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Monthly Archives: November 2014

What causes violence in South Asia? It’s all about identity, says Dr Vali Nasr

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Published: November 23, 2014

“This is about power; this is about hegemony,” Vali Nasr. PHOTO: HABIB UNIVERSITY FACEBOOK

KARACHI: Dr Vali Nasr knows what causes violence in South Asia. “It’s about identity. It’s always about identity,” he says.

A leading academic on Middle East and the Islamic World, Dr Nasr spoke to The Express Tribune shortly before his talk on ‘The Growing Role of Sectarianism in Muslim Politics, Globally and in Pakistan’ at Habib University on Saturday.

Nasr has a strong connection with Pakistan, where he worked as part of his PhD research. “Coming to Pakistan is like a home coming,” he said. He is calm, yet candid, when he talks about the schism between Shias and Sunnis. “Sectarianism is the oldest conflict,” he said, adding that the desire of one community to exert power and dominance over another is in no way restricted to the Sunni-Shia conflict. “This is about power; this is about hegemony.”

Drawing a backdrop to understanding the present-day global politics, the rise of militancy, the difference between Islam and Islamism and the issues Pakistan is facing, Nasr explained to a packed auditorium the problems and the possible solutions. “Unfortunately, the dominant discourse in the Muslim world does not promote pluralism,” he said, talking about why religion becomes puritanical, and is seen as black and white with the belief that only one interpretation is correct.

Therein, according to Nasr, lies the root of sectarianism. “Modernity and reformation in the Muslim world today is much less tolerant than tradition was,” he said. “Those who talk of modernity today want to jump from tradition to liberal secularism. Where is the historical process for this?”

When asked a question about the rise of extremism in Pakistan, he said: “When the rich become disconnected with the poor, the poor turn to the clerics.”

In Nasr’s opinion, the strain between Pakistan and India is not just Kashmir. “Pakistan is still toying with various ideas of identity, whereas India has still not reconciled to the idea of Pakistan,” he said. He also spoke about Lahore and Karachi in the 1940s as places with pluralistic societies in this region. In his opinion, the solution to sectarianism in the region will have to be through strong will and determination at all levels of society.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2014.

Lyari – the land of dreams

They made me nervous. So much infectious energy, courage and hope packed into each one of the 34 young people in that room was almost formidable. I was here to conduct a workshop for them about photojournalism. But what could I really add to their pool of knowledge? Photojournalism is about being a storyteller through pictures. Unlike photography that is more about nouns, photojournalism is about verbs … about an action, about being, about doing. And these young people, aged between 16 and 22 years, are doers. They are living the stories that I hope to teach them to tell through photographs. It was not they who were learning. It was I.

I conducted an exercise with them that confirmed what I have always known about Lyari — that it is culturally one of the richest neighbourhoods, boasting some of the most talented people in the country. The participants were split into groups of four. Each group had to come up with a human interest story of a real character from Lyari, and the story had to be one that could be supported by photographs. I gave them a time slot of seven to 10 minutes to come up with one idea; within three minutes, many of the groups had come up with more than one. Each story was unique and real. Facts more interesting than fiction. Of a man who sells snacks on a cart so that he can earn enough to buy musical instruments and eventually form a band. Girls who had been abducted, had returned and were stronger than ever. An old man who was once an army officer and now sold snacks to children and told them stories to promote peace. And the storytellers, these young boys and girls, were perhaps even more interesting. A girl in an abaya shared her passion for football. Another shared how once he was stuck in his house for three days during a crackdown by security personnel, and asked if it would be good photojournalism to take pictures from his balcony, to which we all said a vehement “no” because a picture is not worth a life.

Conflict zones, troubled neighbourhoods or areas that are outside comfort zones should not be recognised by the bad news coming out of them. What needs to make headlines is the triumph of the human spirit, the undying hope in the people, the resilience and the dreams that refuse to die. Young people from Lyari dare to dream big dreams. And undoubtedly, many of these dreams will be fulfilled. This is the headline news coming out of Lyari. This is what defines the neighbourhood.

