On race

PBS in the US did a documentary on race a while ago. I haven't seen it, but I did come across the companion website, Race - The Power of an Illusion, recently. Being a show made by and for Americans, it traces the history of race in the US, but it does give a glimpse of what race meant - or didn't mean - before European settlers arrived in the Americas. It also points out, as the title suggests, that race is not a biological fact but a social construct. The terms we use so casually today - 'white', 'black', 'caucasian' - have an interesting history. It doesn't call for the abolition of racial categories though because they are useful in determining such things as social equality, which suggests that current social inequality is a function of the arbitrary classification of human beings into nonexistent subcategories, and not vice versa. And if you'd like to see evidence of how arbitrary this classification is, take a look at this page, where you are given 16 photographs to classify under four racial categories. Give it a go and see how many you get right.

But what's most interesting and, I think, most relevant to Australia is the section titled What's Race Got To Do With It? The third presentation, called "The Elephant in the Room" seemed the most directly applicable to what I've seen in Australia. I should point out that I don't know all that much about the social and racial history of Australia and what I do know comes from references made in articles and conversations about current issues (such as the Apology to Indigenous Australians made by the Prime Minister earlier this year, the portrayal - or lack thereof - of Indigenous Australians in the media and art, and Australia's rather intersting immigration policies through history). I have however been living here for just over two years now and while I honestly find it a wonderfully welcoming place, I have also found it to be one where racism is incredibly deeply ingrained. Not in the classic American sense of being discriminated against on the basis of your skin color (though it's been known to happen) but in the constant classification of people into categories and sub-categories. People born and bred in Australia are still referred to by their parents' race or, if they are of European ancestry, by their forebears' country of origin. Nobody, it seems, is just Australian. Given the intermittent noise in the media about 'Australian values' and identity, that's just bizarre.

The racism is so casual you almost don't notice it. For instance, upon meeting my husband, several people have remarked that he wasn't what they expected. They were expecting a Pakistani - and therefore presumably Muslim - male but he 'doesn't look like one.' As if that wasn't galling enough, some have remarked on how lovely that is and how lucky I am.

Another example is language. I have lost count of how many times I've received compliments on my command of English or been asked outright where I learnt it because it's really rather good. I don't think any of the people who have complimented me have meant any harm by it and have no idea that they were being insufferably patronizing. I have decided however that, rather than get annoyed, the simplest thing to do is to compliment theirs in return. You know, one native speaker to another.

My personal favorite is people who must assert a cultural difference no matter what. Everyone being spoken of belongs to some neat little category that immediately explains everything about them. What a convenient way to view the world.

Given the history of racism, these are minor irritations. But they indicate nonetheless how deeply ingrained the assumptions based on race actually are, even though most people would be hard put to explain why some people are categorized according to race while others are defined by their ethnicity, nationality, or religion and would be surprised to learn how often they conflate these categories themselves.

That's my neighborhood.

You've probably seen the images of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad up in flames, heard all about the truckload of explosives going off, the scramble to save people, the 60 dead so far and the over 200 people injured.

About 200m from the Marriott is my grandmother's house. My grandmother, my mother, my brother, our cook and his helper, and the maid and her husband were all home. They all heard the explosions (two of them) and then, moments after my brother stepped away from his bedroom window because he couldn't see anything, the shockwave from the explosion shattered every single window in the house and ripped out most of the panes and doors. If the curtains hadn't been drawn, they would all have been severely injured, my mother most of all, I think, since she was sitting right under half a wall of glass. For the past 24 hours, my family has been attempting to clean the place up.

All things considered, they were extremely lucky. Less sound houses have sustained far more structural damage. Less fortunate people are dead, dying, or lost somewhere in the rubble of what was one of the oldest and most well-known buildings in the city. There were about 1,500 people there - they're not all accounted for and I have no idea how long it will be before they are.

In the mean time, my family is cleaning up and repairing the damage to the house. They've been at it for 24 hours now. I have no idea how much more time it will take to get rid of all the glass that's lying all over the place or how long it will be before new windows and doors can be fitted.

