Category Archives: Field Notes

Jinnah Hospital Under Attack

12:36am –Jinnah Hospital in Lahore is under attack from approximately 5 militants who entered the ER. 13 people dead so far. Jinnah is significant because the Ahmadi-Muslims injured in the Friday attacks are patients there; the militant arrested from that attack was also in intensive care at Jinnah.

Ahmadis are Muslim

and it’s called a MOSQUE. Ninety-three people have died thus far; at least have the courage to be straightforward now: They were Muslims. Their died in their mosques.

Nothing was stirring, not even a mouse.

Because the Lahore High Court’s head exploded and it has now blocked Facebook, Youtube, Wikipedia, Internet services (except for email) on Blackberrys, and as of a few minutes ago, Gmail and GOOGLE.

Twitter might be next or WordPress or Blogspot, because bloggers have this irritating habit of blogging.

I have to run out now and buy some postage stamps. So long and thanks for all the clicks!

Pakistani time or why the revolution is late

So, I’ve been trying to get a hold of a video camera for a week now. First, I contacted a documentary house here, a rental shop for video equipment. AZ, the owner said “Sure.” I called the next day to set up a time for pickup. No response. I called again. I texted. Then I called. It went on like that for 3 days. Then on a fine Monday evening, I received a text from him “Sorry, when do u want to pick up the camera?” I responded immediately, “Today if possible,” and then since it was already evening, I added, “or tomorrow.” And then to make sure, I called him. I told him I needed a camera with a working firewire port. I didn’t actually need to film. I needed to capture tape. That means using the camera to take footage from the tape to the computer where I would edit it. We decided on a time. 1pm Tues.

An hour before I got there on Tuesday, I texted him again, “I’ll be there around 1pm to pick up camera, ok?”

“Yup”

He didn’t show up. I waited outside the doc house for half an hour before he picked up my phone calls and told me he was “on his way.” I was now late for another appointment, and he said he could have the camera sent somewhere if I couldn’t wait. Finally, he told me he was near the place of my appointment and we decided on a spot where he would just hand me the camera, outside a well known KFC on a main road. He said he was 10 minutes from there. I got there and after another half hour of waiting I knew that he was not “10 minutes from there.” My cabbie, whom I trust, offered to drop me at my next appointment and to come back and wait for the camera. So, that’s what we did.

I finally received the camera. I was exhausted. It’s Karachi heat after all, but I had one shift with it. I connected all the wires quickly, the ports, the hard drive, the computer, and finally the camera, a taped up, grizzly miked thing that looked ready to fall apart. The tape turned on in the camera monitor. Exciting. But, it wouldn’t show up on the computer.

The firewire port didn’t work.

***

After a week wasted on that effort, I asked a friend to put me in touch with another fellow. It took a week for my friend’s contact to get back to him. I called the guy, FZ. He didn’t want to rent me the camera to capture tape because it can be hard on the camera. That’s true. But, he was willing to rent me a VTR, the device I need to capture tape. It’s very expensive so I don’t own one. And he doesn’t rent it usually, but he was –I think on my friend’s good graces– willing to make an exception. He said “Just come on over. I’m in the office during the day.” We settled on meeting the next day at noon. I texted a confirmation with the time after we got off the phone.

The next day, as my cabbie and I neared the area of FZ’s doc house at the appointed hour, I called him to get directions. No response. We finally pulled up alongside a road. After some texts and another phone call, he picked up. It was noon. He’d been asleep. He was still at home. When I expressed surprise, he responded by informing me that “It’s jummah” (Friday, prayer day), as though he couldn’t have foreseen that the day after Thursday would be Friday. He said he’d be in the office “after prayers”. That can literally mean anything. “Or maybe stop by in the evening,” he said. I live over half an hour away. Every trip requires calling my cabbie and coordinating.

“Why don’t you just call me when you’re in the office?”

“Accha, haan yeh kar sakhtay hain” Oh yeah, that can be done.

“Yeah, we could.”

And I hung up. I’m waiting. In total, it’s been two goddamn weeks.