Real men do(n’t) cry

Published: November 16, 2014

Long before the Madhuri-fame advertisement, as part of a campaign against domestic violence, reminded us, we had all heard, “Larkay naheen rotay.” PHOTO: VIDEO SCREENSHOT

He was sharing some of his deepest secrets about his childhood; his fears, his regrets, his loss – of a loved one, of dreams, of time lost that could have been utilised better, of a life that could have been. I witnessed this man break some barriers in those moments as he dared to bare his soul, something men in our society are not taught to do.

But most importantly, this man dared to cry, that too in front of a woman.

In those moments, I saw bravery. Because he kept saying,

“See? I’m crying. I didn’t even know I could cry so much. Don’t tell anyone I cried, okay?”

This “he” is not any particular man. And the above lines are not any one particular incident. I have witnessed it more than once. And every time I have realised that for a man to cry in our society is a difficult boundary to push. We associate manliness with certain outwardly signs, like physical strength, like a temper bordering on rage, like earning a lot of money and like being not very in touch with one’s emotions.

Emoting and crying is something that is considered an aspect of femininity. We grow up listening to maxims like,

Mard ko dard naheen hota”.

(Men don’t get hurt)

Long before the Madhuri-fame advertisement, as part of a campaign against domestic violence, reminded us, we had all heard,

Larkay naheen rotay.

(Boys don’t cry)

So men eat, laugh, sleep, feel happy and sad, but are not supposed to cry as that is seen as a sign of weakness. Generation after generation of men grow up with this pre-conditioning. When a natural outlet of grief or frustration is not allowed in the form of tears, the next best bet for men is either cruel silence or anger. We keep talking of rights of women, but usurp men of this very basic freedom to express emotions without both men and women not even realising it.

The most courageous of men ever are my role models; the Prophet (pbuh) and ‘Umar (ra) and ‘Ali (ra), and their peers. They changed the world. They won hearts and they won territories. They fought bloody battles like lions, with bravery unrivalled. They buried their loved ones with their own hands, and went back to the work of serving the cause of upholding justice. And through it all, they dared to cry, unabashedly. We have all read accounts of how the Prophet (pbuh) wept profusely, sometimes on the death of a loved one and at other times for the fear of Allah (swt) and for concern for his people. We accept that, and love that, and idealise that.

But today, a man who is moist-eyed is often seen as a weakling.

There is no doubt that women, biologically, are more prone to crying, as testosterone prohibits crying to some extent and that is the hormone that almost defines men; this is perhaps why, on an average, men cry once a month and women about five times a month, especially during the premenstrual phase and after their menstrual period. However, culture and allowances of freedom of expression also have to do with gender disparity when it comes to crying. While excessive crying can be symptomatic of other psychological issues, there can be considerable long term harmful effects of not allowing someone to cry.

Parents, and especially mothers, need to understand this when bringing up boys. Crying is a natural, organic form of human expression and is a right if carried out in moderation. When we stop men from crying at any age, we deprive them of a natural human catharsis. We also rob them of a certain sense of empathy that helps them understand why women or children cry. This is precisely why many men, unable to handle a crying woman, end up getting up angry and ask her to stop crying or ask in frustration why she is crying.

Any human emotion, if stifled unnaturally, will have harmful effects, and will end up being channelised into other negative emotions like anger or emotional disconnect.

Manliness, often translated as strength, is not just about not crying. Some of the things we see as signs of strength, like violence, anger and yelling, are actually signs of inherent weakness. Strength is about a certain amount of emotional intelligence and the ability to communicate with one’s self and with others. It takes strength to show that you are vulnerable. This is what makes us human.

Frida Kahlo’s art: Ribbon around a bomb

Published: November 9, 2014

‘Frida with magenta muffle.’ PHOTO: NIKOLAS MURAY

‘Frida with magenta muffle.’ PHOTO: NIKOLAS MURAYThe entrance to La Casa Azul. PHOTO: FARAHNAZ ZAHIDI

“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.” — Frida Kahlo

It doesn’t make sense that I relate so strongly to her. Barring the gender, we have nothing in common. She was from Hungarian-Jewish-Spanish-Mexican Indian descent; I am as Pakistani as it gets. She lived decades ago in Coyoacán, Mexico; I live in Karachi, Pakistan. She was a Communist political activist; I am not. I have no uni-brow or a muralist called Diego Rivera as my life-partner. Nor do I live in La Casa Azul (The Blue House). Yet the complex and multi-dimensional Frida Kahlo talks to me and I hear her.

