Wondrous wonders and the Frere Hall Park

While doing some archival research recently, I came across a lot of Ardeshir Cowasjee’s old columns. Cowasjee was one of Karachi’s finest advocates, someone who cared about things like a building creeping onto the road, and the height of a building, and preserving the city’s skyline. I laughed out loud at some of the brilliant lines – has anyone coined anything better since the Jadoogar of Jeddah? There were columns dedicated to the tick-tock details of letters written to government officials and public interest litigation, all so that the city could be liveable.

I think about this a lot now. I think about what it means to live in Karachi, why nothing seems to even elicit mild disapproval, not even a reaction, as if the city’s destruction is just background noise, why the very simple act of taking things to court, to put them on paper, has become so difficult.

I have been thinking about all of this far more since I read this:

The Frere Hall park is one of my favorite places in Karachi. It is beautiful and open. It has no boundary walls or tickets. (A true wonder of Karachi is having to pay for entry to parks.) It is where the amazing book fair takes place every Sunday. It is a place where you can rest and walk around and have a cup of chai and sit under a tree or in the grass. It is a place where you can take a ride around the park in a Victorian carriage. It is quiet and peaceful.

For many years, Frere Hall’s park was abandoned and inaccessible. Before 2001, the park would be packed with people. After 2001, the park was essentially inaccessible because public transport was barred from the road (the US Consulate was right across the street.)

**

For those of you who may follow me on Twitter, I posted a few weeks ago about this plan after I read about it in Dawn. While I was working on this post today I saw that Marvi Mazhar has an Instagram post on this, raising a hugely important point about the restoration of the building.

**

I didn’t follow this story from the start, but this is the timeline as I understand it now: The Karachi mayor signed an MoU with a group that calls itself the ‘Guardians Trust’. This trust – which includes some of the regular figures of Karachi elite [full list in the gallery below] – has somehow taken on the mandate to “restore” Frere Hall. The trust will manage the park for five years, according to Dawn.

This move has been challenged by the Sindh government which says the mayor cannot sign off control of the park to another entity. (Samaa, The Express Tribune)

While this bureaucratic wrangling continues (or does it?), the Guardians Trust announced their plan for Frere Hall last month. Dawn’s reporting from the event had statements like this:

- There will be adequate parking and with time there will even be underground parking. There will be four clearly designated entryway gates to the facility.

- Mr Jilani said the Frere Hall library will be moved to the left side, to a much bigger space which will be a conditioned space. Its size will be doubled. Then there will be an amphitheatre, a souvenir shop and a cafe.

- A visitors’ centre on the ground floor is also planned, which will serve as the first interface for the tourists to the city. The bandstand, along with the fountains, will be restored. There will be several features to the gardens at the centre of which will be Jinnah Square. Cars will not be allowed to enter the central space.

- Acknowledging a member of the board Ghazi Salahuddin’s thoughts that the hall was once associated with the city’s intelligentsia and public where book fairs happened, where people got together for exchange of ideas, Mr Jilani said stalls will be put together keeping all those things in mind.

[NOTE: THERE IS A BOOK FAIR THAT TAKES PLACE EVERY SUNDAY.]

**

I believe it is our right as citizens of Karachi to ask what is being done with Frere Hall. I have very rarely exercised this right because I’ve always thought of myself as a journalist, not a resident, and because I could always get answers to things I was curious about through my work. I have also very rarely cared about something to the extent that it impacts my life — almost everything in Karachi does, but I am very good at disassociating myself from it.

But something has shifted in the way I think. I do not wish to become an activist, but I care very deeply about this park. I do not claim to have gone there as a child. I do not have any claim, perhaps even now, as an adult. But I have a right to know things as a resident. (Related: I recently watched this interview with Fran Lebowitz where she was asked whether artists have responsibilities: Fran says artists don’t have responsibilities, citizens do. That part of the conversation is really interesting for those of you who may struggle with this divide.)

I wrote to the Guardians Trust – their email is listed on a sign at Frere Hall – to ask for a copy of the plan, and I said I was writing as a resident of Karachi. They were quick to reply – they said they would have a site up and running in a fortnight that would feature the plan. (frerehallguardians.com) When the site wasn’t up in two weeks, I emailed again to follow up and was told I could get a physical copy of the plan, which I picked up from their offices last week.

**

Here is the booklet. This is not available anywhere online, or at Frere Hall, or any public place.


The language makes it seem that this is a done deal – that the “restoration” and “renovation” of Free Hall has commenced. (The only new things I have seen in Frere Hall recently are the addition of some lights – though I don’t know when these were put up, since I relocated to Karachi earlier this year – two sign boards by the Frere Hall Guardians Trust, and some benches.)

FrereHallSign

Now back to the “plan”:

Firstly, the library. What does it matter if the library is “functionally inappropriate and very small for being meaningful?” Meaningful to who? And for what? Why can the library not be cleaned, reorganised and made functional in its current space?

(If anyone is looking for a worthy cause, please turn your attention to the Liaquat National Library where archival material is literally in shreds.)

The ‘south-western end' is proposed to be “rejuvenated” by an “authentic restoration of the old Eduljee Dinshaw fountain and re-introducing the Band-stand.”

What purpose does the band stand serve in the year 2019?

