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    Pakistanis, especially drawing room political analysts, love complaining about their dysfunctional democracy and the corrupt, useless politicians that come with it.

    These politicians, they say, are out only to enrich themselves and their families, and to provide patronage to a larger loyalist biradiri-clan.

    The politicians buy the poor man's votes in their constituencies and dupe him into voting for them. The urban, relatively educated, relatively elite home analysts deride the politician as well as the voter that gets bought by him. 

    These analysts think that Pakistan’s flawed democracy deserves its instability. They think Nawaz Sharif had it coming in 2017, just as Benazir and Nawaz did in the 1990s. But they do not stop to consider what effect this instability has on Pakistan’s democracy.

    We know that ruling parties in Pakistan face uncertain time horizons, and the prospect of almost certainly being booted out of office in the next term, given that two parties have alternated power in each election since 1988.

    But at the constituency level as well, my research shows that politicians face what is known as an incumbency disadvantage.

    Also read: Deconstructing the evil 'system': Who are the corrupt?

    A technique known as regression discontinuity — essentially comparing a candidate who barely won election to one who barely lost election – allows us to estimate this.

    The idea is that politician quality will be similar for both individuals, and the only thing that is different is that one politician became an incumbent and the other did not; looking at both politicians’ likelihood of winning the next election tells us whether there is an incumbency advantage or disadvantage.

    In Pakistan, between 1988 and 1997, I found that incumbents who barely won the current election were on average between 13% and 16% less likely to win the next time than candidates who barely lost this time (see figure for a graphical representation).

    This is unusual. In most countries, politicians face an incumbency advantage. Essentially, being in power allows politicians to reveal their competence. That there is an incumbency disadvantage in Pakistan shows that just by virtue of being an incumbent, politicians have revealed something bad about themselves. 

    I also found that only incumbent legislators who belonged to the party in power at the centre faced this incumbency disadvantage. This implies that voters punish elected legislators who are part of the majority party — all else equal – perhaps because they consider them complicit in the corrupt activities of the federal government or in other failures associated with it.

    When politicians face an uncertain time horizon and the prospect of being booted out of office because of the party they belong to, not their own performance – the conditions that exist in the Pakistani context – their behaviour will suffer.

    That behaviour is more likely to be extractive, geared toward personal benefit, and to take the form of patronage toward only a few constituents (those whose long-term loyalty is assured); politicians will be less inclined to put in place policies that benefit their constituents in the long term.

    You could counter with the argument that it is bad politician behaviour that leads to an incumbency disadvantage. Two things suggest that incumbency disadvantage is the underlying condition:

    • One, the fact that it exists for all four election years in Pakistan that I looked at (1988 to 1997);
    • Two, that it exists only for those politicians elected at the margin who belong to the party in power at the centre – thus different sets of politicians and parties in successive elections.

    Unless those types of politicians systemically behave badly only in the term that their party is in power – which would be strange – bad politician behaviour cannot explain incumbency disadvantage.

    Pakistanis would do well to understand the effects of incumbency disadvantage. They complain – rightly – about badly behaving politicians, but politicians need stability to behave. The drawing room analysts are thus not free of blame in the saga of Pakistan’s corrupt politicians and its non-delivering democracy. By encouraging instability, they are a player.

    The cycle of badly performing politicians is reinforced by weak democratic regimes.

    Let’s be clear. These types of Pakistani analysts have come a long way. They were not voters in previous elections. Yet they now believe democracy is the best system for Pakistan.

    It took Musharraf’s disastrous last year to convince them that no good has come of a military government in Pakistan; the belief has sustained after Musharraf, even if some of the enthusiasm for democracy has waned.

    In June, 2016 after the usual disappointments with Pakistan’s civilian governments had set in, 84% of respondents said in a Gallup poll that they preferred democracy to dictatorship.

    But with the dogged yearlong pursuit of Sharif over the Panama Papers, and his lackadaisical response, the urban, educated Pakistanis have had enough.

    The frenzy had whipped up to such an extent that they believed that the only fair outcome would be for Sharif to be booted out; anything less than that would be holding up a corrupt regime, and a step back for Pakistan.

    For these Pakistanis, the signs all pointing in one direction – to corruption – was all the proof needed to disqualify Sharif.

    Related: Pakistan’s corruption conundrum

    The justices felt they had to deliver to these expectations; in the process they delivered a verdict whose basis is so ambiguous that it would disqualify the entire political class of Pakistan if applied thoroughly.

    And because the basis of this verdict can, realistically, only be selectively applied, it is vulnerable to the charge of subjectivity and scapegoating.

    You can believe that Sharif is guilty of corruption, and that he lost the right to be prime minister. No matter. The right path would have been to let the accountability court disqualify Sharif on proven corruption in the next few months, or allow the voters the opportunity to boot him out next year.

    Yet the home analysts cheered the Supreme Court’s verdict; they do not have patience for due process, never having seen it come to fruition.

    Their impatience is the legacy of the 1990s, and its return tells of a grim future for Pakistan.

    Because now the cycle can begin again – a weakened incumbent party, able to spin a tale of victimisation, has the excuse to not deliver for its constituents.

    We came close to a better cycle for Pakistan’s democracy this time.

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    In Old Delhi’s anarchic tangle lie lanes named after ancient crafts and trades​: Sui Walan​, the ​tailor’s ​lane, Phatak Teliyan, ​the oil presser’s alley, ​Kinari Bazar, ​the border or brocade market, ​Galli Jootewali, ​the cobblers street, ​Choodiwalan​, the bangle makers’ quarters, and Kasaabpura, ​where the butchers plied their trade. Artisans, traders and workers lived, worked and sold their wares here.

    These streets once rang with an earthy, flavoursome and idiomatic dialect of Urdu called the karkhandari zubaan. As the name indicates, this was the dialect of those who worked in karkhanas or factories, but embraced a wide set of worker communities.

    The karkhandari zubaan was first analysed socio-linguistically by veteran Urdu scholar Gopi Chand Narang in 1961. He estimated that around 50,000 people spoke the dialect in the area ringed on four sides by Chandni Chowk, Faiz Bazar, Asaf Ali Road and Lahori Gate.

    But Old Delhi has changed vastly since Narang’s research – several crafts and professions have died and many old-timers have moved out to the newer parts of Delhi. For those who stayed on and moved up in life, the patois was simply not refined enough to be retained.

    Chandni Chowk, Delhi. Photo credit: Juan Antonio Segal/ Flickr CC
    Chandni Chowk, Delhi. Photo credit: Juan Antonio Segal/ Flickr CC

    In pursuit of the patois

    Fouzia, an actor and Dastango who grew up in the area, has seen the patois fade to the brink of extinction. Four generations of her family have lived in Pahari Bhojla, off Turkman Gate, in the thick of the zone where karkhandari was once the most commonly heard dialect.

    Until her grandmother was alive, it was spoken in her household as well, until it came to be replaced by standardised Urdu or Hindi. Some traces of the tongue, she said, have been absorbed into regular use.

    In search of the familiar singsong and friendly cadence of karkhandari, the Dastango searched high and low in the alleys of Turkman Gate two years ago. “You can count the number of people who speak karkhandari now,” Fouzia said. “It is considered coarse Urdu so when people meet you and you tell them that you come from Dilli 6, they say, ‘Arre, but you don’t speak that funny Urdu.’”

    Pulling together material from Narang’s research, her own memories and from historian and activist Sohail Hashmi’s vast knowledge about the city, the Dastango put together dramatised readings in the karkhandari zubaan or dialect, that she now presents at various forums.

    At Samanvay, the Indian language festival at India Habitat Centre, last year, Fouzia spoke on “Dilli ke dhobiyon ki zubaan” and “Dilli ki nayeeyon ki zubaan”, or the language of Delhi’s washermen and barbers.

    Group speak

    In karkhandari, itne mein​ or in this time is abbreviated to itte mein, neeche ​or below ​becomes neechu, launda ​or boy ​becomes lamda, vahan ​or there ​becomes vaan, usne or he is visne and achanak, or suddenly, ​is achanchak and kabhi or sometimes ​is kabhun.

    Hashmi, who leads popular heritage walks in the Walled City, said it is hard to date the precise origins of karkhandari zubaan, but the time when Shahjahanabad – now Delhi 6 – was set up, around mid-17th century, seemed to be an obvious start. When various trades started flourishing in the city, each acquired a peculiar vocabulary.

    “All the old cities of the world have these quarters where guilds lived and worked,” said Hashmi. “This was true of Delhi as well. Different professions had their own special vocabulary of trade-specific words. For instance, butchers in old Delhi use the word muddi to describe their chopping block. It must have been a familiar word in Kasabpura. The nanbais or bakers and kebabis had their own jargon too.”

    The more common trade words and expressions, he reasoned, came together and formed karkhandari zubaan. Hashmi said the street brogue of Delhi became a subject of interest among writers in the late 19th century to the early 20th century.

    Not just the city’s language, but its traditional way of life too began to appear in Urdu literary works. “Post-1857 and the devastation of the city, among the writers of the city there was a strong sense of nostalgia for a way of life that seemed to be disappearing. This feeling of impending loss inspired them to document Delhi’s culture, including the language of its many trades.”

    The city of Delhi before the 1857 siege. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
    The city of Delhi before the 1857 siege. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

    Among those writers was the humourist Ashraf Subuhi Dehalvi. His character Ghummi Kababi, an eccentric kebab maker of Old Delhi who refuses to be hurried or awed by his celebrity clients, spoke the old tongue of the Walled City. It is a story often told in dastan form by Dastango.

    Subuhi’s other city sketches like Dilli Ki Chand Ajeeb Hastiyan ​or a few of Delhi’s eccentrics and Ghubar-e-Karvan​ or the caravan’s dust ​also documented the eccentricities of Old Delhi, its residents and their language.

    Maheshwar Dayal’s Aalam Mein Intekhab-Dehli​, or the chosen city of the world – Delhi, ​documented the quaint street traditions of the city. The book’s chapters were titled “Dill​i​ Ki Boli T​h​oli” or​ Delhi’s dialect, “Pheriwalon ki Awazein” or the cries of street vendors​, “Dilli ke Banke” or ​the dandies of Delhi. Similar works of nostalgia capturing the wrecked world of Awadhi culture were being written in Lucknow.

    Women’s speech

    “The varying lehjas or accents of Urdu are now near dead because they are not considered literary or refined,” recalled Fouzia. “But my grandmother’s Urdu was bursting with texture, it was a better language than what I speak because it was rich with idioms. Everything she said came attached with a simile, some cultural reference – I don’t remember her ever speaking a direct sentence. ‘Tumne to apna hadada kho diya’ she would say, meaning you are so shameless. What we call quirky used to be the normal.”

    Up until her mother’s generation, the actor said, you could listen to someone talk Urdu and trace his or her precise village or city – Bareilly to Sahranpur to Bhopal. Remnants of this Urdu find its way into films only to be used for comic characters who elicit laughs with caricaturish expressions like aariya​-​jaariya, ​or coming and going.

    Interestingly, while the distinct street talk was being replaced by sophisticated Urdu, it was the women in the inner courtyards who hung on to another distinct, fruity and colourful dialect called begamati zubaan. This was the language of the begums and their world – their minions, the hangers-on, complex network of aunts and cousins, the dhoban, nayin and so on. It was only ever exchanged between women, liberating them from the need to be perpetually polite and polished.

    One of the most fascinating works on begamati zubaan was American scholar Gail Minault’s ​essay, Begamati Zuban: Women’s Language and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Delhi. It offered an insight into the cloistered life of Muslim women in the 19th century, fraught and claustrophobic but also lively and robust. This dialect is better known because it peppered the writings of the irrepressible Ismat Chugtai.

    As Minault pointed out words and expressions li​​ke chav chonchle​ (pretty tantrums)​, ​teri jan se dur​ (heaven forbid)​, do ji se hona ​(to be pregnant) ​show up an entire world that revolved around kinship, feminine bonding, fertility talk, romance, sex and marriage. Between begamati and karkhandari zubaan the Urdu of the lost gone era must have been a vastly more entertaining and varied world to inhabit.

    Photo credit: Pixabay CC BY
    Photo credit: Pixabay CC BY

    The article was originally published in the Scroll and has been reproduced with permission.

    Jama Masjid, New Delhi. ─ Photo courtesy Wikimedia CommonsJama Masjid, New Delhi. ─ Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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    Nisid Hajari, in his Midnight’s Furies, writes that Mohammad Ali Jinnah was deeply resentful of the way Gandhi interspersed religion and politics, and is recorded by one colonial governor to have said that "it was a crime to mix up politics and religion the way he had done." Jinnah believed that this practice paves the way for religious chauvinism on all sides.

    “You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state,” he had guaranteed the people who were about to inherit a new homeland, in his presidential address to the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in Karachi on 11 August, 1947.

    Such ideals were the foundation laid down by the Father of the Nation. 70 years later, we find religion and politics inseparable. Today, as we scramble to find some semblance of evidence that we have progressed as a nation, we only pull the wool over our eyes.

    The Pakistan of today is a country steeped in bigotry. We have a come a long way, but unfortunately not so much our pluralistic ideals. They have somehow been lost to time.

    Explore: Ziaul Haq: Master of illusion

    In today's Pakistan, an octogenarian man not of the faith decreed to be the national religion, will be tortured if he does not accord our rituals the 'proper respect'. A chipboard factory belonging to a community our nation has outcast will be torched and the places of worship of minorities attacked and looted.

    Recently, a survey was conducted to commemorate 70 years of Pakistan and people from all parts of the country, from all walks of life were asked to name the person whom they considered to be the most influential Pakistani after Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

    The nominees included politicians, past prime ministers, military dictators and others who have played a role in shaping this country. The results revealed that the majority of people voted for Edhi.

    There is no doubt about Edhi’s contributions to Pakistan. For decades, he had been the succor for the destitute and marginalised. If the ranking was based on good deeds, Edhi should certainly rank at the top. His stature as one of the world’s greatest humanitarians stands uncontested.

    However, and it pains me to say, influence is measured by lasting impact across society. This influence can be positive or negative.

    An influential person does not necessarily have to be a saint, but one who has caused a seismic shift in the nation’s history and the lives of its people. He/she changes the way we think, act and behave.

    In truth, how many people have been impacted by Edhi other than the ones who have received help through his foundation? The latter owe their very lives to him but if you consider the 200 million who constitute this country, how many of them espouse Edhi's values in their daily lives? In fact, his son Faisal Edhi publicly said that donations to the Edhi Foundation have decreased after his father’s death.

    The poll results are an exercise in self-pleasure for those who voted, who hold the erroneous belief that Edhi is an active influence in the lives of Pakistanis and the institutions of this county. The truth is far starker.

    This may surprise, amaze or dismay many, but the most influential Pakistani of the past 70 years is General Mohammad Zia-ul- Haq.

    Political leaders exert overwhelming influence on society due to the nature of their positions. In his 11 years of rule, Zia not only wielded absolute power but also altered the political and societal fabric of the country. Consider the repercussions of his stay in office nearly 30 years after his death.

    Let us start from the Constitutional amendments he introduced that toppled many governments. Article 58 2(b) of the 8th Amendment, introduced in 1985, was instrumental in removing Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo in 1988.

    Later, Presidents Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Farooq Leghari resorted to the Article to dismiss the governments of Benazir Bhutto (twice, in 1990 and 1996) and Nawaz Sharif in 1993. The Article was finally removed via the Thirteenth Amendment in 1997 by the second Nawaz Sharif government.

    Then consider Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution that have been in the news for the past few weeks. Although part of the 1973 Constitution, Articles 62 and 63, in their original form, had not made it mandatory for a legislator to be Sadiq and Ameen.

    Later, during Zia's tenure, the two clauses were made part of the Articles and amended in 1985 by Item 16 of the Schedule, which gave the dictator further power to remove elected prime ministers. Zia could not put them to use, but for 32 years they have loomed dangerously over the political landscape.

    Perhaps even more than the political arena, Zia's influence permeates Pakistani society. He passed broad-ranging legislation as part of Pakistan's 'Islamisation,' effectively promoting a holier than thou culture that has eventually crystallised into religious intolerance, taking the country down the path of extremism.

    Ian Talbot, in his book Pakistan, a Modern History writes, “Pakistan during the period 1977–1988... aspired to be an ideological state... the goal of an Islamic state was deemed to be its main basis.”

    Zia’s policies led to Sharia benches and the Federal Sharia Court, and replacement of parts of the Pakistan Penal Code with the 1979 Hudood Ordinance, which particularly hampered women's rights. Under him, madrassas received state funding, most of them from the Deobandi and Wahabi school of thought. The 1979 Zakat Ordinance worsened sectarian relations.

    From the way we dress, speak, and think, the Pakistani society of today bears little resemblance to the one in 1977 and Zia is the principle architect of this change.

    It is a sign of Zia’s continuing legacy that an extremist party such as the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat holds a provincial seat and groups like the Jamat ud Dawah see a chance at entering mainstream politics.

    Zia was a political genius who did something none of his fellow military dictators could do: create a constituency. General Ayub Khan and Pervez Musharraf had similarly long tenures and for a while enjoyed popular support but could not sustain it.

    Zia, through the societal changes and clever use of patronage, created the constituency that also served the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad and later inherited by the PML-N. The broad swathes of conservative Punjab that forms the bedrock of the PML-N and has voted for the party since the 1990s would have wholeheartedly voted for Zia as well.

    Therefore, it stands to reason that had he not perished in an air crash, Zia could have relinquished his uniform if he wanted and still carried on successfully as a civilian politician.

    Make no mistake, this is very much Zia’s Pakistan, not Edhi’s and not even Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s. The Quaid-e-Azam may have played a key role in creating the country but it is unrecognisable from the one he had envisioned. His policies of religious tolerance, welfare, and role of state institutions have been overturned.

    A simple read through his speeches makes that clear. Regarding the armed forces, he said, “Do not forget that the armed forces are the servants of the people. You do not make national policy; it is we, the civilians, who decide these issues and it is your duty to carry out these tasks with which you are entrusted.” Military coups make a mockery of that statement.

    Espousing religious harmony, rule of law and other virtues, Jinnah would have been sidelined by the state, much like how his sister was.

    Let us not delude ourselves. Welcome to Zia-land.

    Who do you think has had the most influence on Pakistani society? Write to us at

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    Karachi is not a tourist city anymore. Its streets today are not filled with tourists; there are no hop-on-hop-off buses running its length. The facades of the famous buildings are not lit up at night.

    Nonetheless, the city is bustling with economic activity. There is a boom in construction, with malls and skyscrapers being built overnight. These buildings are connected with newly built underpasses and flyovers, which are instantly packed with new vehicles.

    But, no new trees are being planted.

    And it seems construction companies are filling the void by decorating underpasses with tiles painted with lush green scenery on them.

    Political parties have their posters placed in every nook and cranny, but there is hardly any pride left to be claimed. The Karachi of today reminds me of the goose which laid golden eggs but its owner, in his greed, slaughtered it to steal all its eggs right away.

    The streets are flooded with people, but there are hardly any public spaces. There are fragments of aesthetically inspiring architecture, but it is not celebrated anymore.

    Somewhere in the pursuit of happiness, we have forgotten to take a pause and appreciate the city’s decaying heritage.

    I still get odd requests for a guided tour, most of which I am unable to oblige. However, I insist that people explore the city on their own. I tell them to walk down its smog-filled alleys in the old city without a purpose and see the people connect with its ancient mansions and patios. These forgotten landmarks have stories to tell.

    And so, I've put together a Do-it-Yourself guide for a day’s tour to some of the city’s easily accessible places. Set out on a Sunday morning to avoid traffic. Also, take some music with you – famous titles by Marvin Gay, Melaine Safka, Geeta Dutt and Farida Khanum; they will help you make sense of the city better.

    1. Freemasons Lodge

    The first Freemason lodge in the Indian subcontinent was built in Calcutta at the turn of the 17th century. The lodges in Karachi and Lahore were built later at the start of 20th century as part of a plan to expand the fraternity.

    The secrecy surrounding the brotherhood resulted in speculation about their activities even in the earlier days – perhaps the reason the building was called ‘Jaadu Ghar’.

    Freemasonry was banned in Pakistan during 1972, and the lodges in Karachi and Lahore were nationalised. The lodge in Karachi was later handed over to the WWF, and apparently, there are plans to turn it into a wildlife museum.

    Located on the Din Mohammad Wafai Road, the Freemasons Lodge in Karachi is a beautiful edifice with large windows and a stunning wooden staircase at the entrance. Inside the building, close to the staircase, you'll be welcomed by old plaques and the brotherhood’s symbols.

    Freemasons Lodge still retains its iconic freemasonry symbols.
    Freemasons Lodge still retains its iconic freemasonry symbols.

    The front facade's most impressive part is its wooden staircase.
    The front facade's most impressive part is its wooden staircase.

    On a casual Sunday, you may run into the old caretaker of the building, who lives in a tiny house inside the compound. He strongly rejects the idea that the brotherhood engaged in vile rituals. According to him, it was just another social forum and the members gathered there every evening for dinner.

    2. Hindu Gymkhana

    Continue your journey on the same road and make the next stop at Hindu Gymkhana. Built in 1925, the structure still retains it majestic look. The building was handed over to the National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa) in 2005 and has since been transformed into a fine institution for performing arts.

    With the help of a newly built auditorium, Napa has brought the building back into public sphere, and is using it to offer some much-needed art and entertainment to the public.

    The credit goes to Napa for bringing the Hindu Gymkhana building back in public sphere.
    The credit goes to Napa for bringing the Hindu Gymkhana building back in public sphere.

    The original building was designed by Agha Ahmed Hussain.
    The original building was designed by Agha Ahmed Hussain.

    The original structure was built as a recreation centre for Hindu elites in the city. It was designed by Agha Ahmed Hussain and was named after Ramgopal Gourdhanandh Mohatta who contributed generously for its construction.

    3. Burns Garden – Sobhraj Chatumal Terrace and National Museum

    Make your next stop in front of the National Museum. The sad state of the museum has put it out of favour with public attention, even though there is a dearth of good museums in the city. The place barely receives visitors even on a national holiday, when the museum arranges special exhibits for events like Independence Day, etc.

    Burns Garden, in which the building is located, still has some age old trees which could be a source of delight in an area deprived of greenery. The compound also has a rarely visited but delightfully built terrace – the Sobhraj Chatumal Terrace.

    Sobhraj Chatumal Terrace has an unusual layout for a park in Karachi.
    Sobhraj Chatumal Terrace has an unusual layout for a park in Karachi.

    A veiw of the Sobhraj Chatumal Terrace.
    A veiw of the Sobhraj Chatumal Terrace.

    Sobhraj Chatumal terrace was a park funded by a philanthropist and businessman named Sobhraj Chatumal.
    Sobhraj Chatumal terrace was a park funded by a philanthropist and businessman named Sobhraj Chatumal.

    This terrace was built in 1927, way before the current building of the museum was built. Presumably, the terrace could be accessed separately from both ends of the garden, but it has been closed now. It was built in honour of businessman and philanthropist Sobhraj Chetumal, who had also built a dispensary and a maternity home in memory of his wife, Kishan Devi Sobhraj.

    The park’s layout is unlike what I have seen elsewhere and fortunately, the renovation has not affected its original design, except for the original stone being replaced with cement blocks that have not been painted as yet.

    It was originally meant to be a women’s park, but all you'd see here today are some children playing cricket.

    4. DJ Science College and the principal’s bungalow

    Leave your car in the museum’s parking lot and walk across the street to the DJ Science College. One of the most iconic buildings of the era, it is a reminder that the elites of yore were not detached from the masses and gave back to the city as much as they received from it.

    The college was inaugurated on January 19, 1887, by Lord Reay, the Governor of Bombay, in a makeshift building before the present building’s foundation stone was laid by the Viceroy of India, Lord Dufferin, on November 19, 1887. It was built in neoclassical style and considered to be the finest work of James Strachan.

    Try to negotiate with the caretaker and climb the staircase to one of the side towers. The view from the top is enchanting.

    A view of the DJ Science college from the roof.
    A view of the DJ Science college from the roof.

    An inside view of the staircase leading to the top of the DJ Science College.
    An inside view of the staircase leading to the top of the DJ Science College.

    The DJ Science College had other buildings built as part of its compound. There is an elegant bunglow opposite the street, where the principal lives. With some luck, you could walk inside and see the glorious structure which is fit for a king.

    The building has been renovated very well. The close-by Mitharam hostel was used for accommodating the out-of-town students of DJ Science and NED campuses, but sadly now, it is off-limits to public after it had been handed over to the Rangers.

    A view of the prinicipal's bungalow from the DJ Science college.
    A view of the prinicipal's bungalow from the DJ Science college.

    The restoration work on the bungalow of the principal of DJ College is impressive, but it is yet to be seen if it will come back into the public sphere.
    The restoration work on the bungalow of the principal of DJ College is impressive, but it is yet to be seen if it will come back into the public sphere.

    The principal's bungalow is fit for a king.
    The principal's bungalow is fit for a king.

    The view of the college from the bungalow's rooftop.
    The view of the college from the bungalow's rooftop.

    Someone once told me that there was a statue of Mitharam placed in the centre portico of DJ Science College, which was taken to the first floor and thrown out by students some time ago.

    5. Botal Gali

    Continue driving towards Pakistan Chowk. On your left, you will find Botal Gali, which is popular for its unique assortment of secondhand bottles and an increasingly diverse perfume collection. Walk from one end to another. You will find some old stone structures tucked between newly constructed flats.

    Entrance to Botal Gali.
    Entrance to Botal Gali.

    Bottles of all shapes and sizes.
    Bottles of all shapes and sizes.

    6. Sevakunj Hostel and Aram Bagh

    Turn right from Pakistan Chowk and keep walking leisurely, appreciating the craftsmanship on the buildings on either side of the road. This area, in particular, has stunningly crafted balconies. Right before Aram Bagh, you will see the Sevakunj Hostel building on your right hand.

    The building is constructed in block fashion and has wide galleries. There are printing shops on the ground floor and you can negotiate with one of the shopkeepers to access the inside. The view from the central courtyard is fascinating. You will be able to see deserted balconies and rooms from the courtyard. In these very rooms, many foreign students stayed during their time at the NED University.

    A leisurely walk in the Aram Bagh area is highly recommended.
    A leisurely walk in the Aram Bagh area is highly recommended.

    The buildings around Aram Bagh are a visual treat.
    The buildings around Aram Bagh are a visual treat.

    Sevakunj Hostel was once a lively abode for foreign and out-of-station local students.
    Sevakunj Hostel was once a lively abode for foreign and out-of-station local students.

    The hostel, which played such an important role in the lives of yesteryear generations, lies abandoned today.
    The hostel, which played such an important role in the lives of yesteryear generations, lies abandoned today.

    The area was filled with temples once, but now the only visible landmark in Aram Bagh is a mosque.
    The area was filled with temples once, but now the only visible landmark in Aram Bagh is a mosque.

    Make a brief stop at Aram Bagh, which was an important area for Hindu pilgrims before the Partition. According to one legend, Ram and Sita made a brief stop here on their journey to the Hinglaj yatra. So understandably, they built a number of temples here, which gave way to new construction over time.

    7. Kabootar Chowk

    Drive straight ahead on Burns Road, cruising past all the eateries. Turn right from the crossroad and make a stop at Kabootar Chowk in front of Sindh High Court. You will find a few hawkers selling corn seeds to visitors.

    Kabootar Chowk.
    Kabootar Chowk.

    Buy some corn and walk towards the chowk. Here, once stood Mahatama Gandhi’s statue, which was handed over to Rustam Cowasjee after the Partition, who later gifted it to the Indian Embassy in Islamabad. The place is popular with families and on a Sunday, you will see lots of people sitting here idly and throwing corn to the pigeons.

    Engage in the ritual. It could be therapeutic.

    8. Gul Bai Maternity Home

    Gul Bai Maternity home was built by Jamshed Nasserwanjee, the founder of modern day Karachi, in honour of her mother.

    The place is reminiscent of the good old Karachi; a big courtyard, an impressive facade, and gracious neem trees. The maternity home here has been abandoned for some reason now, but it still retains its royal look. The first thing to catch your eye is a beautiful fountain in the middle. There is a plaque installed inside it, on which some one has thrown blue paint.

    The Gul Bai maternity home is an aesthetically pleasing undertaking which has been abandoned as well.
    The Gul Bai maternity home is an aesthetically pleasing undertaking which has been abandoned as well.

    The corridor has been painted blue, presumably later.
    The corridor has been painted blue, presumably later.

    The main gate of the maternity home remains locked up.
    The main gate of the maternity home remains locked up.

    The maternity home has a huge compound with some beautiful 'neem' trees.
    The maternity home has a huge compound with some beautiful 'neem' trees.

    There's still some basic furniture lying inside the maternity home.
    There's still some basic furniture lying inside the maternity home.

    The building is locked up, but you can have a look through the glass windows into the building. Some basic furniture is still lying inside. Someone once told me that the place is used for shooting commercials and could be rented.

    9. Richmond Crawford Veterinary Hospital

    In the Karachi of yore, the welfare of animals was a big concern as well. The Richmond Crawford Veterinary Hospital on M.A. Jinnah road is evidence of the fact. It was named after Richmond Crawford, commissioner of Sindh in 1840s, who was known for his efforts for the welfare of animals.