I keep doing that. Shifting focus from my house and family to the larger, more horrific picture of a hotel full of people being attacked like that. I'm only just beginning to be able to stomach looking at footage of the blast, and images of the damage and of people being pulled from it. It still makes me cry, but that's to be expected for the time being. There's lots to be thought about - big-picture stuff like how all this fits into the political situation and all this talk of 'uniting' and 'common enemies' from the Americans and the Pakistani government, but at the moment it's the 'smaller' stuff like getting help to people directly affected by the explosion that's on my mind.

The PC police strike again

Sunday's edition of Australian newspaper the Age carried this story about how early Sesame Street shows dating from 1974 and earlier are too un-PC for today's child. Apparently Oscar, the Cookie Monster, and even Big Bird are inappropriate role models since they are unhygienic and antisocial, gluttonous, and delusional (remember when Snuffy was imaginary?), respectively, and therefore unfit for children to watch because, you know, children are little simpletons who might think that all these things that all these strange looking puppets do are somehow ok in the real world.

Say what?

There are a couple of assumptions here that I have a problem with:

1. Children are too stupid to distinguish fantasy from reality and will therefore ape any kind of behavior they see on tv.
2. Children must be protected and ushered through their childhoods with as little contact with reality because it might scar them for life.

First of all, children are not that stupid. Even the children of the delusional, gluttonous and socially retarded members of my generation are not that stupid. Their parents, on the other hand, I can't vouch for. But I do know that most children are able to separate make-believe from reality, even when they don't want to, which is why fantasy, particularly for children, has always had a place in human culture. One of the first things we're taught is limits; what we can and can't do is spelled out for us constantly as we grow up. It is important, therefore, to be able to escape into a world with no (or different) limits so that we may exercise our imaginations safe in the knowledge that what we are doing is imaginary.

It seems to me that it isn't children who confuse fantasy with reality but their parents. Witness the rising tide of emotionalism and deliberate Oprah-style renunciation of rationality in exchange for touchy-feely "you're all special because you think you're special" nonsense. Yes, for the price of one DVD, you too can have the secret to untold wealth, happiness, success and good teeth.
Which takes me to the second issue: reality. Reality means the stuff in the real actual world. You know, the one out there, that comes packed with grouches, hedonists, delusional people, and a whole lot more. Given that you're going to have to deal with them anyway, mightn't it be a good idea to have a practice run or two? Or maybe just the exposure so that when you come across someone who doesn't think you're the specialest special little thing in the whole wide world, you can actually cope?

The article also quotes the head of children's programming at the ABC (that's Australian Broadcasting Corporation) as saying that even if a tiny minority of children mimic the behaviors they see on screen, the program in question should not be shown. By that logic, children shouldn't be shown anything at all or allowed to read or speak or play or think because you never know when exposure to something as radical as scarfing down a plate of cookies could do serious damage to their psyches. And if we stunt an entire generation of children in the process, so what? At least they'll all be svelte and clean and utterly unimaginative.

I am not a parent (and things like this make me even more glad that I never need to be), but I certainly was a child and I seem to remember the biggest lessons coming from those two people who had the job of raising me, not the silly images I saw on the telly. I wonder, in all our analysis of the effect of anything and everything on the fragile psyches of children, have we forgotten entirely about the role of parents?

Catching up

I've been hibernating the last few months and have consequently missed out on a lot that's been happening online and off. The biggest news, of course, is that Musharraf has declared a state of emergency in Pakistan, leaving himself the only law of the land. L'etat, c'est lui, indeed.

Kyla has been writing about the situation steadily and about her participation in the Lahore protest on  Nov 5.

Ameel has blogged about the situation as well, explaining rather well why Musharraf was able to gain our trust and support back when he took over and why people with foresight and a grasp of history insisted that, for all the good he may have been doing, having him around was still a bad idea.

Both Kyla and Ameel have linked to other blogs that are reporting on happenings on the ground.  The Internet's the only source of information we have really since television and radio channels have been taken off the air and newspapers are not allowed to print anything critical of the government. GEO is alive and well online, though a notice on the site says that they're not putting too much content up because of the heavy traffic they've been getting. Dawn is also operating online despite having been muzzled by the new press ordinance. I don't know if there's a difference between their print and online versions at the moment since I haven't got access to the newspaper itself.

