Friday, October 24, 2008

US missile strikes in Pakistan

My talk for the Day of Resistance rally in Honolulu today:

In 1977, native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko wrote a book called CEREMONY. This is a quote from the book, in which a World War II veteran is reflecting on why he cannot explain the war to an elder of his tribe:

‘In the old ways of warfare, you couldn’t kill another human being in battle without knowing it, without seeing the result. But the old man would not have believed white warfare – killing across great distances without knowing who or how many had died. It was all too alien to comprehend, the mortars and big guns; and even if he could have taken the old man to see the target areas, even if he could have led him through the craters of torn earth to show him the dead, the old man would not have believed anything so monstrous.’

Killing across great distances without knowing who or how many had died. Silko was speaking about a war sixty years ago. Now we have become so used to this kind of warfare that killing across great distances without knowing who or how many have died is perfectly ordinary. Neither US presidential candidate has indicated anything other than a complete endorsement of continuing with such killing. One of them may want an end to the war in Iraq, but he has said repeatedly that he believes in shifting the war to Pakistan ‘to get Al Qaida’, as if Al Qaida rests on the shoulders of 160 million Pakistanis. It does not. And if 160 million Pakistanis fail to find and hand over the bogey man Al Qaida, he has threatened repeatedly to take ‘direct action,’ including direct military action. When this action is taken – it is not a question of if this action is taken but when – whether by McCain or Obama, it will be yet more killing across great distances without you knowing who or how many have died.

I would like you to know the cost of this war to Pakistan so far.

Since 2001, the Bush administration has regularly been launching missile strikes across the Afghan border and into Pakistan. This particular year, this election year, the US strikes in Pakistan have increased alarmingly. There was one just yesterday. Eleven people died. As with all the other strikes, this one was ostensibly to take out a Taliban leader, but the leader got away, while innocent people died. The American missile strike in Pakistan last month killed 23 innocent men, women, and children. Between August 23 and October 10, at least eleven missile strikes killed more than a hundred people. This is according to Fox News, by the way. So if Fox can acknowledge it, the numbers must be even higher. This is in addition to the thirteen people killed on January 29. The twelve people killed on February 28. The eighteen people killed on March 17. The twelve killed on May 14. The eleven killed on June 10. And the numerous faceless, uncounted others killed this year, because as I’m sure you know, this is only a very partial list.

Aside from the bombing of villages and the killing of innocent civilians, there are other ways in which this war is ruining the lives of ordinary people you are not meant to see. It is estimated that around 5,000 Pakistanis suspected of being 'terrorists' have been illegally detained in military torture cells both inside and outside the country. Any one in Pakistan will tell you that most of those who've disappeared have nothing to do with Al Qaeda. They are being held either for no reason other than as evidence of 'peformance' for the US Empire, or because they threaten the internal interests of Pakistan’s rulers.­ Most of those who’ve been illegally detained come from poor, rural areas that are rich in natural resources, particularly in minerals and natural gas. Among those who’ve gone missing are journalists, poets, political activists and their families, and students and their families. Only 200 have been taken to court. None are proven terrorists. A few are released: all tell horrific stories of torture.

What happens when you routinely see US drones flying over your home and watch entire villages being bombed and your families killed and your siblings kidnapped and tortured?

Well, when I left Pakistan a few months ago, I knew peace-loving folks who didn’t even know any Taliban but who were beginning to gradually and grudgingly suppport them. That is in the cities. In the rural areas, more and more young angry men and women are taking up arms. Many of them had never even held a gun till the US ‘war on terror’ began. As one Pakistani recently put it. "This is the biggest gift of George Bush to al-Qa'ida." A country that as a child I knew as ethnically and intellectually dynamic, spirited and for the most part, peace-loving, now has a suicide-bombing just about every day, resulting in more deaths in Pakistan this year than in Afghanistan or Iraq. There were no suicide bombings in Pakistan till this war began.

If we want change, shifting the war to Pakistan is not going to accomplish it. Peaceful, democratic, secular, tolerant societies never grew from intimidation, missile strikes, kidnappings, torture. Change will only come when the United States acknowledges who and how many Iraqis, Afghans and Pakistanis it has killed since this war began and commits itself to engaging with our countries as partners not targets.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

blues, butterflies

I know I’ve been terrible about updating my blog this spring/summer, and my embarrassment has made me stay away even longer than I might have. (I sound like a student turning in a late paper.) But it’s been an eventful few months: I’ve been traveling, and later this month, I’ll be traveling again. Currently I’m in a town called Northampton, in Massachusetts, USA. The highlight of this trip: seeing one of my favourite singers, Bettye Lavette. If you haven’t heard of her, please nourish your soul and pick up a copy of one of her records. The latest one is called The Scene of the Crime. It’s so good you’ll want to scream. Seeing her live did just that to me: the woman is so BIG in her spirit, her passion, her anger, her humour – she’s such a well of wisdom and intensity – I don’t know how I kept sitting in my seat without tearing out of my skin! Her previous record, Hell to Raise, is no less spectacular, and at the concert, after the encore, she sang a stunning cover from this record called, ‘I do not want what I haven’t got’. Everyone cried. (The original was written by Sinead O’Connor. I don’t know that version; I never paid much attention to O’Connor, but what a song this is.)

