Tag Archives: pakistan

Re-presenting Pakistan | Upcoming Talk

Re-presenting Pakistan: Journalism, Justice and the “War on Terror”

Pakistan has been called a failing state and the most dangerous country on earth. Yet, stories about the Pakistani victims of the “war on terror” remain scant even though thousands of Pakistanis have been bombed, disappeared, detained and displaced. This panel will examine the relationship between representation, media and war in the context of Pakistan. It will discuss alternative models to pursue and publish ethical journalism.

PLACE: Columbia University | Journalism School |  3rd Flr, Lecture Hall
TIME: 7pm – 8:30pm

MODERATED by: Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars and dean of Columbia Journalism School

Madiha Tahir is an independent journalist who recently produced a short documentary, Wounds of Waziristan, about survivors of drone attacks in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas. She is co-editor of a collection of essays, Dispatches from Pakistan and a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University.

Asim Rafiqui is a photojournalist who has been investigating human rights issues in Pakistan. His most recent project covers the lives and stories of Pakistani prisoners in the US prison at Bagram. Rafiqui is also a fellow at the Open Society Foundation

Sarah Belal is a prominent Pakistani human rights lawyer who has been working to get Bagram prisoners released. Her organization Justice Project Pakistan has been litigating on behalf of families of prisoners. Belal is also a fellow with the UK based human rights organization, Reprieve.

Saadia Toor is the author of State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan. She is an associate professor of sociology at CUNY and works on populist movements and feminism and religion, in Pakistan.

Presented by The Sevellon Brown Fund, Columbia Journalism School Photojournalism Dept., & Center for International History

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Short documentary: Wounds of Waziristan

Wounds of Waziristan Trailer from AJ Russo on Vimeo.

I’m sharing a trailer for my short documentary project, Wounds of Waziristan, on drone attacks in Pakistan. You can find it on Indiegogo here. As some of you may know, this is the result of a lot of work and trips to Pakistan. Rather than focusing on the numbers game or questions of international law, this project tries to record the voices of those directly impacted by the American “war on terror.” In particular, –and perhaps, this is my academic side coming out– I am interested in the question of haunting. President Obama said he was “haunted” by the loss of life. But, what does that mean, materially, in concrete terms?

Since the drone attacks began in Pakistan in 2004, much of the focus has been on the technology. And, although the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan are endlessly debated and declared upon by journalists and pundits, the ordinary people who actually live there are rarely heard from. WOUNDS records the voices of those who have been either labeled “militants,” or summarily dismissed as “collateral damage.”

We’re actually almost done, but we need some help getting to the finish line. Every dollar helps: consider donating just $5 to this project. And, even if you can’t donate, please take a look and share it far and wide:

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I. Notes on the Pakistan cables

These are my notes, thoughts, musings on the cables related to Afghanistan and Pakistan. These notes refer to these cables:

1. Govt abandoned Swat. “Kayani was candid that the government has essentially abandoned the Swat valley.” Biden’s meeting w. Kayani Secret, US Embassy, Islamabad, Feb 06, 2009. And that is exactly what those who opposed the Swat operation were saying from the start, and has been clear for a long time now.

2. Does he or doesn’t he? “Biden asked if Kayani made a distinction between the Pashtuns and the Taliban. Kayani replied that the Taliban were a reality, but the Afghan government dominated by the Taliban had had a negative effect on Pakistan.” Biden’s meeting w. Kayani Secret, US Embassy, Islamabad, Feb 06, 2009. Important to know particularly as it concerns what happened in Fata and Swat.

3. Military funding. Senator Biden said the system of reimbursement through Coalition Support Funds would be reexamined. Kayani said that the military had only received about $300 million of the $1 billion ostensibly reimbursed for military expenses. He was not implying that the money had been stolen, but had been used for general budget support.”Biden’s meeting w. Kayani Secret, US Embassy, Islamabad, Feb 06, 2009.

4. American knowledge of murders by the Pakistani Army. “A growing body of evidence is lending credence to allegations of human rights abuses by Pakistan security forces…The crux of the problem appears to center on the treatment of terrorists detained in battlefield operations and have focused on the extra-judicial killing of some detainees. The detainees involved were in the custody of Frontier Corps or Pakistan Army units.”Human rights abuses by the PK Army Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 10. 2009. Why presume that the ones being detained and killed are, in fact, terrorists? As with drones, there is a presumption that if you have been killed, you must have been a terrorist. Witch hunt anyone?