I've said this elsewhere so I may as well do so here: the crap the US and UK are spouting about democracy and the elections and their 'insistence' that both be returned is just that. It's for show only. If members of civil society and the government were able to predict that this would happen if Musharraf stuck around too long, so was the US (and when I say 'US' I mean the States as well as its little pets). Yes, democracy and the constitution should be upheld and elections should be held, yes the army should get out of government, but the idea that it should or could be done because a foreign government that is interested only in using the patch of land that happens to be Pakistan says so is unacceptable. What earthly difference does it make to the US what kind of government exists in Pakistan? The fact is, it doesn't. So long as said government does not interfere with the US's goals in the area, it's really none of the US's concern who runs the country.  This very visible media-friendly hand-wringing is, to mix metaphors, a lot of lip-service to public opinion back home (since some of them might actually know what a Pakistan is and will therefore be concerned that their super-duper government isn't effectively enlightening us benighted savages) and little else.

So instead of listening to their protestations and proclamations, divert yourselves with  Musharraf's amended press ordinance and the now-suspended constitution of Pakistan.

How pathetic can you get?

I have an ex I'm very fond of. We got together back in high school in Kathmandu and broke up some time after it, but more because the relationship just died a natural death and there really wasn't any point continuing it. No dramas, no scenes; just a see you later, take care of yourself and hey, keep in touch. I was about 19 back then. Over the years, we've seen each other through various relationships, mistakes, breakups, fallings out, disasters and ultimately each of our 'holy shit I think this is it' moments.

I have and have had similar relationships with what I now realize is a fairly large number of men. To be clear, I never dated any of them, but I absolutely adore them because they're all some combination of intelligent, creative, funny, sweet, talented, silly, downright weird (on occasion), gorgeous (in the 'I have my shit together' sort of way), great to talk to, supportive, generous, well-read, able to listen, interested in things I find interesting (animals, cars, motorbikes, books, music, politics, history, physics, whatever), well-travelled, kind, honest, inventive, original and so on. In short, they're people. Real, functioning, thinking human beings around whom I feel challenged, switched on, comfortable, safe and happy.

I'm all for the whole imprinting on one's parents thing because my relationship with them is basically a repeat and expansion of my relationship with my father (and arguably all of that formed a blueprint for my relationship with Ameel). It's always a bit silly to say 'if not for X, such and such wouldn't have happened' becuause X was there and whatever it is did happen and you have no real way of knowing whether your statement is true. But, coming from a relatively 'conservative' nation (for lack of a better word - I wasn't born in Pakistan and spent more time outside the country than in it, so I feel that, if anything my passport makes me from Pakistan-the-idea rather than Pakistan-the-place), I lucked out. I'd always thought so, because bad fathers are an unfortunately world-wide phenomenon, but I realized just how much when I went back to Lahore for college and discovered the utter monsters that are allowed to raise children there. Some had attitudes similar to those of my father (after all, he's from there too), but what the apparent majority of men(with the collusion of their wives and families) put their children - particularly their daughters - through was appalling.

With some notable exceptions, the men my own age that I met there were just as appalling. (So, too, again with some exceptions, were the women, so ultimately I guess they pretty much deserved each other.)  I made an effort. I really did. But seriously, if a man's fool enough to pull the macho crap and try to tell me what to do...

But that's just it. They really, honestly don't seem to know any better. The few that tried it with me probably still don't know where they went wrong (or what hit them), and I doubt that they really have any need to seeing as how they're probably now with women who do the whole subservient little woman thing anyway. And everyone involved is probably quite happy with things too, which I suppose is fine. Just because it's not my thing doesn't make it automatically' bad'.

But what does make it bad is when this crap spills over into my life. The web makes it possible for me to reconnect with all the wonderful people I've had to leave behind because our lives went in different directions. I've found people I haven't seen or been in touch with for ten years or more through things like Facebook and Orkut and have, thanks to them, actually managed to stay in touch with people. They're good applications, specially for us wanderers, because they bring all our different worlds into one easy to manage space. It's more of a home than any real place I can think of because everyone from evereywhere is there. Virtually.

