Monday, December 31, 2012

VIEW: A (Deep) State of Denial

First Published in Daily Times / 31 Dec 2012 (Monday)

By: Afrah Jamal

Thank you to the folks interested in publishing this in Urdu


Hapless polio teams are in the crosshair of extremists and people have come up with their own theories to explain the presence of health workers in the montage of violence. If a polio team does not reach any home, the residents can call a number and let them know. Many houses were left wondering about the fate of the drive this year after the three-day carnage that claimed nine lives, six of them women. A maulana on the media attributes the sudden spike in polio-related violence to government. More polio means more $$, he hisses confidentially. Twitter-sphere assigns the subsequent instability to the dreaded ‘deep state’.



According to them, it can sacrifice anything and anyone on the altar of national interest or in this case — the lure of more dollars. Every ‘whodunit’ begins or ends with a deep state cameo. Apparently, their interference is legendary, as is their fondness for nation (re)building.

Admittedly, regular matches of political chess are the deep state’s forte. One familiar move is assigning instant stardom to unknowns who then threaten to pull million man marches on the capital city come January 2013. The motive can be anything from putting wayward governments in place to checking the ambitions of an unpopular opponent who has been around the block one too many times already. Ergo, all those raised eyebrows, hushed whispers, and an inexplicable desire to herd the nation’s premier spy agency with the nation’s leading terror group.


On the one hand, the United States is charged with destabilising its ally to take away its nukes. On the other, the ‘establishment’ is accused of meddling with law and order to keep the bogey of terrorism alive and well. Never mind that such antics drive Pakistan closer to earning the elusive failed state award. Then the ‘hidden hands’ are summoned to take the fall for air base attacks because the infiltrators prefer flashy gear or sport fancy markings that tie them to our agencies of choice. Foreign agencies really need to rethink those neon signs that always give away their agents.

Remember Conan Doyle’s famous adage, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” All of these scenarios are improbable but not impossible. All this time spent detecting energy signatures of foreign entities is counter-productive for the national interest but excellent for extremist propaganda.

The war has taken a dangerous turn. A future where the WHO packs up and flees, and a blanket travel ban is imposed on Pakistani citizens, leaving Pakistan vulnerable and isolated from the world, puts the nation, deep state included, in some deep trouble. The loss of prestige and plunging credibility would outweigh any perceived gains, but now as before, when looking for culprits, the line up is composed of a motley crew of agencies, allies and rogue organisations.

The Taliban have been linked to many questionable activities in the past. Whether it is schools, universities, mosques, military installations, government buildings, popular resorts, political rallies or targeted assassinations, they have been busy since January 2007. Nine times out of ten, they have admitted their involvement. Half the time, people have contorted the facts around imaginative explanations of their own to justify the slide to oblivion. This is a rare case where ceding ground to the deep state or the long line of potential suspects somehow gives their cause more traction. There can be no better diversion than to have the people forever searching the pile of wrecked dreams for their favourite motif of hidden hands.

That extremists are now giving healthcare as well as the arts and literacy their personal attention is hardly surprising. With the fear of an ‘Afridi-esque’ (alleged CIA doctor-agent) inspired drive still hanging in the air, the possibility of a health worker accidentally stumbling upon their widespread network must be giving them sleepless nights.


Given Karachi’s growing instability and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s fast deteriorating security, the dream of a polio-free Pakistan will have to wait. The UN has suspended vaccination drives for now. Given that Pakistan is one of three nations yet to eradicate the scourge of polio, the future of an entire generation hangs in the balance. The brave volunteers who ventured out without any armed escort could not have known they were on the frontline of terror. Not after hearing stories about warring nations like Sudan that agreed to a ceasefire to ensure the safety of such drives, or knowing that their work went on even in a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan.

Dr Shakeel Afridi’s actions that led to Osama bin Laden’s capture in the heart of the garrison town may have jeopardised the future of polio vaccination but these campaigns have been on the extremist radar since 2005. Not too long ago, a certain radical cleric also known as FM Mullah was casually adding vaccination programs to the stash of crisp conspiracy cards in Swat. In July 2012, members of the UN staff came under attack in Karachi. Six months ago, the Taliban banned polio-related drives in the troubled North, and fear reigned on all three days of the end of the year campaigns.

Despite clear and present danger, the campaign went ahead on schedule, without the necessary precautions or any visible strategy. Blame must then be generously shared between the state for its failure to anticipate and the establishment for not manning the public opinion counter overflowing with a smorgasbord of unsavoury looking conspiracies.

Images Courtesy of: http://www.sahajanandrosystems.com/wp-content/gallery/isi-iso-trademark-consultancy/isi-mark.jpg

http://www.poliopluspakistan.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/Pakistan-Polio-Cases-Map-M.gif

http://s292.beta.photobucket.com/user/calopcia/media/crosshair4.jpg.html

http://www.pioneerdrama.com/Images/Title_Art/WHODUNIT.jpg

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Book Review: Personal Histories of Choices: Documenting Renunciation

Published in Daily Times / Dec 15, 2012

Published Under the Title: First Rule of Jihad Club

Thank you Gulmina for the Review copy

Authors: Gulmina Bilal Ahmad, Dr. Anika Ahmed,
Yahya Ahmad, Zulfiqar Haider, Hamza Khan Swati
& a friend who wants to remain anonymous


Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

(The Print Ed has an error - hope they fix it in the online Ed, first para 3rd line that now says 'jihadists are willing' throws my sentence off balance. The 2nd Para has a misprint. not tnatives, natives!)

Unlike the first, second, third rule of fight club (you do not talk about fight club) – retired jihadists willing to open up about their past lives do exist. A dedicated group of researchers bent on tracing the path to radicalization needed no divining rod to identify people who have dabbled in jihad at some point in their lives.

This compilation of ‘confessions’ features interviews with fifteen former terrorists hiding out in the open and not as one would think, skulking in the shadows. Now such a premise might not surprise those who tend to herd all the natives next to the same ridiculous profiling machine or use Abbottabad-gate to promote Pakistan as a comfortable retreat for the Most Wanted.

Before they say aha, they should know that this list of deserters does not carry names of high profile targets. In fact it does not carry any names at all. But their testimonies still matter, especially after watching the diligent interviewers salvage archive footage of an odd politician and low level military men, happily partaking of the jihadist pie. They may not be architects of major attacks; many have never seen combat. And some doubled as agent provocateurs in the late 1990’s.

This is a well worn trail frequented by highly regarded analysts, diplomats and writers. Images of Cold War Mujahideen morphing into post 9/11 archetype adorn its pathways. The book offers a fresh new vantage point that allows readers to gaze upon the secretive world of terror from the inside.

The region is increasingly susceptible to jihadist influences and the odd cases of kidnapping and coercion aside – the majority of subjects arrived at their destination via the ‘Holy’ gateway created few decades ago. This exercise widens the search parameter from the troubled North to the urban centres. The monster from the frame can be anyone, from the friendly neighbourhood electrician to the quiet looking village teacher hailed as the pillar of his community. This is the first of many bombshells.

Though these wayward sheep have renounced that way of life - not all of them are repentant; in some case they are sleepers biding their time, a few cheerfully admit that they are simply ‘on a break’. Seeing the world through their custom made, ‘holier than thou’, splintered glass is nevertheless instructive.

The book neatly divides the case files into three parts: influence of hearsay, media and community. The team had unprecedented access to the ex-militant community and even the most recalcitrant among them had something valuable to share. They map out their individual journeys from all parts of Pakistan, unveiling much more than the naive face behind the cold mask.

Their guarded invitation opens up the portal to terror-ville, albeit briefly. The momentary glimpses yield enough data points to assess both sides of the elusive picture, from the roots of terror to the poisonous yield. These excursions may be harrowing but they offer unique insight into the extremist psyche using private channels outsiders are generally not privy to. Besides capturing the insiders off guard, they also expose the sham pillars on which such cult like movements have been mounted.

The abundance of training camps (that don’t exist and years of social conditioning ensures that the casting call has steady supply of recruits on hand. That these also double as summer camps for youngsters seeking ways to channel pent up energy comes as a revelation. It also raises some irksome questions. With a little effort the researchers found these foot soldiers. That their masterminds continue to flourish under the world’s most fearsome intelligence agencies watch will bother many.

The change in vantage point adds dynamic layers to an evolving narrative. That everyone is susceptible to the jihad bug. That they don’t all hail from drone strike central; areas around Islamabad can double as training camps. That it can run in the family. And that they are lured away as much by boredom, as by pushy moms, peer pressure, by a steady diet of misinformation, or in some case horror stories dating back to pre-partition days.

