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    Rawalpindi, the abode of the army and the epicentre of the country’s power, is a city that has endured sectarianism and communal violence.

    Yet, it has maintained a symbol of peace in the shape of a temple that stands right at the heart of Jamia Taleem ul Quran Raja Bazaar, one of the oldest and central mosques of the city.

    Like other cities of its time, Rawalpindi has a qila (fort), a tibbi (red light district), and a mosque around which the city developed.

    Descending the street from Purana Qila whose only remains is a desolate brick arch and marble plate, you’ll find yourself amid the buzzing world of Raja Bazaar, the business hub of Rawalpindi.

    On the left is the famous Qasai Gali; once a tibbi, it is now a jumble of old and new kitchenware, utensils and steel ware.

    Balconies that at one time offered glimpses of stunning Bundo and Khairan Bai (dancers from Kashmir) have turned into storerooms of Chinese goods and crockery.

    Arch with marble plate on top; the remains of Purana Qila. – All photos by the author
    Arch with marble plate on top; the remains of Purana Qila. – All photos by the author

    Searching for Jamia Taleem ul Quran is not without its challenges. Amongst newly built plazas and old buildings decked with bill boards and political banners, it takes considerable effort to locate a green board with bold Urdu writing: “Jamia Masjid Dar ul Uloom Taleem ul Quran”.

    This is a mosque that once was at the centre of Tehreek-e-Khatme Nabuwwat, and still follows the Deoband school of thought, taking after the famous Jamia Darul Uloom Haqqania in Akora Khattak, Nowshera.

    Climbing the stairs of its newly constructed compound built after a terrorist attack took place on the eve of 15th November, 2013 (Ashura), I was at first overcome with disquiet.

    Disquiet soon changed to wonder as I heard the sound of the hymns of students coming from the main hall, lending an air of orchestral grandeur, and growing more perfect with every stair I climbed.

    A police constable and two heavily armed private guards were observing each entry with wary eyes. A thorough body scan along with security cameras revealed that fear still hung in the air.

    A colonial style wooden gallery of Qasai Gali.
    A colonial style wooden gallery of Qasai Gali.
    A view of Qasai Gali, now a popular crockery market.
    A view of Qasai Gali, now a popular crockery market.

    The new complex has been raised from the ground up and unlike an old building adorned with carvings and calligraphy, it has run-of-the-mill tile flooring along with steel and aluminum works.

    Beyond the entrance is a huge courtyard, a main hall along with small rooms belonging to various departments.

    At first, I couldn’t spot the temple I had heard about. Doubting the information I had been given, I thought of turning back. However, the azan was called and people started coming in.

    Following the crowd, I turned for wuzu. “Bhai, ye hissa toota hai, uper jao [Brother, this area is out of order, go upstairs],” a madrassa student said to me as he stared at my western attire.

    At the end of a dingy corridor was an alley with a small hallway and staircase leading upstairs.

    While turning to the right, I had a splendid view of an open courtyard.

    A closeup of the temple.
    A closeup of the temple.

    Surrounded by towering buildings, stood a desolate Jain temple, which unlike the neighbouring masjid and huge madrassa, had retained its features and was well-preserved.

    Rawalpindi, before Partition, was a predominantly Sikh city with a considerable populace of Hindus and Jains.

    Raja Bazaar and the adjacent Bhabra Bazaar were Jain areas, dotted with their temples and magnificent havelis.

    The adjacent areas of Mohan Pora, Arjun Nagar and Ram Bagh still echo the past that despite ages having gone by, looms large in their jharokhas (a type of overhanging enclosed balcony).

    Knowing my academic background wouldn’t help, I approached the administrator stating my past journalistic affiliation to inquire about the temple.

    He agreed to take time from the madrassa principal for the next day at 11am. '

    The facade of the mosque.
    The facade of the mosque.
    A view of the temple from the corridor.
    A view of the temple from the corridor.

    The next day, I decided to take a rickshaw there. “Molana Ghulam Ullah ki masjid jana hai [I want to go to Mollana Ghulam ulla’s Mosque],” I told the rickshaw driver.

    The driver, who was in his 20s, understood the exact location without me mentioning the nearby landmark. It took 15 minutes to reach the mosque from Saidpur Road.

    The giant Masjid-e-Nabwi-designed door was half opened. I proceeded to climb the stairs; the guards were there as usual. “Molana se milna hai, interview k liye [I want to meet the Molana for the interview],” I explained.

    The guard, who seemed aware of my arrival, replied: “Yes, he’s waiting.” He asked me to follow him.

    I walked down a long hallway with rooms where students were reciting their lesson. Some looked at me with surprise and others with a smile.

    We stopped at a room that had a big plate titled ‘Principal’ displayed outside. “He’s here, ” said the guard peeping in through the door.

    “Let him in,” someone replied from inside.

    Molana Ashraf Ali, a white-bearded man dressed in white shalwar kameez, is the son of Molana Ghulam Ullah Khan and the current mohtamim (principal) of this mosque.

    He met me cordially, greeting me with a mix of English and Urdu and we sat on the carpeted floor.

    Within minutes tea arrived along with bakery items. Initially focused on politics, our conversation turned towards sectarianism and later, legal amendment.

    Having been told that I wanted to talk about the temple, he looked a little baffled.

    “The temple was here before the mosque,” he said while taking a sip of the tea. “My father came here in the 1940’s and established a small mosque. Those were good times. Hindus and Muslims used to live in harmony,” he recalled.

    “Although the surrounding population was Hindu, they never bothered us. Then Partition happened and brothers turned into foes.

    “Hindus came to my father who had a good reputation because of his honesty and humbleness, and asked him to take care of the temple. They gave him possession of the temple in writing, and asked us to look after it until they returned.

    “They never came back but my father kept his promise and passed the caretaking responsibilities to me. For us, this temple is the emblem of our promise and honesty and will endure till future generations.

    “We safeguarded it with our lives after the Babri Mosque incident to show the world that followers of Prophet Mohammad — peace be upon him — are not violent.

    “We are not like them (Indians) and certainly not the way you media people portray us,” he stated pointedly but with a slight smile.

    “We inform our students about other religions and teach them to respect others’ views and live in harmony. Humanity precedes everything,” he affirmed, referring to a hadith.

    Molana Ashraf Ali in his office.
    Molana Ashraf Ali in his office.

    Madrassa students set eyes on this temple countless times a day on their way from their dormitory to the prayer hall.

    To know how they feel, I stopped a 12-year-old student who was passing by, and pointing towards the temple, asked: “What is this?”

    Ye Hindu ka hai [This belongs to Hindus],” came the reply.

    The young student, who couldn’t ascertain the difference between a mosque and a temple, saw the Hindu place of worship as part of his mosque.

    “Have you ever seen a Hindu?” I asked him in Urdu and he smiled shyly and responded with a “no”.

    One of the members of the mosque administration then gave me a tour of the compound. The newly-built complex has two floors reserved for the mosque and madrassa, and the ground floor is a thriving market.

    Shokat Ali showing old family pictures.
    Shokat Ali showing old family pictures.
    Ranbir Singh in his shop.
    Ranbir Singh in his shop.

    The shops mostly sell prayer beads, rugs and unstitched clothes. This market is the busiest in the city. To my surprise, the first shopkeeper I saw was a man in a yellow turban, speaking a blend of Punjabi and Pashto.

    Ranbir Singh is a native of the tribal areas, who fled Peshawar at the time the Taliban took over the neighbouring agencies. “This place is my home,” Ranbir said proudly.

    The mosque provided him shelter and he was able to start a business again which is now thriving. “Us zaat ka karam hai [It’s the blessing of God],” he said, pointing to the sky.

    “The whole market respects me and calls me bhai jee. After God, I am grateful to this mosque which accepted me without discrimination and gave me respect.”

    He told me that Raja Bazaar is a business hub and caters to every business, including music. Syed Shokat Ali runs an old military music band out of a pre-Partition building in front of the mosque.

    With old musical instruments displayed on the walls, the band was getting ready for a function. “We came here after Partition,” he informed me, showing me old pictures of his family.

    Although we sometimes practice our music here, we respect the mosque, especially the azan.

    “The mosque administration and students also respect us and have never interfered in our affairs. Despite my different sect, a code of mutual respect has been established for decades and will endure for many to come,” he said while looking towards the mosque from his wooden balcony.

    A view of the market on the ground floor of the mosque.
    A view of the market on the ground floor of the mosque.
    The balconies that once offered a glimpse of singers are now filled with junk.
    The balconies that once offered a glimpse of singers are now filled with junk.

    Living in a country that associates every norm with religion, tolerance and peace are values that appear to be fast diminishing from our society.

    The newer generations have grown up with confused identities, and Pakistani society now faces a social vacuum.

    Opportunists with their personal vengeance fill this vacuum with hate, as result of which the country is sweltering in the fire of sectarianism.

    For a country that has been struggling with identity and ideology since its inception, there’s a growing need to refuse to participate in social, religious and sectarian discrimination and hate.

    In a world of increasing tensions, peaceful coexistence among practitioners of various beliefs seems the only way forward if we are to become a better society.

    Have you visited any lesser-known heritage sites across Pakistan? Share your experience with us at

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    The author is a former student of the Army Public School in Peshawar.

    Once you enter the gates of the school, there is a long straight road ahead of you, with a playground to the right of the road and the school wall to the left. Perhaps it would not seem so long now, 13 years later.

    In my mind’s eye, the length of the road remains the same, but I struggle to recall it without the images of little dead bodies superimposed over it.

    Also read: Militant siege of Peshawar school ends, 141 killed

    It was library period. Class 7E walked single file down the corridor, past the auditorium, up a flight of stairs into wood-paneled doors. A library that was too cold and too dark, the librarian too forbidding.

    The chairs were quite comfortable, though, and I sat in one of them reading a book I can’t remember the name of. It was a story about a soldier in enemy territory, trying to escape back into his own. It was deathly cold, but he could not ask for shelter. Instead, when he got tired, he would lie on the ground and will himself to believe that it was warm. It worked for him. Even in the crippling cold, he could use the power of his mind to believe it was warm and that it would all be fine.

    The library at the Army Public School, Peshawar from the yearbook for the academic year 1999-2000. —Photo by author
    The library at the Army Public School, Peshawar from the yearbook for the academic year 1999-2000. —Photo by author

    Thirteen years later, some child would be sitting on that same chair, willing himself to believe that the cold in his attacker’s heart would turn to warmth. Maybe, after getting shot, he would have spent a few moments thinking about the warmth of his mother’s embrace.

    When I was reading that book, I remember finding it impossible to believe that we could use the power of our minds to ignore the stark facts before us. Now, I see how it is possible and how we have all been doing it for so long.

    We have been, for the most part, warm despite the cold, unflinching terror before us.

    They say the attackers scaled a wall separating the school and an adjacent graveyard. On my way back home from school, I would pass by this graveyard; it was impossible to miss. I remember wondering what it would be like to visit the graveyard as someone whose loved one was buried in it.

    Parents Day at the Army Public School, Peshawar from the yearbook for the academic year 1999-2000. —Photo by author
    Parents Day at the Army Public School, Peshawar from the yearbook for the academic year 1999-2000. —Photo by author

    I do not remember there being a lot of empty space in that graveyard. Thirteen years of urban sprawl have happened since. Will there be enough space for the bodies, small and big? When will we run out of space?

    Peshawar attack: Most of victims shot in the head

    Walking past the administrative block towards the car park at the end of a school day, I would often encounter some teachers and students praying on straw mats strewn on the grass in front of the senior school block. There would be about 10-15 people, and my Islamiat teacher was usually one of them. His head was always tilted slightly to the left. For him, probably a marker of added involvement and concentration in the prayer. For me, an unnecessary display of piety.

    Naat competition at the Army Public School, Peshawar from the yearbook for the academic year 1999-2000. —Photo by author
    Naat competition at the Army Public School, Peshawar from the yearbook for the academic year 1999-2000. —Photo by author

    I wonder if he still taught at the school. I wonder if he still tilted his head to the left when he prayed. I wonder if the tilt saved his life today. I wonder if the lack of a tilt cost the others on the prayer mats their lives.

    From the windows of class 7E, we could see a lot of trees and shrubs within the school boundary walls. Sometimes, to skip class, or sometimes in break-time, we would walk into the stretch of what I thought of as woods, lining the back wall of the school. We would crack silly jokes and look for interesting objects left behind by others as if we were scavenging in a forest. When a member of the staff saw us, we would be summoned back to class.

    Did any of the children run to the trees to hide?

    Sometimes they would cut down the shrubs and bushes, but if they hadn’t recently been cut, there might have been space to hide. But the green of their sweaters is too bright, so maybe the ones with the big black boots would have seen them trying to hide. (But, sometimes in the winter months there would be fog!).

    Staff members of the Army Public School, Peshawar from the yearbook for the academic year 1999-2000. —Photo by author
    Staff members of the Army Public School, Peshawar from the yearbook for the academic year 1999-2000. —Photo by author

    Months from now, when another kid walks into the trees to look for interesting objects left behind by others, would they find a pencil sharpener, a chewed-up pencil, a pack of gum they weren’t allowed to chew in class?

    Would there be dried blood on these objects? How much care will be taken to remove these traces of blood?

    There was a small canal in front of the school, running parallel to the main road. There was a period of one or two weeks when we would see soldiers standing on either side of the canal, knee-deep in mud, clearing out the excess deposits. ‘Bhal Safai’, they called it. I remember thinking our soldiers must not have a lot else to do if they were clearing out canals.

    How long will it take them now to clear out the blood and the insides of children strewn all over the school?

    They say the metric class students were taking exams in the auditorium when the attackers entered the school. There are five exits in that auditorium.

    Two on either side in the front. Two on either side in the middle. One in the back. Reports state that all their moves were calculated. Did they enter through all five of the exits simultaneously or did they leave any unattended? The one at the back would have been the best one for a quick exit. Run across a few feet of concrete (past the chalking of quotes attributed to Quaid-e-Azam) down a dozen steps, and into the trees.

    The samosas at the canteen were usually soggy, but there was something wonderful about the chutney that I have not seen replicated elsewhere. I excitedly made my mother have a plate of samosa chat when she once came to school for a parent-teacher meeting. She was not impressed. It’s too watery, she said, and probably really unhealthy.

    If there were any children in the canteen, they would probably not have survived. It was too open. There was no place to hide.

    Sports Day at the Army Public School, Peshawar from the yearbook for the academic year 1999-2000. —Photo by author
    Sports Day at the Army Public School, Peshawar from the yearbook for the academic year 1999-2000. —Photo by author


    What are the boundaries of grief?

    In time, does it start right away, or does it take a couple of days for the shock to settle in and then be replaced by grief?

    Maybe it starts earlier for some and later for others. Of course, it never happens for most. Because in space, the boundaries of grief are quite ambiguous.

    Humanity never grieves in its entirety. “There are so many children beneath the benches, go and get them”, one of them shouted.

    Will he, with the big black boots, ever grieve this?

    What do we grieve for? Deaths, the deaths of children? At what number does grief begin? 141 dead, 132 of them children, they report. When was the last time you grieved? What was the number then? Do we need more than numbers to grieve? Pictures, details of how it happened?

    Over the years, the bodies have accumulated. From tens to hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands. We have not grieved them enough. The world has grieved them even less.

    Which is the bigger atrocity? The millions who grieve or the billions who will never grieve?

    It is impossible to grieve every single time. For every single one. It is impossible to grieve for too long.

    Blame and Condemnation

    The one with the big black boots says he did this because of what others with big black boots did to him. In apportioning blame, how far back in history do we go and how wide do we cast our net?

    We know that if we cast it too wide, it will capture us or those close to us or those we do not want to be seen disagreeing with.

    And so we start off cautiously, taking one incident at a time, trying to trace the path between cause and effect. When we do go beyond single incidents, we go for neat, comfortable narratives.

    Russian invasion in Afghanistan. American funding of Mujahideen. The Army’s games in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Indian infiltration. Saudi money. Poverty. Lack of education. Lack of development. Apathetic politicians. Insensitive middle classes.

    If X causes Y and Y causes Z, can we blame Y for Z or is only X to blame? Where do we start and where do we stop?

    Perhaps monsters are created because we need a visualisation of the evil that our minds cannot capture. Monsters are useful because they distance blame from ourselves. Monsters are simple, neat and horrific. There is no need for nuance. Evil is useful because if evil exists then good does too, and we embody the good because we define the evil.

    The condemnations come pouring in.

    COAS Raheel Sharif. Chairman PTI Imran Khan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Prime Minister David Cameron. Ambassador Richard Olson. President Obama. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.

    Each with their own idea of good and evil, of the nature of the beast. Each outside the circle of blame, within the circle of grief.

    “Our resolve has taken new height. Will continue (to) go after inhuman beasts, their facilitators till their final elimination,” says COAS Raheel Sharif.

    Who is this beast, where and when does it begin, and where do we need to go to eliminate it?

    Is it within our borders or outside them as well?

    Does it end where we begin or does it extend to within our souls?

    Is there someone else left to blame, before we finally turn on ourselves?


    The Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa declared three days of mourning.

    Now, we will mourn for three days. And then, we will stop mourning.

    We forget our own 9/11’s (there have been too many). How can we expect anyone else to remember?

    Army Public School students on a field trip from the yearbook for the academic year 1999-2000. —Photo by authorArmy Public School students on a field trip from the yearbook for the academic year 1999-2000. —Photo by author

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    2017 will go down in history as the year mainstream discourse on sexual violence was finally forced to confront the universal impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of assault.

    Unfortunately, these global developments have failed to trigger any corresponding debate on the inability of Pakistan’s criminal justice system to provide redress to survivors.

    In a country where conviction rates for rape are less than 4% and the National Police Bureau records an average of over 3,000 reported cases every year, the need for gender-sensitive legal and policy reform has never been more critical.

    In recent years, any attempts to end impunity have focused on the introduction of piece-meal legislation, which whilst important for political visibility of the women’s movement, has failed to translate into increased conviction rates.

    Related: Female Pakistani journalists share stories of harassment at the workplace

    Key amongst the reasons underlying the limited impact of legislative developments in sexual assault is the central role played by gender stereotypes and biases in judicial proceedings in Pakistan.

    From the time of the registration of the complaint by the police to the sentencing of the perpetrator, whether or not the victim’s character is in line with what is deemed ‘chaste’ or ‘pure’ has a far greater bearing on the outcome of the case rather than the nature of the violation she has suffered.

    Stereotypes pertaining to what is a ‘good woman’ remains the primary consideration for police, prosecutors and judges to decide whether or not a victim’s claim of rape deserves reliance.

    In many ways, the decision to come forward and report the crime is the first instance where the criminal justice system begins to view the victim with suspicion.

    It is presumed that a woman with honour would never bring shame upon herself by admitting that she had been raped. A ‘true victim’ in many ways is one that never comes forward.

    Read next: Rape is not a number and it should never become only digits in a report

    Under the Pakistan Penal Code, Section 375, lack of consent on the part of the alleged victim is the primary ingredient for categorising an act of intercourse as rape.

    The existence of consent or lack thereof cannot be objectively quantified and thus it falls on the judge to decide whether or not to believe that a victim’s account is reliable.

    Reported judgments are littered with references to a victim’s ‘loose morals’ and ‘easy virtue’ which are taken as irrefutable evidence that she consented to the alleged act and thereby rendering her testimony as false.

    For instance, the Lahore High Court in Fahad Aziz v State (2008) disregarded the victim’s rape complaint as “she appeared to be a woman of easy virtue [and] indulged in sexual activities”.

    Similarly in another decision by the Federal Shariat Court in 2006, the accused was acquitted of all rape charges as the “victim girl was of easy virtue and though she was unmarried and of 16 years, but had lost her virginity”.

    The determinative nature of the victim’s character to judicial decision making is reinforced by reliance on outdated ‘medical’ tests called two-finger rape tests.

    A relic of British India, the archaic test involves inserting two fingers into the vagina of the victim in order to determine whether or not she is “habituated to sexual intercourse”.

    The test is not a legal requirement but a medical practice that has become part of legal jurisprudence

    The affirmative findings of a test i.e. deeming the victim to be habituated to sexual intercourse if her vagina admits two fingers, are relied upon by courts to presume consent.

    Thus a woman with a sexual history is assumed to consent forever more and therefore can never be raped.

    For instance, the Lahore High Court in Naveed Masih v The State (2008) refused to rely upon the statement of the victim as the “medical report revealed that hymen of victim was torn and vagina admitted two fingers easily”.

    On the other hand, the Lahore High Court accepted the testimony of the victim in Amanullah v. State (2009) as “vagina admitted two finger tight fully and painfully which showed that sexual intercourse had been firstly committed with her [committed for the first time] and further that she was not a woman of easy virtue and was not used to committing sexual intercourse” [explanation added].

    Long read:When nothing could stop Karachi's trans community: not Chanda's murder, Muskan's rape, nor Payal's kidnapping

    Former British colonies including India, Malaysia and Bangladesh have progressively began banning reliance on these tests.

    There is a growing recognition that not only is there no scientific link between the laxity of one’s vagina and sexual history, a victim’s ‘character’ is irrelevant on the alleged act being adjudicated upon.

    Additionally, in order to protect victims, most countries have promulgated character-shield laws that bar the introduction of evidence pertaining to the character or sexual history.

    However, not only does Pakistan continue to hold on to the two-finger test but its victims must withstand aspersions on their character and sexual histories during the course of the rape trial which often lasts for several years.

    In fact, the character of the victim is the primary accused in the trial, with the conduct of the accused being a secondary consideration.

    It is thus little surprise that not only are convictions low, but victims themselves prefer to reach informal settlements with accused rather than put up with a trial.

    Legal and policy reform barring gender stereotypes pertaining to the character of the victims from legal proceedings on sexual assault is urgently needed.

    Whilst social norms pertaining to acceptable behaviour will not change overnight, the criminal justice system has an obligation to institute gender-sensitive mechanisms that provide adequate redress to victims without subjecting them to additional violations of their privacy and dignity.

    Only then can the recent legislative amendments achieved their desired impact.

    Are you a researcher or an activist working on issues of discrimination? Share your insights with us at

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    In Pakistan, politicians and bureaucrats have visibly – and gradually – deprived the citizenry of their voices and their resources.

    Those in power and authority view local representation as a burden, but they use it as a means to pamper and oblige their pocket constituencies.

    By compromising the electoral process, decision-makers of the provincial and federal governments are easily able to divert resources to specific voter constituencies as opposed to the general public.

    Challenges faced by local governments in implementing the Local Government Ordinances 2013 are due to the limited operational space given to them by the federal and provincial governments.

    As part of my Phd thesis, I had a chance to interact with various stakeholders and interest groups as well as witness firsthand the mistrust towards local governments in Pakistan.

    Our risk-averse politicians, who presently control resources in league with district bureaucracy, are accustomed to the politics of thana and tehsil.

    Read next:Give LGs a chance

    They view any change to the status quo as a threat to themselves. These are people who were born and nurtured by the same local councils of the erstwhile Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship.

    The bitter taste of Musharraf-era local governments still lingers in their mouths; those were the times when the zila nazim-dominated areas were as big as five to six constituencies of a Member of National Assembly.

    The nazims had vast resources at their disposal. The use of these nazims for raising a new political leadership, by-passing political parties, is another powerful factor.

    Fast forward to today and the current democratic dispensation – at the centre and provincial levels – is creating hurdles in one form or the other to stop devolution of power to the grassroots.

    In all four provinces, local governments are, in one way or another, subordinated to the dictates of provincial governments.

    So much so, even basic functions – which can be turned into lucrative contracts, such as garbage collection – have been taken off the list of subjects on which local authority can act.

    All financial powers now rest with the deputy commissioners' offices. As representatives of provincial governments, they have the authority to release funds, and audit zila councils.

    Explore:Local governments are key to effective implementation

    If the local representation is to have any real meaning in contributing to the lives of citizens, it needs to have the resources and authority to address the provision of services and the challenges of development.

    This requires a change of heart by provincial governments towards their respective local governments in the true spirit of the 18th Amendment, along with the empowerment of the local government structures.

    Secondly, synergy between bureaucracy and local representatives is a prerequisite for a meaningful solution to local problems.

    Playing favourites can hinder and distort the flow of service delivery to citizens.

    As always, the average individual remains deprived of solutions to problems of local nature.

    Self governance through local bodies is in the true spirit of the constitution. Provincial governments' leverage over local governments should be done away with to help them dispense services to the people.

    A district chairman who can serve as the regulator for the entire district should be directly or indirectly elected.

    Elected mayors and councilors should also be empowered as ‘justices of peace’ to assist the police in the control of law and order.

    Councilors should have a lead role in initiatives like community policing and neighbourhood watch, in addition to serving the people of the area by providing civic amenities and development at local level.

    Councilors and mayors need vision and perseverance to achieve this goal. They need to remember that no one gives up powers voluntarily.

    Also read:Sindh local government set-up explainer

    There are many ways for local government representatives to gain recognition from constituents and the trust of provincial and central governments.

    It could be one of many things like dovetailing city/council plans to the execution of provincial government initiatives in polio eradication, elimination of dengue, anti-food adulteration drive, price control, anti-quackery, crack down on child labour, elimination of illiteracy, land revenue collection, and federal causes such as census.

    Local communities are naturally more accessible, more sympathetic, and quicker to respond to local needs. The local government is the directly available source for citizens to get in contact with governmental structures in the everyday course of life.

    If democracy is strengthened at the local level, then the necessary access to information will make local people more participatory.

    They will take interest in affairs affecting their daily lives. They will advocate for the rights and amenities that they deserve, seeking redress from provincial authorities.

    Now, the challenge lies with the political parties in power at the provincial level to decentralise power to the local governments.

    With them lies the onus of making service delivery efficient and equitable and to ensure that democracy and devolution prevail.

    Building sustainable cities – and a sustainable future – will facilitate in opening dialogue among all the branches of the national, regional and local governments.

    It requires the engagement of all stakeholders, including the private sector and civil society, and especially the poor and the marginalised.

    Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations is also closely linked to the integrity of local governance. It will be impossible to achieve the Goals without considering the future of devolution of power to the people.

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    These articles have been produced in partnership with Aahung, a non-profit organisation that has been working since 1994 to improve sexual and reproductive health and rights of people in Pakistan.

    Aahung works extensively on child sexual abuse through its Life Skills Based Education curriculum implemented in about 400 primary and secondary schools around the country.

    The organisation works closely with teachers and caregivers on helping children stay safe and runs media campaigns to raise awareness.

    Following is an account, as told to Sadia Khatri, by two para-counsellors who teach grades 4 and 5 in Karachi and have implemented Aahung’s Life Skills curriculum at their school.

    There are certain topics that are difficult for children to broach – the most glaring of these is child sexual abuse. But, in the past year we have noticed a shift.

    Students are becoming more vocal and are sharing their problems, both with teachers and with each other. On several occasions, students have approached us on another’s behalf.

    In 2016, our school introduced Life Skills, a single-period class dedicated to discussing a range of social and psychological issues, including gender inequality and bullying.

    Within Life Skills, we have been able to raise a conversation about child sexual abuse.

    We want to remove misconceptions around the issue of abuse, equip children how to defend themselves, and teach them how to say “No”.

    In situations where abuse is occurring, we want to encourage them to speak up about it by assuring them that there is nothing immoral about the topic.

    We started off by accommodating Life Skills during our 20-minute assembly. This proved difficult. There were too many students – we have 300 in each class – and not enough time. We had to restructure the whole programme to run it smoothly.

    Now, Life Skills is a slotted period in each grade – so the children know it is part of their time table, they are familiar with the teacher who takes their class, and they know exactly what to anticipate during the discussion.

    The first step of the programme is to build a relationship with the students based on comfort and trust. We assure them that the conversations will remain confidential.

    Before initiating the topic of abuse, we segregate the children, sending either all the boys or all the girls to art class.

    This is because there are some differences in how we contextualise the lessons, especially when talking about the body.

    It is also because children open up more when they are in the company of their own gender.

    We start by establishing the fact that there is nothing immoral in talking about abuse. It can happen anywhere, with anyone. Some of us also experienced abuse when we were children.

    If any of the students are in an unsafe situation, we encourage them to tell their parents.

    We assure them that their parents will understand and support them, and that we are available to intervene if necessary.

    At first, children hesitate: “We don’t have any issues, Miss. We have no problems.”

    But once one or two children speak up, others begin to open up as well.

    We try to create an open and safe space where they can share anything. We have to keep reminding them: our goal here is not to create fuss about your issues, or to report them anywhere.

    Our goal is to help you relax and feel better. We explain to them how some problems can be resolved just by sharing them – how speaking up can be therapeutic.

    Of course, not all children are comfortable verbalising their issues. To be inclusive, one of our activities involves handing out pieces of paper on which they can write down their thoughts.

    We want to give them a healthy outlet. Sometimes just writing on paper is a healthy way to vent.

    If they wish to share these with the teacher, they may; otherwise they are encouraged to tear up the papers and throw them away.

    The idea here is to solidify trust by assuring children that they will not be forced to do anything.

    Some incidents occur on the streets and at tuition centres but we have found that most abuse occurs in home spaces.

    Last week, a girl confided to us in writing. She had been undergoing abuse by her cousin, who came to take care of her while her mother was away. With the girl’s consent, we offered to mediate and called in her mother.

    At first, the mother was shocked. This is a common reaction – parents often find these revelations hard to believe. Sometimes they react with strong opposition, claiming that we are mistaken.

    Before initiating Life Skills, we held information sessions for all parents, to ensure that we had their support.

    Even though they were all on board and had given their consent, when it comes to confronting the truth, not all of them want to accept that their child is in danger.

    In their minds, abuse is immoral. The log kya kahein ge [what will people say]? mentality feeds their worry – they fear for their reputation in society, and if the child is a girl, they fear for her future.

    We have to assure parents that the matter will stay confidential, and that our greatest concern is their child’s safety. Eventually, they come around.

    In the case of the mother last week, she believed us only once we showed her the child’s handwritten note. She could not believe that it was happening in her house.

    Since then, she has become much more alert. Now she takes the child with her everywhere.

    Since we usually live in close-knit neighbourhoods, it’s rare for parents to confront their child’s abuser. Their intervention is limited to heightening their child’s safety – as with this mother, who cannot say anything to her child’s abuser because they are part of the same family.

