Trip to Pakistan (June 2007)



By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Thursday, June 28, 2007

“Can you accompany us to Pakistan to cover the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers in Islamabad?” Well, it is the dream of every Indian to visit Pakistan just as it is the dream of every Pakistani to visit India. The reason is simple: Each wants to see and to feel how the two countries have progressed since independence six decades ago. I have always been fascinated by Pakistan, its people and its cuisine, its poets and playwrights, its hockey players and cricket champions. “Yes, of course,” was my instant reply to the man at the other end of the line — the senior adviser to the secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. “Will you have problems getting there?” he asked, obviously referring to my being an Indian national. “Please check it out with the Pakistani Consulate.”

• • •

The next day, my call was at the office of Pakistani Consul General Masood Akhtar. “Just come down and it will be taken care of.” So armed with my passport and the mandatory exit/re-entry visa, I arrived. Akhtar is a thorough gentleman with a great sense of both history and humor. A poet at heart, he advocates person-to-person contact between India and Pakistan. “We have nothing to hide,” he told me. “I am glad you are going there. You will see for yourself what a proud and colorful nation we are. What appears in the media is far from reality. You will discover this for yourself.”

• • •

The consul general had not even completed his comments plus an odd couplet here and there when my passport arrived with a Pakistani visa duly stamped on it. It was issued gratis with permission to travel wherever I wished. “You got your visa before you even finished filling out the forms. Will this happen anywhere else in the world?”

“Nowhere,” I nod in affirmation. Akhtar doesn’t indulge in theatrics. What he does is what he believes in. He has demonstrated this on several occasions during his four-year term in Jeddah. In the process, he ruffled many feathers, but then he is a quintessential Pathan from the Afridi clan. “We say what we mean and mean what we say.” Ten days later I was to realize that Pakistan was teeming with people such as Masood Akhtar — full of warmth and kind spirits, big hearts and legendary hospitality.

• • •

The flight to Pakistan was circuitous. We were flying Emirates and so had to make the mandatory visit to Dubai. After just three hours in the air I felt tired. The prospect of spending four more hours before my final destination made me even more restless. There is not much that you can do at Dubai’s splashy airport except watch people of all nationalities coming in from all directions and running off in the same. Shopping, if any, at the famous Dubai Duty Free is an activity reserved for the return trip.

• • •

As we leave the plane in Islamabad, a blast of hot air hits my face. It is hot as expected because it is the middle of May. Not much to write home about the airport itself. It is ordinary; there is nothing “extra” about it. It is, however, very clean. Just as I am completing the immigration formalities I bump into Pakistan’s best-known TV personality Dr. Shahid Masood. He works out of Dubai but has arrived in the Pakistani capital to get a first-hand feel for the fast-changing political developments in the country. After exchanging pleasantries and our contact details, we head in different directions.

• • •

All the immigration kiosks are staffed by women. Modestly dressed in elegant uniforms, they seem self-assured. As one of them patiently flips through the pages of my passport, I wonder why this country always gets a negative press. Why doesn’t anyone write about these little aspects of Pakistani life that so contradict the negative images in the media. The Pakistan we see in pictures transmitted by Associated Press, AFP and Reuters is that of a failed nation where everyone is armed, and bearded men bay for blood. Where women are subjugated and humiliated and every mosque is associated with Lal Masjid. All nonsense. “What?” the immigration attendant asks me, because without realizing, I had muttered that last a bit loudly. “Nothing,” I excuse myself sheepishly. “Thank you.”

• • •

A Pakistan Foreign Ministry representative is waiting for us foreign journalists at the airport. We get into the plush car that takes us to our destination — a small, but cozy guest house far from the city center. I don’t mind it; I hate five-star hotels. Everything about them is so artificial, right from the guy at the door to the one at the front desk. They are paid to smile even when they are cursing the guests under their breath — just like overworked and overtired airhostesses. The guys at the guest house are exceptionally warm. They greet us as if we are long-lost relatives. The rooms are cozy and airy, and from my balcony I have a breathtaking view of the city itself. It is all green, and the heat that greeted us at the airport is no more. What a relief. We dump our luggage and head straight to the Foreign Ministry offices to get our badges.