Each encounter leaves readers wondering about the gravitational pull of the countless organizations (the book does not divulge names probably because they do not exist!) dotted across the countryside.

The assortment of spotlights trained on this region to scrutinize these shifting plates is blinding. Sometimes they can miss the obvious. This document lets the sinister stereotypes tell their ‘tale of woe’ without any editorializing. These snatches of conversations underscore the popularity of the jihad-based sales pitch. Also, the reasons for their disillusionment should cut through the perpetual fog of war & haze of Taliban/Al-Qaeda propaganda.

This study is part ‘expose’ part ‘wake up call’ and part ‘cry for help’ quietly establishing the sprawling scale of the problem while providing important context for the growing number of conversions. The prose may be a tad unpolished; the closing loses the academic tone presenting its trenchant arguments on the terror debate; ‘we have long crossed the Rubicon of passive debate on the genesis and birth of this radical mindset. ’

Whether they are victims of a questionable State policy or recipients of clever indoctrination campaigns; little is needed to invoke the latent jihadist gene. And that should be a cause for serious concern.

The subjects are young, impressionable with their moral compass stuck on ‘sanctioned Holy War’. Their brief dalliance with terror and subsequent renouncement drags an important aspect of this conflict to the fore. The counter-terrorism strategy is intent on clearing the land of militants but thus far there are few indications that it is as focused on clearing up the rubble of ignorance and bigotry steadily accumulating since before 9/11. ‘Documenting Renunciation’ marks the source of original fault-lines that make the region so vulnerable.

Price: Rs. 1500
Pages: 56

Monday, December 10, 2012

VIEW: The True Cost of Drone Charades

First Published in SHE Magazine / Dec 2012

The other day cricketer turned politician Imran Khan was unceremoniously hauled off a plane and detained for questioning in Toronto over his anti drone stance.

Khan does not like drones.

The Taliban do not care for them either. Ordinary Pakistanis are passionate about sovereignty, and conflicted about how to handle the ‘safe haven’ situation, which leaves them reaching for the pitcher of outrage after every violation. The past six years has seen a noticeable spike in drone strikes followed by rising temperatures on the ground.

The people on ‘ground zero’ interestingly do not necessarily share these sentiments and might even go along with the idea of using targeted strikes to eliminate a common enemy. More on these people can be found in Irfan Husain’s excellent book Fatal Faultlines – Pakistan, Islam & the West.

WikiLeaks cables place the State on the scene when covert wars became an active part of the scenery. Pakistan is not the only target rich environment and countries like Somalia and Yemen are also recipients of US-led drone program. Some simple drone math reveals that to date there have been a total of 323 drone attacks with only 10 recorded strikes from 2004 -2007. The drone strike figure has reportedly hit the 313 mark in just 4 years (2008 – Oct 2012).*

Though Islamabad and Washington have been at loggerheads over cross-border terrorism (Salala), Abbottabad-gate, wayward CIA agents and of course unannounced visits by drones, those paying close attention however will hear condemnation of drone attacks offset by wistful longing. Because of the nature of COIN warfare, the armed forces recognize the need for advanced drone technology that allows them to pursue fleeting targets of opportunity while minimizing collateral damage.

A common argument on Twitter-sphere is that giving American’s leeway hands our enemy on the Eastern front a licence to do the same to, say Hafiz Saeed of Lashkar-e- Taiba (LeT) fame, for instance. The United States remains an ally if only on paper and there happens to be an implicit understanding between the two nations on conducting such strikes; Pakistan’s neighbours on the other hand, can put away their stealth designs.

Pakistan’s declared red flags are ‘boots on the ground’ and barring sneaky SEALS or joint operations, the U.S. has respected these lines. While both countries may not always agree on the choice of target, they can chalk up their successes to shared ‘intel’ and precision targeting courtesy the Reapers/Predators lurking in the skies.

Pakistan’s limitations in the technological department are partly the reason behind this uneasy alliance. The recently concluded four day International Defence Exhibition & Seminar (IDEAS) 2012 proudly showing off armed drone capability attest to its mounting ambitions.

Some might mistake this as a new chapter heralding the end of Pakistan’s decades old reliance on American technology. The alternate to American controlled drones would probably be Pakistani led drones which might pacify those voices who object the ‘Made in USA’ label but only in theory. Because those that decry the frequent violations also find the human cost appalling. Whether it is an American sitting in Nevada or a Pakistani in Jacobabad, the risk of collateral damage remains the same.

Successes notwithstanding, the blowback from drone attacks has steadily pushed the nation to the brink of collapse. The one-sided picture has allowed naïve politicians and opportunistic media personnel to tie every failure from sectarian killings and religious intolerance to increased radicalization and unrest in Sindh and Baluchistan with the secret drone program. And it has caused the sympathy bank of Taliban to swell at an alarming rate.

The mixed signals have seriously compromised the military’s ability to expand operations, stoked the flame of anti-Americanism, undermined the State and offered the Taliban room to manoeuvre. The farce prevents the public from seeing how the presence of sanctuaries threatens the integrity of the State. It allows the extremist to hijack the narrative and use the space to play on the public’s emotions and redirect the ire from Taliban sponsored terror to American made Hell-Fires (missiles fired by US drones). Their strategy has been effective and extremism has now taken on the mantle of an unpleasant, yet understandable side-effect of Western hegemony and not, as is the case a destructive ideology

Khan, who missed his flight and some fund raising lunch because of his detention, had come on the radar because of his anti - drone march to Waziristan. That drones have alienated a major part of the nation should not come as a surprise to the Western world. Staging impromptu run-ins with immigration however is no way to win converts.

This policy of deniability has hurt not only the war on terror but also the military’s standing with the public. Ownership of the drone partnership could have saved precious moments spent battling over sovereignty and spared Pakistanis the sight of the State asking its military if it can shoot the drones knowing perfectly well why it won’t. That time could have been better spent finding ways of breaking news of its role in the shadow wars and that such a partnership has nothing to do with the lure of shiny hardware.

Cultivating the public trust will be tricky for a military perceived as a spineless stooge for standing idly by while drones played havoc with its sovereignty. Pakistan’s current problem with safe havens cannot be cured by replacing drone strikes with pretty Hearts & Minds campaigns - or by putting up costly charades for that matter.

* http://pakistanbodycount.org/drone_attack accessed on 11 November 2012

Images Courtesy of: http://timeglobalspin.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/ap100129032031.jpg?w=720&h=480&crop=1

http://wikileaks.org/IMG/jpg/folder_small.jpg

http://www.ideaspakistan.gov.pk/intro1.jpg

Saturday, December 8, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: “After The Rain”: Short Stories for the SAARC Region

Thanks to Ayesha Zee Khan for the Review Copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, December 08, 2012

Also appeared in Google Books Section

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Compiled by: Ayesha Zee Khan

After the Rain is a compilation of short stories that pans over the SAARC region striving to bring a cross section of voices suited for its literary experiment into the fold. The collection houses five writers and ten entries. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is not coincidental since these offerings rely on personalised snapshots to project their exotic vision onto a fresh new canvas.

Budding authors and established names come together from Nepal, Maldives and Pakistan to showcase their range and the region’s rustic charm. This impromptu gathering of ‘the chosen ones’ boasts of names like Ibrahim Waheed ‘Ogaru’, the ‘writer-artist’ from the Maldives; Pushpa R Acharya from Nepal; Arbab Daud and Kiran Bashir Ahmad from Pakistan. Ayesha Zee Khan, the winner of the SAARC Literary Award 2012 for Building Bridges, an anthology of poems, also lends her voice to the chorus.

Ibrahim Waheed Ogaru unveils a moment in time when the reverberations of the past overlap with the present; he paints his nostalgia-laced journey in broad-brush strokes. Arbab Daud relives his harrowing trip into the wild. Pushpa R Acharya’s skilful sketches mark the end of an era. Kiran Bashir Ahmad gets the longest screen time to style an elaborate production. And Ayesha, who has compiled the tome, stays faithfully immersed in the fantasy/nightmare. Together they interpret the regional contours in their own distinctive style in an attempt to open the door for more accessible literature.

It is an ambitious little book that tries to define new heights of literary greatness with its simple fare but there are difficulties along the way of a technical nature that might prevent it from reaching the summit. One of them stems from the editing department.

