Two weeks ago, after 12 years in London, I moved back to Pakistan. The week I arrived, Asif Ali Zardari – who spent the last few years in a more involuntary exile, after eight years in Pakistani jails – was elected as the President of Pakistan.
As I drove out of Karachi airport, a banner strung across the road greeted me. At one end was a picture of Benazir Bhutto, taken moments after she returned to Pakistan last year: rose petals in her hair, hands raised in prayer. At the other end of the banner a smug-looking Zardari stared at me, his suppressed grin confirming the impression that he is probably the happiest widower in Pakistan. Each picture bore its own slogan: under Bhutto, a defiant chant that became popular after her assassination, “Zinda hai Bi Bi Zinda hai,” Benazir is alive. Under Zardari, something a bit more intriguing: “Respect to Asif Zardari’s intelligence.”
On my visits to Karachi in the past decade, I have seen some odd slogans on the city’s graffiti-covered walls. I have seen blood-curdling calls for martyrdom next to instant cures for impotence and promises of overnight job promotion. These days, you can read about hair-transplants-on-the-go or learn about how to make the world’s cheapest phone call.
For political leaders, the traditional selling points are usually their bravery in the face of adversity, commitment to their cause and above all their undying love for the poor. Karachi’s dominant political party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, devised a winning slogan a few years back, which, loosely translated, read: “We don’t care where He leads us, we just want our Leader.” But never have I seen the intelligence of a politician advertised on the streets of Karachi.
Thousands of broken hearts: Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari on their wedding day in 1987. Courtesy Rex Features
Is Zardari intelligent because he’s still alive? Or because Benazir is dead? Or is he intelligent because only a man of intelligence could go from being the most maligned politician in the history of Pakistan to becoming the most powerful civilian president in its history?
I wondered, as I drove under the banner: what does the very intelligent Mr Zardari see when he surveys his new subjects? After twelve years of living in London, having finally made the escape to Karachi that I had plotted for so long, I wondered about myself: what was I seeing?
To find the answer, perhaps, we must go back to a 21-year-old picture. A famous picture. A picture taken on the day She married him.
Twenty-one years ago on the day Benazir Bhutto married Asif Zardari, one of my friends – a part-time journalist and full-time dreamer – was so heart-broken that he left Karachi. He returned to his village and vowed never to vote for the Pakistan People’s Party again and never to marry. He was one of those firebrand party supporters who could not distinguish between Benazir Bhutto, the woman who led a heroic struggle against an oppressive military regime, and Benazir Bhutto, the girl they idealised as a future wife. There were a thousand broken hearts when the announcement came: because she was getting married, yes, but especially because she wasn’t marrying one of them. She did not marry a radical political activist who had suffered for years in some military dungeon, nor even one of the faithful party leaders, the fellow travellers who remained loyal through her struggles and seemed content to live out their lives riding the bumper of her jeep at political rallies.
She married a minor feudal from interior Sindh that nobody had heard of. When the reporters went looking for background material on Asif Zardari, all they found was an improvised discothèque in his Karachi house, some half-remembered stories about his exploits on the polo ground, and a walk-on part as a child actor in an Urdu film from the 1960s.
But despite this rather thin CV, within a year of his marriage Zardari became the First Husband. It was not long before he began to star in so many of his own real and invented scandals that the heart-broken ones couldn’t suppress their self-righteous grins. Didn’t they all say so?
But on the eve of December 17, 1987 Benazir Bhutto’s wedding was the biggest party Karachi had ever seen. There were more than 20,000 party activists invited to the bash at Kikri Ground. Another 100,000 danced on the streets. The bride made a rousing speech. The groom just sat there, wringing his hands and looking slightly awkward. He wore a designer tribal turban and sported a huge twirled-up feudal moustache. If you look at that picture now, compared with a straight-backed, smiling and confident bride – a true people’s bride if there ever was one – Zardari looked comical and small; a cartoon husband for a real princess.
After Benazir Bhutto’s first government was dismissed on corruption charges, Asif Zardari told a reporter that it seemed like his fate to live in the Prime Minister’s House or in prison. Nobody could have predicted it better. His last stint in jail lasted for more than eight years, during which time he was not convicted on a single charge. He showed such reckless fortitude during these years that even his sworn enemies panicked and started making demands for his release. Benazir Bhutto called him the Mandela of Pakistan, even as the press speculated on their imminent divorce.
