Sunday, April 20, 2014

ET Phone Home...

I suppose it makes me officially "old" to admit it, but I lived and traveled in the time before we had the huge technological conveniences that the Internet affords us today. So much has changed since I went off to college in 1989 that when I look back, I wonder how I managed to do anything. We take so many things for granted today - even living in Pakistan, which isn't the most technologically advanced country in the world - hardly stopping to think how far we've advanced and how easy it's made our lives, even in the few short years since the beginning of the 21st century.

For example: applying to college was a nerve-wracking procedure. These days, you get online, go to the college or university Web site of your choice, download an application to print out and fill, or just fill it out directly online. You pay the registration fee by online credit card. You get your acceptance emailed to you. You reply back by email to say you're attending.  (Plus your standardised tests are all registered and paid for online in the same way).

Boom! College apps, done.

Compare this to how I applied to college. First, I went to my guidance counsellor's office and looked through the college catalogues she had on the shelves. Yeah, catalogues, those big directories of the college with glossy photographs and an application form at the end. If you were lucky she had the college you were interested in, so you could photocopy the application form and take it home to fill out in pencil by hand, then get it typed (or type it yourself if you were lucky enough to have access to an electric typewriter) out by your father's secretary. Any mistakes would make you have a heart attack because they'd have to be erased or painted over with White-Out that made the forms look nasty, and you were convinced that the bad condition of the forms would get you rejected immediately.

If she DIDN'T have the application, you'd write - BY HAND - to the college, requesting a catalogue. Then you'd wait three months for it to arrive in Karachi because they always sent the catalogues third class or by sea. When the catalogue finally came, if it hadn't gotten lost or stolen or confiscated in the mail, you'd go through the entire process outlined in the above paragraph.

You'd have to somehow get your hands on a foreign currency check for $60. Either a relative from America would write one for you, or you'd beg your dad to get you a banker's draft (and you had no way of knowing whether the college would accept it or not). You'd fill out all the forms. You'd either send them with a relative or friend flying over to the US, or you'd send them from Pakistan and pray. You wouldn't know until two months after you'd sent the application whether or not it had even reached, and that too only if you called the Admissions Office to find out. Sometimes the college was nice and would send you a postcard saying they'd gotten your application but that certain documents were missing. You'd sweat bullets getting the documents in, praying they'd reach on time.

Your essays? Forget sending them by email to some kindly relative to look over and correct overnight. What email? Nobody had email back in 1988.

God got a lot of prayers from December to April, if I remember correctly.

You'd think that once you got in, that was it, right? Nope. Guess again. Getting the money for your tuition fees was a nightmare because back in those days, the free flow of foreign currency was yet a gleam in Nawaz Sharif's eye. You'd have to have your tuition amount approved by the State Bank, and then released in instalments, which wasn't always accepted by the college or university that had accepted you. You'd have to beg a kindly relative again to pay your fee so your parents could repay them.

You'd make your travel arrangements and your ticket would come - a precious document. If you lost it, no easy way to just go and print it out again from your email account. You'd have to go to the airline office and cry for them to issue you another one. You'd carry it close to your heart, along with your traveller's checks and what precious foreign currency you could acquire from the black market. That's right, because foreign currency was restricted for Pakistanis. Only if you were studying abroad were you allowed a certain amount of dollars every month to be remitted to you through the Bank. And it would have to come in a draft form, BY MAIL. FROM PAKISTAN.

You'd make the journey by plane. At every stop you'd look for a phone booth to call Pakistan. You'd have to pay by cash because Pakistanis didn't have credit cards until the early 1990s. Nor were there mobile phones to text your parents to tell them you'd arrived safely. Forget FaceTime or Skype. No Internet until 1994, and none of those technologies came about until after 2005.

At school, you'd talk to your parents once or twice a week, if you were lucky, for maybe ten minutes at a time. We were lucky in that we had a rare direct dialling telephone line, meaning we wouldn't have to book a trunk call through an operator. But it was still exorbitantly expensive - sixty rupees per minute - so the phone calls were restricted to twice a week. Calling Pakistan from the United States was as expensive - almost five dollars a minute.

