Remembering Bassem


“And when he died, I suddenly realized I wasn’t crying for him at all, but for the things he did. I cried because he would never do them again, he would never carve another piece of wood or help us raise doves and pigeons in the backyard or play the violin the way he did, or tell us jokes the way he did. He was part of us and when he died, all the actions stopped dead and there was no one to do them the way he did. He was individual. He was an important man. I’ve never gotten over his death. Often I think what wonderful carvings never came to birth because he died. How many jokes are missing from the world, and how many homing pigeons untouched by his hands? He shaped the world. He did things to the world. The world was bankrupted of ten million fine actions the night he passed on.”

– Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Today marks three years since my dear friend Bassem Sabry passed away.

This will be a very personal post, I don’t think I’ve spoken about this before and I would rather not speak about it but I hope it makes someone avoid what I did.

I had gotten to know Bassem through Twitter in 2011, a few months after #Jan25, something I will forever be indebted to social media for.

And every single exchange I had with him revealed him to be an incredibly intelligent, witty and kind soul. It was a joy to talk to him.

He was brilliant, in mind and heart. In every way.

A year before he passed away, Bassem wrote a moving post on his reflections on life upon turning 30.

I remember reading it and thinking just how lucky I was to know such a beautiful person, and how privileged I was to have his friendship. I thought of expressing this to him but only properly i.e by writing him an elaborate and thoughtful message when I had ample time. I was lazy too. Days passed, and so did the months, and I still hadn’t composed anything.

Until April 2014, when I learned, through the very place I had gotten to know him, that he had left forever.

I had looked for time to express myself and it had passed me by, or maybe I had.

Not a day has gone by since April 29th, 2014 when I haven’t remembered him, but not writing to Bassem is the biggest regret of my life. Everyday, I wake up with this regret, this unmovable mountain crushingly sitting on my heart. It gnaws at my heart, just like his loss.

I read of the things happening in Egypt and the world, and I think of what he would’ve said or written about them. He wrote so well.

I think of things that have happened in Pakistan since he left that he would’ve messaged to ask me about.

I think of how our friendship would’ve grown with time, I wonder if my frequent “come to Pakistan someday, Bassem” would’ve ever realized.

I think of him every single time I exceed a given word limit for something I have to write, and remember how we’d joked that we can never write within limits and it was almost as if it was beyond our control.

I remember him whenever I listen to Shik Shak Shok, and how he’d laughed with surprise that I knew of it sitting in Pakistan.

I think of him everytime I turn a page from one of the books I bought after looking at his Facebook album of recommended books. I read the words and wonder what he would’ve thought when reading them.

I think of the kindness, knowledge, wisdom, beauty and love this world has been deprived of by his departure.

I think of how unfair his loss has been to a world and to a people who need someone like him the most today.

I think of my wish of going to Egypt and visiting him, just as I wanted to in his life.

Cb9FBu5WwAAc4SOI knew him for a short while but I got to know such great people and things through Bassem.

And how generous he was to teach me something even in his passing: that one should never spare even a second in saying a kind word, in appreciating people, in expressing how much they mean to you.

I have done this everyday since he left, even with strangers. Some people find it odd how expressive I am to them, but I learnt a hard lesson.  I hope no one ever loses out on expressing his or herself to the people they cherish and value. We take so much for granted.

And maybe how swiftly expressive I am to people now is also my way of making up to Bassem. I pray for him everyday. My prayers are profuse because deep inside, I want to make up for what I lost out on. Yet I know it isn’t the same, it can never be.

Never hold back from saying a kind word or connecting and appreciating those who light up your life in little or big ways, even if just for a minute or forever.

Please do read up on Bassem today, acquaint yourself with the person he was; remember him, and perhaps learn something from him, because his knowledge, wisdom, intelligence and heart were limitless in their giving, and thankfully he has left behind much through which people can glimpse and gain from them.

Spare a thought and prayer for him today and most importantly, do what he would’ve loved: do an act or say a word of kindness to someone.

For those who are still reading this, I end with words from Mohamed El Dahshan’s tribute to Bassem:

“May you be as as kind, as smart, and as loved, as Bassem Sabry. There’s nothing better.”

Rest in peace, my beautiful friend.

Wish you had stayed longer.

The Blood on Our Hands


*Originally published in The Nation. Unedited version below:

“How I wished during those sleepless hours that I belonged to a different nation, or better still, to none at all.”

– W. G. Sebald

A glance at his profile reveals bits and pieces from which you can patch together his person: poetry, musings, an avidness for photography, friendships, quotes from books, posts on global affairs and local issues, a love for knowledge, an interest in Sufism, support for women’s rights and a heart for humanity.

This was Mashal Khan, a kind and gentle soul whose crime was to think freely, to have the audacity to think differently, and to envision a better society and a better people.