It was quite obvious that he was occasionally tortured and transferred from prison to prison. In one bizarre episode he was rushed to the hospital after being injured and later accused by authorities of trying to commit suicide by biting his own tongue. Some of his political enemies – who were either in General Pervez Musharraf’s government, busy allotting bits of the country’s wealth to themselves, or sulking in cushy exiles in Jeddah or London – accused him of turning his prison cell into a boudoir. Like most veteran jailbirds, Zardari did have his share of hospital transfers, access to home food and family visits, but it was definitely not a life of luxury.
While I was hunting haplessly for a house in Karachi, Zardari was bettering his own prophecy: he was moving into President’s House. And a fine house it is. On one of the local television channels I learnt that it has stables for his horses, a shooting range, a ballroom and something called a pink room as well. All of the trappings that Zardari has always craved. He bought himself an imitation, a mansion of sorts in Surrey, but never got to live there. (For a time he even denied owning it.) And now he is the rightful resident of a house the likes of which he could never afford – despite the epic tales of his alleged talent for corruption.
The Zardari who took office a few weeks ago looked beaten by age, weathered like those Pakistani politicians who have spent long terms in prison. His moustache was humble, his pin striped suit nondescript and there was no fancy headgear, just slicked-back, greying hair. But he had that happy widower’s smile, which seemed to be saying: Look at me now. What are you going to accuse me of now? Of being a popularly elected leader?
Every pundit in Pakistan has made a long to-do list for President Zardari: security, economy, electricity, flour prices, fuel prices and more security. No doubt the Americans – who made his presidency possible, and who, despite his democratic credentials, will be the final arbiters of his intelligence – have prepared their own list as well. He must fight their war on terror while convincing the people of Pakistan that American drones are randomly bombing the people of northern Pakistan for their own good. At the same time, Zardari must convey to the Americans that their Nintendo Wii-war, operated by remote control, does their own image no favours.
Perhaps with the Americans Zardari can try the argument presented to me by one man who wanted to sell me a three-bedroom house in Defence. In the middle of the usual haggling over the price, our discussion suddenly degenerated into a state-of-the-nation talk. “These are the worst times,” he admitted, “but give it another six months, and it will improve.
“The army will come in and clean up this mess. And the Americans can’t go on pushing us into a corner. We are a nuclear power, yaar,” he concluded triumphantly, “you are getting a cheap deal.”
I have not read much real estate literature, but surely this was the first time a nuclear device was mentioned to close a property sale.
If I was Zardari – sitting now in the house I had craved all my life – I would add a line to my to-do list: to deal with the rise of the religious entertainers – who call themselves scholars.
In Karachi, you can only hear the distant thunder of the war on terror: the new Taliban bombing our brothers in faith, and the retaliations of America’s Taliban-hunting-toys, bombing more of our brothers in faith. There are frequent warnings that the Taliban are headed toward Karachi; absurdly so, since they are more than a 1000 miles away. But the preachers are already here: the ones wagging their fingers on TV always tend to precede the ones waving their guns, smashing those TVs and bombing poor barbers.
I do worry about the preachers.
A large part of Pakistan is enthralled by this new generation of evangelists. They are there on prime time TV, they thunder on FM radios between adverts for Pepsi and hair removing cream. In the past few years they have established fancy websites with embedded videos; today the mobile phone companies offer their sermons for download right to your telephone. They come suited, they come dressed like characters out of the Thousand and One Nights, they are men and they are women. Some of them even dress like bankers and talk like property agents offering bargain deals in heaven.
I grew up during the time of General Zia, the first evangelist to occupy the Presidency in Pakistan. But even he had the good sense to keep the beards away from prime time television. But the ruthless media barons of today have no such qualms. They have turned religion into a major money-spinner. Pakistan’s economy remains in its endless downwards spiral, but it certainly seems there is a lot of money still to be made in televised preaching.
Driving my son to his new school one day, I listen to a woman talking with a posh Urdu accent on a local FM radio. With generous smattering of English, she is trying to persuade me to dress properly. “When you prepare for a party, how much do we fuss over a dress? You select a piece, then you find something matching, then you have second thoughts. All because you want to look your best at the party. You want to flatter your host. And do you prepare like this when you know that one day very soon you are going to go to the ultimate party, where your host will be Allah?”
The speech, we are told, is brought to us by al Huda Trust, which has a posh address in Defence Housing Authority and its own website.
An hour later my wife and I are walking in a park, and we are overtaken by two ladies dressed from head to toe in black, one covering her face, the other only covering her head. But every time they pass us they glance towards my Bermuda shorts and my wife’s uncovered head. They look at us sympathetically, the look that the saved ones give to the damned. They are power walking, and they seem quite competitive. If they can’t save our souls they can at least beat us at walking.
“What is this obsession with fitness if they want to go around dressed like that?” my wife mutters.
