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.

When I rang my mother in Lahore, she told me that two men had come to her house demanding two lakh rupees (£2000) in return for allowing the lectures to go ahead. She had shown them the door. This was reassuring. It was a case of petty blackmail rather than religious bigotry. My mother was insistent: I had to show that we would not be cowed by threats. When I rang the organisers to say I was on my way, they said they had cancelled all the arrangements. Another Lahore organisation, Asr, or ‘impact’, under the able command of Nighat Khan, an old friend of mine known as Bunny, took over. Within 24 hours they had found a new venue, advertised it, and taken every possible security precaution, including hiring an armed guard. When I spoke in public in 1969 there had been threats from Islamists, who had made two serious attempts (in Lyallpur and Multan) to storm the platform. Then, two armed students had stood either side of me, showing off their revolvers, fingers on triggers, but had succeeded only in scaring me. Now there was a Kalashnikov-carrying uniformed guard from a private security company. Bunny had refused the offer of official police protection.

It was 5 a.m. when the plane landed at Karachi airport. Since 11 September, an automatic camera on the immigration counter has photographed each new arrival. I asked the young woman checking my passport what they do with all the pictures after they’ve been vetted; she laughed and shrugged. Why should she care? There was a three-hour wait for the flight to Lahore. Too tired to read or write, I watched the TV in the departure lounge. Early morning devotional songs were interspersed with an Aids-awareness ad, shown over and over again. It was remarkable – coy, subtle and full of mystery. A devil-may-care bareheaded batsman is facing a fast bowler. The ball whizzes by twice, narrowly missing his head, which he moves at the last moment. Before facing the third delivery, the batsman sends for a helmet. Now he is safe. The screen goes dark and an Aids warning is flashed. Will this work? Do the devout regard Pakistan’s cricketing heroes as dickheads?

I was fast asleep when we landed at Lahore. For a moment I thought it was a dream. Why had nobody told me there was a new airport? Surprisingly, it wasn’t too hot. My mother believes that Lahore has been affected by global cooling; if so, it’s very welcome. May has apparently been tolerable for the last few years. Later that night a familiar smell wafted across our garden. The exquisite queen of the night, raat ki rani, whose semi-hallucinogenic scent helps you sleep, was in full bloom.

The lecture passed without incident. Asr had gone high-tech: people sitting at the back of the hall could watch on large screens. And the blackmailers were nowhere to be seen, though their identity was a subject for hot debate; some people were sure they had been present. I’d long since stopped thinking that there was an Islamist threat to my lectures and my sense of things was confirmed the next day when I received a phone call from a representative of the cleverest of Pakistan’s right-wing Urdu dailies, the pro-Islamist Nawa-i-Waqt, the ‘Voice of Time’, which we used to call the ‘voice of time past’. They wanted me to speak at a forum they were organising, but I had to go on to Islamabad.

The location of the city is perfect, with the Himalayan foothills less than an hour away. Yet, built as the new capital during the early 1960s, Islamabad remains an antiseptic, bureaucratic metropolis. Its staidness is reminiscent of Ottawa or Canberra, and it lacks the architectural glories of Brasilia; its more pretentious buildings mimic Saudi vulgarities. My lecture took place at the National Library, a large, non-descript building, which gives the impression of being not much used – it could easily be converted into a five-star hotel. Many young people came, as well as a sprinkling of Foreign Office mandarins and note-takers from various Embassies. The British delegation told me afterwards how pleased they were that I had concentrated on Bush rather than Blair. I explained the difference between the organ grinder and his performing animal.

There were dozens of people I hadn’t seen for thirty or forty years and after the lecture we chatted over tea and samosas. Some – mainly those who are now completely bald – were grumpy because I didn’t recognise them, but this wasn’t a problem when it came to one acquaintance from school and college days, a poseur, wastrel and fantasist. To his irritation, my friends and I never took him seriously, but he did make us laugh a great deal. As always, he was smartly dressed, tie carefully chosen to avoid a clash with his henna-dyed hair. ‘What are you doing these days?’ I asked. There was not even the flicker of a pause. ‘Oh, didn’t you know? I have a concurrent law practice in New York and Lahore.’ For half a second I was taken in.

