Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Really, Shahbaz Sharif?

A few days ago, the chief minister of the Punjab province came into the limelight, for a strange, ill-advised commentary on the Taliban's recent attacks in Lahore (see Dawn's unusually strong-worded editorial about it here).

Sharif was also chief minister, Pubjab in 1999 when his brother, then PM Nawaz Sharif, was ousted by Parvez Musharraf during a bloodless military coup. The Sharif brothers were briefly imprisoned, and then exiled to Saudi Arabia, which lobbied to the Pakistani army for their release given its longtime cordial relations with the Sharif family. They eventually moved to London from where they re-entered Pakistani politics (Pakistani politicians have a history of holding political court from overseas).

Now, Musharraf is gone, and the Sharifs are back in power--sort of. While Shahbaz, once again, holds the coveted post of chief minister of the most powerful province in the country, his brother is continuing to dream of reclaiming the 'throne' he once occupied. BB's assassination and the subsequent rise of PPP to power have put that one on hold for now.

So anyway, here's the riveting piece of wisdom Shahbaz Sharif delivered at a gathering in Lahore, following the March 12 bomb blasts:

"General Musharraf planned a bloodbath of innocent Muslims at the behest of others only to prolong his rule, but we in the PML-N opposed his policies and rejected dictation from abroad, and if the Taliban are also fighting for the same cause then they should not carry out acts of terror in (PML-ruled) Punjab."

One would think that at this crucial time in the country's history, with the ongoing battle with the poisonous Taliban, and given how long he's been in politics, he'd have mastered the art of thinking before he speaks. It's hard to imagine he could actually think this speech Wouldn't be misconstrued by Pakistanis being slaughtered across the country by the Taliban. In a country already torn by enough ethnic hatred, comes this man stating why the Taliban shouldn't be carrying out acts of terrorism in his province (not Pakistan, but just the province he's ruling right now because his ass is on the line). Why? Because his party hated Musharraf just as much as they do.

Does any Pakistani really believe if Musharraf hadn't taken 'dictation' from the US post 9/11, Pakistan would have survived the explosion of American fury in Afghanistan and Iraq? Despite being the training ground for Al-Qaeda? I'm no fan of military rules and Musharraf may have made many other colossal mistakes in his decade-long tenure, but that wasn't one of them.

Shahbaz Sharif is a massive idiot. And unfortunately for Pakistanis in Punjab and elsewhere, he's an idiot still in charge.

(Photo courtesy www.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

My Oscar Rant

On a lighter note, Sunday's Oscar ceremony was typically boring and overlong, which is fine and expected, but there was something especially annoying about it this time.

Apparently, some genius gave them the idea that broadcasting Barbara Walteresque testimonials by actor friends of the nominees would keep those flighty audiences rooted in their seats.

Well, here's what it came off as. Not that the overly patronizing, condescending and self-congratulatory world of Hollywood will ever get a clue about this, but must giving someone an award for best acting also entail proving that they have the purest of hearts as well? Tom Shales of the Post was right on when he played down the nauseating and rambling tributes to the 'great humanitarians' and the 'best fathers and husbands' of our times. No talk of the acting skill involved, the preparation, the labor of love that a well-acted role is, or the character they were nominated for. We do, however, know now that Julianne Moore truly loves Colin Firth and Morgan Freeman is bad with names. And Vera Farmiga's mom thinks George Clooney is a dish.

Who.the.hell.cares about whether Oscar nominees have a forty year old marriage or gave a million or two to Haiti or are oh-so-lovable? Were they nominated for the goodness of their hearts, or their general cuddliness? Heck no! They were nominated for doing their job, and as someone should tell the producers of Oscars too: DO YOUR JOB. Respect your own award.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The bitter pill called Aafia Siddiqui

Three days ago, Washington Post reported that that U.S. investigators have formally concluded the late Bruce Ivins, a government scientist, to have acted alone in the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people and sickened 17 others.

Bruce Ivins' actions bear testimony to a complicated fact: brilliant minds are more than capable of causing mindless, even inexplicable terror. Most of us will nod our heads to that. This isn't the first time someone seemingly normal and well-adjusted and ridiculously accomplished committed an awful crime. But here's another example of a ridiculously accomplished overachiever going bonkers. For my Pakistani friends, this should be easy.

The case of Aafia Siddiqui has baffled educated, urban Pakistanis for several years now. They have found Aafia's mysterious disappearance and arrest understandably hard to grapple with, given her stellar academic record, and most of all, her middle-class, genteel upbringing in the metropolis of Karachi. Even I, admittedly, reacted with disbelief when I first came across her strange story and tried hard to find answers that, due to the secrecy surrounding the entire case, did not come easy.

