Violence is almost an end in itself. While their stated objectives are finite i.e. dismantling the state and replacing it with sharia, logically, they cannot hope to actually achieve this goal since they are going to be always outnumbered. They can however inflict a great amount of damage as the recent attack on Karachi airport has demonstrated.

They do achieve success however if our governments engages in negotiations with these outfits and does not protect civilians from their gruesome attacks. While it has strived to counter terrorism by several military operations, the Pakistan state has also attempted several negotiations with the TPP. A prominent politician and public figure, Imran Khan, also advocated peace talks with the TPP. Such public policy certainly created a moral confusion - how can the state, meant to ensure security of its citizens, be seeking peace with known terrorists?

The Karachi Airport attack however has prompted a general military response in North Waziristan: Zarb-e-Azb. It started exactly a week after the attack and has displaced about half a million people. It will remain to be seen to what extent the Pakistani state will be successful. It will take more than a single military operation to wipe out the terrorist networks in North Waziristan and elsewhere. It will probably require years of costly military operations and presence in north west Pakistan. At the same time, the state needs to provide development to the peoples of these areas so they are less susceptible to terrorist propaganda. 

Much more importantly, Pakistan needs to figure out what kind of state it is and who is or is not a rightful citizen free to live in peace and practice her or his faith. Long before jihad was officially waged in India and Afghanistan by our country, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has taken up itself to practice takfir. The Constitution was amended in the 70s during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's era to declare the Ahamdiyya Community as non-Muslim. 

Pakistanis often lament the huge social and cultural damage that a decade of Zia ul Haq's Islamisation wrought on the country. But it is incredibly telling that the criminalisation of an entire sect was enacted by a socialist government, under the very leadership of Bhutto, hailed as one of our most important political figures. It tells me that our country is in so many ways a theocracy that is more concerned with defining and defending Islam than with anything else. Pakistan was carved up from a British colonial India to protect Muslims from a second-class destiny in an independent India. We have since then been arguing who is and who is not a right Muslim. Other minorities such as Hindus and Christians have suffered a worse lot, relegated to the very second-class status that Muslims of India did not want to become. Our blasphemy laws, another Pakistani legal instrument of torture,  are routinely used to attack Hindus and Christians. 

Aslan's deceptively simple conclusion is not to fight a cosmic war. I have not delved into his discussion of Zealots in ancient history and the grip of fundamentalism and evangelicals in the United States but it is interesting and important to understand how both sides of this War on Terror feed into each other. The Pakistan state has played a similar role in not necessarily creating jihad - nor have the Americans - but certainly creating a breeding ground for it. Let people figure out which faith they want to practice and, not let it be a state concern. 

If Pakistan wants to save it self, it has to embark on a slow, painful but eventually enlightening path to secularism. 

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Struck by beauty

Beauty is subjective but if you feel you have met it face to face, gazed at it in wonder and disbelief, it transforms you.  Experiencing beauty feels like you have experienced perfection.

My visit to Baltistan in the early part of June this year is going to be stuck in my head, in my heart forever. Visiting the mountains of my homeland made a wonderful impression on me. I have done some traveling in my life thus far and seen some breathtaking beauty but I do not remember being struck by beauty the way I did in Baltistan. 

I felt I had soared into the mountains. I felt I was someplace completely new and exciting. 

Beauty is subjective but if you feel you have met it face to face, gazed at it in wonder and disbelief, it transforms you.  Experiencing beauty feels like you have experienced perfection.

With only three days there and, so much that I had not seen, the anticipation of discovering and seeing the rest of Baltistan some day, made me even more drunk with beauty.   

The first day

From the moment I landed at the Skardu Airport and as I looked around at the magnificent peaks towering above us over the runway I felt excited and thrilled. 

The hotel had sent a driver to pick me up and, he suggested we see Satpara Lake on the way to the hotel. The road to the Lake was through a rocky mountainous pass. We stopped in town to buy some juice. The driver proudly told me that Skardu was so safe that people left their cars unlocked. The driver and I chatted a lot. He was extremely friendly and helpful. He had performed Umrah a couple of years ago so he had Haji in front of his name. He like so many other people there relied on the tourists during the summer months although with the unreliability of PIA which was the only airline going up to the northern areas, the tourist season itself was unpredictable. He had also spent some time in Punjab working.

