Recruiting & Retaining: Are The Best And Brightest Attracted To Public Service?

When thinking of government service in Pakistan, a few things tend to pop into a person’s head. A sharply dressed officer with a prominent power walk, a shiny official car, a personal secretary carrying files and folders. “What’s not to like?, one tends to think. But, is the public sector and its practices in Pakistan really all that they’re made out to be?

civil_servantThe choice to follow a career in public service doesn’t have to come with age. Some people dream of becoming an astronaut, some of racing cars and some simply want to serve their country. There’s no doubt that a country cannot function without a framework of government employees who’s duty is to make sure that the rights and services deserved by a citizen of the nation are dispensed to them with the utmost ease and lack of hindrances. They are the framework through which the constitution acts, through which the rights of a citizen are upheld, the means through which a government interacts with its citizens, the connecting bridge between the decision making and the on ground functioning of a country.

Let’s be honest, that’s a heavy burden for any pair of shoulders. To be given the duty of running a country at a defined level is a great responsibility and it’s only logical that these particular jobs should only be given to the most capable of people. This, in turn, causes the questions to arise; are the best possible candidates being selected for the job currently? If not, then why not? What can be done and needs to be changes regarding the application and selection procedure?

When it comes to public service in Pakistan, the Government service comprises two distinct categories of officers. One, recruited at the federal level, either through the contemporary examination scheme or direct induction, provided minimum job requirements have been met. Two, officers recruited at the provincial level who apply and are selected through the same two means.  Since provinces report to the federation, it is usually the case that federal officers are allocated more powers and seniority than their provincial counterparts.

Openings in the service are advertised in small black and white columns in newspapers. There’s nothing about them that stand out or pull your attention. Meager descriptions of the openings don’t give a person much of a hint about where applicants will be ending up, what the job itself entails and what packages an applicant may be eligible for. The typical bureaucratic black and nature of desk jobs comes across as nothing that would inspire or excite an aspiring civil servant. There are no media campaigns depicting the travels and adventures you can have like the marines. There are no recruiting drives in universities targeting potential applicants, showing them what the public sector has to offer. Civil servants should be the best and the brightest, it only makes sense when giving them such responsibilities. If there’s no need to draw them in or show them a world full of opportunity, does that mean the service already gets the crème de la crème?

The majority of university graduates that specialize in science and engineering based fields in Pakistan rarely end up going into

Image via
Image via

public service. Does the Government not require technocrats for policy making regarding technical fields? Public administration courses for undergraduates at the university level barely exist. Should the grooming for public service not start off early if a person would prefer it? When the functioning of a country is pivotal when it comes to its establishment, why is there so little public knowledge and outreach on behalf of the service itself? The recruitment process is inherently based on minimum disclosure and outreach. Maybe the public sector has the top tier of employees. Maybe they’re alright with not having them.

On the other hand, when seen through the perspective of retaining employees, the civil service rarely sees voluntary cast-aways. The perks and privileges allocated to a public sector officer and more than enough to keep them happy. Official transport, a comfy desk, powers associated with the relevant job and field given, subsidized utilities are just a few to name. The most important factor however is security. Once you’re in, you’re in. You’ve got a pension, you get to take travel as part of official tours and most of all you can’t be removed from the service unless a major offence such as corruption has been proved. As stated before, these facts aren’t very well known amongst the general public. The only way through which you get to understand and know about the public service is through firsthand knowledge through an actual person. Word of mouth, as to speak. Families of doctors keep making doctors and families of engineers keep making engineers unless an inspiring job seeker comes into contact with someone with knowledge of public service that ends up appealing to them. The only reason for that is the lack of exposure the general public has to the line of work. Not to say that that’s the story of every household, but an actual passion that leads a person to public service isn’t a common finding.

Without a doubt, the country’s machinery needs well educated, oriented and motivated to work smoothly.  It needs mindsets that are diverse, originating from different backgrounds and levels of exposure with expertise in a broad spectrum of fields. Currently, the needs of the public sector may be met with the existing workforce, but when it comes turn for the younger, more broadminded and skillful generation to takes its place, the question arises that will the selection process change accordingly to accommodate such future civil servants? The world is moving forward, and if that’s not the case with the recruiting procedure currently employed, our citizens will not have the best and brightest formulating and executing policies for them.

The Myth of Peaceful Resistance (#Mandela)

There is a way in which the myth of peaceful resistance is flattering to the oppressor and disabling to the oppressed. It’s as much the oppressor’s narrative as anyone’s. “You ought not to fight us with more than the image of your own broken body,” it says, “for we who oppress you are good and rational — most of the time. We have the same interests as you, and understand that you enjoy the same basic rights. We, your rulers, simply need to have our consciences pricked from time to time.” By couching the antipathy as a mere moral lapse, the oppressor is permitted simultaneously to deny the actual material basis of the social division and hence the necessity for a struggle for liberation that is more than merely symbolic, and to perform a mental splitting-off from its own identity of those aspects of itself it can now pretend were inessential deviations from its rational, humanistic core. Just as the United States broadly did with the benighted South of Bull Connor and the Klan. As if the story of American racist oppression was one of mere regional ideological peccadillo and not one of the founding principles of the whole nation’s economic structure. As if the story of Apartheid were simply those nasty Afrikaners and their gauche racism. They’d probably lived in Africa too long and allowed its “tribalism” to rub off on them, and so deviated from the European universalist norm. Still, one of us in the end, eh? – Three Fingered Fox


Using sports to make peace, with Dr. Sarah Kureshi

We’ve all heard plenty about the United States when it comes to matters concerning Pakistan. Drone strikes, political restrictions and policy influencing. A day doesn’t go by that we don’t blame the United States for the state our country is in. A few months ago, however, I got a chance to meet a helping hand from the States, someone who’s been working on an aspect of our society that either we’ve forgotten about, chosen to overlook or are just too caught up in our everyday lives to remember.