There was email, but only between academic institutions, so you couldn't email your family, couldn't send them photos of you, couldn't talk every day on Skype.

My father would hand-write me a letter once a month, along with the draft he'd send me for my allowance. I remember those letters, loving missives, filling me in on some news from home, but never anything depressing or disturbing. There were no Internet news sites, no, so I couldn't really keep up with what was happening back home. You can't imagine the disconnect. When you travel these days, you feel like you're still with your family, thanks to technology. Back then, you felt as though someone had pulled the plug on your life with them, and you were adrift in a vast ocean, with only the memory of the shore living on in your mind until the next phone call, the next letter.

I saw Gravity recently in the cinema and the aching solitude of space reminded me of what it felt like to travel and live abroad without the aid of our Internet-based technologies.

If anyone asked me would I want to travel to the past in a time machine, I would say no. I wouldn't be able to bear the loneliness.

Is there anyone out there....?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Believers/ The World Upstairs

Emma Books, a publishing house in Italy with an emphasis on both women's writing and digital publishing, has bought a short story of mine called "The Believers" and is translating it into Italian to release it as a digital short (the translated title: "The World Upstairs").

This is going to be the future of publishing, especially for the short story, which will be sold much the same as a single track from a whole album on iTunes.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Between Two Seas

I took a quick trip to Bahrain last week to visit relatives: it was my first visit to this country "between two seas," which refers to the bays east and west of the islands, (not the Al-Katif and Hadjar oases mentioned in the Quran) or the salt and fresh water that is present in both the land and the Gulf surrounding Bahrain (there's an area in the sea north of Bahrain where fresh water bubbles up out of the sea water, for reasons unknown).

Looking at the crystal blue waters, as we drove across the King Fahd Causeway just to be able to see Dammam, Saudi Arabia (but not to enter), I was reminded of the poem by Pablo Neruda, "Ode to the Sea":

The Gulf of Bahrain
Surrounding the island
There's sea.
But what sea?
It's always overflowing.
Says yes,
Then no,
Then no again,
And no,
Says yes
In blue
In sea spray
Says no
And no again.
It can't be still.
It stammers
My name is sea.

The island was home to an ancient culture and people called Dilmun, from about three thousand BC. The Parthian and Sassanid Persians also ruled Bahrain, then the Arabs, then the Portuguese, the Saffavids, and finally the ruling Al-Khalifa family.  It has also known a life as a British protectorate, until its independence in 1971, which explains why the country, spread across an archipelago, feels very Westernised, far more so and for far longer than Dubai.

Bahrain has more small-town charm, a slower pace of life, locals who are far friendlier and relaxed than in Dubai as well. This is also probably due to their having been exposed to much more of the world for longer - the UAE really only opened up in the 70s, and didn't "boom" with all the flash and cash and the high rises, the British and other expats, all the flash and high rises and Michelin chefs and Russian billionaires until after 2000.

Bahrain isn't an oil-rich country: it specialises in banking and other financial services, although Bapco, the government oil company, discovered oil in 1931 and this brought about modernisation in Bahrain very rapidly. I saw its largest oil refinery burning bright in the distance as I drove down the main highway of Bahrain, the Shaikh Khalifa Bin Sultan Highway. There's also a large pipeline that brings in crude oil from Saudi Arabia: hi-octane gas is about 26 rupees a liter (half that in neighbouring Saudi Arabia).

Oil and water, the two lifebloods of all the Gulf states...

Bahrain Fort
I didn't get the chance to do much sightseeing, although I did see the Bahrain Fort by night, illuminated beautifully with the Bahrain flag fluttering in the unusual cool (for April) evening breeze.

Illuminated archways inside the fort

And one of the stranger sights was old graveyards along the highway, vast mounds of earth with no markings of any kind. Eerie and yet peaceful at the same time. A reminder that no matter how much you amass in this lifetime, everyone ends up in the same place.

