Monday, April 25, 2011

The Three Theatres of the Arab World

The Three Theatres of the Arab World
Saeed Naqvi

Arab spring was always a media short hand. After spending some time in the region, I have in my focus three distinct dramas being played out.

From North Africa – Tunis, Egypt – to Jordan and Syria is one theatre. This is the arena of positive evolution.

Then there is the GCC theatre. Saudi Arabia is the spider in this web, its tentacles deep in Bahrain and Yemen, two countries it shares border with.

The third is something of a solo number with Muammar Qaddafi dancing between minefields being inexpertly laid by an Anglo-French pair of plotters. The Americans, having had their fingers burnt in Iraq, are clearly keen not to be seen conferring martyrdom on another Arab despot.

In an excellent interview with a journalist who specializes in Africa, Fareed Zakaria conclusively established Qaddafi’s immense popularity with sub Saharan Africa where people are collecting donations to help Qaddafi. Surely slaughterers of their citizens are made of harsher stuff.

Little wonder African leaders have been jointly pleading with the international community not to apply UNSC resolution 1973, as a means to advance Western interests.

The Anglo-French desire to dress up their designs with altruism, is just not selling. The Arab public is taking the Anglo-French propaganda with large doses of salt. “Foreigners have entered my house in Mesrata”, says Rafiq Hamadi in Baghdad, “and When I shoot them, they run to the media with the story that I am ‘slaughtering’ my people!”

In the short term, it appears Libya will be divided between East and West. The world, including the Arab public and 20 million Muslims in Europe will see the partitioning of the country for what it is: not to stop the “slaughter” of the innocents but for Libya’s light crude for which European refineries are specially geared.

Bahrain, meanwhile, has been an avoidable tragedy. Avoidable, because the Americans very nearly navigated an agreement between the Crown Prince and the opposition. But hardliners in Riyadh and Manama scuttled it.

Events in Bahrain deserve to be understood because they will resonate for a while. A 37 km causeway links Dammam headquarters of Saudi Arabia’s exclusive oil bearing eastern province which also happens to be a Shia majority region. In fact, in one of the districts, Qatif, the Shia population is over 90 percent.

Ever since the Ayatullahs came to power in Teheran in 1979, the Saudi state has been firm in handling Shia restiveness in the province, real or imagined. Since King Abdullah’s benign rule, Moharram processions and other Shia practices have been tolerated. But vigilance is as total as can be in a police state.

Across the causeway, Bahrain is, by comparison, a haven of openness except that political freedoms are cleverly circumscribed. A large segment of Bahrain’s 1.5 million population are expatriate.

Nearly seventy percent of the 8,00,000 Bahrainis happen to be Shias. The rulers, however, follow a strict Sunni school. For over 200 years the Khalifa family have been Emirs of Bahrain.

A decade ago Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa declared himself King. An Emir, he thought, had colonial connotations. Kingship would lend itself to the possibility of a “constitutional monarchy”. Along with Kingship, almost in sequence, comes a Crown Prince – in this case Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

King Hamad, ever since he ascended the throne has had his uncle, Khalifa Ibn Salman al Khalifa as Prime Minister under whom, by popular consent, corruption has flourished as it has elsewhere in the Arab world. He was one of the targets of recent demonstrations.

Infection of popular protest from Tunisia and Egypt arrived in Bahrain and youngsters, Shias and Sunnis, began to collect at Pearl Square for peaceful demonstrations. They even mounted Mahatma Gandhi posters.

The, police largely Pakistani, cracked down hard. In the ranks of the protesters there was some confusion. Did they want freedoms? A free press? Participatory democracy? Constitutional monarchy? or that the Kahlifas must flee?

American special envoy, Jeffery Feltman, the Crown Prince and moderate Shia leader Shaikh Ali Salman secretly met hand hammered out a compromise agreement.