***

This is neither my first frustration in Pakistan nor will it be my last. After he set about building barracks for his soldiers in Gizri and Clifton (Karachi locales), Charles Napier who conquered and ruled Sindh for the British said of the locals, “Public works go slowly in this country. The people are idle and the climate ennervating.” It’s a refrain oft-repeated still (though we are at the same time somehow very busy producing Taliban and suicide bombers according to the media), and in my rank frustration and sheer annoyance, it’s not difficult to believe that.

Clearly, there is a communication gap, though I’m aware of ‘Pakistani Standard Time’ (PST). When a wedding is held, all the guests know to come about 2 hours after the stated time in the invitation. I once made the mistake –in Ohio– of showing up at a Sikh friend’s wedding at the correct time only to see that the hall was still being set-up. There are probably social cues I’m missing, or more simply, this is how everyone expects things to be done, so I’m supposed to build it into my timeline.

Still, protests, at least the ones organized by “civil society”, that loose network of westernized elites, start on time. So do events at T2F, a hip cafe attended by the same class (and which I also frequent). Pakistanis are thus multiply conditioned (white people time and desi time), but we’re not all on the same page about when to code switch. It’s all very well when there’s a gora waiting, but otherwise it’s apparently not clear who’s following what time code. I am tempted to speculate that this is all class inflected too: our sense of when to arrive, when to leave, when we have taken up too much time is connected in some way to the ideas we hold about individualism, sense of obligation, community. On birthdays, your friends pay for you in America. Here, you pay for them. It’s partly a class and westernization issue. That caused some confusion on my birthday when some offered to pay while others assumed they were being taken out.

Upper middle class Americans live by compartmentalizing their time. On schedules. Capitalism requires it. Work 9-5. Meet for coffee 5-6, etc. They do a lot, mix a lot, but the mixture of modes of privacy and compartmentalization seem to leave them with a sense of alienation. I’m not very good at it, something I never learned properly. My parents always did a lot: my father was holding down at least two jobs, usually three; my mother also worked full-time. Then they shared the household responsibilities. I too held down multiple jobs as have my siblings. But, we were always pushed along by forces greater than us, by some sense that if we fell off the wheel, it would grind us under. I have now for the first time in my life, managed to gain some time, to have time. I’m only just now learning to compartmentalize it. I suppose that’s part of my becoming American, a particular kind of American anyway, a particular class.

When I go to interview my Pashtun interlocutors, they find it rude that I don’t stay all day. My skin tone or that I speak Urdu is misleading. Some people say it’s great that I can be in this world and that world, but the thing is, I don’t get to choose whether I’m in or out. Others decide; I play along or try to tweak it. But, it’s just a matter of time.

All well enough, except if we’re all looking at different watches as we appear to be and that indicates a different sense of experience and orientation as I suspect it does, how do we ever expect to organize any revolution? Some sense of “homogeneous empty time”may be necessary, not just for nationalism, but for a sustainable modern revolution. Doesn’t a revolution, after all–even if it is anti-state–require the same sense of solidarity with people you have never met and may never meet, just as nationalism does? Revolutions, like nationalisms, are imagined constructs too and they may also depend on some shared sense of time. The spine of the lawyers movement was a set of lawyers associations, groupings and cliques with shared practises. That’s why it worked.

For many upwardly mobile Pakistanis in America, there is a sense of urgency, of not enough being done in Pakistan, but I think abroad, it becomes easy to forget the sheer problem of logistics or to deal with issues of time. Travel from one part of the city to another in Karachi is difficult; people don’t arrive to meetings or conferences at the scheduled hour; there are other cultural barriers: can I really blame a Pashtun in Landhi or Macchar Colony if she presumes that I’m not invested in the struggle because I come to her area only for an hour or half a day? She is poor; I am not. She lives in a targeted area; I do not. She takes my compartmentalization for shallow engagement. Perhaps it is. Compartmentalized activism is a luxury. As Pakistani-inflected in America, the force of that country’s barbaric politics hounds me. Withdrawal is not an option. As an American-inflected Pakistani in Pakistan, I belong to a different class here. I’m not targeted in the same way. I have respite.

The complications multiply. I don’t have answers, but I’m hoping they will come in time.

