Over the top- When in soup…


Masood Hasan

Increasingly Pakistanis have to square up to face what could be a defining moment in their lives. They can either crawl into shelters and take refuge, trembling with fear and anxiety, or face up to what is now a reality of life in Pakistan. If they choose the latter, they must be ready to face it with courage, fortitude and resilience. So far it seems Pakistanis are either not comprehending what is so obviously staring them in the face or they are recognising it but are paralysed with fear and doubt. In this uneasy status quo, life as it is usually lived has all but come to a stop.

Not that this part of the world was famous for its high-quality night life, its great tourist havens or its magical realms of shopping delights, adventure, excitement and the time of your life. It was always a pale substitute for tourism in any sense of the word, notwithstanding Neelofer Bathktiar’s “Destination Pakistan” claims made at that time. For years and years, there was a miniscule trickle of tourists who braved the elements, lack of infrastructure and other creature comforts to experience a rugged, off-the-beaten-track experience. But that number got smaller and smaller. I think it is safe to surmise that there was a time when the tourism department officials outnumbered the number of tourists who actually arrived. The blessed ministry in Islamabad which neither had funds or the drive or the motivation, half-launched harebrained schemes, held seminars where boring speakers meandered endlessly into abstractions of tourism, passed resolutions, attacked the goodies and went home. The great potential of the country was constantly held up till it almost became a substitute for the actual business itself. Figures were fudged, a talent which finds extraordinary practitioners in the fair capital of the country.

But tourism does not flourish on potential alone and although we had some of the great natural sights and some staggering bit of history, we were never in the big league even when things weren’t so desperate as they are now. The great Khyber Pass has been all but forbidden all these years. Now, of course, it could well be another country run by dacoits, brigands, highwaymen and all kinds of brain-dead fundos who are blowing themselves, and whoever they can find, to smithereens. The Khyber Pass train, when last heard of, made a few perilous trips up the Pass, only to get fired upon by murderous looking savage nomads perched behind large boulders.

As for the great North, the Swat Valley is a dangerous battle zone where the fighting and killing goes on endlessly. A resident friend of Village Matta across the once peaceful, gurgling Swat River said that to get to Mingora, literally a stone’s throw – well a little more than that, actually – he had to change four vehicles. This is midday on a non-fighting day. What happens when the sun goes down and the holy warriors emerge from the shadows to wage merry hell, we all have read and heard enough. The great Pakistan army has been there for months but what they have actually accomplished, is known only to them and Czar Malik who has to get rid of all these shiny polyester suits he is wearing. A few TV lenses have cracked filming his shimmering presence. One actually misses Shaukat Aziz. At least he was wearing better fabric. The valleys of Kalam and beyond could just as easily be ahead of the planet Pluto for all that it matters to the average Suzuki-laden Pakistani tourist who arrived there for mucking about all through summer. There is no road and there are no fish. There are only the holy men preaching through the barrels of high class guns. The tourism of Kalam has vaporised.

Further up, most of the KKH is beyond the reach of most mortals unless you are on a suicide mission. A few friends who chanced to stop for a meal at Chilas were made so uncomfortable by the relentless stares of the inmates that they hastily gobbled up whatever dinner had been served up and beat the hell out of Chilas before they could be trussed up and beheaded. They were clean shaven, which in these parts is now a cardinal sin. Gilgit and Hunza are at each other’s throats, the Sunnis killing the Shias, and vice versa. The sad valleys and the silent majestic peaks watch the carnage below and wonder what kind of animals live on this planet now. The foreign tourists are just those who are on their way to the big mountains, and since they are foolish enough to climb killer peaks, I suppose they are foolish enough to keep coming to these parts. And more or less, that is about it. Oh, yes, that jewel in the ocean, that great beachfront which was going to be over laden with skimpily clad girls in bikinis and tanned gods surfing or paragliding along the endless sands of Gwadar never actually arrived. With the locals coming in from the inside and firing on anything that moves, Gwadar is more dead than a dodo, which brings us to the cities.

Pakistan is fast heading into a cultural wasteland because over everything hangs the sword of security, Damocles having disappeared into the sunset. Nothing can take place here because there are no takers. Doomsday hangs like a noose around the throat of all who simply want to live and enjoy their brief sojourn on this planet, but things are not at all conducive to that kind of thinking. Pakistan’s leading pop stars in music like Ali Azmat, Atif Aslam, Strings, Ali Zafar are all cooling their heels and squaring up to months of inactivity. There are no concerts, and each one that begins to take shape is quickly snuffed out on the altar of security. The shows, the awards, the festivals, one by one, are all getting the chop simply because no one is prepared to hold these or sponsor them. The word is out that the beards don’t like this sinful living and will swiftly punish those who disobey their great edicts. Since no one, most of all the government, is willing to take them on, the results are predictable. Those who earn their livelihood are desperate for obvious reason, but three is no respite in sight. The International Music Festival that the Peers have staged year after year, without interruption since 1992, is in serious trouble. There are no sponsors. This is supposed to be the silver jubilee of this talented group but it looks like curtains as we speak with the festival just a month away. The dozens of foreign artists who come for this festival are scared to death and many have to violate travel advice issued by their government should they wish to take on the perils of a trip to Pakistan.

For cricket 2008 has meant cancellation after cancellation. No one wants to come here and get blown sky high. After all, 72 houris is not everybody’s idea of a rollicking time. The visa-issuing embassies are shut down or shifting to safer countries. Business persons are loath to come here and as all these factors go on multiplying, the overall picture gets worse and worse. Lahore’s Marathon held for three years looks like a non-starter and other events that shape and define a country that is alive and happy have all fled from our shores. This is the grim reality of life here today.

What are we all going to do? Curl up and die or stand up and face the bullies? And what is our new government going to do? These are issues on which we must take a firm position. If not, rape is inevitable.

The writer is a Lahore-based columnist. Email: masoodhasan66@gmail.com

Source: The News, 19/10/2008

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