Thursday, September 25, 2008

The secret life of a doomed hotel: remembering Islamabad's Marriott

By Mark Corcoran of ABC's Foreign Correspondent

It's hard not to get emotional and very difficult to play the dispassionate journalist as I sit here, watching the Marriott Hotel burn on my computer screen courtesy of online news. Initial reports say rescuers still can't reach the upper floors. How many colleagues, friends, acquaintances lie buried in the wreckage is unclear.
It's the holy month of Ramadan, and the suicide truck bomber struck in the evening, just as hundreds of people would have been gathering to break the daily fast. Having attended such gatherings at the hotel, I suspect most of the crowd would not have been the Western infidels so detested by the extremists, but Pakistanis - and Muslims.
For me all roads once led to the Marriott, in Islamabad, capital of Pakistan. For six years the hotel was like a second home - as I worked on assignments in Pakistan or stopped off in transit on my way back to Australia from the madness of neighbouring Afghanistan.
Architecturally, the hotel building was unremarkable, 1970s vintage. But location is everything, and the Marriott was minutes away from the National Assembly, the Prime Minister's residence, Government bureaucracy and the headquarters of Pakistan's all-powerful spy agency, the ISI.
The billing as Islamabad's first five-star luxury hotel was somewhat overstated. The aesthetic of the place was no different to thousands of anonymous business hotels the world over. But that's my perspective. Outside the glass doors, the view from the street - where most of Pakistan's 170 million people live - the Marriott was, for many, an enduring symbol of everything that was wrong with their corrupt, dysfunctional nation.
What made this hotel special for the privileged few was the commodity being traded day and night in the foyer, cafes and restaurant: information.
Information, as they say, is power, and in Pakistan, power is a life and death struggle.
The 'real deal'
The Marriott, as American diplomats and spies were fond of saying, was "the real deal".
Hollywood may have created "Rick's Café" of Casablanca fame - a fictional world of intrigue - but the characters who inhabited the Marriott were playing out a real life drama, a latter day version of the "Great Game" to control Southwest Asia.
It often seemed that Pakistan was run from this hotel to the strains of the incessant hotel muzak.
This was a neutral ground for competing politicians, diplomats, warlords, drug lords, peddlers of nuclear weapons technology, and perhaps a few who fell into all those categories.
In a single day, I could exchange nods across the foyer with military strongman General Pervez Musharraf, who'd tried to convince me that his coup overthrowing civilian rule was necessary, or observe charismatic cricket star turned politician Imran Khan glide in to work the room, never failing to charm visiting Western journalists - despite the fact that so many of his countrymen had written him off as a political failure.
Alcohol was a tool of the trade even in an Islamic state such as Pakistan. At first it was brought to my room in a brown paper bag - after I filled out a government form declaring myself to be an unstable foreign alcoholic.
Later, hotel management discretely opened a windowless basement bar - one of the few venues in the capital to serve alcohol. Occasionally I'd disappear into this gloom for a quiet drink with the army officers-turned spies who were running Pakistan's secret wars in Afghanistan and Indian-occupied Kashmir. Many had embraced the extremist zeal of the militants they sought to control and exploit - yet they still enjoyed a scotch or a beer when I was paying.
Staggering back to my room, I'd be kept awake at night by the blaring music from the hotel function centre out the back, as Pakistan's leading families cemented alliances by marrying off their sons and daughters in colourful, elaborate weddings.
Then there was the hotel staff. Many had spent most of their working lives at the Marriott. They were happy to join in the theatre and tip me off when a "player" would swing in through the front doors, with a self important entourage armed to the teeth, all ignoring the screeches of the metal detector.
Nothing was impossible for them. Once, caught without transport while covering the fighting between Pakistan and Indian troops on Kashmir's "Line of Control", I was offered a hotel courtesy car, complete with uniformed chauffer. The elderly driver usually took diplomats wives shopping. Instead he found himself dodging Indian artillery fire on a mountain road with an increasingly anxious ABC crew. Implacable throughout, he only briefly displayed a flicker of anger when I attempted to apologise for getting him into this mess. "But I'm an Afridi" - he replied. This brief statement of tribal identity said it all: born and raised on the fierce border with Afghanistan, near the Khyber Pass, there was nothing he'd seen on my little expedition that was going to rattle him. But he chided, "You must pay for bullet holes or damage to hotel transport."
Survival instincts
I write this tonight from the safety of a suburban home in Australia. The floors and attic are filled with vibrantly coloured Afghan and Pakistan rugs bought from the carpet wallahs who ran the rug shops along the Marriott's ground floor arcade.
The real bargains lay far from the hotel, in their warehouses off in the backstreets. Most of the traders, like the owner of the Marriott, were from Islam's Ismaili sect: astute, outstanding businessmen and great survivors.
For the price of a rug and a few hours of my time sitting on a warehouse floor, I'd receive endless cups of tea and political tip-offs that often proved remarkably accurate. After all, the carpet business runs on good intelligence and the carpet wallahs live and work in one of the toughest markets in the world.
I only hope that their survival instincts didn't fail them on Saturday night.
Change for the Marriott came after 9/11. As the Americans gathered their forces to invade Afghanistan, the hotel became media headquarters of the world.
Hundreds of foreign media established a surreal Tower of Babel in the hotel. TV networks fought for space on the roof to erect plywood studios, guests slept on stretchers three to a room. The function centre became a paying dormitory - and the room rate, like the punditry, seemed to escalate on a daily basis.
As CNN anchors shared their insight with the world from their rooftop plywood stage, South American journalists down in the foyer, watching the broadcasts on TV, transcribed every word before relaying back to anxious readers back home.
The foyer transformed into the theatre of the absurd. There was the chic French TV crew kitted out in the flowing robes of traditional Pakistani shalwar kameez; and the American reporter complaining that he couldn't bring his gun into the hotel.
With the fall of Kabul the circus moved on, but the Marriott had changed.
After 9/11 the security barriers went up outside the hotel, but no one seriously believed it would stop a determined teenager on a one-way ticket to martyrdom.
I began to demand rooms at the back of the building, off the ground floor, but not so high that I couldn't climb down in an emergency. For many Marriott regulars, it was a case of not if, but when, it would be attacked. In 2004 an explosion in the foyer wounded several people, then last year, a security guard died after challenging a suicide bomber at the gate.
The Marriott Hotel was also the place where I formed friendships with Pakistani journalists, academics and human rights activists, all striving to explain the chaos of their nation to the world. Many live close to the hotel. They would have certainly heard the bomb go off - if they were fortunate enough not to have been caught in the blast.
As the chaos recedes, they will get on with the business of explaining the how's and the why's of this atrocity. They'll infuriate the Islamic extremists who tolerate no criticism of their absolutist world.
Unlike me, a privileged visitor, they choose to continue living and working in Pakistan, facing the constant threat of the assassin's bullet or bomb - over the safer, quieter life of exile. They are some of the bravest people I know.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Last 8 years of Pakistan - 1999 and 2007

