Syed Mohammed Hussain may be the only shopkeeper who sells his wares knowing full well that they will be immediately burned, stomped upon and desecrated by any means possible. SM, as everyone calls him, owns a stationery shop in Rawalpindi but does a side business in selling flags to political parties. His storeroom has a few Pakistani flags but they are outnumbered by flags of Western countries that SM sells to political parties to burn at protests.
In Pakistan, the flags of the US and Israel tend to be most flammable. But when SM hit upon the idea of selling flags to political parties in 2006, every political party wanted to protest the publication of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in a Danish newspaper but there weren’t any Danish flags to be found.
“I was also very angry about the Danish cartoons but I wouldn’t have gone out on the streets myself. Instead I decided to get Danish flags printed,” says SM. He adds that he had always been a supporter of the Jamaat-e-Islami and so had the contacts to sell them Danish flags. “I charged Rs500 per flag so I was able to make a nice profit out of it.” He adds, “Word spread and soon I was getting more orders for Danish flags than I could get printed.”
Since then, SM has kept up a steady business in flag-selling, with the US and Israel flags being his most consistent sellers. For bulk orders of 100 flags or more he offers a discounted rate of Rs300 per flag.
A canny businessman, SM has no regrets that this product will soon end up being an ash-heap. “The demand is there and if I don’t sell them, someone else will.” He says, only half-jokingly, that he is considering branching out into effigies of international political leaders. “I’m sure that even now people would love to burn a George W Bush effigy.”
SM says that he has no intention of giving up his stationery show. “Selling flags is good for pocket money but it won’t feed my family.”
And has SM ever burned a flag himself? “No,” he replies resoundingly, “I protest against the US by casting my vote in every election.”
For now, SM is content mass producing flags of countries that annoy Pakistan in any way. With a wink and a nod, he says, “Be sure to mention that I don’t know if these flags are being burned. I’m just an ordinary shopkeeper.”
Published in The Express Tribune, September 28th, 2011.