Friday, May 25, 2012

Adventures of a Pakistani Groom to be

Preparing to become a Pakistani groom is a lot like watching Shahid Afridi bat. The thrill and the excitement that come naturally with the process are unparalleled. But the adrenalin rush also keeps you on the edge of your seat; you genuinely have no idea what’s going to happen next.   

Weddings are a big deal around the world. In Pakistan, they’re an even bigger deal and a bit of a roller coaster ride, especially for the bride & groom.  Incidentally, while Pakistani brides may be groomed (no pun intended) for this roller coaster ride all their life, the groom is kind of expected to figure things out on his own and fast.

You can find dozens of magazines on Pakistani brides (& the mini-industry that surrounds them) but there is almost no literature on the making of a Pakistani groom. This blog piece is an attempt to change that by capturing some of the funny but revealing moments that go into the making of a modern day Pakistani groom.

Zindagi na milegi dobara

 “I’m not ready to get married,” squealed a friend of mine, days before he was expected to tie the knot with the girl of his dreams. When a muscular young man, over six feet tall, curls up in your bed and pleads that he’s still a child (and not ready to get married), you really don’t know where to draw the line between your pep talk and your sense of humor.

Six weeks away from my own D Day, I realize now that it’s not so much the fear of getting married as the perceived enormity of responsibility that looms large. I call it the ‘how can I be responsible for another human being when I can barely keep my room clean’ syndrome.

Like all good Pakistani traditions, weddings naturally revolve around perceived expectations and according to my recently married male friends; it’s usually the grooms who are most clueless about what is expected of them.

One of these friends decided to give me the proverbial pre-marriage ‘talk’ a few days back. The talk wasn’t exactly what I expected.  

The talk turned out to be a mini-lecture on how marriage is a big responsibility. Knowing the particulars of my situation (my parents live overseas; me & my wife will live independently post marriage), he shared that I have to take full responsibility for managing the house, make my wife feel at home away from her family and keep my own family onboard throughout the process.

When you’re about to get married in Pakistan, you have to accept that everyone and their mother in law has some piece of advice for you (to be fair, most of this is well intentioned advice, even if it can be repetitive). Almost everyone tells you that the pre-wedding time period and preparations can become stressful. Some people recommend that the bride & groom should stop talking a few weeks before the wedding day to prevent potential arguments on the arrangements of the wedding itself!

In light of all this advice, there are times when I’m surprised and grateful that I & my fiancĂ© haven’t had any major arguments, yet, in the run up to our wedding. This is especially peculiar given the fact that we’re setting up a new place from scratch. Looking ahead, I anticipate a very busy 6 weeks but I don’t see any source of real stress on either of us. In a strange way, this lack of stress is now the only source of anxiety for me: is this the pre-wedding calm before the post-wedding storm?

Even Einstein couldn’t figure this one out…

In life, when you can’t find answers to the questions on your mind, you turn to those smarter than you. When it comes to marriage though, even the smartest of men have done pretty dumb things. 

“Was Einstein the world’s worst husband?,” screamed the headline of an article teasingly posted by my friend on his fiancĂ©’s Facebook wall. Einstein may have been the world’s smartest man but when it came to women, he wasn’t the smoothest of characters. 

Apparently, Einstein created an eccentric list of ‘rules’ for his wife to follow, which include the following (I promise I’m not making these up): 
  1. “You will stop talking to me if I request it
  2.    I will receive my three meals regularly in my room
  3.  That my bedroom and study are kept neat, and especially that my desk is left for my use only
  4. You will leave my bedroom or study immediately without protest if I request it.
  5. You will not expect any intimacy from me, nor will you reproach me in any way”

It’s very comforting to know that I’ll make a better husband than Einstein, without even trying too hard. And that’s exactly how I view marriage right now; there are no written rules on what works and what doesn’t. You do your best, enjoy the journey and take every day as a new adventure.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Pakistan Bringing Sexy Back

