Daring to Understand

A Suicide bomber: A grotesque, bloodthirsty monster. And this haggard, greying old man with his vacant eyes and broken slipper, like the broken spirit within as the cameras stare into his face and the headlines are splashed across interfaces: Suicide Bomber. Caught in the Act. A thrilling, juicy piece of news. It will fly. And it will sell. Fast. Fast like the sleek and swanky black limousines that whoosh past you through the Main Boulevard making the dust fly off in all directions; the dust that finally settles on the dusty roadside beggar, adding another layer to shroud him into dusty oblivion; it settles slowly, holding out against the fast limousines, the fast traffic, the fast music and the fast food. Slowly, like death. Fast and slow, making the rhythm of the city — the thoughtlessly fast, and the resiliently slow — fighting life’s battle in the streets of my city.

The Monster returns. He’s unconventional, though. Not with the horns and the fangs and all. But with dark circles, the sunken, dimmed eyes, the creased-up face with his advancing years, the silver in his hair. Sun-beaten, sun-worn, threadbare — my definition of the Monster. The definers have hammered the definition on me with authoritative finality. I succumb — like everybody else. I ought to believe he is dangerous. I am supposed to condemn him, get frightened of him, loathe him, spit in his face, and righteously pronounce him horrendously sinful, perverted, hideous, damned, hell-bound, with all the wealth of jingoistic and religious rhetoric at my disposal. I cannot but obey. I join the chorus. Like everybody else.

And I kill me softly. I stifle the human essence, the still small voice that resists. The voice that questions. The militant voice — always politically incorrect. It questions ‘why?’ It does not allow me the comfort of following the crowd and biding my time. It discomforts me with the instinct to seek out the answers for myself. It makes me wonder why I have to buy the definition and believe that the pathetic grey man was a vile monster. It makes me wonder why, after all, he was a monster, perhaps — or so it seems?

I do not judge. I do not allow myself the terrible privilege. I just wonder, and want my right to ask questions. I want my right to feel, to understand. I want my right to be and stay human. And I simply wonder what went wrong…

In 2001, when the United States pounded Afghanistan with their firepower just across the border on a flimsy pretext, my people here in Pakistan were hurt too, because the national boundary running through the northern tribes does not cut across eon-old tribal affiliation. With the Pashtuns on the other side of the Durand Line under occupation, the Pashtuns on this side considered it a tribal obligation and religious duty to assist. That is the ethic running in the blood of the Pathans — the ethic they grow up with, just as their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers had grown up with it. You cannot hope to extort it from the hearts of men. The freedom they prize is a treasure they would not give up for the world. This fierce defence of their freedom is something you simply cannot hope to extricate. Not with all your arsenal, your marines armed to the teeth.

The United States and its ‘non NATO ally’ failed to understand this simple truth. Afghanistan bled, and Pakistani tribesmen, those once-upon-a-time heroic sons of the soil suffered with it. Yet we did not fall to brutalizing each other. The myths, on the other hand — Terrorism, Extremism, Fanaticism, Fundamentalism, Enlightened Moderation — continued to proliferate, and the Great Fiction encroached upon sanities. Yet we did not fall to brutalizing each other.

Till, a couple of years down the line, the Former General imperiously ordered an operation in Waziristan. It came to pass. In the thick of the darkness, in the hush of the night. The country taken by surprise. In clandestine moves, the trigger-happy military men advanced and we waited with bated breath. The usual collateral damage. Men, women, children, masjids, madrassas, schools, earthen huts. With a fell sweep, on orders of a Dictator. We still did not fall to brutalizing each other.

Things took their logical course and the resistance began. A Pashtun resistance. Earlier, aggravated by their country’s alliance with the US and the establishment of American military bases in the north to assist the NATO-sponsored slaughter and occupation in Afghanistan, the Pashtuns had expressed resentment. Their government had refused to budge. Now, they were cannon fodder, officially. And for Somebody Else’s interests.

Faced with a guerrilla resistance in a rugged terrain by ruddy mountain dwellers imbued with the tribesman’s fighting spirit, the khakis were in a quagmire soon enough. To save face, and the little that was left, they sought reconciliation with the irate tribesmen. It materialized, with pledges on both sides — the tribesmen agreeing to put down arms and let go the foreign militants (stationed in Pakistan ‘officially,’ and by Washington’s invitation, since the Soviet-Afghan war); and the Army agreeing to end the operation. We dared to hope.

Till the drone zeroed in on what we call Sovereignty. And on human lives — madrassas, schools, wedding parties, followed by official apologies for ‘misguided missiles’ or ‘intelligence failure.’ Collateral Damage. Full Stop.

In 2006, before the TTP (Tehreek Taliban Pakistan) was ever heard of, right after a successful settlement between the government and the tribal leaders which promised a durable peace in the restive north, American UAV ‘drones’ battered a village searching ‘militants’, leading to several civilian deaths. And so the talks derailed, the guns were picked up again. With blessings from Washington. The TTP raised its head shortly afterwards — a group much more militant and even violent in character than the original Afghan Taliban of yore who do not very proudly profess association with these Pakistani neo-Taliban. The TTP was a child begotten of the vicious cycle of violence and injustice.

