Pakistan at the Precipice

To watch my country of birth unravel has been a curious thing.

As the Taliban continues to sweep across vast swaths of northern Pakistan, American pundits and officials ask incredulously, “How can their government let this happen?  How can their people let this happen?”  The United States looks on anxiously like a jolted passerby watching a train suddenly jump the tracks.

I was also initially shocked, but I found myself more surprised by my response than the calamitous events themselves.  As the Taliban threat metastasized, my minimal sense of attachment to Pakistan began to intensify.  While I had mostly kept my memories of Pakistan well out of my mind’s eye, I now began meticulously scanning these recollections, like fingers running across Braille in search of clues as to what went wrong.

After some searching, I realized that Pakistan’s existential crisis should not be seen as a shock but rather as an expected disappointment.  The train of the Pakistani state did not jump the tracks; it merely arrived at the destination announced long ago by a series of indifferent conductors.

I was born in the congested southern port city of Karachi, which my parents soon left for Canada and then the United States.  Every few years, we would visit our many relatives in Karachi and in the verdant capitol of Islamabad for a month or two.  In sixth grade, I spent a full year in Pakistan.  I have not gone back in many years; the last time I visited was only weeks before the September 11th terrorist attacks.

My happier memories of Pakistan stand in stark contrast to the grim images of dour, menacing militants that are now beamed into our retinas and burned into our consciousness.

I remember my mother’s frequent trips to teeming shopping centers, where, flanked by a phalanx of my various aunts adorned in loose, colorful headscarves, she haggled with an endless cavalcade of tailors and merchants who respectfully addressed her as baaji, or, sister.

I remember standing on the grass in the evenings, waiting for the warm air to be leavened by a cool breeze that carried the sound of overlapping and lyrical azaans sung by muezzins at local mosques.

I remember the kindness and hospitality of my aunts and uncles, who indulged my American proclivities for pizza and the like by preparing special meals and taking me to ambitiously-named imitators such as “King Burger.”

I remember nearly everyone trying to teach me the local language, Urdu, which synthesizes the sharpness of Arabic with the softness of Farsi (Persian).  Even today, my father scarcely fails to remind me of Urdu’s linguistic richness or its venerated poets like Iqbal, Ghalib, and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whose works I can understand only in translation.

Of course, these are not my only memories.

What most struck me was the astonishing and omnipresent poverty in Karachi.  Beggars and amputees lined the busiest streets; masses of tents flanked the roads, surrounded by garbage picked at by youngsters and vultures; little children spat into filthy rags and wiped windshields, hoping for a handout.

In my early teens, when I had yet to bother trimming my beard, the sight of such desperation once prompted me into a fit of frustration.  I recall entering a nearby bank office filled with clerks and a guard armed with an assault rifle to reflect and cool down.  It was, apparently, a poor choice: the staff, fearing I was a jihadi, became nervous, and my parents had to swoop in and defuse the situation.

Worse than the poverty was the elite’s refusal to address it.  A sea of garbage and huts surrounded the most opulent and magnificent houses, separated by concrete walls topped with shards of glass.  In the districts of the military and business elite, homeowners hired armed guards who kept watch over their masters’ playgrounds.  I imagine the scene must have been much worse in the northern rural areas that are now Taliban sanctuaries, where the government never even pretended to address the poverty created by feudal elites.

The country also suffers from a near-absence of binding nationalism.  During my year there in sixth-grade private school (no respectable middle-class family sent their kids to the pitiful government schools) we performed the martial ritual of standing at attention and singing the national anthem every morning.  But the whole system was handed down from the British: the uniforms, the shoes, the canteens, the headmasters — even the English, which is, absurdly, Pakistan’s official language and the only one students were allowed to speak outside of Urdu class.  Pakistani education was a slavish imitation, a kind of ventriloquist nationalism in which students opened their mouths but only the echo of the ex-colonizer was heard.

I often wondered what would happen to those whose misery I impotently observed — those left for decades without the housing, food, or education I was afforded.  History has now caught up to the present and supplied us the answer in the form of the Taliban.

The militants, of course, assert that they are simply bringing “true Islam” to Pakistan.  Even a cursory glance at Islamic precepts and the Prophet Muhammad’s own example reveal an ethos sharply at odds with the Taliban’s harsh practices which, more than anything else, reflect a history of Pashtun tribalism that precedes Islam’s arrival by centuries and constitutes the militants’ base.

The Taliban’s ascent is not a failure of Islam, but rather the failure of the Pakistani national project to fulfill the basic functions of a sovereign state; to heed the call of its great poets, who denounced inequality and called for a revival and modernization of Islamic thought.

Most Americans are, understandably, more interested in results than reasons: As the Taliban limns the outlines of Pakistan’s demise with the unforgiving scalpel of extremism, will Pakistan confront this force, or succumb to it?

It is difficult to say.  Ironically, it is America’s own mode of involvement that harms its interests: our only visible contributions there today are drones, missiles, and destruction.  This has produced a polarizing effect whereby any force that opposes America — regardless of its real aims — elicits sympathy from sectors of the military and the rural masses.

Pakistan may be willing to plunge a sword through its heart just to pierce the skin of American interventionism, a case of spite through national suicide.

It is also impossible to know when a people will say enough is enough.  While it’s incomprehensible to most of us that any government could comport with the Taliban and its horrors, it is worth remembering that America was willing to permit the horror of slavery for almost 100 years until the slave states declared secession and initiated war.

If the people of Pakistan do choose the path of resistance to preserve their country’s future, they may find inspiration from verses that belong to their history:

This is the way that autumn came to the trees:
it stripped them down to the skin,
left their ebony bodies naked.
It shook out their hearts, the yellow leaves,
scattered them over the ground.
Anyone could trample them out of shape
undisturbed by a single moan of protest.
The birds that herald dreams
were exiled from their song,
each voice torn out of its throat.
They dropped into the dust
even before the hunter strung his bow.
Oh, God of May have mercy.
Bless these withered bodies
with the passion of your resurrection;
make their dead veins flow with blood again.
Give some tree the gift of green again.
Let one bird sing.

— Faiz Ahmed Faiz

M. Junaid Levesque-Alam writes a monthly column on America and Islam for WireTap Magazine, and for his website, Crossing the Crescent.  A shorter version appeared as his monthly column in WireTap Magazine.