How to write about Pakistan

Published: August 28, 2013

The writer is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and currently teaches journalism at SZABIST in Karachi

Always use the words ‘bomb blast’ or ‘death toll’ or ‘terrorism’ in your first sentence. Feature the word ‘dangerous’ prominently in your headline to describe Pakistan. For the cover of your magazine or book, always use an iconic image of angry, bearded men burning flags and effigies of foreign leaders. Never put a picture of a Pakistani woman on the cover unless someone tried to kill her (Malala Yousufzai) or rape her (Mukhtaran Mai).

Write at length about ‘death’, ‘violence’ and ‘hate’ eating the country up from within. Ignore life, love and a culture that enjoys larger than life celebrations on occasions like weddings, engagements and victories on the cricket field. Don’t forget to repeatedly remind your reader that truth is often stranger than fiction in this eccentric country. Talk about death and body bags in Karachi, without mentioning a city brimming with life, commerce and dare I say it, confidence. When the country is going through something particularly traumatic, invite a Pakistani novelist — who writes only in English and has spent the majority of his life outside the country — to write an Op-Ed for your paper.

Talk about Pakistan’s problems as if they exist in a vacuum. Express shock or worse (pity) at Pakistan’s inability to remain at peace with itself. Conveniently forget that Pakistan is sandwiched between an ever-volatile Afghanistan — the largest exporter of headaches in the world — and India, the much-celebrated largest democracy in the world, where elections can be won or lost based on how much anti-Pakistan rhetoric politicians can spew to whip up national and international sentiment against an already isolated and vulnerable country. Instead of contextualising Pakistan’s problems, pretend that it is located smack in the hypothetical middle of Europe or North America with peace-loving neighbours and no regional powers wanting to play out their dirty proxy wars in our backyard.

Talk about rising unemployment, economic frustrations of the youth and crippling electricity shortages. Don’t talk about the remarkable resilience of the Pakistani economy, the best performing stock market in the world or consistently dropping poverty rates. Don’t mention the ingenuity of Pakistani entrepreneurs, who continue to do business with rest of the world, overcoming extraordinary obstacles, profitably.

Highlight Pakistan’s perpetual dependence on foreign aid without mentioning the structural clutches imposed on our revenue collection machinery by a network of influential feudal lords that we inherited as part of the colonial hangover. Don’t mention the world class philanthropic institutions and individuals that inspire Pakistanis to be one of the most generous and charitable nations in the world. Make a mockery of the country by broadcasting the news of an abandoned baby being given away to a childless couple on a live television show. Ignore the tireless efforts of the one-man institution that is Abdul Sattar Edhi.

Express sorrow over the plight of Pakistani women without actually talking to a single Pakistani woman, because these hapless creatures need obscure, virtually unknown, male women’s rights activists/experts based outside Pakistan to speak up for women in the country. Raise the profile of fictional superheroes in burqas because the story of the everyday Pakistani supermom working two jobs as a maid to put her daughters through school is far too common to make front page headlines. Write about the prevalence of honour killings as if they define the family unit in Pakistan. Don’t talk about how the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis respect their elders, women and children. Ignore the richness and strong texture of family values that hold Pakistani society together despite ethnic and sectarian divisions.

Make sure you clarify your position on the age-old debate about whether Pakistan is a ‘failing’ state or a ‘failed’ state. Don’t forget to clearly map the chronology of self-inflicted wounds by our security ‘establishment’ that led to Pakistan’s ‘descent into chaos’. Always show your Pakistani characters dying, causing someone’s death or mourning the death of someone. Never show Pakistanis doing anything normal like going to the beach with their family for a picnic, falling in love or catching a movie with their friends.

