Asad Rahim Khan

Jun 24

Manto, age 102

Published 24th June 2014 in The Express Tribune (e-paper version here)

They said he was a failure; the degenerate son of a dignified man. They said he was a pervert; that he wrote stories soaked in sex and murder. They said he was a pagan, who described the land of the pure in words that ached with impurity. At times they ran out of words — other times, they came up with the wrong ones: the progressives called him a reactionary, the reactionaries called him a rebel.

But they didn’t deny the obvious — not the Marxists, not the housewives, not the judges that tried him for obscenity before and after independence: that Saadat Hasan Manto was a genius.

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Jun 17

Look who’s here

Published 17th June 2014 in The Express Tribune (e-paper version here)


When asked whether Iraq was worth the consequences — in blood and treasure and torture — Donald Rumsfeld replied, ‘Time will tell.’ Having parried countless press conferences, this was a common Rumsfeld trick: defusing violence with vagueness. But there’s nothing vague about what’s unfolding in Iraq.

Eleven years after Bush and Co. barrelled in, and just three after they crawled out, armageddon has arrived. After ignoring them for years, the world has woken up to the gentlemen that form ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham — also known as the clunkier Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

ISIS is a killing machine: a band of zombies that even al-Qaeda wants no part of. In a supreme irony even for the Middle East, it seems the American invasion ended up making real what it set out to destroy.

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Jun 11

Truth and lies through the lens

Published 11th June 2014 in The Express Tribune (e-paper version here)


When they approached Robert McNamara, some would say he was a broken man. As the whizz kid behind Vietnam, McNamara opened up to Errol Morris — the film director — with a heavy heart. The former defence chief was in his eighties, beyond redemption, and, as he wrote elsewhere, ‘terribly, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.’

Over the course of an Academy Award-winning documentary, McNamara visibly struggled to come to terms with the past, and all the pain he had caused in a war he had led. Around the end of The Fog of War, McNamara all but broke down, comparing himself to a war criminal for firebombings over Tokyo — another war a younger McNamara killed hundreds of thousands in.

Morris knew his history but wasn’t hostage to it. He was interested only in his subject, and that’s what The Fog of War is: a character study. Unlike most documentarians, Morris cares little for editing in friends and foes — he prefers just a long hard look at the man himself, who stares back at his audience. And it worked wonders: Bob McNamara, the baby genius who wowed the White House, is a man lost in the fog. Closure never came; he died in his sleep a few years after the film’s release.

But if media is a means for telling the truth, it helps when media men take truth so seriously. Morris once lectured, ‘One of the themes that fascinated me was (…) truth or, more specifically, the avoidance of truth and self-deception. My view is that the truth is knowable, but often that we have a vested interest in not knowing, not seeing it, disregarding it, avoiding it.’

With McNamara, who waded into the swamp of Vietnam — and never made it out the same — the truth, and McNamara’s careful twisting of it, all came undone before the camera. In the golden age of documentary, this was non-fictive film the way it was meant to be: rewarding and revelatory. But it was only when Morris interviewed another 80-something ex-warmonger, that the subject burned through the lens.

Donald Rumsfeld, the mad king to end all mad kings, took on Morris — and the results are jarring.

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Jun 03

Broken conscience: the Pakistani woman

Published 3rd June 2014 in The Express Tribune (e-paper version here)


It’s not stoning to death. Not exactly, if we’re to follow the police’s line. A woman wasn’t stoned to death in broad daylight, by a mob of blood relations. She was beaten to death with bricks.

In a sick society, the means of mutilation is all that’s in dispute. There are 10 different versions of this story, but what’s common in all of them is that a pregnant woman was murdered in the daytime, and a crowd gathered to watch.

This is what falling apart at the seams sounds like.

There’s the other sounds too: the candlelight vigil with the same six or seven brave souls we call civil society. The fury from women’s rights groups. The silence of the right, so quick to condemn everything from Bosnia to Burma. The executive snoring and stirring, then snoring again.

And the inevitable editorials asking ‘how could this happen?’, or alternatively ‘what happened to us?’

Nothing, if we were to concern ourselves with the truth. Soul-searching tends to fall by the wayside when one considers the relevant police officer’s answer: ‘It is a routine murder case like other murder cases, and has to be seen in the context of Pakistani society.’ In the context of Pakistani society, he said.

The truth is, he’s absolutely right. If society is a set of norms, this set of norms is bent on breaking its women, then debasing them after the fact.

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May 20

Modi elected, Jinnah vindicated

Published 20th May 2014 in The Express Tribune (e-paper version here)


‘Every action,’ Narendra Modi once quoted Newton’s third law of motion, ‘has a reaction.’ Modi was referring to the murder of parliamentarian Ehsan Jafri. As blood flowed in the streets of Gujarat in 2002, a Hindutva mob had surrounded Mr Jafri’s home in Gulbarg Society.

They were armed with kerosene and, more damningly, lists of Muslim voters and Muslim-owned properties provided by the state. Using gas cylinders to blast through a wall two inches thick, they made their way into Gulbarg. Mr Jafri called the police, he called the politicians, and he called Narendra Modi. None came.

Mr Jafri fired at the rioters to disperse; they ended up storming his house. Muslim women taking shelter there — hoping the ex-Congress MP would protect them — were raped. When they got to Mr Jafri, they hacked off his hands and feet before severing his head. A pyre was improvised, and his body set on fire.

Ten years later, a Special Investigation Team concluded its findings — and they found for Modi. The report confirmed Modi used the word ‘action’ for Mr Jafri firing first, and ‘reaction’ for what followed. That proved nothing on Modi’s part, said investigators; Ehsan Jafri was to blame. Having called Mr Jafri’s firing ‘self-defence’, it changed the story a few pages later to say he in fact ‘provoked’ a ‘violent mob’, the same that would maim and murder him. File closed.

And this past week, there came the sound of another file closing. Narendra Modi escaped the past by convincing India he was the future. And whatever his faults, NaMo has been dead honest: he never apologised. The closest he came to expressing remorse was, “(Jab) ek chhota kutte ka bachcha bhi car ke neeche aa jata hai, toh humein pain feel hota hai ki nahin? Hota hai.”

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