I grew up watching the first Intifada on PTV – kids little older than me throwing stones at tanks and jeeps that fired back at them. Every day, at 7 PM in English and 9 PM in Urdu. I didn’t understand much as to why this was happening. It didn’t really occur to me to ask why as it fell in with my understanding of the world as a place of trial for good Muslim people oppressed by our enemies – the dirty Hindus, the cruel Christians and the mendacious Jews. Also, every day, we got the latest update from the Iran-Iraq war, which I don’t remember being portrayed as a sectarian war. So it’s all the more surprising that I did not even ask why two Muslim nations were fighting each other.
Then the Kashmiris revolted against Indian rule in 1988 – further evidence of the oppression of Muslims all over the world. All the more pressing the need to strictly adhere to the faith, to “hold fast to the rope of Allah” as the car sticker popular in the ’90s in urban Pakistan ordained, to defend Islam. I remember feeling ashamed that I was too scared to volunteer for the jihad in Kashmir that all the mosques in Cantt and Gulberg seemed to be recruiting for – and finding solace in the saying of the Prophet according to which it was more important to look after your parents than to go for Jihad. This was when I was around 13 or 14 years old. That should give you some idea of how screwed up I was.
The Oslo talks had started, Hanan Ashwari was on TV, a great symbol of hope and reasonableness, visibly, also of the emancipation of women in the Palestinian nation as it freed itself from almost half a century of occupation. Or so we thought. Then, she disappeared from the scene, left the PLO negotiating team. No explanations – well, none that I saw. Arafat persisted, yellowing, pasty-faced, fake smile at the ready. And then there was the handshake, the Nobel Peace Prize, the peace and the killing of Rabin by some crazy extremist Zionist. What more proof did I need that the Israelis were sincere and the Palestinians irresponsible, incorrigible terrorists, incapable of working together for the common good, for peace?
By now, I was entering my peace-and-love phase, rebelling against my self-enforced Islamic training, questioning more and more and, thanks mostly to the Illustrated History of Pakistan, eventually rejecting, the official history that we had been fed in school. But that still didn’t explain why no one helped Alia Izzetbegovich and the besieged Bosnians, didn’t explain how the massacre at Srebrenica could happen almost live on CNN, with the Dutch “peacekeepers” stationed a few miles down the road. Despite my outrage, I simply ignored the data that didn’t fit the curve. Once again. This time for the new disgusted-with-Islam curve.
I remember that around this time, we had a debate topic at school, “One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist”.
In the first year of university, I was lucky enough to stumble across Peace and Its Discontents, the collection of Edward Said’s articles (mainly in Arabic, mainly published in Egypt, but also in other Arab countries, translated to English, as well as some originally in English, published outside the Arab world) written from the mid-80s to the early 90s. From him, I learned about the refugees of 1948, how they were thrown out of their homes by the Zionist onslaught and never allowed to return, about the disputed status of Jerusalem and its centrality to Palestinian identity and culture, about the ethnic and religious diversity of Palestinian society, of its historical links with Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, a little of the internal politics of the PLO, which I learned was not one uniform political machine, but an umbrella for every single one of the Palestinian groups struggling for freedom, each in its own way, united by their basic goals despite extremely divergent views on everything from strategy to tactics to visions of post-occupation Palestine, about Black September 1970, about the extremely aggressive and totally illegal settlement of the West Bank and Gaza since 1973 by Zionist settlers, about Said’s experience as advisor to Yasser Arafat and his gradual dissociation from him due to a radical divergence over negotiations with the occupying power. He made it real to me, took me behind the shocking images from my childhood, allowed me to understand where that all-out, heroic bravery had come from.
I had to listen to him, could not dismiss him. First of all, I have to admit, because his style rang true to me. Incisive, clear, clarifying. But there were other factors: for most of his life – until the early 70s, I think – he had lived more as an American academic than as a Palestinian exile, an authority in English Literature, a professor at Columbia University, known all over the world for his hugely influential works Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism. He was not a fanatic – of any kind. Neither Islamist, nor secularist, nor even communist. Just an academic with a deep concern for truth, justice and humanity. You just can’t ignore that kind of close reading of current history, illuminated with his level of erudition. Well, I couldn’t. And… he was Christian. This little detail changed everything for me. Outweighed everything else, shattered so many of the myths I’d always thought to be true. So, that means that not all Palestinians are Muslim. That means that the Israelis don’t hate and kill Palestinians because they are Muslims but because they resist the occupation, whether they’re Muslim or Christian. That means that, by extension, the story of Islam versus the rest or Islam versus the West or Israel as the rampart of Western democracy against the barbaric Muslims is baloney. The “religious” theory leaked. Badly. For me, it sank. The real story was clearly much more complicated than I had imagined.
But I refused to engage, too scarred by the emotional manipulation I had been subjected to until recently at the hands of dogmatic, sadly deprived Islamist types – bearded or not, it hardly mattered. To think that I had been beating myself up about not being brave enough to volunteer for the false Jihad in Kashmir – false because the aim was not to secure the right of self-determination of the Kashmiris but to fulfill the simple mission statement: “کشمیر بنے گا پاکستان”, that is, “Kashmir will become Pakistani”. By this time, thanks to Manto, to some of the work from the Progressive Writers Movement, to Bapsi Sidhwa, I had become extremely wary of nationalism. It simply was not logical. It broke down on practically every single physical frontier I could think of. And the Two Nation Theory we’d been taught in school and had learned by heart – and made space for in our hearts – was possibly the silliest of all the nationalisms I read about. Nationalism and the resultant notion of nation-states seemed to be, at best, a makeshift arrangement for organising human affairs, until a better, more human arrangement could be figured out. An arrangement that could correspond much better than this ill-fitting straitjacket, to the real needs of human societies. For that, I owe a big debt to our political science and literature professors at university.
Time passed in comfortable dis-engagement from politics. I fulminated from time to time. Both NFP and Ejaz Haider stopped saying anything new that was genuinely interesting or innovative. TFT became a joke, almost a gossip magazine. Even one of my own rants was published in it – their stock had fallen so low! Just before 9/11, this was. Then, interest in AfPak exploded and the world changed for our English-speaking elite as they came more fully into their role as native informers.
Meantime, Israel invaded the Jenin refugee camp. At work, colleagues couldn’t help sharing the shocking images they were receiving from their friends via e-mail. Then Rachel Corrie shone. For me, that was the last drop. Checking her last name just now, I see that her Wikipedia entry says that she was born a few months after me. What she did, whatever else effect it had on the Palestinian movement and the support it got from ordinary people around the world, it, along with the Jenin massacre, ended my phase of peace-and-love neutrality as far as the occupation was concerned. It is wrong. It has to end.
At a stopover in Dubai airport in 2005, in a personally very troubled time, I bought, very much on impulse, a somewhat used-looking copy of the ISM’s collection of their experiences struggling in solidarity with Palestinians. That led to a short story – and then nothing. I was back in Pakistan and it seemed that the country had altogether too many problems to deal with already: recovery from the 2005 earthquake, the fake “war on terror” that clearly will never end unless a radically critical peace movement starts, the Baloch question, rapidly increasing socio-economic inequality.
All of those problems exist and have to be dealt with. But still, inspired by a talk on his country and their struggle given by Palestinian academic Magid Shihade at Cafe Bol in November 2009, we went ahead and founded a small solidarity group, Pakistanis for Palestine. Well, we hoped it would be bigger and far more active than it ended up being. Partly because we focused too much on the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign – and that doesn’t make much sense in Pakistan since we don’t even recognise the Zionist occupation as a legitimate state.
What we should have talked about more, much more, was how engagement with Palestine illuminated the dark corners of our national myths. For example, thanks to having learned some of the basics of Middle Eastern politics from Peace and Its Discontents, I was able to follow Tariq Ali’s chapter on the Pakistan Army, The Colour Khaki, in one of the footnotes of which, he makes the interesting revelation that, in September 1970, commemorated as Black September by the Palestinians, the Pakistani army officer and dictator-to-be Zia-ul-Haq led mercenaries, in his capacity as the head of the Pakistan Army forces on deputation to Jordan, in a series of campaigns to wipe out and disband most of the armed Palestinian resistance groups that had established stable and highly effective bases in Jordan. Instead of seeking to resolve the conflict between the Jordanians and Palestinians amicably (what happened to concern for the Ummah?), the Pakistan Army delegation went along with imperial dictates and helped crush the vanguard of the Palestinian resistance. This same soldier seized power in Pakistan in 1977 in the name of Islam (did he help crush the Palestinians in the name of Islam?) and set in motion the Islamization programme that we are still reeling from – even as he oversaw shipments of Israeli Uzi sub-machine guns to the erstwhile Mujahideen in Afghanistan, the valiant defenders of Western democracy against “godless” communism. Again, in which twisted worldview is it acceptable for a proud Islamic republic to buy arms from one of the oldest occupation regimes in the world (that too of THE symbol of oppressed Muslim nationhood) to fight a proxy war on behalf of the “decadent” United States? To think that we actually enabled the funding of the Israeli war machine makes me sick to the stomach.
And then there’s Balochistan. An entire state annexed by Pakistan in March 1948, repeatedly in rebellion against this historic injustice, repeatedly subjected to military operations and damaged further through treacherous “peace talks” with Establishment figures. Reading the history of their struggle, the parallels with that of the Palestinians are remarkable. On the recent Independence Day, a friend posted the following on Facebook:
Reading Mahmoud Darwish, and thinking of Raza Jahangir Baloch, the BSO activist who was martyred in Turbat by the Pakistani army today. From “Under Siege”:
In the state of siege, time becomes space
Petrified in its eternity
In the state of siege, space becomes time
That has missed its yesterday and its tomorrow.
The martyr encircles me every time I live a new day
And questions me: Where were you? Take every word
You have given me back to the dictionaries
Their echoes trouble the dreams
of those who sleep here.
The martyr enlightens me:
I did not look
For the virgins of immortality for I love life
On earth, amid fig trees and pines,
But that heaven was denied me.
Still I searched with all I had left:
to the last drop of blood in my veins.
The martyr warned me: Do not believe their ululations
Believe my father when, weeping, he looks at my photograph
How did we trade roles, my son, how did you precede me.
I should have gone first! I should have been first!
I’ve tried to answer questions like, “Why this obsession with Palestine – and that too in Pakistan?” The short answer is, “Because learning the history of their struggle helps to expose the many lies we accept as common sense and forces us to re-consider our political stance/orientation in the world. Because this reading teaches one how to approach political topics critically, to be skeptical of received truths and to be as brave as the Palestinians in the search for truth and justice.”
“But how does that help the Palestinians?”, you ask.
Isn’t that up to you?