Is Pakistan the most exciting place to live in the 21st century?
On the eve of the 72nd anniversary of the Pakistan resolution, the evidence appears to be stacked overwhelmingly in Pakistan’s favor.
Consider this: the Pakistani people are frontline warriors in the greatest ideological battles of the 21st century. Whether it’s the war against religious extremism or the definitive showdown between democracy & entrenched dictatorship, the Pakistani people are playing an outsize role in shaping not just their own future, but also a new, post 9/11 world order.   
If you want front row seats to witness 21st century history in the making, Pakistan is the place to be.
To the average global citizen, Pakistan is popularly known as the destination of choice for the world’s most notorious terrorists. But if you have the patience to look beyond the odd terrorist hideout, you’ll notice a nation on the cusp of a modern day renaissance.
After the evocative images of revolution broadcast live from Tahrir Square, overthrowing dictators has suddenly become a fashionable benchmark for measuring the maturity of a country’s civil society. By that measure, the Pakistani people have a remarkable knack for overthrowing dictators with far more finesse than the widely acclaimed Arab Spring.
In less than ten years, the Pakistani people have successfully fought for a free press, established an independent judiciary and secured free elections.
Today, Pakistan’s mainstream discourse is centered on how these freedoms should be managed responsibly, which can often be frustrating & confused as a sign of weakness.
In reality, this is the hallmark of a country making giant leaps forward, in the right direction.
Now that we have some perspective on what Pakistan has achieved in recent years, let’s talk about our dirty laundry: any country, found to be inadvertently hosting the world’s most wanted terrorist, would have secured an immediate pariah status in the international community, especially if it happened to be the only nuclear armed Muslim state in the world.
It is a testimony to the resilience of Pakistan’s international linkages and our ability to rebound after disastrous setbacks, that Pakistan bagged its first Oscar win, less than a year after the audacious raid on OBL’s compound.
You can throw everything and the kitchen sink at this country, but there appears to be no straw that can break Pakistan’s back.
Take the much talked about alarm over the rise of religious extremism in the region, which is a natural hang over from the ideological re-engineering in the 80’s in favor of the Jihad against the Soviet Union.
It’s interesting to note what happened next.
The religiously puritan Taliban went on to rule Afghanistan and crushed any significant opposition to their movement. Meanwhile, the Pakistani people elected and re-elected the Muslim World’s first female Prime Minister, even before America, the leader of the free world, elected a female head of state. The difference is symbolic but very revealing, especially for those who worry about a Taliban takeover of Pakistan.
This is one of the many under told stories about the Pakistani people, who despite having everything & the kitchen sink thrown at them, are determined to transform their country and the world, into a better place, through their resilience & courage.
No one exemplifies this sprit better than the one man all Pakistanis look up to: Mr. Abdul Sattar Edhi. This is a man whose unassuming social work serves as a window into the lives of millions of Pakistanis; who go about their everyday lives and in their own understated way, serve as warriors on the frontlines of the greatest ideological battles of the 21st century.
Over the last 5 years, a shadow of gloom has enveloped this otherwise proud nation of 180 million people, forcing them to believe that they can’t do anything right. Amidst all the screaming matches about doomsday scenarios, it’s difficult to see the gleaming new engines of optimism emerging at the end of the tunnel. 
The truth is that none of Pakistan’s problems are new. Our doomsday scenarios today don’t differ in substance from the ones we imagined 20 or 40 years ago. And yet, there is something markedly different about the reaction of the Pakistani people to these problems.
On one end of the spectrum, there is resignation and migration, something we have experienced throughout our history. But for the first time in our history, the other end of the spectrum is visibly emerging. There are Pakistani people, in all walks of life, vocally calling for and initiating reform in their sphere of influence.
Look around you. Have you ever seen so many young Pakistanis excited about channeling their ideas for change by voting instead of taking up guns? Have you ever seen a Pakistani filmmaker being celebrated by the nation, for shedding light on the darkest corners of Pakistani society? Have you ever seen a political party, formerly associated with physical intimidation, attempting to re-brand their image & that of the country, by hosting the largest women’s rally in the world?
This is the undeniable swagger of a country on the move. After all, the Pakistani people have a remarkable flair for proving naysayers wrong, through the sheer force of their resilience, against all the odds.  
So this year, on March 23rd, let’s take a moment to celebrate the many ways in which we’ve made our forefathers proud. We thoroughly deserve a pat on the back.
Happy Pakistan Day, to all of us. Pakistan Zindabad!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Feedback from readers

“Always write as if it matters, because if you do, it will.”

