Husain Haqqani's last supper
I for one, am glad that Hussain Haqqani spoke of the need to reign in the Pakistani military.
Ambassador Husain Haqqani arrived at what turned out to be the last function at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington DC under his watch as Ambassador on November 17, an hour late. His entrance to the upstairs foyer, where approximately 100 guests of Pakistani, Pakistani-American and US-background representing literary and cultural, business and bureaucratic professions from DC-area and elsewhere, were seated listening to a Pakistani poet recite some of her prizewinning poetry.
She was one of six writers of Pakistani background whose work had been collected in an anthology called “Pakistani Creative Writing in English: Tracing The Tradition, Embracing the Emerging,” a special issue of the journal South Asian Review co-edited by myself and Waseem Anwar. The publication was being honored at the evening’s gathering, a launch ceremony I had begun planning with Mr Haqqani back in September. He had said:
“the Embassy should honor its creative writers and artists, who shatter the current western stereotypes of Pakistan as a cultural wasteland and synonymous only with terrorism.”
His late arrival was accompanied with a clutch of photo-journalists flashing their cameras running after him as he walked up to the head table, and a band of folk accompanying him and some seated at the back of the room clapping loudly at his entrance. Naturally, as the organizer of the event, I was miffed at the interruption his arrival caused as one of “my” writers was in the midst of presenting her work. I was, too, surprised at the rather zealous nature of the press photographers who kept the cameras clicking at the head table for quite a while after the Ambassador had seated himself. I hadn’t realized his attendance at, and in support of, our literary function was such a big deal!
The last piece that was performed at the ceremony before the Ambassador got up to make his speech to the audience gathered in the room, was from a play I had co-written called "Jihad against Violence". A friend and I did a dramatic reading of a scene from this play in which two women are discussing “Act Two, Scene 1” of an imaginary play-within-a-play, a scene which one of the characters insists hasn’t yet been written. The other woman insists that it has—or that it is being written even as they are speaking. And what is this “scene”?
It is one which follows a series of previous short scenes the two women had presented, referring to bearded men and hijabi women participating in a variety of violent and scandalous scenarios, including getting their bodies possibly dumped in oceans. The scene which one of them claims hasn’t been written yet and the other insisting it has or is in the process of being written, is one in which Obama becomes their beloved director (of the play)—and who both women friends realize they’ve been waiting for ever since their “wretched play” started. They now hope that when he arrives in Pakistan for the delicious dinner they plan to cook for him, he will, having become enamored of the “sexy spiciness” they represent, not bomb them and their country mates to smithereens. They do worry, however, that since he may bring along some uninvited guests with him such as the Browns and Blairs and Camerons, they would need to slaughter more chicken than they can afford. But in the end, they decide not to worry too much about the menu and the quantity of chicken they would need to slaughter since, as one of the women points out:
“After all, we are great cooks, and have a great tradition of hospitality. And as you know...everyone is welcome in our country.”
As the audience laughed and enjoyed the political satire of the dramatic reading, I could see that the Ambassador, though he smiled now and then, remained looking rather tense at his seat. And when he came up to the podium immediately following the conclusion of our reading to make his remarks, it became clear from the nature of his comments that our “dramatic reading” was rather uncannily linked to the drama unfolding in the present involving the Ambassador himself.
Mr Haqqani praised the importance of the creative arts and the role of writers as the cultural vanguard of Pakistan, whose work, he said, was so important to highlight as an antidote to the extremist ideologies that had taken hold of the Pakistani nation in the decades post-Zia-ul-Haq,. However, Mr Haqqani’s remarks continued to berate the shortsightedness of Pakistani leaders and citizens, who held on to regressive, rather than progressive and forward-looking thought and action in the country and thus held it back from taking its rightful role as a future South Korea. In fact, he compared its current status to that of a militarily repressive regime such as that of Burma’s, its citizens held hostage to ideologies harkening back to a regressive Islamist past, where progressive politicians like the late Minister of Minorities Mr Shahbaz Bhatti and the late Governor of Punjab, Mr Salmaan Taseer, who both took a stand for women’s and minorities rights in Pakistan, could be so easily assassinated.
We all clapped when he made these comments speaking out for human rights and for the need of a progressive culture of peace as the need of the day in Pakistan. I and others agreed with his sentiments when he said we don’t need “those nuclear weapons encased in plastic” rather than investing in peace and prosperity that comes from education, jobs, and healthcare and the creation of proper infrastructure in the country. He said he had been moved to offer the Embassy as the location to launch our Special Issue of Creative Writing from Pakistan because of its title: "Tracing the Tradition, Embracing the Emerging"—precisely because to him, it conveyed the importance of “moving forward,” acknowledging the traditions of the past, but recognizing the need to move away from those aspects of “tradition” that do not belong in the contemporary world and embracing instead, the new and the progressive elements of thought and action necessary for our survival as a nation in a globalized world.
While I certainly do not claim to know the truth of the allegations leading up to Mr Haqqani’s offer of resignation as Ambassador later that same night, I can say the following for sure. We who had gathered there earlier that evening in the Pakistan Embassy, were celebrating the talents of writers who use words , not guns or bombs as their weapons in the fight for a tolerant and just society of the future. Ambassador Haqqani, who has been recalled to Pakistan even as I pen these words, on charges of conduct unbecoming of a senior Pakistani diplomat for allegedly requesting, in a memo to Admiral Mike Mullen (known as “memogate") on May 10, the help of the US general and his government in “preventing yet another a military takeover” of Pakistan, was clearly making the case for civil and civilian, democratic rule in Pakistan, against the military-mullah nexus that has dominated Pakistani society for the past three decades. It is this dangerous nexus that has led to the implosion of Pakistani society and culture, and I for one, am glad that this Ambassador spoke of the need to reign in the Pakistani military.
Pakistan and its citizens deserve democracy, justice, and a culture of peace and progress While I want to be unequivocally clear that I do not support the intervention of any foreign power including the US under Bush or Obama or, (heaven help us) Romney and his cartoonish caste of Republican contenders, or of Nato or the Browns, Blairs, and their progeny—into the internal affairs of a sovereign state like Pakistan, I absolutely believe in the principle of what Ambassador Haqqani was saying that fateful night of Nov 17: roll back the hijabi curtain that has fallen like a shroud on the thinking of Pakistani society. While the irony that the “scene being written even as we [were]speaking” that night, may have been that of Ambassador Haqqani’s resignation and recall, the larger, more important scene, is the one that can be re-written and imagined: the path that Pakistani society and its culture follows from this moment onward.