Nov 1, 2009

An open letter to Hillary Clinton

By Feryal Ali Gauhar

The writer is author of “No space for further burials”, a novel based on the American presence in Afghanistan

Dear Ms Clinton,

Allow me to apologise to you for not being able to be present during your address to civil society at the hallowed campus of Government College University (GCU) in my beloved city, Lahore. Much as I would have wanted to benefit from the wisdom of your analysis and foresight, I could not make the journey quickly enough from the remote town of Chilas where I was in consultation with the proponents of a major dam which shall displace 32,000 people and submerge 32,000 ancient rock carvings if and when it is built. Since flights were cancelled from the nearest airport in Gilgit, I was compelled to take the road journey over the Babusar Pass, situated at an altitude of 14,000 feet above sea level — travelling a total of 18 hours to reach Islamabad.

Your Excellency, it was during this 18-hour journey through some of the most desolate yet spectacular landscape of my country that I imagined speaking to you, being unable to join the privileged few who were invited to hear you speak both in Lahore and in Islamabad. As the vehicle carrying us made its way carefully over open culverts fashioned by the able engineers of the China Construction Company, as it slid over six inches of freshly falling snow, as it dipped into crevices swirling with glacial melt, and as it glided smoothly over the bits of tarmac which have survived the devastation of the 2005 earthquake which killed 70,000 people in these remote parts, I spoke to you, imagining that you were truly interested in what I, an ordinary citizen of my beloved but blighted country had to say.

But before I put those words down on paper, Your Excellency, allow me to welcome you to my country, this broken jaw of your kingdom. Allow me also to congratulate you, belatedly, on your appointment as secretary of state of the most powerful nation on earth. That President Barack Obama had the prescience to see a woman in this commanding position is also a move worthy of appreciation. That you were his opponent in the Democratic party’s primaries shows the objectivity and wisdom in President Obama’s selection. That you are a woman signifies the possibility that you will bring sanity to the White House, and by extension, to the Pentagon. For if the world was to be run by women, Your Excellency, it is quite possible that today we may not be mourning the brutal deaths of millions killed in the many wars over the past many centuries.

Your Excellency, it was at the outset of the Second Gulf War in March 2004 that I resigned from my honorary position as Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations to which I had been appointed by Dr Nafis Sadik, then the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund. For five years I had tried to bring to the attention of my department the fact that the issue of population, poverty, and peace cannot be addressed without empowering women to deal with all of these. It was, and still is, my firm belief that women will not choose war over negotiating peace, that given a choice, they will not produce children who must go hungry, that they are the backbone of a nation’s economy and cultural articulation, and that they hold the key to the myriad conflicts which rage like an uncontrollable conflagration, destroying a world built by men and predicated on inequity and injustice.

It is unfortunate that I was unable to convince my department of the value of the genuine empowerment of Pakistan’s women, beyond the provision of services and family planning counselling. It is equally unfortunate that I was being seen as the face of the United Nations at a point when this esteemed organisation was totally impotent in the face of your country’s insistence on invading Baghdad. My protest at this incapacity led to my resignation, something I have never regretted and would do time and time again, for protest is my right, and practically the only thing left to me to use with clarity, dignity and purpose. And it is through this fissure that I hope to be able to insert these words, Your Excellency, through the cracks in the daunting security which surrounds you during your visit to my country.

Your Excellency, before me, wrapped in a piece of fabric stained with grime and fragile with wear, lie the gifts I received from the family I recently visited in the hamlet of Thor which straddles a glacial stream rushing down the majestic Karakoram mountains. This parcel was given to me by the woman whom I met while conducting a Cultural Heritage Impact Assessment for the proponent of the Diamer Bhasha Dam. It contains what she had gathered in the fading light of autumn from the forest surrounding her stone hovel which she shares with eight children, her husband, several goats, a cow, two dogs and a ginger kitten with a broken leg. Lying inside this piece of fabric were a couple of pomegranates, some dried mulberries, and a handful of apricot kernels. When I shook out the piece of cloth containing these precious gifts, I realised that it had been carefully embroidered with intricate designs resembling the motifs I had seen etched into the dark surface of the igneous rock which lies scattered across hundreds of miles of this desolate landscape, described as the “abomination of isolation” by the British who wished to consolidate the far reaches of their empire in the 19th century. That this family lived just besides the 19th-century British-built rest house, perched on a cliff overlooking the thundering rivulet running down from the melting snows, appeared to me a fitting irony: rampant poverty living in the shadows of the greatest empire of the modern world.

I listened helplessly as my host explained in a language unknown to me that her husband was being threatened by the powerful land-owners of the area to give up his little patch of land on which his family eked out a meagre existence. This patch of land shall not be submerged by the 100-kilometre-long reservoir of the proposed dam, but before the river is dammed, this family, and many like them, shall be damned to displacement, dispossession, and the absolute disarticulation of everything they have known for centuries: their music, songs, stories and their way of life. There shall be many like them, “collateral damage” in the path of progress of a country starved of energy and full to the brim with contradictions which flame the fire of terror.

Why do I tell you this simple story, Your Excellency? Why should you be concerned about the lives of an obscure family living in some remote region of a country considered to be the pariah of nations for its involvement in the breeding of terror? Why should your mind be cluttered by the details of the lives of ordinary Pakistanis who struggle to survive all sorts of neglect and deprivation? After all, the simple mantra chanted by your government and those before it is that by bringing democracy to these conflicted lands, the world shall be a safer place. And democracy is what supposedly describes the dispensation in our parliament today, and even for the several years before that, despite the fact that the self-appointed head of state was nothing but a military despot wearing the disguise of well-cut suits.

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