Sunday, January 26, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: THE PRISONER


Author: Omar Shahid Hamid
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy & Jamaluddin for the launch invite.

Published in Daily Times / Sunday 26 Jan 2013

When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes back”

The plaque reads Deputy Director Counter Intelligence Terrorism - Police Intelligence Bureau (IB), Senior Superintendent (SSP) CT & Anti Extremism cell (CID) (2011). The resume is equally moving. It belongs to a man who has been in the cross hairs of extremists, banned outfits of different denominations and local mafia men who may or may not have political backing. Since he knows where the ‘boris’ are buried, the impact of Omar Shahid Hamid’s revelations will be explosive. But cops don’t read so as a rule so he thinks he’ll be ok.

Though ‘The Prisoner’ resides unobtrusively in the fiction section, its outlines are expertly crafted from those off camera moments and unacknowledged victories. A kidnapped American journalist comes into play early in the game giving the requisite urgency and while parallels to the Daniel Pearl case are inevitably drawn, the events depicted here follow a different trajectory. The lead positions are taken by an ever cheerful Akbar – the maverick and Constantine often referred to as ‘Consendine’ a Christian who joins Dr. Death, Colonel Tarkeen, Major Rommel in the deadly waltz. Our beloved Army, agencies and ‘Kaley Gate wale’ await and a party called the ‘United Front’ rises with it’s ‘goonda politics’, with a Don in self imposed exile in tow.

When Omar Shahid Hamid sallies forth into a crime ridden battlefield determined to revisit the darkness he encountered in the line of duty, he hauls his 12 years of experience with him. But ‘The Prisoner’ trades insider’s knowledge not just to enlighten - which is noble and exhume skeletons, which is bold, but also to entertain and pay tribute to the unsung heroes.

The curtain is pulled back to reveal a motley crew out to serve & protect & profit and survive. Hit squads lurk nearby. Finding the American is the priority but it is also a gateway to sift through the political debris, tour the underbelly and discover Karachi’s changing skyline. It is where the law confronts the wards, ‘crews of young men supposed to create party structure at basic neighbourhood level’ who created a parallel government’ instead, usurping ‘power of taxation, …punishment,’ with a monopoly over ‘life and death.’ But though the writer resurrects past controversies, and boldly goes where few have dared to tread, ‘The Prisoner’ is not a takedown.

Not really. Nor does it plunge into the abyss to admire the moral compasses spinning out of alignment. What we know of Karachi police comes from experience (unpleasant), headlines (unsavoury) and reputation (shady times ten). Omar concedes the police is corrupt but also shows the ‘challenges they face, the pressures upon them, the hazardous environment they must operate in’, and what happens when they fall in line of duty or get on the wrong side of ruling factions for that matter. When he casually mentions a city of millions twisted into submission forcing a ruthless right hand man, described as ‘the high priest of murder, chief enforcer of reign of terror’ to take the stand and calls upon a line-up of unsavoury characters (Shashlik Khan), it is to set the stage. When he remarks that real power that lies with a ‘ward’ and not the ‘thana’ (jail), it is to acknowledge its untameable heart.

Both the 1990’s and 2000 come into play and the overlapping timelines provide a snapshot Karachi’s troubling past. It is an immersive experience and, though the players are masked, in most cases it is not that hard to discover their identities. One learns a bit about the prison system ‘crawling with informers and turncoats where men came out a bigger, better more dedicated criminal,’ the mushrooming madrasas that do not necessarily have sinister agendas but abject poverty and hopelessness end up making places like Orangi ‘a rich recruiting ground.’ And towering above all stands the familiar ‘Haji Camp’ designed as a virtual fortress, with its ‘massive arms dump, living quarters, torture chambers in the basement that no SHO has dared raid.’ Within these pages our heroes can vent - ‘…either we survive or they do’, later the character observes that ‘he has never seen anyone slaughter policemen like they do.’

In real life the number of their fallen may exceed 460 in 10 years and other nations are reportedly taken aback by these shocking stats that rival that of ‘Mumbai, NY, London or San Paolo.’ One day before the launch of his book, Omar was at a colleague’s funeral. A week later, his partner and most likely the inspiration for the central character was taken out by the TTP. For that reason it is a world bleached of colour, masterfully crafted from Karachi’s moody fits and broken dreams that is by turns dramatic and funny and dark.

