Saturday, December 14, 2013

VIEW: Behold a Pale Drone...& Hell(Fire) followed with it

First Published in Economic Affairs (Pakistan) / Dec 2013 Issue

The PM reportedly smiled during joint exercises held in the aftermath of an American strike that took out TTP mastermind Hakimullah Mehsud. It was triggered by one little demo, where a drone was downed - by us, in real time - with some 35mm Oerlikon guns.

A year ago Pakistan had put its pet drone technology on display in the International Defense Exhibition & Seminar (IDEAS). The interest in drone tech surfaces from time to time. It is usually preceded by a laundry list of demands that yoyo between two distinct themes - American drones (shoot ‘em), and NATO supply routes (shut ‘em). Those who bore witness to Pak armed forces fearsome capability and (drone) targeting skills in “Azm-e-Nau 4”, naturally wonder when and if they will ever get to use them. Our ROE’s (Rules of Engagements) permit action against combat aircraft that violate the airspace provided the wreckage falls within our territory. The last clause does not apply in situations where war has been officially declared. Drones fulfill the criterion, but only partially so it is not open season.

A few years ago a pair of ‘MH-60 Black Hawk’ flew under the radar and came prepared to deal with retaliation which never came, The air space violation exposed a breach in the Western border we later tried to patch up. Drones arrive unescorted. Our interception time may have improved since then but there are multiple layers of complexities to engaging intruding UAV’s that are seldom considered. That they would probably consider similar contingency plans for their unmanned missions if they expect to be challenged at the gate is a given. The next generation of predators will be equipped with proper radar jamming capability programmed to make short work of ground defense. Their escorts would take care of the rest.

Unlike previous conflicts, between PAF vs. IAF or PAF pilots vs. Israeli’s where the former acquitted itself with honour, PAF vs. USAF, is a different ballgame and will invoke a new set of rules and demand some major strategic reshuffling. Since both nations are, if not on the same page, then flailing around the same chapter makes military action unrealistic. It also makes televised sessions starring leaders of the free world yowling about sovereignty, irrelevant.

Curtailing drone strikes was on Pak delegation’s agenda when they flew off to Washington this October. The Premier’s request to Obama was allegedly met by a non-committal shrug. A promise grudgingly given to hit pause on strikes anytime peace is in the works, would later be followed by an attack on the fringes of KPK. (21 Nov 2013). Technically this attack was Haqqani related - a group not under the peace umbrella. Yet as they inch closer to settled territory, we stray deeper into a Catch-22 nightmare impossible for spin-doctors to juggle. Drones will probably remain on the menu as long as HVT’s stay on the horizon.

But shadow wars have a dark side that makes them untenable. According to one news agency, Obama signed up for every Pentagon strike but the CIA had autonomy allowing it to operate outside the perimeters. This came in handy when they mistakenly took down a ‘jirga’ instead of the ‘enemy’ and could walk away with an ‘oops my bad’ instead of being court-martialed. But there are some who divide the blame evenly between the two allies.

A piece by a former Navy aviator / top gun graduate (Michael W. Lewis) challenges the grim statistics wielded in the wake of surgical strikes, and diverts attention to Pak military presence maintained in that area that he believes is responsible for much of the fear, and perhaps some of the mayhem. He is referring to a suspected U.S. strike that killed a 68 year old grandmother (Mamana Bibi) last year and flourishes an Amnesty Report in the air to drive his point home. Our fleet of Falco’s that reportedly fly lower than their US counterparts as they patrol the area are his smoking gun as he probes the events of 24 October 2012. Once upon a time we covered for our allies – Lewis’s arguments would imply that they might be returning the favor.

While Amnesty acknowledges the difficulties in gathering ‘Intel’ from no man’s land, the eye witness accounts cited by the author are used as primer. Their statements insist that “up to three drones were hovering above their home for some hours before and at least several minutes after her killing.” Formation flying is admittedly a fighter’s style as he points out, but Pak military does not have Hellfire missiles, which is how they were busted when they tried to take credit for an early drone attack that killed an Egyptian Al Qaeda commander in a bid to cover for the U.S in 2006. The story fell apart when a journalist called Hayatullah Khan exposed the lie and in doing so perhaps signed his death warrant. Since U.S. drone appearances were not the norm back then, the revelation would trigger a chain reaction of resentment and rage that remains on perpetual simmer.

In Mamana’s case, Hellfire missiles were reportedly found on the scene. We still do not have any. The specter of official cover-ups rises unbidden. Journalists like Hayatullah who contradicted the sanctioned version have had a short life span. The so called ‘no-go’ areas do make it easy to keep that shroud of secrecy in place. A manned mission gone wrong is always possible. The accompanying PR nightmare which could affect our ability to conduct future operations – also possible. That said, blurring fact, fiction and fantasy together for the misdirection to work can only last so long with free spirits like Assange,or Snowden on the prowl. If there is any truth to these charges then it is bound to come out sooner or later.

The aviator also refers to the loud noise that kept residents of drone infested territories up. Those who lived among the roar of the jet planes would recognize the sound. But stealth crafts will seldom be described as loud else that will defeat their purpose. Analysts do refer to cases where low flying drones were deliberately deployed to keep the prey on its toes. The ‘whistling death’ usually heard seconds before impact that strikes terror into the hearts of its targets reportedly comes unannounced. An independent inquiry should be launched to plow through the debris of half truths and ‘need to knows’.

Of course none of this absolves either side from the responsibility of providing fair compensation to the victims ($100 does not count), or acknowledging the true cost of ‘signature strikes’ that has a fairly loose definition of ‘combatants’. Washington’s attempts to shift drone ops from CIA to the Defense Department to get that illusion of transparency was met with a nod of approval. There have been over 350 attacks since 2004 - the numbers have fallen over the years with 26 visitations in 2013. Scaling back strikes is on the cards.

The Pak military, on the other hand is busy readying its arsenal for future wars. Pakistan reportedly lacks armed drone tech at the moment. The Falco UAV in production with Selex Galileo (Italy) since 2009 however may be destined for greater things. It has been described as a ‘medium-altitude, medium-endurance surveillance platform capable of carrying a range of payloads including several types of high resolution sensors.’ It could be a useful ally in our COIN (Counter insurgency) operations.

The military option against U.S. drones is always on the table but remains unviable as long as any tacit cooperation is in place and a common enemy lurks nearby. The haze of confusion maintained by an impetuous leadership contaminates the narrative, as does their contradictory stance on unmanned operations. They probably need the plausible deniability for later when they go talking peace.

But the storm whipped up for domestic consumption leads to wasted hours spent logging protests, serving demarches and taking services chiefs away from their job to pacify a gaggle of irate Parliamentarians curious about their warriors continued silence. While it is good to order a review of military preparedness every now and then, it should be viewed in the context of political fall-outs, covert deals, secret bases and diplomatic farces.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

OP-ED: Grim Reapers & the Peace 'Corpse'


Published in Daily Times / 10 Nov 2013 Sunday Ed

The death of an important Taliban figure is a cause célèbre at drone central. Here, not so much. Here, we prefer to sit around the fireside and wallow. That in turn pushes drone morality, sovereignty violation, the untimely demise of the peace talk genie, and terrorism US ‘shtyle’ to the top of the agenda while the smiling face of a dead Mehsud looks on.

The US-made spanner, which upset the Waziristan bound applecart, was unexpected. Or was it? An incident took place in Afghanistan prior to the appearance of that Predator. Killing Hakeemullah Mehsud — a man with a double bounty over his head (in dollars and Pak rupees) — comes on the heels of Latif Mehsud’s capture in Afghanistan in early October 2013. The Tehreek-e-Taliban’s (TTP’s) right hand man, allegedly caught canoodling with KHAD/NDS and picked up by our mutual friends, may hold the key.

Rumour has it that Mehsud was being cultivated as an Afghan asset to get even with Pakistani agencies. There is no love lost between KHAD/NDS (National Directorate of Security) and ISI or Karzai and Nawaz, notwithstanding all this talk of ‘Muslim brotherhood’. The Pak-sponsored science project (the original Taliban) foisted on them, reportedly haunts Afghans to this day. If Mehsud had been turned, then the so-called truce was automatically void. No one likes a spy.

What would be the reaction of the state when Mehsud’s allegedly unholy alliance came to the fore, assuming that it did as a result of shared ‘intel’? Pakistan could not have wanted an Afghan stooge in their carefully cultivated peace mix. Wasn’t it in their joint interest then to have him taken out of the equation? In a way, Hakeemullah Mehsud’s demise was well timed. And in an ideal world no one would blame them for neutralising duplicitous heads who have the blood of Pakistani/Afghani/American citizens on their hands.

