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Last Updated: Friday, 7 September 2007, 17:44 GMT 18:44 UK
Humour - Pakistan-style
The BBC Urdu service's Masud Alam in Islamabad tries to see the funny side of life in Pakistan, where humour allows a country in crisis to let off steam.


Pakistan is a high-stress country.

Police guard Red Mosque, 7 September
Tensions rose in Islamabad after July's mosque siege

Its population has to contend with long power cuts at home, various types of discrimination and injustice in the workplace, and routine humiliation at the hands of security officials on their own streets - and at airports all over the Western world.

There's always the possibility of a lunatic blowing himself up in a busy market, a park or a mosque. Or one can get caught in cross-fire between uniformed and civilian gunmen, and not know who to run away from.

Hot weather, pollution, rich and spicy food, an abundance of sexual desire - and no way of satisfying it - only add to the strain on already volatile tempers.

If this society is still functional then it's all down to "comic relief" which, thankfully, is in no short supply in the Islamic republic.

Humour - be it vulgar, slapstick or refined - is the safety valve in this pressure cooker of a society.

Targets

And this is one area where government, too, does its bit. To be fair, the government - any government really, but especially a military-led regime - does more to entertain the masses than all the comedy in theatres, films and TV put together.

Pakistanis are not laughing at the biggest joke of all - perhaps because the joke is on them

Since the military razed to the ground Islamabad's Red Mosque and an affiliated seminary a couple of months ago, the army and police have become the favourite targets of religiously motivated extremists.

Walking to work every morning, I pass through a small link street at the eastern end of Jinnah Super Market, on which the only building is that of Kohsar police station.

I quietly amused myself as I saw armed Elite Force men (they are a notch above the blue-clad police and have the motto "No Fear" inscribed on their black shirts) starting to position themselves at the street corner and in front of the police station.

Then a barrier was erected at the entrance and sandbag bunkers started appearing on both sides of the street.

One recent morning when I tried to enter the street, one of the Elite Force came up to me, smiled and said he knew I used this route to go to work, but he had orders not to allow even pedestrians onto the street.

I was dumbfounded. "But this police station is meant to protect me, right? And you are telling me their security will be compromised if I walk past it?" I think I saw him going slightly red in the face. "Sorry but I have to obey the orders."

I went round the block, through an unpaved dirt track dotted with puddles caused by overnight rain, still a bit puzzled. Then I stepped onto a patch of mud. I looked down at my soiled shoes and burst out laughing.

Troops captured

I am made to walk through mud and water because my local policemen are threatened by me and others they are supposed to protect! If this is not funny, I wonder what is...

Perhaps the incident in which a whole convoy of soldiers - more than 100, according to the army spokesman - was kidnapped by the very people they were going to fight against, in the inhospitable Waziristan area? And that too without a single shot fired from either side!

map

Maybe the army's insistence that its troops were not kidnapped; they'd simply lost their way and would show up some time soon!

Or the statement from the alleged kidnappers: "We are not torturing them or anything. We just ask them to parade around and do the military drill for our amusement," an individual claiming to be the Taleban spokesman told the BBC.

And then there's the saga of missing voters.

It's election year. The commission responsible for holding polls churned out a voters list, which was, in comparison with a similar list produced five years ago, short by some 20 million!

When opposition political parties made a noise about it, they were told the previous list was erratic. Then the Supreme Court took up the case and ordered the election commission to find and enrol the missing voters.

Under duress, the election commission is doing that now but it still hasn't explained how 20 million voters just slipped off the electoral roll in the first place.

Pakistani troops in South Waziristan 14 July
Pakistan's army has been deeply embarrassed over the kidnap

A newspaper reporter has finally solved this riddle. And like all other complicated issues in this country, the cause turned out to be rather straightforward.

According to the report, the temporary staff hired for registering voters was paid so little that they didn't bother going door to door, and just did whatever they deemed reasonable for the money they were paid.

'Election campaign'

Sometimes, the government provides comic relief through press statements. Like the other day, the lead headline in a daily newspaper read: "Pakistan needs me: Gen Musharraf". If you read this story while watching a procession on TV where people are chanting "Go Musharraf go", it's all the more entertaining.

Protests against Gen Musharraf
Gen Musharraf has been under mounting pressure

It reminds me of an old and rather lame joke, but one that fits the situation perfectly. A man tells his friend he's getting married. Is that so? When? Not sure, he replies. It's only half arranged so far. How do you mean? Well, I have agreed to marriage, she hasn't.

But Pakistanis are not laughing at the biggest joke of all. Perhaps because the joke is on them.

For the forthcoming election, the major contenders for power have shifted their position 180 degrees.

Gen Pervez Musharraf dislodged an elected government and grabbed power as a serving army general. The act can be defined in the constitution of Pakistan as "high treason". Seven years down the line, the man is still a serving general and wishes to be president for another term.

And for help he's looking towards a political party which the army has always viewed with suspicion and consistently described as a "security risk" for the country.

The religious parties have traditionally sided with the army, which explains the liberals' coinage of the term "mullah-military alliance". This time, a prominent religious leader, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, is in the Supreme Court challenging Gen Musharraf's holding of two constitutional offices at the same time.

Benazir Bhutto in London - 1/9/07
Ms Bhutto is seeking a deal with Gen Musharraf

Nawaz Sharif, an "army stooge" and a man whose only commitment was known to be Kashmiri food until not so long ago, is talking of "principles" that have no place for a military man in governance - uniform or no uniform.

He's demanding that Gen Musharraf go back home and let the people of Pakistan decide who will rule them.

And Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan People's Party, the self-appointed custodians of democracy in Pakistan, seem keen to replace the above two contenders as the generals' lackeys. Ms Bhutto is the only national leader to engage Gen Musharraf - "an illegitimate ruler" until recently - in a power-sharing deal.

This election campaign has long been in process. It is being run in Washington, in London, in Riyadh, in Dubai. The only people who haven't been consulted so far, by any party, are the Pakistani voters.

Get the joke?




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