Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Pakistan’s Day of Deliverance

March 24, 2008. The atmosphere in the Pakistan National Assembly was clearly emotive. After a long, hard and bloody journey democracy finally triumphed over dictatorship. The parliament chose Syed Yusuf Raza Gillani as the leader of the house by a huge margin, paving his way to take on the mantle of the most volatile nation in the Indian sub-continent.

Yusuf looked elegant in his business suit. He shook hands with everyone amidst the sloganeering and clamor. Bilawal Bhutto, the scion of the Bhutto family, wept quietly in the visitor’s gallery. It would have been his mom’s moment of glory had fate not decided otherwise. Syed Yusuf, the loyalist that he is, straightaway walked to the gallery and held Bilawal’s hand, amid roaring cheers.

Pakistan has entered a new era. Yusuf leads a rainbow coalition. Dawn succinctly puts it: ‘The coalition consists of the election victor PPP, which calls itself social democratic, its former arch-rival right-of-centre PML-N, Pukhtun nationalist Awami National Party and Islamic fundamentalist Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam. Urban Sindh’s MQM, which is still out of the coalition, is ethnic-based.’ In simple words the new leader has to hold together a flock of disparate views and ideas. The name of the game is accommodation.

Syed sahib, also called Makhdoom Yusuf, sounds very much a Bhutto guy. In his short speech he promised a UN enquiry into Ms Bhutto’s assassination [to a thunderous applause], a national apology for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s judicial execution [another applause]. To please the Nawaz camp, he called for restoration of the higher judiciary [standing ovation]. How times change? They say if you don't create change, change will create you. Poor President Musharraf!

In the end, March 24 may well be remembered as Pakistan’s day of redemption. The country has recently witnessed mayhem. Pakistan has been through hell and back. It has been a rat’s nest where suicide bombings became a rage. Judiciary was kicked around. The media was gagged. Nawaz was publicly humiliated. Late Benazir Bhutto’s security was compromised. A change of guard can be expected to greatly emolliate the badly bruised soul of Pakistan.

It is redemption time for everything dear and beautiful this country has lost in the last one decade. It is also time to heal some deep and dark wounds. There is an impelling need to make the institutions strong and democratic. This is the time for love and peace. Education and upliftment. Some introspection and generous forgiveness. Atonement.

Pakistan’s new leaders should not squander this moment.


Monday, March 24, 2008

Rants of a Racist

Racial superiority is a mere pigment of the imagination

Geert Wilders is a Dutch right wing parliamentarian. Though brought up as a catholic, he became an atheist. Wilders has made a reputation for his racist slurs on Islam. He wants the Holy Qu’ran to be banned in the Netherlands. He has also equated the Qu’ran with Adolph Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’. In past interviews he compared the Prophet Muhammad to the German dictator. Not content with his hitherto local hate-Islam campaign, Geert is now on the verge of a world wide release of a 15-minute anti-Qu’ran movie called Fitna [Arabic for civil strife]. The film links verses from the Qu'ran to violence.

Tempers are running high. Holland has a sizeable Muslim population. Of the Netherlands’16.5 million residents, a million are Muslim. News about the film has fueled ethnic tension in the country and sparked anger in the Muslim world. Threats have started flying. For record no Dutch TV station is willing to air the highly provocative film. Undeterred, Wilders decided to release the movie on Internet. March 23, even its US hosting service, Network Solutions temporarily suspended the website.

Geert Wilders is a very confrontational character. A nut-case racist, who colors his hair extreme platinum blond, he gained early notoriety because of his rants against immigrants and Islam. His party PVV [Freedom Party] has managed to win 9 seats [in the 150 seat parliament] owing to his fierce fascist diatribe. In his new role as the film director, Geert wants to dismiss Qu’ran – a book loved by 1.5 billion people world over – in less than 15 minutes. It remains to be seen how. New York Times adds …’some here have started wondering if it is as fake as his hair color’.

Whatever the ulterior designs swirling in his hate-filled head, Wilders is no more than a rank opportunist with absolutely no respect for other beliefs. As a commentator observes, "while everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, and even to voice out that opinion, there is a responsibility when [one] tends to bring out the debate to the public. Else we will just turn into barbaric bunch that throw insults to each other. But launching a film where he [Geert] knew would be perceived as an open insult by millions of people is really showing his selfish motives."

