Wednesday, September 09, 2009

This Week's Puff Piece On Pakistan Is Proudly Brought To You By ABC News

We're all aware of the type. The report on Pakistan meant to show "the other side" of the country -- something unrelated to bombings and terrorism and Zardari's annoying fucking grin -- done by some well-meaning Western reporter, who is either (a) shocked to discover that Pakistan displays some cultural and social trends not keeping with his/her expectations, or (b) convinced that a few instances of something happening betray a larger trend, even though we all know the plural of anecdote is not data.

So there was a video piece on raves in Karachi, which I can't find the link for. There was the article in the NYT on students picking up trash to change the world. And then there was my personal favorite, the "ordinary people are rising against the Taliban with Facebook" piece.

You will notice that none of these pieces actually refer to "ordinary" Pakistanis in any way, but in fact the elite. Which is fine, because Western reporters can generally only speak English, and the only people who can speak (comprehensible to Westerners) English are the elite, so it would make sense for the two to meet over coffee on Zamzama. But let's not kid ourselves with the "ordinary" bit, shall we?

Anyway, via AfPak, we are told by ABC News -- gasp, shudder -- that there actually exist homosexuals in Pakistan. We are also told that being gay in Pakistan is difficult. Finally, we are told that some brave souls soldier on despite the perils of social and familial shunning. Ok, then.

To be fair, the ABC and NYTs of the world aren't writing for us, the people who already know all of this, but for the people in the West who ask questions like "Wait, you have cars there?" when they meet me. To that end, it makes sense that they would go for the most eye-catching stories, even if they speak to (and about) very small minorities of the population, be it ravers, beat-the-Taliban-with-Facebookers, or outed homosexuals. So again, I get it. It makes sense.

It's just that Pakistan is an enormously fascinating country, and I'm not just saying that because I'm from there. Western journalists often have opportunities denied to local reporters because of a lack of resources and/or access issues (very important people will gladly talk to the NYTs and Financial Times of the world, and will never divulge anything useful to the Jangs and Dawns of the world). So my plead would be: do something with those opportunities. Don't talk to me about the elite. Don't talk to me about drugs at parties, which we all know exist. It's not an important discovery.

There's plenty of things Western reporters could dedicate themselves to, that local reporers can't. How about we see an article on the urbanization of Pakistan, which has gathered apace in the last generation? How have these demographic trends affected the lives of the people actually moving, and the people staying behind? How about a piece on the roads-and-cable-and-cell phone explosion in the last ten years which have brought rural Pakistan closer to the rest of the country, both physically and metaphorically?

How about a really good profile piece -- I mean Gladwellian/Steve Collian type feature writing -- on Nawaz Sharif and the (apparent) changes in his political outlook? You know he'll talk to a Westerner. You know he will. I want to know what he was thinking the minute he heard BB died, after all they've been through. I want to know what he was thinking not allowing that plane to land in October, 1999. I want to know what happened in Saudi Arabia. I want to know what convinced him to get a hair transplant. I don't know any of this. I read three Pakistani papers every single day. There's an opportunity here.

Or what about a good, technical piece -- backed by energy experts from around the world -- on Pakistan's energy crisis, mixed with stories about the various irrigation projects (Kalabagh being the most famous one) falling prey to ethnic and regional divisions within the country? You don't think that would be more interesting, compelling and useful than "there are gays in Pakistan"?

I really don't mean to pile on these people. I like journalists. They help to, you know, keep me informed, and I like to be informed. It's just that I hate to see stuff from these big mainstream news organizations which no one cares about. They could do so much better.

By the way, the ABC piece had the greatest two opening sentences I've ever read.

It wasn't until she was 16 years old, when she'd left her Pashtun family in Peshawar for an elite school where the teachers were nuns, that Minot realized she was gay.

"I found out when I dated my literature teacher [a nun]," she said. "I got an A."


UPDATE/CORRECTION: I noticed the dateline on the piece, and it says June 1, 2009, so it is evidently not "this week's puff piece". I stand by my critiques and suggestions though.

19 comments:

saesneg said...