Dr. Sarah Kureshi, a community health activist from the United States, is currently in Pakistan as part of the American Speakers Program Series and I was lucky enough to get the chance to sit down and discuss her time and efforts in Pakistan, what they may culminate into and what she’s taking away from her time here.

Dr. Sarah Kureshi

“I’m here as part of the American Speakers Program Series”, said Dr. Sarah. “It’s all about exchange. We bring different speakers from the United States to different countries (and vice versa) with the aim of educating and exchanging ideas through two way open dialogue.”

Dr. Sarah Kureshi graduated from medical school in Minnesota where she worked with Somali refugees and got her first taste of community health and awareness. ”During college, I loved working with the community. I knew my strengths lay in sciences and I was thinking about medicine. I read a book titled, “Waking up in America” by Dr. Greer, a doctor in Miami who opened up clinics for the homeless in his van. This was the first realization that I could combine my interest of medicine and community health”

“I completed a fellowship in community health after my residency, and then spent another year being a doctor again, working in a clinic in Northeast DC. It has a largely urban population, underserved; most people haven’t seen a doctor in at least 10 years”

Dr. Sarah teamed up with the American embassy in the American Speakers Program Series to come to Pakistan and highlight key issues regarding community health and work towards solving them. She aims at connecting with people, working with them to highlight and discuss various issues, especially when it comes to sensitive topics such as gender based violence and sex trafficking.

Talking about her prior experience in the field, Dr. Sarah mentioned how her Masters in Public Health focused on sex trafficking and how it eventually led her to spend two months in India living in a shelter with women rescued from the heinous trade.

“Initially, the School wanted to send me to Geneva, but I wanted some experience on the ground before I went into policy matters and so, I went to India. I found an organization I wanted to work with and the School helped fund the program. The organization I worked with and the work they do, is still used as a model till this day.”

Coming to the issues relating to our very own homeland, Dr. Sarah is currently working with organizations around Pakistan, looking to work on joint projects and ventures that aim at improving human rights and their development. “Most human rights violations are affecting women and children negatively than men. When it comes to partner violence, sex trafficking and child abuse, the brunt of the trauma and majority of targets are usually women and children.”

When talking about Pakistan, the cultural boundaries that a victim must overcome in order to simply talk about what they have experienced or are going through are immense. The question rose in my mind, “A lot of times when violence is committed against women or children, the culture is built as such that they don’t want to communicate about their experiences.  How do you overcome things like that?”

“One of the most common problems in cases such as that is that the victim doesn’t identify themselves as a victim. It’s normal. It just happened. It’s all about changing the mindset to such actions. Educate, educate, educate. A common tool used when encountering such cases is health worker role play. Since victims aren’t comfortable opening up to the first person they see (a professional), we have to open up a dialogue. Connect with them while not forcing any questions. Talking at a steady pace, making sure they open up and speak about it when they’re comfortable.”

“If the victims aren’t forthcoming, how do you find out about such cases?” I asked.
“ We look for what we call red flags; indicators of abuse. Every type of abuse has certain indicators, all you have to do is ask he right questions when you see them. The indicators usually have hidden meanings.”


Talking about solutions to violence against women, Dr. Sarah said, “Sports can be used for peace building, development and preventing violence. They can be used to empower, open up a communication bridge, change gender norms and roles. Sports is a global language that helps personal development, instills leadership and teamwork skills, enhances confidence, a sense of agency and discipline while bringing people together. It’s also a great way to let loose and lose frustration”

Community health in Pakistan, when it comes to women from rural areas, is supported by the Government through lady health workers. The program was started by Benazir Bhutto and recruits women from communities that they are then tasked to provide healthcare to. This removes any stigmatization of the health workers while allowing the women of the community the comfort of opening up to someone trusted and known. The health workers are trained by physicians and conduct regular visits every month. They return to their healthcare units and are provided with monthly training sessions, medical supplies and anything they may need to ensure the provision of much needed healthcare.

“This system is prevalent throughout Pakistan. Since the women are from the community, they know to work within the boundaries and dynamics of the community” said Sarah.


What Pakistan can learn from Glee’s Most Controversial Episode

A few days ago, I was reading through my HuffPost Android app, and I came across an article about  Glee, a TV show that I had followed through the first two seasons, and maintain a healthy interest in. The article by Jaimie Etkin discussed how actress Lauren Potter [plays character Becky Jackson] felt after filming Episode 18 of Season 4 – where Becky, a student with Down’s Syndrome, brings a gun to school, and fires some shots.

If you’ve paid any attention to the international press lately, you know that public shootings have stepped up front and center as one of the biggest issues in the American press.

The horrific mass murder at a movie theater in Colorado last July, another at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in August,another at a manufacturer in Minneapolis in September—and then the unthinkable nightmare at a Connecticut elementary school in December—are the latest in an epidemic of such gun violence over the last three decades. Since 1982, there have been at least 62 mass shootings* across the country, with the killings unfolding in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii. Twenty-five of these mass shootings have occurred since 2006, and seven of them took place in 2012.  – Mother Jones

Glee is a wildly popular TV series based off a glee club in an average American high school. The show follows the lives of the club’s members, and address some real-life issues, such as teen pregnancy, homophobia, bullying, and as of April 11th, school shootings. Calls for corrective  legislation and heated debates surrounding gun violence around the country have spread like wildfire, and many Americans are visibly infuriated by the lack of safety in public places, especially schools.