Geert Wilders has made a career for himself on a very hateful, racist ideology. Day before yesterday, not withstanding his loathsome brand of politics, thousands of people marched to Amsterdam to protest against his latest anti-Islamic rhetoric. ‘We want to show that there's something other than Wilders,' Rene Danen, chairman of anti-racism group Nederland Bekent Kleur, [The Netherlands Shows Its Colors] said on the occasion. A majority of Dutch people want a colorful society. It is people like Geert who let them down. And also create an ugly schism with other cultures and faiths, that he doesn’t seem to have the mental faculties to understand. That is incidentally the first signs of any feeble mind. It cannot understand, it can only afford to hate.

Geert, by the bye, supports his claims citing the now misused cliché Freedom of Expression. They use it all the time, as a European readymade tool. [Freedom of speech goes to dogs when Prof David Irving suggests Holocaust revision. He was jailed in Austria in 2006 for saying so]. Wilders ‘freedom of speech’ crosses the line, as Lairedon points out in his excellent blog, and turns into discrimination thus violating Article 1 of the Dutch Constitution where discrimination of people on their race, religion, political view, gender, sexual orientation or any other ground is prohibited.

I reckon Muslims have got to be a little thick skinned and let such things pass. They shouldn't construe this as yet another insult from the western civilisation. The world has always witnessed some really awful xenophobes, intolerant and narrow-minded bigots. Geert has just added his name to the infamous list.

The likes of him are relegated to the trash-bin on history, rather ingloriously.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

Friend of Friends

So after a rather exasperating wait, we finally have a new prime minister in Pakistan. The dude is Syed Yusuf Raza Gillani. He is 55, a Saraiki [ethnic group from South-eastern Pakistan, especially in and around the area of the former princely state of Bahawalpur; Saraikis produce most of Pakistan’s wheat and cotton]-Punjabi from Multan and a pretty influential player in Pakistan’s power equation. An ex-speaker of the Pakistan parliament, Syed sahib was jailed for five long years for misusing his authority while he was the speaker.

Mr Gillani’s rise to fame is largely due to his closeness to Asif Zardari. Asif is a much flamboyant character and is known for throwing legendary social parties and lavishly hosting his close pals. So he eventually cherry picked Syed sahib [an ex-Nawaz guy] over PPP icons like Makhdoom Fahim and Aitzaz Ahsan.

Asif’s friends vouch for his famed friendship. When Gillani was being sentenced to six years of imprisonment, Asif who was present in the Rawalpindi court room [in connection with one of his own corruption cases, all of which have now been dropped] suddenly got up and remarked in his characteristic rhetorical style,’ My Lord you are putting behind bars the future president of Pakistan.

It looks like Asif finally kept his word. In doing so, he chose a relative new-comer to the coveted post. The new PM Gillani is ironically a product of the Martial Law under General Zia-ul-Haq. The dictator made him a member of the Majlis-e-Shoora [Council of Advisors]. A heavy weight politician, he soon became part of the PML. Raza joined PPP in 1988. He has a Master’s in journalism from Punjab University and wrote a book 'Chahe-Yusuf-Se-sada' [Reflections from Yusuf's Well] while in prison.

Before the announcement of Raza’s elevation, last week Asif nominated Dr Fehmida Mirza to the post of speaker of the Pakistan Parliament. Her husband, Zulfikar Mirza, was Zardari's classmate at the Petaro Cadet College and has been Asif’s best friend. During previous governments of Benazir Bhutto, Mirza was often accused of being Zardari's front-man in most of his shady deals. That was why Mirza, whose car registration Zulfi One, used to make waves in the federal capital during those days, disappeared from the scene after the dismissal of second Benazir government in 1996, as Dawn quotes.

The latest choice -- Syed Yusuf Raza Gillani -- has Iranian ancestry. He comes from a very reverend spiritual family in Multan. Interestingly, Geelani’s aunt’s [mom’s sister] hubby is the current Pir Pagaro [Chief of many turbans]. The present Pir [seventh spiritual head of the respected Hur Sufis] is Shah Mardan Shah II. That’s what makes it all the more amusing. Both Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir had an aversion for the Hurs and hated them guts. The father-daughter duo persecuted the Hurs because they considered them as a big political challenge in Sindh. Now we have a Pir Pagaro kin, a Zia-find, carrying forward the Bhutto legacy.