***

I got a call back from FZ.  Work had come up. He needed to use the VTR today.

So can I get it tomorrow?

Yeah…I’ll let you know.

When?

Tomorrow.


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I. War in a New York minute

While some early reports claimed that it was NYC (attempted) car bomber Faisal Shahzad’s wife and parents or his relatives who were picked up from Karachi where they had been residing, other news now suggests that anywhere between five to eight men were arrested in connection with the Times Square car bomb attempt. One of the men detained in Karachi may be his father-in-law; Shahzad’s parents meanwhile left their Peshawar home once they learned of their son’s arrest. The family was seen leaving their well-to-do home in Hayatabad. Two of the men have reportedly been identified as Tauhid Ahmed and Muhammad Rehan who says he travelled with Shahzad to Peshawar where they stayed for about two weeks in July.Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Rehman Malik claims that no arrests have been made in connection with this case, but some people are being detained for questioning. Rehman also said that no official request has been made by the US, but Pakistan intends to cooperate fully.

Shahzad is the son of  retired air vice-marshal and deputy director general of the civil aviation authority, Baharul Haq. Shahzad’s cousin, Kifayat Ali expressed disbelief about the former’s arrest, according to al-Jazeera

“This is a conspiracy so the [Americans] can bomb more Pashtuns,” Ali said, referring to a major ethnic group in Peshawar and the nearby tribal areas of Pakistan and southwest Afghanistan.

Family members in the family’s village of Mohib Banda, near Pabbi in Nowshera district echoed Ali’s denial about their relative. Another cousin, Sameerul Haq also charged conspiracy and reportedly said Shahzad had gone to the US for the sole purpose of studying. A villager who claimed to be Shahzad’s childhood friend told the News, “I don’t think Faisal had links with any militant group.” Interviews conducted with relatives and those familiar with Shahzad by the AP had similar findings.

Earlier this morning, when I visited North Nazimabad, a relatively quiet, upper middle class neighborhood of Karachi, neighbors were tight-lipped. Sources claim that the detentions of people from Nazimabad were made by military intelligence, not the local police. I was told that officials dressed in civilian clothing came looking for people connected with Faisal Shahzad and enquired about Shahzad in the neighborhood. If true, the involvement of military intelligence in these detentions poses some serious problems: the establishment is well-known for disappearing people. Jeremy Schahill raises concerns on the American side where American intelligence planes may have been used to locate Shahzad. The trouble with this, explains Scahill is that:

If true, that could mean that secretive programs such as “Power Geyser” or “Granite Shadow,” remain in effect. These were the unclassified names for reportedly classified, compartmentalized programs under the Bush administration that allegedly gave US military special forces sweeping authority to operate on US soil in cases involving WMD incidents or terror attacks.

See Scahill’s full post here.

[Post in progress…]

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Gwadar Dreams (with photos)

A small fishing town, Gwadar has become synonymous with the aspirational city that the government of Pakistan hopes to build. The area, which is being billed as the-next-Dubai-only-better, was bought by Pakistan from the Sultan of Muscat and Oman in 1958. Here’s the story from Time that same year.

Today, it’s home to a strategically located deep sea warm water port that has the potential to become central to trade and energy politics in the Middle East as well as Central and South Asia. The port however is one part of a master plan to entirely re-develop Gwadar City into a tourist and trade zone complete with boating clubs, a sports complex, a flying club, and a free trade zone for industry. Gwadar as it exists recedes into the shadows of the dreams of its planners.

Progress. For Gwadar’s dreamers, development is as inevitable as the onward march of history. It’s happening, indeed, has already happened. The sports complex is empty, the technical institute is empty, the port runs only occasionally because the government is subsidizing it, but for its planners, the idea of Gwadar redeems the massive influx of capital and questionable failure. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.

I quote Conrad because that’s what looped endlessly in my mind as I saw the grand plan, the rubble, the maps, the voluble genial men of ideas.

But what about the local fishermen?

