Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Up in the Air - A review

Note: Spoiler Alert

I had been very excited to see Up in the Air. The trailer showed a classic Hollywood recipe for success: George Clooney, a cynical, impossibly handsome vagabond who's bit of a prick, and passes cynical and adorably unashamed judgment on every facet of life until he has a change of heart, meets his perfect match, and is redeemed. Oh and there’s that side story involving his obsession with airports and a career that entails firing people in a terrible economy.

Side story, ha. If there’s anything that should be relegated to the side in this film, it is the seemingly soulless relationship between Ryan (Clooney) and his equally suave en-route squeeze, played by Vera Farmiga. And all that American Airlines' product placement. And a very predictable storyline involving Ryan's sister’s wedding to a surprisingly tame Danny McBride. Oh, Ryan is redeemed alright, that much was coming from the start. What I didn’t see coming was the movie’s incredibly sad, and real, portrayal of a thankless, cruel process of ego-stripping that is repeated daily, in massive numbers in the present American economy. The subject of corporate layoffs, that life-shattering gift of recession, grabs center stage in this film. Perhaps unwittingly on director Jason Reitman’s behalf, the multiple images of just-fired employees (two of them played by the wonderful Zach Galifianakis and J.K.Simmons) outshine every bit of funny dialogue shared by Clooney, Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. All others are simply props that ultimately fail to take away any of the grim ugliness from the movie’s chosen backdrop.

Yes, the director did try to soften the bleak ending by playing interview clips of three of the fired employees, in which they quietly concede that getting fired is not, after all, akin to death like one character stated earlier in the film. They each recount things that give them hope and comfort in their lives and save them from going over the edge like one woman actually does, jumping off a bridge. And then there is Ryan's change of heart, of course, as he recognizes the importance of being 'grounded'. However, for me at least, all these failed to replace one lasting image the movie left me with: a burly, macho-looking fifty eight year old man in Detroit, who sits in his chair unabashedly weeping for a good several minutes in front of the video conference that had just communicated to him that he was let go. The epitome of the broken American dream.

I did try to push away these images and focus on the movie’s actual protagonists, and care more about what happened to them in particular, but I failed. Mainly because the movie isn't long enough to develop its characters more sharply, to give us a little bit more history. In a short hour and a half there are too many different elements at work simultaneously--the firings and the airports and the frequent flier miles and the casual sex and all those teachable moments, first for Natalie and then for Ryan. Thankfully though, Reitman saves the movie from banality by delivering a twist at the end that nobody saw coming. The sheer cynicism that we associate with Ryan in the beginning of the movie hits us with a bang from another character. We only suspect it at the very end, so it’s brutal. So brutal in fact that it leaves absolutely no room to feel anything remotely resembling comfort or joy from the overall film.

It's safe to say then, that while giving us another very good--if not his best--film, Reitman doesn't deliver as many laughs as pensive thoughts in this one, compared to Juno and the brilliant Thank You for Smoking. In fact I feel sometimes the effort to keep things light is forced, especially around the middle. It hits the nail on the head in more ways than one, but Up in the Air is definitely not up for laughs.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


You’re stuck indefinitely in a bubble of soap and antiseptic liquid, the overpowering scent of alcohol compounds that promise to exfoliate you of the insurmountable…dirt. What an inadequate word to describe an object of a lifetime of inexplicable and inconvenient fear.

But it's not just that. There are the ticks. Nobody wants to know what lurks behind that slightly fidgety, but still apparently normal exterior; fearful they’d see that borderline crazed part of themselves they try to bury every morning before they walk out into the world. They graciously ignore, and discount your ‘quirks’. Because that nervous tick in the forehead is actually familiar to some; as is that compulsive adjusting and readjusting of the left shoulder. They’ve been through that multiple hand washing phase, at one point or the other. It happens, and they indulge you.

Yet what they do not know is that for you, it’s not just a cute phase. It is as permanent as the DNA running in your veins. It is not just a small, borderline crazed part of yourself that you shed when walking into public, and resume in privacy. It’s running through your body, every second of every conversation, and it is exhausting. Well-intentioned but clueless words of advice follow you--self control, self discipline, self control. You can do it, you're told, like empty good luck wishes before a competition you know you're going to lose.

Self control. If only.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Why Legalizing Marijuana Won't Destroy America (or Anyone Else)

LA Times states that in a Zogby International poll taken earlier this year, 44% of Americans said marijuana should be taxed and legally regulated like alcohol and cigarettes. Here's probably why:

Annual American Deaths Caused by Drugs:

Tobacco: 400,000
Alcohol: 100,000
All Legal Drugs: 20,000
ALL Illegal Drugs: 15,000
Caffeine: 2,000
Aspirin: 500
Marijuana: 0

(National Institute of Drug Abuse)

Yet, it doesn't surprise me when someone (most often of my own gender) proclaims 'that pothead' to be the spawn of evil. This is what we've been raised to believe: pot is scandalous; potheads, lawless lowlifes. But like so many other societal traditions and myths that we have also been raised to believe, this one's no less of baloney. And its believers, as usual, have no idea what they're talking about.