It was about an hour's journey from the airport. It started to get overcast by the time we got there. We couldn't actually get that close to the Lake and saw it from a couple of vantage points. At first I was unimpressed because the lake's water level was low. We had stopped on the road and I took a few shots through the barbed wire. We got down closer to the lake at a small and very basic guesthouse. We met the owner and chatted to him a bit. He said he had hosted many expat mountaineers and hikers. Some people even preferred to camp close to the lake instead of staying in the guesthouse itself. he wanted to take me up to the Deosai Plains (I had never heard the name before, so much for doing prior research) the next day and, wanted me to confirm how many packed lunches he should prepare. I was not sure so I could not confirm it. 

After this, we drove up round the corner to get a better view of the lake. It started to get very windy so much so that Kavita started crying. Thankfully, I had her jacket in the diaper bag and pulled it out. She was still quite bothered with these gusts of wind. From one view we could see the PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation) motel and the guesthouse we had just seen. From the other view we could see even higher peaks. It was this view that was quite magnificent since the peaks framed the lake. Also, the gusts of wind were blowing from that direction. The blue lake, framed by rocky mountains, suddenly became overcast with dusty winds. It was time to go!

We started heading back and on our way down, I could see that the Satpara dam project more carefully since I did not pay much attention to it going up. The dam was providing electricity to Skardu and, electricity was quite stable apparently.  

The drive to Shigar Valley was a memorable one. It was late afternoon and, the day just got more and more overcast. As I try to find the words to describe the images in my mind, I realise I might not really know all the proper words to describe the environment I was in. Was it a plain or valley that I had passed through? We passed through valleys of such contrasts. I felt we were enveloped in a fine, gray dust which made the rocky peaks almost hazy yet bright green trees dotted this most strange scenery. The only word I feel I can use for this new frontier is pure. It was pure scenery. It is the kind of scenery where one feels small, humbled. It is the kind of pure natural scenery where one only thinks about discovering and learning about animals, birds, lakes, rivers and mountains instead of man's creations such as old churches, mosques or skyscrapers.

We also saw the Indus River (or Dary-e-Sindh). I felt so excited to see it although the river bed was completely dry.

We finally arrived at the Shigar Fort Residence. Converted from a 17th century fort and palace, this is a beautiful Serena boutique hotel. With a museum, beautifully restored and preserved features of the palace, charming gardens and orchards and a bubbling brook right next to the hotel, I felt I was truly in paradise for the next three days. While it was scorching hot down in Punjab, Kavita and I snuggled under a razai every night! We ate delicious fresh-water trout nearly every day cooked in the hotel restaurant.  Kavita ran amok everywhere and, I took lots of photos of her rosy cheeks.

Second Day

Although I could have made a day trip to see Khaplu Valley, I decided to spend the day in Shigar Valley. I thought I would just savour the thrill of being in the mountains by doing very little. So, what I did was ask the driver to drive around and show me a bit of the town and valley. We saw a bridge. Got down to take some photos. On the way back, I asked to stop by the wheat fields. I walked through the fields and since Kavita had decided to take a nap, I decided to sit under a tree while she napped. I sat drowsily under the tree.

I looked around and all I could see was the most idyllic views around me. Wheat fields in front of me with snow-clad peaks in the distance. It was peaceful. The driver was nearby but I did not feel out of place without his escort. A passerby stopped to chat and, before I knew it I was invited to his house for tea. But to tell you honestly, I was itching to be invited to someone's house. We followed our host to his house in the village next to the fields. 

His house was was very modest as would be a villager's. We were asked to wait in the living room which was covered with bright red carpets. We met his wife who did not speak Urdu but only Balti. We tried to understand each other. She explained that she suffered from cramps. Her husband told me he had already taken her to the hospital in Skardu and was going to take her again. She was in fact his first wife who encouraged her husband to marry a second time because they only had one child. Our host had briefly served in the Army. We were asked to wait while they brought tea. We ended up waiting for a while and then I realised that our hosts were going through a lot of trouble. Our host had gone up to the shop for sure while his wife was boiling water for tea. A lavishly-laid tea arrived with biscuits, green tea and boiled eggs. I felt overwhelmed.    

