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The War Within Islam ( 1 Apr 2016, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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My Country Called Pakistan

By Mehr Tarar

April 02, 2016

Things are bad, and things need to be talked, written and tweeted about. But where is that line that blurs healthy criticism into outright trashing? There have always been the mediums of newspapers, magazines, television, and cinema, with the recent addition of the multi-dimensional hydra, colloquially known as social media, and the landscape of information and knowledge comes tinged with all shades of grey. With and sans the Greek god looks of Christian Grey. Of the novels and film most mock but most have read or seen secretly, fantasising where the realm of pleasure ends and that of pain begins. Before my mind goes astray, let me focus on what I’m rolling my eyes…or adjectives…in this tirade, known as a column in the politically correct jargon of an expression of my views, or the lack thereof, couched in fancy words.

Oh, so women in Pakistan are allowed to go around without a head-to-toe black veil, Burqa? Women work in Pakistan? Do women go out at night? Is it safe to step out of your house, even in bright daylight? Is pork banned in Pakistan? Are all Pakistani men bearded fundos ready to do an OBL on the neighbour, or the neighbouring country, or the world in general? Gosh, do Pakistani children go to school? If yes, are they protected by army commandos? Gay? Pakistan has gay people? Do all who pray have venom in their hearts for all ‘infidels’? Are Pakistanis familiar with that totally ‘infidel’ concept: atheism? Are most Pakistanis running around with machetes chanting death to all who don’t kneel in the direction that’s prescribed for the majority religion?

Yada, yada, yada…. These are some of the countless questions I’m tagged in on twitter from some well-meaning, occasionally inquisitive, at times rude, and once-in-a-while those who abuse in beep-able words. Man, it’s tedious. The sheer lack of information most people have about Pakistan, especially in a country like India where most Pakistanis are thought of as bombers, and killers, and bearded haters, and burqa-ed ninjas. Now thanks to some hugely popular television shows — thank you, Fawad and Mahira Khan — Indians have realised…huh, these people don’t just look like us, speak like us, even their Saas-Bahu ordeals are like ours. Yep, my-name-is-Khan-and-I’m-not-a-terrorist type us ordinary Pakistanis.

That having said, most still hold on to the common notion — and rightly so — that television shows are merely a minuscule part of a society, and the ‘real’ Pakistan is simply “one of the most dangerous places in the world.” Damn those Laden/Lakhvi and their brigade of helpers/handlers….

I have a tendency to pooh-pooh the idea of presenting the ‘soft’ side of the ‘hard’ Pakistan. I simply wish to have MY Pakistan seen as what it is. A flawed, faulty, fragmented yet dynamic, vibrant, vivacious and ready-to-move-ahead country despite the countless setbacks since that one day in August 1947. Pakistan is as real and as human as any country that has myriad problems, and faces a global PR backlash. Again damn those bearded militants, and their Sipahs, and Lashkars and Taliban. But there’s more to Pakistan than that, and it would require many, many, many hundreds of words to highlight that. Hmmm, maybe it’s time to start pushing my book on Pakistan before I have even written it. Clever marketing, no?

And then appears a montage of images showcasing the ‘soft’ Pakistan, and there’s more stereotyping here than the bronzer on the half-naked body of Hrithik Roshan in an item number (albeit he makes it work…those gorgeous eyes…). Show a single file of female and male models, with whatever parts of body it’s kosher to show on a ramp, while the men in the audience feign disinterest with their eyes glued on the beautiful bodies, and their wives’ eyes making holes in them with glares sharper than daggers. Then comes the famous designer, with a lot of wrist movements and accentuating of places he has done fashion shows in, along with the hint of stuff that’s not to be talked about.

There are also off-beat directors making films about the hard side of Pakistan, soft-selling them to all those fancy-named festivals in faraway places, where the carpet is blue, and the champagne is Laurent Perrier. Ah, not to forget the perfectly-articulated social activist with fire in his/her eyes, and fingers on his/her iPhone 6s keyboard, who depending on his/her heavily-booked schedule could be anywhere: on your television screen, on the panel in your university, or challenging some thick-skinned/bottomed mullah in some road protest.

Pakistan has been awkwardly categorised into boxes that have labels that leave no room for debate, or hyphenation. It’s us versus the world. It’s these versus those. It’s the liberal versus…everyone. It’s the rebel versus the conformer. It’s you versus me. The labels are absolute, and like the one on that exquisitely packed bottle of vodka from Sweden, they are hard to remove. Unless you break the bottle.

My cook is from one’s village, and I knew him before I knew the words “transvestite” or “homosexual.” Born to an imam of a mosque, this dude goes by the name of a woman — chosen by him — and he styles his male outfits with colourful Dupattas. His sense of humour is kicka**, and his list of friends — of all genders — is long. The young, attractive woman working in one’s house can’t read beyond her name, but she remembers to buy Valentine’s Day gifts for her fiancé. The charming daughter of my father’s driver, after finishing her masters in one of those fancy new age subjects, works as a PR person. The cleaning Maasi has been working for decades using public transport, and despite being nice looking, has no horror stories to tell of men harassing her. My former driver’s second wife hated his first wife — yes, no one accepts the presence of another wife without a lot of noise, and breaking-of-things here — and lamented to me, that “that witch, &%$@§”, just lived with him for years sans any Nikah. All three belong to rural Punjab.

Often I come across someone from the ‘Aam’ Pakistan who doesn’t even know the full words of the Namaz, and no one damns them to hell for that. Someone very close to me is an atheist, and although we often argue, he respects my religious practices, and I leave his Dawkins alone.

And me…I exist amidst all these real Pakistanis with my shades of grey, and when I sleep, my dreams are multi-hued, not black and white. Well, mostly!

(A version of this op-ed appeared online in daily O on April 4, 2015).

Mehr Tarar is Op-Ed Editor, Daily Times.