Take it from someone who used to be that believer only a few years ago. Also take it from someone who has absolutely nothing to gain from giving up that belief--I don't smoke. Anything. Yet, I now look back ruefully at all the times I equated marijuana smokers with scandalous, lawless perpetrators of evil and think: what an utterly tiresome waste of time.

What instigated this post however is not that realization, but an interesting exchange I had with a friend one afternoon. Like 56% of misguided Americans, my friend draws an 'absolute' line at smoking pot and those who do it. Total disdain (no Harolds and Kumars in her circle!). It got me thinking: how exactly does that whole 'drinking is plain good fun but marijuana we draw a line at' argument work? Considering that drunk drivers kill thousands each year, alcohol poisoning kills, excessive drinking damages the liver, and the general profile of a drunk is that of a miserably unhappy and violent menace to society, how does smoking pot compare?

1) People killed in road accidents by non-drunk pot smokers: 0
2) Number of rowdy bar fights: 0
3) Number of godawful rants about their childhood/mother/ex-wife recounted to complete strangers (with tears): 0
4) Tears: 0

On the other hand, marijuana users are routinely found to be excessively happy and hungry, traits that haven't to date killed any of them. But kudos to the Alcohol industry on fooling an entire civilization so superbly for so long. And as for all you Mexican pot smugglers, you have obviously no marketing skills whatsoever, precisely why you need to be replaced by legal marijuana trading channels--the kind that pay their taxes.

There is no doubt that like anything else in the world (including Skittles and High Fructose Corn Syrup), Marijuana is subject to abuse. Its frequent overuse can induce lethargic behavior (commonly known as laziness). It can also cause short-term memory loss, but only while under the influence and does not impair long-term memory. Contrary to another myth, marijuana also does not lead to harder drugs. People who want to do hard drugs, need not use marijuana as a gateway--Cocaine, Heroine and other hard drugs have nothing in common with marijuana. Unlike them, marijuana does not cause brain damage or damage the immune system, or kill brain cells and induce violent behavior like alcohol does. Continuous long-term smoking of marijuana can cause bronchitis, for the same reason that Cigarettes can cause bronchitis: inhaling smoke. But chances of bronchitis from casual marijuana smoking are tiny, and if only marijuana was legal and marketed through legal means, people would know that respiratory health hazards can be totally eliminated by consuming it through non-smoking methods, such as vaporizers or baked foods.

What annoys me the most about the entire debate surrounding marijuana is the hypocrisy found on the other end of the argument. Tobacco and Alcohol industries pour billions of dollars into marketing and lobbying their products as cool, stylish, and socially acceptable recreational products. Yet it is universally accepted that both have harmful side-effects on health. But the brouhaha surrounding marijuana and its users is so powerful, so ingrained, that without knowing the least bit about cannabis and its effects, society lumps it together with The Drugs. Hard drugs are dangerous, seriously detrimental to health, addictive. Marijuana is neither. And yet, this faulty, pointless debate keeps thriving based on self-righteous and ignorant assumptions.

What's ironic is that many of our ancestors were brighter than that. The elders of South Asia mixed 'Ma'ajoon' (a form of powdered cannabis) into herbal medicine for those in pain. Sufis used it to help them meditate. If only these scandalous evilmongers knew their Ma'ajoon will become such a huge, annoying deal one day...

Thursday, July 9, 2009


Two days ago, I came across some sad news. My friend Tazeen's father had passed away after fighting a long illness.

In the few years that I've known Tazeen, I never got the opportunity to meet her father. However, last month on father's day while her father was being treated in the hospital, Tazeen wrote this heart-wrenching article for him, which acquainted me with the wonderful man who raised my friend into the truly remarkable woman that she is today. It was a beautiful and inspiring piece, the kind that can only come from a loving daughter's hopeful, steadfast heart at a desperately difficult time.

I wish Tazeen the strength to bear this loss. Being one of the strongest people I've had the pleasure of knowing, I know she will find it within herself.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Karachi Women: Persecuted or Paranoid

Fear travels fast in turbulent times. A few weeks ago, a friend in Karachi wrote to me about women around her feeling afraid of harassment by pro-Taliban men when they went out in public. She quoted incidents she had heard of occurring in shopping markets frequented by the elite of the city. As residents of the bustling, diverse economic capitol of Pakistan brace themselves for more political turmoil and violence coming from the Taliban-military conflict, they are increasingly afraid of the conflict reaching their own neighborhoods. While an extremist religious revolution has never exactly found favor in the larger Pakistan (the extremist Jama'at-e-Islami has never been a nationally representative party), lately, fear has taken over political justifications.