They have dreams of their own, and they do not include a sports complex or commercial high rises. They have been seamen and fishermen their entire lives, but working at the port requires certificates that are difficult to acquire. Many of them are largely uneducated and lack the technical skills that will be needed to run a port. While the GDA (Gwadar Development Authority) is building a technical institute which may approximately take 300 people, it’s yet to be functional. The GDA has also built a fish harbour (in the video below where the fisherman is cleaning his catch). It’s straight across from the port. While I’m no planner, I do wonder what will happen if the port does actually become functional in the way that the government forsees: won’t hundreds of ships docking, trading, bringing cargo, dirty the waters? oil spills? change the ecology of the area? Won’t the free trade industrial zone do the same? Won’t the tourism?

Gwadar-the-idea caters to the elite habit, not just the economic class. Being elite, after all, isn’t simply about money; it’s also a habit. Leisure activities and interests are all influenced by that mode of being, and that is to what the master plan caters.  What, after all, will a fisherman, who has been out at sea for most of the day, want with a boating club or water sports? Both economically and culturally, they will be locked out of their own land. ‘Development’, ‘progress’, ‘modernization’ is a savage phenomenon. A series of violent ruptures rather than a process. Force and resistance. In May 2004, three Chinese engineers working on the port were killed by a bomb. In 2006, the inauguration of the first phase of the port by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao couldn’t go ahead due to security concerns. When Prime Minister Gilani did come this December, the locals reportedly observed a shutter-down strike.

Never mind the locals. If you build it, they will come.

Except that they haven’t. The port, which was leased to the PSA (Port of Singapore Authority), the third largest port running company, has failed to attract ships. It blames the Pakistani government for not having built the network of roads and railways it promised in its contract with the PSA. The government says the PSA could still have attracted ships to dock there on their way elsewhere. In order to make the port operational, the government has redirected some of its own ships to dock there rather than in Karachi. And to make that feasible, it subsidized trucks to travel to Gwadar from Karachi to pick up the cargo and take it wherever it needs to go. All that cost about 2bn rupees last year.

Perhaps that’s why the government is so tetchy about foreign journalists coming to the area. Everybody I spoke with told me that I should be sure that the intelligence agencies knew exactly where I was and what I was doing. It wasn’t a question I’d asked. They simply volunteered the information as part of the interview.

But, back to PM Gilani for a moment, who did come. He showed up in Gwadar with his cabinet, about 200 government officials, and a media entourage on Dec 30th to hold a cabinet meeting on a Navy ship docked in the Gwadar port. The 2-day affair cost the federal government 5 million rupees, easily making it the most expensive cabinet meeting in the country’s history.

The objective for the meeting was to sign the new NFC (National Finance Commission) Award which uses an improved formula to decide on budget distribution for the the four provinces. Balochistan has long held that the single-factor, population formula discriminates against the province without looking at other indicators such as poverty.

So, to recap: in order to sign off on a slightly fairer NFC Award to give some more money to the poorest province, the federal government spent 5 million rupees on itself.

And, oh yeah, the meeting took place 10 days after Gilani’s own government had introduced austerity measures.

I’m shocked I tell you. Just shocked.

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Field Notes: Fashionistas and Fanatics

saree_608Speaking of fashion shows, I got a call to cover the week long Pakistan fashion week that happened in Karachi last week for a European channel. While I didn’t write the pitch, I understood what it was. It began with “Under the shadow of the Taliban…” You get the point.

I took the assignment because I’m a broke freelancer trying to get started, and if nothing else, it makes for some field notes. I’m interested in the process of “professionalization” in the MSM and what that extracts. The question is this: Given the framing, how far can one go in reworking a story? It’s the master’s house and master’s tools question, the tension between individual agency and the discursive networks in which we become subjects and enact ourselves.