Mischief is My Middle Name that bears trace elements from the Bachon Ke Duniya and Taleem-o-Tarbiyat years (Ayesha wrote Urdu fiction for children’s magazines back in the day) retrieves the precious stash of amusing family portraits from some dusty old attic. As the floodgate of memories is opened, so does the forgotten case of childhood follies. The Life’s Great Challenges doused with some good old-fashioned sentimentality asks readers to brood over the misfortunes of a downtrodden woman as it resurrects the mama-in-law stereotype. The suppressed daughter-in-law is not far behind. One narrative rallies around a happy delinquent who does not get her comeuppance and the other discovers a convenient doormat who gets more than she bargained for. Its spirited storytelling and carefree imagery notwithstanding, such offerings require major spring-cleaning to remove the impression that a few portions may have simply been put through Google translator instead of some diligent editor.

For entrée, Arbab Daud’s Piece of Peace starring himself props its modest vision from Wana against the ominous geopolitical situation. The concoction pads its crooked delivery of ‘tour-de-Wana’ with humour as it cheerfully stumbles into no-go territories setting off grammatical minefields along the way. This is just the beginning and cumbersome questions regarding syntax, style or overall structure pop up at inopportune moments, leaving the interesting layout along with its tragic depths unexplored as readers head off into the sunset looking for enlightenment in Pakistan’s troubled ‘Wild West’ and later find themselves in the midst of a hunt.

Then there are voices that may falter at times but leave profound impressions despite their fondness for quirky analogies or repetitive language that threatens to pinion the prose. Shama Book Point seeks out Karachi’s faded beauty and changing landscape as it traipses by a painter and a harmless looking bookstore owner engaged in conversation. The narrative has been carefully framed against a raw background to mirror the pervading ambivalence summoning deepening shadows and forlorn hopes for company. The Colours of Dreams might have been inspired by some case study ( I have since learnt that it was not) delving into a churning mass of superstition and faith in an uplifting tale of a poor family burdened with a problem child.

Pushpa R Acharya has been credited somewhere as an ‘academician, poet, translator and journalist’ and is the author of Chhaya Kal: an Anthology of Poems (in Nepali). In Olena’s Diary, he uses mysterious motifs from myths and legends based on tales gathered from the northern villages of Nepal for the desired effect. Jack in the Box by Ogaru observes the ongoing duel between local Romeos, pitching the village fisherman against the local Khateeb, leaving one to plot some revenge ‘Eastern-style’. Both writers have a role in preventing the literary dialogue from flat lining.

The book was sent to the International Sufi Festival, organised by the Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature (FOSWAL), a subsidiary of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), and will be available in the market soon. There is a nice little foreword by Frank Huzur (poet, playwright and author from India) but no ‘Editor’s note’ or in this case ‘Compiler’s note’. Readers remain in the dark about the inspiration behind After the Rain or the criteria for selection. Since it seems to be missing a critical component — parts of the Pakistani chapter — because of those uneven edges might be viewed as the weakest link in the goodwill chain. Hopefully, it is nothing a hawk-eyed editor with nerves of steel cannot fix.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

E-Book Review (Revised): Treason (Book II) / Author: S.M. Boyce

Thanks to S.M. Boyce for the ARC (Advanced Review Copy)

First Published in Daily Times / Saturday, November 17, 2012

Published under the Title: Isens and Muses & Vagabonds O' My

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

As Ourea looms into view, young Kara Magari, the only human in this fantasy realm is no longer a rookie, Braeden Drakonin is still a reluctant Heir, the trenches remain occupied and cases of intrigue have been dusted off for a re-match.

Treason is the highly anticipated sequel to Lichgates, a YA (Young Adult) novel penned by S.M. Boyce that returns to the magical land of Ourea, home to warring factions, savage critters and disappointed fathers.

Kara, who takes a wrong turn and turns up in Ourea, is revealed as the first Vagabond in a thousand years with the ability to control the Grimoire, a book of revelations. The Yakona race, divided into six Kingdoms, finds her irresistible for their cause. Her newfound powers come with a steep learning curve and a roster of duties. This proves to be handy in the political theatre, staging an impromptu battle of wits with the Bloods (rulers).

As a Vagabond, Ms. Magari is highly sought after, hunted, admired and reviled. The subsequent adventures of Kara Magari and her companion Braeden, their individual quest and collective fate test the bounds of their friendship, and the Bloods’ patience, no doubt.

The second part of the Grimoire Trilogy picks up soon after the events of Lichgates (See Review Here). The author laid out the groundwork for an impending war, ending the first book on a delicious cliffhanger. The sequel reaches for familiar themes of betrayal, self-sacrifice, chivalry, loss, vengeance and strained familial bonds to re-do the set in melodramatic colours. It also throws in some good old-fashioned teen angst inside the numerous political sparring rings.

Book II delves deeper into the mythology, chasing its attractive leads down paths that turn diplomacy missions into crusades and awkward family reunions into awkward soap operas. The image of wonderland is but fleeting, fading with the sarcastic lyth (a guard dog of sorts); trouble still brews on the horizon and Ourea’s restless heart takes centre-stage. Old characters return, loyalties are tested, and alliances are brokered. The plot carves the outlines of Kara’s tryst with destiny from the unacknowledged ghosts of the past, sending her on a hearts and minds mission — Ourea style.

Readers who linger on the uneven trail can dwell on the ambitious scale of this epic adventure. That maze of complex emotions is inlaid with sombre tones that can broker the release of characters trapped inside stereotypes. There will be sporadic gleams of wisdom and interesting shades of morality to take the focus off the dull edges and occasionally stilted dialogue. Ourea has the look of a typical fantasy world, and the feel of a gigantic chessboard. Things move rapidly and the bit players and power brokers crowding the landscape struggle to stay relevant with the power-hungry Bloods running amok. The added dimensions of deception and hidden agendas chain Ourea’s fickle soul to real world counterparts.

The book empowers its characters but does not offer magical quick fixes. Heroes come in various shades of ‘flawed’ and pompous villains refuse to don the traditional black. It also turns the damsel in distress scenario on its head. This time the narrative cuts away from Kara’s perspective, tracing multiple paths to the long and convoluted road to redemption. Readers get more character insight and back story that prompt them to revisit the past and take another look at their motivations. Boyce gives larger roles to characters who had a cameo in Lichgates, wounding the network of intrigue tighter around the axis. The author also ties loose ends left in Book I and introduces a fresh vantage point and some helpful exposition that clarifies the pattern of seemingly quick resolutions, specifically Kara’s quest in putting together the map pieces. Fans of the previous book will relish such detours.

Many will admire this strong-willed heroine for her determination to chart her own course. Others might wonder at her naiveté that makes her such a convenient mark, given the time spent in the company of the all-knowing, all-encompassing Grimoire — home to the original Vagabond’s soul or Braeden who knows the ins and outs of the Yakona kind. The only explanation that comes from Braeden will be that “Yakona politics became more treacherous with each generation.” Perhaps Kara’s lot can improve with a Yoda who could walk her through the perils of building bridges in rough neighbourhoods and grill her in the art of street smart and war.

Boyce develops the mythology, mining Ourea’s hidden store of potential for the visual feast and its complex dynamics for the horror. Given its brutal history, Treason keeps the tradition of dishing out action-packed sequences and fancy footwork in opulent looking courtrooms or inelegant back room deals alive and well. What role Ourea’s resident supernaturals (helpful muses and soul stealing isens) hope to play in the future remains unclear.

Simply written and artfully designed, parts of Treason are driven by an inherent darkness but our heroes and heroines cleverly skirt the abyss. The last few chapters where Boyce ups the stakes and then changes the game quietly enter more confident territory prompting the ‘oh-no-she-didn’t’ head shake and pushing Kara towards a different direction. The end game is in sight and Heritagethe final book in the trilogy due sometime in Fall 2013 — brings the Grimoire Trilogy to a close. Meanwhile, Lichgates (Book I) has been re-released.

Treason is out now.

Fans who want to win a guest appearance in the final installment of the Grimoire Trilogy Click Here.


Images courtesy of: http://www.thegrimoirebooks.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Braeden-Drakonin2.png

Saturday, October 20, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: The Casual Vacancy

Published in Daily Times / 20 Oct 2012

Author: J.K Rowling
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Published under the Title: What Happens in Pagford

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Someone drops dead in a golf club. A malicious rumour mill kicks into action. A silent war brews somewhere in the Council.

And because this is not a whodunit doling out cocktails of conspiracy at the door, there will be no big reveal at the end. J.K. Rowling’s latest book — ‘The Casual Vacancy’, uses the demise of one Barry Fairbrother to pry into the soul of a quaint looking town called Pagford.