This article sheds some light on the streak of paranoia, or well-founded fear the Taliban have provoked in the women of Karachi.

Beginning of the End

As things in Pakistan steadily deteriorate, political pundits on the American media are now predicting a takeover of the state by the Taliban, citing the attacks on Buner, less than sixty miles away from the Pakistani capitol. The latest casualty figures released by the Pakistani military in Buner show some success for the army, which says its operation is continuing smoothly. But civilian deaths have continued to rise.

Some of these pundits, like conservative radio host Monica Crowley, have a told-you-so-esque angle to their predictions--snide and gleeful but largely ignorant of the facts. For instance, Crowley declared this week that the Taliban will now 'take over the South', without having a clue of the stark differences between the ethnic and political makeup of Southern and Northern Pakistan. Despite Taliban's intrusions in the metropolis of Karachi, there is much that will stand in the way of a religious revolution in Sindh and Baluchistan before the Taliban, hailing overwhelmingly from the North, "take 'em over". A nation-wide civil mutiny this is not. It's a little more complicated.

Other analysts, especially former CIA and military officials who have had more experience with the region are more cautious in their prediction. The optimism of yesterday has waned. But it is clear that many see the situation completely out of control of the current Pakistani President. Yet another military rule is being predicted; those who created the monster in the first place must step in to leash it.

As for Pakistanis like me, I'm doing what Pakistanis have always done. Waiting. Waiting for another chapter, another explosion of "democracy", another new beginning of another end. May God keep folks back home safe.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Lessons of the Night

So I slept with my bedroom door locked yesterday.

I realized last evening, much to my anguish (while watching 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' in bed) that I had never spent a night alone in a house before.

I must be the only twenty-six year old woman I know in this country with that dubious honor, which thankfully lives no more after yesterday.

And despite a night of checking the front door lock multiple times, jumping at every creek from the apartment upstairs, and avoiding leaving the bedroom to go to the restroom until daylight had fully peeked, I think I can do it again. In fact, I'd like to do it again.

My shame knew no limits when a character from a show I'd been watching all evening told her boyfriend that since she had always lived alone, she couldn't get used to someone actually being around her at night anymore. It will take her some time getting used to co-habitation, she informed him. And as I glanced sideways at my bolted door, I understood that it will take me some time too, to ever get used to not having someone around me all the time if it were to happen. But it should be something I should at least always be prepared for, because as I suspect, the best part of being at peace with yourself must be that you can be at peace when you're alone. And being alone, and being lonely or scared, should always be mutually exclusive. Wherever you're from, whoever you are.

This one's for my dear Asnia, who has taught--and continues to teach me--much about living with oneself...peacefully:).

Friday, March 20, 2009

Hope is a Good Thing

The Shawshank Redemption, the 1994 movie based on Stephen King's novella, never gets old. Despite its length (it's about two and a half hours long), the calm and steady narration, and the lack of graphic action, the movie holds me still in anticipation of what I already know and expect...each and every time.

I can watch it again and again and still share that feeling of relief, freedom and victory with the main character, Andy, when he crawls his way out of prison through 500 yards of sewage, thanks to a small rock hammer and a Rita Hayworth poster. And the feeling of desperate loneliness with Red, his best friend and fellow lifer, who is released from the prison after forty years, only to discover that freedom is no longer familiar or useful to him. But then, when Red decides to take a chance and follow his friend to the border, I share his excitement, and his feeling of redemption that has been so long in coming.

In perhaps the best, and most apt ending to a tale that spans over twenty years of corruption, injustice and a painfully patient quest for spiritual redemption, Red reads out from Andy's letter that's been hidden for him underneath a rare rock in Texas:

"And remember, Red, hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies."

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Hostage Nation...

A friend's letter to the editor of the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, in the wake of the recent attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore:


The armed attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team convoy and the resulting loss of life of our brave police officers have proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that Pakistan has been taken hostage. It has become hostage to the whims of armed extremists, obscurantists and politicians who would use this security lapse as a means of extracting political mileage.

The terrorists, regardless of their grievances, have succeeded in crushing the national morale and also eliciting a passive ambivalence from our populace, who have no idea how to deal with such terrorists, except at the most, and verbally condemn their actions.

We, Pakistanis, are plagued by terror and fear-and the time is ripe for the president, and PM to take the nation into confidence and launch a massive military operation against the terrorists and their sympathizers across the country.

It is another ‘either you are with us or against us’ moment for them. Terrorist safe havens should be mowed down with extreme prejudice by utilizing all resources at the disposal of the state: the Army, Air Force and other security forces. Any action initiated right now should have reasonably widespread public support. The president, PM and lawmakers should stress that the militants do not wish Pakistan well and we cannot afford to be ambivalent anymore towards how to deal with them.