Mehsud granted an interview to BBC days after his henchman’s run-in with the Americans. The transcript is illuminating.

The TTP continues to keep jihad against infidels, and by association Pakistani men, women and children as the centrepiece, even after the US withdrawal. The most telling part, however, is their precondition for a ceasefire, which is an end to drone wars. Mehsud also threw in support for future conflicts with other enemies as a bonus in what could be an attempt to bait an India-obsessed army. For someone who kept insisting that the media will not be used to convey terms, conditions or used for proxy negotiations, there were plenty strewn about.

With his trusty deputy in US custody, did the TTP leader realise he was on his way to becoming a statistic? Latif may have sung since he is in Bagram, and given up Mehsud’s location. But the Taliban leadership is never stationary. This could be when Mehsud Sr saw the proverbial writing on the cave wall and decided to vie for the precious immunity pin by dangling the same old lie knowing Pakistani’s kindly (read gullible) nature. The sense of complacency that followed perhaps helped pinpoint his whereabouts.

In the past, treaties have been mere stalling tactics giving TTP time to regroup, order more ammo, recap on their training and wait out the winter. This time, as ‘talks about talks’ were underway, the body count on the Pakistani side kept mounting but not once did anyone question the purely one-sided arrangement. The idea that the November 1 attack could turn out to be part of a covert strategy, which felt that slicing the head to make the writhing TTP more amenable to talks, could effectively drown out the howls of political/media pundits. And such surgical strikes take a leaf out of the Taliban’s own playbook: don’t let talk of peace get in the way of war.

Such ideas are rarely aired in toxic environments. Not when Imran Khan’s charged appeal to stop NATO supply and Chaudhry Nisar’s outraged press conference to question the sinister timing of said attack, and maybe let slip that this is not our war, take the lead.

The last time NATO supply routes became news was after the Salala incident where 24 Pakistani soldiers came in the line of (US) fire. This time it is to protest the slaying of a terrorist. Somewhere, our fallen are turning in their graves.

The US-Pakistan alliance frosts over yet again; the US ambassador has been served with a demarche while the state continues to maintain plausible deniability over possible intelligence sharing ops that ensure the success of such strikes. It would be naïve to think that the terror network will remain in disarray or the leadership void be left empty for long. The TTP scale may not register degraded capability but this might count as a psychological victory in some circles. Unfortunately, this could also trigger the dreaded revenge cycle.

The ‘Most Wanted’ holed up in Pakistan and safe havens dotted across the countryside threaten the integrity of a sovereign state far more than any drone ever could. Stacking a viable peace strategy with the right proportions of carrot and stick and less emotional leaders at the helm might yield a more durable framework. The TTP will always be suspicious of any overtures, as long as the drones stay overhead, but they have yet to earn the state’s trust. Or its sympathy.

Image 1 Link

Image 2 Link

OP-ED: Second Coming of Pakistani Cinema

Published in Economic Affairs / Nov 2013

One day an actress, a filmmaker, a director and a distributor gathered to talk shop over tea. Even though a regional film had won at the NY City International film festival, and another cleaned up the local box-office a few years ago, the obituary for the Pakistani cinema was delivered a while ago. It was to remain uncontested for a long time.

Film buffs were left wondering why not a single award winning film (Seedlings) or documentary (Saving Face) had been screened in the gleaming new cinemas; or where that little advertised indie horror flick disappeared to, moments after its debut. And do local movies even stand a chance against the distributor’s bottom line, or space unfairly reserved for the Indian blockbuster for that matter. Mandviwalla opened the gateway to neighbouring cinema and fielded objections of an uneven playing field with a shrug - good Pakistani movies need not fear any Indian invasion in his view.

A few months pass. The distributor and filmmaker are together once again at KLF (Karachi Literature Festival) 2013. ‘Seedlings’ is still not in cinemas, which is strange and the people who can make it happen chalk it up to a lack of communication. That they have been thrown together twice in a span of 6 months and could not work out a distribution plan looks odd.

As with all good horror stories, something had survived in the wreckage and those ready to write off the industry will be off cheering, and not just because of all the multiplexes designed with the requisite 3D bells & whistles mushrooming across a war torn land. They are hopeful because of ‘Main Hoon Shahid Afridi’ (MHSA), ‘Chambaili’, and ‘Zinda Bhaag’ that reclaimed lost territory and ‘Waar’ that recently made a killing at the box office.

What we see now is termed as a ‘resurrection’ - not a ‘revival’ – according to the same cynical distributor, previously seen arguing with the Senate where he is asked why he cannot make just one good film. ‘Sir we are not making films at all,’ he would point out. This was way back when ‘Bol’ and ‘Khuda Ke Liye’ by Shoaib Mansoor had helped reignite the passion. But ‘Bol’, Mandviwalla had insisted was an exception and not the rule; else there would be others in its wake.

The flash-forward to September 2013 is interesting where funny-man Fakhr-e-Alam (former rapper / host) is on the censor board, a Pakistani film has been sent in for Oscar consideration, and yet another has garnered international recognition. And ‘Seedlings’ has broken the jinx (and communication barrier) and plays to a sold out house albeit under a different name.

Back in 2012 however, Zeba Bakhtiar, Meher Jaffri, Asim Raza and Nadeem Mandviwalla are still mulling over the mangled remains of the Pakistani film industry. They know where the bodies are buried – so to speak and can provide some context. There was Zeba, dwelling upon the pre-production challenges while shooting / editing songs where they would be missing ‘a production designer, screenplay / scriptwriter, or art directors (only commercial ones).’ Sometimes cultural constraints stand in the way of progress and Meher admitted that there was no makeup credit in her movie and that she had a ‘horrendous time’ trying to find one. Zeba knows a qualified makeup artist from Hollywood whose husband refuses to let her work. ‘Bad makeup destroys the most beautiful piece,’ in her opinion. Our girls and boys, she decided, are better looking till they come in front of camera, the fault lies with Image consultants who happen to be missing from the picture - literally. Asim Raza’s impressive credentials are generally met by ‘...so what do you do otherwise?’ To him ‘filmmaking is a profession to be taken seriously and not a hobby to be dabbled in.’ And Mandviwalla – the eternal realist doubting that an ordinary mortal can ever hope to conjure up the backing of a ‘Bol’.

He asserts that ‘Pakistan cannot start at the top,’ and the new guard is not trying to. There are, however making history with the first sports movie, first political statement and now the first ‘war against terror’ flick setting the production bar higher than it’s ever been. Not bad for a supposedly moribund industry.

The vibrant new face of Pakistani is ensuring that golden oldies stay relevant as fresh faces arrive and exciting opportunities are born. Asim, whose teleplay ‘Behadd’ recently aired on HUM TV had commented on the obsession with the director’s seat. He also admitted that the remaining crew seldom get due credit in this business. 'If there had been production designers seated here today, they would have helped onlookers see their prospects.’ He has a point.

The panel of experts eye enthusiasts ‘who enter the business sans a business plan or a long term strategy,’ in a place where the sole incentive is money or recognition, with a ‘...what’s in it for me?’ thought bubble hovering atop their heads and concede that such mindsets inevitably end in disappointment. While a great line-up lies ready to roll out hoping to mobilize cinema goers for a long over-due reunion, people will stay as long as the show stays on script.

Waar’ for all its slick production values and wonderfully restrained acting that reinstated the box office crown to its rightful owner but left the screenplay unattended. Critics might find plenty to crucify but with a budget that cannot compete with Michael Bay, (who operates with the support of the mighty DOD (Department of Defence) behind him), the truly spectacular displays of firepower and awe inspiring shots of rising ‘helos’ gets ‘Waar’ a standing ovation. While not exactly cerebral, the movies are exploring the countryside without enlisting theatricality or a troupe of dancing queens. Those who complained about the absence of role models would approve of the new line up of heroes that for now come in pure white but one day may embrace dual shades.

When talking of commercial, parallel and art cinema Asim had suggested that it was time to take a new direction..., ‘substantial cinema’ – he called it .’...something that gives one reason to believe and hope. Whether one puts songs or not, that’s up to you but make it intelligent enough to capture the interest.’ This then in his opinion is the first step in making a commercially viable cinema. But when you make something for yourself, he added, then do not be surprised it doesn’t go far. A classic underdog story unfolds and sage insiders who know what sent the first industry to an early grave regard the second coming with trepidation. The makeover however has yielded a cinema carved from dramatic cultural markers that need not fear its nemesis as it resumes its march under the ‘Made in Pakistan’ banner.

