Emel and Oxfam organised the screening of ‘Miral’ last Thursday in London and I am glad I attended it. Director, Julian Schnabel stirred controversy with this daring film, based on a biographical novel by Rula Jebreal. I was shocked to hear in the introduction, that earlier this year on April 4th, a few days after the film was released in US, Juliano Merr-Khamis, an actor and peace activist who played a role in the film, was murdered outside his own theatre in a Palestinian refugee camp.

I grew up hearing the horror stories of Palestine. It is one of the biggest humanitarian disasters of our time. The so-called “civilised” world knowingly has put a blind eye towards the unjustified atrocities committed by the Jewish state since it’s creation. In retaliation the other side also uses all means possible to inflict pain to their enemy. The fact is that human beings are suffering on both sides.

It’s very rarely that we get to see a glimpse of the lives of ordinary Palestinians. Miral is a daring endeavour to voice the human side of this conflict. It tells a story spanning 60 years, of 4 Palestinian women living under the conflict.

The first account is of Hind Husseini and her brave effort to establish an orphanage in Jerusalem after the Deir Yassin Massacre in 1948. Hind was an influential lady of Palestine, who one day finds 55 children on a street, orphaned by the massacre, and takes them home to give them food and shelter. Soon the number reaches over 2000, giving birth to an institute she names Dar Al-Tifel. The striking thing about her is her patience in the worst of situations. She knows there is very little she can do other than using her influence to shield these children from the wrath of the occupiers. Hind believes that education is the only way towards peace.

The story continues with the account of a female fighter, Fatima, who is serving 3 charges of lifetime after a bomb attack and the circumstances that led her to commit that act. In parallel, it shows the disturbed life of Nadia, Miral’s mother. In 1978, the 5 year old Miral (played by Freida Pinto) is brought to Hind’s Institute by her father following her mother’s suicide. Hind protects her too from the world outside the walls of Dar Al-Tifel. One day the girls are assigned to teach at a refugee camp when in an Army raid a local family is dragged out of their house and the house bulldozed to rubble. The rebel in Miral suddenly wakes up to the troubles surrounding Palestinian people.

She later falls in a romantic relationship with a character named Hani, who is a Palestinian political activist. Miral struggles to choose between her desire to join the cause of her people and Hind’s path of academia, keeping away from hostility. She gets involved briefly with the political activities but eventually decides to take on the route Hind paved for her. The film ends with her taking up a scholarship in Italy later becoming a journalist helping her people. Her courage throughout this struggle must be commended. Rula is that journalist who eventually wrote her biographical story under the name of Miral.

I don’t think the aim of the film was to highlight the conflict as a whole, but rather it focussed on highlighting a unique side to the lives of ordinary local women: from Hind’s patience, love and determination to Miral’s struggle from an early age and her dilemma to decide her path in life.

The film has still received a lot of criticism from the Jewish circles as it seems to put them is a negative light. Julian Schnabel however believes that “the film is about preserving the state of Israel, not hurting it. Understanding is part of Jewish way, and Jewish people are supposed to be good listeners. But if we don’t listen to the other side, we can never have peace”. He said this at a rare screening of the film at the United Nations.

I must say it is an honest and brave attempt by the Israeli Director.

I’m sorry I forgot you

The chief army spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, denied that civilians were killed in the episode. The Pakistani military has never admitted to civilian casualties since it launched the current series of anti-Taliban offensives in April last year, with an operation in the Swat valley in the north-west of the country.


Of course there were no civilians. Of course there were no women, children or elderly.

Standing in line for aid. May 2009. Courtesy: Guardian

Any one who wears shalwar qameez, speaks pushto, was unfortunate enough to be born in the tribal/pathan areas is a taliban. Not just those bearded ones, their women and children are all culpable. They all LOOK scary.

So what if they were kicked out of their homes or if their homes were destroyed, why can’t they just smile? Why do they have to look so harrowed, lost and angry? And even after they get compensation for dead relatives, why do they have to be SO ungrateful?

We better be safe than sorry.

Separately, the UN warned this week that aid groups were running out of funds for Pakistan’s internally displaced people, with 1.3 million still homeless as a result of military operations, including the offensive in Orakzai which escalated a month ago and has pushed around 200,000 out of their houses.

This situation is not only forgotten by the international community but by Pakistanis too,” said Kilian Kleinschmidt, the deputy director of the United Nations refugee agency in Pakistan. “The crisis here is not over.”