Here is a comparison on how Pakistan grew in the last 8 years !
I hope we continue at the same pace !

Pak Economy in 1999 was: $ 75 billion
Pak Economy in 2007 is: $ 160 billion

GDP Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) in 1999: $ 270 billion
GDP Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) in 2007: $ 475.5 billion

GDP per Capita in 1999: $ 2,000
GDP per Capita in 2007: $ 3,004

Pak revenue collection 1999: Rs. 305 billion
Pak revenue collection 2007: Rs. 708 billion

Pak Foreign reserves in 1999: $ 700 million
Pak Foreign reserves in 2007: $ 17 billion

Pak Exports in 1999: $ 7.5 billion
Pak Exports in 2007: $ 18.5 billion

Textile Exports in 1999: $ 5.5 billion
Textile Exports in 2007: $ 11.2 billion

KHI stock exchange 1999: $ 5 billion at 700 points
KHI stock exchange 2007: $ 70 billion at 14,000 points

Foreign Direct Investment in 1999: $ 1 billion
Foreign Direct Investment in 2007: $ 8 billion

Debt servicing 1999: 65% of GDP
Debt servicing 2007: 26% of GDP

Poverty level in 1999: 34%
Poverty level in 2007: 24%

Literacy rate in 1999: 45%
Literacy rate in 2007: 53%

Pak Development programs 1999: Rs. 80 billion
Pak Development programs 2007: Rs. 520 billion

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Military unlikely to pressurize new President

1,200 people die in bombings and suicide attacks across Pakistan since the July 2007.

Pakistan's president-elect Asif Ali Zardari is unlikely to have the country's powerful military breathing down his neck as did his slain wife during two stormy stints in power, analysts said. Zardari was overwhelmingly elected Saturday in a secret ballot of lawmakers, capping a remarkable rise from jail, exile and his wife Benazir Bhutto's assassination just nine months ago. Pakistan remains the world's only nuclear-armed Islamic nation and is seen as the frontline state in the US-led "war on terror," amid widespread international concern about its political stability. The military that has ruled Pakistan for around half its 61-year existence, most recently under former general Pervez Musharraf, remains a potent force. But analysts said Zardari's civilian rule would not be impeded as long as he did not interfere or challenge military doctrine. "The army has decided to coexist with the present political realities and leadership," Talat Masood, a retired general and military analyst, said. "They realise any meddling in politics will be very much misunderstood and will not be helpful to their own institution and interest in the country." Pakistan's military was heavily involved in terminating both Bhutto governments, in 1990 and 1996, when she blamed its army-led Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of being in cahoots with the country's then presidents. As president, Zardari will head up the National Command Authority, which safeguards the country's nuclear weapons. However, the reality is that the armed forces will have firm control of the atomic arsenal. "The military will still be in charge of the nuclear asset," Masood said. The feeling within military circles has become more pragmatic in the wake of the controversies and often chaotic circumstances that accompanied Musharraf's final years in power, which included several months under emergency rule. Zardari will now have to grapple with the militant threat that has seen nearly 1,200 people die in bombings and suicide attacks across Pakistan since the July 2007 siege. As president, Zardari has the right to appoint heads of the military, cementing an already strong position as co-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which won elections in February. But with no immediate moves to impeach Musharraf, the threat that led to his August 18 resignation, the military will give the new president the backing he needs to rule without hindrance, said Hasan Askari, a political analyst. "So far, Zardari has maintained cordial relations with the military top command and taken care of their sensitivities," said Askari, a former head of the political sciences department at the University of Punjab. "The army will show acceptance and see how things play out with Zardari as supreme commander of the armed forces. They have given him political space and are likely to stay within their professional domain." A vital factor in ensuring detente will be Zardari's continuing support of military operations in Pakistan's tribal areas, where troops have been fighting rebels blamed by the US for launching attacks on soldiers based in neighbouring Afghanistan. "The army needs political support for the war on terrorism and would expect the president to ensure that the civilian government backs its aims," Askari said. While Zardari's recent rise to power has been smooth the pressures of office will put him under strain in coming months, said Riffat Hussain, head of Peace and Conflict Studies at Islamabad University. "The army realises it has been too visible in Pakistani politics for too long, and that it is time for them to retreat," Hussain said. "But there will be people who look on the army as the final arbitrator in decision making. The relationship will be severely tested by the internal and external security threats that Pakistan is facing."

