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Pakistani portraits

August 21 2013





Pakistan is a country standing at the crossroads. From Karachi to Peshawar, a series of snapshots provides a glimpse into the dangerous inequalities and snatches of hope that fill Pakistani life.

I was born in London, but used to visit Pakistan with my family during the summer holidays. In March 2013, I travelled from Karachi in the South, to Peshawar in the North. I took a notebook and a camera, and saw a Pakistan I had not seen before. Here are ten people I met.

Mohammed Abbas

I met Mohammed the morning after I arrived in Karachi. He works 12 hours a day in a barber’s shop, on the ground floor of the apartment block where my uncle lives.

Mohammed Abbas

Mohammed Abbas, Credit: Khaldoon Ahmed

“If I had a choice, I wouldn’t do this job. I wish I could study. I’d like to work in the police, or the army, and help Muslims and Pakistan. But you need education to do this. I really want to focus on deen (faith). In my village the Tablighi Jamaat (Islamic group) organizes a seroza ijtema (three day gathering). They teach you how to become a good Muslim. The worst sin is zina (adultery). Life is difficult, and we need to suffer in this world, for the next world.

“There is too much violence in this city. It has become too expensive. If a man earns 100 rupees and goes home to his wife, he is not happy. It is not enough to live on. Many people kill themselves – they jump off the bridge. But I’m not going to commit suicide. If you do, then it is eternal punishment in barazakh (purgatory) and hellfire.”

Magdalena Masih

Magdalena works as a cleaner in the flat of my friend Faizan, a British Pakistani journalist living in Islamabad. I talked to Magdalena as she ironed clothes. Her husband George, and son Adnan, had also come along to clean.

Magdalena Masih

Magdalena Masih, Credit: Khaldoon Ahmed

“I was born in Layyah, a village on the Indus river between Multan and Dera Ismail Khan. My father went there from Sialkot because he wanted to the work on the land. We are Christian. My father was uneducated, and I also didn’t go to school. The village was not good. The zamindars (landowners) used to beat us up, and force us to work without pay.

“I was married to my uncle’s son aged 23, and we moved to Rawalpindi. Now we have four children. Life in the city is 75 per cent better than the village. Here people don’t care if you come or go. Our neighbourhood has both Christians and Muslims living in it. We have had problems because of our religion, but I leave everything up to khuda (God). I prayed to God for children, and He gave me children. I prayed to God for a car, and He gave us a car.

“We leave home at 8 o’clock in the morning, and go to work in different houses in Islamabad. We get home at eight thirty at night, eat, and go to sleep. It’s tough. We work hard so that our children don’t have to do what we had to do. All my children are doing well in their studies. My son is doing icom (business studies) and my daughter likes drawing.”

Mustafa Kamal Mufti

Mustafa is 21 years old. He is my cousin Saud’s friend who has just started work in a bank. I had gone with Saud to Karachi Station to get a rail ticket to travel to Bahawalpur. Mustafa had just finished work close by, and we went to eat biryani in Chundrigar Road.

Mustafa Kamal Mufti

Mustafa Kamal Mufti, Credit: Khaldoon Ahmed

“I came to Karachi from Islamabad aged 12. It was a bit of a shock. In Islamabad we had a big bungalow and a driver. Life was comfortable. My father was an engineer working in the oil industry. He wanted to move to Karachi because he grew up here. But I didn’t want to come. It was hard to adjust to the new life. In Karachi everyone just works and goes home.

“I was always good at studies. My father wanted me to study medicine or go into the civil service. But I decided to study business administration at the bachelors level. My two older sisters are studying business and accounting. My mother is an Islamic preacher. She has opened her own Islamic education centre as part of the Al-Huda (The Guidance) organization.

“The first job I did was last year as a copywriter in ecommerce. Then I got my current job in the bank. I also give tuition to students on the weekends. I’ve applied for a graduate training position at the State Bank of Pakistan, but competition is intense. There are 15,000 applicants for 30 jobs. It’s funny, but I got my idea of becoming a banker from American movies. I saw films like Wall Street. I guess I was seduced by the glamour and glitz of working in finance.”

Meister Waheed

Meister (his industry nom de plume) is the producer of Karachi’s City FM 89 radio. I first heard of him in London when a music video he made, Karachi City, went viral on the internet. We met at his office-studio at Dawn News. This was a day after a member of parliament for the MQM party had been shot dead. The city had been in shutter down mode earlier in the day, but by the early evening it was safe to go out.

