My Country of Horror and Possibility
"There are so many odds against us that we almost shouldn’t be. But somehow we are."
Widely speculated to be a future heir to the Bhutto political dynasty, Fatima Bhutto, 27-year-old niece of the late Benazir Bhutto, has captured public imagination across Pakistan. A poet and writer, she openly denounces birthright politics and uses her pen to advocate for a truly democratic nation.
As the Taliban advances across northern Pakistan, international headlines have declared my country the latest victim of an increasingly hostile fundamentalist regime. Yet those of us who have been living within Pakistan have been watching this unfold every day and know that this is nothing new: The Pakistani Taliban and their brand of extremism has been advancing throughout our country for the last ten years, and they are gaining traction among Pakistan’s people largely because of our own government’s corruption and neglect.
My generation of Pakistanis has come of age under this military and civilian dictatorship, under a government that aids and abets these fundamentalist groups while vastly ignoring the needs of the people. The international community must understand that our government’s corruption—and the United States’ support of this corruption—has not only created enormous poverty but has also created a vacuum that Islamist fundamentalists are filling. This is the heart of the reason why the Taliban has been successful in my country; it is not because we are a country of extremists, or a country of dishonesty.
I would like the world to know that when we say our government does not represent us, we mean it. Pakistanis are not our government; we did not vote for Asif Ali Zardari, our president. We do not vote for our governments, and when we do have elections, they are orchestrated and rigged.
When I travel abroad, there is a perception that because I am Pakistani I must have a beard or be engaged in some kind of jihad. No one factors in that we are a country that has Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, and Jain heritage. We are a country of people who speak a Hindi-ized Urdu and a Persian-ized Dari. We have so many shades that are not seen by the world because it is more convenient to portray us in a certain way that ignores our history, our realities, and our visions for the future of our country.
As a child growing up in exile from General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, I understood Pakistan much like the rest of the world understands us now: as a nightmarish place where women are stoned, where public floggings are encouraged, and where the dark shadow of dictatorship looms with a violent and orthodox edge.
For me, it was my father who gave Pakistan its soul. Before he was assassinated by police when I was 14, he would tell me of the various poets and Sufi saints enshrined in Sindh Province; of the orange, pink, and purple painted buses at every traffic light; of the smell of the Indian Ocean, of the taste of Pakcola. It became a sort of romantic place for me, when in reality it was an extremely violent and unpredictable country. When I moved to Pakistan, I came to know early on that beneath this violence is a soul, a heart.
When I moved permanently to Pakistan at age 11, I learned that this heart beats in Karachi. Our pulse is here. It is Pakistan’s largest, most populous city and it is a cross between a refugee camp and a construction site. It is a broken-down city, but there is always something new happening here: a new art exhibit, new graffiti on the walls, new people coming to see what is swirling through our air, what radical new idea is emerging.
But when there is violence, Karachi is also the center. This is a city of immense poverty, and the violence we see is not always physical, though we see our fair share of that too. It is the violence of poverty. Karachi has one of the largest slum populations in the world. We are a very sad city, but because of that we are also a resilient city. There are so many odds against us that we almost shouldn’t be. But somehow we are. That we continue to exist is hopeful for me, that we continue to be a business, artistic, and cultural center in the face of impossible violence is something to recognize and embrace. . . .