The battling citizens loom in view, caught in a stormy sea of addiction, abject poverty, class divide, domestic abuse, molestation, moral deviance, apathy and social injustice. Fans still under the spell woven by heroic wizards and witches might be ill prepared for the culture shock that awaits them beyond the gates. The reigning queen of fantasy returns to the world of fiction tilling an arid field for inspiration. Her new stomping grounds are more familiar, if less idyllic.

Racial slurs are hurled back and forth. Relationships crumble. And biases run deep.

The story maintains a steady pace jogging by the morose scenery taking its three-act circus along with it through the dark and twisted tunnel but without the proverbial ‘light at the end’. Prejudices are not just limited to the Sikh family found at the receiving end of the ‘Paki’ slur. They also extend to Fields residents caught in a crass spider web of crime and passion. To one resident ‘Pagford shone with a moral radiance’; and the estate of Fields ‘was nothing more than a physical manifestation of ignorance and indolence.’ Both sides of the picture get screen time. These excursions probe the depth of human emotion and the frail bonds that bind them together in a joint inferno of misery.

Those waiting with bated breath for the harsh lighting to dissolve into something softer, less intrusive are carried aloft built-in tragic currents of adolescent angst and mediocre minds. Barry as member of the Parish Council and a champion of underdogs serves as true North for the not so thriving community. His untimely exit resets the course taken by the Parish of Pagford already on the warpath with the city of Yarvil.

The void left by his demise opens up a position and a chance to pawn off Fields, an unwanted settlement, home to young Krystal Weedon with a junkie mother in tow. Standing in the midst of all this are rattled residents haunted by the very slanderous ‘Ghost of Barry Fairbrother’, a modern day menace safely ensconced in cyberspace that puts their political ambitions in jeopardy. Being with these characters is exhausting. One walks away with relief instead of the usual regret. This morbid portrait balances its multi-story arc on a sound platform from where it can stun society and create a stir.

The central storyline is devoted to the spectacle surrounding the election. Rowling delivers blistering attacks on society before circling back to the island of crushed dreams. The outlines might give off an exciting aura but the Pagford chronicles come in just one colour: a dank shade of grey. It takes a while for the events to fall into focus. Eventually these interconnected pathways loop around to form a coherent pattern. Those familiar with Rowling’s previous work will need to readjust their expectations. Her latest creation draws upon gallows humour; its glossy surface marred by the vileness that sears deep into consciousness. Having lived on benefits (welfare) for a while, she can claim to have some insight into the abyss.

Rowling’s transition to the world of adult fiction may seem effortless. Here all the unpleasantness hinted at in her fantasy world is magnified. None of the enchantment is. Every now and then, however sporadic gleams of brilliance emanating from within serve as reminders of the genius at work.

Despite its solid debut on the bestseller chart, the reviews have been mixed. Her first adult novel is an expose that hits all the difficult notes; from the mean spirited, unbecoming contours of the provincial life to the deep fissures caused by political and racial divide. It can be stashed at the back in the R-rated aisle because of its unflinching portrayals, explicit content and refusal to switch reality with sugar-coated alternates. While the author is to be commended for daring to experiment with such a drab colour palette, venturing out into this chamber of horrors requires nerves of steel. Mercifully, Rowling’s next book will be for children.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: No Easy Day : The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden

First Published by Daily Times / Oct 06, 2012

Authors: Mark Owen & Kevin Maurer
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Published under the Title: Signed, SEAL(ed) and Delivered



The men who paid Pakistan a hurried visit in the dead of the night typically do not leave calling cards. Or talk shop with strangers. And they are expected to shun the limelight. One broke the commandment recently. As a member of the SEAL Team 6 — Naval Special Warfare Development Group or DEVGRU, Mark Owen (not his real name) had been in the downed ‘helo’ (helicopter) — the one Pakistanis discovered lying in their backyard.

His book provides a valuable timeline of events leading up to ‘Operation Neptune Spear’ in Abbottabad (or ‘Abababa’ as they insist on calling it), cutting through the official haze. With 13 consecutive combat deployments to his credit, the author paints a group portrait of America’s finest that had been handpicked for the job in an attempt to overturn the media-created hype. He calmly reasons, “If my commander-in-chief is willing to talk then I feel comfortable doing the same.”

The story is told in short bursts, as if Mark had already imagined the film version. The split screen narrative that draws upon his personal experiences spreads out the tension. Details of the audacious raid are kept for the finale. Names have been changed and particulars of ongoing missions scrubbed. The author claims to have taken care to protect the TTPs (tactics, techniques and procedures) used, adding that this is not the book for anyone looking for secrets.

The Department of Defence (DOD) disagrees.

Their insistence that the book “contains classified and sensitive unclassified information” (whatever that means) and the subsequent gag order on employees probably spurred the sales and sent interest soaring.

'No Easy Day' is the most anticipated book of the year even if it does not get high marks in the editing department. A typical day in the life of a SEAL is rendered in high definition. Readers waiting with bated breath for the scene to shift from the training grounds to the Abbottabad compound come upon scenes that underscore an ordinary life hard-wired to a high-octane drama.

When they are not hunting down terrorists or doing rock-drills, the SEALS are knee-deep in red tape. Mark is frustrated with a changing system that works against them and for the enemy. He grumbles at the “pages of Power-point” that it now takes to get a mission approved. About enemy tactics and its evolving nature, he observes how their foe started hiding the weapons, “knowing we couldn’t shoot them if they weren’t armed”.

A little further down however, he admits that the terrorist mastermind, despite being forewarned, was taken down unarmed in the end. There was no final stand. Owen attributes this to a lack of conviction on bin Laden’s part. Since this was sold as a “kill or capture” mission in the briefing, his version of events come under heavy scrutiny. Mark’s story will make it clear they had no choice. The author of Black Hawk Down challenges these assertions in his new book due out soon. One news source reveals that Obama had plans of putting the al Qaeda leader on trial had he surrendered and that the SEALS did have a choice.

The team along with ‘Cairo’ — the trusty combat assault dog — marched away from the resultant controversies with a Presidential Unit Citation. Despite all the plaudits heaped upon them, the author is no fan of the administration. In the CBS interview, Owen admits that the SEAL team refused to tell President Obama who took the kill shot. In the book, he shrugs off the title of ‘Chosen Ones’. “We were available to conduct the needed rehearsals to sell the option to the decision makers at the White House...it came down to being at the right place at the right time.” He uses the stage for a serious examination of the constricting environment and a beautifully flawed bureaucratic setup.

It is an orderly march to the grand finale that creates a context for the events of May 2011. It will not tell readers why they got away scot-free, just that they did. It will tell them how close they came to blowing the mission or the compound for that matter. Their resident EOD tech was prepped to blow up bin Laden’s so-called mansion instead of their crashed helo. While the contingency plans handed to them drew snickers from the SEALS, knowing that they did not have a clean getaway will raise quite a few Pakistani eyebrows. The visiting SEALS made a small pit stop to refuel while the Pakistani F-16s were on the hunt.

Owen does not stray far from the script but a certain CIA analyst with her 100 percent certainty is given special attention. Any Pakistani involvement in connecting the trail of breadcrumbs leading to bin Laden is tossed away. A nation being raised on a steady diet of drone attacks might amuse itself with the knowledge that the Defence Secretary favoured air strikes to avoid “violating the sovereignty”.

'No Easy Day', despite the self-imposed censorship clause, provides plenty of edge-of-the-seat moments, oh-no-they-didn’t situations and at least one spoiler that might violate the DOD’s ‘classified’ clause. The team’s ability to tag enemy fighters because of the Taliban’s fondness for a certain type of footwear perhaps should not be advertised. The enemy can read after all; blowing up girls schools is just a side business. Owen also mentions ‘Ali’, the Pashtun-speaking CIA interpreter. One speaks Pashto and is a Pashtun and not the other way around.

The author who has since left the service appeared heavily disguised on CBS’s 60 Minutes. Despite all these precautions, his identity was revealed. We now know him as Matt Bissonnette. SEAL Team 6’s job description was typically ‘hostage rescue, infiltrating enemy countries, ships, naval bases and oil rigs’ and eventually counter-proliferation of WMDs. Ever since the hunt for bin Laden ended in that infamous compound, the team’s crowning achievement has apparently doubled as a campaign slogan for the administration.


Earlier this year the site was razed to the ground. But the dust has yet to settle from Abbottabad-gate. This gripping first person account serves up the saga of the SEALs with the requisite fireworks minus the pageantry. It still works.