Taboo topics in your articles about Pakistan should include the achievements and excellence of Pakistani doctors, bankers, scientists and other professionals operating at the cutting edge of their respective fields around the world. Always present a black and white picture of Pakistan, because it’s easy to report from your hotel room in Islamabad. Ignore the shades of grey because they will confuse your readers. Most of them don’t really care about Pakistan anyway.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 29th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (39)

  • Ramsis
    Aug 28, 2013 - 11:41PM

    Yeah keep on banging about how got Pakistan is mate……………… and while you at it also highlight how much it has added to the the modern world today

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  • Guest
    Aug 29, 2013 - 12:07AM

    Good article. The last line sums up ET perfectly. What good is a pakistani news site whose self loathing in their writings, attracts more foreign than local commentators, who find it hard to hide their glee on every unfortunate incident to take place in this country

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  • Ali
    Aug 29, 2013 - 12:10AM

    Will do.

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  • Ali
    Aug 29, 2013 - 12:11AM

    The most ironic thing is, your article is a complete rehashing of other articles critiquing the same how-to-write-about-Pakistan guidelines. Something to think about.

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  • p,x
    Aug 29, 2013 - 12:22AM

    sounds like you are trying to run away from pakistan’s very real, very domestic problems. rather than cry about misrepresentation of Pakistan abroad, perhaps we should focus on fixing these issues so there is no scope for unfair representation.

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  • ModiFied
    Aug 29, 2013 - 12:23AM

    Let us assume Pakistan is a city state and located in Birmingham or in any other British city with significant Pakistani population. How will author explain of Mr Anjum Chaudhary and his likes ? Are they any better than Jihadis based in Pakistan ? How will author explain of London train bombers or Madrid train bombers? Put Pakistan anywhere you wish, problems will remain same. Problem is not with geography, its with history and the people. Blaming your neighbors for all your ills is not the right way. Pakistan has one of the best geographical location in the world. How about North Korea which is located next to the most well performing economies of the world? How about trading your location with Madagascar? Give a try, you might succeed.

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  • claude
    Aug 29, 2013 - 12:51AM

    ‘.. and India, the much-celebrated largest democracy in the world, where elections can be won or lost based on how much anti-Pakistan rhetoric politicians can spew to whip up national and international sentiment against an already isolated and vulnerable country’

    And you teach journalism? Which candidate in India talked about Pakistan during election campaign and won it? You must have been attending Hafiz Saeed’s campaign and imagined that same happens in India!! Certainly not a sign of quality journalism. Indians have enough other problems in a day. Recommend

  • irfaniftekhar
    Aug 29, 2013 - 2:13AM

    It is because of the fact that when a dog bites a man, it is no news, but when a man bites a dog, it is. What you wrote came out of your heart, but the media fraternity do not believe on this. When it rains, they show the water logging showing people treading in knee deep water but they do not show how the trees looked so green when the dust was washed away by the rain. When one’s inner self turns dark how can he show brightness emanating.

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  • Plal15
    Aug 29, 2013 - 3:26AM

    Does the other side- the bad part -does not make news,do you want to put it under carpet.What you are eulogizing as good part is normal function which does not make news in any country.

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  • Alann
    Aug 29, 2013 - 3:54AM

    “Good article. The last line sums up ET perfectly. What good is a pakistani news site whose self loathing in their writings, attracts more foreign than local commentators, who find it hard to hide their glee on every unfortunate incident to take place in this country”

    A newspaper & other media’s job is to educate the masses about what’s happening in their country, whether good or bad. This is how a country progresses towards a better future. If ET & other websites in Pakistan stop publishing the everyday (negative) happenings in Pakistan, then the public will forever stay ignorant.
    But even then, this is actually not much. Contrary to what most Pakistanis think, Pak’s news portals are still “limited” to a large extent in what they show or “expose”. They haven’t yet become that “liberal” in showing everything related to Pakistan in today’s world. But still, websites like ET & Dawn are doing a good job – I wouldn’t call it “impressive” yet, but its a start.

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  • csmann
    Aug 29, 2013 - 6:49AM

    A violent and bigoted minority will always get the news, especially when the majority chooses to remain silent to the ills caused so.These positives don’t mean much to one who suffers from terrorism or persecution, more so when persecution is legalized and endorsed openly.

