OPINION

Portraits of Pakistan

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By: Ghazi Salahuddin

Who do you think are the most distinguished Pakistanis who inspire you and make you feel good about your country? This is one of the questions that I pose whenever I have an opportunity to interact with young people. Naturally, I get anxious to see if some of my choices – the usual suspects? – are included in the list.

Variations on this theme are also possible. How about the five Pakistanis you think we should be proud of? We could also restrict the domain. Such as politics or culture and sports or show business. I generally find these discussions very interesting and instructive. And yes, the options shift with the changing social or ideological background of a group.

I was reminded of a practice that I have repeated so many times, in different situations, by a report published this week. A portrait of Malala Yousafzai was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in London on Tuesday. This was the second time that Malala’s face graced the walls of the prestigious gallery. The first time Malala’s portrait was displayed was in 2013.

Incidentally, October 9 – day after tomorrow – will be the sixth anniversary of the attack on her life by a Taliban gunman. She was shot in her head and neck when she was returning home in a school bus in Mingora, Swat Valley. Two other girls were also wounded in the attack. I need not go into any details because the story is well-documented. But the controversy that has affected the popular mind in Pakistan is a serious matter and I consider Malala as the personification of an ideological crisis that we haven’t been able to come to terms with.

A seriously injured Malala was shifted by soldiers to an army hospital in Peshawar in a helicopter. She was eventually operated upon and treated in the UK. Ehsanullah Ehsan, who is now in safe custody in Pakistan, was the Taliban spokesman at that time and would communicate with the media from his hideout by phone.

Ehsanullah confirmed that Malala had been a target because her campaign for educating girls was considered obscene and that she had become a symbol of Western culture. He told a correspondent of The New York Times: “Let this be a lesson”.

We have to carefully interpret the kind of lesson that Malala has become. We should remember that she was already prominent as a powerful voice for the rights of children before the Taliban tried to kill her. In 2011, as a teenage school activist, she was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize. During the same year, the then prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani awarded her Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize.

Of course, the world honours her as the youngest Nobel laureate. In late 2014, at age 17, she received the Nobel Peace Prize, which she shared with Indian child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi. Nawaz Sharif, our then prime minister, said that: “[Malala] is the pride of Pakistan”.

But, in my estimation, a majority of Pakistani won’t approve of this statement. As I said, I have raised the Malala issue in my occasional sessions with students, including at universities. The response is invariably negative. Most of them don’t like her. It is incredible that many of them insist that she was not even shot at and that she was the product of a Western conspiracy.

Still, we should be aware of the stature that she has acquired in the world. Malala is recognised as a courageous Pakistani woman. In that sense, she instinctively evokes the memory of Benazir Bhutto, a star that gleamed on the world’s horizon. Imagine the incongruity of a country that is also known as a nursery of violent extremism also producing the likes of Benazir and Malala. The two, surely, belong in separate categories.

By the way, the report about the unveiling of Malala’s portrait at the London gallery has noted that a number of other Pakistani portraits are a part of the gallery’s collection. They, according to the report, include Prime Minister Imran Khan, our first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan, General Yahya Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, diplomat Agha Hilaly, and Zia Mohyeddin. We are told, in parenthesis, that Imran Khan’s ex-wife Jemima also has a portrait there.

I have touched upon the ambivalence that is associated with Malala. But there are other complications, too, when a group is asked to identify prominent Pakistanis. There is always this suspense about the inclusion of Prof Abdus Salam. In an objective sense, he is inimitable as an inspiration for our young people. His story should be taught in schools to lift the spirits of every underprivileged child.

Let me, at this point, quote a saying by Jawaharlal Nehru: “You don’t change the course of history by turning the faces of portrait to the wall”. Well, we seem to be making an attempt to do so by not just ignoring portraits, but history as such. That is how we have found our way into a wilderness where, for example, distinguished Pakistanis like Dr Salam or Malala are not in our sight.

Dr Salam’s reference reminds me of an experience that is relevant in this conversation. More than 25 years ago, during my visit to South Korea, I was guided to Seoul’s largest bookshop. It was quite huge and had a large gallery with the portraits of Nobel prize winners. And there, I found Dr Abdus Salam. I stood there for some time, with a surge of emotions in my heart.

What was remarkable about that gallery was that there was an empty frame at the end without any portrait. The caption said that it was there in expectation that a South Korean would also win a Nobel prize. This was an expression of a country’s longing for such an honour.

I have not checked if a South Korean has since won a Nobel prize in any category. But standing in that bookshop so many years ago, I felt a bit relieved that at least in the Nobel domain, we were one up against South Korea. Otherwise, we have so tragically been left behind other countries of the world in almost all endeavours. We used to be compared with South Korea in the 1960s. But now South Korea is an aid-giving country.

With all our deprivations, isn’t it a matter of some relief that we had Dr Salam and we have Malala?

Courtesy The News (Pakistan)

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