How Buddhist practice revealed a fresh perspective on Islam for me

“Happiness is here and now

I have dropped my worries

Somewhere to go – something to do

But no longer in a hurry”

– A monastic song

Recently I attended several mindfulness camps with monastics in Hong Kong. Now beyond the awe a newbie might associate with Zen – not least a chance for something experiential. What struck me was the potency of guided meditative exercises that were practiced to, ‘center’ the participants, decompress, or simply put, relax the mind. My limited exposure to Buddhism can be summarized in the following key words (phrases):

  • A hour long 8th grade, opinionated history lesson about Ashoka, Nirvana, and Enlightenment.
  • A very popular religion.
  • A colleague who once said he is a Buddhist.
  • Militant Buddhists in Burma and plight of the Rohingya Muslims.
  • The Dalai Lama.
  • Jeff Bridges characters in Hollywood films.

The contrast between realizing the potential application of a philosophy new to me and my rudimentary knowledge of it was humbling. Moreover so as the communitarian, harmonious and meditative underpinnings can be only understood properly through experience and practice.

And more practice.

I also couldn’t help but wonder whether Islam, my religion of birth, operated in a similar fashion. Does increasing the frequency of practices and rituals prescribed in the Islamic school of thought lead to a greater understanding of Islam? I remember my childhood when I would make conscientious effort to pray and how on most occasions my mind would constantly drift around mundane everyday tasks. As I have reached 30, I barely practice. Reverence to God and death aside there is little actual relevance of the Holy in my life.

These are just some reflections. Muslim faith and understanding of life and Islam I suppose does increase as time passes. Perhaps the issue I’m really raising here is the practicality of theistic as opposed to non-theistic religions in present times. Or is it the virtue of practicing multiple religions?

Whatever debate I’ve stumbled upon today and however strong the potency of mindfulness exercises one thing is abundantly clear; practicing Buddhism showed me a fresh perspective on Islam. It compelled me to give new meaning to old Islamic practices I’m familiar with and that I usually find confounding. For someone who often questions the value of ‘being a Muslim’ this is important.

I’m not advocating Buddhist practice over Islam here. But of why fresh and comparative perspectives are necessary. Perhaps for you it would be some other religion, person, ideology or life choice. As long as effort is made to open up to others. Searching for similarities rather than differences with it or them.

For it gives us a chance to better understand our own selves and our role in this World.

What sets Logan apart from X-Men?

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Watching the film with some fusion spicy dumplings.

I’ve always enjoyed the thought the provoking stories of X-men franchise that brings it closer to science fiction novels than comic books. But Logan set’s itself apart from the usual plot; it’s not the exceptionally violent and gritty feel of the film, although that plays to the unsettling aura, rather a fresh take on the story of ‘good mutants’.

Set in the near future where mutants in their quest to live harmoniously alongside non-mutants have actually struggled to survive. As if the picture that Charles Xavier had imagined and the course his followers took ultimately backfired, after the events of ‘X3: The Last Stand’.

At first this alternative story line may not seem surprising. After all, this scenario is quite close to what Magneto had been fighting to prevent all along. Although, I imagine that in his version of the clash of species, there would have been a ‘battle of all battles’, where if mutants lost they would be exterminated.

But Logan hints of a fate far worse; new mutant babies are no longer born, those considered too dangerous are hunted down, and the remaining ones face every day struggles of ordinary living outside the usual comic book fantasy.

At the same time, mutant genes are harvested to enhance ordinary people, especially for military purpose. In this reality, mutation is merrily a tool, to be exploited by those in power. Although this theme of absolute power is a bit clichéd, the story keeps it fresh by demystifying superheroes and subjecting them to travails of life. No one is above the government and the corporations.

I suspect that in the future we might see ‘bad mutants’ working alongside government mercenaries to hunt down ‘good mutants’ and dissidents. Speaking of such new directions, the installment paves a very flexible way ahead for the franchise. A drama? A TV series? I won’t be surprised.