The Pakistan govenment’s complicity in the intermittent and incessant drone attacks is poorly disguised by pathetic foreign office spokespeople. First there were the official apologies. Then, the flabbergasted attempts to explain the bloody ‘deal’. And soon enough there were none. Just the raining missiles and the human mincemeat. And handshakes and high-profile visits.

But the victims do not forget their dead. They are not taken in with prettily phrased official apologies which cannot bring their dead back. The hurt festers. It turns poison. It maddens. It dehumanizes. It turns men into suicide bombs. It makes life pointless, worthless. It makes the world a cruel, hateful place. It ignites the sense of honour and incites a burning revenge. And it makes my maddened countrymen, brutalized by unashamed tyrants, fall to brutalizing one another.

And it is as simple as that.

Blending into the chorus, soaking up the definitions, the headlines, the jingoism and the propaganda, the simple fact gets lost somewhere in the morass of our sensibilities. We righteously condemn, we judge, we toss our heads from side to side with disapproval and nod it up and down in assent. Just where and when we are wanted to. And we harden up to this simple fact, failing to understand. Failing to question. Dehumanizing ourselves.

Journalist Hamid Mir recounted his firsthand experience of visiting the injured in a primitive hospital in Waziristan after a US airstrike. A young boy, having lost his limbs, informed that his mother too had died in a similar attack, and that, in her dying moments, she had instructed him to avenge in Islamabad — where the decisions to maim and kill are made — what was done to her in Bajaur. Years later, his elder brother was caught in Islamabad attempting to blow himself up in a high-security area.

It is as simple as that. It is, plainly, human nature distorted brutally out of shape. It is, plainly, the work of our own hands. And it shall come to pass.

A ‘Winter Soldier’ working for the US Army in Iraq decided to quit the job, among several others like him. Addressing a meeting of the Iraq Veterans Against the War, he said: ‘Let me reverse the equation for a while. Let me ask you, that if a foreign force was to land in America on the excuse of democracy or freedom or whatever it may be, would not every patriotic American come out of his house with a shotgun? Would we not resist? What would you do?’ His voice trailed off in the midst of uproarious applause.

It is as simple as that. It is about being able to reverse the equation, and asking oneself ‘what would anyone do?’ It is about overturning the definitions and refusing to buy the propaganda. It is about refusing the official amnesia imposed on us all.

And it is not about Islam. It is not about an ‘Extremist Ideology’ out there to take you over by storm. It is not about monsters and demons. It is not about bloodthirsty suicide bombers with an inbuilt genetic drive to bomb the hell out of you. It is about human beings like you and me. It is about human beings horribly gone wrong. It is about the sinned-against who become sinning in this dreadful mire of poverty, disease, lawlessness, corruption. It is about naked, barbaric injustice and oppression. It is about human beings being made ‘as flies to the wanton boys.’

And it is as simple as that. As simple as Newton’s third law of motion. An equal and opposite reaction. To every action of ours.

So I refuse to sit in judgement. I refuse to self-righteously condemn. I refuse to sing along. And I demand my humanity, my right to think for myself, my right to question, my right to reclaim the Truth. ‘And if anyone of you would punish and lay the axe on the evil tree, let him see to its roots. What judgement would you pronounce on him who slays in the flesh and yet is slain in the spirit? And how persecute you him who is a deceiver and oppressor and yet in himself is aggrieved and outraged?’ (Kahlil Gibran).

I stand the risk of being misunderstood and misjudged. I do not condone the ongoing violent attacks in civilian areas all over Pakistan which victimize innocents. I cannot possibly justify them, nor can any human being in his right mind. But I think I can understand why. I can dare just that much.

And this understanding is important. Because it is through understanding that you reach the heart of the matter, and it is reaching the heart of the matter that you find the solution and begin the healing process. And the heart of the matter is the simple truth about human nature. The heart of the matter is to understand. The heart of the matter is looking to the roots. It is as simple as that.

To begin the healing, we need to set the record straight that this war never was ours, and that the critical transition from ‘theirs’ to ‘ours’ is the triumph of the mighty empire that seeks to export its wars to lands it can buy over with a few billion dollars. We need to face the wrongs we have done. We need to realize that there is no profit in the billions made out of the blood of innocents. We need to realize that violence begets violence. We need to realize that we willed this all, and that ending this vicious cycle of violence is our responsibility, because ‘a single leaf turns not yellow but with the silent assent of the whole tree. So the wrong-doer cannot do wrong but with the secret will of you all.’ (Kahlil Gibran).