    Once, another mother said to us: “I can only ensure my child’s safety. You have no idea what will happen if I take a public stand. If I accuse the abuser, he will unleash a storm in my home.”

    Often children themselves are afraid of their parents. Given the gap in communication between parents and children, their fear is not misplaced.

    It starts early on. When children start asking questions about changes in their body, they are either dismissed or given a nonsensical answer, or their prying is treated as something immoral.

    Then there is the manner in which we talk about sex. When a child is born in the family, parents offer different, misleading explanations: one says the child came in a basket, the other says it was dropped off in the night.

    Being children, they obviously consult each other and realise there are discrepancies – this heightens their curiosity and makes room for even more misleading information.

    Parents’ dismissal builds mistrust, and children do not feel fully comfortable discussing everything around them.

    A supportive outlet is shut off, and as a result, children going through trauma or abuse feel even more insecure.

    Their mental health deteriorates and they fear admonishment from their parents. Often they begin to internalise guilt and blame themselves, afraid that if their parents find out, they will be held responsible.

    There are several changes that parents must make in their behaviour.

    First, they need to talk openly with their children, and resist the impulse to sweep sensitive topics under the carpet.

    Second, parents must stay informed and involved in their children’s day-to-day activities.

    You should know where your child is going and with whom they are spending their time.

    One way to solidify trust is to create a habit. For example, ask your child how their day went before they go to sleep at night.

    Your child might not always have a lot to share, but at least they will realise that there is space for them to speak to you.

    Once they know that you care, they will begin to feel safe discussing anything with you.

    Lastly, believe your children. Your child should feel confident confiding in you.

    They should not approach you with the fear of admonishment, but with the conviction that they will be believed.

    Implementing the Life Skills programme has not been a smooth process. Selecting teachers is the key challenge.

    When the course was introduced, many teachers were initially hesitant taking it on and felt the content was too sensitive.

    Untrained teachers cannot run these classes, so all of us first have to undergo training by Aahung.

    But workshops aside, teachers first need to have the confidence that is required to discuss abuse.

    They need to be emotionally well-equipped to talk to children. This is not always the case.

    Some female teachers have trouble with boys. Others, who had received the training, backed off when it was time to deliver.

    We are six teachers handling grades 4 and 5. There are also teachers who run Life Skills sessions at the secondary school. At least through our efforts, some of the children are now safe.

    But the process does not end there. Children can be fragile even after they are out of danger. Sometimes you have to provide extra care.

    For example, there is a girl who often shows up out of nowhere to see us. We know she has been through abuse, so we never turn her away.

    Sometimes she wants to share something simple – nothing related to her trauma. But we know that she is seeking comfort and that it is important for her to be listened to.

    Furthermore, we have to ensure that students who have experienced abuse feel safe in their new classes.

    If they have a trusting relationship with a particular teacher, we try to adjust their class so they don’t have to deal with anyone new.

    At the beginning of the school year, there was a student who refused to sit in her new class. When we placed her back with her former teacher, she calmed down again.

    Delivering the Life Skills workshops can be a challenging experience, but the teachers who have been implementing the programme have seen how vital and transformative it can be for children who are being abused or are survivors of abuse.

    If you have been a victim of sexual abuse, you can contact the following organisations for counselling: Aahung, Rozan, Sahil, Madadgaar

    Click on the buttons below to read more.

    Child sexual abuse cases in Pakistan run in thousands each year (4,139 cases were registered in 2016), and those are just the ones that are reported, making it evident that not enough is being done to protect children from abuse.

    This brings us to the fundamental question: can abuse be prevented? There is a simple answer to this: yes, in some cases.

    While there is no way to ensure that a child will never be abused, there are measures that can be taken to lower the chances that abuse will occur, and to ensure that any abuse is not ongoing.

    Some easy-to-follow tips for abuse prevention are shared below so that parents and caregivers can empower their children to protect themselves.

    Start early and establish strong communication (Age 3)

    Usually by the age of three, children are capable of understanding the basic concepts of self-protection and this is a good age to start talking to them about abuse.

    Parents need to understand that by talking about abuse, they will not instil fear into the minds of children or rob them of their innocence.

    By speaking to children in a way which makes them feel in control, parents can empower children and make them feel more self-confident and capable.

    Hence, it is extremely important to establish strong communication between parents/trusted caregivers and children so that children feel comfortable discussing instances of abuse or mistreatment.

    Using real names for body parts (Ages 3-5)

    Sexual abuse prevention educators recommend using real names for body parts so that children develop a healthy and respectful relationship with their body.

    However, if parents are finding this challenging, other names can be used for private parts, as long as they are not negative or derogatory.

    While naming body parts, it is imperative that parents identify those parts that are private. Parents should clarify that the whole body is the child’s own, which no one can touch against their will.

    By having particular names for the genitals and other private areas of the body, children will be able to communicate their problems more effectively. This will also promote a positive body image and self-confidence in children.

    Developing decision-making skills (Age 4 onwards)

    A child with good decision-making skills can conclude that informing a trusted adult about abuse may prove helpful.

    Parents can assist children to develop analytical thinking skills by helping them make well-thought-out decisions about day-to-day activities.

    While this may be a difficult process for parents because children can be stubborn, with time their mental development will allow them to start linking decisions to outcomes and better enable them to think critically.

    Discussing touches (Ages 5-9)

    Once children have an understanding of the private areas of their body, it is important for parents to start discussing abuse prevention in more concrete terms with clear instructions and examples.

    All conversations with children should always take place in a safe, comfortable environment and should be conducted in a pedagogical manner.

    The easiest way to start discussing abuse prevention in more concrete terms is to describe “good” and “bad” touch.

    All discussions should try to include examples for children to relate to, so that they can start to connect specific feelings evoked with the touches mentioned.

    For example, good touches can be defined as those touches that make us feel happy, loved, and comforted, such as hugs from parents, or an encouraging pat on the back from a teacher.

    Bad touches, however, are ones that either cause us physical pain or make us feel uncomfortable in any way.

    Other preventative measures

    Limit time that a child spends alone with an adult one-on-one. It is a good idea to have your child do as many activities as possible in groups when you cannot be there to supervise.

    In certain cases where children are left alone with adults, such as tutors, maulvis, or other caregivers, try to unexpectedly check in from time to time on the interaction.

    Pay attention to your child’s mood if it changes before they see someone in particular.

    One of the best preventative measures is to trust, and act on your instincts if a certain adult makes you uncomfortable around your child.

    Unfortunately preventative measures don’t always work, which means that caregivers also need to be aware of signs of abuse.

    Obvious signs that abuse is occurring often do not exist because there are usually far fewer physical symptoms than emotional ones.

    However, children who are being abused or are survivors of abuse do often exhibit certain characteristics that should be kept in mind:

    • Poor self-esteem, self-confidence, or body image
    • Fear of certain adults or certain places
    • Avoiding going home after school, avoiding going to school, or avoiding going to a certain house/location
    • Sleep disturbances, sleepwalking or nightmares
    • Appetite disturbances
    • Using new words for private parts that have not been taught at home
    • Refering to “secrets” that he/she has with an adult, which cannot be shared with anyone else
    • Acting out sexually or have inappropriate knowledge of sexual content and behaviour
    • Becoming sad, passive, withdrawn, or depressed
    • Regressing to certain behaviours, such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking
    • Torn or stained clothing
    • Vaginal or rectal bleeding, pain or itching
    • Having difficulty trusting adults or forming new relationships
    • Abusing substances as an adolescent (drugs, alcohol, etc)
    • Cutting him/herself as an adolescent (self-mutilation)

    Many of the behaviours and psychological reactions listed above can be a result of emotional upheavals children inevitably experience during their development.

    But, if several of the symptoms are noticed by those who are close to the child, then it is important to investigate further whether any abuse has taken place.

    Where's My Doll? | Short Film on Child Sexual Abuse | AahungWhere's My Doll? | Short Film on Child Sexual Abuse | Aahung

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    A tale of repression is etched on the walls of Dhaka. Darkness, beatings, military rule.

    These images are juxtaposed with pictures of young girls studying in schools furnished with state-of-the-art modern technologies.

    Computer labs and books signal the progress made over the past 46 years. The sun rises; Bangladesh emerges from the shackles of West Pakistani hegemony. Prosperity follows.

    On every nook and corner of Dhaka, such murals and images are openly displayed.

    They are interspersed with war memorabilia and monuments depicting the struggle of the people of Bangladesh and their eventual victory.

    Unlike war images I have seen in other parts of the world, which show soldiers clad in military uniform, ordinary women and men dressed in saris and lungis are seen fighting on the murals and sculptures of Bangladesh's capital.

    It is the country's way of telling the world that it was the public that fought and won the war in 1971.

    India provided support; it strengthened the indigenous struggle, but without the people’s efforts and their sacrifices, Bangladesh’s independence would not have seen the light of day.

    It is an attempt by many in the civil society to salvage that history from being consumed by the bilateral politics of India and Pakistan.

    1971 is embedded in public spaces, on the roads and walls, in parks and open fields, in the private and collective memory of Bangladesh. There is no forgetting 1971.

    This comes partly from obvious reasons. 46 years is not a long enough time to overcome the trauma.

    The generation that survived the war is young enough to tell and retell the stories. And they all have a story to tell; some were bystanders, witnessing the nine-month long war and the aftermath that unfolded before them; some were victims; and others had personally fought in the war.

    For them and their children, the war is their identity, the scars engraved in their minds and often on their bodies.

    Even today, after 70 years, survivors in India, Pakistan, and what is now Bangladesh, hold vivid memories of the bloodshed and violence of the 1947 Partition, of the loss and rupture.

    In comparison, Bangladesh is still a very young country. It is unlikely that these haunting images of 1971 will fade away anytime soon.

    Explore:Special report: The Breakup of Pakistan 1969-1971

    However, alongside these personal memories, there has also been an effort on the part of the government to reclaim these histories.

    This effort in many ways is a response to the silences that followed the war.

    After Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination in 1975, an overt attempt was made to revise the war memory in the public discourse.

    The new leadership, seen as being pro-Pakistan and anti-India, omitted Pakistan's name from textbooks, making it seem as if East Pakistanis had been fighting against a nameless “attacking force”. Similarly, India’s mention as a “friend of the liberation war” was also erased.

    In an even more divisive move, alleged war criminals were given power, some of them even becoming ministers under the new regime.

    With this power shift, the ‘people’s narratives’ of the war seemed to recede. The state, as it often does, cherry-picked only the versions of history it deemed fit, in a way that suited its own vision for the newly-independent nation.

    But in the recent past, more and more war museums, and killing fields--where mass killings took place--have been set up and memorialised, both by civil society and the state.

    While it is essential that history is remembered and retold in a holistic way, and although significant efforts are being made in this regard, one also has to be cautious of the new forms of appropriation of history by the state.

    While reclaiming space and narrative, political parties, like military regimes, can be adamant in telling their own version of the truth--versions that garner votes and political support.

    The only trouble is that whenever states try to own history, they inevitably promote certain accounts while silencing others.

    Nuances get lost, contradictions--which are present in all conflicts--disappear and neatly-packaged truths emerge.

    Anyone who challenges this linear, one-dimensional truth can then be construed as anti-state, and in this case, as anti-liberation, which would be tantamount to treachery, a label no one wants or can afford.

    The space for discussion, debate, and research shrinks. This process is unfortunately not new to the subcontinent.

    While some Pakistani idealogues insist that the country’s foundation was laid in 712 AD when Muhammad bin Qasim stomped in to conquer the region, ridding it of ‘infidel’ influences, and thereby establishing the justification for it being a state with little room for religious minorities, India too has embarked on a process of ‘Hinduising’ its own history.

    Most recently, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat claimed that all Muslims are Hindus because India is a land only for the Hindus.

    Plurality, dissent and critical thinking are gradually being wiped out, replaced with myopic understandings of the past and present.

    Also read:1971 war: Witness to history

    In 2016, a law was proposed in Bangladesh to make it a criminal offense if anyone “carries out any propaganda, campaign against the Liberation War of Bangladesh or the spirit of the Liberation War or Father of the Nation or abets in such acts.”

    The draft will be presented at the parliament at the start of next year for approval.

    This seems to have been instigated by the political conflict between the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the two major political parties.

    BNP states that Ziaur Rahman, the army general who founded the party and later served as Bangladesh’s president from 1977-81, played a pivotal role in the war. The party claims that it was he who announced independence and hence is the true war hero.

    Hasina, Mujib’s daughter and the current leader of the Awami League government, refutes the claim entirely.

    To make matters worse, it has also been alleged in some circles that Ziaur Rahman was involved in Mujib’s assassination. Glorifying him is hence unacceptable for Hasina.

    The two parties and the women who lead them have also clashed on other matters.

    While Hasina and her party maintain that three million people were killed during the war--a figure which Mujib cited--Khalida Zia, Ziaur Rahman’s wife, has doubted the veracity of such high figures.

    After the Awami League came to power following the 2008 general elections, it has tried to silence such criticism. In the process, research into war casualties or other angles of 1971 has become off bounds.

    Since only certain kinds of narratives about the war are permitted, even when the civil society is active in reclaiming history, only a particular aspect of the history, one that aligns and conforms with the state's national project, is furthered.

    As a result, a holistic history has not come forward, either by the state or by the civil society.

    While recognising and acknowledging the war and the resulting casualties is undoubtedly of utmost importance, discourse and critical reflections are also instrumental ingredients of any progressive society.

    The fear seems to be that such discourse may undermine the impact the war and the scale of the atrocities had on Bangladesh.

    Under the influence of this fear, the state does not realise that the experiences of the countless survivors who have lived through and struggled during the war and post-war years cannot be undermined through further research and critical discourse.

    Research and discussion around 1971 will only serve to strengthen history. The history belongs to the public, not to a single individual or leader.

    The silencing of history and the appropriation of history are two sides of the same coin and it is a dangerous game to play, but one that all three countries--India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh--seem bent on playing.

    Read next:Fall of Dhaka: Memories of a bloody December

    As Bangladesh tries to seek justice, healing, and come to terms with the nation’s past, it must do so holistically, allowing academic research and analysis to flourish alongside personal histories.

    Making such work illegal, or censoring and curbing it will create a fragmented national identity, at odds with itself.

    A complete exploration of 1971 and its aftermath must be allowed, especially while survivors are still present as they are one of the most valuable sources of history.

    This process was critical for a tolerant India and Pakistan to emerge after 1947 but was often discarded by those in power in favour of state-sponsored histories.

    The attempt was, of course, to avoid any uncomfortable truths and challenges to the national projects.

    Compared to India and Pakistan, Bangladesh is still a relatively nascent country; a full and honest exploration of 1971-- whether that entails revisiting stories of rape survivors, or of torture and killings of Bengalis, or of non-Bengalis-- will play a crucial part in its nation-making process.

    Did you or someone you know witness the war of 1971 firsthand? Share your experiences with us at

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    Standing in one corner of the courtyard was this group of bald dervishes in different stages of old age. Their naked bodies shone through the thin black shawls they had draped over themselves.

    They seemed uneasy, standing there uncomfortably, as if out of place. Their feet and faces were covered in dust. Some of the older dervishes had kohl in their eyes, which seemed to enhance their sharp stares.

    In front of them was the shrine of the 16th century Sufi, Daud Bandagi Kirmani – a modest building, with a small structure and a white dome on top. The courtyard around the shrine was teeming with pilgrims.

    We happened to be visiting the historical city of Shergarh, about 100 km from Lahore, on the occasion of the annual urs of Hazrat Daud Bandagi.

    The mausoleum of Daud Bandagi. -All photos by author
    The mausoleum of Daud Bandagi. -All photos by author

    It was as if the entire city was celebrating the urs. There were food stalls and shops wherever one looked. The aroma of freshly prepared samosas suffused the air.

    The shrine is located in the middle of this city. It also occupies a central place in the imagination of the people of the city.

    Women, men, children, old and young, all throng to the shrine for these festivities. Walking in the midst of these people are pirs and dervishes.

    Some offer their services to the locals, promising respite from an evil eye. Others prepare their own magical spells that need to be mixed with water and consumed.

    These Sufis belong to different orders. There are those who belong to a conventional, orthodox Sufi sect.

    For them following religious doctrines is as much part of religion as shrines of saints, like this one. There are various distinctions within these conventional sects as well.

    And then there are the Malmatis – the rebel Sufis, who flout religious laws, and don’t belong to any particular order.

    One can therefore appreciate the contradiction in categorising the Sufi dervishes into the Malmati order, because within them are those who establish their legitimacy through various historical and religious traditions.

    I walked into the main shrine. It was a beautiful structure, well maintained by the descendants of the saint. Their havelis are situated all around the shrine.

    At the centre was the shrine of Daud Bandagi. Devotees circumambulated around the room and then stopped next to the tombstone of the saint, where they would offer a special prayer.

    Next to the grave of the saint, on a raised platform was the preserved footmark of the saint. Some devotees prayed to it while others kissed it reverentially.

    Looking at this structure, I was immediately reminded of Jain temples that are also constructed around footmarks of saints.

    My thoughts went back to the dervishes I had seen outside. Their semi-naked bodies, their shaved heads, and beardless faces reminded me of Digamber Jain monks, who too remove their bodily hair, as a symbol of renunciation of the world and don’t wear clothes.

    “You know these dervishes only cover their bodies when they visit a public place, like this one,” said Iqbal Qaiser, my friend and companion. “When they are in their deras [or camps], they only wear a lungi or sometimes nothing at all.”

    Daud Bandagi's footmark inside the shrine.
    Daud Bandagi's footmark inside the shrine.

    These dervishes were distinctively different from other Malamti dervishes. The other dervishes let the hair on their heads and beards grow long, which too serves as a symbol of renunciation of the world.

    Is there a connection between these dervishes and Digamber Jain monks, a knot that ties them together?

    There is no doubt in my mind that the latter became an inspiration for the former but what were the pathways that allowed for this influence to reach the other?

    Udasi sadhus

    A few years later, I visited another historical city, Bhera, where I found myself in the premises of an abandoned Sikh shrine.

    On the walls of this shrine, made out of colourful frescoes I saw a figure which had uncanny similarities to the dervishes at Shergarh or Digamber ascetics. The figure wore nothing but a lungi and held a tomba in his hand.

    Figure of an Udasi Sadhu at a Sikh shrine in Bhera.
    Figure of an Udasi Sadhu at a Sikh shrine in Bhera.

    In the Sikh tradition these ascetics are called Udasi sadhu. Udasi derives from a Sansrkit term that means forlorn.

    In Sikh tradition, Guru Nanak's wanderings – his four preaching tours – are called his period of udasi. These ascetics too move from from one shrine to another, which is what accounts for their name.

    They trace their spiritual lineage to Sri Chand, the eldest son of Guru Nanak. While Guru Nanak spoke vehemently against such extreme asceticism, his own son defied his teachings and became an ascetic.

    Sri Chand is always depicted as wearing nothing but a lungi. Sri Chand had a disciple called Baba Gurditta, who in turn had four disciples, Balu Hasna, Al-Mast, Phool Shah and Govinda.

    It is believed that the first two were Muslims and through them Muslims too were attracted to Sri Chand's teachings.

    Some of these devotees grew their hair while others removed them, like Digamber Jains. They shunned clothes and started living in secluded communities called deras.

    They would only temporarily cover their bodies when they had to enter mainstream society. They also scrub oil and ash over their bodies, which is meant to symbolise their death to the world of family relations business and caste – a rejection of this transient life.

    They became famous as nange sadhu or naked ascetics.

    A Muslim Udasi Sadhu.
    A Muslim Udasi Sadhu.

    Perhaps the dervishes I had noticed at the shrine of Daud Bandagi belonged to this tradition of Balu Hasna and Al Mast? They remain in groups and spend their entire lives in perpetual udasi, wandering in a state of perpetual pilgrimage from one shrine to another.

    They can be noticed at every prominent Sufi shrine of the country. Could it be that it was through Sri Chand that influences of Digamber asceticism entered folk Islamic spirituality?

    Or perhaps such extreme asceticism was already part of the folk religious tradition of India, as also represented by the Naga Sadhus, which was later institutionalised by Digamber Jains.

    Perhaps these nange sadhu at Shergarh represent that primordial religiosity, before it was encoded into a religious tradition.

    This article was originally published on Scroll and has been reproduced with permission.


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    The article was originally published in January, 2017.

    In September 2002, I got admission in MSc in Psychology at Government College University (GCU), Lahore. A few months prior, I had pledged allegiance to famous religious scholar Dr Israr Ahmed and made the struggle for an Islamic revolution my primary aim in life.

    I met Salman Haider at GCU, where he was a senior in my department. We eventually became great friends. He had a gifted mind and was amongst the few bright students in the programme. Apart from being an excellent student, he was an active participant in the drama and debating clubs.

    He won several prizes at the university and was popular amongst students and teachers alike. As a person, he was kindhearted, straightforward, and loving toward people around him.

    I come from Multan and whatever inhibitions I had as someone who found himself in a big city, Salman helped me shed them. My integration in a new environment was made possible by Salman. Even though he was liberal and I was religious, he never allowed difference of opinion come between our friendship.

    Read our Editorial: Missing activists

    Just as he was close to his other friends, he was close to me as well. After completing his degree, Salman received a scholarship from the Higher Education Commission (HEC) and moved to Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) in Islamabad to pursue his PhD.

    When I finished my degree, it was Salman who convinced me to apply for the same scholarship. I followed his footsteps and went to QAU for my PhD as well.

    QAU’s hostel 2, room 58 had two occupants: Salman and Shahadat. I was unable to get hostel accommodation when I joined the university in 2006. But Salman came to my rescue and gave me space in his room.

    The room originally had two single-beds, but Salman and Shahadat took them out and arranged floor beddings instead for the three of us. The only space we had left was between the door and the mattresses; we kept our shoes there. Although we had a fan, the room used to get so hot that we had to soak our mattresses with water every two hours.

    One summer, two friends from Multan gave me a surprise visit. I thought they would go back later at night, but they were planning on sleeping over. We barely had room to move, but Salman accommodated us all. He gave his bed to my friends and slept on a chador in the little space where we had our shoes.

    On the same topic: Times of iron and fire: The case of Pakistan's missing activists

    As I mentioned earlier, I have been a follower of Dr Israr Ahmed since 2002. In these years, my religious thought has developed and my inclination toward Islam has increased. So when I saw the propaganda against Salman on social media, I felt it was time for me to tell people the truth about my dear friend.

    I have known Salman for 14 years and in that time, I never heard him express anti-theistic or anti-Islam sentiments. He was not against religion, but against ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and socio-political oppression. It is an outright lie that Salman was against Islam.

    Those who are smearing him don’t know how enlightened he was. Gifted people like Salman are assets to our society.

    I found Salman’s views and values to be far more humanistic than the values of these so-called mazhab ke thekedaars.

    Salman valued logic and rationality was his litmus test for accepting or rejecting ideas. He always listened to contesting views graciously. He was especially critical of people who exploited slogans and political ideologies for their own benefit. I often heard Salman criticising his own comrades.

    Our deep friendship was due to his broad-mindedness and accepting nature. And even though we were on opposing ideological poles, we still found common ground when it came to our analysis of society.

    We both wondered why Muslims were never able to live peacefully with each other even though they were all followers of the same religion.

    Our second grievance was regarding the role of the state. We both firmly believed that it was the state’s responsibility to ensure the welfare, well-being and security of its citizens.

    Read further: Salman Haider’s disappearance won’t silence our voices

    We would often lament how this country, whose founders envisaged it to be a welfare state, had deviated from those ideals.

    Today, power, authority and wealth are concentrated in the hands of a few. As soon as the exploited, cheated, and oppressed raise their voices to demand their rights, they are labeled ‘traitors,’ ‘foreign agents,’ ‘anti-religion’ and so on.

    I think one such voice was Salman's. Unsurprisingly, he is now being labeled as a ‘traitor’ and a ‘blasphemer’.

    Salman’s real crime was to raise his voice – not for his personal benefit but for the rights of others. His crime was to dream of a society where there was freedom and where people lived without fear.

    It is really painful for me to be part of demonstrations demanding Salman’s recovery.

    He used to protest against the missing persons and now he himself is missing.

    He wanted freedom for others, but today we wait for him to be freed.

    This blog originally appeared in Urdu and has been translated by Bilal Karim Mughal.

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    The protections available to overseas Pakistanis in host countries depend largely on the efforts of Pakistan’s foreign service.

    This is especially true for Pakistani nationals from impoverished backgrounds who are forced to travel abroad to seek employment in order to provide for their families back home.

    As a result of their desperation, these migrants are easy targets for organised trafficking networks that claim to provide safe passage and employment in exchange for exorbitant fees.

    It is not uncommon for these trafficking networks to use migrants as carriers of narcotics, often to countries carrying harsh punishments for drug possession, including death penalty.

    Once apprehended, the migrants are abandoned to the mercy of a foreign criminal justice system, usually without independent translators and legal assistance.

    In December 2014, the families of 10 Pakistanis who were facing execution in Saudi Arabia for drug charges approached the Lahore High Court (LHC), alleging that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) had failed to make any meaningful effort to provide consular assistance or legal support to the detainees, as required under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR).

    The 10 prisoners had been allegedly coerced by Overseas Employment Promoters (OEP), licensed by the Government of Pakistan, into travelling to Saudi Arabia under false pretences of gainful employment.

    Prior to boarding the aircraft, the prisoners, it’s claimed, were tortured with severe beatings and were forced to ingest heroin capsules.

    The petition, filed by the families, reads:

    “[T]he OEP agent injected [one of the 10 Pakistanis] with something that put him in a semi-conscious state. It was in this state that [he] was forced to swallow heroin capsules. He was then taken to the Islamabad airport where he was made to board the flight to Saudi Arabia.”

    In another instance:

    “[W]hen [another of the 10 Pakistanis] was ready to leave for Saudi Arabia through the OEP agent in Islamabad, he was kidnapped and taken to an unknow [sic] location. He was locked up for two days, beaten, threatened, held at gun point [sic] and forced to ingest drugs into his body. He was made to board a flight to Jeddah.”

    The families claimed that despite repeated pleas to the Pakistani embassies in Jeddah and Riyadh, no contact was made by any member of embassy staff or official with either the prisoners or the family.

    The prisoners were charged and convicted in Arabic without legal counsel or independent translators, and without the knowledge of their families.

    Editorial: Imprisoned abroad

    Four of the 10 have been executed, and their bodies never returned to their families. One of the deceased’s mother “does not believe that her son is dead and the ongoing trauma of not knowing the fate of her son has caused her to become severely mentally disturbed,” the petition states.

    In response to the government’s blatant disregard for the lives of its citizens, the LHC ordered MOFA to formulate a policy detailing how consular protection and support will be provided to overseas Pakistanis imprisoned in other countries, who currently total over 9,000.

    However, despite the LHC’s orders, no such policy has been drafted, and since the petition was filed, over 45 Pakistanis have been executed in Saudi Arabia, including the four petitioners.

    Following the Gulf countries, Iran emerges as the top destination for human and drug traffickers from Pakistan. A large number of Pakistanis have found themselves coerced into acting as drug mules across the border between Iran and Baluchistan.

    In July 2017, four Pakistanis were executed in Iran after the authorities claimed that drugs were discovered in the truck that they were travelling in. This included a 10 year-old boy, whose only crime was to be in the truck at the time the drugs were discovered.

    In the same month, another Pakistani national, who had been arrested at the age of 13 on similar charges, was executed following eight years in a Zahedan prison.

    Executions of children, regardless of their culpability, is a fundamental violation of international law and Pakistan’s own juvenile justice system.

    There can be no greater violation of the VCCR and Pakistan’s own constitutional obligations than to stand by silently and allow the repeated executions of its children in foreign countries.

    Additionally, there are currently over 189 Pakistanis imprisoned in Iran, a significant majority of whom form part of the 5,300 prisoners of Iran’s death row for drug-related crimes.

    With over 567 executions in Iran in 2017 alone for drug crimes, these Pakistanis face imminent executions.

    As a result of mounting international pressure, the government of Iran has finally realised that the death penalty has not served as a deterrent to drug trafficking, and has been predominantly applied against low-level drug carriers rather than drug cartels.

    Therefore, the country has enacted a law that severely limits its application by raising the minimum standard meriting a death sentence from 30 grams to two kilos for hard drugs and from five to 50 kilos for synthetic drugs.

    The law also provides that all those who have been awarded death sentences under the old law are entitled to the commutation of their death sentences to imprisonment and fine.

    The new law provides another chance at life for the large number of Pakistani nationals, including children, who have been awaiting their executions in prisons all over Iran.

    Moreover, the government of Pakistan now has an unparalleled opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to its nationals by making forceful representations to the government of Iran to convert the death sentences of their nationals, as they are entitled under the new law.

    It is the government of Pakistan’s responsibility to ensure that its nationals are provided with adequate legal representation and access to a fair trial as they apply for the conversion of their death sentences.

    Foreign services and embassies all over the world have established procedures in place that provide protection to their citizens who come into conflict with the law in other countries.

    This is especially true for countries that export large numbers of migrant workers such as Philippines, Malaysia, and Bangladesh, all of whom have taken forceful stances against host countries attempting to execute their nationals.

    The government of Pakistan, especially its foreign service, must end its tolerance towards the abuses faced by its citizens in prisons all over the world.

    The legislative developments in Iran serve as the ideal starting point for the Pakistan government in moving towards finally joining the ranks of states that are recognised for defending the rights of their citizens under all circumstances.

    Only then can Pakistani nationals hope to be protected abroad.

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    Have you ever had a moment where someone you respect and place high on a pedestal, says something that completely and utterly devastated you?

    It may have been a seminal moment, a turning point where things would never be the same again. Or, perhaps it was something said and done and then swept under the carpet, a subject never to be raised again.

    My father was driving me home from my piano lesson, as he did every Wednesday evening. I was possibly nine or 10 at the time.

    We often had philosophical discussions on life in general. At least, it was more my father doing the talking.

    He would generally speak about kindness, generosity, equality, socialism (I think he was trying to convert me early on to Communism), and I, in turn, would nod my head mutely, my tongue tied, feeling too inadequate, too shy to contribute to our discussion.