Image Link

Waar Image Link

Saturday, October 26, 2013

STYLE: A ‘Haute’ Ticket Item


Published in Daily Times Pakistan (Entertainment Section) / 26 Oct 2013

Your talent will get you far, but your passion will get you further” – Tabassaum
Mughal

Bath island - turns out, not really an island; it is a place where one can find, among other things Tabassum Mughal’s outlet and her shiny new salon. Her signature piece was featured in Bridal Couture 2013 (BCW) earlier this year. Her collection was later seen on London’s runway. And a bewitched crowd now circles her new line for Eid, drawn by a certainty that behind the closed doors lay the proverbial ‘one’.

They are not wrong. As she unveils a new vision of silk & satin to the world, there will be a constant embedded in that impeccable fashion statement. She has achieved a wonderful hybrid harvested from the rich heritage and decadent flavors that define our poorly misunderstood region.

The person in-charge of these creative coups can be seen flitting in and out of the situation room – otherwise known as the exhibition space. At the counter, a buyer is trying to pay far less than the design is worth. It is not her fault really. She walks off with the purchase after the designer decides to honor, what could well be a mischievously mislabeled tag. ‘Our mistake, our responsibility’ she intones and darts off in another direction, which, given those pencil thin heels, is quite a feat. The press corp. arrives and demands to know if there will be important people for them to shoot; she assures them there will. They are pacified.

This is what Tabassum does - manage incoming setbacks with a gracious nod and complies with an unending tide of celebrity / friend requests of keeping a little ‘something something’ aside with a cool, business like precision. A quick Google search reveals the modest beginnings of ‘Tabassum Mughal Haute Couture’, its mastermind busy working in a shop undeterred by the cramped spaces – in 10 *10 dimensions, with 2 workers in tow whom she trained; and in a span of a few years became an owner of her own workshop, with an army of 300 workers whom she personally supervises. It is a moving tale – one that gives a bit of insight into her unique design philosophy used to illuminate the path to success.

Her label offers Luxury Pret - some fit for a queen, others perfect for a day out on the set, or for those red carpets where famous faces are seen proudly waving the Tabassum Mughal banner. They range from Rs. 57000 (making some stop in their tracks) to Rs.4000 (making others hastily call dibs before the figure changes) – each piece exquisitely crafted - an exotic fusion of futuristic beats and quaint echoes.

The blend of contemporary / conservative on display caters for high-end clients and mortals with its graceful lines and perfect cuts calibrated with classic tones. Someone who believes that only a leopard can pull off a leopard print will make an exception for a TM design, because the traditional blueprint, when reinterpreted on shamus silk would make any cat proud, and its owner glow.

It is art, of a kind, and the artist engraves her passion and imperial sense of style on limited editions leaving an indelible mark on the Pakistani fashion scene. The timeless appeal of Tabassum’s creations combined with the origins of the Mughal Empire upgrades this ambitious young designer from player to asset in our style wars.


Monday, October 7, 2013

VIEW: Syria’s Detox Debate


Published in Economic Affairs / Oct 2013 issue

‘The Newsroom’ stumbled upon evidence of a black op codenamed ‘Genoa’ in Season 2 where Sarin was allegedly used, but by Obama and not by Syrians. The show employed a premise that flitted with the potential fallout should evidence of war crimes perpetrated by an American administration were to surface, and bore no resemblance - accidental or otherwise, to events that were to unfold a few weeks later.

The fictional Sarin saga would be resolved just as the Syrian episode was gaining traction. Syria’s use of banned Chemical weapons would send America’s Commander-in-Chief scrambling to the war room to devise an appropriate response, give Russia an opportunity to practice their ‘mediator of the month’ skills, and put Assad on a makeshift dock.

The world gets ready to batten down the hatches in the midst of all the political point scoring. Because the decision to use force that could potentially cripple a nation is not without side effects; the creation of a hydra that feeds off the ethnic/sectarian divide and further destabilizes an already troubled region being the most obvious one. ‘It’s not complicated’ Kerry intones; Sarin was used, Assad has them, ‘ergo, Ipso, facto, Columbo, oreo’ – it was ‘he’. America has cried WMD one too many times and are now having some trouble rallying enough pitchforks.

Syria, however does possess biological weaponry since it recently agreed to become a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, effectively placing its stockpile under international control. And Obama seeks the destruction of all, though Assad says it will take a year and cost a billion dollars.

By pleading guilty to possession, Syria fits in that ‘Slam Dunk’ profile mistakenly used for Iraq. Since 189 nations have officially said no to WMD’s, there are real consequences to using such banned substances, or keeping them around the house for that matter.

So far the regime has not admitted to using Sarin. Clever. But Sarin was used. Whether it was by Assad, ‘a man of no credibility’ as Kerry so eloquently muttered or the rebel factions made up of ‘hard-line Islamists’, as IHS Jane sees them, alongside the Free Syrian Army, or mercenaries, is a matter of some dispute. The nature of the fight changes with the results of these findings as does the tempo of the war drums.

But the fellow holding up grisly images of dead Syrian kids in Congress to sell war has gotten hold of an outdated narrative, given how ordering forced spring cleaning of Assad’s house shows a multi-tiered strategy at play with altruism at the very bottom of the scale. The act reportedly benefits regional players, neutralizes a potential threat, sends a ‘behave or else message’ to rogue states and pacifies some very worried neighbors - not necessarily in that order. If innocents get saved in the process - excellent but the role of savior is seldom listed on foreign policy agendas.

There is Israel’s finance minister who is not too happy living next door to a regime engaged in civil war with a cache of WMD’s stashed in the basement. The Arab League (22 member states) would not mind seeing Assad knocked down a few pegs and pro-Syrian regimes like Iran curtailed. To that end they stand together with Israel, and maybe Turkey and in an awkward twist of fate, the Al-Qaeda.

Between America’s call to arms and Russian’s plea for peace the military option is on pause. Their diplomatic dance-off buys Syria time. The discussion oscillates from strikes to disarmament to a mutating battlefield. The plot thickens when Russia steps up with evidence allegedly provided by the Syrian government that conveniently implicates the rebels. It curdles when they waved aside the ‘smoking gun’ which they say is actually an out of service missile and quickly point to the ‘Made in USSR’ sign. They can do so because the original UN report notes the presence of surface to surface missiles but their investigation reportedly has limited scope; it determines the ‘what, where & when’ and not the ‘who’ (Amanpour). It is open to interpretation since America has yet to share intelligence that conclusively proves Assad’s guilt.

The ‘whodunit’ part remains unresolved prompting the former Cold War adversaries to join in the manhunt. Russians are dismissive of UN findings and continue to glower; they want attacks before 21st August investigated, specifically the March 19th 2013 incident. Both the US and Russia are playing for high stakes and their respective self interests might colour their world view.

The Middle East waits with bated breath as clouds of war darken the horizon, limited or otherwise. The fear of escalation is real. Resident analysts aren’t worried given these are meant to be surgical strikes and not a regime change – on paper at least. Syria is nothing like Iraq they insist. It is difficult to predict the contours of an Assad free Syria, but there are plenty of takers in the form of jihadists mixed in with opposition waiting in the wings. That rebel factions are already turning on each other prompting Turkey to close a vital border and giving extremists a foothold, shows the aforementioned hydra prophesy coming to pass.

The United States, notwithstanding the string of Middle Eastern / South Asian misadventures might believe that a credible threat of military strikes brought Assad to his senses. Obama will not take them off the table. The Russians, despite their ominous warnings, would reportedly not have interfered with America, had Syria refused to play nice. Does it also mean they will not run interference on the ground like they may have done in Afghanistan for some good old fashioned payback?

The HBO show that pursued the elusive trail of WMD’s on the Pak-Afghan border which could topple an administration and jeopardize America’s standing in the free world speaks to the seriousness of WMD related charges. Framed against a stark chemical warfare laced backdrop, the specter of Syria’s lethal arsenal upstages its domestic woes. War must always be the last resort. ‘Detox’ plans, on the other hand can be handy negotiating tools, notwithstanding their Russian origin.


