the great escape

I look around and eye the **exit** my great escape, the red flashing sign, the word EXIT, written up, loud and clear, I eye it. And I make a run for it. The two hosts grab me before I even take a step, each with one arm locked into mine, they **crack a joke** about me, the audience laughs. They hand me a metal statuette, I hold it --the heaviest thing I’ve ever held on to-- it falls through the stage, through the wooden floor, with me holding tightly onto it, through and through. “Ladies and gentlemen we just witnessed **a great escape** for the first time in the history of this event, has the winner escaped in such a dramatic fashion, and without giving a speech either.”

Friday, November 20

Thus Churns the Revolving Door Soap Opera of Politics

Over the recent past I've noticed an interesting trend in this newly freed media of ours, where the media as a conjoined entity seems to float new issues every now and then which are suspiciously reflective of the mood in the parliament, the military establishment, and other high echelons of power.

If we just go back a few weeks we find that the media had been railing and ranting about how the Kerry Lugar Bill puts the country's sovereignty at stake, about how our politicians are in cahoots with the US, and how the military wants the KLB, but without conditionality. If I were to pick a source for the views that seemed to be emanating from our media establishment, then my best guess would be that this was the military's take on the KLB, and an effort to build public consensus against the bill.

Well the buzz hyped up to a climax as Hillary Clinton came and went (pun not intended!). The US State Department essentially asserted that no changes needed to be made to the bill even before Hillaria had broadcast her hillariaty into the airwaves. And less than a week later.. **poof** no more whining over the KLB, the issue went to rest all of a sudden, almost magically.

Now the TV channels obviously need to sell airtime to their much loved corporate sponsors so they need viewers like you and me, and since lounge-room politics bashing is pretty much our national sport, they can't really afford (in the strictest sense of the word) to have an issue-less vacuum suffocating the longish sets of their talk-show hosts; so what do they do?

The issue factory churns and grinds, and **boom** a new issue is produced for the masses to lament on, curse at the government, and whine at their dismay: Behold the NRO!

(continue reading...)

Saturday, October 31

Culture Survives in Nooks and Crannies

Cultural expression seems to be the ultimate quagmire-- even when its very existence is threatened it seems to craft itself anew. While cultural activity has been at a down low in Lahore of late, it seems artistic expression is managing to adapt to this new climate, and evolve.

Last week I attended an art exhibit of some of Lahore's younger and upcoming artists, marketed as a presentation on affordable art and aptly titled "OMG I Can Buy Art!". Hosted by a local gallery called Grey Noise, the exhibition was confined to a small but happening room which allowed the those considered whose-who of art along with the would-be's to scuttle through.

A couple of weeks ago I witnessed a small rock gig in someone's backyard, while you would expect only novice bands to be playing such a venue, the veteran rock band co-Ven nefarious for their politically laced songs, and experimental music were headlining the show while giving some newer acts a platform to perform. As a surprise addition, the famed pop singer Ali Azmat showed up and even did an impromptu performance with one of the newer bands. Despite being a small-scale event, it was a pleasant gathering, layed back and chilled out.

These cultural events arn't just restricted to the elite of the city, a very popular and age old cultural event around the weekly mystic beating of a drum at a locally revered Sufi saint's shrine was recently resumed audaciously at a different location for a more toned down atmosphere after receiving bomb threats.

Culture doesn't merely dissipate when faced with threats on the surface, it merely reorganizes itself, while also capturing and expressing those very developments which threatened it in the first place. Even if it is restricted to small rooms and backyards, the important part is that it is still there allowing people to partake.

Saturday, October 17

What Does Televized Terror Accomplish?

Yesterday a string of terrorist attacks ripped through Lahore, the attacks were all aimed at security infrastructure and personnel. Lahoris woke up to the news of the attacks, which started as early as 9 AM, blaring all over the airwaves. While five civilians, and twelve security personnel are reported to have been killed in the violence propagated by ten attackers who were also eventually slain, the casualties from the attack seemed to have been kept at bay. Reports suggest that the attackers were bent on creating a hostage situation involving the families of police officers, probably as a bargaining chip either to get concessions, prisoner exchange, or manipulate government policy in some way. The only good news is that the outcome wasn't half as bad as it could have turned out to be.