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    While I can still hear his voice, I struggle to recall the words he spoke, although almost without fail he would start his preamble with, “Lady Amna…”

    One day, however, I did offer up a response. My father was gently questioning why I said my prayers, why I read the Quran.

    “Do you understand much of what you read?” he asked.

    To which I replied without even thinking: “Yes.”

    I may even have been slightly irritated that he had uttered such a question. He smiled to himself, nodding very slowly, as was his style.

    “Why?” I then asked.

    But he didn’t answer me, so I pressed him: “Because there is a god, isn’t there?”

    And he said without a beat of hesitation: “Lady Amna, there is no such thing as god.”

    It was a straight-laced response. There was no smidgen of humour, no twinkle in his eye. A statement of fact, resolute and set in stone.

    I thought my world had flipped upside down. I remember the punch of my heart, shock and panic shearing through me.

    This was my father speaking, someone who was a part of me, and he had just expressed the thing that was so counter to everything I had been taught.

    How could my father not believe in god? It was as though he had turned his back, shunning me and the rest of my family. It was a slap in the face. An act of disloyalty, a betrayal of trust even.

    How could he have said such a thing? The hurt quelled in my chest. Life certainly would never be the same again.

    Read next:I was physically and emotionally abused and want to speak up for women who are afraid

    Once home, I ran to my mother and burst into tears, telling her what my father had said. I know there was a terse exchange of words as she wrapped her arms around me and muttered that of course there is a god.

    And that was the dichotomy in our household. A mother who was becoming ever more religious and a father who had turned away from religion.

    What my father said put a chasm in our father-daughter relationship, and while he continued to drive me to my piano lessons and to my sports fixtures, I made it a point to remain steadfastly mute, to blatantly ignore him, which actually did very little to put him off from airing his views.

    As a child, my mother had a greater hold of me, a greater part of my heart, and I continued zealously to court her favour by ardently saying my prayers and reading the Quran from beginning to end. An exercise rewarded by a gift of my choosing.

    While I read the Quran in its entirety three times before the age of 13 – twice with the English translation – the things I remember are the phrases, “right path”, “day of reckoning” and “hell fire”.

    Yes, I enjoyed the stories of Joseph, Moses, and Abraham because, quite honestly, those stories captured my imagination.

    And as I grew older, I marvelled at the Quran’s description of mountains pegged to the earth and the jot of blood morphing into human life.

    Yet, remaining at the forefront of my mind was imagery of a fire as big as the earth, devouring anything and everything. Me included. I lived in fear of putting a foot wrong, of veering left instead of right.

    I feared acting out of the norm, feared expressing my own opinion in case it wasn’t the right one. I was afraid to question in the way my father had done. Blind faith was a uniform which straight-jacketed any curiosity I may have had.

    And that lack of curiosity stopped me from asking my father a key question: why? Why didn’t my father believe in god?

    If I had, then maybe he would have told me that he had lost faith long ago. Maybe, in the privacy of our drive home, he would have shared something which had happened in his past.

    Something that had disturbed him so profoundly that it quite possibly made him turn his back on religion.

    Explore: Pakistan’s Hidden Shame: Documentary reveals horrors of pedophilia in K-P

    My father’s lessons in Islam were delivered in an abominable way. A few years ago, my bari phupi told my sister and I a story. She wept as she recounted what would happen almost every day to our father way back when he was a child.

    From a young age he was taught Arabic and he read the Quran. Without fail, each day the maulvi sahib would arrive at their doorstep.

    My father would quake at the sound of his voice, unwilling to attend his lesson. My grandmother would nonetheless chivvy him along, ordering him to sit down with his teacher and behave.

    Perhaps she thought my father’s reluctance was down to laziness. Perhaps she was ashamed of her son’s lack of respect and downright rudeness.

    Perhaps she didn’t know about the physical abuse her son suffered at the hands of the maulvi sahib. Then again, possibly she looked the other way.

    If my father made a mistake in his reading of the Quran, or if he didn’t read it in the spirit that the maulvi sahib had intended, then this deeply pious teacher would hand out a punishment like no other.

    In my father’s case, he would take the thick cord from the punkah and whip my father again and again.

    And so it went on, unnoticed, unchecked. A regular occurrence.

    How long this continued, I will never know. My father never mentioned it, and I never brought it up with him.

    It’s a heartbreaking story, and whenever I see photographs of my father as a young boy, I notice how he doesn’t smile. Without a doubt he was a handsome child, but there was no light in his eyes.

    All I see is a lost and vulnerable child and the shadow of a vile man who enjoyed literally beating the word of god into my father.

    It’s no wonder, then, that he wasn’t a fan of religion.

    Had I known all of that, perhaps I wouldn’t have been as affronted by my father’s claim that there was no such thing as god.

    Then again, as a nine-ten year old, would I have been able to understand the magnitude of his experience? Could I have even empathised?

    Looking back, I’m glad he was so frank and honest. My father was imperfect just like any of us. He didn’t conform to my ideals, but that’s all right; I didn’t conform to his, either, and he wholly accepted me.

    I think he wanted me to question, to debate, assuming I had more emotional intelligence than I actually possessed.

    He wanted me to be curious about the world, and that’s probably why he kept up his monologues during our short journeys in the vain hope he could spark something in me.

    Long read:I was sexually abused and discovered my friends were too

    Today, as a free-thinking adult, I keep coming back to that episode with my father in the car. As a parent, I want to ensure that my children keep as much of an open mind as possible, to always question, to ask why– unlike their simplistic mother when she was a child.

    And just like my father had wanted of me, I hope they are curious about the world they live in, and continue to ask their million and one questions about the mysteries of the universe and the strange quirks of the human race and the lives we lead.

    I hope they will recognise that not everything is black and white and clear cut. That we are indeed complex beings, with layers of experience moulding the way we are.

    While that episode between my father and I was traumatic, I can safely say that I haven’t been left scarred by what he said, nor did I require years of therapy to come to terms with the way he acted.

    Perhaps like so many other things in the past, time washes everything with a tint of rose. It softens the ramification of events.

    It’s not only that. It’s the understanding that we’re vulnerable and in no way do I ever want to put my children in a position where they are bullied or abused or exploited.

    Times have moved on from when my father was a child, but still the doubt, the worry niggles, the what if .

    The very moment you look the other way and something happens which affects them as it affected my father. Perish the thought.

    But it’s a memory I’ll remember, a souvenir of our time together. Of how a father inadvertently taught his youngest child one of the most important lessons in life: to always ask the question, why.

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    I grew up in the plains of Hyderabad, Sindh. Often travelling to and from Karachi, I would notice the mountains near Thano Bola Khan with wonder and excitement.

    How would these mountains look up close? What lies above them? What lies beyond them? These questions often intrigued me as a child.

    My first encounter with mountains occurred when I visited Islamabad for a conference in the third year of my engineering programme. I was struck by the beauty of the Margalla Hills and wanted to move to Islamabad.

    The dream came true when I found employment in the federal capital in 2003 after I completed my engineering degree. This allowed me an opportunity to explore the various trails in the Margalla Hills, and whenever work permitted, to go up north for trekking.

    I now live and work in Saudi Arabia and do not have the luxury of driving to the trailhead after work on weekends. To quench my thirst, I plan one long trip a year into the mountains.

    After an excellent trip to K2 Base Camp last year, I wanted something just as adventurous this time around as well.

    Panoramic view from Kala Pathar. Trekkers arrive in the afternoon to view Mt. Everest. Milestones left to right: Khumbutse (6,636m), Changtse (7,543m, in Tibet), Lho Laa (6,006m), Khumbu Icefall, Everest (8,848m), Nuptse (7,861m), Nuptse Icefall and Ama Dablam (6,812m).
    Panoramic view from Kala Pathar. Trekkers arrive in the afternoon to view Mt. Everest. Milestones left to right: Khumbutse (6,636m), Changtse (7,543m, in Tibet), Lho Laa (6,006m), Khumbu Icefall, Everest (8,848m), Nuptse (7,861m), Nuptse Icefall and Ama Dablam (6,812m).

    Because of work commitments, I could only go on a trip in November, but most of the mountains in the northern hemisphere are inaccessible at that time due to the weather.

    Luckily, however, the Mount Everest Base Camp trek was still open. The weather is cold in the Himalayas at this time of the year but the skies are clear.

    I didn’t know anyone who had been to Everest Base Camp before, so I started searching for trip planners online.

    Many local and international trekking companies offer this trek with fixed departure dates and itineraries where one can sign up and join a group.

    Once with a company, all you have to do is show up at Kathmandu airport. The trekking company is responsible for all the arrangements; that includes flights to and from Lukla, lodging in Kathmandu and on the trail, food, etc.

    The trek cost also varies from $800 to $2000 depending on the company and the services. Some popular operators are Himalayan Wonders and Ian Taylor Trekking.

    After discussing my trip with a few tour operators, I signed up with Himalayan Ecstasy, a local operator based out of Nepal.

    It’s a small company run by Anil Bhattaria, a two-time Everest summiteer who now manages the company and guides only summit climbs.

    He was very thorough in answering all my questions and in him I found someone who could help me progress from trekking to climbing in the future.

    If you are already in Kathmandu then you can hire a guide for a much cheaper cost. Solo trekking with no guide is the cheapest option, but then you will have to manage all the logistics on the trek.

    The Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Lukla.
    The Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Lukla.

    After climbs of Kilimanjaro and K2 Base Camp, I already had most of the trekking gear that I needed for this trek.

    My gear includes a couple of base layers (long-sleeved, breathable shirts), hiking pants, a mid layer (fleece jacket), rain jacket and pants, hard shell jacket and pants (for summit), a warm beanie, lining gloves and hard outer gloves, some hiking socks, sturdy hiking boots, hiking poles, a backpack to carry water and other items needed on the trek, and a big duffel bag which would carry everything else.

    I also carried with me medicines that I would need in case I fell ill. These included medications for altitude sickness, fever, allergies, diarrhea, cold and cough, nausea and vomiting, and pain killers. When heading into the mountains, hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

    To truly enjoy the experience, one must be fit enough to trek up to 10km or more a day at high altitudes. While on the trail, I saw many people who were struggling with altitude sickness and breathing problems.

    Most of us live at lower altitudes and will struggle at higher altitudes due to lower levels of oxygen. Regular workouts at the gym, running, and bicycling are good ways to train for this adventure.

    A month before the trip, I was weight training in the morning and biking 20km or more in the evening for cardio training.

    Even then, the lack of oxygen at higher altitudes can make the climb difficult.

    Ready to take on the challenge, a month later, one early morning in November, I embarked on yet another thrill-seeking adventure, flying from Dammam and landing in Kathmandu.

    Trekkers usually spend a day in Kathmandu before heading to the Everest trek, but I didn’t waste any time and had my connecting flight to Lukla scheduled for the same day.

    Day 1: Flying to Lukla over the Himalayas.
    Day 1: Flying to Lukla over the Himalayas.

    Regarded as one of the most dangerous airports in the world, due to the height it's located at (nearly 9,500ft) and the shockingly small runway (1,729ft), the stunning 45-minute flight to Lukla is an adventure in itself.

    The scenery from the plane window is unbelievably dramatic. The plane flies over Himalayan foothills so closely that the hilltops seem to be almost touching the plane. Shortly after, there are mountains much higher than the plane’s altitude.

    By then, the plane has almost arrived in Lukla; there is a sharp descent onto the runway, sloped steeply to assist in slowing the plane to a stop before it hits the mountain wall at the other end of the runway.

    Outside the airport, I met Manoj, my humble, soft-spoken Nepalese guide who would take me all the way to the base camp and back.

    Day 1: A lodge mess in Lukla.
    Day 1: A lodge mess in Lukla.

    Most trekkers fly in to Lukla and hike to Phakding on the same day, but I had done enough travelling for one day, so we decided to get some rest and settled into a lodge in Lukla.

    At an elevation of 2,750m, Lukla is the starting point to Everest and many other mountains. It’s a small community with lodges, cafes and shops containing trekking supplies.

    We got on the trail fairly early next morning. After a few hours on the path, which passed through several small villages and mountain communities that looked like something out of a fairy tale, we arrived in Phakding.

    Phakding is usually the destination on day one for most trekkers, but we pushed further until we reached a small mountain community called Monjo, which is about 5km away from Phakding.

    It lies just at the door of Sagarmatha National Park, the home of the Himalayas. At this point we had ascended 100m over Lukla.

    Day 2: Looking over the valley while walking out of Lukla.
    Day 2: Looking over the valley while walking out of Lukla.
    Day 2: Walking through one of the villages enroute to Monjo.
    Day 2: Walking through one of the villages enroute to Monjo.
    Day 2: Night falls in Monjo.
    Day 2: Night falls in Monjo.

    As usual, we started early the next morning for our next destination, Namche Bazar. Much of the 6km trek stays at the banks of the Dudh Koshi River--also known as the Milk Koshi River-- with a few crossings on the famous suspension bridges of Nepal.

    Although intimidating for some, I actually enjoyed walking on the suspension bridges. They are pretty sturdy at the ends but sway at the centre.

    Just before Namche Bazar, there is a steep ascent in switchbacks that reminded me of Trail 3 in the Margalla Hills in Islamabad.

    We kept moving until the slopes opened up to a beautiful community with colourful dwellings built on the slopes of a hill.

    “Welcome to Namche Bazar,” my guide said to me. We had arrived rather early and had set aside the following day to rest and acclimatise, so we went out in the evening to explore the village.

    Namche is like Lukla but on a larger scale. We found lots of tourists, cafes, and lodges scattered around thin lanes going up and down the slopes.

    The place is to trekkers and climbers what a candy store is to kids. You can find any trekking or climbing gear in Namche Bazar of both local and imported brands.

    Day 3: Trek along Dudh Koshi towards Namche Bazar.
    Day 3: Trek along Dudh Koshi towards Namche Bazar.
    Day 3: Suspension bridges along the trek.
    Day 3: Suspension bridges along the trek.
    Day 3: A porter carries supplies across the bridge.
    Day 3: A porter carries supplies across the bridge.
    Day 3: Night falls on Namche Bazar.
    Day 3: Night falls on Namche Bazar.

    It is always a good idea to climb higher and return to the same altitude for proper acclimatisation.

    For us, it was a nice two to three-hour hike from 3,450m to the viewpoint at 3,850m. The trail was steep and hardly offered any new views except when we looked back to see Namche Bazar and the beautiful Kongde Ri peak (6,187m).

    The view from the top of the viewpoint is magical. For the first time we noticed the other side of the valley that is home to the beautiful 6,812m-high mountain, Ama Dablam (which means Mother’s necklace), and the Everest massif that includes Everest (8,848m), Nuptse (7,861m) and Lhotse (fourth-highest mountain in the world at 8,516m).

    Also visible was Tengboche, our next stop. We stayed up there for a few photographs and then returned to Namche for lunch.

    Day 4: View of Namche Bazar from the top with Kongde Ri (6,187m) in the background.
    Day 4: View of Namche Bazar from the top with Kongde Ri (6,187m) in the background.
    Day 4: First views of Everest (8,848m), Nuptse (7,861m), Lhotse (8,516m), Ama Dablam (6,812m) and Tengboche (3,900m).
    Day 4: First views of Everest (8,848m), Nuptse (7,861m), Lhotse (8,516m), Ama Dablam (6,812m) and Tengboche (3,900m).

    The trek from Namche to Tengboche is tough and about nine kilometres long. The path gains 200m of elevation from 3,450m to 3,650m after which the trail becomes flat.

    After a good three to four kilometres, the trail descends sharply to Phungi Thanga at 3,200m. We stopped and had lunch just by the Dudh Koshi river.

    Afterwards, we crossed the river on a bridge and then climbed from 3,200m to Tengboche at 3,900m. It’s a tough and steep ascent mostly via switchbacks on a well-maintained trail. But all the hard work paid off when we reached our destination.

    The camp is located on a hill and houses one of the most sacred Buddhist monasteries outside of Tibet. Horses and yaks were grazing on the hill and Ama Dablam, Everest, Nuptse and Lhotse were magnificent and imposing in the background.

    I went out to the hill several times to take pictures--at sunset, in the dark to photograph stars, and early in the morning to capture the sunrise. Every time there was something new to look at.

    Day 5: The trail towards Dingboche.
    Day 5: The trail towards Dingboche.
    Day 5: Yaks carry heavy supplies between camps with Taboche (6,495m) in the background.
    Day 5: Yaks carry heavy supplies between camps with Taboche (6,495m) in the background.
    Day 5: The beautiful village of Tengboche.
    Day 5: The beautiful village of Tengboche.
    Day 5: Night falls over Tengboche. The lights on Ama Dablam are of climbers attempting to summit.
    Day 5: Night falls over Tengboche. The lights on Ama Dablam are of climbers attempting to summit.

    The route to Dingboche, our next goal, was rather simple and did not offer much challenge. First the trek descends from Tengboche to Diboche and from then on there is a gradual ascent on a good trail.

    We then crossed the Imja Khola river on another suspension bridge and from there on we stayed on the left of the river valley. The route holds beautiful views of Ama Dablam and several stupas.

    As we moved forward and got closer to Nuptse, we slowly lost sight of Everest’s peak. The campsite of Dingboche could be seen from a distance, a stupa on guard, and mighty Lhotse in the back drop.

    Day 6: First light on Everest massif.
    Day 6: First light on Everest massif.
    Day 6: Trail to Dingboche with Ama Dablam (6,812m) in the background.
    Day 6: Trail to Dingboche with Ama Dablam (6,812m) in the background.
    Day 6: The trail and community of Pangboche enroute to Dingboche.
    Day 6: The trail and community of Pangboche enroute to Dingboche.
    Day 6: Arrival at Dingboche. A stupa stands on guard with lodges in the community and Lhotse in the back drop.
    Day 6: Arrival at Dingboche. A stupa stands on guard with lodges in the community and Lhotse in the back drop.
    Day 6: The Milky Way as seen from Dingboche.
    Day 6: The Milky Way as seen from Dingboche.

    At Dingboche, we had a rest day. We used it for acclimatisation by climbing higher, to 5,080m, from Dingboche’s elevation of 4,400m.

    The acclimatisation hike was extremely fruitful as we enjoyed views that are otherwise not seen on this trek. The hike offers views of the 6,189m-high Island Peak, the north face of Ama Dablam, and even Makalu, the fifth-highest mountain in the world at 8,481m.

    After some quick photography and snacks at 5,000m, we made our way back to the campsite.

    Day 7: Acclimatisation hike to 5,080m with Taboche, Cholatse and Arakam Tse peaks in the background.
    Day 7: Acclimatisation hike to 5,080m with Taboche, Cholatse and Arakam Tse peaks in the background.
    Day 7: View of Island Peak (6,190m) and the world’s fifth-highest mountain Makalu (8,480m) from the top of acclimatisation hike.
    Day 7: View of Island Peak (6,190m) and the world’s fifth-highest mountain Makalu (8,480m) from the top of acclimatisation hike.
    Day 7: Ama Dablam’s north face from the top of acclimatisation hike.
    Day 7: Ama Dablam’s north face from the top of acclimatisation hike.

    The distance from Dingboche to Lobuche is about 10.7 kilometres. Except for one steep section, the route is rather gradual and very enjoyable. We climbed a hill to go east initially and then continued our march to the north.

    There is a stream which we crossed on a short bridge to arrive in Thokla, a community built on the foot of Cholatse (6,423m). There is a steep section after Thokla, rising 200m before flattening at the top where there are memorials for those who perished while climbing in the Himalayas and other mountain ranges.

    After that the ascent is gradual with excellent views of Pumori (7,161m), Lingtren and the mighty Nuptse (7,861m). The Lobuche camp site lies opposite the majestic Nuptse wall.

    Day 8: The community of Thokla (4,600m) with Cholatse (6,440m) in the background.
    Day 8: The community of Thokla (4,600m) with Cholatse (6,440m) in the background.
    Day 8: Last light on Pumori (7,161m) from Labuche Camp (4,900m).
    Day 8: Last light on Pumori (7,161m) from Labuche Camp (4,900m).
    Day 8: Night falls on Labuche Camp (4,900m). Stars and the galaxy of Andromeda light up the sky over Nuptse (7,861m). We are now too close to Nuptse which is blocking our view of Mount Everest.
    Day 8: Night falls on Labuche Camp (4,900m). Stars and the galaxy of Andromeda light up the sky over Nuptse (7,861m). We are now too close to Nuptse which is blocking our view of Mount Everest.

    The 12km track from Lobuche to Gorakshep is gentle until the Lobuche pass, after which there are multiple ups and downs. Once at the top of the pass you can see the Khumbu Glacier and even the Khumbu Icefall.

    It took us three hours to reach Gorakshep where we had lunch and continued our march to Everest Base Camp.

    The path to the base camp is similar with multiple ups and downs and crossings, but the trail becomes gradual again as it nears the end. After some point, the base camp is visible from the trail, but you have to go down on the glacier to access it.

    Since November is not an ideal time for climbing, the trip to the base camp was even more of a milestone. After a few pictures at the base camp, we were on the trail back to spend the night in Gorakshep.

    Day 9: A yak grazes in the morning as we trek to Gorakshep (5,165m).
    Day 9: A yak grazes in the morning as we trek to Gorakshep (5,165m).
    Day 9: First view of Khumbu Glacier from top of the pass.
    Day 9: First view of Khumbu Glacier from top of the pass.
    Day 9: People gather at Mount Everest Base Camp along the side of Khumbu Glacier. The glacier between Lho La and Nuptse is the Khumbu Icefall, the first step and a daunting one for those climbing Mount Everest.
    Day 9: People gather at Mount Everest Base Camp along the side of Khumbu Glacier. The glacier between Lho La and Nuptse is the Khumbu Icefall, the first step and a daunting one for those climbing Mount Everest.
    Day 9: Mount Everest Base Camp at 5,265m.
    Day 9: Mount Everest Base Camp at 5,265m.
    Day 9: Everest Base Camp at 5,265m.
    Day 9: Everest Base Camp at 5,265m.
    Day 9: Pakistani flag at the lodge in Gorakshep, signed by 2013 Pakistani Everest Expedition Team including Samina Baig, the first Pakistani woman to summit Everest.
    Day 9: Pakistani flag at the lodge in Gorakshep, signed by 2013 Pakistani Everest Expedition Team including Samina Baig, the first Pakistani woman to summit Everest.

    Before I go further in my journey, it is important to understand how the Everest massif came to be.

    The Himalayas were created because of a collision between the north-moving Indian plate and the Eurasian plate some 40 to 50 million years ago.

    Presently, the Indian plate continues its movement into the Asian plate causing the Himalayas to rise about a centimetre each year.

    Unlike K2, which is a pyramid-like mountain standing by itself, the Everest massif is a group of mountains and peaks that are connected to each other via ridges.

    The three mountains in the Everest massif are Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse. Everest (8,848m) is connected to the world’s fourth-highest mountain, Lhotse (8,516m), and to Nuptse (7,861m). Together, they form a U-shaped structure with the top facing north-west.

    At the top of this “U” is the Khumbi Icefall, the first step for those climbing Everest. In between the U-shaped valley is a low basin called Western Cwm where climbers usually set Camp 1 and Camp 2.

    Approaching the mountain from Nepal, the trek remains south of the massif and the Nuptse wall is always between us and the peak of Everest.

    From far-off camps, Everest’s peak is seen sitting behind Nuptse, but from Lobuche onwards, as we get closer to Nuptse, the Everest peak gets blocked by Nuptse and is no longer visible.

    To have a good view of Everest, one must climb Kala Pathar (5,650m), which is not technically a mountain but rather a ridge on Pumori (7,161m).

    Before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Sherpa conquered Everest in 1953, it was thought to be impossible to climb.

    Two years before their successful summit bid, Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Pumori just to have a closer look at Everest and find the climbing route to its summit. Mick Conferey in his book Everest 1953 describes the events of the expedition in great detail.

    The U-shaped Everest massif (image taken from Google Maps, click to enlarge).
    The U-shaped Everest massif (image taken from Google Maps, click to enlarge).

    Different groups climb Kala Pathar based on their plan and convenience. While some trekkers climb in the dark to view the sunrise on Everest, others climb in the afternoon to view the sunset.

    After breakfast in the morning, we packed a few sandwiches and went on our way to Kala Pathar.

    We started our ascent at 11:30am, climbing slowly with frequent breaks for water and pictures, and reached the summit (5,650m) at 2pm.

    Day 10: The trail to Kala Pathar (5,650m) from where we would get a clear view of Mount Everest.
    Day 10: The trail to Kala Pathar (5,650m) from where we would get a clear view of Mount Everest.
    Day 10: Approaching the Kala Pathar (5,650m) summit with Pumori (7,160m) in the background.
    Day 10: Approaching the Kala Pathar (5,650m) summit with Pumori (7,160m) in the background.
    Day 10: Kala Pathar summit at 5,650m.
    Day 10: Kala Pathar summit at 5,650m.
    Day 10: Everest summit (8,848m) from Kala Pathar.
    Day 10: Everest summit (8,848m) from Kala Pathar.

    The last 10 minutes of Kala Pathar required some minor scrambling but nothing too serious. Caution is advised though as there is a bit of exposure (high risk of injury due to the steepness of the terrain) at the top.

    Although we had planned to stay at the summit until sunset, the cold and heavy winds that afternoon forced us to return earlier. From where we stood, the Everest summit was clearly visible, lying between the Lho La and Nuptse.

    The return trip from Gorakshep to Lukla was rather uneventful, just as we wanted. The distance is almost 60km and we covered it in three days with stops in Pangboche and Namche Bazar.

    The total distance of the trek, from start to finish was 135km with a maximum elevation of 5,650m.

    Day 11: Looking back at the valley we came from.
    Day 11: Looking back at the valley we came from.
    Day 12: Strong winds blow on Everest and Lhotse on a clear day.
    Day 12: Strong winds blow on Everest and Lhotse on a clear day.

    I know a few would be wondering how this trek compares to the K2-Concordia trek.

    In terms of difficulty, I believe the Everest Base Camp trek--although a few hundred metres higher--is much easier, as there is a proper trail all along from Lukla to Gorakshep, whereas the K2-Concordia trek is more treacherous and stays on an uneven glacier for the most part.

    Add to this the fact that in Nepal, overnight accommodation is in tea houses with beds and that there are wifi and battery charging facilities. This becomes truly a five-star trekking experience.

    Although I personally prefer overnight camping in tents, which we did on the K2-Concordia trek, a number of people would prefer the luxury of a proper bed which is available in most places in Nepal.

    That still doesn’t mean that the Everest Base Camp trek is to be taken lightly by any means. Climbing to 5,650m requires good health and fitness.

    I must say, I truly enjoyed my two weeks in the beautiful Himalayas and look forward to going back again one day.

    Have you explored any off-the-beaten tracks across the world? Share your journey with us at

    — © Imad Brohi. All rights reserved.— © Imad Brohi. All rights reserved.— © Imad Brohi. All rights reserved.— © Imad Brohi. All rights reserved.

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    The year 2017 started on a positive note. Economy was growing, inflation was low, the rupee was stable, CPEC was progressing, Pakistan’s credit rating had improved, and the stock market was racing. There was hope for better times.

    But then, things took a turn.

    Political chaos hit the economy, and hit it hard. The chaos gained momentum with the formation of the Panama case JIT in April and then culminated with the Islamabad sit-in by a faction of the religious right in November.

    The prolonged chaos changed the once hopeful sentiment. The economic narrative shifted to fiscal deficit, trade deficit, rising debt, setbacks for CPEC, an overvalued rupee, and a sliding stock market. Pessimism sidelined hope.

    Let’s look back at the highlights of 2017.

    Regaining economic growth momentum

    The Economic Survey put the GDP growth for 2016-17 at 5.3pc, noting that it is the “highest growth rate recorded in a decade.” The World Bank in its Pakistan Development Update said: “Pakistan's economic performance remained robust during the fiscal year 2017 (FY17) as growth continued to accelerate.”

    IMF’s Article IV Consultation had a similar view: “Pakistan’s outlook for economic growth is favourable, with real GDP estimated at 5.3pc in FY 2016/17 and strengthening to 6pc.”

    The State Bank of Pakistan’s (SBP) State of the Economy also agreed: “The real GDP growth in FY17 was the highest during the last ten years. It was led by a rebound in agriculture and a broad-based increase in value addition by services sector.”

    Inflation in low single digit

    Inflation, a tax we all pay, is perhaps the most significant economic statistic for ordinary Pakistanis. It remained at around 4pc. This is according to the Consumer Price Index by Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS), if you are willing to believe the Bureau.

    That surely does not mean that the price level of essential goods is within the reach of common Pakistanis. What it means is that these essentials did not move much further out of their reach.

    Inflation was contained thanks to factors like lower international petroleum prices, which have begun to rise, and a stable Pakistani rupee, which has started to weaken. However, according SBP, in 2017-18, “overall inflation is expected to remain well below the target of 6pc.”

    Population hits 207.77 million

    Pakistan's population has officially hit 207.77 million. This is the provisional result of the 2017 census data by the PBS. The data has been collected after nearly two decades and it has not been without controversy.

    The compound annual growth rate for the population since 1998 turns out to be 2.4pc, well above the global average. Female population is 101.3 million or 48.76pc.

    The share of population of Punjab and Sindh decreased while that of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan has increased.

    According to the Word Bank, Pakistan is the sixth most populous country following China, India, USA, Indonesia and Brazil.

    Policy rate maintained at 5.75pc

    SBP kept the policy interest rate at 5.75pc, where it has been since May 2016. Credit to the private sector grew on a year-over-year basis in 2017-18 by 18.5pc.

    According to the monetary policy statement issued in November, “The already buoyant growth in fixed investment gained further traction at a slightly higher level relative to FY17, while both working capital loans and consumer financing showed encouraging trends.”

    SBP says that the prospects of achieving the 6pc target of real GDP growth continue to be strong due to the availability of cheaper money and higher credit off-take by the private sector. Critics are bound to be divided on whether this is feigned optimism by SBP or an objective analysis.

    Official unemployment at 6pc

    Another statistic that is close to the hearts and minds of Pakistanis is the unemployment rate. Officially, it is around 6pc but not everyone is willing to believe it.