These were the parting words of wisdom I received from my Master’s project advisor at Columbia University. I try to stick to this advice, sometimes a little too seriously.

I recently exchanged emails with a friend of my father, who disagreed with a few things I wrote on my blog about Imran Khan. I rarely vent out my anger in public but this is one of those subjects that I get worked up about: the deafening silence of religious scholars in Pakistan when it comes to solving the real political, social & economic problems of the country.

My father’s friend wrote a very polite email to me, that I’m reproducing a slightly shortened version of here:

In your blog titled Shine on Imran Khan: Hats off to PTI supporters you wrote: In a dramatic show of force, Imran Khan gathered more than 100,000 supporters at a rally in Lahore.  His show of strength was meant to send a clear message: “Those in Raiwind and Islamabad should know that it is not a flood that is coming, but a tsunami.” You go on to write: Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this rally wasn’t Imran Khan but his supporters. Street power in Pakistan has been monopolized by chest thumping, bearded young men in the recent past. Imran Khan has managed to show a different side to Pakistan.

The two lines when put together seem to give the impression that "those in Raiwind" have something to do with "chest thumping, bearded yound men" on the streets. I am not sure how far you were thinking but on the outset it just looks like a factual mistake, maybe just a typo. Why? Because its common knowlegde that Raiwind is the markaz of Pakistani tableeghi jamat, and whereas you and I may not agree with everything about tableeghi jamat's methodology and beliefs, it remains a fact that they do not engage in politics, let alone do things like chest thumping on the streets. Perhaps you had some other place in mind when you wrote this article.

The other thing I beg to disagree with is more on a conceptual level. In your blogs, you seem to have mentioned music and dancing as if they are positive things witnessed in these latest political gatherings. If you go to the sources of Islamic knowledge (actually Shaykh Kamal's lectures available on his website provide a very good insight into these issues and Islam's take on them with proofs from Quran and Sunnah) you will find that for a Muslim such activities are not a means of earning Allah's pleasure. Making no assumptions about what's in Imran Khan's heart and whether he is going to turn out to be the saviour later on or not, if we look at our own view of things at this point in time then a question comes to mind. Do we believe that a Muslim individual or a Muslim nation can achieve success in the life of this world or the Akhirah by openly indulging in acts of Allah's disobedience. Agreed that socially things are pretty bad in our country and no one seems to be in sight who can fix all our problems, but how does that become an excuse for a Muslim to look away from His Creator and His expectations from us. In order to fix our state of affairs, does it not sound more sensible that we get the One Who is 'really' in Control, on our side, and seek His help in resolving our issues, or does it sound like a better choice to take matters in our own hands by displeasing Him through acts of His disobedience and then try to fix our problems by ourselves, without His Help?

I am sure you will agree with me that a believer's task is not to go after apparent results in this world, but to live a life of Allah's Obedience. As a shaykh I know puts it beautifully, for a momin, this life is the place of work (kaam ki jagah), grave is the place of rest (araam ki jagah) and the akhirah is the place of results and rewards (in'aam ki jagah), hence we don't get carried away by achieving results in this world. This implies that whenever the means adopted to achieve our goals interfere with the Deen we give them up and hold on to the Deen.

Its clearly spelled out in the Qur'an that "wa ma khalaqtul jinna wal insa illa li ya'bodoon", i.e. We did not create the Jinn and the human beings except to worship us. Obviously this does not mean that we have been created only to pray salat all the time as if that's the only form of worship, but rather that everything that we do in our lives must be done as a servant, 'Abd' of Allah, in a state of submission and oboodiah. Whether it be relationship within our homes or with people in our communities. Likewise our attempts to fix our country's problems must also be in line with the Shariah and Sunnah, not by putting them on the side and giving in to popular tastes or people's whims and desires.

In short what I am trying to say here dear brother Bilal is that we are all responsible for what we say and do. If Allah has put us in a position where people listen to us or read our writings, we must be very careful what we endorse and praise. Its a principle of our Deen that whoever calls to a good action gets the reward of the person who does that action and whoever calls to a bad action will be held responsible for the bad action that someone did as a result of his calling. With the same spirit, I decided to write this piece of naseehah to the son of a very pious and sincere colleague. I hope to be able to get more time to spend with you as I am sure there is even more good to your personality than what displays in your excellent writings.