Gillani’s appointment accentuates two important things. One, he may just keep the high profile seat of PM warm for Asif who may take over, let us say, six months down the line. Two, Asif remains a 'friend of friends' and very much a maverick.

Time for a drink.


Monday, March 17, 2008

Poised to Soar

tu shareek-e-sukhan nahin hai to kyaa
ham sukhan teri khaamoshi hai abhi

~Tho’ I can’t talk to you anymore/ Your silences speak to me
[My translation]

India and Pakistan are two countries yoked by a common culture. Though there is much bitterness due to past bloodletting, the bonhomie we share with the Pakistanis is unrivalled. That is because we speak the same language, unwind for similar reasons and get the same jokes.

And nothing can get the two together like music. I think the Pakistanis – despite a smaller cultural scene than India – are pretty much evolved in arts. I was part of an elite gathering this weekend that assembled on the lush lawns of the Intercontinental Grand in New Delhi to listen to the iconic Ghulam Ali.

Ghulam Ali is simply put, magical. His style is simple but powerful. It throws you with the sheer beauty of it. The maestro arrived late but the perfumed gaggle waited on. Everyone knew it was worth the wait. Meantime someone from his troupe – which had already arrived --sang a few Ghazals. That served like an appetizer.

I was in row two with my best buddy. A gorgeous lady in her mid thirties with a permanent smile sat just in front. Her argentate saree flapped in the evening breeze. A hundred minutes behind schedule, Ghulam Ali sahib walked onto the stage. My first impression was Oh, so that is how the virtuoso looks like. In a moment the magic began. It soon spread. I have no doubt in my mind – and I don’t readily approve of superstars – that Ghulam Ali is one of the best Ghazal singers of our times.

His voice leaves you completely ensorcelled. The pitch is electrifying and the notes are divine. Even his pauses are an outburst of the soul. For a while you feel like levitated. Bliss pours. You become the music. Ghulam Ali has an amazing connect with the audiences. He speaks in chaste Punjabi and melodious Urdu. The andaaz [style] is distinctly songlike and his expressions purely poetic.

It also makes you compare, as mortals are often wont to: Who is the greatest of the two legends? Ghulam Ali or Jagjit Singh. Both have millions of fans and both are maestros. I’ve attended concerts of both and I think thus: While Jagjit is more popular and easily associated with a sweet melancholy that is timeless, Ghulam Ali -- no doubt -- has more variety. He is liltingly lyrical and continually improvising. That is his forte’.

Music perhaps has this appeal. Auerbach hit the bull’s eye when he averred, ‘Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life’. Ghulam Ali gives you a big reason to feel good. I remember my fav thinker Nietzsche.

Without music life would be a mistake.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The pir who coudn't be the king

The day Benazir was assasinated; BB and Makhdoom talk to Prez Karzai
Now that the Queen is no more, her man Friday can be kicked around by the king’s men. Poor Makhdoom sahib. He won’t be the prime minister after all. That he served Benazir all his life, like an able adjutant, holding together the PPP flock when Mohtarma and her wily hubby were enjoying Mediterranean cruises, didn’t eventually work for Makhdoom Amin Fahim.

The King [that’s Asif Zardari in his new guise] perhaps feeling a notch vulnerable decided -- in his infinite wisdom -- to sideline the affable Fahim. A tête-à-tête in the holiday resort of Muree saw every PPP heavyweight worth his salt breaking bread with their foe-turned-pal Nawaz Sharif. Asif, obviously, led the pack. The only conspicuous absence was – no brownies for guessing this – Fahim sahib. While the big guys clinked glasses [imported juice, no liqueur when media is around] celebrating their victory, nobody thought about the man -- who competently led the winning party in these elections.

Now Nawaz’s folks are going about town [Asif’s men can’t do that directly, stupid] saying Fahim is unacceptable because he has met Musharraf in the past. Oh, I forgot to add, the act [of meeting Mush] is a cardinal sin in Pakistan these days. But wait a second; Fahim met Mush in the past because he was talking on behalf of Benazir. So why is everyone out to hit Fahim? It is no secret that Mohtarma was conniving to enter an agreement with the General. Fahim, as a loyal guy, was just a go-between. What is the fuss about? Do we really need a scapegoat? Why slaughter the old poet? This is, for God's sake, a man who refused the PM's post in the past.

