VIEW: It’s troubled, but it’s home —Mohsin Hamid
This duality of Pakistan as a place both troubled and normal, a place capable of producing a large diaspora while also affectionately tugging at those who have left, is often lost on the world’s media. International news outlets tend to cast Pakistan as the one-dimensional villain of a horror film, a kind of Jason or Freddie whose only role is to frighten
During the winter holidays, much of the Pakistani diaspora makes its way back to the homeland. It is wedding season and — for those with the means and of a secular persuasion — party season as well. Flights are fully booked, airfares are astronomically high, and even circuitous itineraries via places such as Istanbul and Muscat are in great demand.
Middle-class families in Pakistan often tell a similar tale of numbers. Of my parents and their siblings, 13 people in total, 11 live in Pakistan. But of their 26 children — my generation — 15 of us reside abroad. Pakistan has become an increasingly unsettled place, and many of my peers have voted with their feet.
But not always with their hearts. As my wife and I board our flight from London to Lahore, evident all around us is a longing for home — for the friends and family who are central to Pakistani culture in a way that many foreigners find so remarkable. (As an admiring American roommate of mine once said, “All you guys do is hang out.”) This duality of Pakistan as a place both troubled and normal, a place capable of producing a large diaspora while also affectionately tugging at those who have left, is often lost on the world’s media. International news outlets tend to cast Pakistan as the one-dimensional villain of a horror film, a kind of Jason or Freddie whose only role is to frighten. Scant attention is paid to the hospitality, the love for music and dance, or the simple ordinariness of 164 million people going about their daily lives.
As we take our seats on a Pakistan International Airlines Boeing 777, my fellow passengers do not look to me like embodiments of the hearts and minds of an important frontline state in the “war on terror.” They look like people excited to be headed home.
We touch down early on the morning of Sunday, December 23. One of my brothers-in-law is getting engaged and a cousin is getting married, so I am soon busy running from one family event to another, often followed by late-night hangout sessions with old friends.
Naturally, we talk politics. It is immediately evident to me how unpopular President Pervez Musharraf has become. A year ago, many people said that he was at least partially good for the country. But Musharraf’s conflict with the judiciary, suppression of independent television channels and crackdown on pro-democracy and human rights activists have embittered most of those who previously gave him credit for economic growth and stability.
My brother-in-law is much younger than I am, in his early 20s. He and his friends are poster boys for the “enlightened moderation” that Musharraf claims to want to promote. One is a computer programmer who works for a small company in Lahore that designs particle effects (smoke from explosions, blood splattering from gunshot wounds) for international video game studios. Another is a film student working on a pilot for a television show for his college thesis. But even liberal young Pakistanis like them are keen to see an end to Musharraf’s rule. I hear again and again that Pakistan needs to give democracy a chance, and that for that to happen, Musharraf must go.
I accompany my wife’s family to my brother-in-law’s engagement. It is customary for the prospective groom’s family to go to the home of the prospective bride and make a formal proposal for her hand. The lights go out in the middle of our visit — due to power shortages, Pakistan suffers from rolling 30-minute blackouts — and we have to wait in darkness before the bride-to-be can make her appearance and rings can be exchanged.
The following day I am chatting with my parents when a friend calls and tells me to turn on the television. At first, it seems that there has been an explosion at a political rally attended by Benazir Bhutto, but that Bhutto herself is unharmed. Later, the news channels say that she has been injured and taken to the hospital. Finally, we hear the announcement that she has died. I am surprised by the strength of my reaction. It is the most upsetting event in the history of Pakistan that I can personally recall.
Riots soon erupt across the country, most violently in Karachi, where my cousin’s wife, a microbiologist, has just completed a medical ethics exam. Her taxi is attacked by a gang of teenage boys who smash its windows with sticks. The driver manages to turn around and escape, and she spends the night at the nearby home of a friend, unable to make it to her destination until the following day because of the violence in the streets.