In July an attacker killed 12 people at a premiere of a Batman film in Aurora, Colorado. In August six people died at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Just this week two people died in a shooting at a shopping mall in the state of Oregon. At the White House, an emotional President Barack Obama cited those incidents as he called for “meaningful action… regardless of politics”. “Our hearts are broken today, for the parents, grandparents, sisters and brothers of these children, and for the families of the adults who were lost.”

Mr Obama offered condolences to the families of survivors too, saying “their children’s innocence has been torn away from them too early, and there are no words that will ease their pain”. He wiped tears from his eyes as he spoke of the “overwhelming grief” at the loss of life. The American flags on Capitol Hill were lowered to half-mast in the wake of the attack.
– BBC article on 15 Dec 2012

The article talks about how it was a difficult process for Lauren to go through, with regards to the controversy and negative feedback stirred up by the episode. Here’s some reactions:


glee 2

This, along with several other news articles, show that these occurrences of gun violence in the country have citizens in a worry. Reading through the article, and then clicking on links to several related articles of a similar nature, I couldn’t help but be a little surprised. The death of any human being, the ending of the beautiful gold that is life, is tragic no matter what the circumstances. It is made even more heartbreaking when the death is due to someone else’s violence. I fully recognize the loss of the families that were directly affected, and I wish them all the best for the future. Despite all this thought, a little voice in my head said, all this noise over some bullets and a handful of deaths? What a “first world problem”. Now, before you start thinking I’m impossibly crude and inhumane, let me clarify something.

I am Pakistani. I live in Pakistan. You know how people are always talking about drones in some country, somewhere? That’s my country. Those drones kill my people. Islamabad, my country’s capital, has a “red zone” which is constantly monitored by government security personnel. Karachi, the most metropolitan city in the country, is a place where most are afraid to travel because of the rampant muggings, robberies, blatant killings, kidnappings, etc. In 0.29 seconds, this is what a simple Google search using the word ‘Karachi’ came up with:

The top search results - covering only today and the day before.
The top search results – covering only today and the day before.

So now can you forgive my insensitivity? No? Me neither. That’s why I forwarded the article to a few friends of mine, and explained to them how I was shocked at how desensitized I had become to the violence. Reading about a gun shooting didn’t affect me because I once had to turn back from going shopping on a sunny weekend because I found out the commercial area I was planning to visit was being closed off – there had been a suicide bombing there just five minutes ago. I went to a school where there was a trained sniper circling on the roof, because the school had received bomb threats. I had become so accustomed to adding in the additional travel time due to security checkposts that I didn’t even consider them a hassle anymore. I have heard people happily tell stories about how they got mugged, but managed to get away without losing anything except their cell phone – they were happy because they hadn’t been shot on the spot.

The other day, I heard of a gentleman who was traveling with his daughter and her friend, when his car was stopped by a band of thugs. They demanded one of the girls, and said they would do with her what they pleased. If he handed over one of the girls, he could leave with the other one safely, and could even pay a ransom for the one handed over later on. The man, deciding that he couldn’t give up someone else’s daughter – a child whose parents had trusted him to care for – was forced to give up his own, and then rush home and collect money for her ransom. Do you want to imagine what happened to that girl? Does it hurt your sentiments? Here’s the problem: for most people in my country, the answer to that last question is ‘No.’ The sharp knife of pain, of emotional response to the losses of others has stabbed us so many times that now it’s barely noticeable. From a sharp and lasting torment, it faded to dull ache, and now, we have grown thick skins.

So what can Pakistan learn from Glee’s “Shooting Star” episode? That most Americans are not desensitized to violence. That these gun shootings – that for most Pakistanis wouldn’t illicit more than an acknowledgement – have a nation in tumult. Think about what this means. Our perceptions of the world around us, and of various individual elements within that world affect how we view each other. So how does an average American view a suicide bomber in a remote rural region of Pakistan? A monster who destroys people, a brainwashed catalyst for violence, an uneducated savage who wants nothing but Armageddon? If gun shootings are so disturbing, then suicide bombings must be way out of the ball park. In the same way, think about how an average Pakistani sees a suicide bomber, or an American shooter (like the guy who started shooting at the Batman movie premiere)? We need to learn to understand each other, to view each other through not only our own lenses, but other lenses as well.

Yes, killing another human being is a horrible thing to do. It is perhaps the worst thing you could ever do. So if a man has a bomb strapped to his chest – the first thing he is doing is killing himself. What would drive him to do that?  A man who bursts into a school full of children and starts firing is endangering children, but he was once a child. So why would he do that?

Here are some of the responses I got from various people:

Response 1: We are becoming desensitized to violence. And that says a lot about where we come from. But it also says a lot about how little they know of the ‘real’ world. I don’t think they can ever really understand what drives us, or the more radical amongst us, until they make the effort to empathise. And thats a failure on our count too, that we aren’t making a more concerted effort to convey. You’re right Zainabz, from this perspective, maybe they don’t even have the right to judge any terrorist. 

Response 2: Overreaction. They suspended a five year old for eating bread into a gun-shape. And another for making a gun gesture and saying “pow” during playtime. 

Response 3: theyre at a stage where they’ve passed through the development horrors and now they’ve sunk into a less sensitized mindset because that’s what their luxury affords them. Just like rich Pakistanis don’t know the reality of the streets because their wealth affords them the ability not to know.

Response 4: It is as if the whole nation is super freaked out about shootings. I mean, they’re not desensitized to violence like we are – which really opens up my understanding about some things – like how they view us.