I hope you will take it all only as a well wisher's advice who considers himself even more in need of your naseehah as well.

Requesting duas from both father and son…

I was touched by uncle’s pure intentions to help guide me but at the same time I felt that his arguments were reflective of many ideas that are creating trouble in our society. My response to him was as follows (again shortened, wherever possible):

JazakAllah for writing to me with your advice and words of wisdom. As Muslims, we seek Allah's guidance to help us find the truth. 

An exchange of thoughts like this, even when we disagree with each other, is part of a process through which we strive to seek the truth. I'm grateful that you took the time and energy to give me such structured feedback.

Now, let me share my responses to some of your concerns.

With regards to the point about Rawind, I was referring to Nawaz Sharif’s center of operations in Rawind and not the Tableegi Jamaat. It’s common knowledge that the Tableegi Jamaat are not political and in the context of my blog post, I was referring to the tsunami about to hit the political forces in the country. My statement was quoting Imran Khan’s warning to Nawaz Sharif in Rawind and Zardari in Islamabad. Hope this clears up the point. However, thanks to your feedback, I’ll be more careful in the future so that my writing doesn’t create opportunities for this type of confusion.

With reference to your second point, I respectfully disagree with you at a conceptual level. In actuality, the way that you have phrased your questions I can either agree with you or be guilty of disobeying Allah. Therefore, it's important for me to highlight that I agree with you when you stress the importance of obeying Allah but I disagree with the way your questions have been positioned and I’d like to challenge some of the assumptions underlying your analysis.

Advocating a world where we abide strictly by the ‘Shariah’ is the right thing to do, especially from the safe distance of another country. However, this analysis ignores the context in which I was writing.

I'm writing from a city where countless men, women and children were shot dead in the last few months on the basis of their ethnicity. I’ve gone to sleep for days on end to the sound of gun fire in the background. For a leader like Imran Khan to get people to reject violence (esp in Karachi), and get them to substitute guns for music, even for a day, is worthy of appreciation in our context. Would it be better if a religious leader was able to unite these groups in a ‘Shariah’ complaint manner? Yes, but no such religious leadership is coming to the forefront and I’d argue that this is precisely because of the position advocated in your email:

“I am sure you will agree with me that a believer's task is not to go after apparent results in this world, but to live a life of Allah's Obedience. As a shaykh I know puts it beautifully, for a momin, this life is the place of work (kaam ki jagah), grave is the place of rest (araam ki jagah) and the akhirah is the place of results and rewards (in'aam ki jagah), hence we don't get carried away by achieving results in this world.”

I have a fundamental disagreement with this world view. If God-fearing, educated and moderate religious leaders give up their responsibility to society in the name of protecting their Akhirat, then we will see religious extremists monopolize public discourse on religion and alienate society from religion & from religious solutions to problems. This is exactly what is happening in Pakistani society right now.
Instead of shying away from Pakistan’s problems, religious leaders and people like you, who are God fearing and knowledgeable about the affairs of Deen & Dunya, need to step up and deliver constructive solutions to the problems we’re facing in Pakistan.
Instead, too many religiously minded people, me included, have focused for a long time on the imposition of ‘Shariah’ as a panacea to Pakistan’s problems, ignoring ground realities. Meanwhile, religion continues to be misused by extremists, causing violence, intolerance and fracturing our already divided society. For the sake of simplicity I’m not going to get into the debate between sects about whose ‘Shariah’ is the right ‘Shariah’ since everyone believes there is only ‘one correct’ version of the ‘Shariah’ and only their version can be correct.

As a personal choice, I’ve decided not to abdicate my religious duty to serve & improve society until 'Shariah' is introduced. I'm making a deliberate choice to engage with the political parties and landscape currently on offer in Pakistan rather than holding out for a utopian state of affairs where everything is Shariah compliant. This is especially true because the strongest religious force currently advocating shariah in Pakistan is the Taliban, who are doing it by holding a gun to our heads and I simply don't support that. Other religious leaders are simply quiet and I believe contributing to the confusion by staying quiet.

