Saturday, March 27, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Cutting Edge PAF: A Former Air Chief’s Reminiscences of a Developing Air Force (2010) By Air Chief Marshal (R) M Anwar Shamim

Update: ACM (R) Anwar Shamim passed away on 04 Jan 2013 after a prolonged illness

Thanks to Kaiser Tufail for the review copy

Published in Daily Times 27 Mar 2010

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Of late, there have been numerous occasions to visit the hallways of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) history. Pioneers adorn the walls while historians glower from a corner, trying to reconstruct these men’s stories. Men who went up in a blaze of glory, men who left a trail of controversy, and men who went on to lead quiet lives in the suburbs, they are all in there somewhere. Missteps aside, each of them contributed towards making the air force what it is today.

Written under duress, the Air Chief Marshal buckled under his daughter’s pressure and broke his silence about life in the PAF. The title suggests that his autobiography focuses more on the professional achievements of the service than the controversial aspects of his tenure. However, the slew of allegations and ‘bizarre rumours’ about him and his wife have been duly addressed at the end.

The tone is circumspect; the prose is simple; and the story follows the evolutionary path of a PAF initially composed of 222 officers and 2,342 airmen moulded into a cutting edge force that became the pride of the nation and the talk of the town. He commanded 33 Fighter Wing during the 1965 War, served as Air Adviser to His Majesty King Hussein Bin Talal, planning and developing a modern Jordanian Air Force, and rose to become the second longest-serving PAF chief in 1978.

Cutting Edge PAF is divided into pre-war reminiscences and post-war contributions of the man who helped shape a modern air force. It is also about the vicissitudes of life experienced as a young air force officer and the boy who was first to go solo from No 2 University Air Squadron, the graduate from Royal Australian Air Force College, Point Cook, raving about the Aussie way — their honesty, cleanliness and habit of giving host teams a thundering good time one day before a match — and the pilot who ferried a fleet of F-86s from Paris to Karachi only to make a harrowing discovery near Rome that the air traffic controller’s knowledge extended to just two words, ‘Continue approach’!

An analysis of both wars is embedded within to complete the look of a period piece. Mostly, it serves as a platform to restore his image as a forward-thinking leader with the foresight to choose F-16s for Kahuta — indefensible and eight minutes away from the PAF, but only three minutes ride from the IAF. A man credited with three Tactical Commands, thus decentralising tactical operations, one ‘Institute of Air Safety’ that trained Air Safety Specialists, seven ‘Jet Stream’ exercises in seven years designed to test preparedness, which also laid the seed of inter-services cooperation and a nine hole golf course in every base, leading the PAF to become inter-services champs in 1980.

Sound investments — all of them, yes, even the golf courses.

This impressive list of achievements can only be rivalled by an equally formidable string of allegations that plagued his career. Stigmas are easily attached and impossible to remove. The writer tries nevertheless.

His book reproaches Defence Journal for pitting a Group Captain against his Air Chief by allowing Cecil Chaudhry’s views to be aired without investigation and wonders at the PAF for letting them go unchallenged. He attaches an excerpt from Profiles of Intelligence by Brigadier Syed Ali Tirmizi (1995), which gives a new twist to the story, bringing up Cecil Chaudhry’s links with the Soviets. He cites the ‘Legion of Merit’ given by the US government as proof against drug conspiracy charges and describes the foolproof process of Foreign Military Sales (FMS) to counter the kickback story where he saved, not cost, his country millions.


He also goes to great lengths to clear his wife’s name. Ms Tahira Shamim is said to have revamped the entire Pakistan Air Force Women’s Association (PAFWA) on modern managerial lines and started the Mujahida Academy, now affiliated with the Air University. He attributes suggestions of impropriety to natural prejudice against women taking initiatives at a time when it was not fashionable. A neat explanation — a little too neat some might say.

This carefully drawn sketch is set to dazzle. And in this group portrait, incidents have been arranged to showcase not just the expanding firepower and might of the service but also the initiative and ability of its officers — one in particular — Anwar Shamim, who as the Air Chief took on the challenge of absorbing F-16s in one year when the usual timeframe was three; who claims his testimony as a witness during the PAF witch-hunts got several innocents off the hook; and whose stories of command decisions range from improving the morale of his men where needed to fixing the discipline within ranks when required — like the uppity airman on probation who started walking when ordered to double march and took to running when told to halt.

Past familiar landmarks of history, through corridors of power lies the room where policies are made, decisions are taken and fates are sealed. Cutting Edge PAF provides an engrossing look at the duties of the air board, functions of the AHQ, etc., during the transformative phase of a service striving hard to achieve a higher state of operational readiness. The book shines a blinding light on the good, hoping to banish the bad and the ugly. And it works. For a while. Cutting Edge PAF is due out by April 2010.

