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Vol. 22, No. 5, 2023
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Abbas Zaidi


Abbas Zaidi is an Australian of Pakistani origin. He teaches journalism, linguistics and literature at various universities in Sydney. He is the author of The Infidels of Mecca (novel) and Land Below the Wasteland (short stories). The above piece is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel, about a young journalist’s life.

“The difference between a graveyard and a junkshop is that the graveyard corpses rot and vanish. The junk shop corpses stay dormant till they are rediscovered, revived, or reimagined,” said Ali Hussain, the owner of a Lahore antiquarian store that he inherited from his father who, in turn, inherited it from his father. “These dusty and mouldy portraits . . . these men in high positions were once looked up to as messiahs.”

The store owner talked and carried himself with confidence and panache. He poked a pile of portraits stacked up against a wall with a stick. There were, among others, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, and General Zia ul Haq of Pakistan.

“Do you recognize him?” he asked me, pointing to a portrait with his walking stick. I shook my head. He said a few words about him by way of an explainer and then said, “The only time I was slapped by my father was because of him. It was in 1967.” He gently scratched his stubble as if amusing himself. “Colonel Nasser had recently resigned after his defeat in the war, but the people of Pakistan came out on the streets, demanding he take back his resignation. At that time, I was a little boy, playing with my cousins and friends. We heard the highly charged noise and rushed to the road near the Lahore High Court. A huge crowd was moving towards Gol Bagh, chanting ‘Lailaha Illallah/Nasser ul Habiballah! [Translation: “There is no God, but Allah, and Nasser is His friend!”]’. On returning home, we little kids began to relate to our elders what we had seen. I repeated the slogan, and my father slapped me so hard that I fell to the floor. Of course, the slogan is meant only for Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him and his family!”

To someone like me who was born decades after the march, “Gol Bagh” is a name never heard before. The place is known as “Nasser Bagh,” or Nasser Park.

But why would Pakistanis glorify an Arab dictator who had nothing to do with them? What was the connection?

“For whatever reasons, Colonel Nasser dethroned King Farouk of Egypt. Pakistanis believed that he had kicked a corrupt ruler and his accomplices. There was a constant supply of rumours that Nasser was feeding the corrupt to the Nile crocodiles. You are a journalist. Don’t you know how deeply embedded the word ‘corruption’ in Pakistani life is?”


Ali Hussain did not tell me anything new. Alongside Islam, corruption is the greatest leitmotif in our lives. A little research shows how it has been part of our history. The Islamic Republic is an exceedingly divided society where people slay one another over a common definition of Islam. There, however, does exist a point on which everyone is aligned. Ask a man in the street about the cure to Pakistan’s problems and the invariable answer is: We need a messiah.

“We need a Pakistani Ayatollah Khomeini who will hang a thousand corrupt men before eating his breakfast, another thousand around lunchtime, and . . . ”

In the popular imagination, after taking over Iran in 1979, the late Ayatollah Khomeini would start his day by killing hundreds of corrupt and immoral Iranians by firing squads. He would repeat the activity a couple of times before retiring to his bed.

The media and national curricula have convinced the people that all problems can be narrowed down to corruption. The Augean stables of corruption can be cleansed only through a reign of terror. Therefore, if a Pakistani Ayatollah fills our dams, drains, and dreams with blood, he would only be responding to the call of history.

Who qualifies to be our Ayatollah Khomeini? Since Muslims are at one another’s throats in the Islamic Republic, every candidate for the ayatollah-ship will be resisted on the pretext of ethnicity, geography, and sectarian affiliation. A Zoroastrian, Hindu, or Christian will unanimously be rejected on religious grounds.

The hope of finding an ayatollah, however, has not faded. Every time a general took over—from General Zia, the deenwalah (divine), to General Musharraf, the duniawalah (worldly)—the nation was on the verge of rapture in anticipation of the destruction of the corrupt who had been draining national resources.

The masses were disappointed, though. General Zia’s family and cronies stole millions of dollars. He turned the military into Pakistan’s largest business enterprise. General Musharraf refined the art of stealing. Politicians, however, have not been better. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the greatest of the politicians, commanded popular attention and respect by promising to create a new Pakistan. But soon people found out that he was not a man of action and suffered from verbal diarrhoea. So, they celebrated when he was hanged by the military.

After being disappointed by the generals and politicians, the people, the masses, looked up to the Supreme Court justices and found the Grand Inquisitor-in-Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry who promised the destruction of the corrupt. He began by taking Suomotu notices of price hikes in tomatoes, patties and assorted varieties of cake. People were excited, watching him in anticipation of a thrice-a-day shooting of the corrupt under his watch a la Ayatollah. They stood motionless, waiting for him to arrange foriinsaaf (speedy justice), saray aam phaansi (public hangings), and ibratnak saza (exemplary punishments). But all he did was to have bus conductors, janitors and postmen hauled in front of him to face the sledgehammer of law.

After three years of his reign, he retired, and the people found out that his son had made millions of dollars under his watch. Like the generals, the good judge does not even live in Pakistan. Some Pakistanis have recorded him visiting real estate agents in London’s elite neighbourhoods. Pakistan is at No 9 amongst the top 10 most corrupt judiciaries in the world.

At last, the Great Man arrived in Imran Khan who promised an end to corruption in ninety days after taking over and the harshest possible punishments to the corrupt. He said the only corruption was the corruption of money, every other practice was negotiable. People agreed with him and forgot about his playboy past and his illegitimate daughter whom he refused to acknowledge. He got his illegally-built Islamabad mansion regularized. His supporters did not resent him because he had not stolen money and was ready to hang the corrupt. Once in office, he broke one promise after another and justified it by saying that taking U-turns was an act of the Prophets. During his tenure, the stories of his cronies’ corruption [to be investigated] made the past corruption no more than petty pilfering. Now he is out of power.

So, why don’t people come out on the streets and knock down every Bastille of corruption? There has not been a single mass-level protest in the country’s history against corruption. The people come out only to lynch a blasphemer who poses a danger to the greatest religion of the world, a religion of peace at that, and whose survival is promised by the Almighty in the Scripture. But to deal with corruption, someone else should appear with the appropriate cache of weaponry and bloodlust to slaughter the bad guys as they would sit back and watch the spectacle.

A point remained sticky, though, so I reached out to Ali Hussain: the junkshop corpses rot and wither like their graveyard equivalents.

“People regularly buy those portraits, but around Eid festivals, election times, and the appointment of key officials, the sale is high. I often talk to my clients. Some of them are my regular clients. They buy the portraits to bless their houses, neighbourhood and offices against . . . You know what I mean.”

But didn’t those very characters disappoint Pakistanis?

“As I said, the portraits can be rediscovered, revived or reimagined. People believe that all those characters have been transformed into Sufis who are one with God . . . Remember the meaning and magic of a portrait lies outside the frames, especially when the lights are out.”

By Abbas Zaidi:
Warriors After War
The Man Who Would Be Remembered










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