We finished our tea. I thanked my hosts and expressed my appreciation. Our host walked us to the main road. On the way, a young mother walked beside me and we chatted. She was hardly 20 or 21 and already had several children. Her youngest was wrapped around her back (just like Africa!) and, what an adorable little girl it was. We passed some shrubs and trees wrapped in cloth. I asked her why it was so. She said so that the goats wouldn't eat up all the bark. We came onto the road and bid our host good bye and gave a lift to the lady.

We headed back to the hotel where we spent the rest of the evening simply relaxing. I had delicious hot tea in the garden while Kavita played. We then took a long nap and, then had dinner in the outdoor balcony of the restaurant. One could hear the babbling stream. We sat out in the chilly night, dressed in sweaters, and enjoyed our dinner. Kavita thankfully had a good appetite and ate everything I gave her. Before going back into the room, I passed by the gift shop and bought some souvenirs. The shop keeper somehow managed to convince me that the Deosai Plains were accessible (everyone had told me they would not be until later in the month). I couldn't believe my ears. The shop keeper booked a car for me the next day. I went to sleep excitedly dreaming of cuddling the Himalayan marmot and spotting some brown bears (from afar).

Third Day

After a hearty breakfast of parathas and prepared with packed lunches that the hotel kitchen prepared for us, I excitedly got into the car that was waiting for me. "To the Deosai Plains," I told our driver. He was not very talkative and, I was a little disappointed since I was banking on some good company. I tried to make some small talk and asked him how far it was to the Plains to which he replied that it was around two hours but I would have to trek up to the plains themselves since the pass was full of snow and the car would not go right up to the entrance. "What!!" I shrieked. I would not be able to trek with Kavita. I have not trekked since seventh grade and even then I was really lousy at it. We decided to go back and, I straightened a few things out with that shop keeper. The hotel staff were annoyed with him but told me that I should have checked with them first.

We changed plans and headed out to see the Upper and Lower Kachura Lakes. The Upper Kachura Lake was indeed beautiful but a bit hard to reach.  I had to scramble down a hill to reach it. I painfully realised how unfit I was since I could hardly manage on my own. I was trying not to think about how scared I was of slopes and heights while a young fellow helped by skipping and hopping down while carrying Kavita.  The lake was pristine, blue and green, framed by rocks. We took a boat ride in it. Later I walked around the edge with Kavita and really enjoyed the peace and quiet. There were not many other tourists and only some local boys who were fishing and skipping stones on the lake.

After this, we stopped to see the Lower Kachura Lake. The famous Shangrila Resort is right on this lake. I think this lake was postcard beautiful since it had the most beautiful manicured gardens and roses around it. This lake was not contained in a small enclave like the Upper Kachura Lake but in a much wider open space. The mountains were reflected in its water, dotted by reflections of gorgeous roses. The gardens of the hotel were really magnificent. There were tourists everywhere. I saw families posing for pictures. I saw groups of men posing for pictures. There were boating couples on the lake. I did not stay long.

We headed back to our hotel in time for tea. The hotel was buzzing with preparations for the Chief Minister who was apparently coming for dinner. I met a family from Karachi and exchanged travel notes. Kavita and I turned in for a nap and later had dinner.

Struck by beauty

The return flight was smooth but I felt sad leaving Baltistan. I wished I could have seen the Deosai Plains. I wish I could have done some trekking. I wish I had more trout. I wish I could learn a bit more about the Balti people, their language, their habits and so on.

I felt extremely indignant when I learned that Balti is not taught in schools! I read up about it on the Internet and that it is related to Tibetan. Urdu really is a colonising language which has rendered all other languages of this land as second, third or of no importance. How can a language spoken for time immemorial not be considered important enough not to be taught to the children of those who speak it? We will lose this language at this rate!

And who knows of what beliefs existed before Islam arrived?

This three-day holiday to Baltistan showed me a part of Pakistan which I have just known about in coffee table books or from TV (specifically probably only a shot of a mountain in a Pakistani music video, a patriotic song or a brief documentary on PTV).  I felt proud of myself of exploring a new part of Pakistan on my own and vowed to return for longer next year bringing some friends.

I really was struck by the beauty of the mountains and valleys.  The idea alone that Baltistan was the gateway to some of the highest peaks in the world thrilled me. I was literally at the top of the world. I looked up at rocky mountains, snow-clad peaks, valleys and gorges, and turqoise lakes. What could be more beautiful than these sights? Who could be more hospitable than the kind-faced Balti people?

