Passing through the Qatar airport, I thought I glimpsed, on the horizontally scrolling news ticker of a red-liveried news channel that was probably BBC, the information that an American Ambassador had been killed. My first thought was, where? My second, related, was, I hope not in Pakistan.
After reconfirming that my four-month-old son was securely strapped to my chest, I fished out my BlackBerry. Like many online Pakistanis, I have a group of friends I turn to for breaking news, political commentary, and gallows humor. My circle, mostly aged forty or thereabouts, favors the decidedly uncool (to which a chart of R.I.M.’s plummeting share price will, sadly, attest) medium of BlackBerry Messenger—B.B.M.—for this purpose.
Responses to my B.B.M. query were more or less instantaneous. Not sure you read that right, bud. “Nope. Nothing on CNN.” And then: Wait. Ambassador down. Benghazi. Libya.
Libya. Surprising. I powered off my phone for the flight to Lahore. When I powered it up again, waiting my turn at the X-ray scanners with which customs officers prevent alcohol from being smuggled into Pakistan (the war on booze being approximately as successful in our country as the war on drugs is in the U.S.), there were already several B.B.M. messages suggesting that the Ambassador’s killing was related to the film “Innocence of Muslims.”
The following day, on B.B.M., Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere, I came across numerous claims that we would soon see anti-film protests raging across Pakistan; questions about what was wrong with, variously, the Americans, the Libyans, we Pakistanis, Muslims, and the people who run YouTube; and jokes too offensive to too many varied sensibilities to consider reproducing here, although some were, in my admittedly idiosyncratic estimation, really quite good.
I also received more than the usual quantity of chain-S.M.S. messages that day, and—in addition to the standard advertisements for English-language training courses, Dengue-thwarting mosquito nets, energy-efficient air conditioners, and pay-by-text Koranic guidance—there were two that caught my eye.
The first read precisely as follows:
ALLAHU AKBAR!!!! The cinema in America that was going to play the film of the Prophet today at noon. An earthquake hit that area that caused the building to split into two pieces. The Americans are so shocked at the miracle, that they didn’t allow full media coverage on the topic and that’s why you didn’t hear about it on the news today! Share this around and let people know that ALLAH is protecting the Prophet!!! PASS THIS MESSAGE ON! Please don’t let this stop at your phone!
The second message called for a Pakistani boycott of Google, claiming (correctly) that Google owned YouTube, and also (correctly) that YouTube hosted video footage of the anti-Islam film, and, further, that Google earned five billion dollars in revenues in Pakistan (surely incorrect, despite the oft-reported statistic that we Pakistanis are among the world leaders in online searches for porn; Google’s total global revenues are in the neighborhood of forty billion) and therefore that a Pakistani boycott would bring Google to its knees.
Whatever the merits of these bottom-up, user-driven responses to the affront, it was soon apparent that neither the Pakistani state nor the opportunistic Pakistani fringe politicians, who lurk in the nether region where the plankton mist of perceived persecution meets the vent of ready violence, would allow this moment to be left to the conscience of mere individuals.
The state’s reactions were immediately apparent. YouTube was blocked. The Internet throttled to a crawl. I have three broadband providers for my home, a bit obsessive, admittedly, but even in regular times the reliability of each leaves something to be desired. My cable modem promptly died. No Internet traffic could make its way in or (as far as I could tell) out. My D.S.L. link was barely alive, operating at a speed that brought to mind the “boing boing” sound of an old dial-up connection. My WiMAX setup, normally the least fleet-footed of my three, the backup for my backup, dipped to about a quarter of its promised bandwidth, which, given the circumstances, wasn’t bad. Unfortunately for me and my fellow-Pakistani Web-surfers, the state’s online response also included, in a scattergun attempt to block specific I.P. addresses that might link to the film, the erection of a national firewall that denied access to what seemed like half of the Web.
Fringe politicians were not far behind. Perhaps smarting from the recent Rimsha Masih fiasco—in which they had championed the execution of a fourteen-year-old, mentally disabled, Christian girl for the crime of blasphemy, only to be roundly rebuffed by a rare confluence of sane elements within Pakistan’s legal system, media, civil society, and clergy, who collectively revealed that she had been framed by a property-coveting local mullah—they were eager to fan the momentarily sputtering violently righteous religious flame.
The protests they instigated gathered force. Two people had already died. In today’s Pakistan, tragically, this is not uncommon. But there was a sense that things would intensify. Like weather channels giddy on the news of a menacing tropical depression, the local media reported an increase of emotional wind speed. Shouting politicians announced the formation of a telltale eye at the center of an anti-anti-Islam-film hurricane. It would, all agreed, make landfall on Friday, after the weekly communal prayer.