Here’s a bit of what I wrote in a prior blogpost, funnily enough, before I knew that I would be covering a fashion show shortly:

So, for example with Pakistan, the story is quite simply, the Taliban. Now, the stories around that can be of basically two types: 1) follow the narrative straight. These are stories about the latest statements, advances, losses, and crisis instigated by the Taliban and the Army or government’s response to them, or the US aiding monetarily or militarily that fight -or- 2) seemingly disrupt the narrative. These are the stories that are about a brewery in Murree or a high-end fashion show in Lahore, or a sex toys factory in Karachi. The implicit story arc is: Yes, Pakistan has the Taliban and they’re all Muslim, but look, they’ve got fashion and sex and alcohol too! The story works by  juxtaposing the broader ‘truth’ of what is Pakistan with local exceptions (alcohol, fashion, sex). But, at heart, it’s a reinforcing maneouvre because really, they’re only newsworthy precisely because they function as exceptions to the larger rule, Taliban.

This story finally didn’t run. They wanted a “conservative” criticizing the event and well, the ubiquity of the story made it unnecessary for them to run it. But, as you can see in the video below, the framing is the key issue, and once the frame is the Taliban, there’s little room for maneouvring. The script you see here is the result of an initial script I wrote, that was re-written (not by me), and which I in turn, changed in places during the final voiceover.

CNN:

EuroNews (video)

Pakistan’s Fashionistas Defy Taliban AP

KARACHI, Pakistan — Some women strode the catwalk in vicious spiked bracelets and body armor. Others had their heads covered, burqa-style, but with shoulders — and tattoos — exposed. Male models wore long, Islamic robes as well as shorts and sequined T-shirts.

As surging militant violence grabs headlines around the world, Pakistan’s top designers and models are taking part in the country’s first-ever fashion week. While the mix of couture and high-street fashions would not have been out of place in Milan or New York, many designers reflected the turmoil, contradictions and tensions coursing through the society.

Islamic robes? really? Oh wait, I get it. It’s an Islamic country (duh) and they’re wearing robe like things. Islamic + robe = Islamic robes! TaDA! The MSM is as sharp as ever.

AP is a newswire service, so this story is not a singular event. It was multiplied and amplified many times over. Some examples include: NYT, CBS, Boston.com, NPR, Forbes, and The Guardian. As an unscientific measure, there are 59,900 web hits for “Pakistan’s Fashionistas Defy Taliban,” the headline for the AP story, a veritable echo chamber reverberating with a singular message. Undoubtedly, not all of them are AP’s story,  but even if one accounts for that by taking out a few thousand, that still leaves the mass of repetitions. As Goebbels said, “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is born in mind constantly: it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.”

But there is no singular propagandist here. It occurs on a technical plane. As Adorno and Horkheimer argued,

Interested parties like to explain the culture industry in technological terms. Its millions of participants, they argue, demand reproduction processes which inevitably lead to the use of standard products to meet the same needs at countless locations….In reality, a cycle of manipulation and retroactive need is unifying the system ever more tightly. What is not mentioned is that the basis on which technology is gaining power over society is the power of those whose economic position in society is strongest. Technical rationality today is the rationality of domination. (emphasis added)

The headline also topped stories written by others:

Pakistan’s Fashionistas Defy TalibanTelegraph (UK)

Bare shoulders, backless gowns and pouting models are wowing Pakistan’s glitterati as Karachi fashion week shows the world a different side of the Taliban-troubled nation.

While women in much of Muslim, conservative Pakistan opt for headscarves over baggy shalwar khamis or even burkas, on the catwalks of financial capital Karachi, designers are exposing midriffs and flashing cleavage.

‘Fashion Week’ First for PakistanBBC

Pakistan is hosting its first ever fashion week in the city of Karachi against a backdrop of heavy security.

Around 30 Pakistani designers are taking part in the event which ends on Saturday.

The shows are taking place in the luxury Marriott hotel. Last year, the hotel’s branch in the capital Islamabad was devastated by a massive truck bomb.

Of course the truck bomb at the Marriott happened neither in Karachi -if we are going to be so concerned about being there and experience- nor did it have anything to do with a fashion show. But, kudos still to Elettra Neysmith of the BBC. It takes a full five paragraphs before we get to the obligatory ‘Pakistan is conservative’ line, and even here, the article attempts to dispel the idea that all of Pakistan is wearing a burqa:

While women in much of Muslim, conservative Pakistan wear headscarves and baggy shalwar-kameez (pyjama and long tunic), in the financial hub of Karachi, jeans and T-shirts are more likely to be seen.