For now we can be assured that the series has complicated its usual good vs evil vision of reality, thereby also catering to a mature audience.

Goodbye to an era of resolutions

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Fireworks over a mosque around the Seaview area on 1st January 2017, DHA Karachi.

A warm welcome to an era of discipline!

It is not in my nature to be morose about what lies ahead. So in a typical fashion my New Year’s Eve was spent among good company. Both of friends and hooch. Now, that the fire works (and the fire arms), the tributes and the visceral high of celebrating together with millions around the world start to fade, things that made last year so difficult begin to dawn.

Indeed, 2016 has been rather poignant for me. The PhD program ‘came of age’, meaning that the course requirement and comprehensive exams were completed, a prospectus was negotiated with an advisory committee and field work was conducted in Karachi and Islamabad. Also, around summer time I attended a themed poster session @ the ICA in Japan.

It was a ridiculously packed agenda. One that raised the bar, set new standards and pushed me to stop complaining and get shit done. To put no-so-subtly.

The costs are high ladies and gentleman of stumbling along new pastures.

But the rewards are… oh so satisfying.

I’m surprised how clear I am about my plans for 2017 at a moment when many are celebrating the uncertainty or bemoaning what has passed. Much credit is due, among other things, to the rigorous requirements of the program that has instilled a measure of discipline. To be sure, the plan requires considerable rework. But I understand that is just part of the game.

Key learning here is that some form of structure no matter how rudimentary is crucial. For me the myth of having no rules as the driving engine was busted in 2016. Working in academia as with everything else worth pursuing requires a certain mindset, not least the ability to work alone for extended periods. A certain discipline which takes time and training. Rules make things simpler.

So in celebrating New Year’s Eve in my home town after four years I say goodbye to uncertainty, lack of discipline or an era of half-baked resolutions. I welcome 2017 and many more to come, hopefully, with a new found appreciation for responsibility and structure in life.

 

 

Just like how our life advances

So here I am once again, amidst the familiar cacophony of unintelligible voices on the streets. Cantonese can sound soft, delicate, at times even comical, but always beautiful. Which is amazing because I hardly understand it. The accent though for me was a delight when I first heard it. I used to find it difficult to take locals ‘seriously’ when conversing as I would often get mesmerised by the cadence and lose track of the words. Women seem to be masters of this dark art. When I complained about this to some friends from the Mainland and other parts of the world, they usually dismissed it or at best cited Japanese influence among the mannerisms, clothing and speaking styles of the locals. I always thought that there is a grander explanation for the language’s appeal than mere ‘Japanese influence’. In fact I always thought there is a grander explanation for all the little things that excite me every time I step in this wonderful city called Hong Kong.

I’ve spent considerable time thinking and discussing what it would be like to make Hong Kong a second home. ‘Home away from home,’ as they say. How does one even make such a decision?

The usual way of doing this is to unpack the ‘grander explanation’ in to possible constituent units;  what kind of jobs will I be eligible for? How will my PhD thesis and career trajectory in general be effected? How long to become functionally proficient in the mesmerising language? What avenues for permanent residence does the government provide? Then there are teething questions related to assimilation; how open am I to marrying a local? How high will be the social cost for this action? Most important, how far will I be able to focus on Pakistan in a career based on research?

But then I wonder whether such rigorous planning will in due course dilute, or at worse erode the magical feelings I have nurtured about the place. Quite like the way we start losing interest in things the moment we start taking them seriously. Like how those same beautiful voices can get extremely annoying on hot summer Sundays when malls are packed with families and infants, and you must get in queues at restaurants when all you want is to fill your stomach in peace.

There wont be any quick conclusions here. One can only speculate, prepare and hope for the best. Quite like the research process; as I wander around news archives and harass journalist for comments in Karachi these days I am often disappointed when the findings do not fit initial ideas. But time and again new themes emerge and highlight patterns that never occurred to me earlier. And that is how knowledge is created. Perhaps just the way our life advances.