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  • polpot
    Aug 29, 2013 - 6:59AM

    And dont mention those alphabets….OBL….
    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
    And the fact that it is one of the most dangerous places in the world for jouranlists….

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  • pawan madhok
    Aug 29, 2013 - 7:02AM

    An excellent article on “How to Whine”

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  • Np
    Aug 29, 2013 - 10:04AM

    Please tellme which election in India was won by a party who decided to be most anti-Pakistani?

    Some one please provide a verifiable reference forthe oftstated point that Pakistanis are of the most generous people in the world.(no you cannot quote Imran)

    How much do you write about Indian or Chinese charities in Pakistani newspapers? Or about their festivals? Or top Indian/Chinese industrialists/bankers.doctors? Why expect something different from the west?

    Blaming India/Afghanistan for self created problems in Pakistan is not oing o benefit you in anyway. No one outside Pakistan believes our wild accusations and no one inside Pakistan will experience any reduction in suffering until you actuall as a country decide to face the problems head on.

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  • Aug 29, 2013 - 10:19AM

    Let us accept that Afghanistan, India, security agencies and scribes not based in Pakistan are the cause of your ills.

    Btw – Malala and Mukhtaran Mai are not seen as victims – we celebrate them as brave women who have stood up to the system that ordained that they should have just shut up. (Are you defending the system?)

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  • Barekzai
    Aug 29, 2013 - 12:42PM

    So in other words, this author is whining about how the world refuses to kowtow the Pakistani establishment’s sanitized perception of their non-existing “country”. A little perspective is in order here…

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  • Feroz
    Aug 29, 2013 - 1:47PM

    Are we to understand that Pakistan’s problems are not due to the actions of its people but primarily the work of foreign aliens. Yes, the World is responsible for the very poor showing on every Social Development indicator, Better do something about it and very fast please.

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  • Hella
    Aug 29, 2013 - 3:50PM

    Truly feel sorry for Pakistan. All its problems have been caused by others and as a nation has no control over its own destiny. Only if everyone developed the right perspective while observing and reporting/writing on Pakistan, all would be well.

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  • Hamalian
    Aug 29, 2013 - 4:10PM

    Simply COMPLETE and EXCELLENT <3

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  • David_Smith
    Aug 29, 2013 - 4:35PM

    @claude:
    Couldn’t agree more. Elections in India will be fought on the state of the economy, corruption , lack of governance, etc. Pakistan may come in tangentially only to make a point that the government lacks focus in foreign policy. Nowhere does he mention that most of Pakistan’s problems are of its own making.

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  • Hammad
    Aug 29, 2013 - 5:11PM

    Congratulations! You just joined the band of people who write cliché articles on how Pakistan should not be written about.

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  • Farzan
    Aug 29, 2013 - 5:18PM

    Family values are fading away.
    And the “rich” culture you’re talking about is nothing but full of useless ideas and practices. Waste money on marriages. Buy expensive animals on Eid to “show-off”. -_-

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  • Saad Ahmad
    Aug 29, 2013 - 5:20PM

    Woww…. amazing and beautifully written……..

    In spite of lots of problems, Life is in Pakistan

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  • Aug 29, 2013 - 5:31PM

    Author like many other pakistanis is concerned for its poor image than the reasons responsible for it. Author is also not immune from the firm belief that all others India. Afghanistan, Israel West, USA raw, Mossad, & CIA have caused all the ills portraying Pakistan as victims. Media’s job is to put before world the events and happenings in Pakistan, good or bad,. Reasons and interpretations will be done by the spectators and there is no reason to whine it. In the world of news something which is natural is not a news. A child going to school is not a news. When the child is forbidden to attend the school it will have the news value. When something happens more positive than the common occurrence that also is a news. now it depends on you journalists to search the positive side of Pakistan which is newsworthy ( not the family values or going to a picnic with family).

