On fire.


Today I want to hide in pop culture. Read books, read magazines, read catalogues, read stories, read about other people’s self-help techniques for combating loneliness, self-esteem issues, weight-gain, whatever. Today I want to suppress. I want to suppress the pains that are crawling up from the pit of my stomach and stinging me – and inevitably stinging the little fetus that should be happily swimming in my womb. I keep thinking of lines from movies: “Rome is burning,” “Tara is burning.” No, Pakistan is burning. It is ablaze. And more bombs will not put out the fire.

Today my niece wakes up in Islamabad and refuses to go to school. Her mother argues with her at the dining table, over toast and marmalade. “You have to go to school.” My niece shakes her head, her thick, black pigtails swinging. She is dressed in her crisp school uniform, her hair is neatly parted exposing a straight yellow line of scalp. She knows this is her last chance to stay home from school. She bursts into tears and her mother sighs: “Why, why do you refuse to go to school? You love school.” “What if a bomb explodes,” she answers. “We don’t have the big security guards that the American school has. If a bomb explodes, my head will be lying there (she gestures to the right) and my legs will be lying there (she gestures to the left) and you won’t even be able to find my middles. How will you put me together again?” She cries some more. My sister, her eyes tired, her fingers sticky, pretends. It’s not like she hasn’t thought about this before. It’s not like she doesn’t freak out every time they are in a traffic jam, planning secret routes of escape in case something explodes somewhere. She’s petrified about sending her daughter off. But mothers don’t show fear – they tell their children to go to school. I make a mental note of this for my future baby and me.

There are conversations and there are negotiations. There are consoling words: “Nothing will happen to you.” “But how do you know that?” wonders my niece. She just wants reliable confirmation that she will not die. Once upon a time she needed to be consoled about her acne, now it’s her decapitated body. My sister tries to woo her with maternal instincts, with material information about where the threats geographically exist (although no one really knows that) and finally with religion. She puts a tawiz around her daughter’s neck. It’s a locket with a little folded up prayer in it. Everyone has one of those lying around. My sister wears one of the pair that my mother gave us when we were 17 and on the verge of exams. As my sister clasps it in place she says, “there, now Allah will protect you.” My niece smiles, broad and beaming. The battle is over – she is ready for school.

My sister has a lot to do. She has to call people and run some errands, but she is irrationally angry at the leftover stickiness of the marmalade on her fingers. She makes a mental note to swing by the school in the middle of the day. Just to make sure. They don’t have great security there, just a painfully skinny old man with a rifle who could never chase anyone down. She washes her hands. As she looks up at the bathroom mirror, she finds a new crease. The same damn crease that she has noticed on all her friends’ foreheads: A new witness to their age, to this time. Her husband calls. “You sound annoyed” he claims. “I’m not,” she snaps back. “Well,” he says, “I’ve got great news. The price of our land just shot up! At least we can thank Blackwater for that!”

It’s true. Since all the non-diplomat Americans – security personnel, CIA staff, private mercenaries – have arrived and set up shop, buying up compounds and old hotels, the price of real estate has tripled. Islamabad, with its security gates and closed streets, has become a nightmare to navigate around. But that piece of land my sister owns on the outskirts of the city will make them richer. I sold mine a long time ago, back when we were worried about boys and muggers.

I lean back in my chair. I’m trying to forget my sister’s crease and ignore the anxiety she feels every time she gets into a car. I am trying to ignore Hillary Clinton’s arrogant words about doing more to combat terrorism the day after 122 people were killed in Peshawar. I’m trying to repress my frustration at the illogical rhetoric of forcing the Pakistani army to target and bomb remote regions in the country with the expectation that this will decrease violence.

Oprah’s website makes me feel better, drawing me into the lull of cosmetic words about the human condition … as though you can be in control of anything in your life: food, yoga, parenting, finances. I need the guise of control because those black words on white background, those headlines painting broad strokes, telling us “Pakistanis are not committed to fighting terrorism” are gnawing at me. I wonder whether there will be a country for my baby to discover mangoes in. Real mangoes. I read the comments posted on articles in prestigious dailies, from Americans and from my fellow Canadians – first-world comments. How many of them, with their comments foaming out of their mouths and slipping off their fingertips onto clackety-clack keyboards, have set foot in Pakistan? Seen those mountains? Seen those villages? Eaten juicy crabs on those rickety boats where the fishermen tell stories about waves? Been to the restaurants that are open until one in the morning because people like their greasy foods at whatever time, because time in Pakistan is merely notional?

They haven’t been there, and yet they blindly advocate its further demise. Sure, Pakistan has been a mess since its inception but, and this is a big but, it has never seen the kind of violence that has emerged since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. In 2002 there were two suicide bombings in Pakistan, which appeared shocking at the time. In 2007 there were 56, claiming over 1,000 lives; I frankly don’t even want to know how many invisible casualties have been eaten up in 2009.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the failures in Afghanistan are being replicated in Pakistan. And yet in what I have coined the blind-leading-the-blind foreign policy of brilliant NATO strategists, the proof of “doing something” to combat terrorism seems to be to kill more people, destroy more villages and create a larger number of internally displaced persons to add to the existing three million refugees.

But I hide behind magazines and glossy images. Behind ads of special oils that will make the pregnancy stretch marks on my belly disappear, as creases take life on my sister’s forehead. Blackwater and DynCorp – enjoy Islamabad. Why wouldn’t you? It’s a beautiful albeit boring city surrounded by mountains, with clean roads and grass that’s a special color of dewy green. It’s a beautiful city in a country that offers a seaport into central Asia and neighbors China, India, Afghanistan and Iran. Why wouldn’t someone want a piece of that ass? Why wouldn’t someone want the country to burn, fragment and dissolve into social chaos so the wise men of the West can come in and take control of the nuclear armaments that can’t be trusted in the hands of those crazy locals?

Ms. Erum S. Hasan works for a social justice organization in Ottawa, Canada.