A country allegedly and perpetually at the edge of chaos. A nation shrouded in darkness: thanks largely to power cuts, toxic religion, feudal politics, a corporate military and the ever present threat of violence. A state teetering on economic collapse, political fragmentation and imminent breakdown. Is there anything to love about Pakistan? We think there is.
1. The People
They have endured everything. From Biblical floods and massive earthquakes, military dictators and kleptomaniacs; mad Mullahs, terrorism, drone attacks and suicide bombers; ethnic feuds, gang violence and target killings; stagflation, austerity and food riots; to the humiliation of being described as a ‘failed state’ and being both ‘loved’ and bullied by the US, often simultaneously. And yet their resolve remains undiminished, their hospitality unparalleled, and their determination to overcome bedlam and turmoil unwavering. It’s time we recognised the courage and indefatigable passion of Pakistan’s people.
There isn’t much that can send a heart racing than a few choice verses of the best Urdu poetry. At around 66 per cent, illiteracy rates in Pakistan may be among the highest in the world, but tap a peasant-farmer on the shoulder and ask him about his favourite poet and you’ll be lucky to escape before having heard an entire divan, or collection from one of the Urdu canons of Mirza Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, Khwaja Mir Dard and more. We love Urdu poetry: all the way from the first Urdu poet, Amir Khusro, to countless grandmasters down the ages, right up to Iqbal and Faiz Ahmad Faiz. However, we must also admit that our knees get a bit wobbly when we hear Bullah Shah, and other Sufi poets, in Punjabi. But you don’t have to take our word for it; or feel sorry for yourself if you are not an Urdu speaker. Listen to ghazal and qawwali singers, artists who popularise and keep the tradition alive, such as Noorjehan, Mehdi Hassan, Farida Khanum, the Sabri Brothers and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and discover the magical beauty of Urdu and Panjabi poetry yourself.
3. Classical novels
When the iPhone runs out of juice or when iTunes freezes, we turn to novels from Urdu’s classical age. From the accounts of Delhi gripped by a plague in Deputy Nazir Ahmed’s Toba tun nasuh to the adventures of a speck of dust by Abdul Halim Sharar, the beauty of Urdu prose surely cannot be matched. We particularly love the novels of Deputy Nazir Ahmed, Maulana Rashid-ul-Khairi, Mirza Hadi Ruswa, Qazi Abdul Gaffar, Aziz Ahmad, Abdul Halim Sharar; and the exponents of Urdu literature claimed by people on the other side of border: Premchand, Krishan Chander and Ismat Chughtai.
The ingenuity and ‘can-do’ attitude of Pakistan’s people is a marvel to behold. Pakistanis can design and build anything. Whether you want a nuclear device or a non-stick frying-pan, there will always be a road-side or pavement workshop ready to deliver your order. It will all happen while-u-wait, by a technician who won’t have had more than a few years of primary schooling, and all for one-tenth of its ‘normal’ price. As far as Pakistan’s concerned, Dr Who’s Tardis is not a work of fiction. The nation’s transport planners know exactly how to shoehorn impossible numbers of people into the tiniest spaces. A humble scooter can be turned into a transport system for the extended family; a rickshaw for two can easily squeeze a dozen passengers — sitting atop handle bars, on the driver’s lap, or dangling from the vehicle’s sides. Sadly the ingenuity trait also seems to be shared by Pakistan’s criminal underworld, and by its political classes who continue to break records for diversity in fraudulent methods. Pakistan frequently finds itself in top-ten lists for political corruption. Pakistanis like to joke that the only reason their country isn’t right there at the top is probably because its politicians managed to bribe the eventual ‘winner’.
