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.

MISS HELP… Packing!

There are some problems we all encounter regularly as Euroculture students. When Wikipedia doesn’t tell you the answer, when your coordinator just shrugs and your friends know no remedy, ask Miss or Mr Help. If you have a question for them, send it to editors@euroculturer.eu to get rid of your problem!

Dear Miss Help,

I am a Euroculture student in my second year. Up until now, I moved three times, not to mention the short trip to the IP conference in the University of Deusto. Every time I start packing, I go crazy. I have so much stuff and I need it all! What am I going to do without my flippers when I live so close to the beach in Bilbao? And how am I supposed to survive the Polish winter without the fifteen very warm and nice sweaters my grandma knitted for me? My internship employer wants me to dress decent so I need to pack my suits as well, not to mention the fancy ball gown I was planning to take for the IP gala dinner!

Please help me, I dread the next packing day and I know my fellow Euroculture students have the same problem because I read “I hate packing!” on Facebook all the time!

Sincerely, Desperate European Nomad

Dear Desperate European Nomad,

Yes, in most situations packing can be a distress, especially when today’s airlines (and we all know which specific one I mean) charge a fortune for even an extra kilo. I will teach you how to master the technique of travelling lightly. The trick (and it actually is no news) is to know what is necessary for your stay in whichever country you travel to, but most importantly you need to be realistic and be harsh on yourself.

I suggest that you start off with piling everything you think you need to bring on the bed. It could help if you make a list of things and then slowly go through the list several times, each time deducting two or three items. Really, there’s no need to bring your whole make-up bag or all of your chargers for laptops, iPods, mobile phones, etc. for a three-day-visit to your friend’s place in France. Instead, check if your friend has chargers that you can borrow, or leave your laptop behind because there are probably internet cafés over there and if you have a smartphone you probably have all of these functions in one. When it comes to make-up, only bring the basics (or if you dare: go au naturel).

However, the biggest issue seems to be that people always pack too much clothes and pairs of shoes. As you start to learn how to pack lightly, think back on the trips when you brought too much, and try to remember what you often packed yet never used and promised NEVER to pack again.

The trick here is to try to learn how to combine the smallest amount of garments with one pair of shoes and not bring half your closet.

A smart way to pack is also to think layers! Layers allow you to combine and also make sure that you stay warm when it gets cold in Krakow or stay cool if the weather is hot in Bilbao.

When you move for a longer stay, leave books and dictionaries behind (you always have access to online dictionaries, Google books, not to mention libraries). I bet there is a book shop if you desperately want books on your shelf. Also, you will receive a lot of course materials during the semester. For those who crave feeling at home in their new homes: IKEA exists worldwide!

If you think Miss Help was very helpful, also read MISS HELP…Long-distance relationships!

Feature Story − The Home I Left, the Home I Found : A Vacation in Greece in the Middle of the Crisis

And I say “This is what life should be like. There is nothing else”. I believe it. I am convinced. And Yota smiles and nods. And for a small fleeting moment, I feel as happy as I can possibly feel. There are no more problems in the world, just the sun and the sea and the smell of salt in the air. And I realize that no matter how far or how close I am, this is my home. The home I leave, but the one that always beckons me back as a siren.

Penelope Vaxevanes | prosiliomani@hotmail.com

It is a truth universally acknowledged that in Greece all problems cease to exist in the summer. When the sun becomes blinding, when the heat becomes intolerable, when everyone starts talking about islands and beaches and cocktails in summer clubs, annoying everyday problems start to fade in the Greeks’ minds. The summer is here and it is taking over everything.

And it was like that that I landed in Eleftherios Venizelos airport on the last night of June, after a 17-hour long trip, with the temperature reaching 30 degrees at 2 am, making everything and everyone uncomfortable. But I was home after ten long, long months. Home, in my bed that seems foreign. Home, at my house, that seems strange, yet familiar. Home, where my mother has to remind me all the time that we do not flush toilet paper, because “You are not in Germany”. Home, in a neighbourhood where everything feels and seems the same. Home in the big city you always love, even when you hate it so much. Home in the country that has changed in ways that are so subtle, yet so dramatic, in ways that are cruel yet delicate, in ways that I could never really describe to someone that has not experienced it first-hand… and yet, I’ll try.

The first few days pass in a daze, with a never-ending array of coffee dates and dinner dates with friends and family that I haven’t seen in months. They ask you to tell them how it has been. What do I answer? How could I, ever, describe how it was? Can I tell them about any little detail of 10 months split in three countries? Can I tell them about everything I lived and felt? How changed I feel? But I do talk, because they expect me to and I see them smile and say how jealous they are and how all that moving from country to country must have been so exciting and fun. Most of it is not, but I really don’t want to sound ungrateful and they don’t want to listen to me being a little over-privileged brat.

And then I ask about life in Greece and I offer my first impressions. What are my first impressions? Everything seems the same but feels different. “Everything has gotten so cheap”, I offer. They do not agree. It doesn’t matter if something has gotten cheaper when you cannot afford it either way. “The coffee is less than three euros”, I offer again. “How much is it in Germany?” they ask.  My argument, suddenly, becomes very weak.