Bahraini money is pegged to the dollar, with one Bahrani Dinar (BD) equalling about 2.5 USD. This is very confusing, as a meal at a fast food place will cost you on average about 2.5 BD. You think you're saving lots of money psychologically until you remember that this is almost 9 dollars. I also opened my wallet at one point to see a 100 riyal Saudi note in there - the equivalent of 10 BD. Then, they have fils, of which 1000 equals one dinar, but they have "half dinar" notes (the equivalent of 500 fils) which is again hard to figure out until you get used to it.

 I'd heard a lot about the protests in Bahrain that took place in 2011: the majority of people in Bahrain are Shia, and some decided to protest for more rights and more say in the affairs of the country. These were peaceful protests - small crowds would gather at the Pearl Roundabout to sing and eat and sit in protest, but always peaceful. Then, a group from London, which included some Bahraini exiles from the 70s and an Iraqi cleric, arrived to stir up more agitation against the Sunni rulers. The protests became violent: stone-throwing, tire burning, and riots ensued.

I'm told that the protests were handled firmly, but without firepower, only tear gas and rubber bullets. Four people died from being critically injured by the bullets, though (similar protests by Shia in the Saudi Eastern provinces were met with far harsher reactions - death penalties for most, without trial or any other type of legal or human rights intervention). The Bahraini King stayed silent, but the Crown Prince, his son, took a more active role in trying to negotiate with the groups, who said that their rule was illegitimate. Things settled down eventually - though I know this isn't a very nuanced retelling of the history.

The Pearl Roundabout's been destroyed by the government, and some of the roads in Bahrain are ruined beyond repair from the tire burning. The police and military keep an eye on some of the restive Shia villages outside of the main city, cordoning them off during the F1 races last week. And if there are protests, they still use tear gas and riot control to stem the protestors.

It seems to be that Bahrain is between many more than just two physical seas: there are the seas of Sunni and Shia, of tradition and modernity, of Islam and pre-Islamic history, of Westernization and Arab culture. An intriguing place, with much going on under the calm, peaceful surface.  I'd like to go back; four days wasn't enough to absorb the history, the culture, the politics.

Then again, when you see the blue surrounding the island, all that matters is the sea.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

On Aghaz-e-Safar and Resilience

I was lucky enough to watch the promos and first episode of a new television series from Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, the winner of the Academy Award for the documentary "Saving Face". The show's called Aghaz-E-Safar (The Start of the Journey) and is launching in Karachi on April 10th with a red carpet event at Karachi's Nuplex Cinema (which I won't be able to attend, so rats). The show will air on AAJ TV, premiering on Sunday night, April 13th.

Here's some information about the series, from SOC Films:

Aghaz-e-Safar is a 12-part television series that looks at some of the most pressing social issues faced by Pakistanis today. Our episodes approach our collective problems through short form documentaries, in-studio interviews, and expert analysis. We have amassed over a hundred first-hand stories from booming metropolises to remote villages in addition to in-studio interviews and expert analyses. 

Our aim is to not only bring core issues to the forefront but to also provide tangible solutions and ways to get involved in existing campaigns and initiatives. We hope that the show will promote a sense of community in Pakistan, and will bring us closer to understanding each other as citizens and equals. 

The very short teasers feature Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy herself talking about the new show in brief snippets, interspersed with evocative footage of people and places all over Pakistan - a woman weeping over a picture of her dead child, rescue teams at the scene of an accident, children in a small village school learning lessons - and ending with the tagline: "Don't be the problem, be an example." It's an intriguing format that draws you in immediately, making you feel that yes, while Pakistan has a lot of problems, its people are the greatest resource in solving them. And that we all have to take responsibility for finding solutions, rather than blaming others and never doing the hard work or the deep soul-searching ourselves.

The first episode is on the subject of child abuse, a sore topic in Pakistan which evokes shame, taboos, and secrecy at all levels of society.  The clip I saw opens with a young teenaged boy talking about his experience being beaten and assaulted on the street. A lawyer talks about the absence of laws we have in Pakistan to deal with child sexual abuse. A psychotherapist talks to the show's host in front of an audience, revealing that in her line of work, she has found that every second person has been sexually abused. And it shows the devastating effect of child abuse on its victims, with footage of young boys smoking heroin on the street.