The Prime Minister, seeing his power recede, agreed to Saudi Interior Security chief Prince Naif’s hard line. No quarter should be given to the Shias who will be the staging post for Iran. Brutality on the Shias was unleashed. And now the Crown Prince and the Prime Minister are probably in rival camps. Obviously the story is not yet over.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Henry Higgins And Lucknow’s Clear Speech

Henry Higgins And Lucknow’s Clear Speech
Saeed Naqvi

“Language most reveals a man; speak that I may see thee”. Says Ben Johnson. Can you spot a man from Lucknow on this basis? You could in the 60s.

Professor of Phonetics, Henry Higgins, takes up a unique challenge. Higgins believes impeccable speech determines class. With his phonetic skills he will be able to coach a bedraggled Eliza Doolittle to pass off as a duchess. He will transform her slanted “raain in Spaain” into “rain in Spain”. With Higgins’s persistence, Eliza develops the speech which superficially elevates her class. But only superficially.

You can take Eliza out of her squalor but the culture which that squalor breeds cannot be expelled from Eliza. At a critical moment, the “real” Eliza reveals her true self; she reverts to her cockney accent.

But why am I talking about Henry Higgins? The subject came up during a discussion on Urdu diction, a discussion which generally leads to the late, lamented Lucknow!

It is clear as daylight that Urdu varies in intonations, region to region. This is so because it picks up words and accents in the region where it is spoken.

Urdu’s first poet with his own collection of verse, Quli Qutub Shah, builder of Charminar, has a clear Telugu lilt in his diction. On many occasions “Q” becomes “kh” and so on.

The occasional Avadhi or Lucknowi tone one hears in Hyderabad is largely an importation. The senior bureaucracy around the Nizam’s court was imported from among the Saiyyids of Avadh – Bilgramis and Jungs, for instance.

In Punjab too, where the synthesis of various dialects with Persian and Arabic predates the Deccan, the spoken Urdu has an unmistakable Punjabi stamp.

Two of the greatest poets of Urdu in the 20th century, Iqbal and Faiz, happen to be Punjabis. But their eminence as poets does not by any means place them on the highest pedestal of Urdu diction. Mastery of diction, the intricate filigree of sound, arrangement of words, their cadence, in brief, the craft of Urdu, remained a close preserve of Lucknow and its Avadh environs.

It is generally not recognized that Urdu speech, its phonetic magic, was at its urbane best with Kashmiri Pandits, followed by a limited number of Kayasthas. The adjective “Urbane” has been used advisedly in this context: Kashmiri Pandits had no rural colloquialisms in their speech.

Since Lucknow was in some instances a camp town for Avadh’s rural elite, there was an automatic accrual of a certain rural lyric in their speech.

As the name suggests, Josh Malihabadi was from Malihabad, a Qasbah about 20 kms from Lucknow. Josh epitomizes Lucknow but his diction does not remain untouched by the flavour of Malihabad countryside.

How would Henry Higgins evaluate Faiz and Josh as speakers of Urdu as she is spoke? His class characterization would not work. In their respective environments of Lahore and Lucknow, both represented elites.

In the eloquence and magic of Urdu sound, Josh would dominate because he embodied Lucknow speech. I am talking only of the spoken word, mind you.

The remarkable fact about Lucknow speech was that it operated on principles way beyond Henry Higgins’ class framework. Ofcourse Lucknow was class ridden; it was quintessentially feudal. But good speech cut across class barriers. Stories of the horse carriage or the tongawallah’s suble satire at the miserly passenger are not apocryphal.

“After a day in your scintillating service, what recompense?”
“One rupee”
“Softy, Sir, the horse understands.”

The spell that this speech cast on Bollywood was enormous. Actors like Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Ashok Kumar rooted in linguistic cultures as varied as Pushto and Bengali, had to speak the “Lucknow speech” to be accepted as romantic heroes. Crash course would not do as in the case of Eliza Doolittle. Assimilation of Ganga-Jamni or composite culture which Urdu represented ensured a permanent displacement of an earlier linguistic entity by a new one.

Bollywood is a burgeoning industry and yet no hero can break into it unless he follows that singular law of romance: speech from Lucknow or Avadh. This explains Amitabh Bachchan’s continued success – his diction.

