The curse of living in ‘interesting times’

Beena Sarwar

Visiting newspaper offices in Sweden some years ago, I was struck by the relative ease and routine manner in which journalists obtained information. Any envy was overtaken by the comforting thought that at least it's never boring to be a journalist in Pakistan. Someone obviously threw the proverbial Chinese curse at us: "May you live in interesting times" and added, for good measure, "not just interesting, but downright dangerous".

The roller coaster ride of Pakistan continues, with many passengers unsure whether the seat belts and mechanisms are in working order. As I write this, speculations are rife about the 'expected' change of face in government. But then, if one were to believe the forecasts of newspaper and television pundits, this would have happened months after the first elected government in 12 years took over power in March 2008.

The government may be still standing because those who would love to send it packing recognise the need for it to continue, if only for their own vested interests. Take the armed forces of Pakistan whose behind-the-scenes power is no secret: they are unused to taking orders from or getting their money channelised through 'bloody civilians' (as one retired army officer put it in a letter to the editor that sparked of a series of spirited rebuttals). But this has to change with Washington's policy shift towards working with an accountable, civilian, elected government in Pakistan, rather than a military strongman, as it has traditionally done.

Former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who heads the country's second-largest political party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), is studiously refraining from demanding mid-term polls. He apparently realises that the Zardari-led government will last at the most for another three years. But a military coup will mean struggling for another decade - just to bring back the democratic system.

"They should just impose martial law," said a friend, rattled by the closure of educational institutes after suicide bombers hit the Islamic University in Islamabad. 

I can understand her frustration, but this is hardly a solution. People have put up with prolonged periods of military rule that is responsible for the situation we face today, but get impatient within months with civilian governments that are allowed in to sort out the mess created during years of military rule.

True, civilian governments tend to be bungling, inefficient and corrupt, more concerned with power politics than with development and long-term strategies. But the cycle of elections and elected governments completing their tenure has to continue in order to weed out the inefficient and corrupt, and allow another level of leadership to develop and emerge.

The impatience is fed by a frenzied 24/7 news culture that focuses on all that is going wrong or is expected to go wrong. Journalists become partisan nationalists, placing themselves at the centre of news events and overplaying their own importance and crystal ball skills. 

What gets left out of the dominant discourse is how for the first time a Pakistani government has rejected the use of 'terror' as a foreign policy tool, tried to bring the army under civilian control and categorically stated that 'India is not the enemy'. Such thinking is anathema for certain elements within the 'establishment'.

But let's not speculate about what would happen by the time this appears in print. Instead, let's end with the report 'Pakistan Fashion Week Kills 90 Terrorists' in Maila Times, a satirical website started in February that updates once a week. Spoofing the overkill of comments on how Pakistan's first fashion week was a bulwark of defiance against the Taliban, the report notes the terrorists' inability "to 'handle' the extremely 'haraam' nature of the fashion week". They were "shocked to death - literally" after looking at pictures and videos from the event.

"Interior Minister Rehman Malik was quick to point out that the PPP and the president are supporters of the thriving fashion industry in Pakistan and that the democratically elected government by the democratic loving people of Pakistan voted for 'sexy'."

If speculative and sensational reports are going to be the order of the day, we might as well get a laugh out of it. After all, we live in interesting, if not 'maila', times.

The writer is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker -www.beenasarwar.wordpress.com

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2009