The South Asia Channel

The Bargain from the Bazaar: A Family’s Day of Reckoning in Lahore

From the book The Bargain from the Bazaar: A Family's Day of Reckoning in Lahore by Haroon K. Ullah. 

By 2008, the youngest of the Reza sons, Kamran, was a third year law student in a scholarship program that allowed him to just squeak by. Unlike his brother Daniyal, he had put his faith in law and order as a means for social change. In Professor Jalees's criminal statutes class, he rose one day and spoke with passion:

"Pakistan must change radically. Otherwise we won't survive."

"Hear! Hear!"

"Speak of it!"

"But violence won't get the job done. In fact, it's totally counterproductive.The extremists are turning off more people than they attract."

"That's a fact!"

"They make a big show of their ‘learning' within the pages of al-Quran," Kamran went on. "Their learning! As they say in English, they are ‘Bible-thumpers.' Few of them have even read al-Quran in its various forms, let alone in its more ‘objective' translations." He turned his palms up with lawyerly directness. "Let's face it; the militants aren't just terrorists. They're also an organized crime syndicate. Everybody knows about the American gangsters in Chicago years ago, Al Capone and those people. They used fear and savagery as a way to put millions in their coffers-and our modern-day terrorists do the same thing! We all know they get big funding from regimes like Iran, like Saudi Arabia, certainly from Hamas, even some parts of our own government. In a way, the top-level men in the terror groups are as bad as the Christian evangelists in the States who preach love and charity while living like kings in huge mansions ,chauffeured around in luxury cars. Meanwhile, the poverty rate in the United States is shockingly high for the world's reigning superpower. The point is, the higher-ups in the Taliban and their ilk, the top leaders, are not in the killing racket for purely religious and political purposes. They're also in it for the money, the perks."

"Bravo, Mr. Reza," Professor Jalees said as Kamran resumed his seat. "I couldn't have said it better myself, with one exception. The Taliban and the wannabes are acting not only on a quasi-profit motive but one that is made feasible mostly by the use of some child labor. Can anyone name the statute under the Pakistani criminal code that applies here? No? Well, neither can I. But it's in there somewhere."

As usual, Jalees's humor was met with laughs.

"I have seen some rather shocking statistics developed by our political science wizards down on the third floor. It appears that nearly two-thirds of all Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Haqqani foot soldiers are in fact teenagers. Teenagers." The professor paused longer than necessary, then raised his Groucho Marx eyebrows with trademark sarcasm.

"Hmm . . . A bunch of high school boys . . . uh-huh . . .hopped up on hashish. So these are your suicide bombers, your assassination squads. Comments?"

Kamran and his friend Zain, a political science major, hung out together and enjoyed debating all kinds of things, but mostly politics and religion. They disagreed on some matters but agreed on one thing: the country was at the edge of a precipice. Written off countless times as a failed state, Pakistan had so far defied the pessimists, and the odds, as it continued to survive-though just barely. Family bonds and kinship, the glue holding the whole social fabric together, were losing their grip in a broken economy under the onslaught of violent gangs and corrupt officials. People everywhere were becoming divided by religious ideas.

"People are getting crazy with this strict religious stuff," Kamran said to Zain as they sat together in the dormitory.

"My neighbor Hussein-you remember Hussein, the rickshaw driver? He won't let a woman hitch a ride unless she's with a male relative. Not because he thinks it's wrong but because he was shot at when he had a lone woman for a fare," Zain said.

Kamran shook his head in dismay. "Stupidity."

"But the government is so fucking weak they can't do much tostop the violence."

"Actually, that's not even our biggest problem. We're more threatened by inflation, fraud, street crime, and corruption than we are by the insurgents. The way it is now, Z, the average man has to bribe and smuggle in order to survive on a daily basis. If we could only concentrate on fixing the economy. Of course, that's the last thing the radicals want."

"And the politicians as well. If things get better, their under-the-table payments will be reduced. Not eliminated, mind, just reduced."

After years of living under several military dictatorships, most people had originally applauded Pakistan's drift toward a fully democratic society. It sounded good, but the widespread feeling since the 1990s had been rampant disappointment. Inflation was out of control, with the cost of food staples soaring out of reach even for middle-class families like the Rezas. Refugees in the influx from Central Asia and China were smuggling in manufactured goods of all types, which quickly began to destabilize the prices of domestic producers. Chinese knock-off brands of television sets and mobile phones severely damaged the market for Pakistan's legitimate manufacturers and importers. Businesses also suffered from a lack of an efficient regulatory infrastructure. The lines of people waiting at administrative offices for every type of license or permit that was required would extend out into the street like ticket holders at a soccer match. It could take hours or even days to get a simple permit to hire an extra employee or expand inventory. Historically, land disputes had always been a major issue in Pakistan, but these frequently ground to a judicial halt-not because of the backlog but simply because the government ran out of printed forms. Civil court cases that should have been resolved in a few days dragged on from month to month and even year to year.

