In a heartrending report in the Los Angeles Times today, Alex Rodriguez describes how Sunni bus riders managed to save the lives of Shias by refusing to identify them to the attackers:
One Sunni, college student Ghulam Mustafa, 19, confronted the militants, saying that killing Shiites was wrong. He was shot dead, the gunmen pumping seven bullets into his back, chest and head.
Sunni passengers were then asked to point out people they thought were Shiites. Many could have done so because they came from the same villages. Yet they refused to cooperate, which survivors say saved at least 10 people.
Full story here.
It’s Pakistan’s Independence Day, and the country is, quite literally, drowning. More than 14 million people have been affected by floods that continue to hit Pakistan since last week making this disaster bigger than the South-East Asian tsunami and the recent earthquakes in Kashmir and Haiti combined. If that wasn’t enough, Pakistanis are also being attacked from the skies. American drones killed at least 12 people in North Waziristan today. The Americans are also running flood relief efforts flying in goods. They are not done saving us yet, and they are killing us already. Killing and saving. It goes on like that. That’s the prerogative of Empire: to give life and to take it, arbitrate who lives and who dies. To define the terms of logic itself. How divine.
I cannot muster the will to anger. The politicians, the pundits, the press tell tall tales, nod heads seriously, stitch stories from scraps. They tell us this is so and that is so. They are professionals at horror stories and fairy tales. The government’s incompetence, the massacre of fellow Pakistanis by drones in the north, devastating food insecurity all neatly resolve by the end of a soundbite. Meanwhile, our present is split open and the Indus is running right through it.
It’s not too much to make this prediction: the death toll will be much higher than official sources. Who really believes official sources?
Here are however a few figures to mull over: So far, donations for flood relief amount to $6.82 per survivor. Compare that to the figure for a survivor of the tsunami in South East Asia: $669.60. Why doesn’t the international community care very much? We may have some of our pundits to thank for that. Claims that the West better save us from this flood to avoid a Taliban flood in Pakistan are flights of fancy I’m not capable of in the face of facts: Pakistan’s Army is the 6th largest with over 500,000 troops. The Taliban is only hundreds at its core. It manages bombings and spectacular events, but a wholesale take-over is unlikely. And as for the other Islamist groups, they’re too embroiled in sectarian conflicts themselves. But these narratives do serve to take away from real issues: economic, political, social–such as the rise of religious conservatism in PK (which is NOT the same thing as Taliban supporters)–and the military, that is, the vast military complex in Pakistan and its dealings with and uses of Islamist groups.
Questions. International and local donors are circumventing the inept civilian government in favor of the Army. Is the Army really equipped for such a task, or does its sheer hierarchy exude a sense of order and discipline (that it may actually lack)? What’s the alternative? What will be the consequences?
So, the aid may not flow, even if the waters continue to. But, Pakistanis are used to a self-help regime. All around me, families have been organizing their own flood relief efforts with friends and family. Individuals are hiring trucks, setting up camps, or simply just heading off to the affected areas to help out. I was in the US when Katrina happened. I can’t help but compare. Americans have faith in their government, so much so, that even as it became painfully, sorrowfully clear on television screens across America that the government would do little to help its Black citizens, I did not see Americans mobilize in the way and to the extent I see Pakistanis around me doing so now.
It’s deeply impressive, and in that, there is hope. And as a friend and I discussed the other day, it’s from the hope of multitudes–the indelible faith that things can be made different–that revolutions come. (Does anyone doubt that we need anything less?)
A friend who’s been in Sukkur for days sends an update:
So I have been in Sukkur these past 4 days with SRSO. The overall picture is pretty dismal here and as usual the government is largely missing from the picture. There are some tents (shamyana) etc. but they are not really providing any services except water once a day. SRSO is estimating 300,000+ in 2000+ villages affected but I think nobody really has a handle on how many (and that est. was 3 days ago). The actual numbers are probably much higher.
I have now heard of 3 different instances of breaches in bund walls to divert water because some minister was trying to save his crops (or even more cynically trying to drown a rival party member’s fields). The breach near Guddu barrage was deliberate though to try and save Sukkur barrage but our irrigation department really had no idea what they were doing. Entire southern part of Kashmor district was inundated and the water has now flooded through Jacobabad. We are expecting more of that flood to reach Sukkur sometime in the morning.
