Sunday, March 08, 2009

Guest Post: Packed-Suitcase Politics

Sarah is an American friend of mine who has done quite a bit of research in Lebanon; she also visited Pakistan for my wedding last December. This week's attack against the Sri Lankan cricket team compelled her to write a post for us. Without further ado...

When I woke up for the fourth time this morning (okay, several days ago now), I switched my alarm to NPR and lay sleepily in bed, listening to the world news. That’s when I heard about the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore.

I was immediately upset (as I am at the news of any attack), but for very distinct reasons. To the international policy community, this attack just looks like a new link in a chain of events that inevitably leads to a Pakistan divided between the Taliban and the rest of the country. I’m sure that Thomas Friedman will write a hand-wringing op-ed about Pakistani nukes, do a drive-by “democracy will save them all” sermon, and go back to putting gold rims on his custom Prius. Thing is, I think many people are missing the point. If I hadn’t been to Pakistan, I never would have picked up on this (mainly because I live on the assumption that the rest of the world religiously obsesses over football). Of course, Ahsan (proving my forthcoming point, actually) beat me to it in his post:

“Nothing binds Pakistanis quite like the love of cricket.”

There’s nuance to this attack. This wasn’t an attack on a politician, a police station, a military convoy, or a “Western” organization. It was political in an entirely different way. This was the Sri Lankan cricket team—one of the few teams that will/would still play Pakistan on Pakistani soil. It’s also one of the few countries that doesn’t require Pakistanis to have a visa in order to visit. Having seen cricket games in every driveway, every empty lot, every deserted street, it’s clear that the Taliban is now aiming directly at a central aspect of Pakistani society—and at one of the few things that tie people together across classes, regions, and political affiliations. After this attack, it’s very likely that the Pakistani national team will no longer play at home. The Taliban are now basically saying “Oh, that made you happy? We can’t have that, because all of you aren’t out smashing your TVs and beating on Swat’s dancing girls like the rest of us. So let’s just make it clear who’s running shit around here: not you, and certainly not the government.”

For me, being in Pakistan was similar to many experiences that I’ve had in the past few years. I’ve spent around six months living in Lebanon—a place that has its fair share of crazy. It’s also another country where people tend to be surprised—and yes, concerned—when “unaffiliated” Westerners show up (by unaffiliated I mean that I don’t work for an NGO, government, or have family in the country). Once I get past the “What are you doing here?! Aren’t your parents worried? [Whispered] Who exactly do you work for?” stage, people are incredibly friendly, welcoming in a frequently over-the-top (but very, very appreciated) way, and always eager to tell me that the whole country isn’t full of—in their words—“tribals” “fundos” “the bearded ones” or “killers.” I still giggle internally at the thought of Lebanese and Pakistanis using terms that have been deemed egregiously regressive, un-PC, and Orientalist in the US.

I’ve seen how people can hedge on that statement. In Lebanon, they engage in what I call “packed suitcase politics.” In my experience, people will live in their home country as long as they can and through seemingly insane situations (I have friends who hoard toilet paper “just in case”). Yet when it comes down to men with guns potentially showing up at your door and threatening your kids, or, in one friend’s case, commandeering her bedroom balcony to shoot at another militia? You at least think about leaving—because you start to believe exactly the opposite of what you tell people. You start sitting around with friends or family saying: “You know what? This country is full of psychos in bad leather jackets with home-modified AK-47s. We are part of the .01% of people living there who aren’t totally nanners. We need to get out of here.”

Some Lebanese literally keep bags ready when things are tense. Many who live abroad have “exit plans” for their parents and siblings (dual citizenship or residency are clearly helpful, but I also know people who just make sure that their parents usually have a visa to come “visit” for graduation/meeting girlfriend/etc.). Still others only go back for the summers—and make sure to always have a round-trip ticket and two passports handy. In the context of this week’s events, I feel like especially when the Taliban starts attacking things like foreign cricket teams, Pakistanis—at least those who can—are going to start keeping those bags in the coat closet and their savings in Dubai.