‘Frida with magenta muffle.’ PHOTO: Nikolas Muray

An exhibit of one of Frida’s self-designed dresses

Frase celebre — a famous quote by Frida

An oil painting titled Marxism will give health to the sick.

Frida suffered from polio as a child, had a bus accident as a teenager that left her crippled and underwent 30 surgeries. She had multiple miscarriages and could not have a child. Chained in that crippled body was a feisty uninhibited spirit, who said “Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?” Her restrictions were very real. But within those restraints, she lived life to the fullest and asserted who she was. And this is the bond between Frida and so many women throughout the world who have no commonalities on a superficial level. But somewhere, in a parallel world, they hear each other. The chains maybe different, but for most women, they are there. And when they soar as high as they can, while tied to the ground, that’s the point where they meet Frida.

For art enthusiasts and Frida lovers, La Casa Azul is a must-do on the bucket list. Now that I was in Mexico City for a conference, how could I go back without visiting her home? Luckily, I met an American and a South African woman who were equally eager to go there too. The eclectic nature of this troika did justice to Frida, who embodied as much diversity within herself — equal parts muse, artist, writer, fashionista, lover, activist and saint. I tried speaking my broken Spanish to give directions to the taxi driver but he understood nothing. Eventually, I just ended up saying, “Frida” and he knew where to take us.

A display of creative footwear

A prosthesis from the exhibition ‘Appearances can be deceiving’

A papier-mache sculpture on display that symbolises an empty womb

La Casa Azul is snuggled away in a darling neighbourhood called Coyoacán in Mexico City. It is also known as Museo Frida Kahlo, as it was converted into a museum in 1958. Even on a weekday afternoon during lunchtime, there was a long queue of Kahlo-enthusiasts outside on the street. The one hour wait allowed us to explore the Colonia del Carmen neighbourhood. The vibrantly painted yellow, orange and blue homes, hand-painted addresses on heavy wooden doors, and imperfect but beautiful architecture — this had to be Frida’s street.

Our homes are places where bits of our souls rest in our belongings and our choices. The walls of our rooms witness our inner turmoil and the doors hear our laughter. A part of us lives in our homes even when we are not there. “Her feel is so much alive in this house” is what one of my two companions said as we entered. This is her ancestral home where she was born, where she lived part of her married life with Diego, and where she died.

The house, built around a sprawling courtyard, has cobalt-blue walls, small fountains and a lot of plantation. It is creative yet simple, and is very obviously conducive to art.

The wheelchair that helped Frida get around

Farida’s workstation

The yellow kitchen

The museum showcases most of Frida’s work. In her lifetime, she produced over 140 paintings, and 55 of these are self-portraits. Clearly in touch with herself, she had once said “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” Her paintings are, thus, her biography. Some seemingly unfinished paintings show faceless children, and some almost grotesque sculptures show an empty-wombed hollow woman. Here, Frida shares her unfulfilled desire of motherhood. While many see her work as surrealist, she had vehemently called her work her reality. French writer and poet André Breton had once described Frida Kahlo’s art as a “ribbon around a bomb”. That is also a very apt description of Frida herself.

While her art equipment have a strange glamour to them as one realises that these are the paints, brushes and canvas-holders which helped her create her lasting pieces, other belongings like her wheelchair and crutches also make one sense her disabilities. No matter how much we celebrate her disability as part and parcel of the great artist, and no matter how much she fought it with bravery, it must not have been an easy life. No matter, how emblematic, original and ethnic her ensembles are, but at the end of the day her wardrobe includes corsets, leg immobilisers, prosthesis and special shoes. It must have been tough to be in Frida’s shoes.

Her choices were not run-of-the-mill either. She loved Diego for his art and his mind, and it was a difficult on-again, off-again relationship. But they were each other’s muses. While she and her terribly gifted husband were intensely in love, Diego could never pledge fidelity, though he promised her loyalty. Loyalty, as Frida once said, was more important to her than fidelity.

