Monday, 30 January 2017

Back in Monrovia

I took these photographs on the long way back home from RIA after Haresh picked up Kavita and I.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Of films and movies

Watched bits of "Captain Phillips" today. Not very politically correct: a bunch of starved, barefoot, stupid-as-hell Somali pirates overcome Tom Hanks (the epitome of the good white American). White criminals in American films are so sexy, so brilliant, so clever and so relatable. But Somali pirates are the worst caricatures of white impressions of Africa. Why would we want to see innocent white folks being tortured by bad African gangs? Is that the only story that can come out of that side of the world? Really? Somalia is a very complex story of the failure of the nation state and that's the movie they make? How Somali pirates affect white captains? It really shows the limits of mainstream Hollywood. 
I also watched “Arrival” by chance. I was browsing in the aisles of Video Con at F-10 Markaz and picked it up absent mindedly. It’s a fantastic sci-fi movie, extremely philosophical, which is the true soul of sci-fi films. I think “Arrival" is in the same class of “Sphere” and “Contact,” extremely amazing films imagining first contact with alien civilisations. 
On that note, I hope the Academy Awards have decided to award the Best Film to “I am not your Negro” for God’s sake already. Need a strong, political film for the most prestigious award: not some fluffy movie or not another epic within the usual unimaginative epic parameters. 
I haven’t seen “La la land” . It looks really stupid. Even from the trailer, you can’t understand how the heck it is in the runnings for a prestigious film award.

Make me your citizen

The moral argument against banning of refugees from Muslims countries isn't that they are under dictatorships and therefore need saving by the great USA. Such an argument makes no sense and feeds into the "America is greatest country and leader of the free world" bizarre national mythology. After all, the USA has invaded some of the countries it now wants to ban refugees and visitors from. The moral argument against any ban should be the logical and political stance against propaganda, self-serving and misleading rhetoric. 
What did the US do when Israel built a wall?! How many fingers and toes did it lift in self righteous anger? 
The by product of these bans has already affected returning citizens and protected asylum seekers. Trump says he wants to only let those folks in who really love America. What does that mean? 
What is citizenship in the modern world anyway? Isn't it just another privilege card in your wallet? What are citizens and what are nation states? How were these clubs formed anyway? Why are citizens of some clubs more privileged and more easily able to travel than others? Why do citizens, ordinary folks, have to bear the consequences of political elites, club rivalries and tension? And what of history? Did the Europeans get visas before they invaded and conquered swathes of the Americas, Africa and Asia? In my personal experience of applying for visas (already a humiliating and dehumanising idiotic experience), one sees how unbalanced the world regime is. 
Doesn't America grant citizenship on birth? So, is that random soul born on American soil peaceful and modern and, the one who wants to immigrate to the American club a spoiler of this great utopia? One can also apply for citizenship after living in a country at length, having proved one has assimilated, integrated and become a productive member of society. One can apply for citizenship as a political or economic refugee. And, one can - poof - be a citizen just by being born there. By what measure will you judge a good citizen? A good citizen of a democracy? Voter turnout in democracies is low and more over, there so many few actively involved, educated and conscientious citizens who working together to bring about a higher level of political consciousness and societal justice. 
It's unfortunate that Trump is starting out his Presidency by blame games and, banning visitors from so many Muslim countries (some of them which are wastelands of wreckage and propped up regimes thanks to American ideological wars). How will this make America great again?

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Applied for India Visa Again

I was finally able to submit my India visa application today. I unsuccessfully applied for the visa in 2014. Part of the experience is fully described here: Visas, zombies and Pakistanis trying to visit India.

Visas aggravate my sense of identity and pride and, started to get under my skin when I experienced the outsourcing of the visa application process with the UK Embassy in the mid 2000s. 

Before the visa process was outsourced, I had flown to Accra a day before, applied for the visa in the morning, went for a sight seeing tour and, if I remember correctly, received my visa the same day and could take a flight out to the UK the same evening. This was at the British High Commission itself. 