I have read through this booklet several times. Their ‘plans’ include:

  • Creating a “pedestrianized and vehicle free” area called Jinnah Square, which would be home to a “very modern state of the art sunken library.”

  • It’ll also have an “impressive water feature with lots of trees and shaded pathways.”

  • Turning the existing library into a cultural centre

(There are existing libraries that could probably use some of this “modern state of the art” magic.)

Then they point out the “utter neglect” and “disuse” of the Hall. (If people couldn’t visit for years, how could they have used it?) This utter neglect is thanks to the government and whoever was in charge of “restoring” and “rejuvenating” the building in the past during which a weather vane was stolen.

The 16-page booklet then goes on to say that they “seek saviours of our future.” In exchange for a contribution, their names will be marked on a “Great Wall of Giving” and one can do dedications on lamp posts, benches and trees.

This publication contains no other details: how will this be funded, the qualifications of anyone involved to undertake this project, the legalities of a “trust” taking over a park, and whether any of the individuals involved has spent more than five minutes in the park [without being there for a ticketed/invite-only event] in the last 5 years.

The larger issue I have about the “rejuvenation”, “restoration”, “revival” and “intervention” of and in public spaces in Karachi is: who are you “rejuvenating” this for, and why? These spaces are already “revived” – they are alive and people visit and relax and sleep in its gardens and play in the empty fountain and take six million selfies against the backdrop of the facade. So who is this being restored for? Do the people who use this park, who work in this park, and to whom this park is an open, non-ticketed, not-cordoned-off space get to decide whether they would like to see it “rejuvenated” and in what form? (I have not yet heard of anyone being consulted.) Maybe we need a public space to do so… perhaps, say, a park?

I have a lot of questions. This booklet does not answer anything.

Here are some photos of this park – “revived” without fanfare and a booklet and a press conference.

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Rush hour, Karachi.

A post shared by Saba (@sabaimtiaz) on

This last photo is a view of rush hour in Karachi from the park. This is one of the few — perhaps only? - parks that do not have boundary walls, where you can see the city go by. Boundary walls coming up around Frere Hall will mark the end of a truly public place.

**

This is not to say that I think Frere Hall should be left as it is: the gallery needs work, and there should be architectural repairs. But when that does happen, can we also have some answers about the architectural repairs of the past and the weather vane being stolen? Can we hear from the people who signed on to do this work in the past? Or the people who presided over the park being used as a rental ground? Why does the park – finally alive, finally open to people – now need to be a construction site again? Why does Karachi need a band stand in 2019? The people of Karachi – those who actually use this park, not those who visited one time for Karachi Eat – should not be shut out, again, from the one park that is accessible and beautiful and alive.

**

Of note, particularly, is how there has been little reaction to this at all, save for Marvi Mazhar’s post today and a mention in Kevin Shi’s article on shade in Karachi for Himalistan.

There have been two identical congratulatory letters though – by two different people – published in Dawn and The Friday Times. “Saba Khan” and “M. Haris” were truly and really “moved”.

And what of artists?

Well:

KBT.png

**

It is, as Cowasjee once wrote, “another wonderful wonder of wondrous Pakistan.”

Knitting: what's next?

I’ve mostly been knitting small projects. I made a hat recently, bound it off, and had taken photos – with perfect lighting! - when I realised there was some kind of yarn tension. I think I had woven in one of the ends with a stitch, and I thought I would snip it free.

Big mistake. Huge. I cut a stitch. The stitch caused a hole. Now I have a hat with a hole. Anyway, I’ve started again – at least it’s a small project and knits up in a day.

**

IMG_2554_medium2.jpg

I made a sweater! It was based off this pattern by Isabelle Kraemer. My version is in navy and grey. I have wanted a navy sweater for a long time. I spectacularly messed up one of the sleeves because the stitches fell off the DPNs more times than I’d like to count. The second sleeve is okay, and while I could try and redo the messed up sleeve I think I’ll figure it out closer to sweater weather.

This is the sweater I’m going to attempt next. So for a long time my closet comprised of high-waisted pants and tucked-in polka dot shirts (how I wish I’d known of the French tuck then). Last year I bought a pair of slacks-style high-waisted pants from Uniqlo and now I am convinced that this sweater is the only thing I need [for winter]. I haven’t started it yet because after the last DPN/sweater disaster, I’m not looking forward to struggling with DPNs.

**

But… I had a fair bit of practice with DPNs by knitting a trial sock – which is 1) yellow 2) will only fit Shrek if he’s ever stopping by 3) has a heel and toes and everything! (I used this extremely helpful tutorial!) I really want to make more socks now (in human sizes) so my next project will either be a pair of socks or the sweater or my unending quest to use the purple/yellow/pink variegated yarn in my stash…

Welcome to Karachi

It’s a beautiful evening in Karachi. I am crossing a road. My handbag is slung across my body. My clothes, however, are covered in flaking cement. I am carrying one end of a commode that smells – well it decidedly does not smell of the ‘clean’ water the plumbers had promised it was just a few minutes ago. The toilet seat is hanging off and at one point I have to grab it off the street while not putting the commode down. I can feel my hands being scraped raw and my clothes also decidedly not smelling of ‘clean’ water. The other end of the commode is being held aloft by a guy I am paying three hundred rupees to help me take it to the dumpster.

