Sunday, May 1, 2011

Re-envisioning a Mosaic of Shattered Dreams

Pakistan’s obituary has been written more times than Kamran Akmal has dropped catches. But this country continues to solder on, despite the dropped catches, the odd terrorist hide out and a multitude of other problems.

Take the case of Pakistan’s economy. Our economy is a beautiful mess; it’s too weak to survive without IMF bail outs but resourceful enough to prevent wide-spread hunger or large scale food riots, even after a devastating flood that displaced 20 million people.

On the security front, our country is held hostage by a similar set of contradictions. Bombings & blasphemy are an everyday occurrence but most of us can go about our normal lives without even noticing that we are at war with ourselves.

I remember a particularly revealing conversation I had with a friend in LUMS (Lahore University of Management Sciences). Both of us had grown up, relatively sheltered, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. We were about to graduate and it was time to choose between going back to Riyadh or staying in Pakistan.

“I prefer living in Karachi because it has more freedom and opportunities for younger people compared to Riyadh,” I remember telling him.

“But what about the bombings?” he asked.

This was the spring of 2008, when Musharraf was clinging to power and there were daily bombings in the country, targeting urban centers with lethal force.

“The timing of my death has already been determined by God,” I told him like a good Muslim boy.

“I’m not worried about dying,” he shot back. “What if I lose my hands or legs?”

That was a good come back. I was genuinely caught off guard by his honesty… since most of our discussions were usually arguments for the sake of arguments that went nowhere.

Fast forward three years and it’s time for me to move to Karachi again. Things are slightly better back home but the situation is still pretty grim.

What gives?

Why isn’t there anyone in Pakistani society outlining a vision for the type of Pakistan that ordinary citizens want to live in.

Usually, political leaders in a society outline competing visions and the citizenry makes a choice between these visions by voting one of them into power. The irony is that Pakistan actually has a civil society strong enough for politicians to tap into and champion their vision but we don’t see that happening.

Historically, our political leaders have tried to inspire us by talking about Pakistan generically as a “modern” “democratic” “progressive” “Muslim” state. Even our dictators have used the same language to inspire us.

But there is a fundamental disconnect between those words and my life.

If a magical genie were to appear all of a sudden and grant three wishes for what I wanted to change in Pakistan… what would I wish for?

Granted this is an exercise in naivety, but lets cloak it under the garb of escapism and indulge ourselves. Afterall, this has been a tough week for Pakistan, even by our standards.

What would you want to change about Pakistan overnight?

This is my wish list:

1) An end to senseless violence. From stray bombs to the bullet of a mobile snatcher, I don’t want to call up family and friends after a bomb to ask if they are okay.

2) A mutual respect for differences in opinion. I want conservative and liberal Pakistanis to argue and fight, without anyone getting hurt in the process. Once we learn to respect each others opinions, we can finally have a candid discussion on our problems, rather than indulging in conspiracy theories.

3) I want people to pay their taxes and be rewarded with a responsive, transaprent government.

Now for the reality check. No genie is about to magically appear in front of me… but the exercise of forcing myself to write the top three things I want to see in Pakistan helped me understand what really matters in life, as opposed to the jargon and ideologically lofty positions I usually take.

What if our political leaders were to talk about divisive and conspiracy theory generating issues like militancy, Osama's death or blasphemy in simple, non-ideological terms like breaking the culture of violence and helping people feel safe again?

I’m not sure if this would help us solve our problems but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to give it a shot.

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