Why I love Pakistan

Despite its terrible troubles, this part of the western subcontinent is lively, beautiful and misund

I've worked in Mumbai and been in India many times, but have always had an ill-concealed soft spot for Pakistan, which sits in the west of the subcontinent.

Pakistan has a much longer history than its three-generational link to 1947 -- it's the land of Gandhara Buddhism, Ashoka and his pillars, the lovely city of Lahore and the archaeological remains of Mohenjo Daro as well as the Indus Valley civilisation. And, like India, it's a land of stunning landscapes, peaceful farming lands and a tight bond between land and people.

It is also at this moment a troubled part of the world. Like India, Pakistan has been able to do little about the rising poverty of its rural poor. Unlike India, it has a long way to go to expand the educated middle class which, over the border, has been responsible in great measure for a buoyant and expanding economy.

Pakistan trains fantastic lawyers (often called to the Bar in London), doctors, engineers, bio scientists, economists and statisticians, teachers and IT specialists, but they often struggle to find the rewarding careers that would be theirs in the west. However, this is beginning to change, largely due to the return of a young generation of American-educated go-getters.

Crucially, the middle classes have also found it difficult to penetrate politics through the National Assembly, where zaminder (landowning) interests and opaque power deals between the army and religious parties predominate. As in India, you need deep pockets and good connections to enter politics. As Salman Rushdie said in Shame (1983): "You can get anywhere in Pakistan if you know people, even into jail."

If India mutters about the ever-present "foreign hand" interfering -- with justification, as both the KGB and the CIA have held sway in New Delhi at different times -- Pakistan has it for real.

Saudi Arabia's charming export of Wahhabism (latterly in the form of the Taliban and al-Qaeda) has been wreaking havoc in the region for decades, destroying the indigenous and centuries-old subcontinental Sunni Sufi mysticism and putting pressure on Pakistan's courtly and aristocratic Shia intelligentsia as well as its Ahmadi, Hindu and Christian minorities.

It would have needed an exceptionally strong, moral, good, worldly and intelligent leader of Pakistan in the 1970s to avoid the lure and trap of Saudi money, which was accepted to improve the country's infrastructure and real estate. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was not it.

While Pakistan's international image has suffered immeasurably in the intervening years, I would urge all who love the subcontinent to look past the headlines and the international analysis, and see a country which, for the moment at least, is cut off from its continental neighbour. Here are my own reasons for loving Pakistan:

1. Women are noisily at the centre of Pakistani life. Challenging and vocal, they sit at the heart of the family and have made good progress into professional and political life.

Declan Walsh reported the terrible attack on the Ahmadi community in June, and noted that it was three women from different parties -- ANP's Bushra Rehman, MQM's Khushbakht Shujaat and PPP's Farahnaz Ispahani -- led by the former PPP minister Sherry Rehman, who crossed the floor in the National Assembly and made sure the legislature said "no".

In human rights and the state's nurturing of all religions and religious minorities, Pakistan has never gone far enough. But with 30 per cent of seats in the National Assembly occupied by women (India has 10 per cent), they are playing a more significant role in the legislature. That may help bring the country back to Jinnah's original ideals of a tolerant, secular nation.

2. Pakistan has a line in very attractive men, from old heart-throbs such as Tariq Ali and Imran Khan to a younger generation such as Lahore's most happening export to Bollywood, Ali Zafar.

Outlook India recently ran a fascinating piece about the film history of Peshawar: Shashi Kapoor and Shahrukh Khan's families were from this region. I very much hope that Sanjeev Bhaskar won't mind if I put his handsome features down to west Punjab, where his family lived for centuries (his father's ancestral village was Badhoki Gosaiyan).

And you will be hard pressed to find sweeter coverage than the respectful and affectionate writing about women in the weekend papers.

3. Pakistan has a varied and lively media, though perhaps not always on the side of the angels. But probably more than India, it has a range of sophisticated English-language newspapers (firmly on the side of the angels), including Najam Sethi's PEN Award-winning Friday Times and Karachi's Dawn. (Their closest competitors in India are Vinod Mehta's Outlook India and the Hindu.) Both are written in classic, poised prose and boast incisive columnists as well as world-class books, arts and cultural coverage.

In Mohammed Hanif, Ali Sethi, Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie, Pakistan has a growing raft of writers (some of them Harvard-educated) who explore political and social themes.

4. The country survives daily life on humour, a curious cross-blend of the subcontinental and something rather like Oxbridge Private Eye. But if in the west the well of ribaldry comes from the misfortune of others, in Pakistan, the humour is rather more subtly how people try to find their way out of that misfortune.

It's a richer hoard altogether that provides endless material at social gatherings, as well as for TV star transvestites such as Begum Nawazish Ali.

Over the border in India, the vaudeville slapstick of Mr Bean appeals greatly to audiences. Pakistan finds itself closer to Yes Minister.

5. Pakistanis adore their children: to be born into a settled family in the subcontinent is to enter a very happy world of love and adoration. Only Italians compare in their child-worship. It's not such a strange thing to mention, because in the west there are still hints of Victoriana in our upbringing -- don't talk with your mouth full, don't point, it's rude to stare, say you're sorry.

If you're a boy in Pakistan or India, you're on a winning ticket. Not only will be you adored and pampered, but you'll be allowed just as rich an emotional life as the girls. By contrast, British boys are expected to rein it in. Pakistani fathers are proud as Punch of their girls and their ability to outshine the boys with top marks at school and university.

6. It is a country that thrives on mixed metaphors. So, for those to the west of the border, the song I choose for you is the hauntingly beautiful "Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai" ("What Is This World to Me?").

It comes from the film about mistaken identity and lack of life's essentials Pyaasa (Thirst, 1957), directed by and featuring Guru Dutt, a Hindu whose melancholy perhaps made him an honorary subcontinental Muslim. The melody was written by S D Burman (a Bengali Hindu), the lyrics were written by the Urdu poet Saahir (Abdul Hayee, a Punjabi Muslim) and they were sung by Mohammed Rafi (another Punjabi Muslim). You can watch it here.

It's worth remembering that although the song does not have a happy ending, the film does.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser