Of pelicans and poets

‘In the past five years Pakistan has been subjected to censorship so absurd it would embarrass Kafka’

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As I write this, I am sitting in Larkana, upper Sindh. Cradle of the Indus Valley Civilisation, heartland of Hindu and Sufi culture, and, of course, one of the world’s vital forces – the Indus River.

I first saw the Indus up close as a teenager from a fisherman’s boat, a rickety thing seating five people and two pelicans. The birds were tied to the side of the boat by thin strips of cloth around their dainty ankles. As we sailed down the river at dawn – the best time to see the Indus, my mother insisted, though I’m sure it would have looked just as interesting at nine – the birds turned their bodies away from us and gazed out towards the open water.

The fishermen busied themselves with baiting their hooks to lure palla, the bony, sweet water fish of the Indus that Sindhis eat in the summer months, sucking the wisp- thin bones with their teeth. When there was no palla to be caught, returning as it does to the sea in the winter, like salmon, the fishermen angled less delicious river fish.

“How do the birds help you fish?” we asked the men, their skins darkened by the sun that even in winter shone brightly. “They don’t,” the men answered, dropping lines into the water. “We eat them when we can’t find palla.” The birds paid the fishermen no notice. Not once on the journey did they attempt to escape, to fly away or peck at their ragged fetters.


As I write this, I am sitting in darkness. There is no electricity and eventually my laptop’s battery will die and the soft glow of the screen will fade.

For the past five years, Sindh – and all of Pakistan – has been plunged into an otherworldly era. There are 12-hour electricity cuts (“load shedding”, they call it, as though we are glad to get rid of it), gas shortages, and a censorship so absurd it would embarrass Kafka.

YouTube has been banned for the past 13 months due to its “un-Islamic” content (essentially, one stupid film, The Innocence of Muslims, made by an even stupider film-maker). On top of that, 20,000 “objectionable” websites and counting have been taken offline – naturally, almost nothing links them: some are political blogs, some are LGBT-oriented, some monitor the murder of Shia Muslims across the country. Mobile phone packages that offer free late-night call minutes or cheap text messaging have been banned – ostensibly to deter illicit late-night conversations between men and women, but practically ensuring that the millions of poor across the country are unable to communicate. Most ridiculously, 1,500 words have been banned from being used in text messages. “Gay”, “Jesus Christ” and “tongue” are on the list, along with other body parts and swear words.

Two-thirds of Pakistan’s 180m people are under the age of 30. The remaining third (to which I belong – I’m 31) is hardly decrepit. And yet, this powerful swell of numbers is remarkably docile when it comes to the issue of censorship.

But for a country in which so much is forbidden – women’s rights are negligible; minorities are routinely oppressed; the poor have long been muted – what are words? Those who do protest, and there are brave groups such as Bolo Bhi (“Speak Up” in Urdu), which monitors internet freedoms and government transparency, are told these issues are elitist. They are upper-class problems, the state says, they are not important in the fight against terrorism/for Islam/against teenage romances. But communication and the ability to connect to others are among our most primal needs.

It is not just because I am a writer that it is uncomfortable to live in an environment where censorship cripples the power of words. People today may jokily refer to the country as “Banistan” but this is not a new exercise. Pakistan has long fought a war with writers. Under the dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq, poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz was forced into exile, and revolutionary poet Habib Jalib was imprisoned. In any English bookstore in Pakistan you can pick up a copy of E L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey but not one of Salman Rushdie’s novels.

The lights flicker on and off and I think of the pelicans that do not peck at their restraint and have learnt to live with their dirty shackles.

The internet comes, then it goes. I feel almost disheartened but then remember Faiz: “Though tyrants may command that lamps be smashed in rooms where lovers meet, they cannot snuff out the moon.”

Fatima Bhutto’s first novel ‘The Shadow of the Crescent Moon’ (Penguin) is published next month

Susie Boyt returns next week

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