No one has the right to take life and challenge the writ of the state, regardless of the enormity of their grievances.

This is the time to strike as the iron is red hot. Failure to act or a less than emphatic response to the attacks on Sri Lankan cricket team will likely lead to more brazen attacks by terrorists.

We have already wasted much time looking for ad hoc solutions. This is also needed to pull back the country from the brink of a military takeover — the more brazen the attacks by the terrorists become, the closer the country will slide towards military intervention. May God protect all Pakistanis.

--Mir Usman Ali

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Trip to Pakistan

I'm listening to the haunting 'Trip to Pakistan' by the Irish band, Celtic Spring, today. Over and over again. And each time, it makes me feel I am no longer in front of a computer screen, inside my home in Maryland.

I am, instead, miles and years away; sitting alone in a cable-chair, that slowly, meticulously makes its way into the valley below the mountains surrounding Nathia Gali. Spring is at its prime, and thousands of tiny and wild, yellow and white daisies dance entwined into each other in the mountain breeze. The wind touches and plays with my hair, softly, and briskly, alternately. But never does it render my light, pink shawl inadequate; a shawl whose every thread has been stitched carefully, precisely, right here in this valley. Around me, the endless rows of Pine and Juniper shed off the last traces of the melting snow; and right below, in random pockets, water springs out of sparkly rocks. Rocks that could've been stars dropped from heaven.

And all this time, the gentle, ethereal sound of the fiddle in my head evokes a burst of inexplicable sadness, and at the same time, inexplicable joy. Kind of like falling, and losing, in love.


Photograph courtesy Mujahid ur Rehman.

The band, Celtic Spring, is six siblings who play the fiddle and step-dance, backed by their parents on the keyboard and percussion. Its music hails from Ireland, Scotland, and Nova Scotia. Trip to Pakistan is a composition from their album, Cornerstone. Thank you, Shayan, for sending it to me:).

Nathia Gali is a mountain resort in Hazara, NWFP, Pakistan.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Coloring the Future...

This is a drawing by ten-year old Ruqayya, a student at the TCF School in Machar Colony, Karachi. It appeared in a feature in the newspaper DAWN, that invited school-going children from different socio-economic strata in Karachi to draw their vision of a future Pakistan.

Not surprisingly, the young artists were infinitely more optimistic and hopeful about Pakistan's future than the adults are. In her thoughtful drawing (the words in Urdu translate as Good and Evil on left and right respectively), Ruqayya dreams of an equal and just Pakistan as a scale, in which industrial and technological development outweighs ills like drugs, violence and crime -- heavy stuff for a ten-year old to be dreaming about:). Ruqayya, like her classmates, is among the first children in her family to ever attend school in the impoverished community of Machar Colony, one of Karachi's poorest slums. See more drawings by TCF kids at the TCF-USA blog.

Here's to our children's dreams should be.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

From son to father-in-law

By enlisting Sufi Muhammad's support, the authors of the new political approach hope to be able to drive a wedge between the father-in-law and the son-in-law, with the former promising to declare the armed struggle un-Islamic if the militants refuse to lay down their arms. --Ismail Khan in Dawn

(Photo of Fazlullah, courtesy NBC)

The Swat saga has taken a sharp twist with the Pakistani government striking a deal with the father-in-law of Fazlullah, the 'Radio-Mullah'. Fazlullah is a member of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, who for the last couple of years has led the bloody Taliban movement in the valley once known as a tourist haven. The nickname 'Radio Mullah' comes from an illegal radio station that he has since operated to fire up his supporters against the Pakistani government.

This article in Dawn presents a different view of the much criticized 'deal' between the government and the rebels, and examines the rationale that may have been behind it. Yet, as the article points out, while the Pakistani government's reasons for the deal may go deeper than critics would have it, there is much more at stake here than just achieving a cease-fire in one region.

From son to father-in-law
Wednesday, 18 Feb, 2009 | 04:52 PM PST |

NEVER before in the troubled history of the NWFP has the outcome of a peace agreement so heavily depended on one man. The septuagenarian leader of an outlawed Islamist movement has been entrusted with the task of ending — almost single-handedly —blood-letting and throat-slitting in one of the most strife-torn regions of the country and restoring to it an abiding peace.

Such are the dramatic twists and turns of events in the chequered history of Pakistan that the government has had to turn to the man it had cast into prison for illegally crossing over into Afghanistan to wage what he viewed as jihad against the invading American forces. His much-maligned organisation, Tehrik Nifaz-i-Shariat Muhammadi, is now being expected to salvage the seemingly irredeemable situation in Swat.

Languishing in Dera Ismail Khan’s central prison a year ago, Maulana Sufi Muhammad could not have imagined that a strange concatenation of events would enable him to emerge as a possible saviour not only of the strife-hit people of Swat but also of the government, utterly at a loss to douse the raging flames of violence in the scenic valley.

