Today, for us young citizens, Pakistan feels like a country empty of dreams. But with sorrow, there is anger, says noted Pakistani writer Fatima Bhutto…
I called a family friend in Peshawar. How is everything? I asked. I had no language for what I felt. I had no words for the horror that scrolled across the television screens or my constantly updating Twitter feed. “Oh my god,” he said. “They were so young. They were so handsome.” Most of the dead were between the ages of 12 and 16. On the phone I listened to the story of a son who was trapped in the school. The boy was shot in the jaw and in the shoulder. But he is alive. The Taliban attacked Peshawar’s Army Public School because, they said, they wanted Pakistan to feel pain. But Pakistan, the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz once wrote, is a congregation of pain. How much more sorrow can one nation bear? “My son was my dream,” a grieving father said in Peshawar. “Today I buried my dream.” Today, Pakistan feels, for the first time for so many of us young citizens a country empty of dreams.
Sorrow that knows no name
There is no word for a parent who buries a child. No equivalent of widow or orphan in any language that I know, we do not have the language to describe a parent who lays his child into the earth before his time. So with what tongue do we speak of the dead now? It is a sorrow too large to bear. But with sorrow, there is anger in Pakistan today. There is anger at those who turned their eyes away from terror and let the cost be paid in human lives. There is anger at those who offered the killers silence, refusing to condemn them by name. There is anger at those who saw some expediency in the deaths of innocents. There is anger, there is anger and then there is shame. There is shame to read of the three first aid instructors who had come to teach the children of Peshawar’s Army Public School about emergency aid when they were killed. There is shame to know that most of the dead, most of the children killed, were shot in the head.
There is shame towards those whom we cannot apologise to, to the countrymen we did not, could not, protect. Shahrukh Khan, 16 years old and asked to recount the horrors of the day told the press that the men who came to kill him and his classmates looked under the school benches, making sure they had left no one alive. Shahrukh, who was shot in both legs, stuffed his tie in his mouth to stop himself from screaming. What language do we have to reassure Shahrukh? When it comes to words, I have none. Taliban, it bears noting, means students in Arabic. What kind of student brings blood into a place of learning?
In the aftermath of the carnage in Peshawar, India announced a two-minute silence across their schools, a two-minute silence of grief and solidarity.Turkey called for a day of mourning. And in Pakistan today, we grapple with language. How do you eulogise a woman burned to death in front of her students? Who is a Taliban when so many public figures – anchor-men, politicians, and disaffected, alienated youth – trade in nothing but hate? How have we spoken this long of the terror we all face – the attack on the Istiqlal school in Kabul that killed six Afghans and injured many others, the women raped as they rode night buses in Delhi, and the children of Peshawar – without compassion for each other?
The poetry of remembrance
In Pakistan today we read poetry in remembrance of the dead because in times of unquantifiable grief, we look for solace in the words of others. Mohammad Hanif, one of our most fearless writers, wrote on a recent Tuesday, “There is no need to offer prayers for the souls of the children killed in Peshawar. What possible sin could 16-year-olds have committed? Pakistan’s political and military leadership is requested not to worry about the children’s afterlife. When they raise their hands in prayer, they should pray for their own forgiveness. And they should look at their own hands closely, lest they be stained with blood.” But it is Rahman Baba, the nightingale of Peshawar, that I keep coming back to. “We are all one body,” the poet wrote. “Whoever tortures another, wounds himself.”
(Fatima Bhutto is the author, most recently, of ‘The Shadow of the Crescent Moon’.)