Pakistan stock market Reeling !

$471.5m drained out from markets

KARACHI - Portfolio investment in the Pakistani stock markets took a sever blow with foreign investors pulling out $471.5 million in only two months from July to September 5 while cumulative net flow was still on negative territory and further soared to the tune of $227 million, triggering fears in share markets.In August, foreign investors ejected $27.5 million and cumulative inflow in the period under review stood at $19 million.On September 5, the State Bank of Pakistan reported that the net flow of the portfolio investment has landed into negative by $227 million from July to date, which reflects further erosion of foreign investment as it stood negative by $112 million on June, 06 2008.During the period under review, the share markets witnessed cumulative inflow of $244m.The stock market watchers attributed the massive outflow to prolong political uncertainty and deteriorating economic and law and order situation in the country.They are of the opinion if the political conditions remain volatile the investment would continue to wobble and may witness further down grading in the investment.In Pakistan, like any other country of the region, political movements and uncertainty play a vital crucial role and negative role in effecting investment atmosphere in the country.Before judicial crisis erupted on March 9, 2007, the stock markets were robust and showing good results but as the crisis deepened it affected the portfolio investment which may continue to slide further if the government failed to take corrective measure in order to stabilize the political condition in the country, analysts said.A major outflow of portfolio investment had been recorded from the USA, UK, Switzerland, Hong Kong and Australia.According to the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) data, the USA investors withdrew $284 million, UK $75 million, Switzerland $47 million, Hong Kong $34 million and Australia $12 million during July-08 to September, 5 2008

Friday, September 5, 2008

Zardari Submitted 200 medical reports to dodge court cases

Internews Islamabad • Pakistan People’s Party leader Asif Zardari has presented more than 200 medical certificates in different courts both in the country and outside to delay the proceedings of corruption cases filed against him.
Political sources revealed here yesterday that the much-discussed medical reports about his alleged mental disorders were also challenged by the government of Pakistan as fake.
Sources in the National Accountability Bureau said that NAB in early 2007 wrote to the London High Court and questioned the authenticity of the medical report about mental disorders that recently made headlines.
“We wrote to the London High that the government of Pakistan believes that the psychiatrist’s report was a case of perjury and meant to delay the proceedings of the corruption case,” a source said.
He added that the London High Court was requested to constitute an independent medical board to ascertain if the accused is really suffering from psychological disorders or faking it.
When the court approved the request, it recommended the case to the Head of Psychiatry Department, Harvard University; Head of Psychiatry Department, Columbia University; or Head of Psychiatry Department, New York State University. On Pakistan’s request, the court approved the first option of Harvard University’s Psychiatry Department.
However, before the matter could proceed further, the Lahore-based NAB special cell, probing corruption cases against Zardari and his assassinated wife Benazir Bhutto, was closed following an understanding reached between the former prime minster and then-president General Pervez Musharraf.
The PPP sources, when approached, said that Zardari was kept in jail in worst conditions for 11 years.
They argued that if anybody faced such conditions for only one month, his health was bound to be adversely affected. They said the jail conditions affected adversely the health of Zardari, who, they asserted, fully recovered afterwards.
The PPP is of the view that both Zardari and Bhutto were the target of political victimisation and that fake corruption cases were framed against them.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Shabana Azmi's Controversial Interview on Muslims and difficulty buying property in Mumbai !

Huge controversy surrounding Shabana Azim's interview in Aaj Tak !

In the interview she said-
'She and Javed Akhter cannot buy an
apartment in bombay because she is
a Muslim ! Saif ali khan said the same
thing another actor of Muslim descent
said the same thing'.

Watch it on Youtube :