Back to the future in Pakistan

As 2007 was lurching toward a messy end in Pakistan, a documentary film suddenly caught much attention inside the country and abroad, especially among the diaspora Pakistanis. Sabiha Sumar and Sachithanandam Sathananthan’s "Dinner with the President: A Nation’s Journey" tried to shine a light on Pakistan’s future by showing conflicting elements of Pakistani society. At the apex was President General Pervez Musharraf, who was wearing his uniform as Army Chief in addition to running the country from Army House in Rawalpindi. Enterprising Sumar managed to convince Musharraf’s handlers to allow her to film a dinner with him at Army House in Karachi (one of the many such homes that the Chief of Army Staff has at his disposal in major cities throughout the country.) Musharraf invited his mother and his wife to join him at the meal. (Surprisingly the wife’s contributions were almost entirely edited out.) This conversation was the thread that Sumar used to tie together the documentary. Today, as Pakistan, under a civilian government, continues to battle the vestiges of the Musharraf regime and new economic and political challenges, it may be worth taking a look back at that insightful film and what it teaches us about Pakistan.

Sadly, the dinner was the weakest link in an otherwise telling film about Pakistan. By focusing on Musharraf, Sumar and her Sri Lankan partner showed their leaning toward a professed “liberal” autocrat. The assumption that comes through is that Pakistan, with its vast gaps between the rich and the poor, and between the radical Muslims with little or no knowledge of Islam and the intellectual elite, with its confused ideologies and imprisoned in its comfortable drawings rooms, needs a strong central figure at the center to guide it into the future. Even a year later, Sathananthan was accusing Pakistani “liberals” of helping the “neo-colonialists” in removing Musharraf:

“Politically challenged Pakistani liberals — a motley crowd that includes members of human rights and civil liberties organisations, journalists, analysts, lawyers and assorted professionals — are utterly incapable of comprehending the geo-strategic context in which Musharraf manoeuvred to defend Pakistan’s interest. So they slandered him as an ‘American puppet’, alleging he caved in to US pressure and withdrew support to the Afghan Taliban regime in the wake of 9/11 although in fact he removed one excuse for the Bush Administration to ‘bomb Pakistan into stone age’, as a senior State Department official had threatened." ("The Great Game Game Continues", November 2008)

Notwithstanding that the story about bombing Pakistan into the “stone age” was a figment of Musharraf’s imagination and not based on his intelligence chief Lt. General Mahmud Ahmed’s actual report from Washington DC, the film portrays Musharraf as a sensitive liberal with good intentions. The questions lobbed at him were soft; his answers softer still. The dinner turns out to be a dud.

But Sumar comes into her element when she visits with a group of Pashtuns near the Afghan border and bravely challenges their antedilluvian views on Islam and the status of women in society. When confronted by a tough woman armed with potent arguments in favor of equality for women, their best option is to retreat. The most telling commentary on Musharraf’s Pakistan comes in a vignette in the film that shows a poor Sindhi family eating its spare supper on the dirt floor outside its make-shift home. All they have is a piece of flat bread, perhaps some onions and water. They invite the filmmaker to join them. Juxtaposed against the scenes from a comfortable dining room where Pakistani intellectuals rant against the regime or the beach party where obviously drunk young men and women cavort out of control and one plastered young man expresses admiration for Musharraf, the film manages to show the stark choices facing Pakistan, as its heads into an uncertain future.

Critics like Sathananthan may regret that Musharraf was shown the door by the people of Pakistan , and some even bemoan the new civilian government and how it came into power. But they fail to recognize that the only way out of Pakistan’s political morass is to allow the people’s voice to be heard, whether it is through the ballot or through film and other mass media. Musharraf may have facilitated the political return of the Pakistan Peoples Party by removing some of the legal obstructions in its path. But he did not favor the return of the Pakistan Muslim League. The Saudis facilitated that. Both parties won their votes against all odds in a referendum against Musharraf’s rule and on the failing economy.

Showing Pakistan a mirror through discussion and debate so it can see itself may help start a critical debate inside the country. Without such a debate, Pakistanis will lurch from one crisis to another. The chattering classes will be silenced by the cackle of AK-47s and the arguments carried by suicide bombers into the heart of the country.

“Dinner with the President” began that debate in 2008. We hope the team will return to Pakistan in 2009 to show where we are now headed. Next time around, one hopes that Sumar will concentrate on the underlying issues that she uncovered during her “Dinner with the President” and stay away from the drawing rooms and dining tables of the elite. On second thought, perhaps a useful starting point may well be another “Dinner with the President” this time in Islamabad, which was once described as lying (no pun intended) “18 miles outside Pakistan”. Then she should head into the real Pakistan of the poor and dispossessed, where Sumar is at her best. Changing the lives of those people is critical to the future of Pakistan.

This piece aso appeared on The Huffington Post.