Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Case for Pakistani Authors in Op-Ed Pages

Among the aspects of the international coverage of Pakistan's catastrophic floods appears to be an increased appetite for perspective from the country's stellar cast of fiction writers. Hence, opinion pages of the New York Times, The Guardian and the Financial Times have recently featured the likes of Mohammed Hanif, Mohsin Hamid, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Kamila Shamsie.

This makes for interesting reading, primarily because much of the conversation in the Western press usually revolves around the country's militancy problem, and is thus dictated by journalists, political scientists and policy-makers.

The writers trained in those disciplines provide great insight and analysis, but are often hampered by an inability to capture the humanitarian angle. Some rely exclusively on cold, hard numbers (i.e. 20% of Pakistan is under water), others use a token quote from a randomly-selected subject. The focus is on establishing facts. The faces that make up those facts don't really figure.

That makes for compelling reading for someone who goes through 12 newspapers everyday and understands the difference between North and South Waziristan. But for the vast majority who don't, such analysis is informative but disengaging, and thus ultimately ineffective.

Which is why during a tragedy as vast and destructive as the floods, it is good to see fiction writers capturing the raw humanity of the crisis in thoughtful prose. It might be fluff for those who formulate policy, but for the rest of the world it is eye-opening and often underpins donor aid, based on the sheer emotion it elicits.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Cafe Pyala recently featured an argument against the exclusivity (a valid claim but one that I feel has more to do with the international reputation of the authors rather than a bias against others) and naivety of fiction writers on opinion pages. The core of this argument was:
The more insidious problem is that some of these writers end up believing their own hype and think they actually have it all figured out, going beyond humanizing stories with anecdotes and observation to presenting solutions. So we have Shamsie blaming these floods on the timber mafia, Hanif trying to make a point against the Taliban scare by claiming that there is no indigenous word for terrorism in Sindhi or Seraiki, and Mueenuddin raising the specter of the radicalization of and revolution by the displaced and hungry to explain why those people should be helped out.
In a way Pyala is correct. Those solutions are not backed by facts or meticulous analysis. They are simplistic, and often, miss the point altogether.

What they do though, is broaden the narrative about Pakistan for those in the West who don't have an interest in its complexities. Let's put it this way: say you're a casual reader who comes across an op-ed about Lithuania written by an economist. He describes in detail the bond spreads, balance of payments and industrial productivity of the country. Assuming you don't have a sound grip over economics,how much of this would you take away at the end of the article?

Hence, when Hamid says that the tax net should be broadened, an economist might nitpick at the simplicity of his statement (like I do), but I don't believe it is wrong, either. If anything, I believe the average reader might pay more attention to it if it comes on the back of his vivid observation of inequality, rather than a purely economic argument I might make.

A further example of this comes during an anecdote in Ali Sethi's journey in a flood-ravaged part of the country, published last week in the New York Times. He writes:
In one place our car ran into the flood. It was swallowing the road. There was another way out — a six-hour drive west to the city of Quetta. Unfortunately, Baluch separatists had struck: they were stopping vehicles, pulling out Punjabi passengers and shooting them. Most of the men in our crew weren’t Punjabis, and they took that route. But I am a Punjabi, as are two of the reporters, and we had to find another way.
This identifies a problem of critical importance, ethnic disconnect, contextualized in a manner that embeds it into the current conversation about the floods. As a result, it also introduces the issue into the wider discourse on Pakistan, specifically amongst the uninformed, but also amongst those who might have lost sight of it in lieu of the more pressing issue.

Perhaps such a matter could have been explained better by a historian or a political scientist. 9 out of 10 times  it probably would have been entrusted to them. But in the backdrop of a human tragedy, and with Pakistan's sympathy deficit as it is, let's just say I'd rather have Mohammed Hanif on the op-ed pages than Ayesha Siddiqa.


  1. Agreed. That, and if Hanif's op-ed commitments keep him from writing another novel like "Exploding Mangoes," I'm more than happy to let him carry on.

    I'm a little skeptical, though, about the idea that these stories, being more emotive and accessible, encourage more people to donate.

  2. That last line was for you, Emad. Hope it reminds you of a certain encounter in the past!

  3. Whose the first guy in the image? That's neither Hanif nor Sethi.

  4. interesting article...i still feel we need both aspects of writing, the critical economic side and the passionate humanitarian side.

    Both will help us get aid but something more original and in depth about our terribly corrupt political system will be just as effective.

  5. @ Shahid: That's Nadeem Aslam. He wrote 'Maps for Lost Lovers'. The reason he's in the picture is because I was looking for an image with multiple Pakistani authors, and that was the best I could find!

  6. Highly descriptive blog, I liked that a lot. Will there be a part 2?

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