In Lahore, things are calmer, but there are reports of shootings and arson, and most people stay indoors. I venture out to my cousin’s house, passing along some of what would normally be the busiest boulevards in this city of 8 million. I do not see more than a handful of cars. Lights are out, the streets are empty.
The following night, many of us notice that the moon hangs low in the sky, reddish-orange and perhaps three-quarters full. The missing crescent seems to be not on the left or the right, but at the top, giving the moon an odd shape, like the bulge of a pregnant woman’s belly.
Bhutto is assassinated on a Thursday. By Saturday, stocks of food and petrol are running low. Shops are shuttered in protest at her killing, petrol stations are closed for fear of arsonists, and trucks and trains that carry supplies up and down Pakistan have stopped running after coming under attack.
Sunday brings a measure of reprieve, as the riots seem to be coming under control. For me, there are two very unexpected sources of hope during this period. The first is from Nawaz Sharif, Bhutto’s long-time political opponent and leader of the anti-establishment Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN). He arrives at the hospital immediately upon hearing of her death and is so visibly upset that he cries out again and again that this is Pakistan’s “darkest day.” The spontaneous humanity of his reaction, the depth of compassion and grief (from him, of all people), seems to resonate with and unite a vast swath of Pakistanis across the political spectrum, as does his subsequent announcement that his party will boycott the elections out of sympathy for Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
Even more surprising is the first press conference of the PPP after Bhutto’s death. Her widower, the newly designated PPP co-chairperson, Asif Ali Zardari, has an extremely unsavoury reputation. Yet instead of exploiting resentments in Sindh (Bhutto’s home province) against the Punjab (the province where she was killed), he delivers an eloquent and — dare I say it? — inspiring defence of the federation, of democracy and of Sindhi-Punjabi brotherhood. He offers an olive branch to the army, saying that the PPP’s quarrel is with Pakistan’s ruling party, not with the country’s soldiers. He admonishes the rioters, tells Pakistanis to express their anger by voting in the elections, and expresses his gratitude to Sharif while asking Sharif’s party not to boycott the polls (a request Sharif quickly accepts).
By Monday, a sense of relief seems to be spreading through the country: On television, in newspapers, in conversations at the market, people are expressing cautious optimism about a future that only four days earlier seemed so bleak. There is enormous sympathy for Bhutto and her party. She was perhaps never so popular in life as she is now in death.
Meanwhile, Musharraf and the party of his establishment, the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam), have perhaps never been so unpopular. Television images of fire-fighters being directed to hose away evidence from the assassination scene, and government statements that Bhutto died not from bullets nor from a bomb but from falling on the sun-roof lever of her SUV, add fuel to the many conspiracy theories circulating about who really ordered her killing. Election posters bearing the bicycle symbol of Musharraf’s party are being torn down all over the city.
Two friends come to see us. In October, when Bhutto first returned to Karachi from self-imposed exile abroad, they had ridden in her convoy. Their car was immediately behind Bhutto’s vehicle, and they saw the blasts of that initial unsuccessful suicide bomb attack on her. But they keep speaking of what preceded the carnage: the rapturous reception she received from her supporters. They tell me it was beautiful, with all the singing and dancing and cheering of a carnival. It was a Pakistan they had never seen before, full of diversity and hope, with people from all four provinces and even the religious minorities out in a show of joy.
Little more than a week has passed since Bhutto’s death, but life in Lahore is almost normal again. I am amazed by Pakistan’s resilience, by this nation’s power to pick itself up and carry on. But change is in the air. Opposition parties are uniting against the Musharraf-led establishment. Elections, even though they have been postponed until February 18, seem poised to deliver a powerful rebuke to the current regime, unless of course they are rigged.
In the United States, there will be newspaper columns and television talk shows dedicated to “loose nukes” and the “war on terror.” Here in Pakistan, one can see signs of people coming together. Scare stories notwithstanding, it is possible (although by no means certain) that out of this tragedy the world’s sixth-largest nation may succeed in finding its voice — and with that the chance for a better future.
Mohsin Hamid’s most recent novel is The Reluctant Fundamentalist. This article originally appeared in the Washington Post