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Issue #1470      1 September 2010

The soul of the “Land of the Pure”

It is the sheer scale of the devastation that leaves one speechless. As one surveys the overhead photos of vast lowland plains inundated with swirling brown water or stares at the upland images of mighty torrents washing away roads, bridges, entire villages, it is the utter scope of the disaster which almost defies comprehension, which far outstrips the power of words to convey.

Only the flint-hearted could be left unmoved by this. The heart aches for Pakistan.

But it is only in the photos of the people that one begins to grasp the full dimension of what is happening and, through that prism, to gain a glimpse into the soul of the Land of the Pure.

Endurance

One hears the stories of building frustration, of bitter complaints against a government so often indifferent in the best of times, and simply unequal to the challenge in these, the worst of times.

But this is not what I see in the photographs, in the images of entire families clinging to trucks to gain higher ground, of people stranded on roof-tops or on the raised strips of highways, of those isolated and forlorn, reaching for a bottle of clean water or a packet of sodden food dropped from a helicopter.

In these images one looks in vain for signs of hysteria, or for righteous indignation. What one sees instead is what one always sees in Pakistanis – endurance: Simple, often noble, endurance.

I have lived some years among Pakistanis. I cannot claim to have done them much good. Instead, my preoccupations have been those which animate the game of nations. I have served a great power which hunts its enemies, pursues its interests, and tries to meet what it sees as its responsibilities in distant places, far from home. I make no apology for this; neither do I expect great credit.

But one cannot travel among the Pakistanis, as I have been privileged to do, without developing a great admiration for their decency and their dignity.

I have found the mass of Pakistanis to be honest, hard-working, devoted to their faith and to their families, hospitable and generous almost to a fault, and devoted to the defence of right as God has given them to see it. But more than anything else, I have come to admire their capacity for endurance.

Beset by plagues

The current cataclysm has focused the world’s attention, albeit perhaps only briefly, on the suffering of ordinary Pakistanis.

Without trivialising the acuteness of their current plight, however, it is hard not to see in Pakistan’s current distress a metaphor for the many plagues which beset the mass of Pakistanis even in normal times: The crushing demographic pressures, the growing scarcity of clean water supplies, the slow strangulation of civil and economic infrastructure, the indifference of an elite class whose relation to the masses is most often “extractive,” the woeful lack of public education, the growing radicalism of the militants, and the increasing wantonness of the violence they inflict, mainly upon the innocent.

Eventually, the flood waters will recede. For some time, other calamities will replace them: Persistent economic devastation, disease, perhaps famine. Eventually, these, too, will recede, and the world’s attention will focus elsewhere, if in fact it has not done so already.

No one knows how long the effects of this year’s floods will persist, or how far they will retard Pakistan’s progress towards development. The one thing one can count on is that through it all, Pakistanis will do as they have always done. They will endure.

Robert Grenier was the CIA’s chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002. He was also the director of the CIA’s counter-terrorism centre.

Al Jazeera  

Next article – Solidarity Poem

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