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Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Blessed One

Original Article: Daily Times
Date Published: Nov 15, 2012
Original Link:\11\15\story_15-11-2012_pg3_5

Four years ago, when a junior senator from Illinois shocked the entire world by leaving many contenders behind and came to the top, it was unbelievable. Everyone, including this scribe, was sceptical about him really reaching the finish line. Little did his detractors know, despite his supposedly ‘funny’ name, he was the man destined to alter the course of history. Perhaps it was all about his name that made him so determined and, yes, very blessed. When Mr Obama took the oath of office and became the first African-American president, many grownups cried like children. There are certain moments where emotions overpower your entire being, and perhaps it was one of those moments, when Barack Hussein Obama, a son of a Kenyan immigrant, became the 44th president of the United States of America.

Mr Obama’s critics and so-called pundits gave their verdict by labelling him as a single term president. They said he would be unable to accomplish much. Imagine inheriting a financial train wreck if you will; imagine getting a divided nation; imagine a deprived and wounded nation to lead. Yet the man, who was ridiculed as a mere ‘community organiser’ by the former mayor of New York City, decided to organise his nation under the banner of “Hope” and “Change”. One may disagree with him or criticise him for using these clich├ęd terms but discounting him or his presence is next to impossible.

No, this is not an article about how Mr Obama has proven his detractors wrong yet once again in 2012 by almost scoring a landslide victory against his challenger. It is about the person Barack Obama, mostly unknown and mostly overlooked. Behind the exterior persona of a suave, dashing, and debonair orator is perhaps an insecure, a bit scared, anxious and a bit nervous child, longing for the love of his father that he barely had. One can only get a glimpse into the real Barack Obama by embarking on his personal journey along with him through his books, where he opens the door for you and you get to share his trials, tribulations, challenges, sorrows and moments of joy with him. Both The Audacity of Hope and Dreams from My Father are flawlessly narrated by him on the audio versions, captivating the listeners completely. The former takes the reader or a listener to his world of becoming a community organiser in Illinois and then his race towards becoming a Senator from Illinois, whereas the latter truly touches you with his emotional roller coaster of a partial relationship with his father, which eventually leads him to trace his roots all the way to Kenya.

I must admit I was truly moved by the purity and sincerity of emotions displayed by Mr Obama in his book about his father. You can relate to the teenager Obama waiting to hear from his father and the anguish he must have experienced at a tender age while growing up far away from both of his parents. Losing a father to a car accident in Kenya and a loving mother to a bout with cancer, growing up with grandparents and still be able to grow up as a fine African-American man is quite an achievement.

Mr Obama has the candid ability to entertain his audience by delivering superb impressions of his grandparents, President Bush, his Kenyan relatives and average African-Americans in the audio version of Dreams from My Father. Barack Obama is undoubtedly a highly underrated performer. Had he not taken the route of politics, he could have made it big on TV or perhaps Hollywood.

One is transported to Mr Obama’s world of excitement and adventures with his family and extended family members. There you get to meet his maternal grandfather, a World War veteran, his grandmother “Toots”, the banker, his compassionate mother, his overly charming father, Aunt Zaytuni, Cousin Bernard, his Indonesian stepfather and many other real characters along the way. It is truly a remarkable story, perhaps a script made for a Hollywood blockbuster. One gets to meet Barry who is in search of his own identity in a very black and white world of the 1970s and early 1980s. It is about a young Obama on the basketball court, unsure of his future, his internal turmoil with his split identity, trying hard to fit in truly in both of his black and white worlds.

At the end of the journey with Mr Obama, you tend to realise that one has to be truly blessed to achieve what he has managed to do thus far. Despite the odds, despite the challenges and the monstrous opposition, he has stood firm and determined. Only a man with that kind of desire, will, courage and determination can escalate to become the leader of the free world. Yes, he has actually freed the ‘free world’ of its rotten and old biases too. No wonder, why he is and will be called the blessed one.

