GUESTWORDS: Life in a Failing State

By Hazel Kahan

    I recently returned from Pakistan, a sentimental journey to Lahore, the place I was born and which I hadn’t seen for 40 years. Providentially timed, it coincided with the brief lull after the assassinations of the politicians Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti and the furor over Raymond Davis’s espionage activities but before last month’s killing of Osama bin Laden. I’ve come home to hear Pakistan castigated as an untrustworthy and ambivalent partner undeserving of the billions of dollars of American aid it has received since 2002.
    “What do you think about Lahore? Can you believe how much it’s changed?” I was asked over and over again there, as my friends listed the traffic, the crowds, the new subdivisions, the restaurants, the box stores. Yes, of course (I’ve changed too in 40 years), but really their question was rhetorical. They were telling me how their Lahore has changed, how it has been transformed from the green and pleasant place of my youth, a place of order and predictability, still basking in the afterglow of the British Raj, where we worried about contracting dysentery from improperly washed fruit or about being jostled by hideously mutilated beggars in the bazaar.
    Today, home, sweet home requires high walls and iron gates, reinforced by fierce dogs and quasi-uniformed men. Today, my Lahore and theirs has grown to a city of over 10 million, still the cherished cultural heart of Pakistan but now also menacing home to the daarhiwallahs, the bearded fundamentalists in traditional shalwar kameez who easily outnumber the clean-shaven men dressed in the Western style of my day. Lahore is also home to the “khaki,” the unpopular and feared military.
    In the military-religious complex that defines Pakistan’s ruling elite, generals, and mullahs are joined in an unholy political alliance that protects them for and against each other but fails to provide large swaths of the citizenry with a decent life.
    Punjabi women have traditionally covered their heads and upper bodies in public with a light, colorful dupatta, but this time I noticed far fewer women wearing the iconic white or blue shuttlecock-shaped burkas. “Being covered” has become a fashion as well as a religious choice, and varieties of black hijab or chador, sometimes elaborately decorated in silver, populate the streets and shop windows. These fashion choices are more than they appear.
    Despite the growing income inequality, especially among the rural poor, Pakistan is also enjoying a new prosperity and class mobility, forces that are shaping the urban working class and creating a burgeoning middle class. The catalyst for this social change is an influx of international money from foreign development aid organizations, multinational corporations, and growth in the telecommunications and media industries, as well as Saudi money, some of it trickling up in remittances sent by workers who have been flocking to the gulf states since the 1980s to earn wages that are inconceivable in Pakistan.
    Saudi money has also been trickling down since the late ’70s, when the dictator Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq (who was responsible for the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the father of Benazir) imported religion, specifically Wahhabism, an intolerant form of Islam, from Saudi Arabia into the Pakistani Army. Wahhabism is deepening its hold on Pakistani society by spreading the word through mullahs into the mosques, through women into the home, and through madrassas, the Islamic schools, into the minds of younger generations.
    Pakistan is being torn apart by violent disagreements between fundamentalism and modernity and, within the religion, about which branch of Islam represents the voice of God. Because of its extreme intolerance, Wahhabism is responsible for many of the bloody attacks against Islamic minorities such as the Sufi, Ahmadiya, and Shia branches of Islam and also against Christians. Wahhabism has penetrated political parties and religious groups as well as the army, which consumes as much as 25 percent of the budget and controls much of the foreign policy. No wonder that the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has lost interest in its people!
    But not in its elites. The new prosperity is reflected not only in women’s fashions but also in the unapologetically named Defense area, a large, affluent, aspirational Lahore suburb replete with golf courses and clubs for the newly ich, including military officers, politicians, celebrities, and returning Pakistanis enjoying the freedom of dual E.U., U.S.A., or U.K. citizenship. It is not unusual to see Arabic Koranic verse sculpted onto the residences, signaling that a Wahhabi adherent lives within.
    Flights in and out of the Lahore airport are packed with the elite jetting to Dubai to shop or continuing on to destinations in Europe, England, or the United States, their language a fast-paced mixture of Urdu and English, their children American wannabes. For the not yet newly rich, it is now possible, as it hardly was when I grew up in Lahore, for the daughters of illiterate parents to become teachers and doctors and for the sons of house servants to become technicians and engineers.
    Rich people depend on servants to run their huge houses, manage their extravagant social lives, and chauffeur their children to school. Poor people depend on rich people for their food and shelter and, with luck, some support for their children’s education. The system has functioned well for centuries but socio-political change is creating a servant class less willing to work for or remain loyal to the rich; dark stories are told of servants turning out to be gang members who rob or kill their employers.
    In conversations with Pakistanis, I sensed a deep despair about the devolution of their country into a failed state or arguably one that is failing. It’s scant comfort to those who live there that the rest of the world, especially the United States, considers Pakistan too big to be allowed to fail (176 million people, nuclear weapons). It’s one thing to pontificate about failed states and quite another to be a resident of Lahore and to experience the reality of life in a failing state, to be hostage to a government that reminds its people on a daily basis of this failure.
    The realities of life in a failing state are harsh. The electricity supply falls so short of demand in Pakistan that “load shedding” outages occur many times every day, at unscheduled intervals for apparently random duration, snatching people’s control over light, heat, and cooling and, since most water comes from tube wells, leaving them unable to manage their daily lives. The cost in human frustration and interrupted economic activity is enormous, as is the anger toward indifferent and corrupt government officials.
    A failing state fails to protect people from one another. Religious extremists have easy entry into the lives of those they consider infidels; rampant theft of cars, laptops, and cellphones and a moribund judicial system in which impunity rules and thieves and assassins go unpunished have all but uprooted civil order.
    A failed state is one that does not protect its people from widening economic disparities, deepening inflation, and escalating food shortages. A failed state is one that taxes its citizens without providing services in return. The government provides free education but in ghost schools, empty of furniture, books, and teachers. The pupils don’t come because the teachers won’t be there, even though they collect their monthly sal­aries. A failed state is one that has abdicated accountability to its citizens.
    To rebuild itself, Pakistan’s first step must be radical reform of the army and Inter-Services Intelligence. Its weakened civilian government unable to provide the necessary oversight, Pakistan will be unable to reform itself without outside help.
    Raza Kazim, a leading lawyer and thinker, told me: “The time is here and now [to] remove the jihadis, their incompetence, and the ideological humbug we’ve been living with for half a century. [We need] positive support from a global coalition, not American imperialism. The time for imperialism is behind us. A new contemporary army, not one in which the state and religion are combined, with corruption pulled out by its roots. We need to change the whole culture; we need agents of change. We are not self-sustaining; we have not earned our keep.”


    Hazel Kahan, the host of the “Tidings” program on WPKN radio, is writing a memoir about growing up Jewish in Pakistan. She lives in Mattituck.