His debut novel is a searing suspense thriller, which not only serves Karachi’s ruling underworld on a platter it also vindicates the defenders. There is a negative perception about civil servants and for the most part it is accurate, says an ex-civil servant. Omar has been described as an exception by former Commissioner Zia-ul-Islam, who was also the moderator at the book launch. One day he had come upon Omar serving as a magistrate, and who quietly continued with his job as magistrates/judges are supposed to, unlike the misguided majority busy bowing to protocol. Zia, seen raving about his honesty, integrity, intellectual prowess (Omar is BA Law, Masters in Law (University of London), Masters in Criminal Justice Policy from LSE (2006) – is convinced that Omar Shahid Hamid is well equipped to be a police officer, but may be not here, he adds ruefully.

Zia, who was Commissioner and recognized some of the operations detailed in the book, shared an ominous extract written sometime in 1995/96 ‘……….gradually but surely Karachi is being carved into crime syndicates, organized crime is coming to the city in a big way. The present turmoil and violence is only tip of iceberg - the first sign of imminent surrender of state power to mafias and militias…” and most saw this coming he says, adding that ‘we let it happen’. There are mafias in Tokyo, he admitted but they don’t interrupt daily life. Our underworld is above ground and visible, has political support and flourishes below and above and though crime affects major cities, it remains in control. Not here.

‘The Prisoner’ is an action packed adventure that offers valuable insight into the rarefied world of Karachi police department now on the frontlines and can be used to piece together Karachi’s chequered history. It is rated R for language and G for some gruesome imagery.

Among thugs that represent a ‘grave threat to national security,’ the hydra of jihadi’s rising from the rubble of 9/11 and the spectre of terrorism, a few good men striving to take back the streets of Karachi stand their ground. This is their story.

When policemen break the law, then there isn't any law — just a fight for survival.” Billy Jack (1971)


Sunday, January 5, 2014

OP-ED: 2014 - As Seen on TV

Published in Daily Times (Pakistan) / 5 Jan 2014




Sakina Samo is quoting from T S Eliot, Shanaz Ramzi checks off milestones, there is some talk about a new channel and disagreements over love. Pakistan’s premier entertainment channel (Hum TV) recently unveiled a fresh lineup of dramas and called journalists over for a preview of coming attractions. However, the press conference quickly devolved into an amusing standoff of sorts. Here, those who craved change kept a scoreboard of love stories while glowering at the ones cradling tired premises. Writers, producers, and actors-turned-directors were on hand to justify the recurring motifs of la amour, derivative plotlines, cases of realism deficiency and pacify the resistance.

While the new quarter offers a visual feast featuring extravagant set pieces and on-location shoots, it has to avoid being classified as a cluster of clich├ęs that lacks imagination. Sakina Samo, who prefers directing — “acting is emotionally draining” — may be headed to films one day, and she stands by these choices. The 8-9 pm slot, in her world, is reserved for entertainment, and religion or politics do not qualify. “We cannot depress people further,” she declares, “They just want to unwind.” She then admits that their target audience comprises girls and busy housewives, and adds that giddy youngsters, when polled, favour these emotional rollercoasters.

When there is frustration all around, escapism becomes the ‘go to’ drug. The primary objection regarding storylines that appear to merge, as do the faces, does not go unnoticed. Though plotlines tend to stay buried under inescapable love triangles, Samo wants the inherent message to be visible, which is simple: unless one fights for one’s rights, no one will. ‘“We will not even get those cheques lest we ask at least six times,” she says slyly.

Her admirable efforts to keep outside influences away and promote our own culture will be lauded. The fact that politics, corruption, terrorism or rural life for that matter never makes it past the barricades and will soon become a cause for concern.

The channel’s general manager for publications and public relations, Shanaz Ramzi, pointed out that love is an age-old theme, that there was an overdose of politics etc and insisted upon the need for a healthy entertainment. She cited the highly successful 'Humsafar' as an example. Hum TV’s managing director of production will soon step forward to appease the room by announcing that the next quarter would feature politics based dramas.

The press community also looked a tad baffled by the sight of all the male actors sporting a beard after the preview of Umaira Ahmed’s new play, ‘Mohabbat Subhe Ka Sitara’. Are they afraid of the Taliban or have no time for makeup, they wondered idly. Sakina (the director) was also taken aback when both actors turned up with their new ‘do’ one fine day. Their defence was that they wanted a change given the similarity in roles and demanded to keep the look.

