Monday, January 28, 2008

Everyone is amazed at Pakistan's Resilience !

Sunday Forum: Going home to Pakistan
My country is reeling after the Bhutto assassination, but life goes on and hope endures, says novelist MOHSIN HAMID
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Anita Dufalla / Post-Gazette
LAHORE, Pakistan - During the winter holidays, much of the Pakistani diaspora made its way back to the homeland. It was wedding season and -- for those with the means and of a secular persuasion -- party season as well. Flights were fully booked, airfares were astronomically high, and even circuitous itineraries via places such as Istanbul and Muscat were in great demand.
Of my parents and their siblings, 13 people in total, 11 live in Pakistan. But of their 26 children -- my generation -- 15 of us reside abroad. Pakistan has become an increasingly unsettled place, and many of my peers have voted with their feet. But not always with their hearts.
As my wife and I boarded our flight from London to Lahore, evident all around us was a longing for home -- for the friends and family who are central to Pakistani culture in a way that many foreigners find so remarkable. (As an admiring American roommate of mine once said, "All you guys do is hang out.")
Mohsin Hamid's most recent novel is "The Reluctant Fundamentalist." He wrote this for The Washington Post.
This duality of Pakistan as a place both troubled and normal, a place capable of producing a large diaspora while also affectionately tugging at those who have left, is often lost on the world's media. International news outlets tend to cast Pakistan as the one-dimensional villain of a horror film, a kind of Jason or Freddie whose only role is to frighten. Scant attention is paid to the hospitality, the love for music and dance, or the simple ordinariness of 164 million people going about their daily lives.
As we took our seats on a Pakistan International Airlines Boeing 777, my fellow passengers did not look to me like embodiments of the hearts and minds of an important frontline state in the "war on terror." They looked like people excited to be headed home.
Seeking democracy
We touched down early on the morning of Sunday, Dec. 23. One of my brothers-in-law was getting engaged and a cousin was getting married, so I was soon busy running from one family event to another, often followed by late-night hangout sessions with old friends.
Naturally, we talked politics. It was immediately evident how unpopular President Pervez Musharraf has become. A year ago, many people said that he was at least partially good for the country. But Mr. Musharraf's conflict with the judiciary, suppression of independent television channels and crackdown on pro-democracy and human rights activists have embittered most of those who previously gave him credit for economic growth and stability.
My brother-in-law is much younger than I am, in his early 20s. He and his friends are poster boys for the "enlightened moderation" that Mr. Musharraf claims to want to promote. One is a computer programmer who works for a small company in Lahore that designs particle effects (smoke from explosions, blood splattering from gunshot wounds) for international video game studios. Another is a film student working on a pilot for a television show for his college thesis.
But even liberal young Pakistanis like them are keen to see an end to Mr. Musharraf's rule. I heard again and again that Pakistan needs to give democracy a chance, and that for that to happen, Mr. Musharraf must go.
Bhutto dies; riots ensue
I accompanied my wife's family to my brother-in-law's engagement. It is customary for the prospective groom's family to go to the home of the prospective bride and make a formal proposal for her hand. The lights went out in the middle of our visit -- due to power shortages, Pakistan suffers from rolling 30-minute blackouts -- and we had to wait in darkness before the bride-to-be could make her appearance and rings could be exchanged.
The following day I was chatting with my parents when a friend called and told me to turn on the television. At first, it seemed that there had been an explosion at a political rally attended by Benazir Bhutto, but that Ms. Bhutto herself was unharmed. Later, the news channels said that she has been injured and taken to the hospital. Finally, we heard the announcement that she had died.
I was surprised by the strength of my reaction. It was the most upsetting event in the history of Pakistan that I could personally recall.
Riots soon erupted across the country, most violently in Karachi, where my cousin's wife, a microbiologist, had just completed a medical ethics exam. Her taxi was attacked by a gang of teenage boys who smashed its windows with sticks. The driver managed to turn around and escape, and she spent the night at the nearby home of a friend, unable to make it to her destination until the following day because of the violence in the streets.