The number of dead in newspapers I think are gross understatements. I spent a day with WFP worker from Swat who was really pissed that the media is saying…
Since there’s more to Pakistan than mullah madness. One of the striking features of Pakistan’s economic landscape are the sheer number of workers’ protests and strikes that happen here. Labor violations are flagrant, and workers demonstrations are heated. Last week, fifteen thousand workers went on strike in one of the largest protests of shipbreaking workers in Gadani, a small town on the southern tip of Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest and most destitute province. A friend went to check out their protest, and we’ve pulled together a video:
Some details on the strike:
Interestingly enough, despite crises in other national industries, ship-breaking in Gadani has actually seen a boon in business over the past two years, owing partly to a government decision to cut the import duty on arriving ships. Moreover, the worldwide crisis has even benefited yard owners, as a slumping shipping industry has been discarding defunct ships at lower-than-usual prices….
According to the union, this recovery has gone hand-in-hand with super-profits for the yard’s owners. In a recent press conference held while negotiations were still ongoing, representatives from GSBDWU highlighted, in some detail, the miniscule fraction of total revenue which accrues to workers. An additional chunk-roughly as high as a third of the amount made by the workers, collectively–is taken by the contractor, or jamadar (under Pakistani labor law, it bears repeating, this arrangement–whereby employers wash their hands of responsibility to their workers through a system of contractor-based employment-is manifestly illegal; yet you would be hard-pressed to find a company, in any industry, innocent of the practice). It scarcely needs to be reiterated that the rampant inflation of recent years has rendered the workers’ share in wages entirely inadequate. Moreover, at the aforementioned press conference it was added that workers find themselves pitilessly exploited as consumers, too-food in the few canteens made available to them sells at extortionate prices.
Arguably even more damning than these levels of exploitation, though, are the horrific conditions in which Gadani’s workers toil. The absence of safety equipment and regulations have been the central tenet of the union’s recent campaign-workers are denied goggles, harnesses, belts, etc., and there are no emergency medical facilities in the near vicinity. As a result, a staggering eighteen workers have died, on the job, in this year alone-the most recent man was only twenty-five years-old. He fell to his death while climbing an oil-coated ladder in near-darkness last week.
Read Adaner’s full article here.
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?”
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.
Karachi based activists have organized a protest against the recent attacks of the Pakistani Army on Pakistani which resulted in numerous civilian deaths.
This is their press statement:
More than 73 civilians have been killed in an air strike by a Pakistani Army jet on a remote village in the country’s troubled North-West, media reports said Tuesday.
A unnamed military official disclosed that the bombing in the tribal Khyber region took place on Saturday, but news of the operation emerged only now.
The same jet was also used for bombing Taliban positions in neighboring Orakzai tribal region where the militants fled to in the wake of the Pakistani Army’s major push to snuff out Taliban strongholds in the Swat region.
Reports of those killed in air strikes in the area vary greatly with the Army terming them militants while locals say there were several civilian casualties as well.
According to the official, initial reports indicated that the military jet strayed from its course and mistook a village for a Taliban camp resulting in the deaths of civilians.
The injured are being treated under heavy guard at the Hayatabad medical complex in Peshawar and reporters have been barred from speaking to the survivors.
Moreover, in a bid to contain the fallout, the Pakistani Army establishment has imposed a “gag clause” preventing military personnel from divulging operational details including deaths of civilians to media.
It is said the Army is under severe pressure from the U.S. to go after Taliban militants in the restive tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and the ongoing offensive against insurgents has displaced close to one million residents of the region.
PROTEST ARBITRARY KILLINGS OF CIVILIANS
WE DO NOT CONDONE SUCH INHUMANITY ON THE PART OF OUR MILITARY
Oh, NYT, why must you tempt me with your strange tales of stranger lands.
1) PALESTINE. Ethan Bronner’s article which was the lead story this morning, “Palestinians Try a Less Violent Path to Resistance” is an example of a lie reproduced as news. Putting the latest peaceful Palestinian boycott campaign in faux context, Bronner writes, “The new approach still remains small scale while American-led efforts to revive peace talks are stalled.” He falsely continues to imply throughout the rest of the article that noviolence is “limited” or alien to Palestinian soil:
Nonviolence has never caught on here, and Israel’s military says the new approach is hardly nonviolent. But the current set of campaigns is trying to incorporate peaceful pressure in limited ways.
Except that well, nonviolence–whilst perhaps a novel idea to a reporter whose son serves in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF)–is nothing new for the Palestinians. The 1980s intifada was a deeply civil society based rebellion with Palestinian labour unions, businessmen and students involved in mass forms of nonviolent protest. Although initially uncoordinated, an ad hoc leadership committee called the Unfied National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU) soon rose up increasing its numbers with workers who joined as the IDF attacked Palestinian businesses. The bourgeoisie and Palestinian businessmen, increasingly burdened by the new taxes Israel was imposing, followed through with commercial strikes and non-payment of taxes. Further, Ariel Sharon’s incendiary move to shift his home to Jerusalem sparked “the shopkeepers war”, a cat and mouse game where the IDF repeatedly forced shopkeepers to open their shops and they in turn repeatedly went on strike. There was stone throwing by youth (if you can call that violent when they’re throwing them at tanks and soldiers) too and murders of alleged collaborators, but the bulk of the population took part in mass civil disobedience and other forms of nonviolent protest. That was the Palestinian intifada in the 1980s, and it attests to the strength and resilience of Palestinian civil society. The effects of that movement dissipated because of the Oslo Accords which circumvented the successes of the intifada rather than build upon them.
