November 21, 2018

One woman’s political awakening

Sept. 11 is partly responsible for my choice of career. In 2001, I was an architecture student, even if a disillusioned one, completely uninterested in politics and affairs of the world.

9/11 changed that.

Sept. 11, 2001, was just another lazy evening for me in Lahore. I had my cup of tea and was chatting about something totally mundane with a family friend. That is when my aunt — who got a call from her daughter in New York — told us, “Turn on CNN. A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.”

That “crash” turned out to be much more than an accidental collision. I think I realized that along with the rest of the world — when the second plane hit the South Tower.

I did not move from in front of the TV all night.

Back then, Pakistan did not have the voracious private media that it does now. I was among the lucky ones who had satellite TV at home, and so we relied on CNN, with the occasional flip to the BBC, for information.

I refused to believe CNN when they said the towers would collapse. But they did. For some bizarre reason, I remember the shade of lipstick worn by a woman who had just run to safety. Maybe it is not that strange: In all the ugliness, that lipstick shade was the only beautiful thing.

From what I remember, the first reaction among my circle of friends and family was very similar to that of the rest of the world. I remember we were stunned by what happened. We cried when we heard the phone calls people had placed to their families when they knew they were about to die. We gasped with horror when we saw people choosing to jump to their deaths.

Why would they choose to do that? Maybe it was a less painful death. Perhaps it was that in those minutes of absolute chaos and helplessness, making that decision gave them a sense of still being in control of their life. Or maybe for some it was a way of defying the terrorists:  “You don’t decide how we go. We do.” Someone might have jumped believing, or hoping, for a miracle.

I think the whole world stood together in experiencing the initial shock and disbelief. Wanting to make sense of what had happened, how and why was also a shared experience. It was when we got to the actual “making sense” that the narratives became different. And from that moment on, it was, “Either you are with us or against us.”

I don’t remember anyone in Pakistan celebrating the attacks. There was the occasional, “It was bound to happen sometime because of the U.S. policies.” There were conspiracy theories, like, “The United States carried out the attacks itself,” or, “All the Jews who worked in the towers had taken the day off,” but that came a few days later. Then we heard that President Bush was ready to invade Iraq. That fueled the theory that 9/11 had been staged, that not only was the invasion of Iraq personal, but also it was driven by America’s wish to secure control over oil.

When Gen. Pervez Musharraf decided to take a U-turn on our years-old policy toward the Taliban, we became involved in America’s war. But 10 years later, with the highest number of civilian and military casualties and daily terrorist attacks, it has become our war. To me, anyone who doesn’t see that lives in denial.

During the time that I have been in the United States, I have been asked who’s wrong and who’s right. I wish there were a simple answer, but there isn’t. Neither country bears the entire blame. Both of us have been guilty of playing hide-and-seek.

“Do you think we are so naïve as to believe that you did not know where Osama bin Laden was?” I didn’t say that. My government did. I don’t expect you to believe that, because I don’t either. Someone had to know. I’ve also been asked, “What can we do to improve the perception of Americans?” Better P.R. Own up to the good that you do. And avoid any more episodes like that of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, I suppose.

But the Pakistani government also needs to share that burden. It needs to be upfront with its people and stop denying that the United States does not have its blessings for carrying out drone strikes. We also need to give the U.S. credit where it’s due for various civilian projects.

Any solution that is reached for the region — whether it’s a deal with the Taliban or something else — needs to take into consideration both Afghanistan and Pakistan, too, and not just America’s self-interest. Pakistan, for its part, needs to realize that if and when America leaves the region, it needs to work together with Afghanistan.

Ignoring the intricacies and reducing the complexities to a black-and-white approach is the worst mistake that either of us can make, and yet it is the most common one that both of us do make.

I was in the United States when Osama bin Laden was killed. I saw the people celebrating outside the White House and in Times Square, but I also met and spoke with people who thought that there was nothing to “celebrate.” I know that many who were celebrating were not rejoicing in his death, but in the sense of justice and closure. There were others who believed that he should have been captured and tried, not killed. Which images and opinion do you think made it into the Pakistani media?

But then again, after bin Laden was killed, people in Pakistan weren’t exactly heartbroken. Yes, they were upset about the violation of their airspace and, hence, sovereignty. But what did the U.S. media decide to focus on? One crazy group, the leader of which broke down while offering bin Laden’s funeral prayers in absentia. I have heard as many Americans as Pakistanis question whether bin Laden was really killed this summer, and as many Pakistanis as Americans wanting to see photos as proof.

Regardless of what we might have been led to believe, we aren’t that different, you and I. Because of what happened 10 years ago, your country will never be the same. Neither will mine. Your life changed. So did mine.

We have a choice now: We can take the easy way out. Believe that we are right and the other is wrong. “We” being defined by ourselves as good, and the other personifying evil. Or we can refuse to believe that and challenge it, through dialogue and trying to reach out. If you do not know any other Pakistanis, reach out to me. E-mail me and I will try to answer your questions.

One of my favorite quotes is from Michelle Obama, who said that all of us have a responsibility to strive for a world the way it should be. I think I owe it to myself, my country, you and the memory of Daniel Pearl — the man because of whom I was given this opportunity. Do you?

Aatekah A. Mir-Khan is a Daniel Pearl Fellow from Pakistan who worked with The Wall Street Journal in New York for five months. Back home she works for an English-language newspaper and can be contacted at {encode=”” title=””}.