Attacking security infrastructure marks a shift in insurgent strategy, as their leadership seems to have realized that only targeting civilians is somewhat counterproductive as it gives them bad press. The end outcome hoped for by these outfits is clearly to create a media spectacle, using the many television news channels across the country to broadcast their gruesome message to a captive audience, of late however, it seems that these attacks are counterproductive with respect to these terror outfits' designs as they only serve to mobilize public opinion against them as was evident during the military operation in Swat.

Intelligence sources have reported that media infrastructure, and posh co-educational institutions might be the next targets of these attacks. It seems that these efforts are only ways to come up with a crude and unplanned enforcement of shariah by hook or by crook. At the end of the day, mounting an attack on police training centers would probably not deter the impending military operation in South Waziristan, and attacking civilian targets would certainly not generate public sympathies for the insurgents' cause. It is all but unclear then, what exactly such attacks accomplish other than unsettling people, and destabilizing the state.

Friday, September 11

The Mass Media Billboard Frenzy and the Urban Scape

It is true that all cities have a unique character; in Lahore that character has almost become synonymous with expansive billboards jutting out of the infrastructure in all different directions: calligraphy running down the walls, English written in Urdu, and Urdu transliterated in English, together with huge spelling faux pas proudly held up to unimaginable heights, and, of course, images ranging from families and cooking oils to women on mattresses in sultry poses. We have free markets, deregulation, and rent-seeking behaviour to thank for this boisterous explosion of urban infrastructural mass media that some would argue quite aptly represents what Lahore and Lahoris are all about.

That said, it would be evident that we’ve come a long way from the grandiosity of the Badshahi Masjid, a jewel for the Mughals, or the Mall Road, the pride of the British. Historically, the look and feel of the city would be an expression of the dominant force within that city. Administrators would take pride in giving the city their personal touch. Then how did we get from there to here? Well, if the Emperor was sovereign during Mughal times, and the bureaucratic institution was administrator par excellence during the British Raj, then it is a natural conclusion that the corporation reigns supreme in the times that have happened to grace us. With ever flashier modes of urban display, LED screens, and plasma projection units, and millions and millions in advertising budgets, our cities will indeed become the mass-communication extravaganza that the corporate identity of Lahore would imagine.

Unlike the British, the Mughals and the Sikhs, and whoever else has laid claim to Lahore in the past, the corporations don’t act on a unitary urban aesthetic. Rather, their mode of operation is chaotic at best, as they respond to each other with bigger, more flashy messages to induce those driving by in an instance. Nothing speaks more loudly of our reclaim of British areas of architectural finesse like Tollington and Davis Road than the sprawling colourful signboards, mounted all over shop edifices.

As shop owners and those in possession of lucrative property jump into this frenzy, the city begins to emulate a glamour magazine with a 20:80 content-publicity ratio. Questions of taste and aesthetics then get bundled up with the heavy handed marketing departments’ and ad agencies’ assessment of the mood at large.

Of course, appearances count more than truisms in these parts. At the end of the day, it isn’t accuracy they’re going for, but sensation. One would argue that the two elements unmistakably present at all major traffic signals, i.e. beggars and billboards (the subject of many snapshots clicked by bemused foreigners) represent the huge disconnect between appearance and reality that is being fed to the masses on a daily basis. How does the large shampoo billboard relate to the urban condition of the rickshaw driver? How does the supermodel superimposed on a whitening cream ad relieve the frustrations of the pubescent youth on a disappointingly fruitless prowl? It is quite evident that the publicity billboards that seek to attract all attention at every stoplight and flyover constantly bombard the inhabitants of the city with the chasm that exists between reality and product-oriented idealism.

full version readable at my post on the Dawn Blog

Monday, August 17

A Strange Institution for a Stranger Place

Like any sprawling urban metropolis, Lahore has a rich historical tradition driven by the raids, conquests, and repossessions of many a power-broker reigning supreme over the region. Through the ebb and flow of history, the heart of Punjab has swapped several hands, and has been the jewel of many empires. My cousin who is an architect says, as a city Lahore encompasses layers and layers of history in its architecture. Indeed, if one takes a trip down from the old walled city, one is able to witness all the political-economic changes the city through its history. The Sikh domes of Ranjit Singh's capital morph into Mughal grandiose, immediately differentiable from the high-administrative aesthetic of the British Raj. Going down Mall Road, one notices how, instead of abrupt cultural contours, Lahore has been consistently assimilating nuances and cultural subtitles from whatever it has come in contact with.