    The place had been associated with Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SCBA), which was founded in 1880 by eminent Karachiites such as Khan Bahadur Hassanally, Beg Effendi. Sayed Hassan Mediru, Tance Denso and Mr Framroze. The society helped raise awareness of animal welfare among citizens and played a pivotal role in the enforcement of laws protecting animal rights.

    Richmond Crawford is still an active vet hospital.
    Richmond Crawford is still an active vet hospital.

    R. Crawford was the commissioner of Sindh in the 1840s.
    R. Crawford was the commissioner of Sindh in the 1840s.

    A corridor at the hospital.
    A corridor at the hospital.

    The building is rather humble but possesses the characteristic elegance of the bygone era. It has been repainted, and flashy tiles have been put in, affecting its authentic look. Thankfully, the hospital is still functional and resident doctors continue to treat animals which are brought from nearby areas.

    10. Khaliq Deena Hall

    Khaliq Deena Hall has to be one of the most beautiful buildings on M.A. Jinnah road. With its high podium, tall pillars and Grecian-style pediment, it catches your eye from a distance.

    It was named in honour of Ghulam Hussain Khaliq Deena, a Khoja businessman and philanthropist, who contributed generously for the construction of the building as a public hall and library.

    The library is rather modest, but the hall is still used for hosting religious and cultural events. The hall is historically significant as a symbol of resistance against the British rule. It is where the Trial of Sedition took place in which the British government indicted Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar for mutiny as an aftermath of the civil disobedience movement, for saving the Turkish Khilafat.

    Khaliq Deena Hall in all its majesty.
    Khaliq Deena Hall in all its majesty.

    The inside hall is used for holding community events.
    The inside hall is used for holding community events.

    With its unique setting of pillars and pediment Khaliq Deena Hall catches your eye from a distance.
    With its unique setting of pillars and pediment Khaliq Deena Hall catches your eye from a distance.

    11. Merewether Tower and Wazir Mansion

    Drive to the end of Bunder Road and make a brief stop at Merewether Tower. It was designed by James Strachan and built between 1884 and 1892 in honour of Sir William L. Merewether, Commissioner of Sindh from 1867 to 1877. The larger bell at the top was designed to announce the hour mark, while the smaller bells rang at each quarter.

    The impact of pollution on the edifice is visible. Dirt is stuck between the elegantly crafted motifs. Someone painted one side of the wall with anti-Israel graffiti, possibly the reason why the gatekeeper is hesitant to let anyone inside.

    Merewether Tower has some interesting motifs and designs on its exterior.
    Merewether Tower has some interesting motifs and designs on its exterior.

    Leave your car there and enter the narrow streets of Kharadar, where the Wazir Mansion is located. Look for Barkati Street (formerly Chaghla Street). Ask people for directions to Wazir Mansion. Get lost for a bit in the maze of streets. The buildings here are one of the oldest in the city. With some trial and error, you should be able to reach Wazir Mansion in 15 minutes.

    A shopkeeper opens his shop in the vicinity of Wazir Mansion.
    A shopkeeper opens his shop in the vicinity of Wazir Mansion.

    Park your car in one of the streets near Tower and walk on foot towards Wazir Mansion.
    Park your car in one of the streets near Tower and walk on foot towards Wazir Mansion.

    A walk around Wazir Mansion is a must.
    A walk around Wazir Mansion is a must.

    Jinnah Poonja, Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s father, rented a two-room apartment in this building when he migrated to Karachi in 1874. M.A. Jinnah, his eldest son was born here in 1876. Jinnah stayed in this very building until 1892, when he left for London to pursue higher studies. The building was named after a later resident who purchased it at the turn of the century.

    The lanes are narrow at many points and only a biker could pass through.
    The lanes are narrow at many points and only a biker could pass through.

    Wazir Mansion was restored a few years back and has a functional museum with Jinnah's belongings on display.
    Wazir Mansion was restored a few years back and has a functional museum with Jinnah's belongings on display.

    12. Flagstaff House

    One of the earlier buildings designed by Moses Somake, Flagstaff house is a beauty to behold. One of the few well-maintained edifices of stone masonry in the city, a visit to Flagstaff is a must for any tourist. The building has well-curated front and back lawns. It is accessible from Avari Towers via Fatima Bonus Road.

    The house was built in 1890. Mr Jinnah purchased it in 1944 from the Kartak Family. Although Jinnah spent only a few days in this house, Miss Fatima Jinnah lived here from 1948 to 1964.

    The building was restored and declared a museum in 1985. You will find Jinnah’s personal belongings inside the house, which were brought from his house in Mumbai.

    The Flagstaff house is one of the earliest of Moses Somake's work.
    The Flagstaff house is one of the earliest of Moses Somake's work.

    The arches and the corridors are a distinctive element of this building.
    The arches and the corridors are a distinctive element of this building.

    There is still much more to the city and this DIY tour should only serve as a start.

    When you embark on this journey, you will discover that your experience will be different from mine. Your Karachi will be different from everyone else’s. Only then will you understand the folly of generalising a statement about this city of more than 20 million people.

    Long live Karachi!

    This piece was originally published on October 20, 2015


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    Pakistan’s largest city is also its least liveable. A recently released Global Liveability Report 2017 produced by the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) graded 140 cities for 30 qualitative and quantitative attributes to serve as proxies for stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure. Karachi ranked 134 out of 140 cities.

    For Karachi’s residents, the EIU ranking is hardly news. They have lived their lives in a city that struggles to maintain law and order or offer reliable municipal services including water, sanitation, public transit, and parks and recreation.

    A deep dive into the EIU ranking reveals the primary cause of Karachi’s poor ranking. On a scale of 0 to 100, Karachi received 20 for stability. Even Harare in Zimbabwe, where hyperinflation was estimated at 79.6 billion percent in 2008, ranked 40 for stability, two times that of Karachi.

    The stability factor comprises the following indicators: prevalence of petty and violent crime, terror threats or that of a military conflict, and the threat of civil unrest. Karachi checks all these boxes.

    The ethnic, political, and sectarian fissures have denied the city the opportunity for economic growth. These fissures are also responsible, at least partly, for Karachi being listed as one of the least liveable.

    Explore: Dialogue: Laurent Gayer and Omar Shahid Hamid on Karachi

    While Karachi faces tremendous challenges, most could be addressed with good governance. For instance, the clash between institutions responsible for the worsening of law and order and the environment in the city is completely avoidable.

    Consider that the provincial government in Sindh has been battling with the Chief of police, A.D. Khowaja. The government’s desire to replace the Chief and the Chief’s insistence to hold onto the job provides an opportunity for crime and criminals to flourish.

    Since the 80s, law and order in Karachi have gotten from bad to worse. Police and other civil government agencies have failed to restore a sense of normalcy in Karachi. A paramilitary force, Pakistan Rangers (Sindh), has been drafted to fight violent crime.

    Even when the police tried to be proactive, it took missteps rather than exercising sound judgment. Remember, the same embattled Chief of Police promoted vigilante justice by awarding 50,000 rupees to the man who shot and killed two suspected robbers.

    Karachi is also notorious for having a mayor who governed the city from a prison. The mayor of Karachi, Waseem Akhtar, was imprisoned with 39 criminal cases registered against him. He was released on bail in November, 2016.

    Related: Operation overkill: How not to improve law and order in Karachi

    Karachi is too big and too complex to be governed as a city. In the absence of a census, one cannot be certain of the population of Karachi. The last census in 1998 recorded the city’s population at 9.3 million with an annual growth rate of 3.5%. Assuming the same growth rate, the population today can be estimated at 17 million. A 4% annual growth rate puts the population at 20 million.

    If Karachi were a country, its population would make it the 60th most populous country in the world, putting it in the company of Romania and Sri Lanka.

    Whereas countries with similar demographic footprint have access to a much larger share of tax revenue, Karachi remains perpetually starved for funds, rendering it unable to discharge its municipal obligations adequately.

    Karachi needs revenues of the size of a country and not that of a municipality. If successive provincial and federal governments continue to treat Karachi as a municipality, they are likely to drag Karachi down to being the least liveable city in the world.

    Karachi could be made manageable by implementing far reaching structural changes. This may require designating Karachi as an autonomous city-state that has control over resources and governance. This may also necessitate Karachi to be institutionally distinguished from Sindh to enhance the city's ability to demand a greater share of tax revenue.

    Consider the following. The population of Sindh is estimated at 56 million. If Karachi alone is 20 million strong, it accounts for 36% of the province’s population and roughly 10% of the nation’s population. With the risk of oversimplifying, I would still argue that Karachi deserves 36% of the provincial and 10% of the national tax revenue.

    Read next: Waseem Akhtar: The party man

    Consider that Pakistan’s GDP is estimated at $284 billion and the federal tax revenue is estimated at 10% of the GDP or $28.4 billion. If Karachi’s population accounts for 10% of the nation’s population, it should receive $2.84 billion from federal funds alone.

    Now here is the reality check. Earlier in June, Karachi’s mayor unveiled the budget for 2017-18. The total budgeted amount was 27,135 million rupees (approximately $270 million). If Karachi were to receive even 5% of the federal tax revenue, the amount would be around $1.42 billion, which is five times the current municipal budget.

    Unless Karachi is given a greater control over its resources and a larger share of tax revenue that commensurates with its demographic size, the city is likely to decline in liveability and becoming the world’s largest urban slum.

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    Since the 1947 partition of the subcontinent, India and Afghanistan, except the Taliban era, have had warm ties. Opposition to Pakistan is the main reason why the two countries have maintained cordial relations (even though Afghanistan remained neutral in the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars).

    In both India and Afghanistan, more especially and frequently in Afghanistan, talk of a long historical relationship between the two countries is very common. In that spirit, centuries’ long invasions from or through present-day Afghanistan into India or vice versa receive little or no attention.

    More importantly, little thought is given to what course Indo-Afghan relations would have taken, had British India not been divided. In other words: Would India and Afghanistan have had as close a relationship as they do today, had Pakistan not been founded?


    In 1893, the Afghan Amir Abdur Rahman Khan and the British Indian Foreign Secretary Sir Henry Mortimer Durand signed an agreement in Kabul to delimit “the frontier of Afghanistan on the side of India,” as well as to fix “the limit of their respective sphere of influence.” With the passage of time, the delimited “frontier” is commonly referred to as the Durand Line.

    Even though subsequent Afghan rulers such as Amir Habibullah Khan, King Amanullah Khan, and King Nadir Khan renewed the “frontier” agreement with the British, most Afghans have seen the agreement as temporary, and void as soon as the British left.

    It is because the line divides families and tribes which were part of Afghanistan in their entirety before the 1893 agreement. Under that impression, in July, 1947 Afghan Prime Minister Shah Mahmoud Khan’s government laid Afghanistan’s first claim over Pashtun territories in British India, which according to the Mountbatten Plan (or 3 June Plan) were destined to become part of Pakistan. Whether Afghanistan’s claim is valid or not is out of the scope of this writing.

    Read next: Acrimony at the heart of Asia

    When the Mountbatten Plan was put into action, Pakistan inherited the Durand Line from the British. As such, Afghanistan and Pakistan couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start in their bilateral relations. Few months into Pakistan’s creation, Afghanistan was the only country that cast a “No” vote against Pakistan’s United Nations membership.

    Since then, relations between the two countries have been tense (save the Taliban era, which is also debatable). It is worth mentioning that Afghanistan still hasn’t recognised the Durand Line as an international border with Pakistan. To garner domestic support, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai would from time to time bring up the Durand Line issue and Afghanistan’s refusal to accept it as an international border.

    India would have replaced Pakistan

    With this in mind, if India had not been divided, the post-1947 Indo-Afghan relations would have had the same trajectory as have Afghan-Pak relations since. In other words, India, instead of Pakistan, would have inherited the Durand Line, with all its controversies.

    It is tantamount to a fantasy to believe that India would have relinquished control (and sovereignty) of Pashtun-majority areas in India over which Afghanistan has territorial claims. There is evidence for this statement.

    A year before India’s partition, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made a tour of the Pashtun tribal belt in northwestern India. In addition to trying to counter Muslim League efforts, Nehru made an attempt to convince tribal Pashtuns to cast their lots with a united India, but to no avail.

    Nehru saw in the strategic passes of the Pashtun areas a security insurance in the face of a northern invasion (probably from the Soviet Union). Past these strategic passes and mountains, laid the flat lands of the Punjab and the road to Delhi was open. Under no circumstance Nehru or any other Congress leader would have been prepared to meet Afghanistan’s demands.

    According to the British historian Alex Von Tunzelmann, Nehru was not willing to come to terms with Pakistan over the Kashmir issue because of Kashmir’s terrain and strategic mountain passes (see Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of An Empire). After Nehru lost the NWFP in a referendum to Pakistan, he was bent on keeping Kashmir for India.

    Consequently, Afghanistan’s relations with an undivided India would have been on a collision course from day one. After losing a greater part of its population and trans-Indus territory to the British in the previous century, Afghanistan would not have been in a position to force India’s hand.

    To conceal its weakness vis-à-vis a Hindu-majority India, Afghanistan would have invested in the propaganda machine—exactly what it did against Pakistan. Although the process has been checked lately, stereotyping Hindus is common in many parts of Afghanistan.

    Related: ‘Redrawing of Durand Line to be catastrophic’

    It is widely believed that Hindus are 'unbelievers' and thus cowards, and that 'one Muslim can overpower seven Hindus'. Another popular example is referring to Hindus as 'mis’keen' (poor), not because they are poor, but because they lack 'imaan'.

    Ironically, many of the notorious figures in the eyes of India’s Hindus (especially Hindu extremists) are revered in Afghanistan. For instance, Mahmud of Ghazni and Ahmad Shah Durrani are among a bunch of rulers and invaders who are widely respected for their invasions of India.

    Zaheer ud-Din Mohammad Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire, who in his memoirs never hesitates to hide his distaste of India, its food, weather and customs also enjoys some degree of scholarly and popular support, especially among ethnic Uzbeks.

    Glorifying these Indophobes’ achievements and demonising Hindus would have been a fertile ground for invoking anti-India sentiments against an undivided India.

    Afghanistan’s Pashtun card

    Afghanistan could also have instigated Pashtun tribal unrest in an undivided India. From 1893 to 1930 (and to a lesser extent to 1947), Afghanistan provided safe havens and at times weapons to Pashtun guerilla fighters fighting the British in India.

    Despite repeated British requests, Afghanistan would refuse to take action against Pashtun tribesmen who entered Afghanistan after attacking British or pro-British elements in India. Afghanistan could have continued to do so, had India not been divided.

    In undivided India, like British India, Muslims would have been a minority, and it would have been easier for Afghanistan to incite or encourage violence among the Pashtuns in the name of religion or freedom from unbelievers. After Pakistan’s founding, and given that the Pashtuns either through referendum or tribal jirgas joined the new state, Afghanistan could no longer bank on inciting religious violence.

    More importantly and surprisingly, undivided India would have created a big rift between Indian (and later Pakistani) Pashtun nationalist leader Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a close friend of Gandhi’s and Nehru’s who campaigned for a united India, and Afghanistan.

    Today, Khan is widely respected in Afghanistan primarily because of his Pashtun nationalist and anti-Pakistan sentiments. However, had India not been divided, he would have been looked down upon in Afghanistan, because he didn’t want a “greater Afghanistan,” which would include all Pashtun majority areas in Pakistan.

    To clarify, there is no recorded statement available that Khan wanted Indian Pashtuns to join Afghanistan. Initially, he wanted a united India. When he failed, he wanted autonomy for the Pashtuns of Pakistan.

    Today, his grandson and successor Asfandyar Wali Khan has given up those fantasies and is leader of the mainstream Awami National Party in Pakistan, the main opposition party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.


    One could argue that, based on available historical facts, Afghanistan and India would have had a tense relationship had a united India emerged out of the ashes of the British Raj.

    India would have been painted in Afghanistan as a usurper of Pashtun lands. This rhetoric from Afghanistan and India’s response to it would have seriously questioned the basis for any historical relationship arguments.

    If anything, Afghanistan and India share conflicting narratives of centuries of invasions and conquests. Afghanistan, however, did have warm relations with India’s Muslims. But a majority of those Muslims today live outside of India, either in Pakistan or in Bangladesh. Those who remain in India are not considered loyal Indians by Hindu extremists anyway, and are subjected to discrimination and harassment from time to time.

    The current close state of affairs between India and Afghanistan is mainly due to opposition in both countries to Pakistan—to an extent to the country's existence and to an extent to some of its policies. As soon as the status quo changes in South Asia, we will witness estrangement between Afghanistan and India.

    Have you visited countries that don't have good relations with your country of origin? Tell us about it at

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    This life that I live today and take for granted isn’t the life I always had. There is a freedom now, to my hours and my days, and this freedom has been a slow unravelling – a ball of twine I have steadily pushed along as I turned this way and that on life’s winding roads.

    We are fighters, us free women. We recognise the soldiers in each other when we encounter one another in the urban mazes we occupy. We fight to keep that ball of twine rolling, extending our hands to those climbing steeper hills.

    We forget our mothers. Within pools of trauma and memories far too complex to tell with a single emotion. We are so busy fighting, we leave them in the dust of our ferocious footsteps. Where is she on this hill? Whose hand is she holding?

    On Eid break, this June, my mother and I embarked on our first-ever road trip together. Just us, mother and daughter. I asked her to pick a place, and she picked Soon Valley. She had always wanted to go there.

    She arranged the guesthouse bookings and I was tasked with driving. She also prepared omelette sandwiches, pressed together by a sandwich maker so they would keep together during the bumpy ride – something I would never have thought of.

    I put together a playlist, only to find her car stereo had no auxiliary cable input. As consolation, we stopped at Dhaka Sweets and got some mithai. YES. I also insisted that she make up for the lack of music by singing to me.

    En route on Talagang road. - All photos by author.
    En route on Talagang road. - All photos by author.

    She reminded me of that one time, seven years ago, when we were alone on a beach, with the wind howling across the sandy expanse, the sun dipping just behind the sea, and not a soul in sight.

    She was too afraid of the water to swim, and instead let her wet dupatta flutter in the wind, singing hawa mein urta jaye...mera lal dupatta mal mal ka.. oh ji oh ji....

    It was pouring as we left Rawalpindi and got on to the motorway. The weather was unimaginably exciting for me after having lived a year in Karachi.

    I had left my mother to go to Karachi, you see, and had come home for Eid. We hadn’t seen each other for three months. As I drove, she sang to me.

    We arrived at the mountains of Sakesar, where we would be staying. My mother was born and raised in the mountains, actually. She was in her element.

    When do women change? She had been an only child who grew up climbing trees. When did her body learn to close in on itself? When did the hesitation set in?

    To look at a tree and not search for footholds but instead to cross one's legs and sit in its gentle shade - a flower, not a conqueror. When did the sting of skin scrapes get replaced by the sting of unwelcome lustful stares?

    View of Soon Valley from Sakesar.
    View of Soon Valley from Sakesar.

    We had one day to explore the valley. I had found a blog listing all the must-see spots: waterfalls, lakes, lagoons, and old ruins, some with murky histories. We had Google-Mapped our way there and I was planning out the next day as well, but my mother wasn't as confident.

    We asked one of the caretakers of our guesthouse for advice. He shook his head at our plans. "Why do you want to see these ruins? No, this road is terrible. No, you can’t go there, it’s too far.” And so on. I grew grumpy, but my mother kept nodding at him and shooting glances at me. Relax and play along!, her eyes seemed to say glaringly.

    I wanted to visit a couple of spots that evening. The manager insisted on accompanying us. He barely took us on a walk around the compound grounds and called it a day. “Why don’t you stroll through our mini zoo?” he asked. I rolled my eyes.

    We tried to rid ourselves of him, but he would not budge. Just over the horizon, 30 minutes away, rested the ruins of a fort that I was aching to see. And when we finally tried to go there, he made it firm and clear that there was no way he was going to let two women drive there at 5 pm.

    I couldn’t understand this – sunset was a good two hours away. I was livid, but my mother felt obliged. Instead, we went to Uchali Lake.

    Uchali Lake.
    Uchali Lake.

    Uchali Lake was teeming with males. Some women were there with their families but mostly the narrow walkway to the lakefront was heaving with boys and men, all of them enjoying their Eid vacation, leering at any and all women who walked by. The water was littered with garbage, and the half-hour boat ride across the width of it was a rip-off.

    We left quickly. I marched through the crowd and kept my gaze up and forward, hoping to avoid looking any of the men in the eyes. My mother complained to our 'male chaperone' about the lecherous stares.

    The manager stayed mute. He said nothing to us, and nothing to the other men. And so we continued marching through the violent and lustful gazes that bore down on us.

    My mother learnt young what I learnt young – men don’t protect you.

    Uchali Lake pier.
    Uchali Lake pier.

    The next morning we slipped out early in the hope that no one would intrude into our vacation. Google Maps FTW I convinced my mother. We downed the still-sustaining omelette sandwiches and were on our way.

    Our first destination was a chashma at Daep Sharif. We muscled through a strip of broken uphill road, to where the pin on the map led us. There, we entered a gate to a compound with Pajeros parked on one end and an old style verandah filled with men on charpais on the other.

    My mother took one look at the scenario and wanted to bail. Even before the men looked at us with those unfriendly, dismissive eyes, their show of pomp and power was enough to make my mother – who has seen in her lifetime more manifestations of violent men than I – know we were unsafe.

    Nonetheless, I approached them and asked for directions to the chashma, learning in the process that they were the caretakers of whatever wealth the holiness of that chashma brought in.

    The youngest of the lot pointed in the general direction, scowling at us two un-manned women, driving alone and entering their domain.

    We parked outside the gates, still feeling unwelcome.

    "What if they slash our tyres", mother asked me.

    "Why would they?"

    "They didn’t like us."

    "It’s okay... let’s find that chashma."

    The compound with the old style veranda.
    The compound with the old style veranda.

    We trotted down a narrow walkway that descended into a field of hillocks. There was no way of knowing what direction to go in, and no cell phone signals anymore.

    My mother cocked her ears for the sound of water, and she did hear something, but she also wondered if it were just the rustle of leaves instead.

    Halfway, she wanted to turn back. "There is no one here."

    I was desperate to find the holy water. "Let me try around the corner."

    The sound of water came into our ears clearly now. I climbed down, hesitantly.

    Then, there it was, filled already with ten men.

    Well…that was disappointing. There would be no swimming for us now.

    It was only 10:30 in the morning. There was an uncomfortable silence and ten sets of stares as we approached and greeted the men. Only one returned the greeting.

    A polite man in his 40's was surrounded by his excited sons who splashed around in the water. My mother asked him about the significance of the place and he began explaining.

    I overheard him say the source of the water was somewhere above, and that there was a path leading up to it — a hazardous climb that even men couldn’t handle. I scoffed and began climbing. It turned out to be quite a short and easy climb.

    Waiting at the top was a well of water that sunk into the mountainside, a patchwork of rusty graffiti, and a view below of all those who hadn’t imagined I could make that climb – except my mother, of course.

    I waved down to her tiny, blue form.

    Daep Sharif - view from the top.
    Daep Sharif - view from the top.

    On the way back, I urged my mother to sip water that sprung from below the solitary fig tree, said to cure diabetes. As we walked back, my mother told me the man had asked if I were an athlete. I laughed.

    But then, we are so used to women who have become limp and lethargic. My mother apparently enjoyed presenting the freak that was her daughter to this audience of strange men.

    She was a proud mother to an ungainly and overgrown girl child who had left mouths hanging open, with her gait and with her unbending neck.

    She felt especially proud when we drove on the perfectly-drawn roads of Punjab, flanked by gobi fields, and found children, men, and women tugging at each other's shirt sleeves so they wouldn’t miss the sight of two women driving a car across the known world – windows down, waving back at them.

    On the trail back to the car, my mother pointed to a shallow stream. There's no one around, swim here.

    I rolled my eyes. It was a tadpole tub, but I swam anyway.

    It's swimming if you get wet, okay?
    It's swimming if you get wet, okay?

    We had lunch at Khabaki Lake, where my mother cooled a bunch of mangoes in the water for us to enjoy. I pretended to be rich and pointed out patches of land across the water where we could build all-women communes and raise sheep and swim under the full moon at night.

    "You're not practical," she said. "Where will you get help if something happens?"

    Always the looming threat of other people.

    Our next stop was Kanhatti Gardens, which took a long and winding journey up and then down a mountain, whereas Google Maps only lead me halfway. This time, my mother encouraged us to keep going.

    Kanhatti Gardens was full of families on vacation. There was another chashma there, but this time popular enough to be littered and populous enough that I briefly thought I had lost my mother. I bought olive tea and we walked through various tea stands and fruit gardens.

    We left shortly after, exhausted by the heat and the people, and the handful of wrong turns to the promised chashma, partly due to one chai wala who was trying to swerve us away from his competition.

    But, satiated by fresh pakoras and chai, my mother gleefully volunteered to ride pillion with a young man on a motorcycle all the way to parking while I followed closely behind.

    Kanhatti Gardens populated with people.
    Kanhatti Gardens populated with people.
    The chashma in the wake of the visitors that had come and gone.
    The chashma in the wake of the visitors that had come and gone.

    There was one more spot left in our day's itinerary. It was near Asr time and we found ourselves lost on the way to Nur Singh Phowar. Google Maps was at fault, once again.

    We stopped and asked for directions, but everyone was incredulous, not understanding where we wanted to go. I learnt a new word: khandaraat— “hum khandaraat dhoondh rahay hein!"

    An old villager squatting on the side of the road finally understood: "Turn back, you missed the turn".

    We had in fact missed the dirt road. It was on foot from there on a rough, pebbled track. My mother needed her time. She told me to walk ahead and find it, that I should not slow down because of her.

    Walk ahead, leave me to my pace: we are women who carry burdens, not those who hand them out.

    Just a little further I could see Nur Singh Phowar, the ruins of some maharaja’s cliffside retreat.

    A view of the valley where Nur Singh Phowar was nestled.
    A view of the valley where Nur Singh Phowar was nestled.

    It was nestled halfway down a cliff, with a raging river crossing the valley further below it. There was no sound except that of birds. We were now in another domain.

    My mother finally caught up to me. Apparently she’d been calling out to me but I hadn’t heard. I pointed down to the vertigo-inducing, leafy abyss. My mother balked at how close to the edge I was.

    The drop was so sudden, even the trees were growing out horizontally, as if locked in a perpetual barzakh– sustained by the eternal water of mountain springs, yet hanging over the cliffside, death guaranteed by the rushing force of the same water colliding below.

    In order to get to the ruins, we retraced our steps and found the downward-spiralling trail.

    We began slowly, feeling lonelier and lonelier as we climbed down the side of the mountain. I looked back. I wondered how my mother was going to make it back up. I expressed this concern.

    My mother took this opportunity to berate me: "You make unwise decisions, Anam". "Yahan na banda hai na banday ki zaat".

    While I feared for my mother's aging bones, she feared strange men more.

    The fear in her stomach uncoiled and reached into mine. I tried to laugh it off as I kept telling her we could bail anytime. The panic began to set in, and the sky grew darker as we kept walking down.

    Just when I was about to call it a day, I chanced upon low walls of stone upon stone. Someone had fashioned a new entrance, but the inside was unkempt, with graffiti marking the mandir.

    I marvelled at the ancient trees and the still-blue pool that formed out of the chashma which flowed from inside the great rocks. All was quiet but the roaring of the water in the valley below.

    My mother gave me ten minutes to look around. I know we both could have stayed here for hours. Instead, we exited quickly, my mother sitting down to catch her breath every five minutes, me trying to be cheerful, both of us now measuring her age.

    Take another break. Breathe through your nose. How is your pulse?

    Step by step we walked back to our car, past the cliff yonder that looked like a woman, past the tree bark where my mother found herself a walking stick, muttering about wild animals. What I wouldn't give to face a wild mountain cat, I joked. My mother was red in this face, not amused.

    When we made it to our car, its tyres were intact and there was still light in the sky remaining.

    "We are getting a gun," my mother said.

    "A gun?"

    "Yes, a gun."

    "You don’t make wise decisions."

    "You are the one who found the path; you wanted to climb down...we need a gun."

    "Okay, let’s get a gun."

    "No, we can’t. They aren't legal anymore."

    "Okay...let’s get a taser."

    "What’s a taser?"

    I explain.

    "Okay...yes…that’s good."

    She sat and massaged her sore feet before we set off again, over Punjab's wealthy roads, past khushhaal farmers and a herd of camels hilariously stumbling down hills, past the congested traffic, past the lakes, and back to our beds.

    I was going to leave again three days after our return home. She said she wished she had friends who would go on adventures with her. My heart broke. I told her about adventure clubs. Her eyes sparkled.

    Approaching Daep Sharif.
    Approaching Daep Sharif.

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    Research programmes at most public university departments in Pakistan are highly dubious and purely a mockery of research. The problem lies with the very vision universities have when it comes to research and the purpose of scientific inquiry.

    Universities run research programmes in order to improve their rankings in the race created by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) after 2002, whereby ranking is based on how many research publications a university has to its credit, forcing them to become paper producing factories.

    Each year, in a bid to come out on top for number of publications, subject-based entry tests are conducted by many public universities for the enrollment of researchers into MPhil and PhD degree programmes. In most cases, potential scholars obtaining 50 percent marks are enrolled. In some cases, however, this cut-off point is brought lower to a 40 to 30 percent score.