When they outsourced the visas to a private company, I started to feel the burn. In 2008, I went back to the UK for higher studies and, was hassled between the Freetown High Commission and Accra Visa Centre office. I had called the Visa Centre in advance, explaining to them that I was a resident in Liberia and needed to apply for a UK Student visa. The person assured me I could apply for a student visa in Accra. I flew to Accra with all my necessary documents and, only after arriving at the Centre was told I needed to go to Freetown to apply for student visa. 

In 2011, I applied for a UK visa in Accra and that experience really frustrated me. I blogged about it then, aptly titled: Visa Rage

UK visas are not cheap either. 

Because there aren't any fully-fledged diplomatic missions in Monrovia, one has to travel to a third country to apply for a visa. The experience to applying for a visa in a visa centre is already such a humiliating process. Having to take a flight to experience that pleasure is a deterrent and, therefore, I have completely lost interesting in traveling to Europe. I'd rather go spend my hard-earned bucks in a neighbouring country in Africa on holiday or go back home to Pakistan. 

Getting back to the India visa, I was finally able to submit my visa application today and, it's a real sense of excitement and accomplishment. 

Since 2014, I had felt rather dejected by our 'hamsaya mulk's' unfair rejection of my visa application. I had the perfect credentials: well traveled, well educated, impressive professional career, lived in West Africa, and, my father was an ex-Ambassador. I was also a little irritated with my father for not using his connections for a sifarish for me. 

Well anyway, I had digitised some family albums while I was in Pakistan in 2014 and, while I was showing Haresh my family photographs, he was impressed to see that Julio Ribeiro was in a group photo of Ambassadors in Bucharest. He explained that Mr. Ribeiro was a very famous person in India and, that if I wrote to him, he would help me out. So, he somehow tracked his e-mail address and, I wrote to him. And, guess what? He remembered me, many things about our family and even my sister's birthday as she and him shared the same date. He said he would help me. I was overwhelmed with gratitude and his generosity. 

He asked me to share the details of my application and, he traced it and, asked me to re-apply when I was next in Islamabad. So, this time around, Haresh was in India over the Christmas break and specially got a new notarised sponsorship certificate in Mumbai. He handed it to me when we met in Dubai for New Year's. 

I should have applied for the visa much earlier but only got my act together towards my departure. I am after all the queen of procrastination. 

I finally ventured to Gerry's in G-9 on the morning of the 20th. My printer had run out of ink so I arrived quite early to print out the application and all supporting documents. I also had to have my ID card translated into English, a very curious requirement for the India visa: as if Urdu is neither spoken or written in India and, as if the card cannot be translated. 

It was a cold morning and, I had all my printing done by a very efficient office where visa applications for the various countries handled by Gerry's are filled out for applicants. They also had photocopying and passport photo services. The best part was how swiftly they printed out my documents and photocopied everything I needed. 

Above is a photograph of the office. 

I confidently went into Gerry's to apply for the visa only to be told that the sponsorship certificate's format was too old. I was extremely frustrated and dismayed to say the least. The lady who receives the applications was nice enough to take me to her manager who in turn took me to another manager. I explained my situation but was told that they could only receive the application if the Indian High Commission instructed them to receive it. 

So, anyway, I went home dejected and, very tired. I wrote to Uncle Ribeiro and the desk officer from the Ministry of Interior who he had put me in touch with. I didn't hear back until a few days later when stunningly, I was asked to go back. In fact, the Manager of Gerry's was also copied. This was only 2 days before my flight back to Liberia. 

So, I trudged back with my application to Gerry's. The same lady on the 4th floor kindly received me and, as she started checking my application, she told me the 'Booklet Number' I had entered was incorrect. She said, I would need to re-do my application. She led me to a computer on another floor and, I re-typed my application online. I printed out 2 copies and, went back to her. She looked through my documents again and, then told me that the polio certificate I had 2 years old. I just lost my cool a little bit and, told her 'Well, you can do as you please. If you don't want to accept this format, then go ahead.' She telephoned her manager who told her to go ahead and accept my application. 