I can’t say that I blame them, having friends who both stayed and left through various instances of civil violence. There's no right way to decide between leaving your country to a bunch of warlords (whether they're wearing turbans or Gucci) or waiting for some psycho with a Kalashnikov to shoot up BBQ Tonight. Yet Lebanon was a very different situation, and I’m just trying to draw a parallel along one dimension of the experience of internal conflict. I also don’t mean to be alarmist or to imply that Pakistanis are at the tipping point—the planes out of Karachi and Lahore aren’t stuffed with aunties heading for London, Toronto, or LA quite yet. But I guess my question is: what would it take? I think that because this attack is so calculated—at once obvious and unbelievable—that it may start a new line of conversation in Pakistan. Waziristan is one thing. Swat was a little different. But it seems like this attack in Lahore is putative (and that is not to downplay the tragedy and brutality of it, especially since Pakistanis protecting the Sri Lankan team bore the brunt of the casualties). It was designed solely as a signal to Pakistanis that, at least how the Taliban views the non-Taliban population’s priorities, there will be less and less that’s worth fighting for in Pakistan. That’s not to say that Pakistanis believe that or that Pakistan itself isn’t worth the battle. I’m just asking: if the Taliban is going to pursue this particular tactic, will Pakistanis view the situation as changing and push back harder than they have before? Or will they think of packing those bags?


Ahsan said...

You're right. BBQ Tonight is the last sacrosanct institution left in Pakistan that hasn't been targeted. Let's hope it stays that way.

On an unrelated note, I want a friggin chicken tikka.

Sarah said...

packing those bags.......considering how 3 commando vans just left the scene and the terrorists to go about doing whatever they want. Thank God the umpires survived. But the performance of the people responsible for security is abysmal and until we have sincere leadership, there is no hope. they have still not caught even one person.

Syed Pasha said...

Ahsan , I hope you got your chicken tikka and ate it too. Well in that case good for you.

One burning issue is, has Pakistan identified its enemy yet? If it can answer this question, then I am left with no doubt that Pakistan will be able to bring the perpetrators behind bars. Now that Indian angle has been ruled out, which off course you also had ruled out including a few others, I would love to see what Pakistan does now. Will it pursue the Taliban? JEM, LET etc? Remember the lunatics released in exchange for Khandahar hijack are still at large and the government has no clue where one of them is, I am sure you know who I am hinting at. Pakistan unfortunately will face up to its own creation. Remember even USA is facing its own bastardized creation in Al-qaeda now Pakistan with its tacit support to LET and JEM will face consequences. Very recently P Chidambaram said in an interview that you cannot ride on a tiger for long. The past actions will come to haunt Pakistan.

I always tell my friends in Pakistan that India is not your enemy but sadly most of them do not believe me.

hahaha said...


If BBQ Tonight was the last 'sacrosant institution' left in Pakistan, why didn't your blog make any mention of the shocking case of the wife who was taken from there and sexually assaulted just last month in your oh so liberal karachi?

These are the depths to which pakistans pathetic society have fallen - they deserve nothing more than what they are going to get.

Are your blogs confined to discussing just the attacks perpetrated by islamists the only ones to merit mention in your blog? Talk about anti-islam tunnel vision.

Your attitude is so typical. Bash LeT, JI, LeJ all you want, but know it is the failure of the morals of liberals like yourselves (or your complete lack of morals) that has allowed groups like LeT to thrive in pakistan.

Sanctity. haha - do you even know what it means?

Anonymous said...

People in pakistan love blaming somebody else. The sooner people stop screaming 'look, its the taliban boogeyman! stop them!' and reflect on their own role in the demise of pakistan, the sooner a real solution can be sought.

C.J said...

hahaha: It seems you are very angry and you are just looking for an argument.I just want to tell you that you are not doing your country any good by this personal attack and hurling insults on blogger.In fact, you appear as silly and laughable. I hope you know that there are no winners in a mud slinging contest.

Ray Lightning said...

The biggest test for Pakistan is how long the civilian government remains in control. If it completes its term, that will be a major achievement.

But who knows how much power the civilian government actually has, or if it is Zardari who is calling the shots !

