Pakistan for Beginners: 3, with Omer Alvie

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Omer Alvie (17 minutes, 8 MB MP3)

But suppose this were a realistic novel! Just think what else I might have to put in… How much real-life material might become compulsory! — About, for example… the attempt to declare the sari an obscene garment; or about the extra hangings — the first for twenty years — that were ordered purely to legitimize the execution of Mr. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto; or about why Bhutto’s hangman has vanished into thin air, just like the many street-urchins who are being stolen every day in broad daylight; or about anti-Semitism, an interesting phenomenon, under whose influence people who have never met a Jew vilify all Jews for the sake of maintaining solidarity with the Arab states which offer Pakistan workers, these days, employment and much-needed foreign exchange; or about smuggling, the boom in heroin exports, military dictators, venal civilians, corrupt civil servants, bought judges, newspapers of whose stories the only thing that can confidently be said is that they are lies; or about the apportioning of the national budget, with special reference to the percentages set aside for defense (huge) and for education (not huge). Imagine my difficulties!

Salman Rushdie, in his “modern fairytale” of Pakistan, Shame, 1983… p. 67 in the Picador paperback.

Pakistan: All Martial and No Law was the headline on Omer Alvie’s last piece for the invaluable Global Voices Online. In our conversation today he remarks on the comic-opera moment in the news this very day as General Musharraf took his oath as President Musharraf under a constitution he’s suspended, making him — what? — a Suspended President.

Omer Alvie is a Pakistani who works and blogs in Dubai, and commutes now and then to Karachi. He has a talent for the absurd humor and not-so-post-colonial anguish of Pakistani politics. It was all, as Omer says, described and foretold nearly a quarter century ago in Salman Rushdie’s novel Shame — a telling in fiction of the ouster and then the hanging of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979. “I tell myself this will be a novel of leavetaking,” Rushdie writes in the book, “my last words on the East, from which, many years ago, I began to come loose.”

Omer Alvie is of a younger generation that once saw charisma and modernity in the face of Pervez Musharraf. He now feels bitter disappointment and the weight of more than Pakistan’s history on events. He says:

The external influence is so strong on Pakistani politics… I have to go back to the War on Terror. This thing overall is farcical to me… If you want to get to the root cause of why terrorist cells exist, or why terrorism happens, you don’t go around bombing countries or arresting innocent people in hopes of catching a few. That’s not addressing the problem, and that’s what’s happening in Pakistan. I sometimes get the feeling that Pakistan is being conditioned. I believe it’s on the same hitlist as Iraq, Iran and Syria. Actually I should clarify: the hitlist should have the letter S in front of it, because that’s probably how the project of the New American Century and most of the Bush administration sees it… this collosally screwed up foreign policy which is now classified as a “war on terrorism”…

…The whole “war on terror” thing, this 9.11 thing, I think, has screwed up Pakistan more than anything else really, because it’s affected us more. We’re stuck in bookends. The average Pakistani is now stuck being questioned by extremists and militants about how to dress, what to do, when to pray, and being questioned constantly about how they live their lives. This is their experience in Pakistan. The same Pakistanis when they travel outside to the US get blamed and classified in a very generic manner as a terrorist, because they’re a Pakistani or a Muslim. We are squeezed between 2 bookends.

Omer Alvie of The Olive Ream, in conversation with Open Source, November 29, 2007

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