Images Courtesy of: http://37.img.v4.skyrock.net/4263/27134263/pics/819960199.jpg

http://37.img.v4.skyrock.net/4263/27134263/pics/819960199.jpg

Saturday, March 20, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Karachiwala: A Subcontinent Within A City / Author: Rumana Husain

Published in Daily Times / March 20, 2010

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

A small fishing village from 1838 emerges as a major cosmopolitan city 100 years later and becomes the fastest growing city of the world by 2010. Karachi’s rapidly changing skyline denotes visible signs of progress whereas its prominence in the global marketplace is a clear indication of its rising stature. Beyond the smog-filled sky, ongoing construction, law and (dis)order and political divide lies the gateway to the real Karachi and its key can be found somewhere among the settlements.

Most of us have sketchy knowledge of exactly how many ethnicities reside in a city that has a tradition of hosting migrant communities ever since 1947. For many, the happily ever after had ended by the late 1970s. It is difficult, nay impossible, to ignore the fact that the idea of diversity has since been wedded to discord and its once cherished ethnic heritage has been upstaged by ethnic strife. Over the years, the city of lights has gone through numerous makeovers — some less flattering than others. Karachi is in a continuous state of upheaval and artist/author/illustrator Rumana Husain hastens to capture its original spirit with an ambitious project called Karachiwala: A Subcontinent Within A City.

Karachiwala features over 60 families/groups/individuals and over 600 images, all catalogued according to ethnicity, race, religion, caste, community, place of origin, tribe, profession, etc. By bringing bit players that are mere blurs in our rear view mirror in focus, the writer identifies individual strands in a fusion of cultures that gives Karachi that vivid character. Letting these veritable unknowns take the lead in their own modest little narrative makes Karachiwala so much more endearing.

The result is a fascinating montage where the butcher, the tailor and sweetmeat maker take their place right besides white/blue collar workers, and the more affluent members of society alongside communities like the Jews that have since vanished but left their imprint in the form of Karachi’s historic architecture. We see people who have now become estranged from their roots, right next to communities who proudly hold fast to traditions. There are the Bene Israeli who once resided in Karachi (some lived on Manora island), the Punjabi Protestants, or Goan Catholics who still do, or slaves from East Africa now referred to as the Sheedi community — an Indian ethnic group of black African descent, who by drum beats and dhammal revert to their African heritage during the Mangopir mela (crocodile festival).

While lineage is the primary theme, their life story is equally important. Survivors of abject poverty show up from time to time, along with neglected artisans like Mir Allam (traditional musician) from Aligarh, UP, struggling to preserve their legacy, the heavily exploited Banarasi handloom weaver, from where else but Banaras, and four runaway children who continue to dream big while condemned to a life on the streets.

This Karachi startles with its sheer scale of diversity, inspires by the resilience of its downtrodden and forsaken, and mesmerises with details of inner city life seen through the eyes of its oldest residents. It also saddens by bringing to the fore a shared feeling of insecurity that permeates across different sects, forcing some non-Muslims to blend in rather than stand out. One commendable thing about Karachiwala is how it has given the marginalised communities an identity, a venue to tell their story and a more fitting epitaph than the one prepared by society.

It painstakingly details each ritual and custom, covering weddings, births, deaths, festivals, dialects, beliefs, food, dress, and the general lifestyle. During her research, the writer uncovers superstitions and legends, like the significance of the red dress among the Kathiawadi women that continue to have a mysterious hold over some. The accompanying photographs and general design with clever little maps make this collection a visual treat. Added details like favourite recipes and essays by notable personalities like Zubeida Mustafa, S Akbar Zaidi, Luthfullah Khan, etc., have been included at the end.

It could not have been easy to get access to some of these places. The writer conceded at Karachiwala’s launch that not everyone was happy with the notion of letting a stranger in. If traversing the length and breadth of the city was a challenge, getting through people’s inbuilt walls of resistance was also a hurdle. Besides, documenting the entire city would have been a massive undertaking. While the writer does not claim to have captured every single ethnicity, she still managed to amass an amazing collection of stories and has done most of the photography. For an amateur photographer, she has done an amazing job and there are several phenomenal pictures for every blurry exception.

Karachiwala will change the way readers view their environs and its people. Priced at nearly Rs 3,000, it may be considered steep by some standards but it is roughly the cost of three large pizzas, mandatory visits to that upscale bakery or one Khaddi bag. And, some would say, a far more sensible investment. This simple little coffee table book has commuted the sentence of several extraordinary cultures otherwise doomed to disappear and that can now take their rightful place in history.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Al Qaeda Connection / Author: Imtiaz Gul

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Thanks to Imtiaz Gul for Reposting the Review on his Webpage

Published in Daily Times /March 13, 2010

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

An updated/revised version of this book that includes data from March 2009-2010 will be available from June 2010 under the new title of "The Most Dangerous Place - Pakistan's lawless frontier."