So, as the elderly, black-turbaned leader embarks on an arduous journey to accomplish a job considered by many analysts to be too difficult, if not downright impossible, those who assigned him the task must now wait with bated breath, knowing full well that the mission is not only fraught with danger but is also entirely unpredictable. No one knows what may happen if he fails.

Sufi Muhammad has gambled. But so has the secular nationalist Awami National Party government. By a strange quirk of fate, the NWFP government has had to first deal with Sufi Muhammad’s son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, and now with Sufi Muhammad himself. The first encounter was not completely pleasant.

The May 2007 peace agreement with firebrand Maulana Fazlullah failed only two months after it was signed, leading to even more violence and bloodshed.

The peace accord not only earned the displeasure of the military establishment, which considered it one-sided, but also incurred the opprobrium of the secular-liberal elite of the country that saw it as a shameful capitulation to militants.

Is the ANP repeating the same mistake by leaning on another cleric to bring back elusive peace to Swat? From the looks of it, the ruling party was probably left with little choice.

The third phase of the military operation launched on January 26 was making little progress. But the militants were seen to be gaining ground, coming menacingly close to the district headquarters of Mingora.

Violence was taking a heavy toll on public life. Hundreds of people were being uprooted and forced to relocate to other places. For nearly a year and a half, Swat was under curfew. The ANP was becoming increasingly jittery and frustrated, coming under growing pressure from within the ranks to throw in the towel. The party took the unusual step of going public with an expression of disaffection with the military operation.

It was the inability of political parties to overcome an ascendant Taliban movement that caused the political and military leadership of the country – always suspicious of each other – to look for a new political initiative. That was how Sufi Muhammad entered the equation.

The new initiative was launched in October and was accepted with some trepidation by the political and military establishment. It received greater acceptance when reality began to dawn on the government that it would have to look beyond a military option to resolve the conflict.

Enlisting the support of Sufi Muhammad was crucial. Known to be rigid and unpredictable, Sufi surprised official interlocutors by offering to do government bidding, provided it made a public pledge to enforce Sharia in the whole of Malakand – an area comprising seven districts and designated as Provincially Administered Tribal Area (Pata).

Malakand is governed by a regulation enforced through an executive order of the governor of the NWFP with prior approval of the president.

In 1994, Benazir Bhutto’s government had introduced Nifaz-i-Nizam-i-Shariah Regulation following a violent uprising by Sufi Muhammad that was subsequently put down through the use of force. But those were different times.

Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League improved upon Benazir’s regulation to make it more effective and introduced its own Sharai Nizam-i-Adl in 1999 – a regulation still in force in Malakand.

The two regulations provided only for a judicial mechanism, but they changed little in substance. Only the designation of judges was changed to qazis. Those were normal courts working within the ambit of Pakistani laws and the constitution. No convict was ever lashed or his hands chopped off.

Dawn has a copy of the last draft that has been seen and approved by President Asif Ali Zardari, who after initial reservations over possible objections from the US finally gave the go-ahead to the ANP government to sign the deal with Sufi Muhammad.The newer version is a further improvement on the older ones. Not only does it provide for an increase in the number of courts, it also provides a timeframe to dispose of criminal and civil cases within four months and six months, respectively.

The only contentious issue of Muawin Qazi or additional judge, which some thought would open the gates of the judiciary to the clergy, has been removed.

As things are, the Pakistan Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code in their existing form will remain enforced in Malakand, unless the Council of Islamic Ideology declares them un-Islamic.

Unfortunately, most of the criticism of Nizam-i-Adl 2009 has come from those who have not even seen its contents. There is nothing “sharai” or “un-sharai” about it.

The argument, therefore, is not as much about the contents of the new regulation as it is about what may follow.

By enlisting Sufi Muhammad’s support, the authors of the new political approach hope to be able to drive a wedge between the father-in-law and the son-in-law, with the former promising to declare the armed struggle un-Islamic if the militants refuse to lay down their arms.

These strategists also believe that by pledging to introduce Nizam-i-Adl and not actually enforcing it, they are denying Fazlullah and his violent clan the slogan that they are fighting for shariah and are thus denying them moral high ground.

The new initiative may also set off a power struggle between the father-in-law and his estranged son-in-law.

Clearly, the government, by signing an agreement with Sufi Muhammad, is seeking to use him as a counterweight to the more radical Maulana Fazlullah.

The militants have publicly endorsed Sufi’s support for Nizam-i-Adl 2009 but while Fazlullah appears willing to concede some space to his father-in-law, he is not likely to give up his present dominant role to a much weaker new entrant on the stage.