    The credibility of economic data in Pakistan in general has long been subject to debate. But the unemployment number stands out because of the incredulity surrounding it.

    The army of applicants applying for every advertised job in 2017 surely does not suggest unemployment is low. In one of its report, marketing research firm Nielsen puts the employment rate at 51pc, leaving the unemployment rate much higher.

    There will inevitably be issues regarding definition and measurement techniques, but the wide gap between the public and private sector estimates leaves one scratching one’s head as to what the unemployment rate really is.

    Government weakens, key offices change hands

    Economic issues took a back seat for most of the year as the leadership got occupied with the ongoing political turmoil. The government was greatly weakened and its fragile writ was fully exposed in the Islamabad sit-in.

    Following the disqualification and resignation of prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the embattled finance minister Ishaq Dar has taken leave of absence.

    The office of secretary finance and chairman of FBR changed incumbents. A new governor assumed office at SBP, and an acting chairman was appointed at Securities and Exchange Commission Pakistan (SECP) after the former chairman was suspended in the “record tampering” case.

    It has been a surreal experience watching all the key policy makers get replaced in a matter of months. The economic challenges were mounting, the economic leadership was conspicuous by its absence, and no one was counting the cost of political uncertainty.

    CPEC dominates economic discourse

    There are great expectations from CPEC and they keep becoming greater. The seventh round of the CPEC Joint Cooperation Council took place in Islamabad in November.

    According to the official announcements regarding the long-term plan, “By 2025, the CPEC building shall be basically done, the industrial system approximately complete, major economic functions brought into play in a holistic way, the people’s livelihood along the CPEC significantly improved, regional development more balanced and all the goals of Vision 2025 achieved.”

    The largest sector under CPEC is energy, where shortages have long been the bane of our economy. The government is now examining a proposal to replace the US dollar with the Chinese yuan for trade between China and Pakistan.

    All, however, is not reported to be well with CPEC. There have been news items about potential setbacks with calls for greater transparency.

    Remittances could be slowing down

    Remittances, recorded at $19.3 billion during the last fiscal year, have long helped manage Pakistan’s trade deficit. Unsurprisingly, of the total global remittances, 80pc are received by 23 countries, led by China, India, the Philippines, Mexico and Pakistan.

    The World Bank’s Migration and Development Brief says that Pakistan had witnessed 12pc growth in remittances in 2015, which moderated to about 2.8pc in 2016 and is expected to grow by a meagre 1.4pc in 2017.

    SBP’s forecast for remittances for the current fiscal year is between $19 and $20 billion. The SBP in collaboration with Pakistan Remittance Initiative has introduced Asaan Remittances Account to help move traditional over-the-counter cash transactions to formal banking channel.

    Remittances during July to October 2017 have reportedly grown by 2.3pc and it is an open debate if the growth has slowed down as much as anticipated.

    Terror and political violence remain alive

    Unlike some of the traditional economic indicators, such as inflation and unemployment, terror and political violence are not systematically measured and publicised in Pakistan. This is quite puzzling given that they have an unusually strong link to our economy.

    A report published in 2017 by the US State Department says that terror in Pakistan is on the decline. A publicly available data set says that fatalities from terror incidents were 1209 in 2017, down from 1803 in 2016.

    While terrorism is receding, its frequency is still disturbingly high and recurrent. The violent ending of the Islamabad sit-in by a faction of the religious right shows that political violence is very much alive and it is hurting economic activity.

    Budget offers little good news for financial markets

    PML-N's government unveiled its fifth bugdet of Rs4.5 trillion, allocating Rs1 trillion to development projects and Rs920 billion to defence spending. The budget offered little good news for financial markets.

    The tax rate on capital gains on securities was increased to a flat 15pc for filers and 20pc for non-filers regardless of holding period.

    A super tax of 4pc for banking companies and 3pc for persons other than banking companies earning more than Rs500 million was extended to 2017-18.

    How the Federal Board Revenue has gone about increasing tax revenue has been criticised and the Board continues to be assailed for corruption. If critics are to be believed, the government is now set to miss all the major budget targets including the GDP growth of 6pc, containing budget deficit of 4.1pc, and increasing tax- -to-GDP ratio of 13.7pc.

    Pakistan reenters MSCI (formerly Morgan Stanley Capital International) emerging market index

    Pakistan’s stock market soared because large inflows by foreign funds were expected after the country regained entry into the MSCI Emerging Market Index.

    Anticlimactically, however, it was found that contrary to hype. The market had experienced more outflows than inflows because the MSCI Emerging Markets Index gave Pakistan a relatively low weight.

    Together with mounting political uncertainty, rising deficits, disappointing budget, and fears of depreciation of the Rupee, the MSCI surprise was a hard blow for the investors.

    Later in the year, Pakistan’s weight was further reduced during review of MSCI indexes. After rising 46pc in 2016, the KSE-100 index has fallen by more than 25pc from the all-time high it hit in 2017.

    The market price-to-earnings ratio has slid down to about nine times but investors seem uninterested. On the bright side, in a welcome break from the past, and despite the very large movements in the market, there have been no chain defaults.

    Chinese acquire strategic stake in PSX

    In a leap forward for PSX, its stock brokers sold 40pc of their shares for US $85 million to a consortium of Chinese securities exchanges, Pak-China Investment Company, and Habib Bank Limited.

    The demutualisation, integration, and attraction of foreign strategic holding had been contemplated by SECP since 2002. It finally happened 15 years later in 2017.

    Following the strategic investment, PSX also got listed on itself though there was limited investor interest in its shares during the book building process. Many investors in Pakistan are still trying to get their head around the fact that the exchange itself has become a listed company.

    HBL’s scandal shakes the banking sector

    HBL, one of the largest banks in Pakistan, was rocked by a money laundering scandal that shook the entire banking sector. The Department of Financial Services of New York State alleged that HBL had committed 53 separate violations between 2007 and 2017.

    While details about the wrong doings remained sketchy, HBL agreed to pay a fine of $225 million. It is a huge amount, but still less than half the $630 million that the US authorities had reportedly assessed.

    Interestingly, news that all was not well at HBL’s branch in New York had been appearing for a few years but had not gained public attention. HBL announced that its president and CEO is bowing out and so is its branch in New York.

    Companies Act 2017 promulgated

    The Companies Act 2017 was promulgated in May replacing the Companies Ordinance, 1984. A feather in SECP’s cap, this is the longest piece of legislation ever approved by Pakistan’s parliament.

    This was a mega project many years in the making. The new act focuses on abolishing unnecessary requirements and benefitting from the use of technology. It envisages a softer regime for companies without public interest.

    Among its many features are mandatory minimum quotas for women directors and persons with disabilities. This act will continue to touch each of the roughly 80,000 companies registered in Pakistan and the lives of millions of Pakistanis for many years to come.

    Deficits and debt stoke fears

    The fiscal and trade deficits have been mounting. As one news report in September put it, fiscal deficit hit 5.8pc of GDP reaching “Rs1.864 trillion mark in absolute terms, the highest in four years of the PML-N government as well as in the country’s 70-year history.”

    IMF says Pakistan has the potential to reach a tax-to-GDP ratio of 22pc but it remains just that: unrealised potential. New records of trade deficit were being set with such frequency that it became difficult to keep up.

    “Never before in the country’s history have imports been over two-and-a-half times of exports as they are now,” lamented an observer, as trade balance worsened. The ratio of gross public debt to GDP, as reported by the SBP, remained above 60pc.

    There has been ongoing speculation as to whether Pakistan would return to borrowing from IMF and face the painful adjustments. The government sought to buy time by raising $1 billion through sukuk at 5.625pc and $1.5 billion via eurobond at 6.875pc.

    The oversubscription and competitive yields of the issues show the creditors of Pakistan are less concerned about our economic challenges than some of the local economists.

    Rupee depreciates and remains under pressure

    That the rupee was overvalued was being suggested. There were a range of estimates from 20pc to 40pc. There has been a bitter debate if devaluation has even worked for Pakistan.

    But early in December, “the State Bank launched what appeared to the rest of us like an ambush” and the rupee, that opened at 105.5 against the dollar, quickly hit 109.5, and has remained volatile since. Devaluation is not without consequences but it is uncertain by how much it will fuel inflation.

    Water crisis bubbling under

    While most of the economic focus is on our twin deficits, a major challenge that is bubbling under is water stress. There were a series of disturbing reports on the water situation in Pakistan. According to WaterAid, “Pakistan is among the world’s 36 most water-stressed countries” and “among the top 10 countries with the greatest number of people living without access to safe water.”

    As per the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources, Pakistan may run dry by 2025 if the present conditions continue. In another report by Institute of Public Policy, there are five challenges on the supply side: water scarcity resulting from higher demand and diminishing capacity of reservoirs, excessive conveyance losses, deteriorating infrastructure, high operation costs and an excessive groundwater use.

    The Supreme Court called upon the chief ministers of Sindh and Punjab expressing concern over the lack of availability of potable water.

    Cyber crime makes its presence felt

    ATM skimming hit the headlines towards the end of the year. HBL confirmed that Rs10.2 million had been stolen from 559 accounts. The scandal was far from huge.

    We are talking about less than 1,000 people and just about Rs1 crore in the whole country. But the media outcry it generated was indeed huge.

    On the bright side, the media outcry created more awareness about cyber crime than the National Response Centre for Cyber Crime under the FIA could ever expect to achieve through its awareness activities.

    In sum, politics trumps economics in 2017

    Looking back, 2017 started off looking bright, but then turned into a dark year for Pakistan’s economy. This unwanted twist was not caused by bad luck or a natural disaster. It was very much the making of powerful Pakistanis eager to play a game of thrones.

    They put their ambition, their ego, and the glory of their institution above that of Pakistan. None of them came out a winner.

    Be it any party or the parliament, the judiciary, the army, or the media, all have suffered reputational damage during 2017. But there has been one clear loser: Pakistan.

    Dirty politics trumped development economics in 2017, it could have been a much better year for Pakistan’s economy, but it was not.

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    We were standing in a hall, located in a building behind the mosque. It is narrated that Waris Shah wrote his rendition of Heer in the basement of this hall, while he served as a maulvi at the mosque.

    The famous Chajju Bhagat is right next to the mosque. It is believed that it was the unrequited love of a widowed Hindu woman, Bhaghbari, who used to visit the temple regularly that inspired Waris Shah to rewrite Heer.

    Different verses from Heer were written on the walls of the hall. One of them read:

    Lambe dais da mulk mashoor malka
    Jheete shair keete yaaran waste mein

    Here at the famous city of Malka located in the jungle of Lambha,
    I wrote these verses for my friends

    Rooted in culture and geography, I don’t believe any work of literature can ever be justly translated.

    At best, one can only hope to transliterate; the task becomes even more arduous when one is dealing with poetry.

    For example, in the above verse, the word Lambe has a dual meaning. Lambe could mean long here but it also refers to the name of the Jungle Lamba, in the middle of which the city of Malka Hans was located. It was called Lamba because it was a long stretch of land located in the middle of two rivers. Without the knowledge of the history and the geography of this region, the meaning of the word is lost.

    At another part in the poem, Waris Shah writes:

    Tumba wajta Thaman nu jawe
    Te rukhan wale dhad wajti

    Playing the Tumba instrument they travel towards Thamman
    And accompanying it is the Dhad from Rukhan

    I first visited the village of Ram Thamman a few years ago when I was working on my first book. —Photo provided by author
    I first visited the village of Ram Thamman a few years ago when I was working on my first book. —Photo provided by author

    In the village of Ram Thamman, located between Kasur and Raiwind, Baiskahi is celebrated every year. Of course now, this pre-partition festival has lost much of its pomp and fair. Still, it is attended by hundreds of devotees from all over the region.

    It is this celebration that Waris Shah is referring to in the above-mentioned lines. Approaching Waris Shah’s poetry without cultural and historical knowledge about Punjab would be akin to reading Odysseus without knowledge of Greek mythology.

    Also read: Writing in Urdu, a Frenchman finds his calling

    Furthermore, the use of the words Dhad and Tumba are particularly important here. In folk poetic tradition, they imply a sexual intercourse. Keep in mind that when Waris Shah mentioned the celebration at Thamman, he is describing the procession of Heer’s barat.

    There are layers of meanings in these two verses that present such a vivid picture of Punjabi folk, its history, its religiosity and its topography — making this so much more than just a verse and, in a way, the essence of a culture.

    Having attended an English-medium school in Lahore where Urdu was neglected and Punjabi was actively ridiculed, the many layers of meanings hidden within these verses of Waris Shah were lost on me.

    In school, we were taught the original text of Macbeth and Merchant of Venice. Just like one cannot understand Waris Shah without the knowledge of Punjabi culture, one cannot completely appreciate the beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry without the knowledge of the culture of his time.

    For me, every lecture on Shakespeare achieved, is now a divorce from literature.

    Literature became something that could not be fully comprehended — it belonged to other people, living in other parts of the world. Their experiences were important enough to be recorded and ours were not.

    Also read: We are invisible...until we speak English

    As a writer, prowess in the English language has opened up several economic avenues in the country for my colleagues and I.

    Living in Pakistan and writing in English is much more lucrative than writing in any regional language.

    It pays more and opens up a wider audience and above all, it allows you the honour of representing Pakistani literature at a global level. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that.

    Pakistani literature does represent an aspect of Pakistani culture, but only a very small one.

    Emerging from the middle-class, urbanised community, it talks about the writer's particular experiences. Not to undermine their experiences any less Pakistani than others,however, there is no denying that it doesn’t have a universal ring.

    Also read: Will Urdu ‘unify’ our national identity?

    Whenever English writing in Pakistan has talked about the experiences of the public, it has resorted to clichés and stereotypes not much different from how politicians and journalists talk.

    I, too, place myself in this category. Even though I attempt to talk about the folk culture and history of this region, owing to my language barrier, I can only understand a minor feature of that broader culture and represent in my writing an even smaller version of that.

    As much as I try I could never write an Aag ka darya— which is to me, the most beautiful arrest of all the cultures that Qurratulain Hyder represents. To highlight the different periods and geographical locations in the book, she gives a local accent to these people.

    Mark Twain does the same in Huckleberry Finn, while Charles Dickens does it in Great Expectations.

    A people and a culture can only be represented in its own language, which is a product of that community — a foreign language would create a farcical representation.

    The tragedy here is that even though it is thriving in Pakistan, we would never have a writer of the aforementioned calibre in English from Pakistan.

    At this point, I am reminded of something Iqbal Qaiser told me a few years ago, when we were talking about the famous 17th century Sufi poet, Sultan Bahu.

    “Do you know Sultan Bahu wrote more than 100 books in Persian? But today, he is only remembered for one poem that he wrote in Punjabi, Se Harfi. Not many people can name even a few of his Persian books but everyone in Punjab at least has heard of Se Harfi.”

    Also read: Foreign writers with a Pakistan connection

    The stories of Guru Nanak, Baba Farid, Shah Hussain and Bulleh Shah are also similar. All of them were adept in Arabic and Persian, the language of the aristocrats, yet, all of them decided to express themselves in the language of the masses, Punjabi.

    They talked about the experiences of these people, of their land, their culture and their problems and in return, they were bestowed with immortality: the greatest success any author can aspire to achieve.

    This thought haunts me — many authors become writers to leave an indelible mark on the world, to achieve immortality. However, the question is, would Pakistani authors writing in English ever be able to achieve that?

    We might be more “successful” than regional writers at this point, but would anyone remember us after we're no longer physically present reminders of our work?

    Does our writing truly represent our people; did we do them justice?

    This article was originally published on February 24, 2016.

    We may be more successful than regional writers, but does our writing truly represent our people? —Photo by Shameen Khan Brohi/Dawn.comWe may be more successful than regional writers, but does our writing truly represent our people? —Photo by Shameen Khan Brohi/

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    Last month, a group of resilient women gathered to protest outside the Arts Council building in Karachi, bearing loudspeakers and placards.

    Their demand was simple: the leading poet in the city, Sahar Ansari, who allegedly sexually harassed a fellow professor at the Karachi University, be stopped from becoming the vice-president of the Art Council’s committee for arts and culture.

    The activists wrote a letter to the cultural institution delineating, what they say, is Ansari’s record of misogyny, namely the use of sexist language against, and the slut-shaming of, women theatre practitioners.

    How can Ansari, the protesters proclaimed, who is known to use abusive language for women doing theatre, and passes comments on how they dress, feel entitled to become the vice-president of a committee for arts and culture?

    But the protest ended as all protests do: a police van arrived on the scene and the protesters were roughed up.

    While the Arts Council did take notice and Ansari was disqualified from contesting the election for the committee of arts and culture, he still garners attention as an intellectual figure.

    So much so, that in response to this feminist resistance, Ansari appeared on television to make a showy display of his privilege, stating that:

    “He can’t be stopped from attending events at Arts Council,” and he “sits there in the evenings and attends all the events” and that he “even presides over many events, including mushairas and book launches.”

    It was not until Ansari said that he does not truly understand why “a case of sexual harassment pertaining to Karachi University” has anything “to do with the Arts Council,” that I began to realise that for the man in question, the personal and the political were two separate categories of existence, that his body’s violation of another body did not qualify him any less to speak on intellectual matters from the mind.

    Simply put, Ansari seemed to indicate, the mind and body are meant to be compartmentalised.

    Once I had realised the logical fallacy of Ansari’s reasoning, I immediately found myself clutching my copy of Attiya Dawood’s Sindh ki aurat sapney sai such tak (Woman of Sindh: From Illusion to Truth).

    Published by Scheherazade some 15 years ago, this excellent book of feminist essays debunks an intellectual’s separation of the mind and the body, the personal and the political.

    As intellectuals, we must recognise that this separation exists, understand its ramifications, and start imagining ways of community building that do not give in to this separation and do not build upon violence against women and the erasure of their voices.

    In the end, we must ask ourselves: how do we talk about the arts and culture without reproducing the very inequalities that we seek to highlight and critique?

    All scans of Dawood's book are provided by Dawood herself.
    All scans of Dawood's book are provided by Dawood herself.

    Dawood's book is the fruit of years of research, based on in-depth research interviews conducted with many women poets, and uses their bodily experiences to storyboard violence experienced in supposedly intellectual spaces.

    The importance of bodily experience, as opposed to a mind isolated from the body, as means of defining honest intellectual existence is central to the book’s philosophy.

    This philosophy is communicated not through the arguments and anecdotes alone, but also through the ways in which individual chapters are titled, attributing Dawood’s index with a bodily quality:

    Culture ki chakki main pisti hui aurat (The Woman Crushed in the Mill of Culture), Sindhi shayera ka safar (The Journey of the Sindhi Poetess), Sindhi shayerat ke saath mard shayeron ka ravayiya (How Men Poets Treat Women Poets from Sindh), and Be-zaban (Tongue-tied).

    This investment in the body is reflected in Dawood's own presence on weekends that I spend in her apartment.

    Our first meeting was quite an education about the importance of feminism as a visceral philosophy, i.e. a philosophy of the body.

    I showed up with a book of Bhittai’s poems tucked under my arm. Of course, this signified sheer pretense:

    Dawood is after all the doyenne of Sindhi literature and I wanted to impress her by suggesting how ‘intellectual’ I was.

    When she saw the book, she laughed and recounted an anecdote that I now realise was her subtle way of educating me about honest intellectual behaviour, a behaviour that is embodied rather than simply thought.

    “I was in Sindh,” she said, “to interview some women. Their husbands had migrated in search for work, and their situation reminded me of a poem by Bhittai, where Sindhi women come together on the banks of the river Sindhu and sing songs of yearning, praying to the ocean for the return of their husbands.

    “At this point, the Sindhi women broke into laughter and said: ‘Are you silly? Our husbands used to beat us. We’re quite glad they’ve left us in peace. Acha hua jaan chooti. (Thank God they've left!)’”

    For Dawood, the importance of arts and culture is no grand philosophy. It is simply a mode of being. Of living, talking, writing, breathing.

    This experiential aspect of her feminism is key to understanding how we can build more inclusive avenues of talking about the arts and culture.

    Grounding herself in bodily experiences rather than abstractions allows her to challenge hegemony in intellectual spaces, by exposing the utter lack of connection between spectacles of intellectual success and the human life that they claim to represent.

    In retrospect, Dawood has been attempting to reconcile this separation, by breathing life back into our intellectual pursuits. This is her practice of that age-old feminist analytic, that the personal is the political, that we must practise what we preach, that any separation between the mind and the body is problematic.

    The early chapters of the book are dedicated to exploring this problematic separation, and Dawood’s method is to delineate it within the private lives of the many intellectual icons.

    In Sindhi shayerat ke saath mard shayeron ka ravayiya, Dawood lays out her thesis:

    “If one makes an inquiry into the private lives of many living poets, one will realise how violent the gender politics in intellectual spaces really are: that on the altar of Poetry, it is women’s bodies that become sacrificial goats, that women’s bodies become subservient to men’s ideas.”

    To illustrate her point, she gives examples of the historical silencing of women by men identifying themselves as intellectuals.

    Her first example is Sara Shagufta, to whom Dawood dedicates a full chapter titled Sara meri dost (Sara, My Friend).

    Owing somewhat to the patriarchal nature of intellectual spaces and her own poet husband who forbade her to write, Shagufta fell into clinical depression, and after her divorce proceedings, ultimately committed suicide at the age of 29.

    In a letter to the Indian poetess Amrita Pritam, Shagufta, describing her situation, wrote:

    “A woman cannot offer philosophical ramblings to her husband as dinner, you see. He demands real food. So he does philosophy, and we cook in the kitchen in order for him to do it.”

    “Poets and intellectuals often host poetry recitals in their homes,” Dawood tells us, building upon Shagufta’s confinement into the private sphere. “During these recitals, they speak of women’s rights, hailing each other as progressive men.

    “The wife of the poet yearns to join the conversation, but is only permitted into the drawing room insofar as to serve the tray of chai to the guests, before returning to the kitchen.

    “The voices clamouring for women’s rights in the drawing room do not even reach the woman’s ears as she busies herself in the kitchen to prepare the next round of chai.”

    There are other writers that Dawood dedicates full chapters to in her book. In Wapis aja pagli, dunya bohat achi hay (Return Child, It’s a Wonderful World), for example, an elegy written in the memory of the writer Khairunnisa Jaffri, Dawood mourns her tragedy:

    “In many ways, Khairunnisa reminded me of Sara Shagufta. The same, wounded eyes that have understood the hypocrisies of men claiming to represent our rights.

    “Once, when a friend asked her whether she would like to accompany us with a circle of intellectuals to Bhitshah for a night of Bhittai’s raags, she responded in a matter-of-fact way: ‘hypocrites, all of them.’

    “I remember those early days when we would take our poems to poetry circles to receive feedback from fellow writers. Little did we see that their eyes were scarcely paying any attention to our poetry, but had stealthily dropped below our necks to scan our chests, or the contours of Khairunnisa’s lips.”

    In the remaining essay, Dawood recounts how Jaffri, like Shagufta, was harassed repeatedly by the cultural elite of Hyderabad, fell into clinical depression in her 30s, and died a premature death.

    If Jaffri and Shagufta’s stories are not sufficient proof, Dawood offers us with two more historical cases to prove the presence of power in intellectual spaces:

    In Sindh ki shaera ka safar (The Journey of the Poetess in Sindh), she lays these cases before us:

    “Take, for example, the case of the feminist writer Surraya Soz Diplai. Her birth name was Naseem, and when she started publishing stories under this name, which naturally some gentlemen thought could only belong to a ‘petite’ girl, she once received a bouquet of unsolicited love letters.

    “She changed her name, and fearing more harassment, eventually stopped writing. No one knows her by her name now.

    “Then, of course, there was G.N. Manghani, and Ms. Z.E. Shaikh, and who could forget Sultana Vaqaasi. She used to write originally as Akram Sultana, and changed her name in ‘73 or ’74 after a controversy in which she was accused of frequenting mushairas to ‘hunt men’ for herself, and shamed. Now the world has forgotten her and her work.”

    At the end of this chapter, under a sub-heading titled, Sindh se bari shayera aaj tak paida kiun nahi hui (Why Women Poets from Sindh Never Made It Big), Dawood cites her final examples, which are based on her personal conversations with the wives of two of Sindh’s foremost progressive writers, Shaikh Ayaz himself, and Shamsheer-ul-Haidery.

    While assessing the intellectual iconicism of giants such as Ayaz and Haidery might sound blasphemous to many, Dawood’s writing comes off as so raw, unassuming, and perhaps even vulnerable, that one cannot help but sympathise with her case.

    Dawood shows us, both through her visceral persona and her writing, that disagreeing with an intellectual giant who troubles our body is no polemic thing to do, that it is merely an expression of our humanness, echoing Hannah Arendt’s dictum that “there are no polemic thoughts; thinking itself is polemic.”

    “The watch-man of the guest house in the hills of Nagarparkar,” begins Dawood, “was perhaps most privy to the private moments of Ayaz’s life.

    “It was here, in this guest house, that the great poet of Sindh would retire to reflect on his thoughts, to compose his poetry.

    “Poets like to be solitary perhaps. The watch-man informed me that he would often catch Ayaz going on long walks, picking up leaves of all shapes and colours.

    “At night, he would study them under the light of the laaltain inside the guest house and write about them.

    “But Ayaz’s wife recounted feelings of abandonment by her husband when I went to visit her. ‘My job was only to pack his bags,’ she said. ‘I was only allowed to ask one question: how many clothes?’

    “Recounting a similar experience of confinement within the domestic sphere, it was the battered wife of the famous poet from Sindh, Shamsheer-ul-Haidery, who once warned me: ‘Marry a thief, a dacoit, or a scoundrel if you must, but please Attiya, never marry a poet.’”

    It is curious to note that in popular discourse, Shamsheer-ul-Haidery is hailed as “a cultural icon who was revolutionary and progressive” and is commonly referred to as the “son of the Sindhi soil,” while Ayaz is“the resistant poet.”

    We might ask ourselves: how could a poet batter a woman’s body in private and yet be hailed as a progressive and revolutionary in public?

    How could a resistant poet alienate a body through his own actions?

    “It is for this reason alone,” Dawood writes, concluding her argument, “that despite my strong left-leaning tendencies, I never joined a single leftist party in Pakistan.

    “For even in far-left leaning writing collectives such as the Adabi Sangat [not to one’s surprise, founded by Haidery] ‘progressive’ men are on the forefront of speaking about women’s rights in public.

    “But when she meets him at a literary gathering, the façade of intellectual engagement drops dead. Suddenly, the men find themselves transformed into the heartthrobs of the party, and stalkerish behaviour is justified as ‘the gentlemanly act of complimenting a lady.’

    “Is the political structure of patriarchy not enough oppression for a woman that she has to take on additional setbacks by men, who, now in the name of arts and culture, are passing off as feminists?”

    Dawood is able to show that for the many intellectuals who are canonised as heroes of enlightenment, the mind and the body are compartmentalised as separate categories of experiencing reality.

    While, in the public sphere, their minds speak, in elocutionary fervour, their desire to represent humanity; within the private sphere, their bodies contradict everything that their minds claim to represent.

    Dawood finds fault in this compartmentalisation, viewing it as basically paradoxical, contradictory, and above all, demeaning to the integrity of the intellectual, who has betrayed their own claim of representation.

    Feminism is known as a visceral philosophy, the philosophy of the body, precisely because it seeks to reconcile this separation between the mind and the body, the private and the public, the personal and the political.

    This is what feminist theorist bell hooks articulates in her acclaimed book Teaching to Transgress: Education as a Practice of Freedom:

    “One of the central tenets of feminist critical pedagogy,” writes hooks, “has been the insistence on not engaging the mind/body split… This is one of the underlying beliefs that has made Women's Studies a subversive location in the academy… existing structures seem to uphold the idea of a mind/body split, one that promotes and supports compartmentalisation.

    “This support reinforces the dualistic separation of public and private, encouraging people to see no connection between life practices, habits of being, and intellectual thought.”

    What this means is that whether poets are, for example, sexual predators, or people engaging in domestic violence, under an intellectual hegemony, “the only important thing is that we should all respect that they’re there to be a mind and not a body.”

    This, then, explains the logical fallacy behind Sahar Ansari’s own statements owing to recent feminist resistance against him, that he does not see why “a case of sexual harassment pertaining to Karachi University” has anything “to do with [his intellectual pursuits] at the Arts Council.”

    But Dawood’s book debunked this 15 years ago. She has shown us that intellectuals are more than a mind: they are also bodies, bodies hurting other bodies, bodies causing human suffering.

    When we begin to see intellectual authorities not merely as minds, but also as bodies hurting other bodies, we begin to investigate the function of intellectual hegemony.

    We begin to see that hegemony functions in a twofold manner: first, by convincing us that men are the self-appointed representatives of humanity; and second, that their mind is superior to the knowledge women’s bodies witness.

    Sindh ki aurat sapney sai such tak questions intellectual hegemony by resurrecting the domestic histories of those women writers who have been historically buried under the weight of their intellectual male counterparts.

    In Unveiling the Issues: Pakistani Women's Perspectives on Social, Political and Ideological Issues edited by Nighat Said Khan and Afiya Sheherbano Zia, Dawood has mapped this systemic intellectual erasure in a chapter titled Feminist Voices of Sindh.

    In this chapter, names that we, as students of South Asian literature have never come across, float before our eyes:

    Markhan Shaikhan, Jadal Jatni, Shah Shujah, Mai Niamat, Mai Ghulam Fatima Lal, Nemanu Fakir, Bhagwan Dasi, Rama Bai, Kamla Kaiswani, Sultana Waqasi, Shamshad Mirza, Sosan Mirza, Shabnam Moti, and Miran.

    So many names that we wonder and ask: who, indeed, were these women? Why did we never hear of them? Did someone else speak for them while they were locked within the private sphere, their voices obliterated?

    I have learnt most about the functions of intellectual hegemony from Attiya Dawood. Questioning these functions and reimagining the ways in which gender, sexual, racial, and class minorities reclaim their right to talk about their lives has shown me how to be a better feminist, and indeed, a better thinking individual.

    As intellectuals, we are here to critique institutions of power that dehumanise human life.

    I do not think we can achieve radical good by simultaneously existing within such institutions and laying our claim to representing human life.