This also happened to be my three-year-old daughter’s first week of school. She cried every morning as we dropped her off, apparently a sign of healthy attachment though easily misconstrued (by me) as an indication that some great barbarism was being perpetrated.
So I was upset when the government declared Friday a public holiday, and not just any public holiday—Pakistan’s (and possibly the world’s) first Love the Prophet Day. The last thing my daughter needed was a three-day weekend just as she was beginning to settle in.
Views here were split. Some commentators lambasted the supposedly liberal, supposedly left-of-center Pakistan People’s Party-led government for ceding space to extremists, for in effect declaring Love Burning and Looting and Pillaging Day, for not having the gumption to stand up and say that no matter how offensive the film, no one had the right (or indeed any reason) to kill one’s fellow-Pakistanis over it, to destroy public property, as would certainly happen, or to bring anarchy onto our streets. Surely the real problem that needed to be addressed was one of faulty logic, what might be termed a “someone has made a hateful film in America so now I ought to get shot by a Pakistani police officer” fallacy.
Others thought that the government had acted wisely, or at least shrewdly, in getting ahead of the curve, possibly co-opting the mounting indignation and reducing the potential for confrontation.
Still others thought that the government was a bunch of American/Zionist/Indian lackeys no matter what public holidays they declared, and that they deserved to burn in hell along with the filmmakers and, presumably, anyone else who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time on Friday.
My daughter was pleased that she would have a “day off”—after a life total of four days on.
The hurricane approached. People began their preparations. We did our grocery shopping on Thursday evening (the streets were packed; the traffic was terrible). My driver, a Christian, asked if he could stay home from work (the answer was yes). The birthday party of one of my daughter’s classmates was cancelled.
I woke up at 7 A.M. on Friday. It was quiet. It isn’t always quiet at our house. We can usually hear rumbling trucks and sputtering rickshaws and sometimes the shrieks of motorcycle daredevils as they race by, pulling wheelies. When the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked in 2009, the automatic-weapon fire was clearly audible here. When bombs were going off more regularly a couple of years ago, the blast wave of one of them was powerful enough to push open a door.
Today there were birds chirping. And my phone had no signal. The government had turned off mobile-telephone networks as a precaution. (Mobiles are occasionally used as detonators for explosives, and, more commonly, for communications among militants during their operations.)
Fortunately B.B.M. works over Wi-Fi, and those of us in my chat group who had functioning Internet at home (about half of us) were able to keep each other abreast of the latest developments. One reported that a sign saying “Death to Sam and Terry” had gone up on Lahore’s main British-era thoroughfare, the Mall. I could guess who Sam was: Sam Bacile, a pseudonym of the hated filmmaker. But who, I asked, was Terry? “Florida preacher,” came the response. “Koran-burning day.”
The hurricane hit. On my TV set, Pakistan was aflame. E-mails from friends abroad asked after my well being. I went out for a drive in the afternoon and things in my neighborhood were utterly calm—disconcertingly so, for mine is normally a bustling area to which the word “calm” does not usually apply. This reinforced the idea that Pakistan is a big country. A hundred and eighty million people is a lot of people. Pitched battles between protesters and police can be going on in one place, barriers made of shipping containers can be breached by mobs in another, and cinemas can be burned to the ground in a third—all of which did occur that day—and yet, in most locales, with the naked eye, you will see none of this.
Phone service was restored that night. Blogging, text messaging, Op-Ed-page comment posting, etc. resumed in earnest on Saturday. By most accounts, approximately twenty people had been killed across the country: rioters, police, a TV cameraman, bystanders. Among my Lahori friends there was an air of sadness, depression. Others were more proactive, like the five thousand students who signed up to coördinate cleanup efforts in Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi through their dedicated Facebook page and the Twitter hashtag #ProjectCleanUpForPeace.
One friend sent, via B.B.M., a picture he had just taken of a rickshaw with these words written, in English, on the back of its fabric cabin: “Don’t Angry Me.”
I was reminded of the Gadsden flags I had seen flying, years ago, on a trip to South Carolina: yellow, rattlesnake, “Don’t Tread on Me.” Who knows, maybe the rickshaw driver had come back home from the United States after 9/11. Or maybe he’d stumbled upon that slogan, or something similar, on Google. Or maybe he’d even caught a clip, on a slow-buffering visit to YouTube, fluttering in the crisp breeze of freedom.Mohsin Hamid’s third novel, “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia,” will be published in March. His story “The Third-Born” recently appeared in The New Yorker.