The Wrath Of Words

It is time again to roll the tape back for the benefit of many who may have forgotten the events of August 2005. The Gulf Coast here was bracing for a ruthless hurricane called Katrina. That deadly storm was an unprecedented storm that left the levies of New Orleans paralysed. The water submerged the city, reminiscent of floods in Bangladesh and Pakistan. The scenes on television and the print media were devastating and surreal. To witness a strong nation like the US go through such a disaster was incredible, to say the least. The TV talking heads were repeating the phrase ‘mother nature’ way too much in their broadcasts.

The failure of communication and leadership in the state of Louisiana was downright shameful. The confusion, the chaos, the inability of the city, state and federal government left many dead and thousands stranded. The racial undertones to the catastrophe could be hardly ignored. President Bush at the onset of the disaster looked detached and indifferent. No matter what he did subsequently as damage control, it appeared to be fruitless and almost in vain.

Back then, our Pakistani ‘independent’ media was not to be left behind in replaying the miseries of my fellow Americans. Heck, media here was beaming the plight of my fellow citizens and highlighting the folly of our government without fail. There was one exception back home though. The very independent-of-reasoning media had labelled it ‘the wrath of God’. According to their interpretation, it was the answer of the Almighty for the US’s intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Urdu newspaper columns were littered with rebuke and it was mostly on the line of ‘divine lesson to the evil Umreeka’ (America) theme repeated over and over again.

I was reminded of a Sufi poet’s Punjabi line back then. “Dushman maray tay khuskhi na kariyey, Sajana wee marr jaana” (Do not rejoice on the death of your enemy as your friends are going to perish too). Little did I know that this line would resonate with many of my fellow Pakistani brethren within weeks of Katrina. It was Ramadan in October 2005; I had stopped at a gas station and as soon as my engine started, the CBS radio announced a massive earthquake in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan. The sheer magnitude of 7.6 was alarming for a densely populated area. Having lived through a 6.7 earthquake myself, I could relate to the agony of many. The darn shaker comes unannounced and at that moment there is nothing you can do other than bear its swaying brunt. The earth becomes your adversary and the aftershocks tend to play with your jittery nerves for a long, long time.

I had wondered if the theory of the wrath of God was valid, then what was it that the poor 1,400 people on the mountainous plains must have done to invite the fury of the Almighty. The same ‘ugly’, ‘imperial’ and ‘cocky America’ offered a helping hand to Pakistan. Government and private assistance in the form of donations from various US organisations poured in within a few days of the massive destruction. The self-righteous on the idiot boxes and local rags, rather than being grateful for the American generosity and compassion, came up with a bizarre conspiracy theory. According to their unsubstantiated claim, the earthquake was caused by the so-called HAARP technology that the US administered remotely. The quacks spun it and the clueless crowd sucked it up like sponges.
How about the deadly floods of 2010 that left many of my poor Pakistani brethren dislocated and many dead? If the same wrath of God theory was true, then only the Almighty knows what those economically deprived had done to turn penniless and, of course, homeless. Ah yes, even then the HAARP theory was peddled. But I digress.

So when Hurricane Sandy knocked on the Eastern Coast of the US last month, the familiar theme of wrath was repeated on our national TV. Social media had images laced with various captions of ridicule and rebuke. This time around, it was about it being an answer to drones, the YouTube anti-Islam video and, of course, the Afghanistan and Iraq invasion. I am not here to defend all acts of the US, and I certainly have disagreed very vocally on a few of those, but the silly and juvenile captions of my fellow ‘faithful’ are plain distasteful and disgusting.

The 167 lost lives and billions of dollars worth of damage caused by Hurricane Sandy will be a point of discussion for months in the US. Rest assured, the investigation, fact-finding and reasons will be transparent. The measures will be in place to minimise such a loss when the next one strikes. But I sure hope, wish and pray with utmost sincerity that the Punjabi line of the Sufi poet does not get to rebound again for my motherland.