Images Courtesy of:
http://i.i.com.com/cnwk.1d/i/tim/2012/09/04/en_0904_pelley_480x360.jpg

http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2011/5/4/1304502818707/US-navy-Seals-on-a-night--007.jpg

http://timenewsfeed.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/rtr2lzq1_comp.jpg?w=455&h=341&crop=1

http://www.boston.com/partners/greader/prfmkt/images/27pakistan_photo.jpg

Saturday, September 22, 2012

VIEW: Dissonance of Muslims

First Published in Daily Times / 22 Sep 2012

By Afrah Jamal

Nothing works. Major cities have been sealed and an angry mob rules the streets. Scenes from Pakistan on September 21, 2012 have a distinctly dystopian flavour. TV cameras cut to newsrooms happily discussing the need for peaceful protests as sweet sounding hymns play in the background and then cut back to the mob going berserk.

Someone picked the wrong soundtrack for the occasion.

Pakistan, badly battered by terrorism and in an economic bind, doubled as a set for some war zone on the eve of the ‘Love Your Prophet Day’. The sight of rampaging protestors including representatives from banned outfits closing on Islamabad’s Red Zone on Thursday evening was surreal. The army was summoned to safeguard the diplomatic enclave. The military was placed on high alert. And as the nation braced for yet another day of officially sanctioned protests, the mobile networks were shut down. No one really knows why.

A BBC anchor watching the scene compared the present mayhem to past protests that he thought had been peaceful. Pakistan’s initial reaction to provocative material posted on the Internet, capable of sending the rest of the Middle East into paroxysms, did seem tame in contrast. Some wondered if the low-key response was because the nation’s attention had wavered because of a devastating industrial fire in Karachi. Come weekend, that oversight had been corrected. Armed with the standard issue brand of outrage found in abundance in this restive part of the world, crazy-eyed protestors fashioned a violent response to the anti-film narrative, mob-style. The commercial hub of Pakistan was partially paralysed.

A religious scholar was seen downplaying the violence, citing the still standing structure of the US Embassy as proof. The reaction at the state level has been decidedly odd. They threaten to revoke Google Inc. employees’ visas, declare ‘Love Thy Prophet Day’, which really means another day of protest after a week of protest, and confer a seal of approval on marching protestors. And they ban 'YouTube, ensuring that 180 million Pakistanis who had no intention of seeing the wicked film would not be able to see the wicked film or anything else for that matter. Clicking on the link will redirect users to Google.

Afghanistan reportedly had gone a step further and blocked access to the host website ‘indefinitely’, along with Google, Gmail, and Blogger. YouTube refuses to take it down. But it has revoked access in Indonesia and India and removed the trailer from circulation in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Libya. Scenes of arson and vandalism witnessed on the days leading up to the 'Love Thy Prophet Day' confirm that keeping the content off the air means little to the raging billions.

Since September 11, 2012, a female suicide bomber has targeted foreigners in Afghanistan. The US ambassador to Libya is dead. Scores have been injured in violent demonstrations across the Middle East and life in parts of Pakistan has come to a standstill. Because of all this, Bacile/Nakoula’s (or as some media folk like to say Mr. Malaoon) skewed vision has gone viral. We have done funny things in the name of God. Cadbury, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Flickr — all have been targeted at one time or the other. One source says the government is already eyeing software capable of blocking up to 50 million websites.

The sight of politicians harping on ‘a greater conspiracy’ followed by a never-ending parade of mullahs spewing poetry while urging calm and at the same time condoning the protests sent mixed signals. After the first two days of non-stop violent protests, a freshly repentant charlatan was observed waving a battered old Jewish conspiracy theory. The filmmaker’s Egyptian Coptic connection does not impress him. The cast’s outrage at being duped by the said Coptic does not interest him. What does interest him is the film’s release on the Jewish New Year; he should have thanked the Egyptian media for his thoughtful selection of the dates since the trailer has been on the Internet since July 1, 2012. The delightful monologue went unchallenged. More simpletons arrived.

One mullah happily objected to those pictures on facebook (it’s YouTube, but never mind). Another shrieked against those awful images on facebook (once again, YouTube). Another one, instead of responding to the questions, started congratulating the anchor on his good fortune that his parents named him ‘Muhammad’. Yet another naively suggests that the mob should be allowed to go up to the consulate and register their protest. After Libya, there is no chance of that happening.

This mob was out for revenge, not justice. The US has sunk $ 70,000 to distance itself from the film by running adverts. The US Embassy is constantly broadcasting pacifying messages on twitter. Pakistanis used the remains of the Internet to urge calm, but the protestors were not online. The same message broadcast via local mosques might have been more effective.

A local channel appeared awed by the “zabardast” (splendid) protest before reporting that they burned down a cinema in Quetta. The next day media personnel came in the line of fire; three cinemas and a police checkpoint in Peshawar were torched; the Chamber of Commerce was next and a plaza was attacked. Hours later, three more cinemas*, a couple of banks and popular eateries were reportedly set ablaze in Karachi. A disappointed anchorwoman asked where religious/political rallies were after witnessing anarchy all morning. On air, raging protestors were simply described as people ‘recording’ their “ehtejaj” (protest) in cities and alleyways instead of being condemned.

Now the French are braced for a backlash after a French magazine decided to publish derogatory images of the Prophet (PBUH). The BBC called the anti-establishment magazine that skewers politicians, the Catholic Church and the Pope on a regular basis, “crude, cruel, and intentionally provocative”. Their latest attack was apparently prompted by the frenzied reaction of the Muslim world. Danes will get it. A murder plot against the man behind the cartoon controversy prompted the paper to rerun the offensive images. In 2008, a text message regarding inflammatory material triggered a boycott of all things Danish and some not so Danish. Pakistanis are convinced that the Danish boycott somehow crippled the Danish economy. A scan of the Internet shows poorly worded appeals to re-apply those boycott tactics to anything sporting a ‘Made in America’ label. Karachi has already suffered an estimated Rs 12.5 billion loss of revenue and ‘production losses in main industrial areas’*. Roads have been painted over with flags of offending nations so that protestors can walk/drive/cycle all over them. Shockwaves from 17-minute clips, 12 sketches, or 14-minute trailers have the power to drive Pakistan to the edge.

"They keep tearing us down, we will keep cleaning up and rebuilding... they may have the power to knock us down, we will always have the choice to get back up again... Choose the right side, the side that builds, not the one that only knows how to destroy - Salma J."

The End

*Update: The number of cinemas torched in Karachi has hit 5. Nishat, Capri, Prince, Bambino, Gulistan. Here is a Beautiful Ode to the past by Talat Aslam

A Church in Mardan was set ablaze the same day. Property ransacked & some poor Christians were attacked. They are reportedly in critical condition.

Overheard on Twitter: 'Economic damage from yesterday's FREAKSHOW is estimated between PKR 76 bn to 100 bn.'

Shops in Sheraton Hotel & 3 KFC's (Karachi) also came under fire.

Last Night a Project Clean up for Peace was launched on Facebook where citizens have a chance to do their bit in cleaning up the city.


Images Courtesy of: http://www.colourbox.com/preview/1995536-121335-abstract-3d-illustration-of-red-heart-breaking-wall-strong-love-concept.jpg

http://www.techpavan.com/wp-content/uploads/site-blocked.gif

Saturday, September 1, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: The Perfect Gentleman; a Muslim boy meets the West — A Memoir

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Oct 2012: Thanks Imran Ahmad for the kind email & Mr. Asif Noorani for recommending this book.

First Published in Daily Times / Saturday 1 Sep 2012 under the title: The Ballad of East & West

A local singer who regularly goes on foreign tours admitted that after the Abbottabad raid, acknowledging his Pakistani origins can be a conversation ender, with the ‘gora’ (white) inevitably taking ten steps back. A local businessman confessed that certain foreign embassies now deem all Pakistani nationals as terrorists till proved otherwise.

Imran Ahmad, who recently concluded his 50-State speaking tour of the mainland United States, had occasional run-ins with the representatives of this fear-driven society that love to herd his entire ilk under a single scary looking banner. A Pakistani, growing up in London of the 1960s and 1970s, he must be familiar with the scrutiny that comes with being different. This first person narrative that dusts off 48 years of wisdom builds upon a young boy’s quirky (and chronologically arranged) view of the world to bridge the divide.