I have never really taken a holiday on my own. It has usually always been with a companion. This time, it was me and my little Kavita. I really enjoyed myself and really cannot wait to come back.

Might I add that I am now obsessed with the Deosai Plains and, really cannot wait to see them. 

Monday, 23 June 2014

An injury and a couple of insults

During the last couple of weeks, I suffered an insult and an injury. The injury came first. 

The injury

I have been suffering from horrid back and abdominal cramps since Kavita was born. The first time I got them, I was in agony and, couldn't find any respite sitting or lying down. The pain was in my back and in my tummy. I closed myself in the bedroom and paced up and down. Haresh came in to check on me. I think I yelled at him and told him to go away. Sorry, those cramps made me really angry. It went on for a good hour or so until I threw up. I thought it was a nasty case of food poisoning although no one else in the house got it. 

The next time I got it was after a very decadent meal at one of my favourite restaurants in the world: Lagon 2 in Dakar. This was last year in August. Haresh, Kavita and I were in town for a holiday and, in fact we stayed at the same hotel, too. The cramps started late at night and, went on for even longer until I displaced the decadent meal in the bathroom that looked like it was onboard a cruise ship. 

These episodes occurred a few more times and, no one besides me seemed to be getting food poisoned. 

I googled the symptoms and, it seemed I had some kind of stones lodged inside my body which were making all this trouble. My heart of course sank when I read this and, the freaked out part of my brain tried to deny it. 

How could I have stones? I have never been sick in my life. Sure, I do have a sweet tooth, like to eat junk food when worried or depressed, and love my burgers and fries but I have never been sick. 

I met with our family doctor in Monrovia who told me to get an ultra sound. Did I get it? Nope. 

I got an attack when I first got here and, told my mother I think I have stones. She booked an appointment at an ultra sound clinic. I drank litres, in fact a sea, of water.  We promptly arrived at the goddamn clinic (you'll see why I use this epithet) but whaddya know? There was a mismanaged queue.   I patiently waited for a good 20 minutes and drank even more water like a good patient. Kavita was running around, busy in her explorations. I kept going up to the receptionist to ask when next? She said, 'But is your bladder full?' I said yes, but I can drink more water to be sure. I kept on hydrating myself. Another 30 minutes passed. There was no sign of my turn coming up. I went up to the reception and told her my freaking bladder was full and when was I going to go in. She tells me to relieve myself but only a little. I looked at her. I was already bursting and she told me to pee. "But just a little." I looked about wildly, trying to cross my legs but also had to hobble after Kavita. I waited some more. All the time, my mother was giving me death stares since I was embarrassing her. I would look at all the certificates on the crummy wall of that goddamn clinic and ask my mother, "See this certificate? Fraud." My mother was getting madder by the minute and my bladder was near bursting! I angrily asked the lady besides me what was going on. She had been there a half hour before me and, her turn had not even come up. I lost it. I marched to the one dirty bathroom they had and, took a big pee. I stormed out. Went up to the lame receptionist, demanded my fees back and left the building. Of course, my  mother was quite furious at me not having enough patience. She gave it to me the next morning. Not the same day. Not the same night. The next morning! 

This was back in March. 

Just as I was wrapping up my trip and planning the ten last days (it included me taking a driving lesson, archiving our family albums before Kavita destroyed them, doing some strategic planning, and some sight seeing in Abbottabad, Murree and Taxila), I got another attack. It was those damn cramps again. 

I remembered what my doctor in Liberia told me. Go and get an ultra sound while you are having an attack and, try to see a doctor at the same time.

I went to the Emergency at Maroof. My father regularly goes there for his eye check ups. It is nearby and seems to be a decent hospital. So, I went there and thought I would be in and out. The cramps were not so bad. Well, I ended up spending a good few of hours there getting all sorts of tests done. They confirmed I had stones in my gall bladder. I got discharged after receiving some medications intravenously. They also recommended a specialist at Maroof. 

I met with him a few days later. Actually, we first met his chatty "assistant" who kept referring to himself as the "shagird" of this specialist. He accidentally fell off the chair at one point. He did draw me a convincing diagram of my gall bladder and liver, though. 

The quiet specialist came in later and looked at my blood reports and, saw that some dudes called LFTs (liver enzymes) were too high. And, I still had an infection. So, he prescribed some meds and told me to check back in ten days. 