On the other hand, if the parties could afford an envelope for the judge and a few other functionaries, the case might proceed with uncommon speed. Refugees wandered the streets of the big cities, especially around restaurants, seeking handouts, food, and work; sometimes these encounters turned violent. The number of burglaries and armed robberies rose to an all-time high. Anyone holding valuables such as jewelry or cash (most banks were no longer seen as secure) was forced to hide or lock up everything at home. Even longtime servants were no longer trusted. Murder for hire became a light industry, and kidnapping for ransom became a profitable trade. Jails and prisons were permanently filled to capacity, resulting in deadly riots. Officials and the police liked the action, with more and more people forced to pay them for "favors." The incumbent administration, no matter what faction was in power, was simply not equipped to deal with the burgeoning problems threatening the nation. With no widespread support and much to do, each new government became overheated and ultimately overwhelmed.

In contrast, the extremists were seasoned and well-equipped, with grassroots links and supply-chain avenues that had not been closed when the Soviets had abandoned Afghanistan. They were led by the same "freedom fighters" that the United States had initially supported and supplied to resist the Russians. After Moscow withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in 1989, the guerrillas were suddenly enemies of the West. Pakistan became an auxiliary player, to a great extent a reluctant one, in the Afghan war that its U.S. partner was waging against former allies. The unpopular and complicated entanglement with the heavily armed U.S. forces did nothing to enhance the image of a democratic and independent Pakistan. Many saw their leaders, whether civil or military, as mere stooges of Washington. And it didn't help matters when it was widely reported that the majority of Pakistan's parliament consisted of very wealthy men (as if that were a shock to anyone paying attention). The stink of bribery and kickbacks wafted through the halls of official Pakistan like manure behind a carriage horse.

There was a widespread understanding among the people, even the vast number of uneducated, that the violent extremists plaguing Pakistan were crazed fanatics-some homegrown, some imported- who were hell-bent on establishing one form or another of religious law, a version of a theocratic society, regardless of what the majority of the nation wanted. The periodic suicide bombings at shops and government offices were an effort to intimidate ordinary citizens. People were forced to take sides; being neutral was no longer a viable option. One could not tell friend from foe, neighbor from enemy. Pakistani society had fragmented. And every time there was a bombing, the central government looked more and more inept.

*****

Kamran Reza had a good idea of what he was going to do with his life after obtaining his degree. He would set about wrangling a post in the national government. But he wouldn't take just any job; he wanted a position that would feed into a fast-track career. Along with most of his classmates, Kamran had a wholehearted goal of bringing honesty and justice into vogue to rid Pakistan of the corrupt officials and military leaders who had grown fat at the expense of the masses. These men were opportunists in the worst sense, looked upon by many as little better than common hoodlums. Like all Pakistanis,

Kamran had daily experience with street-level corruption. Growing up around the Anarkali bazaar, he had seen his father and other business owners pay steep bribes to greedy politicians, brutal police officers, and grabby wholesalers just so they could keep their shops open. Kamran knew the top-to-bottom housecleaning that Pakistan needed would be drastic, painful, and dangerous to implement. He realized that true and lasting reform could be accomplished only by those working from within and acting for an elected government. He and his peers would have to become part of the nation's elite, as distasteful as that might be, in order to bring about substantive change. It would take time, but they were young, and more importantly, they had the intense desire, the pressing need, to help forge abetter Pakistan.

"Of course," Kamran told Zain, "it will take more than idealism to put this country on its feet as a functioning democratic society. A hell of a lot more."

"That is certainly true. Idealism has been tried, and it hasn't worked." Zain shook his head sadly. "And here we are, all thumbs-in-vest over our nuclear arsenal. What a joke that is! As bad as North Korea with its starving masses."

"We can never use the nuclear option," Kamran said. "It would trigger a doomsday scenario that Pakistan could not survive."

"Nuclear weapons are good for nothing but saber-rattling."

And then there was always the United States to worry about. Kamran and friends wondered how long Washington would continue to look the other way, knowing damn well that elements of Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies were channeling aid to Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Haqqani forces. There was a strong sense that the Americans might get fed up and turn on them. What exactly they would do was anyone's guess, but it would come suddenly, unexpectedly-one could count on that.

Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of The Perseus Books Group.  Copyright © 2014