BOOK REVIEW: A Restless Wind

First Published by Daily Times (Pakistan) / 07 Oct 2013

This is an Advanced Review

Zara Hamilton returns to Qila, her ancestral home, to a dying aunt, a troubling secret and a cradle full of memories. Her Pakistani origins, Indian roots and British background add spice to a casual road trip. Her quest will be inscribed against a stormy backdrop darkened by communal rites, tired superstitions and Hindu-Muslim divides. It casts the requisite pall on princely states, and their gracious guardians, and turns the few memorable chapters from her life into a lovely epic.

Shahrukh Husain lifts the barriers separating two worlds, unearthing crevices filled with centuries of emotional debris and calcified remains of old glories. Her new novel traces their luxurious outlines with grim determination as it staggers into a vault of memories and retrieves a closet full of worn-out skeletons in search of clarity.

Married to an Englishman, the protagonist’s dual identity and rich heritage come in handy as she makes the journey to a land far, far away. Trivikrampur becomes the perfect foil. It is where old flames are dusted off and stately homes reopened as the protagonist treads into the unknown. It is where readers can sift through the secrets and lies through a series of flashbacks, as a multi-ethnic cast of characters take the rein.

The writing becomes a bridge between a fairytale existence of maharajas and mystics set next to a comfortless terrain occupied by marauding bandits, maniacal activists and potential spies. Yes spies. Each layer adds a different dimension and tries to cut through the stiff formalities separating the Ramzi and Vamana dynasties. Occasionally, it runs into roadblocks when a simple family drama/bittersweet homecoming collides with sinister matters of national (in)security, sending its principle character hurtling through a spy thriller fantasy.

Ms Husain is a British writer of Pakistani origins whose work as a psychotherapist has put her in the path of asylum seekers. It allows her to devise an exploratory mission that strays beyond designated waters and taps into the desperation and heartache in and around the qila (fortress). There will be an array of side stories tugging at the plot; Zara’s abandonment issues and faith are paired with lingering post-Partition hostilities and the human condition.

The sojourn in the Qila will remain shrouded in mystery, a veil of mist that never lifts completely, leaving distorted shadows, providing a cosy home for dreams and nightmares. Readers can follow the trail of suspense leading to Zara’s old abode where remnants of a slightly gothic feel permeate the air, or they can opt for secondary plot-lines that passionately argue for lost souls cast out in the cold. The Oxford years, however, breeze by without disturbing the ornate setting or its wild untamable heart.

A Restless Wind can be viewed from multiple angles: as a salacious soap opera, a damning political indictment, a glorious tale of two dynasties or an awkward spy thriller that merrily paddle the shores of East & West and dock somewhere in the middle.

Their motherland’s luminescent core is dutifully mined for the exotic flavors; its deep-seated prejudices put on public display. A sprinkling of supernatural livens up forgotten legends and infuses the narrative with a dreamy quality. It dashes in and out of genres, tripping alarms, laying bare a gaping void within the homeland and paranoia-driven policies that mar regional peace. And in between the drama and fancy trimmings, migrant woes remain relevant.

That the character’s protective cocoon provided by her Western connections dissolves easily does not require suspension of disbelief. The transformation from a theatrical countryside flanked by mysticism and theology to a landscape bleached of colour is achieved by a few frighteningly simple strokes. The local Muslims are seen musing if they are still outsiders after a thousand years; the visitors debate their status in their adopted countries. Since Zara wears the cape of a crusader, which will ultimately set her on a collision course, is perhaps an unavoidable twist. That anyone can come out of such an ordeal without scars leaves the final act with some jagged edges.

A Restless Wind is an unconventional family portrait, evocative of Trivikrampur’s lost grandeur and primitive soul. Here the east lives up to its reputation, a place of wonder and magic, its savage streak visible beneath those garish hues. It may not always be a flattering depiction but it is a powerful one.


Link to Daily Times Site.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

How I Met Your Country


BOOK REVIEW: The Redeemers

Published by Daily Times (Pakistan) / 15 Sep 2013

Author: Suresh Taneja

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Thank you Suresh T. for the review copy

‘The Redeemers’ can easily be in the fantasy / fiction aisle because of its ludicrous premise. It begins with India at the top of the superpower pyramid for starters’ and its citizens seen breezing through U.S. immigration sans visa. It then goes on to cast four conscientious youngsters responsible for its remarkable transition as narrators who step in to the ring and relive the heady years leading up to the year 2030. The glittering future demands an enormous suspension of disbelief, present day India however with all the spectacular excesses will make the South Asian community feel right at home. Suresh Taneja’s blue print for a new domestic world order can ostensibly be mapped on both sides of the border and not just because of unavoidable similarities in terrain.

The author is a Chartered Accountant with a conscience and a vision to alter the contours of (potentially) failed state syndromes. He will then propose a radical line up of ideas to prop up its shiny new architecture. Recruiting a motivated band of young ‘uns to lead the charge will be the next step - their grievances will be revealing, their optimism - blinding. Leaders out to ‘enrich themselves’ at the cost of national interest enter on cue; papers that carry only ‘morbid news’, a sensationalism driven media uninterested in ‘events of substance’, its sole purpose to meet commercial targets. The corrupt infrastructure depicted here is eerily similar – its tentacles spreading from politicians and bureaucracy to the smallest grunt laid out for the world to see prompting a flurry of soul searching on a nation-wide scale.

Readers already know where the plot is headed. How it gets there keeps them tuned in to the simplistic conversation between the band of protagonists / best friends referred throughout as G4, as they work on the dream and their well meaning parents (G3) brought in to cheer from the sidelines.

The ambitious premise attempts to reset the moral compass. Suresh ploughs through the objections and brings in the cavalry. But the only place where making children the gatekeepers of morality can work so well is inside a fictional realm. The storyline takes several detours to give readers a good sense of the treacherous waters the heroic G4 must navigate. ‘Who bothers about elections,’ they complain at one point, ‘...does it make a difference whether party A or B comes in power? I feel stupid casting my vote.’ The path to redemption will not be easy. That change does not come overnight and requires an ‘all hand on deck approach’ adds a layer of believability to the scenario; tapping into ‘Reality TV’ to get the stakeholders attention plays well in this environment.

The writer raises an entire empire from these outlandish outlines, and gives them a respectable sheen. His assertion that the books underlying appeal lay in its familiar structure however, has merit, and the portrayal of the endemic corruption that apparently plagues both sides of the divide does strike a chord. While Pakistan’s negative are amplified for global consumption, India’s problematic side is less evident due to excellent PR perhaps. It is an illuminating journey, filled with twists and turns, exposing the cracks in a seemingly perfect facade.

The odds will be stacked against these friendly neighbourhood crusaders. Suresh is not oblivious to the rigged nature of the system or the agenda driven policies that layer its foundation. The book chastises and condemns their chosen lot, bemoaning the stark contrast between an Indians behaviour abroad (law abiding) and home (not so much) punctuated with exposition. ‘We all need to be blamed too. We don’t want to pay taxes; we ask for out of the way favours; we don’t have patience to wait and thus offer bribes to speed things up. This has become the norm in our country.’

There are the usual ‘haves’ who find the system ‘convenient’; offenders who do not get their comeuppance and authorities blithely off somewhere making money. ‘....It is a win-win situation for these people;’ they realize, ‘......what suffers in the process are the moral values which should actually be non-negotiable for the character of a nation.’

The book will have a strange effect on readers – the exuberance is exhilarating – the language is a turn off, and the earnest tone is endearing. In many ways this is a bold manoeuvre, for it dissipates the ‘shining’ myth and in its stead places a more sombre, less sure-footed model on display. ‘The Redeemers’ also serves as dry run (of sorts) intent on changing their status from a cautionary tale ‘where doctors are medical businessmen chasing targets to a progressive state.

It also makes it easy to imagine the future should Pakistan go on a similar cleanse. Bin Laden might have been arrested for one long before those SEALS descended upon his lair, since the Abbottabad Commission Report claims he was stopped for speeding once but his henchmen settled the matter with the law. In ‘The Redeemers’ universe no one bribes a cop and gets away with it.

G4/G3 helps a morally upright nation with its priorities in order fast track to the top but not before brutally ripping apart the illusion as it approaches its fairy tale happy ending. While it can have the potential to spark the imagination, should it ever come to the silver screen, the most glaring flaw would be the execution and presentation. The editing and language both need to go through several revisions before they can be formally accepted.

Enterprising youngsters hoping to emulate G4 might face the same kind of reality check that Pakistanis confronted recently where the theme of changing the political culture captured the popular imagination and the subsequent elections brought them back to the corruption infested earth. The kind of change they expected was perhaps unrealistic but it did not deter the tidal wave of hope. This lot however, forges ahead in this unorthodox concoction of realism / fantasy that serves to inspire and entertain, and they cheerfully carry out their ambush hoping to right decades of wrong.


