Freedoms in Pakistan!: A harsh depiction but largely true
BBC: April 25, 2007
The BBC Urdu service's Masud Alam takes a wry look at freedoms in military-led Pakistan compared with those on offer in the West.
Freedom, like happiness and embarrassment, can be found in the most unlikely places.
I went looking for it - freedom, that is - across three continents and then returned home to find it here. Absolute, complete and unadulterated freedom for all, right here in Pakistan.
It's the kind of freedom people living in the West may envy all they can - but will never enjoy for themselves because they are so shackled by laws, bylaws, regulations and conventions.
They are so hemmed in that they cannot figure out for themselves what freedom is.
The Americans even had to include "pursuit of happiness" in their constitution! And how do they go about this pursuit?
Every week-end they stand dutifully in long queues outside night clubs, suffer humiliation at the hands of foul-mouthed bouncers, get served insipid, ridiculously low-alcohol beer at exorbitant prices, and are subjected to music so loud, no one can make out how bad it is...
Here in Pakistan, nothing and no-one is allowed to stand in the way of an honest citizen's right to do as they please.
Stealing the show
The other day, some of the top army generals finished a hard day's work at a conference in Islamabad and decided they'd earned a bit of entertainment.
Buoyed by their own spontaneity, they had that evening's sold-out performance of the musical Bombay Dreams cancelled for ticket-paying patrons, and enjoyed an exclusive viewing of Pakistani girls dancing to Indian music director AR Rehman's tunes.
That's freedom! Freedom to steal the show, in this case.
Even though alcohol is banned by law, industrialists are free to run breweries and entrepreneurs make up the shortfall through bootleg operations.
As a result, a Pakistani gets his beer (scotch in mild weather, vodka in winter) delivered at the doorstep by a friendly neighbourhood bootlegger, at roughly the same price, if not less, than an American pays for a similar brand at a liquor store.
London has its Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park, where political workers, religious zealots and nutcases of all varieties stage a shouting match on Sundays.
But in Pakistan every citizen has, and exercises at will, the right to free speech, any time, anywhere.
The head of a mosque in the capital routinely and publicly humiliates the government and threatens it with suicide bomb attacks.
But the government still pays towards the running costs of two seminaries whose students are urged to carry out his threats.
'Sexuality in Pakistan'
The media is free to go on speculating about a "deal" between President Musharraf and the opposition Pakistan People's Party (PPP), just as both parties are within their rights to forcefully deny it today and coyly admit to it tomorrow.
And audiences are also free to decide they are not bothered one way or the other.
My colleague, Sanwal, interviewed a roadside vendor in Lahore for a feature on "Sexuality in Pakistan".
This man called himself Dr Khan - or something similar - and sold herbal remedies for sexually-transmitted diseases. He told Sanwal his line of business does well all year round because "men exercise as little control over their sexual organs as they do over their tongues and minds".
This is the extent of freedom enjoyed by men in Pakistan. As for women, they are also free, as pointed out by President Musharraf, to seek emigration to Europe or Canada by pretending to be victims of sexual crimes.
The political system is just as emancipated. Unlike the West, where power tends to revolve between a handful of politicians, the Pakistani model is far more inclusive.
It has made popular political figures out of serving and retired army generals, World Bank executives, illiterate land owners, semi-literate industrialists, simple-minded sons and daughters of public figures... Everyone is free to be a leader.
At the street level, there's even more freedom. Pakistanis don't require a driving licence to operate anything from a motorcycle to a heavy vehicle, neither are the local police fussy about regulating the traffic.
Regulations, most Pakistanis believe, are just another instrument of state oppression that has no place in a free and just society like theirs.
So motorists go about fluttering all over the unmarked roads which they share with pedestrians, hawkers, cyclists and horse-drawn carts.
The only rule is: when in doubt, honk. Motorists here believe in honking more than they trust their brakes or steering wheel, and definitely more than their eyes.
I generally dislike noise. Perhaps the policeman in the middle of the square does too. But he cannot interfere with the freedom of citizens to honk as much as they like.
I'm impressed with the amount and variety of freedom exercised in this country. And it beats me why the tourism ministry hasn't thought of highlighting the fact in its brochures, especially in "Visit Pakistan" year!
Maybe they don't need to spread the word.
I ran into three working-class Britons, sitting in a foul mood outside a café across the road from Rose and Jasmine Garden where their camp site was. One of them approached me, and pointed an accusing finger at my person.
He hissed: "We worked hard and saved money for this holiday. We could have gone anywhere. But we chose Pakistan. You know why, mate? Because of its ganja. Now we are here and we have no ganja!"
Freedom - even to get stoned - is not a commodity that can be taken for granted.