While some makeovers were admittedly a part of the script, many actors insist on imposing their own interpretation. In their opinion, they were the epitome of ‘cool’. Off the record, it was the power everyone wields on set that appeared to rankle. The fact that channels decide to break for commercials at the same time and enlist the same names had not gone unnoticed. That and the channel-hopping trend that now extends to news shows where one expert moonlights on multiple networks, and does not even bother to change his jacket elicited a grimace.

As each segment was introduced, the journalists cringed. “Is it another love story,” they asked feebly. A swift denial would come and jealousy, rage, disillusionment, or redemption were shown to be the driving forces. ‘Bunty I Love You’ gets labelled as a psychological thriller by Siraj-ul-Haq (director). “It is different, not a single mother, daughter-in-law standoff in sight and it caters to the youth and oldies alike,” he said while waving the core message to entice viewers.

A few, probably disconcerted by the sight of an aged man cavorting with a teen cavorting with another young fellow, felt the subject matter and that bold hussy were more suitable for film. The makers denied the charges and insisted that this was a witch’s brew of greed and love, a tale of a free spirit, and not an extramarital affair as appeared in promos. ‘Bunty..’ is the (sob) story of a 17-year-old married to a 60-year-old geezer (played by Abid Ali) who will be widowed at a young age and get a second shot at life. The people in the room were grateful that the old man in question was not present that day else a war of words would have ensued and turned to Momina Duraid’s ‘Ru baru’, which had been pegged as a murder mystery.

‘Hate story’, which starts on January 9, includes newcomers like Sharmeen (NAPA graduate) and familiar names chosen for their commercial value as well as professional standing. Those who go looking for a star usually come back with Adnan Siddiqui. He fits the bill: educated, professorial and, more importantly, bankable. Casting Adnan means Coke will follow. That corporate considerations usually drive casting decisions remains a factor. The decision makers confessed that there are not a lot of options out there and that they cannot change the tried and tested formula because the same people then take offense.

More promos appear. ‘Sila’ (under production), again described as a ‘different’ story, is about a struggling singer.

Hum Gunehgar’ had an absent director (Ali Masood); his ‘proxy’, as she was referred to, sees it as a tug of war between a father and his real and adopted children. The network of tangled relationships was sold as a family drama/soap. As before, the word ‘love’ was used sparingly and ‘revenge’ summoned as a substitute tagline. Seema Rizvi’s ‘Zindigi Tere Bina,’, a tale of feuding daughter-in-laws, rests upon a pillar of relationships — the good, the bad and the scandalous.

Their shared DNA and monochromatic palette may have looked well-worn, and, while sensitive topics were conspicuous by their absence, the network does have risk takers within the ranks, some have worked with anti-narcotics, taken on corruption and other taboos, and are not oblivious to the charged climate or the underlying riches waiting to be explored. Those present were seen raving about a play based on ninth Muharram and the bold direction some production houses were willing to go. They also hailed Hassan Zaidi’s ‘Kise Apna Kahen’, which offers a powerhouse cast including Robina Ashraf and deals with middle-class family woes, casting Shabbir Jan as the tyrannical father, and how his decisions affect his daughter’s lives and how his ‘gutka’ business affects society. It was met by appreciative nods for its efforts at social reformation.

The year 2013 will be remembered fondly for serving mega hits, making overnight stars and starting grand new ventures. ‘Hum Sitaray’, features game shows, comedies and reality shows, and by now should be on every cable provider’s list. 2014 is revving up for more fireworks with its emotionally charged plotlines.

Image 1 Link

Images Subject to Copyright

VIEW: War of the Words


First Published in Economic Affairs (Pakistan) / Jan 2014 issue




Burj Khalifa turns blue, high end resorts flourish a 2020 AED package, fireworks light up the sky and free ice cream was reportedly being handed out to rejoicing subjects. Dubai just made history by winning the rights to host 2020. It is the first Middle Eastern nation to do so.

A few days later congratulatory messages pop up on street corners praising the visionary leadership alongside motivational images of said leadership looking skywards. UAE just turned 42. It finds inventive ways to weave flag colors into everyday life, and the “Spirit of the Union” into its national tapestry.

Emirates is riding on a high these days. Their Expo bid, “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future”, with its fetching new theme in tow has set them on a shiny new trajectory. The controversy generated in the wake has upset its oldest, most trusty ally - Pakistan.