The first press con after BB’s assassination [when the Bhutto kid was crowned heir apparent] saw an emotionally charged Asif announcing Fahim sahib as the choice for PM's slot. A dignified politician, as Fahim is, remained quiet at the occasion. Now under fire from left and right, the poet is finally speaking out. Asked by media men why he didn’t attend the Muree meeting, Fahim waxed poetic: I am a hermit; I don’t go to the mosque unless the Azaan [Prayer call] is called.

Meantime Asif’s men in their attempt to lionize Mohtarma’s widower are now saying that the ex-playboy-turned-peacenik can become the PM in the next few months. That is when he quickly installs a friendly-inept chap as regent for the moment. That would give Asif time to consolidate his grip and contest from a safe seat.

So, some quick lessons to be learnt here. Pakistan’s politics remains very much a feudal charade, as the gifted British intellectual Tariq Ali likes to call it. We may soon see an Asif crony in power while the old boy will control him backstage.

And the clamor shall continue.


Monday, March 10, 2008

The Good food

North Indian food is rich and fattening. They use dollops of clarified butter, locally called Ghee and the slick makes you lick your finger-tips like a greedy hog. Ghee and weddings are complimentary in India and I think the only other major culture remotely fond of Ghee is the Egyptian. Besides some north African tribes in Eritrea use it.

I made it to two weddings in the last one fortnight. A Jain and a Muslim feast. While I regard the confluence of cultures – and India being the melting pot of human diversity – I daresay that I find Muslim cuisine the very best. They make regal food and it smacks of heaven. At the Jain nuptials, the priest went about spraying holy water and sprinkling ghee everywhere.

And before my critics take out their knives and forks to assail me on the sacred altar of vegetarian and non-vegetarian bones, let me confess that it is not about the lamb versus ladoos [sugary gram flour balls] debate. My point is that the entire concept of going out for a wedding party -- in your best attire -- somehow looses its charm if you end up eating mustard leaves [saag in India]. I can be wrong too.

I reckon the charm of any party lies in the assorted smiles of its gathering. The air has to be chirpy and the food divine. While the Jain affair was elaborate with many generous layers of ghee to it, I found it pretty bland. As most vegetables tend to be, however deep you try and fry them. The Pathan ball on the other hand was vivacious. Melliferous music wafted over lamb skewers.

In my mind I was attempting to make a comparison with the last party I went to. And I distilled my thoughts thus: In India two kinds of people exist. Those who eat lentils and are content with the vittle and those who savour lamb and just love it. While I would mostly identify with the latter, I think taste is always a relative term. Iffy, if you may call it.

The humorist Fran Lebowitz once averred, ‘Vegetables are interesting but lack a sense of purpose when unaccompanied by a good cut of meat’. Jim Davis, the cartoonist, differs. Vegetables are a must on a diet. I suggest carrot cake, zucchini bread, and pumpkin pie, he argues. I think the Spanish got it right: The belly rules the mind. So eat what you please.

Bon apetit.


Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Wolf and the Lamb

After a heart-filled lunch, the old wolf, still licking its pointed teeth, slowly walks away. In three days of wild orgy, it has left more than a hundred dead. Many more were bruised beyond recognition. The beast gouged open the innards of an infant tenderly sleeping in her mother’s lap. It pounced on everything that walked. There was cold sweat and it was creepy. The animal howled in joy. Then faint murmurs came from a distance. The wily wolf had enough for the day. Swiftly, it paced back to its pad.

Israel, the modern day version of wolf -- straight from Aesop’s fables -- has just carried out a bloody blitzkrieg in Gaza, Palestine. And, like always the Zionist state will get away with it. By the bye Israel incriminates the Palestinians for launching homemade rockets in the Negev desert. And by now we all know who fires these crude salvos and why. The truth is that all of fourteen Israelis have been killed [abominable, no doubt] by the rockets since Palestinian resistance began firing them in 2001, while approximately 125 Palestinians were killed in the last few days alone. Nearly 5,000 Palestinian men, women and children have been killed since 2000.

It's grossly disproportional," Geoffrey Binder, a leading expert on international humanitarian law in London, told Reuters, about Israeli incursion and its use of excessive force in Gaza. As allegories go, like the wolf, Israel comes quietly, runs amok, tramples ordinary folks, drinks blood and kills innocents by the dozen. It doesn’t leave till it quenches its thirst. The monster, they say, is crazy once it tastes blood. It wants more.

