A Pakistani, and proud of it

 

PakistaniFlag

It was the year 1947 when the Muslims of the previously unbroken India thrived on hope and prosperity as they watched Pakistan triumphantly gain Independence and acquire recognition as a distinct country on the map, albeit sandwiched between two massive countries, Afghanistan and the notorious India. For the very first time, we were convinced that this marked the advent of eternal peace and success.

She, Pakistan, sprawled beautifully over the vast Arabian Sea, presenting her remarkably pronounced land area that totaled the collective land areas of France and England. Boastful of one of the highest peaks in all lands, harboring some of the most beautiful landscapes the world has to offer, refuge to some of the oldest archaeological remains in existence, and a nation to starry-eyed enthusiastic minds; she was home to us all.

67 years and running, she now seems to be fast deteriorating. The land is distraught; the mountains appear weak as the once scenic landscape has powdered to dust owing to the endless barrage of bullets and bombings. Here it seems, human lives are increasingly devalued, and bad news is always on the rise. The country is collapsing like a house of cards, or so the mass media projects.

The crux of the problems amassing the country today is that everything Jinnah stood for has been dissolved. A Muslim state, in Jinnah’s mind, was modern, but not altogether western. Jinnah believed in clinging to our identity, our morals and our values. It was Islamic yet not fundamentalist. Iqbal and Jinnah anticipated Islam in it’s true, real essence; accepting to change and continuously evolving, progressing. The day the people of Pakistan can understand and work on their ideas, they will make their way out of their prevalent identity crisis.

In face of trying times it is difficult not to worry about the new challenges springing up every passing moment. About one in three Pakistanis are still surviving on less than 50 rupees per day. Nearly 12 million of our children do not have the privilege of being schooled. And worse still, less than 0.5% per cent of our population pays the income tax. The National Debt that we bear rolls at $60 billion, with the result that larger than 60% of Pakistan’s federal revenue goes straight to paying the debts and interest yearly.

Resilient as ever, Pakistan has squared her shoulders and embarked on the hard path of economic reform, bent on improving governance and battling dwindling energy crisis. This, is one of the many steps that the country needs to take to pave its way to glory.

Pakistan, throughout its history, has been plagued by endless democratic shortfalls, widespread exploitation and corruption, and the menace of excruciating terrorism. A country that can stand back on it’s feet after major devastations since it’s traumatic birth – from overcoming the partition of the subcontinent, the bloody breakaway from East Pakistan, the earthquake in the year 2005, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007, to the horrendous floods in 2010 and to other countless horrors including the scores of rampant brutal target killings – and can give back to it’s people has great potential.

The nation continues to bask in the hope of a better tomorrow for their homeland. Our nation is radiantly diverse, vivacious and proud. Pakistan has a self-motivated and young population, an ever-growing high tech sector, and an amazingly prominent and robust civil society, exemplified by the likes of brave, exemplary individuals such as the real-life saint Abdul Sattar Edhi, the real-life hero Perween Rahman (the lady who was attempting to bring sewer and water services to the poorest of the third largest city in the world, and mercilessly murdered), Irfan Khudi (an activist who perished in a bomb blast in Quetta as he helped the victims of another bomb blast a couple of minutes earlier), and the warrior Malala Yousafzai among other heroic, brilliant individuals.

The nation is privy to the reports about extremism taking over the country day in and day out. The sole reason that there may be a threat of an extremist taking reins or of a breakdown of the dream that our Pakistan is, is owing largely to the silence of our people who have gone on to allow the likes of our political ‘leaders’ to rule our concerns. Our greater part of the population including the educated youth recognizes them and deems them as mindless, and devoid of any aspirations and vision. There is dire insufficiency of intellectual structure that can safeguard against the terrors and oppression of both, the Taliban fundus and the highly miscarried Westminster style parliamentary system which inadvertently serves to make dictatorship a simple resort in a country with defenseless masses, wrecked and crippled institutions and a blatant lack of transparency in dealings of governance and responsibility, rather than facilitate democracy.

Such times call for all Pakistanis to take a stand, and let nothing violate their principles of justice, equality and liberty; not simply for their countrymen, not merely for Muslims everywhere, but for all of humanity.

The strength of a country lies in it’s people, and Pakistan is proud to have it’s people epitomized by starry-eyed optimism, and combat the ongoing crisis head-on. Brilliant, young minds from across the country have been making a name for themselves the world over since time immemorial.

Pakistan’s people pay great heed to values and relationships, and are strongly bonded to one another in a way that is uncommon in other countries – it is an attribute, in fact, that other nations would do well to follow. Pakistan has all the makings of a great nation – what the country needs to better itself is for the country to have a fair government system, equality, peace and prosperity, a finer quality of life, and high-quality education for all.