As a young Muslim, Ahmad aspires to be the perfect gentleman (sans the Eliza Doolittle/Professor Higgins dance) who will find himself constantly pitted against the current. As an immigrant’s son, he observes the best and worst of both worlds from his lonely perch. Seen through the haze of childhood, bigotry abruptly looms into view. Ahmad is two and accommodation is scarce for Pakistanis, “although many people in London were renting out rooms.” Those ‘No Irish or Coloured’ signs are a common sight in his Britain apparently. “The more liberal-minded ones had signs that read ‘No Coloreds’”, he observes wryly.

Whisked away from Karachi at an early age, he writes of those days with remarkable restraint, patiently examining numerous ugly looking fences built around visitors to the fair land. Racism manifests itself at every turn. Ignorance abounds. Identity undergoes regular facelifts. And the hunt for a perfect partner comes up against a familiar looking stone wall. “We are so boring, we make the Amish look like swingers.” ‘A foreigner in white English society’ who realises that ‘he doesn’t seem to fit into Pakistani society either’, Ahmad’s quest for a perfect foothold takes time, and a fair amount of ingenuity. His close encounters with racism and the religious divide prompt a visceral reaction; blending optimism with pathos gives evanescent memories a nice glossy finish.

He moves through the London of the 1960s initially baffled by the strangeness of it all. An American magazine’s coverage of war casualties captures Ahmad’s attention. “I never realized so many Americans are black.” Life’s coverage of the moon expedition prompts a different reaction. “These men are all white,” he wonders aloud, “unlike the ones killed in the war.”

This memoir records landmark events in the life of a young boy who idolises Spock and dreams of emulating Bond, and is smart enough to read between the lines of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. His Eastern orientation in a western culture serves as ballast; the long struggle with identity leads him to uncover aspects of Christianity and Islam that puts the ongoing religious debate in some context. While sub-currents of darkness course through the veins of his adopted culture, the casual tone adopted from the outset enables readers to navigate these murky waters without blanching.

The writer’s spiritual awakening and the struggle to reconcile the two halves to form a perfect whole is illuminating. His introduction to the concept of ‘rapture’ and evading attempts to be converted will be a recurring theme. Religion seeps into the most mundane of tasks. The ‘good Muslim side’ hastens to express reservations about bowing to the Master during a Karate session. Warnings of a hardline post-grad student on the ‘sinfulness of usury’ hover in the air as Ahmad applies for a car loan. But he is realistic, casually observing that “by these criteria, I should not have a savings account.”

Ahmad’s adolescent years spent circumnavigating cultural barriers and mapping vast ideological chasms remain significant. Faint echoes of memories carefully encased in amber continue to resonate in a paranoid world. The rest of the stage stays open, allowing the elusive Janice and other bit players a chance to bring some colour to the stark scenery.

While this book plays with the religious angle, it also makes several jarring pit stops at racist point. Moments of triumph or tragedy are relayed in short bursts. Ahmad will fail to secure that car loan by the way. “I can’t believe that after all these years with the Bank of Scotland, and with a very prestigious job offer, that he would not loan me £ 1,600 for a car to drive to work. Surely, it can’t be racism? After all these years,” he exclaims, “surely not?”

Imran Ahmad’s debut novel happily scrolls down a long list of minor dilemmas to try to resolve major conflicts in his life. Its subtle imagery leaves a lasting imprint. The book already has a devoted following. It first appeared under the title of Unimagined — a Muslim boy meets the West and was later published in the United States as The Perfect Gentleman. O, the Oprah magazine rates it as number one in ‘10 Titles to pick up now’; The Guardian, The Independent and Sydney Morning Herald categorised it as one of the ‘Best Books of the Year’. It is available at all major bookstores.

Friday, August 31, 2012

INTERVIEW: What makes a Fighter Ace? (2006)

Written many moons ago when i was an Asst. Ed with Social Pages.

Published in Defence Journal September 2006

Republished in PROBENEWS(2006)


Legend has it that a Sabre took off from Sargodha airfield to intercept Hunters on a fateful September morning & landed back with an Ace.

120 Seconds: Squadron Leader Alam in a Sabre is on Air Combat Patrol accompanied by his wingman. Upon observing IAF Hunters exiting after an unsuccessful air strike over Sargodha, Alam sets off in hot pursuit of the enemy formation. He pursues a fleeing Hunter and eventually shoots it down with a missile shot.


He spots the other members of the Hunter formations flying very low and as he approaches the trailing member he is spotted and the entire formation breaks (violent turn) in the same direction - a fatal error as in less than two minute Alam has taken out four of them, (as confirmed by more than one independent eye witness) 1 bringing his tally for the mission to five…… And an Ace is born - a legendry instance of speed shooting which remains un-paralleled to this day. Was this purely a chance encounter in the sky gone right or in fact, a premeditated rendezvous with destiny - meticulously planned, brilliantly executed, superbly rendered? The story I am about to tell is about the 32 years of intense training, complete dedication and single-mindedness of purpose concentrated into the now famous 120 seconds.

Beginning of the Legend

An uncle in the de-Havilland aircraft factory in UK brings back pictures and stories of the magnificent flying machines for young Alam who has been mesmerized with toy airplanes ever since childhood. Later, as Alam witnesses the Pakistan movement, he is truly inspired by the idea of a Pakistan and vows becoming a defender of this nation. After migration to Pakistan, financial constraints force the Alam family to opt for Urdu Medium schools for their children over the preferred elite English medium institutions of the time. But Alam’s flawless Queen’s English belies this Urdu Medium educational background and what he lacks in opportunity he makes up for it with enthusiasm. After matriculation, Alam’s parents hope that he will continue studies and appear for the Civil Services of Pakistan.

Alam is convinced that his destiny lay in the defence of Pakistan instead.

Risalpur: He comes to the prestigious RPAF Flying Training College at Risalpur in 1952, after six months training in Pre Cadet Training School Quetta. Alam’s lifelong dream of flying is now within reach, as he qualifies for pilot training and graduates as a Pilot Officer on 2nd October 1953. Ever passionate and dedicated, Alam marks excellence as his ultimate goal. He remembers his flight instructor, Flt. Lt. Ahmad (from Hyderabad Deccan) for generously giving him latitude when Alam needs to be free; to the extent that the young Pilot Officer Alam proudly engages in unauthorised low speed scissor manoeuvres with another instructor and escapes censure. Not a naturally gifted flier, Alam still gains on his comrades by doggedly pursuing his objectives. It is Alam’s strong belief that “the desire to achieve excellence will make you outstanding over time”. From his time as a pilot officer, Alam has been fascinated by the stories of British Aces of WWII and understands early on that a fighter is essentially a weapon of war. In 9 Squadron, Alam enjoys flying the exceedingly manoeuvrable piston engine Furies.

Kohat:Be one up as a fighter pilot’. Upon learning that his squadron which was based at Kohat was planning a surprise mock air raid on Alam’s detachment deployed at Miranshah, Alam and his buddy carry out a pre-emptive air strike by taking off in the wee hours of the morning - sneaking up and surprising them just as they are about to taxi out, ‘much to the dismay and amusement of his own squadron commander ‘Sikki Boy’ (Pilots tend to reserve such irreverent names for one another- an occupational hazard) - the memory of that day still cheers Alam up.

Flying was and continues to be Alam’s passion; any mention of it brings back the young Alam who excitedly recounts his fascinating encounters in the sky. Even now, in air combat, height is extremely advantageous to your aircraft for it can get converted into extra speed – more speed equals more g’s (it enables your aircraft to swoop down faster from a greater altitude). When challenged to an air combat duel at 20,000 feet by his comrade Hameed Anwar, an exceptional flier, Alam cheerfully arrives to patrol at 25,000 feet; meanwhile Hameed, equally crafty, thinks to himself, aha! I bet the chap is lurking at 25,000 feet and so he awaits the other at 27,000 feet. And hence the games continue.

Fighter Pilot

In the middle of the day, Alam sits strapped in his cockpit in searing Sargodha heat. He peers at the sun through a tiny hole cut on a cardboard piece and by doing so he successfully works out a simple yet effective method of keeping the enemy in sight if the latter tries to evade him by pulling up into the glare of the sun. He then turns his neck to the left and right repeatedly in an effort to see as far as possible behind the tail of his aircraft. As any good pilot knows that letting the enemy within 3000 feet behind your aircraft puts you at risk of being shot down, therefore by training himself to look over his shoulders at the rear at all times, Alam ensures that he at least will not be caught off guard. ‘A professional anticipates and stays prepared for all eventualities’.