• • •

The summit begins next day. “So what do we do now?” we ask our guide Kamran Khan, an affable and well-built Punjabi from Gujranwala. “I can take you around the city.” “Yes,” we say, and off we go. Islamabad is a beautiful city — no two opinions about that. It is neat and green and nestled nicely among the mountains. It has wide, well-maintained roads. The city was built during the 1960s to replace the port city of Karachi as the nation’s capital. Karachi, the military planners felt, was vulnerable to Indian attack from the sea. “Islamabad was considered safe because it is surrounded by these mountains,” says Khan and then interrupts his thought for a while...

• • •

“There,” he points to the clearly visible minarets pointing skyward. “That is the famous Faisal Mosque.” We are far away from the mosque. “That is at the extreme end of Shaharah-e-Islamabad,” adds Khan. To be honest, the only thing I knew about Islamabad was this beautiful mosque. In Eid editions, we invariably carry a picture of this beautiful mosque filled with the faithful dressed in their colorful best. It makes a fantastic Eid picture. The other thing that I knew was that near this mosque Gen. Zia-ul-Haq rests in peace. Gen. Zia is my favorite. And much of my opinion about him is based on brilliant articles written about him by Natwar Singh in Indian newspapers. Singh was India’s ambassador in Islamabad during much of Gen. Zia’s time.

• • •

The majestic mosque sits at the foot of the lush green hills. It represents an eight-faceted desert “tent” supported on four giant concrete girders surrounded by four 90-meter high concrete minarets. The central “tent” is faced in white marble and decorated inside with mosaics and a spectacular chandelier. An international competition was held in 1969 in which architects from 17 countries submitted 43 proposals. After four days of deliberation, Turkish architect Vedat Dalokay’s design was chosen. Construction of the mosque began in 1976 and was entirely funded by Saudi Arabia. It cost more than SR130 million. The mosque was completed in 1986. I read somewhere that many Muslims criticized the mosque’s unconventional design at the time of its construction. Unlike traditionally-designed mosques, it lacks a dome, and, like a tent, the weight of the main prayer hall in the center is supported by the four minarets. The interior of the prayer hall holds a very large chandelier, and its walls are decorated with mosaics and calligraphy by the famous Pakistani artist Sadeqain. The architecture is definitely a departure from the long history of South Asian Muslim architecture. Without a doubt, the mosque is now the city’s most recognized and well-known sight.

• • •

After three days of covering the OIC event, we are bored. The other journalists rush to cover other stories. I am not interested. I instead decide to head to Lahore. “Jinne Lahore Nayee Dekhya O Jamya Nayee.” One who has not seen Lahore is not born, goes a famous Punjabi saying. “It is the heart of Pakistan,” says Azhar Masood, our very knowledgeable bureau chief in Islamabad. “Your trip will be meaningless if you skip Lahore.” I decide to go via the country’s first motorway, which was built by deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif under a special agreement between the Pakistan government and the South Korean industrial giant Daewoo. The bus service is called the “Daewoo Express,” and it takes just four hours to travel the distance between Islamabad and Lahore. Again a woman called Sadiya makes the customary announcement in crisp English and Punjabi Urdu at the start of the journey. It all sounds like a plane journey except that we are on terra firma. I want to interview her and do a full-length story on her. The world has had enough of Mukhtaran Mai. But I hold myself back fearing that I might miss the scenery. I want to feel the Pakistani landscape.

• • •

Lahore is the site of the first Mogul conquests of India. Situated between the Mogul centers and the strongholds of Kabul, Multan and Kashmir, the city had great strategic importance for the empire. Lahore became the most important Mogul city after Agra, until Shahjahanabad (Delhi) eclipsed them both. Akbar rebuilt an earlier fort on the site, enlarging and strengthening it by replacing the original clay walls with solid brick masonry. Lahore Fort is contemporary with Agra Fort, and is based on the same formal organization, although it is smaller, and distinguished by strong Persian stylistic influences, as well as Hindu influences also apparent at the Agra and Delhi forts. Akbar’s successors, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and other Mogul and later Sikh rulers would make revisions, replacing many of the original buildings but the underlying organization has remained. The fort is awesome.