It’s a lovely evening, not-spring, not-yet-ORS-weather. People are out shopping. No one offers to help. No one asks questions either, as if it is totally normal to see two people walk a commode down the street in this upmarket neighbourhood.

We put the commode down in an empty plot. The toilet seat falls off. There is a Hilux parked nearby with guards in the back who stare at us.

I insist that we should make a final push to the dumpster a couple of plots away.

I try to wrap my head around how I have gone from crowing over this city’s sea breeze to being covered in the contents of a commode.

In her memoir, My Paris Dream, the writer Kate Betts says she became a Parisian when she had a boulangerie and an electric bill. This month, I became a Karachiite again. I have an electric bill that for now is in triple digits because it is not-AC-weather. I have the number for a guy who, within a minute of our meeting, offered to hook me up with black magic — or a taveez in case I wanted to ‘set my boss straight’. (I’m not sure what it is about me that screamed potential customer, though I’d chalk it up to my awful appearance and dead eyes.) I have a number for a guy who’ll take away empty boxes and give you a hundred rupees for them. (He laments that I tossed out a toilet because he can sell anything. )

The only person who’s shown me any sympathy in the past few weeks is the guy who runs an appliances store on the street, who remarked one day that I seemed… busy. He was meant to have a customer deciding between a tacky gold fridge or a silver one. Instead, he got a mad-haired woman who had taken up residence in his shop and was mid-rant. (For the record, this was the first chair I’d sat in all day)

**

So how did I end up here?

In 2009, Mohammed Hanif wrote an essay about returning to Karachi after over a decade abroad. While the ‘why I left New York’ essay has now been stereotyped and parodied and beyond; the ‘why I left Pakistan’ essays are almost entirely about being hounded out, exile, and torture. The ‘returning to Pakistan’ essays are often marked with a sense of naivety and wonder and relief at being “home” – a life where things are easy.

Anyway, so Hanif’s essay is wry, not marked by the weariness and raw emotion and the brutality of his subjects in recent years. Instead, he wrote of Karachi’s “oddities and surprises.”

“It is the only city in the world where Pakistani cricket legend-turned-politician Imran Khan is banned. In an election where voters were British celebrity magazine editors, Khan could easily have become mayor of somewhere. However, Hello! has limited influence over public opinion in Karachi.”

It is 2019, and Imran Khan is now the prime minister. Hanif, I’d like a word.

I read that piece after I’d spent a year living in Jordan. I’d made the decision to return to Pakistan because I had no job, and no money, and could see no life for myself. Almost as soon as I came back, I regretted it. I searched for jobs obsessively. Somewhere, my resume is on the database of every major news organisation in the world. (I have only ever had one person write back, and then never write to me again.)

Sometimes things work out. In Karachi I became a full-time reporter, I worked incessantly, I didn’t work at all, I wrote a book.

In 2016, I went to Jordan again and started reporting stories based in the Middle East. I could see no life for myself in Pakistan: work had dried up, but mostly, I felt exhausted, like I had no connection to Karachi. I saw dead ends everywhere. But I believed that I could spend my entire life being a writer, that I could pick up and freelance anywhere.

I am now back in Karachi, with 20-something boxes and copies of magazines with the pieces that sometimes took days and months of rewrites and days and months of tears, and notebooks of pitch ideas I never wrote up.

This time though, I feel none of the regret or anxiety at having left a beautiful city, or the life of living out of a suitcase. I am not itching to leave again. I am here because I have made a choice; that I want to be in Karachi, that it is a privilege to live in such a massive city, and that I will always be a writer even if I am not writing full-time, that now I know I can always go somewhere else and write there.

But when I told people I was moving back to Karachi, the response was overwhelming concern that something awful had befallen me, that I was returning to Karachi broken, the underlying assumption, I guess, that I was returning because I had no choice.

I didn’t have any choices, and maybe I also did. Sure – I could have continued to spend money on visas, because unlike other freelance journalists, I do not have a passport that allows me to extend visas at will or pitch up anywhere. Instead, I was always travelling to stay within visa limits, spending 24 hours in an airport hotel, on the streets of another city, never really the tourist, always the person in transit. I pitched pieces that would invariably get accepted as my visa was expiring. I had story ideas that I could never see myself bringing to fruition: would I be anywhere long enough? Could I even travel to x country or y? Would I be able to do an interview, to come back again, to do another interview? This great piece from Africa is a Country is seared into my brain:

Western visa regimes, conceived at the deathbed of empire—the British Empire at its peak allowed for varying degrees of free movement within the colonies—have long been about fortification, limiting freedom of movement, of privileging westerners at every conceivable economic, social, and political opportunity.

It’s why there are almost no Nigerian or Indian freelance journalists condemning corruption and investigating the monarchy in London, but freelancers with British, EU and American passports can be found in numbers building their careers overseas.

So now I am back in Karachi. I spent the first week looking for apartments. Every apartment in Karachi, it seems, when it is locked up for an hour, is taken over by pigeons operating like a land mafia, an avian qabza group. I couldn’t enter balconies or bathrooms because the pigeons had seized control through open windows. I opened the door to the balcony at one flat and a startled pigeon fluttered up from its perch atop a water tank. In another flat, the floor was covered in pigeon feathers, as if the pigeons had turned it into a fighting pit (or perhaps there was a cat in the flat too?)

