‘Try and disarm us, if you can’

Tariq Ali finds old friends and new enemies in Lahore

Islamabad remains the official capital, but these days real power in Pakistan is exercised from the Punjabi capital of Lahore. This city, dry, warm and abundant, where I spent the first 20 years of my life and which I still love, is always changing, usually for the worse. The old Mall at its lower end, near Kim’s Gun, was once the haunt of bohemians of every sort. Poets, artists, left-wing intellectuals, film directors could be seen at their tables in the Coffee House, cursing the dictator of the day or discussing the merits of blank verse as they dipped their samosas in a mint-chilli compote and sipped tea throughout the month of Ramadan. That was more than thirty years ago. Queen Victoria’s statue, which once sat in front of the Punjab Assembly building, has long since gone. Some imaginative soul decided to replace history with fantasy. A giant stone Koran is poised precariously on the plinth where the Queen once sat.

The Mall is Lahore’s principal thoroughfare, linking the Civil Lines and cantonment of the old colonial city to the bazaars and monuments of the Mughal Empire. It is choked with cars and taxis moving at five miles an hour. A much-favoured taxi and rickshaw pin-up these days, I noticed, is Osama Bin Laden. The State Department’s ‘most wanted terrorist’ is well on his way to becoming a Pakistani hero. Contrary to what outsiders may think, his popularity is not confined to the plebeian sections of the city: many middle-class students are searching for extreme solutions in the guise of religion, and not just in Lahore. This city, more than any other, is an accurate guide to what is going on in the rest of the country, because Pakistan, since the defection of Bangladesh, is really an extended Punjab. The provinces of Sind, Baluchistan and the Frontier are sparsely populated and largely tribal.

The latest excitement in Lahore was the opening of PACE, a large supermarket (whose owners include Imran Khan) in Gulberg, once a spacious residential area, which has now succumbed to the lure of small and big businesses. The entrance to PACE attracted more visitors than the goods on display. Peasants with marvellous moustaches, anointed with mustard seed oil, came from nearby villages with their entire families and packed the foyer. Adults and children, half-fearful, half-excited, screamed with pleasure as they travelled up and down the new escalators. Rather than Lahore in the epoch of globalisation, it could have been a scene from turn-of-the-century Paris, were it not for the noise of loudspeakers in competing mosques compelling one to cease work or conversation and plug one’s ears.

Not far from PACE, hidden away in a tiny lane, is one of the new architectural glories of Lahore: the Institute for Women’s Studies, a residential postgraduate college for South Asian women. The very idea of such a centre has enraged the Beards. But the Director of the Institute, Nighat ‘Bunny’ Khan, remains unperturbed. I wondered which of the country’s top architects were involved.

‘None of them,’ Bunny replied, her gruff voice tinged with pride. ‘We decided to commission a woman, Fawzia Qureshi. She’s a senior lecturer in architecture at the National College of Art. This was her first big commission.’

Qureshi has used a tiny plot of land to build a structure on three levels which demonstrates an exemplary management of light and space. The essential purpose of the building – what gives it its special character – is to develop sociability and a sense of community. With its courtyard and terraces and seminar rooms bathed throughout the day in natural light, it is a carefully arranged marriage of Modernism and Islamic tradition.

But how long can an Institute for Women’s Studies last? In Sind and tribal Baluchistan women are still killed for bringing ‘dishonour’ to their families. The writ of the Pakistani state does not extend to these regions; and a woman who refuses to marry a man chosen by her father, or who has an extra-marital affair, is despatched summarily. Everyone knows the identity of the killers but the police remain aloof. The murders are seen as a matter for the family and the village elders. Feminist lawyers and human rights activists have tried for many decades to change things, with some success: this was one area where the previous government was enlightened. But the delicate hand that signed a decree setting up more facilities for women also authorised the arming of the Taliban and the assault on Kabul. The present government is pushing through religious laws designed to make women second-class citizens. Hacks in its employ have already begun to denounce Bunny’s Institute as a nest of atheists and Communists. The usual tag in these circumstances would be ‘lesbian’ but the word, I discovered, does not exist in Urdu or Punjabi. No such inhibitions prevent the use of colourful phrases to describe male homosexuality, incest and bestiality.

The last time I was in Pakistan, more than two years ago, the surface calm was deceptive. As I was lunching my mother in her favourite Islamabad restaurant a jovial moustachioed figure came over to greet us from an adjacent table. His wife, Benazir Bhutto, was abroad on a state visit. Senator Asif Zardari, State Minister for Investment, was responsible for entertaining the children in her absence and had brought them out for a special treat. An exchange of pleasantries ensued. I asked how things were proceeding in the country. ‘Fine,’ he replied with a charming grin. ‘All is well.’ He should have known better.

Behind closed doors in Islamabad, a palace coup was in motion. Benazir was about to be luxuriously betrayed. Farooq Leghari, the man she had carefully chosen to be President, was preparing to dismiss her government after secret consultations with the Army and the leaders of the opposition. During dinner that same week, an old acquaintance, now a senior civil servant, who is fond of Benazir, was in despair. The President, he said, had sought to defuse the crisis by asking for a special meeting with the Prime Minister. Benazir, characteristically, turned up with her husband. This annoyed Leghari: one of the subjects he’d wanted to discuss with her was her husband’s legendary greed. Despite this, he stayed calm while attempting to convince the First Couple that it was not only their political enemies who were demanding action. The scale of the corruption and the corresponding decay of the Administration had become a national scandal. He was under pressure from the Army and others to move against the Government. In order to resist them, he needed her help. He pleaded with her to discipline her husband and a number of other ministers who were out of control. Zardari, stubborn as always in defence of his own material interests, grinned and taunted the President: nobody in Pakistan, he said, including Leghari, was entirely clean. The threat was obvious: you touch us and we’ll expose you.

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