Along with all of that, unfortunately, comes the aforementioned crap. Because my network or nationality or name or friends or some combination of these usually place me within reach of the 'desi' presence on the web, I am occasionally pestered by men seeking to be 'friends'. Now in desi-speak, 'friends' (or 'frraands' as it is generally pronounced) does not mean friends who chat once in a while, perhaps even over coffee or drinks, or friends who know each other a bit better and are interested in each other's lives, generally helpful and kind, and mostly truthful except perhaps when concerning an unfortunate haircut, etc. A 'friend' request from a desi man to a woman he does not know means simply that he thinks she's hot and that he has a chance of getting into her pants (virtually or otherwise) for some reason, be it that he thinks she's 'western(ized)' and therefore a 'slut' (read: a woman who has clapped eyes on a man not of her family oh, maybe once?), stupid enough to fall for his 'friend' routine, or so starved for attention that she will immediately fall to her knees in gratitude. Need I mention that these men are quite often also delusional?

Unfortunately, they obviously have some measure of success because they just don't go away.

When faced with a 'no thanks', they first begin to pepper you with messages asking you why not. When you don't respond, they beg for reasons why their oh so manly manliness hasn't had it's 'normal' effect (excuse me while I snort). When they still get nothing ( I don't believe in feeding the animals at a zoo either) they go and steal pictures they find of you on the web, put them in their own photo albums on said networking site, usually with some kind of inane caption, and then leave you a link to it. Now, this generally does get a lot of (desi) girls to contact them, if only to ask them to remove the picture because they're usually compromising (sometimes the mere fact that a perfectly innocent picture is in the possession of a 'stranger' is enough to get them into a world of trouble). This generally gives the harasser a 'way in': he's achieved his objective of getting a reaction and can now blackmail the girls into further contact, whether on the 'net or, more dangerously, in real life.

The problem that these shits run into with me is that I'm not too fond of being harassed or blackmailed and I'm not one to run from a fight if provoked. I'm also not liable to stop till I've ground them into a pulp. This is why I generally stay away from physical fights. I don't need the lawsuits or the possible jailtime, thank you. But in the virtual world, you can kick someone's ass from here to next Tuesday quite nicely, and all without getting your hands too dirty.

So when this particular idiot took a picture of me off this site and did the usual (on Orkut, this was), he didn't get the expected hysterical messages. Instead, Ameel and I

  1. put all the messages I had from him up on my Orkut page,

  2. messaged my friends about his harassment, pointing out the stupidity of 'stealing' a picture that is already in the public domain (under a creative commons copyright),

  3. asked them to check out his nauseatingly pedestrian profile, his visible harassment of other women on Orkut (scrapbooks are publicly viewable), his messages to me, and then

  4. invited them to come express their opinion of him on my page.

It was hilarious to see him scampering to delete his trail and remove most of the pictures from his album, all the while leaving idiotic messages in his defense. The last was the usual 'I just wanted what was best for you and promise me you'll be happy always and I would have been a true and devoted friend'. When that got nothing but jeers (Thanks, mate, but I already have all the dogs I want.), we were all told that this person had had a terrible accident and was in intensive care and that we should all be ashamed of ourselves for being such meanies. When that didn't get a reaction, we received another message saying that he had died and asking if we were happy now. From his account. A 'friend' of his logged in for him you see, because obviously the first thing you do when a friend is dying in hospital is log into his Orkut account and inform all the people there who have expressed overt dislike for him that someone they don't give two shits about has had a completely random accident, most likely caused by the stupidity he so blatantly exhibited online. Naturally.

If any such thing happened at all. Since I've had similar crap pulled on me before (I know. But I didn't fall for it then either.) I knew not to take it seriously. Sure enough, a while later a person with the same name starts commenting on this blog. Nothing untoward was said, so I didn't react. Then someone, again using the same name, sends me a friend request on Facebook. Now, I like Facebook because you can ignore requests and keep these people out of your circle and therefore unable to harass you (other than by private message, and that's a bit of a bother to do. You have to, like, articulate and stuff.)

All was well until lo, one day I get a friend request from a Nadia Niaz whose profile has a picture of me (again from my website, and this time from Ameel's photo page) on it. Another friend had also received a request and was wondering if it was some kook. So I reported it. Obviously. And so did a number of other people. Facebook removed the account. Bye bye, troll.