Pakistan has long been home to geniuses –  from budding photographers, app developers, engineers, doctors, scientists, journalists, to teachers, writers, filmmakers, singers and whatnot. Celebrated examples include Arfa Abdul Karim Randhawa, the computer prodigy who secured the youngest certified Microsoft Professional title at the age of nine, and Ali Moeen Nawazish who set the world record by passing 23 A-levels. Malala Yousafzai, peace ambassador, has become a household name and an icon for millions of people across the globe today. Another noteworthy example is a journalist and documentary filmmaker, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, winner of an Emmy for her documentary ‘Pakistan: Children of the Taliban’, and an Academy Award for ‘Saving Face’.

Even in the face of all adversity, our people are rallying against all odds, each intent on making the world a better place. I firmly believe that with a nation so resilient, Pakistan undoubtedly has phenomenal potential and will rise to to great heights.

–       A Hopeful Pakistani

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In the end, living is defined by dying

“We say that the hour of death cannot be forecast. But when we say this, we imagine that the hour is placed in an obscure and distant future. It never occurs to us that it has any connection with the day already begun, or that death could arrive this same afternoon – this afternoon which is so certain, and which has every hour filled in advance.” – Final Destination

We all need reminders that life is precious…

Let’s flashback to my very first day of Second Grade.

I entered the classroom nervously. It also happened to be my first day at the new school. I clutched my sister’s hand tightly and eyed my would-be classmates disdainfully.

The teacher was beckoning to me to take a seat. I remember shaking my little head vigorously from side to side, swallowing the massive lump in my throat and blinking away a pool of tears.  The teacher had a very messy mop of hair which ranged from brown to golden colored. She was clad in a blindingly multicolored ‘Shalwar Kameez’ and sported huge black combat boots. I had to stretch my puny neck all the way up to meet her probing gaze. She had very bushy eyebrows, a pointy chin, and big, beady eyes. Her lips stretched in a wide smile which revealed her pale, lipstick stained teeth. Yes, not a very reassuring sight!

“Say hello to your classmates” she said in a high-pitched voice. Only she pronounced ‘hello’ as ‘hallo’, ‘your’ as ‘yar’ and ‘classmates’ as ‘class-moths’. So it sounded something like “Say hallo to yar class-moths”. Quite simply, I was astounded and at a complete loss for words. The ‘class-moths’ were staring at me fixedly. It was not a good feeling, I felt like a bug under the microscope.

“I’ll come by to see how’re you doing at recess, you’ll make friends soon enough and fit right in” my sister said hurriedly patting my head, and then she was gone.

The teacher asked me to introduce myself and then pointed to an empty seat on the right. Mustering up all my courage I walked slowly and looked at the girl I would be sharing my desk with. I took a liking to her instantly. Maybe it was the friendly way she beamed at me, or maybe it was her kind, angel-like face. Feeling somewhat better, I gave her a faint smile. Noticing my watery eyes she quickly put an arm around me and said in kind, soothing voice “Don’t cry! It’s going to be okay, we’re going to be best friends.”

And so, best friends we became. Together, she and I laughed, talked, shared secrets, played, and competed as friends are known to do. People would often stop to ask us if we were sisters or cousins, and appear ever so surprised when we said we were simply friends. As we grew older, we changed groups of friends, but remained good friends.

Fast-forward to Grade Six. I’m at McDonald’s with her and two of our mutual friends. We’re slurping shakes and working on an assignment for English Class. Someone knocks over a drink, and we’re all going to the bathroom grabbing handfuls of paper towels and dabbing them at our clothes. That’s when one of our friends knocks over the liquid soap; it sails into the air and drops comically on her head spilling down to her shoulders. I cannot help cracking up. However, instead of joining in the laughter, I see her helping our friend wash the soap off and drying her off with paper towels. My conscience pricks and my laughter immediately ebbs away. But what’s done is done. I am left feeling guilty for laughing at a friend’s expense instead of helping out.

Eight Grade(Year 2008). The country is in a perilous state. We hear about suicide bombings, terrorist attacks and drone attacks nearly every day. Innocent lives are snatched away brutally; we’ve lost count of the ever increasing death toll. Even institutions like schools, colleges, and universities are beginning to be attacked. Funnily enough we’re going about our lives the way we always have, it’s almost as if we have become immune to it. We have started having drills at school though.

3rd December 2008. The day starts like any other day. Fourth lesson, and we’re quietly doing an English Composition. Then like a cry of death, we hear the siren signifying yet another drill. Alarmingly, the siren goes on and on, and then we hear screams and shouts. Then there is thundering of footsteps. The door bangs open, “Come out! Quick! There’s a bomb in the school!” That’s all it takes. We zip out of our seats like uncivilized ruffians and become a part of the stampede outside. We are like a tidal wave, flowing down the stairs until we reach our Ground where we had been just a few hours ago for the Morning Assembly. The entire school is gathered here. There are whistles in the distance, and then we hear the unmistakable sirens of ambulances. Everywhere I look, I see the same white, terror-stricken faces. Teachers are fruitlessly doing head counts and trying to calm us down. Then our Coordinator is on the podium, her voice travels loud and clear as she issues out commands in the microphone. Someone, a student, walks to the podium and raising his hands for prayer and begins reciting. We follow suit.