• • •

One of the most impressive places in Lahore is the Badshahi Mosque. Red sandstone and white marble are the dominant materials in the mammoth mosque. The arched entrance opens on a large quadrangle paved with solid bricks. To the west of this square is the mosque, with three marble domes. The incredible symmetry of these giant domes is a marvel of harmony in stone. With its numerous chambers and halls, its minarets and domes, which make free use of inlaid marble, this mosque emanates a surprising calm considering its enormous size.

• • •

Just at the entrance is the famous poet Iqbal’s mausoleum. According to books on Iqbal, one design for the mausoleum was rejected because it showed Catholic influences. Another design, submitted by an architect from Hyderabad in India was found more suitable but rather too delicate. Its architect, Zain Yar Jang, was called to Lahore where Iqbal’s trustee, Chaudhury Muhammed Hussain, took him to the poet’s grave. “On one side is the mosque, which represents the glory of Muslims,” he said. “On the other is the fort, which represents their wordly power. The tomb between them would look nice only if it effused simplicity with strength. These were also the prominent aspects of Iqbal’s own temperament.” At Iqbal’s tomb I am reminded of what the great poet said about Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. “You are a patriot while Jinnah is a politician,” Nehru quotes Iqbal as saying in one of his books. Nehru and Iqbal shared, as many will recall, a similar Kashmiri Brahmin background.

• • •

There is no comparison between India and Pakistan in terms of geographical area. India is huge — too huge. And until Pakistan achieved nuclear parity with India, there was no question of Islamabad’s military disadvantage compared to Delhi’s. The three wars that the two countries fought demonstrated beyond any doubt India’s conventional military superiority. But having gone nuclear, Pakistan effectively neutralized India’s conventional superiority. The chances of any war between the two South Asian giants now look pretty remote. “This change of atmosphere has lent a new dynamism to relations between the two countries,” points out Azhar Masood. Pakistan is a confident nation now. It doesn’t suffer any longer from insecurity complex, and it is no longer paranoid. For those who have not noticed, it no longer blames the Indian intelligence agency, RAW, for each and every blast occurring in the country. This is exactly what the late Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai advocated in the 1970s. He rightly felt that a confident and strong Pakistan was good for India.

Indeed, confident Pakistanis are now craving for democracy. The voices against dictatorship have become shriller. It was the fear of India that forced a terrified population into the willing arms of the military. That is no longer the case, and this was made doubly clear by a poster that I saw on a roadside hotel in Islamabad. It was aimed directly at the men in uniform: “Apne mulk ko fatah karna band karo” (Stop conquering your own nation).

William Dalrymple’s ‘Last Mughal’




By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Thursday, November 1, 2008

On Oct. 7, 1858, more than three centuries after Babur rode into Delhi and established the Mughal Empire, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, left Delhi on a bullock cart bound for exile in Rangoon. Delhi’s inhabitants had been slaughtered and raped and the city was in ruins.

That dark day in Indian and British colonial history and the events leading up to it are the subject of William Dalrymple’s award-winning book, “The Last Mughal” (Penguin Viking; 580 pp; $20, 695 Indian rupees). The author has done an excellent job of crafting a spellbinding, well-annotated narrative that captures the charm of old Delhi and tells the story from a neutral perspective.

Called the Mutiny by the British and the First War for Independence by Indians and Pakistanis, Dalrymple provides a context for modern audiences so that they can understand what actually happened and why the consequences were so disastrous for old India. At the book’s heart are stories of the forgotten individuals tragically caught up in one of the bloodiest upheavals in history; the author likens it in both importance and savagery to the siege of Stalingrad during World War II — a fight to the death between two powers, neither of which could retreat.

