"So it is the number nine after all." I look at the cryptic text message from my friend Shazia, in Lahore and I know that she has spent the whole evening adding them up. Benazir Bhutto, the Dukhtar-e-Mashriq (Daughter of the East) who so many had condemned for so long is dead, gunned down or fatally knocked down by a metallic lever in her gas guzzling SUV, depending on who you believe.
We have been texting all night and here in Lincoln, Nebraska where I have been for the "holidays," that most ubiquitous symbol of American life-I find this new knowledge surreal. Most of what we get here is Fox and CNN - both now compete for mindless info-tainment, peppered with strong doses of all of the pharmaceuticals Americans now need to get through Christmas, the "holidays" and indeed life. As the TV cuts abruptly from new relief for those plagued with Restless Leg Syndrome to a grave looking Wolf Blitzer re-playing Ms. Bhutto's oddly prophetic sound-bite, when wearing her signature bright lipstick she talks of her own fears of "death", I feel a sense of restlessness myself. The "surreality" of network television is a part of our daily lives.
Today has been a strange day - I have just finished buying "essentials" at an Iraqi grocery store in downtown Lincoln, where the proprietor cheerfully informed me that he used to be Sunni but converted to Christianity after touching Nebraska soil (the Lutheran Church helped him and his family get their visas) and that there is a "large" Iraqi community in Lincoln (a statistic which no doubt would be extremely interesting for those consumed by the paranoia of "illegals" fed by the fire and brimstone spouting Lou Dobbs, an iconic figure here). If Ms. Bhutto had lived she would have had the pleasure of knowing that even the Lincoln Journal Star banner headlined her death.
My friend Shazia and I finally get on the phone. She says the SMS (as text messages are called there) started only an hour after Ms. Bhutto was pronounced dead. And then she explains: She was born in 1953, which numerologically adds up to 18 which then adds up to 9. She was 54, which adds up to 9. She died in 2007, which adds up to 9-December 27 to be precise, again a 9. Shazia goes on - Ms Bhutto was born on June 21st that was the sixth month of the year so 2+1+6 becomes 9. She returned to Pakistan on the ninth year of her exile on October 18 and again 1+8 makes 9 and she visited Garhi Khuda Bukhsh, her ancestral village to offer the Fatiha prayer at the shrine of her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on October 25 and just after the 63rd day of the visit, she was assassinated and 6+3 again makes 9.
I listen in amazement. Shazia in the past has tried numerology on me several times, with predictions of doom. And Shazia (and I don't use her real name as she says she has few "friends" in Pakistan) has never been religious. I always feel that she uses numerology to comfort herself having tried several times to escape this "fundy" (fundamentalist) Islamic country and failed. Her Pakistani passport and her last name that shows up on many of the lists now circulating in the hands of our guardians of homeland security, have guaranteed her not being able to get a visa to come here, to the land of the free. She enjoys her Scotch on the rocks and for her the numerological facts hold way more interest than what is to some, the Quranic and very Shia martyrdom of Ms. Bhutto.
Shazia comes from a Shia family herself. Shazia, by all accounts, "a modern Pakistani woman" has never been much of fan of the martyred Bhutto who was supposed to be the singular hope for millions like her. I tell her that I could not help but notice Anderson Cooper's pretty boy face framing one half of the CNN Breaking News Screen with the other half occupied with Ms. Bhutto's last rally at Liaqat Ali Park, framed in medium close up against a microphone that proudly bears the banner of the audio equipment rental company, Shahid. Shahid in Urdu means, "martyr". I am more interested in discussing the Shia aspect with her. Just that day another friend from Pakistan, has sent me a simple message on Face Book - the flag of the Pakistan Peoples Party that Ms. Bhutto was meant to lead "for life".
The flag of the Pakistan Peoples Party to this day proudly flaunts the colors of Shia Islam-black, red and green. In Pakistan for decades, many have lamented the Sunni hegemony. Shazia laments, Zia (referring to Pakistan's former military dictator, author of the infamous Hudud ordinances and one who met his death in a plane crash, which for many was not an accident) calling him "that Sunni who killed Zulfikar."
For the Shia Bhutto, in a nation where her kind of Muslim only comprises one fifth of the population, martyrdom is not an unusual concept. In neighboring Iran, an entire eight-year war was fought on that principle.