Well, I was done in a few minutes and, explained to the lady that I wasn't really angry with her but at the dehumanising, frustrating and humiliating process. She was quite understanding and, indulged my feelings. The most ironic thing is that she probably has not visited any of the countries she processes the visas for. She explained how tedious of a job it was: receiving scores and scores of applications, checking them, receiving the fees, coordinating with the rest of the departments, and then scanning all the applications individually. It seemed like an exhausting, repetitive routine: a human factory checking and scanning applications of humans trying to legally cross invisible borders. 

While I was there, I noticed so many other applications in line: families with little babies, single men who were most probably labourers in the Gulf States, wives trying to visit their husbands or vice versa, and so on. So many had come from quite far to go through this tiring, taxing and dehumanising process. 

At the end of it, I felt like I had been through an Airport: trolley, baggage, show your passport/ticket at the gate, machine scanners, customs, shrink wrap bags, check-in, weigh bags, boarding pass, immigration, boarding gate, walking, bus, jet bridge, exhaustion from carrying hand bags, display boarding pass, climb up stairs into plane, find seat and, then collapse. I felt like I had passed an exam. I felt like I had just finished a doctor's appointment. 

When I looked at the other applications, imagining their stories and struggles, I thought about the absurdity of what we humans were doing. Here we were in the offices of a company that handled visa applications of countries who protected their so-called borders by so many barriers. These borders do not even exist but are concepts. These borders are enforced by law, economies, politics, trade and wars. 

Leaving these thoughts aside, I am glad I was able to submit my visa application and, despite the huge distances we have created amongst us, I am grateful to an Uncle in Mumbai for remembering me and, helping me out. May everyone have a benefactor like that who can help you realise that we still have friends and loved ones sarhad ke paar

Beautiful clean coal

Just watched President Trump's address at the Republican Party Convention. The President is still on the campaign trail: his talk is full of promises, bellicose flourishes, crude adjectives and, brash brags. His demeanour is arrogant and, "struttish." His language is an offensive strut. 
He slowed down his strut to emphasise "Islamic terrorism" again, a menace he will eradicate. 
He will bring back "beautiful clean coal." He says it will all be "phenomenal."
And, he proudly informed his audience that the Mexican President has cancelled the visit to the US, because they don't want to pay for the wall. He is proud at losing the last few threads of diplomatic dignity. His entire campaign trail was obsessed with building a wall along the border with their own neighbour and, how he's proud at humiliating and pissing off his country's neighbour. 
And best of all, he says America is "blessed by divinity." What kind of divinity, is that?

Is Trump like Hitler or just like America?

American President Trump has already signed some Executive Orders, in an effort to roll back ex-President Obama's accomplishments and legacies: climate change and environment, supporting NGOs who are pro-abortion, block on visas from Muslims countries (the same countries the great America has directly invaded or indirectly interfered in), and to build a wall along the US-Mexico border (to name a few). The social media newsfeed are abuzz with alarming and distressed opinion articles, Lamentations and Editorials, and American friends' gung ho updates about marches and how to get organised. Even before Trump got elected and during his campaign trail, he was constantly likened to Hitler. Why Hitler? Why not just ordinary white original European settlers who invaded North America, pillaged the land, massacred the original inhabitants and stole their land and made them prisoners on the same piece of earth? Why is he like Hitler?! 

Trump bellows, brags, boasts, threatens, and performs chest-thumping antics the likes of which are, sirs and madams, really his own. Western journalism and fine culture, cinema and writers, for GOD's SAKE, can we please stop comparing any atrocity to Hitler, World War 2 and the Holocaust. Please compare atrocities and crises to slavery, colonialism and primitive accumulation. 

There is such a vehement and self righteous rebellion against the idea of Trump by liberal Americans that they can't stand this misogynist and racist caricature of a man, of a leader but isn't the real America merely floating to the top again? Didn't America's nascent democracy limit the participation of women and, was perfectly fine with slavery? Didn't American suffragists themselves claim they would rather cut of their limbs than allow black folks to vote? 

Watching United States' politics has made me realise that America's story is really the story of the Native Americans, Black folks and rest of the brown people who have made that country and, the suffering they have had to endure, still.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Beautiful Islamabad

I fell into a dirty swamp in Monrovia during a HASH walk and self righteously blogged about it at the time. My blog post is entitled: "The muck and mire of expat lives." If you have a few idle minutes at hand, feel free to read my rant. It goes on and on. 