Bahadur Shah Zafar was the last Mughal emperor, and a direct descendant of Genghis Khan and Timur, of Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. He was born in 1775, when the British were still a relatively modest and mainly coastal power in India. Dalrymple writes that he was a mystic, a talented poet, and a skilled calligrapher. Although Zafar’s Mughal ancestors had controlled most of India, the aged Zafar was king in name only. Deprived of real political power by the British East India Company, Zafar nevertheless succeeded in creating a court of great brilliance, and he presided over one of the great cultural renaissances of Indian history. Then, in 1857, Zafar’s flourishing capital became the center of an uprising that reduced his beloved Delhi to a battered, empty ruin. When Zafar gave his blessing to a rebellion among East India Company’s Indian troops, it transformed an army mutiny into the largest uprising ever faced by the British Empire.

One May morning in 1857, 300 mutinous sepoys from Meerut rode into Delhi, declaring Zafar their emperor, and “slaughtered every Christian man, woman and child they could find.” Zafar, writes Dalrymple, was no friend of the British, yet he was not a natural insurgent, either. It was with grave misgivings that he found himself the nominal leader of an uprising that he suspected from the start was doomed — a chaotic and leaderless army of unpaid peasant soldiers set against the forces of the world’s greatest military power.

The great Mughal capital, caught in the middle of a remarkable cultural flowering, was turned overnight into a battleground. There were unimaginable casualties, and on both sides the combatants were driven to the limits of physical and mental endurance. Finally, on Sept. 14, 1857, the British assaulted and took the city, sacking the Mughal capital and massacring great swathes of the population. In one muhalla (neighborhood) alone, Kucha Chelan, some 1,400 citizens were cut down. “It was literally murder... The women were all spared, but their screams, on seeing their husbands and sons butchered, were most painful... Heaven knows I feel no pity, but when some old gray-bearded man is brought and shot before your very eyes, hard must be that man’s heart I think who can look on with indifference...,” wrote one British officer whom Dalrymple quotes.

Those city dwellers who survived the killing were driven into the countryside to fend for themselves. Delhi was left an empty ruin. Though the royal family had surrendered peacefully, most of the emperor’s 16 sons were tried and hanged in public, while three were gunned down after laying down their arms and ordered to strip naked.

Dalrymple says there were two prominent dailies recording the events. One was the pro-Mughal “Dihli Urdu Akhbar” and the other pro-British “Delhi Gazette”: “Reading the newspapers’ coverage of the events of 1857, there are times when it would be possible to believe that they were recording the news of two completely different cities,” he writes.

According to the book, in the 1850s, not only did the Mughals and the British live in different mental worlds, but almost in different time zones. “The British were the first up. In the cantonments to the north of the Delhi Civil Lines, the bugle sounded at 3.30 a.m., a time when the poetic mushairas of the Mughals were still in full flow in the Red Fort... By the time the sun was beginning to rise over the Yamuna, and the poets, the courtesans and their patrons were all heading back to bed to sleep off their long nights, not only the soldiers but also the British civilians would be up and about and taking their exercise.”

Dalrymple gives the reader a complete and wondrous picture of Delhi: “Among the people of Delhi, the poor woke long before the rich. As the sun rose, and as the British were returning from their morning rides and preparing for breakfast, up near the shrine of Qadam Sharif the first bird catchers were laying their nets and baiting them with millet, to catch the early birds out for their morning feed.”

With the felicity of his language, Dalrymple transports the reader to that bygone era. “From deep inside the city — from the Masjid Kashmiri Katra in the south to Fatehpuri Masjid in the west, to the great Jama Masjid itself and on through to the elegant riverside minarets of the Zinat-ul-Masajid — the last cries of the dawn azaan could now be heard, each call slightly out of time with the one before it, so that the successive cries of spiritual longing and assertion came to the listener on the riverbank in a series of rolling waves.”

Dalrymple also elaborates on the quality, classical education offered by Delhi’s madrasas at that time. “Before long, the older boys would be heading off down the lanes to arrive at the madrasas in time for the beginning of the day’s study: To work on memorizing the Qur’an, or to hear an explication of its mysteries by the maulvi (Arabic teacher), or maybe it would be a day for studying the arts of philosophy, theology and rhetoric.”