5. The ‘guilt’ of the forcibly disappeared. “The allegations of extra-judicial killings generally do not/not extend to what are locally referred to as “the disappeared” — high-value terrorist suspects and domestic insurgents who are being held incommunicado by Pakistani intelligence agencies…” Human rights abuses by the PK Army Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 10. 2009. Again, the presumption that those missing are guilty.

6. Orientalist logic as explanation for Army murders. “Revenge for terrorist attacks on Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps personnel is believed to be one of the primary motivating factors for the extra-judicial killings. Cultural traditions place a strong importance on such revenge killings, which are seen as key to maintaining a unit’s honor.”Human rights abuses by the PK Army Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 10. 2009.

7. They have to kill because the courts don’t work. “Senior military commanders have equally and repeatedly stressed their concerns that the court’s are incapable of dealing with many of those detained on the battlefield and their fears that if detainees are handed over to the courts and formally charged, they will be released,…This fear is well-founded as both Anti-Terrorism Courts and the appellate judiciary have a poor track record of dealing with suspects detained in combat operations such as the Red Mosque operation in Islamabad…Post assesses that the lack of viable prosecution and punishment options available to the Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps is a contributing factor in allowing extra-judicial killings and other human rights abuses of detained terrorist combatants to proceed.”Human rights abuses by the PK Army Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 10. 2009.

8. Number of detainees. “There may be as many as 5000 such terrorist detainees currently in the custody of the Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps from operations in Malakand, Bajaur, and Mohmand.”Human rights abuses by the PK Army Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 10. 2009.

9. The solution to PK Army murders? Legalise the state of exception. “To the Defense Minister propose assistance in drafting a new Presidential Order that would create a parallel administrative track for charging and sentencing terrorists detained by the military in combat operations.” Human rights abuses by the PK Army Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 10. 2009. But, it’s very interesting to see that legal regimes matter, however oddly. I would shy away from viewing this simply as a legal “cover”; it is that, but why does the US feel the need to create a legal cover in the first place?

10. Verbiage. Why does Anne Patterson use the antiquated “Pakhtoon” rather than the more common “Pashtun” in her cables? Will more aid persuade the PK Army to cut its ties with extremists? Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 23, 2009

11. What the PK Army may do in case of US withdrawal from Afghanistan. “General Kayani has been utterly frank about Pakistan’s position on this. In such a scenario, the Pakistan establishment will dramatically increase support for Taliban groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which they see either as ultimately likely to take over the Afghan government or at least an important counter-weight to an Indian-controlled Northern Alliance.” Will more aid persuade the PK Army to cut its ties with extremists? Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 23, 2009

12. Follow the money? The Pakistani establishment, as we saw in 1998 with the nuclear test, does not view assistance — even sizable assistance to their own entities — as a trade-off for national security vis-a-vis India.” Will more aid persuade the PK Army to cut its ties with extremists? Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 23, 2009

13. Afghanistan: Does the Army want it stable or unstable? “Afghan instability by definition leads the Pakistani establishment to increase support for the Taliban and thereby, unintentionally, create space for al-Qaeda. No amount of money will sever that link.”Will more aid persuade the PK Army to cut its ties with extremists? Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 23, 2009

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When the waters came (and the drones)

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…
Read in full here.
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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?”


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.



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NYT’s reporting puzzles

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, steel_puzzle_sphere_1Ariel 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”.

By contrast, check out this excellent piece by friend and reporter Don Duncan on forms of Palestinian resistance. See examples of what Don’s talking about here and there.

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.

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The Fire this Time

Perhaps because I feel there are lessons to be learned from the African-American experience for immigrant Muslims in America today, or simply because I find James Baldwin’s essays brilliant, I’ve been looking him up. Here’s Baldwin reviewing Langston Hughes for the NYT (1959):

Every time I read Langston Hughes I am amazed all over again by his genuine gifts–and depressed that he has done so little with them. A real discussion of his work demands more space than I have here, but this book contains a great deal which a more disciplined poet would have thrown into the waste-basket (almost all of the last section, for example).

If only, among Pakistanis, we had similar critics now with the intellectual courage and honesty to take on the second-rate writing that passes for Pakistani English language literary production these days. Hasn’t anyone noticed how god-awful much of it is?

Some other notes:

  • Baldwin’s frank discussions of homosexuality–he was bisexual–earned the ire of various Black critics like Eldridge Cleaver and Amiri Baraka.
  • And this is Langston Hughes reviewing Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. 22_James Baldwin#1#
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Food for Thought

organic-farmingI’ve asked S. to write a blog about the politics of food in Pakistan as he’s starting an organic farm here. But, while we wait for that, I thought I’d share photos of the greenhouse he’s set up here to test organic seeds. So here it is:

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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.


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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