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
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
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.
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!”
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.
why would Pakistanis glorify an Arab dictator who had nothing
to do with them? What was the connection?
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
point remained sticky, though, so I reached out to Ali Hussain:
the junkshop corpses rot and wither like their graveyard equivalents.
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.”
didn’t those very characters disappoint Pakistanis?
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.”
Man Who Would Be Remembered