Or so we thought. Now there's a Nadia Niaz on Orkut whose profile picture is the same picture this loser first took off my site (and which I was using on Facebook for a while). Oh and get this, this Nadia is also 28, is single, and is only interested in women because she has had 'bad experiences' with men in the past. I nearly fell off my chair laughing. I think I'm meant to be offended or something. I mean, my goodness, a lesbian. How very original. Hands up the women who've been called dykes by men they weren't interested in? I think it's even funnier because, really, I have no issues being called a lesbian. I think women are lovely. The person I ended up committing to happens to have been born male, but it really wouldn't have made much of a difference to me personally either way. So umm, no, sexuality's not really an issue kiddo.

What I would find fascinating, if I could be bothered to investigate this phenomenon more, is why these people don't give up. It's not just on the 'net that this happens. While in Pakistan, pretty much the moment I got a cell phone was when I started getting random phone calls from people who wanted to 'get to know' me. How do these people have the time? Are they really all at that loose an end? No wonder the country's going to shit. And really, how pathetic and frustrated do you have to be to do this ad nauseam? Eventually, I wouldn't bother hanging up. I'd put the moron on hold and let him talk. (They always want to talk - one of the made up this very entertaining story about why I wouldn't speak. He probably wouldn't have figured out he was on speakerphone addressing not just me but my husband and a few friends as well if someone in the background hadn't burst out laughing.)

It comes across as cruel at times, I realize. But I've tried being nice, and I've tried reason, neither of which I think they're entitled to. I've also tried ignoring them. And yet he/they seem to think their lives are some shitty bollywood movie where the hero (them, of course) must pursue the heroine (whatever woman they're fixated on) even though she claims to not be interested in him because, of course, she either is secretly mad for him and is simply too dishonest to admit it, or is just too stupid to realize how great a catch he is and so must be repeatedly dazzled with his...er....well...nothing much really...but...it's just....well...he's male dammit and he wants her so how dare the impudent female say no? That's not what happens in the movies! And movies, specially big bollywood productions, are absolutely realistic. Oh yes they are!


Anyway, I've reported the creep again. Let's see how we go. Orkut is apparently less stringent about such things, but then most of my friends have migrated to Facebook already, because it affords one more, obviously much needed, privacy from such fuckwits.

Here we go again

So they're at it again. The "Islamists" at the red/yellow/pink mosque in Islamabad. The government in its infinite wisdom reopened it for Friday prayers and promptly had a riot on their hands. The images on BBC World were just awful, but confirm that, in situations like this, while their reporting is fairly even-handed, they opt for the most bogeymen-like images they can get. Over and over, they showed footage of this lunatic with a beard down to his stomach punching the air so hard he kept falling over. Whatever the reporter was saying, whatever other innocuous images they showed, this is the one that'll stick because it's the one closest to what the terms 'fundamentalist', 'Islamist', 'terrorist' all conjure up.

It had the required effect on us too, scaring us into calling our families in Islamabad. But when my brother-in-law finally got through to us, it was just to say that he'd seen the news reports on TV, figured we'd have freaked out, and wanted us not to worry - that what looked like the entire city going to hell was a couple of blocks in one corner and that life was going on as usual in the rest of the city. That was a relief, but I figured I should still call my brother who lives only a few kilometres from the Lal Masjid. Turns out he didn't know there had been a bombing at all. He knew about the Friday prayers being suspended and the government-appointed Maulvi being kicked out, and had heard an explosion, but that was it. Why?

His cable was out.

That's not to say the situation itself isn't awful because it doesn't affect my family or my neighborhood or the majority of the population of the city, but it does put the media caterwauling in perspective. I can understand the reporters on the scene being shaken though - the BBC person was only a few yards from the explosion and other local reporters have been unable to say much except how much blood they can see and how many pieces of those closest to the bomb are scattered about - and this is only going to make the tension between the government and the fundos worse. But it's still just a symptom. The bigger problem is still unaddressed and will probably continue to be so.

Despite the media crap, Pakistan is still on the fence about a lot of things. Yes, there's a funamentalist government in the NWFP (the province that, joy and happiness, borders Afghanistan), but in five years, they have been unable to implement any meaningful legislation. Yes, they've turned off TVs in public places. Big whoop. The area was conservative to begin with.

And speaking of TV, because of Musharraf, the media is now more free than it has ever been; so much so that the goverment cannot prevent it from turning on Mush now. That is fantastic not just because of the free media song-and-dance but because it means that at least some part of society isn't entirely dependent on the will of one person. That's a first in the history of the country.

