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June 1, 2012

Our capacity for manufacturing nonsense

Opinion

June 1, 2012

Islamabad diary
If imperfect memory serves, not long ago we were collecting bounties from the CIA for nabbing and handing over Al-Qaeda suspects. Gen Musharraf very proudly admits to this in his ghost-written Line of Fire, briefly a bestseller, now sadly gathering dust on the sidewalks where second-hand books come to rest.
Dr Shakeel Afridi helped nab the most wanted of them all: Sheikh Osama himself. If consistency is to mean anything, he should have been allowed to collect his reward and bask in the glow of American gratitude. But because our guardians of all that is holy were embarrassed by the Osama raid, he has not been so lucky. Never mind that his conviction makes Pakistan look silly. When did the fear of looking silly stop us from anything?
Didn’t we hand over Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the alleged Sep 11 mastermind, and a host of others? Weren’t bounties collected? Despite angry protestations to the contrary, haven’t we gone along with drone attacks? Clearly, what is sauce for the ISI, or the army in general, is not sauce for someone like Afridi.
Ah, but he has been convicted not for anything to do with Sheikh Osama but for his links with the Khyber Agency warlord, the ex-truck driver Mangal Bagh. The ISI could do with some good scriptwriters. Some of its story lines are not just funny – that would be some distinction – but juvenile. The Mangal Bagh connection...it is not easy to beat this for hilarity.
A Reuter report, security footprints all over it, says Afridi was a drunkard and a womaniser. Lucky devil. I’ve never quite figured out what the word womaniser means. The occasional fling, about the only thing most of us can look forward to, that too if the gods are kind, hardly qualifies for this appellation. Gen Yahya was something else, a womaniser if that’s the term which fits him, but not because of some extraordinary defect of character. He had the means to live out his fantasies.
Read Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars:

the range of sexual abnormality therein displayed is vast and fascinating. But as Gore Vidal comments, this is not because the Caesars were exceptionally abnormal but because they had the power to dress up their most bizarre sexual fantasies. Armed with half their power we would be like them.
But returning to our patriotism, the other thing being sharpened on its grindstone these days is dual nationality. I do not know the law on the subject but this I do know that if we were to draw up a list of our biggest rogues and scoundrels they would all be single nationals, certified citizens of the Republic. The biggest looters of national wealth, those with their money stacked abroad but laying claim to the mantle of national leadership, all single nationals. Yet we are making heavy weather of dual nationality when we wouldn’t know where we would be without the remittances sent home by overseas Pakistanis. In this season of unrelieved discontent aren’t there any other things to worry about?
Comic relief, however, is never far away. Take, for instance, the prime minister, God’s gift to Pakistan, who stands out for nothing so much as the way he chooses to dress. For his suits, and those of the president and other ministerial flunkeys send out the loud signal that power outages are not for them. The entire country, Punjab certainly, may be seething with unrest because of power cuts never experienced before but that doesn’t stop Gilani from making an exhibition of himself every day.
Those born to such things would show greater sensitivity. Much as the president and prime minister would like to suggest otherwise, they are Johnny-come-latelies to the vast wealth they now seem to have. And I suppose that’s part of the problem: if they were born to great wealth, chances are they would behave differently.
This is part of the general Pakistani problem, those at the helm of affairs, those in the vanguard of the national leadership, have all come to wealth – in some cases the wealth of Croesus – in the last ten or twenty years. From such a crowd we are expecting renewal and redemption.
It takes my goat when I hear people say, this is especially true at budget time, that we must increase the tax-to-GDP ratio. Pray, by the waving of what magic wand? This is a nation which has managed to crack the nuclear code but whose governments – and we have a bevy of them, federal, four provincial, Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Kashmir – are helpless before small things.
We know the plastic shopper is akin to death, destroying our country as surely as the evil of religious abnormality, yet we can do nothing about it. We can do nothing about the wall-chalking which defaces the country from one end to the other, the cures advertised for impotency and piles.
Manzoor Wattoo as chief minister of Punjab through a single order put an end to the misuse of mosque loudspeakers. Now the infernal nuisance is back: at dawn in every village and town across the province what you hear is less the mellifluous, heart-rending call to prayer as the raucous cries of an army of banshees gone wild. This is no obeisance to religion; this is the slaughtering of religion. Yet the government, which claims to be strong, is helpless before this outrage, or oblivious of it.
My point is that if we can do nothing about the plastic shopper and other needless forms of plastic ruining our waterways and destroying our land, if we cannot eliminate wall-chalking – there should be none, not a single one in this country – if we can’t stop the misuse of mosque loudspeakers, then let us not talk of expanding the tax base. It simply cannot be done.
We’ll continue to live on borrowed money and, given the nation that we are, raising monuments to hypocrisy all the time, we will keep bleating and whining, and occasionally roaring, about sovereignty and national dignity.
Three huge cement factories are slowly but surely destroying Chakwal’s Kahoon Valley. Bestway Cement, headquarters London, has managed to achieve the impossible: dry up the pond of the sacred temple of Kataasraj. It was allowed one tube well; it has installed 12. Twelve tube wells would make a desert of anything.
Lest Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain shed crocodile tears, and he has shed a few, the two men responsible for inviting this devastation to the Kahoon Valley were the then Punjab governor, Lt-Gen Khalid Maqbool, and the then chief minister, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, Shujaat’s cousin. During Musharraf’s referendum Maqbool in army uniform was seen raising his fist and shouting slogans in Musharraf’s favour, this unforgettable performance caught by the eye of the camera. Culture, more than anything else, is destiny. With people like these at the helm I suppose there was little else that could have happened to the Kahoon Valley.
Yes, Afridi was a drunkard and womaniser and he deserved to be punished. Gen Yahya better deserved the appellation of womaniser and we buried him with full military honours. If only this were a failing state, that would be something to look forward to. From collapse and ruin one can hope for renewal, the phoenix rising from its ashes. But this is a never-changing state, its destiny, and way of doing things, fixed in stone. Who looking at what we have done to our railways will entertain much hope of our ability to run or fix other things?
The answer to this state of affairs is music and laughter, and the cup about which the poets sing. But we look suspiciously at these pastimes too. We fly in the face of logic and yet hope for miracles to turn up. We must be the most optimistic nation in the world.
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