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He was brutally murdered in Mardan.

Is it even a shock that such a horrific incident took place in a country which has institutionalized bigotry and hate? Where politicians, representatives, leaders, judges, journalists, anchors and clerics peddle hate, bigotry and violence every single day?

Before the matter of blasphemous posts was concocted, Mashal was accused of being an Ahmadi which he had denied. Is such an incident unexpected in a land whose laws enshrine exclusion, discrimination and persecution towards the Ahmadi community?

When the state sanctions hate, it is a license for the public to have a free hand to apply it wherever and whenever they wish.

The gruesome incident also forces questions about blasphemy in Pakistan, including the reform and the repeal of the Blasphemy Law. It is undeniable that the matter warrants honest and candid debate, but it is also a point to ponder whether or not the people would stop baying for blood if the Blasphemy Law goes. In Mashal’s case, neither a formal complaint nor an arrest had taken place. There has been no appeal to law, mob vigilantism was the law of the day.

The baying for blood may not disappear with the Blasphemy Law, but let us be clear that state patronage of certain ideologies and ideas opens the floodgates for abhorrent public sentiments and abominable tendencies and menaces to come to the fore and actively play out. Trump’s ascent to the White House and the boost it has been for white-supremacists and racists stands stark in sight. One need not even look so far for proof of this, a glimpse at our eastern neighbor suffices. Modi’s rise has emboldened Hindu right-wing organizations and India has subsequently seen a sharp growth in incidents of violence, fear, threat and intimidation against those who provoke their ire.

In Pakistan, state patronage of certain ideologies and ideas, a certain narrative of Islam and the narrative of blasphemy, is an encouragement for the public to engage, express and execute their depraved schemes, bigotry, intolerance, and to take the law into their hands.

Mashal’s murder, however, must not push us into the utopian expectation and idealistic hope that the Pakistani government and state would step up to reflect on their responsibility, their complicity and decisively act to steer the country away from the destruction it is steeply descending into by each passing day.

Such an expectation and hope cannot be fostered while the state and government pander and patronize for their own agendas and interests the very elements and organizations whose extremism, intolerance and violence are fatally injuring Pakistan. Such a hope cannot be kept while religion is employed as a potent weapon for political expediency, for cheap political mileage and for silencing dissent; while lawmakers declare those who wish to see Pakistan should either mend their ways or leave the country; while the Prime Minister’s son-in-law engages in hate speech against the Ahmadi community; while political parties scurry to shake hands bloodied with the lives of thousands of Pakistanis, in the name of electoral alliances; when disappeared bloggers and arrested professors are struck with blasphemy allegations; when the Interior Minister threatens to shut down social media due to blasphemous content; when judges become moral crusaders and drum up perceived dangers to Islam to curtail freedoms.

That this witch-hunt and venom would extend and seep into online spaces was only inevitable.

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Shama and Shehzad

It is too much to expect for things to change when not a leaf stirred when Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were gunned down in broad daylight, when the Christian couple of a pregnant Shama and her husband Shehzad were lynched and thrown into the furnace of a brick kiln, or when an angry mob set fire to a house in Gujranwala killing three Ahmadis including eight-month-old Hira, and five-year-old Kainat.

The involvement of ordinary people in such acts does much to underscore the extent, gravity and ideological and cultural facets of the prevalent challenge of extremism and intolerance confronting Pakistan. We are complicit, through our outright espousal of extremism, through our apathy towards its victims; through the stutter and stammer of our tongue with “ifs” and “buts” when condemning these acts, through the repugnant “justifications”, “explanations” and “questions” we offer for these acts; and through our refusal and silences to protest against them. In one way or another, we are complicit.

When an institution of education, knowledge and learning becomes the site of a cold-blooded, brutal murder, it should be enough to recognize that the Pakistani state is a rotten state, with a diseased society, both of which can never bear a truly living and thinking individual like Mashal.

The state is complicit, and so are we.

We may not have been present at the site of the murder, but we enabled it.

One can suppose that the splatters of blood are lighter on our hands, but know that they are there nonetheless.

Every day, this country dies a ghastly death at the hands of the mob it has the misfortune of calling its people, its nation.

It seems even God has forsaken Pakistan for we alone are responsible for the hell and havoc at home.

Kitni badnaseeb hai who qaum jo apne mashal khud hi inkar aur tabah karde.

Kitne mashal bujhaye jayein gay is mulk main? Aur agar hai, tau kitna tareek hai iss mulk ka mustaqbil.

-Hafsa Khawaja

 

Narrowing Spaces


*Originally published in Daily Times. Slightly longer version below:

Pakistan seems to be caught in a constant movement of one step forward and two steps backward.