    This simultaneity is the crux of why we, in many ways, fail to create inclusive community spaces.

    It was the revolutionary feminist poet Audre Lorde who paved the way in feminist thought for the crucial need to address, and resolve, this simultaneity:

    “When we view living only as a problem to be solved,” she said, “we then rely solely upon our ideas to make us free… But as we become more in touch with our view of living as a situation to be experienced and interacted with, we learn more and more to cherish our feelings, and to respect those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and therefore lasting action comes.”

    If we are to become better intellectuals, we will have to tap into these hidden sources of knowledge, and work towards lasting action. If we are to become better intellectuals, we will have to sabotage our own desires to benefit from institutions of power.

    This is a feminist act: an act of renouncing your privilege. It is only through this renouncement that we can begin to imagine inclusive and sustainable community spaces.

    Header image designed by Marium Ali.

    Are you a woman who works in a male-dominated profession? Share your experience with us at

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    Observing the low rates of reported rapes in Pakistan, a recent Dawneditorial rightly points towards the gross “inadequacies of investigators and prosecutors…” as a key contributor to this issue.

    The role of medical examiners holds immense importance in investigations for rape, since their report can often make or break the case.

    Despite this, the investigational techniques utilised by our medicolegal system tend to rely upon crude, insensitive, and often brutal methods.

    Newsreels of crime scenes being mobbed by curious onlookers, rescue volunteers, and reporters, the place being hosed down and precious evidence washed away or trampled on, is nothing new to us.

    Our methods are unprofessional, to say the least, in sharp contrast to the meticulous, and methodical approaches being adopted by investigators that impress us on TV shows like CSI Miami.

    Advancements in forensic investigations have come a long way but have yet to reach our shores.

    Lack of career opportunities

    The domain of the medical examiner unfortunately does not present a very rosy picture either. Medical forensic is an orphan specialisation in this country with the brightest minds choosing more lucrative fields.

    The forensic departments in medical colleges exist due to requirements laid down by the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council, the governing body for undergraduate medical education in Pakistan.

    While the subject is taught in all medical colleges as a compulsory course, it is treated by students as no more than a necessary irritant to be endured, rather than a discipline to be learnt and understood, since very few people want to make a career out of it.

    Read next: Women doctors don’t choose to leave work; they are forced out of their careers

    This is not surprising since the only employment that forensic specialists get in Pakistan are in understaffed, under budgeted police surgeon offices in casualty departments of government hospitals.

    The medicolegal officers are the underpaid, unrespected and entirely unacknowledged foot soldiers of our medicolegal system that is known more for its failings rather than its accomplishments.

    The necessary close linkage with the law enforcement system also exposes this cadre to corruption that is rife in our police force.

    Hence we have very few people in this field, out of whom many are there due to a lack of alternatives rather than out of choice.

    This dismal state of affairs translates into limited progress in the field, the result of which is the suffering endured by the hapless victims seeking justice.

    Systemic backwardness

    A prime example of this was highlighted by a recent Dawnarticle lamenting the use of the archaic and useless two-finger test used to establish ‘consent’ in a sexual assault case.

    This legal requirement for a two-finger test to determine the veracity of the complaint of a rape victim resides within the dusty archives of law books, as a relic of the medieval precedence on which British law of that time was often structured, and is not in practice in any modern legal system across the world.

    Same topic: It's time Pakistan banned the two-finger test for decoding consent in rape trials

    Yet, the legal and judicial system of this country seeks the results of this humiliating and unnecessary examination, to be conducted on a victim who summons enough courage to seek justice from a system not renowned for its sensitivity.

    Not only is this test regarded as scientifically invalid, it does nothing but to doubly curse the woman.

    After getting brutally violated once by the perpetrator of the crime, her recourse for justice lies in submitting to what amounts to nothing less than the most dehumanising and humiliating invasion of a woman’s privacy.

    And this is done at the hands of a medical practitioner, a messiah whose hands are supposed to heal.

    Resource constraints

    The Dawn editorial rightly applauds the Peshawar High Court’s decision to make it mandatory to include DNA evidence in rape investigations.

    Whereas DNA forensic has been an established field across the world for years, enabling accurate linking of cells found at the site of the crime to the person they belong to, this technology has been introduced in Pakistan primarily to deal with cases of terrorism and has been very useful in identifying both victims and perpetrators.

    Public sector hospitals can access these specialised labs to investigate rape investigations. However, the presence of a facility does not mean it will be used optimally.

    Even though specimen collection using rape kits is no rocket science, and any trained person can do so, the lack of availability of trained staff often results in the loss of the window of opportunity to collect appropriate samples.

    Due to the social taboo associated with rape and the psychological trauma, the victims may understandably present themselves to the investigation officer late.

    Once this narrow window of opportunity is lost, there will be no second chance at collecting appropriate DNA samples.

    Read next: How Pakistan can save more lives at the site of bomb blasts

    Even if the samples are collected and preserved within the designated time frame, lack of appropriate transportation to the labs presents another challenge.

    The samples sitting on the dashboard of a van on a hot summer afternoon, while the driver stops for lunch and namaz on the way from Karachi to Hyderabad, where the DNA lab is located for the province of Sindh, is not the recommended way to handle these delicate specimens.

    Another challenge is the costs involved in the examination. While the service lies within the public sector domain, there is a cost attached to every procedure.

    The lack of budgetary allocations precludes free availability of this investigation.

    While the test ought to be provided for free to the victims, the cost which typically amounts to Rs20,000 is generally passed on to the victims’ families.

    This may serve as a further deterrent for low income families who may still want to seek justice but find themselves in a bind because of their economic situation.

    With so little faith in the legal system, many may understandably choose to forgo this added expense.

    Failing education system

    Perhaps even worse than ignorance and poor training is apathy of those who matter: the medical practitioners.

    While our medical system may train our students in the modern methods of medical care, there is hardly any attempt to inculcate within them the values of empathy, compassion and caring, all part of the largely ignored multidimensional field of bioethics.

    Our students are not trained in communication skills, which form an essential part of a physicians’ work, particularly for a medicolegal officer who deals with highly sensitive cases including rape and attempted suicide, to mention a few.

    Related: Pakistani medical codes weren't violated in sending friend request to Sharmeen's sister – and that's a problem

    Most of our medical colleges either entirely ignore teaching bioethics, and even when it is included in the curriculum, according to a study conducted by one of the authors, the students believed that there was a disconnect between what was being taught and what they experienced in real life.

    Another study has also previously indicated that a vast majority of the medical students expressed concern that instead of strengthening their moral values during medical schooling, the realities of the work environment may actually lead to erosion of their preexisting values.

    In such a situation, easy availability and accessibility of advanced investigational techniques may not be enough.

    Dealing with rape victims requires compassionate practitioners, equipped not only with advanced forensic knowledge and skills, and access to technology, but also armed with appropriate bioethics training with a focus on enhancing professionalism and communication skills.

    A humane and ethical professional will make the best use of whatever technology is available and will provide the victim with the best chance at justice.

    Are you a medical practitioner involved in community issues and building? Share your insights with us at

    A forensic scientist analyzes samples in the DNA and Serology department at Punjab Forensic Science Agency in Lahore January 13, 2015. As one of America's top forensic scientists, Mohammad Tahir uncovered evidence that helped jail boxer Mike Tyson for rape, convict serial killer John Wayne Gacy and clear doctor Sam Sheppard of murdering his wife. Then Tahir took on his toughest assignment yet - applying his skills in Pakistan, a poor nation of 180 million people beset by crime and militancy. Picture taken January 13, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra (PAKISTAN - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY CRIME LA forensic scientist analyzes samples in the DNA and Serology department at Punjab Forensic Science Agency in Lahore January 13, 2015. As one of America's top forensic scientists, Mohammad Tahir uncovered evidence that helped jail boxer Mike Tyson for rape, convict serial killer John Wayne Gacy and clear doctor Sam Sheppard of murdering his wife. Then Tahir took on his toughest assignment yet - applying his skills in Pakistan, a poor nation of 180 million people beset by crime and militancy. Picture taken January 13, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra (PAKISTAN - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY CRIME L

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    There are conflicting accounts of her life. Some suggest she lost her mother at a young age and accompanied her fakir father to various shrines.

    The seed of spirituality must have been sown in her as a child on these pilgrimages. But perhaps her experience at these shrines was not all pleasant.

    It was during one of these pilgrimages that she was handed over to a Muslim man from Lahore, who upon returning to the city with his new bride sold her to a brothel in Hira Mandi. She eventually joined a sect and became critical of pilgrimages.

    Born a Muslim, Piro Preman is believed to have repudiated her religion after she became a member of the Ghulab Dasi sect.

    We cannot say for sure if this was an actual act of apostasy and conversion, or rather an accusation hurled by religious puritans offended by her provocative poetry, her devotion to Ghulab Das, the enigmatic head of the sect, and her unrestrained sexuality.

    Either way, she refused to correct them and embraced the accusations much like Bulleh Shah, an iconic Punjabi poet who lived a few decades before her but whose poetry she must have heard in the Sufi shrines of Punjab. “They call you kafir, you say yes indeed,” Bulleh Shah said.

    In many ways, Piro Preman can be seen as part of the same Sufi poetic tradition that connects Baba Farid with Guru Nanak, Shah Hussain with Bulleh Shah.

    These similarities have been identified by Anshu Malhotra, author of the book Piro and the Gulabdasis. While Bulleh Shah said, “Calling out to Ranjha I became him”, Piro Preman wrote, “Piro herself is piya, not separate from him”.

    Divine will

    But she was also unique, distinct, the founder of her own tradition. Baba Farid laid the foundations of Punjabi Sufi poetry in the 12th century, but it took Punjab more than six centuries to churn out its first female Sufi poet in the form of Piro Preman.

    Classical Punjabi Sufi poetry already challenged several conventions of sexuality: far from being seen as taboo, sexual union was celebrated in these verses as a symbol of the union of the devotee with the divine.

    The devotee, expressing his emotions in poetry, traditionally began referring to himself as female, Heer, while the divine was represented as a male, Ranjha.

    There were also references to homoeroticism, representing the bond a devotee shared with his murshad, as can be seen in Bulleh Shah’s reference to Shah Inayat. But it took a person of the stature of Piro Preman to break through the final ceiling.

    Perhaps unwittingly, by representing their relationship with the divine in traditional gender symbols – the devotee as an abandoned lover yearning for the acceptance of her husband, the divine – the Sufi poets were reinforcing traditional gender roles even as they pushed the boundaries of spirituality and brought together people from different folds of religion.

    Piro Preman refused to be an abandoned lover at the mercy of a cruel beloved. She refused to wait for a beloved who would deign to give her his acceptance. She wrote:

    “Piro! I will not accept the companionship of a lie
    Those that are separated will never meet, just like a broken thread
    Nor family, nor your in-laws, not your age-mates, neither your friends
    They disperse as people do when they disembark from a boat.”

    All religions belonged to men as far as Piro Preman was concerned. She wrote:

    “Making false religions and promises,
    You make Turks by snipping the penis and the moustache;
    Hindus are made with janeyu and chat,
    Women cannot be made thus, they are both wrong.”

    (Translations by Anshu Malhotra)

    Contesting claims explain her arrival at the Hira Mandi brothel: some suggest she was brought there by her husband, others claim she was sold by her lover, a fakir, with whom she had eloped after abandoning her husband.

    But there is no doubt that Piro Preman did work as a prostitute for some time. Her low caste, her profession became her identity, just as Shah Hussain’s weaver caste and Ranjha’s temporary job as a cowherd with Heer’s family are ubiquitous.

    In her writing and her life story, her profession comes across as an entrapment from which she is finally freed when she joins the Ghulab Dasi sect in Chatian Wala, a village in Kasur district, a few kilometres from the city where Bulleh Shah is buried.

    But perhaps it was her profession that emancipated her from the restraints of traditional morality. Having “fallen” so low in the eyes of society, she was relieved of the burden of lifting the weight of their expectations.

    She and Ghulab Das became lovers. While in traditional religiosity their relationship, undefined by the institutions of society, would have been taboo, in their sect, of which these two were the most prominent leaders, it was an expression of divine will, a compelling force that had to be obeyed.

    For Ghulab Dasis believed that one’s impulse was a divine command that could not be denied. Societal rules held no significance in the face of these divine instructions.

    Like Heer-Ranjha

    For centuries, however, before the Ghulab Dasis expressed this as a tenet of their sect, millions of Punjabis raised on the spirituality of Sufi poetry had celebrated a similar love between Heer and Ranjha.

    Heer was married to someone else when their love was discovered but continued her rendezvous with her true lover, Ranjha, which in Sufi poetry is expressed as divine love, one that binds a lover with her beloved, a devotee with her divine.

    It is the same kind of bond that united Radha with her Krishna, despite her own marriage.

    But poetical and metaphorical expressions are not necessarily tolerated in their literal incarnations. Both Hindus and Muslims turned against the Ghulab Dasis for their licentiousness.

    Unlike ascetics, the Ghulab Dasis freely accepted the comforts of the world.

    Challenging conventional beliefs about god, they propagated that this world is god, a manifestation of god, and that all is god, leading many of their critics to believe they did not believe in god and instead worshipped worldly luxuries.

    They did not impose restrictions on food and drinks like Muslims and Hindus did.

    The shrine of Piro Piraman and Ghulab Das. They wanted to be buried together, like the legendary lovers Heer-Ranjha.
    The shrine of Piro Piraman and Ghulab Das. They wanted to be buried together, like the legendary lovers Heer-Ranjha.

    Perhaps Ghulab Das and Piro Preman believed they were incarnations of the legendary Punjabi lovers Heer-Ranjha. Similar to them, they wanted to be buried in a single grave after their death, which did eventually happen.

    A shrine was constructed over their singular grave and it ironically became a major pilgrimage for thousands of Ghulab Dasis scattered across Punjab and Sindh, despite their abhorrence towards pilgrimages and shrines.

    The shrine was there, in a dilapidated state, taking its last breath, when I visited the village in 2011.

    A couple of years later, the last physical evidence of Piro Preman and Ghulab Das disappeared from the land of its origin.

    This article was originally published on Scroll and has been reproduced with permission.

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    Amid dangerously deepening tensions, Washington and Islamabad have announced they will be downgrading their diplomacy to Twitter-based communication only.

    “Given the recent difficulties in our relations, and given the ability of President Trump and many of our ministers to interact adroitly via Twitter, we have decided to restrict our communications to that medium only, for the time being,” according to a statement issued by Pakistan’s foreign ministry.

    Meanwhile, the White House released the following statement: “Until Pakistan demonstrates that it is doing more to take out the terrorists that target our troops in Afghanistan, we will limit our relations to rapid-fire bursts of 140—sorry, 280 (yay!)—character tweets.”

    In interviews, officials in both capitals pledged support for the decision, which one White House staffer referred to as “tough love, Twitter style.”

    Tough love, Twitter style: Exhibition 1.
    Tough love, Twitter style: Exhibition 1.

    “We have repeatedly conveyed the need for Pakistan to step up its game when it comes to terror,” said a US official reached by phone who demanded anonymity for reasons that are unclear, other than the fact that Americans like to make demands.

    “We have conveyed this demand repeatedly through every communication channel known to humanity, including in-person meetings, public statements, emails, faxes, Morse code, smoke signals—the frequent smog in Islamabad helps with that—and much more. But it hasn’t worked.

    “We’d like to push it more on Twitter, a platform the President already uses so frequently and which enjoys the multiplier effect of social media. We can get through to many folks. Just watch.”

    When asked why the US would expect to be any more successful on Twitter than off it, the official had a quick answer: “The power of replication.”

    Pressed further, the official said, “The magic of Twitter enables us to say ‘do more’ many times in a single missive.” The sound of a pen scribbling on paper could be heard in the background.

    The list was too long for a screenshot but if you're curious, Pakistan is on 16th spot.
    The list was too long for a screenshot but if you're curious, Pakistan is on 16th spot.

    Then the US official continued: “I’ve just done the math. With the new 280 character limit, the President can say ‘do more’ 40 times in a single tweet. That’s remarkable.”

    At the State Department, where it took numerous attempts to get someone to answer the phone, several officials acknowledged that restricting diplomatic relations to Twitter—notorious for its toxic environment—could further poison bilateral relations.

    “That may be true,” one State officer said, sighing, “but then again, it’s not our call.”

    Several staffers at the State Department looked on the bright side. “Our diplomats’ access to Pakistanis is often limited due to security considerations.

    “Now, via Twitter, we’ll have instant access to the highly strategic demographic—young, urban-based, tech-savvy, English-speaking—that dominates the Pakistani Twittersphere,” one opined.

    When told that Pakistan’s roughly three million Twitter users may also include many boisterous bots that are not terribly inclined to engage cordially with US officials, the staffer did not respond.

    TBT to rosier times.
    TBT to rosier times.

    On the Pakistani side, policymakers cast the move as inevitable. “They often don’t speak nicely to us in person,” reasoned one official, “so why not just give in and take to Twitter, where no one ever seems to talk nicely to anyone.”

    Pakistani officials, like their American counterparts, looked on the bright side. “Twitter-based ties shall promote democracy,” said one.

    “We will be speaking directly to the people, while being fully transparent in our deliberations. We have the option of doing Twitter polls.

    “And if there’s a need to opt for the back channel route, or if the Americans need a quiet and private space to conduct that audit we’ve invited them to undertake, then we’ll simply resort to DM.

    “Does President Trump have an open DM policy?”

    “Also,” the official continued, “US-Pakistan Twitterplomacy will provide open channels for dissent. The Insaafians and Ghairat Brigade can weigh in angrily with their awkwardly worded hash tags.

    “And ISPR will surely step in with inputs when necessary, and when not necessary as well.”

    To be honest ...
    To be honest ...

    Asked why Pakistan would settle for an arrangement that could presumably lead to more abrasive treatment, the official replied:

    “We’re used to it, we can deal with it, and best of all Twitter allows us to mute or block the invective if we wish. In effect, we can easily deflect their demands.

    “When they tweet ‘do more,’ we’ll tweet ‘no more.’ We’ll mute them if they persist. This constant dynamic, so onerous and uncomfortable offline, is a quick and painless 280-character process on Twitter.”

    There may be something fitting about US-Pakistan relations being relegated to the Twittersphere. “Twitter and US-Pakistan relations, improbably enough, are like two peas in a pod,” according to a sideburned South Asia analyst in Washington who seemingly opines on everything under the Subcontinental sun.

    “Pundits have long forecast the demise of both, and yet each manages to survive. And now we have these two resilient forces coming together as one.”

    “Poetic, isn’t it?”

    Caveat from Captain Obvious: This is a satirical report.

    0 0

    I’m not a traveller. And this is not a regular travel blog.

    This is my journey of losing myself, so that I could eventually find myself, richer and fuller.

    A while ago, I was broke, heartbroken and in a desperate need to get away from Karachi, a city which offers no respite.

    It’s the only place I have ever called home. But this city is not easy. And if you’re cracked open and vulnerable, Karachi is definitely not the place to be.

    This realisation dawned on me one evening, as I sat by the sea, watching the sun go down. It was the greyest sunset ever.

    The cloudless sky was grey; the water was grey. The sand on the beach, the buildings, the birds, the roads, the crabs – all grey.

    Grey. Old. Senile. Diseased. Dying? I hoped not. I prayed not.

    A line from one of Jason Silva’s documentaries flashed in my mind, where he quoted Geoffrey West from the Santa Fe Institute, saying:

    “Cities are like organisms, alleys are like capillaries.”

    The choked vessels of this city would eventually lead to a heart attack.

    I felt understood by no one. There was chaos within. I was spread too thin. I was being consumed, spent, silently withering away.

    Too polluted to breathe properly. The noise made it hard for me to hear myself. The traffic – oh, the traffic jams were maddening.

    This city reminds me, every day, to give. It’s a city that has given off itself and has held people in.

    Give, give, give. I gave with whatever I had. Time, energy, mind, soul. It just never seemed enough.

    At work, I was trying to put up a brave face – smile wide, say yes, push through – one more day, one more week, just another month.

    Every morning began with a pep talk: “You can do it. You can get by one more day without breaking down, without falling to pieces. You can make it through.”

    At home, the emptiness would nibble away on my insides, “You’re not enough, you’re never going to be enough!”


    I had been living my dream of travelling alone vicariously, through the life of someone who perhaps saw me as an opportunity rather than a partner.

    I allowed myself to take pride in his travels and stories as if they were my own. But they weren’t.

    I would have liked to share those experiences, but perhaps, he didn’t like the same. And so when we chose our different paths, it broke me down in half.

    For the first time, it dawned on me that I was only partly myself with him. In living my dreams through him, I was only living half of my own dreams.

    I wasn’t allowing myself to grow in those areas where he filled in the voids. I shrank myself in his presence, rather than letting the relationship build me stronger.

    Despite being a strong and independent woman, I somehow believed deep down that I was never going to be as good as him. I gave him power over me, and with time, he no longer had an interest in my life.

    I dreamed of open skies and being wild and free. But I felt stuck to the ground. And at the end of the day, I felt inadequate and incomplete.


    Some days were better than others. I felt lighter that morning. I had gone to the salon the evening before, and changed around my hair a bit.

    I felt bold and glamorous. I put on some makeup, a brighter shade of lipstick to match my spirits, and I left the house without really knowing where I was going.

    I ran a few errands, and then drove down to Sea View towards Do Darya, singing along to songs that soothed my soul.

    A crashed blue Honda caught my eye on the opposite side of the road. It looked like it was brand new. Did they survive? I hope they did. Bless their souls.

    There was something about that car that felt strangely familiar. In retrospect, it was definitely an omen – shiny, brand new, and on the verge of a crash down.

    I thought I’d drive down to the water, sit by the sea at my usual spot, but the heat that day was sweltering, the sun stinging my skin where my hands touched the steering wheel.

    A little further down, a tiny green dome caught my attention.

    I had seen it from distance quite a few times, but that day something urged me to go see it up close. Is that a mazaar?

    Perhaps. There were strings of little flags alongside the dirt-road that led to the gates.

    It wasn’t a mazaar, I realised, as I drove closer. Masjid-e-Arafat, read the sign outside. Would it be okay for me to go in? I’m dressed in a t-shirt and yoga pants, which is certainly not the appropriate attire for a mosque.

    I sat in my parked car right outside the gates, contemplating whether I should go in or not. I could see hundreds of pigeons flying around the mosque in circles. I even saw some chickens pecking around inside.

    Surely, there must be someone who takes care of the mosque and the birds, but I couldn’t see anyone through the gates.

    After a few minutes of sitting there in the heat, my curiosity got the best of me.

    I got out of the car and walked up to the rusted, green iron gates, which appeared to be locked from the inside. I was about to turn back, when I heard a man call out:

    Chota darwaza khula hai, andar aajao” (The smaller gate is open, come in). A middle-aged man in brown shalwar kameez limped towards the gate, asking me in.

    Feeling sheepish for being caught prying, I walked in hesitantly, knowing that it was too late to turn back.

    “Don’t worry, come in. It’s okay,” he reassured.

    As I walked in, a strange tranquility took over me. It felt like time had paused in this place. The sound of the fluttering wings of the birds and the cooing pigeons under the cool shade of the trees felt starkly different from the noise of the impatient traffic and the unforgiving heat outside.

    “Feel free to spend as much time here as you want.”

    I wasn’t expecting that. I wasn’t expecting that I’d be allowed in, let alone welcomed inside a mosque.

    Women aren’t always welcomed this way inside holy places. They must cover their heads and hide behind veils or use the side doors to enter.

    Why wasn’t this person judging me?

    “This mosque was built by a sufi saint in the 80s. This is a spiritual place which calls people in. Only the ones truly seeking peace and connection come here. You must be looking for something. Would you like some tea?”

    Humbled and spellbound, I shook my head. I asked for some water instead.

    I walked up the steps to a small, white-washed terrace in the patio, and as soon as I was alone, tears started streaming down my face uncontrollably.

    This place was indeed drenched in divine spirituality; I could sense it with each breath. I sat under the shade of the tree, trying to hold on to the magic of this moment, this sense of peace.

    Dildar Baba, the caretaker of this soulful place, came to the terrace with a glass of water, careful not to disturb me in my moment of prayer.

    As I sat there talking to him, he told me that the saint who built this mosque was an avid traveller.

    That he drove a jeep not just on land but also in water, through the ocean waves, which is why he was popularly known as Samundari Baba.

    That he was a free-spirited man who liked to spend his time in solitude, praying here unperturbed by worldly desires.

    Samundari Baba gathered many devotees over his lifetime, and he has a mazaar near Nooriabad, where his jeep is still parked.

    Dildar Baba’s words piqued my interest. The picture he painted was drastically different from the image of holy men I had in my mind.

    Samundari Baba seemed to have lived the kind of life I secretly desired, but never had the courage to openly admit to myself.

    Free-spirited, soulful wanderer. That’s what I want to be.

    But I’m a woman, a voice in my head protested.
    Does that really matter?
    Should it matter? Another voice asked.
    It shouldn’t. No. It really shouldn’t.
    Well then. Someone has to take the first step.
    But how?

    With a meagre bank account and pending bills to pay, how could I indulge in these pursuits? Plus, my calendar at work was pretty much filled for the next few weeks.

    I couldn’t just leave. Could I?

    And where would I go anyway? Who would I go with? Who would I go to? Alone. I felt so deeply alone. Yes, I had friends. And family. But I needed to heal. And I needed to do that on my own.

    My mind was being rational, steering me towards caution. My soul, on the other hand, craved freedom.

    Wind-in-my-hair, driving-fast-going-nowhere type of freedom. There must have been a million reasons to stay, but there was only one reason not to: The Voice inside me urged me to go.

    In a moment of impulse, before I could talk myself out of it, I booked myself a train ticket to the first city that came to my mind: Bahawalpur.

    I had never been to that city and I didn’t know anyone there. I just remembered reading about its rich history and culture. It sounded like a great place to start.

    I had only been on a Pakistani train once in the last 20 years, and that too with 26 other people I knew.

    Alone? On a train? A woman?

    The Voice said: Trust me. Go for it.

    So I did.


    Travelling alone is strangely liberating. You feel more alive. You get to set your own pace. You get to choose how far to push yourself.

    Travelling alone as a woman in this country is somehow synonymous with bold and brave. Everywhere I went, every person I met in the week to follow, reminded me of that.

    While there are obvious reasons to be cautious and wary, there are also multiple advantages of travelling alone as a woman in this country.

    A couple of days before leaving, I looked up hotels and guest houses in Bahawalpur and made a reservation over the phone at a small and cheap hotel. All they asked me was my name and number of persons.

    Upon hearing that I was travelling alone, they bumped me up to an executive suite.

    With a hotel room and a one-way ticket to a city I knew little about, I was all set to start my journey – the journey of redefining my boundaries and shedding my inhibitions.

    On a Friday night, I packed my bags and left for Cantt Station with a flutter in my heart. I can’t believe I am actually doing this.

    All photos by the author.
    All photos by the author.

    If I was scared, I tried not to show it. I took a deep breath and opened the door to my train compartment. A middle-aged couple. That’s not too bad.

    They welcomed me in with a warm smile and asked me where I was going.

    “Bahawalpur? Great. We are going there too. Don’t worry about anything. You’re a lot like our daughter.”

    Over the next 10 hours, we shared stories and we shared food. We talked about our families and our take on the situation of the country.

    There were three other young men in the compartment, but they sat in the corridor for most of the journey. They let us to take whichever berth we were most comfortable on, and were courteous and accommodating.

    As all six of us got off at the same station, the men held doors open for us and helped us with our luggage.

    There are definite advantages of travelling alone as a woman.


    As we were leaving the station, the couple asked me if I had someone picking me up. When I told them that I didn’t know anyone here, they insisted that I come with them.

    They wouldn’t take no for an answer. “We said that you’re like our daughter. How can we leave you here by yourself?”

    As someone who advocates for safety, precaution and for making detailed plans and schedules, doing something without a plan or surety was undoubtedly refreshing.

    Not knowing where I would go or what the next hour would look like, allowed me to trust my intuition.

    They seemed genuine and trustworthy, so I went ahead and loaded my luggage into their car. I arrived at their relatives’ house, who greeted me like they had known me for a long time.

    They offered me a hearty breakfast and a room to rest in. I felt like their Guest of Honour.

    Strange. Very strange. 12 hours after I left home, I found myself sitting in a stranger’s house in a new city, feeling completely at ease.

    Their warmth, hospitality and inclusiveness were truly humbling. Unpretentious, non-judgmental – they were as they were.

    They didn’t give with the hope of getting something in return. They just gave because they had no fear of losing anything.


    Bahawalpur is a small city. I realised that the hotel I had booked for myself was only a 10-minute walk down the road.

    Although my hosts offered me to stay for as long as I wished, I preferred to head my own way. I couldn’t wait to explore this spectacular city.

    I found my hotel to be more comfortable than I had imagined, which was wonderful considering that it wasn’t too heavy on the pocket.

    Since Uber or Careem have not yet started their services in Bahawalpur, I wondered what would be the best option to go around the city.

    I decided to walk down to the street to see for myself. I couldn’t spot any taxis. Rickshaws it was, then.

    It was only after I had gone around the entire city that I wondered why rickshaws weren’t my first preference.

    After all, I wanted the wind-in-my-hair, driving-fast-going-nowhere type of freedom. Rickshaws offered exactly that.

    Moreover, each rickshaw driver brought their own uniqueness when being my tour guide.


    Travelling frees you from the traps of your own mind. It helps you connect with the bright-eyed, curious child that you may have forgotten still lives inside you.

    It doesn’t matter where you go, as long as you allow yourself to engage with the world like you’re seeing it for the first time.

    Bahawalpur is full of surprises. It felt like stepping into a different era. The stunning architecture and the majestic beauty blew me away.

    I’m surprised at the fact that such few people know about the gems this city holds.

    My first stop was the Central Library and the Bahawalpur Museum right next to it. I certainly did not expect to be greeted by the sparkling Rolls Royce at the entrance!

    We fight for public spaces in Karachi; here, I walked into the Central Library and saw young people, albeit a few, lazing around in the lawn outside or sitting in a quiet corner in the main hall, actually reading for pleasure.

    With high arches and columns bathed in pure white, the Central Library is an intricately detailed work of art which embodies grandeur and thoughtfulness.