Every time I told real estate agents my budget they looked at me with a kind of derision and pity: how could I possibly hope to find a clean, functioning apartment for this much money? How could I have standards? The math of house rents makes no sense – it is based on some sort of logic that even real estate agents don’t know. The rent would decrease inversely to the floor: apparently, the cost of a flight of stairs is around seven thousand rupees. As a prospective tenant, I fielded questions about my life, my family, my profession. One real estate agent asked me if I could find a reference from another ethnic group’s association of traders – I’d be a more trustworthy potential tenant.

And yet, no one said aloud that it was strange I was the one looking for a place, not a man. It was not until the afternoon where I was in an apartment with two other real estate agents, all of us taking photos that would invariably look much better on the phone than they do in person, when someone casually closed the main door and I had to ask that they open it and leave it that way. They all looked a bit surprised at how emphatic I was. Men never see the fears that grip our hearts, the calculations we make before entering a space, the inevitability that violence is around the corner.

Men often insist that I am like their daughter or sister. They all have my interests at heart until it is time to pay up. Then I am no one’s sister. Then they would very much like a pound of flesh, or two, and surely, I must be a human ATM. I have paid everyone I had to: the real estate agents, the landlord, the movers. I have bargained with street cleaners to remove years-old(?) debris outside my flat because in Karachi no one quite knows whose job it is to remove mounds of mud and debris because you can literally leave your crap anywhere. As we bargain over the cost, I insist they’re asking for too much money. They insist its a four-man job. Later on, I see only one guy doing it.

I respect their hustle though. Everyone is a hustler in Karachi, even the cat who has taken up residence on a nearby cafe’s fake grass and is literally hustling for food because she makes for such a cute Instagram photo.

**

So how had I ended up - not just here, but crossing the road with a commode?


I'd called my plumber over for a couple of routine things: well, it was really just one thing: to put in stronger drain covers, because in one of my old apartments a rat had gotten through one – an experience that I will never ever be able to describe in its full horror – and we noticed one of the toilets was leaking. So I called the landlord’s #2 guy, and the landlord, and they sent some plumbers. Now they'd sent another plumber before, a very professional, very nice guy. These two also seemed quite nice. But once they’d replaced the toilet, they placed it on the floor of the room that I had scrubbed clean just a day before, where it was now steadily leaking water. It’s clean, they assured me. I assumed they’d take it away with them. They asked me to call the landlord’s number 2 guy, who said we should toss it out.

I asked the plumbers if one of them could give me a hand and I’d take it to the dumpster with them. No can do, they said. Their clothes were clean for prayers, so I should call a “sweeper” to do it.

I have lived in Karachi long enough to know there is no arguing with this. I said I understood. And I do. Sweeper, in Karachi-speak, means a cleaner who is not Muslim: because custodial work is relegated to non-Muslims. How the plumbers had managed to be in a loo, or why they were working as plumbers when they couldn’t soil their clothes is beyond me, or why they had lied about the “clean toilet” is beyond me, but I literally don't make the rules. We had been reduced to swinerry’s lament: y I am haram? Me, for a few minutes, with my privilege and religious qualifier that allows me to go through life with ease, and the cleaner, forever, who did not question what I needed picking up or why or whether his clothes would be unclean.

There was no time to process the full-on immersion into Karachi's racist and xenophobic culture. Off I went, to find the “sweepers.” Who I discovered, were in the neighbourhood mosque, where they work as subcontractors. Within seconds, I had a guy who would help me with the toilet, and this is also where I somehow ended up listening to a spiel for black magic services.

We got the commode in the dumpster.

I came back home, and I realised I’d been too preoccupied with the leaking monstrosity to see what had happened. The once-pristine, empty room was covered with bits of plaster, cotton (?!), nails – it’s always nails – and the wooden frame of the new toilet studded with more rusty, twisted nails. The bathroom was even worse: covered in cement, more screws and nails and plastic and water. I had a brief moment of longing for every single person who had only left nails and bits of wire, and not taken the time to design a set for a horror film.

I took photos. (Clearly the apartment hunt and taking photos of closets and bathrooms have hardwired me to whip out a phone every time I see a room.) I went out again and tossed the frame, nails and all, in the dumpster, and then I did something I’ve never done before: I called the plumbers’ shop, and asked them to never send this duo to anyone's house again if they were planning to leave a bigger mess behind. (I offered to send the photos to everyone involved. No one has taken me up on the offer.)

**

I miss Amman sometimes. Who wouldn’t? It’s a great city, and I will always love it. But I am home now. My arm is sore from a tetanus shot I had to get after I scratched my leg on a rusty bike parked on the street, and my feet are so black from dirt that when I clean the floor I have to soak my feet in the same cleaning solution, and I’ve gotten disinfectant in my eyes — mid-video call. My feet ache from wearing bad flip flops because every person who does any work in the house leaves behind a bed of nails and screws. Santa Claus leaves gifts, Karachiites manage to leave nails everywhere even when they’re not working with nails.

Though at least it’s just nails: during the move, I took my only loo break in the day and heard a loud crashing noise in the house.

I rushed out to discover the guy assisting with the AC installation had decided to turn over a gas cylinder and use it as … a chair.

It’s a miracle we’re all still here.

