Nov 04.2013, an interview on The Takeaway on the significance of Hakimullah Mehsud’s death:
Full article HERE. Nov 01.2013:
These stories show immense human suffering that we, as Americans, need to acknowledge and be sensitive to if we hope to effectively combat terrorism. By ignoring the deaths of these civilians, we tacitly imply that their lives are worth nothing, that they are less human than American citizens.
Oct 25.2013, a discussion with Michel Martin: Do Pakistanis Support Drone Attacks?
TAHIR: I think the people that are actually under attack are not the people in Islamabad and are not the liberal class. The first line of people that are actually under attack are the people in the tribal areas. And there the issue again gets very, very complicated and I think it’s – it’s not critical thinking to think that because political parties are using this issue that it is therefore a sham issue. I mean, it’s true, various political parties have used this issue for their own political ends, but that doesn’t negate the fact that actually people are being killed.
“I wasn’t scared of drones before,” Nabeela, an 8-year-old whose grandmother, Mamana Bibi, was killed by a 2012 drone strike, says in the report. “But now when they fly overhead I wonder, ‘Will I be next?'”
Nabeela is not alone.
A new documentary, “Wounds of Waziristan,” reveals the story of drones as told by the people who live under them.
PG: Is there a political solution possible in Waziristan?
MT: The U.S. has to leave, but they also have to stop funding the Pakistani establishment, and they have to start taking the Pakistan civilian government seriously. The tribal areas also need to be incorporated into Pakistan. How this is done is up to them, but the services of the state need to be extended to that area. There is a whole range of socio-political issues, which need to be resolved. They will require money and also will among political leaders, but this is impossible as long as the United States continues its meddling, occupation, and funding of the Pakistani political establishment.
PG: What do Americans most need to understand about the drones in Pakistan?
With Wounds of Waziristan, Tahir tries to foreground the people who materially experience loss and absence — not as abstract body counts, but as the absence of a brother or a niece or a wife. “Haunting is the insistence by the dead that they be acknowledged, that the social conditions that brought about their demise be made known and rectified. So, haunting is about unfinished business. And, it’s thoroughly social and political. This film focuses on the people who live in Waziristan and who live among loss. Material conditions, whether it’s the rubble after a drone attack or the grave of one’s kin, persist in reminding the living of what they have lost,” she explains.
Full piece here.
Speaking 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.
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 Taliban –Telegraph (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 Pakistan –BBC
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 Pakistan –Daily 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.
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.
“You don’t want me to chop off your hands and feet,” says the Army officer to a Pashtun. This horror-flick statement is part of a 10-minute video that, if authentic, would be the first time that proof of the brutality of the Pakistani Army will have been captured on tape. The footage shows Pakistani soldiers interrogating and then beating Pashtun men suspected of harbouring the Taliban. The soldiers kick, whip and thrash their victims who scream and agonize on the ground.
Authentic or not, the ruthlessness shown in the video is already real for the Pakistani media so much so that hardly a local media outlet dared report on it. Being beaten or having your hands chopped off is rather unpleasant business after all, and few reporters are willing to risk that for a story. The fear is pervasive, and the near pitch-perfect silence speaks volumes about the army whether the video is a real or a fake.
It was the BBC that first carried the story on October 1st after the video had been making rounds on Facebook. That was followed by a piece in the Guardian. Under pressure from stories being carried in the foreign press, the English language dailies, Dawn and the Daily Times finally ran pieces today available here, here and here.
Compare that to the coverage of the Taliban flogging video in April this year. Within a week, numerous articles had already been published. Justifiably horrified progressive Pakistanis took to protesting the Taliban in Karachi and Lahore. Then newly reinstated Chief Justice took suo moto action the same day calling the case to court. As a result, the man beating the girl in the video was arrested a day ago.
It’s one thing to criticize mullahs, militants or politicians like President Asif Ali Zardari, say local journalists, but quite another to probe “the establishment,” the term in Pakistan for the nexus of military and security agencies that run intrigues, kidnappings, undercover operations, and lately, the American war on terror.
Democracy may be transient in Pakistan, but the establishment is well…established. Cameramen know the areas that are off-limits for filming in the heart of Pakistan’s cities; reporters know which stories should go unrecorded. Otherwise, as one reporter explained it to me, “Accidents happen.” You may be hit by a car, or a container might fall on you. Or, you may disappear and a few hours later your brother will find your mangled body.
That’s what happened with Musa Khan Khel, the 28-year-old Geo Television reporter who was killed in Swat the day the Swat peace deal was signed with Sufi Muhammad. Only a few days earlier, Khel had told his reportedly told his employers, “I have been receiving death threats from a powerful force. They are after me. They want to kill me.”
Khan Khel never specified who “they” were. Veteran reporter and Khan Khel’s friend, Imtiaz Ali says he doesn’t know either, but “The Taliban proudly declare when they’ve done something.” In this case however, they came to offer condolences to Khan Khel’s family after his death.
It is known that Khan Khel was on tenuous terms with the Pakistan Army officials and often barred from official press conferences in Swat, the region he was covering as a result. He set out on the morning of his death to report with his brother. They were banned from covering senior minister Bashir Bilour’s press conference that day announcing the Swat deal between the government and local militants.
Khan Khel stated this fact in the last report he filed. It would run in The News a day after his death.
The Army is everywhere. When I was a child, we would watch a television show about young dashing Rashid, an Air force pilot who does kamikaze rather than be caught and divulge his secrets to the enemy. I wanted to be him. At six years old, didn’t we all?
Now, returning after 19 years, the symbols are everywhere. Unity. Faith. Discipline. The Army motto haunts the country in oversized and often fairly ugly sculptures. A sculpture of Jinnah along with the army motto lay carved on a grassy hill in Islamabad. Three phallic marble swords pierce the sky in Karachi. At their hilts, the army motto. In Lahore at the Wagah border between Pakistan and India, thousands throng to watch the Army ritual on Independence Day. There is no room for everyone inside the enclosure. The crowd runs thick. It surges forward. Soldiers on horseback lathi-charge, beating at random. A man screams in the crush trying to turn his car back around in the human sea. His daughter is bleeding from her head. He needs to get out.
We all need to get out. In its latest operation in Swat, the Pakistan Army has already been accused of human rights violations by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). After being so unceremoniously tossed out of their homes and livelihoods, the nearly 3 million internally displaced Swatis are being handed 500Rs per adult head and returned on buses, packed off for journeys scheduled to be as long 35 hours, which if one is familiar with “Pakistan standard time” actually means more like 45 hours. One bus fell into a ditch this week. Fifteen people were killed.
The public indignities which the Pashtuns have suffered are the result of the “army better than the Taliban” mentality. But for whom exactly? Caught in that abysmally narrow-minded refrain are all the calumnies, indignities, horror and violence of what has happened in Swat. In the name of destroying the Taliban, the Pakistani elite cheered on an army that razed villages and collectively punished Pashtuns. That is what is going on in that video: collective punishment. And the groundwork for what is geographically and mentally in the periphery was laid in the heartland of Pakistan. Stories of the “Talibanization” of Karachi smack of cold racism against the immigrant Pashtun population against whom the MQM, the party that rules Karachi, has long held a grudge. They are the underclass in Pakistan, our cooks, our car drivers, our chaukidars.
And what will follow in Waziristan?