Even the planners of the new initiative know that militants may try to wriggle out of the agreement by finding fault with the new regulation or making some excuses. In the larger scheme of things, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, of which Fazlullah’s band is a member, would not like to give up Swat so easily. What will happen then is anybody’s guess, but for now it seems that Sufi Muhammad is the government’s best insurance policy.

It is also important to know if the government has any plans to intercede during the ceasefire. Does it have the infrastructure and the mechanism to make use of this respite to try and wean away people from Fazlullah and use this to its advantage?

The more important question is: who is calling the shots?

The unfortunate thing is that the government is not speaking with one voice. A statement by Federal Information Minister Sherry Rehman has created doubts and may actually be used by the militants to put the question mark over the credibility and sincerity of the government to enforce the new regulation.

The stakes are high in a triangular game between the father-in-law, his son-in-law and the government, with the brutalized and intimidated people of Swat watching in bewilderment whether their ordeal has really come to an end or is it about to enter a newer, yet bloodier phase.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Charity With a Difference

Today I want to talk about my favorite charity, my first employer, and my pet cause that is so close to my heart, I haven't been able to get away from it since I first entered the seventh floor of the shabby N.I.C building in Karachi, three years ago.

I joined The Citizens Foundation (TCF to everyone) right after my MBA. I actually applied there right after a die-hard idealistic, and rather futile activist stint at the World Social Forum event in Karachi. It was there that I first heard good things about TCF, and also discovered many disturbing facts about the complicated nonprofit world of Pakistan, which is another story for another time.

That TCF stands out among most other nonprofits in Pakistan is a gross understatement. For instance, it is organized like the Pakistan army, for the lack of a better institutional example from Pakistan, which is no wonder since most of its top administrative personnel are retired army officers. Or women. TCF is one of very few women-strong organizations in Pakistan. Its inner organizational operations and schools are led by a host of incredibly driven women. It has a network of almost 4,000 female teachers throughout the country, which it trains within its own infrastructure. It's these women who run the training, hold their own with all those retired army colonels, and bravely go to teach in its 530 schools in some of the most far-flung and conservative villages of the country. Why only women as teachers, you might ask? The answer's simple. In a country where millions of parents discriminate between their sons and daughters when the time comes to send them to school, TCF does not want any parent to use the presence of male teachers as an excuse to prevent their daughters from studying. As a result, almost 50 percent of its students are girls--a feat not yet accomplished by Pakistan's tattered public school system.

TCF was founded by a group of six very successful, and very determined men from the metropolis of Karachi--two architect brothers, three businessmen, and one retired general. One single statement defined their reason. They got tired of the talk. The relentless but futile talk about what is it that plagues our nation, talk that defines the drawing rooms of the developing world's intelligentsia. One fine evening, they decided to stop discussing the problem--which was the millions of Pakistan children on streets instead of schools--and to start doing something about it.

They pooled some money in, bought a plot in a Karachi slum, and started building a school. What started with one school in 1995, grew into a network encompassing the whole of Pakistan--all four provinces, and the Kashmir region--in just a decade.

Today, thirteen years later, TCF has 530 schools in Sindh, Baluchistan, Sarhad, Punjab and Kashmir, including the region that was hit by the devastating earthquake of 2005. TCF has built about twenty earthquake-safe school buildings in this region, and has recruited hundreds of teachers left unemployed after the destruction of the region's school's system. Each of its schools, whether it's in a fishing village of Sindh with no electricity or running water, or in the far-flung mountains of Mansehra, is purpose-built and comparable to any modern, private school in the country. Every single school is carefully, lovingly designed by TCF's architects to contain playgrounds, libraries, computer and science labs, spacious and airy classrooms and toilets. Facilities alien to millions of Pakistani children who either go to a government school, or have never seen the inside of a classroom at all.

Each TCF teacher is vigorously trained before she begins teaching, and has more of a surrogate mother bond with the students than that of just a teacher. Which is necessary, if you've ever met these incredibly unique children, who somehow manage to keep their high ambitions and goals despite having been born into the worst-possible circumstances. Preparation is essential to be able to teach and mentor these unusual charges. There are the tireless shrimp-cleaners of Machar Colony among them, who wake up at three every morning to clean a fresh batch of shrimp and continue till their fingers are scarred and numb. Their teachers have to be well-prepared with bottles of vaseline to soothe their wounded, small fingers each morning. There are also the part-time factory workers, street-hawkers and children whose former lives were spent in streets and sometimes orphanages because their parents couldn't afford to feed them. The TCF teacher cannot afford to be like an ordinary teacher.