Other highlights: seeing Buddy Guy (whom I’ve loved for much of my life) and the Black Keys (recently discovered). The Black Keys do fantastic covers of the blues legend Junior Kimbrough, whom I’m ashamed to say I never even heard of till I heard the Keys sing ‘Everywhere I go.’ Now I want every record of Kimbrough’s everywhere I go.

I also had a delightful visit to a butterfly farm just outside Northampton. Here are some photos I took of my hosts.

And of course, I’ve been following the elections – fearing for Pakistan and much of the rest of the world. (Speaking of which, thanks for all the responses to my letter to Obama, posted on Counterpunch in March. http://www.counterpunch.org/uzma03152008.html ) Of course Obama is better than McCain, but at least let’s not call this change.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Will he ever leave?

The results of Monday’s general election are self-evident: Mr Musharraf’s party has lost and this means Mr Musharraf has lost. Yet the man appears to have looked in the mirror the next morning and while, say, shaving his chin, mused, But what have I lost? I’m still the President. I’m still the President for the next five years, at least! So off he went to office to tell the whole country the same.

This, after declaring the previous day that he would listen to the voice of the people. Clearly, the voice of the people travels only as far as his own reflection.

I know people who voted in this election and I know people who didn’t. Those who did voted less for any opposition party and more to voice their own opposition to Musharraf. These are some of the reasons why he is opposed:

For the way he came into power. In 1999, he sacked an elected Prime Minister, and declared himself ‘chief executive.’ The US and UK pooh-poohed that it was just the sort of thing that happens in the Islamic World, where people have no respect for freedom and democracy.

For the way he came into more power. In 2002, he held ‘elections’ and declared himself ‘President’. The US and UK praised Musharraf for being a key ally in the ‘war against terror’.

For the way he helped religious parties come into power. In the 2002 elections, the MMA, a hodgepodge of six religious parties, emerged as a new political power in two of Pakistan’s four provinces. It was the first time in our history that religious parties had won majority seats in any province. The US and UK pooh-poohed that it was just the sort of thing that happens in the Islamic World, where people have no respect for freedom and democracy.

For the way he helped the US and UK stay deaf to Pakistan’s ordinary citizens, for whom it is obvious that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the stifling of freedom and democracy in Pakistan through support of Musharraf is largely to blame for the six-headed hydra called MMA, and for the rise of political Islam all over the world. There are parallels between the MMA’s 2002 success in Pakistan and the support of religious parties in countries such as Lebanon, Iran, Turkey and Palestine. Could it be more obvious: the policies of the US and UK in our countries aren’t working.

For the way he treated and continues to treat his own people. Since 9/11, military torture cells have spread across Pakistan, ensnaring anyone suspected of ‘terrorist activity’. What the US does internationally, Musharraf does locally: the connection between Al Qaeda and the many Pakistanis who’ve disappeared has yet to be proven, but as long as Musharraf has the backing of those he mimics, it will not have to be proven.

For the way his government has treated rape victim Mukhtaran Mai. In 2005, when she was invited to speak about her gruesome ordeal outside the country, Musharraf accused Pakistani women of ‘lining up to be raped’ in order to score international attention. He has yet to apologise. Because of his close alliance with the mullahs, none of the barbaric laws against women in Pakistan have been repealed.

For sacking Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in March last year.

For imposing Emergency in November last year.

For arresting and detaining thousands of Pakistanis who opposed the sacking of the Chief Justice, and the declaration of Emergency.

For creating a climate of such misery and violence that even our most popular political icon, Benazir Bhutto, was killed. If he could survive so many assassination attempts, why couldn’t his government secure her survival too? The loss is personal. The loss is still too deep to ever be forgiven.

For the rise in crime, inflation, poverty, illiteracy, pollution, power cuts. This winter in Lahore has been the worst I can remember: we lost electricity and gas up to 10 hours daily. All the shopkeepers, teachers, tailors, taxi drivers, rickshaw wallahs, and business men and women I spoke with agreed: life had come to a complete halt. The entire country seemed to curl inward, in a state of despair and lethargy.

The Feb 18th 2008 elections were a way to come out of this depressed state. Musharraf's party has been rejected and religious parties too have been rejected. Pakistanis have spoken in favour of freedom and democracy.

Will the United States do the same? Barack Obama says to bomb Pakistan; Hillary Clinton says to continue backing Musharraf; John McCain says to stay in Iraq for a hundred years. Call this freedom and democracy?

Will Musharraf ever leave?