    It houses more than 100,000 books, audio-visual archives, as well as local and national newspaper archives dating back a century.

    The caretaker of the library proudly showed me around the different sections and departments.

    I was amazed to see the Quran Gallery upstairs, which was established recently by the army, and exhibits the entire Quran beautifully hand painted in 240 frames by a local calligrapher named Mohammad Younus Ansari, who completed the whole task in just three years.

    The artist should definitely be celebrated more.

    The caretaker had a flair for numerology and palmistry. He asked me my date of birth and then pulled out the newspaper of that day from the archives.

    He said that the headlines on the day we’re born have an effect on our personalities. I was pleased to see that the headlines on the day I was born were about Pakistan’s efforts in peacebuilding.

    He also made some quick calculations and told me that my personality was Type 1, which meant that I was headstrong and gritty, but that people like me tend to struggle with their relationships.

    I dismissed him quickly with a sly laugh, but I couldn’t help being amused at how accurate his assessment was.

    If nothing, at least I could go back with the reassurance that my ordeals were not just due to me. They were written in the stars and the numbers!

    Why didn’t I do this before? Why didn’t I know of these places? Why don’t we value all the beauty we have? Why is it so much easier to be lost in the pursuit of what we don’t have?


    Soon, I was back on the road and the rickshaw driver insisted on showing me all the gates of Bahawalpur city, including Farid Gate, Ahmedpuri Gate, and Derawari Gate.

    We also passed by some more heritage buildings like the Sadiq Dane High School and the Bahawal Victoria Hospital.

    I got dropped off at the famous Noor Mahal. This stunning palace has been taken over by the army, like many of the other palaces in the area; however, this one is thankfully open to the public, unlike Darbar Mahal, Gulzar Mahal, Farrukh Mahal, and Nishat Mahal.

    Noor Mahal is perhaps the most popular of the palaces of Bahawalpur, especially since it has been featured in many Pakistani dramas and advertisements.

    I got there right before sunset, which was the ideal time as I managed to see the palace in all its glory in daylight, as well as when it was beautifully lit up at night.

    The best part about the palace is that it’s well-kept and preserved.

    One thing that can be guaranteed if you’re a woman in a public space in this country is that you will be ogled at and stared down by men like you’re the first woman to ever cross their paths.

    They will take the liberty to approach you and ask inappropriate questions.

    I dodged quite a few men at Noor Mahal, but then these two seemingly decent men joined me as I was ordering dinner for myself at a restaurant in the garden.

    After a moment’s consideration, I decided that there was no harm in having a conversation with them.

    The thing about talking to strangers is that you can pretend to be anyone you want. I allowed myself to have fun with it for a bit; at least I got a free dinner and someone to take my pictures.

    Redefining my boundaries – isn’t that what I was here for?

    Content with my adventures on Day One, I came back to the hotel and decided to rent a car for the next day and head towards the Cholistan Desert.


    I started the next day early, a lot more confident than I was the first day.

    Shehzad, the driver, was a pleasant young fellow from a nearby village. Over the last decade, he had taken several trips to the fort each year, but never with a young woman travelling alone.

    He couldn’t understand why I wanted to go out in the desert and out in the world alone.

    Soon, the green fields gave way to the magnificent golden desert. From miles away, I could see the ostentatious walls and massive bastions of the Derawar Fort, standing tall and unparalleled.

    As we drove in through the entrance, near the beautiful Abbasi Jamia Mosque, I could hear strange, squeaking sounds as soon as I walked through the humongous gates of the fort.

    It didn’t quite sound like the chirping of birds. “Bats,” said a woman from a group of visitors walking out from the fort. “You’ll see a lot more inside.”

    Horrified, I looked behind the entrance doors and saw hundreds of bats hanging upside down in hoards. I began to have second thoughts about coming here alone.

    Taking a deep breath, I walked through the tunnel that led to the massive courtyard.

    While the entrance was intact, the red-bricked walls inside had collapsed in several places. From what remains of the carved, wooden frames of the doors and the windows, I could imagine how grand and majestic this place must have been once.

    But now, it presented a picture of neglect, ignorance, and apathy.

    In several rooms, there were remains of intricately detailed artwork on the walls and ceilings, but hardly any of them were intact now.

    What broke my heart the most was the fact that ignorant visitors had audaciously spray painted over these exquisitely painted, albeit dilapidated, walls, declaring their love for someone or the other, or announcing that they had visited.

    I felt a great loss as I realised how fast this magnificent fort was withering away, because we don’t recognise its true worth.

    Like many a treasure lost and buried underneath the dunes of history, we might lose out on this gem completely, never knowing the secrets it holds.


    As the sun inched higher and the heat hard to bear, I made my way out of the fort.

    I then stopped at the Crowning Palace, the Abbasi Jamia Mosque, and the Royal Graveyard which were all within a kilometre radius of the fort.

    Many of these places are usually out-of-bounds for most visitors, but once again, being a woman and travelling alone in this country has its perks.

    The Royal Graveyard is the most beautiful graveyard I’ve ever seen. The woodwork, the blue and white patterns on the sand-coloured walls, the gold-rimmed mirrored ceiling, the orderliness – it left me in deep thought for quite some time.

    As I stepped out of the majestic carved, wooden doors, Nazeer Akbarabadi’s verse from his poem Banjaranama rang in my ears:

    سب ٹھاٹھ پڑا رہ جاویگا جب لاد چلے گا بنجارہ
    Sab that para reh jaway ga, jab laad chalay ga banajara
    All your splendour will lie useless, when the nomad packs-up and leaves


    My next stop was Sadiq Garh Palace in a small city called Dera Nawab Sahib near Ahmedpur (about 50km away from Bahawalpur).

    Once again, my driver warned me that visitors are not allowed in this palace.

    At most, they would only allow us to take pictures from the outside. I decided to test my luck anyway.

    Upon reaching the gates, the guards eyed me intently, then asked for my ID card and an entry fee. We were told to park the car near the gardens and wait for the palace caretaker.

    I noticed another car parked inside, and the doors of the palace that were left ajar. Careful not to overstep any boundaries, I stayed in the gardens and admired the awe-inspiring white palace from the outside.

    The vast and perfectly symmetrical gardens were split in the centre by a long path that went straight from the gates through the palace doors, all the way up to the nawab’s ‘throne,’ which perhaps enabled him to spot visitors from miles away.

    With the high, arched windows and doors, tall columns and bastions at the corners, and a big dome in the centre, the palace spoke volumes about the design and engineering that went into building this beautiful masterpiece.

    As I walked closer to the building, I noticed how the grass had been burned black and the plants were wilting and crumbling under the scorching sun.

    The glass on the windows was broken. The only story the walls appeared to be telling was one of despair and dismay.

    Saeed, the warden of the palace who was accompanying some visitors inside, came outside and asked me where I was from.

    The other visitors were from the media. I, on the other hand, was just a curious tourist. He thought about it, but eventually asked me to come in too.

    Shehzad beamed. “You seem to be really lucky. Usually, they don’t let anyone enter without a permit.”

    Unlike the grand exterior, the insides of the palace seemed gloomy, dingy, and smelled of rat piss.

    It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but I was awestruck by what I saw next.

    The high domes and arched, gold ceiling of the main hall were lined by such intricate details that could put the architecture of Topkapi Palace of the Ottomans to shame.

    The palace, I was told, has 120 rooms in all, each with a unique design and a different character and theme.

    Some of the rooms had a modern feel to them, with textured wallpapers, walk-in closets and attached bathroom with bathtubs and all.

    The palace also had elevators and conference halls, massive kitchens and dining halls.

    Walking through the rooms, scenes from Downton Abbey ran through my head as I imagined the lives of the members of the royal family.

    While some of the halls and corridors were still lit by natural light, others appeared gloomy and haunted.

    Of all the rooms, my favourite was the mint-coloured ballroom, rimmed with white and gold borders, pillars, a fireplace and huge, arched windows.

    The caretaker lamented how the beautiful tiles and chandeliers of this room, like most other decorative items, were stolen over the years.

    While I do enjoy imagining the past, I realised that I am more inclined to look forward to the future. I love thinking about the latent potential and all that can be.

    Indeed, this place, if saved and renovated, can be turned into a 7-star hotel, a set for blockbuster films or TV shows.

    It was these moments that taught me something about myself. My tendency to think more about the future than the present or the past is linked to my own personal struggles.

    Maybe that’s why I get attached too easily and base my decisions on the idea of a future that doesn’t exist.


    Sadiq Garh Palace is the bold façade that hides many more secrets and treasures in this 500 acres of abandoned and disputed land.

    This isn’t the only palace in the area. There are many harems, guest houses and smaller palaces behind this one, including Mubarak Palace, Rahat Palace, and the Harem Saraa, many of which were gifted by the nawab to his many mistresses and concubines.

    Most of the palaces were surrounded by thick thorny bushes, making them inaccessible. Some of them were inhabited by the families of the guards.

    Along with the guest houses and palaces, there were also several mosques within this walled area.

    A small, beautiful mosque adjacent to the main palace, Masjid Sadiq Garh is particularly special.

    On the inside, detailed floral patterns, painted with natural dyes from fruits and flowers adorn the arches, walls, ceiling and the domes.

    This mosque was as beautiful, if not more, as the Wazir Khan Mosque in Lahore.

    If that wasn’t enough, Saeed Kolachi, the guide and warden, showed me two of the nawab’s cars and some carriages that are still parked in the garages, hidden behind thick, thorny bushes.

    Close to the day end, too tired to discover more, we turned back and drove to the city in silence and in deep thought.

    I was excited about what more there was to come. On the way back, I stopped at the bus station to book myself a ticket to another city.

    From Bahawalpur, I went to Islamabad, but I didn’t like being back in a familiar city again. Over coffee with a friend that evening, I spontaneously checked to see how much a ticket to Skardu would cost.

    It was off-season, so I got a cheap deal.

    My friend connected me to his friend in Khaplu, and the next morning, I found myself flying amidst the tall mountains, and soon sipping tea with my feet dipped in crystal clear streams.

    It was surreal and therapeutic. As the water cleansed me, I felt those parts of me healing that I didn’t even know had been hurting for so long.

    I gained perspective on my worries as I realised how tiny they were compared to the mountains and the world around me.

    I rekindled connections I had forgotten about – with myself, with the people around me, and with the power greater than all of us combined.

    Two days later, I returned to Islamabad, and headed towards Nathiagali and Kalabagh straight from the airport.

    I went to Taxilla and Khanpur after that.


    I have never felt so free, and I could never have imagined that just six days could possibly be so enriching and life-altering.

    It occurred to me that I could find something to relate to everywhere I went. Somehow, seeing the changing landscapes and architectures helped me forget the troubles and responsibilities I had left behind, and enjoy the process that was unfolding within.

    It was empowering to discover the extent to which my surroundings rubbed off on me. The more dynamic the surroundings, the more alive and connected I felt.

    On returning to Karachi, I found that my problems hadn’t changed much. But I had.

    Travelling alone gave me the courage and confidence that I needed, when I was feeling alone and stuck. It reinvigorated my self-confidence and gave me a chance to listen to myself.

    I may not have healed completely yet, but I am definitely on the right track.

    Are you a woman who has travelled alone? Share your experiences with us at

    0 0

    The US and Pakistan have been closely allied since the signing of the first mutual defense treaty in May 1954.There was a brief interruption during the left leaning government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, but afterwards during General Zia and Reagan’s time, at the height of the cold war, they practically became blood brothers, and worked hand in hand to prop up the Jihadi militant outfits who were fighting against the Soviets.

    After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, there was again a realignment of relations, but they were again firmly established when President Bush pressurised the state of Pakistan into becoming a key ally in the War against Terror.

    Throughout this long romance between our militaries and governments, however, the people of Pakistan and the United States have not really been properly introduced to each other and have a lot of misconceptions regarding each other’s societies.

    I still hold that there are more similarities between our societies than the average American or Pakistani is aware of.

    For example there’s the fascination for WWE wrestling. The average American redneck would be surprised to learn that the average Pakistani also considers WWE wrestling to be an actual sport and not a dramatised spectacle of stunts, and gets as much pleasure from watching two over-sized males in skimpy clothing, yelling obscenities and pretending to beat each other up, as his white counterpart.

    Then, there’s the love of gorging oneself with food that both societies share. Though owing to fast food and sodas, obesity is a bigger problem in the US than in Pakistan.

    The majority of young people in both societies also prefer slapstick humor and horsing around more than some sophisticated, complicated comedy.

    Both American and Pakistani societies are heavily in debt and spend more than they earn. The disparity between the rich and poor is colossal while many rich people lead unashamedly ostentatious lifestyles and blame the poverty of the homeless on God’s natural law of selection or simply laziness.

    Despite invoking the natural law of selection where their own wealth is concerned, average Pakistanis and Americans completely reject Darwin’s theory of evolution and are proud and vocal creationists.

    Both the average Americans (such as represented by the Republican Tea Party groups), and the average Pakistanis (represented by various right-wing groups) use religious scriptures to advocate prayers in schools, anti-abortion campaigns and broader or less gun control. They both feel that despite the secular foundations of their respective countries, religion should never have been separated from the state, and that as a result of it society has been taken over by godless people of loose morals such as homosexuals, socialists and human rights activists.

    Both average Americans and Pakistanis are fond of sensational news channels, run by conglomerate media companies, where they can watch their favorite most irritating, opinionated, self-righteous and fascist-minded TV anchor insulting social scientists, professors and foreign agents.

    Both consider TV preachers to be the most learned scholars and historians around, since they are able to provide irrefutable proof of how only people from their own particular religious group will be granted entry into heaven, while those of all other religions, as well as homosexuals, drug addicts, social rights activists, atheists and socialists will burn in eternal hell fire for their sins.

    Both the average American and average Pakistani don’t have access to a social health care system and consider all illnesses to be punishments from God for our own loose morals.

    Both have a fascination for guns and weapons and prefer to be counted amongst the hunters rather than gatherers and farmers. Both consider shooting a gun to be the best form of aphrodisiac together with Viagra and other potency concoctions.

    Both average Americans and Pakistanis are fascinated by cults and conspiracies, and consider aliens or djinns to be behind most unexplained phenomena.

    Both countries have regularly produced mass murderers and serial killers, though in Pakistan they are sometimes also called martyrs when they’re killed.

    The average citizens of both countries love watching violent and gory movies where the story-line of good versus evil is kept simple and to the point.

    I can go on…

    Both prefer going to a strip joint strip or mujrah dance rather than some complicated refined dance, which is trying to be artistic.

    Both societies have serious heroine addiction problems.

    Both love watching and betting on boring ball games on television and love taking part in lotteries.

    Both Americans and Pakistanis prefer not to get involved in the foreign policies of their governments or question the interventions of their militaries and spy agencies in countries that are supposed to be their allies.

    Citizens from both countries have a ‘chosen race/country syndrome’.

    Both have a soft spot for military dictators with moustaches, though the average American prefers them to be outside of his/her own country…

    This article was originally published on November 14, 2013.


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    I have many reasons to write in memory of the venerated Air Marshal Asghar Khan — a protégé of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Khan was my role model from the age of 19 when I joined the Royal Pakistan Air Force (RPAF) in 1952.

    I had considered Jinnah to be an exceptional leader ever since I got a glimpse of him during a school function at Quetta’s McMahon Park.

    I was 11 at the time and sat just five feet from the Father of the Nation; I recall his words: “Some of you students will become defenders of the nation by joining the military.”

    I was, from that day, hooked to the idea of becoming a fighter pilot and I chased that dream with resolve.

    I first heard about Khan, who was at the time a wing commander, from my instructor at the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Academy in Risalpur, who narrated to me the historic event of Jinnah’s visit to Risalpur, where Khan, the strict disciplinarian and the first commandant of the RPAF Flying College, received Jinnah and Ms Fatima Jinnah.

    My instructor told me I would have to live up to Jinnah’s famous exhortation: “PAF to be second to none.”

    I never lost sight of this goal in all my decades as a fighter pilot.

    To be second to none was also the basis of Khan’s vision for the PAF. His doctrine translated into a well-honed operational strategy and high training standards, which permeated our minds, and propelled us towards professional excellence.

    An outstanding pilot, Khan was the first Indian (before Partition) to fly a fighter jet with the Royal Indian Air Force. He took part in World War II, participating in the Burma Campaign, and later after Partition, captained missions into Kashmir in a lumbering Dakota against the Indian Air Force’s agile Tempest fighter planes.

    He catapulted the PAF from a rudimentary air force to one of the best in the world through extensive modernisation and professionalisation, within just 18 months of becoming the youngest commander-in-chief of the PAF to-date at the age of 35.

    Khan was also the first native to head the PAF when he replaced the British Arthur McDonald.

    Under Khan’s stewardship, the PAF created a world military aviation record in formation aerobatics with 16 aircrafts performing a loop in front of King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan.

    My first encounter with Khan came in 1957. We had just performed an air show for a high-level US military delegation. At the end of the exercise, Khan shook our hands before introducing us to the visiting general. I was the youngest flying officer in the team and I recall the immense pride I felt at shaking Khan’s hands.

    Falcon Aerobatics team meeting Asghar Khan (second from left). The author is third from right.
    Falcon Aerobatics team meeting Asghar Khan (second from left). The author is third from right.

    Years passed and we only saw glimpses of our revered commander — until June 5, 1965, when we found ourselves sitting face to face with Khan along with our senior commanders and Air Commodore Rahim Khan (who later become PAF’s third commander-in-chief).

    In that meeting, Khan spelt out the Top Secret operational plan and tactical stratagem of the PAF war doctrine.

    The occasion was intense as it was historical, for some of us were mid-career squadron commanders and were amazed and surprised that our commander-in-chief had taken us into confidence about the exact strategic plan.

    He did not even utter a syllable of warning to keep the information close to our chests. He didn’t need to, as his training had imbued in his commanders that deep-rooted trust. It was left to us to execute the plan with efficiency and deadly accuracy.

    I recall that it was soon after Eid-ul-Fitr that an Indian spy bomber violated Pakistan's air frontiers. The early air defence system, created as per Khan’s policy, responded with incredible alacrity.

    A young flight officer brought the bomber down at 40,000 feet, way above the fighter’s operational capability. Both the Indian pilot and the navigator were taken into custody.

    Trained, readied and motivated by Khan, officers of all ranks performed beyond expectations. This was also the indomitable spirit with which the PAF fought the 1965 war.

    Unfortunately, Khan had been allowed to retire when the clouds of war were menacingly evident on the horizon. He was the only military commander who foresaw the forebodings and prepared the PAF to face the juggernaut.

    I was a squadron leader during the 1965 war, and have detailed in my book Flight of the Falcon: Demolishing myths of Indo-Pak wars 1965 & 1971 about how those at the national helm perpetrated the senseless war.

    My next profound experience of meeting Khan led me to become very close to him. It was during the 25th anniversary of the 1965 war when former air chiefs and some prominent participants of the war were invited to the PAF base in Sargodha.

    Accompanied by my former wife, I saluted Khan and inquired about his campaign for the 1990 election, offering my humble services in any way that could help.

    Spontaneously, and uncharacteristically, he addressed my former wife and asked if she would spare me for a month or more, so I could help out in the campaign.

    It was agreed upon without further ado and I spent six weeks or so with him in the lead up to the election.

    Khan's recent visit to the author's home in December, 2017. All photos are by the author.
    Khan's recent visit to the author's home in December, 2017. All photos are by the author.

    I saw up close his superb political vision and witnessed his true mettle and character. He had impeccable ethics and a no-nonsense, no-false-promises, no-tricks-or-treats way of doing business.

    I never saw him panic or become angry, and he never uttered a word that was not politically correct. He led an austere lifestyle in which humility and firmness were blended to perfection.

    The 1990 election was stolen. I was a close witness to it, to the extent that Khan instructed me to represent him before the Election Commission (EC) in a petition against the despicable methods of rigging employed by his opponents.

    He also instructed Justice (retired) Tariq Saeed to accompany me in case any legal issues arise during my appearance in front of the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC). I had indelible proof, which I submitted to each of the three judges.

    The CEC admitted my petition as valid after I fought my case vociferously, but a docile and subservient EC did nothing more than writing a polite letter to Khan months after the election was over.

    I recall that during the election, the head of a certain community claiming to have around 3,000 votes of the butcher community, asked if he could meet Khan. I said his door was open to all and sundry.

    During the meeting, the mustachioed man assured Khan that they would vote for him owing to his nobility of character, and requested Khan to have tea with them in their mohalla, to which he agreed.

    During the tea, it was claimed that the mohalla’s gas connection had been cut off by the Punjab Government as the community opposed the government’s policies.

    The community asked whether Khan could promise them that he would restore their gas connection after winning the election.

    Calmly, Khan stood up and extended his hands with the following words in Urdu: “I do not make promises which I cannot fulfill. Besides, every citizen is entitled to amenities on merit. You may vote for someone else who gives you such undertaking; I do not make false promises.”

    This was a man of integrity, undervalued by our ungrateful nation.

    I recall another incident during the election. One evening, I discovered that a printer had declined to print our flyers and posters as he was owed a fair sum of money.

    I managed to get the money to him through my sister, and requested our party’s finance manager not to inform Khan.

    The manager replied that he could not make any promises but he’d still try to be discreet. One month after the election, I received a letter from Khan. It was a one-liner: “Thank you.” And with it was a cheque for the exact amount I had paid the printer.

    On January 5, 2018, Khan embarked on his eternal flight at the age of 97.

    His vision, courage, integrity, honesty and resolute dedication to his mission in life was right in the footsteps of Jinnah.

    Air Marshal Asghar Khan lived in the highest traditions of an officer, commander, a leader and a sublime gentleman until his last breath.

    May he rest in peace.

    Do you have first-hand recollections of a significant historical figure? Share your story with us at

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    The only time I attended Guru Gobind Singh Jayanti (birthday) celebrations at Nankana Sahib was on January 10, 2011, a few days after the assassination of Salman Taseer, then governor of Punjab.

    In an empty ground next to Guru Nanak Janamasthan Gurdwara, the city’s Sikh community had organised a cricket tournament.

    Sikh boys, almost all of them of Pakhtun descent, sat near the edge of the ground, watching the final match.

    Another group of boys sat on a raised platform, giving live commentary of the match over a loudspeaker.

    An assortment of vendors, mostly Muslim, looked on, joined by other members of the local Muslim community.

    There was a separate tent for women.

    Traditionally, on Guru Gobind Jayanti, mock battles are enacted to honour the warrior spirit of the 10th and last Sikh guru. But in Nankana Sahib, they had organised a cricket tournament.

    One of the organisers, a young Pakhtun Sikh, said they wanted to have tournaments for hockey, volleyball and other sports too, but there was not enough time.

    Many of the Sikh boys lived in Gujranwala, Sialkot and Lahore, some studying and others engaged in business, and they had returned to Nankana Sahib for the festival.

    A few days later was the winter festival of Lohri, after which they would go back.

    Players and spectators watch the final match. Photo credit: Faisal Saeed
    Players and spectators watch the final match. Photo credit: Faisal Saeed

    In the couple of years before 2011, Nankana Sahib, about an hour’s drive from Lahore, had emerged as the centre of the Sikh community in Pakistan.

    A handful of Sikh families had moved to the city from tribal areas along the country’s northwestern frontier following the wars of 1965 and 1971, when members of the community were attacked by jingoistic mobs who took them to be representatives of the belligerent Hindu/Sikh neighbour they were fighting.

    A few more families arrived after the destruction of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992 led to attacks against Hindus and Sikhs as well as their places of worship around Pakistan.

    The arrival of most Sikhs who now live in Nankana Sahib, however, was precipitated by the Talibanisation of the northwestern frontier region during the 2000s.

    Hundreds of Sikh families had for generations lived peacefully in the tribal region. Even the riots that accompanied Partition and burned the social fabric of Punjab did not affect them.

    But when the Taliban took control of their homeland, they demanded jizya, a tax levied on non-Muslims living in a Muslim state. The consequences of failing to pay the tax were severe.

    In 2009, the Taliban destroyed the houses of 11 Sikh families in Orkazi Agency for refusing to pay jizya. In 2010, Jaspal Singh, a young man from Khyber Agency, was beheaded after his family failed to pay the hefty amount demanded.

    New lease of life

    In Nankana Sahib that day, I was introduced to a 16-year-old boy. His family had come from Khyber Agency, he said. “We had a small cloth shop at Ghariza, Jamrud, set up by my grandfather,” he added.

    “One day, these men with long beards and modern weapons came in a jeep and parked in front of our shop. I was there with my father.

    “They told my father that if we wanted to continue working there we had to pay them two crore rupees within a month.

    “We knew it was time to leave. We locked our shop and house and left that very night.”

    There were many such stories. Forced to abandon their homes and property overnight, hundreds of Sikh families from the tribal areas settled in cities with considerable Sikh population – Peshawar, Hassanabdal and Nankana Sahib.

    In Nankana Sahib, the Sikh population went from a few families at the turn of the century to a significant minority of a few thousand people in 2011.

    Celebrating Lohri at Gurdwara Patti Sahib. Photo credit: Humayun M
    Celebrating Lohri at Gurdwara Patti Sahib. Photo credit: Humayun M

    Togetherness brought a sense of empowerment, such as they had perhaps never experienced before. Sikh festivals which had been confined to prayers inside a gurdwara became major public events.

    There was a heightened sense of Sikh identity, particularly among the youth who took the lead in reviving religious traditions that had been abandoned for generations.

    The cricket tournament on Guru Gobind Jayanti was part of this religious revivalism.

    I returned to Nankana Sahib for the Lohri celebrations. Gathered in the courtyard of Gurdwara Patti Sahib, young Sikhs threw sticks into a fire as they sang and danced. I was told this too was a recent phenomenon.

    In popular imagination, Nankana Sahib remains associated with Guru Nanak Gurpurab, the celebration of the birth of the first Sikh guru which is attended by thousands of people every November.

    But thanks to the efforts of young Sikhs whose families have been forced to settle in the city, Nankana Sahib is now also home to many other festivals that had not been celebrated since the Partition.

    This article was originally published on Scroll and has been reproduced with permission.

    Nankana Saheb — CAPNankana Saheb — CAP

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    Five days ago, a six-year-old girl was found in a drain near the Korangi Crossing in Karachi where she was left to die after being raped. Her throat was slit. Miraculously, she survived, was rescued and taken to the Civil Hospital. The doctor who initially examined the girl writes her account.

    Her eyes were still as she lay covered in a flimsy white sheet on a gurney in the ambulance. The gurney was metallic and I couldn’t help but think how cold she must be.

    I reached out towards her and touched her arm. I was startled at how deathly cold it was and wondered if she was still alive.

    "No, no doctor sahb, see, she is breathing!" the ambulance driver told me. Immediately, all hell broke loose.

    The cries of “She is alive!” echoed outside the hospital as doctors and paramedics rush toward the ambulance.

    It was painful to even look at her. Her throat was slit open almost ear to ear.

    My numb mind couldn’t register how she must have survived even a few minutes with the clotted blood in the gaping wound of her neck, let alone a few hours. “You mean, she was lying in the kachra kundi for the last two hours?” the paramedics asked in disbelief. “Give or take a few”, I replied.

    She suddenly twitched and that’s when I realised I was still holding her hand. As I gently moved my hand up her arm to comfort her, I felt a raw patch on her skin. I gasped as I saw another deep wound on her wrist.

    That’s when I realised she was not even wearing trousers. She couldn’t have been more than five or six years old. But in the many years of my medical career, I have seen rape victims even younger than her.

    The surgeons arrived to examine her wounds. They had a close look at the wound on her neck and said it was a miracle she survived.

    "She is so lucky!" a nurse exclaimed. Lucky? If she had been lucky, she wouldn't be here. She would be at home with her family.

    Her hand remained clasped in mine as she was being taken to the operation theatre.

    I brought my lips close to her ear. The raw, metallic smell of blood immediately hit my nostrils. I retched. I took a deep breath and stood there, imagining, only imagining, what she had gone through. I asked her what her name was and she only made a sound. I couldn’t make out what she was trying to say, so I asked again, but she just closed her eyes.

    Does it hurt? She looked at me in exasperation, wondering why I had even asked such a stupidly obvious question. She pointed at her groin. I could see the pain in her eyes and felt it as my own.

    In my career of more than 15 years in forensics, I have always taken pride in my ability to remain dispassionate. No matter how atrocious the case, I remain detached and do my job. I have seen the horrors of what people can do to other people and how some can endure the pain and survive. But what this girl had gone through didn’t seem real.

    In the operation theatre, she was put under general anaesthesia. The surgeons operated on her neck wound, repairing it layer by layer.

    Brutality is an inadequate word to describe what was done to her. She was used as a dishrag and then disposed off. Can the perpetrators even be called humans? They are roaming scot-free, and I quiver at the thought that they might target someone again.

    After almost two hours, the surgeons were finished. The procedure to repair the severed tendons of her right hand would have to be done later. She was transferred to the ICU.

    All I wanted to do that night when I went back home was hug my children and tell them how much I love them.

    The next time I saw her was in the ICU. She opened her eyes and looked at me with half a smile. I marvelled at her courage.

    The little girl was then visited by psychiatrists. She was found to be under severe stress and needs continuous therapy for rehabilitation. She will be evaluated every day by psychiatrists and psychologists. She has gone through trauma that is beyond our comprehension.

    Physically, she is healing, though her trauma and emotional wounds will take a long time.

    The article was first published in January, 2017

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    All murders are gruesome but some are so depraved that they compel people to speak out against injustice and skewed criminal justice systems that seem to absolve the rich and indict the poor.

    This was the case with Shahrukh Jatoi’s murder of Shahzeb Khan on Christmas day in 2012. It rallied people together, particularly the youth, who demanded that Jatoi be punished.

    The following year, an Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) sentenced Jatoi and one of his accomplices to death and sentenced two others involved in the murder to life imprisonment.

    The case, however, came back to light when a criminal review application was filed by Jatoi’s lawyer in August, 2016.

    This past November, the Sindh High Court (SHC) revoked the sentences and ordered a retrial to be carried out in a regular court.

    Jatoi’s counsel had argued that their client was a juvenile at the time of murder and should not have been tried by an ATC. They also added that the murder was a result of personal enmity, which is different from terrorism.

