‘The Shadow Of The Crescent Moon’ by Fatima Bhutto

‘Sometimes there’s politics behind it, not God.’
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Doors were broken down in the dead of night, men were kidnapped from their streets, women were widowed and children were orphaned to teach the town its most important lesson: there was no match for the ruthlessness of the state.
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Aman Erum was the eldest son, the one who would set the way for his brothers to follow, a way out of the carpet business the family had struggled in for decades – and which was now endangered because of the halting of trade routes and the army’s insistence on being given a share in the transportation of rugs across the Northern Frontiers.
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The army didn’t want men from these parts; they didn’t even have a recruitment office in Mir Ali then. The officer Aman Erum had spoken to, the lone man in khaki green on duty at the base, had laughed in his face.
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‘He counts my defeats.’
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Most Pakistanis thought of Mir Ali with the same hostility they reserved for India or Bangladesh; insiders – traitors – who fought their way out of the body and somehow made it on their own without the glory of the crescent moon and star shining overhead.
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‘I don’t go for Friday munz any more. It’s better not to. Allah will exempt us. He has already exempted us. He has exempted and misplaced and forgotten everything that came to Him from Mir Ali, from the frontiers of this country within a country.’
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They all knew, those men who lived out their youth in mud bunkers drinking murky rainwater and tea leaves, what would come of their struggle. The state would begin to fight its own.
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Town by town, civil wars were lit by the wide-scale violence of the army – a violence that spanned decades and finally reached its zenith in the War on Terror. Swat, Bajaur, Deer, Bannu … one by one they all rose up against the state.
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You don’t cry for a man in hiding. You don’t mourn for a man you have not buried.
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Islamabad’s checkpoints were different from Mir Ali’s – there were no tanks here, no camouflaged shooters posted at significant angles so that anyone who tried to bulldoze their way through a checkpoint would be taken out with a clean shot to the head. There was no hostility in the soldiers. Here they picked their teeth with matchsticks and folded their arms behind their backs as they paced up and down pavements until a car honked, proclaiming itself ready for inspection.
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These people in the capital, the bus drivers and the ticket collectors and the peons, the girls with the hooded sweaters and blue jeans, they were anxious trespassers in the heart of their own country.
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Pakistan had opened its air space to the empire, closed Quetta airport so that foreign soldiers could use it as a makeshift base, allowed them access to their intelligence files, and put their invasive agencies at America’s beck and call.
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They heard that the men who flew the planes were from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but that the empire was going to strike Afghanistan first. When it became known one October morning, via radio and the local television channels, that Afghanistan had been hit and was in the throes of a foreign occupation – even though, it was noted, none of the men on those furious aeroplanes were Afghans – the men of Mir Ali understood that the state, Pakistan, had aided the attack on their brothers.
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Funerals and burials and prayer evenings became the meeting ground for the resistance. Even the dead were enlisted in the battle against the state.
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She remembered how she had wished she too could place jasmine buds in her hair and sing of war and death as if they were earthly delights.
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Disappearances, there was a beautiful science to them. First, they allowed the foreigners to come in and choose who would be arrested with papers and who would be transported over the country’s borders. Young men from isolated frontier towns were taken to cells in nearby Afghan airbases and interrogated by young boys from Oklahoma. There was no need for the army to get involved then; it would only complicate matters. Then the Americans took elderly bearded men, the fellows who recited the prayers from the mosque’s minarets. But they weren’t dangerous in the way their captors had been hoping for. Suddenly, the army was eager to help out, to be a part of the process and to receive a School of the Americas training at home. You have to look outside the mosques, they whispered. You have to find them where they gather to speak of politics, of the war, of their allegiances. You can’t find them in the mosques; they talk only of God there. So the Americans let the Pakistani military in, wiped their hands clean and went back to fighting from the sky. While the Pakistani army kept going on the ground.
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Disappearances, there was a beautiful science to them. First, they allowed the foreigners to come in and choose who would be arrested with papers and who would be transported over the country’s borders. Young men from isolated frontier towns were taken to cells in nearby Afghan airbases and interrogated by young boys from Oklahoma. There was no need for the army to get involved then; it would only complicate matters. Then the Americans took elderly bearded men, the fellows who recited the prayers from the mosque’s minarets. But they weren’t dangerous in the way their captors had been hoping for. Suddenly, the army was eager to help out, to be a part of the process and to receive a School of the Americas training at home. You have to look outside the mosques, they whispered. You have to find them where they gather to speak of politics, of the war, of their allegiances. You can’t find them in the mosques; they talk only of God there. So the Americans let the Pakistani military in, wiped their hands clean and went back to fighting from the sky. While the Pakistani army kept going on the ground.