Without offending my Hindi purists, it is a combination of Urdu and Bollywood which has welded the nation into the acceptable Hindustani, the very essence of our composite culture.

When BBC Hindi Service was launched in the 50s, do you know the man chosen to head the service?

Aale Hasan, a thoroughbred representative of the composite culture which is both Urdu and Hindi – and its epicenter is Lucknow.

Yes, it does feel nice when Urdu/Hindi speakers anywhere ask with barely disguised admiration: “are you from Lucknow?”

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Monday, April 11, 2011

After Libya, Give me BBC Radio Anyday

After Libya, Give me BBC Radio Anyday
Saeed Naqvi

A book on war correspondents by my friend Philip Knightley has a pithy title: First Casualty. When wars break out, the First Casualty is truth. The war correspondent becomes the myth maker, an integral part of the war effort.

Fair enough. If the US, Britain and France are at war, say, in Libya, who am I to object to their journalists becoming drumbeaters. The problem arises when that customized coverage becomes the only source of information for the intellectually colonized world.

I myself learnt the hard way that scooping against the national purpose in a war is sacrilege. Sasthi Brata, author of My God Died Young and Confessions of an Indian Woman Eater, walked into my cubicle at The Statesman in New Delhi, and tossed in my direction two type written documents, about 2,000 (two thousand) words each, looking as sinister as only he can look. “Publish these if you have the b….ls.” I was editor of the paper’s Sunday Magazine. Bangladesh was being liberated. Sasthi had sneaked into what was then East Pakistan and given graphic accounts of Indian participation in the war. I published it.

Next morning the Hoogli, Chowringhee Square, Statesman House were in a manner of speaking, all ablaze. What should be done about the more explosive second part due for publication next week? What better way to stop the leak than sink the ship? Sunday Magazine was instantly discontinued. When it resumed after a few months, I was not its editor.

After Sasthi Brata’s alleged recklessness had been tamed, the “war effort” the Indian media joined remained a local affair. It did not inform or shape opinion beyond India. The Nixon-Kissinger duet continued to hate Indira Gandhi till the very end, quite oblivious of the Indian media’s extended patriotic slants.

The situation now is totally different because all perceptions of an event like Libya are dominated by the global media inaugurated by CNN’s Peter Arnett from the terrace of Al Rashied hotel in Baghdad during operation Desert Storm. This one event altered the global media hierarchy.

Until Desert Storm, BBC radio was by far the most credible and influential news source anywhere in the world. I remember Nelson Mandela’s first day out of prison in Archbishop Tutu’s house in Cape Town. Religiously, every hour, he would bend to pick up a transistor he kept by the wall, listening to BBC World Service.

There was always a lull in the continuous, sputtering sound of small arms fire during the Sierra Leone war, at specific hours when BBC Africa Calling was broadcast.

During an election campaign in Mahmudabad, UP, Mark Tully and Waqar Ahmad were startled by an elderly man, relaxing on a cot under a mango tree, when he refused to divulge his voting intentions. “I will first listen the BBC” he said “then make up my mind”.

That was the credibility of BBC radio which its TV avatar has willfully surrendered by constantly dissembling in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now in Libya.

Suddenly, a battery of the BBC’s TV stars, led by Liz Ducet, materialize along the stretch from the Egyptian border to Benghazi and beyond. You see men in jeans making V signs from a ramshackle station wagon. The reporter describes these as “advancing” rebels.

The clever Miss Ducet scoots from the implausible visuals, to keep her credibility for another invasion, armed intervention.

Meanwhile, John Simpson appears in what he says is Tripoli. No-fly-zone, regime change, arm the rebels, but supposing they are Al Qaeda, NATO air strikes killing civilians and so on, are parallel stories.

But an undeterred Mister Simpson, his neck at a perpetual tilt, dons a plausible manner: “Well, to be honest, the picture here, I doubt if anyone can, the rebels too…”, he continues, even as focus shifts to Ivory Coast until the props in Libya are ready to make fireworks more telegenic. Only last Monday a CIA operative with a satellite phone and chests full of money is rumoured to have reached Benghazi. CNN will now certainly revert to Libya and BBC will follow.