And then it is all over. It was a scam, somebody’s idea of a sick joke. We troop back to our classes even though we are all too keyed up to sit still. Then someone whips out a pen and paper, scribbling her ‘Will’ on it. It catches on and then we’re all jokingly declaring our wills. My friend from Second Grade and some of the other girls write their wills on their hands.

After school, I call her a few times but no one answers.

4th December 2008. She does not come to school. 9pm, and I am fast asleep. Someone is shaking me, and someone is crying. I open my eyes to see my Mom’s tear-streaked face. My blood runs cold, and my heart hammers madly against my chest as horrifying images flit across my mind. I am about to ask her what’s wrong but stop in mid-sentence when she holds me close and rocks me back and forth. I am terrified and for the first time, I do not feel completely safe in her embrace. A part of me does not want to know what is wrong. That’s when I fully understand the English proverb ‘Ignorance is bliss’. But, a larger part of me needs to know. I look at my Mom searchingly, but she only shakes her head as fresh tears slide down her face. I have never seen her like this. Her pain is my pain, her suffering is my suffering, and her overwhelming grief is my grief.

“A friend of yours called. She was crying, and wanted to speak to you. She told me to wake you up when I told her you’re asleep” my Mom starts in a shaky breath. “Oh honey…” she trails off and then she is crying even harder. My head is spinning. There is a pregnant pause and then, “It’s Fatima, she was shot and has passed away” my Mom says finally. And my mind is in free-fall, unable to grasp the possibility as dread washes over me. I cannot believe it, I will not believe it, I adamantly refuse to believe it; I am in denial.

I do not cry. All of my emotions have been replaced by anger. My anger is directed at everything, and at everyone. I still do not believe it. Grabbing the phone, I furiously text my friends. They all say the same thing; they say she was murdered, they say she passed away. A mixture of anger and frustration grips me hard and fast now. ‘Fatima, my angel-faced friend from Grade Two cannot be gone, I just saw her yesterday’ my mind lashes out over and over again like a broken record.

And then a friend, who was also Fatima’s distant relative calls me, she is sobbing. “She’s not dead” I tell her unnervingly calmly. But she too says the same. She tells me that Fatima’s father had a dispute over part of his land with some people. Today, Fatima and one of her brothers had stayed home from school since her parents and her other brother were in Lahore for the day. The doorbell rang around 11am, and those very people began firing at the house. Hearing the gun-shots, her brother rushed to his sister’s room but he was too late. She was lying down, and covered in blood. The firing stopped after a few minutes, he slung her across his back and borrowing the neighbor’s car rushed her to the nearest Hospital (Allied Hospital, Faisalabad). Their parents and brother who had been in Lahore at the time were informed, and they too reached the hospital as soon as possible. The doctors said she lost too much blood, and could not undergo surgery. They know she’s dying. Fatima, the only sister of her two older brothers, the darling and only daughter of her parents, the baby of the family; was passing away before her family’s’ eyes. She too, knew she was at death’s door. And that very day, sometime around 8pm, she passed away.

I listened to the tale in horror. Murdered and martyred at the tender age of thirteen over a petty, trivial land dispute! And then I am crying. I cry till I can cry no more. I am still hoping for it to be untrue. Memories of Fatima spin in my mind. Her face is so clear in my head, and her voice is almost real. But knowing that I will never hear her voice again, or see her sweet smile again tears and rips my insides apart.

I do not sleep the night. My Mom advises me to stay home from school but I must go. A part of me is still childishly hoping to see her at school. All my worst fears are confirmed the minute I set foot at school. Everywhere I look, people are crying, talking in hushed voices and I find myself crying again. Walking into my classroom, I see her empty desk. My classmates and I stare at it for the longest time, each of us mourning for our friend; the sweetest, kindest person we had ever known. And I know then that she really is gone, and there is no coming back.

Later that day, Mom and I go to her funeral. I cannot stop the tears streaming down my face, try as I might. It seems like the entire school is here. We offer silent prayers. It is so unreal, and yet so real. Moments later, I see her. She looks so peaceful, like she is merely asleep. She is so close, and yet so far away…

Even though you’re no longer amongst us your presence still lingers on and your memories keep reminding us of how much we treasured you and how much we gave up when we lost you Fatima Mehmood. May your soul Rest in Peace. AMEN.

Ironically, some months before her young life was snatched away mercilessly, she wrote me this short yet poignant inscription – as if she knew that she would tread the world of the unseen and become a cherished memory held in our hearts forever. Though her stay in this world was short and brief, her smile, her angelic face, and her sweet disposition had an eternal impact on everyone around her! I can never ever forget her;

“In the end, living is defined by dying. Bookended by oblivion, we are caught in the vice of terror, squeezed to bursting by the approaching end” – Bernard Beckett