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  • Zaigham
    Aug 29, 2013 - 5:57PM

    @irfaniftekhar: Green trees and washing of dust is a benefit of rain, water logging and people in knee deep water shows the inefficiency of the people who are supposed to handle it.

    And do you mean to say green beautiful trees cancels out flooded homes???
    How can you even compare the benefits of rain with the inefficiency of humans?
    Ridiculous argument.

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  • C. Nandkishore
    Aug 29, 2013 - 7:03PM

    Syed Saleem Shahzad tried to get out of the hotel room.

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  • Danish Xuberi
    Aug 29, 2013 - 7:25PM

    @irfaniftekhar:
    irfan bhai, though we had three consecutive floods, it turned out that country has faced no wheat shortage and flour prices are stable. yes you are right, we should also look at positive aspect.

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  • gp65
    Aug 29, 2013 - 7:58PM

    @Danish Xuberi: “irfan bhai, though we had three consecutive floods, it turned out that country has faced no wheat shortage ”

    No wheat shortage? Why then is Pakistan getting ready for the largest wheat imports in history? http://dawn.com/news/1033425/pakistan-eyes-biggest-wheat-imports-in-five-years-as-local-supply-dwindlesRecommend

  • unbelievable
    Aug 29, 2013 - 8:37PM

    How about actually writing an article which talks in detail about the good things – we have already seen too many articles which complain about the negative Pakistani articles and like yours they make obscure references to “good things” but never provide much detail. Weekly blog outlining some good things would be appreciated by many.

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  • Rakib
    Aug 29, 2013 - 8:48PM

    @Author:
    Indian politicians do use “Pakistan” in election speeches but not merely to malign it, which yields no vote, but to beat the Ruling Party for being lackadaisical on security front. To make the Home Minister to squirm who blames Pakistan for everything including Naxals to hide his inefficiency. China 1962 did not make Congress to lose election & Pak 1971 did not help that party to win. In 1965 Congress was on a high after Indo-Pak war & yet Madras State rejected that party (it stays rejected). In 1971 Indira Gandhi (the least good among PMs) won the election on slogan of “Garibi Hatao” (remove poverty) & not on any anti-Pakistan platform though East Pakistan was already on the boil. Within 4 years, even after victory in Bengal & smirks at Simla, such successes did not help her. Her earlier election was countermanded by High Court & she had to impose Emergency to stay in power & finally she lost her seat by a huge margin to a newbie. Kargil denouement did not matter when BJP lost & Mumbai-08 did not lead to MM Singh’s defeat in election-09. Only local issues matter in an election.

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  • gp65
    Aug 29, 2013 - 10:25PM

    ETBLOGS1987

    “Never show Pakistanis doing anything normal like going to the beach with their family for a picnic, falling in love or catching a movie with their friends”

    When just such a story WAS written about how the party scene is normal in Islamabad by Reuters instead of welcoming the story, it is slammed and allegations of reuters professionalism are made.. http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/13597/media-how-you-misrepresent-pakistan-is-not-epic/
    So what do you want?Recommend

  • Singh
    Aug 29, 2013 - 11:04PM

    Please can you you mention which one is not true?
    Even foreign paper has same views about Pakistan.

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  • np
    Aug 30, 2013 - 3:00AM

    Sir you are the publisher of ET.

    When is the last time your newspaper wrote about any NGOs in Sri Lanka or family values in Nepal or the picnics that Bangladeshis go to? Why do you expect US/UK to cover similar issues about Pakistan then? Why expect from others what you will not practice yourself?Recommend

  • AW
    Aug 30, 2013 - 8:43AM

    A good effort by the author drawing attention to the normal things in Pakistan that do happen. The truth is empathy is not a strong attribute of many people, tolerance is decreasing and in order to raise ourselves in public standing we push others from their’s. Every country has strong and weak points and nobody is perfect. Highlighting bad points is not necessarily wrong, because how else will you eradicate them if not by acknowledging them first? The problem starts when we stereotype whole groups of people and countries, and condemn them on the basis of those problems without understanding them one bit. This is the case with Pakistan too. It’s being condemned without being understood at all. I guess tunnel vision is universal and more common than we think.