I can go on and on about my experiences and memories at TCF. The passionate future scientist I met in the desert town of Daharki, the girl from a Karachi slum who was going to fly jets, the mother who was being taught by her eight-year old son to read, the teachers who traveled three hours each day on a broken road to teach in the fishing village of Jhangesar, and the thousands of young girls to become the first ever women in their family's generations to ever go to college...or be able to read. But I'll keep these for another post in the future, and first come to the news that I wanted to share when I decided to write about TCF today (and got rather distracted!:)

From time to time, I help TCF-USA, TCF's U.S. chapter, with its marketing efforts and publications. Recently, TCF-USA was selected by the U.S. Congressional Commission on WMD (formed post 9/11) as the recipient of the Commission's final report's sales proceeds. The report was recently submitted to the new administration as it concluded its work of six years.

The report (go here to buy it) is an interesting read, as instead of proposing gung-ho military solutions that have marked the Bush administration, it points toward the most obvious root-cause of extremism and terrorism in countries like Pakistan. Desperate poverty, frustration and lack of education. It proposes greater investment in social development of these nations, rather than just funding their defense forces.

The selection of TCF-USA symbolizes the Commission's emphasis and is a reflection of its recommendation. So congratulations to TCF-USA and its team of volunteers on the selection, which says plenty for TCF's recognition as a nonprofit making a valuable difference in Pakistan. This is a huge accomplishment for these hundreds of selfless men and women across the United States who constantly take time out of their busy lives and schedules to organize fundraising and awareness campaigns for TCF schools in Pakistan, with no expectation of any returns for themselves. This is your achievement.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Maryland Suburbs for Change: Our Inaugural Adventure

January 20, 2009
Inauguration Day

6:00: Gloves, hats, six layers of clothing: check. Route maps: Check. Books to read in line: Check.

Shayan(sister-in-law), Taimoor(husband) and I set out to the capitol via Glenmont Metro, which is a tiny walk from our home.

6:20: I can't believe we're already in the train and on our way! This mob is totally manageable.

7:10: We're here! As we try to make our way through the crowds, the sea of heads on the escalators is daunting. But save a few over-enthusiastic souls, there is no pushing, no impatience.

As we slowly, gradually make our way out and begin our walk toward the grounds of the Mall, we all look like something out of the Thriller video. A huge mob of zombies sauntering in one direction...only that these are very, very happy zombies. Every now and then one of them lets out a random cheer and shrieks 'OBAMA' which, today, is totally normal.

8:10: Still walking to the Mall. After being turned away from the street reserved for ticket holders, we now walk further from the capitol, wistfully.

8:30: We get hot dogs for breakfast and realize we have no more cash. The well-prepared Qureshis. There is no ATM in far, far sight. What do employees in federal buildings do for cash, and lunch?

We find a spot near a screen. Yay. But as we stand craning our necks to get a view, the nagging sensation of frost that we had successfully ignored up until now hits us fully: it is very, very, very cold.

09:30: Taimoor's gone to find an ATM and Shayan and I just can't take the cold anymore. We can't feel our toes anymore, and there is a searing sensation in our legs...a sign of fast-approaching hypothermia we suspect. We untangle ourselves and our coats from the thorny bushes we climbed to sit on a wall, and rush toward the Smithsonian, which, though open, is sporting the longest line you will ever see outside a museum door.

Discouraged by the line, we find Taimoor and spot a makeshift shopping mall and food court of some sort. We get in line, and amazingly, they let us in in only half an hour!

10:30: The inauguration is starting, and we -- after gulping down some warm food, letting our thighs and feet thaw, and looking in vain through the souvenir shops in this strange faux-mall for an extra pair of socks and sweatpants -- rush out to our spot on the Mall. But the nearest screen we can find this time, alas, has a giant tree blocking its view (nice positioning, screen guys) and squeezing into the crowds doesn't make it go away.

Near us, people are furiously pulling on cigarettes to stay warm, and many people huddle under blankets with pictures of Disney characters --and ALF-- on them. A father kneels down on the ground vigorously massaging his young, weeping son's numb toes. Bringing children here may not have been the best idea...

11:30: Taimoor leaves us again to go find some cash to buy some smokes, and Shayan and I make the biggest mistake of the morning. We leave our spot to find a better view that isn't blocked by the giant tree, thinking we won't go too far.

But as we get stuck in an increasingly loud mob of people trying to get a better view, I try to call Taimoor to tell him where we are. AT&T, however, has decided to take this day off. I try repeatedly in vain, squeeze out of our spot and try to find him, and can't. Meanwhile, Obama makes his entrance on the screen and the cheers of the crowd are deafening. I'm too distracted to notice. I do however manage to get a glimpse of Chaney in a wheelchair looking like he's had a stroke (he didn't) and quickly give myself a mental high-five.

Twenty minutes later, as Obama takes oath, I finally connect with my husband on the phone. As we accuse each other of disappearing at the wrong time, the new president takes office in the background, and we both realize that thanks to AT&T, we have missed the moment we came here to witness and cheer for together.