    One can only speculate as to the quality of research undertaken by a student who masters only 30 percent knowledge of their core subject. Each year, batches of 20 to 30 of such potential scholars are thus placed in each research-focused discipline.

    Related: Why Pakistanis are among the least innovative in the world

    An important thing to note is that a sizeable number of this batch of researchers consists of working men and women looking to climb the career ladder, as rightly observed by Dr Idrees Khawaja in his noteworthy article in Dawn, Part-time PhD.

    These part-time researchers, usually working in the day and enrolled in evening PhD programmes, are more practical in handling their research tasks rather than idealistic. Instead of conducting research, they manage research. They know how to tackle this important yet ‘easy’ degree without putting in too much time and effort into the process.

    Using their socialisation and interpersonal skills, they make friends with key faculty in their respective departments. Then a process of give-this-and-take-that starts. The faster and better they facilitate their supervisors, the sooner and easier they earn their degrees.

    Another chunk of students consists of those who are in search of jobs after completing their degrees, wanting to productively utilise time which would otherwise be spent waiting on employment.

    There is also a percentage of students – albeit meagre – who are seriously interested in conducting proper research, and this is the lot which suffers the most in an environment where actual research has no value.

    The course work lasts one year, and this is a relatively easier part of the research degree. Actual research kicks off only after completion of the coursework, and this is where the difficulty begins.

    The process of conducting research for PhD scholars in most public sector universities begins by choosing an area of study which interests the researcher or a problem which merits investigation. Having identified the area of research, the scholar selects a supervisor to oversee the research. The scholar then prepares a proposal outlining their approach to the problem or the direction the research will take.

    The proposal is then scrutinised and approved by a committee of professors that gives the go-ahead for the research to begin. The research is then conducted based on the approved proposal and a document is prepared discussing the outcomes.

    The scholar is then required to present the findings – first, in a number of seminars, and then before a committee of two external examiners for a final viva voce. At the end, the approval of the thesis by the Board of Advanced Studies and Research (BASR) is given, which then awards the scholar the degree.

    This is a hectic process, as it is supposed to be. But instead of going through the process, students in many Pakistani public universities – as in other public institutions of the country – also have the option of setting up an understanding with their superiors.

    It is a type of undocumented agreement between the professor and the scholar in terms of how much the student is willing to pay – or reward the professor with non-monetary benefits– to get through the research process with minimal effort.

    There are cases in which the supervisor does everything for the student, from writing the synopsis, to making the seminar presentations, developing the thesis and, finally, getting it reviewed and approved. However, generally, there is partial facilitation.

    Thus incentivised, many professors have more candidates under their guidance than the HEC’s approved limit. In some universities, a single professor guides more than 20 researchers simultaneously. According to the conditions set by the HEC, a supervisor is permitted to supervise a maximum of five scholars at a time.

    Under special circumstances, a supervisor with a good track record of research and publications in high impact factor journals (those journals whose articles get frequently cited) can supervise eight scholars with prior approval of the HEC. In many cases, however, neither does the supervising professor meet this criterion nor is any proper approval sought.

    At the conclusion of the research, MPhil students have to present their work at two departmental seminars. For PhD students, there is one additional seminar (making it a total of three seminars).

    The scholar’s seminar presentations are extensively rehearsed and practiced. Potential questions are discussed and their answers explained. In many cases, someone from the supervisor’s circles is given a set of already-discussed questions to ask at the seminar so that difficult ones are balanced.

    Read next: Research culture in Pakistan: The ‘undisclosed’ moral decadence

    The two departmental seminars are supervised and approved by the dean of the respective faculty. One can only wonder about the logic of appointing the dean as a supervisor. Every faculty consists of many academically and technically different disciplines. Deans are appointed from one discipline of the relevant faculty on the basis of seniority.

    For example, the dean of natural sciences originally hailing from the physics department has to supervise, comment on and decide whether a work presented by a scholar from plant sciences or analytical chemistry is worth approving.

    Similarly, the dean of the Faculty of Arts originally belonging to the Arabic language and literature department has to analyse the concept of beauty in the poetry of William Blake presented by a researcher from English and literature department, for instance.

    It is not only technical incorrect but equally embarrassing for the supervising dean. The outcomes of such seminars are quite obvious. Every seminar, after a five-minute session of questions and comments, is met with an applause of approval from the audience who are mostly graduate students and some friends of the researcher.

    The additional seminar, for PhD students only, is supervised by the vice-chancellor and an external expert of the discipline. It is just as easy as the departmental seminars to deal with. The vice-chancellor has to approve the seminar based on the technical input by the external expert. This expert, in many cases, is very friendly and cooperative as they have a deal with the supervisor to exchange favours. Their facilitation today will be returned by the supervising professor tomorrow.

    These external examiners are academics teaching in industrially/academically-advanced countries. There is a list of such countries prescribed by the HEC on its website. The supervisors have links with international examiners from these regions. Some examiners are either former students of the supervisors or their friends who did doctoral research with them.

    In most cases, as I have observed personally, in some public sector universities these foreign examiners are ex-students of supervisors from some African and Middle-Eastern countries or some Pakistani academics teaching abroad. Many international examiners are not from the HEC-prescribed industrially/academically advance countries.

    Furthermore, in many cases, international examiners selected for evaluating PhD theses are working in an administrative capacity instead of being engaged in academic activities at a reputable university.

    Most of the time the foreign examiner or ‘expert’ reaches one day before the seminar and the research scholar is presented with a full opportunity to interact with and appease them. Lavish luncheons or dinners are usually arranged in honour of the ‘expert’ at the best possible venue.

    Thus a pre-seminar interaction between the scholar and the examiners takes place which raises the confidence of the scholar and in most cases gives them a clue of what may potentially be asked of them in the seminar the next morning. Resultantly, the final seminar becomes more of a ceremonial formality than an academic inspection and scrutiny.

    After completion of required number of seminars, the PhD scholar is eligible to submit their research thesis for further evaluation, if they fulfill another condition: one research publication in an HEC-recognised journal.

    Explore: The sorry state of research at our universities and how to fix it

    HEC-recognised journals fall into four categories: W, X, Z and Y, with W being the best and the Y being the lowest in quality. W category journals are impact factor journals whereas X category journals, second-best in Pakistan, meet all conditions of the HEC but do not have any impact factor.

    Y category journals also meet all conditions of the HEC except one: peer-review by at least one expert from an industrially/academically advanced country in the respective discipline. Z category journals are short of two conditions: it neither gets international peer-review nor is indexed/abstracted internationally by a recognised agency.

    The research publication requirement is usually met by publishing the paper in a Z or Y category research journal of the same university. This is not a big deal for a professor of the university. They easily can, and in most cases do, submit an acceptance letter instead of the actual publication to expedite the process.

    The thesis is evaluated by two national and two international examiners. Though intended for quality assurance of the research, this process is equally managed and made hostage to the will of supervisors.

    Instead of sending the thesis to anonymous examiners at home and abroad, the professor is asked to provide the names of the evaluators. What the professor does is not difficult to guess. They have a pool of friendly and cooperative examiners at both levels. They brief them and get the thesis evaluated positively within a given amount of time.

    Having received positive and in most cases praising evaluation reports, the final viva voce for the thesis is arranged. Two examiners from other local universities are invited, who in most cases are the same who have evaluated the thesis locally. This oral examination is just another formality of the process. By this time, the scholar and examiners know each other very well and the thesis has already become a solved paper for the examiners and examinee.

    The final stage toward being awarded the research degree is the approval by the BASR. In the meeting, it has to be decided by a committee whether a certain degree is worth awarding. One is left clueless as to what remains to be checked by the BASR after a thesis has already been recommended by four evaluators and the candidate is examined in a viva voce.

    On the same topic: Enough PhD’s, thank you

    The educational sector in our country needs major revamping. Solutions have been presented elsewhere and I am not going to repeat them. I also want to disclaim that not all professors and supervisors engage in such practices. There is a good number of highly committed, honest and professional teachers in all universities in Pakistan. The purpose is not to malign them indiscriminately.

    Rather, I want to show two things through this article. Firstly, to highlight the negative elements present in the faculties at various public sector universities in Pakistan. Secondly, I want to draw the attention of the concerned authorities including the HEC, university leadership and teachers’ bodies toward the loopholes, faults and shortcomings in the research system that allow such elements to hijack the very purpose of the research.

    Pakistan's public education system, at the beginning, was not in the hopeless state it is today. Many Pakistanis went on to achieve great success at home and abroad after studying at Urdu and Sindhi-medium schools.

    The desolate situation that we are witnessing at present is due to the failures of the government over many decades, with HEC playing an important role in ruining the university research system due to its hyper focus on producing research papers. If the problems are not addressed, the slide will continue and Pakistan's future will remain bleak.

    Have you ever been or are you currently enrolled in a research program? What challenges have you come across? Share your journey as a research scholar with us at

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    On 21 August, we received an announcement on a WhatsApp group, stating that former Pakistani dictator General Pervez Musharraf would address students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in three day’s time on August 24.

    As a student at SOAS, it was shocking to learn that a man who has been declared an absconder by courts in Pakistan for his refusal to stand trial on charges of suspending the Constitution and imposing emergency rule in the country, is one of the accused in the Benazir murder case, and who was "not prepared to concede to Balochistan's genuine economic and political demands," would step foot at a university known for its progressive ideals and student activism.

    From the poster, it would appear that the Pakistani channel Dunya News was the organiser of the event, and that the talk was to be recorded for Kamran Shahid’s show On the Front. Students were supposed to ask questions directly from Musharraf during the proceedings.

    SOAS Pakistan Society shared the event’s poster on their Facebook page, asking people to contact them if they wanted to register their names on the list of attendees.

    The Society made it clear in its public communication that it did not officially endorse the talk. Though, the clarification came later and was not part of their original Facebook post.

    The original poster for the show.
    The original poster for the show.

    A number of us belonging to the Pakistan Solidarity Campaign and the Awami Workers Party UK, along with Baloch and Sindhi activists, and other progressive students and academics at SOAS, immediately approached the university administration and the SOAS Student Union to obtain further details about the event.

    In response to our emails, we were informed by SOAS that no room booking was made under Musharraf’s or the TV channel's name for August 24. It turned out that the space was booked by a Pakistani doctorate student, who did not share the details of the event with the administration.

    Right away, we started a campaign ‘Dictator & Absconder Pervez Musharraf is not welcome at SOAS’ and initiated an online petition demanding SOAS to cancel the event. Hundreds of people signed the petition.

    Hundreds of emails were also sent to SOAS, prompting the university to eventually issue a notice on 22 August on its website, clarifying that “at no point was any such event discussed with SOAS or with the Students’ Union.”

    It’s highly unlikely that the university would have cancelled the event or withdrawn support. After all, SOAS has seen much bigger protests in the past and has not budged. In any case, Musharraf’s talk was not organised by SOAS and was an external event at the university premises.

    What did happen, however, was that our pressure successfully dissuaded the actual organisers from going ahead with the event at SOAS.

    SOAS issues a notification.
    SOAS issues a notification.

    After its cancellation, there was a rumour that the organisers had planned to hold the event at the University of Westminster instead. But within a few hours, Westminster replied to one of our emails and confirmed that the university had not received any request for the event to take place on its campus .

    After back-to-back annulments, we then learned that the organisers had approached a local Pakistani restaurant to host the show. Consequently, the restaurant received hundreds of phone calls to cancel the programme, which it eventually did.

    The organisers later claimed that they had to postpone the event, owing to the high number of registrations which made the venue at SOAS insufficient in capacity.

    However, I think that this was a face-saving exercise. I firmly believe that it was our critical response to the event and the threat of protest that made the organisers retreat.

    I would also like to respond to a concern that was brought up and highlight some other observations during the course of the events. Some people argued that Musharraf should be allowed to speak and his right to freedom of speech should be respected.

    But how much of this principle is respected by Musharraf himself? Censorship and cracking down on dissent are legacies of military rules in the country, especially that of Zia-ul-Haq, whose destructive reign Musharraf shamelessly praised.

    Furthermore, if the former dictator is so keen on expressing himself, why does he not make his case in court?

    I am also thoroughly unimpressed with the political upbringing of so many Pakistani students (mostly elites) in different universities in London. One member of the SOAS Pakistan Society told me that the Society “has got nothing to do with politics.” Such attitudes are common among Pakistani students and for some reason they seem almost proud for being ‘apolitical.’

    Yet, for all their supposed indifference to politics, many of them are supporters of the military’s role in Pakistan, keeping in line with the general trend in the country where the public perception of the military is positive.

    The SOAS Pakistan Society did, after all, publish the event’s information on their social media. The question is: why did a group that apparently “has got nothing to do with politics” share a political event, that too of a former dictator?

    The answer is simple: our generation was born during one dictatorial rule – Zia’s – and came of age during another – Musharraf’s. Civilian leaders were overthrown one by one on charges of corruption, whereas nobody ever asked as to why only civilians are held accountable. This helped create a climate whereby the military was seen as the saviour of the country, which many ‘apolitical’ people uncritically embrace.

    I think it’s high time we did away with our passiveness and started engaging with the affairs of society more critically and firmly.

    Are you an activist who has campaigned for citizens' rights in Pakistan? Write to us at

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    A policeman, an army ranger and a government schoolteacher come to the home of a Parsi married to a Christian. If you think that sounds like the beginning of a joke, you are partially right.

    My driver informed me that the census team had arrived. It was a dry, gusty day, and the three looked rather the worse for wear. I invited them to come in and sit down, but they bravely refused, saying that this would take just a few minutes. Famous last words.

    So we stood in my gateway, amid little dunes of piled-up sand. Balancing his register on one arm, the schoolteacher held his pen poised over the page.

    “Names?” he asked.

    “Here we go again,” I thought. Our names have been mangled so many times by Pakistani officialdom, that I have lost count of the variations. To spare him and ourselves this misery, I offered to write them in for him. He wouldn’t have it. He was writing in Urdu, so this would be a matter of phonetics.

    I carefully enunciated each name, watching as the man exercised all his ingenuity to translate the alien sounds into letters.

    Then the inevitable question, “Are you Pakistani?”

    Yes, I assured him, we are all Pakistani.

    He asked me if we had moved to Karachi from another country.

    I told him that we haven’t.

    “Well, my husband came from India with his parents when he was a child, but he is now very much a Pakistani, and the rest of us were all born here.”

    “Yes, our first language is English. Yes, we are Pakistani, but our first language is English – look, I’m talking to you in Urdu right now, aren’t I?”

    Ages, marital status, education and employment all went smoothly. Then came religion. The pen hovered over my husband’s name.

    “Parsi,” I said. Blank stares.

    “Zoroastrian,” I said. More blank looks.

    “It’s a religion,” I assured them.

    Three heads crowded together as they searched the alternatives in the form: Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Ahmedi, and Scheduled Castes. No Parsis. Consternation. The policeman came to the rescue. “Other!” he said triumphantly, pointing to the last alternative. Sighs of relief all around. So they chose ‘other’.

    The author and her husband with their friends.
    The author and her husband with their friends.

    As they were about to put me into this category as well, I delivered another bombshell. “I’m a Christian.” Well, at least that had a category to itself, but I still received incredulous looks. Before they could ask again, I reassured them that we were Pakistani. They needed my NIC number, so I produced my card, which must have gone some way to reassuring them of my citizenship.

    However, true to my profession, I couldn’t let go of this teachable moment. “You must have heard of Parsis,” I said.

    “There are very few of them left now, but they were and are an important part of this city. Jehangir Kothari Parade?” They had never heard of it.

    “Avari? Avari hotels?” I asked in desperation. Finally, familiarity flickered in their eyes when I told them Mr Avari is a Parsi.

    Then I delivered the coup de grace: “Haven’t you heard of the Quaid-i-Azam’s wife? Ruttie Jinnah? She was a Parsi.”

    They laughed and looked at each other in amazement. They clearly hadn’t heard of this part of history.

    “Today we have increased our knowledge!” Grinning good-naturedly, they thanked me.

    As they were leaving, I gave them a bottle of cold water to toast their enlightenment.

    How is your life in Pakistan as a minority? Share your stories with us at

    This article was originally published on April 10, 2017

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    "Aaiye haath uthaayein hum bhi
    Hum jinhen rasm-e-dua yaad nahin
    (Come, let us raise our hands as well
    We, the ones who do not remember the ritual of prayer)

    Hum jinhen soz-e-mohabbat ke siwa
    Koyee but koyee khudaa yaad nahin
    (We, the ones who do not remember anything other than the
    warmth of love, do not know of any idol, nor any God.)

    Aaiye arz guzaarein keh nigaar-e-hasti
    Zehr-e-imroz mein sheereeni-e-fardaa bhar de!
    (Come, let us beseech that the Creator of existence may
    fill sweetness in the morrow from the poison of today)"

    ~ Faiz Ahmed Faiz

    Not all prayers for redemption are answered. Some lie suspended, maybe forever — or dismissed. Who knows?

    It was many years ago when I visited the Barmer-Jaisalmer stretch of sand dunes in Rajasthan that glitter beautifully — like gold in the warm winter sunshine — in search of something inarticulate.

    My search continued, carrying me to many places across continents over the years, but my thoughts always brought me back to the untold story of the mysterious old woman I met there, who travelled through time and received a call to prayer from the other side.

    This tale traverses through the dispossessed land into unanswered prayers, witnessing the strings of tragedies and hope, refuge and exile.

    I have forgotten many things about that visit except her wrinkled face and sharp features. She asked me for money at the bus stop to buy bidis (tobacco sticks). I bought her a packet. She told me that she would tell me my future in exchange.

    She carried an infinite absence in her eyes. It was not the absence of eyesight that she had almost lost. Yet, with a blurred vision she claimed to see both the past and the future.

    She told me that one does not need eyes to see the divine light, for it is present within us. She was too old and frail to walk, but she claimed to travel through time. She told me “It is not a state of bliss. It makes one a captive of memories and hope”. But then, who is free from such ties?

    She told me things that never came true. I remember her telling me that I was trapped in an infinite search. I didn’t know what she meant. I didn’t ask her. But who isn’t? We are all captives of hope and despair.

    She was called Mai by the local villagers. She told me she had forgotten her real name, as it was important for no one. A name is for others she said. We believe that we own it, but we only carry it.

    Later that evening, she took me home for tea. Hers was an almost broken katcha (mud) hut in a village called Akali, beautifully located between sand dunes, about half a kilometre away from Pakistan, near Munabao village of Rajasthan’s Barmer district. It is the last village on the Indian side of Zero Point.

    She showed me the other side near the border from a good distance. It was fenced but looked the same, like our side.

    The same parched expanse of the Thar stretched on both sides for miles. During Partition, the sand was divided into two countries with the Munabao and Khokhrapar villages on either side.

    Munabao, which lies on the Indian side, tells many stories of abandonment and loss. The village now has only empty houses, a Border Security Force (BSF) outpost and a railway station that links a train to Pakistan.

    She told me stories about the Sodha Rajputs and Sindhi Muslims who live on both sides of the border, speak the same language — Sindhi and Marwari — and carry the same pain.

    She said that the wind could not wither the line in the sand. We share the miseries of our neighbours on the other side. But despite our shared sorrows, we remain divided.

    Photo by the author.
    Photo by the author.

    She told me the story of how god had abandoned her village as the original temple of Jata Mata, the deity the villagers worshipped, is on the other side, in the first Pakistani village after the border, Sajan Jo Par.

    They have built a new temple now in Akali, but it is a temple of absence. She claimed the god on the other side called out to her and believed that the prayer calls from across the border were meant for her. I only smiled. After all, beliefs are personal and not meant to be questioned.

    She told me that time-travellers transcend the boundaries of geography and time. She claimed herself to be one. I didn’t know what she meant until I heard the azan. She told me that it was coming from the other side.

    To me, her house seemed like a museum of austerity with a charpai, a black and white, dusty, framed picture of her late husband on the wall, an old wall clock that did not show the correct time, and small idols of Ganesha and Durga on an old wooden board.

    She carried many stories in her heart and told me how she lost her husband when she was just 19 and how her three sons had left the village for work and never looked back.

    It was 11 years ago when her eldest son last visited her and sent her some money. She had long abandoned hope of their return. She had set them free. She said that after experiencing so much in life, she had realised that attachments and belongingness restrict freedom.

    It is good to belong to nothing. She was brave to accept that and let go. But then, there lingered the memories. Nostalgia is not always a happy state.

    She wished that she had amnesia; losing one’s memory is better than losing one’s eyesight, she believed. It is a respite for old age, but not everyone is blessed with forgetfulness. One should always remember to forget.

    She sang to me songs of silence, her collective reflection on love, memories and exile. She told me that villagers called her insane, but who isn’t? Even those who gave their lives for freedom were. Perhaps freedom is the legacy of lunatics.

    Whenever death befell the village, she would go and sing elegies, songs of death. They gave her some money for that. She had learnt them from her mother-in-law.

    She told me that sometimes she thinks of her own funeral, and how her sons may not even know about her passing. They had changed their phone numbers and she had stopped getting their calls.

    Maybe, they want to disown her because she did not possess anything to give them — neither land, nor money — and love unfortunately is not a commodity.

    Hers was a life of dispossession. She told me that her clock doesn’t work and how she had learnt to despise time. She didn’t let the politics of religion and geography interfere with her freedom and had tuned her life as per the azan from the other side. Her mornings began with the sound of azan and her days ended with the same.

    This Hindu woman lived her life connecting with the unanswered calls to prayer — the azan from beyond the border. Maybe, this is what freedom means. Maybe, this is what we all should claim.

    Her verse of freedom has stayed with me over the years:

    “No one owns prayer,
    Not the one who prays,
    Not the one who is prayed for,
    Not even the one who listens.
    Prayer transcends all that is defined.
    It is free.
    It is meant to set all free.”

    I asked her if she wanted me to get her clock repaired. She gave me a strange look and remarked that the dead clock had set her free. She was not bothered about the time. She told me how she had transcended time to the point that she had even forgotten to die. We both laughed at that.

    Her roots were in Umerkot, Sindh on the other side from where she received the prayer spells. She believed that the azan from the other side is the call of god who is left on the other side. She said it is better to confide in delusions, if they are so. At least, one knows they do not exist and so they would not be deceived.

    While departing, I photographed her with my phone. She told me that she had no picture of herself and wanted one to be hung on her wall when she dies. But the very next moment she said: “For whom? And where?”

    In that moment of awkward silence, I avoided looking into her eyes, and left. We suffer from an incurable malady of worldly belonging. Later, I lost the phone and her picture along with it.

    Mai was a Sufi soul. She broke through the shackles of identity defined by name, country and religion. She was one with the infinite beyond borders, time, religion and all that can be divided.

    Years passed and I thought of her many times but did not try to see her again. This is how some encounters should be left — as unedited accounts of memories. She might have died now. Maybe I didn’t want to know about her death.

    Today, as I am writing about her, I remember her saying with unbearable regret reflected on her wrinkled face that she’d be remembered by none. Only death could free her from her ageing body. I hope she exists somewhere un-belonged and free.

    Her bond with the other side is a glorious eulogy to the unanswered and un-belonged prayer calls that had kept her alive, when abandoned by her own people. I am nobody to comment on what she found in those prayers from the other side, of another religion. It was her private account.

    This August, when both the neighbouring countries were celebrating their respective days of freedom, I remembered the old woman who dismantled all the boundaries of geography, religion, time and lived a life of ultimate freedom.

    She belonged to nowhere, like her god. Perhaps she found the songs of freedom in the anonymous prayer calls from the other side.

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    A recent study has brought to surface a poisonous reality about the state of the country's waters and public health once again. With samples from 1,200 wells all across Pakistan, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology has concluded that up to two-thirds of these wells are supplying water contaminated with arsenic.

    The study's estimate is that up to 60 million people in Pakistan are consuming the polluted water. There have been previous studies carried out on a smaller scale locally, indicating similar results. 

    The concentration of arsenic found in these samples is above 200 micrograms per litre, which is far higher than the World Health Organisation's recommended threshold of 10 micrograms per litre and the Pakistan government's limit of 50 micrograms per litre.

    As the country's population grows exponentially and more and more people head to urban centres, the issue of water scarcity worsens. While we once depended on river systems, urban migration means that our water needs are increasingly met by groundwater extraction, which makes up to 60% of the supply.

    The risk mapping of the study shows that the entire Indus Plain is affected. Cities near the Indus and its tributaries are densely populated and are the hub of agricultural and industrial activities.

    Groundwater extraction through wells and tube-wells gained much popularity with both people and the government as a safer alternative to surface water from rivers that was contaminated with bacteria.

    However, unregulated and heavy use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, raw sewage irrigation, and improper disposal of industrial effluents into water channels all contributed to leaching of toxins and arsenic in the groundwater.

    Once pumped from the ground, this contaminated water is again introduced into the system without proper filtration and treatment processes and makes way into the food and water we consume.

    We are exposed to arsenic through drinking contaminated water, using contaminated water in preparing food, and irrigating food crops with the contaminated groundwater. Arsenic cannot be removed from water by simple methods such as boiling and requires a biogeochemical treatment process. Reverse osmosis and adsorptive media systems are among the most common treatments.

    Arsenic is colourless, odourless and tasteless, which makes it difficult to detect for ordinary people. When ingested over time, it causes thickening of the skin and skin lesions leading to skin cancer. Lung, kidney, and bladder cancers have also been linked to consuming arsenic contaminated water over long periods.

    To prevent this serious public health issue from intensifying, we need to take steps beyond studies and assessments. We have to actively integrate the knowledge available so far into development activities as well as drafting regulations for the water supply sector.

    Mitigating the effects of arsenic will require a multi-sectoral approach. Both short-term and long-term strategies need to be identified and implemented to prevent further pollution of water resources.

    The health care sector needs to be actively responding by teaching health professionals about arsenic contamination, identification of its symptoms, and treatments.

    Community awareness campaigns educating the locals and training them regarding filtration techniques and monitoring is also required. For the solutions to be effective, they need to be low cost, sustainable, and approved by the local communities.

    The agriculture sector needs to be bound by strict regulations for groundwater extraction, its sustainable usage, and water quality controls. In absence of any laws regulating ground water abstraction, utilities such as tube-wells, deep-dug wells, hand pumps and bore holes are grossly mismanaged. The industrial sector should also be made to adhere to the standard regulations for the protection of the environment and water resources.

    Arsenic contamination of groundwater should be declared a public health emergency.

    The government, politicians, business leaders, donor agencies and NGOs must assist the affected communities immediately. Pakistan's population was recently estimated to be at around 200 million people. A quarter of that population doesn't have safe drinking water due to arsenic contamination. During a month when the country celebrated its 70 years, statistics such as these serve a reminder of how little progress we have made during those decades.

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    This year, Pakistan’s 70th Independence anniversary and Janmashtami (the Hindu festival celebrating Krishna’s birth) fell on the same day: August 14th. With that coincidence in mind, I want to share a very unique Urdu poem: Krishn Kanhaiya.

    This nazm is by Hafeez Jalandhari, the Urdu poet most well-known for composing the lyrics to Pakistan’s national anthem, the Qaumi Taranah. Born in the Punjabi city of Jalandhar (now in India), he moved to Lahore following India and Pakistan’s independence and Partition in 1947.

    As its title suggests, Krishn Kanhaiya is a poem about the Hindu god Krishna. Today, the mere idea of a Muslim poet writing about a Hindu deity raises all sorts of emotions among different groups in South Asia: surprise, joy, curiosity, suspicion, anger.

    However, there is much more depth to Krishn Kanhaiya than meets the eye. This is no ordinary devotional poem. Jalandhari, ever a politically-minded thinker and writer, draws upon the mythology and persona of Krishna in order to produce a poem that is simultaneously devotional and political in nature.

    It is, in fact, a call to liberate India from British colonial rule. Moreover, this poem, especially when examined in comparison with Jalandhari’s more famous work, the Qaumi Taranah, can tell us a great deal about the cultural politics of South Asia in the 20th century and today.

    Setting the scene

    Let’s begin with a close reading of Krishn Kanhaiya.

    In the very first line of the poem, Jalandhari addresses his readers as onlookers (dekhne wālo). Although this may seem trivial, I believe there is a deeper significance to this choice of words. Urdu poetry is usually meant to be heard, not read silently. One popular type of poetry, the ghazal, is sung, while nazms (of which Krishn Kanhaiya is one) are usually recited. Yet, Jalandhari chooses dekhne wālo, “those who look,” to characterise the consumer of this poem.

    Could Jalandhari’s choice of words be referring to the importance Hinduism gives to seeing God? I don’t think it would be inaccurate to describe Hinduism as a religion which, among the fives senses, gives primacy to sight as a way of connecting to the Divine.

    The central act of devotion when one goes to a Hindu temple is darshan: gazing upon the decorated image of the deity. And, of course, the incredibly intricate and symbolic iconography of Hindu gods and goddesses suggests the importance of saguna brahman, God With a Form.

    By addressing the readers of the poem as “onlookers” instead of “listeners” or “readers,” Jalandhari might be encouraging them to engage in an act of darshan in their mind. As they read or hear the poem, he encourages them to also visualise Krishna in their minds.

    Read next: Where should a Pakistani Hindu go?

