Tick-Tock: The View from Home

Syed Rashid Munir │srmunir@gmail.com 

I bat an eyelid.

I’m walking in the plaza, basking in the sun. I can practically smell the sea from here

I blink again.

I’m back in our old house, peering out the foggy window. It’s late. The house has a rickety, wooden fence whose small gate constantly makes a horrible, creaking sound whenever it’s windy outside. It’s pitch dark, but a strange luminescence from the other side surrounds the edges of the door, an eerie white shine that makes me even more terrified of the light than I am of the dark.

I can see the door move every so slightly, and squeak back to smash against the fence, producing that rhythmic nuisance.

The leaves on the trees are dead still this time, though.

I feel a chill run down my spine. I thought it’d never happen.

I blink for a third time.

Mercifully, I wake up in my own bed this time, drenched in sweat. The electricity’s been out for a couple of hours already, with no signs of returning any time soon…

It’s been about two months now since I’ve been back home, in Lahore. The heat is as unbearable, the bazars as dirty, and the roads as crowded as ever. But it’s not really the same. I have moved on in the time I was away, and so has Pakistan; regrettably, though, it has done so for the worse.

Everything that could’ve gone awry, indeed has. Yes, there are new roads, new buildings, and even a new democratic government, but the troubles run deep. You can make cosmetic changes to the country’s geographic sprawl, but nuisances like corruption, dishonesty, laziness, and a general aversion to truth, are hardly solved by anything less than commitment and dedicated effort.

Everywhere I look, I see a landscape marred by various issues. I can only talk about so much here, and I will chart out some problems in the coming lines, but how’s this for starters: Pakistan is on its way to become a water-scarce country by 2017; that’s not 20 years from now, it’s just a university term away. And for a country that derives a fourth of its GDP from the agriculture sector, and employs a major portion of the labor in the same, that should be setting off all kinds of alarms in the policymaking halls. But I’m yet to see this issue come up in any debate.

And there’s no solution to the massive electricity shortage problem either. Pakistanis want their light bulbs (and air-conditioners) to stay on 24/7, but due to the enormous debt the government owes to the power-generation companies, that’s not a possibility anymore. Also, since no one is willing to pay higher tariffs for electricity (which, very crudely, equals to more revenue and less debt for the government) we, effectively, have 12-hour days where the manufacturing sector has all but packed its bags, the laptop batteries have given up, and the children are late for school because their uniform is not ironed on time.

Moreover, we are facing what I call the ‘Population Epidemic’. Pakistan has close to a 190 million (!) people living in its territory; that’s about two-thirds of the total US population living in an area slightly less than twice the size of California. We’re the world’s sixth largest population, and incidentally, the only global scale on which we’ve consistently stayed close to the top, beaten only by Brazil (Pakistan is 146th on the HDI rankings, and spends a measly 2.5% of its GDP on health) and we’re growing by a rate of 3%. Contraception, despite being relatively cheap, is not readily available, and since a sizeable majority considers birth control ‘un-Islamic’, there isn’t much hope of its widespread use anyway. The Pakistani middle-class has reached a critical mass, beyond which the rules of supply and demand are going to go out of the window. More people have more money, but there’s less and less stuff to buy. And then there’s the preferences: people would rather have their gardens trimmed up nicely, and roll around in expensive vehicles than ensure that their children are educated and have an open worldview. The purchasing power structure’s also biased towards screwing the services industry. Take this instance: a Euro would buy you a haircut, or one liter of fruit juice. Likewise, for 50 Euros, you can have someone clean your house, tend to your garden, and wash your dishes and clothes on a monthly basis, or, you could just buy a nice pair of jeans. And then some people are mystified as to why anyone would leave when Pakistan has it all?

But even the biggest issues cower beneath the mightiest issue of them all: Religious Extremism. There was a time when no one ever bothered to ask their friends what religion or sect they belonged to. You’d chant The Lord’s Prayer everyday in the school assembly, and then go offer the Friday prayer, all without a hitch. Sadly though, it all seems like a long forgotten dream now. Pakistan was never a particularly liberal country, but now, all ground for debate and discussion on matters of faith has been completely lost. Everything from your web browser’s history to the size of your beard, from the number of children you have to the color of your underwear, from the way you pray to the way you have sex… everything is a public issue, the boundaries between the private and the public never really existing from the very beginning. Being ‘secular’ is almost an insult in a country where the extremists are seen as brave and uncompromising defenders of religion. People who are against such hijacking of religion, in turn, are lynched and burnt at the stake, though thankfully, only metaphorically… for now, at least.