Today, the landscape has been transformed into a hunting ground as the showdown between the military and militants gets underway and retaliatory strikes against the public intensify. While attempting to curb insurgency within its borders, Pakistan’s security forces have been accused of stage-managing militant outfits that once served as counterweights against traditional enemies. Never disarmed, and left unguided, these heat-seeking entities latched on to a new target.

Ever since the region tested positive for militancy post-9/11, there has been a lack of consensus regarding, well, just about everything. Many continue to seek alternative explanations to justify the raging insurgency. The ISI is considered guilty by association, because the writer believes the stigma of abetting terrorist groups is deep and would require more effort to remove, but foreign hands, rogue agencies, duplicitous governments and a global conspiracy to defang the nation of its nuclear assets are equally popular theories.

Imtiaz Gul has authored The Unholy Nexus: Afghan Pakistan Relations under the Taliban Militia (July 2002). As a journalist who spent years analysing these troubled regions, Imtiaz Gul is uniquely qualified to analyse militancy from a number of directions, juxtaposing an open declaration of war through violence that bears the hallmarks of al Qaeda with the faint murmurings of unrest seen in sporadic instances of sectarian violence, led by homegrown militant outfits.

These groups go as far back as the anti-Soviet jihad, only to evolve into lethal sectarian entities with a little prodding by some Muslim countries. This book attempts to put the ongoing insurgency in perspective, taking on standard W's — what, who, where, why and when. It is a chilling look back at a state silently engaged in breeding the likes of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), etc., organisations already involved in 350 counts of terrorism by the year 2001, and a look forward at a Pakistan in the throes of a full-fledged militancy.

Before laying the entire blame at the military’s doorstep, readers come across an interesting revelation where the civilian government of Bhutto (mid-1970s) decided to recruit dissident Afghans to use against a Kabul that was favouring the ‘godless’ Soviet Union (page 18). Imtiaz Gul marks this as the turning point that led Pakistan’s “semi-autonomous tribal areas to become a spring board and training ground for Afghan dissidents.

He goes on to explain why ‘al Qaeda central’ — Pakistan’s tribal areas — earned the unfortunate name and returns to the scarred landscape to determine that “the current turmoil stems from decades of neglect, political expediency and connivance and complacence of successive Pakistani governments.” He also confronts the ugly face of sectarian violence that had turned sub-districts of Jhang and Faisalabad into battlegrounds with “sniper and terrorist attacks” in the 1990s and examines the presence of banned organisations once active in Kashmir, in the tribal areas.

He follows the dissolution of Swat (local Switzerland) into a milder version of Auschwitz, as Taliban rule gained traction, examines the factors that led North and South Waziristan and Bajaur to become havens the second time around since they had served as staging posts once before, while commenting on regions that slowly became no-go areas for their own kind, e.g. Orakzai’s former governor, ANP members, etc.

In a chapter titled ‘Tribal Lands: Cauldrons of Militancy’, he explores the metamorphosis of al Qaeda from an organisation to an ideology that transcends borders. About FATA he opines that history, ideology, conservatism and socio-political alliances all combined to transform the border regions into sanctuaries. There is a tragic irony in the fact that regions deemed inhospitable for their own countrymen have been more than hospitable to visiting enemies of the state.

This remarkably well-researched account comes with a detailed who’s who of militants in FATA, profiles of militant organisations, alongside a revealing look at life in Taliban strongholds like Khyber, Orakzai, Bajaur (birthplace of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) — forerunner to the Pakistani Taliban). In the ‘ISI factor’, interviews with locals and a survey conducted for Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) demonstrate how Muslim separatists from across the border were openly trained in FATA and ‘Pakistani-administrated Kashmir’ as recently as March 15, 2004. Such findings bolster international suspicions. According to the writer, locals are equally baffled by ISI’s inability to rein in its progeny and allowing them to gain ground.

A chapter devoted to militant funding tries to trace possible sources of income and reveals the indirect support by donor money routed through the Pakistan government that ends up with militants as ransom money or to fund agreements aimed at peaceful coexistence.

The book also covers the phenomena of suicide bombings — the militants’ favourite MO, showing how they troll orphanages, mosques, seminaries, asylums and streets looking for recruits, especially in areas “devoid of basic facilities, poor education infrastructure, dismal employment opportunities” making “the tribal areas [an] ideal hunting ground of Islamic militants for young warriors.”