And in other Karachi miracles: later that evening, I went back out. The toilet had DISAPPEARED. In less than half an hour. How the fuck did it get taken away so quickly, while no one knows how to remove building debris? Who took it? How does this city function? Who the hell knows?

In any case, welcome to Karachi, I guess.

Coding crisis: Stuck in a loop

So for the past week-and-a-half – much of which was marked by wondering/dreading about the not-so-slow march to our collective doom – I have been trying to do a Launch School assignment to code a variation of rock, paper, scissors [yes, the one also featured on Big Bang Theory, which I laughed at when I originally saw the episode]

Guess who hasn’t been laughing now?

I’ve coded so many variations of this that has broken so many times over the past week that it seems like a blur. Today I worked on this with a friend in Launch School, and we went back to the basics to figure out the things I was struggling with.

Input:

The first exercise he set was for me to look at input and how to validate input. First, it was to check whether an input was the right size, which required using an if/else condition to return whether an inputted string was equal to or greater than 1 character(s).

The next stage was to validate this input, so the code would tell the user to try again if it didn’t meet the conditions.

This requires a loop. My recurring error was not figuring out where the loop began – essentially, I had to wrap all of the code in a loop to start off with.

This was where I struggled since I didn’t figure out how to wrap the entire code in a loop and where to place a break. This is something I tend to do ordinarily with a lot of trial and error so it was good to work on a small piece step by step

array = ["coffee", "tea", "icecream"]
loop do
  puts "Make a choice"
  answer = gets.chomp
  if array.include?(answer)
    puts "This is available."
    break # also remember where to place the break statement!
  else
    puts "This choice is not listed. Try again."
    end
  end

Puts and return

The next step was to validate an input using a hash-key structure inside a method. While I wrote the conditional statements correctly, I also included puts with string interpolation to show me the output, forgetting that inside the method I was not working with a string, and also that I had to return the method.

How could I return it without puts? Puts isn’t the right way — puts is essentially returning nil, which isn’t useful.

One of my challenges is that I need to see code work in real-time. I tend to use a lot of puts statements when writing code so I can see if I’m on the right track . I also run small pieces of code in irb.

I had to use return — but I couldn’t see the code “work”, which is why I didn’t know whether I should use return.

OPTIONS = ['red', 'green', 'blue']
ALTERNATIVE_OPTIONS = {
  'r' => 'red',
  'g' => 'green',
  'b' => 'blue'
}

def converter(string)
  if ALTERNATIVE_OPTIONS.include?(string)
   return ALTERNATIVE_OPTIONS[string]
  else
    puts "Try again"
  end
end
converter('r') == "red"

# puts
def say(string)
  puts string
end
say("Speak!")

#return
def say(string)
  return string
end
say("Speak!")

Indenting!

I’m trying to get a bit better at this because running Rubocop on my code throws up a lot of errors that force me to fix it after. One of my problems is not indenting loops properly when I’m working, which is probably why I get so confused with where I’m supposed to place a break statement or where my code is breaking because it can all look like one big paragraph.

badly indented code:
puts "Welcome to Rock Paper Scissors Spock Lizard!" 
game_choices.each{|key,value| puts "Enter #{value} or #{key} for #{value}"}
    choice = gets.chomp
    comp = VALID_CHOICES.sample
    puts "You chose #{choice}, computer chose #{comp}"
answer = ''
comp_choice = ''

Methods

I think I find this really challenging, though when I do it in small bits it’s fine. I don’t know whether it’s a confidence thing, or that I need more practice.

Conclusion

All in all, this was a really good afternoon of coding even despite my frustration at seemingly failing at fundamental concepts. What I think happens is that I know the general logic, but I feel like I don’t know the language to be able to translate that logic - so I know what needs to happen but the actual code has me drawing a blank. (though that knowledge is somewhere in the recesses of my brain, I just have to invoke it!) I guess this will probably only come with solving lots of similar exercises where I have more confidence in myself and understand what each line of the code is doing.

This week in smog and stitches

Since my last massive scarf I've knitted a couple of wonky hats, a bag, a pouch, and another scarf. The scarf used the tumbling moss blocks pattern, which I really liked because of the methodical repetitiveness of 20 rows and seeing the pattern form.

In December, I bought some angora wool in a shop in Antalya (I learned the word for wool in Turkish is yün!) and when I say some I mean I bought six balls of yarn with wild dreams of all the things I would make. I'm making a Noro striped scarf-inspired version, holding two strands of the yarn together. It is gorgeous and I cannot wait to use it.I'm then going to finally start a sweater, which I am mostly terrified about.

**

I am currently in Lahore, or more accurately, I am currently holed up in a room in Lahore since I caught some bug right after I arrived, which coupled with the toxic air has destroyed me. I now have a hacking cough not unlike that of the soundtrack of a horror film.

This is the air quality here. Delightful.

IMG_1231.jpg

**

On work: I am not quite sure what I'm doing next. I have some projects that have been on hold that I'm hoping to start up again. I've been working my way through the back-end prep section of Launch School which has been really fun and forced me to engage with the concepts in a very different way. I've done some intro to Python work as well as FreeCodeCamp, but this feels like a more immersive experience.