On weddings and familial ties

Prologue: In the past five years I’ve transitioned through various levels of financial independence as I have studied and worked abroad and lived as a single male. Interestingly, childhood lessons continue to stick with me and seem to follow me around as I make my yearly trips back home. These lessons manifest most profoundly during those so-called ‘wedding seasons’ (a misnomer I might add for every season seems to be a wedding season in Karachi). Where the most contentious issue often boils down to marriage with an ‘outsider’ a.k.a a gory or gweilo. 

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On weddings and familial ties

In this post I will highlight two popular arguments desi-families make to dissuade marriages with foreigners. I want to understand whether these are sound arguments or personal choices disguised as such. I hope readers will see that this reasoning can be generalised to many other factors, particular those based around age, sect, baradari (community), culture (favoured in Pakistan) that influence decisions to tie the knot.

I neither condone nor condemn a particular choice. I quite respect choice and right of opinion what I do not approve of is when people collate matters of choice with their supposedly reasonable arguments. Because when we mix arguments with value systems, we tend to defy rationalisation; we refuse to change our arguments even when underlying assumptions change.  We mistakenly assume that our argument is sound when actually we are imposing our belief and tailoring the arguments to fit those beliefs. For instance,

1- When we say that familial ties trump all other: 

Most of us born-raised in the subcontinent are taught to view family relations through the assumption that material benefits of maintaining strong extended familial ties inherently trump all other ties. Through this assumption we argue that marrying a Pakistani is more beneficial then a non-Pakistani since same nationality makes it easier to find mutually beneficial relationship when two families come together.

However, when this assumption is challenged; like when one family is more upwardly mobile or there is mistrust between the two or any other reason, it becomes logical, even necessary to modify our argument. Logical people maintain and strengthen ties with those who they trust or see some form of a benefit. Not necessarily monetary, many times it is an emotional benefit when a couple can sustain each other through thick and thin. Now it may be that we find many such trust worthy people in extended families but is that necessarily so? Many times we have such amazing relationships at various levels with our friends, coworkers, bosses, subordinates, mentors etc. Why should then when it comes to choosing potential partners must we restrict to certain families, sects or nationalities?

2- Social cost of marrying a foreigner will always be higher – Loag kya kahiengay? (what will people think?)

Social cost is a qualitatively complex phenomenon so its difficult to reduce it simply to defying ones societal norms. Over here I’ll just take one aspect of the cost; the communal shamming or loss of our gayrat (honour) when knots are tied outside established beliefs. The assumption here is that family decision/wisdom is superior to individual life choices since the former is more accordance with Muslim, Pakistani or Asian values.

This assumption is already problematic on two levels; first, is what your family decides for you always more Islamic than your own decisions? Now I am positive that no sane parent or saviour of family traditions will ever admit to this with a straight face. So if we understand this is a flawed assumption why do we take shamming so seriously?

Secondly, what do we mean by Islamic, Pakistani and Asian values to begin with? Are they written somewhere to be followed in letter or spirit or a combination of both? And who decides such combinations and on what authority? This is an old issue. What we can say with certainty about value judgements is that they continuously evolve parallel to socio-economic changes in society, among other things.

So no matter what the arguments we will (and rightly so) cherry pick those that best serve our interests. So why is it so difficult to call a spade a spade and blame socio-economic conditions rather than ‘values’ for marriage decisions?

Resources are better managed in an extended family structure 

In a similar vein, a partner with the same passport as yourself is assumed by default to bring greater accountability.

True, accountability could be higher but is this always the case? Yes having the blessings of a rich father in-law who is childhood friends with your father is good, but does this fact alone guarantee that shenanigans in business and work will not occur? I think at best it merely hints it. Hard work, mutual respect, planning and sacrifice still play a crucial role. And this applies to relationships and work ethics generally and is certainly not restricted to familial ties. Even business decisions that centre around leveraging patronage networks are not made by default. They are based on practical and strategic concerns of the parties involve.

A messy middle-ground

Some men of noble origins, faced with such dilemmas took a bold step.  They reconciled with the contradictions in arguments of their elders by getting conveniently married with foreigners for better economic and future prospects. At the same time they conveniently also ‘kept’ local wives. One to fulfil their duty and one to fulfil other appetites.