But despite the fact that I'd vote for Mush over the other clowns vying for power if it came down to that, he's on his way out. He has to be - he's messed up too badly to not go. And that'll coincide nicely with Bush's exit, so that the popular view that the army leadership gets its orders from the US (and is therefore on a quest to exterminate all Muslims - a view that the Lal Masjid situation will go a long way towards perpetuating) will not taint the next administration. Convenient, no? But then again there's that execrable bill being proposed in the US that will give financial aid to Pakistan based on its performance in the 'war against terror'. (Dance, monkey, dance!) If it goes through, our next collective of charlatans may have some fast talking to do. Given that one is barely literate and the other unable to speak a language the population of the country can understand, that should be very interesting indeed.

A brief history of Pakistan’s leaders

In his May 20 column, Cowasjee lists all the leaders Pakistan has had. The list begins with Mohammad Ali Jinnah, naturally, but it's frightening how quickly the downward spiral starts after Jinnah's death. Cowasjee has comments and a few insights to offer, which is only natural given that he is of the generation that was born under the Raj and was present when Pakistan's history began. Come to think of it, once our grandparents are gone, there won't be too many people left in the world who can claim to have seen a country being born.


Lawyers across the country are on strike.

Islamists are (rightly) accusing Musharraf of clinging to his uniform despite it being time to give it up, plus there's the violation of the constitution thing. Although the poor constitution's been contravened so many times already that its abuse is almost part of the ruler's job description. Musharraf is also past retirement, never mind that he's been blocking the Chief of Army Staff seat for far longer than his appointment allowed.

The combined opposition walked out of Senate Monday morning, forcing its adjournment. The opposition blames the MQM, which controls Karachi and is an 'ally' of the government, for the violence that happened over the weekend.

The Supreme Court's additional registrar was shot in his home in Islamabad  in what appears to be a targeted killing. It would be very odd if his killing weren't related to the shit that's currently flying, specially when you consider that there were about 100 policemen stationed right outside his home.

And now for some context: Ayaz Amir's weekend (pre-bloodbath) article on the Chief Justice's trips around the country, in which he discusses what is likely to happen on the CJ's Karachi trip.

What the fuck is going on?

40 people dead and 140 injured so far and I still don't understand what's happened. The Chief Justice of Pakistan was to address a lawyers' convention in Karachi on Saturday, but the political party that runs the show there apparently didn't approve of the welcome rally that groups interested in the 'restoration' of democracy were planning and so held a rally of their own protesting the 'politicising' of the CJ's visit. Still with me? Ok, so then, given that two opposing groups wanted to hold rallies in essentially the same space, police were deployed, ostensibly to keep things under control. Only said police apparently vanished into thin air and the two groups started shooting at each other. So maybe my reaction to the fact that they were shooting is naive: this is Karachi after all--the big, bad, dangerous, violent city that us northerners look at with a mixture of dread and envy--but I can't help seeing shooting another creature, human or otherwise, as a fundamentally, hideously cowardly act. Oh. Wait. I think it's just begun to make sense.

Back to the plot. Apparently the sainted government had warned our naughty little CJ that things would get out of hand if he went to Karachi. I hope they're enjoying their 'I told you so' moment. Now Dawn says that Reuters says that paramilitary forces have been issued orders/permission to shoot anybody involved in "serious violence". As opposed to what? Funny violence? (Incidentally, how appalling is it that you can, at reuters.com, select world crises by region from a handy drop-down list?) That is supposed to be a response to the loss of "precious lives"?

Apparently (because nobody ever really  knows for sure, it seems--not even the people directly involved) this could be a reemergence of the ethnic violence that Karachi was famous for two decades ago, or it could be a clash between the government's supporters and anti-government activists and have nothing to do with the earlier violence, it could be sponsored by the government itself, or it might be something else altogether.

 Venial Sin, who happens to be from Karachi--and who I wish I'd found under happier circumstances--records his reaction to the madness as well as more details in his blog. Given that the post includes pictures of dead people, do consider your tender sensibilities before you click. And really, looking at pictures of the violence and reading about it on as many news sources as possible is the only thing we can do at the moment. At least until it begins to make some kind of non-simplistic, non-propagandist, non-asinine sense.