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

OP-ED: A Veiled Threat


First Published in Economic Affairs (Pakistan) / Sep 2013 issue

The ‘Avenger’ phenomena hit Pakistan sometime in late July 2013. The choice of the name had an instant effect - loud cheers, inaudible gasps, startled looks and a few boos were reported. A musician, composer and most recently Campaign Ambassador for ‘Save the Children's Everyone Campaign’, who reigned in the 1990’s as the front man for ‘Awaz’, and nowadays goes by the name of Aaron Haroon (redundancy alert!) is responsible for these seismic changes in the national topography.

Back then the band made history when ‘Janeman’ became the first Pakistani song to air on MTV; now another precedent has been set as Pakistan’s first animated, female super hero takes the stage.

It is different because the secret identity goes undercover in a burka. It is controversial for the same reason.

A school teacher by day, Jiya dons the invisibility cloak before setting out to conquer the world. A burka has been used here as a symbol of empowerment - more on that later. A Young Jiya aka the ‘Burka Avenger’ who happens to be faster than a speeding Tez-gam, leaps over short buildings or telephone poles, defies gravity and could well be Pakistan’s newest ally on the frontline of terror.

That she is a firm believer in the ‘pen is mightier than the sword’ adage gives her an advantage. ‘Stationary’ makes for handy weapons in B.A universe and her costume allows her to wander the countryside undetected, like most women in that region and maybe a few ‘Most Wanteds’ from across its borders. In reality, this would not be functional as a uniform and is likely to put an end to those flying squirrel moves. Fantasy has rushed to the aid and an invincibility clause has been quietly added to the conservative mix. Regardless of the snazzy makeover, using the b - word as a centerpiece has drawn focus away from the shows noble cause and bold agenda.


The 22 minute segment uses a slick mix of humor, music and martial arts to sound the alarm and alter perceptions. The upbeat tone is padded by an endearing line up of characters including heroic young ‘uns and baddies with imaginative names like ‘Baba Bandook’ (a mean magician), ‘Vadero Pajero’ (a mean feudal). Haroon, along with other well known singers will make an appearance during the course of the show. As far as super heroes go, this is pretty standard fare but for the lady’s choice of attire and real life implications of her work.

There are plenty of monsters to choose from and territory to reclaim and the storylines are set against a somber backdrop. A few basic strokes have been used to render the life of an orphaned little girl raised by an adopted father figure/ resident Obi One Kenobi who trains her in the art of Takht Kabaddi, used to restore balance in a topsy-turvy world. Go Avenger. That she reaches for the most logical item to conceal her identity is understandable in many ways. Where super heroes stand out in their mitts, hoodies, capes and /or bunny/ bat/ cat ears, Jiya can melt into the crowd, and would be impossible to trace - a covert operators dream. Being outsmarted by someone in medieval gear is an added insult.

It enters a contentious zone when tools of oppression are shown to be interchangeable with power. Some might argue that fighting extremism in the one thing used to subjugate women would be considered poetic justice. Others would continue to glare at the offending burka and be reminded of tales where women in parts of Pakistan have been enslaved by invading bands of good/ bad/ evil Taliban running amok.

Ordinarily, this would be a stroke of genius that helps its character maintain a low profile but in a bid to steer away from one stereotype – the super hero in the ill-fitting body armour – the creators have inadvertently opted for another - that of the invisible woman associated with this part of the world. Interestingly enough, there will be no burkas in Jiya - the school marm’s closet. She is a free spirit with moxie aplenty, not inclined to cover her head or conform to that standard issue image on conservative brochures – which is a refreshing sight in this era of creeping radicalization and holier-than-thou mugs plastered across the media.


The super hero community typically does not rummage through attics or go shopping for that perfect off-the-rack number and while they may trade looks for comfort, their iconic suits stay in view through-out the journey. There is Batman, in the reboot seen ordering those customized ‘Made in China’ masks that would not survive a ‘POW’ to the head; or the ‘Man of Steel’ known for re-using his ‘baby blankie’ for its invincibility but not his design sense. The creative should have considered the fall-out when rolling out the recycled collection.

Perhaps Jiya had a similar epiphany when she was raking her brains for a suitable dress to wear at the coming out party for her alter-ego and saw a chance to remake the cumbersome burka into a fetching guise. Her creators would have been within their rights to let her put her own spin on the name and saved themselves a lot of grief and time spent in explanations. The girl behind the mask, who casually bonks her foes with books, uses pens to impale and cut through the haze of mixed messages, propaganda and murky morality.

But Jiya, the courageous educator who refuses to conform and holds on to her ideals deserves to be lauded and is someone to look up to. ‘The lady in black’ as she has been referred to in the theme song is on a worthy mission. Instead of her formidable abilities, and an unambiguous stance on crucial issues – which is more than most politicians can say, the spotlight continues to remain on her fashion choices. In hindsight it might have been wiser not making the crusaders cape the lynchpin - a protagonist forced to navigate a hostile terrain while trying to talk her country-men down from the ledge, makes for a far better headline.

The show offers fun-sized doses of kid friendly entertainment wrapped in layers of comedy topped with a public service message, and will tackle other issues along the way. Taliban are never named directly and are not the only threat out there; a dangerous void that allowed extremism to take root needs to be countered and thus far the media has been unable to stir up support for an environmental cleanup. When the burial of a martyred Ahmedi soldier who receives full military honor becomes news as if his religious beliefs are in any way relevant to his sacrifice, it is time to rally around. But the call to arms often gets lost in the din and stories about the persecution of Christians, the murder of liberal crusaders, or ethnic cleansing resurface with depressing regularity.

Sending the invisible woman behind enemy lines marks the beginning of the resistance. Since she is an educationist, female literacy remains at the forefront. The ‘Burka Avenger’ was reportedly conceived before Malala (Pakistan’s real life superhero) became the spokeswoman for literacy and girls rights and a universal symbol of resistance. Our heroine is up against the same horrors with bigotry at its peak and justice in short supply but unlike real life, here she can get away unscathed and live to fight another day.

The show is broadcast in Urdu, available in English and there is a global audience breathlessly awaiting the Avenger’s debut. According to one report, Haroon is in talks with European broadcasters to have the series translated into 18 languages and broadcast in 60 countries. 13 episodes are set to air on ‘Geo Tez’ every Sunday though it is unclear if these airwaves can reach remote regions that need it most. It may be time to place an order for a stronger sounding board to avoid setting off multi-cultural minefields in the future.

Image Link

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Monday, September 2, 2013

OP-ED: What’s In A Name(sake)?


First Published in Daily Times / 2 Sep 2013

A beloved cricketer’s name adorns the billboards but this is not a biopic. The cricketing world it allegedly represents provides a compelling front but it will not be a return to his old stomping grounds. Main Hoon Shahid Afridi (MHSA) draws upon a living legend’s legacy to leverage the passion and throws in a cameo or two, but that is the extent of Afridi’s involvement. Meanwhile, somewhere in a small little village, a disgraced cricketer turned coach who trains a rag tag team will be moved centre-field. And the one thing that binds the nation together and provides the soulful soundtrack will become the anchor.

The newly minted flight is bound for cricket-ville and in some parts of the world that is reason enough to join in the festivities. Humayun Saeed, seen at the helm wearing a number of hats as the producer/actor enlists the classic underdog formula to launch his ambitious vision. The village club is in danger of being shut down, and must pin its hopes on a motley crew of dreamers, drifters and down on their luck celebrity cricketers including Afridi’s namesake, played by Noman Habib.

The filmmakers who work in contrasting colours of Pakistani society ensure that viewers stay invested in the journey by harnessing that energy native to the region. At times they can go a little overboard and scenes, however brief, designed for global consumption will leave many bewildered. They can be forgiven for summoning elements of escapist fantasy but not for setting the oldies in frat party mode, which will the rest cold.

Nevertheless, there are several reasons to root for this maiden venture. The way it tries to bring inter-faith harmony into the fold using the rivalry between a lovable Pathan fast bowler (Hamza Abbasi) and Michael Magnet (Ainan Arif), the brave Christian wicket keeper, for instance. The way it enlists a simple premise to explore the uneven terrain or make an ordinary carnival dazzle. And, the way it calls upon the land of sporting goods to hone in on the echoes of greatness in the mean streets of Sialkot.