    But, where is Krishna in the poem? We haven’t gotten there yet. The opening lines are quite abstract. After asking whether Krishna is “reality or representation” (ma’anī hai ki sūrat), Jalandhari refers to Krishna as as a “form of light” (paikar-e-tanvīr), and asks “Is he fire or light?” (yeh nār hai yā nūr).

    Again, these descriptions are full of meaning. In an article on Firstpost, Sharjeel Imam and Saquib Salim suggest that Jalandhari is alluding to Krishna as a being of light, reiterating "the age-old belief of a section of Islamic scholars, that Krishna was a righteous prophet sent to the people of the subcontinent.”

    Jalandhari finally gives a description of Krishna that most Hindus would be familiar with: “this flute player / this cowherd of Gokul” (yeh bāñsurī wālā / gokul kā gwālā).

    At the same time, Krishna is praised using the most typical Urdu expressions and words relating to God: “By God, what glory!” (kyā shān hai wallāh) and “he is the Majesty of God” (ik shān-e-ḳhudā hai). Jalandhari differs from traditional Hindu viewpoints in that he does not equate Krishna with God; yet, for him, Krishna is an embodiment of God’s glory and majesty.

    Entering the idol

    Echoing the earlier point about darshan and the importance of sight in Hinduism, Jalandhari displays a very intimate understanding of Hindu idol worship in the tenth stanza of the poem. He writes that “Inside the temple / the sculptor of beauty himself / entered and became the idol”.

    This last line, that Krishna “entered and became the idol” (but ban gayā ā kar) is extremely important. Hindus worship idols as symbols of a deity’s presence in the sanctum sanctorum of a temple. The deity is not simply the physical statue; rather, devotees believe that God is present within that statue, and that presence is what makes an idol worthy of worship.

    In Hindu temples, before a new image or statue is worshiped as a deity, a ritual called prana-pratishta is usually performed, to invoke that deity’s presence in that statue. Traditionally, the deity’s eyes were not fully carved until this ritual was performed. Before prana-pratishta, the statue is merely a statue. Afterwards, the god or goddess is seen as residing within that statue. Jalandhari’s line about Krishna “entering” the idol is thus a clear insight into Hindu temple worship.

    On the banks of the Yamuna

    Finally, we now get a glimpse of the leela (divine play) narratives that Krishna is so commonly associated with. Jalandhari describes Krishna’s youthful, romantic dancing and playing with the gopis (cowherd girls) on the banks of the Yamuna river as “rare happenings” (turfa nazzāre). In setting this scene, natural and sensual beauty are intertwined, as seen in phrases like “intoxicated winds” (sarmast hawāyeiñ) and “waves of love” (ulfat kī tarañgeiñ).

    In his description of Krishna’s leela with the gopis, Jalandhari describes the sound of Krishna’s flute as “neither intoxication nor wine / it’s something beyond” (nasha hai na mai hai / kuchh aur hī shai hai). Through these charming vignettes, we, the onlookers, are also transported to Braj, dancing blissfully to the music of Krishna’s flute.

    Humiliation in the Kaurava court

    So far in the poem, Jalandhari has described Krishna’s glory, and then paints an idyllic scene of Krishna dancing with his gopis. Then, abruptly, the poem transitions into a much darker mood. Jalandhari takes us from the banks of the Yamuna to one of the most famous scenes from the Mahabharata epic.

    The reader now finds themselves in the court of the Kaurava princes, the villains of the Mahabharata. This is the famous incident known as vastra-haran or cheer-haran (both roughly meaning “disrobing”). After the five Pandava brothers lose in a rigged dice game to their cousins (the Kauravas), they are forced to forfeit their kingdom, possessions, and eventually their wife Draupadi as their “property.”

    Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava, orders Draupadi to be brought into court and disrobed, to humiliate her. When Draupadi is dragged into the court, she prays to Krishna for help. Miraculously, Duryodhana and his brothers are unable to disrobe her. In some re-tellings, her sari is never-ending, and in others, when the Kauravas pull off one sari another one appears in its place.

    Explore: Modi didn't create Hindu majoritarianism, he only stoked the simmering embers

    Draupadi praying to Krishna is not part of the critical edition of the Sanskrit Mahabharata, and was almost definitely added later as Krishna became a more popular deity across India. Nevertheless, it has become one of the most popular and iconic incidents from the Mahabharata. It is with this scene that Jalandhari begins to make his political views more explicit.

    In the poem, the anguished Draupadi wails to Krishna, “These beloved princes [her husbands] / have all become cowards!” (yeh rāj dulāre / buzdil hue sāre). However, I wasn’t sure how to translate rāj dulāre; it could also have a much more pejorative sense, more like “royal babies.”

    From this reading, we could guess that Jalandhari is accusing India’s numerous monarchs and rulers of princely states—all of whom eventually acquiesced to British rule—of cowardice. We could even read rāj dulāre as “babies of the [British] Raj!” This is Imam and Salim’s interpretation; they argue that Jalandhari is branding all Indians who worked under the British colonial administration as cowards, not just the royal families.

    However, what is most telling is when Draupadi calls out to Krishna as “the light of India” (bhārat ke ujāle). In the poem, Krishna has morphed from being an abstract form of divinity, to a charming flute player in Vrindavan, and now he shines as a symbol of hope; the light of all of India. Jalandhari makes Krishna’s political symbolism much more salient from this point on.

    Preparations for war

    Jalandhari then takes us from the Kaurava court to the preparations for the great Mahabharata war. He writes that, worryingly, “Duryodhan seems victorious” (ġhālib hai duryodhan). Ostensibly, Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava, is a symbol of foreign (British) rule over the subcontinent, which held sway for centuries. Ironically, while the Kaurava army was much larger than that of the righteous Pandavas, British citizens were vastly outnumbered by Indians all through colonial rule.

    But, with Krishna’s arrival on the battlefield (on the side of the Pandavas, of course), everything changes. Once Krishna preaches the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna, anxiety (tashvīsh) and sorrow (ġham) changes to war-like enthusiasm: “the divine decree has been pronounced / the sword has been swung!” (lo ban gayī taqdīr / lo chal gayī shamshīr)

    The Krishna that Jalandhari describes now is different from the Krishna who dances with gopis. This Krishna is a symbol of strength and power: on his “face shines a bright gaze” (sūrat nazar-afroz), but his “virtues burn enemies” (sīrat hai adū-soz), and “If he gets angry / he strikes down lightning” (ġhusse meiñ jo ā jāye / bijlī hī girā jāye). This Krishna is, in short, an icon that can be easily used in service of anti-colonial nationalism.

    A call to action

    With this invigorated, confident Krishna in mind, Jalandhari now paints a picture of India suffering under colonial rule, using Vrindavan as a symbol for all of the subcontinent.

    He takes us back to the banks of the Yamuna, which were full of beauty and joy during Krishna’s youthful lilas. What do they look like now? The Yamuna has become silent (sunsān), and its waves are weak and lacking in energy (josh). Once-beautiful gardens have been ruined (barbād), and the gopis (perhaps standing in for all people of India) have become distraught (pareshāñ) without Krishna’s presence.

    Jalandhari now makes his own plea to Krishna: “Oh king of India / come just once more!” (ai hind ke rājā / ik bār phir ā jā) Interestingly, while Jalandhari makes Draupadi use the Sanskrit bhārat in her plea to Krishna, Jalandhari uses the Arabic/Persian hind when he is speaking in the poem.

    He begs Krishna to return to Mathura (symbolising all of India) and restore his rule: “If you come, glory will come / if you come, life will come” (tū āye to shān āye / tū āye to jān āye). With this call for Krishna to liberate India from foreign rule, Jalandhari ends his nazm.

    The Pakistan Question

    Krishn Kanhaiya is one of Hafeez Jalandhari’s more obscure works. As I mentioned earlier, Jalandhari is known today largely because he wrote the lyrics for Pakistan’s national anthem. By comparing Krishn Kanhaiya to Jalandhari’s more famous work, I believe we can learn a lot about the cultural politics that have influenced South Asia over the past century, and continue to do so today.

    Jalandhari’s Wikipedia page claims that before he moved to Pakistan, he was the director of the Song Publicity Department (it is unclear whether this was under the British colonial administration, or an Indian political party), and he wrote a number of popular songs during World War II.

    He is described as an “active participant” in the Pakistan movement, and after independence in 1947 participated in India and Pakistan’s first war over Kashmir. For the rest of his life, Jalandhari was intimately involved with Pakistani military and government institutions: Director General of Morals for the Pakistan Armed Forces, Director of the Writers’ Guild of Pakistan, and a senior adviser to Pakistan’s second president, Ayub Khan.

    Also read: Why is great philosopher Kautilya not part of Pakistan’s historical consciousness?

    I mention all of this simply because I find it fascinating that the same person could write both Krishn Kanhaiya and the national anthem of Pakistan. Each of these works represents a dramatically different worldview.

    I do not intend to oversimplify Jalandhari’s worldview, but I would argue that Krishn Kanhaiya represents a deeply syncretic form of South Asian identity. In his poem, Jalandhari doesn’t just display a remarkable understanding of Krishna’s mythology, Hindu temple worship, and epics like the Mahabharata (which he all does very well); he even situates Krishna firmly within the Islamic tradition of prophets.

    This is a cultural mode that the great Indian political psychologist Ashis Nandy describes quite eloquently in his essay in which the gods and goddesses of India inevitably find their way into other religious traditions, thus creating new, syncretic cultures and ways of existing. Nandy mentions the People of India census conducted by the Anthropological Survey of India between 1985 and 1994, in which 35 Indian communities described themselves as both Hindu and Muslim!

    Final thoughts

    What does it mean that the same person wrote both Krishn Kanhaiya and the national anthem of Pakistan — works which have such radically different cultural rootings?

    In the end, we are left with more questions than answers. Part of this is due to gaps in the historical record. Frustratingly, we don’t know when Krishn Kanhaiya was written, or in what written work it was published. Did Jalandhari write it before he became involved with the Pakistan movement and was exposed to the Two-Nation Theory? Did he write the poem after migrating from India to Pakistan? Without knowing these details, I admit that it is hard to make an argument about cultural politics using this poem.

    Related: When Iqbal called for a Muslim India, within India

    However, one thing is very clear to me. The worldview that produced Krishn Kanhaiya is under threat. Extremists in both Indian and Pakistan thrive off the idea that Muslim and Hindu religious and cultural identities should be as separate and distinct as possible, with no room for overlap. Anyone who oversteps the boundaries set by fundamentalists is a target.

    Let us ask ourselves: could a poem like Krishn Kanhaiya be written in today’s cultural atmosphere in South Asia? Despite all the negative forces of nationalism and fundamentalism, I believe that it still could.

    Syncretism is by no means dead in South Asia. However, it will not operate on auto-pilot; when it comes to culture, nothing is guaranteed to last. It is up to us to make space for these cultural products that defy easy categorisation and exist purely in a state of hybridity. It is these cultural products which have the power to unify communities.

    In these times, I too call out to Hafeez Jalandhari’s Krishna:

    ai hind ke rājā, ik bār phir ā jā!
    Oh king of India, come just once more!

    Krishn Kanhaiya, by Hafeez Jalandhari
    (I'd like to thank my friend Hamza Shad for helping me with this translation)

    ai dekhne wālo
    is husn ko dekho
    is rāz ko samjho
    O onlooker,
    gaze upon this beauty;
    try to understand this secret:

    yeh naqsh-e-ḳhayālī
    yeh fikrat-e-ālī
    This figment of the imagination;
    this grand thought.

    yeh paikar-e-tanvīr
    yeh krishn kī tasvīr
    This form of light;
    this image of Krishna.

    ma’anī hai ki sūrat
    san’at hai ki fitrat
    Is he reality or representation?
    Is he craft or nature?

    zāhir hai ki mastūr
    nazdīk hai yā dūr
    yeh nār hai yā nūr
    Is he apparent or hidden?
    Is he near or far?
    Is he fire or light?

    duniyā se nirālā
    yeh bāñsurī wālā
    gokul kā gwālā
    He’s an odd one,
    this flute player;
    this cowherd of Gokul.

    hai sehr ki aijāz
    khultā hī nahīñ rāz
    This is a magical miracle;
    this secret will not open.

    kyā shān hai wallāh
    kyā ān hai wallāh
    By God, what glory!
    By God, what dignity!

    hairān hooñ kyā hai
    ik shān-e-ḳhudā hai
    I am perplexed by what he is;
    he is the Majesty of God.

    but-ḳhāne ke andar
    ḳhud husn kā but-gar
    but ban gayā ā kar
    Inside the temple,
    the sculptor of beauty himself
    entered and became the idol.

    woh turfa nazzāre
    yād ā gaye sāre
    jamunā ke kināre
    Those rare happenings—
    they’ve just come back to me—
    Back on the banks of the Yamuna…

    sabze kā lahaknā
    phūloñ kā mahaknā
    The plants waving in the breeze;
    the fragrance of flowers…

    ghanghor ghaTāyeiñ
    sarmast hawāyeiñ
    The dark rain-clouds,
    the intoxicated winds…

    ma’asūm umañgeiñ
    ulfat kī tarañgeiñ
    That innocent enthusiasm,
    those waves of love…

    woh gopiyoñ ke sāth
    hāthoñ meiñ diye hāth
    raqsāñ huā brijnāth
    Together with the gopis,
    placing his hand in theirs;
    the lord of Braj danced.

    bansī meiñ jo lay hai
    nasha hai na mai hai
    kuchh aur hī shai hai
    In his flute is a melody that
    is neither intoxication nor wine;
    it’s something beyond.

    ik rūh hai raqsāñ
    ik kaif hai larzāñ
    It is a dancing soul;
    it is a quivering joy.

    ek aql hai mai-nosh
    ik hosh hai mad-hosh
    It is a mind fond of drink,
    it is an intoxicated consciousness.

    ik ḳhanda hai sayyāl
    ik girya hai ḳhush-hāl
    It is a laugh flowing like a torrent,
    it is a joyful cry.

    ik ishq hai maġhrūr
    ik husn hai majbūr
    ik sehr hai mas-hūr

    It is an arrogant love,
    a constrained beauty,
    a mesmerizing spell…

    darbār meiñ tanhā
    lāchār hai kirishnā
    aa shyām idhar aa
    Alone in the [Kaurava] court,
    Draupadi [also called Krishnaa] is helpless.
    She calls out: “Come, Shyam, come here!”

    sab ahl-e-ḳhusūmat
    haiñ dar pa’e izzat
    “All these hateful people;
    their honor lies at the door!”

    yeh rāj dulāre
    buzdil hue sāre
    “These beloved princes [the Pandavas, Draupadi’s husbands]
    have all become cowards!”

    parda na ho tārāj
    bekas kī rahe laaj
    “Without a veil, I will be shamed;
    may this helpless wretch’s honor be saved!”

    ā jā mere kāle
    bhārat ke ujāle
    dāman meiñ chhupā le
    “Come, my Dark One,
    the light of India;
    Drape me in your robe!”

    woh ho gayī an-ban
    woh garm huā ran
    ġhālib hai duryodhan
    They have started quarreling,
    they have heated up the war.
    Duryodhan seems victorious.

    woh ā gaye jagdīsh
    woh miT gayī tashvīsh
    Wait—he has come, the Lord of the World!
    Our anxiety has been erased!

    arjun ko bulāyā
    upadesh sunāyā
    He called Arjuna,
    and preached to him [the Bhagavad Gita].

    ġham-zād kā ġham kyā
    ustād kā ġham kyā
    What is the sorrow of that sorrowful one?
    What is the sorrow of the teacher (guru)?

    lo ho gayī tadbīr
    lo ban gayī taqdīr
    lo chal gayī shamshīr
    The solution has been reached;
    the divine decree has been pronounced;
    the sword has been swung!

    sīrat hai adū-soz
    sūrat nazar-afroz
    dil kaifiyat-andoz
    His virtues burn enemies;
    his face shines a bright gaze;
    his heart understands character.

    ġhusse meiñ jo ā jāye
    bijlī hī girā jāye
    aur lutf par āye
    to ghar bhī luTā jaaye
    If he gets angry,
    he strikes down lightning;
    and if he is pleased,
    he still loots houses. [similar image to stealing hearts?]

    pariyoñ meiñ hai gulfām
    rādhā ke liye shyām
    Among the angels, he is rose-colored;
    For Radha, he is Shyam, the Dark One.

    balrām kā bhayyā
    mathurā kā basayyā
    bindrā meiñ kanhaiyā
    Balaram’s brother,
    the famed one of Mathura,
    that Kanhaiya of Bindra (a forest near Gokul).

    ban ho gaye vīrāñ
    barbād gulistāñ
    sakhiyāñ haiñ pareshāñ
    Forests have become desolate;
    gardens ruined;
    the gopis are distraught.

    jamunā kā kinārā
    sunsān hai sārā
    The banks of the Yamuna
    have gone silent.

    tūfān haiñ ḳhāmosh
    maujoñ meiñ nahīñ josh
    Even its storms are silent;
    there is no passion in its waves.

    lau tujh se lagī hai
    hasrat hī yahī hai
    My affection is to you;
    this is my unfulfilled wish:

    ai hind ke rājā
    ik bār phir ā jā
    dukh dard miTā jā
    Oh king of India,
    come just once more!
    Destroy our suffering and pain!

    abr aur hawā se
    bulbul kī sadā se
    phūloñ kī ziyā se
    From the clouds and the winds,
    from the nightingale’s song,
    from the flowers’ radiance

    ādū-asarī gum
    shorīda-sarī gum
    The effect of magic is lost
    The lovesickness is lost

    hāñ terī judāyī
    mathurā ko na bhāyī
    Indeed, your absence
    does not befit Mathura.

    tū āye to shān āye
    tū āye to jān āye
    If you come, glory will come;
    if you come, life will come.

    ānā na akele
    hoñ sāth woh mele
    sakhiyoñ ke jhamele
    Don’t come alone,
    let those festivals also be there together,
    those quarrels with the gopis…

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    We were quite certain that the monument before us was not the mausoleum of Zeb-un-Nisa – the rebel Sufi poetess, daughter of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb – even though there was a board put up here, seemingly by the Archaeology Department, stating otherwise.

    There is much historical evidence to suggest that Zeb-un-Nisa died in the Salimgarh Fort in Delhi, part of the Red Fort complex in India’s capital city, where it is said she had been imprisoned for more than two decades.

    According to various accounts, her mausoleum was constructed outside the Kabuli Gate in Delhi, in what was known as the Garden of Thirty Thousand Trees. But in 1885, when the British were laying the railway tracks in Delhi, the mausoleum complex was razed while her remains were shifted to Akbar’s tomb in Sikandra, Agra.

    Though history suggests otherwise, the mausoleum in Nawa Kot on the Multan Road in Lahore is widely regarded as the tomb of the Mughal princess. To further strengthen this argument, there are several stories narrating the presence of the princess at this place.

    Just behind the mausoleum are the remnants of a grand gateway that led into this vast enclosure of which the mausoleum is a part. Not only is it believed that Zeb-un-Nisa constructed the garden, along with the neighbouring Chuhburji garden, she is also said to have spent a large part of her life here, using it as her self-imposed prison. In the garden complex, she ran a public kitchen, where beggars, dervish, malang, monks and jogis were fed everyday.

    The remnants of the gateway to the garden where Zeb-un-Nisa's purported tomb stands. | Haroon Khalid
    The remnants of the gateway to the garden where Zeb-un-Nisa's purported tomb stands. | Haroon Khalid

    So keen was Zeb-un-Nisa to fulfil the needs of these people that she would ask them to write what they wanted to eat on a piece of paper and then have that food prepared for them. This is how she is believed to have reconnected with her alleged lover Akil Khan, the former governor of Lahore, who, consumed by love for the Mughal princess, had abandoned his position, wealth and property and had started living as a mendicant.

    Like Zeb-un-Nisa, Khan too was a poet and it said that their love for poetry is what brought them together. Once, when Khan was riding around the walls of the palace in Lahore, he caught a glimpse of the princess and exclaimed, “A vision in red appears on the roof of the palace.” When the words reached the ears of the princess, dressed in red, she responded, “Supplications nor force nor gold can win her.” Thus began their love story, through an exchange of poetry.

    There are several stories that recount the rendezvous of the purported lovers. For instance, they are often said to have met at the garden where today her supposed tomb exists.

    Zeb-un-Nisa was in many ways unique. While most of the Mughal queens and princesses receded into history, Zeb-un-Nisa is one of the few princesses who was able to preserve her name. Her poetry is still in publication and read widely. Differing from her puritanical father, she was also inclined towards Sufism, much like her uncle and Emperor Shah Jahan’s oldest son, Crown Prince Dara Shikoh.

    Zeb-un-Nisa is said to have been rather close to her uncle, who was executed by her father, Aurangzeb, so that he could ascend to the throne after Shah Jahan. She had been betrothed to Suleiman Shikoh, the eldest son of Dara Shikoh, at Emperor Shah Jahan’s directions. Aurangzeb is believed to have also killed Suleiman Shikoh in Gwalior, after taking charge of the Mughal Empire.

    A theory goes that Emperor Aurangzeb could never forgive his daughter for her sympathies towards her uncle and fiancé, both of whom were eventually executed. Others assert that he was intolerant of her Sufistic interpretation of religion, which contrasted with his Puritanism.

    Perhaps it is out of spite for this that Aurangzeb did not allow Khan to marry his daughter, or perhaps he did not want a subsequent rival to the Mughal throne.

    Other versions of the story that suggest that it was in fact Khan who turned down the marriage after Aurangzeb summoned him to Delhi, ostensibly to discuss the proposal, afraid that it was a hoax to kill him.

    Lahore’s princess

    Dejected that she could not marry Akil Khan, the Mughal princess is believed to have given up her royal accommodation and turned to this secluded garden, where her only goal was to fulfill the culinary desires of the needy who would show up at her threshold.

    Khan, who had by then given up his position and wealth and was living in poverty. It is in this condition that he reached the garden at Nawa Kot to his beloved and revealed his identity to her through another couplet.

    Together again, away from emperor’s gaze the lovers spent days in each other’s arms at this garden. But they could not escape Aurangzeb for too long and through a network of spies, news reached Delhi that Khan and Zeb-un-Nisa had been reunited in Lahore.

    The purported tomb of Zeb-un-Nisa in Lahore.
    The purported tomb of Zeb-un-Nisa in Lahore.

    According to one version of the story, Aurangzeb had Khan boiled in a cauldron in front of the eyes of his beloved and he then imprisoned the princess in her own garden, where she eventually died in 1702 and was buried.

    These are of course all apocryphal stories and there is no proof of their historical legitimacy. But they do contain an essence of reality. It is no surprise that the tale of Princess Zeb-un-Nisa’s distraught relationship started doing rounds in the city of Lahore.

    Lahore was the beloved city of Dara Shikoh, where he was serving as governor before he engaged in a civil war with Aurangzeb to claim the throne. With Dara Shikoh came imperial funds for the beautification of the city, which had stopped after Emperor Shah Jahan had shifted the Mughal capital from Lahore to Shahajahanabad.

    Dara Shikoh’s association with the Sufi saint Mian Mir, whom he regarded as a spiritual guide, also earned the Mughal prince a special place in the city of Lahore. Mian Mir was from Lahore and through him, Dara Shikoh too had become one of their own.

    Just before he went to war with Aurangzeb, Dara Shikoh had planned to construct a long pathway from the fort to shrine of Mian Mir, several kilometres away.

    The Mughal prince, with his emphasis on religious syncretism, had captured the heart of the residents of the city and there is no doubt that the people of Lahore would have liked to see him ascend the Mughal throne.

    But that was not to be and nothing could be said or done about it. There was no concept of political dissent at the time and in such an environment, rumours became the only way to hint at disagreement. Lahore needed a symbol to express political dissent and got it in the form of Zeb-un-Nisa – a Mughal princess, daughter of the Emperor himself, who was closer to her uncle than her father, a princess who, like Dara Shikoh was inclined towards Sufism and poetry, a princess whose first fiancé was assassinated by the emperor and subsequent lover burned in a cauldron.

    And so, for many, Lahore is indeed home to the mausoleum of the city’s tragic princess, no matter what history suggests.

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

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    The June afternoon was hot and sunny when my wife called to excitedly announce that the summer mountaineering expedition we had been planning the past few months was finally materialising.

    She was so loud and elated that I had to hold my phone away from my ear, lest my eardrums give in even before we reach our desired altitude. I don’t blame her. The trekking trip to Snow Lake, a high-altitude glacial basin in the Karakoram mountain range in Gilgit-Baltistan, had always been a dream for the both of us.

    Our party would consist of friends and fellow trekkers. The planned trek was to start from Askole (a small town in the most remote region of the Karakoram mountains), cross Snow Lake and Hispar La (a mountain pass through the Karakoram Range), and finally descend to Hispar village. At last, an escape from the hot and sticky weather had presented itself (through no small amount of planning).

    But first, a bit of history. My love affair with mountains and trekking started in 2010, when I visited Fairy Meadows for the first time. Since then, I have been returning year after year, attached to these plains as a parched man in the Sahara would be to an oasis. I spoke of this escape so fondly that my affinity infected my better half, whose excitement reached a fever pitch for her first venture into the Karakoram range.

    The last stretch of road to Askole. – All photos by the author
    The last stretch of road to Askole. – All photos by the author
    Askole - last human settlement before the wilderness.
    Askole - last human settlement before the wilderness.

    Snow Lake is a glacial basin located at an altitude of 4,800m above sea level, with a width of approximately 16km. The basin lies at the head of the Biafo and Hispar glaciers and spreading down the Hispar Pass in opposite directions, forms a 100km long continuous glacier system, among the world's longest.

    Martin Conway, the first foreign visitor and the one who named it Snow Lake, described it as: “Beyond all comparison the finest view of mountains it has ever been my lot to behold, nor do I believe the world can hold finer.” I defer to Mr Conway. Such wonders were made to be beheld.

    But like all (relatively) untouched marvels of nature, Snow Lake is very difficult to access. Fewer than 200 people manage to reach it in a year.

    Islamabad to Skardu

    We started off from Islamabad on a hot July day. It seemed that the heat would follow us north. I wondered if the Balrog’s fiery lash might hamper our ascent to Snow Lake. But I was as determined as Tolkien’s Fellowship. We shall pass!

    It was time to make final preparations. We double-checked to ensure that we had all the required equipment and supplies, since Snow Lake is considered to be one of the toughest treks.

    The following day the excruciating journey from Islamabad to Skardu began. One of our fellow trekkers was to join us for the road trip from Karachi, while the rest of the team had already reached Skardu.

    A mountain view from Snow Lake.
    A mountain view from Snow Lake.

    Once we picked him up from the airport, we were off. Traveling on Karakoram Highway always made me happy, especially after crossing Thakot Bridge. The narrow steep ascents and snaking descent of roads present some breathtaking views of the Indus River with majestic mountains making for a stunning backdrop. As one crosses through the region, the valley opens up leaving the traveller speechless.

    The journey had, however, become a nightmare because of a landslide near Jaglot. Was the Balrog breaking free from the mountains? Our scheduled 24-hour road trip ended up being a 32-hour drive to Skardu. Hotel Mashabrum felt like heaven after nearly two days of non-stop travelling.

    A day in Skardu

    The morning after, it was time to meet the team for breakfast. A banker from Lahore, an engineer from Karachi, a software developer from Hyderabad, a rice trader from Gujranwala, and the two of us — a photographer and fine artist — from the UAE. People from different walks of life and different cities were brought together by a passion to explore the icy mountain wilderness. A group of regular folk, not unlike Frodo and his cohorts.

    After getting to know one another, it was time to meet our guide Mr Ali Khan Machlu, who had much to discuss with us. He gave us a detailed description about the state of Hispar Glacier, the condition of the trek, and Hispar La.

    Lower Kachura Lake.
    Lower Kachura Lake.

    There were unconfirmed reports that Hispar Pass was closed due to a huge crevasse that had opened up on the other side of the pass. It was decided that we would trek till Hispar base camp and if we couldn’t cross through Hispar Pass, we would come back from the same route.

    After the meeting, the rest of the day was spent shopping for a few remaining things in Skardu. The evening was spent with a hot cup of tea at Lower Kachura Lake, photographing the lake with the beautiful architecture of Shangrila Resort in the background. As the night fell, it was time to sleep. We were closer than ever to our dream. Or so we thought.

    Skardu to Askole (3,300 m, 10,800 ft)

    The day started early with a quick breakfast after which it was time to load all the supplies on the jeeps. The journey from Skardu to Askole was very rewarding. Shortly after the jeeps left Skardu, we were on Shigar Road, passing through the beautiful Shigar Valley with its sprawling fruit farms and wheat fields, fresh fruit available at short distances all along the road.

    From Shigar Valley we turned right into Braldu Valley, stopping for lunch at Apoligon, a small settlement with a few houses and a small restaurant.

    Forty-five minutes after a quick lunch, we moved on until we passed by the awe-inspiring Braldu Gorge. The thundering sound of the water violently gushing through it was loud enough to make us shudder as we continued towards Askole.

    Khusar Gang Peak, Shigar Valley.
    Khusar Gang Peak, Shigar Valley.

    When we entered the village, it was as beautiful as I remembered it from my last visit six years ago. It was all there: lush green fields of wheat, mud houses lined with walkways and simple, hard-working people could be seen everywhere. The snow-covered mountaintops were ablaze with the last light of the day.