In a nation that many Indians love to call a "failed state" (and now belatedly so do some of the Democratic Presidential hopefuls), the ascendancy of the Shia prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1971 was a revolutionary event. This man got to be the prime minister after a million deaths in East Pakistan, then becoming what we now know as Bangladesh. In a nation of a few institutions, except probably the powerful Army, Zulfikar ironically represented a sense of hope and moderation. He shared his name with the name of the twin bladed sword of that greatest of Shia martyrs, Imam Ali. His wife, Nusrat was from an Iranian family and would later be swept aside as Benazir became the face of the party - urban legend would say that power-hungry Benazir even stopped speaking to her mother. He was hanged to death in 1979 by Military General Zia ul Haq who went on to promulgate the infamous Hudud Ordinances-a man who was bent on Islamicizing the country after the "corruption" and "immorality" of the Bhutto years.
It was a new wave of Islam - a Shia theocracy was bringing revolution in Iran and a popularly elected Shia Prime Minister was being brought to the gallows by a Sunni Military dictator. Just a few months after Zulfikar's hanging, the siege of the Haram al-Sharif (the grand mosque in Mecca) and the Ka'aba would begin on November 20th, an event that many belatedly today ascribe to the birth of al-Qaeda . As troops including the French rushed in, hundreds would die.
The Hudud ordinances were Zia's way to cling to power and ostensibly brought in Sharia (Islamic Law) punishments for Zina or "adultery", amongst numerous other "Islamic" diktats. Shariat benches were constituted within the judicial system and hundreds of women would meet their violent deaths under that General. The sections pertaining to Zina were infact only incompletely replaced, some argue by the Women's Protection Bill in 2006 during Musharraf's reign. Ms. Bhutto had failed during her two tenures as Prime Minister to act on her election promise of completely doing away with the Hudud and Zina laws. And she was certainly not as popular in the Pakistani "awam" (masses) as many images from her now legendary "rallies", would have us believe.
Bhutto upon her return to power could sense the way the winds were blowing in Pakistan. An adept politician, she re-invented herself a Sunni. The Shia of Pakistan, comprising only one fifth of the population have often been persecuted, as have other minorities. Thousands have died over the years in continuing Shia-Sunni violence. In 1988, the beautiful Ms. Bhutto became the prime minister of Pakistan at age 35. She had no doubt been helped significantly by the powers that were, in the corridors of the Washington political class, that she had so assiduously cultivated over the years. Twenty months later she was dismissed. She returned to power in 1993 but was dismissed again in 1996. Her wealthy, Shia, land- owning husband, Asif Ali Zardari was by now known as Mr. Ten Percent and would spend a total of eight years in prison. During her time of comfortable exile in London and Dubai she would visit Washington every year-sometimes several times and always get meetings with old friends from Radcliff and Senators and State Department Officials. With her wide lipsticked smile and beguiling charms there was not a Senator or Congressman on the hill that would not grant this most articulate and engaging face of moderate Islam, an audience.
I have always felt that I knew Benazir all my life. Celebrity, geographical proximity, the charismatic impact only a beautiful and powerful woman can have on a formative gay male mind-all of these could have been contributing factors. I was fifteen when Benazir, whose name meant "like none other" or "without a match" entered my imagination. My mother had just bought the autobiography of the Dukhtar-e-Mashriq, or Daughter of the East and insisted that I read it as well. I was soon swept up in the Benazir version of a world of intrigue and the violence of feudal politics that had spelled doom for her father when he was hanged by the tyrannical Zia ul-Haq.
The blood and injustice that seemed to characterize her dynasty was no different, really from what Indira Gandhi (another one of my mother's icons) had lived through. Ms. Gandhi had met an untimely death at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards. My mother had often spoken of going to Pakistan, a land where so much of our ancestral history was left behind in mindless violence. Many years later, when I was a student in Washington, DC, Ms. Bhutto and I actually shook hands as she finished speaking at my University. With her impeccable and "pucca" Oxford English Ms. Bhutto, then still an exile, had spoken for an hour about the many misfortunes of her life and accused Nawaz Sharif (who it is now said broke down in tears upon hearing of her murder and rushed to the Rawalpindi hospital where they had brought her body, to face cameras) of cutting her husband's tongue. Coming from a prominent Shia landowning family, Zardari was mired in charges of corruption and was even suspected of murdering her brother Murtaza Bhutto.