Col. William Sleeman, a leading critic of the administration of the Indian courts, had to admit that the madrasa education given in Delhi was something quite remarkable: “Perhaps there are few communities in the world among whom education is more generally diffused than among Muhammadans in India,” he wrote on a visit to the Mughal capital. “He who holds an office worth 20 rupees a month commonly gives his sons an education equal to that of a prime minister. They learn, through the medium of Arabic and Persian languages, what young men in British colleges learn through those of Greek and Latin — that is grammar, rhetoric and logic. After his seven years of study, the young Muhammadan binds his turban upon a head almost as well filled with the things which appertain to these branches of knowledge as the young man raw from Oxford — he will talk as fluently about Socrates and Aristotle, Plato and Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna (aka Sokrat, Aristotalis, Aflatun, Bokrat, Jalinus and Bu Ali Sina), and what is much to his advantage in India, the languages in which he has learnt what he knows are those which he most requires through life.”

Dalrymple describes the savagery of John Nicholson, the general who survived the 1852 Afghan War. He abandoned the practice of blowing Indians from the mouths of cannon in the time-honored Mughal fashion, not out of compassion, but because he believed that the powder so expended might be more usefully employed. His actions quickly became the source of Victorian legend.

Nicholson took no prisoners, loathed India with a passion and regarded only the Afghans as worse (“the most vicious and bloodthirsty race in existence”). These views he had already formed before he was captured and imprisoned in 1842 by the unbeatable Afghans. By the time he was released, only to discover his younger brother’s dead body, with the genitalia cut off and stuffed into his mouth, his feelings about Afghans — and indeed Indians and Muslims of any nationality — were confirmed: He experienced, he said, merely an intense feeling of hatred toward them.

After 1857, Indian Muslims became an almost “subhuman creature” for the British. According to Dalrymple, the depth to which Indian Muslims had sunk in British eyes was visible in an 1868 production called, “The People of India,” which contained photographs of the different castes and tribes of South Asia ranging from Tibetans and Aboriginals to the Doms of Bihar. “The image of ‘the Muhammadan’ is illustrated by a picture of an Aligarh laborer who is given the following caption: ‘His features are peculiarly Muhammadan and exemplify in a strong manner the obstinacy, ignorance and bigotry of his class. It is hardly possible to conceive features more essentially repulsive.’”

Muslims suddenly went out of favor. Power shifted from the Mughal elite, who had dominated the city before the uprising, to the Hindu bankers, who were its most wealthy citizens afterward. “The capital is in the hands of one or two men like Chhunna Mal and Mahesh Das,” wrote Edward Campbell in 1858. “What remained of the court circle and Mughal aristocracy were by and large left penniless.”

In a letter to his friend in January 1862, Ghalib, the famous Urdu poet, wrote: “This is not the Delhi in which you were born... It is a camp. The only Muslims here are artisans or servants of the British authorities. All the rest are Hindus. The surviving male descendants of the deposed king draw allowances of five rupees a month. The female descendants, if old, are bawds; if young, are prostitutes.” What Ghalib did not mention, writes Dalrymple, was that “many of the Delhi begums were set on the path to prostitution by the mass rapes that followed the fall of the city.” It was indeed a very tragic end to a great empire.

Dalrymple concludes the epic book with this masterpiece: “As we have seen in our own time, nothing so easily radicalizes a people against us, or undermines the moderate aspect of Islam as aggressive Western intrusion in the East: The histories of Islamic fundamentalism and Western imperialism have often been closely, and dangerously, intertwined. In a curious but very concrete way, the extremists and fundamentalists of both faiths have needed each other to reinforce each other’s prejudices and hatreds. The venom of one provides the lifeblood of the other.”

Earlier this year, the book won the prestigious Duff Cooper Prize for History and Biography. “The Last Mughal” is one of those books that everybody will be excited to pick up and will wish there was more when they come to the end — not because the tale is incomplete but because it is such a good read.