That’s the BBC for you in a war no one is clear about. Oh! Give me BBC radio any day.

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Monday, April 4, 2011

Remembering Vajpayee at Manmohan’s Moment in Mohali

Remembering Vajpayee at Manmohan’s Moment in Mohali
Saeed Naqvi

It is easy to overanalyze Mohali, Thimpu, UN General Assembly, Agra and arrive exactly where we had started. When it comes to Indo-Pak relations the devil, sometimes, is not in the detail. It is in the mind – on both sides.

The dossiers on Mumbai, the FBI’s role or non role, reference to Balochistan, Qasab, Aseemanand, etcetera etcetera can, all of them, singly or together, be tossed as the monkey wrench in the wheel. But these are not the reasons for relations being in disrepair.

These niggling details are the stuff that politics feeds on. To amplify the politics of pettiness is the function of the contemporary media in frenetic pursuit of ratings.

Statesmanship consists in rising above the petty politician and the panting, puffing media, to seize upon the moment, something Manmohan Singh is perfectly positioned for. I can see jaws drop: how can the Prime Minister be in a position for anything positive after the continuous mauling at the hands of the opposition through two sessions of Parliament? But we must not forget the Prime Minister too has seen the bruised and the wounded on the other side of the aisle. Who knows, Mohali may turn out to be his moment, provided he can plug his ears for insulation from that section of the media which aims to influence foreign policy by going ballistic, at deafening decibel levels.

Manmohan Singh must take a leaf from the Atal Behari Vajpayee book. Remember how he was stung at Kargil by Pervez Musharraf after his bus journey to Lahore. But he persisted. He was willing to go some distance even at Agra in July 2001; the hardliners in his own party pulled him back.

Remember Agra? Prevez Musharraf at the head of a large rectangular seating arrangement? Seated on three sides are God’s gift to Indian media, including the noisy one mentioned above. One by one they stand up to sing paeans of Musharraf in full throated melody. But, once the summit fails, they press “rewind” and over a period, “unsing” their songs, note by note.

But Agra or no Agra, knowing Vajpayee’s tenacity, I am sure he would soon have picked up the thread and resumed his peace commitment. But, alas, within two months 9/11 happened, providing grist to the hardline mill.

Then, in sequence, came the December 13 attack on Parliament, setting the scene for the February 2002 Gujarat pogrom. The hardliners were on top.

But did that stop Vajpayee from searching for the right opening?

Americans, by now deep in Iraq, began to lobby for Indian troops to administer northern Iraq, the Kurdish area. The armed forces salivated as did those of the BJP who liked the analogy of their looking after a “sector” of Iraq exactly as the “big powers” administered “sectors” of Berlin after the war. Yes, the establishment had all but bitten the bait.

Then on April 9, 2003, Vajpayee watched on TV Saddam Hussain’s statue being pulled down from the square at Palestine hotel. He kept his counsel.

On April 18, on a visit to Srinagar, Vajpayee the statesman, startled the world, most of all, his own party. Eyeball to eyeball confrontation between Indo-Pak armies notwithstanding, he offered his hand of peace to Pakistan. An awesome power has arisen, making regional quarrels a self defeating waste, he said. This led to the January 6, 2004 statement in Islamabad where Pakistan agreed that its territory would not be used against India. Manmohan Singh followed up and went further for peace than any Prime Minister. Then 26/11 happened.

The Vajpayee moment presents itself again. Manmohan can see an incoherent, inconsistent west groping for strategy in Libya. There never was and never will be any altruism in their moves. It is in our self interest to have the best of relations with each and every member of the currently quarrelling west.

But it is in our paramount interest to compose our regional differences, to be able to cope with an unstable, unpredictable and a frightfully self seeking world. Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, by their very presence, provide him with support he needs. The two Home Secretaries have cleared some thicket. There will be road blocks, terror attacks. But a variation on the Biblical dictum says: he who is willing to lose, shall win!

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