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January 13, 2019

Our place in this world


January 13, 2019

It is usually a sense of exhilaration that greets you when you arrive at a foreign destination. And when you travel with a Pakistani passport, the idea of getting away becomes more enticing. This is so despite the momentary awkwardness with which you present your documents to an immigration officer.

This, then, is the affirmation of an escape that I have enjoyed. But my sight, now, is set on Pakistan. I am about to return to the old wounds and the raw winds of my country after spending three weeks in Southern California. This means that I need to deal, almost simultaneously, with the excitement of being abroad and the tedium of my everyday existence in Karachi.

Three weeks is not a long time. However, I sought to make this absence longer through certain contrivances. During this vacation, I haven’t watched a Pakistan television channel for even a second. This hasn’t happened during any of my annual visits for over a decade.

I am already not a citizen of the virtual kingdom of social media. In addition, I have diligently avoided any discussion on our domestic politics with the expats I happened to meet. It helped that many of them don’t seem to be emotionally involved with the present state of affairs – for whatever reasons. I wonder if this is some kind of hangover after the heady advent of ‘tabdeeli’ in the land of the impure. I was absent from this space for two Sundays – as some of you may have noticed.

Yes, I just couldn’t totally disengage myself from news because I’m a journalist. So, I have been devoting some time every day to reading newspapers on the internet, including a couple of our own. This is what I would do in Karachi too. But I felt that looking at the world from here, a faraway place from home, is a different experience. I feel more connected with and closer to events that are happening anywhere.

In Pakistan, the very thought of travelling abroad is hampered by the hassle of acquiring a visa and arranging all the required documents. Even though our passport has moved up two spots in the latest Henley Passport Index, it still remains the fifth worst globally. At the 102nd spot, it is better than only four countries – Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan and Iran. The measure, of course, is visa-free access to other countries. Obviously, a citizen’s freedom of movement across frontiers is determined by the passport he or she carries.

In my own way, I try to make the most of an opportunity to be abroad. Strangely, even reading travel books or features in newspapers gives more pleasure. Exotic places seem within reach. On this trip, I have enjoyed spending time in bookshops and libraries. Watching a movie in the company of strangers who portray the plurality of American society adds to the feeling of being somewhere else.

Since this is not intended to be a travel piece, I shouldn’t dwell on my visit to Las Vegas after an interval of many years. It is truly a wonderland and not just a place for gambling. In fact, it is a family retreat in the middle of a desert.

Ah, but all these diversions are essentially transient. I have to be ready for a radical change of scene. In this respect, I find it difficult to compare what we have in Pakistan with the conditions that prevail in other societies. The most significant variation, surely, is economic in nature. We are a poor country. Yet, what does this deprivation entail in the context of the freedoms and opportunities that we have to raise ourselves from this level?

The focus in recent months has naturally rested on how the new government of Prime Minister Imran Khan is dealing with the host of challenges that we confront as a nation. The promises made are gradually becoming irrelevant. Confusion and uncertainty have blanketed our vision of the future, particularly on the economic front. Nevertheless, the idea of ‘tabdeeli’ must embrace a movement for advancement in, for example, our moral, cultural and intellectual pursuits.

Sadly, the evidence that we have in this respect is very discouraging, even alarming. When I cursorily looked at the most recent development that I would normally attend to in my column, I am exceptionally disturbed by a notification issued by Pemra on Tuesday that directs all television channels to not show any “indecent content” in their dramas.

On the face of it, this seems business as usual for an official regulatory authority. We have many previous instances of rulers resorting to moral policing. That dark era of Ziaul Haq also comes to mind. But this Pemra ‘diktat’ means so much more. It certifies a mindset that is congenitally hostile towards any form of meaningful social and cultural progress.

Look at how Pemra has defined ‘indecent content’. The notification has stated that “indecent scenes, dialogues, extramarital relations, violence, inappropriate dressing, rape scenes, bed scenes, and intimate moments between couples are being glamourised in utter disregard of Pakistani culture and values and are very distressing for viewers”.

Without going into any interpretation of this directive, we must take note of how the news media has already been suppressed. We are now fairly aware of the existing state of the news media, while the powerful are unmindful of the threat that is posed to our survival as a democracy. In any case, this attack on non-news content on television is more senseless.

Imagine the incongruity of asking channels “not to air dramas containing controversial themes” and “plots involving infidelity and extramarital affairs”. Do we not want to deal creatively with the real world in which we live our lives? There are questions that are too obvious to raise. Irrespective of the difficulties we face in defining what the regulators have described as “Pakistani culture and values”, it is hard to believe that this directive has been conceived by individuals who live in the modern world.

Also this week, we were told that the Supreme Court would not allow Indian content to be shown on Pakistani television channels as “it damages our culture”.

Now, these are serious matters that we need to sort out to be able to move ahead in a world that has left us so far behind. We cannot be oblivious to the realities of our existence. Imran Khan has talked about learning from this or that country. But how can we do that without any awareness of who and what we are?

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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