Shooting down an enemy aircraft in the air requires an accurately computing gunsight. The Sabre’s gyroscopic gunsight is advanced for its time and enables the pilot to aim accurately provided it is correctly calibrated. Alam develops an uncanny sense of knowing exactly when his ‘gyroscopic gunsight’ is inaccurate. The erring ‘gunsight’ is brought back and placed on a calibration turn table and tests confirm that the instrument is, indeed at fault. Alam likens the unerring eyes of a pilot to that of a golfer who shoots from over a hundred yards and still makes it to the heart of the green.

Given the limitations of air to air missiles of his era which are useless against maneuvering targets, pilots had to rely primarily on aircraft mounted guns to achieve aerial victories. While other PAF pilots in his time are perhaps more renowned than him in other phases of flying like aerobatic displays and air to ground firing but few can match Alam’s expertise in air combat manoeuvring and air to air firing. Alam’s average air to air gunnery score is above 20 % and occasionally he returns with over 60 % hits on the banner (above 20% was deemed exceptional considering the immense skill required in the tracking and hitting a flying banner). The banner (generally of cloth) trails far behind the tow aircraft.

Behind Alam’s glory are months of preparation, sitting in the cockpit working with the men to maintain his aircraft to make certain that they remain trouble free and voluntarily flying extra hours to hone his combat skills. It’s taking deliberate calculated risks in peace time that helps Alam prevail in war. He credits himself with developing his own version of the first virtual flight simulator in his mind - precise enough to let him play back the mission details accurately. Alam notes down all mistakes made during his missions and tries to improve upon them and by so doing he trains himself meticulously into becoming an expert hunter. ‘Inexperience is akin to failure’.

His was a brilliant strategy based on the age old wisdom of perseverance, fuelled by sheer willpower & driven by clear vision.

Sabre vs. the Hunter

Fighter Pilots either hunt or get hunted’.

Knowing the adversary’s capabilities is vital for victory in any form of combat, Alam professionally evaluates the combat performance of the Hunter aircraft and is convinced that if it can be forced to engage in a turning (horizontal plane) battle his Sabre will prevail. PAF Sabres & IAF Hunters are otherwise fairly evenly matched, both being contemporary fighters with each having an edge over the other in certain regimes and flight parameters.

The four 20 mm canons of Hunters give it greater lethality and longer range than the six 0.5 inch Browning guns of the Sabres. Pit a Sabre against a Hunter and the Sabre has to register 10 to 15 bullet hits to bring down the adversary against 2 to 4 of the Hunter. Sabre’s advantage is in the form of a higher rate of fire, a larger spread of the volley of its six guns (the fired bullets will cover a wider area enhancing the hit probability) and longer firing time.

Hunter is more powerful and can out pace, out run and out climb the comparatively underpowered Sabre. However, Sabre’s smoother wing profile & better aerodynamics enables it to out turn the Hunter. Since aircraft guns/canons are the primary tools for achieving aerial kills in his days and this meant getting behind and steadily tracking the quarry from ranges below 500 metres to achieve a kill, the better turning ability of the Sabre gives it a decisive edge in this mode of close combat dogfight with the Hunter.

Hunters are hard to catch in the vertical plane but easy to bring down on the horizontal one, and with this in mind, Alam’s tactics involve forcing Hunters to engage in a turning plane where his Sabre will be able to out perform it. Alam remains unfazed by the superiority of Hunters, believing that with the right tactics Sabres will emerge clear winners. He concludes that in the end the more skilful pilot will win the duel and in this area he is supremely confident about the superiority of PAF pilots over their IAF counterparts, especially in the art of air combat. The results of aerial combats between Sabres and Hunters during the 1965 War which are overwhelmingly in favour of the former justify Alam’s confidence and his predictions prove correct. As Alam looks back with nostalgia over the events of the 1965 war he cannot but help mutter with a twinkle in his eyes and the typical fighter pilot’s bravado that if he was flying the Hunters and the Indians the Sabres during the 1965 war, he would have performed as well, if not better.

4 Raids Over Sargodha Airfields

0530 hr: When 6 IAF Mysteres came upon Sargodha for a surprise attack, the PAF aircrafts sat well camouflaged but for 4 F-86 & 2 F-104's, parked outside in readiness for immediate take offs. The Mysteres, fortunately, took out only a dummy Starfighter placed on the end of the runway, whose aluminium foil covered wooden frame made it appear to be an obliging target. With the dummy Starfighter under its belt, the formation exited but not without losing one Mystere to the PAF ground defence fire.

0551 hrs: By the time 6 Hunters came in for a second attack over Sargodha base, four F-86 and one F-104 had already taken off on their interception mission. MM Alam made history by shooting down 5 Hunters.

0947 hrs: 4 IAF Mysteres evaded the intercepting PAF fighters and arrived once again at Sargodha airfield to find the same 6 aircrafts still there. Again, out of 6, only one F-86 was destroyed by the Mystere cannon fire as was an old abandoned ATC building. Luckily, that was the extent of the damages.

15.41 hrs: Many hours passed and then came the final attack of the day when 2 more relentless Mysteres arrived, but this time they had to reckon with the pilot whose F-86 had been taken out not many hours before in the 3rd Mystere attack. Flt. Lt. A H. Malik took out a Mystere with a sidewinder missile and the other escaping Mystere was downed by the Sargodha ground defences.2

In all, PAF claimed 11 out of 19 aircrafts on the 7th with zero losses in air.

Present

Alam & Education: Alam fondly recalls Peshawar’s compact library of 20,000 books where he spent his Saturdays and today, his own room resembles a miniature one. Once the writer of great poetry, Alam has now graduated from literature to philosophy. For him, the Internet is no substitute for books, whatever else its merits might be. He detects a lack of awareness around him and holds the declining trend of book reading in the current generation for this dismal state of affairs. Alam does want youngsters to cultivate their mind by becoming avid reader of books on any subject. “No book is not worth reading! You will always learn something, of course with the best of books you will learn more. Cultivate your spirit by relating to God. Religion is more than prayers and fasting, it’s knowing the purpose of your life and having good values”.

History & War: Alam stresses on the establishment of a Military history unit in all history departments in the country with qualified young PhD’s as historians, in view of our long association with wars. He also notices the absence of trained War Correspondents in Pakistan and considers the study of war as being absolutely critical to becoming a competent War Correspondent.

Alam & Air Power: Alam still feels that the existence and need for a robust air power should never ever be questioned as our sovereignty cannot last without a strong armed force of which air power is an integral part and a vital component.

While Alam’s exploits of 65 continue to inspire awe 40 years on, his humility and spartan lifestyle has endeared him to a new generation of Pakistanis. Come September, the spark of interest in such heroes rekindles, bringing with it a surge in patriotism. Let this spark light up the way towards glory in your chosen profession.

Endnotes
1. Fricker John, Battle for Pakistan, Ian Allan Ltd. Shepperton,Surrey,1979,pp.13-15
2. Op.Cit. Fricker John, pp.111-115

Acknowledgement: Technical details provided by Jamal Hussain.
Archive Images Provided by Sqn Ldr Tauseef OIC Library AWC. (to be added later)

These Images from: http://www.aircraftresourcecenter.com/Gal3/2201-2300/Gal2281_F-86_Aziz/02.jpg

http://www.pafwallpapers.com/pilots_crew_1947-1983/mm_alam_3.jpg

http://www.patricksaviation.com/files/photos/full/14627_10566.jpg

New Image with MM Alam taken in Early 2012


Saturday, August 11, 2012

VIEW: Eat, Pray, Agitate / by Afrah Jamal

First Published in Daily Times / Saturday, August 11, 2012

Republished in AhmadiyyaTimes

There was some chatter about a certain coffeehouse this Ramzan on both twitter and facebook. The random post that triggered the wrath had alleged that a posse of females were refused a place to pray en-masse inside the premises. Many agree that little cafes that serve coffee in cramped quarters are not obligated to patronise requests that will inconvenience other customers. Others gleefully scream ‘blue murder’ scrambling to retrieve the Islamic Republic part of Pakistan to bolster their case. Since religion is a contact sport, the new arena was readied for some fireworks. The social media resounded with ‘Down with aforementioned coffee house’ for a few days, offset by a ‘Chalo chalo coffee ke liye chalo’ (Let’s go for Coffee).

Was the café in any real danger? Yes. No. It is hard to say. A few hundred irate consumers threatening to stage a sit-in appear harmless. But they cannot guarantee that the moral brigade patrolling the region with their portable flame of hatred will be content with ill-conceived slogans. So, not harmless. Because ‘causes’ tinged with religious flavour, tend to bring out the crazies these days.