I was pretty sick for the next few days. I ached all over and had no appetite but gradually the meds kicked in and, I have been back to normal. 

In fact, today I met with the quiet specialist. He actually wanted me to check back in another week until I told him, "Hey, I need to get back to Liberia." He ordered another blood test. The results did not come out for 2 hours. We went home, had a late lunch and watched some TV. We went back and, met with the chatty "assistant" who asked me whether I was ready for surgery. I looked at him nervously and cautiously replied, "depends." He looked at me funny and, told me, I better get ready and not tempt fate. He started telling me a story of his near-escape from death. I realised I was stalling again and, told him OK, let's do it. He told me to come in tomorrow just after lunch. We discussed a few details. After that he started explaining modern bad diets and, how KNS was especially bad. Then somehow the conversation turned religious and he said on the day of judgement, our hands would themselves admit all the sins we have committed.

So, I'm going in for surgery tomorrow. Usually, hospitals, needles and doctors freak me out. But I am surprisingly quite calm. I guess the experience of the C-section has made me less fearful. It has taken well over a year to feel fully healed. Since that was a major incision compared to the gall bladder surgery, I feel better at the idea that I will recover faster from this procedure. 

Insult upon Injury

Another reason I have mentally prepared myself so well for this upcoming medical episode is that while I was quite sick and crappy, I nearly lost all my data. 

I was attempting to write a blog post about the recent Karachi airport attack one evening. I went upstairs to pee and, left my Macbook on the sofa. Kavita apparently took my laptop and banged it on the floor. My mother heard the crash. My laptop became extremely slow and, I re-booted it. It did not re-boot and was stuck at the grey screen. I couldn't believe it. One little pee cost me my laptop! And, I am always so careful with my stuff. 

I was very very nervous and stressed. Not only was I going to have surgery soon but insult upon injury, was going to lose my data, too. And, insult on insult, Kavita was the one! I couldn't even yell at her. And woe be upon me, I had foolishly not backed up my data. I mean, I had been backing up my stuff on Time Machine but my external drive crashed and I was just too lazy to get another one. I kept putting it back. Just like I had been a visit to the doctor to find out why I was getting such bad cramps.

I nervously took it to a shop in Blue Area the next day. I was too nervous even to enjoy being around techies. The first shop I went into had a young sales/tech support guy who looked at my laptop and, said my hard drive was damaged and needed to be replaced. "But what about my data?" I asked.  I left it for a day until the fellow told me he can read the data but can't copy it. Truth be told, he was not so confident to begin with and, I was sure some other expert could do it. I took it two shops down. It was a much busier place and, the owner really looked like he knew what he was talking about. He advised this could take days and I needed to be patient. I was told his younger brother was at the Embassy right now (which Embassy, I wondered) and, was an expert and would handle it. I was impressed with the confidence. 

Now, if you have not been to Blue Area, you wouldn't know that there are at least three or four plazas with dozens and dozens of computer shops selling hardware and offering IT support/repair services. So, while I was waiting for four years of my data to be recovered, I wondered whether I should have properly investigated all the places and, then decided where to go for data recovery.  

My sense of anxiety, stress and doom escalated every day. I would call up the shop and, the owner would usually say, "I'm not at the shop right now. I'm going there now. I'll call back." And, he wouldn't. I would call him, nervously introduce myself, and ask the status of my laptop. I was told, "They're trying but so far no result." My heart sank. 

I started remembering every single file, photo, e-mail and even my carefully maintained calendar. I tearfully remembered my meticulous file system: a maze of sub sub sub folders within master categories. I  remembered how every document is accurately labeled and, even has a PDF copy stored in the same folder. I remembered how every single client of mine has a separate folder. I remembered all the company reports and analysis I had written for my own use. I remembered all my SOAS academic files. I re-called all the home videos of Kavita.  I felt sick at losing the personal writing projects. And, my iTunes library! Oh no!

I felt sicker than I actually was. After all, I had a bad gall bladder. 

I went up to the shop itself and, met the Embassy brother. Now, he was a very chatty fellow who put me at ease. He called up his data recovery guy. The guy told him to call back. I nervously waited. We talked a bit about the Embassy. It turns out he has an IT contract at the Embassy of Italy. He calls the data recovery guy back. Apparently, he had made at least 6 attempts but the drive kept freezing. The guy tells him to return it. At this point, the data recovery guy tells him, he would try again. Ego. I was told to come back. I told them to start refurbishing and servicing my laptop in the meantime. 

