Thursday December 09, 2021

Markhors and haraamkhors

May 21, 2018

My Lord, the Chief Justice of Pakistan, is not impressed by the goatly charm and manly posture of the markhor, our national animal, that found its place recently on the tail of the national flag carrier, PIA. “We have found out that you want to use a picture of an animal in place of our national flag, What animal’s picture have you put on the tail of the plane?”. The CJ has ordered to halt the makeover of PIA aircrafts until a report is submitted on the matter.

Nations are supposed to be rich in symbolism and these symbols play a crucial role in constructing the national identity and uniting people. A flag is an important, shared symbol, but by no means the only one. Most flag-carrying airlines don’t have flags painted on the tails of their planes. Turkish Airlines, the flag carrier of Turkey, describes its logo in these words: “Our logo depicts the world’s highest flying bird, the wild goose, that can rise up to 29,035 feet.” The acronym and the logo of Iran Air is Huma, the mythical bird that we know so well. The enterprise logo of Air China consists of an artistic phoenix pattern, another mythical bird.

Rather than a land-bound animal, a bird is a natural symbol for an airline. Pakistan’s national bird, Chakor, is a game bird, suitable to describe the way PIA has been treated by our ruling classes, but does not make an inspirational image for a logo. There are many migratory birds that connect Pakistan with other countries and continents by spending their winters on our land. These birds include the Siberian crane, Amur Eagle and the Houbara bustard. One of these birds can be a good candidate for the logo.

While turning to land-bound animals, it is hard for me to understand why the markhor was chosen as a national animal. In fact, we do not know who picked our national symbols for us and on what grounds. I am assuming that all of these symbols were chosen in the 1950s and 1960s by our bureaucratic rulers, and manifest their lack of imagination. Kindly correct me if I am wrong.

There is a good reason why legal professionals and bureaucrats do not excel in imagination. Legal and official documents require use of unambiguous language, where a word should have one meaning only. This is called a sign ie “a marker for something very specific, very concrete and, in general, unambiguous in meaning.” That kind of language should be enough to kill any residual imagination that has not destroyed by our education system already.

A symbol, as Carl Jung said, is a representation of an idea, mostly visual, that can’t be fully grasped by the conscious mind right away because it is usually generated by unconscious parts of the mind. Often the symbolic image encapsulates a concept and points to its universality.

For example, I would not describe green and white as representative of Muslims and non-Muslim only. That would be a sign, not a symbol. The green can also stand for fertility, nature, environment and love for the land. The white can also stand for purity and pluralism. After all, white contains all colours and the white part includes green as well. White should mean that that we are one with all our diversities, including the diversity of faith. In that way, minorities would not complaint that they have the danda (stick) while the green is free to flutter.

The crescent and the star are some of the most profound universal symbols. The Ottoman emperors put them together to symbolise their empire; this happened due to the dream of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, Osman I. These symbols, apart from their universal meanings, hint at our links with Turkey, Central Asia and the Muslim world and heritage.

I have nothing against the poor mountain goat. The markhor is not only a national animal, it is also a trophy animal. Even a dead markhor is worth the proverbial one hundred and twenty five thousand rupees (sawa lakh). A few months back, the Gilgit-Baltistan government auctioned hunting permits for Astor markhors for $68,000 to $100,000 per animal. Unlike PIA and other national haraamkhors, the markhor does not cost us anything. It is a true national asset, not a liability masqueraded as assets to keep nephews and nieces employed.

Perhaps, the most important thing about the markhor is the myth that it eats snakes. That’s why it has the name markhor, meaning snake eater. Of course, its reputation supersedes its performance. It is a completely vegetarian animal – like any other goat. If we want a real snake eater, we can pick the mongoose, found all over the country in abundance.

Perhaps no animal qualifies for the honour better than the Indus bull. Even with a little bit of imagination, those making the decision should have picked it without much discussion. The Indus bull is found on seals, figurines and also on rock carvings going back to five thousand years. And this species is still is found in our fields in Sindh alongside the cart used by the Harappan people. It is this kind of continuity that provides the greatest symbols.

I once asked Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, one of the best known archaeologists known for his work on the Indus Valley civilisation how the Indus civilisation was destroyed. At the time, he was carrying out his annual excavation at Harappa. “What do you mean?” he said. “[The] Indus Valley civilisation was never destroyed. You are living it even today.” He invited me to visit the Harappa town and see how artisans were still making the utensils that are exhibited in the museum. A similar lesson was given to me by Dr Saifur Rehman Dar, another archaeologist, regarding the Gandhara civilisation.

Why were the Indus Valley people so fascinated with the bull? The answer is simple: human civilisation is based on cities and cities were based on agricultural surplus, until the recent Industrial Revolution at least. The agricultural surplus was based on the domestication of crops and animals.

Here are a few lines from an academic paper: “Animal domestication was a major step forward in human prehistory, contributing to the emergence of more complex societies. At the time of the Neolithic transition, zebu cattle (Bos indicus) were probably the most abundant and important domestic livestock species in Southern Asia. …..These data support the Indus Valley as the most likely centre of origin for the zebu domestication.” Those readers who want to understand how domestication of crops and animals revolutionised the world (and a lot more) must read ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ by Jared Diamond.

Our link with the bovine has not ended. According to an FAO report, “With an almost 50 percent contribution, livestock is by far the most important subsector in agriculture (in Pakistan).…. Within the livestock sector, milk is the largest and single most important commodity. Despite decades of oversight by the government, Pakistan is the fifth-largest milk producer in the world.”

Should PIA get the Indus bull? No way. I will give it neither the flag nor the bull. I will beseech our lords to let some entrepreneurial bull own the PIA. We badly need the millions of dollars PIA gobbles up every year. Haraamkhors must be pushed to some other grazing field.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.


Twitter: @zaighamkhan