Meister Waheed

Meister Waheed, Credit: Khaldoon Ahmed

“City FM 89 is the best known radio station here that plays only music from the West. I produce the radio shows. We record the programmes, line them up, and select the music playlist. We programme the station according to the audience in the time of day. In the morning it’s the young office goers, in the afternoon teenagers, then an older audience in the evening.

“Karachi is an upside down place. One moment everything is shuttering down with rioting, and the next moment everything is back to normal and it’s as if nothing happened. A big problem is getting to work. I drive 54 kilometres every day. It’s a nightmare when roads get shut down.

“The Karachi City music video started off as my graduation film project at university. We had no idea it would go viral and get 100,000 hits. I had seen the Duck Sauce New York City video, and decided to make one for Karachi. Where they say ‘Barbara Streisand’, we put in ‘Karachi City’. We shot it in two weeks. Its success was a real boost for me.”

Mohammad Naim

In South Punjab I stayed in a village called Khaniqah Sharif, just outside the city of Bahawalpur. The driver of my host was a bearded middle-aged man called Abdur Rahim. He was taking me to the bus station to go to Multan, when he said “lets stop here to meet my son”. His son’s name was Mohammed Naim. He works in the property business. We sat in his office and talked over a cup of tea.

Mohammad Naim

Mohammad Naim, Credit: Khaldoon Ahmed

“I was born in Khaniqah Sharif. I went to Karachi when I was 19 with my brother. We sold haleem (meat stew). I decided to go to Afghanistan to fight when I heard the announcement that the Taliban needed help. Then 9/11 happened. The Americans invaded Afghanistan, and I was caught in Kunduz and put in prison. There were many of us with no food or toilets. There were a few British people from Manchester in prison with us. I thought that there would be no way out. We went on hunger strike.

“Eventually the Red Crescent helped us, and our pictures were all over the international press. I wrote a letter to my father.  He was so relieved to know I was alive. I was really thin, and had lice in my hair.

“They transferred me to a prison in Kabul. I was in jail for three years altogether in Afghanistan. Then the Pakistani Government negotiated our transfer to prison in Pakistan. At the time, there were elections in Afghanistan. Karzai wanted the votes of Afghans living in Pakistan, and in exchange for Pakistan agreeing to this, we were released. I was in prison in Pakistan for two years. I’m now married, have two children, and am working hard. The intelligence services still check on me now and then.”

Amjad Ali Kalyar

Also in South Punjab, I met Amjad. He is a journalist, but has set up a school for girls in his home village. We met at the school, which is in Samasatta, a village close to Bahawalpur.

Amjad Ali Kalyar

Amjad Ali Kalyar, Credit: Khaldoon Ahmed

“Girls’ education is completely neglected in our area. Before I set the school up, people would say ‘what’s the point of educating girls?’. The problem is that girls work in the fields and in the houses of the landlords. The landlords do not want them to go to school. They put a lot of obstacles in the way of setting the school up. We were allotted a certain amount of land. Even though the land was officially for the purpose of the school, the landlords would not give it up. The school has been running for more than a year now. It’s a success. Parents are now sending their boys here as well as girls.

“I started off in journalism doing a programme for Radio Pakistan in Bahawalpur. I am crazy about Pakistani and Indian music from the 1950s. I collect old records of Seraiki singers like Badro Multani. I once went all the way to Layyah to collect a record to bring to Bahawalpur. I started playing some of my collection on FM 95 in Lahore. My first break in print was when I was asked to do a weekly column in the newspaper Khabarain. Now I do a show for radio in Lahore called Chalta Phirta Microphone (Roving Microphone). It’s a 10 minute compilation of conversations with people on current affairs.”

Mohammad Ayub

The town of Kana is just a few miles outside Lahore on the road to Kasur. My mother’s family has a small piece of land here. I went there with my uncle, who has set up an industrial unit, and grows vegetables on a patch. The fields of wheat had an intense green colour. There I met an old man. We sat on acharpay (traditional string-bed) and drank tea.

Mohammad Ayub

Mohammad Ayub, Credit: Khaldoon Ahmed

“I come from a village 40 miles from Delhi. At partition in 1947, we walked in akafila (convoy) to Pakistan. We spoke Mewati, which is a Rajasthani language. We left behind many people, and many were massacred on the way here. I saw wells full of corpses.

“In Pakistan the re-settlement department allotted us 8 acres of land. We were farmers in India, so that’s what we carried on doing here. My family grew wheat and chick peas, and we built a house.