The US is a resilient nation and I have witnessed it with my own eyes. It picks itself up, moves and marches forward. The sheer compassion of people is very uplifting and exhilarating. Perhaps this is the reason why the Almighty has blessed this land so much. Yes, the same Almighty that my fellow Pakistani brethren feel should be punishing ‘all Americans’ for their ‘collective’ transgressions around the globe.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

On Elections And Democracy

Original Article: Daily Times
Date Published: November 01, 2012
Original link:

The election season is in full swing here. Radio, TV and social media is barraged with campaign ads. As much as some of my fellow brethren will ignore the outcome in their rage, the fact is many eyes are set on who gets to be in the White House. This clarifies what I was referring to in my last week’s ‘gibberish’. As much as we may disagree, the world watches where the US is headed. After all, whoever runs the show here has a significant impact on the entire world, which of course includes Pakistan.

Historically, the Republicans have been very beneficial for Pakistan, or let me rephrase, a certain institution of Pakistan. Their mutual agendas are often aligned and hence, it just happens to be an ideal fit. The Democrats including the incumbent democratic president, who has incidentally made a couple of trips in his student time to Pakistan, are not so keen. Again, that is the geopolitics and its reality for you, with some historical perspective.

The two-party system of the US, whether it is good or bad, is a debate in itself. But I can tell you this much, it discards all the riff raff for the most part. Ideologically, there are only two sides: conservatives or liberals. No wonder, you see a similar trend in the rest of the developed world where the voters have to decide between these two choices for the most part. Come to think of it, we are blessed with our own versions of these two opposite ends, a la the South Asian or better yet the Pakistani version.

There is no dearth of parties in Pakistan and those who dream of establishing a very ultraconservative and idealistic form of government are divided in multiple groups of all shapes and forms. Any single ideological dissent and there is either an expulsion or resignation from the party ranks. Those dejected idealists either find solace in the arms of the competitors or if they have the drive, go on their own and create another ‘jamaat’ (party), ‘tehreek’ (movement). In a country where democratic norms have been ignored and suppressed for decades, at least one thing is for sure: there is this much of democracy in ‘overdrive’ for sure. If and when the average voter sees the ballot paper and perhaps goes through the multiple choices, he or she is bound to get a rush of confusion.

Approximately 30 years ago, when I landed in this land, I was amazed at the way the elections were conducted here. My school was a polling station and there were no banners, no posters, no handbills or any graffiti. Heck it was not even a holiday. People very quietly came, got their ballots and quietly stood in a cubicle, voted and off they went back to their work or home. There were no ink markers on thumbs or fingers, no symbols, no nothing. Before the night turned to day, the late Ronald Reagan was declared victorious; it was announced on television and that was it. There were no rallies, processions, crowds going wild with jubilation, indiscriminate firing in the sky, riots, arson, fires and accusations of rigging. It was all so surreal and every two years we go through this exercise here. I am referring to both the general and the midterm polls of the US.

When I engage our folks about this, I get to hear the usual retort: do not compare the US to Pakistan. The US is over 200 years old and we are a very young and above all, a developing country. I agree on some levels, but rather than waiting for our 200th anniversary to implement some positive changes, can we not just look at things more objectively right now, I often ask. But those blank stares full of rebuke usually follow and one has to just opt for the ever golden silence.

In a country where democracy is still viewed with strange scepticism and considered an alien concept, it is a monumental task for those who promote it. Those who wish to bring an idealistic form of government, based on a revolution and want to change everything from top down, amuse me. Often in their minds, they envision a system of ‘cleansing’. This cleansing is a clever term used for violence and extrajudicial killing. To my dismay, a few of our revered columnists in their passion suggest it as the ideal recipe for our salvation.

Democracy is not a magical wand. It is not the be all and end all. It is not a perfect system. It is a system in constant evolution with certain basic parameters. The reason is plain and simple. It is a system designed for the people and by the people who are in an ever-changing state at all times. It is dynamic and gives the people the ability to adapt according to their environment and its needs. If we look at the developed world and want to emulate their recipes of success, then it is one of the most paramount elements on their menu. People tend to confuse the failures of elected representatives with failures of democracy. That is a fairly amateurish excuse to reject democracy.

Come November 6, I will exercise my right to vote. Yes, it is not going to rid the world of its miseries, but not exercising it at all will leave me perhaps equally miserable.