It's strong, heady stuff. We've never discussed issues with such openness on such a platform before. It's daring, and it won't be easy to take. But I'd like to venture that it is exactly what we need.

As I was watching the promos, I was reminded of a question I was recently asked in an interview: what most captures Karachi's resilience, and how do you feel about that?

My response:

"It's a grim image but we've had so many bombings and violent attacks in Karachi. And each time you see the emergency services present at the scene, helping the injured, transporting the dead. The ambulance drivers and the medics and the rescue squads; their faces etched with exhaustion and sadness, ill-equipped and unprotected, but they show up again and again, after every bombing or shooting. No fear, no selfishness, but compassion and the determined desire to help, no matter what trauma they suffer privately as a result of being there and often being attacked or targeted themselves. That to me is the biggest symbol of the resilience we have in Karachi, and although it breaks my heart that they have to go through what they do, it also evokes pride in our refusal to ever give up, or give in."

Replace "Karachi" with "Pakistan" and the picture becomes even more clear. There is nobody who is going to save us, no deus ex machina, no military coup, no foreign intervention.

We are the only people who can save ourselves. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014


I was coming home late one evening in the murky gloom of a dusty Karachi twilight. Up ahead on the road two motorcycles crossed a speed bump, when something went wrong: the one on the left jerked to the side, then fell over, the driver tumbling to the ground and hitting his head hard on the concrete road, his female passenger following him a split second later.

The other motorcycle stopped immediately and a woman in a burqa sprinted to the fallen vehicle; I thought she’d reach for the woman but instead she grabbed the man and pulled him up. In that moment I thought I’d never seen anyone as heroic as that woman in the black burqa. She hadn't cared that she might be hit by a passing car, or that she shouldn't be touching a strange man. She didn't think; she just acted. 

As I passed alongside I heard the shrill cries of a child: “Bachao! Bachao! Bachao! (Save me)” Bystanders were already rushing to right the motorcycle, and as they yanked it upright I saw a small girl, six or seven years old, also lying on the road. She'd been trapped under the motorcycle. Others held out desperate hands to stop the traffic, and I knew someone would quickly call an ambulance, which would arrive in a matter of minutes from their station down the road.

I have a friend who says the angels work extra time in Karachi, protecting all those children who ride on motorcycles, in their parents arms or perched over the handlebars. And all those people who ride without motorcycle helmets because they're too expensive or too hot. And all those women who ride behind their husbands, sidesaddle because it's vulgar to sit astride like a man, their feet dangling and their burqas flapping dangerously close to the spokes of the moving wheels.

The angels must have taken the night off, I thought to myself. Maybe they wanted to watch the cricket match, the final in the T20 tournament. Maybe they were rooting for Sri Lanka to win. Or maybe they were just tired from having looked after so many children riding on motorcycles because there's no public transportation system in Karachi, that operates on Sundays and that people with many children and little to no salary can afford.

It was only after I passed the scene by that I realized I hadn’t thought to stop.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Day with the Differently Abled

This morning, the Alliance Francaise Karachi hosted a "day of recreation" (un moment récréatif) for 130 students and 70 staff members of AURA, the Al-Umeed Rehabilitation Foundation, a well-known Karachi-based centre set up by Dr. Ruby Abbasi in 1989  for children who suffer from cerebral palsy.

AFK Director Jean-Francois Chenin makes friends
As a member of the AFK's Executive Committee, I was excited to spend time with these children and the administration of AURA as they came to AFK for games, music, and food.  When I was a college student I interned one summer with a British social worker in Essa Nagri who ran a playgroup for slum children with cerebral palsy through the Aga Khan Social Services Network. My work with her influenced me greatly, and led to the writing of my novel Slum Child. So it was with a sense of coming full circle that I went over to participate but also to observe and witness, and to reflect on my previous experience of twenty years ago.

