Mon Cher

Fayes T Kantawala always knew he could count on Cher

Mon Cher
"Isaw a video of Cher singing ‘A dream is a wish your heart makes’ from Disney’s Cinderella to an lonely elephant in Islamabad” is a sentence I never thought I’d be lucky enough to write, let alone watch. It feels like an unreal hallucination, the kind of disjointed fever dream you have after passing out from heat exhaustion at a gay bar at Sea World.

I cannot remember a time when I haven’t loved Cher. She was in most of my favorite childhood movies - Witches of Eastwick, Mermaids, Tea with Mussolini - a charming, comforting, constant dose of glamorous candour as ever-present as my parents. As a kid I assumed she was only ever an actress, until her song ‘Believe’ changed my social life, after which I hyperventilated my way through her 40-year-old catalogue, all of which I can recite extempore with a reverence most reserve for 19th-century poetry.

Despite the fact that I know for a fact we’d be best friends when we meet, Cher was in Pakistan to secure the release and relocation of an elephant named Kaavan, who had spent the last 35 years in miserable conditions at a zoo in Islamabad. It does not surprise me an inch that Kaavan’s living nightmare, like most of the rest of Pakistan’s, also started with General Zia-ul-Haq.

Then a child with aggressive square-cut bangs: Zia’s daughter Zain ul Haq became briefly obsessed with elephants after seeing a Bollywood movie Haathi Mera Saathi. She gave an interview recently where she recalled how she “prayed” for an elephant companion after seeing it and her prayers were “answered” when a few days later her father led her blindfolded to an newly acquired baby elephant. That her father was also a despotic, dogmatic and dangerously misguided military dictator is glossed over in this paternal fairy tale. Kaavan was technically a gift from Sri Lanka to Zia-ul-Haq for his support of their army during an insurgency (on brand), though the details are, according to borrow the BBC’s euphemistic description, “murky”. The daughter admits that the animal was sent to the Muzghuzar Zoo quickly after arriving because there was no way a family could take care of the creature.

The zoo itself was a model of mismanagement. Poorly run and badly funded – stories of the extent of neglect towards the animals were rampant. There was no vet on call, nowhere to perform simple surgeries. Kaavan was briefly coupled with a lady elephant but she died around 2000 due to sepsis from untreated wounds, and he, kind of, lost his marbles after that – as any sentient being would, if they too were confined to a concrete cage surrounded by an uncaring crowd of onlookers. Since then he has become aggressive and violent, an affliction most attributed to his cruel solitary life.

New home - Kaavan in Cambodia

Cher heard about the animal on twitter (Cher’s Twitter feed is like performance art), and felt moved enough to try and rescue and move “the world’s loneliest elephant” to an elephant sanctuary in Cambodia. Thus began a campaign that ended in a Disney concert.

Animal rights are a prickly topic in Pakistan. Most of the bemused comments from Pakistanis around Cher’s arrival praise her for her empathy while also displaying a silent unease for people making such a fuss about one animal when millions of humans are facing deplorable living conditions and absolute poverty. It’s an argument most of us have heard before, and one reflected in our national approach to animals, which remains distinctly feudal.

The way a society treats animals is often a reflection of how kind it is. Pakistani culture can be accused of many things, but en masse kindness is not usually one of them. Our animals are either livestock or pets, defined by their utility to us. Outside of that, they are little use. I don’t mean to belittle animal lovers, of which there are many here, but rather am talking about a national attitude. For all the pride over the Indus Valley Dolphins, one of the things that comes up again and again in the threats to their existence is that local river men use them as sex toys.

While it doesn’t make sense to wait until you rescue every human being before you are allowed to show concern for an animal population, it is helpful to see Kaavan’s life as a metaphor for the many ways Pakistani culture - not just one government, but our overarching shared moral code - is as fractured as everything else in the country.

But this week showed us that no matter how much red tape there is to surmount, no matter how long a problem has been left ignored, no matter how intractable the local bureaucracy or how difficult a solution, one thing is clear: Cher can do anything.

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Kaavan's mistreatment and plight elicited worldwide attention