Post Script to Book Launches of THE GEOMETRY OF GOD


Thank you to all those who made the effort to hear me read and speak in Karachi last month (Jan 2008). Given that the launches were during the month of Moharram, the turn-out was much better than I’d dared to hope, especially at Liberty Books, where around ninety people showed up. As always, the Q & A was my favourite part (second favourite part was when people bought the book).


In this photo, my mother is on the right:


Saturday, January 12, 2008

BOOK LAUNCHES IN KARACHI

I will be reading from my new book THE GEOMETRY OF GOD in Karachi on the following dates and at the following venues:

1. The Second Floor (T2F), Defence Phase 7, on Wednesday January 16th at 7:00pm.
Address: 6-C, Prime Point Building, Phase 7, Khayaban-e-Ittehad, DHA, Karachi.
Phone: 538-9273 0300-823-0276 info@t2f.biz. Map: http://www.t2f.biz/location.

2. Liberty Books, Clifton Bilawal Chowk branch, on Monday January 21st at 7:00pm.

At both these events, besides reading extracts from the novel, I will also answer any questions the audience might have and I will be happy to sign copies of all my books, including THE STORY OF NOBLE ROT, and TRESPASSING. Look forward to seeing you there!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

To mark the new year, I decided to write my first blog. 2007 has been such a painful year for Pakistan, it’s hard to know where to begin. Like many things here, I’ll begin backwards, and see how far we get.

Five days after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the country is still experiencing mass grief. I can’t ever remember sorrow on such an enormous scale, not since her father Zulfiquar Bhutto was hanged. I was only ten years old then and was in school that day. It was terrifying to see my teacher break into sobs in the middle of a class lecture, and terrifying to battle the protests on the streets to get home, only to find my family so stricken it was like returning to a home that had been overtaken by ghosts. Now I feel ten years old again except that the ghosts have multiplied.

It’s true that most people (including myself) had grown extremely disillusioned by daughter Bhutto. Her power-sharing ‘deal’ with General Musharraf – even if he subsequently ‘stepped down’ as general – severly compromised trust in her motives for returning to Pakistan, as did the United States’ role in negotiating the deal. The US has been pumping billions of dollars annually to the dictator but with its own elections looming and Musharraf’s unpopularity at home mounting, it needed an ornament of Pakistani democracy to hold up to the world in order to have a ‘legitimate’ partner in its ‘War on Terror’. Benazir was seen as playing the part of US-picked democratic ornament: what a crude finishing touch to an appalingly constructed house. Still, her death is profoundly disorienting. Like her father, she was charismatic. Like him, she could mobilise people like no other secular democratic leader. She was disappointing yet she is being mourned. There aren’t many people who can elicit both emotions at the same time.

International news channels are reporting that she was killed by Al Qaeda. There isn’t a Pakistani who agrees, except those in the government. Al Qaeda is the convenient bogeyman for both the Superpower and its allies to cover up tracks that need covering up. Her murder has to be investigated objectively, with all preconceptions shed. Last night was the first time since it happened that I switched on the television and didn’t hear either Sky News or CNN link it to religious extremists. Wow. In fact, they were showing the amateur video that has been broadcast on local TV networks for two days now, the one of the man who stood two meters away from her van as it drove away from Liaquat Bagh, with her standing out of its sun-roof, waving to her fans. The man was holding up a gun. As three shots were fired, Benazir ducked into the van. What a relief to hear international news agencies question the Pakistan government’s claim that she was not shot, but died of concussion after banging her head against a lever on the sun roof. All that blood from a concussion? What a pack of lies. When will the world stop supporting this regime and listen instead to the agony of ordinary Pakistanis?

A string of eerie coincidences. Benazir’s blood-soaked body was rushed from Liaquat Bagh to the Rawalpindi hospital, where Dr. Mussadiq Khan tried to save her life. Dr. Mussadiq Khan is the son of the doctor who received the blood-soaked body of Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, back in 1951. That is how the park gets its name, Liaquat Bagh. Benazir was shot in almost the exact same spot as Liaquat Ali Khan was shot. In fact, she was shot just two kilometers from where her father was hanged. That makes three leaders or former leaders killed in virtually the same place. Dr. Mussadiq Khan’s sons are also doctors. Himself stricken by the coincidence, the doctor prays that his sons will never have to pray the same.

I didn’t get very far into 2007 after all. I wanted to talk about the lawyers, political party workers and activists who are still in jail, even after the lifting of Emergency, as well as those who’ve been released but after spending days, even weeks, in illegally detention, with no justice received. I wanted to talk about the ugly murder of Ismail Gulgee, one of Pakistan’s most celebrated artists. His wife and a maid were also found dead in their home. The tragic and gruesome deaths happened just before Eid but have been overshadowed by the train accident that happened on the same day, itself a huge calamity, and then by Bhutto’s death. I wanted to talk about some good things … like the sculpture of Shahid Sajjad, or the Puppetry Museum in Lahore, or some of the great food we ate last year, or my new book, just out. But perhaps another time. For now: Democracy. Peace. We sorely need a new year.