Monday, May 30, 2011

VIEW: You Can’t Handle The Truth? —By Afrah Jamal

(Sequel coming NEXT hopefully)

Published in Daily Times / Monday, May 30, 2011

The guard is on edge. He sits up warily as a small car pulls up by the PAF Museum. But it is just some good Samaritans who hesitantly walk over to the stone slab to deposit a bouquet. The tribute is for the martyrs of the PNS Mehran tragedy who have given their lives protecting their base just a few hours earlier. The onlookers are moved. A media man leaps up with his camera.

This little show of solidarity came at a time when the Pakistani nation needs major reassurances. A handful of men who can storm a major naval aviation base, take out its main surveillance capability, inflict heavy casualties and hold up the entire garrison for more than 16 hours not only challenge the military’s omnipotent status, they play havoc with its image.

While this is not the first attack on Pakistan’s armed forces, it is the first of its kind. There is a wave of sympathy for the fallen, buried under an avalanche of criticism for the top brass. Not just because they failed to thwart the attack but because they mishandled its aftermath.

Military men generally avoid wasting time mourning; instead they show resilience, value discretion and do not welcome criticism. During such a crisis, they tend to close ranks. They are basically men of action. But after the PNS Mehran tragedy, they also need to be men of reason.

The Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC), said to be the highest national body on security-related issues, “expressed full confidence in the ability and the capacity of the armed forces and law-enforcement and intelligence agencies in meeting all threats to national security.” How nice. The media does not mirror their confidence.

Breaking into a military base is not supposed to be this easy. These places are heavily guarded at the best of times and in view of the deteriorating security situation remain on a near constant state of (yellow, orange and red) alert. The security around naval areas had been tightened further, especially since they seem to have been placed on a hit list since last month. The Navy’s procedures do not distinguish between visitors and residents. Even the pizza delivery guy’s privileges have been revoked.

While Pakistan’s military is putting up a brave face, the leadership is considering a pre-emptive strike policy against terrorist bases within Pakistan. But in their haste to assuage the public’s fears they have miscalculated the extent of their displeasure. For our military establishment, balancing ‘need to know’ with the public’s ‘right to know’ may be a new terrain but it needs to be conquered swiftly.

They can begin by admitting that it was a security lapse for a start. Even if it was not a SOP (Standard Operation Procedure) lapse, denying the breach ever occurred or shifting the responsibility on a fellow service men merely aggravates an already bad situation. The discrepancy in the number of attackers (oscillating between 6, 10 and 12) has added to the confusion.

Google Earth shows that PNS Mehran and PAF Faisal Base share a boundary wall. It is entirely possible that they came through the Faisal Base side but trying to pin the blame on a fellow service weakens all three. Engaging in blame games at such a critical juncture is counterproductive and what is worse, it makes the enemy very happy. There is a general consensus that this may have been an inside job besides being a massive intelligence failure.

The armed forces tend to live in a perpetual state of war and frequently undergo drills that recreate such scenarios. Some have adapted to the changing nature of warfare and utilise breaking in teams that envisage terrorist attacks, hostage taking, and suicide/car bombings during peacetime alongside enemy action by air raids during war. And yet, the walls were breached with frightening ease. What went wrong? Now, with the watchful eye of the media upon them, cover-ups would be unwise.

Meanwhile, people stand by helplessly as the foreign media terms this as a “brilliantly executed strike” that made the armed forces look “sadly amateur” (‘Unsafe Pakistan: Wishful thinking’, The Economist, May 26, 2011). They would like to set The Economist straight. Their only consolation is that by successfully rescuing the 17 foreign nationals, Pakistan narrowly avoided an international incident. But it is still a national tragedy.

The truth is that the attackers were neither better armed, nor better trained than the men they were confronting. Their sole advantage was that they had the element of surprise, had come prepared to inflict maximum damage, were on a one-way mission, and had darkness as an ally. Their prey, on the other hand, had to cover a large area while treading carefully lest they set off potential trip wires. Their job could not have been easy.

The commandos prevailed in the end but not before the terrorists had achieved their objective. Both the destroyed P-3C Orion patrol aircraft will be replaced. The loss to prestige will be harder to salvage from the wreckage. The military needs to rehabilitate its image. They need allies. For that all three services must be on the same page. Putting their house in order is the next logical step and while an inquiry will determine the extent of complicity, the way they handle this situation will shape the way Pakistanis perceive them in the future.

