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Passport to Paradise

By Ghazala Akbar

Every five years or so, those Pakistanis fortunate to travel for work or for pleasure
go through a period of extreme anxiety and trepidation: the renewal of the green Passport. What should, in theory at least, be a routine visit to a Passport Office or
an Embassy to establish a fundamental right often becomes a merry- go- round
that merits inclusion in Dante’s nine circles of hell. Thankfully, not anymore.
Welcome to E- Government, Pakistani-style.

Some of us born in pre-historic eras (i.e. prior to 1977) are inclined to view
Pakistani history through rose- tinted glasses, wallowing in nostalgia, wistful
and maudlin at the sorry decline in the standards of public services. Some of it is
justified, some is not. We should give credit where credit is due. Under the steady
watchful eye of N.A.D.R.A. (National Data Registration Agency) and the
introduction of Machine Readable Passports (MRP), the hitherto tedious business of applying for or renewing an existing passport is as easy as ABC.(Alpha, Bravo, Charlie!)

Gone are the cumbersome forms and the quest for an elusive Gazetted Officer to
countersign the application. Gone are the trips to the photographer for three photos
with the right background and your ‘likeness’ attested by a ‘professional’ (Doctor, Teacher, Lawyer etc.) And most welcome of all, gone is the reliance on sleazy passport ‘agents’ whispering ‘Jinnah, Jinnah, Jinnah’ in dimly-lit corridors. This unpatriotic
Mantra, a rather cynical reference to the hundred rupee note, needed to grease palms and smooth the way through the bureaucratic maze. (That’s why the Father of the Nation
isn’t smiling in that photo).

It’s not often that the indefatigable Chief at the Ministry of the Interior gets a pat on
the back for his untiring efforts on behalf of the citizenry but he can take a bow on this one. And that goes too for the NADRA personnel and staff at the High Commission in
Knightsbridge, London, SW1. They provide a sterling service dealing with an avalanche
of applications for passports and identity cards in what must arguably be one of the busiest Pakistani offices overseas.

So impressive is the service that prospective applicants (termed as ‘customers’) almost don’t notice that the initial ‘Reception Centre’ is housed in a Tent. Spelt, T-E-N-T. Defined in various dictionaries as a ‘temporary shelter made of canvas and supported by pegs’. That is perfectly understandable. We are a developing country with a booming population. And given our penchant for all things Arab, what better place to affirm your Pakistani Muslim identity than a tent.

All right, perhaps I am prone to exaggeration. Tent is a misnomer. It is a grand marquee, the type they use for weddings and parties with lights, floor covering, plastic chairs and four suspended ceiling fans that do double duty as heaters in winter. As providers of warmth, these are as effective as candles in an igloo, but no matter. What’s a little discomfort when so many are without gas or electricity and live in tents all their lives. Besides the system was fair. First come, First served. Take a number and wait for your turn. No ‘sifarish’, no ‘wasta’ necessary or the standard question to intimidate bureaucracy: ‘Do you know who I am?’

Any thoughts of whiling the time in pleasant conversation, reading or in quiet contemplation reflecting upon the wisdom of Rumi – ‘be quiet, sit still and listen’ was rudely hit for six. My fellow Pakistanis had other ideas. They jostled, they shoved, they pushed and they played musical chairs, moving incessantly like a herd of restless camels in a tent. This alarming group behavior compelled me to quit Rumi and focus on two mystifying questions:

Firstly, what is it with overseas Pakistanis that will queue stoically at bus stops,
ticket booths and immigration counters – or – wait patiently at public hospitals, banks
and post offices in foreign lands – yet – the moment we are in the precincts of an area designated as ‘home ground’ a transformation occurs, the persona changes, good manners, discipline, decorum and civic sense is thrown out of the window?

Secondly, how is it that the devout amongst us – the ones that can go up to eighteen hours in the holy Month of Ramadan without a drop or morsel passing the lips are unable to exercise the same admirable self-control for a few hours, voraciously and noisily consuming greasy parathas, samosas, burgers and other edibles leaving a trail of tell-tale crumbs and detritus that attract vermin – carrying pigeons from places as far as Trafalgar
Square?

After an hour and a half of contemplation, with no plausible answers forthcoming, I was
saved by the bell. My number came up. Thereafter I was sent to a building and a brave new world. Once I had paid my Fifty-two Pounds, the whiz kids of NADRA took over. They are efficiency personified. The whole process — entering personal data, fingerprints, photo, and security checks against the Exit Control List was simplicity itself. My only objection was that my photo wasn’t flattering. The kind photographer remarked that in ten years when the passport came up for renewal, I would probably appreciate it a bit more.

The whole process was so swift, that there was barely time to reflect on the one unsavoury part of the whole application business: signing a cleverly-worded declaration that asks us to confirm our belief as Muslims by recognizing the finality of the Prophet hood, (PBUH), condemning a group of fellow-citizens to non-Muslim status and denouncing the founder of their sect as an impostor, all at one go. Whoever designed that pro forma is a genius. You cannot just agree with one part and bypass the other two. It is a logical progression. There is no provision for ‘don’t know’ or ‘conscientious objector’ or ‘Pass’.

Electronic excommunication at the click of a mouse. The irony couldn’t be more acute, the contrast starker. State-of-the-Art technology facilitating bigotry; intolerance and the embedding of a medieval mind-set on adults and children too, as everyone under the age of eighteen now needs an MRP of their own. The most chilling aspect is that I signed the declaration automatically, robotically without a moment’s hesitation or a murmur of disapproval. Like the Party Members in the State of Oceania in George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty- Four’, I vented my ‘two minutes of hate’ effortlessly and mindlessly, in two seconds flat.

In ten years when the passport comes up for renewal will there be more sects to excommunicate and denounce as heretics and apostates? At the rate we are going, yes possibly. Will I put my name on the dotted line as easily as I did recently? Yes, probably. Because for the past several decades I am slowly but surely being conditioned to expect and accept bigotry, hate and intolerance as the norm. It is now part of my psyche. It doesn’t shock any longer. Minorities may go to hell. I am part of the Silent Majority. I am a certified Pakistani Muslim. I have a passport to paradise. My entry is guaranteed.

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