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Of Cats, Native Informants And American Academia

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A new breed of American informant is keen to use Pakistan’s media as an intellectual dumping ground, explains Miranda Husain and her cats.

I am Wahjee and this is Tiara. My younger sister. To the undiscerning eye, we are innocent little fur pots who relish being unseen yet heard. Me, a tabby in golden coat festooned with velvety black curlicues. She, pure marshmallow white with heart-clasped black cap and matching cape. Quite the dedicated followers of fashion. Think of the two most popular cat food brands and then picture us. We are from the streets but now gentrified to the point whereby we nonchalantly turn our noses up at canned food.  No matter that 8 out of 10 owners say their cats prefer it.

We’ve seen it all. Both of us were born during Musharraf’s rule and found it quite splendid. Not because of a lingering soft spot for a man in uniform. Rather, we were bowled over by those First Dogs of Pakistan: Dot and Buddy. The soft and plush faces of this hard country. Veritable pioneers of Pekingese diplomacy; long before any Tomcat, Dick or Harry knew how to pronounce CPEC. Oh, how those ferocious Chinese dragons challenged the religious right with their sheer existence. Sitting in the seat of power whilst enjoying the lap of luxury. Of course, they were pedigree chums and therefore more privileged than us. Yet we dreamed of an inclusive Pakistan where anyone could become top dog.

What came next remains a bit of a blur. We heard that Dot and Buddy returned to the barracks. But someone had left the door open and suddenly boots were on the ground; un-hidden paws pulling civilian puppet strings. And Pakistan reaped the vengeful-democracy dividend while the Americans droned on. Before all hell broke loose as a khaki trial hit the headlines and everything else faded into 50 shades of grey. Then every cat and their person was encouraged to celebrate a whole decade of uninterrupted democracy with a book. At the time, we wondered if the all-weathered friendship with China had encouraged a cultural revolution in reverse. But, as we swiftly discovered, there was only book. And we all had to read from the same page. Those dog gone days of un-enlightened moderation well and truly forgotten. Of course, high illiteracy rates meant that not everyone got the memo. Red-lines erased and redrawn with indelible ink. Making it increasingly difficult to keep little furry noses clean.

Tiara and I pride ourselves on keeping up do date with what is going on in the world outside our window. After all, our familiar is a journalist so we are duty bound to take a vested interest. Expertly chasing the mouse across the paw-touch screen. Afghanistan has always been on our collective radar — ever since we read about how the Taliban deliberately blinded Marjan the Lion. Cruelly throwing a hand grenade at the real jungle king. That is how we came to know that the Americans — with or without their trusty and leashed poodle — were intent on scapegoating Pakistan for the Afghan quagmire of their own making. All the while shocked-and-awed at the visible anti-Americanism sentiment. And here we were, thinking that the Yanks were all about rocket science.

Newsrooms, too, were monitored, and not just by those who never returned to the barracks. Some US-based publications began offering news round-ups pawed by local journalists here. It made sense since letters to the editor could not longer be trusted to offer a popular consensus of public sentiment. No matter what a certain fast-food American pundit turned golden-arch-democracy advocate might say. Tiara and I know enough to understand that journalists here already endure much. But maybe now is not the time to meow about that pesky unholy trinity of officers, gentlemen and their zealot sidekicks. Oh too late. We have let the — ahem — cat out of the bag. Now, where are those pigeons?

Since kitten-hood, our role has been to look after our familiar. Especially as journalists remain bonded labour and my sister and I know something about that. Or at least, what it is to be cold and frightened and hungry on the mean streets of Lahore; where people turn the other cheek as they skip, hop, jump and sometimes kick us ‘ferals’ while posting pictures of their designer; furries for likes, shares and retweets. As if we are less than toys.

And so it happens that in addition to our furry combat sessions that can easily mistaken for un-strategic wrestling — because that it our intention — we also engage in reconnaissance missions. And this involves intercepting dubious mails intended for our person. This is where seeing in the dark comes in handy. Not that either Tiara or I have ever understood all the fuss about the fourth estate. Not really. Especially if one can’t report the news exactly as it happens or else be open to political discourse of all kinds. But, then, it is our job to preen and pamper. At least, that’s our cover.

When we recently overheard her complain to anyone willing to listen about academics in the US trying to appropriate certain intellectual spaces over here, we couldn’t just sit back and keep meow. So, we took matters into our own paws.  Me, a whizz-cat on the laptop. While my sister is the ultimate cat-pert when it comes to interrupting phone calls. Honestly, she yaps away while I track and trace in the other room. A most enviable dream team.

What we uncovered was this. American scholars of Pakistani origin or well settled ex-pat university professors have refashioned outdated images of the native informant. Packaging American Muslim success stories to give themselves a paw on the back. But all the while, these are marketed as inspiring the uncivilized barbarians. Hoodwinking us into believing that all politics are local. Tiara once cheekily quipped something about imposing a writing ban. Her frustration is real. Because we know that over there and over here are not the same. And that while Islamophobia is a genuine problem — talking about it here in the local media does nothing much to win that battle. It’s like comparing Whiskers and Felix. In reality, it reduces the breathing space for Pakistan’s own minorities. Yet whenever we have raised this issue, our voices have been woofed down and all that remains are accusations of whataboutery. Remember, Tiara! That column  pawed by a white Muslim convert recounting her journey towards ‘reversion’. It was touted as so very incredibly ‘powerful’. And how we laughed like little kittens. Not because we wished to be unkind. But because it was akin to preaching to the choir. Publishing it in the US would have taken, perhaps, real gumption. Better still, when that un-quiet American was trying to make his country great again by imposing a Muslim travel ban.

Then there are those academics who behave like shameless second-hand car dealers. Pimping pieces penned for, in their own words, an American audience. But who want to ‘global’ and think the best way of achieving this — here in the digital age — is to request Pakistan-based editors to serve up the odd ‘minority’ writer. Off-the-rack, like, to add cultural frisson under the false guise of religious sensitivity. As if all cats look the same in the dark. We recall one particular professor who forwarded an ‘op-ed’ by one of his white American students. Even we could tell it was little more than an elaborate press release of an event held at a Washington think tank. Billed, mind you, as the last meow in the fight against Islamophobia. As if this is the war Pakistan is battling at home. Yes. Quite right, Tiara. It doesn’t make much sense to have such write-ups published here. But, then, the objective isn’t interfaith harmony but appropriation of the authentic voice of the Muslim world. American imperialism by another name. And hubris,

In olden times, at least before we were born, Coca-Cola used to be a by-meow for soft power and cultural capital. That was before every cat, kitten and caboodle spat out the poisonous fizz. We had no need to put hairs on our chest. Now the US has come up with a new and healthier sugar rush. And this century’s native informants are lapping it up. Like real dairy cream. Let’s hope they don’t choke on it.

Wait. What was that, Tiara? She’s home. Quick. Pretend we’re squabbling over who gets first dibs on updates from Larry the Downing Street Cat and El Gato, who looks after Jeremy Corbyn. Well, it has to be believable. And, remember. This was all off-the-record. Over and meow.

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Naya Daur