Contrast that form of resistance with the occupying army. Raphael Eitan, then Israel’s chief of staff, said “When we have settled the land, all the Arabs will be able to do about it will be to scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle.” Menachim Begin, who would later win the Nobel peace prize with Arafat (a venerable tradition which Obama has rightly joined) referred to Palestinians as “beasts walking on two legs”.
And for the love of god, Bronner, get a clue.
2) PAKISTAN. Sabrina Tavernise lends that special Alice-in-a-wonderland feel to her reporting on a potentially historic amendment that is making its way through the Pakistani parliament right now. If passed, it would strip the President of powers that the position has accrued over the years due to revisions to the constitution by unaccountable politicians and dictators. Tavernise is quick to manipulate the story about a significant positive political change in Pakistan into the “chaos theory” narrative the western media has reserved for Pakistan. She writes:
On paper, the changes restore the country’s democracy to its original form — a parliamentary system run by a prime minister — and undo the accumulated powers that the country’s military autocrats had vested in the presidency. (emphasis mine.)
But this is Pakistan — a chaotic, 62-year-old country, where no elected government has ever lasted a full term and the rule of law is often up for grabs — and it is far from certain that in practice the new laws will be respected. (emphasis mine.)
Down the hole, Alice goes. This is Wonderland and things don’t ever change here. Never ever ever. Never ever? Not ever. Get it?
Last year, Tavernise brought us this lovely liner regnant with Orientalism: “On a spring night in Lahore, I came face to face with all that is puzzling about Pakistan.” Wow, where? Was it at the intersection of Ignorance and Hubris? Try and get off that. It’s really overcrowded.
3) WIKILEAKS. Two days ago, Glenn Greenwald caught the NYT in a mistake, and now the paper appears to be at it again trying to damn the investigative website Wikileaks. Greenwald then noted that reporter “Elisabeth Bumiller strongly implies that WikiLeaks failed to release the full video and instead selectively edited it.” The mistake found its way into a Weekly Standard opinion piece which denounced the website for failing to release the full video. Unfortunately, for the Standard, Wikileaks had released the entire video from the start. The NYT corrected its mistake online without ever acknowledging that it had made one. The Standard‘s Bill Roggio also corrected his mistake and acknowledged it explicitly online. All that was two days ago. Now today, NYT‘s article on Wikileaks “Iraq Video Brings Notice to a Web Site“, again implies bad practise by Wikileaks:
The Web site also posted a 17-minute edited version, which proved to be much more widely viewed on YouTube than the full version. Critics contend that the shorter video was misleading because it did not make clear that the attacks took place amid clashes in the neighborhood and that one of the men was carrying a rocket-propelled grenade.
But, Wikileaks posted the entire unedited video and has done so from the start. That’s something that media organizations rarely do, if ever. When’s the last time you saw an unedited video at CNN or unedited notes for an article at NYT? Second, what unnamed critics is the NYT referring to here? The Weekly Standard already corrected its mistake, and anyone else who has criticized the shorter version of the video has only been able to do so precisely because the full-version is also available. It’s just a bizarre paragraph coming as it does on the heels of the earlier Bumiller article. The NYT, btw, is absent from Wikileaks list of its supporters which does include the LA Times, Hearst Corporation, Gannett (publishers of USA Today), the Associated Press, among other journalistic bodies.
4) PAKISTAN. The Lede blog posted live video footage of the bomb blasts at the US Consulate in Peshawar (h/t jdw) and then noted:
Readers who watch the footage from Pakistani television above may notice one sign of how routine bombings have become in the country. At one stage, as images of the latest attack were broadcast, the crawl at the bottom of the screen gave updates on a celebrity drama, the planned marriage of a Pakistani cricket star, Shoaib Malik, to an Indian tennis player, Sania Mirza.
When a commenter called out the blog’s writer, Robert Mackey on his spurious concluson based on news tickers which are equally random everywhere else, he responded saying, “I explained in the post what the point of the the trivial news in the crawl seemed to be to me. I made no statement that this sort of trivia was unique to Pakistan and not found in most if not all other countries.” Even to Mackey his response must sound lame; it’s certainly not an answer.