12:30: The inauguration is over, and we are ready to make our way back. Our moods have lightened as we witness Bush's helicopter leaving the capitol airspace, and smile in heavy relief. He's really gone. Another big green helicopter makes its way, carrying the Obamas. It's a happy moment.

As we look at the human ocean before us, we brace ourselves for a long, long journey back home.

2:30 pm: For the last two hours, we have been standing in a bar for about two hours, waiting for a stool to rest our frozen butts on. Every time one gets empty a more enterprising woman grabs it (Shayan and I are quite useless when it comes to being enterprising).

The bar is in some unknown Mexican restaurant in southwest D.C. that is right now the hottest place this side of town (solely because it's on the way of thousands of very, very hungry, thirsty and tired people walking to the Metro or their homes) -- like us. On the list of tables, as Taimoor finds out later, we are on the third page. We give up and decide to leave.

All the metros we pass on our way are either closed or bogged down with ridiculously long lines starting at the street corner. And a highly discouraging, disorganized mob in the case of Union Station. As we plop down on the dirty steps of one of the buildings by the Union Station, cold, exhausted and staring hopelessly into the lines outside the nearby Irish restaurant, we debate on what's worse: the cab fare to Glenmont at this hour, or Taimoor's brother's told-you-so's when we call and beg him to pick us up. We decide against both, and start to walk up to New York Avenue, the next Metro Station...about a dozen blocks away.

4:00 pm:
McDonalds, thou art a lifesaver. Fast food, restroom, and no lines. We can't believe our bleary eyes. Half-dead and frozen, we cling on to McDonald's crispy fries for life. We don't want to leave. We don't want to leave McDonalds...

5:00 pm: We have left McDonalds and are now walking toward New York Ave station, in dread of the line that will await us.

Wait a minute, there is no one here. Save a few souls, there is nobody. Where did the mobs go? It's only five thirty...but we don't care! We're FINALLY GOING HOME!!!

Twelve hours later, the walk home:

M: So, how was it?
T: I think it was pretty good.
M: Yep, totally worth it.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Who Killed Swat?

Tazeen posted a picture of a banner prohibiting women from entry into a cloth market in Swat, the breathtaking valley that once used to be a bustling tourist spot with an economy that thrived on nature lovers, honeymooners and export of its vast mineral resources.

I went to Swat when I was ten, with family, and have pictures to prove what a happy little piece of heaven it used to be. I remember seeing a huge, elegant boarding school building in the city of Maingora, and imagining myself to be very happily enrolled there as one of Enid Blyton's St.Clare's School series characters. We stayed in a beautiful, surprisingly economical hotel made entirely of white marble, called the 'White Palace', which famously served as a state guesthouse in the fifties. White Palace had huge bathrooms that were the size of someone's living room, where everything was pristine sang-e-marmar. It was better than staying at the Ritz (I have no point of reference, but I think it was). I wonder what has become of the White Palace now.

There were a lot of the usual angry/perplexed/self-righteous/frustrated/mildly bemused comments posted at Tazeen's blog about Swat's sad state of affairs, and a heated discussion on who is responsible for its plight. The Pakistan army, the godawful ISI, the Taliban, the Mullah who ran the illegal radio channel to propagate Taliban, perhaps the Swatis themselves with their suicidal acceptance of Taliban into their homes and lives?

The truth is, as we sit comfortably in our bedrooms and living rooms in urban Pakistan and elsewhere in the world and learn our facts through mostly opinion-journalism, we can only do so much. Perhaps assign the blame to the party that has done the least to impress us of late, and move on to more urgent matters at hand.

Here are my two cents of speculation. (Cue: #62 by It's Not Easy Being Green)

May be, just may be, someday I can go to Swat again, and get a drink from the ice-cold Darya-e-Swat, steal some of those exotic, sparkling stones from its springs, and walk again into the pristine white rooms of the White Palace, where a view from the window is just pure, unadulterated beauty -- beauty that has no religion, and that is perhaps still unmarred by the blood of an inexplicable war.

Photographs courtesy: 1,2

Friday, January 16, 2009

Current Status Report: Slow Comic Demise

Madiha is pouring over job advertisements in her pajamas, with re-runs of Becker playing in the background.

She has also been contemplating shampooing her hair and reading her Juma'a namaz for a few hours now.

It's not as depressing as it sounds. It's more.

Monday, January 12, 2009


There is something incomprehensible about being frozen in a needless limbo amidst the never-stopping motion of need. A week from now is the inauguration and I could be excitedly planning what to do. Last week, I met a gentleman who could, possibly, be my ticket to a new, dream job. I could be on the phone with him right now, following up. There is no cooked food in the fridge. I could be...washing pieces of goat meat.

But I don't want to. I don't want to do a thing to respond to the constant, noisy motion of life's never-ending immediate-action items. Is this unemployment blues, self-pity or just unhealthy self-loathing. I can't say.