An unfettered access to facts and figures enables readers to not only deconstruct the last four decades but also confront the ghosts of a rarely acknowledged past. His research is highly relevant — and disturbing — given the staggering cost of this war and the misguided policies that have allowed militants to become so well entrenched. Anyone who tells Pakistan to “do more” should be presented with a copy of The Al Qaeda Connection, if only to appreciate the enormity of the challenge and the complexity of the situation.

Images Courtesy of: http://occupycorporatism.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Many-Currencies.jpg

http://centralasiaonline.com/shared/images/2010/03/17/PakWaziristan.jpg

Saturday, March 6, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: What If By K Yousaf

Thank you Hira M. Ahmed for the review copy.

Published in Daily Times / 6 March 2010

REVIEWED by: Afrah Jamal

It is the end of the world. Or so it appears to the disaffected, disenchanted and disenfranchised youth caught up in an endless cycle of confusion, tormented by a myriad of real and imaginary problems and terrified by the prospect of rejection. Unfortunately for them, life has plenty of curve balls in store and each generation gets its fair share. Here, we have a fairly typical high school/college/university experience presented in high definition (HD) format — that attempts to explore the dual identities carried by the new generation of young Pakistanis, a generation secure in its new found freedom but also confronting an immovable and cunningly designed wall of resistance put up by traditionalists.

The theme is simple. The setting could be anywhere. In this book, it is Islamabad seen through the eyes of one music aficionado, Asad, a newbie at his university and an outsider in his group. The story follows the lives of an unremarkable foursome, busy confronting their everyday demons with characteristic angst. There are no marks for guessing what a bunch of college going kids brood about. No, it is not world peace.

In the story, an emotionally fragile front man takes centre stage, his friends arrive on cue and assume positions as best friend, hostile competition, unattainable partner, the player, the one and so on and so forth — not necessarily in that order. Our hero will spend 325 pages pining away for the one. The one will evade capture for the remainder of the story. The readers will spend half that time trying to place the university and the other half trying to recognise the characters. With a little digging, they might even get there in this superficial world occupied by avatars, who are playing themselves very convincingly, trapped as they are in a quirky reality. This whimsical tale of love and loss is a first person narrative and has been populated with recognisable characters, familiar themes and forgettable moments. A desi version of ‘90210’ (old and new), sans fast cars, where the club scene has been replaced by dance offs courtesy of local vanity fairs (weddings), the glitz and the glamour has been toned down and the impetuous youth sport a more sedate appearance, belying their true proclivities. Nevertheless, some situations will raise conservative eyebrows. Just how accurate is this depiction of liberal minded young Pakistanis? Pretty accurate says a former student, much to the dismay of listening adults.

While parts of the book veer off to explore the inner mechanics of a student’s life — most of it comes across as a Roman clef slash diary slash exposé of a lovelorn young man — subsequently, it is rough around the edges, leaving a trail of false notes in its wake. The plot picks up from one of many patterns lying around in our lives — patterns that are recurring, patterns that will resonate with the young and the restless, patterns that are frequently recycled to have a contemporary feel. One comes across permutations of such patterns every day without committing them to paper.

The problem with some first time novelists is that they tend to ‘paint by numbers’. It may be a ploy to give that authentic look and feel. It can also be terribly restrictive, leaving a range of complex emotions unexplored when a steadily flowing stream of words struggle to reach shore. What If is the author’s first attempt, and it is brimming with the inexperience of youth. And some will think that is okay. Writers must start somewhere. What is not okay is that the book has been compared to JD Salinger’s internationally acclaimed Catcher In The Rye (1952), a book that, according to the New York Times, caused a sensation upon publication, “with its very first sentence, it introduced a brand-new voice in American writing and it quickly became a cult book, a rite of passage for the brainy and disaffected”. Given Catcher’s impact and the fact that it earned a place in TIMES 100 best English language novels, it is understandable if, somewhere, a recently deceased Salinger rolled over in his grave.

Apparently, this comparison was based on style (both books play with monologue/slang) and not substance. Putting What If next to Catcher in the Rye is sure to backfire and, instead of the right publicity, will invite a lot of unnecessary and harsh commentary. Like this one.

The writer may or may not have been subconsciously channelling Salinger. Who knows? Salinger resisted with all his might. So let us just call it what it is. A celebratory look at the heady lives of young Pakistanis, that might reach across campuses to speak to a milieu of conflicted men and women — which appears to be the intended audience. Does it have commercial appeal? Perhaps. Can it prevent more Asad clones from springing up all over campus grounds? No. And finally, should debut novels be put through the ringer before they hit the market? Most definitely, yes. For now, What If, K Yousaf’s first book can be ordered from Amazon.com and will be available in Pakistan soon. The writer can be contacted on his Facebook fan page, and a kinder review will be found at the back of the book.