The Pakistani woman today is in a transitional flux. She admires Ismat Chughtai but is also solidly rooted in tradition, sometimes out of coercion and at others as an informed choice. She is complex, and learning, and evolving. She is coming of age. She is paying the prices for her choices. Yet, she is living a full life, or at least trying to. Frida Kahlo, in her own unique way, did the same. She exemplified, somehow, what mystic teachings say — that none of us is perfect, yet there is so much perfect in each of us. She once said, “I think that little by little I’ll be able to solve my problems and survive.” That is what all of us are trying to do, every day of our lives.

Farahnaz Zahidi is a senior subeditor at The Express Tribune. She tweets @FarahnazZahidi

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 9th, 2014.

Muslim denominations: Are you Shia or Sunni?

Published: November 4, 2014

At that age, it didn’t seem like a big issue. But as I grew, I realised that it was indeed a big issue. PHOTO: FILE

It started quite early. I was seven-years-old. That’s when I first realised that there was something called a “Shia”, and people thought I was one; because in Pakistan, certain surnames are associated with being a Shia. ‘Zaidi’, one of them, sounds similar to the surname ‘Zahidi’, so I was and am often asked this question – “are you a Shia?”.

So I came home and asked my father, to which Abba replied in a very matter-of-factly that by faith, Shias and Sunnis are both Muslims. He explained to me that it’s like two brothers from the same family, we all love Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and his family, and are still very sad about what happened to his grandson Imam Hussain (RA). He further explained, as best as he could to a seven-year-old, that we are from the sect called Sunnis.

At that age, it didn’t seem like a big issue. But as I grew older, I realised that it was indeed a big issue. The issue, basically, is what has caused sectarian and ethnic differences and cleansings and violence over centuries; the issue that has stained many with innocent blood; the issue is that we cannot accept someone different; the issue is of us versus them, of “the others”, this religion versus that, this sect versus that, this province versus that, this ethnicity versus that.

This is an overly simplistic analysis maybe. Or maybe not. We can go into the historical causes, but history will always be partial, lack objectivity and will literally be to each his own. So we have no sure way of knowing why Sunnis and Shias have remained daggers drawn.

Society conditions us in such a way that we have a hard time coming to terms with whoever differs from us, may it be in thought process, language, ethnicity or race, caste, creed and religion. Going against what the Holy Quran tells us to do, we don’t overlook the differences and don’t concentrate on the similarities – we do just the opposite.

I was blessed that I grew up as daughter of a father who, being a Sunni by belief, made sure that solidarity with Shias was order of the day. Abba and I spent countless tenths of Muharram talking about the history of Islam and of the Karbala massacre, with him telling me both sides of the story. He would tell me to not listen to music loudly or not do anything on that day that would hurt the sentiments of Shia neighbours or friends. And he made sure that I understand that differences in perspectives are “natural, because Allah has created each one of us differently, and our circumstances shape us. Therefore, give each other margin”. His words have stayed with me.

Sadly, many of us stereotype the others. Sometimes, you will catch one side whispering amongst themselves about the other. We are scandalised when the other group’s namaz is somewhat different, seemingly, or they break their fast in Ramazan slightly earlier or later. Same Allah, same Messenger (SAW), same Quran just doesn’t seem enough, and so we stereotype each other.

Polarisation between Shias and Sunnis has resulted in followers conveniently deciding to divide, amongst them, the companions of Prophet Muhammad (SAW).

“So I am going with Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman (RA) and you go with ‘Ali, Imam Hassan, Imam Hussain (RA) and Prophet Muhammad (SAW) family. In my religious literature and talks, I will talk about Ayesha (RA) and you can talk about Fatima (RA). For guidance, I can look at the rulings of Abdullah bin Masood (RA) and you can choose Abdullah bin Abbas (RA).”

The worst form of reactionary psychology is then to hit where it hurts the most – disrespecting the ideas or the people the other group holds sacred. Thus, those who were closest to Allah get dragged in our tug of war – a war which makes no sense.