It is interesting how making personal marriage choices is not socially acceptable but what is acceptable though, albeit in hushed tones, is to ruin the life of a women or keep them dependent on the husbands good grace. And in my experience this applies to many patriarchal societies.

My point is not to argue for the irrelevance of family structure or the supremacy of one model of marriage over other. Partner selection, just like many other important decisions in life, is based on individual circumstances and contexts. Indeed most marriages every where in the world, including Pakistan, are based on strategic decisions.

So why do we continue to adhere with this facade of rule of thumbs?

On conferences and dharnas

Happy new year everyone! There have been many firsts in 2015 – the first time I traveled the most; to amazing new places in Dubai, Thailand, Denmark, Germany and Netherlands – the first time I got a visa three hours before the flight – the first time I went to an academic conference – and a few others not agreeable with the topic of this post. I hope 2016 will bring many more exciting firsts  to all of us. Needless to say my life has moved forward at a pace so breathtaking that I often struggle to hold on to all those intricate details and make sense of them. But as with all issues in life its useful to break them down to manageable parts.

This post will be on my journey to Denmark particularly attending the Communication & Democracy section 2015 at the European Communication Research and Education (ECREA) conference.

A bit on the journey itself first. I have been working on a paper that aims to explore the role of Dharnas (‘curated sit-ins’ as I like to call them) in citizen mobilisations in Pakistan. So I was very excited when it got accepted at ECREA.  Coincidentally, the visa process to visit Copenhagen Business School, where the conference was to be held, clashed with myriad other administrative and academic duties. As a result I cut the deadlines to travel rather close. In fact, I wasn’t sure if I’d even go until five hours before the flight! Thankfully, the 14 hour flight was just enough to prepare a presentation, shave and look presentable. Although I wouldn’t recommend working under dim lights of the economy class for writing anything important.

Any way, I landed in Copenhagen at first light and went straight to the conference with my luggage where I presented with a 10% battery left on the Mac. I did ok for a first, received some comments but the real reward however was showing this to a very ‘non-Pakistani’ audience:

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The format for this intimate conference over the next two days was typical. Plenary sessions, usually taken over by superstar scholars in the field followed by refreshments before the 200-300 modest gathering breaks down in to a number of themes. These themes formed the meat of the proceedings. The subject matters varied widely – some of the papers I will mention shortly – although conforming to the general theme and loosely bound to European events. For me a fascinating aspect was the program, based on which one could switch between halls to listen to any topic or presenter they fancied. So there was a constant shuffling of people taking notes between presentations. But the two topics I enjoyed listening the most were:

Activism: an ambiguous word for an ambivalent age 

A keynote speech by Prof. Goubin Yang based on his upcoming book. He talked about how the definition of the word activism has increasingly shed its more revolutionary color and how that corresponds to activism increasingly being practiced as passive resistance in contemporary times. Which also means that activism has become rather institutionalised where, no one is ever pro-government or pro-corporation any more.

Commercial Nationalism, Advertising and the Crisis: Political Agency and Resistance 

A paper by Dr. Eleftheria Lekakis on how advertising attempts to mobilise political agency through the platform of a brand and the reception, in terms of acceptance or resistance, that this holds. She took the case study of Johnnie Walker Whiskey’s global campaign to demonstrate how commercial enterprises frame national identity.

My interest in them stemmed from the wave of activism and vigour leading up to May 2013 and the opposition marches later on. And of course the brand Pakistan in local advertising has been ‘done to death’ but never seems to die.

There were also ample opportunities to network in between presentations, refreshment and lunch breaks, a cocktail reception for participants and also one could simply go out for dinner later. On one such moments I chanced upon a Professor from CityU, someone who I have been meaning to speak to. He had done a Twitter Analysis of May 2013 General Elections with findings I was keen to debate. (If you guys can’t access it let me know).

