Allow me to apologize to you for not being able to be present during your address to civil society at the hallowed campus of Government College University in my beloved city of Lahore. Much as I would have wanted to benefit from the wisdom of your analysis and foresight, I could not make the journey quickly enough from the remote town of Chilas where I was in consultation with the proponents of a major dam which shall displace 32,000 people and submerge 32,000 ancient rock carvings if and when built. Allow me to further explain that since flights were cancelled from the nearest airport in Gilgit, a tedious five hour journey on the Karakoram Highway, I was compelled to take the road journey over the Babusar Pass situated at an altitude of 14,000 feet above sea level, travelling a total of eighteen hours to Islamabad.
Your Excellency, it was during this eighteen hour journey through some of the most desolate yet spectacular landscape of my country that I imagined speaking to you, being unable to join the privileged few who were invited to hear you speak both in Lahore and in Islamabad. As the vehicle carrying us made its way carefully over open culverts fashioned by the able engineers of the China Construction Company, as it slid over six inches of freshly falling snow, as it dipped into crevices swirling with glacial melt, and as it glided smoothly over the bits of tarmac which have survived the devastation of the 2005 earthquake which killed 70,000 people in these remote parts, I spoke to you, imagining that you were truly interested in what I, an ordinary citizen of this, my beloved, blighted country had to say.
But before I put those words down on paper, Your Excellency, allow me to welcome you to my country, this broken jaw of your kingdom. Allow me also to congratulate you, belatedly, on your appointment as Secretary of State of the most powerful nation on earth. That President Barak Obama had the prescience to see a woman in this commanding position is also a move worthy of appreciation. That you were his opponent in the Democratic Party’s primaries shows the objectivity and wisdom in President Obama’s selection. That you are a woman signifies the possibility that you will bring sanity to the White House, and by extension, to the Pentagon. For if the world was to be run by women, Your Excellency, it is quite possible that today we may not be mourning the brutal deaths of millions killed in the many wars over the past many centuries.
Your Excellency, it was at the outset of the second Gulf War in March 2004 that I resigned from my honorary position as Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations to which I had been appointed by Dr. Nafis Sadiq, then the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund. For five years I had tried to bring to the attention of my department the fact that the issue of population, poverty, and peace cannot be addressed without empowering women to deal with all of these. It was, and still is, my firm belief that women will not choose war over negotiating peace, that given a choice, they will not produce children who must go hungry, that they are the backbone of a nation’s economy and cultural articulation, and that they hold the key to the myriad conflicts which rage like an uncontrollable conflagration, destroying a world built by men and predicated on inequity and injustice.
It is unfortunate that I was unable to convince my department of the value of the genuine empowerment of Pakistan’s women, beyond the provision of services and family planning counselling. It is equally unfortunate that I was being seen as the face of the United Nations at a point when this esteemed organization was totally impotent in the face of your country’s insistence on invading Baghdad. My protest at this incapacity led to my resignation, something I have never regretted and would do time and time again, for protest is my right, and practically the only thing left to me to use with clarity, dignity and purpose. And it is through this fissure that I hope to be able to insert these words, Your Excellency, through the cracks in the daunting security which surrounds you during your visit to my country.
Your Excellency, before me, wrapped in a piece of fabric stained with grime and fragile with wear, lie the gifts I received from the family I recently visited in the hamlet of Thor which straddles a glacial stream rushing down the majestic Karakoram mountains. This parcel was given to me by the woman whom I met while conducting a Cultural Heritage Impact Assessment for the proponent of the Diamer Basha Dam. It contains what she had gathered in the fading light of autumn from the forest surrounding her stone hovel which she shares with eight children, her husband, several goats, a cow, two dogs and a ginger kitten with a broken leg. Lying inside this piece of fabric were a couple of pomegranates, some dried mulberries, and a handful of apricot kernels.
When I shook out the piece of cloth containing these precious gifts, I realized that it had been carefully embroidered with intricate designs resembling the motifs I had seen etched into the dark surface of the igneous rock which lies scattered across hundreds of miles of this desolate landscape, described as the “abomination of isolation” by the British who wished to consolidate the far reaches of their empire in the nineteenth century. That this family lived just besides the 19th century British-built rest-house, perched on a cliff over-looking the thundering rivulet running down from the melting snows, appeared to me a fitting irony: rampant poverty living in the shadows of the greatest empire of the modern world.
