Mohammed Hanif: the Explosive Case of Karachi

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mohammed Hanif (36 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

KARACHI — Mohammed Hanif, prize novelist of A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008), is piercing a cloud of calamity and crisis that hangs over his city, Karachi, as we speak.

The news headline as we arrived was “Karachi Continues to Burn and Bleed.” More than 80 people have died in “target killings” and street fights in our first five days here; more than 300 in the month of July. Yet in our comfortable precinct where machine guns are at the ready outside every coffee shop and store, the turf war among Karachi’s refugees (oldtimers from India, relative newcomers from Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas) can get lightly dismissed. “If 80 people were killed in the Bronx,” I was asked, “would anybody say ‘New York is burning’?” Yes, I replied, somebody might.

Twenty-five years ago when Mohammed Hanif came to the big city from the Punjab, the graffiti in the loo warned migrants like him: “Go back to your villages or your sisters and mothers will be screwed, so to speak.” Over which, he remembers, a Punjabi scrawled, “we’ve come back to avenge them.” That was street banter then, but it has become the code of life after the long flood of handguns, heroin, and many more refugees pouring out of the war zones, down the Indus River valley. I venture that it’s as if New York City were awash in refugees from a 30-year air war on the Adirondacks. Karachi’s population was less than 500,000 when the British decamped in 1947. It was 5-million when the Afghan wars began in the late 1970s. It’s approaching 20-million today. These modern megacities do not spring up naturally, and this one is not pretty. Mohammed Hanif has spent time with the young Pashtuns who drag magnets over the dirt streets of Karachi, dredging for metal.

There are thousands of them — according to one estimate there are at least sixty thousand just in Karachi. Most people, especially people from the posh areas, would think that they are either beggars or they are drug addicts. But I’ve talked to most of them: they are not drug addicts, and they are not beggars. They are, basically, workers. That’s the only work that they can find in the city, because of overpopulation. So, from morning until evening, they go around collecting rubbish and selling it. And they make, on a good day, 150 rupees [less than two dollars]. I used to see that mostly they were either teenagers or kids. In the last couple of years, increasingly it’s grown men, even elderly men. These are people who improvise on a daily basis to make a living in this city.

Mohammed Hanif is the pride of literary Pakistan these days, but he is warning us that the arts and liberated media in Pakistan all live in something of a bubble. FM-radio and pop culture thrive on mainstream commerce, soft-drink and cellphone advertising, and the new tech conveys an air of freedom to say what you want. But it gets proven with gruesome regularity that real limits on speech will be enforced by assassation — of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer (by his bodyguard) in January for resisting the fundamentalists’ anti-blasphemy law; of the investigative journalist Saleem Shahzad late in May for nailing the joint enterprises among Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Pakistan Army; of Saba Dashtyari, a scholar of Islam, in June, for supporting separatism in Balochistan. “The media is noisy and boisterous,” Hanif is telling me, “but it knows its limits… Within minutes of Taseer’s murder, TV presenters were giving the justification for it.” While we’ve been in Pakistan, the US government has pronounced the Saleem Shahzad murder a “barbaric” act of the Army’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the unanswerable ISI. “Everyone believes,” says Mohammed Hanif, “including liberal journalists, that when America criticizes the ISI, they’re not concerned about journalists; they’re concerned that the ISI is not doing their bidding. So that complicates the problem…”

A one-time air force pilot and scrupulous student of the thirty-year war in, through and around Pakistan, Mohammed Hanif has concluded that “this country will not see peace unless America learns to disengage itself, and do what it’s good at: making Pirates of the Caribbean — Ten, or whatever the world loves them for.”

So what might American friends and Open Source listeners do for Pakistan in the near term? “I think: stay home,” Mohammed Hanif suggests. And if we must do something, read Graham Greene’s uncanny prophecy in 1955 of the path from “innocence” to disaster in Vietnam, The Quiet American.