In all it was a refreshing affair. To present your ideas, meet scholars with similar interests, get a feel for the latest trends and explore a new city. Coming from Hong Kong, Copenhagen seemed to me rather quite. You could be walking around the city centre and run in to the parliament building without realising. Very peaceful and scenic. Nightlife is great in that it made me wonder whether the wild drunk hoards I usually encountered in England are an English phenomenon. Europe is certainly different as my time in Berlin and an evening in Amsterdam showed. But lets save that for another time.

Dubai: the other Middle East

View of the Marina from a restaurant at Pier 7.
View of the Dubai Marina from a restaurant at Pier 7. Do you find it similar to Hong Kong promenades?

I have been living in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Tong district for about an year now and have grown rather fond of this gentrified district. There is something here for everyone; if you are an early riser it would hard to miss the municipal parks teeming with the elderly doing some interpretation of Tai Chi, during rush hours people of all demographics conceivable traversing through the efficient MTR (metro) on their way to schools, financial district near Causeway Bay or the retail hubs in Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok. The night life is vibrant and secure while the people are courteous, educated and civilised.

But much closer to my home town of Karachi, approximately an hour and 45 minutes away by plane, is another great trade and finance hub in the region, namely Dubai. I always had a very negative association of Dubai; not least due to its strong ties with the oil industries and the political turmoil that the Arab world seems to be perpetually engulfed in. I recall a time in my career when I seriously contemplated traveling here for work but realised that the Communication Industry there is limited in scope. The Arab arrogance is notorious also and those preoccupied with Marx such as myself finds it appalling. So when I did get opportunities to travel I chose Turkey and the United Kingdom instead, in a bid to distance myself from the Pakistan-Arab nexus. (Its ironic though that years later in Hong Kong, an American colleague would exclaim “Hey Ayaz, you are my first Arab muslim male friend!”) So much for my Pakistani identity.

On Sheikh Zayed road in the evening.
On Sheikh Zayed Road the main artery of the city.

Despite my erratic career trajectory and refusal to settle for a tourist trap my first visit to Dubai was quite experiential. Beyond the desert safaris and fancy hotels, I found my friends working their comfortable and well paid. There is also a high sense of security, just what foreigners are looking for. The city is after all a success story of modernity in the Arab world, as it transitions its unique proposition from oil to global trade joining the ranks of multicultural port cities (states). Thus standing out as a model for lesser developed Arab countries to aspire towards. As a British protectorate between 1822-1971, Dubai shares a Commonwealth heritage similar to Karachi and Hong Kong. I comprehend now how little I actually know about this other side of the Middle East. A far cry from framed news stories on CNN and BBC.

But now that I have witnessed the mana unique to Dubai would I consider living their? An year ago it would be a straight off no! I mean the human resource development in Hong Kong, supported by soft power initiatives of China, right now parallels the most advanced countries. It has after all a GDP per capita equal to that of United States. It is obvious that Dubai still has a long way to go in terms of top notch health, affordable education and diversification of selling proposition. But these considerations are in the abstract and I find that my question is not relevant any more. People adapt and make their lives wherever they live and work. That is an adage. I suppose it was a combination of cultural phobias and divergent career paths which held me clear off these castles in the sand. I wonder how my personality and life would have shaped though had I visited much earlier. As I have sung praises of Turkey, United Kingdom and Hong Kong with a progressively loud pomp so too I suspect have the Dubai tour come to pass.

Global Village center, site of the Dubai Shopping Festival and the much anticipated Expo 2020.
Global Village center, site of the Dubai Shopping Festival and the much anticipated Expo 2020.

There is a class of upwardly mobile people all around the world riding the wave of post-modernity as it sweeps away everyone willing to cash it, leaving behind everything that hesitates in its wake. There are many American and British emigrants in Hong Kong who have relinquished their nationalities to avoid taxes and other assorted purposes. So is the large diaspora of Pakistan, Philippines, India and Bangladesh found all over the world that we are too familiar with. As we meet new people in our professions we find similar life stories and narratives. The other Middle East is one such story and there is much still we can learn from it.