This unforgivable silence by religious leaders makes me really angry and I'm sorry if my anger came out very strongly in this email. I genuinely respect your insights and opinions. But I sincerely hope that religious leaders begin engaging with the current public discourse rather than thinking that they are above all this since they are dedicated only to saving their Akhirat. This is against the spirit of the type of life our Prophet lived.

I'd like to hear your thoughts on what I've shared above, with the possibility of publishing our conversation on my blog for the benefit of others.

P.S. That’s it for now. I look forward to uploading his response to my email when I receive it.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sights, sounds & observations from the PTI rally in Karachi

To cut a long story short, participating in PTI’s jalsa on Sunday was a transformative experience for me. Originally, I didn’t want to go because I don’t agree with everything Imran Khan has to say and felt his policy platform was too vague. Plus, there was a small chance that a bomb would go off or something could go wrong. This was Karachi after all.

The tipping point came when Imran Khan positioned this rally as an opportunity to usher in a new era of peaceful politics in Karachi. Sitting with friends the night before the rally, we made an impulse decision to attend. “You’ll tell your grand children that you were a witness to history in the making,” my friend remarked as he made his case for us to attend the rally. 

His advice inadvertently triggered one of the best decisions of my life.

It’s difficult to capture the energy of the crowd at the PTI rally in writing. There were people & PTI flags as far as one’s eye could see. “Please stop climbing the electricity poles,” pleaded one of the PTI speakers, trying to bring order to the sea of people that had thronged the venue. “You may electrocute the electric pole with all your current.”

This was Pakistan at its very best; men, women & children of all ethnicities and economic classes breaking the shackles of fear and coming together to support a political candidate who thinks peace in Karachi is the key to a prosperous Pakistan. There was music, there was dancing, there was laughter and above all, there was a palpable sense of hope. It was unlike anything I’ve experienced before in Pakistan.

Every time a pushto or a sindhi song would play, the tsunami of people would roar unanimously and dance without any discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or economic class. Every speaker would talk about bringing together Pashtuns, Sindhis, Balouchis, Punjabis and Urdu speaking folks under one banner. We are all Pakistanis they would say. 

Almost every leader wished Pakistani Christians a Merry Christmas. This was the politics of inclusion, diversity & tolerance. This was the need of the hour in Pakistan. And it wasn’t just talk, the roaring response of the tsunami was visible proof that PTI is already beginning to unite people who would otherwise be at logger heads with each other. Instead of brandishing guns to show their support, people waved colorful PTI flags. 

Shah Mehmood Qureshi said it best when he remarked that after years of disillusionment, he finally saw hope in the young people around him. There was a sparkle in their eyes. Karachi doesn’t want bloodshed or target killings he said; today Karachi-ites are here to spread the message of love. 

When Imran Khan took to the stage, the crowd was on fire. Imagine young pathan men gushing over Imran like teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert. It was a magical moment. It could turn out to be one of the most pivotal moments for politics in Karachi in our generation. 

As Imran Khan announced another high profile defection to his party from the PPP, a young man in the audience quipped “ab thori deir mein khabar aye gi kai Quaid – e – Azam nai bhi PTI join kar li hai.”

Imran Khan’s speech was a class act of both political maturity and populist acumen. He said he didn’t want to make any hateful statements against any political party. But he had to respond to Nawaz Sharif who challenged him to a 10 over match recently. “Please arrange this match quickly,” a beaming Imran told Nawaz. “You may not have enough men to make a team at this rate,” he quipped as he referred to the high profile defection of PML-N heavy weight Javed Hashmi to PTI. 

More importantly, Imran promised policy papers documenting PTI’s stance on every important issue from the economy to education in his speech. He pointed out that naysayers have challenged him all his life but he has proved them wrong every time; from winning the cricket world cup to developing his cancer treatment hospital.

In a moving anecdote, Imran told the story of a young man from DG Khan who sold his mobile phone to fund his trip to Karachi to attend this rally. It was an anecdote that serves as a window into many similar stories; people flew in the Lahore, Dubai, London and America to attend this rally. There was even participation from handicapped people on wheelchairs.

