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A Season for Martyrs

By Bina Shah

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As Ali drove his car through the Karachi streets, he had to avoid potholes and ditches because all the roads were dug up, as if landmines had exploded everywhere. He still stopped at red lights, but the rest of the traffic was generally so unruly that nobody even bothered to slow down at the intersections. Before leaving the house, Ali prayed that he wouldn’t meet with an accident, because if you were in a bigger car than the poor bastard you knocked into, a crowd of excited hoodlums would gather around to beat you senseless in the name of vigilante justice. He often came home to a darkened house: the load-shedding guaranteed six, seven hours a day without electricity. He dreamed of being able to afford a generator that ran all their air conditioners, but they only had a UPS system that ran a few lights and fans for an hour, then shuddered and expired like an old ox that had suddenly decided to die in the middle of the road.

They’d just aired a special report at City24 over the weekend: how burglaries, kidnappings, car-jackings had become everyday affairs in the Pakistan of the twenty-first century. They’d opened the phone lines at the end of the show and the boards lit up with the scores of ordinary people calling to tell their stories: how gangs of men Ali’s age or younger pushed a pistol into your face and forced you to give them your mobile phone. Sometimes they would pick you up and drive you around town for a couple of hours, stopping at an ATM machine, making you withdraw and hand over all your money to them. Everyone cursed the police, the administration, the mafia, but nobody held any hope that their laments would be heard by the authorities.

And in this last year, things had just gotten worse. The Supreme Court judges had been deposed; the country suddenly faced a wheat shortage – never before had Ali seen people standing in line behind trucks as bags of flour were thrown down to them, as if they had woken up in some famine-riddled African country. Suicide bombings everywhere, fanatics promising to take over the country, impose Shariah law and conquer the entire world. Newsweek had recently featured Pakistan on its cover and awarded it the title of “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth”; only a fool would disagree with its verdict.

Just a few weeks ago, at a wedding, Ali was gossiping with a group of friends when one of them, Aziz, interrupted the conversation. “Have you heard what’s been going on these days?”

“Now what?” said Ali, rolling his eyes.

“Well, you have to watch out for this guy. He’ll stop you in the road and ask for a lift. When he sits down in your car, he just opens his vest and you can see that he’s wired with enough explosives to blow you and your car to paradise.”

“Oh my God,” murmured Ali. The other people in their circle clutched at their drinks and bit their lips as Aziz went on.

“Oh God is right. Thing is, he doesn’t look like a jihadi, just an ordinary, pleasant-looking guy. And you know what he says? It’s your lucky day. You’re going to get to be a martyr.”
“God, then what?”

“He gets in and makes you drive around for a couple of hours. But he isn’t looking for an ATM, and he doesn’t want your mobile phone. He wants you to drive until you find a military truck, or a bunch of policemen standing at a picket, and then he tells you to say your prayers and drive straight into them while he blows himself up.”

“No!”

“I haven’t heard of that happening!”

“It wasn’t in the papers…”

“Well you just have to be smart and drive around aimlessly and avoid anyone in uniform. After an hour or so the guy says, ‘Drop me off here. You don’t get to see Paradise today. It’s your unlucky day after all’.”

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