Five Days of Fashion Show the Flip Side of Coin that is PakistanDaily Times (Lahore-based daily)

In a country fighting a bloody war against itself, Pakistan organised its first fashion week, with an elite segment of society scoring a “victory of sorts” – as CNN described it – to assert itself to Pakistan and the world in bold colours and striking poses. The international network’s description of the five-day celebrations of style sums up the organisers’ aim magnificently: “A model strikes a pose, shows a side of Pakistan the world rarely sees… with some of the attitude you may expect from the world of high fashion.”

The entire story is CNN’s video script for the fashion show. Note the circulation here: an international media outlet, CNN, reports the story which then gets mirrored back for local consumption in a national daily. We see ourselves as others see us?

A critique on Counterpunch: Moderns, Models and Martyrs.

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Swat in Pictures

CopA friend, Moneeza Ahmed, and I recently travelled to see what Swat looks like after the war. Below are a few of the quick photos we took. Click on each to see the caption. I’ll be posting more stuff/ impressions in a few days.

Operation Rah-e-Rast is the fourth Army offensive in Swat in the last 2 years. The Army and the Pakistani liberals who supported the war swear that this time, it’s for real. This time, the Army gets it. But, in Swat, that’s not true judging by the way it ran its offensive. And the goverment has yet to make serious rehabilitation or reconstruction efforts. The only thing that moves quickly is business of killing. The Army has moved on to Waziristan and is repeating its cavalierly ruthless policies there.  I spoke with an aid worker in Dera Ismail Khan recently. That’s where most of the civilians have fled. No governmental or state institution has yet put up much needed refugee camps. It is also now likely that once Waziristan is over, Balochistan will be next. Under the pretext of hunting down militants, the government may try to wipe out the Balochistan insurgency which stems from their very legitimate demands for rights and access to their resources.

Swat, meanwhile, has been forgotten. Without reconstruction, it’s possible that militants could have the opportunity to return, as they have done every other time. But who gives a shit, right? I mean, Swat is so yesterday.

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Media Notes: Fanon on Violence of the Colonial Press

I’ve been re-reading Fanon. I needed to clear my head, and he makes it possible to see things clearly. I was struck (once again) by comments he makes in passing regarding the link between colonial violence and reporting. He notes–far more eloquently–what I’ve been trying to grasp about this institution/discourse: the mechanisms, technical and discursive, by which it stages its own ‘objectivity’ and ultimate veracity and what that finally means for the represented. He’s worth quoting at length:

The “ex-native” too often gets the impression that these reports are already written. The photos which illustrate the article are simply a proof that one knows what one is talking about, and that one has visited the country. The report intends to verify the evidence: everything’s going badly out there since we left. Frequently, reporters complain of being badly received, of being forced to work under bad conditions and of being fenced round by indifference or hostility: all this is quite normal. The nationalist leaders know that international opinion is formed solely by the Western press. Now, when a journalist from the West asks us questions, it is seldom in order to help us. In the Algerian war for example, even the most liberal of the French reporters never ceased to use ambiguous terms in terms of describing our struggle. When we reproached them for this, they replied in all good faith that they were being objective. For the native, objectivity is always directed against him.

Can we speak of torture, mass graves, the terrorism of the state? Or, will ‘objectivity’ continue to extract consent from the failing western media industry for ruthless imperial policies? That objectivity too, says Fanon, is a form of violence directed in a Manichean world against the native. Isn’t that after all the structure of most daily reporting, “on the one hand, this, but, on the other hand, that”, on the one hand torture, on the other hand ‘interrogation technique’?