I listened helplessly as my host explained in a language unknown to me that her husband was being threatened by the powerful land-owners of the area to give up his little patch of land on which his family eked out a meagre existence. This patch of land shall not be submerged by the 100 kilometre long reservoir of the proposed dam, but before the river is dammed, this family, and many like them, shall be damned to displacement, dispossession, and the absolute disarticulation of everything they have known for centuries: their music, their songs, their stories, their way of life. There shall be many like them, “collateral damage” in the path of progress of a country starved of energy and full to the brim with contradictions which flame the fire of terror.
Why do I tell you this simple story, Your Excellency? Why should you be concerned about the lives of an obscure family living in some remote region of a country considered to be the pariah of nations for its involvement in the breeding of terror? Why should your mind be cluttered by the details of the lives of ordinary Pakistanis who struggle to survive all sorts of neglect and deprivation? After all, the simple mantra chanted by your government and those before it is that by bringing democracy to these conflicted lands, the world shall be a safer place. And democracy is what supposedly describes the dispensation in our Parliament today, and even for the several years before that, despite the fact that the self-appointed head of state was nothing but a military despot wearing the disguise of well-cut suits.
I tell you this simple story for the simple reason that perhaps the problem lies in the details, Your Excellency, in the details of ordinary lives. The problem itself is simple, and the solution is not as simplistic as American foreign policy would like us to believe. The problem, Your Excellency, is the wilful and malevolent perpetuation of a universal state of inequity and injustice – a state of dangerous contradictions poised to implode despite the many hasty and ill-thought out designs to alleviate the burden of poverty and privation. Today I see you standing before a computer, accompanied by a permanently beaming President and a stately Minister who gives away money to the needy, once a month, as long as the needy are defined by a certain parameter.
Your Excellency, apparently you are to push a button on the computer which shall randomly select a winning family which shall benefit from the munificence of a government functioning almost entirely on the rhetoric generated by martyrdom. That this family is then to return the awarded amount while those in government have loans worth millions of dollars written off is an irony as sharp as the fact that the family in Thor Nallah had never heard of this benevolent scheme, nor have they ever received the benefit of electricity which could possibly power a computer on which their names could be listed.
Your Excellency, I had worked with my mother in the region of Gilgit Baltistan for thirteen years before her untimely death in the region she had come to love. For most of the people of this region, as for most of the people of the four provinces of my beloved country, such schemes have remained inaccessible, much like gainful employment, health care, education, land, and the most ubiquitous of all rights: justice. It is ironic that those who have denied the people of Pakistan these essential rights are the ones you are now accompanied by: the grinning and ingratiating folk who surround you on your visit. Your Excellency, how can we possibly be anointed with the ink of Democracy when the parchment we have been writing on is brittle with conflict, fragile with prejudice, and infested with a feudal ethos which eats into the very fabric of democratic principles? How can we, ordinary Pakistanis, believe that those with whom you do business are truly representing our interests, the interests of the family in the Thor Nullah and countless others like them in Awaran, in Badin, in Zhob, in Gwadar, in Dir, in Bakkhar?
Your Excellency: I am not trying to dissuade you from your noble mission to inform us of what is already written in blood, the blood of men and women and children killed in a war we did not create. As I write this, news filters in of the deadly bombing of the heart of my father’s beloved city Peshawar. Tonight the sound of mourning, of women wailing for lost children, of babies seeking lost mothers, shall fill the sky above my country. Can you hear that song, Your Excellency, that lament of despair, that elegy to a nation defeated by those who sold it for another song, a song of greed and a malignant lust for power? That is not a song anyone would willingly want to hear, and unless you and those in positions as significant as yours are willing to hear that elegy, I fear that very soon, too soon perhaps, there shall be no space for further burials in this beloved, blighted country of mine.
In closing, allow me to offer you the lines of the wonderful British poet who made America his home:
I am moved by fancies that are curled /
Around these images, and cling: /
The notion of some infinitely gentle /
Infinitely suffering thing. (T.S. Eliot – Prelude)
Yours most sincerely,
Feryal Ali Gauha