How to write about Pakistan

Don’t forget to repeatedly remind your reader that truth is often stranger than fiction in this eccentric country.


M Bilal Lakhani 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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COMMENTS (39)

observer | 7 years ago | Reply

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.

Saima | 7 years ago | Reply

@ 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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