The plume of smoke was visible till 2am. Standing in front of the PAF Museum gate less than 24 hours later one cannot see any sign of the mayhem. But everything has changed. The guard, having given the harmless bunch of flowers a thorough once over has returned to his post. After today, nothing can be taken for granted.

Images by Afrah Jamal

Saturday, May 14, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Invitation

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, May 14, 2011

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Author: Shehryar Fazli

“Cabarets, conspiracies and a couple of crazies.” It is the early 1970s and Pakistan is in transition. The air crackles with energy; the land sizzles with intrigue. The significance of this time will not be lost upon readers. Islamists were still searching for a foothold; democracy beckoned; and Pakistan was about to lose its East Wing.

Anyone casually trawling through the streets of Karachi now will find little trace of its once vibrant nightlife. Back then it was not a ‘safe haven’ — just a haven.

Shehryar Fazli’s generation may have missed the excitement but his protagonist will return to his native country — and land atop a pit of vipers. It will be a fraught homecoming.

The author thinks the nation has yet to get over what happened in December 1971. He feels connected to this juncture in time as a moment when Pakistan could have gone a different way — and that they let this opportunity slip away.

Here are the building blocks of an epic. Here are the makings of a tragedy.

His protagonist, a newcomer to the city, is flawed and unsympathetic, the secondary players’ claim to moral high ground is laughable and the situation is dire. A novel set in pre-prohibition Pakistan lends itself to a wider array of possibilities. A glorious chapter in our history was drawing to a close. And the coming days would transform the landscape. Some beloved landmarks and attractions (Mayfair the open air theatre, trams, cycle-rickshaws) as Asif Noorani observed in an article ‘Saddar of the fifties and sixties’ had already vanished before the onset of the 1960s. The rest, like floor shows and bars, were near extinction.

The end was near.

The story opens with Shahbaz, back from exile to settle a property dispute on the eve of democracy where he befriends one Ghulam Hussain — a Bengali taxi driver. He traverses the seedy underbelly of Paris and later Karachi. Along the way he encounters an eccentric aunt, Apa — a crusty old lady (who, he admits is straight out of real life), a shady (retired) Brigadier — who happens to be Z A Bhutto’s crony, an obliging escort and two goons from the Jamaat-e-Islami (the same)!

He will make a rash promise to Ghulam Hussain, willingly enter the rabbit hole and form alliances of convenience. Here bitter regret is an unmistakable subtext; with that a heightened sense of dread mixed in with euphoria.

Fazli admits that there are three Karachis: one that has survived, one that he never saw and one that crept through the backdoor while he was time travelling to the early 1970s. Through this mix of historical fact with fiction, he still hopes to have captured the spirit of the time. Despite some inaccuracies, he insists that the outrageous cabaret scene is a faithful representation.

Invitation has been described by Kamila Shamsie as Karachi-Noir — a term that Fazli concedes adequately represents the desolate moral landscape. Those who lived through these times are in for an uncomfortable reunion with their past selves. Fazli chooses to focus on the ugly rather than the beautiful by casting Shahbaz as a co-conspirator instead of a detached observer. Despite the occasional moments of levity, the characters are humourless and trapped in limbo.

Through Shahbaz, Shehryar can barge into areas where conservative writers fear to tread, riding roughshod over cultural sensitivities. He defends his choice of using explicitness as a tool to explore characters, claiming that unlike others, “he would have felt awkward ignoring this aspect of life”, adding that avoiding it would have meant leaving a “literature with gaps”. Shahbaz’s free and easy lifestyle that leaves little to the imagination raises some questions in the reader’s mind. “I am compelled in this company to say that this is not an autobiographical book,” was the author’s sheepish reply. Making the main character a cad is a bold move but in spite of the author’s claim, the book could have done without the crudity.


This is Shehryar Fazli’s debut novel and in this case one can judge a book by its cover. The image of a cabaret dancer’s torso says it all. Invitation is an audacious attempt to lure readers away from the darkness and send them hurtling towards oblivion. Like Shahbaz, they will walk away from this experience forever changed.

Tranquebar; Pp 385; Rs 995