Reporters move far too quickly through most scenarios to really know much of anything. Too often, the photos and the people we call ‘characters’ become artefacts to verify our own authenticity, our having been there. Those are the demands of the field. The characters change, but the larger narrative–the ‘objective’ narrative–is the same. So, for example with Pakistan, the story is quite simply, the Taliban. Now, the stories around that can be of basically two types: 1) follow the narrative straight. These are stories about the latest statements, advances, losses, and crisis instigated by the Taliban and the Army or government’s response to them, or the US aiding monetarily or militarily that fight -or- 2) seemingly disrupt the narrative. These are the stories that are about a brewery in Murree or a high-end fashion show in Lahore, or a sex toys factory in Karachi. The implicit story arc is: Yes, Pakistan has the Taliban and they’re all Muslim, but look, they’ve got fashion and sex and alcohol too! The story works by juxtaposing the broader ‘truth’ of what is Pakistan with local exceptions (alcohol, fashion, sex). But, at heart, it’s a reinforcing maneouvre because really, they’re only newsworthy precisely because they function as exceptions to the larger rule, Taliban.

I would also venture to say that there’s a hierarchy between version 1 and version 2. The second one is for the rookie journalists, the ones starting out who, as wisdom goes, may not be able to handle the real story, the big one. That’s for the seasoned reporters. Those are the jobs we dream of, to report on the important news, the heart of narrative, the quintessential Pakistan.

The funny thing about daily television reporting though is that the voiceover you hear on the packages is rarely the brown-skinned fellow who got banged about all day in the heat, noise and dust of Karachi, Peshawar or Lahore to shoot the latest riot or the most recent bomb blast. His job is simply to grab the standard footage: people making demands, a protest, people crying, blood, dead bodies, a soundbite from an official, a soundbite from a victim. Then, he quickly zooms back to his office, zigzagging through the mass of traffic on his bike to quickly edit the footage down to a sizeable minute or two and send it to the head office in Atlanta, in New York, in Paris, in London. The footage is his, but the story will take shape there, in the center. The are literally oceans between the event and the report of that event. Television, more than print I think, makes it possible to see the simultaneous obsession and complete disregard for being there.

After some traveling around, I now spend my time hanging around the Karachi Press club or the offices of various news organizations. Things here are relaxed like that, (though I’m often the only girl. More on the sexual politics of journalism and breaking into the brotherhood some other time.) . F explains the dynamics of how to pull a story together to me one evening over dinner at the press club. He’s one of the senior folks around, not that old, but a top cameraman/producer for a foreign news organization. That puts him pretty near the top of the hierarchy of the local media though English is a distant second to his primary language, Urdu. (The politics of language. Again, another time.) So, dinner w/ F usually means 7-8 local cameramen, mostly from the Urdu media, and well, me, sitting around a table with cornershop biryani or chicken kaadhai.

“You’ve always got to find the kopi” he tells me in a booming voice. “He’s the guy in the neighborhood who can get you what you want, usually named Ahmad or Salman,” he adds helpfully. “And when you arrive, he immediately parts his way through the crowd, and asks you ‘Yes sir, what would you like sir? oh yes, I know that person. I can get you that person, no problem.” He’s rubbing his hands together eagerly in a caricatured imitation.

In the hierarchy, many in the local scene are the kopis for the foreign media. Over chai and smokes, they trade stories about the gora reporters who are continually stumbling across Pakistan without language or context. This is humour with an edge. Chagrin, but also bemusement. Stories about American reporters getting their geography wrong, the French and their stinginess, the Danish and their racism. I hear about how a local stringer pointed out random patients at a hospital as Taliban victims in Peshawar to a foreign team, or a local journalist being dragged around by a western documentary team that was desperately trying to find characters for a plot line it had written abroad before it got here. Sly civility?

Or perhaps, it’s just the objectivity of dollar bills.

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Swat in Brooklyn: The War Comes Home

My current project follows refugees from Swat, an uncle and a nephew, as they struggle to come to terms with the death of a relative and the displacement of their family because of the current military operation. These two are part of a small but growing community in Brooklyn whose families are trapped back home  in the conflict between the Taliban and the Pakistani military in the troubled Northwestern Frontier Province.

This family chose to share their grief on learning that a beloved nephew had been killed in the latest army operation in Swat. He was, like others, part of the significant “collateral damage” that has been the hallmark of this conflict. Their families are part of the 3 million displaced and facing one of the worst humanitarian disasters today. These are the new New Yorkers, and this is the story of how the “war on terror” has followed them to Brooklyn.

[This is an early roughcut. More to follow, including footage of the refugees from Karachi.]