However, when it comes to Hajj or Umrah, both groups are peacefully praying in the same rows, embracing the differences and celebrating the commonalities. They are performing tawaaf of the same Holy Ka’abah, doing sa’ee together between Safa and Marwa, and praying from the same Holy book, though they may differ at times in how they interpret it. Why not carry the same acceptance with them outside the haram too, and say to each other from the heart “Assalamu’Aalaikum” (Peace be upon you)?

But that does not seem to work, and I don’t know why.

What I do know is that for the longest time, every year in Muharram, we pray that these days pass without any casualties. What I do know is that year after year, innocent lives are lost – in retaliation, in reaction. Hatred takes over peace. Anger takes over sanity. The real face of Islam gets blurred, ironically on these most special of days for Muslims.

There is very little we can do about it, except start looking inward, reflect where we let stereotypes rule us, and where we crossed a line and forgot that there is no compulsion in religion.

I am a Sunni, and I peacefully remain one by choice. But another human has an equal right to follow whatever path they want to. The followers of all faiths must feel secure and not be punished for what they believe in. Humanity, peace and the true message of Islam is bigger than these denominations.

Forsaken?: In Thar, depression claims what drought spares

Published: October 29, 2014

Dozens of children have reportedly died of malnutrition in this drought-stricken desert district of Sindh this year alone. PHOTO: AFP

KARACHI: “Dhia Bheel was a beautiful young woman but always looked gloomy and frail. She couldn’t put up with hunger and domestic violence. She jumped into a well with her six-month-old child. I’ve witnessed two suicide cases in the last two months in my tiny village,” says Lado Meghwar, resident of village Meghi Jo Tar in Tharparkar.

Dozens of children have reportedly died of malnutrition in this drought-stricken desert district of Sindh this year alone. And psychiatrists believe the persisting famine is creating psychological disorders among the Tharis, leading to suicidal tendencies.

In the past 10 months, 40 people have committed suicide in Tharparkar, including two cases of mothers killing themselves along with their children, according to a report prepared by a local NGO, AWARE.

More worrisome are the two cases of minors committing suicide. Thirteen-year-old shepherd Savaee Ghazi Meghwar of Kasbo village, district Nagarparkar, killed himself when his parents did not give him his pocket money.

The second case narrated by Marro Meghwar, a resident of Chapar Din village, is of a boy called Raimal, son of Chaman, aged 12, who threw himself into a well some 20 days back. “The child was mentally challenged. With such poverty how could they have even considered treatment?”

Psychiatrist Dr Lakesh Kumar Khatri confirms that suicide cases are on the rise in Tharparkar, and he links it mainly to depression. With the drought in Tharparkar prevailing for a third consecutive year, there is much to be depressed about.

This affects women and children the most, according to Khatri. Seventy-five per cent of patients of mental illnesses here are females, he claims.

“Problems overlap. Abject poverty leads to malnutrition, which affects sanity. Even if I do try to counsel a patient, it’s useless because malnutrition will lead to mental challenges. Such cases are more prone to suicide,” says Khatri. “They laugh when doctors suggest they eat fruits. ‘Our standard diet is dried red chilies with roti’, they say.”

Because of poverty, most depression cases go undiagnosed. “They don’t have money to feed themselves. How can they commute to Umerkot where we hold our free clinics?”

Thari women are malnourished. Their average hemoglobin level is eight to 10, which means they are also anemic. And their problems keep multiplying. More and more Thari men are moving to cities to try and earn a living, leaving their women lonelier and sadder.

Conversion Disorder, a mental illness in which psychological illness starts producing physical symptoms, is also common among Thari women. The realisation of their plight is equally painful. “While this awakening is a good thing, it is also painful, because the Thari people are realising how far behind they are,” says one doctor.

The state, however, is in a state of denial. Dr Lekhraj, who works at the state-run hospital in Chachro, denies any of these deaths were due to suicide. MPA Mahesh Kumar endorses Dr Lekhraj: “Maybe the women slipped and fell” into the wells.