SRMunir tick tock

The consequent terrorism such thinking has ensued also paints a gruesome picture. It might seem extremely callous of me to say this, but any day without a terrorism-related incident in Pakistan now just seems… abnormalincomplete, even. Close to 50,000 Pakistani lives have been lost as a direct cause of terrorism since 9/11, and yet there’s no end; the situation seems to be only worsening with time. Many (foolishly) believe that the Kraken of religious extremism, the most visible and recent manifestation of which is the Pakistani Taliban, will go back to sleep once the US withdraws its troops next year from the neighboring Afghanistan, but of course, that will never happen. The US is negotiating its withdrawal after a job not even half-done; Pakistan doesn’t have this luxury. Even if with the American and NATO presence, terrorists can carry out their activities (including bombing schools, hospitals, government buildings, prisons, army installations… and last but not the least, funeral processions) with such ease what would happen when the situation was otherwise? Afghanistan would swiftly fall to the Taliban (it already has) and the last twenty or so years would’ve been for nothing. With the porous ‘border’ (I’m not sure the term qualifies) between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the secure base of an entire country (plus a considerable chunk of Pakistani land) at the Taliban’s helm, and, regrettably, a cheering majority on both sides of the Durand Line that only disagrees with the means used by the extremists, and not their intent, this breed of religious extremism is here to stay. Forget about booze and music and sex and ‘immorality’ (whatever that means nowadays); in Pakistan, facial hair is going to become an issue of life and death in the near future.

In a country where Muslims are not afraid to kill other Muslims even on funeral processions, what hope is there to stop the persecution of minorities, religious or otherwise?

Living in Pakistan, then, is like living inside a ticking bomb. I wonder how much time’s left is the only question on my mind over the constant tick-tock of suicide blasts, jailbreaks, and executions.

Tick – The Bury-Your-Head-In-The-Sand approach only works when the hyenas are chained up…

…not when they are digging into your flesh – tock.

The Pakistanis worried about the threat of extremism have God on their side.

The extremists have God, and a suicide bomber vest.

But whose side is God really on, you ask?

Whichever side wins, naturally. Ever seen the losers laying claim to the Almighty?

Tick “Hell is the impossibility of reason.”

Welcome, then, to the Islamic Republic – tock.

Tick – the hair on my neck’s standing on end…

I’m peering out the foggy window once again.

The door slowly screeches open, allowing the light to pierce through the darkness.

The demons enter.

I blink furiously.

They don’t stop.

Rashid new profile Syed Rashid Munir, Senior Writer

Rashid teaches Political Science and International Relations at the University of Management and Technology, Lahore, Pakistan.

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Missing IP 2012 ─ We’ll Always Have… Bilbao?

I come from a big city in Pakistan but I enjoy roaming around in this small, accessible town. Don’t get me wrong: I’d be the last person to categorise Bilbao as ‘provincial’, but it is, for some amazing reason, free of the worries of life in a big town. The people are happier, the air quality’s superb, and the atmosphere is calm… And slow.

Syed Rashid Munir | srmunir@gmail.com

We’ll always have…Bilbao?

Humphrey Bogart is rolling over in his grave, but I have no qualms in saying so. Bilbao, after all, has been my home away from home for well over a year now, and while it has tested me to the edges of my sanity in one way or another, I have some very good memories of the city. Not only have I made good friends, both in and outside the MA Euroculture programme, but I’ve also met some amazing people and shared wonderful memories with them.

Now, if I were to ask someone to name one thing they know about Bilbao, they would, more often than not, end up mentioning Asier… no wait, sorry, the Guggenheim Museum. But let’s forget about the Guggenheim for a minute, there are plenty of brochures for that. Yes, it is bizarrely striking and there’s nothing else compared to it in the world (let alone in Bilbao); and yes, it is filled with modern masterpieces, which I don’t understand at all but if they float your boat, well… But the beauty of the city is skin deep. Take a walk by the mesmerizing riverside at night, get lost in the cool, breezy streets of the Old Town, hike your way up to the small hills surrounding the city, shop your heart out on Gran Via, or just simply relax and have some pintxos (tapas, but way more fancy) with some delectable wine in one of the eateries near Plaza Indautxu; Bilbao will keep you entertained. Add to that the lovely and hospitable Basque people, who will end up walking with you to the other side of town just to show you the way, and I think Bilbao’s got it pretty much covered.