Dammit, *I* want to know about Sharif's hair transplant...

Sahar said...

I completely agree. If maybe for a few stories they stopped focusing on the violence they would be a little less shocked by the diversity that exists within Pakistani society. NPR did a great piece on Karachi for a week last summer (which I’m sure you’ve already heard/read): http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91083375
Western media needs to focus more on such topics, to keep us and themselves informed.

And well…I kind of what to know about Sharif’s hair transplant too…

Jman said...

HA. Gays in Pakistan. Of course it exists...After all its easier with men than it is women right! Plus it doesnt have to be full on even. It can be whilst wearing clothes even. :)

www.iwwwrite.blogspot.com ( A blog that does not believe in hair transplants)HA

Ahsan said...

Sahar:

I don't want journalists to stop focusing on violence in Pakistan, simply because Pakistan is a violent country. Pretending otherwise is silly.

But what I would like to see is fewer stories centered on the social and cultural norms of the elite, and more stories about the fabric of the nation at large. It's as if western journalists deal in two extremes -- suicide bombing stories and Facebook/drugs at parties stories. Nothing in the middle.

Nida Javed said...

It's so sad that even though American journalists have all these resources that Pakistani journalists don't, they don't have the audience that would appreciate an inside scoop on some of Pakistani politicians. It's like you said, an "average" American still has a non-existant image of Pakistan, so little things like "Oh, there are cars in Pakistan" "OMG, people DON'T live in trees in Pakistan", are news to them. This, I guess lack of knowledge, makes the stories about there being homosexuals in a country that's rumored to be breeding terrorists much more sensational than an actual informative, investigative piece on the culture/traditions/politicians of the country.

Checkmark P said...

Oh, you're just jealous!

I for one am all set for our intrepid Facebook laptop/macbook warriors to Tweet their way into Nobel Peace club before the end of the decade. ;)

Besides, don't you know there's no such thing as bad press?

Pak-Fan said...

"there are gays in Pakistan"

WHAAAATTT!! WHERE!??????

RUNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN!!!!!!!!!!!

Ahsan said...

Nida:

I think what I would like to see is a recalibration on the part of foreign journalists on who their audience is. It's like talking to a baby: if you treat them like idiots, they will become idiotic. If you treat them as intelligent beings, they will respond in kind. Newspapers and magazines should aim high.

Checkmark:

Hahaha. I think the "there is no such thing as bad press" line will come as news to most Pakistanis.

Pak-Fan:

If you were trying to be funny, you failed miserably. Your comment is stupid and insensitive.

Shayan said...

Bah. We know about parties and alternate lifestyles in Pakistan but viewers of these news organization don't. Plus, I'm sure Americans would be as uninterested in reading an investigative piece about the Pakistani power crisis as most in Pakistan would be in reading about Obama's healthcare battle. Which is why the Pakistani press only reports on the US domestic front when some college student goes apeshit and shoots a bunch of people and the American press reports on Pakistan when someone blows themselves up.

But once in a while, on that very rare occasion, you do get articles that would probably be more up your alley.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/23/magazine/23Women-t.html?scp=2&sq=kristof%20women%20pakistan&st=cse

I guess Kristof thought about you before writing his puff piece.

P.S. 'Happy and Gay' in Pakistan? **cringe**

Zubair Sheikh said...

Big Time Ahsan! i mean really western journalists should present the material in between the "suicide Bombings and "the elite". There are other things that fascinates western journalists, though rightly, for example Sufism in Pakistan which, again, is not a majority thing. Nicholas Schmidle writes a whole chapter about this topic in his book. It is not to say that these things should not be highlighted in western press, after there are people who really don't know about this stuff but as you said the fabric of society should be presented in a very balanced way.

Shayan said...

But on second thought, isn't this ABC piece exactly the kind of stuff you want to see from western media? Stuff that the Pakistani press won't or can't touch. I mean which of the three local newspapers you read has ever done an article on the lives of gays and lesbians in Pakistan? Plus I bet this article gave hope to a lot of closeted Pakistanis (if they read it)...