‘Changing the world’ as a goal is as narcissistic a view as ‘becoming famous’

It is a claim that you alone are special, you alone care and you alone have the right. The image is not intended as an attack on any religious belief. It has a symbolic and satirical purpose.

A few days ago I was forwarded an article written by Manal A. Khan on how our ambitious career plans in college appear on hindsight upon touching 30. I found it comforting that people my age share the paradox of going through education systems that hammer down the notion of zealous personal ambitions and save-the-world attitude while, upon hitting some semblance of career stability, realise that it’s the ‘process’ that really matters. In this piece I will establish a thread from her general message in to pursuing PhD studies.

PhD studies or work in the knowledge economy in general is like work in any other industry. I chose this for my commentary because the eccentric admission process, the high self-motivation and work flexibility are supposedly the hallmarks of independent research work, similar to some values mentioned by Khan. However one year down, I have emphatically realised how political research work really is. By political I don’t just mean ideological but many outside factors that shape knowledge creation.

Take research area as an example. I was very selective about choosing literature for my work on the Pakistani media industry. As an emerging academic of the global south, it is imperative that I borrow extensively from theoretical frameworks that are grounded on developing countries. This means working under supervisors with similar focus or at least expertise on developing countries. However, rarely do new PhD students get supervisors of their choice in this increasingly saturated and bureaucratised industry. As a result their frameworks and indeed research area may be directed by their supervisors.

Timeliness and location plays another important role. As a resource constrained actor, how do you study a community thousands of miles away? There are limitations to my data collection on Pakistan; the personal/guanxi culture, elite research paradigm and the expense of traveling to and fro from Hong Kong for instance. This effects what meaningful questions I can ask and expect to answer. In the beginning I was envious of my Chinese colleagues for whom it is much easier to collect data on China. I do realise now how incorporating Chinese literature adds value to my work even though it comes at the expense of foregoing data on some communities in Karachi. Lack of access much?

Finally, and this is my favourite; our personal lives do not stop while we are embarking on ambitious plans to ‘save the world’. Many PhD students are in the middle of their careers thus juggling a balance between social security (immigration), marriage and/or proposals, kids, parents, jobs and their research is a truism. This effects the choices mentioned above besides adding another dimension to how a researchers decision making is influenced.

A PhD graduate told me once that when he first started the program he had big plans ‘to move mountains’ and creating vital knowledge that would change lives of ‘ordinary people’. In reality the program simply trains you to carry out independent research work. That is it. It takes decades for scholars to refine their methods, develop a following and master an area to make some meaningful contribution. And, since research work usually is far ahead of its time it takes years for its practical impact to trickle down. The only thing within your control is perseverance for your work and strategic decision making to interact with outside influences. That is all you can reasonably expect from yourself. Setting a goal like ‘changing the world’ is as narcissistic a view as ‘becoming famous’. It is a claim that you alone are special, you alone care and you alone have the right. I agree with Khan that great people didn’t set ‘changing the world’ in their bucket lists. They just continued to make good use of their strengths.

Knowing your biases

A lesson in critical thinking that I am taught as a potential PhD candidate is to always make an opinion knowing my unique biases. Now this may seem a matter of fact notion but its unbelievable how people take things for granted, at least I have and probably will continue to do so. For instance, its common for me to greet someone by saying ‘Hi’ followed by the conventional ‘How are you’. Now this rather dull sometimes even annoying salutation is very widely used among the people of various  nationalities I’ve had the pleasure to chat with, but among many Hong Kong locals it is not customary. In fact, Hong Kongers find this a personal question to be answered frankly only after the preliminary small talk is over. Can you imagine thinking of how-are-you’s like that?