Later I run into a cousin, a mother of two who is wearing jeans and a shirt, and who asks our opinion about her new hairdo. She is fasting, I am not. She slips in the injunction that for every fast that you miss because of some unavoidable reason, you have to feed 60 poor people. I wonder if that is the reason that the streets in the affluent areas of Karachi turn into a huge feast in the evening. Karachi’s rich lay out a spread for the poor for Iftar in the evening these days. There is no way of knowing whether the rich are making up for their Ramadan lapses. There is no way of knowing whether the poor are really fasting, or whether that have merely reconciled their poverty and near-starvation with religious obligation. What cannot be disputed is that this is probably their only chance to eat a piece of fruit.
My cousin quotes some more rules for fasting: situations in which one is allowed not to fast, along with some more injunctions for lapsed ones like myself. When are you going to start wearing the hijab? I ask her jokingly. Probably never, she says. “The Book tells us only to wear something loose, not to draw attention, not to wear anything tight. There are so many rapes, abductions. We must not provoke.”
How do you know all this religious stuff? I ask her.
“I have read it in books,” she says in a nonchalant way as if it is the most normal thing for her to pore over religious texts to decide the length of the hem of her skirt or the size of her blouse.
“Where does it say?” I challenge her. “In the Quran. I have read it myself.” She starts another mini-lecture, which ends with these words: “The point is that Allah doesn’t want a woman to draw attention to her bosom.” People in Pakistan today seem to believe that God cares about tight blouses while the American drones bomb the hell out of the Pashtuns in the north. You can blame the Pashtuns for many things, but no true Pashtun has ever been accused of wearing tight dresses.
A good bit of news comes the next day: the MQM expels Pakistan’s most famous TV evangelist, the former government minister Amir Liaqat Hussain, from its ranks for spreading religious hatred. But his television show goes on unhindered; there are multimillion-rupee sponsorship deals that must be honoured.
Governments in Pakistan come and go – and suddenly at that – but for the past 20 years Karachi has been ruled by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement. It has made alliances over the years with Benazir Bhutto, with her staunch opponent Nawaz Sharif, and then with the man who kicked them both out of the country. But as soon as Zardari threatened to impeach Musharraf, MQM not only switched sides but put forth Zardari as the ideal replacement for the deposed General. MQM’s founder and leader-in-exile, Altaf Hussain, has frequently described the guiding principles of his movement as “realism and practical-ism.” Altaf Hussain has lived in London for more than a decade and a half. He got married there, had a child and got divorced. But his grip on his party – and Karachi itself – is as strong as ever. When he got his British passport a few years ago there were celebrations at his Karachi party headquarters. Even journalists have stopped asking him if he’ll ever return to the city he rules. For Karachi’s most popular leader, the city is too dangerous a place to live.
These days MQM is run from an office in Edgware, outside of London, through a network of telephones, faxes, e-mails and text messages. MQM, despite the manner of its leadership – borrowed from Bollywood social reformist films of the 1950s – and despite running the city like mafia godfathers, remains a secular enterprise, though it has at times resorted to quasi-fascistic tactics to enforce that secular vision.
In a recent address – delivered by telephone – to an audience of party members from the affluent areas of Defence and Clifton, Altaf Hussain talked about the imminent danger of Taliban marching into Karachi. After he spoke, the audience was invited to ask questions. A young female student asked what she could do, as a girl, when the Taliban arrived at the gates of Karachi. “Weapons training,” Hussain replied. “Buy weapons and learn to use them.” “Also,” he continued, “there are many martial arts training centres in Karachi. Please join those, learn self-defence, learn judo and karate.”
As a friend who was present at the address later told me, “I sat there and listened and tried to imagine a girl from Defence flooring Mullah Omar with a karate chop.”
When I left Karachi 12 years ago, the city wasn’t really a secular heaven. It was often plunged into bouts of sectarian violence and pitched battles between various ethnic groups were a part of life. But religion – or at least the kind of religion popularised by television preachers, which revolves around the precise length of your beard and how many prayers are required to be fast-tracked into heaven – wasn’t a matter of public discourse. A minority went to the mosque. Another minority opened a bottle of whatever they could afford in the evening. But the majority sat at home and watched cricket or soaps on television.
Today they still sit in front of the TV, but now they shake their heads at the atrocities in the tribal areas before switching the channel to watch some evangelist dispense half-baked theological rationales for those same atrocities, and agree with all their hearts. They fear the Taliban but they want the Taliban to keep up the good fight – as long as they don’t bring it to Karachi. Just as they want a Green Card but love to see America get a bloody nose.