Local papers in Pakistan, hint that it helped UAE win. Dubai based daily (Gulf News) insists that it did the opposite.
A Gulf News (GN) editorial came on the heels of their victory casting a nasty little spin on Pakistan’s voting habits after thanking all those who helped secure the win. The word ‘betrayal’ was traded freely. They went on to question our credibility as allies and casually touched upon what to them seemed to be purely one-sided investment in Pakistan’s political / economical future. Though Kabul was also called out for being a bad friend, the paper’s patronizing stance and obvious bias towards Pakistan is cause for concern.

By this time every one has heard the sanctioned version where Izmir, was already a strong contender in the initial round with 60 countries cheering from the sidelines. Where Pakistan had already committed to Izmir (Mar 2011) before UAE stepped into the fray (Nov 2011). And later when Turkey’s dreams of being the first to bring Expo to the Eastern Mediterranean region fell through, Pak votes went to Dubai in the 2nd & 3rd round.

The defamatory editorial had more than 900 heated responses before it was closed for comments. Most were from outraged subscribers, disappointed expats and stunned residents. Some threatened to revoke their subscription. Others suggested suing / firing / de-friending the editorial staff and paper. Many reportedly went through with it, despite the AED 400 voucher offered with each subscription. The story was picked up by the ‘Wall Street Journal’, and carried on Pakistani talk shows.

Pak-UAE relationship runs deep, and is not as one sided as GN suggests. From raising the UAE Air-Force, training its pilots and greening the city of Al Ain, to offering the controversial strip of land (Shamsi) and opening the hunting grounds and precious Houbara Bustard come November despite the universal condemnation by conservationists. Pakistan has been there from the very beginning, and UAE, now plays the role of a major investor in the region. It’s win-win for both. A baseless attack cannot undo half a century of friendship.

The report was challenged by Pakistan’s (Foreign Office) FO and a strong social media campaign finally prompted a response from GN which maintains that “….the Pakistan government, despite its official pledge to the UAE, has voted for another city on the night of November 27. As an independent newspaper, we have the right to question such action and call for a justification, if there were any.” It remains unrepentant and no apology was forthcoming. The paper’s insistence that these comments are directed at Islamabad and not the expat community that helped build their nation is ludicrous. Trends change quickly in Pakistan, it may be dictatorship one season and democracy the next but regardless of the changing fashion, the people and state are not separate entities. Cyber-ville will not let GN, and its platter of half-baked truths off the hook.

Pakistan, seen on the receiving end of terrorism is up against wall of negative perception fed by a fairly well-stocked propaganda factory that somehow manages to gloss over its counter terrorism role and project its least flattering, most Janus-faced side. That the ‘Most Wanted’ lot either trained here, had roots or hideouts in military cantonment’s does not help. Elsewhere, the media for all its democratic credentials appears strangely aligned to company policy, as the gulf between the (Pak-US) administrations widened, random references to Pakistan started to appear in movies, television dramas, sitcoms with greater frequency – and not in a good way.

The refusal to retract the insidious commentary raises questions about the source of displeasure. Though Emirates graciously thanked Pakistan for its support, do mischievous headlines demanding answers perhaps point to rumblings of discontent on a state level? If not then did the paper get a well-deserved rap on the knuckles? Given that the official pledge had been given to Turkey, the story has no foundation. But according to a Pakistani daily, our Federal Minister for commerce might have led the UAE emissary to believe otherwise. And that the UAE delegation was reportedly miffed at what to them probably appeared to be a last minute switch. Some worry that papers tow state lines and for them it is inconceivable that Gulf News risked jeopardizing Pak-UAE strategic partnership on its own. That it continues to propagate the lies is worrisome. ‘Khaleej Times’ - another leading daily from the Emirates - called out its fellow paper on what passes for fact checking in GN, so not everyone bought the Gulf rhetoric. Islamabad can respond by filing defamation charges against Gulf News.

Since then a clarification was issued from Pakistan’s side, but no action has been taken against the offending publication. That their ranting’s went unremarked could also attest to the wonderfully autonomous nature of Gulf media.

There are those who credit those ‘hidden hands’, in this case the Indian lobby, of masterminding the malicious attack; and while ‘said’ hands are our ‘go to’ reason for everything that goes wrong in Pakistan, enlisting a leading newspaper in their ‘discredit Pakistan’ campaign to launch a ‘war of the words’ between such close allies without worrying about consequences implies limitless reach.

UAE, with its carefully cultivated public image stands on the cusp of greatness while Pakistan, remains on the frontline of terror. One gets to battle its demons and the other has a party to plan. Neither can afford to let mischief mongers come in the way of their historically close ties.

Map Link

Images Subject to Copyright