I visited Jalozai camp in July 2009. The scariest saddest place I have ever seen.

I am just as guilty of forgetting the displaced people as any one else. It’s a case of out of sight, out of mind.

After the repatriations took place to Swat, the local media stopped reporting on the situation. The international media was barely reporting on it even at the height of the crisis.

I for one should be ashamed for not digging deeper. I was there. I was in the camps last summer. I saw the terrible conditions, fear and helplessness with my own eyes.

And yet I forgot.

Imagined communities, lost nationalism and cheap patriotism

It seems almost traitorous to be writing this lukewarm post on the day of ‘Independence’ when I’ve been saying how excited I am about 14th Aug for over a week now and planning the picnic etc. Yesterday, coming back from Basingstoke with Asim I was brooding over something (even I wasn’t sure what) and after his incessant prodding and my repeated failed attempts, I was finally able to put some of it into words.

My ideas were hardly innovative. I heard Altaf Hussain, of all people, articulating the same things on TV! What he said was right, but the intention I can’t trust. Basically, I was worried about my ‘celebrations’ to be mistaken for a blind support for all that the ‘State of Pakistan’ wages on it’s people. In particular, I was thinking of the people of Balochistan and also of Swat, Buner etc where the military has been carrying out its operation for over 2 months and the numerous other tribal areas where the Americans are carrying out drone attacks with impunity because of our government’s not-so tacit consent. I was thinking of the hundreds and thousands of people I saw in IDP camps in Pakistan in July and I especially remembered the scene in Jalozai camp where I literally got goosebumps and with horrified tears in my eyes, I started silently chanting “astaghfiruallah” to myself. Till you could see, there were rows upon rows of dusty tents in scorching heat, no trees or green or any shade within miles. Later we learnt that water supply was sporadic, NGOs were discouraged from working there and even the food provided was less than edible. We were told by the camp authorities that we weren’t allowed to go in because the people in these camps (unlike those in camps in Mardan and Swabi) were from “sensitive” areas who were not only resentful of the government, but also any foreign aid agencies.

The areas being referred to as ‘sensitive’ were Buner, Shamozai and tribal areas whose people had been made homeless and forced to take refuge primarily because of US drone attacks. I thought to myself, so THIS is the ‘collateral damage’ of drone attacks which William Milam, previously US Ambassador to Pakistan, at a talk in Oxford in May had said was ‘exaggerated’ by the Pakistan media. I remember seething at the comment and challenging it later during Q&A when I told him I had family still living in Bannu (next to Waziristan) who had directly experienced drone attacks and who could mention incident upon incident of innocent people who had been killed or whose homes had been destroyed. To that Mr. Milam retracted his statement and said he didn’t deny it but it was in fact with the consent of the Pakistani government and military. In other words, the US couldn’t really be blamed. On his latter point, I agree with him.

In July, my phuppo – who has lived her entire life in Bannu- told me that for as long as she could remember there used to be a ‘chholay wala’ (street vendor selling spicy chick pea snacks) in Bannu bazaar. This year, after the curfew was imposed in Bannu, one day he was somehow not able to pack up his cart and goods in time and vacate the bazaar. He was shot down by a missile. Somehow the death of this street vendor was for her the worst injustice even though in terms of casualties, there had been many worse. She also told me of a young boy who ventured outside his home after the curfew timings to the family vegetable plot outside to get some vegetables for an evening meal. He was also shot down. I’m sure the locals can narrate many more such incidents. What does all this naked abuse of power lead to? A love for Pakistan? I highly doubt it.

So yesterday being reminded of all these jumbled incidents in my head, it really struck me what an artificial concept ‘nationalism’ (and patriotism) is. Benedict Anderson had very aptly called nations ‘imagined communities’. The concept of ‘nation-states’, as we understand it now, is in fact a very new idea gaining currency in the 20th century due to colonialism and the subsequent independence movements. A Somali friend of mine gets extremely agitated when talking about it because, especially in the African context, nation-states have just led to numerous civil wars, mass displacements and botched development of a people who always thought of themselves as tribes or ‘peoples’ rather than as ‘nations’ bounded by geographical boundaries. This of course doesn’t mean that those of us who are born and grow up in these boundaries with a constant dose of ‘nationalism’ through school curricula and media propoganda, don’t actively subscribe to this identity. For us, it may be imagined but it is as real and tangible as anything else.