My own house hunt takes me deeper into Defence, and I can’t help but notice that there are many more houses than a few years ago – and many more that are empty. After every house we visit, I ask the estate agent why the owner is selling this house. The most common reply is that they are moving to Toronto. Others are headed to Dubai, to London. One even to South Africa.
As I travel around town, I see more and more of these banners proclaiming that Benazir is alive and Zardari is intelligent. I cannot stop wondering what could possibly connect these two slogans? Is it her death – or her afterlife? – that makes him intelligent? Perhaps it is just one of those cut-rate tributes where they have tried to cram two slogans onto one banner. More realistically, it seems to me to imply that we must respect Zardari’s intelligence, because he has used Benazir’s tragic death to advance her political mission. One way or another, respect is due: it is no small achievement for a man as maligned as Asif Zardari to rise to the presidency.
Maybe we don’t like him but we should acknowledge that he is cunning; we should pay tribute to his ability to survive the dungeons, his ability to ignore thousands of stories published by the international media, none of which fails to call him “Mister 10 Per Cent”.
There. I have said it. I was hoping to write this piece without bringing up the half-clever slur that has haunted Mr Zardari since the beginning of his public life. But then I got my new mobile phone and like millions of other mobile phone users I received a joke in my inbox: “He has gone from being Mr 10 Per Cent to Mr 100 Per Cent.” The thing about cartoons is that even when they come dressed in sombre suits, people find something to laugh about.
Zardari’s intelligence, if we can call it that, has landed him in the house of his dreams. But what will it do against the march of the Taliban or the radical preachers polluting the airwaves? I begin to wonder if we should all heed the advice of Altaf Hussein and take up martial arts.
Zardari has been accused of many things – but never of having a political philosophy. I saw him recently on television – in an interview filmed after he was released from jail about two years ago. Then he parroted some clichés about Sindhi Sufi poetry and world peace. I am a great admirer of Sindhi Sufi poetry, but I doubt Zardari would get very far reciting it to one of the thousands of evangelists unleashed on this hapless nation. If he gets an invitation to Camp David – as he surely hopes he will, after passing the Americans’ intelligence test – he can try this message of love on the new American president and see if the world becomes a more peaceful place.
Because if Zardari had read Sindhi Sufi poetry – or, for that matter, Punjabi, or Pushto, Sufi poetry, he would know that it is full of more warnings about mullahs than all the CIA’s country reports lined end-to-end. Zardari’s deep love for Sufi poetry hasn’t prevented him from cozying up with the oiliest mullah in Pakistan, Maulana Fazul Rehman, who until recently was the proud godfather of the Pakistani Taliban. Rehman no doubt peddles his own version of piety to Zardari, but the people of Pakistan call him Maulana Diesel, since he is alleged to have made his money smuggling fuel into Afghanistan.
Asif Zardari may or may not pass his intelligence test, but like him, I also have a vested interest in making my own new arrangement with Pakistan work – or at least in making it look like it’s working. And I did see at least one thing in Karachi that might just embody that Sufi message.
Since arriving I have been walking a lot in the parks, and one day, I stumbled upon a new one, delightfully named Auntie Park. It has another name, of course, but has earned this moniker because the posh ladies of Karachi are frequent visitors. When I arrived, in the late afternoon, the park was deserted, except for an old gardener pulling out weeds. I assumed all the aunties were exhausted from fasting or from penance for not fasting, or just glued to their favourite television channel. But under the shade of a half-grown tree, withering under a blazing sun, I saw two people. Boy and girl. Young and poor. The kind of people who descend on the city during the holy month, hoping for the rich to open their wallets – or just for a piece of fruit. Or perhaps they were domestic servants, out for a break after their eighteen-hour shifts. These are the people who make up 80 per cent of Karachi and an even larger percentage of the rest of Pakistan: the kind of people who don’t have the time to sit and listen to sermons because they don’t have a television, they don’t have the electricity to run a television and they don’t have the time to protest not having these things. Because they are always – always – chasing their next piece of bread. Religious injunctions on FM radio are not going to convince them to start preparing for the party in the afterlife, because in this life they are wearing tattered clothes. The arguments that proliferate in Pakistan today about the benefits to social order of the segregation of the sexes are not going to keep these people apart, because they only have each other.
Under the tree the woman sat with her back to the man. They were very close. She had her hair spread out, and the man was gently brushing it, occasionally pausing to check for lice.
How realistic, I thought. How practical-istic. In fact, how intelligent. I must come here more often, I told myself.
Mohammed Hanif’s first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, was on the longlist for this year’s Man Booker prize and is longlisted for the Guardian First Book award.