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  • Some perspectival footnotes to current ROS interview in and on Pakistan:

    I. The book “Crossed Swords” by Shuja Nawaz gets at the “correlations of forces” within Pakistan:
    Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within

    II. In the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War, (mentioned “en passant” quickly and glancingly in the current ROS interview in Pakistan) the viewer is co-opted early on and the issue made nugatory when mention is made by “Charlie Wilson” that he dances to the tune of the Zionist pressure groups whose money he takes and whose pressures he succumbs to.
    The clever writers of the film script defang this issue by the hide in plain sight technique of pseudo-frankness.

    Charlie Wilson represents the Israelization of American and hence world policy including the US/Pakistan relationship and arena.

    This is never discussed but is adumbrated here:

    by B. Raman:
    The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow, International Terrorism Watch Programme (ITWP), Observer Research Foundation (ORF), and Convenor, Chennai Chapter of the ORF.
    Those reading my articles would not have been surprised by the recent meeting of the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Mr. Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, with his Israeli counterpart, Mr. Silvan Shalom, at Istanbul .
    2. In an article written for some sections of the Indian media on September 8, 2003, I had, inter alia, stated as follows:
    “Apprehensive about an Indo-Israeli air strike on Kahuta (where Pakistan’s uranium enrichment plant is located), surface-to-air missiles were mounted around the uranium enrichment plant. These fears grew after the Israeli bombardment of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.
    “Zia (Zia-ul-Haq) decided Islamabad needed to reassure Israel that it had nothing to fear from Pakistan’s nuclear plans. Intermediaries — Americans close to Israel — established the initial contacts between Islamabad and Tel Aviv. Israel was confident the US would not allow Pakistan ‘s nuclear capability to threaten Israel . That is why Israeli experts do not mention the threat from Pakistan when they refer to the need for pre-emptive strikes against Iraq, Iran and Libya ‘s nuclear establishments.
    “By the early 1980s, the US had discovered Pakistan’s Kahuta project. By then northwest Pakistan was the staging ground for mujahideen attacks against Soviet troops in Afghanistan and Zia no longer feared US objections to his nuclear agenda. But Pakistani concerns over Israel persisted. Hence, Zia decided to establish a clandestine relationship between the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Mossad (the Israeli external intelligence agency) via officers of the two services posted at their embassies in Washington , DC .
    “The ISI knew Mossad would be interested in information about the Libyan, Syrian, Jordanian and Saudi Arabian military. Pakistani army officers were often posted on deputation in the Arab world — in these very countries — and had access to valuable information, which the ISI offered Mossad.
    “After she returned to power towards the end of 1993, Benazir Bhutto intensified the ISI’s liaison with Mossad. She too began to cultivate the American Jewish lobby. Benazir is said to have had a secret meeting in New York with a senior Israeli emissary, who flew to the US during her visit to Washington , DC in 1995 for talks with Clinton .
    “From his days as Bhutto’s Director-General of Military Operations, Pervez Musharraf has been a keen advocate of Pakistan establishing diplomatic relations with the state of Israel .
    “The new defense relationship between India and Israel — where the Jewish State has become the second-biggest seller of weapons to India , after Russia — bother Musharraf no end. Like another military dictator before him, the Pakistani President is also wary that the fear of terrorists gaining control over Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal could lead to an Israel-led pre-emptive strike against his country.
    “Musharraf is the first Pakistani leader to speak publicly about diplomatic relations with Israel. His pragmatic corps commanders share his view that India’s defense relationship with Israel need to be countered and are unlikely to oppose such a move. But the generals are wary of the backlash from the streets. Recognizing Israel and establishing an Israeli embassy in Islamabad would be unacceptable to the increasingly powerful mullahs who see the United States, Israel and India as enemies of Pakistan and Islam.”
    2. In my subsequent commentaries, I have been drawing attention to the following developments in this regard on the basis of reliable information from Pakistan:
    The reported training of officers of the personal security set-up of Musharraf by Israeli experts in Israel . This training was started at the instance of the US , with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) playing the role of the facilitator.
    The reported role of Israeli physical security experts in advising Musharraf on strengthening measures for his security.
    The reported role of a jammer of Israeli design supplied to Pakistan through the US in saving the life of Musharraf when two attempts were made by elements from the Pakistan Army, Air Force and jihadi terrorist organisations in December, 2003, to kill him at Rawalpindi .
    The reported role of Pakistan in facilitating the collection of intelligence by the US agencies regarding the nuclear establishments of Iran and the likelihood of this intelligence being passed on by the US to Israel to enable it to launch an Osirak-style raid on the Iranian establishments.
    3. Pakistan and Israel have had and continue to have strong reasons for working towards a close relationship between the two. Pakistan mainly has three interests:
    To reassure Israel that it has nothing to fear from Pakistan ‘s military nuclear capability.
    To dissuade Israel from upgrading its military supply relationship with India .
    To persuade Israel to maintain a balance by agreeing to meet Pakistan ‘s military requirements too.
    4. The dangers of a religious backlash would not permit Pakistan at present to establish a formal diplomatic relationship with Israel.
    However, Pakistan has other strong lollipops to offer to Israel , which the latter would not be able to resist:
    Offer of intelligence relating to Iran , Saudi Arabia and Syria .
    Offer of intelligence relating to the Al Qaeda.
    5. The Israeli interests are:
    The possible role which Pakistan could play, like Turkey , as a cat amongst the Islamic pigeons.
    The flow of intelligence regarding Iran ‘s nuclear establishments and the Al Qaeda. The hard intelligence, which Pakistan could give to Israel if it wants to, would be much, much more valuable for protecting Israeli lives and interests than any intelligence that India might be able to give.
    6.If one day there has to be a raid on Iran’s nuclear establishments either by the US or by Israel or by the two acting jointly, the use of the Pakistani territory for facilitating such a raid would be helpful. An increasing comfort level between Pakistan and Israel could make this possible.
    7. One could ask: Pakistan and Israel could have better achieved each other’s objectives by continuing to keep the relationship clandestine. Why did they have to make it open, with its attendant risks for the personal security of Musharraf? I would find it difficult to answer this question on the basis of available evidence.
    8. While Musharraf should be able to withstand any open backlash on this issue from the Pakistani fundamentalist organisations, his action in openly courting Israel runs the risk of aggravating threats to his security from the Al Qaeda and other jihadi terrorist organisations as well as from fundamentalist elements in the Armed Forces.
    9. Every country acts according to its national interests. So has Israel in moving closer to Pakistan . There is no point in India sulking over it. However, India would have strong grounds for unhappiness and unease, if Israel had not kept it informed in advance of its moves in this regard.
    The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow, International Terrorism Watch Programme (ITWP), Observer Research Foundation (ORF), and Convenor, Chennai Chapter of the ORF.
    II. Israel has been practicing the snatching of Pakistan’s nukes, as explained here:

    In other words, the “Obama Bridge to the Muslim world” as outlined by Obama in his landmark Cairo speech in 2009, is blocked politically and psychologically by the Sharon Wall in Palestine.

    The blocking of the Obama Bridge by the Sharon Wall is a key “architectural” feature of the world in this epoch.

    This blockage messes up the US/Pakistan dimension of things “ab initio.”

  • sifta

    Mohammed Hanif is priceless. He reminds us how little of Pakistan is really known or understood from the outside, and gives a perspective that is not on the southern border of the war in Afghanistan, nor on the northern border of India, but set right in Karachi.

  • Potter

    A brilliant idea- interviewing artists and writers on their views. Please keep on. I am behind on this flurry of shows but had to listen twice to this one. Thank you for this insight and your boldness to go to what seems like a lawless place where Americans are not appreciated (to say the least). This is not encouragement to do this more.

    Notes and thoughts:

    The military, here and there, not only in Pakistan, is interested in it’s own survival.

    60,000 garbage pickers (in Karachi alone?!) and they are not drug addicts, they are workers without jobs.

    Hanif says that the flowering in the arts is in a bubble that does not challenge the Pakistani psyche he describes.

    I still don’t understand why India has to be enemy number one (or two now).

    Our interference has a perverse effect. We should remove ourselves, drones included.

    And yes I should read “The Quiet American” which I bought years ago and never got around to.

  • parkman shaw

    chris: revisit the gangs of new york (flve points in and after civil war.) keep it coming.

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