Here’s a snapshot of CNN vs. al-Jazeera on the day the Wikileaks video was posted. Pots and kettles. Enough said.
What’s going on at the Pearl Continental in Karachi?
150 workers of the Pearl Continental Hotel in Karachi have occupied the basement of the hotel since last week. The occupation began when four workers, all of them union activists who have worked at the PC for at least 20 years, were fired by the hotel which has a long history of union-busting. Following their dismissal, the four workers immediately occupied the basement of the PC Hotel backed by 150 of their colleagues who feel that these workers have been targeted due for their union activism. They are demanding that the Hashwani group which owns the PC abide by the law, give workers their rights and put an end to its aggressive union-busting practices.
Food has become scarce while they have been on strike and management has refused to allow outside deliveries to be made. The current Human Resources Director at the PC is a retired Major Zia Jan who came to the PC after busting a union at the Karachi Electric Supply Company (KESC). Major Zia recently told the striking workers that they ought to be ashamed of themselves for fighting the PC. The management also brought someone from the Labor Department who accused the workers of engaging in an illegal dharna and told them they must stop immediately.
The workers are being filmed and monitored by security. They have been threatened with police action. The families of the workers who protested outside the hotel in solidarity have already been baton-charged by the police.
What are the workers demands?
1. Give us our jobs back!
Firing of union activists while negotiations are ongoing is illegal.
2. Recognize our union!
The courts already do. It’s time for the PC to abide by the law.
3. Come to the negotiating table!
The PC refuses to negotiate the charter of demands. The 2002 and 2006 demands are still pending.
What’s the history of the workers struggle at the PC?
The PC workers’ struggle has been going on since 2001. In the wake of the post-9.11 slump in business, owners of the PC Hotel, the Hashwani Group, began aggressively union-busting, slashing workers salaries and provident funds and even firing those who protested. 300 workers were sacked. PC then accused four workers—all union activists—of starting a fire in the hotel and had them locked up for 2 months in a secret prison in Karachi. They were acquitted in court, but the Hashwani Group attempted to fire them anyway on false charges of absenteeism. The workers got a stay order from the court, one of them in 2002 and the other three in 2006. That order was cancelled in Feb 2010. Before a notification of the cancellation had even been issued, the workers were fired.
The PC-Four have a long history trying to get the PC to recognize the workers union so that they can bargain for their rights and fair wages. The workers who clean the rooms, make the meals and run the hotel only get Rs. 7800 per month for nine hour shifts each day–after they’ve been working there for at least 14 years. A one night stay at the PC costs Rs. 20,000. The Pearl Continental Hotel Workers Union is already recognized by the courts, but the PC management refuses to accept the union or come to the negotiating table. The union, which is recognized by the workers of the PC as their bargaining unit, has issued two Charter of Demands, the standard list of workers demands which unions issue every two years to the employer as a starting point for negotiations. Both the 2004 and the 2006 Charter of Demands were never resolved as the PC failed to come to the negotiating table. Instead, the management of the PC constantly harassed the workers trying to terrorize them into rejecting their own union.
Why are the PC management’s actions illegal?
Pakistan’s labor law says that while negotiations about union demands are ongoing, the employer is NOT allowed to transfer or fire workers. All four workers are activists of a legally recognized union, the Pearl Continental Hotel Workers Union. The PC has chosen not to recognize the union and refuses to bargain or come to the negotiating table.
What evidence is there that the PC is violating workers’ rights and union-busting?
PC’s anti-union rampages have even been the subject of an investigation by the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO). The investigation concluded that “grave violations of union rights had been committed by the hotel management and local authorities.” ILO requested the government to fully investigate the detention and take other actions. The NGO, PILER, the International Food Union and the Labor Party of Pakistan (LPP) have all supported the workers.
The current Human Resources Director at the PC is a retired Major Zia Jan who came to the PC after busting a union at the Karachi Electric Supply Company (KESC). Major Zia recently told the striking workers that they ought to be ashamed of themselves for fighting the PC.
Who are the PC-Four?
Mohammad Noor, President of the PC Hotel Workers Union
Job at PC: Storekeeper since 1987
He has a family with 4 children to support.
Shah Nawaz, Vice President of the PC Hotel Workers Union
Job at PC: Houseman for 20 + years
He has a family with 5 children to support.
Rao Mohammad Ashfaq, union activist of the PC Hotel Workers Union
Job at PC: Store cleaner for 21 years
He has a family with 4 children to support.
Ubaid ur-Rehman, union activist of the PC Hotel Workers Union
Job at PC: Waiter for 20 years
He has a family with 3 children to support.
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.