    In response to the SHC decision, a citizen's petition was filed at the start of this year in the Supreme Court, demanding that Jatoi’s conviction by the ATC stands valid.

    The petition, supported by several well-known citizens, refers to the legal definition of terrorism in the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997, whereby:

    “‘Terrorism’ means the use or threat of action where … The use or threat is designed to coerce and intimidate or overawe the Government or the public or a section of the public or community or sect or create a sense of fear or insecurity in society…”

    This definition of terrorism includes ordinary urban crimes as long as the claim can be supported that the crime in question struck terror, panic and fear among people in a section of society.

    Unfortunately, the petition is misplaced as it relies on an overbroad and vague definition of terrorism – a definition which is need of revision.

    While securing the conviction of a known murderer is a good aim, especially when the defendant is powerful and can influence the lower courts, the arguments in the petition give rise to several issues that need to be addressed.

    First: what is terrorism?

    What we understand by ‘terrorism’ should be restricted to groups like the TTP, LeJ, JuD, JUA, ISIS and other similar outfits who have caused widespread mayhem in the country.

    They have indiscriminately bombed minority places of worship and public areas; killed students; carried out calculated murders of members of various minority communities; and waged a war against the state and society.

    Their motive is to exert control and dominion through terror.

    Which leads to the second question: was Shahzeb’s murder an act of terror?

    The murder was dreadful, the consequences were tragic, and the victim’s family deserves unlimited support and compassion.

    Having said that, the murder should not qualify as terrorism even if elements of power, aggression, and deliberate intimidation were part of it.

    This is because the murder doesn’t compare to the acts of the above-mentioned groups in terms of ideological motivations and political goals, which are sustained through funding, organising and sheer application.

    Third: is there a difference between motive and mens rea?

    Motive for murder is not the same as mens rea for murder. The former constitutes reasons for the act; these could be personal, revenge, provocation, aggression, or show of power.

    The latter is the fault element in killing and is satisfied as long as Jatoi used his weapon to kill intentionally.

    A motive to spread terror, versus the impact of it as causing the same, is a different thing altogether and should not be confused with mens rea.

    Fourth: there is a misconception that Jatoi has been acquitted or a coerced settlement has been permitted by the court – and that he has already evaded justice.

    The case will be retried in an ordinary sessions court. This means that Jatoi and his co-accused will have a second shot at justice; it does not, however, mean that he is, or will be, automatically absolved of his crime.

    Fifth: what are the real legal injustices at play that privilege the rich over the poor in criminal cases? Coercion of poor families to forgive the killers who are rich – isn’t that the real issue?

    Since Qisas and Diyat laws allow convicted murderers to be forgiven by victims’ families (which is not a provision in ATCs) the very idea of a new trial invokes the fear that Jatoi’s powerful family will coerce a settlement from Shahzeb’s family (which they have already tried to do) or that the judge will acquit.

    Considering the indisputable evidence in the case, an acquittal is unlikely but a settlement is quite likely.

    Settlements under Qisas and Diyat should therefore be the battleground for activists and progressive lawyers, rather than fighting for the implementation of an expansive interpretation of ‘terrorism.’

    At the same time, it should be kept in mind that an outcry against private settlements is not possible. To oppose Qisas and Diyat would be to oppose laws that carry the hue of Sharia and are enacted, ostensibly, to make our laws more compliant with an elusive Islamic ideal.

    Nonetheless, legal mechanisms are still available to prevent these settlements. Courts can disallow private settlements in murder cases where there are aggravating circumstances.

    According to Section 311 of the Pakistan Penal Code, if the murder is shocking or if it outrages the public conscience, then the court, in its wisdom, may forbid any forgiveness or a payout, and send the defendant to jail.

    This is important since the wholesale privatisation of justice where victims’ families can forgive murderers weakens the writ of the state.

    It constricts the judiciary’s power and provides a legal stamp of approval to the rich and the powerful paying their way out of crime.

    Graphics by Ramsha Jahangir.
    Graphics by Ramsha Jahangir.

    Shahzeb’s murder was shocking and Jatoi deserves punishment. However, it was not a case of terrorism.

    The argument that cases like these should be heard in an ATC is based on a faulty logic. If so, every case of murder will have to be referred to an ATC.

    By extension, the existing definition of terrorism also needs to be changed so as to focus on recognised terror outfits and not run-of-the-mill crimes.

    Existing laws allow regular courts to deny a private settlement and issue a fair sentence. Our efforts, therefore, should be on these courts to make sure they uphold justice.

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    I have always marvelled how the existence of two life forms that are polar opposites, the tree and the bird, are inextricably tied together.

    I fell in love with the house I live in because it reminded me of my childhood tree house.

    Perhaps tree house is too grandiose a name for the simple plank my brother had jammed between two branches of an enormous banyan that occupied the corner of Elphinstone and Mereweather streets in Saddar, Karachi.

    The English name of banyan always struck me as very odd as a little girl. In Urdu, 'banyan' is the sleeveless underwear worn by men and boys. The word for the tree is bargad or babool.

    Later, I found out that it was the British who had named it the banyan tree after the merchants commonly known as banias who used to gather under it to conduct their daily business.

    In retrospect, I imagined that this bargad, my banyan that I had nicknamed Bari Ammi - Big Mother - must have once been at the very heart of the old settlement that eventually spread its own horizontal roots into the mega city of 20 million plus that it is today.

    The English also built the Services Club, whose manicured lawns were a stark contrast to the unruly magnificence of the front corner that Bari Ammi presided over.

    The Club had been constructed out of Sindhi sandstone somewhat in the manner of a castle, complete with a crenellated roof.

    The soft sandstone had been carved, undoubtedly by local artisans, in a jali or filigree pattern, found throughout mosques and tombs in South Asia.

    As a young girl, I played my own version of solo hopscotch with the tiny islands of light on the polished grey concrete sea of the morning veranda.

    The veranda ran in an L shape along the entire length of the upper floor corner apartment where the three of us, my mother, older brother and I, lived.

    Looking straight down from of the side windows facing Mereweather Street, I could see the Club mali tending my absent father's collection of two hundred rare crotons and cacti.

    Even as his own fate as a prisoner of war in the 1971 war was imminent, he made certain that his beloved plants somehow shipped out to Karachi before the fall of Dhaka.

    In his early postcards from Bareilly, Uttar Pardesh the filigree of light was reversed into a patchwork of dark rectangles.

    Who and what and where and when were missing black keys in a palm-sized, well-thumbed piano arriving every month from the country of my father's birth and incarceration.

    Every month, we would cramp our handwriting into the tiniest possible alphabet (this is when I realised how much more compact Urdu is as a script compared to English) and fill the room of the rectangle with our triple reply.

    This too was undoubtedly censored and eventually led Abba to stop writing altogether; instead, every month, a delicately painted flower postcard would arrive; sometimes a rose, sometimes an orchid or a croton leaf.

    He must have painted them from memory.

    I was 21 when I left Karachi, back in 1986, and 26 when I arrived in the United States. Roughly equal parts of my life have been spent in the East and West. Home is now a split screen. Do midpoints make one more reflective?

    My first apartment in New York was above Cafe Danté on MacDougal Street. Danté of course wrote what are arguably the most famous lines that begin at a midpoint:

    “Midway upon the journey of my life. I found myself within a dark forest, For the straightforward path had been lost.”

    It seemed to me that art, literature, poetry, music, anything beyond the utilitarian in life was contained in the losing of “the straightforward path” and discovering the joys of circuitous meandering.

    After 12 years and many, many wanderings when I returned to Karachi for a visit in 1998, Bari Ammi had been cut down.

    In her place was a carpet shop. Kurdistan Carpets. Completely obliterating such a huge tree with such prolific muscled roots must have taken at least a few days.

    In Bari Ammi's heyday, the concrete of the pavement and the parking lot surrounding her was constantly crumbling like a wafer.

    Weekly, the malis would trim her aerial roots in an attempt to limit her lateral expansion. In another, less circumscribed milieu, her aerial feelers would have penetrated the earth and made a delightful maze.

    The most perfect part about being ensconced in her branches was the instantaneous leafy twilight, the coolness and concealment she offered.

    I was a girl-bird with a sweeping view of the city: from left to right, Shezan Ampis, opposite that, the Village Barbecue, right in front of me, the Metropole Hotel, which ran the length of the road and then curved, across from that a nondescript establishment eclipsed by the constantly flashing sign of the Three Aces nightclub.

    I remember the jagged way its yellow neon light broke on the cobblestone street that led to the back door of the Karachi Gymkhana.

    At the other right hand corner, there was a travel agent and next to that Aruqa Furriers with windows of mink and silver fox coats and karakuli caps. A steady stream of tourists came in and out of there, laden with coats destined for colder climes.

    Today several decades later, it is I who live in those colder climes, albeit climes that are rapidly warming, with undesirable side effects.

    I am sitting outside on our deck this September evening because yet another day where the temperature is over a hundred has made the inside unbearably stuffy.

    Directly in my line of sight are three Douglas firs. They are evergreen trees but one of them is charred by a burnt sienna, an ominous and unsettling omen.

    In late September, the sun is perfectly positioned in between the twin supine thighs of hills that make up one wing known as The Valley of The Moon.

    At harsh noon light, all the peaks are flattened out into one streak of steel grey blue.

    The evening light is another matter. A most patient artist, this light plays a symphony of favourites, one by one. The sinuous-limbed Madrones, Isadora Duncans of the tree world, with their arcing branches and showy sumi é foliage, seem to be most lingered over.

    Of course human painters are afforded no such luxury; Monet painted some of his greatest masterpieces at a furious speed, lamenting that the light changed every three minutes.

    At the moment, the light seems to favour the enormous ancient oaks that form a sort of arboreal crown behind me. Turning my eyes back to face the hills, the sly light has indeed moved on.

    The tallest peak of this range that scales the height needed to acquire the moniker Sonoma Mountain, is bathed in a late evening glow that makes it appear ghostly, insubstantial, as if it could disappear at any moment and be replaced by the limitless horizon that was the sea when I was a girl.

    I suppose it is a remnant of those early years flowing in my veins that pulls me to bodies of water. There is a lake nearby where I often go walking.

    A full circle of its perimeter takes about an hour but I often linger in the shady edges, mesmerised by the occasional great grey heron that sometimes graces the water.

    Herons mate for life, so I often wonder what became of this beautiful bird's partner, or has it deliberately chosen this solitude, an anomaly in the sociable bird-world?

    Birds of course are as much tied to the light as to the trees. The late summer nights are alive with the eerie calls of owls.

    The trees here are all about height and the birds about valour, the mighty American bald eagle, a symbol of power. I am partial to those tiniest of avians, the hummingbirds.

    Their flying skills are still something that human engineers are studying and have not replicated. Oftentimes, I will see one up high in the branches of the oak trees, no doubt sucking at their sweet seasonal sap.

    The house has a wrap around the deck with sliding glass doors opening in all directions. If I am careless and leave a door open, a hummingbird will often get trapped and spend many exhausting and futile hours trying to fly to freedom through the unforgiving illusion of glass with its clear view of the trees and the sky beyond, so near and yet so unattainable.

    I am torn between my desire to rescue the battered bird and the fear that her instinct to escape from me will be a final, fatal stress.

    On my last visit to Karachi, to my friend Nayyar's home, also with generous glass surrounded by gardens, a different sort of bird wandered in, one that I had grown up hearing but had never seen.

    Her wings were softly mottled like the dabs of veranda light, or pockmarked with the stab of the censor's peckish pen, bitter or sweet, depending on which way you turned the magic postcard of Mona Lisa that Bia had brought back from the Louvre in 1957.

    She was a koel and in that trapped state could no longer sing. We opened all the glass doors and left the living room.

    After a while we returned. The koel had gone.

    After a while I heard its familiar plaintive cry, although I am still not sure if it was coming from the tamarind tree or the recesses of my remembrance.

    Sophia Naz,
    Glen Ellen, California
    24 September, 2017

    Two weeks after the writing of this article, the author lost her home to the most devastating wildfires in the history of California. The cause of the fires have been attributed to climate change.

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    The media is reeking of blood. They want to show it live – each moment of it. A frenzied audience has committed to stay tuned. They won’t go away from in front of the screens as reality unfolds scene by scene.

    More perplexing than the chicken or the egg ruse, is whether it is the media that orchestrates fury within the public, or if it is the public that incites the media into vehemence.

    The widespread public outrage over the recent rape and murder of a young girl in Delhi dissipated when the four men were sentenced to death. It was a gratifying day. Until, news of the five-year-old girl raped by one or more maniacs in Lahore broke, the very same day.

    Whoever occupies whatever stance, the media and the public are unanimous that criminals shall be done to death in most horrid of ways – shot in the forehead point blank, beheaded with a jerk of sword, hanged in public and dragged out on the roads – and all of this is demanded as if from that day onwards no one would dare even think of committing such a heinous act.

    However, there is sorry news for this audience. The crime that they abhor does not end this way.

    This is one of the most strongly held yet highly erroneous perceptions that ‘an exemplary punishment’ has a great deterring impact on prospective criminals.

    Countries with low crime rate do not punish their convicted criminals in horrible ways, and the countries that do that are not crime free, not even in comparative sense. It is simple. And it is universal.

    China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen are the top five executioners in the world, according to Death Sentences and Executions 2012 by Amnesty International. China alone accounts for more executions than the rest of the world combined.

    In recent years, there have been many high profile cases punishing the financial corruption of government officials and businessmen with death.

    Saudi Arabia implements death sentences in ‘the most gratifying’ of ways: beheading. In 2012, it executed at least 79 persons or three every fortnight.

    But the sheer fact that each of these countries continues to convict and award this ‘exemplary punishment’ belies the claim that it acts as a deterrent. Had it had any preventive effect, these countries should have registered a steady decline in such cases.

    And if you think that I am being obscure, here is what has been happening in our homeland. Public hangings, introduced by Gen Ziaul Haq, were in vogue all through the 1980s.

    The practice was ostensibly started under the popular theme – the severer the punishment, the lesser the crime. (That the General used his military courts and ‘the exemplary punishments’ they awarded quickly and abundantly to actually deter political opposition, is another story.)

    Here are some of the news clippings that I sifted from the library of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

    These pictures and news are about public hangings in Mianwali, Gujranwala, Sahiwal, Lahore and Faisalabad between 1985 and 1988. The punishment was abandoned after the restoration of democracy in 1988 as it had resulted in no social good.

    Crimes are acts of individuals but the personalities of individuals are shaped by societies and the acts of criminals are, in more than one ways, connected to everyone else’s behaviors.

    While I do not plead for punishing the entire society for the crime of an individual, I do not want to absolve the society of all responsibility either. If you don’t believe in evil spirits entering a man and turning him into a criminal, you must be curious about what ails these perverts?

    But since this approach may rest some blame on us, we prefer to stress on an individual’s responsibility and call for making an example out of such a satanic man.

    Sex based crimes are shrouded with an added layer of hypocrisy as we all want to pretend that nothing even remotely linked to sexual problems or misdemeanor exists in my person or within my family.

    I once lead a research endeavour for my organisation that was focused on developing an understanding of gender-based domestic violence in rural Punjab – or to be precise, understanding the practice of wife beating.

    One of my most important learning was about how the concepts of masculinity intermingles with the realities of sexual prowess that results in gender violence. The full report of the study is available here.

    I will here divulge one aspect. Rural couples marry relatively young and the brides may not always be able to conceive immediately after the marriage for a host of reasons - the groom takes it as an affront to his masculinity.

    He has to prove to his larger family and his peer group that he possesses adequate sexual prowess. A pregnant wife is satisfactory evidence and the alternative is – the poor girl beaten blue for ‘her inability’ to get pregnant.

    Men are most insecure about their prowess and require frequent affirmations. Some male virgins are so low on self-esteem that they dread a relationship with an adult woman, fearing they might fail in bed.

    They would instead try it out on persons who are unable to resist and refuse or report a failure or launch a complaint – such as children.

    As my friend, Dr Asir Ajmal, who is a professor of psychology, explained:

    There is usually a misconception that there is a high correlation between being sexually abused and being a sexual abuser. There is a correlation but it is between being physically abused (being badly beaten up as a child) and being a sexual abuser.

    And being badly beaten as a child has obvious consequences for self-esteem. But it also reduces empathy, or the ability to feel the other person's pain.

    And believe it or not, it is not very rare.

    Sahil, an organisation that specialises in dealing with child sexual abuse, compiled and counted all such cases reported by the press and to legal aid cells in the year 2012.

    The total stood at 3,861. Sahil’s report further shows that out of the 1,579 victims of sexual abuse whose age could be ascertained from reports, 10.6 per cent were aged 1 to 5 years.

    Criminals do what they do and no amount of terrible punishments can deter them. However, what is more likely to be helpful is that our children know what sexual abuse means and are informed and confident enough to refuse, resist and report it.

    This can happen only if they are educated. But who will do that and how? More importantly, can parents in Pakistan ever even allow their childrean to talk about sex?

    Gender violence and child sexual abuse lie at the heart of this taboo. Its grip straps this society so tightly that some school science books even exclude human reproductive systems.

    I personally know of public sector schools that omit topics related to reproduction in animals from their annual study plans, even those that are included in books produced by Text Book Boards. They limit themselves to reproduction in plants alone!

    With such a strong and fortified internalisation of ignorance, how can we keep our children safe? By crying our throats hoarse at a stadium where a child abuser is being hanged – once more, once more!

    More on this:

    Here is video about what and how children can be educated about sexual abuse and every parent must watch it:

    Sahil’s publications provide insightful learning on the prevalent issue of child sexual abuse and exploitation in Pakistan.

    This article was originally published on September 18, 2013.

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    In 2016, eleven children in Pakistan reported being sexually abused every day, a 10% increase from the previous year. That is an average total of 4,015 every year. The numbers likely quadruple when one takes into account those children who suffer in silence.

    In Pakistan, a country where 31% of the population is below the age of 14, silence is, in fact, often the only recourse available to victim-children.

    Out of the 1,172 cases of rape, including gang-rape and sodomy, that were reported in 2016, only a handful made their way into public discourse.

    The rest were forced to find their own way through a criminal justice system that provides virtually no safeguards for child complainants, hangs onto archaic procedures of investigating sexual crimes, and holds virtually zero convictions for sexual crimes in most districts.

    Given the government’s pithy record in addressing child sexual abuse, the outrage and shock at the tragic murder of six-year-old Zainab in Kasur demonstrates our collective ignorance towards the plight of the most vulnerable.

    Read next: Kasur as a political failure

    In 2004, Punjab enacted The Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children Act with the aim of providing the province with its first ever institutional and legal framework for the prevention and protection of children against abuse and exploitation.

    However, the district child protection units envisioned under the law were established only in six districts and even those remain non-functional today.

    A Child Protection and Welfare Bureau, with the chief minister as its patron-in-chief, was tasked with the establishment and management of the child protection units.

    However, in the eight-year tenure of the current chief minister, not a single meeting of the bureau has been conducted.

    August, 2015 was the first time in Pakistan’s recent history that the public was forced to confront the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of child sexual abuse when vile video tapes, showing the molestation of over 400 children between 2006-2014, surfaced in Kasur.

    A high-level inquiry committee constituted by the Punjab government dismissed the reports as baseless and the result of land disputes between a few parties.

    In absence of any law criminalising acts of child sexual abuse, pornography and trafficking, the few arrests that were made could only be charged under general sections for sodomy and rape under the Pakistan Penal Code.

    While the events were enough to jolt the legislature into finally pushing a bill through the parliament in March, 2016, as always, actual implementation remains wanting. That same year, civil society recorded 100 deaths of children as a result of rape.

    Editorial: Protect our children

    Protecting children from exploitation has never been on agendas nationwide. This holds true both politically and socially.

    It is no surprise that Punjab, the province where 62% of all child sexual abuse cases occurred in 2017, has failed to develop its own child protection policy.

    The draft developed by the Social Welfare Department has failed to attain approval of the cabinet because of other ‘more important agenda items.’

    Any attempt to introduce Life Skills Based Education (LSBE) in mainstream curricula is instantaneously thwarted.

    The Punjab government, in 2011, cancelled a memorandum of understanding for the inclusion of LSBE in curricula of public schools, bowing to right wing pressure.

    Parents have often joined opposition against LSBE and have seldom taken it upon themselves to equip their offspring with any knowledge necessary to protect themselves against sexual abuse.

    In fact, sexual abuse, particularly occurring within the home and family, is muted for the benefit of ‘family honour.’

    Despite the dismal public and private safeguards in place against child sexual abuse, the call for action in the wake of Zainab’s horrific death has singularly focused on police negligence and public punishment for the perpetrator.

    What remains missing from the debate is our social and political unwillingness to recognise the complete lack of child-responsive legal and social institutions in the country that prioritise child welfare above all other considerations.

    Confronted with the heart-wrenching reality, we can no longer ignore the silent suffering of children.

    However, holding on to the belief that public and extreme punishment for the perpetrator will remedy our consistent neglect and apathy towards the vulnerable, is grossly misguided.

    Punishing a single perpetrator will simply appease our consciences under the false illusion that we have taken sufficient action to finally address the high rates of public and private sexual abuse and exploitation.

    However, it is unlikely that the alarming rates of child sexual abuse will decrease without the implementation of child protection units at the district level, along with LSBE in school curricula and willingness at home to openly talk about the issue.

    Related: Notes from a classroom: Talking to children about sexual abuse

    Social media has irresponsibly claimed that a public hanging in Iran solved the country’s child sexual abuse problem. Civil society and media reports continue to show high rates of child sex abuse in the country.

    A recent study showed that around 100 to 150 children living on the streets are killed every month in Tehran for reasons including abuse.

    According to government reports, over 21% of these children experience sexual exploitation, including the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Tehran in June, 2015.

    Additionally, the highest rise in AIDS in Iran has been reported to be the result of children working on the streets infected through rape.

    Clearly, the tragic events surrounding Zainab’s death should lead us to finally push for a much better state of affairs for our country’s children.

    The abduction of children has already accounted for hundreds of executions in Pakistan since a moratorium was lifted in December, 2014.

    If we continue to hold the belief that adding another death to the mix will create any impact on the security of our children, then we will continue to let them down.

    It’s high time that we prioritise the protection of our children in all legal and policy agendas, while implementing the already existing child safeguarding mechanisms.

    We owe it to children like Zainab, and countless others like her, to finally convert the effort we put into our impassioned responses to implementing dedicated and long-term strategies to prevent child sexual abuse from happening further.

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    Influenza, commonly known as the flu, has hit with full force this season. An increasing number of cases are being reported from across the country, with a simultaneous increase in reports of flu-related fatalities.

    World Health Organization Pakistan (WHO) and the National Institute of Health (NIH), the leading multidisciplinary authority on public health-related issues, have taken note of the cases and are conducting investigations into flu deaths in Multan, which seems to have been hit harder than other cities in Punjab.

    As an epidemiologist and a practicing paediatrician with expertise in infectious diseases, I believe it is imperative that information about this seemingly deadly infection is provided to the public in an unbiased and objective manner.

    Routine testing for flu was commonly unheard of in Pakistan before 2009, when the first case of swine flu was reported. That year, there were reports of a new type of flu, H1N1 (swine flu), which was a mutant form of the Swine Influenza Virus (SIV) in pigs, being observed in humans.

    This mutation in the old flu virus seen in pigs was alarming because it was associated with increased reports of severe lung infection or pneumonia that had not been previously reported.

    Since 2009, Pakistan gets its season of flu every year, which peaks in January and February and tapers in March.

    A number of these cases are comprised of the previously intimidating H1N1, especially this year, which according to NIH, has seen hundreds tested positive for it in Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Multan, Peshawar, Sargodha and Karachi, with an increasing number of cases resulting in death.

    Whether this is a routine phenomenon occurring each year, or the start of an alarming epidemic is an important question to ask because it has public health implications both locally and globally.

    The signs of a flu epidemic

    There are several clues that we need to look at to identify that something is amiss with the flu season and there is reason to believe that this is an outbreak getting out of hand:

    Clue 1

    The first clue to a flu epidemic would be a change in the usual pattern of flu-like illnesses and flu-related deaths. We know now that flu has a known seasonality associated with increasing flu-like illnesses and deaths from flu-like illness that occur from January to March.

    This is the usual pattern that epidemiologists, the scientists who study disease and its determinants, follow throughout the year, every year, to detect a global outbreak.

    In fact, the 2009 swine flu outbreak was detected when experts were alerted to the unusual change in the seasonal pattern of predictable flu-like illness.

    Clue 2

    The second clue that alerts experts is if there are an increased number of infected persons who died. Flu causes its fair share of mortality annually, but there is reason to be alarmed if the number of deaths is disproportionate to what is usually reported annually.

    This change can only be detected if there is a systematic surveillance of flu and flu-like illnesses conducted over many years in a constant setting.

    Clue 3

    The third clue to a flu outbreak would be if there was an increased severity of disease or deaths in an unusual group of patients, for example healthy adults.

    Immunity from flu virus arises because of prior infection, which allows our immune systems to recognise the virus proteins.

    However, if these virus proteins change due to mutation, for example as seen with H1N1 in 2009, healthy adults or those thought to be protected, start exhibiting an increased severity of illness and increased deaths.

    Remember that common symptoms of flu are cough, runny nose, fever, and generalised fatigue. Presentation is usually only severe in the very young and very old, and in those with decreased immunity due to diseases such as diabetes, or smoking.

    However, if the flu virus mutates, immunity is not shown and even healthy adults are at risk of severe outcomes such as pneumonia and death.

    All the above clues are causes to be alarmed and suspect that there may be a flu outbreak that could get out of hand.

    Is there a flu epidemic in Pakistan?

    The current outbreak of flu in Pakistan is caused majorly by H1N1, which now circulates throughout the year causing an increase in cases in January to March.

    This season is not different from the ones in the previous years with regards to the types of flu virus.

    Similarly, reports from the Aga Khan University Laboratory, a leading CAP-certified laboratory in Pakistan, show that there is no increase in rates of flu positivity from previous years, and that the current trends in positivity of samples indicates the usual flu activity in the country.

    Although there have been an increased number of samples coming in for testing, there is no observable change in the percentage of positive cases from previous years.

    It’s important to keep in mind that the flu test is very expensive, on average costing Rs7,000 per test, and not offered in most labs in the country. Testing is therefore only done on the severely ill and on patients who can afford it.

    This itself biases the reporting of flu cases in the country, where one may get a false impression of the severity of the disease and the mortality rates, because testing is primarily being done on very ill hospitalised patients.

    Routine surveillance of flu-like illnesses and deaths from pneumonia and flu is non-existent in Pakistan. Experts have to depend on the interest and ability of the hospitals to do testing and report positive cases.

    Therefore, in the absence of sufficient data on the annual rates of flu-like illnesses and pneumonia deaths, it is not possible to confidently assume that the epidemic may get out of hand.

    Thus, there is not enough compelling evidence to indicate that we are sitting on a flu epidemic that can go amiss and lead to scores of severe disease cases and increased mortality rates. We do not have enough evidence to cause us to feel alarmed.

    Actions need to be taken

    This flu season is a very good opportunity to reflect on public health policies in this country, and on the practices of disease surveillance and prevention of diseases such as the flu.

    The flu is here to stay. We will continue to have annual rises in the number of cases in these particular months. Flu deaths will occur among the oldest and the youngest, and those with decreased immunity.

    More robust means of surveillance are required, for which NIH can take a leading role.

    There are protective and preventive measures that can be taken at the individual level, such as hand washing, avoiding large gatherings — especially for the elderly and children — and using tissue paper while coughing and sneezing.

    If severe flu is suspected, the patient should be immediately referred to a tertiary care hospital.

    Physicians and health care workers need to be equipped with the knowledge and the drugs required for treatment of severe flu.

    The role immunisation plays in preventing severe forms of flu is an established fact, but currently only indicated for those with decreased immunity and healthcare workers.

    However, no such recommendations exist in Pakistan’s public health policy.

    Are you a medical practitioner involved in public health issues? Share your insights with us at

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    Since I was a child, I have been fascinated by the alluring night sky, the glittering moon and countless stars over the horizon. All throughout my childhood, space sciences and astronomy remained my passion.

    While researching personalities from all around the world in those fields, I always wondered why despite the fact there is no dearth of talent in the country, I was unable to find any instance of Pakistanis working for the National Air and Space Administration (NASA).

    I got in touch with Dr Mohsin Siddique, director of the theoretical physics department at the National Center for Physics, Islamabad.

    Through him I had the privilege of connecting with Mr Mansoor Ahmed, a Pakistani astrophysicist, who has been associated with NASA for almost 35 years and is currently serving as the associate director of the Astrophysics Projects Division, as well as the programme manager for the Physics of the Cosmos programme and the Cosmic Origins programme at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Maryland.

    Mr Ahmed has spent most of his career working at the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) programme in different capacities, including as flight operations manager and the project manager for HST operations.

    He was the deputy project manager of the James Web Space Telescope (JWST) and the project manager of the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) mission, a collaborative endeavour between NASA and the European Space Agency.

    Here, I ask the impressive gentleman his success story, from his childhood in Peshawar to his work with NASA.

    You were born and grew up in Peshawar. Can you tell us your family background? Do you recall any interesting story from your childhood/teenage years?

    My father was a Subedar-major in the army. We lived in Peshawar, near Fort Bala Hissar.

    For the first five years of my education, I went to a Christian mission school and from sixth grade onwards, I attended the Government Higher Secondary School.

    Our house was across the street from Naaz cinema, the only cinema in the city that played English-language films. This is where I got my first exposure to films.

    My father took me to see The Vikings and I was hooked from then on, even though, I didn’t really understand any English at that time.

    My answer to the question 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' was: 'I want to become the ticket collector at Naaz cinema so that I can see every film playing there.'

    One day, I was visiting some relatives who lived right next to the Pakistan Air Force base in Peshawar and I witnessed an F-86 land on the runway. As the plane taxied, I could see the cockpit and the pilot.

    The pilot waved at me as he passed by and right then my career goals changed. I wanted to be a fighter pilot.

    At Government High School, a close friend of mine, Ayub, told me about the Air Force cadet academy in Lower Topa, a tiny town near Murree.