It gets funnier, in Hong Kong people greet you by asking if you have eaten yet. Yes, there are some combinations for instance they will add lunch or dinner depending on the time of the day but the emphasis is always on food. If you are doubtful about the strangeness of this, imagine yourself in an elevator with a scrawny looking old guy at night as you leave the office. The guy gives you a grin and asks ‘Hello, have you had dinner yet?’ – excuse me? Did you just ask me out for dinner!? I don’t know you man! Alright I may be exaggerating for effect but living in Karachi or even London, nobody ever asked me if I had eaten right of the bat unless they really meant it. Although I must say it’s a different affair if the hot receptionist in the building is asking – it’s an elating feeling until you realise she neither cares if you have eaten nor is interested in dating you. Hong Kongers feel equally perplexed if you ask them ‘How-are-you’ although its strangeness is some what diluted, after all this is a former British colony in East Asia.

It is important to appreciate our differences and the nuances since that gives us a wider perspective and helps us make better choices. For me, knowing that I was brought up in a traditional muslim family in Karachi makes me appreciate the subtleties of a community living in a sometimes violent and mismanaged society. So I am always careful how I phrase ‘patronage’ or ‘connections’ or baradari, which in the West is looked upon unanimously as undermining meritocracy. Not all baradari is bad right? After all in the US people have replaced the term with the ubiquitous ‘references’ and in China they give it an entirely new meaning, Guanxi. But being self-aware of this bias also makes me realise its potential for abuse which otherwise I would have overlooked in the name of ‘getting-business-done-in-Pakistan’; it is no coincidence that developed countries have significantly less corruption than developing ones.

I am in no way implying that any one paradigm or school of thought is correct but the point here is simply to remember your eccentricities. To know why you believe in what you do, to know why you are likely to say something and to know why you recommend a certain course of action. This ontological bearing is not just about having a genuine conversation with others but also about being truthful to your self. As Stuart Hall writes – common sense is the biggest ideology of all.

Biases are great, they gives us character. But know that you have them and always admit them. Always.

Occupy Central Hong Kong and 9mms of Karachi

I think nothing makes us feel more alive than pushing ourselves to the limits, dreaming big, digging for new experiences and getting romantically involved; the trials and tribulations of hard days work, animal attraction, wanderings in to realms that have no precedents but have rewards beyond our wildest imagination and equally intensive challenges in shapes and forms that cross the normal human threshold. At least in my philosophy, call me narcissistic and some have over the years, or even elitist but that is my point of view. For now.

I also happen to believe that these are the attributes of a good researcher.

So I’m in Hong Kong (HK) now folks the most vertical city in the world and one of the four asian miracles of the 20th century; grossly inflated real estate prices, thriving capitalist service economy, cheap sea food, pricey vegetables, centre of a political shit storm (tussles with China), rather behaved residents minus the wacky taxi drivers, massage parlours (yes there are many) and typhoons all, for an experimental doctoral program that spans across, Asia and Europe.

However this post is not going to be about my experience with sushi buffets, dancing fire dragons manned by 50 strong or selfie sticks (yes there are devices now that makes selfie taking more professional. You better believe it!). This post will attempt to bring a perspective of a Karachiite to the massive street protests staged by HK students against their government for universal suffrage and democracy, a right they believe is being denied to them by the central government in China.

One of the thousands of posters placed around HK. - Photo TAC
Some of the thousands of posters found all around HK these days – Photo TAC

I left for HK from Karachi on the afternoon of August 31. You would recall that prior night, Imran Khan and the maschismo, Allama Dr. Sir. Tahir UlQadri’s revolutionary and freedom marches had boiled to a hostile standoff with law enforcement agencies in Islamabad. Tear gas, rubber bullets and aerial firing were used to ward of protestors. The political climate once again brought the affairs of our fragile state to yet another precarious moment in time. Media outlets, political parties, including the omnipresent establishment, scrambled to score points; revising stances and shifting allegiance to suit the perceived winds of change.

As is customary in such volatile times – and there are many in Karachi, so many in fact that volatility has lost its traditional sense of meaning – fuel stations are closed, cell phone services are terminated, law enforcement presence is increased, shops and markets are shuttered, at least during the day and the ones that remain open for business are coerced by political parties. To say that the KSE index drops down would not be enough as the working class finds it difficult to report for duty when public transport is suspended thereby affecting the entire economy. The whole fabric of society is thus affected when people chose to stay under the safety of their homes. The massive class divide becomes apparent even here, when the silent majority of urban Karachi, politically exhausted remains homebound and waits for the chaos to pass as it usually does, while the poor and zealous take active part. Some get killed and become collateral in these recurring events which are essentially power struggles among the elites.