They are right. All of them. But I am too. Everywhere you look, you see small restaurants that offer cheap, simple food. The number of gyros places has tripled in my area because you can have a big meal there for less than 5 euro. It is good, affordable food and a chance for a family to go out and enjoy a meal. The nightlife booms. Everywhere you go, there are new bars. You can hardly find a table to sit on a Monday night. When I point that out I always hear a cliché “Greeks will cut from their food, but they will never cut from their fun time out”. It is true. But what is also true, is that all these new bars that have opened offer good, inexpensive drinks. Sometimes with no proper service, sometimes in plastic cups, but still the quality of the drinks is high. And then, there are all these new Greek beer breweries. Ten years ago, a Greek beer was a joke. Not anymore.

I walk to the centre of my suburb in Athens, Halandri, one warm evening in July. I am with my best friend Electra and her boyfriend Matt. For as long as I remember, since we were small girls, we have been talking about living abroad when we graduated from university. She has been living in London for more than three years, but now she is moving back to Athens and Matt is joining her. They want to open a bar like those I described. It is very difficult but, in this market, to me, it doesn’t seem like the worst idea. And like this, Electra becomes the only Greek I know that moves back to Greece instead of going as far away as possible.

One steaming July morning, I find myself in the Piraeus port of Athens, at the house of my friend from my Erasmus days in Lyon, Ioanna. She is a new mother. In what is a true marathon visit, we talk about everything that has happened since I last saw her at her wedding. The baby, the jobs, the family life, our Master’s degrees, our times in Lyon, all mingled together with food, sweets and coffees, until it’s late and Dimitris, her husband, comes back from work. He owns a small ship cleaning company with his family. Conversation turns to the crisis and how difficult it is to raise a child in this economy, how their mentality has changed in one year but also, how lucky they are to be able to have the life they have. Ioanna tells me how depressed she becomes when on the train to Athens, she just sees gloomy faces. “No one smiles”, she complains. And I think about that. Have I seen anyone smiling genuinely? Was the smile reaching their eyes?

The last part of my vacation is, as expected, the vacation part. I take the 12 hour ship to Kos with my friend, Yota. For almost two years she has been working in a tourist shop in the posh tourist shopping district of Plaka, in the centre of Athens just below the Acropolis. Plaka is booming every summer with tourists trying to find the best kind of souvenir from Greece. We joke all the time about how I do a Master’s in Euroculture and she did a Master’s in fake ancient statues sale. She has been recently forced to quit because she was no longer affordable for the business. In one year, the new labour laws state that they can hire people who are aged 25 and under, and pay them half of the standard 8 hour minimum wage. It’s supposed to be a solution to the huge unemployment rate for people aged 25 and under. Being over 25, suddenly, becomes the worst feature on someone’s CV.

And we arrive at the port of Kos, an island that used to be cosmopolitan, rich and a huge tourist attraction for foreigners, especially English and German, in the 1980s and 1990s. At the bus station, waiting for the bus to the village where we will stay, we learn that this is a dead summer. It’s not that the tourists are not coming to Greece. It is that they are going to huge hotels that offer all-inclusive accommodation with three meals, snacks, and all beverages in their holiday packet, therefore leaving nothing for the local businesses of the islands. Tourism still represents more than one fifth of Greece’s income but the future seems uncertain. Another part of Greece’s future that seems uncertain.

And finally we are at the sea, and the sun shines brightly, and we relax in a way that you can only do one meter from the blue sea, the sea that is the only thing that I miss abroad, the sea that is part of the Greek DNA. And suddenly, as if by a miracle, no problems exist. I do not think about the year that lies ahead. There is no Master’s thesis to write. I don’t have to move to Hamburg where I know no one. Yota is not unemployed. The crisis is forgotten. We have only one concern: how fast can we get tanned without getting cancer?

And when we are burned beyond recognition, and we cannot ignore our bellies that want to be fed, we move to the little tavern, where (illegally) the tables are 50cm from the waves, and we eat the Greek salads and the fried calamari and the fresh fish, and we both smile. And I say “This is what life should be like. There is nothing else”. I believe it. I am convinced. And Yota smiles and nods. And for a small fleeting moment, I feel as happy as I can possibly feel. There are no more problems in the world, just the sun and the sea and the smell of salt in the air. And I realize that no matter how far or how close I am, this is my home. The home I leave, but the one that always beckons me back as a siren. The country that is in deep trouble, but always finds a way out of catastrophe. The country where nothing works but everything somehow makes sense. My home, Greece.

If you liked Penelope’s article, also read Darcy vs. the modern girl

Penelope Vaxevani, News Editor

Penelope is from Greece and studied French Language and Literature in the
Philosophic School of the University of Athens. She studied in the University
of Göttingen and Jagiellonian University, Krakow, and hopes to fulfill a career
in Cultural Diplomacy.