We need to realize that armies and weaponry can never win this war — just like it never could in Vietnam, or in Iraq, or even in Afghanistan. And we need to realize that it is never too late or too impossible to sit down and talk things out with your own people, no matter how alienated they are. The troops must be withdrawn, the operation must end and we must get talking. These aren’t monsters, these were my countrymen, and it is never too late to get talking — only my enemy would tell me otherwise.

There isn’t another way. The other option is to let this madness go on, making madmen of us all. The other option is the madness turning visible in all the horrors of spiraling violence — bombs going off in the midst of my thriving cities, the gored flesh and the pools of blood, the gripping fear, the haunted, deserted roads. Just like the death and destruction reigning the dirt-streets of some unnamed village in Waziristan. It comes full circle.

Every bomb going off adds to the horrible, crippling Terror that sinks into my bones. The fear and hysteria is of far more import than the death and destruction. When I am frightened to hell, I am easily manipulated, and when I am easily manipulated, I am owned, controlled, made to do what Somebody requires of me. I lose my sovereignty, my identity, my everything. I become the etherized patient spread over the operating table. Somebody Else’s operating table.

And every bomb going off strengthens the case of the Somebody Else who tries to tell us their war is ours, and that we must do their dirty work and shut up with the billions of dollars of aid doled out. Every bomb going off will be quoted in Somebody’s speeches, telling us with triumphalism and authority how terribly important it is for us to stay the course, to keep on this self-destructive path. It will keep us terrorized so Somebody can promise us security with his Blackwaters and Dynacores. It will keep us impoverished so Somebody can win us with promises of aid. It will keep us enslaved so Somebody can convince us only they can truly liberate. And it will keep us repeating the old refrain: ‘Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength, and War is Peace.’

It is as simple as that.

Maryam Sakeenah is a student of International Relations based in Pakistan. She is also a high school teacher and freelance writer with a degree in English Literature. She is interested in human rights advocacy and voluntary social work and can be reached at: meem.seen@gmail.com. Read other articles by Maryam.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozhidar balkas vancouver said on October 31st, 2009 at 10:11am #

    Feual warlords of akkad, persia, greece, ottoman empire, UK, russia, italy, greece, et al have waged wars against other feudal warlords since 7k yrs ago.
    In meantime, the feudal lords had been oppressing, torturing, enslaving, enserfing, imprisoning, etc., people quite legally.
    And modern feudal warlords of the evil european-christian empires have been doing much the same evil acts to most people. And this time not only legally but with moral justification!

    I wld affirm that if 98-99.99% of europepans wld have been informed, nato wld have never been in afgfh’n fighting its feudal warlords and the christian lands’ modern feudal warlords wld have been deposed once for all time.

    I also assert, that also asian peoples, if they wld be enlightened, wld depose/kill own war and feudal lords.
    The wars-occupation-theft of land in afgh’n, palestine, and iraq are not waged by non-warlords but solely by the warlords.

    In europe, canada, … i guess 20% of people are well informed. Still, not enough to indict warlords such as merkel, blair, brown, berlusconi, sarkozi, et al for criminal behavior.
    In US, there is even less of a chance of that coming to pass. It seems that in US 98% are disnformed.
    However, americans are not an exception nor exceptional when it comes to thinking-feeling-behaving.
    If euros wld have been as much mistaught by ‘religions’, pols, journalists, ‘educators’, entertainment-infantainment people as americans have een, 98% of euros wld be supporting any ‘successful’ war.

    Some americans do not approve of wars in afgh’n and iraq. But they base their disapproval of the two ‘misssions’ on mere perceptions and not on any principle.
    Perceptions are, in the main, that they cost too much or are ‘failing’ [whatever animal is that?], etc.
    Devil forbid, they’d think that the two invasions are criminal ventures? tnx

  2. dan e said on October 31st, 2009 at 12:47pm #

    Maryam Sakeenah not only thinks straight, she writes very well.

    BB Vancouver, most of what you posted is right on, but in your indictment of “Xstian-Euro Imperialism” you omitted what Ms. S. did not: mention of Uncle Sam’s “non-Nato ally”:)

  3. antonio c. s. rosa said on November 1st, 2009 at 4:54am #

    What a powerful piece, Maryam! Thank you! I will post this on the TRANSCEND Media Service website (Peace Journalism) http://www.transcend.org/tms, of which I am the editor. If you wish you may forward your writings to me for publication.
    Best regards,

  4. E. R. Bills said on November 1st, 2009 at 7:02am #

    humanity’s inhumanity to humanity. compelling read. thanks maryam sakeenah.

  5. Maryam said on November 2nd, 2009 at 2:26am #

    Thank you all. U give me the strength to keep to the straight and narrow in a world that has ceased to make sense.
    Two roads diverged in a wood and I
    I chose the one less travelled by
    And that has made all the difference.
    we lone dissident writers need this strength of assenting, reassuring friendly voices to stay the course-

  6. Madiha Zahid said on November 2nd, 2009 at 10:40am #

    Assalamualikum ,
    Your article is so much eye opening because of words digging deep in heart.I read it for the third time. Take care.