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  • Lala Gee
    Aug 30, 2013 - 3:53PM

    After reading the following news, I wonder if Pakistan is really that dangerous place as portrayed by International and Pakistani media.

    “More than 70,000 people died from Calderon’s army-led war on drug cartels between 2006 and 2012, and more than 6,000 have been killed since President Enrique Pena Nieto took office in December.”Reuters, August 17, 2013.

    “Every year in the U.S., an average of more than 100,000 people are shot … Between 2000 and 2010, a total of 335,609 people died from guns”NBC News, January 16, 2013.

    “Car Crashes Kill 40,000 in U.S. Every Year”Fox News, February 03, 2005

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  • NotSoCommon
    Aug 30, 2013 - 8:51PM

    @Lala Gee

    The statistics you have given are probably correct ( as i have not verified them) which makes these places as dangerous as Pakistan, however, the reason the International media is more concerned about Pakistan and thereby portrays it as a dangerous place is cos the crimes/issues in these countries dont effect countries on the other end of the globe or much of their neighborhood. . Compare that with Pakistan and you will know the reason

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  • gp65
    Aug 30, 2013 - 9:53PM

    ET Moods- Lala Gee had written to me. Please allow response.

    @Lala Gee: “Car Crashes Kill 40,000 in U.S. Every Year” — Fox News, February 03, 2005

    True. Then by enforcing laws related to seatbelts and DuI, by legislating car safety norms etc. the number of deaths in 2012 has been brought down to less than 20,000. The issue is not that there is a problem but whether the problem is acknowledged and whether steps are taken to solve the problem.

    Separately @np has already responded to you about the sex ratio in India, so I will not repeat the data.

    I never said that the issue of female foeticide does not exist. I infact had said (in my post where I was responding to someone else – who brought up the completely unrelated issue of female foeticide in India – a post that has since been removed) that the issue was very shameful. What I added was that Pakistan also has a problem as evidenced by its sex ratio but unlike India this problem is not acknowledged and instead swept under the carpet.

    However bad and shameful a problem maybe, acknowledging it and working on it will make it better. Ignoring it and sweeping it under the carpet will make it worse. This is why I disagree with the many Pakistani bloggers and OpEd writers (including this one) who seem to think that media coverage of negative things happening in the country is somehow undesirable because it creates a negative image of the country. I feel improving country’s reality is more important than preserving its image and I am glad that Indian media does not sweep things under the carpet.Recommend

  • Saima
    Aug 30, 2013 - 11:19PM

    @ Author, I absolutely loved this piece. It explains EXACTLY what i felt about the writing style our authors and writers have come to adopt for wider readership. Beautiful lines and i can see it comes from the core of your heart. Exactly the sort of writing i would do to ridicule people who have no objective news reporting and no scholarly debates to raise.

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  • observer
    Aug 31, 2013 - 12:25PM

    and India, the much-celebrated largest democracy in the world, where elections can be won or lost based on how much anti-Pakistan rhetoric politicians can spew to whip up national and international sentiment against an already isolated and vulnerable country.

    Let us test the hypothesis.

    A. Mrs Indira Gandhi, who cleaved Pakistan in two, became unpopular and lost the elections in 1977.

    B. Mr A.B. Vajpayee, who as Foreign Minister, initiated rapprochement with Pakistan went on to become Prime Minister of India.

    C. Mr Rajiv Gandhi, who made the famous speech about ‘Pakitan ki nani yaad dila denge’ and launched Operation Brasstacks, lost the elections.

    D. Vajpayee, who took a bus to Pakistan came back as PM.

    E. UPA which allowed Mumbai 2008 to happen got reelected.

    In short, Pakistan is neither at the centre of the universe nor is it a deciding factor in Indian politics.

    Moderator ET- My rebuttal is more factual than the original assertion.

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