The Israel cabinet is comprised of a bunch of far-right hawks. All blood hounds. During a recent cabinet session, Meir Sheetrit, the minister of Interior, enlightened thus: ‘Exactly what I think the [Israeli army] should do [is] decide on a neighborhood in Gaza and level it.’ So simple. That is the state policy. A part of the same policy is continuation of the dehumanizing economic blockade of Gaza. This weekend the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Palestine was compelled to issue a statement, ‘Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the Israeli occupation began in 1967.’

The erudite columnist Rami Almeghari underlines in the latest issue of the widely read EI: Though he may have passed on, the words of deceased Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat ring ever true thirty years since he uttered them: "Those who call us terrorists wish to prevent world public opinion from discovering the truth about us and from seeing the justice on our faces. They seek to hide the terrorism and tyranny of their acts, and our own posture of self-defense."

The little lamb, after all, drinks downstream. It cannot, for all practical reasons, pollute the wolf’s share, because the beast is drinking upstream.


Sunday, March 02, 2008

A lesser Holocaust

A kingdom founded on injustice never lasts.
~Seneca, Roman thinker, mid-1st century AD

Israeli tanks and F-16’s continue their pummeling in Gaza, Palestine. The saturation bombing has left close to 60 dead in a single day [March 1, 2008: Source AFP]. Children, women, elderly and men. Journalists reporting from the occupied territory say that body parts lie strewn about the ghostly town and hospitals services are now stretched thin. Ambulances can’t fetch the wounded because there is no fuel. Israel has stopped essential supplies also. There is absolute mayhem.

Yet there is nary a word of condemnation. No one cares two hoots. In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe expressed regret for loss of civilian life but put most of the blame on the Palestinians. Thank you, Gordon. What more can one expect of this discredited administration. Meantime Israel says the air attack on Gaza is due to the continued shooting of homemade Qassam rockets by Hamas at the town of Sderot.

No one seems to care to ask the most important question: Why are these rockets being fired into Isreal? The answer, I surmise is simple: Because Isreal had led an economic blockade of Gaza since 2006. That is when Hamas came to power. All imports are banned. Exports of all form are banned. Initially medicines and basic foodgrains were allowed. Later Israel moved to stop even the bare necessities. All borders are sealed. Like ugly sadists, the likes of Ehud Barak, Israel's thuggish defence minister, waited and watched the pressure-cooker situation in Gaza. Human rights went up in steam.

In reality Hamas proposed a cease-fire in the past. It repeated the offer in December 2007. A cease-fire means – as the brilliant Israeli columnist Uri Avnery explains: the Palestinians will stop shooting Qassams and mortar shells, the Israelis will stop the incursions into Gaza, the targeted assassinations and the economic blockade. But Israel has its own devilish plans. They don’t like Hamas, so no talks with the folks -- albeit Hamas is democratically elected. Instead starve the population, squeeze them and when it doesn’t work – Bomb the hell out of them.

Before carrying out this week’s full scale assault on Gazan villages, Israel’s deputy defense minister Matan Vilnai threatened Palestinians in the occupied strip with a ‘Holocaust’ [Source: Independent, UK - 29 Feb]. The comments came a day after Israeli occupation forces killed 31 Palestinians, nine of them children, one a six-month-old baby, in a series of air raids across Gaza. Although some pragmatic colleagues in the Olmert cabinet distanced themselves from Vilnai’s villainous remarks, no quick reprimands followed. Imagine the world reaction if Ahmedinejad says as much as: Let us have a Holocaust debate!

As I blog, news updates inform me that missiles keep flying into Gaza. Holocaust of the lesser kind – because no one likes to talk about it, lest it scandalizes the holy cow Israel – continues. The UN cannot convene because big daddy America won’t allow it to. The Europeans are shamelessly quiet. The rich Arab countries are busy in a scramble to make the grandest infrastructure in the world. Not to be left behind Dubai [which has made ‘Burj Dubai’, a 818 meter high building], Saudi Arabia is planning a ‘Mile High Tower’, 1,000 meters high. A few “billions” of dollars would be pumped into the endeavor. [Source: Forbes Mag]

Meantime Palestinians die – poor, helpless and unsung.