The outlines, while not exactly cerebral, are striking and cultural markers have been liberally used to stock the stage with colourful banners and uplifting messages. Veterans like Javed Sheikh, Nadeem, Seemi Raheel and Shafqat Cheema occasionally loom in view and Summer Nicks — writer/producer of Seedlings, an award winning film — makes an appearance as the Islamabad coach. Ismail Tara outshines most as the club owner because there is no distracting camera work or ghostly chants of “Seeth Sahib Seeth Sahib” to mar his performance.

Sentimentality powers the core and sporting movie tropes merrily line its shores. With its engaging storyline (credit: Vasay Chaudhry) and careful casting, MHSA does its best to honour the game, and bar a few melodramatic missteps, stays on track. Its true appeal lies not within the gleaming citadels that lie beyond the reach of many but in the beautiful alliances forged on the field of dreams. The stereotypes are inescapable but have been gracefully handled for the most part.

That said, a black and white palette has been dusted off painting villains blacker than night and heroes with a touch of ‘man of steel’, invoking that suspension of disbelief. Also, wrapping our man Magnet in rosaries or surrounding him with crosses when his religion has already been established is uncalled for. As are the breaks in momentum with those flash sideways to the sick mother, disapproving father, or delirious sister. Granted these back-stories are needed to establish the stakes along with the challenges faced by these heroic youngsters but these side trips in the midst of a nail-biting clash of the desi Titans adversely affects the pacing. Fortunately for them, the gaming bits make up for these missed cues.

MHSA has been filmed on location and offers some breathtaking scenery. None-too-subtle messages of unity, faith, discipline beckon from every corner but a land darkened by conflict could always do with a reminder. Then there are song and dance sequences considered a staple for Pakistani film industry that have been used sparingly. With such a powerful core, the movie does not need to conjure the usual line up of suspects to keep interest from flagging. Nor should it be compelled to test the perimeters of good taste merely to generate publicity for that matter.

That a few characters get short changed is inevitable given the narrow scope. Neither the sister nor the wife is allowed to emerge from the shadows. One patiently waits to be rescued from her circumstances and lets her disability define her, not exactly a role model. Viewers can imagine the purgatory coach Akbar lived in for 15 years after losing his wife and child to the scandal that ended his career but how his estranged wife spent that time and if she made something of her life — join the family business perhaps — is not clear. All this could have been covered in one revelatory flashback instead of a revealing vignette.

A few technical glitches aside, a series of well crafted shots manage to send a jolt of life through a parched landscape and encourage misty eyed viewers to cheer on the Sialkot Shaheens anytime they stumble into the frame. Which they do often since Cricket season hits theatres from August 2013 onwards.

This is an ARY Films and Mandviwalla Entertainment presentation, directed by S Ali Raza Usama.

Image 1 Link:

Monday, August 5, 2013

Op-Ed: MQM in Hot Soup


First Published in Economic Affairs - Islamabad based Magazine (Pakistan) / Aug 2013
BY Afrah Jamal


‘What was it for
?' The BBC Two anchor asks Farooq Sattar (MQM’s Deputy Convener and Parliamentary leader) with an impassive face, referring to the stash of pounds found after a raid on Altaf Hussain’s London pad.

‘Whatever it was for’, he answers, at his inarticulate best.

The word ‘body bags’ ominously flashes on the screen, Mr. Sattar changes tactics; ‘we were all laughing’, dismissing it as a joke.

The savvy anchor runs more damning clips.

‘It is out of context’, Farooq declares. ‘There is no reference to context’, he adds helpfully.

But your own SC took notice…

‘o’ that’, ‘mere emotional outburst.

Unlike those ‘media types’ this party member would not speculate on the origins or purpose of the stash. He, like other loyalists filed away the latest episode under ‘more malicious propaganda’ and ‘sinister witch hunts’, accused BBC of falling prey to Taliban influences and continued to promote the myth of a secular, working class party. Karachi has been at the receiving end of this ‘emotional outburst’ post elections when the (self) exiled leader (known as Bhai) openly threatened a small group of protestors via conference call broadcast on local media.

Farooq Sattar on his famous denying spree is not news. But the BBC documentary aired in July 2013 that has taken on a party with the power to bring an entire city to a complete standstill, or turn it into a battlefield depending on its mood, is talk of the town.

Karachi’s fate has been inextricably linked with London for two decades and the murky relationship is now under scrutiny as MQM (Mutahidda Qaumi Movement) is now forced to respond to a mix of allegations involving election fraud, hate speech, inciting violence, money laundering and murder. Declarations about loyalists who could turn 3 talwar (3 swords) - the name of landmark where a group of citizens had gathered - into real ones should they be so inclined, lacked subtlety. Some seditious commentary that suggested separating Karachi from Pakistan should its mandate fail to please following this startling pronouncement served as an eye opener for those unused to his style of oratory. The assassination of a 70 year old lady – an important political figure from the PTI family that came on the heels of these events on the day of the re-polling was taken by many as a warning shot. In many ways, May 2013 was a game changer and could potentially alter the trajectory of its most formidable power player.

MQM, notwithstanding its controversial design is a survivor and has weathered many storms. Its benevolent front is offset by a ruthless core allowing it to maintain its stranglehold. Granted, this is not the only party with affinity for an arms bearing faction but the militant wing is reportedly used as much to keep opposition in check as it is to keep its own people in line and a city of millions in fear. Now that their chief is in a legal bind, the future of the organization is called under question.

A few months ago, a talk show host wondered if they had prepared a post-Bhai contingency. Do children sit around the house preparing for a future where their father pops off, came the strange reply. If there was a contingency, it was clearly not open for discussion. Several things have happened since then. The Committee members were roughed up by their own workers and the setup has been overhauled; its erstwhile head stepped down for 2 seconds and is now under investigation. And the ‘bhatta’ (extortion) culture which they have developed to an art form, and land grabbing was put on hold – officially.

Since the British government’s involvement, the local rumor mill has gone into overdrive and citizens have been taking bets on when and if the London based leader/speechmaker will be arrested and the nature of the ripple effects on Pakistan’s financial hub. A party that describes itself as a ‘liberal’ organization, that believes in ‘realism practicalism’ and has taken three decades to put down roots is unlikely to fizzle out should that happen. Karachi, always a hair trigger away from violence can expect blowback from the arrest. Once a beneficiary of the infamous NRO (National Reconciliation Ordinance) 2007 that gave a ‘get out of jail free card’ to the top tier leadership charged with ‘68 murders, 30 attempted murders, 10 kidnappings and 70 balwa (rioting) cases', MQM’s sliding credibility is due in part to their own heavy handed approach, and careless talk about weaponry. Even ardent supporters look sheepish and flinch at the bosses’ obviously damaged speech mode.

An ill advised letter sent to Tony Blair that offered ‘intel’ on Taliban sanctuaries among other things and asked for help in disbanding the ISI could be one reason for MQM’s prolonged lifespan. For whatever reason, Altaf Hussain’s status has been downgraded from asset to liability and without the safety net of an NRO or a justice system that can be swayed, the coming days could spell a change for its political setup. Some believe this could be pressure tactics from Britain’s side to get MQM to ‘do more’ perhaps? Or maybe they no longer find them relevant with the imminent rise of PTI. Either way, the time may have come to start thinking of re-branding the outfit and stop playing games with Pakistan’s economic heart.

Images Courtesy of: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/small/77023731.jpg
http://media.carbonated.tv/109961_story__fff.JPG

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

OP-ED: Solar Club - The Last Resort


Published in Economic Affairs (Pakistan) / July 2013

Thanks to Danish Shakil for sharing his expertise & FB / twitter walas for their help

Unkind sms’s were openly traded on the anniversary of ‘the bomb’ about how a nuclear power was unable to launch its precious arsenal because a vital component went missing for 12-20 hours. Clever memes that owe their origin to the spectacular failure of our resident electricity providers now appear on the social media with depressing regularity. The hum of generators provides a jarring soundtrack to a dull background of protesting masses out on the streets and smarmy politicians out on the trail.

After investing in UPS’s (that cannot get charged) and generators (that eat up precious fuel), homeowner’s are eyeing the solar market as a last resort. Faint glimmers from some old solar powered lights brighten up the garden. Our solar adventure ends there. As the newly sworn in government wrangles with ‘circular debts’ and drops big words like Renewable Energy, a few businesses have already made the switch to green energy. Their journey has just begun.