Earlier this year, the disappearance of six prominent social activists and bloggers, who were critical of the state and establishment, sent shockwaves through the civil society. Their recovery was a cause of relief, however the message of their disappearances to the rest of the activist community was hard to miss: quieten or be silenced.

Recently, activist and academic Dr Riaz Ahmed was arrested during a protest on the charges of possessing an illicit weapon allegedly found in his vehicle. Regardless of the dubious charges, it is important to know that the paramilitary force officer, on whose complaint the case was registered against Dr. Riaz, did not fail to mention that the professor was also “involved in advocating on Facebook for the release of ‘blasphemous’ bloggers reportedly picked up by law enforcement agencies recently.”

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The allegations of blasphemy have permanently jeopardized the lives of the recovered bloggers, but that those who demanded and protested for their release are now also considered tainted, and their lives subsequently endangered, is a disturbing sign.

In March, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Holi address to the Hindu community in Karachi garnered surprise and praise from several sections of the population for whom it embodied the progressive acceptance, inclusivity, pluralism, and tolerance that should be at the heart of Pakistan.

While the PM’s speech may have ignited a flicker of hope regarding some modicum of a progressiveness in the government’s orientation, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar was swift to emerge as the moral crusader of the hour, second only to Justice Shaukat Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court, to snuff it with the threat of blocking all social media sites in the country which host blasphemous content.

But relevant to this matter, and to the larger phenomenon of Pakistani political parties’ usual pandering and patronizing of the religious right and extremist organizations, is the late Eqbal Ahmad’s incisive analysis in which he wrote:

“Pakistan’s is an ideologically ambiguous polity; here, political paeans to Islam have served as the compensatory mechanism for the ruling elite’s corruption, consumerism and cow-towing to the west. As a consequence, the ideologically fervent Islamist minority keeps an ideological grip on the morally insecure and ill-formed power elite. It is this phenomenon that explains the continued political clout of the extremist religious minority even as it has been all but repudiated by the electorate. Yet, horrors escalate by the day, and neither their original sponsors, nor the victims are doing much about it.”

However, Chaudhry Nisar’s reported statement in Dawn regarding the social media ban, that “no country can allow religious sentiments to be hurt or top state functionaries to be subjected to ridicule the pretext of freedom of expression”, is telling of the other objectives the ban would clearly serve. That the “ridicule” of state and government officials can be swept by a ban ostensibly related to religion indicates the enduring convenience of religion as a useful prop for Pakistani politics and the state itself.

These threads of incidents and developments tie into the thriving reality of an increasingly and dangerously shrinking and narrowing space for freedom of expression, criticism, dissent and protest in Pakistan. It is a space constantly threatened and stifled by religious obscurantism, extremism and state’s growing intolerance of dissent. Activists, students, bloggers, artists, academics, journalists and members of the civil society are steadily being targeted by virulent campaigns or directly arrested on dubious and fictitious reasons.

The academic spaces in the country don’t have brighter views to offer in this these days either.

C7d9RgWXgAAVP6zAt Punjab University in Lahore, the Islami Jamiat-e-Talba once again demonstrated their notorious thuggery on a Pakhtun Cultural Day event resulting in clashes and violence. It was later revealed that, in wake of this incident, the Punjab University administration had decided to ban all student programmes and events within the university premises.

This beleaguering bodes well for no one.

Earlier this year, Pankaj Mishra wrote on Vaclav Havel’s conception of a “parallel polis” and its practical construction as a source of people power against the Trump administration:

Havel saw the possibility of redemption in a politically active “civil society” (he, in fact, popularized this now-commonplace phrase).

The “power of the powerless,” he argued, resides in their capacity to organize themselves and resist “the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power.”

Active resistance is necessary because it is the moral and political indifference of demoralized, self-seeking citizens that normalizes despotic power.

As the main political parties lie in disarray, the dissident, who takes upon her own conscience the burden of political responsibility and action, rather than placing it upon professional politicians, has suddenly become a figure of immense consequence in America.

Although Mishra emphasised Havel’s idea in the current American context, it is helpful for all cornered people and their resistance against the rise of unjust power against them in other countries too, including Pakistan.

The people will have to take up their cause themselves.

The drive to homogenize Pakistan’s religious and cultural character, and to monopolize its narratives through exclusivist understandings and actual violence, has long been a project of regressive forces and the responsibility falls on ordinary citizens today to thwart its renewed attempts.

With this march of terror, fear and suppression, that draws strength from the standard repertoire of reasons such as religion, “national ideology” and “national security”, it has now become necessary for all concerned citizens to recognize this reality and organize to protect those who fight for our freedoms, and vigorously preserve the spaces and liberties we are entitled to.

Further space and freedoms must not and cannot be conceded in the face of this rising tide of regression, repression and pressure, for there is only more beyond a surrender to them.

-Hafsa Khawaja