I really started to lose hope at this point. I sent sad messages to Haresh on Whatsapp: "Mera data, meta data." I updated my status on Whatsapp, my only and lonely connection to the world, "I am more grief stricken at the idea of losing my data than my gall bladder." It was true. I was not worried about the impending surgery. I couldn't care less. 

I dreamed about my lost files. Floating in a lost digital world. I was really depressed. 

So, I went back to the shop again to pick up my refurbished laptop so at least I could get back online. The younger brother was there. I nervously asked him about my data. He had completely forgotten! He called up the data recovery guy and, then stepped out of the shop. I was half depressed and half angry. I was debating whether to start yelling when he got back. He got back and absently tells me my data has been recovered. 

I couldn't believe it! I started smiling. He went on and on about the damaged head, bad sectors and vectors. He booted up my almost-new laptop that was installed with a new hard drive and had been updated with the latest OS. He plugged in my old hard drive and sure enough my data was there! 

I felt life returning to my body and soul.  

The insult is no more

In conclusion, I will soon be rid of my injury, that is my gall stones although sadly, my gall bladder will also have to come out. It seems science has not yet found a way to remove the stones without the bladder. But it has found out that one can go on living without a gall bladder. 

The insult that was thrown at me - my near loss of all my data, that is my files and notes and photos and promising manuscripts - was also transformed into an excellent experience of near loss, contemplation and lesson. Back up your data. 

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Commemorative stamps

I was at the post office the other day and bought these commemorative stamps as souvenirs. It is nice to see that our poets, writers, and artists are celebrated amongst other figures and moments. 

I wonder how long it will be before stamps will be antiquated and no longer used in a world where we send e-mail, use Facebook, Whatsapp each other, Skype each other, see each other in video calls and send text messages. 

Monday, 16 June 2014

I have not absconded

I have been in Pakistan for almost 4 months on a long holiday which I have thoroughly enjoyed. It was freezing cold when I arrived and was a welcome change of weather from the dry season back in Liberia. Now, it is like an oven. I was set to return to Liberia this week - looking forward to the cool rains of the rainy season - but will have to postpone my trip back for at least another month due to an annoying medical issue which will require surgery in a couple of weeks. To everyone in Liberia, I have not absconded, I am just held up for a little bit more.

Friday, 6 June 2014

The weekly round up

These are the articles and memes that have caught my attention these past few weeks. 

Timbaktu's libraries may yet be saved "The book rustlers of Timbuktu: how Mali's ancient manuscripts were saved:"
In 1325, the fabulously wealthy emperor of Mali, Musa I, travelled to Mecca carrying a tonne of gold as spending money. "[He] set off in great pomp with a large party, including 60,000 soldiers and 500 slaves, who ran in front of him as he rode," one of the Timbuktu chronicles relates of Musa's hajj. "Each of his slaves bore in his hand a wand fashioned from 500 mithqal [about 2kg] of gold." On his return to Mali, Musa ordered the building of a grand mosque at Timbuktu. Another great mosque was added in the Sankore quarter of the city a few years later, and the surrounding area became a centre for Islamic teaching. The Encyclopedia Britannica states that by 1450 Timbuktu had a population of 100,000, a quarter of whom were students. Even if these figures are wildly exaggerated, Timbuktu was a thriving centre of learning, and manuscripts were highly prized: the traveller Leo Africanus, who visited in 1510, found books sold for more money than any other merchandise in the city's market.

Books reached Timbuktu by caravan from Fez and Cairo, Tripoli and Córdoba, and what the scholars couldn't afford, they would copy. Other documents were written in Timbuktu. The vast libraries that resulted included every subject: astronomy and medicine, law, theology, grammar and proverbs. There were biographical dictionaries, diaries, letters between rulers and subjects; legal opinions on slavery, coinage, marriage and divorce; the lives of Muslims, Jews and Christians; there were histories and poetry.

Photographs that show emotional abuse as physical scars "Powerful Images Show A World Where Verbal Abuse Leaves Physical Scar."