    After reaching the campground, a 12-member porter team was finalised to accompany us for the Snow Lake expedition. By sunset, tents were set up in the camping ground and it finally was time for a much needed slumber.

    Askole To Namla (3,650 m 11,800ft)

    The trek started from Askole in the early hours of the day. It was hot and sunny. Our destination for the day was Namla campsite, situated in a small meadow by the Biafo Glacier. The trek’s beginning was fairly straight alongside the roaring Braldu river. As we passed the Kiser Polo Ground, there was a steep ascent through the pass named Snum La, or Sky Pass, in Balti language.

    For me this climb was really tough and I was totally out of breath by the time I reached the top. As I looked on the other side, I caught the first glimpse of the mighty Biafo Glacier.

    Photographing the bottomless ice well at Biafo Glacier.
    Photographing the bottomless ice well at Biafo Glacier.

    The snout of Biafo had many crevasses and was full of boulders, scree, and glacial pools, stretching as far as the eye could see. Biafo is paradoxical in the way that its beauty inspires both fear and wonder at the same time.

    After descending from Snum La, we stopped for lunch. When we started trekking on the snout of the Biafo Glacier, it became became more difficult — this part of Biafo is a barren wasteland of rock, scree and debris making it extremely challenging to trek.

    We had to take a longer route to reach Namla as the straight approach was not possible because of the numerous crevasses marking the glacier. We reached Namla around evening time, where a grassy green patch overlooking Biafo was our campsite for the night. After a quick dinner it was time to sleep. We slept so soundly we didn’t even dream.

    Namla to Mongo (3,700 m, 12,130 ft)

    The next morning we awoke to a delicious breakfast made by Ali Hassan, the expedition’s cook. When we returned to trekking, we were greeted by yet another bright and sunny day.

    The day’s destination was Mongo, a campsite situated at 3,700m. Initially, the trek was tough due to crevasses, scree and boulders, but it got fairly easy once we reached the middle of the glacier.

    A view of Biafo from Mongo.
    A view of Biafo from Mongo.

    We then walked on Biafo’s moraines. The trek was comparatively easy along this path, perhaps the beautiful glacier stream and mountains on both sides made it seem easier.

    We reached Mongo around afternoon time. The campsite was on a grassy patch, making it feel like an oasis in the middle of all the dry rock and barren ice.

    The views of Biafo from high up were breathtaking. Reaching Mongo with enough time to enjoy the daylight was totally worth the effort.

    Mongo to Shafong (4,000 m 13,120 ft)

    The next campsite was Shafong. The sky was leaden, sprinkling us with a bit of drizzle, a marked contrast from the consecutively sunny days we faced when we set out. A few hours after we started trekking, the Biafo Glacier started to peek out over the horizon, and soon after it showed its visage, we were on the icy-white glacier.

    The sound of ice crunching under my feet, and white clouds overhead made the trek languid and joyful. As we continued on Biafo highway, we started seeing crevasses. The further we advanced, the greater was the number of crevasses we encountered.

    Good morning Shafong.
    Good morning Shafong.

    With each day, our destination was getting closer and our dream of finally trekking over Snow Lake was slowly becoming manifest. However, our destination was still far. Getting off of Biafo Glacier to reach the Shafong campsite was tough. We had to get across the glacier’s many crevasses and climb on its steep side, laden with unstable boulders and scree. As we got off the glacier, a steep, almost vertical cliff awaited us, on the other side of which was Shafong.

    After scaling this steep ascent, we reached an absolutely heavenly campsite in an ablation valley, with lush green meadows and streams of ice-cold water running across it. We stopped for tea and admired the scenery. After a caffeine infusion, we continued trekking for another hour before we camped on an emerald patch of grass at Shafong.

    It felt like we had found paradise on earth, with the beautiful Sokha Lumbu (5,650m) and Tongo (5,900m) right in front of us and beautiful grassy slopes spread behind, as if two stone titans were sleeping on a turquoise rug, forever oblivious of their own splendour.

    Shafong to Baintha (4,000 m 13,120 ft)

    The beauty quickly gave way to the night’s extreme cold, followed by an equally freezing morning. But there was respite: the next day was bright and sunny. We continued our trek toward the nearby Baintha campsite, where we passed through yet another stunning ablation valley, crossing small waterbodies through lush electric-green meadows.

    We managed to reach the Baintha campsite, situated on yet another green meadow with an amazing view of the Latok group of mountains.

    Starry night at Baintha.
    Starry night at Baintha.

    The day’s expedition was relatively short, and the rest of the day was spent recuperating under the sun. Here, our expedition’s cook decided to treat us with delicious aaloo kay parathay (potato-filled flatbread), with a little help from a female team member. The parathay more than made headways in helping our battered and fatigued legs recover.

    Day gave way to night, the sky was clear with no clouds in sight. As if on a maestro’s cue, the stars came out dancing, waltzing into place, transforming the night sky into a celestial orchestra.

    Encountering danger from Baintha to Marphogoro (4,400m, 14,430 ft)

    Getting to the middle of the glacier was the hardest part of the day. Once we got on it, the walk was pretty straightforward. From there onward, there was no grass to be found, just snow, ice and rocks for the rest of the way. It felt like we had forayed north of The Wall.

    On Biafo highway, the glacier was lashed with many deep crevasses, so we had to walk around in order to find a suitable place to cross or jump over the cracks in the glacier’s surface.

    We stopped for tea, which powered our trek to avoid the crevasses. The average time it takes from Baintha to Marphogoro is around six to seven hours. At about 5pm, we had been trekking for 10 hours.

    A beautiful ablation valley.
    A beautiful ablation valley.

    The guide started to panic — we were seemingly lost on the vast Biafo Glacier, as the sun started to set behind the mountains and the temperature on the glacier started to drop rapidly.

    At this point, the team unanimously decided to go back in the general direction of the Baintha campsite, hoping, nay, praying that any of the porters would see the lights of our headlamps and find us.

    After trekking back for about two hours, it was completely dark. We were jumping over the crevasses with only the light of our headlamps to aid our visibility in the vast white nothingness.

    A glacier stream at Biafo.
    A glacier stream at Biafo.

    Trekking in dark like this is extremely dangerous. It was a life and death situation — one wrong step could have killed any one of us. Our cook, Ali Hassan, nearly fell into a gaping crevasse. By then, we thought all was lost.

    Our guide had missed the intended campsite so we continued trekking towards Karfogoro. But we were rescued by the porters at around 8pm. They came looking for us when we did not reach the campsite till sunset. We marched for another two hours to finally reach Marphogoro. It was a tough day but in the end, everyone made it safely to the campsite.

    Marphogoro to Karfogoro (4,600 m, 15,090 ft)

    Being extremely exhausted from the previous death-defying day, our late start was warranted. The trek on the glacier from Marphogoro to Karfogoro was relatively easy. We were trekking on ice with hardly any rocks visible, but avoiding crevasses is the main challenge on this portion of the trek.

    After spending the better part of the morning avoiding the large crevasses in this part of the glacier, we had become fairly accustomed to hopping over them. Looking towards the end of the glacier, one could catch a glimpse of Snow Lake. But we had to reach Karfogoro first.

    Trekking on Biafo on the way to Karfogoro.
    Trekking on Biafo on the way to Karfogoro.

    Karfogoro is a difficult-to-reach campsite. The approach to the campsite is imperiled with many deep fissures. Unstable rocks and scree litter the path, and to top it off, there are plenty of steep ascents and descents to conquer before one reaches the site.

    Karfogoro campsite is on the edge of a mountain. Freezing gale from Snow Lake strikes the campsite with furious aplomb, leaving nothing but rocks and very narrow spaces between boulders to inhospitably set up camp in.

    But for me, it was an amazing place because I could see the edge of the Snow Lake as it bended around a curve. Our excitement was palpable, as the next day the opportunity to trek on Snow Lake had finally arrived.

    Karfogoro to Snowlake/Hispar La Basecamp (5,128m, 16,824ft)

 The view of the landscape from Karfogoro at sunrise took our breath away. The azure sky, a mighty vanguard of mountains protecting the glacier, with a sliver of Snow Lake visible in the distance. The high vantage point made it even more mesmerising, as God’s canvas was on full display from this height.

    Getting off from the Karfogoro campsite was a nightmare. Crossing through the labyrinthine crevasses and boulders made it an ordeal to get back to Biafo Glacier. As we reached the snow-covered part of the glacier, it was time for both teams to rope up.

    Porter team on the way to Hispar La base camp.
    Porter team on the way to Hispar La base camp.

    Because of the high altitude, snow falls all year round at Snow Lake and crevasses get hidden under the soft layer of snow. There is always a danger of falling into any of these hidden chasms which, needless to say, would be fatal.

    All the team members put on their harnesses and fastened themselves to a single rope so if any person falls into a fissure, the rest of the team could pull that person back up.

    Ali Khan Machlu, our guide, led our team through the soft snow. Machlu would carefully inspect the ground with his stick before taking a step on the snow and each of us had to take care to place our steps exactly in the same place as our guide.

    The day was bright and clear, but it could not expose the danger hidden beneath the soft sheet of snow. This uncertainty gave me a cold sweat and my heart kept pounding while the team continued to trek on.

    The first glimpse of Snow Lake.
    The first glimpse of Snow Lake.

    After a few hours of stressful trekking, we made our way into the centre of the snowy wonderland. It felt like we were in the throne room of the mountain gods. Whenever we stopped for a break, we all looked up and tried to absorb as much of the place as we could.

    It looked like a place straight out a fairy tale. The feeling of being on Snow Lake was beyond any description. This place had the finest view, bar none, of mountains everywhere we looked.

    The textured rock, visible through the glassy ice, complemented the bright blue sky, while the shimmering snow spanning the horizon was nothing short of a Monet painting.

    After six hours of trekking on this beautiful paradise, we reached the Hispar Base Camp. The campsite was a Haruki Murakami novel come to life: white snow all around and located right at the base of Hispar La.

    A magical evening at Snow Lake.
    A magical evening at Snow Lake.

    Now that we had reached our scenic wonder, it was time to celebrate. Ali Hassan, our cook, picturesquely served us Rooh Afza, standing at the base of Hispar La with the ice-shored Snow Lake behind him.

    The afternoon was spent flying kites and sitting outside the tents, enjoying the almost divine view of the surrounding mountains, standing tall at an altitude of 5,100m.

    The evening sun cast its magical glow onto the mountain tops. Snow Lake is far more beautiful than what I could have imagined. Words simply cannot do justice to its beauty and majesty. The sky was clear as the sun went behind the mountains and gave way to a magical night sky dotted with stars.

    In the early hours of the morning the clouds rolled in and the whole sky was painted gray. As I got out of my tent, crystalline flakes of snow began to fall. The visibility was severely limited, to just a few metres ahead.

    Kite-flying on the edge of the Biafo Glacier.
    Kite-flying on the edge of the Biafo Glacier.

    We spent the rest of the day huddling close inside the kitchen tent, sipping hot tea and swapping adventure stories, all the while hoping and praying that the weather will clear.

    However, Mother Nature grew angry and the weather conditions took a turn for the worse. The snowfall did not stop its merciless descent and in the evening the decision to start trekking back in the morning was made, no matter the situation at the time.

    We all lay down to sleep, fearful of what the next day would bring. The snowfall stopped in the middle of the night and suddenly there was an eerie silence. I decided to take a look outside but could hardly see anything. It was a pitch dark, silent night, and nary a sound could be heard except for the scuffling of snow under my boots as I walked a few paces away from the tent to explore.

    It was so cold I thought I would freeze right there and they’d find a snowman of me the next day. So I thought it best not to venture too far in the dead of night and made a quick return. I barely slept all the while praying for a safe descent the following day.

    There and back again

    The next morning it had stopped snowing but a thick layer of clouds was still covering the sky. We started our journey home very early, but tread cautiously as more snow would have piled on top of the already thick blanket of ice that hid the gaping chasms.

    But no amount of caution can fully safeguard one from the perils of deceptive snow, as my leg broke through what felt like a sheet of ice into a hidden stream of water. I was lucky to maintain my balance and quickly pulled on the rope,managing to drag myself out of the hole.

    My entire leg had been submerged in the sub-zero water, but luckily my protective clothing held up to the test and I did not get wet. However, there was no shortage of fear on my part.

    But we picked up the pace, because our team wanted to cover as much ground as possible. The thick clouds weren’t going anywhere, floating in the sky like the stationary but foreboding alien ships in Wells’ War of the Worlds.

    Helping a team mate across a crevasse.
    Helping a team mate across a crevasse.

    We had to consider the significant drop in visibility if the snowfall were to start once more. Both teams were trekking swiftly, navigating through the large cracks in the glaciers – keeping an eye out for the hidden ones under the snow.

    The visibility wasn’t the only thing to be mindful of. Thin air and, consequently, the low level of oxygen at this altitude made it difficult to breathe. But we soldiered on, for three more hours until we reached the edge of Snow Lake.

    Here, the snow started to fall again, but thankfully we had already crossed a large part of the lake.

    When we descended to Karfogoro, the snowfall had turned into rain. We stopped at Karfogoro’s campsite for a quick cup of tea under a plastic sheet sheltering us from the needle-sharp icy rain.

    A breathtaking view from Baintha.
    A breathtaking view from Baintha.

    After we were sufficiently warm, we continued marching in the rain towards Marphogoro. On our way to the campsite there, the clouds cleared up, and we welcomed the gentle sun’s smiling warmth on our cold, weathered bodies.

    We reached Marphogoro by evening utterly exhausted from the trek. Sleep came and snatched me of my consciousness, the way the Pied Piper stole the children of Hamelin. Like the children who followed him, I too, willingly embraced the gentle music of slumber.

    The following day we had lunch at Baintha and camped at Shafong. There our team decided to skip two campsites to reach Kiser Polo Ground the very next day.

    The following day, we had reached the snout of Biafo Glacier, puzzling through the maze of crevasses, glacier rock and scree which was anything but easy. But we managed.

    Another mesmerising view from Baintha.
    Another mesmerising view from Baintha.

    As I was sitting outside my tent at Kiser Polo Ground, right beside the gushing Braldu river, all I could think of was the wonder of the hypnotic Snow Lake.

    The next morning we reached Askole and stopped there for breakfast and hopped on a jeep back to Skardu. On the ride back, I was haunted by memories of the joy I had felt at Snow Lake and Biafo, and of the feeling of accomplishment that we had conquered an almost insurmountable obstacle.

    The words of my guide kept echoing in my ears, “Biafo bachon ka khail nahin hay piyare! (Biafo is not child's play, my friends!)” Now we were amongst the handful of people who have witnessed the magnificence and fury of Biafo and Snow Lake.

    Snow Lake - first light.
    Snow Lake - first light.
    Snow Lake - last light on the top of the world.
    Snow Lake - last light on the top of the world.

    The Karakoram mountain range has its own unique beauty. Having done other treks in the region, Biafo Glacier is in equal measure far more dangerous and far more rewarding. The harsh glacier terrain gives way to beautiful ablation valleys, breathtaking Baintha and Shafong, and the towering Karfogoro.

    All the campsites are a unique experience in their own right, making it a memorable piecemeal adventure, like square pieces of fabric, stitched together by hand to make a lovely quilt. The peril we encountered along the journey taught us the depths of our limits and the heights of our determination.

    In a way, I am thankful that the path to Snow Lake was so dangerous, as it serves to preserve and safeguard the natural wonder of Biafo, keeping it untouched for only the most adventurous of spirits.

    A white sheet of ice covering Snow Lake.
    A white sheet of ice covering Snow Lake.
    A sunny afternoon at Snow Lake.
    A sunny afternoon at Snow Lake.
    Magic on the mountaintops.
    Magic on the mountaintops.
    Trekking towards Morfogoro campsite from Snow Lake under the thick cover of clouds.
    Trekking towards Morfogoro campsite from Snow Lake under the thick cover of clouds.
    A small glacier pond at Snow Lake.
    A small glacier pond at Snow Lake.
    Team trekking over Snow Lake towards the Karfogoro campsite.
    Team trekking over Snow Lake towards the Karfogoro campsite.
    Karfogoro campsite.
    Karfogoro campsite.
    The first camp at Hispar La.
    The first camp at Hispar La.
    Enjoying the snowfall at Hispar La base camp.
    Enjoying the snowfall at Hispar La base camp.
    Glacier pond on Biafo.
    Glacier pond on Biafo.
    After getting lost on Biafo.
    After getting lost on Biafo.
    Navigating through crevasses at Biafo.
    Navigating through crevasses at Biafo.
    Symphony of lights at Shafong.
    Symphony of lights at Shafong.
    The first light of the day at Shafong.
    The first light of the day at Shafong.
    An evening walk at Shafong.
    An evening walk at Shafong.
    Campsite at Baintha.
    Campsite at Baintha.
    *Aaloo kay parathay* in the making inside the kitchen tent.
    Aaloo kay parathay in the making inside the kitchen tent.
    Group photo at Karfogoro.
    Group photo at Karfogoro.

    A mountain view from Snow Lake— www.WSSA.coA mountain view from Snow Lake—

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    I am glad it is over. I refer to talaq-e-bidat, the practice of Muslim men uttering talaq, talaq, talaq in a single setting to instantly divorce their wives, which rightfully belonged in a trash can, but also to the television nation’s delirious excitement at having “saved Muslim women”.

    Rarely, in recent times, has any government or party, from the prime minister down, been so visibly stirred at the impending empowerment of a vulnerable minority.

    The Bharatiya Janata Party Twitter cell is twittering delight at the end of “this evil practice… thanks to the persistent and firm stand taken by PM Modi”. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath has hailed the “historic move”. The prime minister himself tweeted that the judgement “grants equality to Muslim women…a powerful measure for women empowerment”.

    Well, congratulations gentlemen, but your task begins now. Because we are where we need to be – within the framework of the Constitution. This chiefly is what Muslim women’s rights groups are celebrating. As they should.

    If gender empowerment is what the nation was truly seeking, then the judgement is less historic than the hype. The question is how one frames gender equality, gender equity and gender justice – three phrases invoked repeatedly in the Supreme Court’s verdict on Tuesday.

    The media-led and politics-driven narrative of Muslim women’s rights in India has long ceased to be framed by the Constitution. The dominant frame has been personal law and conservative clergy.

    It is through the personal tragedies of a series of Muslim women – Gudiya, Imrana and their more famous predecessor Shah Bano, that an entire community has been constructed in the national imagination. Shayara Bano, admittedly brave in her personal battle, now joins this list.

    In 1985, 62-year-old Shah Bano, was granted maintenance by the Supreme Court under Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code, but Justice Chandrachud decided to also wax eloquent on the need for a Uniform Civil Code, and opened up a hornet’s nest.

    The Muslim Right saw it as an attack on its identity, the Hindu Right made common cause with the “oppressed Muslim women”. And in 1986, the Rajiv Gandhi government played its own cynical politics, ignored progressive women’s rights groups, and brought in The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, effectively reversing Shah Bano’s small secular gain.

    Then, in 2005, Gudiya’s personal dilemma was subjected to the worst kind of public scrutiny – led entirely by the media. She made a great “oppressed Muslim woman” story. This heavily pregnant Muslim woman was dragged to television studios, where anchors had lined up a prime-time selection of bearded conservative clergy to make predictably regressive pronouncements – about whether she should continue to live with her second husband Taufiq (whose child she would bear), or with the first one, Arif, a prisoner of war who had suddenly returned after having gone missing.

    Imrana’s case

    The same year, we witnessed Imrana in Muzaffarnagar, raped by her father-in-law but subjected to a so-called fatwa stating that she was now haram for her husband and should marry the rapist. Imrana’s fatwa (apparently) stirred the conscience of the nation and made for another media best-seller. Small irony that the fatwa was issued at the behest of a local reporter (from a Noida-based Urdu paper, the Rashtriya Sahara) and not at the urging of Imrana’s family.

    Even though the learned men from Deoband clearly fell short on wisdom, the media lost sight of the issue. Imrana’s story, began at the same place as numerous stories do in India – in the village. In that patriarchal institution called the jati-panchayat.

    Across large swathes of western Uttar Pradesh, a bunch of men routinely pronounce judgments on women – cut off her nose, parade her naked, stone her, excommunicate her – if she breaks their arbitrary rules. The majority of these cases involve Hindus. Call it jati-panchayat, call it fatwa– it was the same cultural practice taking different institutional forms. The problem was the practice. The media became obsessed with the form; happy yet again to make “Muslim” out of the issue.

    Muslim women in India are somehow seen (or constructed) as more in the thrall of religious practices than women of any other community; more debilitated by their religion and more in need of rescue than women of any other community. Lila Abu-Lughod’s book, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? -- a critique of the Western political impulse to swoop down and rescue the homogenously constructed Muslim woman from her (diverse) cultures, is instructive.

    Defined by religion

    The deprivation experienced by Indian Muslims was acknowledged in the Sachar Report of 2006. But much as the poor are blamed for their own poverty (they are illiterate and have too many children), Muslims in classic perversion were apparently victims largely of their own making; victimised by an archaic religion.

    Question: Why do Muslims have low literacy? Answer: Islam, shariat, medieval mindsets. So Muslims have cavorted around in a national burlesque, bearing familiar, evil tropes (mullahs, burqas, beards, fatwas) and yes, the tragedy tropes – the lives of Muslim women.

    To the exclusion of every other aspect of life such as income, jobs, education, caloric intake, sense of security, and freedom from the lynch mob, the Indian Muslim’s empowerment horizon seems to start and end at the rules of marriage and right to divorce. Never mind that Muslim women too need the right to life, security, jobs, education and sufficient caloric intake, in addition to liberation from talaq-e-bidat.

    Access to justice when faced with violence, and equal rights to development such as education, housing, employment and expansion of choices – both visibly absent today – affect Muslim women’s lives in terrible ways. The existence of one (violence) and failure of state redress, severely compromises their ability to access the other (development, personal freedom).

    And it is the collapsing promise of the Indian state, and its rapidly shrinking role in the life of the Muslim citizen that bears large blame for the expansion of a patriarchal clergy in community spaces.

    Long road ahead

    So, is personal law a valid site for intervention towards gender justice for Muslim women? Yes. But neither is it the sole nor most important one. Just a step on a road.

    The celebrations in the air seem to disingenuously suggest that oppressive personal laws are the only thing standing between Muslim women and happy lives. Rubbish. 61 years of a reformed and codified Hindu personal law has not exactly made Hindu women the poster girls of empowerment.

    Though the intent is noble, the nation cannot swoop in to save the Muslim woman, while Muslim communities are simultaneously being brought to their knees. The Constitution is not a playbook from which you cherry-pick. That is what we really need to be tweeting about today.

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

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    “If I were a bird… my wings would be very large. So I can fly very very far. Then I will be friends with all the planets, even Jupiter. I will fly and visit them every day. I play with them … and dance sometimes…”

    I had given Aafiya the prompt “If I were a bird…” for her five-minute English speech assessment as per the school midterm requirement. I smiled as I read the ideas she was coming up with in her draft. There are few things as special as being allowed inside the imagination of a child.

    Until Aafiya’s presentation on Thursday, I boasted to my colleagues, my family and my friends about my brilliant 6th grader in an NGO school in Karachi where I taught. I would emphasise how she was far behind her grade level in English but was nonetheless trying to express herself and just how cute Aafiya’s speech was going to be.

    On that Thursday, Aafiya began: “If I were a bird I would be a parrot. I would be green colour. I would fly. I would have two feet. I would have one beak. My name would be Polly. I would eat chili and guava. I would copy and talk like people…”

    Aafiya had changed her speech. It wasn’t a bad speech, but it wasn’t the speech where she would cheerfully glide through the solar system. I felt let down but encouraged and praised her nonetheless. When I asked her after school—out of a nagging disappointment and curiosity—what made her change the content of her speech, she stared at me blankly.

    Perhaps, she didn’t know the answer. Perhaps, my tone gave away my disappointment despite my conscious efforts to hide it. Perhaps, my questioning confused her because she thought she was giving a safe speech, one that I would like better.

    Safe. That’s how most of my students were being taught to play life. It was when I started teaching class nine that this observation hit me hardest. We read a chapter on Mohenjo-daro from a book that hasn’t changed in 60 years. My students answered comprehension questions that my parents had answered when they were in class nine. My students copied those answers from a guide book that they purchased from a second-hand book store, because the guide book answers, unlike their own answers, were guaranteed safe.

    I was to learn that Aafiya changed the content of her speech on her private tutor’s insistence who had told her that her original ideas and grammar weren’t “sahih”. In fact, she had written all of Aafiya’s speech. She had told Aafiya that her ideas about flying to and visiting planets had nothing to do with being a bird and a speech about birds should be about the bird itself.

    The technicalities and mechanics of speaking, thinking, and birds—that’s what Aafiya learnt through this exercise. But she also learnt a few more unfortunate lessons:

    That it is always better to conform.
    That her thoughts are immature at best and unimportant at worst.
    That as a younger person she didn’t know. And had to be told.
    That it is best to be a standard green parrot who mimics the speech of others.

    I wish I had sat down with Aafiya to validate her original ideas and work with her to develop her initial speech. I wish I had worked with her so that she could know what it looks like to see one’s own thoughts in writing— what it feels like to name one’s imaginings.

    I grew up—in extreme privilege—reading and writing English stories with non-Pakistani characters and non-Pakistani issues: about girl scouts and camping and eating brownies. When I didn’t want to write about Rachels or Erics in California—because everybody else was writing about them—I wrote about ambiguous Chizari (a combination of China, Zara, and Riyadh—a country I wanted to visit, my name, and my place of birth respectively) who lived in Kurami (a mysterious sounding non-sense word that just popped in my head at the time).

    And then one day I wrote a story completely about myself. I wrote about dealing with my grandmother’s death. I wrote my father’s life stories. The time I was saddest and happiest, and most scared. Sometimes my protagonist was fictional but I made her see what I saw. Hear what I heard. Writing offered me comfort, therapy, a sense of shedding a heavy weight, and the opportunity to create something. It allowed me to respect and love my identity.

    And if there is one thing I hope my students took from me it is that they and everything about their identity matters. Their likes and dislikes, their imagination, their humour, their fears, their exhilarations, their love, and their mistakes… all matter. Tremendously.

    A just society not only requires the marginalised to know and be vocal about their oppressions as well their rights, but it is even more important that the privileged form alliances to work with disadvantaged groups in their struggles for justice. It is my faith in this idea that makes me emphasise the need for us to appreciate every students’ experiences and intuitions.

    My third-generation Bengali refugee students.
    My Punjabi Christian students.
    My high achieving seventh grader who had to drop out of school to earn for his family.
    Rabia, who had watched her father be murdered.
    Saleema, who had watched her father murder.
    Mahrukh, who never wore a clean uniform.
    Fahim, who saw a dead body on his way to school one day and was told never to talk about it again.

    These students and many more must tell their stories over and over again, spamming the world with their voice. And those of us in positions of relative power must not only guard those voices from being silenced but make space for those voices to be amplified and honoured.

    I would get so caught up in telling my students what they need to know for their exams that I would neglect to tell them that what they already know in life through their experiences is just as significant, if not more. If they don’t write their stories, then who will? And if we don’t teach them to write those stories… who will?

    As teachers we should never doubt both the subtle and overt privilege, power and ability we hold for facilitating social change. We have to learn to listen to our students’ stories—and their silence.

    Whether it is English, Urdu, or any other subject, we need to find ways to teach our students to start gathering knowledge from within themselves first. It will help them to stay in touch with and value the human that they are and through that, the human that everyone else is.

    Their ethnicities, their faiths, their traditions, their gender, their languages… all matter. Immensely. Their hunger. Their lack of sleep. Their forced migrations. Their shrimp-peeling nails. Their glass-dust inhaling lungs. The acrid contaminated gund-factory* air that lives on their skin. It all matters. Severely.

    *Gund-factories process dead animals and animal by-products to produce low grade oil and fodder for livestock, creating and spreading a nauseating stench that engulfs large areas of its surrounding neighbourhoods. This included my school.

    All names have been changed for privacy.

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    There are times, and places, when you walk around with brain fog. It is so thick that the PhD you’ve recently finished on young Pakistanis becomes the thing you want most to burn. The amazing boy you’ve been waiting for all your life is the one from whom you querulously run away, only to find yourself breathing less easily. The family you come home to is the one you ignore by sleeping early at night and avoiding all of the next day. The days are marked not by the presence of real humans, but your oldest friend – Doubt.

    * * *

    I try to fight this all off by writing a number of different starts, but none of them materialise into anything worth publishing, whether as a blog post, op-ed, or even a journal entry. I want to believe the past five years of my life have amounted to more than a waste of time, but the young doctors on strike, the wailing Prime Minister, the vacant eyes in government offices, and my contract, which is ripped apart by the head of HR without any consequence in front of the Registrar at Lahore’s only IT university, compel me to reckon with the thought that Pakistan is a sinking ship.

    I sit down to clear my Oxford University inbox. It will expire in a few days this August, now that the PhD is over. I have to salvage important emails or lose them forever. I spend the night forwarding and labelling emails in a personal account. Amongst them, 57 special ones that I now recall bringing me relief during an especially trying period of the doctorate: emails from Pakistanis, Indians, and Kashmiris of varying ages, genders, classes, professions, and perspectives across the world. They were all written in gratitude, and with encouragement – responses to my 2015 post about the beauty of ordinary Pakistani citizens.

