Saturday, December 25, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Beautiful From this Angle

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal
Author: Maha Khan Phillips
Published in Daily Times / Saturday, December 25, 2010 /
Under the Title: Couture served with a side of scandal

Attend a decadent party in the city, document a rural tragedy and dupe a bunch of “angrez” — it is all in a day’s work for the characters created by Maha Khan Phillips. Her debut novel features Pakistan dressed up in couture and served with a side of scandal. This is fiction based on (rarely acknowledged) facts that alternates between rural and urban settings — merrily creating waves in one and unabashedly finding dirt in the other. Using such a varied palette enables her to draw on a wide range of complex themes that are useful in expanding the stage, which looks like a catwalk in the beginning.

The writer takes present day Pakistan — a hub of violence and an increasingly misunderstood region — and draws a composite that will jolt, repel, confound and overwhelm. She has embedded an unvarnished account of Karachi’s nightlife complete with the underground party scene and all that it entails, within a narrative that lures the curiosity seekers but stirs things around to force more urgent issues to the fore. She will also tiptoe past the political underbelly and, at the same time, hit all the notes in vogue — from the mullah and military to fundamentalism and feudalism. Somewhere in this mix are the privileged, happily settled on an oasis of calm, and the poor, living off their scraps.

Her principal character, Amynah, pens a (delightfully indiscreet) gossip column, ‘Party Queen on the Scene’, that “dishes the dirt on the bold, the beautiful and the downright ugly” while trying to come up with a (truly dreadful) “oppressed woman’s novel”. One of Amynah’s cronies has been reeled in by some Englishman and asked to set up a “mock Islamic terrorist training camp on the Waziristan border for Z-list English celebrities” for ‘Who Wants to be a Terrorist’ — a campy reality show for London’s Channel 4.

Monty Mohsin, the smarmy celebrity producer would be aware of the perils of sending wannabe terrorists to the heart of terror land in real life. The fictional world is supposedly operating under the same constraints. But, in the book, duplicity is the name of the (media) game, mastered to perfection on both sides of the fence where the Montys of this world always have a solution. Meanwhile, the oppressed woman is wending her way through the narrative guided by the “Party Queen’s” best friends. The situations depicted here are inspired by real life but taken to ridiculous extremes. Still, the writer makes this ludicrous sounding premise look and sound utterly convincing.

Since Maha provides access to an exclusive club after taking away the filters generally used whenever Pakistan is mentioned, the book is a bold and irreverent trek through (traditionally) forbidden territory that, at times, can be uncomfortable to watch. The book does not bother with niceties and maintains a ceaseless stream of mordant wit to take down whatever or whoever gets in the way. A lot of innocent (and some not so innocent) bystanders get in the line of fire; socialites who hide Marie biscuits in Marks and Spencer tins to serve to “folks who don’t know the difference”, journalists dressed for combat who lap up horror stories about this region and have an exaggerated sense of danger and, finally, the West’s rallying cry for “find that Osama” and the locals who join in the chorus hoping to make a buck.

For all the clever plotting, it is stifling to be in the company of these characters and difficult to root for their success. Set against a backdrop of violence, Beautiful From This Angle is a blunt instrument that silently mocks the culture of benign neglect. Its breezy prose evokes gallows humour, its glossy finish tries to cover up the bitter aftertaste. It does not play safe, nor does it care to conform.

This is a small book that moves at a frantic pace and mines the countryside for every bit of local colour that can challenge stereotypes and yet still convey that keen sense of danger that has become a part of everyday life. Sensitive readers would be appalled by the language — profanity, like drugs and alcohol, flows freely, and some of these characters will happily check little things like morals and integrity at the door. This will give those Karachiites who go through life wearing blinders or blindfolds (or both) a severe culture shock. The jaded, however, might appreciate the candour.

For Maha Khan Phillips, completing the novel was a course requirement from City University London. Since then she has penned a children’s novel The Mystery of the Aagnee Ruby. Beautiful From This Angle may not speak to everyone but it knows how to make an entrance.