One such cultural oddity is the Lahore Gymkhana Club. One out of a set of Gym-Khana institutions originally established by the British as a chain of sporting and social clubs across India, now finds itself on the peripheries of culture. What must have been a truly strange place even before the departure of the British, it seems has only become stranger since. Rather than being abolished soon after the departure of the Britishers --its raison d'etre-- the Gymkhana seems to have been co-opted by the cultural fetishes of an emerging ruling class. The institution now exists as a time warp within the cultural archeology of the city; a place where waiters still dress in British Indian atastire, and doormen sport the huge mustache and turban look. Until recently the dining room menu consisted of the strictly British bland cuisine, long abandoned for more elaborate flavors by the British themselves.

Like other institutions in the country which were inherited from the Raj, the Lahore Gymkhana has gone through many changes, while certain things remain unchanged. The club went dry when Alcohol was banned by Z.A. Bhutto, and the Zia years saw the swing nights turn into “Family Bar B Q”. The existence of the Gymkhana clearly evidences that the culture that was originally imported from the British by those who could afford it, has now gone awry and turned into an anomaly that seems to fit right into the mad mix that is Lahore. Obviously the “Dogs and Indians Not Allowed” sign had to go, but was sheepishly replaced with the “Guest Not Allow” slogan.

Monday, June 22

(a quick jot) On Social Responsibility

While society is responsible for civilizing the individual by engendering such moral values, behavioral norms, culture, and mannerisms, it is in turn the individual's responsibility towards society to uphold and enforce these values. Values, whether presented through cultural tradition, religious dictum, or legal jurisprudence would be irrelevant if they fail to bind individuals in a mutual respect. A society consisting primarily of socially irresponsible individuals would naturally be expected to crumble to its own demise as everyone looks out for their own selfish interest.

Modern societies are obviously much more complex than the simple example undertaken above, and the value sets of moralities extended through culture and tradition are also as intricate. Given a complicated set of social relations and interactions, social responsibility should by no means imply a blind conformity to socially established norms and regulations, a very important facet of social responsibility lies in the individual's own critical assessment of these values in terms of an imagined ideal society in his own mind. It then becomes the individual's responsibility not only to uphold those values which would make this ideal society a real possibility, but also to question those values that contradict the idea of such a society.

Saturday, June 13

Security (in) Security

The number of suicide bombers supposedly loose in the city at a given time are broadcast on news-ticker marquees at traffic lights, fueling a further angst in the hearts of people waiting for the light to turn green. I have often heard people questioning why the security agencies fail to apprehend these individuals despite all the advance intelligence they go around flaunting. It seems right now there are two opposing apparatuses of force operating in and around the cities of Pakistan: one supposed to be providing security, enforcing law, and ensuring order; the other producing insecurity, creating discord, and generating chaos. Ironically it seems the latter is better equipped, more motivated, and with far superior training compared to its sluggish target.

As it stands now, it seems even the providers of security are feeling the chill of insecurity. All the streets leading to the cantonment area of Lahore were barricaded for more than an hour the morning after the attacks on the Rescue 15 building, causing the heavy Monday morning traffic to be piled up all over the main streets. The reason provided for the blockade by police officials was a 'V.V.I.P movement' underway at that time. It was later revealed that this so called 'very, very important person' was none other than General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kaiyani, the Chief of Army Staff of the Pakistan Army, who apparently doesn't feel that safe driving down the main streets of Lahore in broad daylight any more.