During my visit to Islamabad, I make it a point to take Kavita to my beloved Japanese Park, a park where I played as child. She of course loves it too. But depressingly, I notice that it's often trashed. Throngs of the public visit the park for its beautiful greens, nestled close to the Margalla Hills. Children and even slicked adolescent boys like to sit on the swings and see saws. I always feel like shooing them away. Hardly a year ago, the swings and slides were replaced by the Japan Government, and, it made me so angry to see men and boys sitting on them. These swings and slides for Kavita, dammit. 

Worse, of course, is how folks trash the park and, just drop plastic bags, juice containers and chips packets on to the ground. They just discard garbage here and there. 

The Park didn't have any entrance fees this time around. Even if they do, they're hardly 10 or 20 rupees. And, Park authorities are not there to make admonish anyone, either, for misusing the children's swings or against littering. 

Trash is always on my mind and, I keep wondering what the CDA of Beautiful Islamabad is doing to make sure Islamabad is not only superficially beautiful but has a green and sustainable approach to keeping our environment clean. Is plastic going to be banned any time soon? Are there any fines against littering? Where does the city's waste go to? How are our public parks being maintained and preserved? And, do adolescent boys have to come to a children's park to strut around? I somehow don't feel Kavita is safe around single men and boys loitering in a public space.

I went to visit a family in Saidpur Village. We crossed some narrow lanes over a stream which was completely trashed. I asked my hosts why everyone throws the garbage there. My host told me there is no dumpster. I felt so angry. Saidpur is advertised as a tourist attraction and, what is the city administration doing for the community around the restaurants which are doing roaring business in this spot? Can we not even keep this beautiful corner of the city clean? 

I felt quite embarrassed at how the middle and lower middle classes have to live right next to filth. 

This made me remember my own experience in Monrovia and, I wondered in case its the "poor areas" which suffer from garbage and lack of hygiene. But then I remembered that the Mamba Point beach suffers the same bad luck. It's surrounded by the most important offices and residences of the elite NGO and UN staff but the beach under their noses is a poster image for Green Peace. 

During a neighbourhood walk in my beloved F-11/4, I stopped to glare at an overflowing dumpster and billowing plastic bags in the green belt. This is a well-to-do neighbourhood where people live in 'khotis ' and, yet, I wonder how many of the people who live here are bothered to pollution in the very spot where they go for their evening strolls.

One can tell it's a well-to-do neighbourhood because not only are the sahibs and memsahibs out and about in their walks but, also by the guard and pet dogs that chaukidaars and naukars are taking out for exercise.

It makes you wonder. Do higher-class people automatically have a higher sense of environmental responsibility because they have the education, money, resources, time and, concerns? Or, do structures and laws have to be put in place so we have a cleaner city? A city that has in-built mechanisms to prevent littering, responsibly dispose garbage and, even recycle it? How do you create such a society? We often label folks as jahil for bad behaviour. We literally blame crime, bad parenting, lack of sophistication, sexism, and even racism on lack of education. But what could be more unsophisticated than calling oneself an educated, higher class and, still tolerating garbage and littering of our natural environment in this day and age? It really makes one wonder what it would take to turn things around.

Unless littering is not going to be a punishable offence, our society has no hope of becoming green. Unless we don't ban plastic and have some long term plans for recycling, alternative solutions to plastic bags and create opportunities for recycling and green policies, we are not thinking ahead. Unless we don't teach our children how to respect and cherish trees, birds, animals, the sky, the rivers, the soil, we can't call ourselves a responsible generation. Unless we cannot ensure that the poorer communities live in dignified and clean areas, we can't call ourselves the Beautiful Islamabad. 

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Puraney ganey

At the one and only Radio City, which by the way has started stocking too many few music CDs. In fact, they have even given up the pretension and, have badly printed, illegible labels. I noticed one lady scanning the whole shop, and going through many many CDs until she found one jazz album she was going to purchase. She remarked the same thing: how come you have so many few music CDs?