    I realise I haven’t had time to return to these messages in two years. I was struggling with writing a dissertation, and living alone in England. All the while, Pakistanis everywhere, but especially back at home, were enduring continuous disappointment.

    How is it that research that mattered most to me – a story of hardworking public school students eking out a sense of belonging in uncertain Pakistan – seems alien now? How have I lost so much faith and confidence in something I once saw as a very important question about my country?

    Back in April, after a successful viva, my examiners suggested this was a natural consequence of a PhD – a kind of academic postpartum depression. My supervisors asked what was next. Friends suggested I travel, or get plenty of sleep. Instead, I worked on a project in London. Then my father asked me to come home, even if just for a while, so I did. Here I am, back in Lahore, having traded in Brexit and ISIS van drivers for The Adventures of Amir (ul Momineen – almost) Sharif.

    * * *

    At 10pm on 13th August, I beg my brother to take me out for an Independence-eve drive. I haven’t been in Lahore for the 14th in over five years. A part of me wants desperately to feel like the questions of Pakistani identity and belonging that I’ve been researching have a point, if only in the youthful grins of pillion riders on a Honda CD70. The other part of me wants to replace loud anchors on TV with loud children in green clothes, honking anything on which they can get their hands.

    The floats of the past are gone. The Canal is now a silent purveyor of mud, shimmering at its banks in greens, purples, and reds. The lights strung along the corridors of the city lend themselves to fantastical photo opps of ‘Lahore tonight!’ by drones. They launch this ancient city into the Facebook and Twitter histories of this leader or that. I miss the papier-mâché Quaid’s Mausoleum. I’ll have to get to Karachi now to see its familiar shape. I think of how my new full-frame NikonD750 will capture the Mausoleum, and a drop of adrenaline infringes on my daily numbness.

    Read next: What happens when you’re both Indian and Pakistani

    WAPDA’s done something really clever this year. They’ve used a few spotlights to enhance the cloth streamers lining their building. Another drop of adrenaline. If there’s anyone setting an example this year, it’s them. Don’t waste unnecessary electricity when you can use intelligent lighting to achieve the same effect.

    Maybe that’s what’s happening at Minar-e-Pakistan because it’s 11:55pm, and we’ve disappointedly driven towards it only to find its lights are off. Why in the world are so many thousands clambering onto the Azadi Chowk bridge? We alight to investigate.


    I’m pushing my camera through the metal grill cordoning off the Metro tracks from the road, when bursts of orange and yellow erupt from the lower levels of the Minar. An incredible fireworks display gains scale, and the crowd becomes a euphoric mass roaring deafeningly to voice both approval, and thirst. More. It wants more. It hasn’t given up on its happy, conflicted freedom yet.

    Variously hued smoke draws us all into an Independence embrace – my family, my camera, me, and the thousands of joyous Pakistanis who have walked, scootered, motorbiked, run, driven, QingQi’d, dragged themselves, and even crawled into this moment.

    Suddenly, the world around us shakes with terror. Worried eyes scan the area. People nervously walk away from the bridge. The crowds start to scatter. Our hearts pound with the familiarity of uncertainty. Sirens are ringing in the air. If another firework doesn’t go off soon, we will know the worst has happened and it’s time to run home. But it does go off, and the earlier boom was probably just a firework that exploded on the ground before taking flight.

    The roars are back, cutting through the smoke that descends on our gleeful middle-class, working-class, every-class aspirations. The skies rain with cardboard shreds of containers that, seconds ago, escorted powder into the heights above Greater Iqbal Park and Badshahi Masjid; my brother pockets one, and I pocket another. We grin at each other. Forever after, these will be our fragments of the night Pakistan turned 70.

    As we drive back home, I cannot forget the sounds of the crowds. I haven’t heard before such a unanimous, and thundering expression of joy – not at a New York pier on the 4th of July, not at midnight to ring in a new year in London.

    Are we just many more people per square foot here in Pakistan? Have we got better lung volume? Was it an echo effect under a bridge? Are such massive displays of fireworks more aligned with our everyday operational frequencies? As my brother speeds along the Babu Sabu interchange – the easiest way home for us – I wonder about the most appropriate explanation to what we’ve just witnessed.

    * * *

    I’m a social scientist by training so it is habitual for me to keep wondering over the next few weeks about what I saw on the 14th. I may have seen a pocket of joy that night, but I don’t fully understand how Pakistanis rank as the happiest people in South Asia. It feels like a cruel joke an international body plays on us because happiness is not in the rains that devour North Karachi. Happy is not the face of the beautiful nine-year-old boy who sells fluorescent toys to any willing customer every evening just off M.M Alam Road. Happy are not the people who endlessly disagree over just how many Pakistanis live in Pakistan.

    Then Eid-ul-Azha comes knocking at our door. For the first time ever, our neighbourhood mosque allocates pristine, air-conditioned space within its boundaries so that women – not just the men – can start their day with Eid namaaz. Eid takes my hand, and guides me through the lives and warmth of my extended family as my brother and I spend the day delivering the family’s 1/3rd portion of our sacrificial meat.

    It reads 7:59pm on his car’s clock, as my brother successfully negotiates a very tight street in the outskirts of Lahore Township. This is where the children, and widow, of my parents’ uncle live. They are ten siblings, and for as long as I can remember, this part of our family has lived in extraordinary poverty. My uncle was killed in an accident, when a Baloch Number 20 flattened the lower half of his body on Lytton Road over a decade ago.

    That was the route I used to take to and from university when I was an undergraduate student, and I remember narrowly missing being run over a few times myself as I would run to jump into the women’s section. The accident was never investigated; the family never compensated. My family’s men went to Services Hospital, identified our great-uncle, and lowered him into the ground. This is what I remember every single time I meet his children. I remember a lack of closure.

    This is not what they remember. They remember me, and are overjoyed I am back from England. Each of them pulls me in a different direction to tell me about their kids or their jobs or to offer me some Coca Cola. They ask how it feels to be back. It feels awful, I want to tell them honestly, but I find myself unable to say this out loudly. I realise it is so nice to see them, and how their lives are getting on, even though I am overwhelmed by the noise and competition for my attention.

    They show me one of the children’s two fingers that suffer from some form of elephantiasis; the boy looks at me shyly with his baffled eyes from under long eyelashes, but doesn’t pull away. The ten-year-old girl in the corner peering at me with amusement is, I suspect, some kind of my niece by cousin association. I assume she’s cut her hair like Sinead O Connor’s, but they tell me she had a skin condition that required it all to be shaved off. Then they present me with an old picture of her with long, thick waves, and the girl smiles and shrugs.

    Related: I'm a Pakistani Hindu. So what business do I have missing Eid?

    House after house I visit that day is bursting with laughter or gratitude. It is bari Eid, after all, marked by the previous day’s blessing of Hajj. The social scientist in me can’t stop reflecting on the peculiarities of class structure that mark my family’s Eid day: some of us have only recently become able to afford their own sacrificial goats after years of struggling to make ends meet. Inevitably this has been because every parent in my entire family has resiliently educated the children, with or without the state’s assistance.

    These are happy people, and they’re in my own family. There must be hundreds, thousands – no, millions – of such people around Pakistan who find a way to enjoy such moments despite the odds, who find a way to trust despite injustice, and who have reason to believe in a better future despite an uncertain present.

    I sense that if I had a month of such visits, I would be able to find the Pakistanis who put this country at the top of the happiness index for this region. I would be able to find the Pakistanis who keep so much faith in what they know, no matter how little, that they miraculously keep life going here.

    * * *

    Amidst all of these events and reflections, one day I consider applying to an institution I respect, where I can help work on curriculum and research strategy. I struggle with my mixed feelings. I want the chance to contribute to research-backed policy for Pakistan, but more importantly, I want it to matter.

    I still battle my inner demons: will I commit to very hard work on the prospective education of young Pakistanis as I did with my PhD, and be rewarded again with the thankless gift of despondency? Will the legitimate educational struggles of our next generation once more be overshadowed by the sound and fury of violence, terrorism, democracy games, and the need to ‘defend’ the borders?

    I think about the upcoming Defence Day – another important day I haven’t experienced in Pakistan in many years – and the persistent tension between our country’s defence and education budgets. How trivial the word ‘defence’ has now become, though, largely bringing to mind housing societies across the country.

    I wonder whether that could ever have been the thought dominating the last few moments of 20-year-old Rashid Minhas. I wonder how the term motivated our men’s cricket team to give the world the performance of a decade on the 18th of June, 2017.

    Also read: A train ride to India in better times

    I know I wonder too much about everything, but especially about Pakistan. It’s a hard country, after all. If summer in Pakistan is meant to end with a reflection on what it means to defend ourselves, this is mine. It isn’t the weapons, camouflage or nostalgia of success alone that explains how people learn to ‘take care’ of themselves.

    I admit that I never miss a chance to watch an air show, and I proudly wore a Pakistan Air Force JF-17 Thunder polo shirt throughout my years at Oxford. I’m a huge fan of aviation and shipping technology, and I love reading about what the army, navy, and air force are getting up to.

    But if being a country is about being citizens within our borders first, my small commitment to citizenship starts with helping young Pakistanis learn to think for themselves.

    My fog hasn’t lifted entirely. Yet if the summer has taught me one thing, it is that Doubt may be my oldest friend, but not my best one. My best friend is probably Chance, the one that introduces me to the amazing world built through the lives of everyday Pakistanis.

    I know most of us don’t have the language to debate grandiose justifications of life or terms like Partition or Freedom or Independence or its history. I know most of us can’t read a full paragraph of English, let alone blog in it.

    But I also know most of us Pakistanis seem to be getting it fairly right: we claim this time as ours; this country as ours; we cherish it in whatever way we can. And I know all of that is worth being happy about.

    What is it about Pakistan that makes your faith bounce back? Write to us at

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    Karachi, Pakistan’s largest metropolis, received another spell of monsoon rains toward the end of last month. More than 20 people died, majority of them from electrocution.

    Different parts of the city such as North Karachi, North Nazimabad, Drigh Road, NIPA, Orangi, Malir, Northern Bypass, and colonies located on either side of one of the city's longest drains, the Gujjar Nala, were inundated with rainwater. Many underpasses were inaccessible as they were completely submerged.

    The severe rains caused a breach in Thado Dam, located in the Kirthar mountains, that initially flooded the Super Highway, country's busiest artery that connects Karachi with the rest of Pakistan. Gusty waters then entered into Gadap town and inundated Amir Bux and Usman Khaskheli goths, and later flooded Saadi Town.

    This is not the first time Karachi has witnessed urban flooding. Since 2000, it has happened five times, in 2006, 2011, 2012, 2013 and now this year.

    The areas most prone to flooding include Sharifabad and Gareeabad in Liaquatabad Town, Nagan, Ghulshan-e-Mayamar, Azizabad, Safoora Goth, Burns Road, Tower, Kharadar, Khada Market and Machar Colony in Lyari, parts of Saddar, Shahrah-e-Faisal, airport, Gulshan-e-Hadeed, Malir, and Shah Faisal Town.

    Karachi faces the threat of urban flooding mainly due to unrestrained housing, encroachments on natural waterways, and dumping of solid waste into stormwater drains.

    Dr Qamar-uz-Zaman, former director general of the Meteorological Department of Pakistan, tells me if we let people build homes wherever they want without any planning, then we should expect severe urban flooding each time it rains.

    According to Dr Zaman, many of the incoming migrants to Karachi are actually climate refugees. Due to lack of rains or other changes in the weather pattern, they are uprooted from their homes in different parts of the country and have no choice but to move to Karachi to find a source of income. Karachi, in fact, hosts the highest number of such migrants compared to any other city in Pakistan.

    Moosa Colony, Gujjar Nalah: Most of the natural drains in the city are encroached upon.
    Moosa Colony, Gujjar Nalah: Most of the natural drains in the city are encroached upon.
    Many of the natural stormwater drains are chocked due to solid waste.
    Many of the natural stormwater drains are chocked due to solid waste.

    At the same time, Karachi is not equipped to provide for these incomers. The influx of climate migrants actually ends up worsening the conditions that lead to bigger climate-related problems.

    The migrants live in slums that are mostly built on waterways or drains. Data collected by the Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority reveals that there are 5,639 slums in Karachi and majority of them are built alongside drains.

    According to the Orangi Pilot Project, Karachi has 41 major drains – most of them stormwater drains – scattered across the city. These drains would normally bring rainwater from across the city to either the Lyari or Malir rivers, which would then drain the water into the Arabian Sea.

    As the settlements keep swelling, the drains are encroached and narrowed, blocking the natural water paths. Drains are also choked since they have become sites for solid waste dumping. This is the main cause of urban flooding in Karachi.

    Areas of Karachi most vulnerable to flooding

    Climate change is only going to amplify the danger. Dr Zaman also tells me that the variability in weather patterns has put Karachi on the hit list. The city is now receiving average rain of four months just in one day. We are simply not prepared for the change in climate.

    Given the city’s lack of planning, major urban design flaws and weak regulation, Karachi is simply not prepared for the changing climate. Urban flooding is most likely to become a more serious issue, affecting tens of thousands and millions more indirectly.

    Dr Noman Ahmed, head of the Department of Architecture and Planning at the NED University of Engineering and Technology, qualifies urban flooding as failure of urban planning. He points out that there actually hasn’t been a government body over the past five or six years to clean the drains.

    He informs me that after the 2012 floods in Karachi, a study was conducted that pointed out all the causes, but the government didn’t pay any attention. He also suggests that every year before the monsoon, at least the drains should be cleaned to mitigate the floods to some extent.

    Gujjar Nalah: Around 30,000 people alongside the drain, which is now reduced to about 15 feet from its original width of 100 feet.
    Gujjar Nalah: Around 30,000 people alongside the drain, which is now reduced to about 15 feet from its original width of 100 feet.
    The drains are unable to carry to water as they are choked and their size capacity reduced.
    The drains are unable to carry to water as they are choked and their size capacity reduced.

    The urban sprawl has also led to a depleted forest cover and green spaces in Karachi. Concrete doesn’t allow for water to be absorbed into the ground and the fast-disappearing mangrove forests and swamplands mean that there is very little that holds water naturally in the city.

    While it may take some years for us to know if monsoon patterns have changed for good, what is for sure is that Karachi’s long-standing problem of almost-absent urban planning is the biggest reason for the mini-disaster we saw last month. If Karachi is left abandoned and the climate continues to take a turn for the worst, the disasters will only get bigger.

    Encroachments on natural waterways, dumping of solid waste into stormwater drains are the two main reasons behind urban flooding. – All photos by Amar GuriroEncroachments on natural waterways, dumping of solid waste into stormwater drains are the two main reasons behind urban flooding. – All photos by Amar Guriro

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    Karachi isn’t just a city. It’s an experience. Anyone who’s lived in Karachi knows that there isn’t a city that offers better biryani. The chai dhabas here are unparalleled. We have our own lord and saviour, guarding us against the mighty ocean, whose brother protects the nearby island of Manora. Simply, once you go to K-town, the other towns let you down. Not always though. And certainly not for people living with disabilities.

    I recently came back from the US after having spent a semester there, during which I also had the privilege to travel across the country and visit many cities. I have actually seen more of the US than Pakistan, where I spent 23 years of my life before going anywhere abroad. This is because the US has better accessibility for people such as myself who need a wheelchair to move around.

    Wheelchair accessibility, I’ve learned, is not usually part of our nation’s social consciousness. This becomes apparent when one visits another part of the world where enabling the disabled is very much part of that society.

    When I was in the US, my mentor showed me how the buses worked there. I knew how they worked in theory, so experiencing a bus ride was not experiencing something I was entirely unaware of. Yet, to say that I did not feel elated when I rode the bus, would be a lie.

    The fact that I could take a bus on my own was liberating. I once missed my flight to Austin and had to take a bus back home alone. And I was able to do it all by myself.

    I was living on campus, at a public university, where my apartment was especially made for wheelchair accessibility. Not only was I living on my own for the first time, I was also responsible for taking care of the house and doing every chore myself. Obviously, I met some amazing people who helped me whenever I needed, but the point is, I was able to live on my own.

    I visited two other public universities in different states. Their covered area was comparable to University of Karachi; the only difference was that I was able to make it to one end of the campus from another without assistance.

    This is something I cannot do in Karachi. Being in the US—or rather, coming back—made me realise that disability is not a medical problem. It is a design problem.

    That much was obvious when I recently visited the University of Karachi for the first time. Seeing the place made me sad.

    It is I think the largest university in Karachi in terms of area with 1,279 acres of campus space, but also the most poorly designed. It seems as if the French modernist Michel Ecochard, the original architect of the university, missed a crucial lesson on inclusivity.

    A student there told me that “for a wheelchair user, not only is it really difficult but sometimes impossible to manage in KU.” Such a student is rendered incapable of moving around independently because there are no ramps, or for that matter, sidewalks.

    He went on to say, “In the Faculty of Arts and Sciences building [where my classes are held], barriers are erected at regular intervals to stop motorbikes, hence wheelchair mobility is difficult. I have no choice but to get off the wheelchair [in order to cross the barrier]. I usually have a friend with me but it’s difficult for one person alone to help me out.”

    Since his classes and restrooms are on the ground floor, at least he doesn't have to climb stairs. However, he also mentioned that “there are some departments that have their classes on the second and/or the third floor. Now how will a person, who cannot climb stairs, go to class every day?”

    Also read: Living colours: Strength not bound to a wheelchair

    I learned that the university plans to construct the Department of Visual Studies at KU. It is imperative that accessibility be kept in mind. It would also be wise to make all of KU wheelchair accessible as it will go a long way in making life easier for many of the students, faculty, and staff.

    I wish my own university in Karachi had done so when I was a student. Back in my first year, we had to put up a bookshelf in a nearby park as an urban intervention for one of our courses. Of all the six people in our group, only I chose to not be physically present at the park because of poor accessibility.

    This was some years ago and not much has changed in this time. Most parks still remain inaccessible. Even when parks are revitalised, accessibility is not prioritised. Privately-run water parks, which are built from the ground up with millions of rupees, oftentimes have zero accessibility.

    That is not to say that Karachi does not have wheelchair friendly places at all. However, the spaces that are (partially) accessible, like T2F, happen to be in a part of the city where not everyone can reach. There is a need to replicate models like T2F in other areas and prioritise accessibility while doing so.

    It would have been welcoming, and a sign of meaningful allyship, for example, had the people behind the Pakistan Chowk Community Centre and TDF Ghar incorporated accessibility in the renovation design as much as logistically possible. However, these would do well to address the issue at a micro level only. There needs to be state intervention for real impact.

    Tragically, the Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020, formulated in 2007, with the vision of “Transforming Karachi into a world class city and attractive economic centre with a decent life for Karachiites,” has no mention of improving accessibility for people with disabilities. Apparently, Karachiites with disabilities, like the poor, do not deserve strategic development and a decent life.

    We have also been forgotten by the Karachi Metrobus project. The BRT network currently under construction aims to provide ‘mobility’ to as many Karachiites as possible. But there is little or no mention of improving accessibility, and mobility, for wheelchair users.

    Billions of rupees are being spent on this endeavour. Therefore, the argument that accessibility is expensive is rendered naught. If in this project, accessibility for wheelchair users is not taken into account, then it means that those in power are deliberately or unknowingly ignoring the needs of wheelchair users.

    Related: When will the state enable our differently-abled?

    Such is the extent of the lack of inclusivity, even for a deeply religious society such as Pakistan, that one will hardly find mosques that welcome their disabled brethren.

    In our part of the world, it is common practice to ask people with disabilities to pray for others. People meet me everyday, asking me to pray for them.

    They do not mean to mock me, and I realise that. But there is one small matter: people who ask people with disabilities to pray for them do not realise that almost all mosques in the city are inaccessible.

    Furthermore, there are many instances where I am deprived of the basic right to partake in Karachi’s favourite past-time: eating out. Karachi has some amazing food streets like Hussainabad, Burns Road, Boat Basin, and Mohammad Ali Society to name a few. With incredible food, however, comes incredible inaccessibility. Very few places, if any at all, are accessible for wheelchair-users.

    There are places which, despite having resources, do not think about inclusivity. Banks, for example, have, for the most part, chosen to ignore State Bank’s orders for improving accessibility.

    According to estimates published last year, people with disabilities comprise around 5 per cent of the population of Pakistan, more than half of which live in urban areas.

    However, for all the attractions urban areas have to offer, we have not managed to make even one Pakistani city fully accessible, even though we have policies like the 2002 National Policy for Persons with Disabilities whose number one aim is to “Provide access to facilities which may lead to [people with disabilities’] integration and mainstreaming in all spheres of life,” and to “ensure that they are able to enjoy their rights and opportunities as other citizens do.”

    Building a ramp is not expensive. A ramp is not just a ramp. It is also a political statement. It is a way of telling wheelchair users that they are welcome. By the same measure, not providing accessible sends out the message that the place belongs to the able-bodied only.

    Have you ever felt marginalised by society owing to your disabilities? Share your experiences with us at

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    This article was originally published on October 7, 2015.

    As a TV anchor, I'll readily admit that our electronic media neglects covering Pak-Afghan relations. Why? Because it will not bring in ratings.

    This is also part of the reason why Pakistan’s biggest TV channels have few to no correspondents in Kabul or other cities in Afghanistan.

    In fact, it is not even considered ‘newsworthy’ to report on our neighbour unless either of the two states (always better when both) indulge in a blame game on the security front.

    I decided I would address this gap by visiting Kabul myself. I wanted to learn more about the perceptions of Afghan people. I also wanted to meet with politicians and social workers to understand the trust deficit between our two countries.


    First impression: the Kabul International Airport looked like a US air base. I was immediately approached by a member of the airport staff who started conversing in Urdu; this put me instantly at ease. Unfortunately, this welcome was short-lived as I reached the security checkpoint.

    I said I was Pakistani. They said I should remove my shoes. My luggage was carefully scrutinised. And there was a very, very long list of questions. This was repeated at all subsequent security checks.

    And this was just the start. I stayed in Afghanistan for eight days. My time there consisted mostly of short interviews, off record and on record interactions, and some rather alarming exchanges with sources who requested anonymity, of course.

    Each call that I made to coordinate my scheduled interviews carried an often hostile undertone.

    …I am a Pakistani journalist.

    No, I am not an ISI agent.

    I am in Afghanistan for work.

    I am a journalist…’

    A specific hatred

    The current mood in Kabul is quite anti-Pakistan, or to be more precise, anti-ISI. Most Afghans do not hate Pakistan per se, but the ISI, they staunchly believe, supports the Afghan Taliban and has vested interests in destabilising their country. While the ISI was berated by many, whenever I asked for specifics, I only got half-stories, hearsay and no evidence.

    Examine:ISI officer involved in Kabul parliament attack, claims Afghan intelligence

    The National Directorate of Security (NDS) and the government of Afghanistan blame Pakistan for almost every security dilemma.

    Indian intelligence, on the other hand, has close relations with Afghan intelligence. I learn that being on good terms with the Indian embassy in Kabul can really help you gain the trust of the Afghan interior ministry.

    On the condition of anonymity, a senior politician (a jihadi in the past) told me that the national unity government in Afghanistan did not understand the importance of 'good relations' with the ISI. He stressed that Afghanistan needed to prioritise its relations in the region, which just wasn't happening.

    In his view, Pakistan was not handling the matter of talks very well either. What they are doing under the table must be stopped, he said cryptically, before adding that the NDS and the government did not trust him and that he openly admitted to being pro-Pakistan.

    This politician told me about his private meetings with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. He said, “Ghani panics a lot,” and that the president could not bear pressure. He further said that the MOU between Afghan and Pakistani intelligence was not impacting the trust deficit between the ISI and the NDS. For him, the solution lay in the policies and decision-making power of the Afghan government; the frequent change in diplomatic and political inclinations was damaging to foreign policy.

    The Afghan journalist

    I met a few Afghan journalists who wanted to work in Islamabad, but security clearance procedures were proving too troublesome.

    Afghan journalist Farid speaks to the author about the presidential elections in Afghanistan. — DawnNews screengrab
    Afghan journalist Farid speaks to the author about the presidential elections in Afghanistan. — DawnNews screengrab

    A journalist is considered an agent in both states.

    Afghan TV channels do not have any bureaus in Islamabad, and proposals for their establishment are lying in the dust. Officials from the Afghan foreign ministry told me that they had thrice requested Pakistan’s Minister for Information, Pervaiz Rasheed that they wanted to work with Pakistan's state TV on positive image-building (an effort which could be extended to private channels), but they have yet to receive a response.

    The journalist community in Kabul is of the view that the two countries should build better relations with each other. In their view, miscreants in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India are actively working to prevent this.

    I was told that whenever journalists from Pakistan come to work here, they are harassed by the NDS. I believe Afghan journalists must face the same problem in Pakistan.

    Explore:At UN, Afghan leader calls on Pakistan to crack down on terror outfits

    Security and military reasons aside, I discovered another dimension of Afghanistan's tilt towards India when I learned that over 150 Indian journalists are currently working in Afghanistan. You will hardly find any Pakistani journalists working on important stories.

    With this kind of people-to-people contact, no wonder Afghans trust Indians. For my own security, I was suggested not to reveal my nationality while interacting with the local public, though I did not follow that advice.

    The Afghan social worker

    I also met Afghan women social activists, who wanted bold decisions from their government. They did not believe in enforced brotherhoods and wanted a globalised, progressive and modern Afghanistan. They did however think that a pro-Pakistan attitude was never useful to them and that Pakistan had actually used them.

    Fatana Gilani speaks to the author about empowering women through education. — DawnNews screengrab
    Fatana Gilani speaks to the author about empowering women through education. — DawnNews screengrab

    Fatana Gilani is a famous social activist who has been working for women empowerment for 30 years. She runs more than 50 vocational institutes for women; empowering Afghan women through education.

    She said, "I love the women of Pakistan. We share the same culture. We live so close. But what about the role of the Pakistani government? Why does Pakistan support Taliban? Who created the Taliban? My efforts for women will not stop, but at the same time, I cannot ignore the factors which hinder our progress. Pakistan should not support the Taliban."

    I even got access to the Afghan Taliban, though it wasn't easy, as they avoid talking to women. The aged man spoke of the Islamic State, the threat it posed, and how Pakistan may resultantly lose its influence on strategic policy in the region.

    When I spoke to Afghan government officials, they avoided the camera, and the reason was straightforward: “It won't be right to give an interview to a Pakistani journalist right now.” I got diplomatic (empty) answers to most of my questions.

    For the Afghan government, a porous border is not the bone of contention; it is the alleged sanctuaries of Afghan Taliban in Pakistan which are unacceptable. My observation is that they have no solution for border management, and it’s not even a major issue for them.

    Dr Rangin Dadfar Spanta, former foreign minister and national security adviser to former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, shared the same sentiments.

    Dr Rangin Dadfar Spanta, former foreign minister and national security adviser to former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. — DawnNews screengrab
    Dr Rangin Dadfar Spanta, former foreign minister and national security adviser to former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. — DawnNews screengrab

    “Pakistan is interfering in the internal matters of Afghanistan,” he said, citing a serious concern regarding Afghan Taliban crossing over from Pakistan. The ex-foreign minister further said that he was aware of the operation being carried out by the armed forces of Pakistan, but he believed it was not against the terrorists who attack them.

    I asked him if Pakistan was indeed stabbing Afghanistan in the back, how would he explain the millions of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan? To this, he responded with surprising gratitude, thanking the Pakistani nation and the government for keeping and facilitating the refugees.

    Take a look:Afghan refugees ‘all praise’ for Pakistan

    Pakistani ambassador in Kabul Ibrar Hussain believes Pakistan cannot open so many fronts at the same time as the country is already fighting the internal threat of terrorism in Pakistan. — DawnNews screengrab
    Pakistani ambassador in Kabul Ibrar Hussain believes Pakistan cannot open so many fronts at the same time as the country is already fighting the internal threat of terrorism in Pakistan. — DawnNews screengrab

    Meanwhile, responding to Afghan allegations like the above, Pakistani ambassador in Kabul Ibrar Hussain was of the view that Pakistan cannot open so many fronts at the same time, as the country is already busy fighting the internal threat of terrorism in Pakistan.

    Pakistan is committed for peace and prosperity in Afghanistan, he said, which is why various landmark projects funded by the Pakistan government, like a hospital (US$60 million) and a boys hostel/school (US$ 10 million), are underway.

    An under-construction hospital funded by Pakistan. — DawnNews screengrab
    An under-construction hospital funded by Pakistan. — DawnNews screengrab

    Pakistan and Afghanistan are losing valuable time and energy in their altercations against each other. Ufortunately, all this is happening at a policy-making level, and the effect is trickling down to innocent citizens, which in turn fuels widespread suspicion and hatred.

    To sum up my sojourn, I would say that the ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan are complex, but can be overcome with rationale rather than emotional responses based on the past. Those in Kabul, and those in Islamabad need to step outside of the bubbles they have decided to live in.

    - Reuters/File- Reuters/File

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    Pakistan has been deprived of international cricket for so long that its youth no longer remembers the taste of a home victory. Stadiums are seldom lit up anymore and stands that once brimmed with fans and flags now remain empty. Our players have to travel to foreign lands all year, longing for that cheerful noise of a home crowd.