“I decided to go into the milk business. I went to Karachi and had a shop in Korangi, selling milk and yoghurt. At that time 200 people from this village were in Karachi. In the 1980s the halaat (security situation) deteriorated, and I came back here.

“A Muslim has principles, and does not lie or cheat. In the old days if a girl was walking at night wearing jewellery, someone would escort her home. Now they loot them. I read the newspapers, and there is no sakoon (peace). Our leaders don’t follow Islam. General Zia’s rule was good, but our present government only gives us trouble. They are thieves.”

Rajab Ali Sayed

In Lahore I went to see the degree show at the National College of Arts (NCA). I met Rajab Ali Sayed in the courtyard of this wonderful Victorian brick building. I was taken aback by his paintings. They were large canvasses with brightly drawn, animated characters at parties. More than just descriptive, they were a directed critique of the moral hypocrisy of elites.

Rajab Ali Sayed

Rajab Ali Sayed, Credit: Khaldoon Ahmed

“My father is Pakistani, and my mother is Filipina. I grew up in Karachi, where my parents worked in the textile industry. In Pakistan, our lives are often predetermined. But my parents gave me freedom. I wasn’t sure about becoming an artist, but went to art school to work out what I wanted to do.

“My work is autobiographical. Life is so fast that you can’t reflect on things as they occur. I made a video piece called ‘Pretty Young Things’. I edited 20 hours filmed in 6 months into 2 minutes. The video is mute. You see strobe lighting, fast cars, and people dancing in Lahore parties. It’s a critical look at lifestyle. But through it I can also make sense of the experiences I had.

“An artist working in Pakistan can’t avoid making a comment about society. In my group at the NCA, one artist paints excruciating scenes in beauty parlours. She shows the ugliness of someone having hairs plucked from armpits, in a place that it supposed to be about beauty. Another artist makes sculptures of men carrying huge sacks on their backs. It’s about how men in this society carry impossible burdens on how they are supposed to act.”

Akram Varraich

I went to see Akram in the Jinnah Gardens in the centre of Lahore. He meets there regularly with a group of poets and artists trying to revive Punjabi culture in a country dominated by Urdu and English language. He was sitting on the grass, holding a paint brush, amongst trees planted by the British colonialists over a century ago.

Akram Varraich

Akram Varraich, Credit: Khaldoon Ahmed

“Punjabi has no prestige in Pakistan. Our problems with language began with the British. They feared Punjabi nationalism, and banned the public use of Punjabi in 1860. Urdu was promoted, and this has resulted in a confused identity. Today Punjabi is not taught in schools, despite being the mother tongue of most people in the province. Even in our parliament, the use of Punjabi is banned. You have to get permission from the speaker before speaking in the language.

“The system creates and perpetuates injustice. An uneducated person might not speak Urdu or English. When he reports an incident to the police, the statement is taken down in Urdu. The original meaning of the statement is lost, and the victim loses his recourse to justice.

“But I’ve noticed that the politics of language is shifting. In the past ten to fifteen years you find people in power speaking Punjabi in official settings. This is probably because the prestige of Urdu has declined and gone to English. And Punjabi is emerging again.”

Dr Nazo Jogezai

As a psychiatrist practising in London, I was curious to know about mental health in Pakistan. I visited the Institute of Psychiatry in Rawalpindi, and there met Dr Nazo Jogezai.

Dr Nazo Jogezai

Dr Nazo Jogezai, Credit: Khaldoon Ahmed

“I see a lot of people with social problems that turn into psychiatric symptoms. Often we see young men and women who suddenly stop talking, or lose the use of their limbs. It’s usually a result of stress, and this is hysteria or conversion disorder. It is the result of having no way out, and the body produces these symptoms as a last resort. These people often go to ‘spiritual healers’ first, and only come to psychiatrists when they have tried everything else.

“At the moment I am working on an internationally funded project with heroin addicts. We prescribe them buprenoephine, which reduces their craving for opiates. The addicts are a very marginalised and destitute group of people. They suffer a lot of stigma, and are abandoned by their families. It is really very sad. They are often injecting poisonous contaminated heroin. Two of my patients died in the cold. Addiction is a big problem in Pakistan, and started with the Afghan war.

“There are so many problems in this country. Where do you even start? The system produces so much inequality. Someone educated in English schools has nothing in common with the person educated in a madrassa. They are aliens to us, and we are aliens to them. There is so much insecurity: bomb threats, mobs, protests. With every bomb blast you get shaken up, and scarred. But still you go to work. You become a stoic.”

Originally published by Open Democracy 

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