Penguin; Pp 240; Rs 495

2 Pix from Liberty Books/Sarah Haris's Fb Page

Saturday, December 11, 2010

VIEW: Houbara Bustards: dead birds walking? — Afrah Jamal

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, December 11, 2010
Published in SHE Magazine Jan 2011

Experts disagree over the exact date when the houbara bustard might join the ranks of the spectacled cormorant, caspian tiger and woolly rhinoceros — but most agree that it is probably headed that way. The houbara has been projected as an aphrodisiac — endangered, protected, doomed — in need of conservation and on the fast track towards extinction. Because, come winter, when Pakistan gets ready to host one class of migratory birds, it also prepares to welcome several dignitaries from neighbouring Arab countries. The houbara comes for the climate; the Arabs come for the houbara. Armed with permits and falcons, visiting Arabs proceed to hunt in designated areas and, if tabloids are to be believed, their sole interest in the sport lies in what the poor bird’s meat contains and not the hunt itself. The tabloids would be surprised to learn that while the royal hunters’ main motivation is the thrill of the sport, the houbara’s preservation is also their major concern. As for the aphrodisiac part, it is not true.

The houbara is under attack on multiple fronts. The birds are endangered not just because of falconry but also due to domestic abuse (illegal netting, trapping and poaching) as well as natural causes. In the netting, trapping and shooting of game birds, the odds are heavily stacked against the prey while the opposite is true in falconry. Only a very agile and well-trained falcon can take down a houbara, which has a better than even chance to escape unscathed. It is this challenge that has made falconry a noble sport, fit for royalty. The houbara may be many things — it is moody, scares easily and is picky about mates (takes three to five years to settle down again). And yes, it is coveted as a game bird, but the hunters vehemently deny that the bird is sought after for its alleged aphrodisiac properties, insisting that for them falconry is more than a sport — it is tradition.

Recently, a very small passage in a local daily was devoted to the environment and wildlife conservation efforts in Pakistan on the UAE’s 39th anniversary on December 2, 2010 that quoted HH Sheikh Zayed (President of the UAE) as saying, “Whatever we take from nature, we return to nature.” The negative aspects of the hunt get annual coverage but the UAE would, for once, like to highlight the positives, beginning with their role in conservation.

According to a report, the UAE is the first country to have initiated measures to protect the endangered houbara bustard; hunting may be their passion but conservation is their foremost concern. If the houbara bustard becomes extinct, their centuries old lifestyle dies with it and they see themselves as one of the principal stakeholders in ensuring survival of the species.

That the houbara has been hunted to extinction in their homeland — the deserts of Arabia — make them empathise with their hosts. The UAE government is funding studies to successfully breed houbaras in captivity and overseeing efforts to have them released in the wild. They have established an ultramodern houbara breeding facility in their own country where houbara chicks are raised and later released into the wild, validating their leader’s claim. Besides, in a conscious effort to conserve the houbara population and prevent over-hunting, the royal dignitaries ensure that the number of hunting teams accompanying the entourage is limited and each hunting party is given a small quota of birds that they cannot exceed during the entire season.

The UAE dignitaries who visit Pakistan for falconry spend a colossal amount of money during their stay. What may appear as frivolous expenditure actually helps stimulate the local economy of one of the poorer regions of Pakistan. They have made sizeable investments in social welfare projects like housing schemes, hospitals and communication networks besides providing other facilities in places like Rahimyar Khan, Larkana and Cholistan, which are their annual haunts.

Some conservationists stock up on ammunition using bleak statistics, hoping to jolt the government of Pakistan into action and persuade hunters to give up their vocation. The same reports paint the Arabs as reckless, indifferent, inconsiderate and above the law. If such tirades continue, the UAE royals will take their hunt elsewhere. UAE, which has been described as “the single largest investor in Pakistan”, has deep ties to the land and its people and their annual trek is out of love for the host country as much as their fondness for the sport. For years, they have roughed it out in the desert, shared their kills with the locals and, of course, brought in much needed revenue — a lot of it. For them, the allure lies in being able to relive the Bedouin lifestyle and stay in touch with their roots.


While the UAE has taken concrete steps to preserve and promote the houbara bustard population, Pakistan must continue to ensure that laws that ban illegal hunting and trapping are strictly implemented. Or else, the houbaras are dead birds walking.

Images taken from
http://image02.webshots.com/2/0/91/20/167909120BLnYkK_fs.jpg
http://desertislands.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/155048houbara.jpg