That is because many blame the government for the depressing state of affairs in Tharparkar. Defending his government’s report card, Sindh Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah this week claimed in a speech in the provincial assembly that his administration has recently arranged wheat worth Rs2 billion for the drought-hit areas of Tharparkar.

Ironically, he denied anyone had died of hunger over the past five years, and also contradicted reports of an unusual increase in child deaths in Tharparkar. Unofficially, more than 100 drought-affected children reportedly died in the region this year – 32 in the month of February alone.

MPA Mahesh Kumar concedes the drought situation this year ‘is worse’ than 2013, but he denies poverty could be blamed for the deaths and depression. “Other reasons like illicit affairs and family feuds can also be a reason,” claims Kumar. “Malnourishment is not just a problem of Tharparkar. It exists in other parts of Sindh and in Balochistan too. But now the media magnifies even the smallest incidences.”

Officials say they are giving 50 kg of wheat, free of cost, to every family. But local NGO’s insist very few families ever received the entire 50kg allotted to them. With the government insisting all problems will be solved with a 50kg bag of flour, the future looks bleak for the people of this neglected part of Pakistan.

Suicide in numbers

• 40 is the number of cases of suicide in Tharparkar district in the first ten months of 2014.

• A tehsil-wise ratio of suicides shows that 42% of the cases were in Mithi, 23% were in Nagarparkar, 20% in Chachro and 12% in Islamkot.

• 50% of the cases were men and 50% were women and children.

(Source: AWARE)

The reasons for suicide in order of most cases to least

• Poverty and unemployment

• Family feuds

• Domestic violence

• Mental disorders

• Mismatched marriages

(Source: AWARE.)

Published in The Express Tribune, October 29th, 2014.

Fast and furious: Revving the engines for polio eradication

Published: October 27, 2014

The Harley Davidson heavy motorcycle rally was held on Saturday to mark the World Polio Day. The rally was organised by the Rotary Club Karachi Creek PHOTO: EXPRESS

KARACHI: Bilal Khan is neither brawny, nor has tattooed beefy arms or matted hair, but he sure loves his Harley Davidson heavy-duty motorcycle that he drives to the mosque to say his prayers every day. Breaking the stereotype of the quintessential Harley Davidson motorcyclists, Khan, who is an IT professional and a member of the Harley Owners Group Pakistan (HOG Pakistan), participated in the Harley Davidson heavy motorcycle rally on Saturday to mark the World Polio Day.

The rally was organised by the Rotary Club Karachi Creek. “We stumbled on to these guys by chance. We were at a club when suddenly this group of motorcyclists revved in. We thought it was a great way to highlight the issue,” Muneeb Khan, president of the Rotary Club Karachi Creek, said.

This is the first time members of HOG Pakistan have gotten together to raise awareness about such a cause. They are essentially Harley Davidson enthusiasts and their love of the motorcycles brings them together.

“It’s a passion I have had since I was 15,” says Khan.

But owning and maintaining a Harley Davidson in Karachi is not without its challenges. “Our biggest problem is security. The motorcyclists in Islamabad and other parts of Pakistan can drive around more securely,” says Asif Altaf, who works in the advertising industry and is one of the founding members of HOG Pakistan.

The price of one of these motorcycles can range from Rs1.5 million to Rs4.5 million. “Because it is an expensive vehicle, people stop you on the road and ask how much it costs… that is a bit awkward,” he says.

“These motorcycles consume a lot of fuel. We mostly import them from the US. The oil and oil filters for these motorcycles have to be imported too. There is no trained maintenance facility available, so we have had to train local mechanics off manuals.” While they do don the giveaway leather gear, these Harley owners are not your stereotypical motorcyclists. “We’re just regular people… almost all of us are in our 40′s. We have worked hard to give the Harley Davidson bikers of Pakistan a new image,” says Altaf.

Another problem, Bilal says, is that there are no smooth straight roads stretching at least 50km in Karachi. “Due to the hefty price and the trouble we go through to maintain them, the resale value of these motorcycles is not much and a big chunk of money is blocked.”

Yet despite the challenges, these men feel that the trouble is worth it. “The sense of exclusivity and the freedom we feel on our bikes is priceless,” says Altaf.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 27th, 2014.