    From time to time, news of a possible home series floats around but doesn't materialise. Now, after eight long years, Pakistan is set to host the Independence Cup 2017 – a series that may well mark the homecoming of international cricket.

    Pakistan will face the ICC World XI for a series of three T20 internationals. The matches will be staged at Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore on 12th, 13th and 15th September, 2017.

    How the two teams shape up

    The visiting team comes with an exciting variety of T20 specialists. Led by Faf du Plessis, the team is loaded with star names like Hashim Amla, George Bailey, Darren Sammy, Imran Tahir, Tamim Iqbal, Paul Collingwood, Ben Cutting, Grant Elliott, Samuel Badree, David Miller, Morne Morkel, Thisara Perera and Tim Paine.

    The side looks heavier on the batting department, with six specialist batsmen and five all-rounders. Hashim Amla, David Miller and Tamim Iqbal are just some names who in all probability will be putting Lahore's batting wicket to good use.

    Playing for the first time in the city of his birth, Imran Tahir is inarguably the most destructive bowler in the side. The team however lacks a genuine fast bowler, sparing South Africa's Morne Morkel.

    Pakistan's T20 side looks equally fierce with the batting talents of Fakhar Zaman, Sarfraz Ahmed, Babar Azam, and Shoaib Malik. Young guns Shadab Khan and Rumman Raees will have key roles to play, alongside Ahmed Shehzad who has lately been unimpressive.

    Pakistan will be relying on Mohammad Amir and Hassan Ali to create that good old magic with the ball. All-rounders Imad Wasim, Aamer Yamin and Mohammad Nawaz are relatively younger in experience but promising nonetheless. Mohammad Hafeez and Wahab Riaz have been left out of the T20 squad, making way for Umar Amin and Sohail Khan.

    It is regrettable that political instability and possible security threats have kept cricket suspended for a long period. Although this dry spell was partly broken by Zimbabwe in 2015, the tour failed to create much ripple effect.

    This time around, prospects seem favorable as the ICC is more involved than ever. 14 cricketers from seven test-playing nations will be a part of the series, along with an ICC official Richie Richardson as match referee.

    Although the series has international status, for a Pakistani fan the significance of this series extends beyond the realms of winning or losing. For the first time in eight years, Pakistan is hosting an international series of high eminence which in itself is a notable triumph.

    What we have here is a historic coming together of the global cricket community in support of a nation that has contributed mountains to the game.

    In this series the PCB have an opportunity of making an impact with the visitors – an impact that could transform our promised future into a tangible future. If all goes well, we have a few probable home games against Sri Lanka and West Indies in the coming months. All eyes are on this series, as are our hopes.

    This series could also pave way for more PSL matches being staged at home. Last season, we saw some key players missing the league's final in Lahore owing to their unwillingness to travel to Pakistan. It is hoped that the upcoming season will grace Pakistan with more fixtures, and a greater number of foreign stars can be a part of the spectacle.

    Besides expediting return of regular international cricket, this series will also be a glowing opportunity for local players to experience competitive home cricket. These young boys deserve to bask in the splendour that is the home crowd; an experience that would elevate their confidence markedly.

    Having recently won a major ICC title, the Pakistan team is more motivated than ever to put up a fantastic show for the crowd. It is important that Pakistan play spirited cricket in order to send a message of fearlessness and resilience to the world.

    Having been a robust part of the recent league season, the players are expected to be well in form for the big series. We must make it be known that our dominance on this turf has not gone rusty, and that we as a team and as a nation are hungry for more cricket.

    But above all, Pakistan must play cricket of a kind they have never played before – the kind that presents a reflection of our glorious past and a vision of our promising future.

    Have you been part of memorable sporting events in any way? Share your experiences with us at

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    First came the Zimbabweans to Lahore and got cheered like they were playing in Harare. Then came Darren Sammy and celebrated near Liberty Chowk like he was from Peshawar, and had conquered Quetta (he had).

    Now an ICC World XI is set to play at the Gaddafi Stadium under towering lights against Pakistan’s best XI in a series that holds international status.

    Pakistan’s long and hard roadmap to international cricket has been paved in the same city where the terrorists attacked the Sri Lankan national team and turned the clock back on Pakistan cricket by a decade.

    But the vision and persistence of the PCB administration under Najam Sethi has made its biggest headway yet in bringing international cricket back to Pakistan, to his hometown, Lahore.

    The UBL Independence Cup 2017 is a heart-warming display of world solidarity with Pakistan cricket. Players from seven nations with a combined total of six World T20 titles under their belt and a cumulative experience of 510 international T20 games will hold centre stage in front of a cricket-mad Pakistani audience.

    This is the first time an ICC World XI will play an official T20 international game against a member nation. In the only other international instance, an ICC World XI was put up against a formidable Australian outfit in 2005. Australia won the solitary Test by 201 runs and clean swept the ODI series 3-0 Down Under. It was a team at the peak of its powers, in a time it ruled in, against a generation it bullied.

    Yet, it is still difficult for a combined star-studded team to play against a regular national team that has played and practiced together for a longer period. However, in cricket’s shortest format, impact players can change the course of the game in a matter of a few overs, if not balls. And the ICC World XI sent to Pakistan has plenty of them.

    The UBL Independence Cup 2017 is a heart-warming display of world solidarity with Pakistan cricket.

    The World XI is a formidable batting line up that consists the likes of South African run machine Hashim Amla, Australian George Bailey, Paul Collinwood of England, Tamim Iqbal from Bangladesh, and West Indian star Darren Sammy. Five ex-national captains (and currently active cricketers) of five different countries will be led by current South African Captain Faf du Plessis.

    The PCB through a mix package of incentives has reeled in these players. Not only are they aiding the noble cause of reviving international cricket in Pakistan, each squad member is expected to receive in the vicinity of $100,000 for their services.

    While Grant Elliott, who is poised to become the first New Zealand cricketer to play an international match in Pakistan for more than 13 years, said"I'm also excited about some opportunities which might open up with the Lahore owners. They've just bought the Durban Qalanders franchise in South Africa, and I will be their assistant coach in November-December [for the inaugural Global League].”

    Imran Tahir, who will go in the game as the leading wicket taker with 55 international T20 scalps, will also go through a different kind of emotion. He was born in Lahore, grew up here and is the son of this soil. He too will play his first international game in Pakistan, but against the country of his birth.

    After allegedly facing difficulties at the Pakistan consulate in Birmingham recently, it will be interesting to see the backlash he gets from an unforgiving Pakistani crowd, especially if and when he celebrates a wicket in his trademark style.

    Imran Tahir will play his first international game in the city of his birth. AFP/File
    Imran Tahir will play his first international game in the city of his birth. AFP/File

    Some intriguing contests between bat and ball are set to fuel the hi-octane series. Pakistan will rely on its bowling to contain a power-house batting line up of the World XI.

    Pakistan’s ace fast bowler Mohammad Amir is likely to miss part, if not all, of the games as he is currently with his wife in England. They wait for their first-born to arrive, potentially this week.

    However, his partner-in-crime on the pitch Hasan Ali has his adrenalin pumping and his eyes set. “The World XI is a good team, it has very good players, I will try to bowl well to all of them. Especially I would like to bowl out brother Hashim Amla, it would give me more pleasure," said young Hasan.

    Given the track record of Gaddafi Stadium, high-scoring encounters can be expected with teams finding it difficult to stop the flow of runs.

    Pakistan is in the phase of rebuilding a new team under the inspirational leadership of Sarfraz Ahmed and this series should help them further gel as a unit. Only three members of Pakistan's squad have played international cricket in Pakistan: Sarfraz Ahmed, Shoaib Malik and Sohail Khan.

    Giles Clarke, the president of the England and Wales Cricket Board, who heads the ICC’s Pakistan Task Force, hit the nail on the head and said, “the terrorists cannot win and cricket must not give up on Pakistan.”

    Believe it or not, international cricket has come back to Pakistan.


Pakistan vs World XI, 1st T20I, Lahore September 12, Tuesday
    Pakistan vs World XI, 2nd T20I, Lahore September 13, Wednesday
    Pakistan vs World XI, 3rd T20I, Lahore September 15, Friday

    Pakistan squad: Sarfraz Ahmed, Fakhar Zaman, Ahmed Shehzad, Babar Azam, Shoaib Malik, Umar Amin, Imad Wasim, Shadab Khan, Mohammad Nawaz, Fahim Ashraf, Hasan Ali, Aamer Yamin, Mohammad Amir, Rumman Raees, Usman Khan, Sohail Khan

    World XI squad: Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla, George Bailey, Paul Collingwood, Ben Cutting, George Elliott, Tamim Iqbal, David Miller, Tim Paine, Thisara Perera, Darren Sammy, Samuel Badree, Morne Morkel, Imran Tahir

    Have you been part of memorable sporting events in any way? Share your experiences with us at

    Pakistani fans during the visit of of Zimbabwe in 2015, the last time an international side visited Pakistan.Pakistani fans during the visit of of Zimbabwe in 2015, the last time an international side visited Pakistan.

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    “Are you Chinese?” I have been asked many times, owing to my physical appearance.

    On hearing “no”, they would ask me: “You must be from Hunza, then?”

    “No, I am from Quetta,” I would answer.

    Their next guess would instantly be: “Then obviously you are a Pathan…”

    “No, I am a Hazara.”

    “Oh! So you are one of the people who are being persecuted.”

    Persecuted. It is so painful to hear this every time I introduce myself. My friends, too, face the same situation when meeting someone new.

    Incidents such as the one a few days ago in which members of a Hazara family travelling to Quetta from Chaman were fired upon, killing four of them, including a 12-year-old boy, have become part and parcel of what it is to belong to our community.

    Be that as it may, the Hazaras, a long-oppressed and marginalised people, are also a very resilient one. Despite living with a sword hanging above our heads, we choose to look past the blood and bullets and attempt to have (with some strange measure of success) a semblance of a normal life.

    Thus, I was driven to tell the story of my people and my surroundings. For that I launched a project called Humara Mohallah, which shows different neighbourhoods in Pakistan in interesting and relatable ways through visual storytelling.

    Also read: Pakistan's stepchildren

    One such story, titled What we leave behind, is an attempt to show the Hazara community in Quetta persevering in the face of the inequities they face. It showcases the people who have been ravaged by the ongoing terrorism for nearly two decades.

    The wanton persecution has prevented them not only from promoting their culture, but also severely hampered their participation in civic and public life.

    The community is confined to a handful areas of the city: Alamdar Road and Hazara Town. It is a prison in the guise of a sanctuary.

    The video features a graveyard, filled with the bodies of the people who have died in terrorist attacks and targeted-killings over the years. The story, however, is not just about the graveyard.

    It tells much more — about a people who have repurposed the graveyard into a community centre, making it an integral part of their daily lives. A place of reflection, recreation, and ultimate destination, if you will.

    A unique and beautiful graveyard where everyone’s loved ones are buried is the same place where a great many memorable moments are spent.

    Having always been symbolised as a place of fear and unease, the word graveyard typically brings an almost irrational terror to one’s heart.

    However, defying all conventional definitions of a cemetery stands Quetta’s Hazara graveyard: the Bihisht-e-Zainab.

    Here, happiness begins from being amongst the dead. The locals celebrate Eid by going to the graveyard and remembering the loved ones they have lost —some souls lost to age, some to illness, while others ripped away at the end of a barrel.

    Related: Living in the shadows: A Hazara man finds solace in poetry

    Due to the lack of parks — or any other place to hang out — each day begins with a group of men and women making their morning rounds in the graveyard premises.

    As the sun rises, the rejuvenating light chases away the dark insecurities of the night, and life begins anew, the deafening song of birds shattering the stillness of the cemetery.

    When the clock strikes 10, the vegetable market — located within it — gets filled with women and one can hear the pleasurable sounds of their bangles jingling complemented with the sweet, chirping of their voices.

    Along with these women, children can also be seen playing and their elated shrieks fill the atmosphere with a sense of community. A sense of belonging. An illusion of peace.

    Marketplace in the graveyard. -All photos by author
    Marketplace in the graveyard. -All photos by author
    Fruit stalls in the market.
    Fruit stalls in the market.

    One day I met an old man passing by on a street in the graveyard. I found myself compelled to strike a conversation with him. I asked the man where he was off to, to which he replied, “I’ve brought my grandson for an outing so his mother can perform her household chores in peace.” The child was gleefully absorbing the sights and sounds from his pram, feeling at home in the resting place of his forefathers.

    Just a few paces away from there, some old men sit languidly under the tranquil shade of trees every day, and reminisce about their fascinating past, no doubt one-upping each other, trading barbs or just sharing stories of happiness and heartaches.

    An old man out with his grandson for some fresh air.
    An old man out with his grandson for some fresh air.

    The evening brings with it the most important activity of the day. The stones that are used to mark the graves are given a decidedly less morbid purpose. They are used as an accessory in the game of Sang Girag which the Hazaras have been playing for centuries.

    In the game, two teams of three to five players hold smooth round stones — typically the size of a cricket ball — and turn by turn, hurl them at a cylindrical target called a qarqa. Striking the qarqa gets you a point. The team that is the first to reach 10 points is declared the winner.

    People of all ages partake in the action, even octogenarians. Others sit and watch, cheering for the ones they support and laughing at every misstep, many holding prayer beads in their hands.

    A man throwing a stone at the qarqa in the game known as Sang Girag.
    A man throwing a stone at the qarqa in the game known as Sang Girag.
    People of all ages gather to watch the game of Sang Girag.
    People of all ages gather to watch the game of Sang Girag.

    As night falls, like clockwork, the people make their way back through the pathways of the graveyard that branch off to their respective homes, only to return the next morning to add soul to what would have otherwise been a place devoid of life.

    One might wonder why a cemetery has been chosen for the purpose of community building. Due to the widespread fear of being attacked, the people largely do not leave their homes and instead find comfort in a place nearby.

    The mountains surrounding our homes act as natural sentries, keeping us safe.
    The mountains surrounding our homes act as natural sentries, keeping us safe.

    The graveyard offers the distinct advantage of providing a safe space for people to gather as it is guarded by mountains on three sides and the streets all lead straight to their homes.

    Though craggy stone, the dry, gray behemoths are perpetual sentries, proving to be effective protection for a people who have been forced to rely on inanimate objects and natural escape routes for their safety.

    More than a century old, the graveyard, which once saw only a handful of visitors, now sees an entire community making full use of the only escape they have and, ironically, celebrating their lives among the dead, defiant in the face of systematic ethnic and sectarian attacks and hatred.

    As narrated to Sameen Daud Khan, who put it together in the form of a blog.

    Do you belong to an ethnic minority in Pakistan? Share your experience as a Pakistani citizen with us at

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    I was thrilled to learn that for the first time since the Equator Prize was launched by the United Nations Equator Initiative in 2002, an NGO from Pakistan has won the prestigious award for this year.

    Every two years, the Equator Prize showcases from around the world community efforts that strive to relieve poverty through conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity.

    The Baltistan Wildlife Conservation and Development Organization (BWCDO) is amongst the 15 organisations from across the world that will be awarded the 2017 Equator Prize.

    BWCDO is working on the ground in 17 villages in Baltistan to protect endangered snow leopards through insurance schemes and financial compensation against livestock losses that result from snow leopard attacks.

    They will receive their individual $10,000 award money in a high-profile ceremony to be held in New York on September 17 after a week-long summit during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly.

    Before he left for New York, I spoke to Ghulam Mohammad, the General Manger of BWCDO. “Our NGO started working back in 1999 in Skardu with the local villagers on snow leopard conservation,” he told me.

    Local villagers with members of the BWCDO during a wildlife survey in the area. -All photos by Ghulam Mohammad, the General Manager of the BWCDO
    Local villagers with members of the BWCDO during a wildlife survey in the area. -All photos by Ghulam Mohammad, the General Manager of the BWCDO

    He credits Dr Shafqat Hussain, associate professor of anthropology at Trinity College in Connecticut, US for establishing Project Snow Leopard in 1999 which successfully introduced a community-based livestock insurance scheme in one village in Baltistan.

    That scheme later spread to 17 other villages in the region and in recognition for which, Dr Hussain also received the Rolex award for the environment in 2006.

    “He is the one who decided to give incentives to the local farmers to save the snow leopards who attacked their livestock,” Mohammad said.

    Claim being settled by the head of the local village committee for the loss of livestock from a snow leopard attack.
    Claim being settled by the head of the local village committee for the loss of livestock from a snow leopard attack.

    Since 2007, Project Snow Leopard has been incorporated into BWCDO and Dr Hussain continues to serve as the chairman of the board of directors of the organisation.

    In this mountainous region, local farmers have a meager annual income of around $500 on average. Therefore, an attack by a snow leopard on a farmer’s livestock threatens the entire family’s livelihood (a snow leopard can kill up to 20 or 30 goats at a time).

    In the past, farmers killed snow leopards after their herds were attacked. Now, damages are paid after verification through joint decisions between BWCDO and the Village Insurance Committees established for this purpose.

    According to research done by BWCDO, around 10 snow leopards were killed throughout Gilgit-Baltistan per year between 1980 and 2000. Farmers used to kill snow leopards by poisoning the carcasses of their livestock.

    Now, when a farmer loses livestock, he informs the Village Insurance Committee and BWCDO. This needs to be done within five days of the attack so that it is possible to visit and verify the claim.

    The committee members then inspect the place where the livestock was killed to verify whether it was a snow leopard or a wolf attack. They look for any pugmarks and wounds on the dead animals – for example wolves usually eat from the stomach of their prey, whereas snow leopards attack the neck.

    Once a claim has been verified by the committee, they inform BWCDO. Payment is made to the farmer by cheque. These payments are made from funds that have been collected from farmers’ premium payments and from BWCDO donations (25% from farmers and 75% from donations).

    This co-finance arrangement ensures that farmers have a financial stake in the insurance scheme; they are co-owners of the programme.

    The actual predation rate is about 2% of the total herd. This means that 2% of the total value of the herd needs to be raised through insurance premium to cover the risk.

    Since the farmers are too poor to cover the entire risk from their own premium payments, BWCDO subsidises the premium payments to the tune of 50-80%.

    Therefore, if the total worth of 10 goats is Rs 100,000 (that is, on average Rs 10,000 per goat) and the total loss rate is 2%, it means that ideally the villagers should generate Rs 2,000 from their premium.

    This means that each goat’s premium is Rs 200. But BWCDO subsidises this and farmers end up paying only Rs 50-100 per goat. The Village Insurance Committee collects the premium payment from the farmers once a year.

    Until now, the organisation has paid compensation for more than 280 livestock through more than 100 claims. A total of approximately $30,000 has been paid to farmers as compensation through the scheme.

    BWCDO has further helped farmers by assisting them in making around 50 predator-proof corals (solid constructions of stone and wood which create a periphery around lifestock) and providing them training on improved herding techniques and livestock vaccination. They have also helped them construct water pipes, pony tracks and protective walls.

    “These are small interventions but in these tough areas where we work so hard in the short summer seasons, they have proven to be very beneficial to the communities,” Mohammad said.

    The communities living in these remote mountains are poor and BWCDO supports them with these important infrastructural projects as an incentive, and to encourage them to support their conservation goals.

    Solid wood and stone structure of a predator-proof coral.
    Solid wood and stone structure of a predator-proof coral.
    Predator-proof corals are effective in keeping the livestock safe from leopard attacks.
    Predator-proof corals are effective in keeping the livestock safe from leopard attacks.

    Helping the villagers reduces the burden of losing livestock to snow leopards and makes them more willing to coexist with the animal.

    BWCDO’s work has certainly won over the trust of the communities and created economic incentives for farmers not to harm the snow leopards.

    The elusive snow leopard is an iconic species of this region (Central and South Asia) and prefers to live atop mountain forests and high altitude pastures.

    Conservationists say snow leopards have been threatened by poaching, retaliatory killing by farmers, declining prey species, shrinking habitats, and climate change.

    According to Mohammad, there are only around 300 to 400 snow leopards surviving in Pakistan today. Dr Hussain, who has been studying snow leopards for almost two decades now, says that although more research is needed, it seems that the snow leopard population in Pakistan has been stable over the past 15 years.

    Taking a sample for a scientific survey on snow leopards.
    Taking a sample for a scientific survey on snow leopards.
    A shot of a snow leopard from a camera trap set up by the NGO for scientific surveying purposes.
    A shot of a snow leopard from a camera trap set up by the NGO for scientific surveying purposes.

    We have now a pretty good idea about how the snow leopard population is doing in Pakistan, thanks to advanced technology such as camera trapping and genetic tests on faeces left by snow leopards.

    “I would say that 80% of these snow leopards in Pakistan are to be found in Gilgit-Baltistan – which means that about 80% of the snow leopards in Pakistan are found here – while the remaining are in Khyber Pakhtunkwa and Azad Jammu & Kashmir,” pointed out Mohammad.

    Experts say the habitat range for snow leopards extends over nearly two million square kilometres, involving 12 countries in Central and northern Asia, including Pakistan.

    Last month, scientists and leaders from the 12 countries who host snow leopard population gathered for the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Programme (GSLEP) at the Snow Leopard Forum in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to address conservation challenges.

    A snow leopard guarding its fresh kill in the still of the night.
    A snow leopard guarding its fresh kill in the still of the night.

    According to Dr Tom McCarthy, the Snow Leopard Programme Director for Panthera, the global wildcat conservation organisation, "Experts from each country within the range were asked to come up with the best estimates of snow leopard population by country and the total was between 7,400 and 8,000 animals”. This figure is higher than what was previously thought.

    Pakistan’s newly-appointed minister for climate change, Mushaidullah Khan, also attended the meeting. The minister is currently the chair of GSLEP’s steering committee.

    According to the global protection programme, 20 landscapes of snow leopards shall be protected by the year 2020. Pakistan is included in these landscapes.

    BWCDO’s work at the grassroots level is an excellent example of how partnering with local communities can lead to feasible solutions to preserve wildlife and local livelihoods, which in turn can protect landscapes.

    “It really is a big honour for us to win the Equator Prize. Our confidence has grown tremendously,” Mohammad told me. “There were over 800 applications from 120 countries around the world and only 15 were chosen in the end. The recognition of our work is a remarkable feat.”

    Are you part of any conservation efforts to save wildlife in Pakistan? Share your insight with us at

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    Most people visit Uzbekistan for its unmatched treasure of centuries-old Islamic architecture in the shapes of turquoise and blue-coloured mosques, madrassahs and mausoleums. However, any tour of this Central Asian country is incomplete without visiting its fabulous bazaars located on the legendary Silk Road.

    In fact, the bazaar is the heart of every oriental city, the centre of public life, and the breadwinner of the whole city. Since the dawn of time, bazaars appeared on the intersections of trade roads, and on big squares of cities.

    On our recent trip to Uzbekistan, we spent a disproportionate amount of time in the grand bazaars of Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara and were impressed by their scale and organised display of produce and merchandise.

    I was accompanied by my wife and daughter, who pride themselves for being discriminating shoppers. They have practiced their craft over years of rummaging through all kinds of merchandise in stores and malls of various countries. In the process, they claim to have acquired not only an eye for discovering hidden gems reflecting local culture, history and tastes, but also a sense of proper valuation that can be attributed to the purchase.

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    Confident of their ability to haggle over price, they are never bothered by the occasional failure to consummate a deal.

    The bazaars of Uzbekistan offer ample opportunities to satisfy the cravings of the die-hard shopaholics as well as onlookers like me.

    Tashkent’s Chorsu Bazaar, the age of which is more than a hundred years, is located on the main square of the city.

    The central part of the bazaar is the main, magnificent domed construction, patterned with oriental ornaments, with a diameter of nearly 300-350 metres.

    On the counters there, we found fresh fruits, amber-coloured dried fruits, toasted bread, cookies, pastries, freshly-killed meat, horse meat sausages, and other common and exotic produce.

    The vast meat section had every conceivable type of meats and cuts with no trace of waste in inappropriate places. I didn’t even see flies on the meats or vegetables and fruits.

    Tashkent Chorsu Bazaar meat market. -All photos by author
    Tashkent Chorsu Bazaar meat market. -All photos by author

    Next to the bazaar there are tea houses, where we tasted amber yellow pilaf, fragrant grilled meat and hot shurpa (soup). Having refreshed ourselves, we proceeded to handicraft shops, where masters of applied art sell handmade souvenirs. All these things were so attractive that we spent quite some time strolling through different sections of it.

    In Samarkand, right around the corner from Bibikhanum Hotel where we stayed, near the entrance to the Bibi-Khanym Mosque and Mausoleum, is located a bustling, huge central bazaar consisting of many buildings and open shades with orderly rows of stalls displaying fresh and dried fruits, spices, meats, vegetables, bread, cakes and cookies.

    Though not of any historical significance, this is a must-visit place for those who like to get a feel for the local culture.

    In addition to the variety of produce, the cleanliness of the whole bazaar was instantly noticeable, with no garbage or discarded produce, no filth on the floor, no flies or stray dogs, and no beggars or peddlers to harass customers.

    We bought some pistachios, cucumbers and their ubiquitous freshly baked round bread.

    In Samarkand and Bukhara, we found that materialism has trumped spirituality and most of the madrassahs are immersed deep in the exercise of capitalism.

    Early morning at the grand Samarkand Bazaar.
    Early morning at the grand Samarkand Bazaar.

    The rooms that housed students and teachers many centuries ago have now been converted into souvenir shops and the central courtyards into open-air tea shops or restaurants.

    We visited one souvenir shop in Samarkand selling Uzbek caps and after listening to the history behind various types of caps for 15 minutes, bought one for my grandson for $10. When we checked other less glamorous shops later on in our journey, the same caps were selling for $5. We paid $5 for learning some valuable history lessons – not bad.

    In Bukhara, my wife walked into one of those souvenir shops and came out triumphantly with a beautifully carved wooden stand for placing and reading open books (rehal). She was able to haggle its price down from $12 to $8.

    While strolling in another part of the bazaar, the same book stand was openly selling for $8. But of course, the pleasure of haggling was missing, since there was a sign on the wall saying ‘firm price’.

    In Bukhara, we walked from Lyab-i Hauz, the main city square, to the monument of Ark and passed through Taki-Sarrafon Bazaar, a long, covered bazaar full of shops selling souvenirs, carpets, local handicrafts and toys.

    The courtyard of a madrassah in Bukhara converted into an open-air restaurant.
    The courtyard of a madrassah in Bukhara converted into an open-air restaurant.

    The area attracts a lot of foreign tourists and is keenly watched by the shopkeepers who have honed their selling skill through centuries of experience on the Silk Road. Since we had some spare time before dinner, we allowed ourselves to be lured by an English-speaking saleswoman into her shop that was full of handmade carpets.

    Authentic handmade silk carpets from Bukhara and Samarkand have always been an object of admiration and desire in a corner of my heart. But I admit that it never got to the point that I would learn the intricacies and true worth of expensive carpets. Moreover, I have been unable to find a justification for squandering a bundle of money on objects of dubious utility just for the joy of possession.

    Earlier in Samarkand, we had visited a carpet factory where we attended a workshop absorbing some of the finer details to look for in a carpet. Knots per square centimetre, wool vs silk, patterns and colours were explained with some hidden sales pitches. However, we managed to come out relatively unscathed and just bought some inexpensive handicrafts as souvenirs.

    Entering the Bukhara carpet store, we gave a passing look all around to the display of silk carpets, woolen carpets, suzanis and other local handicrafts in fabulous colours, patterns and varieties.

    Taki-Sarrafon Bazaar in Bukhara.
    Taki-Sarrafon Bazaar in Bukhara.

    Undeterred by our lacklustre interest in any kind of transaction, the saleswoman directed her assistant to unfurl dozens of carpets in numerous sizes shapes and materials.

    The guy was an expert in giving his presentation a fabled magical touch by waving the carpets high in the air, as if they were ready to take us on and fly away to a distant enchanted land.

    She continued making small talk and after learning about our two small grandchildren, she played the emotional card by describing how her four children safely roll over and play on one of those kinds of natural fibre carpets with natural dyes and no chemicals whatsoever.

    Seeing that it had caught my attention, she elaborated that all her carpets were made from the silks produced by the silkworms, happily chomping over leaves from organically grown mulberry trees, using no chemical fertilisers or pesticides.

    The saleswoman also made us believe that she routinely sold those kinds of carpets for three times the price she was asking when she toured the USA. Now, that was something for which I was not prepared.

    For a fleeting moment, I lost control of my restraint and justifying my indulgence as the deal of a life time, moved quickly to grab an expensive carpet.

    Also read: Why heavenly Bosnia deserves to be your next travel destination

    While the carpet was being packed, the reality started sinking on me that after all, we had surrendered easily our claims to astute buying talent and supposedly superior haggling expertise.

    The saleswoman tried to assuage our skepticism by promising to give us next day a certificate from some government department authenticating our carpet’s noble lineage.

    She also suggested a restaurant around the corner, where we could have dinner to relieve our carpet-induced stress.

    After we had dinner at the suggested restaurant, we came to know that it was also owned by the carpet-shop owner.

    The carpet, in one corner of our living room, has yet to attract the attention of any of our guests commensurate to its purported rare beauty and price. Perhaps my wife’s plan to hang it up conspicuously, on an entrance wall, will succeed one day in winning a few complimentary words.