Kalsoom said...

They definitely could do so much better, but I still see the reasoning behind releasing a story like this. I think Nick could have done well highlighting further the stronger taboos surrounding being a gay woman versus being a gay man in Pakistan, and how that's a reflection of homosexuality everywhere.

What about a piece on being gay in Iran, especially since, you know, Ahmedinejad claims homosexuality doesn't exist there? That'll show him.

AKS said...

The main protagonist of the article, Minot, is full of herself, read this idiotic sentence:

"By the grace of God, if you're confident in this society, and you're open about your sexuality, people will come onto you more. I would say I'm the only woman I think in Pakistan who will talk openly. ... I'm probably the only woman in Pakistan who is confident in her sexuality."

The reporter's an idiot as well for not picking up on the contradictions present even in elite circles. For example, when speaking about Minot he states "Minot is an exception by Pakistani standards, her confidence created by a unique support network, a well-educated, wealthy, liberal family and friends who call themselves members of Lahore's elite, more open to Western values than the vast majority of Pakistanis." A little while later though he non-chalantly mentions "In Pashtun society, most people marry before they turn 20. Minot was engaged to one of her cousins, a common practice. "

Ahsan said...

Shayan:

I think Dawn could or would publish something like this. If you've been reading their website over the last six months or so, then you'll know they talk about similar (if not identical) stuff. Also, I am confident that the Heralds and Newslines of the world have done this at some point in the not too distant past.

Zubair:

To be honest, I don't mind the stuff on sufism as much. Maybe it's because of my own biases, but the articles on parties and what the urban elite do in their spare time simply isn't very interesting. But the way sufism has transformed over time, and grappled with overt political Islam in South Asia over the last 100 years or so, is quite interesting, even if it is applicable only to a minority of the population.

But I think we can both agree that these guys can write stuff that takes social-level stuff head on, without veering into discussions of bombings which they clearly want to avoid for these pieces.

Kalsoom:

I too see the reasoning behind this piece, as I said in the post. It's just that I don't like the reasoning. And if I recall correctly, I think there was a piece just like you mention on homosexuality in Iran a few months back but I can't find it.

AKS:

Come on dude, you're splitting hairs. He probably meant that her immediate family is conservative whereas the extended family/cousins she hangs around with in Lahore are liberal. That's hardly something to get annoyed about.

You're right on the ego on this Minot person though, judging her only by these statements (which in itself is sort of unfair).

Annie said...

arkh.

I think in some ways its easier to be gay in Pakistan. Sex, whether its between heterosexuals or homosexuals, just happens to be something which people are not comfortable discussing (the vast majority) so they let you be. Its considered to be a personal matter, a business which should be partaken behind doors. Apart from gossiping about em or maybe making fun of them, no one here will beat you up or cuss at you just cause you are a homo, whereas you come across such incidents in the West very commonly. Gay bashing is a serious issue there.

http://www.edgeboston.com/index.php?ch=news&sc=&sc2=news&sc3=&id=96120

http://www.cbc.ca/canada/ottawa/story/2009/08/19/ottawa-brosseau-memorial-ceremony.html

Over here, there's just a lot of starplus drama about every thing...

and yeah, on the risk of being redundant... Abc reporters, even if they want masalah news, could find so much more... How about transvestites?.. now they have issues of accpetability for sure...

Annie said...

Ahsan, (w.r.t to Pak fan comment)

Be a little more considerate towards the humor-challenged folks of this world. Atleast they are trying!.. *chuckle*

FZ said...

umm shoddy journalism...left out the most important detail....is she hot?

Butters said...

Bravo!

No fuss said...

I completely agree with everything, but the part where you say that English spoken only by the elite in Pakistan, is comprehensible to Western journalists. I definitely don't consider myself elite, and more than half of my associations are not. I think we can speak English well enough to communicate with a Western journalist or any Western individual for that matter. Your point is somewhat valid, but not entirely true i think. Maybe these journalists can target a pool of people in Pakistan, who though still a minority, don't fall under the elite group. I don't think it would be a daunting task.