Last weekend the Lahore Police had set up a makeshift check-post on the Main Boulevard of Lahore where I was stopped at 3AM. Instead of being on the lookout for suspicious looking vehicles carrying large amounts of explosives and/or militant operatives, these supposed defenders of justice were stopping the Saturday night post-party crowd hoping to make a few hundred rupees in the form of bribes from young drunk drivers. I asked the officer trying to smell alcohol off my breath while searching for bits of hashish on my person, if there weren't bigger things the police should be concerned about, to which he dutifully replied, “Terrorism isn't the only crime we're supposed to be eradicating”.

Thursday, May 28

No God But God -- a critique

Reza Aslan's book 'No God But God' can, at most, be seen as a feeble attempt to redeem the religion's tattered image in the eyes of the liberal West. Aslan takes the battle for the interpretive cohesion of Islam under a grand unification back to the familiar battle ground of progressivism versus traditionalism. Indeed, the public image of the religion has been dismembered in this post 9/11 climate, and any smear campaign waged by both the left and right quarters of the Western intelligentsia targets the obviously obese sitting duck represented by the oligarchic Islamic clergy the contradictions it disseminates and the shocking contradictions to liberal and modern sensibilities. While the right wing hawks are busy aggravating the masses by dehumanizing the Islamic other, the flaming left is out to show Islam as an archaic and borderline barbarism. Aslan is attempting to turn the tables on this debate by enlightening the liberals and discrediting the conservatives on both sides of the Islamic membrane within organized monotheism.

Although his intentions might be noble, while dissecting his arguments it becomes more obvious that Aslan is trying to dismantle the standardized and regulated Islam while trying to salvage a universally applicable 'Islamicness' from the all the clutter. In order to accomplish this daunting task, Aslan takes a historical approach, where Islam is seen as a phenomenon that is bound within the historical-material course of progress. Aslan seems to imply that the way of life prescribed by Islam for its followers is fundamentally distinguishable from the norms, customs, traditions, language, and culture prevalent in Arabia during the time of Muhammad, and that after the death of Muhammad certain cultural nuances have seeped over time into the religious discourse of Islam.

Continuing the same line of argument, Aslan redefines the sayings and actions of the Prophet from the traditional view of anecdotes and quotes that shed light on the many ambiguities of the Quran to vehicles used by power brokers to garner political and cultural influence at various points in the history of Islam. Aslan goes on to declare the Hadith irrelevant in any interpretive pursuit of what was revealed in the Quran, while citing different examples of how the sayings and actions of the Prophet were used to attain different objectives be it subjugation of women, or reallocation of capital. According to Alsan, the cookie cutter Islam preached by the clerical institutions, the Ulemah, and freelance preachers is nothing but an abstraction motivated by socio-political ends.

Aslan looks towards a pluralistic Islam which is broad enough to accomodate for all the cultural diversity of the area and the historical course it spans, arguing in effect for a cross-board liberalization of the religion's most identifiable tenets. The problem with this approach is that on the one hand it is declaring culture as irrelevant in the formation of a cohesive Islamic thought, while at the same time elevating the importance of a cultural understanding of Islam. If the cultural interpretations presented by post-Muhammadan Arabia are irrelevant, then the Sufic aphorisms must be considered as irrelevant to any understanding of the complexities presented in the Quran as they too are also bound in a cultural-materialism.

Similarly, Aslan's take on the irrelevance of the Hadith is also a tap-dance act where he is discrediting certain accounts of the Prophets life and times based on other accounts of the Prophet provided by those around him. In this approach he is again making a value judgment on the nature of accounts and stories based on their rational value. Essentially he is attempting to remove the mask of conservative traditionalism and replacing it with yet another mask of progressive liberalism. By taking out the Hadith and the cultural aspects of life in the day and age of divine revelation, Aslan is attempting to extract an intrinsic value of Islam. He does not realize that pealing the onion will only result in no onion at all. If Islam is to boil down to a personal assessment of values and morality then one is tempted to ask why Islam is even necessary, and what value does any stand-alone interpretation of the Quran provide us in this day and age where morality, culture, and customs relate to diversity through relativism.

Friday, April 17

Survival of the Purest

Most often the easiest solution to social incongruence surfaces as the most obvious, i.e. social-political segregation. "If these extremists are so hell-bent on building their ideal society dating back to the 6th century, then let them have their own piece of land where they can freely do so without causing any botheration to those who would rather indulge in the many tempting fruits of modernity" is the logic that follows.