A friend and I looked at her and ridiculed her clipped Oxford accent and her always-slipping "Dupatta" (head scarf). Ms. Bhutto would always have trouble keeping that Dupatta on her head and would often be seen re-adjusting it. I remember when I filmed A Jihad for Love amongst the large London Pakistani community, a gay Muslim friend of mine did Benazir-drag for my camera. Somewhat ceremoniously he arranged a pride banner, proclaiming equal rights for "Queer" Muslims around his head, much like Ms. Bhutto's Dupatta and fluttered his eyelashes as he sighed a long, "Dukhtar e Mashriq." It was an unforgettable moment for me, but never made it to the film, knowing that it would not easily be deciphered by many of my "Western" audiences, not immediately able to comprehend this dramatic sigh of pain and privilege (The Daughter of the East).
In the mostly ill-informed reportage that has followed Ms. Bhutto's murder, the focus has primarily been on treating Pakistan as America's fifty-first state, with every imprisoned-in- Iowa candidate rushing in to give their two cents worth of expansive foreign policy experience. We are told that Pakistan, democracy and this ridiculous and never ending "war on terror" are in peril. These candidates have all been paraded before us. There has unfortunately been a lack of understanding of what this latest assassination in a sub-continental bloodbath of popular leaders that started with Gandhi in India, continued with Benazir's father, killed that other iconic woman born to lead and continue a dynasty-Indira Gandhi and then her son, Rajiv. A friend of mine wondered just two days ago, if we South Asians like our leaders dead.
I wonder if that "baddest"-of-all-Muslims, Osama was not hiding in Pakistan, would the story have received this much attention? What is it about Ms. Bhutto that inspires such polemic and such pain? Surely neither of the now deposed Begums in Bangladesh-Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, also Muslim sub-continental leaders who have been elected in the past to "lead" would warrant the same amount of attention in the United States. Both certainly have the right genetic makeup of dynasty-and both currently languish out of power as a military regime runs that poorest of nations. Not unless, Mr. Huckabee decided to count the number of illegal Bangladeshi's in New York City and then we could build more fences and allow the geographically challenged American public to elect him, perhaps. I wonder- Do people get what they deserve? Was George Bush the second merely a symptom of the ignorance of an entire nation? Does a fool-in-any-other-context, like Huckabee, not lead in the polls in Midwestern Iowa?
Many facts have gone unnoticed, as they undoubtedly will. There seems to be an anti-Musharraf tirade coming from the Democratic liberals, eager to prove how many times they have met or called the new bad Guy of Pakistan politics. Mrs. Clinton has gone on record to state her personal relationship with Benazir. To prove that point-CNN even manages to pull up archival footage of the two hanging out together, with a young Chelsea and Bilawal in tow. For the many Pakistani's I count as friends, and who actually live in Lahore and Karachi, Musharraf was somewhat of a blessing and Benazir, a memory best forgotten, till he sent in troops to quell the trouble at Islamabad's infamous and doomed Lal Masjid or Red Mosque. I wonder also about what Ms. Bhutto's assassination means for the Muslim woman, caught up in a world of bombs, burqa's and burqini's. Pakistan's troubled NWFP (North West Frontier Province) just saw a female suicide bomber, clad in a burqa blow herself up a few months ago. At the Lal Masjid, the Jamia Hafsa brigade of women, scary for the television camera's clad as they were in their impenetrable Burqa's and armed with weapons and Qurans, guarded their anti Musharraf, pro Shariat Sheikh Abdul Rashid Ghazi. To the fashion conscious elite in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, Ghazi and his ascent spelt doom. They felt Musharraf mishandled the situation and as his troops rushed in on June 10th last year to kill almost a 1000 people (as was claimed in Pakistan at the time), Ghazi became a Shahid. Just a few months later, Bhutto had also ascended to the heights of martyrdom. This nation within a few months had produced two martyrs, who could not be more unlike each other. I wonder who will be the next one-Musharraf would certainly never qualify, given that he does not have the martyr like blood or the legacy of dynasty. However, the man that everybody now loves to hate is a veteran of surviving assassination attempts.
