Ill fitting

Fayes T Kantawala grapples with Pakistanis' cognitive dissonance around the issue of terrorism

Ill fitting
I think I told you about the wedding I attended last week. Not to harp on about it, but it was - prepare yourself - a segregated affair (tangent: isn’t that a great name for a romance novel set in an Islamic context?). It was the first of its kind that I’ve attended since I was twelve. While I was making small talk with the balding occupants of Male Tent B, I was repeatedly asked in conversation where I lived, a question that invariably lead to a squeal of “So Trump, huh?!” and a monologue of how doomed America is.

On most days this would not be an issue. Things are bad. He is a talking-point/punch-line for people around the world, including most recently the Swedes. Just this week Trump lied at a rally by expressing surprise at the horror that had happened in Sweden, implying a terrorist incident. “Sweden!” he exclaimed for emphasis. It turns out nothing had in fact happened in Sweden at all (a true statement if ever there was one), leading to tearful trending of the hashtag #NeverFjorget, a tribute to the fictitious tragedy of the Swedish people.
Maybe we want to call out the world for not caring about the terrorist attacks here because, deep down, we don't know how to process them ourselves

Trump talk is fair game. On the night in question though, the wedding event had almost been called off because there was a bomb at Charing Cross, mere feet from the reception area. But no one mentioned it. Not a single soul. So by the time the fifth person had told me how awful Trump is at the wedding, my tongue got the better of me as I said: “I know, he’s horrific. But you don’t live in the U.S. However you are currently standing literally 200 feet from a bombsite so fresh it’s still warm. Aren’t you more worried about that?”


It’s about now that the look of cognitive dissonance takes over like a computer virus creeping through a motherboard. The person gets a kind of glazed look, as if their mind is buffering while it loads a new delusion to replace the one you’ve just ctrl-alt-deleted. I got no real answer to my question, because the real answer is “We don’t want to think about it and it’s easier, frankly, to think about Trump.”

Many commentators feel that the Sehwan attack targeted a more pluralistic practice of Islamic spirituality - one at odds with the jihadist mindset
Many commentators feel that the Sehwan attack targeted a more pluralistic practice of Islamic spirituality - one at odds with the jihadist mindset

It’s a situation I kept facing this entire week, as bomb after coordinated bomb ripped through all of Pakistan’s provinces within days of each other. A conspiracy theorist would posit that it’s because Pakistan was in the news for the past few months for things other than terrorism and some “people” needed that to change. It was, as anyone can see, a coordinated effort. Most devastating was the bomb at Sehwan Sharif - which longtime readers will perhaps remember I wrote about visiting years ago, on my road trip from Lahore to Karachi. An hour or so away from Larkana and Mohenjo Daro, Sehwan Sharif is the epicenter of Pakistani Sufism. It is a beautiful shrine, decorated in lapis blue and gold, and the bohemian, inclusive atmosphere of the dhamaal is something that has always stayed with me as a religious gathering that’s actually fun. I was genuinely upset when I read about the attack, as were so many people around the world.

This anger lead to outraged posts and articles calling out the Western media establishment - which hashtags candle light vigils for attacks in Paris or London - for purposefully ignoring attacks that happen in Pakistan. They are right. The bombing at Sehwan Sharif was not covered extensively in the world media. There is not a Facebook profile picture for it, no cutesy graphic, no trending twitter love. And that’s unfair. It is also unfair that we have to choose which of the many attacks this week in the country warrant world attention.

So perhaps we are guilty of the same thing of which we accuse the world. Maybe we want to call out the world for not caring about the terrorist attacks here because, deep down, we don’t know how to process them ourselves. How can we? How can we feel the pain of the attacks, feel the fear of uncertainty and yet also try and live our lives in a paradoy of normalcy? The two are mutually incompatible, and require from each of us a kind cognitive dissonance that allows us to function. Was I really angry at the wedding guests for not caring about the bomb, or was it just that I recognised that in order to celebrate their child’s wedding, they had to not think about it just then? Perhaps I recognised myself in them, as maybe we recognise our own (sometimes necessary) apathy in the West’s disregard for our casualties.

The media is Trump’s new enemy no. 1 (along with facts and sunblock). It is also the lens through which we view our brand, as individuals and as countries. In the last few months I felt good when reading articles on Bloomberg about how Pakistan’s middle class is a growing economic segment worthy of international investment. I felt good that the PSL final would be held in Lahore. I felt good that Lahore Eats was about to happen. It felt good that the Karachi and Lahore lit fests and biennales existed. In short, I felt optimistic, which is not something I have felt in a long time about our country. It is the one thing we all need to feel in order for the nation to thrive.

And so we go about our lives, going to work, dropping the kids at school, going out to dinner, because to be in a perpetual state of mourning isn’t conducive to productivity. And it can’t be a requirement.

I was at the tailor’s yesterday. During my fitting, a man came into the shop and bear-hugged the tailor and began crying, like really crying. He had long straggly hair, white on top and mehndi red below.

“The police mistakenly picked him up for the Charing Cross bombing and they only just released him,” the tailor explained to me between the man’s dry heaving. “Poor man, he’s not all right in the head,” he said tapping his forehead. “And they’ve been beating him senseless.”

I didn’t know quite what to make of the story, stuck as I was on a pedestal without pants. Once composed, the crying man showed me pictures of him on the news channels that prove he was a suspect. I congratulated him on his release and then we all went back to the fitting. What else can one do?

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