Now lets step back for a second and envision what this new order would look like. For one our beloved Land of the Pure would be savagely cut into two parts representing the very extreme minority, and the lukewarm moderate majority. For the sake of convenience lets call these derivative land masses Extremistan and Moderistan respectively. What should we expect from such a division on the basis of religious variance?

Lets look at Extremistan first. The newly formed country would be faced with two possible outcomes. First, more extremes come frothing out from the original extreme, allowing the vetting process to continue unabated until the extremest of the extreme, the purest of the pure is prevalent over this land of the extremely pure. Second, as the enlightened General Musharraf himself once said, 'the extremists are becoming more extreme' -- it is unlikely that any slight variance of thought will be tolerated in the first place, those initially straying from 'the straight path' will be promptly hung in public, allowing the extreme to consolidate further gaining strength into a force to be reckoned with.

Back in Moderistan, everyone will probably be too lazy, disinterested and captivated in a consumerist nirvana of apathy to care about any such trivialities, all they would want would be to finally be left alone to their own devices. But alas! with an increasingly stronger, overzealous, ultimately extra extra extreme neighbour, does anyone think these hopeful moderates will be finally left alone? Being so extreme, the extremists would want nothing less than the total annihilation of these moderate infidels on their way to complete world domination. Tragic.

Friday, February 6

Is India's Hindu-right ready for 'The Taliban Hall of Fame' yet?

According to recent media reports, a new front of Talibanization appears to have opened up. The latest host is none other than emerging superpower India. Several women were attacked in a college pub in the southern city of Mangalore, leading to comments by the Indian Women's minister describing the event as "an attempt to impose Taleban-style values". Sri Ram Sena (The Army of Lord Ram), a reletively unknown right-wing Hindu group is now being dubbed by the media as "India's Taliban".

The appeal for this Taliban-style has started spreading more rapidly in recent years. The original Taliban (called simply Taliban, not The Original Taliban) derived from way-of-life movements springing up in schools all around Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan war. After the many successes and blunders of the infamous "Taliban in Iraq", comes the latest hub of this Taliban groove in the lawless wild-wild-west of northern Pakistan.

Forget that the word "Taliban" means students, Taliban related outfits in Pakistan have perhaps been too preoccupied lately, blowing up girls' schools, NATO supply warehouses, bridges, ammunition depots, killing spies, and mutilating dishonored women's faces with acid in Swat and other tribal regions, to even notice that they have become a growing trend across the border in India where inspired individuals from the Hindu-right have started giving alcohol consuming women quite a thrashing.

Of course the Hindu-right's aspirations to truly be Taliban-style (and not be fakin' it) are still young, only after months of strenuous practice and training will these determined right-wing Hindus acquire the physical skills, mental discipline, and spiritual strength required to successfully apply their vision of moral purity more forcefully. They would best be able to project themselves in the "right" light only through bigger badder operations-- like blowing up pubs, bars, cocktail lounges, waxing salons, and lingere stores. Though this would have quite an impact on the booming urban food, drink, and fashion industries – but isn't ruthless competition what free market capitalism all about anyway?

Talibanization is probably the only industry where Pakistan still seems to maintain a significant comparative advantage over the emerging economic powerhouse that India is becoming. Trade liberalization doctrines would dictate that it would be best for India to outsource its Talibanization logistics to Pakistan, who apparently has significantly advanced training and research capabilities, development infrastructure, as well as the most advanced technology and expertise in the area. India's booming market for Talibanized products and services would provide the booming cash flows neccesary to launch this potential cross-border venture to take global proportions.

The Pakistani Taliban appear to have progressed with leaps and bounds in their quest for universal moral decency. Their latest prize, an agreement with the government of Pakistan, on making parts of Swat an airtight morality zone for the implementation of Shariah Law-- complete with a parallel judicial system, and legislative structures, not to mention their very own rockstar Maulana "Redoo" Fazalullah (the "Redoo" is for the Radio in "Mullah Radio"). This literal state-within-a-state is the fruit of the seeds sown by the hours of tireless training spent jumping through hoops and running through tires in their training camps. If the aspiring members of Sri Ram Sena seek to enjoy similar heights of success, they should expect to put hours of strenuous practice and ingenious plotting into their operations.