    Otherwise, as the saleswoman suggested to me, we just need to turn to YouTube to educate people on the intricacies and eternal loveliness of handmade organic silk carpets of Samarkand and Bukhara.

    In the meantime, I try to get some satisfaction that my grandchildren, though clad in pajamas sprayed over by chemical fire retardant, cuddling polyester-stuffed teddy bears and munching Pringles potato chips washed down with Coke, can play on an environmentally friendly carpet made from natural silks and plant-based dyes.

    Have you travelled to places that are not commonly visited by tourists? Share your experience with us at

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    Lahore is my native city — it has always been the dearest sense of love I have felt.

    It was the beautiful gardens and my most favourite majestic Old Lahore. It was the mouthwatering hareesa at Gawalmandi on a foggy winter morning and it was the sun shining upon the tree-lined Canal Road.

    It was the summer air mixing with aromatic smoke coming off a mutton kebab grill; it was the kohla puris from Khussa Mahal.

    But what outdid them all were the large hearts of Lahoris.

    The Lahoris who dance to dhol beats. The Lahoris who run on tall glasses of lassi. The Lahoris who show you why if you haven’t seen Lahore you haven’t lived.

    These people are Christians, Hindus and Muslims.

    Take a look: A song for Lahore

    I grew up in Pakistan meeting people who did not identify as traditional Muslims and yet, never felt alien. We grew closer and at this point, some of them are the dearest people in my life today.

    I do not think religion has much to do with the goodness of a person but the social narrative around ‘religious minorities’ in Pakistan did make me view these individuals in a different light.

    It is unfortunate that for the most part of my life, I have seen Pakistan being fraught with violence, terrorism and religious extremism; plagued with rampant and senseless brutality against minorities. But I never saw these non-Muslims falter; they were to me, the most lively, compassionate and happy beings in my world.

    They were winners even though we failed them quite a few times. They were in love with us even though we gave them enough reasons to hate us.

    The ambiguous and horrendous mix of religion and state never seemed to work out very well for Pakistan in my eyes. It unnerved me every time a maulvi was audacious enough to issue fatwas against women.

    It made me uncomfortable that my society feared backlash when it came to condemning questionable accusations relating to alleged blasphemy.

    See: The untold story of Pakistan’s blasphemy law

    It made no sense to me that the idea of a secular Pakistan is just wrong and unspeakable.

    All this and more, informed my beliefs, passions and a laughably naive desire to change the world. Soon enough, it was time for college and the United States of America happened to my life.

    As I moved to western Massachusetts from Lahore, suddenly it mattered that I was brown and Muslim. It mattered because now I was a minority.

    In my two years of living in America, I have understood more than I ever did in Pakistan, the rhetoric of majority and minority.

    It is discomforting to have a conscious awareness that your reality is different than that of an average American because you will probably face bigotry at the hands of a presidential front-runner, and that an airport guy will occasionally raise a brow because you have the green passport in your hand and are wearing a locket saying Allah.

    Examine: If Donald Trump was a Muslim in Pakistan...

    However, I was fortunate to have joined a very politically active and culturally sensitive campus: Mount Holyoke College.

    The diverse community, the challenges of living away from home and a support system of its own kind helped me grow in ways I perhaps wouldn't have in my own country.

    My biggest takeaway, though, has been learning to respect my own happiness and that of others. I started to see no need for being apologetic for my happiness, my beliefs and for who I am.

    In the process, I also declared my International Relations major and began to foster, with ever-growing passion, my love for letting people live — the way they want to.

    The night of the Lahore park attack, my friends and I came together for a candlelight vigil. I looked down at the burning candle in my hands with tears streaming down my face. We had come together for a world that felt ripped apart. We sang John Lennon; and I imagined all the people who couldn’t live for today.

    This candlelight vigil marked the end of my Easter Sunday that had risen with the news of what, in my memory, is the most heinous terrorist attack to have shook Lahore in some time.

    All day, memories of my city replayed in my head like a film with snippets of those large-hearted Lahoris. But I was hopeless and it has been the most real of struggles to find closure ever since.

    I write this because I hear it is therapeutic to pen feelings down. One would need therapy when you grieve a grief that renders you helpless, when you see your ‘homies’ light up because Qandeel Baloch got blocked off Facebook and that is victory to their ‘moral police’, when religious extremists in your land are using the danda and chappals on humans and helicopters and that is a victory for their sense of pride, when your state requires you to attest to the non-Muslim status of Ahmadis on a vote registration form and when Pakistanis politicise human tragedies to rally electoral support for their own political views.

    I do not know if it angers me more than it saddens me but I feel insane. If someone’s morality is different than yours and it affects you, you have weak morals. If coexistence with other beliefs threatens you, you have a weak faith.

    God does not need us to defend His honour; God would appreciate much more if we defended the honour of humanity.

    Explore: As a minority, it is the everyday discrimination that hurts me most

    I may have never felt so disillusioned with the state of discrimination in Pakistan and my naive desire to change the world may have never felt this bruised, but I still have reason to feel proud.

    I am proud that an Ahmadi in Pakistan strengthened my faith more than any maulvi could, that a Hindu in Pakistan showed me the art of coexistence finer than a Muslim here could and that a Pakistani Christian taught me the value of prayer better than any preacher could.

    This blog was originally published on April 04, 2016.


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    Pakistaaaan Zindaaaabaad, Paaakistaan Zinndabaaad
    Jeetay gaa bhai jeetay gaa, Pakistaan Jeetay gaa

    When 25,000 people chant the same mantra in unison, it breathes out spirit and releases an energy that effects the way the universe unfolds. In sports, this translates into the ‘home crowd advantage’. And Pakistan seemed to have plenty of it as they won the Independence Cup 2-1 against the World XI.

    When the first coin toss in Lahore landed in favour of Faf du Plessis, he opted to chase. Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed said, "We wanted to bat first anyway. Players are excited; many are playing for the first time. Our focus is on cricket. The past is the past. We have a zabardast team."

    Sarfraz spoke in few words, but made his point clear. Its a fresh start for his team, he understands these conditions well, and he backs his boys.

    Fakhar Zaman faced the first ball of the historic series. Fakhar, the champion of champions! The man who led Pakistan to glory on the big stage! The ex-navy officer who demolished India! Four, Four, Dot, Out. Fakhar rode his luck, displayed his skill and got caught at wide slip in the space of four deliveries. However, Fakhar’s role was defined. He scored a quick-fire 21 and 27 in the matches that follow, but more importantly he played fearless cricket up front.

    Spectators cheer at the start of the first Twenty20 international match between the World XI and Pakistan. —AFP
    Spectators cheer at the start of the first Twenty20 international match between the World XI and Pakistan. —AFP

    Number two and Number three in Pakistan’s batting line-up were Ahmed Shehzad and Babar Azam. Both born and raised in Lahore, one 25 years old, the other 22, and both tipped to be the future of Pakistan cricket. They put on a 123 runs together. They were not too explosive, but were dominant enough to let the opposition know that it was Pakistan's turf.

    Shehzad and Babar scored a total of 350 runs out of 554 that Pakistan managed in three games. They played out just under 70% of all the balls bowled to Pakistan. They ruled the roost. While Shehzad appeared a little lacklustre in the first two games before he truly came to the party in the third, Babar looked a million dollars the moment he faced his first delivery. On top of the bounce, quick swivel on his toes, and the role of his wrists, pulling Morne Morkel gloriously through square leg.

    Babar is a genuine star in the making. Only if he takes heed from the wasted talent of his predecessors, his cousins (Akmals), only if he keeps those feet well grounded.

    Babar was man of the match in the first game, and Shehzad in the last. Both missed golden opportunities of scoring centuries, both selflessly giving away their wicket in the quest of a higher total for their team.

    Babar Azam (L) and Ahmed Shehzad lead the batting chart. – AFP
    Babar Azam (L) and Ahmed Shehzad lead the batting chart. – AFP

    Shoaib Malik walked out to bat at number four. Barring Ahmed Shehzad, the rest of the Pakistan team had a cumulative 327 international games under their belt; Malik alone has 376. He is the only remaining man who played under Wasim Akram.

    And, if you are among the many in Pakistan who ask why Malik is still in the team? Watch the finishing of Pakistan’s innings in all three game, 38, 39 and 17* at a strike rate of 188. Giving the required impetuous every single time. Making that all-important impact at the tail end.

    Babar, Shehzad and Malik scored over 80% of the runs made by Pakistan in the series. Their lower-middle order was hardly tested. The bowlers of World XI toiled as the Pakistani batsmen re-kindered emotions from a bygone era at Pakistan’s home of cricket.

    Pakistan batted first in all three games, and it was up to their bowlers to defend competitive but gettable totals on a typically flat Gaddafi Stadium pitch, with shortened boundaries.

    Spectators hold placards during the second T20 International match between the World XI and Pakistan. — AFP
    Spectators hold placards during the second T20 International match between the World XI and Pakistan. — AFP

    Imad opened the bowling for Pakistan in all three games. He was the only Pakistani bowler who completed his quota in every match. He is the possible replacement for the slot Muhammad Hafeez has filled so well, for so long, in the shorter formats. He kept them flat and tight, and was the only bowler across both teams to go for under seven runs an over.

    The Pakistani pace battery did well in the middle overs with their discipline in line and length, and their variations in speed at the death.

    But it is not just the flow of runs, Pakistan was also able to take regular wickets and get under the skin of the World XI in the first game and win by 20 runs.

    The second game was different though. Hashim Amla came good and scored the only half-century for World XI in the series. World XI crossed the line with only one ball to spare as Perera smashed Ruman Raees for a six.

    The final game was more one sided than the first. Pakistan took early wickets and reduced World XI to 67/5. Perera tried his heroics again, but did not find support from his partners. Pakistan won by 33 runs to seal the series.

    Pakistan out played the world XI with bat and ball. But the most surprising and heartening facet of Pakistan’s game was in its energy in the ground. The pace at which these young Pakistani boys moved and the intent with which they attacked the ball in the field.

    Faf du Plessis went to the extent of saying “There's lot more energy, their fielding is electric. That's a big change. They're as good as any team.”

    In the middle of all the frenzy, Misbah-ul-Haq and Shahid Afridi got the opportunity to say their final good byes in front of their home crowd.

    Dave Cameron, chairman Cricket West Indies, received a special coin from PCB chairman Najam Sethi for extending his support to Pakistan. West Indies is expected to tour the country in November this year.

    Well done PCB, well done Najam Sethi.

    Pakistan finally played host on home soil, they were the better team, and they were cheered on every ball as international cricket in Pakistan officially resumed. Let's hope it's here to stay.

    Were you present at the Gaddafi Stadium to witness the return of international cricket to Pakistan? Share your experiences with us at

    – AFP– AFP

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    Dystopian themes have always been popular amongst mass media consumers, whether it is a setting for a novel à la Hunger Games, or the premise of widely acclaimed television shows or films.

    There is no denying the public's fascination with 'strange' locations or lifestyles, so different and exaggerated from their own.

    Therefore, it only makes sense that the world is equally fascinated about what goes on behind the closed doors of Saudi Arabia, a nation too private for the information-hungry 21st century.

    Recent developments in the Kingdom, such as the 'honesty app' Sarahah that took over the internet like wildfire, the government's decision to lift restrictions on WhatsApp, Prince Salman's plans to build beach resorts in the country where women can wear bikinis, and the recent video of a Saudi girl strolling in the desert in a skirt and cropped top, have intrigued the world even more.

    Having lived in Saudi Arabia for most of my life, I have become somewhat of an informal traveling speaker on this Middle Eastern desert.

    Females and Saudi Arabia are two things that do not seem to go together very well. Of course, it is not a sanctuary here for women – the driving ban, amongst other things, is very real.

    However, the life I am used to in Saudi Arabia is very different than what the thousands of news articles scattered across the web would paint. Daily life here, especially for a woman, is difficult yet not impossible.

    The first thing to address would probably be the abaya– a black cloak worn over clothes. Women are required to wear an abaya when out in public in Saudi Arabia. Contrary to popular belief, the only thing compulsory is the abaya itself. Head coverings (hijabs) or face coverings (niqabs) are not.

    I have heard of some cases, though, where religious police (Mutawwa) pester Muslim-looking women to cover their hair if they are not doing so. On the other hand, foreign-looking women are given a pass on most of these things.

    To most, this does seem like one of the worst parts about being a woman in Saudi Arabia. I won't disagree – there is something that is deeply dehumanising about being reduced to a black figure in public next to males and loud, rambunctious teenage boys donning bright clothes and the latest fashion trends.

    At the same time, there is nothing like wearing pajamas under your abaya all day and having no one be the wiser because on most days, comfort trumps all. Abayas have also become fashion statements of the sort, with designers selling bedazzled and customised pieces for thousands of Riyals each.

    More recently, colour has started to come back into the market, and amongst the sea women dressed in black in malls, you can now see purple, fawn and glitter-covered robes, a peek into one's personality.

    The driving ban is the next topic many love to discuss, mostly only the sheer absurdity of it. It is sad, though, that it only seems absurd in other countries; here, the roads were paved by men for men.

    I've had people ask me how I function here without the freedom to drive, and how my mother and other housewives even live, seeing as there is no public transportation to replace private cars.

    When I'm asked that, I find myself pausing – how did we do it? Because once you have moved on from Saudi Arabia and experience the ease of mobility, it is difficult to recall a time when the outside world was not as accessible.

    I have to commend my father at this point, for driving more than he probably should after 6pm on a workday. Whether we missed the bus to school or we wanted to go to a friend's house or to the mall, my father would be the chauffeur.

    When he wasn't available, we utilised a private taxi to get to where we needed. To this day, I'm uncertain about the legality of those taxi drivers, as most were Pakistani or Indian men who my mother and her circle of friends paid in cash. We would refer to them as our personal drivers at highway checkpoints instead of taxi drivers.

    Other than that, for those who live in gated compounds, private buses are scheduled for trips to malls or to neighbouring cities. For most school events, school buses are always arranged. Most importantly, almost every restaurant delivers! Even if your father or brother isn't around, you'll get fed.

    The lack of movie theaters is another aspect of Saudi Arabian life that foreigners find extremely hard to believe. It is true that public establishments and entertainment facilities are extremely lacking and much more so for women than for men.

    I live near a public beach and it is hilariously halal. Most of the beach is paved to create a sidewalk, for people to jog, bike or skate on. There are no explicit signs saying 'men only', but the rule is subtly implied because of course, if anyone has tried to bike or run wearing an abaya, they will soon find that it is more difficult than assumed (been there, done that).

    On pleasant days, families will venture out to the beach for a picnic or barbecue, with the women staying on the picnic blanket while the males dive into the water. Some conservative families switch out the picnic blanket for a small tent.

    Malls are open to 'families only', and you will usually see security guards throwing out groups of teenage boys who wander around inside. Something specific to Saudi Arabian malls is that female fitting rooms only exist when the entire shop is run by female employees exclusively, such as lingerie brands or dresses.

    This has become an annoyance, especially when shopping for jeans (as my fellow girls will understand), because it is impossible to find the right fit in the first try. But there is a loophole! I buy the jeans, try them on in the mall's public bathroom, and go back and return them 20 minutes later if they do not fit, and cycle through the process again for the second pair.

    It is tiresome, especially going through the exchange procedure, but it works. Moreover, I find that this is a small price to pay for giant malls housing every international brand you could think of. Think of it as a much (much) more stripped down and censored Dubai.

    Restaurants and cafes are other forms of entertainment, with an extensive range of options available. Each restaurant has a males-only section and a family section. Both sides are supposed to be the same in quality, however, the phrase ‘separate but not equal’ does comes to mind often.

    Nonetheless, there comes some peace of mind with such separation, which is avoiding the leering teenage boys who are prone to harassing and catcalling in almost any situation.

    It is crucial to mention the existence of compounds, or, gated communities. Without describing these, a whole chapter of Saudi Arabian lifestyle is missing. These compounds were originally constructed to house the massive influx of expatriates (no Saudis allowed).

    Built like suburban American communities from the 90's, compounds function as sort of a safe haven from the abundance of rules and regulations that govern public life. Abayas are not required behind the gates. Mixed swimming pools, grocery stores, private beaches and gyms are open day and night, with no strict dress code.

    Some of the bigger compounds, such as Aramco, even have horse riding stables, restaurants and movie theaters available, and also allow women to drive inside to get around. Some foreigners even make their own alcohol at home (it was called Moonshine), if you wanted to know just how lax rules were for them.

    Overall, during my time in Saudi, these private compounds were the setting for most entertainment. Parties, events, spring fairs – there were multiple things to do and hanging out in these gated communities made Saudi Arabia a little less Saudi Arabia for us.

    Having gone to school in this country, I can say that my Middle Eastern experience was a lot more American than expected. Because I attended a co-educational American elementary, middle and high school, the culture and people I was around was another way for me to escape the strict regulations of the place I lived. 

    In the middle of this desert, my school was another source of entertainment and friends, something obviously missing from the Saudi public sphere. These schools, again, were built specifically for expatriates, with very few Saudis allowed in, leading to an even greater divide between locals and foreigners (I did attend high school with a Saudi princess though, which is always an interesting party topic to bring up).

    Movie nights, dances, dinners, sports, prom, pool days – there was always something to do. Everything was accessible as well, keeping in mind where we were. During school, there was no frustration based on being a female in Saudi Arabia – the thought never even came up. Only now that I am graduated, I notice how exasperating daily life can be for a woman.

    Change is forthcoming, though, slowly but surely. Besides slight political reformations, Saudi culture is becoming more modern by the day. A recent example that has made headlines worldwide is the popularity of the Sarahah app.

    Named after the Arabic word for ‘honesty’, Sarahah was developed by a Saudi programmer to allow the sending and receiving of ‘constructive criticism’.

    The mask of anonymity can, of course, be dangerous. While many users receive compliments and kind messages, the majority get rude texts that blur the line between bullying and feedback.

    It is interesting to note that such an app originated in a country like Saudi Arabia, where censorship is rampant both on and offline. The download numbers show a mind-boggling rate of popularity, clearly highlighting the need for openness, honesty and anonymity in such a closed-off nation.

    At the same time though, Sarahah is an important instance of Saudi startups and businesses that are shedding some of the ultra-conservative nature of the society. Sarahah’s developers are focusing on monetising and further boosting the app, making it something to watch out for in the time to come.

    Overall, my life growing up in Saudi Arabia has been, at its core, like any other teenager's. Friendships, drama, grades – it was all there, just set in an unconventional location. The personality of this place has frustrated me at times, and at other times, created who I am today.

    Mine is just one story, though. Being a housewife in Saudi Arabia, being a female doctor in Saudi Arabia, being a maid in Saudi Arabia – each woman will have something different to tell based on the role she is in.

    Most of these stories are still private, locked away in the Middle East, but with the globally connected 21st century, hopefully life down here in the desert will no longer be seen as mysterious and scary as it is made out to be.

    Have you lived in countries that are often mischaracterised by the mainstream media ? Share your experiences with us at

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    Pakistan ranks high on the list of countries most threatened by the impending effects of climate change. Numerous studies show that temperatures in certain parts of Asia will exceed habitable levels by end of the 21st century.

    According to a recent report published by the Asian Development Bank, a 6-degree Celsius temperature increase is projected over the Asian landmass whereby countries like Pakistan could experience a significantly hotter climate.

    It won’t be just heat waves that will kill people; it is expected that the disruption in agricultural output and generally in the region’s economy will trigger deepening vulnerabilities at various scales: from country, cities and communities to households and individuals.

    In southern Pakistan, cities like Karachi, Hyderabad-Jamshoro, Sukkur and coastal cities such as Badin are already at the forefront of climate change related impacts, ever more visible in the form of coastal storm surges, rising sea levels, hotter summers, unprecedented floods, human and livestock displacement and unpredictable precipitation.

    A conceivable scenario of increasing temperatures could lead to a drastic change in Pakistan’s weather system and its industries and trade, and undermine any hope of achieving inclusive and sustainable development.

    But attributing climate change to increasing vulnerabilities is at best a partial account about the limits to our planetary existence in the 21st century.

    The urban question

    A far more significant feature of the impending transformation concerns Pakistan’s rapidly expanding footprint of urbanisation and related ecological degradations that exacerbate vulnerability.

    This is most visible, for instance, at the rural-urban interface where we find spaces of intense marginalisation, new forms of socio-spatial segregation, land-livelihood displacements and environmental degradation. These changes are altering the more familiar map of inner-city deprivation across Pakistan.

    As analysts turn today to the urban question in Pakistan, estimates of scale and urban change proliferate. Despite the current controversy over methods of rural-urban classification in the 2017 Census, the preliminary results do show that an increasingly greater proportion of Pakistanis live in cities today, where all net new employment will be generated.

    Transforming Pakistani cities into sustainable environments is the single biggest challenge that governments, policymakers and entrepreneurs face today, and the ongoing political struggles over resources, infrastructures, amenities and ecologies are shaping how cities play a role in climate adaption.

    Notwithstanding the anticipated impacts on cities of climate change, vulnerability and danger are already conditioning the permutations of everyday life for ordinary citizens who are constantly put in harm’s way.

    In urban Pakistan, the poor not only live in close proximity to toxic waste streams, but are often threatened by beautification projects that would displace and relocate them rather than improve amenities. These harsh material conditions that constantly endanger the lives of the urban poor, are not an outcome of climate change.

    The effects of decades of unpredictable urban planning, incompetent engineering and the actions of greedy developers, have compromised local urban ecologies that could, otherwise, withstand the shock of natural disasters.

    Recently, the extended period of heavy rainfall that crippled Karachi, flooded not only the city’s main infrastructural arteries, but also inundated emerging ‘unplanned’ settlements in peripheral parts such as Gadap Town.

    More on this:Exploring why Karachi's rainwater has nowhere to go

    Karachi’s flooding dilemma is largely due to the illegal developments on the city’s waterways and drains; developments that cater to the needs of rich and poor alike and literally choke the city’s natural drainage systems. Many developments also exemplify private builders’ attempts to reconfigure Karachi as a world-class city.

    But the urban question as it relates to climate change isn’t just about cities and population size, which is a key lens through which Pakistan’s urban condition is conventionally understood, and it is the basis on which appropriate spatial boundaries are determined and policies made.

    Given the relentless dynamics of socio-spatial restructuring since partition, boundaries, scale and the morphology of urbanisation and related ecologies have been continually reworked throughout the 20th century in Pakistan.

    In large part, I believe that it is analytically fruitless to impose statistical fixity upon any settlement space, rural or urban. The rural-urban divide is not a quantitative fact.

    The methodological conundrum of measuring and delineating urban populations is an old one. For a long time, demographic approaches have tried to resolve this vital spatial problem on a numerical basis: calculate how many people are required to reside in a given jurisdictional space and based on that, classify the ‘urban’.

    In the mid-20th century, the eminent demographer Kingsley Davis was an early proponent of this approach, and his contributions have influenced a generation of demographers who continue to statistically chart the messy terrain of the rural-urban.

    These orthodox attempts to code the ‘urban’ are largely rooted in a 20th century representation of a methodologically territorialist model of urbanisation; a model that is no longer helpful for understanding the process of planetary urbanisation in the 21st century.

    Looking beyond the rural-urban divide

    Despite Davis’ statistical penchants, he did make some nuanced observations about urbanisation. His observations are pertinent for considering Pakistan’s contemporary context that is embedded in the broader terrain of planetary urbanisation.

    Davis had presciently underscored the dangers of confining the urban to a purely demographic approach. He had outlined a complex process of metropolitan expansion and dispersion that was already altering longstanding urban and regional configurations in Western countries in the mid-20th century.

    Davis was considering the possibility that rurality was going to disappear entirely, and alongside this would emerge a different kind of urban existence. The relationship between the city and the countryside was changing in a such a way, that the two, Davis noted, would merge, leading to sprawling conurbations with no intervening countryside in the middle.

    Davis subsequently proposed that data collection needed to remain cognisant of the powerful tendencies towards expanded urbanisation and shrinking rurality.

    The urban cannot be understood as a bounded, enclosed site of social relations contrasted with the rural.

    I take Davis’ point seriously given the socio-spatial fluidity that characterises our global urban condition under modern capitalism, where intensifying and interdependent socio-spatiality blurs the boundaries between rural and urban, and destabilises longstanding ecologies of agrarian, hinterland and coastal systems.

    While urban spaces materialise through dynamics of movement, connectivity, circulation of commodities and reconfigurations of identity and attachments, these are also spaces of the accumulation of capital, the privatisation of common resources and the urbanisation of nature; where deforestation, concretisation, encroachment, land reclamation and land mining for development produce ecological ruptures.

    A case in point is contemporary Karachi as a product of not only numerous ecological ruptures, but also a city whose relationship with the hinterlands or the agrarian-rural and the coastal is undergoing complex transformations.

    Explore:Bahria Town Karachi: Greed unlimited

    Thus, to carve sections of Karachi into a distinctly ‘urban’ space and relegate what lies outside as a ‘rural’ space by invoking a criteria of population size and administrative classification, ultimately prevents exploration of how these spaces are produced by the same political-economic process that includes not only capital accumulation, but also migration, privatisation of commons, and socio-environmental degradation.

    The entrenched empiricism located in parochially defined theoretical/statistical certainties dominate Pakistan’s social sciences and the broader planning and policy making agendas.

    This leads researchers to stress concrete investigations rather than to explore the underlying conceptual assumptions that frame those investigations in the first place.

    So herein lies a key challenge for rethinking Pakistan’s contemporary urbanisation process and its bearing on climate change/adaptation.

    Planetary urbanisation

    Fundamentally, methodologically territorialist approaches rooted in 20th century epistemologies that treat the ‘urban’ and the ‘city’ as a bounded condition of settlement, have become archaic.

    Such epistemologies represent a one-sided picture of an urbanising landscape that is variable and unremittingly dynamic.

    The urban cannot be understood as a bounded, enclosed site of social relations contrasted with the rural.

    These inherited assumptions obfuscate complex socio-spatial transformations of densely settled zones – megacities, city, metropolitan – that cannot be seen as exclusive agglomerations of clustered populations, economic activities and infrastructural systems, demarcated by an empty outside or a rural space.

    Related:Census 2017: How can flawed results have any credibility?

    In the history of modern capitalism and its relationship with the colonial/postcolonial, the terrain of the ‘rural’ was hardly an empty space or disconnected from the process of urbanisation.

    Instead, the ‘rural’ or the ‘non-urban’ has evolved constantly through a complex, thickening web of infrastructural, economic and ecological connections with urban concentrations in virtually every part of the world.

    These materialisations through densely, knotted circuits of labour, raw materials, energy, food, commodities, webs of social relations that connect/disconnect different places, cultural forms and more, mediate development pathways of planetary urbanisation in the 21st century.

    Urbanisation today affects virtually every part of the world; it is a process that is unevenly woven into the fabric of socio-cultural and political-economic relations of capitalism.

    The rural-urban binary as it pertains to theory, census methodologies, planning practice and everyday life doesn’t help; instead it obscures the frenzied socio-spatial transformations of the urban hinterlands and agrarian spaces within Pakistan.

    The rapid transformation that is taking place in Pakistan is not within cities, but in its edges that are largely agricultural. Suburbanisation, de-agrarianisation, peripheral urbanisation, all these processes are interconnected and they index new modes of urbanisation; new modes of the production of urban space located at the limits of our planetary existence.

    Planetary urbanisation produces wide-ranging socio-spatial conditions that necessitate the kind of contextual analysis that Kingsely Davis had briefly touched upon. This task has been taken up by critical urban theorists who combine critical cartography, geo-spatial-comparative analysis and political economy to investigate ongoing transformations.

    My own interests align with such innovative analytical approaches of the urban in terms of thinking about the thickening webs of infrastructural connectivities/disconnectivities across the Asian landscape, across borders, cities, peripheries and so forth, and related displacements and endangerments for marginalised populations.

    Planning urban futures

    While we search for a new lexicon of urbanisation in order to grasp the unstable and violent geographies of 21st century capitalism in which Pakistan is deeply embedded, the question of the limits to our planetary existence in the context of unstable ecologies and the impending impacts of climate change is certainly germane.

    In Pakistan, where governance is top down and land use is primarily within federal and provincial jurisdictions, and a fragmented structure of local governance exacerbates land-use decisions, city mayors and chief ministers are glorified managers whose actions are limited to platitudes or pushing for beautification projects and signal free transport corridors.

    Such approaches are of limited use. Constructive solutions for a new urban future necessitate we take not only the city but also the wider region into consideration.

    Further:Pakistan’s urban policy: Turning cities into slums

    Realistic interventions that many urban planners in Pakistan have long professed, will need to push for conversations about climate change in the context of extended urbanisation, and that also pay attention to several key issues, such as urban design, land-use planning and zoning interventions.

    These issues extend their reach into virtually every aspect of an individual’s well-being. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, political exigency at all levels of governance has ensured that these powerful tools remain underutilised.

    But the uncomfortable fact remains that if we have already reached the limits to our planetary existence, then substantive changes are needed not only in terms of how we think about urbanisation, but also how we intend to reshape the future of our existing urban fabric.

    Are you a policymaker, administrator or academic and have expertise on how to deal with Karachi's problems? Write to us at