**

Things I have heard/read/liked: I started reading Michael Pollan's book on psychedelics but I haven't picked it up again since the life-sapping cough. The Assassination - a podcast by Owen Bennett Jones on his investigation into the murder of Benazir Bhutto - is excellent. (There is a great line in there about BB criticising the coffee Jones served to her.) I am also just finishing the first season of Slow Burn about Watergate. And I’ve been binge-watching Brooklyn 99 and it is so, so good and I have not laughed (and coughed!) this much in YEARS.

This is hard.

I have something to say, and I don't usually do this, so this is difficult already.

My heart is broken at the death of Anthony Bourdain. Broken in the way that I can’t quite describe. It’s the kind of broken when someone whose work you turn to – in your desperate moments, when it seems like you’ve forgotten how to write the alphabet - is gone.

I mostly started writing about food at the end of my time as a reporter at The Express Tribune. When I quit to freelance full time, I cold-pitched Roads & Kingdoms. They took the piece. I discovered something in myself when writing about food: it allowed me to become a better writer, to research, to understand how and where something had originated, it allowed me to delve into my own middle-class background and understand how the food choices middle-class people make changes the way society functions. A few years later, I was trying to think about a pitch for Bourdain's Dispatched series, and I pitched a piece to Roads and Kingdoms about Eid and the cattle markets and the subcultures surrounding sacrificial animals. It got assigned.

A few days later, I was getting off a rickshaw and a biker crashed into me and ran off. I fell off the rickshaw, and thankfully I didn’t break a single bone but my legs and arms were bruised. I could have told R&K that I wanted to give up and heal, but it was just bruises. I just wanted to write the piece. I hobbled around cattle markets. My bruises healed. I turned in a draft that was probably overwrought and thousands of words over. When it came out.. the response wasn’t just for that day. Bourdain’s name attached to the story meant that people read it, and kept reading it, and kept reading it. Every year, someone reads that story. When I pitch stories, I include that as an example. Bourdain’s support to R&K and to that story meant that R&K kept going and I could keep writing about food, and I could keep learning. I owe so much to that site, but I owe so much to fact that Bourdain cared enough to let it thrive, that it impacted so many other writers.

There’s a tendency to denigrate writing about food or fashion or lifestyle as frivolous or unimportant or easy. I have written about what other people consider valued subjects or serious journalism, and writing about fashion or food or Zingers is hard. It is hard to fact check. It is hard to do. It is hard to mine your life and other people’s lives for what the crunch of a food means and why they spend money on it. There’s a tendency in Pakistan to denigrate women writing about food or music or fashion as not being serious – and accusing them of being unethical – I’m looking at you, Pakistani musicians who haven’t learnt to take criticism since 1991 – but food writing has taught me everything. Bourdain showed us that you can use food to say something larger than yourself and the meal in front of you. That is hard. It is valuable and hard and Bourdain’s loss is utterly devastating.

For many months now, I have thought about what people who are celebrated leave behind. What is their impact. But just look at what Bourdain has left us with – not just his legacy, but his support to writers and a website and cooks - and you think, that’s more valuable than anyone who says its just food. It’s everything.

 

 

 

Reading list: Profiles of Guantanamo detainees - I

A reading list -- in progress - of profiles of Guantanamo detainees

Saad Iqbal Madni

Madni was the last Pakistani detainee to have been released from Guantanamo

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-12566027

www.nytimes.com/2009/01/06/world/asia/06iqbal.html?_r=1&hp

Muhammad Sagheer

Sagheer is described in his leaked assessment file as a 'farmer and missionary' who was arrested in Kunduz - on his first trip outside the country. 

https://www.oneindia.com/2006/09/11/pakistani-says-life-in-ruins-after-guantanamo-jail-1157963779.html

Lakhdar Boumedine, who spent seven years in detention

“RECRUITERS typically scan his résumé with an air of approval, he said, until noting that it ends in 2001. He tells them that his is a “particular case,” that he spent time in prison. He avoids the word “Guantánamo,” he said, as it often stirs more fear than sympathy.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/26/world/europe/lakhdar-boumediene-starts-anew-in-france-after-years-at-guantanamo.html

Omar Khadr

Khadr was arrested when he was 15 years old, and released to Canada in 2012

 http://projects.thestar.com/omar-khadr-in-his-own-words/index.html

Mohammad Jawad

Jawad was a teenager when he was arrested in Afghanistan at the site of a grenade explosion.

https://www.gq.com/story/boy-from-guantanamo?printable=true

Guantanamo: A history of detainee writings - I

This is a list of first-hand accounts of Guantanamo detainees, published as columns. Detainees began arriving at Guantanamo Bay sixteen years ago today.

For me it is not easy to suppress the images of Guantánamo. I am haunted by my own memories, the isolation cell, the food and sleep deprivation, the beatings, the daily humiliation and the brutality. And I keep thinking about the men I met while I was in that place.
— Murat Kurnaz, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/30/my-friend-released-from-guantanamo-bay-locked-up-again-younous-chekkouri

January 11, 2018

Sharqawi al Hajj: Will I Die at Guantanamo?

Sharqawi Abdu Ali al Hajj is a Yemeni citizen. He has been detained at Guantanamo since 2004.  He is accused of being a facilitator for al Qaeda.

