August 24 went by quietly. No one really cared to celebrate the cockroach anniversary. Compared to September 11, Altaf’s song and dance routine, and Zulfiqar’s Amitabh avatar, the 24th isn’t that important.
Last year on that date, in August, I penned a piece titled “Pakistan’s human cockroaches”, a polemic aimed not at the state, the military or any foreign power, but at the people of Pakistan. I had seen, late at night, the brutal murder of Muneeb and Mughees at the hands of ordinary Pakistanis in Sialkot on YouTube.
For several days, I couldn’t sleep. And that was the day I wrote my first article while I was in a seething rage. It set off a chain reaction, making it one of the most shared articles on social media in Pakistan, getting mentions in The New York Times and the BBC.
The reaction was overwhelmingly negative. For a while, it seemed as if I was public enemy number one. The Express Tribune had a score of articles criticising the piece; Talat Hussain suggested I move to another country.
Given the brouhaha surrounding the article, I sat down this year wondering what I had learnt from the whole episode.
First, I learned that I may never be shocked by brutality again. When I saw the video of the rangers killing Sarfaraz Shah in Karachi, I wasn’t moved. It’s as if all my empathy drained out never to return after the Sialkot murders. I think I have spotted a trend; the dead will almost always be accused of thievery or worse.
Second, I learned that things will keep getting worse. In their anger, readers missed the central point I made in the last paragraph of “Pakistan’s human cockroaches”. I wrote “Truth is, there is only one way to get change, and it’s not hanging the people who killed these boys. It is raising your voice to contradict people who advocate death for others, no matter who they are speaking of.” Later in the article I had suggested that people try it and see just how difficult it is.
By that I meant challenging the cycle of justifying extremism casually, that even ordinary people do. Kill Jews, kill Ahmadis, kill Christians or finding excuses for the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and their murderous mission. Just three months later, Salmaan Taseer is killed for trying to raise his voice, and then Shahbaz Taseer was kidnapped.
Third, and this is almost superfluous, I learnt how blinkered expatriate Pakistani’s are. Their sense of patriotism seems to emanate from a flight guilt complex. Pakistani Swiss bankers wrote to express their rage, but continued to work in a country where minarets are banned. Patriots who justify the killings in Balochistan, the missing people and silence on other ills find that honour is more important than the life of someone killed extra-judicially.
Fourth, I learned that self reflection remains an elusive dream. Any argument about how bad things are at home, seem to be excused by others who suggest its worse in other countries.
Fifth, I learned that it’s getting harder and harder to express sorrow. In the multitude of excesses that has shocked people since, there is only so many times we can use the prose, “First they came for the Shias… I was silent because I wasn’t a Shia”, or the “Today I am ashamed to be a ….”
Sixth, I learned that Pakistanis who do nothing but defend the indefensible almost always absolve their guilt by pointing to the greatness and the work of Edhi and Imran Khan. Unfortunately, their great work doesn’t absolve other’s sins.
My only regret? Using the word cockroaches; at the time of writing, I did not know of its insidious use in the Rwandan context, something I am sorry for. I would now substitute the errant word with ostriches, who are incorrectly supposed to duck their heads in sand rather than face a problem.
So what did happen this August 24? Ansar Abbasi wrote a plaintive appeal to his country in the wake of the death of his mother, because he believes that his motherland is on its way to its demise if it doesn’t change. The left and right agree, one year on.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 14th, 2011.