In Lahore, things were calmer, but there were reports of shootings and arson, and most people stayed indoors. I ventured out to my cousin's house, passing some of what would normally be the busiest boulevards in that city of eight million. I did not see more than a handful of cars. Lights were out, the streets were empty.
An olive branch extended
Ms. Bhutto was assassinated on a Thursday. By Saturday, stocks of food and petrol were running low. Shops were shuttered in protest at her killing, petrol stations were closed for fear of arsonists, and trucks and trains that carry supplies up and down Pakistan stopped running after coming under attack. Sunday brought a measure of reprieve, as the riots seemed to be coming under control.
For me, there were two unexpected sources of hope during this period. The first was from Nawaz Sharif, Ms. Bhutto's longtime political opponent and leader of the anti-establishment Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. He arrived at the hospital upon hearing of her death and was so visibly upset that he cried out again and again that this was Pakistan's "darkest day." The spontaneous humanity of his reaction, the depth of compassion and grief, seemed to resonate with and unite a vast swath of Pakistanis across the political spectrum.
Even more surprising was the first press conference of Ms. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party after her death. Her widower, the newly designated party co-chairperson, Asif Ali Zardari, has an extremely unsavory reputation. Yet instead of exploiting resentments in Sindh (Bhutto's home province) against the Punjab (the province where she was killed), he delivered an eloquent and -- dare I say it? -- inspiring defense of the federation, of democracy and of Sindhi-Punjabi brotherhood.
Mr. Zardari offered an olive branch to the army, saying that the party's quarrel is with Pakistan's ruling party, not with the country's soldiers. He admonished the rioters, telling Pakistanis to express their anger by voting in the elections, and expressed his gratitude to Mr. Sharif while asking Mr. Sharif's party not to boycott the polls (a request Mr. Sharif quickly accepted).
By Monday, a sense of relief seemed to be spreading through the country: On television, in newspapers, in conversations at the market, people were expressing cautious optimism about a future that only four days earlier seemed so bleak. There was enormous sympathy for Ms. Bhutto and her party. She was perhaps never so popular in life as she is now in death.
Meanwhile, Mr. Musharraf and the party of his establishment, the Pakistan Muslim League, have perhaps never been so unpopular. Television images of firefighters being directed to hose away evidence from the assassination scene, and government statements that Ms. Bhutto died not from bullets nor from a bomb but from falling on the sun-roof lever of her SUV, added fuel to the many conspiracy theories circulating about who really ordered her killing.
Two friends came to see us. In October, when Ms. Bhutto first returned to Karachi from self-imposed exile abroad, they had ridden in her convoy. Their car was immediately behind Ms. Bhutto's vehicle, and they saw the blasts of that initial unsuccessful suicide bomb attack on her. But they kept speaking of what preceded the carnage: the rapturous reception she received from her supporters. They told me it was beautiful, with all the singing and dancing and cheering of a carnival. It was a Pakistan they had never seen before, full of diversity and hope, with people from all four provinces and even the religious minorities out in a show of joy.
Pakistanis move on
Little more than a month has passed since Ms. Bhutto's death, but life in Pakistan is almost normal again. I am amazed by Pakistan's resilience, by this nation's power to pick itself up and carry on. But change is in the air. Opposition parties are uniting against the Musharraf-led establishment. Elections, even though they have been postponed until Feb. 18, seem poised to deliver a powerful rebuke to the current regime, unless of course they are rigged.
In the United States, there are newspaper columns and television talk shows dedicated to "loose nukes" and the "war on terror." Here in Pakistan, one can see signs of people coming together. Scare stories notwithstanding, it is possible (although by no means certain) that out of this tragedy the world's sixth-largest nation may succeed in finding its voice -- and with that the chance for a better future.

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