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When Balach did not return home to his family they assumed he had been buried under a deluge of work. When the next morning came and there was no sign, either professionally or personally, of the junior professor his father went to the local police thana and asked to file a First Information Report. The officer laughed. ‘Come back in a week’s time.’ In a week’s time the same officer acted as though he had never seen the old man before or heard of his missing junior professor son. His face registered no recognition of the case or of the time lapsed. ‘Nothing to do with us. Go sort out your personal issues on your own. We’re not a bloody complaint centre,’ he said this time. The police made no reports. They had no warrants out for the junior professor’s arrest. The military police suggested to the father, when he approached them timidly with stories of the dropped cigarette and the green jeep with the spacious trunk – stories that had slowly filtered back to the family – that his son had abandoned them to fight at the forefront of Al Qaeda’s jihad. ‘But he was a professor; he was not a fighter. He was not religious. He taught a class on the constitution.’ ‘Maybe he’s run off with his boyfriend, then, hain, kahkah? He doesn’t sound like a fighter, as you say. Maybe he’s not capable of getting along with women and escaped to live a life of – … You say he’s not religious, kahkah, look at what these fellows get up to when the fear of the Almighty leaves them.’ ‘Maybe he’s dead,’ one of them eventually said. If shame and fear did not work, not knowing would be their punishment. There was no final humiliation. It kept going. Maybe he’s dead. Maybe he’s dead. But he wasn’t.
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Azmaray, the philosophy student, became a hero then. He became the face of the disappeared. His photograph followed the article of the visiting journalist who told the country of these weekly vigils for the un-dead. Azmaray coined a language for them, after providing the country with an eerie visual. Laapata. That’s what they called people like his brother, the junior professor. The missing. The unknown. Three days later, Azmaray, the philosophy student, was found in the middle of the small university campus. His long hair, which was growing longer still and gave his wiry body the promise of a coming masculinity, was scorched off. His gut was bloated. His left arm, broken in five different places, was twisted above his shoulder. His right arm, the one that had been holding the photograph of his brother, the junior professor, lay several feet away from the place where Azmaray’s body was found. His teeth had all been removed from his jawbone.
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That afternoon the army came and fired into the crowds. The fighters among the students, those who were leading their own underground cadres of poets and engineers, fired back. They killed seven soldiers. The university was set ablaze, the applied sciences faculty building was burned to the ground. Who started the fire no one can remember now. But from that time onwards the university was subsumed into a superior army presence.
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None of the other men in the underground have this particular power. They look contorted by rage, made ugly by vengeance. Their hearts are too corroded to present any other face. But not Hayat. He lives in the camouflage of his belief and carries out his services to his homeland without question.
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I thought I could wake up this sleeping country with my cries, but still they sleep as if in a dream.
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Aman Erum was not nervous; he wanted it too badly. He wanted to be free, to move without notice, to study, to learn, to expand his life that had so far been restricted to a border town. He had been quarantined in Mir Ali too long. Everything – success, comfort, respect – felt out of reach in Mir Ali. He wanted to be a free man. He wanted a life that was bigger than his father’s, one that came with luxury and comfort and choices. He wanted something better than Mir Ali could offer. He wanted the milky tea and the still-warm patties, too, if he was being honest.
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The Colonel sat back in his pink sofa. His smile faded. He bared his teeth. ‘Look at what happened in seventy-one,’ he said, ‘when those bastards mutinied and joined the Mukti Bahini. Taking our weapons and ammunition. They killed us with our own hands. Before we could capture them, they took us prisoners.’ It had been the largest capture of soldiers since the Second World War.
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That the men in khaki from the central province absorbed the country as though it was only theirs. They took the water, the food, the electricity, the funds; they occupied all the top places – the only places – in the military and the bureaucracy so that their lopsided dominance would never be in danger of being contested, not now, not sixty more years from now. No one outside of Mir Ali had understood that. It had been as though the others simply did not know it.
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We are close, they said, we are so close you can feel our breath upon your neck.
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They were no one’s oppressors. They were everyone’s oppressors.
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Not so many years before, they’d read in the papers of women doctors and secretaries raped in Balochistan’s Sui gas fields because they had spoken too loudly of the state’s pilfering.
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‘I know that you are the ones who have sold everything in this country you defend so urgently. You sold its gold, its oil, its coal, its harbours. I know you are the first in these sixty-six years of your great country’s history to have sold its skies. What have you left untouched?’
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Tamarind seeds. Counted at funerals. The words of prayers said over them before they’re offered as petitions to God on the behalf of the deceased.
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Not for the generation that came after and saw their parents’ dreams diminished, methodically squashed by the creation of larger and larger military cantonments where the army could teach schoolchildren how to sing the national anthem and where a larger perimeter of land flew the jungle-green and white flag of Pakistan atop their roofs and gates. The army beat this generation down by being bigger and stronger and faster. They beat them down by being exactly what this generation aspired to.
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This generation wanted scholarships, they wanted to travel for business degrees and seminars, to work at petrol pumps wearing bright orange jumpsuits in Eurozone countries if it meant the chance of a different life, one not ruled by checkpoints and national identity cards and suspicion. They wanted the freedom to travel to Mecca, business class.
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Freedom meant nothing to this generation. It was easily bartered for convenience.
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‘We became them.’
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His limited exposure to the rest of the country has told him that the others live well enough. Mir Ali pays the price for the comfort of those strangers; Mir Ali and its men have paid for decades.
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Do you have any shame in the face of the mothers you have robbed of their boys?
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We have been fighting those men since before you grew beards, before you learned how to read the Koran backwards.
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There was no future, not for Hayat, not for anybody in Mir Ali, until those long agos could be righted.
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Zalan had not given his life. It had been taken from him.
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