Response 5: theyve already passed through all developing country problems and come out on top, the fact is that theyve had little culture to them or killed whats left of it. The negation of a being leads to your uprising in terms of status and it can clearly be seen. Pop culture, rap videos etc all lead down the same road. objectifying to bring meaning and value. anyone that stands different, has a fear of something or stands apart isnt normal regardless of the cause. The kindness in the media has died, with everything being hyped and made into fads.
All happen to be first world problems because people, humans actually, tend to lose sight of the bigger picture more than we should. But when it comes to the cause, i think thats universal. Frustration for acceptance.

Response 6: the last line was really irritating. ‘people are scared and people react strange ways when they’re scared’- as if that justifies everything. How about all the scared people around the rest of the world that you’re so hell bent on bombing?

Response 7: How would you go about conveying to someone what is so beyond their scope of conscious understanding? They know the words, they see the BBC pictures – but they don’t KNOW. How would you tell them?

To understand each other, and to understand the violence in the world around us, we need to take off our nationality-specific goggles, and try to see the world as the other side sees it.

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An Interview with Urban Pakistanis about the Elections 2013

With election fever in the air, and belly-fulls of strong opinions being hurled every which way, I thought it would be nice to ask around, and see what people thought about the elections, about Imran Khan (the most talked about man of the year) and create sort of a collage of all that went on in the virtual world. Urban Pakistanis have taken to social media to give life to their every thought – whether it is the naan they had for breakfast, or the rigging they say taking place in Karachi.

Question 1: What do you have to say about the elections? What is the first thing that comes to mind?

Ans 1: MQM k blasts and PTI Tabdeeli Razakar ki bebasi. 

Ans 2: mismanagement n unavailability of polling booths on designated areas of Karachi

Ans 3: The procedure of casting vote in my area’s going aalot slow.. People straying, cant find their names in the lists, I saw it, i think it needs another day to complete the procedure honestly.. Itny media coverage baad b people are unaware k kese aur kahan kya krna hai.. Allah Pak help the people of my country to do the best of their job today!


Ans 5:  Mismanagment by white elephant ‘Election Comission’. Old parchi system still going on. Which is not aligned with EC‘s guidelines.

Ans 6: Vibes of unity, respect and positivity.
Next in the female line, I met a journalist from PTV, teachers, students and most of all aged ladies. There was a lady on the wheelchair and some dependent on the support of their daughters to walk but they were there to VOTE.
Majority talked about how PTI is the solution to Pakistan‘s problems.
The best of all I’d like to mention is the altruistic behavior people were demonstrating; giving way to each other and letting others stand in the shade, bearing the sun themselves.
Heard an aunty saying,
“aaj nahin line torni, ye mera naya Pakistan hai”!

Ans 7: Its disgusting to see how certain political parties can act so pathetically and not allow people to vote. It is a citizens basic right and duty to be able to vote. I guess entire Pakistan does not want a Naya Pakistan. I was afraid this would happen on election day, when will all Pakistani’s strive to have a better Pakistan? Forget your cast, your political party, think what is better for the entire Nation, not just your city.

Question 2: What are your thoughts on Imran Khan as a leader? Why do you think he would make a good leader?

Ans 1: well this generation never saw a leader infact pakistanis never saw a leader after Quad e azam, so we have this wild intuition that HE IS A LEADER and this leap of faith might bag us some good .

Ans 2: I think leadership doesn’t suit him. Instead he should be doing commentary in T 20 matches.

Ans 3: His commitment makes him a leader. It took him 17 difficult years to bring his party where it is today. And now he is committed to change the condition of Pakistan. I believe he can do it.

Ans 4: Wait for tomorrow. He isn’t going to win more than 25 -30 seats! But his supporters majority if not all are trolls!  Abusive, immoral, and FB meme dekh dekh k change lane wale! (Translation: They will bring change by repeatedly looking at memes on Facebook.)

Ans 5: Other leaders prioritize material things as country’s assets. He has always said and worked on the two most important assets of a nation, Health and Education! He prioritizes these the most; and these are like the biological needs of Pakistan right now!

Ans 6: I have serious doubts about his capabilities. He wants to run the country like an hospital.

Ans 7: Atleast if he is not the best, he is better of all previous typpical poloticians

Ans 8: He could had a much luxurious life after retirement from Cricket. Included in Hall of Fame, British Canadian citizenship, but he chose Pakistan..

Ans 9: When you have limited options available – you select the best available! He is a fair man and he is someone who would highly likely fight for something that is righteous and he believes in – he wont give in. Cant say the same for the rest.

Ans 10: Sincerity is a hard argument to prove. I don’t think he can be a good leader because of the way he talks, and a reflection of that can be seen in his supporters who hold nothing back when given the opportunity for pointless banter at topics they clearly know so little about.



The Islamabad Literature Festival


The Islamabad Literature Festival, hashtagged on Twitter as #IsbLF, is the latest in a series of literary events taking the country by storm. I had the opportunity, this Labor Day, of driving over to Margalla Hotel, and attending a series of enlightening talks. Having recently attended the Lahore Literature Festival (#LLF), I had high expectations. ILF boasted the likes of Kamila Shamsie, Shehryar Fazli, Zia Mohyeddin, Osman Khalid Butt and names that have become familiar to those at LLF: H. M. Naqvi, Mohammed Hanif, etc. Some particularly delightful bits included the fabulous stand up comedian Beo Zafar, and one-woman-show Nimra Bucha, who performed Mohammed Hanif’s thought-provoking play, A Dictator’s Wife.