The controversy fizzled out eventually. Another rose in the shape of a campaign against the Ahmadiyya community that had lain dormant since February 2012 and was thoughtfully resurrected by the ‘Faithful’ in time for Ramazan. Bigotry laced posters appeared all over the social media exhorting the public not to buy Shezan products. As one liberal minded citizen used the same imagery to promote the maligned company, ‘Down with Shezan’ was already in line as the next new rallying cry.

Why would a small-scale conflict on the café’s facebook page unnerve so many? Or the incarnation of malevolent minds trigger such an inexplicable rush of fear? Threats uttered in the heat of the moment can be dismissed as idle. But with slick charlatans ruling the airwaves, hysterical bigots trolling the internet, large swathes of land have fallen to the savvy extremist with the shrill voice. That voice sadly dictates virtual headlines of the day. The nation is in the throes of a religious upheaval. The path to inter-faith harmony is rigged with discriminatory laws and random edicts that magnify paranoia and override reason. And, militancy knocks at the gate. In military parlance, this might be classified as a DEFCON 1.

Since 1981, the ‘no eating in public during the Holy month’ controversy returns every year. Cinemas remain open but the food section is cordoned off (sometimes with a slippery floor sign). Like the infamous blasphemy law that the Faithful are loath to abandon, the staying power of Ehtaram (respect)–e-Ramazan Ordinance is remarkable. The ordinance prompted the raid of two eateries in Sargodha, manhandling of a couple of journalists in Islamabad, and if the rumours are to be believed, may have led to the poisoning of nine Christian nurse trainees in Karachi. The changing décor terrifies Pakistanis; as does the extraordinarily resilient nature of hate campaigns. Like its fellow discriminatory laws, this ominous sounding decree is subject to misuse. It has overstayed its welcome. There are enough victims left in the wake of such ignorant laws to justify its demise.

Ms Clinton worries that “When it comes to this human right, this key feature of stable, secure, peaceful societies, the world is sliding backwards.” The attack on a Sikh place of worship in a suburb of Milwaukee by a white supremacist (not terrorist, mind it), and the burning down of a mosque in Missouri by unknown arsonists coming on the heels of this declaration guarantees the ‘land of the free’ a place in the bigotry contest. Of course, threats to raze minority places of worship using the law as an accomplice, gives the ‘land of the pure’ a good lead.

The Shezan saga made its debut in Feb 2012 when Lahore based lawyers had the bright idea of banning these products on court premises. Recently, six minarets of an Ahmediyya prayer house built in early 1980s, were demolished in Kharian city by the police citing the ‘Section 298-B and C of the Pakistan Penal Code’, at the behest of some religious sect. There are roughly 1-4 million Ahmedis (or Qadiyyanis as they are called), in Pakistan according to one source. The label of heretic conferred in 1974 painted a tempting bull’s eye on their back. They cannot afford to take these anti-marketing gimmicks lightly.

In the current climate of fear, and given the rapidly depleting reserves of humanity, the social media cauldron can manufacture fury at a moment’s notice. Mercifully, it is also the wellspring of reason that can block the incoming vitriol with a few choice words of wisdom. The late Cecil Chaudhry famously remarked: “By faith I am a Christian but my religion is humanity.” Right now, the social media sites mirror the external turmoil, and export agitation hastening the descent into chaos, the humanity part struggles to stay afloat.

It was a very small step for social media-kind when the coffeehouse protest was called off. Since the café management had already apologised, the entire drill was unnecessary. For now, the Shezan controversy is on the back burner. And, while the ‘eat in public at your own peril’ law is still in place, at least one public eatery was observed serving children out in the open. The little coffee house was last seen doing what they do best. Serve coffee. An en-masse prayer space is still not on the menu.

The End

Image 1 by Afrah Jamal
Image 2 & 3 Courtesy of: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-Fwybx9tbwd8/TmdVq8XCWAI/AAAAAAAAA7o/QyU4iQEBEHk/s1600/shezan.JPG

http://fc00.deviantart.net/fs18/f/2007/166/7/5/defcon1_by_decar66.jpg

Saturday, July 21, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Escape from Oblivion / Author: Ikram Sehgal

Thanks to the lovely Nefer & Haya for the launch Invite

Published in Daily Times / Jul 21, 2012
Under the title: So You Think You Can Escape?
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

'In this game there are no second chances. You either win or you die.’

The man who penned these words 41 years ago was busy planning his escape from an Indian POW camp that was not really supposed to exist. Today, as a defence analyst who owns a successful business empire, he sits amiably on a stage flanked by officers from his old command, some well-known personalities from the media, and at least one fiery cricketer-turned-politician who aspires for the premiership. (See Pix Here)

The extraordinary tale of a Pakistani army captain adrift in enemy territory who went knocking at the US Consulate gate and the American Marine Sergeant on duty who saved the day (part of it anyway) appeared in print a few years ago. That, however, was not the end of the captain’s ordeal. What happened in the interval before Sgt Frank Adair stepped on the stage and after Ikram Sehgal became an escapee from Panagarh prison camp and ended up as the object of a nationwide manhunt is equally extraordinary.

The author spent 99 days in captivity. On the 100th day, he escaped. He was the first prisoner to do so from an Indian POW camp. His wrenching account of the prison break, reproduced in Escape to Oblivion was written in the intermission taken during an 84-day grilling session by the HQ ISSC-Inter Services Screening Committee, in Dacca 1971. The details were purposely kept from the public because of that little thing called the Official Secrets Act, among other things.

Ikram, who heard the laments of a splintering nation, describes himself as a living witness to the direct interference of Indians in the internal affairs of Pakistan (a ‘no-no’ at any time). He remembers life as a detainee in the backdrop of a particularly gruesome chapter from our history. Years after the event, his tone remains guarded. As he returns to the scene of the crime, he finds memory lane teeming with angry ghosts and remnants of faded hopes. While his crisp narrative resurrects the debacle, the spectre of a parallel war that raged on within the captive men rises unbidden. There is some insight into the workings of RAW (Research & Analysis Wing) — the Indian intelligence agency and its special brand of interrogation tactics these prisoners were unprepared for.

Escaping from Panagarh was not easy and the writer narrates how their vigilant captors would check for tunnelling. “They had probably read the same books that we had,” Ikram wryly observes. The Pakistani prisoners somehow manage to find moments of levity during the recurring flashes of danger. Upon seeing Sikhs they exchange Sikh jokes. When they go around telling one particularly observant guard how they would not dream of escaping when he is on guard, they mean it.

Ikram releases the hitherto unknown cases of ingenuity and derring-do from their tragic confines as he thumbs through his old survival guide. To fear is human, he announces calmly. “The meaning of fear is often lost in the wholesome embrace of the word courage.” “We eulogise courage,” he continues, “and deride fear, forgetting in our enthusiasm that courage is actually the control of, and is drawn out of fear.”

As the leading star of a prison break, he confronts the numerous barriers to escape. "Only those who can think of doing the impossible can achieve the impossible.” As a ‘destitute optimist’ he roams through the streets of Calcutta — an 80 percent communist city, occasionally slipping into Yoda mode; “a fugitive has usually nothing left except hope. His hope can lay a solid foundation, for even an inkling of hope can snowball into an avalanche.”

The Indians, according to the book, were “not sparing any expense in ‘not interfering’ in Pakistan’s internal affairs.” “Pakistanis for them were dreaded creatures,” observes Ikram, who skirts the edges of horror without sending readers down the inevitable chasm of darkness waiting at the end of every 1971 saga. By his own admission, the local intelligence-walas remained unsatisfied by the circumstances of his escape. The traditional hero’s welcome got lost in that suspicion.

Imran Khan, the keynote speaker at the book launch, though discomfited by the role our favourite ‘agencies’ played in the young Captain’s lengthy ‘debriefing’, thought that Ikram was lucky to be picked up then. Had this taken place now, Khan quipped, you would have simply become a ‘missing person’.

The passage of time does not make these excursions into the past any less unsettling. “I could have done without this experience,” Mr Sehgal confessed at the launch. But he is glad at having gone through with it nonetheless. Nevertheless, where he unearths darkness in the hearts of men, he also strives to show humanity. This winding road to freedom ripples with dramatic tension and eerie twists. Throughout his ordeal, Ikram remains magnanimous. The few good men he encountered during his incarceration, even when they happen to be his captors, earn his gratitude. Escape from Oblivion is a sleek little book whose spirited core is forever bound with an acute sense of sorrow. The Urdu version of the book is available under the name Azadi (freedom).