Talking Movies

I love this review of a new Adam Sandler flick "Adam Sandler's 'Blended' Is a Failure for the Ages" because of these few lines:
"In an earlier age, when the theatre was centered on heroes of myth and history, it was the actors who were small, who had to raise themselves up on tiptoes and expand themselves to fit their roles. The riot that actors ran, the uninhibited emotional voracity that rendered them odious to staid burghers (plus ça change), helped them feel the authority and cavalier freedom of the mighty. In movies, for the most part, actors have to scale themselves down, even as they render their everyday heroes hyperbolic, lending ordinary people grand and tragic emotions."
Did you know George RR Martin uses Dos? "Game of Thrones author George RR Martin: 'Why I still use DOS'

How we all came to love Nutella: "Nutella: How the world went nuts for a hazelnut spread."

Modi comes to power

See this article from Al Jazeera: "From tea boy to India's leader."

An opinion piece from The News by Shahzad Chaudry "Managing Modi:" 

"Two glass ceilings got broken in the first two decades of this century: a black man’s son became the president of the United States – the oldest democracy in the world and a chaiwala’s son was elected in a sweeping victory as the prime minister of India – the largest democracy of the world. A third such occasion is likely in 2016 when a woman just might become the first ever female president of the US. This is paradigms being shattered.

If you want to really celebrate democracy as some in this country are prone to do simply by seeing one civilian government transition to another, note the speed at which from mid-1960s both the ‘coloured’ and the women, and the weak, have been able to find their place in the real democracies of the world on their merit alone.

Kudos to India for such an election; not a murmur of rigging or absence of fair-play. To win in such an election and with the margin that Modi has, is simply too big a landmark in contemporary political history. It was a ‘wow’ moment for India and the country needs to be applauded for it.

To the dismay of many in Pakistan, let me suggest that if Modi gets his act together, he will take India places. India will change, perhaps finally realising its dream and potential, as will its polity. India will never be the same again; this remains my considered opinion. He is that kind of fellow. "

Karachi in a 100 rupees

I love this video featuring an intern at the Dawn and how she explores Karachi in a 100 rupees: "Karachi in Rs 100."

Inspiring stories of women's lot on God's earth

Bodies of babies were discovered in a septic tank in a home for unwed mothers from long ago. It is an intensely depressing story "Bodies of 800 babies, long-dead, found in septic tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers."

This is an article about caste and rape in India "India's Feudal Rapists" and here's an excerpt: "We will never be able to address India’s rape crisis if we remain blind to the machinations of caste discrimination. In the past, it has taken gruesome cases of violence to ensure coverage of rape. Indeed, perhaps the only reason the Katra Saadatganj hangings attracted attention was that grisly photographs of the dangling bodies were published in Indian newspapers and circulate

d on social media, despite complaints by Dalit activists that this was disrespectful.

But we cannot rely on the shock value of particularly horrific cases to lead to change; we need structural solutions."

See this article about a Sudanese woman's plight "Sudanese woman sentenced to death for apostasy gave birth with her legs chained, her husband says."

MQM's Alftaf Hussain or is it Alftaf Hussain's MQM? 

The hint of arrest of MQM's Alftaf Hussain in London and its reaction in Karachi "Karachi reacts to arrest in London."

On Weed being legalised in the US

Imran Khan's Isloo Tsunami

Imran Khan came to talk in Islamabad. Yawn, here's an article about it "PTI rally ends with demands of ‘new Election Commision'." 

And, here's a great cartoon about it that was featured in Dawn.

Bring Back Our Girls

The story of the 200+ kidnapped girls in Nigeria filled the news, the internet for a good couple of weeks. It was a good example of how one piece of the puzzle can fill the airwaves and, can come suddenly out of nowhere. And, of course, there was a lot of backlash at the #Bringbackourgirls campaign. And, of course, like always, this kidnapping was part of a larger story about the Boko Haram and their activities in the northern part of Nigeria for years now.

This article lists all the names of the girls "These are the names of Nigeria’s kidnapped girls."

I really loved this column "#BringBackOurGirls" by Ifran Hussain, one of my favourite writers. I think this is a great Pakistani perspective that needs to become more common thought in our country. See this excerpt:
"YOU don’t have to be living abroad to get a sense of the white-hot anger people around the world are feeling towards Boko Haram, the Nigerian equivalent of the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban.

 in Pakistan, we are so busy contemplating our collective navel that the event has barely registered.