For me being a Pakistani is sometimes my most important identity other than being a Muslim or a woman or a Pathan. The latter I’ve only recently begun to embrace. If a kid in school asked me where I was from (“aap kahan sai ho?” is a favourite question for school children in my experience, especially when us air force kids were at a new school every other year or so), I would always say ‘Pakistan’ and they would look at me incredulously as if I was stupid or trying to be ‘over-smart’. And then there would be follow up questions about which city or ethnicity I belonged to. Believe it or not, the term used was ‘caste’ (“aapki caste kya hai?”) to which when I was older, I’d reply “what do you mean ‘caste’, we’re not Hindus” and of course what they were trying to get at was whether I was Punjabi or Pathan (and less so Kashmiri, Sindhi etc). YES I’M PATHAN, thank you very much.

Being pathan was such a sore point for me growing up. All the anti-pathan jokes (basically, we’re the Sardar Ji’s of Pakistan) and all the negative stereotypes– our Pushto-accented Urdu (mine isn’t that accented because of my mother’s conscious decision not to speak to us in Pushto), naswaar consumption (how is it worse than smoking? just cultural imperialism that considers it a lowly thing to do. My grandmother, only member of my family who takes naswaar, hid it from us kids for years because she was ashamed of how we would react to it. She of course admits that it is a bad habit, but got addicted to it years ago as many of her generation living in the villages), guns, women’s purdah, male chauvnism etc– didn’t allow me to take much pride in being a Pathan. My mother was once asked by an aunty, an educated woman, “Do you guys wear afghani frocks at home or shalwar kameez?” Yes, of course we wore afghani frocks…umm just about 100 years ago you ignorant fool!

Perhaps the worst racism and discrimination in Pakistani history was against the Bengalis and ironically the Pathans were as guilty of it as the Punjabis. I recently read A Golden Age by Tehmina Anam and I was amazed how uncomfortable the book made me feel. It is a novel about the 1971 civil war (the book of course refers to it as the ‘war of independence’) and the idea of imagined communities is what struck me the most. We forget now that Bengal had been at the forefront of the independence struggle for Pakistan. Muslim League was founded in 1906 at Dhaka (!) and Fazlul Haq (given the title ‘Sher-e-Bengal’ had drafted and moved the Lahore Resolution in 1940 which is considered THE document leading to the creation of Pakistan. For the next 2-3 decades they were as much Pakistani as any of the people in West Pakistan. However, it was the constant discrimination, dirty politics and at times outright ethnocentrism/racism that led to this entire province comprising almost half of Pakistan’s population to feel alienated and disenfranchised to the extent they no longer wanted to be Pakistanis. Their identity of being Bengali (and later Bangladeshi) trumped all others. It’s interesting for me how your nationalistic identity can completely change over time and how at the end of the day, it’s a matter of choice unlike your other identities such as being black or Asian or female which cannot be done away with.

I don’t want to get into a book review here but it was this thought that I could not shake off yesterday– the idea that you can renounce your identity. It scares me. When today we celebrate Pakistan’s independence, we need to remember that there are people within our country that are unhappy, miserable, homeless and who feel less than Pakistani or anything but Pakistani. Instead of cheap patriotic slogans that declare them traitors (‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ kind of mentality), we need to think about their (no, OUR) problems and think of WHY they are angry, hurt or upset and why perhaps they don’t want anything to do with Pakistan. Whether it’s Balochis asking for more provincial autonomy or people in tribal areas who have been affected by US drone attacks or the people in IDP camps who are in miserable conditions through no fault of their own. A lot of the onus of responsibility rests on the government, but the least we as individuals can do to ‘celebrate’ independence is to acknowledge that these problems exist and try our best to take a balanced stance on issues that affect our fellow Pakistanis rather than constantly thinking of ‘us’ vs ‘them’. We need to contribute whatever we can to trusted organizations that are doing something to relieve their suffering. I don’t care if you prefer Edhi Foundation, UNICEF, Islamic Relief, Muslim Aid, Zindagi Trust, Human Relief Foundation, The Citizens Foundation or none at all, just do something. Something more than cheap patriotism that stops at wearing green, shouting slogans, singing national songs, dancing on streets and stunts on motorbikes.

Cheap patriotism is not enough to make the entire ‘imagined community’ think of itself as a nation. We need more.