The rally was meant to set Karachi and Pakistan on a new trajectory in the course of history. By that measure, PTI’s rally yesterday was a smashing success. Imran has single handedly managed to change the course of our national discourse on Karachi, for the better.

Even without taking a political position, it’s clear that Imran Khan is one of the only leaders in Pakistan whose success is contingent on bringing Pakistanis together rather than dividing them along ethnic & political lines. And that deserves support from all Pakistanis, regardless of our ethnic, economic or political affiliations.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

New Year’s Resolutions for Pakistan

Three days ago, I attended a seminar on “New Year’s Resolutions for Pakistan’s Economy” at IBA and the speakers appeared to fracture into two schools of thought. 

The first school of thought, led by Saad Khan (Vice President, American Business Council) argued that Pakistan needs to develop a long term “vision” for economic uplift. The second school of thought, led by Ishrat Husain (Former State Bank Governor) argued that Pakistan already has many “visions” parading around as white papers in the system, what Pakistan needs is implementation, implementation & implementation. 

All of us like to make New Year’s resolutions. Some want to lose weight, others want to quit smoking. Almost everyone wants to fight their demons and become a better person. The New Year is a chance to get a fresh start on life. Despite the fact that most of us fail to live up to our resolutions, we never fail to make new resolutions. 

Pakistan is no different.

Imran Khan & the 2013 elections promise a “fresh start” for Pakistan. Imran Khan has a bold vision that almost everyone can buy into; he promises to end corruption and offers that as a panacea to solve all our problems. 

The question most of PTI’s critics have is a simple one: does Imran Khan have the discipline and the political muscle to implement his vision or is this another New Year’s resolution that looks good on paper but will never be brought to life?

How do we resolve the tension between developing a vision and having the discipline to execute it? If you don’t execute your vision, does it mean that you didn’t believe in it in the first place? And if that’s true, why do we develop visions to begin with?

Specifically for Pakistan’s case, why are politicians so big on “visions” and short on precise plans to achieve those “visions”?

The answer is simple. “Visions” are meant to inspire and bring out the best in us. Plans on the other hand are cumbersome and require hard work to be executed. Politicians, like us on the cusp of a New Year, like to believe that we can bring out the best in us without working on the discipline needed to achieve our goals. 

Based on the seminar and the subsequent unpacking of ideas for this blog post, I’d propose the following to be Pakistan’s New Year’s Resolutions:
  1. Developing a clear vision for our future that inspires all sections of society – Imran Khan trying his best to do a good job here
  2.  Creating a plan of action that charts the specific steps needed for success – No one is doing this, yet.
  3.  The discipline to execute plans & make sacrifices – this needs to be part of all our New Year’s resolutions.
I’ll end with this beautiful quote that puts the tension between vision & execution into context:

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.”
Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Shine on Imran Khan: Hats off to PTI supporters

I’ve always respected Imran Khan’s reputation as a cricketer, humanitarian and play boy. As a politician, I’ve always thought he was a bit of a fail. That changed tonight. 

Imran Khan has arrived – with a bang.

In a dramatic show of force, Imran Khan gathered more than 100,000 supporters at a rally in Lahore.  His show of strength was meant to send a clear message: “Those in Raiwind and Islamabad should know that it is not a flood that is coming, but a tsunami.”

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this rally wasn’t Imran Khan but his supporters.

Street power in Pakistan has been monopolized by chest thumping, bearded young men in the recent past. Imran Khan has managed to show a different side to Pakistan. Women thronged Imran Khan’s rally in colorful Shalwar Kameez, some even brought their young children along. There was no flag burning or violence at this rally; instead there was music. The traditionally unresponsive elite class came out in strong numbers to participate in this political rally.

This is a remarkable achievement for Imran Khan. 

To be fair, Imran still has a long way to go. His politicking is high on rhetoric and short on substance (he needs to unveil a specific policy agenda rather than campaign on sweeping promises). 

However, it’s very important to take a moment to give Imran Khan and his supporters credit where it’s due. 

Imran Khan may or may not win the 2013 elections but as a country, Pakistan will certainly win from the momentum and energy that his campaign will bring to the elections. 

This is good news for all Pakistanis regardless of our political affiliation. And PTI supporters deserve a pat on the back for making this happen, despite all the odds.