In the summer, the beaches just on the outskirts of the city are abuzz with hundreds of people who rush to beat the summer sun. The winters in Bilbao, however, are notoriously wet. Keeping umbrellas, plural, handy is a must since the wind will break the feeble, Chinese ones someday. But you will need to shop at the Chinese outlets again, because Bilbao is a bit of a pricey town. The living cost is just a wee bit on the upper side, but if you keep track of sales (and discount coupons handed out at the university photocopy shop, so they say), you shall survive.

Loads of seafood, all kinds of meat, some excellent wine, fresh bread, corn cakes, and the sweet-but-makes-you-gassy-afterwards-coke-and-wine drink, Kalimotxo, make up a large part of the cuisine. The city has its fair share of fast-food chains and kebab places as well. No matter if you’re looking for a fancy cafeteria, a romantic restaurant, a trendy and up-beat coffee joint, a loud alternative bar, or just a plain old, cozy lunch parlour, you can find just about everything in the city. The old people here, surprisingly, are the ‘happening’ crowd. They go out all day and all night long, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The young ones end up buying cheap drinks either from the bars in the Old Town or from the grocery shops, and are happy with being loud and rowdy on the streets, especially after Athletic Bilbao’s won (or lost) a game (the city’s crazy about its football team). Middle-aged people mostly stay at home with their kids and watch TV. The big shopping centres are outside the town, on certain days there are local farmers’ markets in the neighbourhoods, and on 21 December the entire city gets drunk on the streets (Santo Tomas). Even the professors come into class on that day, are shocked to see the students there, and say “What are you guys doing in here? Go drink and get a life! YOLO!”. True story…

Coming to Bilbao from Pakistan without knowing a single word of Spanish was, if I’m being kind, a baptism by gasoline-fueled fire. A lot of stress, frustration, guesswork, smiles, pointing, conjecture, and kind (and offensive) hand gestures got me through the initial months before I mercifully learnt some words in Spanish class. In cafés and bars people understand some English, but don’t get your hopes up. Tienes que saber español para hacer cualquier cosa (read no Spanish, no nothing). Otherwise, you’d end up in some ‘situations’, like me. My first week in Bilbao, I went out with my roommate. I was keeping to myself, still recovering from the language-shock, when a cute girl at the bar came up and asked, “Como te llamas?” (What’s your name?). I, high as if with the elation of seeing this Basque beauty in front of me, and not from the pot in the air, replied, “Muy bien” (very good). Sometimes, on sleepless nights, I wonder what would have happened if my name really was that…

I come from a big city in Pakistan (Lahore, more than 11 million residents) but I enjoy roaming around in this small, accessible town. Don’t get me wrong: I’d be the last one to categorise Bilbao as ‘provincial’, but it is, for some amazing reason, free of the worries of life in a big town. The people are happier, the air quality’s superb (this from personal experience, after living in Madrid for three months), and the atmosphere is calm… And slow… And lazy too, sometimes. But we won’t get into that. Plus, being a Pakistani here poses its own sets of challenges with the language, the culture and the people, and I have learnt much about inter-cultural communication and interaction here, even though the initial months were quite tough, at a personal level.

As far as being part of MA Euroculture is concerned, I’ve enjoyed the programme a lot throughout the year and, when there have been tough and sad days, I’ve had the good fortune of some excellent company from my instructors and colleagues. I miss all the people I met during the fantastic (and exhausting) Intensive Programme in June, and I hope I will get to meet them again in their successful careers, if not at a common graduation.

So, whether you’re strolling by the beautiful riverside, taking the cable car up to Artxanda for breathtaking aerial views of the city, walking around in the Old Town (Casco Viejo), or just mapping the roads in shopping areas on Gran Via, Bilbao has something to offer everyone. Bilbao, then, is a bit of an acquired taste. At a first glance, it may seem ugly, uncouth and rough around the edges, but when you’ve lived here for a while and experienced the true soul of the city, it will take your heart away.

So, here’s looking at you, kid…

If you liked Rashid’s article, also read Europe: A Short Story

Syed Rashid Munir, Bilbao Correspondent                        

Hailing from Lahore, Pakistan, Rashid has a B.Sc. in International Relations. He is studying MA Euroculture under the cooperation window programme of the European Commission which allows him to stay at the University of Deusto, Bilbao throughout the programme . His research interests lie in post-colonialism, sub-altern studies, cultural and critical theory, and citizenship regimes in Europe. Apart from his love of writing fiction, travelling, and exotic animals, Rashid daydreams in his spare time about a job in diplomacy, and is a big Ingmar Bergman fan.