Why do I find it not hard to believe that Zardari is just putting up a front, and the real show is being run by somebody else. The attack on the cricketers is probably a signal to that "somebody else" (substitute USA/CIA/Pak army) to tell who the Daddy is (Pak army/ Al Qaeda/ Nawaz Sharif/ Taliban).

One thing is clear, the situation is about turn into a civil war if the right deals are not reached and the right hands are not wet. And civil wars are very very messy.


If these guys in Pakistan end up in civil war, it will not be too long for our own asses to catch fire. For our own sake, let's pray for Pakistan.

Ahsan said...


I was shocked at the ineptitude of the security forces, and the arrangements more generally. The fact that police, rather than commandos, were in charge of guarding a sitting duck of a van boggles the mind.


I agree that Pakistanis love blaming other people for their problems, but I disagree that people are blaming the Taliban. There is little public outcry against the Taliban's goals and tactics, despite their escalation in the last 18 months. If there is a boogeyman for the average Pakistani, it is probably the U.S. or India, not the Taliban.


Zardari is very much in control. For now. And to correct your mistake, Mr. hahaha is not Indian, as you surmise. If he wants to clear up his identity, I am sure he will.

AKS said...

Sara, thank you for the insightful post.

There has been a steady exodus of people from Pakistan for decades and in fact it appears to have slowed down - primarily due to the fact that developed countries are welcoming fewer immigrants from this part of the world (Canada being the only exception).

In addition to this, the gulf states which had welcomed Pakistani workers are no longer inviting them and because they don't offer permanent residencies they are phasing out Pakistani workers through non-renewal of contracts.

As a result what you now find is that as things worsen the option of leaving the country is open to a select few (feudals and industrialists).

Going to BBQ Tonight doesn't scare me all that much, its McDonalds, KFC or Pizza Hut that I'm worried about. (These places will play better on tv!)

On a side note, I dropped SM to a hotel for a friend's wedding. As I was waiting to leave a heavily armed convoy (police, rangers and army!) entered the hotel and out stepped the dodgy Min for Ports and Shipping Babar Ghory, an MQM man and major beneficiary in Mush / Shaukat era. I think I must've called SM a dozen times asking if everything was okay.

People, no matter how paranoid they maybe, shouldn't be made to feel scared when attending their a friend's wedding.

@ anon 434

I think Ahsan's touched on this issue a few times over the recent weeks. Ordinary Pakistanis have little say in the manner in which this country is ruled and therefore it's harsh to really hold them responsible for the demise of the country. Moreover, your comments indicate that you imagine that everyone blaming the Taliban is deflecting blame away from Pakistan but that presupposes that all of us regard the Taliban as outsiders, which is certainly not the case - at least amongst the bloggers here.

The responsibility for Pakistan's demise lies with the forces that rule this land - the Army, Feudal / Tribal leaders, Industrialists and Bureaucracy (though the latter's role has faded significantly over recent years).

At the same time, the Pakistani obsession with bogeymen - Taliban / India / America / Israel, gives greater freedom to our rulers to act in their own interests and screw things up even more.

@ Ray

Zardari is so very much in control. Unfortunately, all he cares about is self preservation and his actions reflect that. I don't know why but when he came to power I thought that maybe he'd changed that maybe he'd seize the opportunity to create a positive political legacy; who was I kidding?!

AKS said...

Coming back to the last point about Zardari being in control, rumours are rife that he's had a tiff with the army and that martial law is imminent. Apparently, Zardari met with a couple of Kayani's juniors and informed certain people that he wanted to replace Kayani. This has irked the top khaki who met with the army's top brass and who have now decided to replace Zardari. With Imran Khan.

I have a hard time believing this, but God not Imran, please not him.

Tazeen said...

Imran Khan???

I mean Zardari is no angel but IK!!!!

Kalsoom said...

I agree that martial law is imminent, but I reallllly doubt they'll be putting Imran Khan in power. The guy may be popular among select constituents and among the glitzy, but he has no real power base. That's not likely to be a popular choice.

Ahsan said...

Relax guys, nothing's going to happen. If it's a rumor, it means it's untrue.