Going Green, for the first world is a way to cut back on those carbon footprints. For an average Pakistani, it offers, among other things, a chance to rediscover the joys of uninterrupted power supply. Modest attempts have been made to bring rural communities under the solar umbrella. The industrial sector is slowly breaking away from that unreliable old grid by exploring alternate energy sources. A bank in Faisalabad has already gone solar. Other banks have converted their ATM’s and claim that such simple steps are capable of generating 25300 MWh of energy. And a restaurant in Karachi now offers solar on the menu – its kitchen runs on green energy.

For homeowners however solar energy is not at the top of the agenda because of high cost, high risk and low expectations. Finding the perfect match can be tricky. Googling ‘solar panels Pakistan’ brings up an array of dubious looking results; the ‘too good to be true’ and legit all mixed together. There is not enough awareness at the moment to convince consumers to go all in. A few have gingerly entered the arena with a 3*4 panel installation reportedly costing Rs. 10 K used for powering ‘a computer, lights and fans’.

There is some good news on the horizon; Senior Economist MENAP, Sayem Ali in a recent appearance on Business Plus, indicated that financing solar homes could be on the cards one day; there may be an upfront cost but the negligible running expense makes for a sound investment. Solar energy, described as ‘super clean and super expensive’ is environmentally, (if not budget) friendly and promises great savings. The current energy shortfall needs to be countered on war footing and waiving import duty on solar panels is a promising start. The slew of foreign investors eager to explore the renewable energy (RE) sector along with the plummeting cost of solar panels on the global front is an encouraging sign. And the deployment of a smart grid in the Capital is an exciting opportunity.

Islamabad’s first solar on-grid power station with the capability of producing 178.9 KW has allegedly gone live in 2012. Ideally it would allow people to generate power for their own use and give back the surplus to the main grid; like they do in the civilized world. That futuristic sounding scenario still appears to be a long way off. Danish Shakil, who has expertise in this arena claims that though the solar panels from China, Germany and Taiwan come in affordable packages, vested interest groups with their cold, profit based approach ensure that these do not translate into low price tags. He believes that the Alternative Energy Development Board - AEDB should fix the price/watt like they do in other countries. He went on to declare that local scientists working on developing solar cells interested in cutting costs by as much as 75% face hurdles by aforementioned vested interests.

This attitude deters local investors from pursuing their solar dream in earnest. These comments correspond with some observations that appeared in an article in ‘The Friday Times’ about a German delegation eager to invest in solar energy infrastructure that was spurned by Pakistan and eventually ended up sealing the deal with India instead. (Balance of Power – June 14, 2013)

The solar club is expanding every day. UAE unrolls the worlds’ largest concentrated solar power station – SHAMS 1. Germany, its dark winters’ notwithstanding, is a world leader in solar power; in 2012 it reportedly produced 22 GW energy – ‘the equivalent of 20 nuclear power plants’. And Lancaster, California has added a new law to its building codes whereby solar enabled homes will be mandatory by 2014. For them Renewable Energy (RE) is clearly the future.

Crippling power cuts have become the new normal for Pakistan. Annihilating the load shedding monster makes for an effective campaign slogan; extending the solar lifeline to a floundering economy is one way to make a dignified exit from the realm of cautionary tales.

Photo Credits:

Image 1: http://brilliantpakistan.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Pakistan-Germany-agreed-on-Solar-Energy-Projects-in-Pakistan1.jpg
Image2: http://www.thenational.ae/deployedfiles/Assets/Richmedia/Image/SaxoPress/AD20130317986676-1-W_The_Shams_1_s_340x227.jpg


Sunday, July 7, 2013

SERIES REVIEW: THE KANE CHRONICLES


First Published in Daily Times (Pakistan) / 07 July 2013 under the title 'Walk Like an Egyptian...god'
Author: Rick Riordan
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

When ancients get their marching orders, it comes with an unexpected makeover. When Rick Riordan dabbles in mythology, it comes with some expected upgrades. The Heroes of Olympus, spin off to Percy Jackson and the Olympians series awakened both Roman and Greek gods for a few rounds of ‘mortal’ combat. Things happened. During the brief intermission, he rolled out a fresh set of gods, tracked down more heroes and stumbled upon a shiny new quest. The Kane Chronicles is bound for the land of Pharaohs with a brother, sister duo in tow who are descendent from an ancient line and have an Egyptologist for a father. One “lives out of a suitcase” and the other is “British.” And then they discover their true lineage and hearing voices in their collective heads becomes part of the Kane package.

Eastern mythology crackles with the same feverish energy witnessed earlier in the Greek/Roman universe that lies not too far from Brooklyn House, safe haven for this particular merry band of misfits. Never seen before deities leap out of the shadows, celebrated gods reclaim the limelight and because this is Egypt, magicians emerge from the woodworks.

Sadie and Carter Kane always seem to be on some deadline, like their counterparts in Manhattan, and must work on an ultra-steep learning curve. Egypt, best known for its preserved kings and perhaps some ‘Cold Bepsi’, naturally figures in these escapades but since the siblings have been raised apart (on differing continents), both the UK and the US can be their home away from home.

A Riordan adventure is typically sponsored by the usual brand of courage, sacrifice, honour and loyalty, and unleashing elaborate sequences of death and destruction and freelancing baddies to keep our heroes on their toes is the norm. Its modern settings notwithstanding, magic becomes the centerpiece, leaving magicians’ time to argue over the implications, political or otherwise, of hosting flighty gods. A dash of absurdity livens up the skyline. With Armageddon knocking at the gates, onlookers can always do with some levity.

Despite the similar sounding outlines, high velocity arcs and ridiculously high stakes, the multi-ethnic contours of this world add some texture to the narrative and allow thinly veiled ghosts of racial discrimination to rise to the fore. The series is supposedly a collection of recordings thoughtfully transcribed by the author and both Sadie and Carter’s perspectives come in play. Also, deities sporting a ‘Made in Egypt’ label come in stronger flavors and richer contrasts. Where Greek and Roman gods have alternating aspects, Isis and Horus can truly add “it is very, very complicated” to their status. They can be siblings, off-springs or a couple depending upon the time of the day; the convoluted family tree is carefully sorted out in The Red Pyramid before readers proceed any further. An expedition to their old stomping grounds renews old cycles, building new citadels upon a foundation of forgotten legends and ancient battles reignite the simmering tensions between Kanes and their nemesis. Their charming little realm refines reality, the ability to see both aspects of a person, here and in the Duat (Underworld, Egyptian style), for instance, which has been brilliantly rendered in striking detail.

The chronicles are furnished by same casual irreverence that marked previous mythologies giving Kane-ville an interesting edge with its compelling storytelling and historic dimensions. Each book wraps up the loose ends within the allotted time frame putting off the ‘evil vanquishing part’ for the grand finale. In Book III, Riordan cleverly ties in the Arab Spring with his mythical vision subtly binding both worlds in matching shades of chaos. A legion of endearing characters does join the crusade in Book II, a few get sidelined, however, and feel like window dressing to the quest. The Kanes happily bicker in the voice-over but this constant switching between viewpoints of a 12 and 14-year-old can be tad disorienting. It takes a while to get acclimatised to the Kane universe, their magical heritage, professed destiny and whirlwind itinerary. They get their divine powers from bloodlines and possession and not, as is the case with Olympus, godly parentage, which tends to leave strange side-effects.

Demigod followers might experience a slight drag in Book I; tedium threatens to set in during some chase sequences but the cunningly laid out trail of breadcrumbs linking The Throne of Fire together with The Serpent’s Shadow is too enticing to ignore. Riordan, who retains his number one The New York Times bestselling author crown may not be done with the new recruits. The trilogy spells an end for their quest and though the ominous words on the first page marks it as the last recording, readers could be in for another round of mayhem. Egypt’s path will not cross with Greek/Roman Empire yet, though there are tantalising glimpses of Percy’s world visible in the background. They may be fleeting but these ‘missed connections’ could potentially lead to something bigger. Should that ever happen, having a multi-cultural anti- rogue demon/monster/god fighting force in the arsenal could ‘up the ante’. In May 2013, the much anticipated Carter/Percy crossover finally took place in The Son of Sobek, a short story added to the final book as a bonus feature. Those who have mastered all three mythologies can now ruminate on the possibilities of an alliance between east and the west. Stranger things have happened. The Kane Chronicles brews up an old fashioned blend of exotic sights and amusing scenery and invites the mortal world over for a long overdue reunion. As Sadie might say, “What can possibly go wrong?