So when I visited the protest sit-in at HK’s central financial district I was overwhelmed by the sheer level of organisation among the youth, which forms the bulk of the Occupy Central movement, and their resolve. The demonstrators that fluctuate between 10 to 50,000 have vowed to protest peacefully and not affect the routine functioning of the government. Every morning they collect and clear the trash that has accumulated on the site, distribute food and water, provide gas masks and goggles for new arrivals and keep a steady spray of water to account for the heat.

Protesters at the Admiralty
Protesters at the Admiralty – Photo TAC

The general feeling of camaraderie becomes apparent when you participate in the hundreds of small conversations that are happening all over the site. Hong Kong like Pakistan was once a British colony and follows a legal system very similar to the common law system that Pakistan follows. In 1997 when the British formally handed the territory back to China, it was under the condition that the state would have universal suffrage and enjoy complete autonomy under a ‘one-country-two-system’ policy. So while HK has its own mini-constitution, independent judiciary, separate currency, law enforcement, electorate and legislators, it’s foreign policy and defence is under the control of the PRC government. The protests essentially are a part of the evolving nature of the executive authority of HK as it attempts to maintain its distinct identity while remaining part of China.

But I won’t start a political commentary here. Because, we students of political science are trained to look at matters objectively and as external observers which often dehumanises the process of change. Let me explain…

As I made my way through the heart of the protests, I saw children, adults, students alike camped together on the roads; sleeping, chatting, doing their home work etc. all very solemn however in the awareness that the future of their country and culture is at stake and genuinely believing that they can and will change the decision of the government. It didn’t matter that they represent a small percentage of the 7 million people living in HK, or that the PRC government and the Chief Executive both have announced not to budge on their initial ruling of vetting the candidates for the country’s highest office first by NPCSC. It dawned upon me how little credit I always give to the collective understanding of the people, always coming with prescriptions where in fact collective reasoning may prove just as beneficial if not more. Maybe this is what democracy stands for. The idea of a philosopher king following Plato’s school of thought which is a characteristic of authoritarian rule presumes an elitist perspective on governance. Maybe the existing order of HK represents this rule and maybe the state of HK has grown out of this form of governance?

Its a protest, not a party! - Photo TAC
Its a protest, not a party! – Photo – TAC

These people are not the sheep that follow greener pasture trails or the fear of the whip, or that most destructive force, ‘the wrath of God’ unlike in Pakistan. There belief is supported by prominent local scholars of law and urban studies who are also the leaders of this movement. So there are flyers shared online, on social media platforms and distributed as hard copy that attempts to answer questions and educate an average Hong Konger; Why is this crisis taking place? Who are the players involved? What can we gain if they meet our demands? What is being done to maintain civility, law and order? There is even a path within the massive sit-in that ensures thoroughfare and everyone respects it…

In stark contrast to the 9mm pistol demonstrations, in Karachi that bring the entire city life to a grinding halt, or those festive concerts and rhetorical performances that promise to change the country overnight. Some people have argued that brutal force is the only way to get anything important done in the city. But have we forgotten, the May 2005 earth quake where citizens of Karachi made a peaceful and collective effort to send massive supplies to effected areas? When women, men, policeman, officers and politicians alike joined hands without any prejudice towards a common cause? Its a pity that it takes a natural calamity for us to act civil.

And yet, I am writing now to draw parallels so that we may also aspire to be citizens of Karachi in a real sense. Take ownership of our actions and our community heavens know our bread and butter depends on it. It may take a generation to realise it but the awareness for the process must start now! It is possible yet.

Between the thoroughfare - Photo TAC
Thanks for coming, sit with us, fight with us – Photo TAC