    It consists of a boarding school that selects 60 children each year as pre-cadets, to prepare them to enter the air force flying academy after FSc. Ayub said he was applying and encouraged me to the same.

    Fortunately, both of us got selected and we entered Lower Topa in May of 1966, at the age of 13.

    In Pakistan it is not common for parents to support their kids to pursue astronomy as a profession. Can you tell us how much encouragement you received from your family during the early years of your career? Would you encourage your own child if they were to prefer the same profession?

    I think there are two aspects to this question. Parents are concerned about the livelihood of their children when they grow up.

    They are concerned whether their children will be able to earn a living and support a family. So, their tendency is to push their kids towards careers that are known to provide a good living.

    Unfortunately, most often their preferences are also tainted by the apparent status of certain careers in our society. They end up ignoring the interests and aptitudes of their children in areas that may not rank high in the status hierarchy in Pakistan.

    It is very likely that if allowed to pursue their own interests, children would really thrive in any career choice they make, whether it be engineering, medicine, music, business, sports, etc.

    All photos by Mr Ahmed.
    All photos by Mr Ahmed.

    Taking astronomy as an example, even though there may not be too many job opportunities in astronomy in Pakistan, if a child is genuinely interested and has the right aptitude in the subject, encouraging them to pursue their passion may result in an illustrious career that might answer the most profound mysteries of the universe, possibly getting worldwide recognition.

    I recognise it is a tough choice for parents, especially in Pakistan, where there is a stigma attached to certain careers and which are generally discouraged.

    In my situation, I am not sure if my parents would have encouraged me to become a ticket collector at Naaz cinema but they definitely did not stop me from pursuing a career in the air force.

    In the case of my children, I believe in allowing them to pursue their passions, be it astronomy, plumbing, or driving a taxi.

    It is easy for me to say so because in the US, there is generally no stigma attached to any career and a person can make a decent living in any job, as long as they are willing to work hard for it. And if one has a career which follows their passion, it is easy to put one’s back into it.

    The average person in Pakistan is not familiar with even basic scientific facts and interest in pursuing a career in the field of science is generally low. How do you think this situation can be addressed?

    I believe the effort to instil within students a love for science needs to start at the very early stages of education. Children have a much greater curiosity and far more open minds than adults.

    As we grow older, our perspectives get narrower and biased. We need to design science curriculums in a way that is engaging and easy to understand at the elementary level.

    More emphasis should be placed on hands-on exercises and demonstrations, and not on memorisation of material. For this to take place, we need to train teachers on how to present the information in an interesting way.

    I also feel that we separate science and arts students too early on in the stages of their educational development. Science courses should be made compulsory for a longer period - perhaps until the 12th year of education.

    To further motivate young students into hopping onto the science and technical tracks, schools should encourage prominent scientists, engineers and technically-oriented professionals to visit and give talks about their interesting careers.

    You have a bachelor's degree from University of Maryland and a master's degree from George Washington University in mechanical engineering. If you could do it again, would you take a different academic path?

    This is a very interesting question to answer. First, I must admit, there is no direct path connecting my current career at NASA to my educational goals when I was a student.

    As I mentioned earlier, my career goal was to become a fighter pilot. I was happily pursuing it in Lower Topa when I became unfit for flying due to my weak eyesight.

    My parents had already migrated to the US while I was still in Lower Topa, and once unfit to fly, I was given the option to join my parents there. I exercised this option.

    When deciding my educational path, I was still driven by the love of flying and figured I should study aeronautical engineering so that I can still work with jet planes.

    As I started my bachelor's degree, it became apparent that job opportunities in aeronautical and aerospace engineering were diminishing. The Apollo Program was coming to an end and there was no real vision that NASA was pursuing.

    So my advisor recommended that I change my major to mechanical engineering. Out of all my courses, I enjoyed thermodynamics and heat transfer the most.

    The US was entering a period of energy crisis and the government was focusing on commercialising alternate, renewable energy resources, such as solar and wind energy.

    These needs were in line with my academic training and I was encouraged to continue my master’s degree in the area of energy resources. As luck would have it, NASA was in need of someone with heat transfer expertise, which opened the door for me into the organisation.

    The point I am trying to make is that, where I am today is because of the circumstances that ended up in my favour. There were several occasions where I could have made different choices and pursued a course of studies resulting in a different career.

    Who knows if that career would have been as exciting as the one I have now. So personally, I would not want to go back to my student days with the risk of not ending up where I am today.

    You have spent most of your career working for the HST programme. Can you tell us what makes the Hubble Telescope so incredible?

    Hubble is not only a scientific marvel but an engineering one as well. The idea of putting a telescope in space was a masterstroke.

    Even though we have telescopes on the ground, they suffer from several limitations. They can only observe at night and for a relatively short duration until the sun rises again.

    Our atmosphere also limits the wavelengths of light that the ground-based telescopes observe. With Hubble being above our atmosphere, it can see much more clearly and is not limited by the day-night cycle.

    All the stars we see in our night sky with the naked eye all belong to our galaxy, Milky Way. Other galaxies are much farther away and the light coming from them is extremely dim.

    To take their pictures, Hubble must stay pointed at the distant galaxies for a long time.

    You can compare this to taking a picture in the dark without a flash. You must keep the camera shutter open for a long time, keeping the camera absolutely still or the picture will be blurry.

    Hubble can stay pointed at an object billions and billions of miles away for days, while travelling around the earth’s orbit at 18,000 miles per hour. Over the period of the observation, it doesn’t jitter more than 0.000002 degrees.

    These are some of the engineering capabilities that allow Hubble to unearth the amazing scientific discoveries that it has.

    Do you have a favourite science result that came from Hubble, especially considering the fact that you have been an active part of the Hubble repair mission?

    It is very difficult to narrow down the most favourite result from Hubble; there are so many beautiful pictures of exploding stars and merging galaxies that everyone would be amazed by.

    The most profound image in my mind is the Hubble Deep Field image. We decided to point Hubble to a tiny, seemingly dark spot in the sky where there was nothing the naked eye could see.

    Hubble stayed at that spot for 11 days, capturing any photons that might come from that direction to construct the final picture (remember my example of taking a photo in the dark).

    When completed, it was amazing to see that the picture was full of bright objects, thousands of them. Each one of them was a galaxy consisting of trillions of stars.

    That image illustrates how vast our universe is and makes one wonder our significance (or insignificance) in this universe.

    The other great discovery, which is scientifically the most significant, is that of dark energy. Before Hubble was launched, the biggest question in astrophysics revolved around the fate of the universe.

    Will it continue to expand because of the initial force of the Big Bang or will it slow down and start contracting due to the gravitational pull of the matter in the universe?

    What our universe will do depends on the total mass in the universe, which defines the gravitational force in the system. Sir Edwin Hubble (whom the telescope is named after) determined the critical value of the mass (known as the Hubble Constant) that would define the fate of the universe.

    If the mass is less than that value, then the universe will continue to expand, eventually cooling off and dying. If the mass is more than the value, then the universe will slow down, start contracting and end up as a singularity resulting in yet another big bang, with this cycle continuing forever.

    One of the primary objectives of Hubble (the telescope) was to determine the Hubble Constant. Instead, what Hubble discovered was that the universe is neither slowing down nor expanding at a constant speed, but a few billion years ago, had started to expand faster than before.

    This can only happen if there is some form of energy that appeared from somewhere, and is making the universe expand faster (Newton’s first law of motion). We call it dark energy because we have no clue what it is.

    Solving the dark energy mystery has now become one of the top questions in astrophysics.

    The JWST is an infrared telescope while Hubble is an optical telescope. Having also served as a deputy manager for the JWST, how do you feel about the future of Hubble? Is it true that JWST enjoys greater importance than Hubble?

    Hubble and JWST are equally important tools for answering the astrophysics questions. Just like Hubble cannot see infrared light, JWST cannot see optical and ultraviolet light.

    Together, they can solve more mysteries than either one can by itself. Hubble continues to be in perfect health. We predict that all its systems will still be functional until 2022 and most likely beyond.

    JWST will launch in early 2019. The scientific community is eagerly awaiting when both of these observatories will work hand in hand.

    What can you tell us about LISA? What do gravitational waves tell us and how would LISA further our knowledge about the beginning, evolution and structure of the universe?

    Up until now, all of our astrophysical discoveries have been done by analysing the electromagnetic spectrum. The visible light, which the human eye can see, and Hubble is optimised for, is just a small subset of this spectrum.

    The spectrum ranges from radio waves at one end and very energetic gamma rays on the other. We have satellites in space observing most of these wavelengths and together they have informed our knowledge of the universe to date.

    But the electromagnetic spectrum is generated by the stars when they are born and start to emit electromagnetic radiation.

    There were no stars at the time of the Big Bang, only elementary particles that coalesced together to form electrons and protons, which in turn formed hydrogen.

    The hydrogen atoms started to coalesce to form blobs of hydrogen, eventually forming a mass large enough to have enough gravitational force to initiate hydrogen fusion at the core of this blob, thus igniting the blob into becoming a star that started to emit electromagnetic waves.

    This process took hundreds of thousands of years. So, there were no electromagnetic waves during this time.

    We call it the dark period because there was no light, and as a result, we can only predict theoretically what happened during that period.

    Gravitational waves on the other hand were generated right at the start of the Big Bang because mass always existed and mass creates gravity.

    The LISA mission is being designed so that we can see the universe with gravitational waves; a completely new way of looking at the universe.

    With LISA, we will be able to look at the dark period from the very beginning of the Big Bang. We would also be able to see deep inside black holes from where electromagnetic light cannot escape.

    While we are in the process of building LISA, there are several ground-based gravitational observatories coming into action already.

    You visited Pakistan last year and spoke at the National Center for Physics, Islamabad. What did you observe?

    I had the privilege of meeting young students in several institutions in Pakistan. I must say I was very impressed by their curiosity, intelligence and interest in astronomy and astrophysics, even with the limited resources available to them.

    I was very encouraged to see that there were almost an equal number of girls and boys attending the talks. A lot of them were enrolled in PhD programmes in physics, which is not an easy subject.

    I have made commitments to the leadership of these institutions that I will do my best in connecting these students with scientists and engineers at NASA who can provide them guidance in pursuing careers in space-based astronomy.

    I have already obtained commitments from NASA scientists to give periodic lectures online to the interested students in Pakistan.

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    It all started with the Pakistan Cricket Board opening up the sale of a limited number of tickets for the one-day cricket matches between India and Pakistan in March, 2004.

    The moment we saw that news report, my wife Ipsita and I knew we had to do this. This was not just an opportunity to witness one of sport’s greatest rivalries, it was a chance to go to Pakistan—the place we Indians talk and read so much about, and often, despise so much.

    Tickets were promptly purchased on the internet, and visa forms filled up. There is no Pakistan consulate in Hyderabad, so we made a trip to Delhi and stood at 4am in a queue of hopefuls outside the Pakistan High Commission in Chanakyapuri.

    There were some like us, standing for a visa for the cricket match. Most others, and that number was in several hundreds, were people who had relatives in Pakistan and had been trying for many many months to get a visa—most of the time, unsuccessfully.

    “Deposit your passport, we will inform you when your visa is granted,” said the helpful man at the counter, which I reached after about five hours in the queue.

    We returned to Hyderabad and were informed a week later that the visa had come through. We were two of about 2,000 Indians who would get to go to Pakistan for the one-day cricket matches.

    I have had many visas on my passport—tourist visa, business visa, visit visa. This one was unique; it read: “Cricket Visa”.

    It specified Lahore only. My match tickets were only for the Lahore matches and the visa forbade me from going any place else.

    Importantly, it also specified: “Exempt from police reporting”, which is otherwise a daily requirement for Indians visiting Pakistan.

    The next step was visiting The Hospitality Club, one of my favourite websites which provides a platform for members to homestay as a guest at someone's home.

    I had hosted and been been hosted at many places around the world—but Pakistan was an entirely different place, at least in my mind.

    Was it too risky, to search for random people in Lahore and ask them for a place to stay?

    I took a leap of faith and narrowed the search on the website down to Lahore and wrote to the top host in Lahore, telling him of my trip and asking whether we could stay with him for the week.

    Promptly, my inbox had a response: “You are welcome.”

    The Delhi-Lahore bus left from the Ambedkar Terminal in Delhi. The bus departure time was 6am. We were there at 3.30am and noticed a large queue of people already present.

    There were an even larger number of people there to see the passengers off, easily in a 3:1 ratio. These people were not allowed in, and stood outside the large, iron gates of the entrance.

    The passengers were a mix of Indians, Pakistanis and other nationalities.

    There were about 20-odd cricket fans (mostly from Delhi, a few from Panipat and the two of us from Hyderabad), a woman and her four kids from Karachi, a man from Lahore returning from Jaipur after getting the 'Jaipur foot' (a rubber-based prosthetic leg) fitted, a mother-daughter duo from Islamabad, a Dutch lady traveling from India to Pakistan, two armed security escorts, and a liaison officer from Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC).

    The security checks were more stringent than any I have experienced anywhere in the world.

    The people from Pakistan said their goodbyes to relatives who were waving from outside the iron gates of the terminus. The bus started off at 6am Indian time.

    All photos by the author.
    All photos by the author.

    There were two police vans with armed guards and lathis (sticks) escorting the bus. One in front of the bus, the other in the rear. They honked their horns and cleared all traffic for the bus to pass off uninterrupted.

    The bus had three stops before reaching the border—for breakfast, tea and lunch.. These stops offer a good opportunity for the passengers to mix and get to know each other. There was a pervading spirit of bonhomie, which grew with time and each stop.

    Kartarpur was the last stop before the border. There, I saw a sign board showing an Indian and a Pakistani hugging each other in the backdrop of the Lahore bus.

    Delhi was written on one side of the signboard and Lahore on the other, and there was a line written below; it read:

    "Dil ka darwaza khol ke aana, par wapis jakar humein bhool na jana." (Open the doors of your heart as you enter, but don't forget us when you return.)

    Around 2pm, we neared the border at Attari and suddenly, mobile phone signals were blocked. There were a number of Indians crossing over by foot from Amritsar.

    From their appearance, it seemed most of them were headed for the cricket match. A few entrepreneurs had put up a well-stocked shop selling Indian cricket jerseys, Indian flags and banners. Their unique selling point: this is the last place where you can buy this stuff.

    Beyond is a different world. Prices were moderate, and an Indian shirt with No. 10 and Tendulkar written on it could be bought for 200 Indian rupees.

    Next was the customs check-post at Attari, India. Amidst a lot of confusion and a sea of blue shirt wearing porters, our passports were collected by a couple of stern looking officials. We filled in our forms and in about two hours, we were checked out of India.

    Pakistan was clearly visible a few meters in front, but we had to wait for our luggage to be loaded back on to the bus (which, necessarily, is done by the porters because the authorities don't allow you to carry your own luggage).

    After a few photos with the Indian flag in front of the bus, and a cold coffee, we were back in the bus. The next leg of the journey was a few meters of physical distance, and many light years of perceived distance.

    After all, this was Pakistan!

    The six-and-half foot tall, well built, Border Security Force (BSF) guard was standing in front of a massive gate just ahead of our bus. It had ‘INDIA’ written on it in big, bold letters.

    The BSF jawan opened the gate, and the bus slowly rolled on to the other side. Inside the bus, there was huge applause from the passengers.

    For many on board, it was an emotional moment. I was one of those.

    Being on the other side of the Wagah border meant I was nearing the place where my parents were born, where they learnt to walk and take their first steps, where our family used to live and a lot, lot more.

    In a few minutes, the bus stopped again—this time on the Pakistan side of the border for the formalities to be completed. Systems there were relatively more streamlined than at Attari, and the queue moved faster.

    After the formalities were sorted out, we had to get our luggage checked once again. Like Attari, there was a lot of confusion among people there, before it finally got done.

    I started getting mobile phone signals again. Surprisingly, it was the Airtel Punjab (India) network that was the strongest, so I made calls to my parents in India, from Pakistan, on an Indian network.

    Just outside the café, some of the porters were asking passengers if they want to exchange currency. I gave them currency notes with Gandhi’s picture and got back those with Jinnah’s.

    The bus passengers were asked to head towards the PTDC cafe, for a complimentary tea. The manager of the cafe took control of operations to meet this sudden spurt of Indians, and was endeavouring to increase the turnaround time of the cheese sandwiches.

    As we awaited our sandwiches, a framed photo of Jinnah adorned the wall right in front of us. To the side were a few Pakistan Tourism posters, all of which had the words ‘Visit Pakistan’ firmly written in bold font.

    We got back to the bus and continued onwards. The first thing I saw thereafter, was another entrepreneur, selling Pakistan cricket team jerseys, caps and Pakistan flags.

    As the bus moved on, there were hundreds of people on the way who were eager to catch a glimpse of it. They were on the roads, in shops, in houses.

    I waved incessantly and most people waved back, with a huge smile as a bonus. That really made my day.

    There was a railway crossing in front of us, and the gates were closed. The escort of our bus walked up to the railway cabin, got the aspect of the signal changed and got the gates opened.

    Our bus passed through. A goods train was seen waiting a few metres away. That was a remarkable sight to see. A train was stopped to let a bus pass by.

    We headed into Lahore in about half an hour, and the roads were dominated by the Daewoo city buses, some double deckers, Mehran Suzuki cars (the exact equivalent of India's Maruti Suzuki 800), rickshaws, tongas, chand gari (a six-seater vehicle), and dozens of motorbikes.

    We crossed Aitchison College (where Imran Khan studied, informed the liaison officer), the Pearl Continental Hotel (where the cricket teams are put up) and a number of buildings from the British era.

    In some time, we were at Falleti's Hotel, another hotel from the British times, and the bus' final destination.

    As we got down, there were people from the press taking photographs. They asked us to pose with the Indian flag, which we happily did.

    We got down, and in a few minutes were able to locate The Hospitality Club friend. His name was Naseem. I called him Naseem sahab.

    He took us home after driving us through the Mall Road, the High Court, the Postmaster General's office and the Secretariat.

    While driving, he made dozens of phone calls to neighbours and relatives and invited them to his place for the evening.

    At Naseem sahab’s place, there were scores of people who wanted to meet us, talk to us, and express the fact they are extremely happy at our being there.

    Naseem then took us to another friend’s place, where I mentioned that my parents were born in Lahore. The friend whose house he had taken us to had come from Saharanpur, way back in 1947.

    The man was thrilled to bits on seeing us, and he took off the watch he was wearing and put it on my wrist. Then, he took off the pen in his pocket and gave it to Ipsita.

    We were blown away by the gesture.

    The next day, I managed to track down the respective houses where my father and mother were born. It was a very special moment for me.

    KL Sapra, my father, lived on Dev Samaj Road, and Neerja Sapra, my mother, lived on Nisbet Road.

    The two houses might be nondescript today amongst the sea of houses in Lahore, but for me they represented places where my parents had taken their first steps, played, fallen, walked, talked and learnt to get their first bearings of the world.

    These were also the places where they had to undergo, at the age of five and two respectively, the horrific trauma of Partition, leaving their homes behind and escaping in the laps of their parents, with fear and frenzy all around.

    On the 21st of March, we were at the Gaddafi stadium. I was in my Indian-team-blue jersey. Outside the stadium, there were a stupendous number of Pakistani fans gathered.

    We all waved and smiled at each other. Many, many people came up to us, asked us questions about India and exchanged pleasantries.

    The Police got us inside the stadium through a special queue for Indian visitors. Inside the stadium, though, the enclosures were common to all.

    There was a college girl who was wearing a T-shirt saying: “Nothing feels better than kicking Indians.”

    Ipsita walked up to her and told her: “We have come from far to be here in Pakistan, I am sure you don’t mean what’s written on your shirt.”

    The girl turned extremely apologetic. In a few minutes, she became good friends with Ipsita and we posed for pictures with our respective flags.

    The match had started. In the stands the crowd was having a lot of fun—thousands of flags, banners, musical instruments, and Mexican waves going around the stadium.

    Flags of USA, Bahrain and the UK were visible as well. There were Sikhs in tri-colour turbans and a man with a Ronaldo jersey.

    A guy in a Pakistani-green jersey got us two glasses of Pepsi. An elderly person offered us paan.

    Indian ads were displayed all over the stadium. When the screen on the ground showed the information minister of Pakistan, the crowd shouted: “Lota! Lota!” (meaning an individual who is double-faced and a turncoat, a term commonly used for politicians in Pakistan — could be used anywhere, I feel).

    The crowd chanted "Lota" for every politician who was shown on the screen. The Pakistani crowd is good at inventing slogans. The most common slogan was "Match tusi le lo, Aishwarya saanu de do" (Take the match, give us Aishwarya).

    When the screen showed Indian actors Sunil Shetty and Mandira Bedi, the crowd cheered like mad.

    There was a Pakistani man whom everyone calls baba, dressed in all green, waving the flag, who goes everywhere the Pakistan team plays.

    He too was cheered for whenever he was shown on the big screen. He was in the Imran Khan enclosure, adjacent to the Javed Miandad enclosure where we were.

    During the innings break, the public address system played popular music. Many of the tracks were Bollywood songs. Many in the crowd were dancing and swaying to the beats.

    After a while, "Dil Dil Pakistan", started blaring on the sound system. This one made the crowd go especially crazy. There was frenzied dancing and waving of flags.

    After the interval, the cricket continued. Good shots were cheered for by both sides. The Pakistan team flattered to deceive and India won convincingly.

    The crowd was disappointed, but genuinely happy for us.

    People walked up and said ‘'congratulations'’ and “well played”. A man even walked up to me and offered his Pakistani flag in exchange for my Indian one. We posed for a photo with him.

    Similarly, another person asked for my blue-coloured Indian cap as a souvenir.

    I gave my address and cards to countless people. A few of our fellow spectators took our autographs as well.

    People were desperate for Indian souvenirs. I ended up giving away all the Indian currency notes that I had in my pocket – with an autograph on them as well.

    I parted with my cap, my money, and finally, even my jersey. In return, what I got was a massive amount of love and affection. It felt simply out of this world.

    The next few days after the first match were spent going around Lahore— Badshahi Mosque, Minar-e-Pakistan, Ravi River, Mall Road, Government College Lahore, Punjab University, Kim's Gun and Kim's Book Shop.

    We shopped around Anarkali and then went to Lahore Railway station. The train station is my favourite place in any city.

    Like many large stations in India, this one also has a locomotive outside, with the star and crescent prominently displayed in front.

    We met a number of porters, who were very happy to have a mehmaan from India visit the railway station.

    There is a 'Meeting Point' at the station, quite similar to the ones in many other parts of the world. There is a big clock on top of it. I bought a platform ticket, which cost Rs5 (Pakistani).

    The platform was maintained by a private party, and was quite clean.

    Two big photos—one of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and another of Mohammad Iqbal (author of the poem, Saare jahan se achcha, Hindustan hamara, which almost became the Indian national anthem) adorn the entrance to the platform area.

    Samjhauta Express, the train to India, was to leave from the far end of Platform No. 1. This platform also had a McDonalds and a Pizza Hut outlet. There were bookstalls on every platform, mostly selling Urdu books.

    As we moved on to other platforms, we could see the Khyber Mail. It goes from Peshawar to Karachi and was on Platform No. 5. We went inside, and saw the AC, Economy AC and non-AC coaches.

    On the platform, there were vendors selling all kinds of eatables. The only problem for me, a lover of railway platform food, was that vegetarian food was hard to find!

    The Karakoram Express, which is a fully air conditioned train, is the most prestigious train from Lahore, quite similar to the Rajdhani Express in India.

    At my mother's house.
    At my mother's house.
    My mother's house from the outside.
    My mother's house from the outside.
    Her house's view from behind the street.
    Her house's view from behind the street.

    After the station, I made a second visit to Nisbet Road and Dev Samaj Road, to the houses where my parents were born.

    There was a lavish spread for us at both places and the current occupants of the house were over the moon on seeing us.

    I had heard from my mother that she once fell close to the staircase of the house and had a fracture when she was one-year-old.

    She said didn’t remember any of it, but the constant story telling about the incident from her elder siblings was what she had narrated.

    I told this story, of my mother’s fracture, to the current occupants. They said it had happened to some other children in their family as well.

    So things hadn’t changed all that much in more than 50 years. Children were still falling and getting injured at the same spot. We all laughed.

    This was one more of the hundreds of times during the week, that I had felt connected to a set of unknown people in an inexplicable sort of way.

    Then, like the blink of an eye, it was our last night in Lahore. In the evening, we (all our recently acquired friends, totalling up to around 20) went to the Food Street on Gawal Mandi, for a farewell dinner.

    Although finding vegetarian food wasn't very easy, people's willingness to do just about anything for their mehmaan made it a song.

    That had been the feature of the entire trip—wherever we had gone, people had been warm and friendly, eager to meet, say assalaamu alaikum, shake hands and extend hospitality.

    Most people didn’t accept money for food, saying it was their privilege to have been able to offer food to their guests.

    Many conversations took place as well. This included conversations on contentious issues like Kashmir. Views ranged from moderate to extreme.

    None of those views, no matter how extreme, came in the way of people taking extraordinary care of their guests and bestowing upon us the most incredible hospitality that anyone could.

    The staggering opinion was that Kashmir aside, we must increase people-to-people interaction, end restrictions on visas, allow trade, allow communication, allow each other to just be.

    People said these steps should be taken urgently, and were really happy that things were looking up between the two countries.

    Many credited the Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee for being a visionary statesman who can bring peace and friendly ties between us.

    Many people have relatives in India, and India is very much on the top of people's agenda. Indian soap operas are extremely popular, and shape a number of perceptions about India.

    The only time we noticed disappointment was when people realised that Indians don’t sleep in Kanjivaram sarees, as some saas-bahu soaps seemed to suggest.

    In all, the few days spent in Lahore had been an overwhelming, out-of-this-world experience. It helped that we were up-front with everyone about the fact that we had come from India and were polite and courteous.

    Finally, I would recommend to all Indians—please visit Pakistan, meet people, talk to them, interact and get to know this place better.

    We carry a lot of myths about Pakistan, and it is only when we interact more, talk more at the people-level that we can have a brighter, less bitter, and more friendly future.

    Interactions that take place between individuals are different from state politics, and have no resemblance whatsoever to what we read in the papers or watch on TV.

    There is a huge gap that exists between perception and reality, on both sides of the Radcliffe line, an artificial divide.

    My visa prohibited me from going out of Lahore, but I hope there will be a time when I can experience other cities and historical sites as well: Mohenjodaro, Harappa, Karokoram Highway.

    For now, I feel fortunate to have been to Lahore, and as they say there, Jine Lahore nahin vekhiya, o jameya nahin.

    Now I can happily say I have been born.

    Are you an expat living in Pakistan or have you visited the country as a tourist? Share your experience with us at

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    You’ve published your first novel. Congratulations. But “published” isn’t the most important part of that sentence. “First” is.

    “When is the second book coming?” Or worse: “How is it coming?”

    “Slowly,” you say to yourself, “slowly.”

    When you’re working on that wonderful, magical, eye-opening, self-defining first, it’s your little secret garden that you retreat in to. It’s pure love. First love.

    I don’t think I could ever love my second, or the process of writing it, as much as I do the first.

    With the first (I talk of the first draft here, not the published novel), it’s truly yours — yours, however you want it to be. If it walks funny, so be it. If it looks funny, all the better . You write purely for yourself, as you want to, with the door firmly closed.

    Fast forward to the second, third and so on. The door is now open. Whether you attempt to hold it shut, lean on it, or push heavy furniture against it, it will never be fully closed again.

    There will always be a tiny crack. A tiny crack through which the world has let itself in. And there it remains.

    You can switch the wifi off while you write — something I do — but that doesn’t matter. You have now been read.

    You have had reviews — good and bad; you have been discussed, written about, and now there is a weight of expectation.

    You may have fans, you may have haters, hopefully a mix of both, because, if you’re not stirring any powerful emotions in anyone, you might as well stop.

    You are now wondering, have I still got the magic? Assuming you must have had some in the first place in order to write a full-length novel and get published.

    So there you are wondering about all this, wallowing in self-doubt, and now that you’re published, you have made the cardinal error of adding the word “writer” to your social media pages.

    After your day’s work (hopefully not during), you’re posting about your day’s work. You’re reading about everyone else’s day’s work. You’re now thinking about their work instead of your work.

    You might be putting up quotes from your novel. You’re posting about your reading list. You’re reading about someone else’s reading list.

    Now you’re thinking about what you’re reading compared to what everyone else is reading. Is it obscure and intellectual enough? Are you reading enough? Are you reading quick enough?

    So now you’re not only stressed about your writing speed, you’re also obsessing about your reading speed. Add to that the pressure that you now have to promote not just your book, but yourself as well, as a writer.

    You have to tell the world, preferably every couple of days (as Facebook insists), that you are an interesting person who has lots of interesting things to say and unique ways of saying them.

    Also, you will probably feel obliged to have an opinion on everything. And express it. Now your creative energy is not just reserved for your work. It’s seeping out into marketing and promotion and armchair activism.

    Aren’t writers supposed to be solitary creatures who enjoy the quiet life? Shouldn’t our work be enough to speak for us?

    Why do we have to put ourselves out there, in the spotlight, for people to evaluate? Why do we have to waste creative energy, or any energy at all, on social media?

    After all this, somehow you block the external noise and chatter, turn off the wifi and ignore all comments — good and bad — about your first book, and tune inwards so you can hear your voice again.

    But your voice is different now. It’s the voice of a writer, not of someone who writes.

    Be someone who writes, for as long as you can. Because then you can be other things too and other people. Be a mother, a father, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a baker (or anything else you are in the day). But be a superhero when you write (your secret and true identity). Dust off those tights and wear that cape!

    That’s when writing is free-flowing and true, a labour of love rather than a desire to impress the fans or silence the critics.

    When you write, it should only be out of love, and there is no self when it comes to love. One more thing. Don’t rush it. As a wise man once said, “You can’t hurry love.”

    Savour it. Enjoy the quality time with your work before you have to send it out into the world. It’s not a race. It’s not a competition.

    Remember why you started in the first place (also remember that you are a superhero); it will get you to the finish line without tripping over yourself (or your cape).

    Are you a novelist or an artist? Send us reflections on your artistic process at