So far it seems the Sri Ram Sena has its work cut out for it. Not only is the police cracking down on them to preserve India's liberal image, angry women in Indian cities seem to have organized themseves as "a consortium of pub-going, loose and forward women". This reactionary group of pink panty flaunting women -- reacting to the violence of conservative minded men, who in turn are reacting to the westernization of their ancient culture, which in turn is a reaction to the ancientness of the culture itself-- have already done the first common sense thing any such group would do: start a group on Facebook!

Now this cause is a recognized and trademarked social networking phenomenon, complete with satellite blogs providing minute-to-minute updates. The BBC reports over 5,000 members already. These passionate defenders of life and liberty, it appears, have decided to fight fire with fire, setting the battle stage on Valentine's Day, which, it turns out, comes from a rich tradition of defending values (the word valentine being a term of reverence for a martyred saint in Christianity). Apart from flowers, chocolates, and greeting cards, the days leading to February 14th this year would record a suspicious surge in the quantity of pink underwear purchased by women (and men) inspired by the Facebook driven "Pink Chaddi Campaign". A mail delivery of massive quantities of pink undergarments should be expected any day at the doorstep of Mr. Pramod Mutalk, the head of the infamous outfit.

While Mutalik, had sworn that the group would continue its efforts to thwart any "Western deviations" from Indian culture, in retaliation the Save the Earth Foundation sanctioned the deployment of martial-arts trained volunteers to areas where couples doing couply things might be threatened by these self-appointed defenders of morality. To an outside observer this Valentine's day in Indian urban centers like Mangalore would emulate a fusion between a B-rate kung-fu picture and a Bollywood gang fight sequence complete with damsels in distress, forlorn romeos, bouquets flying, the works.

The mere fact that there is both material and online resistance to the Sri Ram Sena's vision of moral goodness (and all-male pubs) suggests the need for a different strategy than those successfully executed by the Taliban on the Pakistani side of the War on Westernism. The women, for one, seem much more submissive, at times even cooperating to further the materialization of the Taliban's dream-society. This was evidenced by the emergence of the ninja-clad staff hurling ultra-violent band of Jamia Hafsa women in the midst of the Lal Masjid episode in Pakistan's capital of Islamabad. Not only were these women fully cooperative in the efforts to morally cleanse the surrounding areas of the masjid, they proved instrumental in the initial efforts to unsettle the government by kidnapping a sleuth of massage parlor workers, taking a nearby children's school by storm and holding hostages for safe passage guarantees, while zealously guarding moral diktats.

Converse to the "loose" women's reactive response, Taliban related movements currently operating in Swat and other tribal regions of Pakistan have faced absolutely negligible resistance on Facebook, and have certainly not received any pink underwear in the mail. Heaven forbid, if they find out such a thing exists they would be morally obligated to blow up all knitwear and garment factories in the region. Then the women of the region would not only be deprived of primary education, but also essentials of feminine hygiene.

As Talibanization spreads into the cities of Pakistan, it seems that the brunt of the moral cleansing is coming down even stronger on post-pubescent men of all shapes and sizes. A recent report suggests that the Taliban were able to successfully eradicate all pornographic material from a CD/DVD bazaar in Lahore with the mere threat of blowing their haram electronic media sky-high.

Unfortunately for the Talibanized groups on the Indian side of the border, their campaign did not see any pubs shut down, or any Valentine's memorabilia set alight. Only six arrests and minor incidents of socially disruptive behavior were reported in Indian cities this Valentine's day. These unimpressive results suggest that groups like the Sri Ram Sena have to get back to the drawing board and seriously chart out a new plan of action that would win them more support, and possibly even defect some disillusioned women on their side as well. A comment posted on one of the blogs following the Pink Chaddie episode advises the Ram Sena activists to "work through" the public opinion which is "actually on their side". Truly it seems that the decency campaign is yet another battle of hearts and minds, involving lots and lots of training.