Also in the audience at Islamabad were two men and two women of a class not normally seen at such events in Pakistan. Afterwards they asked to see me. They were peasant activists from Okara, the town at the centre of a classic struggle between tenants working on military farms and the state, represented here by the Rangers, a border police force that was created to combat smuggling, but now has a wider remit. The story of the peasant resistance against the Army has been ignored by Western reporters, whose only interest is in uniforms and beards, so a rural intifada that challenges these stereotypes is ignored. Almost a million peasants are engaged in this struggle, under the slogan ‘Land or Death’. Forty per cent of them are Christians, and meetings take place alternately in church and mosque. The origins of the dispute go back a hundred years, to when the British colonial administration leased what were then known as ‘Crown lands’ in the Punjab and set up military farms to produce grain and dairy products at subsidised prices for the British Indian Army. With the end of British rule, the management of these farms, most of which were in Southern Punjab, passed to the Ministry of Defence and the government of the Punjab. The tenant families who now work the farms to feed the Pakistan Army are the direct descendants of the tenants who were installed there in 1908. Until recently, the Punjab Tenancy Act of 1887 safeguarded their rights: male tenants and their direct descendants who had cultivated the land for more than two generations (twenty years) were entitled to permanent occupancy. But four years ago, in the name of agribusiness, the military and civilian bureaucracy asked the tenants to abandon their claim to the land and suggested that short-term contracts and cash rents replace the sharecropping that allowed the peasants 50 per cent of the produce. The peasants declined the offer and have ever since been brutally treated by corrupt managers backed by the military.

The peasants knew they wouldn’t get state subsidies to construct brick dwellings, to electrify their villages or to build schools and roads. They were prepared to fund all this collectively, but were denied permission to do so by the state. To underline the message, during the first six months of 2002, the Rangers opened fire on tenants on at least three occasions, killing some of them; others were arrested or beaten up in full view of their families. The peasant women marched to Okara and laid siege to the police station where their husbands, brothers and sons were being held. On 9 June 2002, a thousand armed policemen and Rangers surrounded the village of Pirowal. The siege lasted seven hours, but the police failed to capture the tenant leaders they were after, despite threatening to burn the village’s entire cotton crop.

I had been told all this when I met the leaders of the movement in Lahore last year. This time it was the foot soldiers of the Punjab Tenants Organisation who had asked for a meeting. When they came to see me after the lecture the men embraced me. I offered my hand to the women. They hesitated. ‘You’re not shy when it comes to fighting the soldiers, but you won’t shake hands with me,’ I said. One of them laughed and gripped my hand, and told me how things had got worse for them. A few days before I arrived, Pervez Hoodbhoy and his daughter had gone to investigate. He told me that a 60-year-old peasant called Amer Ali had been shot by the Rangers as he walked out of a neighbour’s house. Villagers said that the Rangers had been trying to intimidate them. They had fired their machine-guns for a whole hour while families cowered in their houses. ‘It’s like a colonial occupation,’ Hoodbhoy said. ‘The officers sit in their ornate building with manicured gardens from where they direct the war against the peasant families.’

The peasants told me the same story in more detail. They spoke of weddings being disrupted, children punished, women molested, men brutalised. ‘We will die before we give up,’ one of them said. The woman who had shaken my hand told me that the women, Muslim and Christian, had mobilised themselves into a thappa brigade – a thappa is a small wooden bat used to beat clothes that are being washed – to defend their families and villages. She described how they had faced abuse, harassment, tear-gas and bullets. Then she stopped, thought about something and angrily resumed: ‘Do you know what General Chatha told us when we said the state was in violation of the law? He replied: “In this country the only law is this khaki uniform.”’

The next morning I left for Karachi, now a sprawling, anarchic city of 12 million people, but until the 19th century a tiny fishing village which the British turned into a naval base in the 1920s. Its population, less than half a million when the city became the capital of Pakistan in 1947, doubled in the following three years with the swell of Muslim refugees from India and the concentration of industry. By the time the capital was shifted to Islamabad by a military dictator nervous about Karachi’s distance from Rawalpindi and Military GHQ, it had become a cosmopolitan centre, socially and politically more advanced and more mixed than any other city in Pakistan. The print media in Urdu, Sindhi and English continue to thrive and, inspired by al-Jazeera, two new TV channels, Indus and Geo, have emerged to challenge the monopoly of the worse-than-ever state network. It was a new experience for me to be interviewed in Urdu and English for an hour and for the result to be broadcast without censorship the following day. I was told that Geo’s coverage of the Iraq war had been infinitely superior to both CNN’s and BBC World’s.

The day I arrived, a previously unknown local terrorist group, the United Muslim Army, exploded 21 bombs, targeting Shell and Caltex petrol stations. There were no casualties. Their statement warned that they would continue to ‘punish the Americans for the oppression in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan’. The lecture in Karachi was the best attended. The audience was an extraordinary social mix: members of the elite mingled with trade unionists, peasant activists, Sindhi nationalists, poets, painters and intellectuals. It was moving to see among them Jam Saqi, a veteran leader who’d been tortured during the Zia years. Later, I was shown a copy of a Sindhi daily newspaper, which had featured my visit. Aware that my Sindhi was virtually non-existent, they had published the headline in English: ‘The People of Sindh, the Intellectuals and Peace-Loving Forces of Pakistan Welcome their Comrade Tariq Ali.’ An enterprising sub-editor had clearly been reading the Pyongyang Times.

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