There is still so much that's unexplained. Yet, in the past few years, with a patchy yet telling unfolding of her circumstances and her subsequent court appearances, there are certain things that I've concluded.

Firstly, Siddiqui's recent conviction in a Manhattan court has to do with attempted murder of her interrogators, not terrorism. So without a terrorism conviction, nobody can brand her innocent or guilty of terrorism. Yet, if there is anyone deserving of the term 'shady' in the current slew of persons implicated in terrorism, it is she. While we do not know what the extent of her involvement was, Aafia Siddiqui was involved. In some way, in some capacity, she was. That's a forgone conclusion at this point. And while her family has steadfastly stood behind her, she cannot be fully exonerated from jeopardizing their lives, and her unfortunate children's lives to no point of return when she did become involved. I think it is safe to assume that an MIT educated scientist would be at least sufficiently conscious of what she was doing to have been caught as a complete innocente in the lethal ring of extremist terrorism as she did. It is unfathomable to let her off as simply a victim of her circumstances or associations--which is what most Pakistanis still believe.

There are two categories among those believers. One comprises of folks who feel Siddiqui doesn't deserve punishment even if she were guilty of the crimes she has been charged with. She was just doing what any good Muslim would do.

That category's bit of a lost cause.

My focus is the second group. These are educated, relatively more informed Pakistanis living in cities like the one where Siddiqui grew up, the people who refuse to admit the thought that Siddiqui could, in fact, be guilty in the first place given her background. It's important to at least try and reason with this particular group of her supporters, given the recent series of protests against the American court that tried her (a privilege not given to many others like her, something that deserves protesting about).

These Pakistanis need to come to terms with a bitter possibility about Aafia Siddiqui.

They need to open their minds, without jumping to conclusions, about unlikely participants in extremist-driven terrorism. Extremism does not always fit a bill and a certain profile. Just because she was a woman, just because she was a mother, or just because she went to MIT does not mean much, for people are complicated. And preconceived notions often fall flat. And brilliant people do not always make brilliant choices.

Obviously, Aafia Siddiqui made some unlikely choices along the way. If her case progresses beyond the recent conviction, we as Pakistanis need to prepare ourselves to hear unsavory truths. I have a feeling they are inevitable.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

And time yet for a hundred indecisions

Since I have nothing original to say, I will let T.S. Eliot speak for me this sunny, wintry Saturday.

My favorite excerpts from the very tedious, and very beautiful, Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Shopping for a cause...

For the last year, I've been involved in starting a Washington DC chapter of The Citizens Foundation USA (, my favorite charity (and once employer) that builds schools in underprivileged communities throughout Pakistan. My fellow members and I recently chose a particular school project to support through our fundraising efforts (information about the project at the bottom of this post).

We're starting a fantastic new fundraising program to support our project, one that allows just about anyone in North America to support TCF while shopping at a very interesting new website, is a new “social shopping” website that sells unique items at great discounts. Once you sign up, each weekday you'll get an email from them offering a different, unique product from a specialty web retailer--normally one that hasn't gotten a lot of press yet. Jasmere will offer this product for sale at a heavily discounted price for a limited period, and the price decreases further as more people buy it.

Jasmere offers a range of novel and beautiful (or delicious) products, such as gorgeous purses made in Cambodia, children’s toys made of organic alpaca from Peru, letterpress cards made on an 1870s press, and even chocolate chip cookies or fresh oranges from Florida! You have 24 hours to act on each day’s offer, except for Fridays, when you have the weekend as well. For more information see this. Check out a list of the products they've offered since starting last month here.

And here's how you can help TCF: Each time you buy something on in the next month (starting today), enter the code "TCF" in the gift code box at check-out. At the end of the month-long period, will give us $5 for each time the code was entered!

So do check out today...even better, right now. Just sign up for their daily emails, and then shop while supporting education for children in Pakistan.

And now a bit about our project:

We're raising funds to cover the annual operating costs of a school in a village in the Bagh district, in the Azad Kashmir (the Pakistan-governed Kashmir region). The Umm Dardah Campus, named after a female Muslim scholar, is a primary school located in a village that was destroyed in the earthquake of 2005. Construction of the school, which is earthquake-proof, is 90% complete and will start operations in April 2010. Like all TCF schools, the Umm Dardah Campus will include open, airy classrooms as well as a play area, a library, and an art room.

Sustaining the school for one year costs $13,800, which covers utilities, salaries for teachers and other staff, teachers’ transportation to and from school, administrative overheads as well as and books and uniforms for the children. These items are provided at highly subsidized rates to kids who can afford them, and free of cost to those who can't.

Thanks to fundraisers held last fall, we're well on our way to achieving our goal--but we have to get all the way there by April! So every little bit helps.

Happy shopping.