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January 27, 2015

Wisdom in Rome


January 27, 2015


As I prepare for my travel to Europe I’m told I must obtain the polio certificate, which is now as important as the entry visa and the ‘ok to board’ stamp for international travel. My travel agent informs me that all polio counters have been closed at airports and only a government hospital can issue the certificate.
Arriving at the Poly Clinic I bump and push and squeeze through the unending sea of humanity that packs its narrow corridors to find the international vaccination counter. “We cannot issue the certificate sir”, the important looking official tells me. “That can only be done at the airport” he stands unmoved at my perplexed expression and announces with an air of prescient authority his verdict on my chances of leaving the country “You’re late, sir very late! Only a day to travel”. “But I’m told the airport polio counters have been closed sir” I meekly suggest. “It’s a communication problem you see. The whole country is suffering from communication breakdowns. And I have my orders”.
I’m stuck and look to my right and left hoping that some support will magically materialise to my aid. As a last gamble I decide to bluff my way through this dilemma. “My information comes from the Ministry of Health. The airport counters are closed.” It works. There is doubt in his eyes. After a moment of contemplation he pulls out a vial from the nearby refrigerator. Immunised and relieved, I’m set to travel.
Arriving at the airport, I proudly wave my polio certificate at every checkpoint, only to find to my disappointment that no one is interested. There is no polio counter. There is no one to check if travellers are immunised. It’s all a hoax and certainly there is a communication breakdown.
In Rome after having successfully braved a few interrogations and one near strip search I’m set to explore this most fabulous city of Europe, one I’m told none other can equal. In Rome you do as only the Roman tourist can

do: for a city that is virtually an outdoor museum, a drive or a walk across its length and breadth is a necessity and serves up a crash course in history. Roman architecture overwhelms the senses. What fascinates one in particular is how it has been carefully preserved, restored and has therefore endured centuries of upheavals: through the fall of ancient Rome after the last Western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, and the ensuing devastation in the wake of Italy’s conquest by the Emperor Justinian I of the Eastern Roman Empire.
Today as we walk around the ruins of the Coliseum we can see webs of scaffolding and armies of men, some gathered here to perform what it appears is the careful work of restoring the limestone façade; others working with heavy machinery to provide the foundations of a section with needed support. The Trevi fountain, the famous tourist attraction and inspiration for Sinatra’s Three Coins in a Fountain, is similarly cordoned off for restoration work, but with a little guidance from my friend Ally Raza, and just a little luck, I’m able to toss a coin over my head which finds the mark.
Across Rome, wherever we walk or drive by, entire sections of buildings have been preserved with strict laws that prohibit repainting, demolition or addition to the original structure. My friend leads me into the Roman forum and is quick to point out the cracking pavement and the undulating asphalt. There are ancient tree roots which have grown under and out of the surface to cause this damage, but in the interest of preserving history, the Italian government prohibits the cutting down of these trees or any other adulteration of the environment; this is the heart of Caesar’s Rome after all – every building, every walkway, every promenade and garden a tribute to the majesty and grandeur of his era.
In Delft, the Netherlands, my tour guide is my childhood friend Nida Siddiqui. From Amsterdam to the Hague, I’m inspired by the organisation and the technological development that the Dutch have achieved in their country. Every building, road, street, canal, sidewalk is the outcome and the expression of careful planning and foresight. The Hague is quiet, serene and unlike Rome the rhythm of its life is characterised by a steady measured pace, a reflection perhaps of the clarity of its national purpose and its direction: when you know where you’re going and how to get there, there need be no urgency in your step.
What enables the progress of a nation? How does the developing world differ from the developed world? I’m aware there are tomes of scholarly works on the subject, old theories developed in modern times in the Occident, with that particularly orientalist bias that Edward Said has warned against and of which he has been so eloquently contemptuous of, in his seminal work on the subject – Orientalism.
Or perhaps newer, more postmodern views on what fires the engines of progress and steers the ship of a nation state into the stable waters of development and prosperity; theories that reject the grand narratives of socialism and capitalism, that frown upon development as the outcome of an unequal and exploitative western-northern hegemony and advocate more pluralistic, albeit untested solutions, that are, as an example, sensitive to the scale of local economic resources in the ‘Third World’ and which accord due respect to its cultural and historical civilisational context; solutions that are therefore not ethnocentric and desist from advocating the western model of progress as the one true ideal.
I carry no scholarly licence, but my theory of our dilemma of decline and regress is certainly empirical. We live in a society and a nation state that has, since its creation, relied on individuals as opposed to systems, as the basis of its social, political and economic foundations. As a nation we are obsessed with individual agency. We desperately search for heroes, preferably the male swashbuckling sort, to deliver us into modernity and prosperity.
Variably over the course of our 67 years we have chosen either leaders of political parties or military dictators to provide us with this much needed stewardship. Invariably and as a consequence, when we are greeted with failure, with a tragicomic and absurd style of reasoning and a characteristic impatience, we blame those very individuals for corrupting the system; and in the next breath we pine away for the arrival of yet another lone (always male) ranger, a saviour who will through his sole agency, magically transform our social, political and economic conditions. We fail to understand that what has precisely worked in the west is an ethos and praxis that is diametrically opposed to this romance with individual agency.
In the west, the individual has little or no prominence and certainly little overriding power over established systems of governance, justice, administration, politics et al. Systems that were painstakingly crafted centuries ago and which entrusted the monumental project of building the nation-state to the agency of collective wisdom, public representation and democratic dialogue.
This has worked out well for the west as is evident from their per capita GDPs and the apparent benefits of technological progress and mass industrialization, that continue to accrue to these societies. Similar benefits may begin to accrue in Pakistan but only if democracy is given a chance to consolidate. Before that even begins to happen we require an overhaul of our national mindset, in particular of the affluent middle classes who have the means and the influence to drive our national narratives. It is precisely this mindset with its penchant for quick fixes and stern vengeful dictators that continues to retard any hope of meaningful progress and development.
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @kmushir




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