Genre: Fantasy novel

Publisher: Disney Hyperion and Puffin Books: 2010-2012

Image from Rick Riordan's Press kit (website)

Sunday, June 23, 2013

ART REVIEW: Flying solo with ‘the artist presently known as Omar Farid’

First Published in Daily Times (Pakistan) / 23 June 2013 - Sunday Edition


A small gathering of connoisseurs and curiosity seekers get a personalised tour of the show, their ‘oohs’ and ‘ahas’ broken by an occasional ‘o my that is disturbing’, at which the artist bows and looks pleased. Omar Farid’s ‘Flying Solo’ exhibition promises a delightful getaway to a spruced up wonderland. A few days earlier at another gallery, he was seen airing his views on real art, which must be unforgettable — leave lasting imprints, make one think and blink — or words to that effect.
We see what he means at his opening held the very next week at the Art Chowk in Karachi.




A wily feline in ochre/burgundy tones looms into view, oozing malevolence and doom for some unsuspecting bird, mercifully out of frame. There is no need to overanalyse the creature. In this case, a cat is just a cat. The experience will get ‘curiouser’ as a macabre, ink and acrylic induced haze envelops the quaint backdrop.




What do you see?” he asks. We have stopped in front of ‘Postscript; Vicki Baum’, 2012, inspired by the author of Menschen im Hotel. It is a novel Farid read when he was too young to appreciate its complexity. That is clearly a couple on the steps of Grand Hotel, who may be coming or going and both are missing a leg. This sets the tone for coming attractions; most come dressed in varying shades of eerie.






Stud’, 2012, is a dazzling exception. To him this is “unmistakably a stallion” invited to be a part of this collection because horses are the rage apparently. Some of us continue to see a mare and an exquisite one at that.


The artist’s flamboyant vision is carefully ensconced in a layer of unsettling illusions. “I am an extrovert in an introvert’s world,” he will admit later, making him a walking contradiction. The prepared narrative heads into a custom-made rabbit-hole where a tempest brews in the distance. It is an invitation to gaze upon rocky shores where logic has been cast adrift, an inexplicable urge to descend to levels of human consciousness follows.


There is a sprinkling of social commentary (of a kind) visible amid the emotional debris. ‘Dialogue’ shows two people talking, neither listening to the other, both convinced they are having a conversation. As our guide reminisces about his favourite time of the year — the 1960s — the little tour group has come to a halt in front of ‘Montmartre’, (1982-2012), which took him around 30 years to make. The stopover in Paris introduces us to an artist (a doppelganger?), cheerfully doffing his cap to the passing ladies while his friends help him shift his paintings over to another studio. Unlike the mischievous ‘Catstalk’, 2012, that shimmers with Farid’s droll sense of humour, or Montmartre, which is a simple, joyful little number, one of the few unburdened by bleak overtones, the collection sets out to redefine the parameters of imagination. Deft brush strokes seek to free idle thoughts from their morbid tethers, unleashing a parade of elusive metaphors and along the way evoke genius at play.


Fruition’, where lady luck wickedly toys with a four-eyed creature and ‘eye candy climb’; a strange concoction of snakes & ladder and mysterious figures in need of clothing, harbour similar sounding themes, an unattainable daydream perhaps?


An unfettered imagination can be liberating but it also tends to roam the universe leaving unanswered questions in its wake. The appearance of celestial, anatomical or subterranean motifs confound; the Egyptian mummy cameo in ‘Fruition’ mystifies. ‘Axis’ is abundant in what may or may not be Masonic imagery. He is not a Mason, Farid assures us.






Two pieces on opposite sides of the wall have been painted back to back. His friend could not believe both were done by the same person. Neither can we. ‘Epicycles’, 2011, and ‘Jackbox’ couldn’t be more different, one for all its vibrancy is tightly bound in grim hues. Not every piece is driven by a jet-stream of convoluted logic however; white is not considered a colour, he muses and has a field day with the neglected members of the spectrum in ‘Who’s afraid of white’.






Daytrip’, his idea of happy art depicts a family outing courtesy three carefree looking deer. “...one of my softer paintings,’ he announces. ‘Black Sun’ reverts to the darkness barely concealing its haunting echoes underneath that distorted architecture; ‘Chaos early model’ bids adieu to order, showing the early stages of a breakdown, inadvertently triggering fond memories of the recent elections.



The maddening imagery evokes a range of conflicting emotions and we are free to intercept the subtext (unpleasant or otherwise) and craft our own context from their cerebral outlines. Flying Solo feels like an emotional rollercoaster hurtling towards a vortex of fantasy, dreams and nightmares. The trail ends in front of a little glass box populated by two captive lighters in conversation and a mini sketch. Lighter one, apparently is Omar Farid. It is all very meta-ish.

A cryptic message arrives as the show draws to a close. “I am here to live out-loud” . Emile Zola does sum up “the artist presently known as Omar” perfectly.


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Saturday, June 8, 2013

TELEPLAY (Early Bird) REVIEW: BEHADD (HUM Tv)


First Published in Daily Times (Pakistan) / 08 June 2013

Congratulations Asim Raza on winning the 2014 Hum Award for best Teleplay


Asim Raza (Director Behadd)

The lights dim, and a warning is issued. There will be no gloss in Asim Raza’s presentation. The audience braces itself. This is not a film per se, Asim clarifies, adding that “a long play with substance will be at par with a telefilm.” The audience relaxes.

The directorial debut of Raza’s latest venture took place at the newly opened Cinepax, Ocean Mall (Karachi) towards the end of May. Behadd (Unlimited), which will be aired on Saturday, June 8, 2013 on HUM TV, is a nuanced family drama that mines a (single) mother-(spoiled) daughter relationship for spectacle. Raza, hailed as an ace commercial/music video director, did it in a short span of time, with his small support system and a lot of help from friends. For him this was a challenge taken on to counter the flurry of insinuations hurled his way of propping up visuals with the requisite gloss and glamour and always missing the mark when it came to infusing soul. Raza wanted to see if there were any grounds for such harsh assessments. “Are we really this incompetent and if so then I can retreat?” he calmly announces. Behadd, he added, has everything one would expect from a teleplay minus the gloss.

A powerhouse cast has been enlisted for the job: Nadia Jamil, Fawad Khan (Khuda Ke Liye, Humsafar, Zindagi Gulzar Hai), Nadia Afgan, Sajjal Ali, and Adnan Siddiqui, who has been relegated to a flashback. It has been scripted by Umera Ahmed and produced by Momina Duraid. The screening was attended by the cast of Zindagi Gulzar Hai, of Dhaani, and of famous plays/movies over the years.

The narrative is character-driven, furnished by beautiful leads, some just one step away from becoming cautionary tales. The dilemma of a possessive single mother and an equally possessive 15-year-old Maha forms the emotional core of this psychological drama. The voice of reason played by a handy best friend provides the feisty foil. The story goes into high gear when Poppy’s (another friend from yore) canny younger brother strolls into the frame and plops himself in the centre, forming a complicated triangle. It is a fairly straightforward set up, one that will resonate with the average viewer.

Behadd’s crisp repartee fits well with layers of social drama, morality, manipulation and pathos. The characters, called Mo or Jo, crib about lawn prices (atrocious), give away unsolicited parenting advice and share traffic woes, as the territorial daughter watches from the sidelines.

Since Behadd is not constricted by a traditional set-up, it can experiment with mature themes and explore the stark shades of jealousy, teen angst, mothers who smother, or fear of abandonment, with ease. There are times when the veil of realism wears thin around the edges. There is no interaction with well meaning elders and no cultural markers that can tie the storyline to its roots. The sterile setting is faintly reminiscent of the western rom-com universe made up of a handful of characters, out to weather the storm and claw their way to ‘happily ever afters’. But the resemblance ends here.

Raza is not in favour of providing escapism but there is an inherent optimism in his vision that filters through. Fantasy makes a guest appearance in this version, the harsh outlines of reality never leave the rearview and the intentional sacrifice of gloss does not detract from its entertainment value. There is a nice little twist at the end, but the origins of strife between mother and child are hardly surprising. Behadd deftly navigates the morose landscape, helped along by some solid acting. While this cannot be categorised as groundbreaking cinema (play), it also avoids being labelled as standard run-of-the-mill fare.

Asim Raza can shelve his retreat contingency. The end credits rolled to the sound of a standing ovation. The time for intelligent cinema that has the ability to engage its audience may have come. “I do not have much to say,” he had declared at the beginning. Behadd proves that he has a lot to offer.