Dr. Abbasi's own son Bilal was affected by the condition, and there was no specialised centre that dealt with the problems cerebral palsy presents - postural and motor difficulties, vision impairment, and hearing and speech impairment too. It's thought to be caused by abnormal development to the brain during fetal development, during birth, or even up until a child is two years old.  So Dr. Abbasi set up AURA, but its philosophy is that its children are not disabled - they are differently abled. Disability, according to AURA, is "the lack of ability in a normal person to empathise".
Aban Jamall

AURA today operates in a custom built complex in Gulistan e Johar that gives care, treatment, training, and education to these children. It works on the BOBATH concept, which educates these children in a special curriculum alongside normal street children from the area.  There's a lot of information about what they do on its Web site, including physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, vocational training, and early intervention, and it's worth noting that they are completely integrated on the Internet and social media, with a Twitter account and a Facebook page.

I have a brochure from AURA given to me by Aban Jamall, who has devoted forty years of her life to the organisation, and links it with the Special Olympics -- several AURA children have represented Pakistan and four have won gold medals -- as well as tireless fundraising efforts. But it's never enough. "We always need funding," she told me, pressing the brochure into my hands. With extra funds, not only does the centre operate, but they can arrange visits to zoos, parks, and theatre, and hold picnics and sports meets for the children.

Today's day out was arranged free of cost by the Alliance Francaise, but it was more than the premises that made the day so special. The entire staff of the Alliance, groundsmen, gatekeepers, guards and gardeners all came to play with the children. The music teacher, Aisha Tariq, played the piano for them and they sang songs to her accompaniment. After she finished, one of the students crawled up to her, touched the keys of the piano, asked for the microphone, then started to sing a song all by himself, in perfect key.

Children played games, threw balls, wore party hats, and just hung out. When the day was at its hottest, they had drinks and snacks. Then they took a rest and hung out before getting ready to go home for the day. It was in the last hour of the program that I reached the Alliance and met the children and the staff of Al-Umeed and got to take a few photographs.

The children worse clean, neat uniforms, and had much more equipment and many more helpers than the little playgroup in the slum had done. But this, of course, is the end result of years and years of dedicated work by an organised, trained team. (Our tiny group met three times a week in the Essa Nagri church, yet it was still such an event in the area that the other children of the slum peered in through the windows and begged to be allowed in to play as well. Guerrilla rehab, helping them play on balance balls and showing them how to comb their hair and just sitting them in our laps and holding them sometimes just because they needed physical affection.)

Still, it was the same as I remembered from twenty years ago when meeting the children today. The same twisted bodies, some unable to hold themselves upright, others needing to be strapped into their wheelchairs so they wouldn't fall out. The same intelligent eyes and wide, friendly smiles, and the eager clasp of their small hands on yours to say hello or get your attention. Children who drooled because they could not control the muscles of their face, or who called out in moans or wails because they had no control over their vocal cords. Children who laughed when they tossed a ball to you and their friends, who wanted to see your glasses or smile for a photograph, then laugh delightedly when you showed them their image on the screen.

Ahsan, the O-level student
But there were a few new things. Like the handsome teenager in the wheelchair, Ahsan, who spoke to me in English and asked me if I worked at the Alliance, then nodded with enthusiasm when I told him I wrote for the newspapers. He told me he studied in school, and was studying for his O-Levels.

And there was Sara, who knew how to operate a computer using her feet.

And Erum, who had the most beautiful smile which shone bigger and brighter when I took her photograph and showed it to her on my iPad.

Getting ready to go home
And Anousha who was better at throwing a ball than at catching it.

And little Aisha who seemed pleased to know that my middle name was Aisha, too.

By one-thirty it was time for the children to go home - they'd been at the Alliance since nine in the morning, and van pickups for the day out had started at six am. The staff helped the children back into their wheelchairs, organised them according to what part of town they lived in, and put their equipment - wheelchairs, cushions, boards, stability balls - onto the roofs of the vans and buses. I shook hands with the helpers, mostly women, but some men who helped with the older boys.

"Thank you for having us," said one of the administrators, which embarrassed me - we were the ones that should have been thanking them, which we did. Profusely. And as the vans rolled away, I could feel my heart thudding in my chest, and I marvelled at how it had turned from a block of ice into a melted ocean in the space of only an hour.

Aisha and me