“Making fun of dictators is not such a big deal – it’s just, you know, fun.” – Mohammed Hanif

My day started off with Kamila Shamsie, an author I have heard so much about. She published her first book when she was 14 (all the aspiring writers in the room gasped with a mixed sense of jealousy and elation when this was announced) and is now working on her sixth book, which is set in Peshawar. She spoke to us about her experiences as a writer, and how she felt a sense of duty to do right by her characters. Reading a passage from her work in progress, she spoke of the extensive research that was involved when writing about a city and place that you don’t know, ex: Peshawar in the 1930s, and how oftentimes, when writing about the past, versions of the present before you can become distracting. Something that particularly resonated with me, as an aspiring novelist, was her concern for young writers feeling influenced by the political and economic conditions of the country today. “I worry that it makes them feel pressurized or restrained,” she said, and to quote Ilona Yusuf, a commentator at another session, “writers need to tell the truth, and self-censorship will kill the novel”.

Kamila Shamsie
Kamila Shamsie

The next session I attended was titled “Afghanistan & Pakistan: Conflict and Extremism” with a distinguished panel: Riaz Khokhar, Zahid Hussain, Mohammad Amir Rana, and Ashraf Jehangir Qazi. With this bureacratic-academic panel on stage, the political debate was lively and kept everyone in the audience hooked. From interpretations of the Afghan struggle, to Pakistan’s interests in the neighboring country, not a topic was left unexplored.


It was the author of Our Lady of Alice Bhatti and A Case of Exploding Mangoes that I went to see next. Mohammed Hanif had delivered some lively speeches at the Lahore Literary Festival, and I was not about to miss out on his ribald humor here in Islamabad. With commentator Navid Shahzad, whom Hanif reffered to as his childhood crush, Hanif first explored the character of Alice Bhatti – “I wanted to write a superwoman sort of character.” – and then moved on to the more serious issue of missing people in Balochistan. Speaking of his new pamphlet, a series of six case studies detailing the tragedies taking place in Balochistan today, Hanif called out to the audience to realize the reality of the situation. Balochistan is not a past history that has yet to be told, but a current story that we can still change –  that was his message.

“To ban YouTube is the most stupid thing any government in the world can do.” Ahmed Rashid

M. Hanif
M. Hanif

The lunch break was a series of exclamations at the outrageous prices – Rs. 270 for a small sandwich with some sort of orange paste in it, and nothing else. Rs. 60 for a water bottle that is normally available for Rs. 20. And Rs. 300 for a biryani that has the smallest possible chicken piece in it. A fellow IsbLF attendee said, “That’s a baby chicken leg. It makes me feel a paedophile just to look at it.”

By far the best session of the day was Selected Readings in English by Zia Mohyeddin, in which the renowned dramatist read out from his own work, A Carrot is a Carrot. With an austere British accent dancing daintily around the humor in the passages he read, Mohyeddin kept the audience on its feet for the entire 60 minutes he was reading, with Punjabi and Urdu interludes sparking laughter. As a first-time listener, I was immediately fascinated, and ran to the book stalls after the session searching for a copy of the text.


“Sometimes there is the notion that there is not a big enough market for English language literature in Pakistan. But I don’t believe that.” –  Muneeza Sahmsie

The How to Write a Novel session was the last of the day. Authors H. M. Naqvi and Irshad Abdul Kadir shared their own writing styles and work ethics with the audience and then went on to talk about the methodology behind how they chose or came to know their characters. I’m itching to pick up a copy of Home Boy after hearing H. M. Naqvi say, “I don’t wish I could write like Dan Brown, but I wish I could sell like him.”

The day ended with Nimra Bucha’s performance of A Dictator’s Wife. The audience stood shoulder to shoulder outside the hall in desperate anticipation for over an hour as the set was prepared. No one was spared the pushing and discomfort associated with being much too close to much too many people at any particular moment in time. The doors opened suddenly, and the press of the crowd threatened to trample an old man at the front. After the audience had settled, Ms. Bucha started the show, when a pesky gentleman in the back repeatedly interrupted with frivolous comments. She was forced to break character a number of times to appease him, and when this did not stop his antics, she even threatened to walk out of the play. That was what it took to get him to take a seat quietly and let the audience enjoy the performance.

The play itself was a sharp insight into the behind-the-scenes life of a dictator in a developing country. It showcased the wife, often forgotten in the background, losing the man she married to power and the media and obsession with nuclear codes, her resentment eventually building up to irreparable heights. It highlighted a new perspective, and really got me thinking about the man beneath the uniform – what’s really behind the public figure? Sure they love and are loved, have passions and worries and clothes besides that brown and green army dress? It was enlightening, to say the least.

Nimra Bucha
Nimra Bucha

All in all, though a notch or two below the Lahore Literature Festival, IsbLF was a resounding success.


The Wandering Falcon/Pakistani novelists


I love novels, biographies, fiction, non-fiction, history, politics – everything. It is rare that I am not carrying around my latest read wherever I go. Unfortunately, despite many positive reviews and glowing praise from friends and teachers, I’ve never been fond of literature written by Pakistani authors. I often find it stereotypical – talk of Pakistan’s colorful trucks, rickshaw culture, the inevitable mention of paan, dhotis, and the evils of the Hindus – and cliched. It’s this mournful picture of Pakistan painted again and again, with slightly different hues. What makes that work original? Almost nothing. How do those stories contribute to Pakistan, or to the world of fiction? They barely do. When is someone going to break the mold and write about Pakistan, but in a unique and interesting way?

The answer is now. Jamil Ahmad’s book, which I started reading with reluctance, soon won me over. The prose is subtle, straightforward. There is no over-use of adjectives as is found in many Pakistani novels – as if trying to prove that they have command over English – and there is a sense of serenity that prevails over the entire story. We are led, carefully, delicately, and honestly through the landscape of the AfghanBaloch area, and introduced to the lives lived by tribesmen, their wives, daughters, and children.

