15 May Pitying the Nation
By Hasan Altaf
One of the few reliable characteristics of the institutions of the government of Pakistan is that they will only rarely stick to their mandates, that they will only occasionally consider themselves bound to fulfill their theoretical functions – the idea of the “public servant,” for example, seems to have passed ours by entirely. Given that the results of this tendency are so frequently destructive, or at best neutral, we should look kindly on Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa’s recent bout of poetic inspiration at the conviction of Prime Minister Gilani for contempt of court. It’s easy to say, as the prime minister’s lawyer did, that judges should refrain from adding poetry to their judgments (“especially” their own; maybe Iqbal would have been acceptable?) and just make their decisions and let that be that, but in a country where that is so rarely that, a little bit of riffing off Khalil Gibran is hardly the end of the world.
“Pity the Nation,” Justice Khosa’s addendum to the court’s decision, has struck quite a chord.It has earned slaps on the wrist not only from the Prime Minister’s counsel, but also from a former ambassador (who would like to shift the conversation entirely – “cit[ing] poetry instead of law while sentencing an elected leader on questionable charges reflects Pakistan’s deep state of denial about its true national priorities” – as if the accountability of leaders were not a hallmark of a functioning democracy; as if in focusing on extremism and terrorism we should ignore all the other injustices of the country; as most of what happens in the government of Pakistan is not “questionable”) and anExpress Tribune columnist who saw Khosa’s Gibran and raised him a Byron. It has also become a Twitter catchphrase that within a few days has been used across the political spectrum (PML, PPP, PTI, P-ick your own), for matters personal (“…where children of judges get admission in aitchison college even after failing the entry test”) and national (loadshedding), for criticism of literature (“…where bad poetry is appreciated”) and tradition (“…where political parties are transferred over a will like family property”), and even the requisite clever meta-tweets invoking pity for the nation that pities itself on Twitter.
Justice Khosa’s cri de coeur led me to feel pity mostly for Justice Khosa – and, by extension, the rest of our “public servants.” Being a Pakistani has become hard enough; seeing what has become of the country (what has been done to it, what has been done to us, what we have done to ourselves and to our country and to each other and to others) is hard enough; caring about Pakistan has become, in a time when every day brings bad news, hard enough. Imagine being one of those who truly does make it what it is, who truly has the power to shape and control some portion of the country’s destiny; it must be impossible to sleep at night. Considering the bizarre situation in which the Court has been placed and has placed itself (the chain of causes and effects here, the schematic of who is scratching whose back and how and why and when, is so ridiculous that to talk about is pointless), the justice’s poem seems to me an entirely understandable response, the breaking of the camel’s back by a particularly absurd straw. And sometimes, as any self-respecting angst-ridden teenager will tell you, there really is nothing to do but write a poem and put it online.
One may question his style, but it’s hard to argue with most of Khosa’s ideas: “Pity the nation that elects a redeemer/but expects him to bend every law”; “Pity the nation that punishes its weak and poor/but is shy of bringing its high and mighty to book”; “Pity the nation whose servants treat their solemn oaths/as nothing more than a formality.” All this could be said, of course, of many countries, but somehow the theater of Pakistan – the NROs and NGOs, the party-hopping and the dynasty-building, the fiddlers competing furiously while around them Rome burns – is particularly absurd. It’s hard, when thinking of Pakistan, to not feel an automatic, stomach-tightening pity.
The thing about pity, though, is that while basically harmless it is also essentially useless; pity leads nowhere; pity is the last stop, the final resort. Pity is what you feel for those for whom there is no hope. Pity is what you feel when all you can do is watch those you love destroy themselves, applaud the swagger with which they walk the plank. What pity leads to is washing your hands, watching the show, and trying to make the end as easy and comfortable as possible. And in that sense I think one has to disagree with Justice Khosa, as some of the responses to his poem show. Pakistan may be in a pitiable state, but it is not quite time for us to pity the nation. This is the time to be angry at the nation, to rail at the nation, to criticize and comment and expose, to tear down and rebuild. With apologies to those who feel poetry has no place here, what I keep hearing in my head these days is a line from “They Feed They Lion,” by Philip Levine: “‘From ‘Bow Down,'” he writes, “come ‘Rise Up'”:
From my five arms and all my hands,
From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
From my car passing under the stars,
They Lion, from my children inherit,
From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
From they sack and they belly opened
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
They feed they Lion and he comes.
(If anyone is looking for a response to Khosa’s poem, may I recommend Levine’s?)
But there is a place here for pity. Pakistan does not need pity yet, but its leaders – elected and self-appointed, dictators and “democrats,” kings and princelings, in the halls of power and just waiting their turn – they do. They might not necessarily deserve it, but they are least the logical recipients of our pity. For them, however many the stripes on their uniforms and whatever the particular alphabet soup of their party, there does not seem to be any hope. It is only if we continue to expect to be saved by them, if we continue to hope for a redeemer to emerge from this lineup – which is to say if we continue to hope for someone to lead us into safe waters rather than taking control of the tiller on our own – that we ourselves will need pity.
This essay appeared first on 3 Quarks Daily on May 14, 2011 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.