October 13, 2017

Khalid Qassim: I am in Guantánamo Bay. The US government is starving me to death

August 24, 2016

Khalid Qassim: Hunger striking for ‘dignity’ in Guantanamo

Qassim wrote about being on hunger strike. Qassim is a Yemeni citizen born in 1976. He was accused of being an al Qaeda fighter and captured in Afghanistan in 2001. Qassim is yet to be charged.

October 17, 2017

Ahmed Rabbani: I’m a Pakistani inmate and here’s why I am on hunger strike since 2013

Rabbani wrote about being on hunger strike. He is a Pakistani citizen of Rohingya origin. He was accused of being a member of and facilitating al Qaeda in an apparent case of mistaken identity. He is yet to be charged.

January 11, 2016

Sami al-Hajj: Remembering Guantanamo

Sami al-Hajj was a Sudanese journalist working for Al Jazeera when he was detained in Pakistan and transferred to Afghanistan, and then Guantanamo. He was released after eight years, in 2008. He wrote about his detention and imprisonment. 

December 30, 2015

Murat Kurnaz: My friend was released from Guantanamo Bay – only to be locked up again

Kurnaz is a Turkish citizen who was born in Germany in 1982. He was accused of affiliations with the Tablighi Jamaat and al Qaeda. Kurnaz was released in 2006. He wrote about Younus Chekkouri, a Moroccan detainee who was detained by Morocco after his release from Guantanamo.

In 2008, my demand for a fair legal process went all the way to America’s highest court. In a decision that bears my name, the Supreme Court declared that “the laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times.” It ruled that prisoners like me, no matter how serious the accusations, have a right to a day in court. The Supreme Court recognized a basic truth: the government makes mistakes. And the court said that because “the consequence of error may be detention of persons for the duration of hostilities that may last a generation or more, this is a risk too significant to ignore.
— Lakhdar Boumedine, www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/opinion/sunday/my-guantanamo-nightmare.html

November 12, 2014

Murat Kurnaz: Former Gitmo Detainee: ‘It Is Time to Prosecute Those Responsible for My Torture

July 15, 2014

Emad Hassan: Detainees are human

Hassan is a Yemeni citizen who was detained in a raid on a suspected safe house in Faisalabad, Pakistan. He was released after thirteen years.

December 13, 2013

Shaker Aamer on why Russell Brand is banned from the Guantanamo Reading List

August 2, 2013

Shaker Aamer: Have I Lost Hope at Guantanamo?

Aamer was the last British resident to be released from Guantanamo. He spent thirteen years at Guantanamo. He wrote about his imprisonment at Guantanamo. 

April 14, 2013

Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel: Gitmo is Killing Me

He is a Yemeni citizen who was accused of being a guard for OBL. He was released in 2006.

January 18, 2012

Lakhdar BoumedineMy Guantanamo Nightmare

Boumedine spent seven years in Guantanamo. He and other detainees challenged their detention in a landmark habeas corpus case. He wrote about his detention and his life after his release.

May 6, 2011

Moazzam Begg:  A former Guantanamo detainee on the death of Osama bin Laden

Begg was a British detainee held at Guantanamo for over two years.


 

The post-Guantanamo future

I've been reading through the statements made by personal representatives and private counsel of detainees at Guantanamo during their periodic review boards. In some cases, there are mentions of rehabilitation programs in their home countries. There is also Reprieve's Life After Guantanamo program. In their statements, the representatives and counsel mention what the men they're representing want to do for work after their release. These range from opening a laundromat to running a honey bee farm and opening a pizza place. Here are some excerpts from statements made by the lawyers and representatives in the unclassified documents released in the review process.

Muhammad al Ansi, whose work was displayed at the Art from Guantanamo exhibit, wanted to find a construction job. [Al Ansi has been released]

Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammad Uthman: "He has put a lot of thought into a business plan that can be conducted in any country as everyone loves ice cream."

Omar Muhammad Ali al Rammah: "His goal is to gain the skills and raise the necessary capital to open a cafe. He plans to work part time, while attending university to raise capital. His cafe will offer several types of coffee, a game room and perhaps a hookah bar. This type of venture is very popular in Saudi Arabia, where Zakaria hopes to be sent; however, he feels that this type of establishment would thrive anywhere in the world."

Haroon al Afghani has developed a business plan and wants to run a honey bee farm.  

Saifullah Paracha wants to retire.

Guantanamo: The Shepherd

This description of an Afghan shepherd detained at Guantanamo was in the leaked detainee files in 2011. 

Detainee did not receive any military or extremist training. Detainee and his family are nomadic and follow opportunities to find the best grazing grounds. Detainee was harvesting grain for seven days and was away from his home that entire time. He returned from harvesting grain and went to visit his neighbor for some tea before going home. Shortly after this, he was captured.
During an interview at JTF-GTMO on 13 June 2004, the interpreter stated the detainee, “uses tribal dialect and appears to be very uneducated.” Detainee went on to explain in detail how he shepherded. Explaining that he had 300 goats, five sheep, eight camels and two baby camels and how he migrated to other various areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan for grazing purposes. He also explained how he and his brothers shared and lived in tents as they moved. (Analyst note: This detainee’s knowledge of herding animals, which he readily talks about, and his inability to discuss simple military and political concepts, tend to support the detainee’s contention that he indeed is just a simple shepherd.)

