Understanding how rumors are "manufactured" in Pakistan by media managers

Daily Times, July 30, 2006
POSTCARD USA: Shortcut to fame and fortune? Not really —Khalid Hasan

After news having travelled from yet another “well informed” of my countrymen as to what transpired at a secret, off the record meeting held in the middle of the night under tight security in Islamabad, I have decided to do a tell-all, keeping nothing back. Truth like murder must out.

I have never ceased wondering what it is that makes us Pakistanis tittle-tattle so much when we could be doing something far more useful, such as reading a book or listening to the BBC World Service radio. Why is it that the simple explanation is never acceptable? Why do we find embellished accounts of even minor and utterly inconsequential events so fascinating? Why are we always willing to believe the sinister and the secret, rather than the simple and the verifiable? Why do we gossip so much? Why not instead go to the F-9 Park in Islamabad and fly a kite? That would at least have the advantage of violating one or more of CDA’s rules, which is always a good thing.

Let me state what has got my goat. I have it now from nearly half a dozen sources, which claim hundred percent authenticity for what they say they have learnt from their unimpeachable contacts, that I held a secret meeting with Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz in Islamabad one July night and since then I have been trying to work out how to keep the Inland Revenue Service off my tail. That is at least what one source has learnt. Others have learnt other things, all of which, if true, would make me someone to be envied for his unexpected good fortune.

But let me first state what I am supposed to have managed to acquire under my belt. If no two accounts agree, I may kindly not be held responsible for the divergence. 1. I have been given the responsibility to base myself in Chicago (why Chicago I wonder?) with large amounts of non-contraband dollars at my disposal to help Pakistan get a “soft image”. 2. I have been promised a top diplomatic (or is it administrative?) position as long as I promise not to write another word in Daily Times, The Friday Times or elsewhere. 3. I have accepted an offer to move to Islamabad and join the prime minister’s stable of image-makers. 4. I am going to be reinstated as the Associated Press of Pakistan correspondent (a post from which I was fired in 2002 for reasons that remain secret) with all dues reimbursed. 5. If I keep my nose clean and my copybook free of ink spots, I may be given a shot at one of those international outfits where a black limousine takes you to work and your secretary is a long-legged, doe-eyed, golden haired blonde called Jennifer.

Sadly, none of this is true. But who is going to believe me!

I am sorry for the crash-landing that the reader (if anyone has read so far) will experience, but here is what actually happened. I promise that this is the whole truth and nothing but the truth about my secret meeting with the prime minister. It is indeed correct that I was in Islamabad for a few days, the last thing on my mind being meeting anyone who causes traffic to stop and people to swear. So there I am meeting old friends and trying to avoid neighbourhoods where I may have unpaid bills, when my good friend Afzal Khan calls (I have borrowed my niece’s mobile because a mobile-less man in Pakistan is of no consequence at all) and says where I might be later that evening. So I tell him I would be breaking bread with some friends and drinking the cup that cheers. “Wait for my call”, he says mysteriously and rings off after adding, “we might have to see someone”. Around 10:30 pm my phone rings. It is Afzal who tells me to come out, where I find him waiting in his car. “What is going on?” I ask. He is not alone. My friend Ziauddin is with him. “We are meeting the prime minister, but first we go to Wasim Haqqi’s.” Mr Haqqi turns out to be a highly affable host, who is obviously the pointsman. I ask Afzal and Ziauddin if they are going along. They are. That sets my mind at rest as I will have witnesses.

At some signal that Mr Haqqi receives from somewhere, we all get into his car and are soon at “the House” where we are obviously expected because we cruise right in. Mr Haqqi is a familiar sight to the security detail. It is well past 11. Everything, including the trees, is dramatically lit. The atmosphere is Arabian Nights. It is a huge place, which I have only been to once during daytime over a decade ago. We get down from the car, with lines of attendants in colourful sashes and headdresses and jackets bowing ever so slightly to acknowledge our presence. We are shown into a huge reception room, which has a large, very nice portrait of the young Muhammad Ali Jinnah (in whose name everything un-Jinnah-like is being done, including the recent “Islamisation” of Hudood laws). The prime minister, Mr Haqqi says, is with the Qatari ambassador or some such. Ten minutes later we move to a small study with shelves full of clearly unread books. There are any number of liveried attendants bowing and scrapping in the corridors.

In a few minutes, a dapper looking Shaukat Aziz enters, wearing blue jeans, but not the garden-variety kind. We shake hands and sit down. Tea arrives. I am served first which suggests that I am the evening’s chosen guest. We chat of this and that, nothing consequential. He knows a lot about music directors and likes Khurshid Anwar. He misidentifies a composition which I assure him is Rashid Attre’s not Khurshid Anwar’s. I suggest that he should have the highest state honour conferred on Saadat Hasan Manto and a major road named after him. He does not say yes, but he does not say no. I ask him what his plans for 2007 are. He replies that it depends on what the party decides (by that I take it he means the Army League). Ziauddin tells him that while he appreciates the Nishan-e-Imtiaz he is being given, being a journalist he cannot accept it. We need more Ziauddins in the profession, I tell myself. It is midnight when an attendant, followed by an ADC, appears and hands me a nicely wrapped packet. It looks like a box. I ask the prime minister if in keeping with the rules of “Lifafa Journalism” it contains any money. He says, “You have to put in your own money”. Obviously, he is what the Americans call “an Indian giver”. After I have been handed over the gift (a silver box with the GoP crest), we get up, shake hands and part. Even a prime minister needs to sleep.

If I knew what colourful accounts of this meeting there were going to be circulated, I would have asked Shaukat Aziz for a plot of land on which to build a farm house. On second thought, maybe it is good for prime ministers and presidents to sometimes meet people who do not want anything.

Khalid Hasan is Daily Times’ US-based correspondent. His e-mail is khasan2@cox.net

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