5. Young talent
We celebrate the amazing young men and women who’ve transformed — and are transforming — Pakistan’s cultural landscape, and in particular the country’s phenomenal movie scene. Inspirational film directors include the Oscar-winning Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, honoured for her 2012 documentary film Saving Face about the lives and hopes of women who suffer acid attacks. Then there’s Shoaib Mansoor, director of the hard-hitting Bol (Speak) from 2011 in which a young woman on death row narrates her tragic life story before she goes to the gallows; and who also directed Khuda Kay Liya in 2007 (For God’s Sake), which explores the phenomenon of Islamist activism among the country’s secular elite. No list would be complete without a mention for Hasan Zaidi, founder of the Karachi International Film Festival who directed Raat Chali Hai Jhoom Ke (The Long Night) in 2000, which has one of the most delicious femmes fatales you have ever seen. We also applaud the nation’s fashion designers; the producers, writers, and actors in comedies and TV plays; a legion of younger musicians and singers; and not forgetting the thousands of young journalists and bloggers who put their lives on the line to expose corruption.
‘We find there is a very great desire among Pakistani people to become acquainted with the peculiarities of the English language and they have great curiosity regarding it’. ‘Be therefore as it may therefore be’ many Pakistanis speak English. We ‘have, indeed, occasion to express our sincere and heartfelt gratitude’ for preserving ‘the same’ in fossilised late Victorian idiom. Public transport is ‘conveyance’, career is ‘carrier’, a bathroom is ‘latrine’, a lounge is a ‘drawing room’, and a range of other examples ‘can be had’ from local newspapers and books. Even internationally published authors slip into Paklish. We plead guilty too as an odd ‘nefarious plot’ or a ‘Karachite’ may have inadvertently crept into this issue of Critical Muslim. As ‘your obedient servants’ we seek your forgiveness. ‘Thank you, please’.
It’s official: Pakistan is the world capital for people with a sweet tooth. Travelling in a nation of hospitality-conscious sweet-lovers means it is near-impossible to go anywhere in Pakistan without being greeted with a glass of a red-coloured sugary-drink called ‘Rooh Afza’, served on a tray next to a plate of some choice mithai, or ‘sweetmeats’ in Paklish. The sticky and intensely sugary barfis and cham-chams once exclusive to Lahore or Multan are now of course a global phenomenon, but in our humble opinion nothing beats the taste of a crisp jalebi made fresh in front of your eyes. Indeed, nothing beats mithai unless you happen to have a health condition in which sugar could be fatal. Sadly, that includes most of Pakistan where diabetes is virtually a national emergency. We fear that this may put the sweet-meat vendors out of business, unless they embrace ‘modernity’ and start using artificial sweeteners.
8. Mountains and Mangoes
Switzerland has the Alps; Peru is blessed with the Andes, but Pakistan, yes Pakistan, scorns these bumps from a great height, for three of the world’s highest ranges meet in its territory — the Himalayas, the Karakorams, and the Hindu Kush. When it comes to mountains, Pakistan looks down its nose at the rest of the world, and its nose is as high as K2. Pakistani mangoes, ‘the king of fruit’, are just as colossal in taste and juiciness.
Defence is the one sector of Pakistan’s economy that forever seems to boom, boom, boom. No matter which government of whichever party is in power; no matter if the president is a general, or an elected politician, he will have no problem sucking funds out of health and education and firing it in the direction of the bomb-making Pakistan Ordnance Factory. Pakistan it seems has a missile for every day of the year. Many are appropriately named after Islam’s warrior heroes, the Ghauri, Shaheen, the Ghaznavi. They are also public property, standing phallic and shining at the centres of roundabouts, squares, and even, sadly, universities. Now all the nation needs is to find someone they can be thrown at.
The Paklish for power cuts is an apt metaphor for the efficient corruption of politicians and energy providers as they fill their pockets and secure their families’ right to rule. What a great display of familial provision as the rest of the country sweats in the dark, patients die in hospitals, the factories come to a grinding halt, and productivity takes a nose dive. We love to get those candles out and wave our fans frantically in the 40 degrees of heat. Load-shedding is also preparing Pakistan for the future — when the oil runs out and lights throughout the planet go off, Pakistan will be way ahead and well prepared to cope.