May and June are the worst months to visit Pakistan: temperatures in Lahore can go up to 120°F, and I still remember the melting tar on the road, which virtually doubled the time it took to bike home from school. I had been invited, however, to give the Eqbal Ahmed Memorial Lectures in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi. Ahmed – whose dream of setting up a serious postgraduate university in Pakistan remains unfulfilled – died in May 1999.
I last addressed a public gathering in Pakistan 34 years ago, soon after one military dictator (Ayub Khan) had been removed and replaced by another (Yahya Khan). Insurrection had been in the air. An old family friend tried to make me promise that if the revolution did come, her palatial mansion would become a school or a hospital: she didn’t want poor families to live there. Her chauffeur, who heard this conversation, told me later that in the event of an uprising the peasants would wipe out her family and that he would celebrate their fall.
After three months and many casualties, the much derided Students Action Committees toppled the military dictatorship, something the politicians who mocked them had been incapable of. A year later, Yahya Khan refused to accept the results of the country’s first free elections: the generals couldn’t stomach the triumph of a long-suppressed Bengali nationalism. Instead, they declared war on East Pakistan. A well-organised massacre of Bengali students and intellectuals followed, and many of my acquaintances and some close friends perished. The generals who organised these events and the politicians who supported them were unrepentant, blaming India for their crimes. A chauvinist frenzy gripped large parts of West Pakistan. I had publicly supported the Bengalis against the Pakistan Army, and been denounced as a traitor in the chauvinist press. In 1972, I was arrested at Karachi Airport and put on the next plane out of the country. It was a non-stop flight to Paris; but I was banned from France as well. When I finally reached London, the Special Branch man summoned by immigration to greet me and inspect my passport (a regular occurrence in those days) already knew what had happened. He wore a malicious grin: ‘So I see even Pakistan won’t let you in now.’ His thoughtful comment encouraged me to get a British passport.
The following year I was allowed back to see my parents, but after General Zia’s takeover in 1977 even that wasn’t permitted. I had to wait more than a decade before my next visit, and that was only because ‘persons unknown’ had blown up the plane carrying General Zia, his crony General Akhtar Rehman, the US Ambassador and the Ambassador’s dog. I had returned on many occasions since then, but never to speak in public – until Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear physicist, civil rights activist and opponent of the Pakistani bomb, invited me to give the Eqbal Ahmed Lectures this year.
The day before I was due to fly to Pakistan, I came home from the United States to be greeted by my daughter: ‘Have you heard the news? If you go to Pakistan you might be whacked.’ The organisers had received an anonymous letter threatening a fatwa and general mayhem if the lectures went ahead. The pretext was a de-contextualised paragraph from my novel The Book of Saladin in which a Christian heretic denounces Islam and its Prophet for being excessively addicted to fornication. Though Saladin refutes the charge vigorously, if not conclusively, the person I spoke to in Lahore insisted that ‘nobody here will care about Saladin’s reply. You know what it’s like.’ Fed up, I decided to cancel the trip. I did, however, ask to see the threatening missive, which was duly faxed. It was obviously not the work of an Islamist group, and didn’t smell of the intelligence agencies. It had probably been written by some joker. I decided I would go after all.