Most people think I'm weird for still buying DVDs and CDs when streaming and downloading has been the rage for years now. I suppose I still like the whole activity of picking out a DVD from my shelf, popping into my DVD player, changing the cables accordingly, and, settling myself onto the sofa. And, ever since my iTunes library crashed, I like picking out a CD to listen to it.

I've lived "abroad" all my life and, love stocking up on movies, Pakistani TV dramas, and puraney ganey to enjoy in Monrovia.

And, I also like going to the Post Office to send cards and gifts.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

I learn to drive

“You know, somebody actually complimented me on my driving today. They left a little note on the windscreen, it said 'Parking Fine.” 

I decided to finally get driving lessons during my current visit to Islamabad. I'm 37 and, don't know how to drive. 

I could come up with a range of excuses to say that I have never had the need to drive, especially since I started working. My first few jobs were in the NGO/UN sector in Islamabad where a pick up was provided by the office. When I went abroad, I was driven everywhere in a white UN vehicle, either picked up from the house or for meetings. After I started running a business, I didn't own a vehicle and, for a long time we were relying on taxis to get around. When we finally got a car, there was Haresh or the driver to drive me around. 

I suppose, it's pure laziness.

Well, I got a burst of inspiration when I got back from Dubai and, decided to enrol myself in a driving lesson. I contacted the first driving school that came up in a Google search: Iqra Driving School. The course was going to cost 16,000 rupees for about 8 1.5-hour lessons. 

My first lesson was, of course, not so easy and slightly awkward. My instructor was a burqa-clad girl whose face was also covered. I didn't know exactly how to interact with an instructor whose face I couldn't see. Also, she jumped right into it, without making small talk. The first moment was dull and rather unpleasant. Her instructions were also not "clear" to me and, I, as a nervous student, kept saying she's assuming too much and she needs to slow down. She took me right to Margalla Road, quite a busy 4-lane highway.

I didn't really enjoy the first half of the course until I mentally talked myself into being more patient, try to understand my instructor's style and, enjoy the experience of learning from a burqa-clad girl. I expressed my anxieties to her and, of course, she was reception to my feedback.

From then on, I started to really enjoy the lessons and, even looked forward to them. They were at 12 PM every day. I often left a sleepy Kavita watching cartoons or came home to see her watching cartoons on my mother's iPad. 

My instructor, Samina, was only 23 and was with the Iqra Driving School for 5 years already. Her salary was 20,000 rupees and, she worked from 9 to 5 and, came to and from Pindi six days a week. She worked hard. In fact, she toiled the whole week for $ 200.00. 

During the last few lessons, another  burqa-clad instructor was in the back seat and, she seemed to be sitting listlessly, with her head lying against the window, aimlessly scrolling through her phone. I got quite irritated with this: "But if this girl is under training, shouldn't she look a little more alive? Isn't it unprofessional for her to be half-lying on the back seat?" My instructor argued with me and said I shouldn't be bothered about it. During the next lesson, the instructor-in-training shifted to the seat behind me so I couldn't catch her sight out of the corner of my eye.

I really enjoyed my lessons otherwise, driving in beautiful Islamabad. We even drove as far as Saidpur to learn parking in the Des Pardes parking lot. We also drove up to Faisal Mosque where Samina took my photograph. Too bad I couldn't take a photo with my teacher.

It's quite something to learn driving at this stage of life. At first I couldn't believe how many things one had to be keep an eye on: speed, left and right mirror, rear-mirror, gears, 3 pedals, signs, traffic, motorcycles, etc. My instructor kept telling me that you have to watch for your left side as everyone overtakes you from the left, they aren't supposed to, because this is Pakistan. 

At first my feet were slightly exhausted trying to keep balanced on the pedals. If I let my foot go, the accelerator would go crazy. I just light touched the clutch, the car would go off. Eventually I found the balance. 

If I learned how to control the steering wheel, I would forget I needed to put the car into 1st gear when the car was stationary. 

It was exhilarating to go into 3rd gear finally during the last few lessons. Because all this time before, I was driving in 2nd gear at 20 km/h and, it got quite tedious. 

I really enjoyed my lessons and, felt very grateful to my teacher for being patient. I gave her some chocolates and a red convertible toy car as a parting gift.