Tahir Aslam Gora’s novel Al-Bakistan is a telling indictment of proverbial identity politics pervading state and society in Pakistan. Although located in the Indian Subcontinent, Pakistan has been trying hard to cultivate an imagined Arab – Central Asian national identity. The Arabic language lacks the alphabet ‘P’ and hence Pakistan cannot itself be Arabised. Consequently, some wiseacres have devised the permutation Bakistan for Pakistan! ‘Al’ with a hyphen is added because it is the definite article like ‘the’ in English and often prefixes Arabic proper nouns; hence Al-Bakistan means The State of Bakistan!
I was quite surprised when I saw in Lahore number plates of car using Al-Bakistan, wondering if some new state has come into being. To my very great surprise, I learned that it was the latest case of novelty hunting by Pakistanis to feign an extraneous national identity.
The novel covers the period 1999 to 2022. It begins with the notorious hijacking in December 1999 of Air India’s IC 814 to Kathmandu by Jaish-e-Muhammad terrorists who forced it to change direction, and after several stops and a number of killings on the way of passengers, made it to land at Kandahar where the Taliban regime was in power. The Pakistani deep state was not directly informed or involved in the hijacking but once it happened it stepped in to ensure that its influence in bringing it to a closure by having three terrorists in India being released and the hijackers getting away with impunity.
Army Chief General Ashraf, Brigadier Asif and Colonel Arif become key protagonists in the plot the author weaves to tell the bizarre, salacious and macabre story of serving army officers, intelligence agencies, compromised politicians, pornography addicts, media lackeys, pimps and call girls and host of others involved in a charade of carrot-and-stick tactics which defies all rational features of a coherent government and authority. However, the situation is not just one of bad, corrupt and inept governance. Such a situation obtains in many other countries also. In Al-Bakistan a large constituency exists of fanatics who idolise Osama bin Laden and deplore that they could not meet that great champion of Islamic militancy. Such people render Al-Bakistan a dangerous state and society.
The ultimate manifestation of political manipulation by the deep state is to bring Imran Khan (who came to be known to his critics as Taliban Khan) into power and then remove him with equal disdain when he proves to be an Enfant Terrible and starts flagrantly defying it. Throughout the novel, the approach remains irreverent, even iconoclastic - but deep down, it is a lament about how a society torn between puritanical values and debased behaviour ultimately deceives itself rather than the world at large.
Not everyone in Pakistan is an opportunist, and one meets writers such as Nishat Ahmed and others who find the Two-Nation Theory the root cause of Pakistan’s identity crisis. The author notes that one of repercussions of such a mindset is a reaction in India which hates Muslims and Pakistan and preys on the Muslim minority in that country. Indeed action -reaction and intended and unintended consequences of political moves inevitably generate such situations.
The author steps in himself to express his objections to the partition of India which he describes as an unfortunate severance of Pakistan from its inextricable cultural and geographical civilizational roots to become Al-Bakistan.
Gora exposes in a most readable text the hollowness of such bizarre experimentation from the vantage point of fiction. Fiction, as the 1957 Nobel Prize winner for literature Albert Camus explained, was a lie one tells to tell the truth. This is precisely what the author does. Deploying a range of literary skills which combine fact and fiction, hardcore realism and tantalising farce laced with salacious scandals, he portraits the predicaments of vainglory Al-Bakistan assuming the mantle of the frontline state of the Islamic Ummah – defending not only its physical and ideological frontiers but striving to expand them through threats of Gazwa-e-Hind and other blatant jingoist ideas of aggrandizement.
In my book, Pakistan the Garrison State, I argued that Pakistan lacks both capacity and capability to achieve anything of the sort it professes to achieve and now the novel Al-Bakistan demonstrates that vividly fact from multifarious angles.
Pakistan is today a pariah state with a huge trust deficit internationally and regionally but has shown no signs of repentance. Rather the pig-headedness of its power elite persists, no matter such policies have brought economic and financial ruin on the people of Pakistan and its political system is at best a parody of what is considered contemporaneously as the norm for responsible states.