Whether we like it or not — and most of us don’t — the grim reality is that Muslim extremist groups have killed and maimed across the world, shouting Allah-o-Akbar.

In our misplaced desire not to criticise groups that fight under the banner of Islam, we refuse to examine closely the cause they say they are fighting for. Boko Haram, led by a madman who wants to sell the girls he has kidnapped, is surely not worth defending, and must be condemned in the most forthright language
This article from the Guardian criticises the social media uproar for its naivete: "Dear world, your hashtags won't #BringBackOurGirls'."

Another satire: "AlterNet Comics: Matt Bors on #BringBackOurGirls."

This article talks about social media's comparison of drone attacks and bring back girls. I'm not sure
how the two relate but see this article's discussion about it: "Netizens to Michelle Obama: #BringBackYourDr.

This excellent article traces the rise of Boko haram in historical context: "Boko Haram and the crippling of Islam in Africa." An excerpt from the article: 
"As in most other colonised African countries, Muslims shunned the new educational institutions set up and run by Christian missionaries. They did not want their children to fall under foreign Christian influence, and kept them at home or sent them to traditional religious schools.
As a result, a huge gap opened up between Muslims and their non-Muslim compatriots, who became proficient in the new languages of the administration, monopolising government jobs and key professional positions.

Like its counterpart in Afghanistan (the Taliban), this movement seeks to opt out of modernity and herd Muslims back to metaphorical (and sometimes actual) caves, where they were supposed to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that modernity has never happened.

Muslims in Africa have been caught into this vicious circle for generations.

These radical movements offer the young a false sense of empowerment, the thrill of "action", a new sense of identity and a vent for their frustration. However, they also divert youth energies from constructive engagement in dealing with the new challenges of modernity, and trap them into the cul-de-sac of violence. They physically devastate Muslim countries and regions, setting them back decades.

If this trend continues, it could be an even bigger disaster for Islam in Africa than colonialism. Islam was the dominant religion in Africa before colonialism, and by some miracle, it still is in spite of it. It continues to thrive precisely because it urges its adherent to seek knowledge. The word know/learn and its derivatives appear 856 times in the Quran, and its synonyms and related terms many times more.

One of the most unforgivable acts of so-called 'Islamist' rebels who occupied Timbuktu last year was to set fire to a library containing priceless manuscripts that embody the valuable contribution of African Muslims to learning."

The word legendary is thrown around a lot. If there ever was a true legendary folk singer of Pakistan, Pathane Khan would be one. Even a fake Pakistani like me whose grasp of Urdu or Punjabi is quite weak, was awed by the incredible pain and beauty of Pathane Khan's voice. 

We grew up in our various homes abroad listening to Pakistani classical, filmi and folk music. 

See this article about Pathane Khan's songs "The searing songs of Pathane Khan, Pakistan's much loved folk singer."

See this sublime collection of "12 songs from Pakistan’s mountains, deserts, shrines and streets" compiled by Nadeem F. Paracha.  

Great quotes and wisdom

I had no clue that Bob Hoskins had died until I saw this article " 11 Life Lessons from Bob Hoskins" on my Newsfeed.  These are the lessons summarised by his daughter:

1. Laugh.
2. Be yourself.
3. Be flamboyant; it’s who you are and always have been.
4. Don’t worry about other people’s opinions.
5. Get angry; it’s OK to lose your temper now and then.
6. Whatever you do, always give it a good go.
7. Be generous and kind because you can’t take it with you.
8. Appreciate beauty, take pictures and make memories.
9. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
10. Never, ever, ever, ever give up.
11. Love with all your heart.

One often gets so caught up in one's self righteousness or immediate need to react that one can often lose one's sense of kindness and level-headness. This article has a great piece of advice on how to construct criticism "How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently by Maria Popova."

Can we apply to this to religion? YES!

                                Can I buy you a book?

Lego does the desi truck

Big bad Nestlé

Apparently Nestlé wants to patent an extract (Nigella sativa) that has been always freely available as local knowledge for remedies since always. See the petition to stop Nestle here

The modernisation of Mecca

This article has some amazing contrasting photographs of "then and now" pictures of Mecca. See them here: "Then-and-Now Photos of Mecca Show What's Happening to Islam's Most Sacred Site."

Political memes

A photo from the Zia regime when public beatings
and lashings were meted out as justice


I absolutely love this quote by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.