In the case of America's new presidential hopefuls we look for meaning and if lucky we try and sound remotely intelligent and aware of the map of the world. In the case of Huckabee, whose name and manner I find decidedly un-presidential, we get it all wrong-from the point of Emergency rule in Pakistan (which was still enforced last week, in the Baptist governors mind) to the very map of Pakistan which now shares a lawless Eastern border with lawless Afghanistan. If we have any luck, we present our audiences with no-brainers like how a fence near Mexico will help America deal with the huge Pakistani "illegal" exodus that is coming as sure as Judgment day and the return of Christ.
Meanwhile the circus of Pakistani politics continues. A strapping and handsome teenager has been asked to lead the party his grandfather had founded. Bilawal Bhutto's ascendancy to the throne of the PPP is but a foregone conclusion in a sub-continent where heredity and genes still determine a birthright to power for the largely illiterate and poverty stricken masses. A young Rajiv was asked to become Prime Minister of the world's largest democracy when the ashes at his mother's funeral were still burning. He was also to be killed. The dust has barely settled on Benazir's grave, and indeed Bilawal who packs a genetic punch, and arguably the only qualification he needs- clutches his mother's photograph and proclaims that democracy is the best revenge. His proud father announces un-Islamically some argue, that Bilawal will keep his mother's last name. This is necessary ofcourse to retain the authenticity of lineage. Bilawal who has never really lived in Pakistan, clearly does not realize that the increasingly ungovernable country that has been bequeathed him has never really realized what to do with democracy. In neighboring India's mostly dynastic politics and its "successful democracy"- an Italian born Catholic, Sonia Gandhi with spotty Hindi skills now runs the government, picking up her right to be powerful, through her marriage to Rajiv Gandhi-the martyred former prime minister.
For some reason the chant that resounded in thousands as a triumphant Benazir returned to Pakistan the first time, to take charge of her father's fiefdom, has been repeating in my head-Jiye, Jiye, Jiye Bhutto Benazir-Punjabis and Sindhis alike had in rhythmic chant welcomed a woman to lead them, asking her to "long live" (Jiye), a slogan that they had used for her father as well. Both are now dead.
After death, we look for co-incidence. And again seemingly inconsequential details consume my thoughts. If it is not Shazia's numerology, then it is the flaming Chanel logo on the glasses Ms. Bhutto is wearing at her last rally. And what about her microphone that says Shahid.
And then I ponder the timeline of assassinations in my volatile sub-continent, problematically carved up by the departing British in 1947 and re-drawn with blood again in 1971, when Bangladesh came to be. Gandhi had been assassinated. Pakistani Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan was assassinated at the same park (that bears his name) where Ms. Bhutto met her end. Bangladesh's first Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Zulfikar Bhutto's contemporary, was killed by the military just like Benazir's father was. Indira Gandhi's assassination had lead to the mass murder of Sikhs in my homeland, India. In Sri Lanka a Buddhist monk had killed President Solomon Bandaranaike in 1959 and many years later "Tamil militants" from the same nation, the LTTE that killed Indira Gandhi's son Rajiv, would attempt to kill Sri Lankan President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. In Bangladesh Mujibur's daughter and former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had recently survived an assassination attempt in 2004. All of these lives-many lost and connected by the blood of dynasty and martyrdom and indeed corruption and misgovernance.
As I write, Hillary Clinton is on CNN again. In America, where the promise of democracy defines nationhood, and is a concept fit to be exported, we are repeatedly told-dynasty has crowned Bush twice and one wonders what kind of dynasty, the Clintons are carving. She looks presidential and I hope she does not lack the intellect that Mr. Huckabee certainly does not possess. After calling for Musharraf to stand up to the challenge, Mrs. Clinton talks about the average Pakistani people "on the street" who "are wearing suits and ties". We should take note. Suits and especially ties are the best hope for American style "democracy" in Pakistan. Clearly the Ayatollah's in Iran have had their revenge-the tie, in that nation remains a big and problematic symbol of evil from the Great Satan and now that we can flood Pakistani markets with a Made in China tie for every self respecting Pakistani middle class male-we would have successfully imported democracy. After all, as the Ayatollahs have successfully argued, the evil of Western democracy is best symbolized by the tie. Have you ever seen Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wear a tie?
And there will be "democracy" in Pakistan, of course. We shall then have to deal with the Burqa clad Jamia Hafsa brigades and the thousands of Pakistani women who feel their "Dupattas" can slip no more. The blood of a martyr is the best easy-wipe solution for the stains of corruption and misgoverning in the part of the world where I come from. Benazir Bhutto is assured a greater greatness in death.