Guantanamo Library: Bollywood, and Bakra Qiston Pe

Last year, the U.S. government released a list of video/film and book titles available at Guantanamo, in response to an FOIA request. The entire list is on GovernmentAttic here. I hadn’t looked at the entire list until now, and I did a double take when I saw Bakra Qiston Pe is available.

Carol Rosenberg’s incredibly invaluable reporting on Guantanamo includes updates on the library: Rosenberg reported that the library added Moana last July. In 2013,  she reported on how censors did not approve a book by Noam Chomsky.

Last month, The Independent reported that Pakistani detainee Saifullah Paracha was refused permission to read a book about non-violence authored by family members of victims of the 9/11 attacks.

There’s also a tumblr of images at books at Guantanamo: http://gitmobooks.tumblr.com

For consumers of South Asian popular culture, here are some of the titles available at Guantanamo:

Bakra Qiston Pe – one of the standouts of Pakistan’s comedy theatre productions, the stage play is a classic, rife with sketches of a Genghis Khan-like character, a lot of Michael Jackson music and moonwalking and references to America, and some bawdy and stereotyped humor.

Fifty Fifty – An Urdu satire/sketch show, probably considered among the best shows produced in Pakistan

Taleem-e-Balighan – A classic Urdu play on school education

Bollywood Zero Hour Mashup – If this is the same mashup I’ve heard at workout studios, it’s not very good.

Something called Shahid vs Ranbir, which is what? A Bollywood face-off?

Desi Boyz (A really, really average Bollywood film)

Veer Zaara – A soppy, sappy film about an Indian man who languishes, forgotten, in a Pakistani prison for years, torn from the woman he loves, and is only saved when a lawyer takes up his case

Dhoom and Dhoom 2 and Dhoom 3

(and Chennai Express.)

Dil Se – a Mani Ratnam film about nationalism, insurgency, and love in India. (This piece by Daisy Rockwell on the film is great.)

Tremors – Every Pakistani saw this film in the 1990s.

In the library, along with works by Murakami, Nietzsche, Marquez, Mahfouz, Rowling are works by Saadat Hasan Manto (written as Minto in the list – one wonders if the letters to Uncle Sam are included?), Mustansar Hussain Tarar, and Khadija Mastoor.

Pakistan / Guantanamo in Pakistani courts & legislature

I am reading through old reports on Pakistani prisoners at Guantanamo. During the early 2000s, a number of petitions were filed in high courts by the relatives of detainees, seeking to know their whereabouts. (This, for example, is from a hearing in a petition filed by Majid Khan's wife.) The petition reports do not have much information, but are useful in trying to understand how these cases were emerging at the time. (This is a petition in the Islamabad High Court by Ahmed Rabbani's family in 2014,  hearings were still continuing by 2016)

This is a 2004 report on the expected release of forty prisoners from Pakistan at Guantanamo. 

In 2009, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the Sindh High Court during a hearing in a petition filed about Ammar al Baluchi that five Pakistanis were being held at Guantanamo, while 68 Pakistanis had been released. 

The ministry said the government had constantly been in touch with the US authorities at various levels to seek early repatriation of the detained Pakistani nationals and protect their rights and interests. Besides regular diplomatic contacts, the matter had been taken up at the highest level by the president and the prime minister.

The ministry said the government was making all-out efforts for the release of innocent Pakistanis and agitating their detention through the United Nations would adversely affect the bilateral approach, which had successfully worked so far.

From a November 2008 statement by the foreign minister during the National Assembly's Q&A session. 

The Government has been and remains engaged in efforts at the political and diplomatic levels to seek early repatriation of all Pakistani detainees at Guantanamo Bay as well as to ensure that the detainees are well looked after, are provided with necessary facilities including medical treatment and are not mistreated.
The matter is regularly taken up with the U.S. side both at the political and diplomatic levels.
The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr. Yousaf Raza Gillani, during his visit to the United States from 28-30 July 2008 conveyed to the U.S. side our concerns regarding delay in the return of the remaining Pakistani detainees at the Guantanamo Bay.
Our inter-Ministerial teams have undertaken 3 visits in August 2002, April 2004 and August 2006 in connection with efforts to secure the repatriation of Pakistani detainees at Guantanamo Bay. 
During two consular visits to Guantanamo Bay in 2002 and 2006, our relevant officials also met Pakistani detainees.
As a result of these efforts, 67 detainees have so far been repatriated to Pakistan from the Guantanamo Bay.
 According to the procedure devised by U.S. authorities, once a person is brought to Guantanamo Bay, a CSRT (Combatant Status Review Tribunal) is held to determine his status. If he is found to be an Enemy Combatant, he is detained in Guantanamo Bay.
The U.S. Department of State approves detainees for transfer or release based on a system of Administrative Review Boards (ARB) which assess each detainee’s threat level and intelligence value.
Our Embassy in Washington has maintained regular contact with the Office of War Crimes issues, Department of State for seeking repatriation of the six Pakistani detainees.
The Embassy has been told that all the six Pakistanis presently in Guantanamo Bay have gone through the CSRT process. None has been approved for transfer or release as yet.
The U.S. Department of State has further conveyed to the Embassy that it keeps the Government of Pakistan’s requests for repatriation of the remaining Pakistani nationals detained at Guantanamo Bay under review and shares the desire of the Government of Pakistan for the transfer of the detainees promptly and does not wish to hold any one longer than necessary.