February 09, 2009
Under the sealed sky: Drones
The first time I saw an unmanned drone aircraft was in Karachi when I sat directly under one trying to compose myself into a pose of cool collectedness despite the heat. That day in June 1998 I had gone to get my photograph taken professionally for the promotion of my first novel Mass Transit. As I seem to recall—there were several of them hanging from the ceiling all over the photographer’s house. These oversized toy gliders--above my head—rocked gently in the artificial breeze created by the air conditioning unit. I asked if assembling toy gliders were his hobby—. I was told they were neither. In fact they were remote control flying cameras. “They take pictures for the military” My picture taker told me. “Pictures over the Arabian sea—Pictures in Tharparkar near the border with Rajasthan—he grinned and continued peering at me through the lens of his camera. “Those pictures are taken with a very special type of a lens. Taking photographs of people like you, now that’s the hobby”. “Say no more” said I.
The sun seared the air to sweltering outside—but air conditioning inside, kept the photographer’s studio mildly cool. He was a civil aviation engineer. He did photo essays and fashion layouts for news magazines in the country as he had said as a hobby. While I arranged myself on the chair, brushed my hair and applied some lipstick, he adjusted the lighting and the backdrop. The power went out just as we were getting started. No matter—it would only be gone for half hour at the most. The room was getting hot. The pure cotton shift that I had on was beginning to cling—beads of sweat were beginning to trickle down my arms. So while we waited he pulled up the blinds on the windows and opened the shutters to let in air and the hot light from outside and asked me if I’d like something cool to drink or tea. I opted for a coke with ice. Ice would be so good. He left the room. The sea breeze caused the drones above my head to sway, various parts, probably the wings made a creaking sound. I looked up nervously—hoping that the strings holding them up were strong enough. When he returned with the drinks I fished out one of the ice cubes from my glass and rubbed it up and down my arm.
He told me about how often it was so sad to be around those other models the young women who posed for fashion photographs. These girls from lower middle income families seemed tragic to him---modeling to make ends meet while driven by the promise of entering a glamorous world where often all they actually got was a chance to wear and be photographed in expensive clothes. They were selling themselves for a fleeting grasp at celebrity. The power came back on. He took a few shots of me. I tried to hold still and look at ease. The pictures are in black and white. A large white dupatta slung over one bare arm—as though any moment it could billow and unfurl like an emblem. And just above my head unseen in the photograph is that other photographer, a drone which that day long ago stirred with the breeze.
Mass Transit was my first novel the one which begins with I search for your soul, you’re lost somewhere. Somewhere beyond my realm…..” A quarter of the way into the novel Gul Khan Baba an old Pathan fruit vendor appears into the plot unintentionally and insists that I register him there and then. Gul Khan Baba just barges in pushing his wooden fruit vending cart into the compound on my page of writing. Go away Gul Khan Baba—I tell him. I have to write about a prophesy about bombs of hell falling from the sky on Pakistan some day—obliterating everything. Go away for now—I’ll come back to you later. Then I turn my attention back to my character Rashid Ali, as he goes on ranting and raving to his wife and family. He’s an eccentric, a mystic bureaucrat—everyone thinks he’s just angry and frustrated. He’s prone to prophesying violent things—its Pakistan 1988—He announces gleefully that Pakistan will be bombed someday---for all its hypocrisy. He rages about the inability of people to connect effects to root causes of military regimes—amending the constitution---over turning democracy. He rages about the slow and steady creeping in of violence into society. He rages about the war between the United States and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s role as an American base. He uses his hands to show how planes will attack and dive and bomb and kill in Pakistan in the future. But we will all be obliterated! His relatives protest. He looks at them blankly and walks away muttering. And the novel closes with—“The knowledge…Knowing what is to come, I am afflicted with it. It is my burden.” My friends have told me over the years that I’ve got to learn how to write joyful novels, more sex---any sex in fact would do. Read porn—it’ll help with the writing. I write about war and torture is that not porn enough?
I did not know what Rashid Ali the character in Mass Transit was referring to, in his rants about missiles and bombs, when I started writing him in to the novel in 1989. Now I know. That country that I wrote about in Mass Transit—in which I tried to map the loss of Pakistan’s soul—has moved further down that path and the realization of Rashid Ali’s prophesy of destruction. A prophesy of destruction by the fury of missiles and bombs from the skies-a punishment for violence, war and lies that would continue to morph.
And that other type of drone—beneath which eerily I had sat for a photograph has morphed too. Predator Drones attack and fire Hell fire missiles in the north of Pakistan and have killed about 200 people since last August 2008. That’s what the military tells us. It doesn’t acknowledge much else. Messy business, wars. There is news of American soldiers committing suicide after they return from their tours of duty. What is needed are heartless warriors, with a high--unlimited capacity to kill, incapable of empathy. And they are here. These warriors called drones are “fighting” in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Reading the news I learn that there are 5300 robots in the military’s inventory and there are over 12,000 in its employ on the ground. The next generation of fighters---are heartless, capable of killing, incapable of suicide incapable of being tried. Drones.
Since 2005 these drone attacks have been taking place--- How many Predators have fired Hellfire missiles on North and South Waziristan? No one gives an exact number. All the news seems to focus on 2008. Over 300,000 people have fled Waziristan and are now internally displaced refugees out of the area. In Swat—where the Pakistan military is carrying out attacks on behalf of the United States—ostensibly fighting a Taliban “take over”—over 625,000 people are expected to flee during 2009 from Swat according to the UN. More then a million people internally displaced because of the drone attacks and the violence breaking out in the North Western Province of Pakistan.
Those fearing and fleeing the missiles and bombs know that the sky belongs to drones—and the earth to the mafias which spread in their wake. There is no way to escape. The turf battle is a moot point. And now there is a danger that the US is going to start drone attacks over Swat—because “militants” who fled the bombs in Afghanistan and entered Waziristan are now fleeing Waziristan and going into Swat—and elsewhere in Pakistan. Gul Khan Baba suddenly appears. His face craggy, his beard white, his eyes a cataract blue. He lifts his hand, in Salaam, I notice his skin cracked from heat and hard labor like that of his feet. I see him as someone who has fled from Waziristan, his family killed by a drone attack. I wonder whether he has morphed too after all these years when we last met. His eyes moist his voice despairing, he asks me: “What have they turned us into? Why do they call us names? Terrorists, extremists, suicide bombers? I am terrified. And how do we know who the suicide bombers are---how do we know that it isn’t the drones? Our fate is sealed. Where should we flee to-where—into the sea? The sky is closed for us—the land has been taken from us—where should we go? Are we just to perish under this sealed sky?”
Also by Maniza Naqvi:
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