The Wandering Falcon with its intertwining plot and near-to-home characters and settings proves to be a highly believable read. Staying away from the overly-commercialized page turner phenomena that books these days have become, Jameel Ahmad does a realistic job in depicting the life of tribes in Pakistan from Balochi nomads to the tribesmen and the customs of the Khyber Pukhtoonkhwah.

The beauty of the text shines through its simplicity. It’s beautifully written, with a clear, plain-to-see acceptance. There is no harsh judgement in Ahmad’s book, as you often find in Pakistani literature. He is not apologizing for the way Pakistan is, for the way people are, for the way things happened in the past. The writer leads us through this journey with calm acceptance, if not fondness for the way of these people. He shows their difficulties and troubles in a similar way – not demonizing their enemies, but allowing the reader to judge. He is your tour guide, reserved in his judgement, but open with his heart, on a trip showing you the hidden beauty of Pakistan.

The part of the book that I loved was a young girl is married off to a man with a show bear. He had trained the bear to dance and earned his money from putting on shows. For the girl’s family, this was a fortuitous marriage – a man of independent means! A joy, a pleasure – they had done well by their daughter. The man takes his wife to a town, where they have only enough money to rent a single room, which the bear sleeps in at night. The woman can only use the room when the bear and man leave in the morning; husband and wife sleep outside. One day she asks her husband why the bear uses the room, and he says “I can get another wife, but not another bear.”

This section of the book woke me up. I stopped, re-read it. This is not the story of a man being cruel to his wife, or the story of ignorant parents selling their daughter to the highest bidder (common themes in many Pakistani novels), but it is the simple truth of their reality. Jamil Ahmad shows us how thankful we have to be in our own lives. The girl’s parents were overjoyed because in their simple world of limited means, this man represented financial stability and relative ease of life for their daughter. They had her best interests at heart, and did what they could for her. The husband was not being chauvinistic and rude to his wife – he was speaking a simple truth. That bear was their livelihood. It needed to be protected. If hurt or stolen, or if it ran away, neither of them would have any food, much less a room to use during the day.

Reading through, one anticipates all the meshwork of stories to develop into some tangible shade of character being evolved; perhaps a strong personality or a rudimentary dervish even, but nothing of the sort happens. It is unclear whether it was the intent of the author to display the events in a harsh light of reality (objective reporting), or whether it was failure on his part as a storyteller to arrive to an end derived from the plot elaborated. Having said that, the book does have some great moments (e.g. the character of the exceedingly unorthodox Mullah and the mixture of feelings he ignites is very genuine), and the depiction of events with just the right amount of background information to the extremely complex life of the Pakistani tribesman and his customs is commendable. Seeing Ahmed’s attempt, one is heartened to note that Pakistan’s contemporary literature is headed in the right direction.

The book was an eye-opener, and a splendid debut for someone entering the writing world in their seventies. There are no fancy turns of phrase, no verbal acoustics, no play upon words.  Here is writing – the finest one has read in a very long time in English by a South Asian writer – that ebbs and flows with such effortless ease and conveys the essence of the story in such few words that it catches you unawares with its freshness.


Note: This post was written in collaboration with Shafa’at Gillani, a fellow bibliophile and respected colleague at the NUST Business School.



I Met The Government & It Disappointed Me

On June 26th, my family and I attended a National Assembly session. Yupp, you heard me. We were in these jury-box type seating areas that ran along the wall of the circular room that houses several desks (with attached bendy mics that turn red when they’re switched on), a large podium-desk item where the guy who runs everything sits with his minions on either side.
A very large portrait of the father of our nation, Mr. Jinnah hangs over it all, with this strange facial expression. It’s almost as if he’s got something stinky under his nose. And looming over this prestigious room and all it’s prestigious people is a colossal dome, the inside of which is magnificently inscribed with the names of Allah. And thus the National Assembly of our great Islamic Republic adorns itself.

Now to get on with the proceedings. There were various motions and speeches in the beginning which didn’t really seem to interest anybody. Most of the members were leaning back in their seats, chatting. Then a woman stood up. Right side of the room – PML. She was yelling into her mic. Labour rights. Wages. Working conditions. To my surprise, her mic was switched off from the central control. The excuse: there are more important things to discuss. Twice more throughout the meeting, this woman and her fellows tried to approach the topic of labour reform but were continuously shot down – bluntly!

The majority of the meeting was spent over an argument about the most trivial of things: whether a welfare support program should be NAMED the Benazir Income Support program or not. Not the details of, or the establishment of, not even measures ensuring or detailing how it would be carried out but WHAT IT SHOULD BE NAMED. I couldn’t believe it. Cries of BHUTTO ABHI ZINDA HAI! (Bhutto is still alive!) shot out throughout the room as our distinguished, respected, and sophisticated politicians screamed themselves hoarse. A rally or a meeting of the country’s cream?

Then our PM, respected inmate of Central Jail Rawalpindi (he really has climbed up the social ladder) arrived. With a wave of his hand his subjects took their seats and the great man delivered a smooth rhetoric that decided the matter. Benazir Income Support it would be. The heavyweight had spoken.

Labour reforms were abandoned and the session was called to an end. In a country where the birth rate has never dropped below an explosive 2% and where human resource is our largest asset, we are more worried about naming a program after a dead ex PM. This is me, a disappointed citizen, telling you a story.

NOTE: This post was written on June 28th, 2010.



Watching TV in Bombay, or Kingston, or Dhaka

Zadie Smith‘s first novel blew me away, but where exactly? The book starts of with an attempted suicide – definitely gripping. Throughout the book, Smith uses words to her advantage. No skimping, no summarizing. No sir, she uses simple, direct words in abundance. The result of which is clear, sharp mental pictures. Even the characters are embellished in this simple style. Alfred Archibald Jones. He attempts suicide in a Cavalier Musketeer, like a fallen angel, on Cricklewood Broadway.

