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December 27, 2015

A time for gratitude


December 27, 2015

Outrage sells. So does sarcasm, disgust, anger, loathing, bitterness and snark. Man bites dog is news. Dog bites man is not.

My point here is that most column writers are in the business of getting angry. Their job is to find some element of sorrow, some tragic scene and to then wail at length. Rending of clothes, gnashing of teeth, general hysteria – it’s all to the good.

I am tempted to say I’m different but any such assertion would be unwarranted. I too have to write my allotted share of words. And more often than I should, chest-beating is the solution: 1200 words, more in sorrow than in anger; here you go.

Today, though, is not one of those days. We are coming now to the end of 2015, a year that like so many others began with unblemished hope and is ending with tear-stained recriminations. But unlike many others, I think it has been a good year for the country. And I think it is time we recognised this.

The realisation that perhaps our normal pessimism was not in order was brought home to me by an American friend, a distinguished professor of law and history, whom I was trying to entice into moving to Pakistan. Despite my rapturous description of Lahore as a land of milk and honey, he regretfully declined. He has two young daughters finishing up high school and he thought it would not be fair to drag them to the other side of the world.

During our discussion he paused for a second and mused, “Five years ago, what with the Arab Spring and all, who would have thought Pakistan would be the most stable Islamic democracy.”

When I disagreed, he reiterated his point. Immediately west of Pakistan are the unending brutalities of Afghanistan and the theocratic idiocies of Iran. Beyond those two are the monarchies of the Gulf (some big, some small) with their oil intoxicated leaders and restless citizenry. Further beyond them are Iraq (madness), Syria (more madness) and Lebanon (slowly recovering from madness). Then comes the Maghrib: Egypt (dictatorship), Libya (chaos), Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

I was stunned. As a Pakistani, one is so used to being defensive that being at the head of the class seemed like a waking dream, a kind of honour extended only through an excess of courtesy. Pehlay aap. Nahin, pehlay aap. That kind of business.

But there is more than a kernel of truth to my friend’s observation. Yes, he is ignoring Malaysia and Indonesia. But the fact remains that Pakistan is today in a better state than it has been for many years.

There are two main reasons for this happy situation.

The first is that we have (I think, I hope and I pray) finally buried the spectre of technocratic leadership, this pernicious myth that a group of disinterested experts led by some valiant hero can sweep in and fix everything.

Again, I must confess to being a recovering believer. Ironically, what converted me was the tenure of Asif Ali Zardari. During those five years, I watched as the dregs of a once-proud party systematically pillaged my country. But this time, my memories of Musharraf were sharp enough that instead of wishing for another coup, I just promised myself that, by God, I would not vote for these scoundrels again. And I didn’t.

I don’t know when the watershed moment came for the rest of the country. But my sense is that it came during the second half of 2014 when Imran Khan was leading his crazy charge from atop a container, when the fate of the nation hung in the balance and finally came down on the side of continued civilian rule. It may have been that had the military taken over then, the nation would have gone along. But I suspect they wouldn’t have. And I suspect the faujis knew it too.

That idiotic dharna ended in December 2014. Given that the period from May 2013 to December 2013 was spent under the baleful gaze of former CJP Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, 2015 has been the N-League’s first real chance to govern. And while there hasn’t been any radical change in Pakistan during 2015, there also hasn’t been a radical disaster. My sense, therefore, is that while the average Pakistani still looks at his lot and wishes for betterment, he (or she) now wishes for that improvement not through a revolution or a coup but through a change of elected leadership. And that is a huge, huge, huge, big deal.

The second reason why Pakistan is in a better place today can also be traced back to December 2014, more specifically to the Army Public School massacre. That tragedy shook up our national discourse like a tsunami. Before December 16, 2014 it was unremarkable for our pundits and politicians to hint at sympathy with the TTP. This was true even though Operation Zarb-e-Azb had already been launched, even though we had already lost thousands to jihadi terror and even though we had repeatedly failed to negotiate peace with the terrorists. After December 16, 2014, it was unacceptable. The time for explanations and apologies was over. Even Imran Khan finally got it.

Much of the credit for exploiting this new turn in public sentiment goes to the ISPR, and the dynamic General Bajwa. While the civilians cowered behind banalities, it was the army that orchestrated public sympathies like a conductor leading a symphony. If there is a more brilliant piece of PR in Pakistan’s history than the devastating song, “bara dushman bana phirta hai”, I do not know of it. I do know that like millions of others, that song made me weep. And very very angry.

The point of this column is not to wish away our problems. I know they exist. But there is also a very good reason why the practice of gratitude is such good therapy. When we reflect on the good things in our lives, we acknowledge that there is and can be goodness, that there is a beneficence in our lives, that there are moments when all of us are touched by amazing grace.

Our national poet is Allama Iqbal. And yes, we owe much to him. But perhaps the true voice of Pakistan is Faiz. Iqbal is sunny and inspirational, all bright future and glorious past. Faiz is dark, weary, sardonic, and jaded. But hopeful despite all that.

Take, for example, his poem titled ‘Dua’, which begins “aiye haath uthayen, hum bhi, hum jinhain rasme dua yaad nahin.” (“Let us raise our hands, even those of us who have forgotten the rituals of prayer”). In ten short couplets, it encompasses a world of tenderness and empathy.

The whole thing is, of course, pure genius. But there is one line which haunts me: “Aiye arz guzaren ke nigaar e hasti zahar e imroz main shirin e farda bhar de.” (Let us ask the Almighty to overwhelm the poison of today with the sweetness of tomorrow).

And so I say to you, come, let us raise our hands. We have much to be grateful for.

The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Twitter: @laalshah

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