Karachi is not waving, its drowning

(By Chris Cork) No, things are not falling apart

Some poems are destined to be pillaged and WB Yeats’s, The Second Coming (1919), is one such. It is also one of the most anthologised poems in the English language and will be familiar to many who have been through the mill of English-medium education in Pakistan. The lines that get trotted out most regularly are the second and third… ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.’ There is not much cheer in the rest of the poem either. Over the years, I have heard the quote in respect of Pakistan more times than I can remember. Corners of mouths downturn, heads are nodded sagely and drinks gazed into with that ‘Ah yes poor old Pakistan’ look that presupposes an imminent over-the-cliff future for the Land of the Pure.

And it just ain’t so. Two conversations over the last three weeks, one with a fellow analyst and the other with the counter staff at the money exchange I use in the city came to similar conclusions, namely that these days Pakistan is much more of a glass half full than a glass half empty.

There was also agreement in both exchanges that if there was a single thing that was broke and fixable it was the image that the state presents to the world. Pakistan is the prisoner of narratives written by everybody else and they have very little that is good to say. To a large degree this is a self-inflicted wound as the scribblers — and yes I am one — that fill the pages you read here do not have much that is good to say either. There emerges a picture built of a kind of circularity of reportage — the negativity that is the headline story internally is picked up, embellished and institutionalised by every Tom, Dick, and Harry with an investment in the perpetuation of the Pakistan stereotype as an irredeemable basket case.

Despite what you may think the Four Horsemen of a Taliban Apocalypse are not currently cantering down Constitution Avenue in Islamabad. Both the upper and lower houses of parliament at times resemble little more than a playpen with teddies flying in all directions and much bawling and hollering, but neither is actually on the verge of collapse. The institutions of state are proving remarkably durable despite the best efforts of elected members.

The military may be a tad sniffy about the shenanigans in the civvie bear-pits but they have not the slightest desire to take up the reins of power either. And if there is a khaki tinge to foreign policy I think we can live with that. There is a khaki tinge to just about every other damn thing — a bit of a pain in the democratic fundament but hardly a fatal flaw.

The bureaucracy is massively corrupt wherever you look and still manages to keep the three-wheeled wagon rolling. There is poverty and hunger and parts of the country are desperately deprived of every conceivable modern necessity — and yet they have mostly not fallen into armed revolt (…there are exceptions). You may argue that the only reason they have not is that they are too exhausted by the effort of making daily ends meet that they do not have the energy to spare for revolution and you may be right.

Large swathes of the population under five are stunted and malnourished. Karachi is not waving but drowning. Nobody is responsible or accountable for anything. Tomatoes are over-priced. Women everywhere are abused, terrorised and marginalised. See how easy it is to paint that dreadful picture? In less than 300 words the stereotype is buffed up, bolstered and chomped down as the patty in the scrofulous national burger. For years the ‘failed state’ mantra got aired as regularly as the dhobi gets done. The state did not fail and was never…ever…remotely close to failure or collapse.

There was a slow dawning on the faces of those in the currency exchange as they talked themselves through the firewall that they had been busily erecting for most of their adult lives. Even the usually glum security guard looked a bit perkier as I left. Falling apart? Naah…