Then there’s the mock-heroic feature of the novel. The characters, the situations, all compared to something larger, more elegant, more in vogue, and then systematically broken down to reveal pitiable, grungy characters. That the novel focuses on the troubles of immigrant life is obvious, but why it focuses purely on the unflattering, morose, disgusting side of life in North London is left to the reader to understand. Immigrants are portrayed as dirty. Our introduction to Hussein-Ishmael in the first few pages is almost completely dominated by pigeon excrement. His language is rough. He has a personal vendetta against pigeons – “shit-making bastards”. He swipes at them with a broom in what the author turns into a gross parody of cricket.

“It was cricket basically – the Englishman’s game adapted by the immigrant, and six was the most pigeons you could get with one swipe.”

It’s almost as if Smith houses within her an immense hatred of all things immigrant. Words with negative connotations are used with the greatest generosity. Big, dejected blob.

Another flowery character, Samad Miah Iqbal, the Ick-ball, is soon introduced. The book parodies not only the travails of two men who are at best, leftovers, unwanted remains of a war long forgotten, but also how their prospects refuse to improve. Samad’s old country ideals of being a Mussalmaan are rejected and angrily mocked by his children; one becomes a fundamentalist merely to prove a point, the other becomes an atheist to oppose the very same. In an attempt to define themselves, these immigrants through away the only real definition they have. Because raised in London, they have changed. They are now part and parcel of the grunge they encounter on a daily basis. Blending in with the graffiti and their father makes every attempt to ‘save their souls’, they rebel continuously. But Samad Miah is also diseased. He too has given up what identity he possessed. How can he blame his children for falling prey to Inglistaan when he himself drinks forbidden alcohol? He also cheats on his wife – with an English woman, no less. Arranged marriages are harassed as an institution. The book is clear in the following: The woman who falls prey to them will be cheated on, ignored, and will live a lonely life as a seamstress  – literally for Alsana Iqbal. Her children will be taken from her, along with any happiness in life, and she will subsist on a minimum-wage income in an alien country.

It is not only the Bengalis who are taunted, though. Archibald is reflected the waste of English society. He folds paper for a living (dead-end job), his wife leaves him (dead-end relationship), he marries a woman 20 years his junior (another immigrant, who used him as an escape) and now eats greasy food at a greasy, filthy pub every day and waits for life to end.
Clara Bowden and her whole Jamaican clan with her, are poked fun at as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Zadie Smith brings in a little of the Armageddon concept in, almost as if to say, See these silly, backward newcomers? See the silly things these lower middle class, wastes of society believe?

Cynicism shines clearly through the storyline.

“And the sins of the Eastern father shall be visited upon the Western sons. Often taking their time, stored up in the genes like baldness or testicular carcinoma…”

“…We have been here before. This is like watching TV in Bombaby or Kingston or Dhaka, watching the same old British sitcoms spewed out to the old colonies in one tedious, eternal loop. Because immigrants have always been particularly prone to repetition – its something to do with that experience of moving from West to East or East to West or from island to island. Even when you arrive, you’re still going back and forth; your children are going round and round. There’s no proper term for it – original sin seems too harsh; maybe original trauma would be better. A trauma is something one repeats and repeats, after all, and this is the tragedy of the Iqbals – that they can’t help but re-enact the dash they once made from one land to another, from one faith to another, from one brown mother country into the pale, freckled arms of an imperial sovereign. It will take a few replays before they move on the next tune.”

Amid the ridicule of accents, the desire to be gangster, to be accepted into the world of the perfectly structured Happy White Family – from a black girl’s painful attempt to rid herself of her African curls, to an Indian boy’s baggy jeans and rough language – Zadie Smith brings to mind the image of a hapless, trying so hard to survive when everything seems to be going wrong, pathetic-ness. To read the book as someone who has been an immigrant is to be shocked an amazed at the harshness with which they are treated in the novel. A purely hopeless image is painted – one that seems to numb the mind.

The eccentricities of the writing are classic, wonderfully placed to entice the mind and keep you reading more – for the novel is a lengthy one. It’s a book I enjoyed reading, but I always ended up wondering if it was written out of spite, or just pure hate.


Why I Don’t Think My Education Is Turning Me Into A Mindless Slave Monkey

Hi. You like complaining about your university, and about your country, and your government (they do everything wrong, don’t they?), and hey – even about that teacher that ACTUALLY makes you work hard. I mean, turning in an assignment on time WITHOUT getting the deadline extended? HOLY MOLY! She’s such a tyrannical maniac, asking you to not cheat on your quizzes and – oh my God – the way she never shuts up until the allotted class time is over? I mean, sheesh. And horror of horrors, there’s an attendance policy to make sure you actually show up and get a chance to learn?! WHAT INSANITY.

And what about that whole grading thing – the nerve those administrators have, thinking they have the right to judge our mental capabilities and categorize us with letters, like we’re cattle being driven into the A field, and the B+ field, and the C- field. Formal education never got anyone anything. All of our favorite teachers say GPA doesn’t matter. Look at Bill Gates – he’s a billionaire, and he never went to college. Steve Jobs dropped out, and he made the iPod. I mean come on, that’s proof. The guy made the iPod! This whole ‘get good grades’ thing is just a way to condition us into becoming mindless slave monkeys, teaching us to follow orders, obey every command. They’re only telling you what they want to tell you, bro – maintenance of the status quo. You can’t beat the system if you’re in the system. You gotta fight them. You gotta beat the system bro. Don’t sell out. The entire education system is built in a way so that the ruling class can train you to be a mindless minion.

I’ve decided to shed some light on why I, though I don’t agree with everything the government, my country, or some teachers do, choose not to run outside with a hand-made poster and start a protest, why I show up to my classes on time, and why I enjoy buying textbooks.

