In the early 1990s, I had also decided to embrace Pakistan as fully as I could. “Pakistan,” I said, “is an integral part of my self. I am going to do whatever I can for my land of birth.” And what I was going to do was organise a conference in Islamabad. Not just any conference. But one that would envision and develop some sort of plan to shape a better Pakistan in the not-too-distant future: a Pakistan one could cuddle with pride.
I managed to persuade the World Futures Studies Federation (WFSF), on whose Executive Committee I served, to sponsor the conference and managed to raise a substantial sum from UNESCO for the event. I chased and convinced a number of prominent scholars and futurists from Pakistani diaspora communities, as well as from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal to attend. The conference was to be held in Islamabad in July 1992.
We found a local host to look after the logistical arrangements, including visas and travel, and organise the programme. He was the founder and chair of the “Pakistan Futuristic Institute”, a small organisation devoted to exploring futures for Pakistan and came with high recommendations. So, without much hesitation, we bestowed on him the title of “the Convenor”.
Now this is a true story, but I am going to follow the convention introduced by Fargo.
At the beginning of each episode of the FX’s black comedy and crime drama, we are told: “At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred”. So let’s call our local host and Convenor “Dr” Akram Azam. All the funding we had raised for the Conference was transferred to Dr Akram with recommendations on how the programme for the three-day event could be structured.
Meanwhile, I had to sort out my own visa. Up to that time I was getting a single entry “family visa” that allows you to stay up to ninety days. So every trip required a new visa, which meant early morning visits to the Pakistan High Commission, filling long forms, making sure you had the visa fee in the exact amount in cash – which could only be deposited in a branch of the Habib Bank located a mile from the High Commission – returning to join long, chaotic queues for hours to submit the paperwork, and other equally irritating and unsavoury undertakings.
As I had decided to visit Pakistan regularly and frequently, I figured I should have a more permanent arrangement. It just so happened that an official at the High Commission at the time was somehow related to me.
I say somehow because neither he nor I were actually sure what the relationship was. But there was a relationship: my best guess was that he was the son of a neighbour of one of my father’s distant cousins. It is all I needed to persuade him to organise a more amenable visa regime for me. He came up trumps. I had a special treatment. The stamp on my passport said: “EXEMPTED FROM VISA FOR ENTERING PAKISTAN AND POLICE REGISTRATION…” I could visit Pakistan as frequently and as often as I wanted.
Within days I was checking in at the Islamabad Hotel. I was eager to meet all the scholars from South Asia we had invited. But apart from Jim Dator, Professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaii and President of WFSF, there was no one there from outside Pakistan. Everyone I met was somehow related to Dr Akram. The Indian scholars, I was told, were denied visas. On the subcontinent Partition means Partition and never the twain shall meet. It is depressing, dispiriting and downright counterproductive, yet it endures. What is not yet amenable to change must be borne.
Dr Akram had not bothered to organise travel for participants from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Instead, he had spent the Conference funds on buying suitable gifts for the participants. With some pride, he handed me a handsome but rather heavy briefcase. Inside, there was a fetching shawl, a beautiful onyx box, a marble soap dish, a cotton shirt, a book of Dr Akram’s self-published poetry. “All made in Pakistan,” Dr Akram informed me. I would have preferred a good cricket bat and equipment. But I suppressed my anger and said nothing.
The conference began with high expectations. The opening ceremony was scheduled from 9.00 to 10.00 am with speeches by dignitaries. I was slated to give the keynote address at 10.00. I sat amongst the audience listening to a high-ranking minister who extolled the virtues of a democratically elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, then serving the first one of his three terms. He was followed by another high-ranking minister singing the praises of Nawaz Sharif. And another.
The audience became agitated and I sympathised with them.
Then came a string of lower ranking minister, one after another, all spoke a lot but said nothing. By 12 noon the conference hall at Islamabad Hotel was steaming with anger and frustration. When the junior ministers had finished, Dr Akram and his family members came to the podium to give an endless vote of thanks. It was way past 1.00 pm when the Chair invited me to come and give my “address”.
I walked calmly to the podium. I looked at the Chair, turned to the audience, and said: “My address is 9 Hillsea Street, London, E1, United Kingdom.” I left the podium and returned to sit with the audience. Pandemonium broke out. The Chair insisted that I return to the podium and give a “proper address”. I refused. The audience started shouting “Speech! Speech.”
I stood amongst the audience, and addressed the podium, which was still graced by a number of dignitaries. I described the future of Pakistan as a Greek tragedy: destined for disaster after disaster because of the moral ineptitude of its body politic. Even the good, innocent and wholesome in the country will turn toxic thanks to the intrinsic corruption of the elite. When I finished, I swiftly walked out of the Conference hall and went straight to my room.
I could not have been in my room for more than ten minutes when there was a knock at the door. I opened the door to two mustachioed men in shalwar kameez. The pushed their way in. “Can we see your passport?” they demanded. I took out my passport and handed it to one of them. He flicked through the pages, and found the one with the EXEMPTED stamp. He looked at it for a moment, pulled a blue felt tip pen from his top pocket, and scribbled CANCELLED on the page. After handing the passport back, he said: “You have 24 hours to leave Pakistan.”
Years would pass before I returned.
Excerpted with permission from Ways Of Being Desi, Ziauddin Sardar, Penguin Viking.