  1. I learn things. Contrary to popular belief, if you listen to the teacher who won’t shut up, chances are she’s saying something worth listening to. Throughout my degree I’ve studied management and organizational design courses, talking about different types of teams you can divide your employees into, hierarchy, structure, bureaucracy, etc. None of that seemed very practical until this semester when I started working for an international MUN at my university. (For info on NUST International MUN 2013, click here.) For the first time, I was in charge of a team of talented individuals, & it was my job not only to delegate tasks but to also keep them motivated, take their feedback and criticism, and get work done. All the management theories came back to me – Frederick Taylor and Henri Fayol became more than just dead guys who said some stuff before I was born. I found myself digging through the pages on modular structures, horizontal communication linkages, and in the words of a faculty member, “make that teacher’s hard work pay off”.
  2. I think girl babies look pretty in pink. For sociology class, I chose to do my final term paper on the effect of socially constructed gender roles on self-perception. Fancy title, right? I was interested in a few cases I had read about where parents in the UK were raising gender neutral children – they didn’t tell their babies if they were boys or girls, they didn’t impose pink frilly dresses, or army man action figures on their children, and they kept their child’s gender hidden from the world as well. I didn’t know much about this new style of parenting and decided to do some research. Maybe it was the golden key – maybe this is what parents should be doing.
    Now, I’m a believe in individual educated freedom of choice, so I’m not going to sit here and attack their parenting technique, but during my research, I imagined myself as one of those children – wearing boy clothes for six months, and Barbie clothes for the next six, feeling confused and strange among a group of my pre-school class fellows, not being able to see the world as other people see it – and I felt scared. I felt intimidated and vulnerable at the thought. As a kid who grew up with peer pressure (and who sometimes gave into it as well), I don’t I could take that – seeing things (only) differently. To each his own, but for me, I was glad I wasn’t that kind of different.
    My point is, you gain perspective. You see things and hear things you would have never thought of. You understand what you can accept, and what you are opposed to. Knowledge gives you the right to an opinion. That doesn’t mean you should go around harassing people who have a different one. It means that you have seen something, examined it, drawn conclusions, and can use that experience to shape your own life.
  3. Steve Jobs took a calligraphy class. It wasn’t part of his degree, and yes, he never got his graduation cap, but he took a class that he was interested in, and that he learned from. It was what he gained from that class that led to the idea of introducing different font option in the iMac. So woohoo, Mr. Jobs, but super woohoo to the professor teaching that calligraphy class.
  4. Bill Clinton sent me an autographed picture & I became an Urdu teacher. In English class, along with my eight year old classmates, I learned how to write a paragraph, tell time, write a short note, etc. One of the things we read about was two best friends who wrote letters to each other. I wanted to write letters! I wanted to put them in the mailbox, and raise the cool red flag thingy. My teacher agreed to be my pen pal. We wrote letters to teach other even though we saw each other every day. She suggested that I teach her some Urdu words, and I would painstakingly write them with Roman Urdu transliterations and translations, and even sample sentences. Then I would make two or three quiz questions for her to answer. She never let me down. She even bought stamps for all of us (35 cents, please) and we wrote letters to the President. The euphoria when I received a reply to my note asking Mr. Clinton President Sir to do a super job in the White House – indescribable! The envelope was white, with crisp lettering on the back. To Zainab Khawaja, it said, from The White House. There was a thick parchment note with a thank you, and some encouraging words, a signature, and two thick photos of Mr and Mrs POTUS and I couldn’t have asked for more. This positive response fueled a desire to write letters, and I started a diary. Letter upon letter, conversations with written words – somewhere in the flurry, I became a writer.

“Because bureaucracy [and an organized system of society is mostly viewed] as a derogatory term, allow me two cheers for it. First, with regard to its division of labor & hierarchy, one would be hard pressed to imagine how any group of people could accomplish a moderately complex job without some specialization, and without someone in charge and responsible.” Second:    would you really like to live in a society where nobody knows what they have to do, what they are good at doing, what they can do? Think about your firefighters, policemen, teachers, bureaucrats – not all of them are corrupt and self-serving, and they’re the good ones making everything run. They’re the reason you can afford to take the good things in life for granted. Having said this, the “greatest weakness of bureaucracy is its low ability for innovation.”

The way our mass-producing world of Wal-Marts and high speed internet is progressing today, most of us are performers, not problem-solvers. But humanity still recognizes the importance of problem-solvers. We still herald great inventors and change-makers – Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Deng Xiaoping, Harriet Tubman, Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, Mark Zuckerberg. We appreciate people who go above and beyond. Humanity encourages thinking outside of the box.

Yes, the world is far from perfect. Yes, we need to step up and change it. Yes, we should make an effort to improve. I just don’t think some grand gesture, a bold violent move, and flat out rejection of all existing infrastructure is the way to do it. The point of this post is just to say that you don’t have to engage in open revolt against The Powers That Be & All Their Instruments in order to change things for the better. In fact, if that’s what you’re doing, chances are you’re hurting yourself more than anyone else. You can still be individual, but “the key” is not being different. If anything, the goal should be to be better. Work harder, achieve more, earn the power and right to influence the things you’d like to change.

“Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”
― Dalai Lama XIV

“It is the beginning of wisdom when you recognize that the best you can do is choose which rules you want to live by, and it’s persistent and aggravated imbecility to pretend you can live without any.”
― Wallace StegnerAll the Little Live Things

And of course, from the book I’m currently reading,

At such a time it seems natural and good to me to ask myself these questions. What do I believe in? What must I fight for and what must I fight against?
— John Steinbeck, East of Eden