The Cab Driver from Waziristan

In Abbottabad, a Suzuki Bolan is the what you get when you need a taxi – probably because of its turning radius and the ability to squeeze into the narrow lanes of the old Abbottabad. The lanes were constructed during the British Raj days and are more suited to horses than cars. I just took a cab ride, or a ‘dabba (as Bolan is called here) ride’, with a driver who turned out to be from Waziristan. In the 10 minute short ride, he told me a rather long story when the conversation that started with how CNG gas stations are ripping off drivers by using very low pressure, turned to the inevitable topic of Pakistan. Here’s what he had to say (in mostly his own words):

I belong to Waziristan, and my family consists of mostly doctors, including my father. It has been many years since the Army operation started in my home-town. I had land and many shops, and the money I earned was enough to support my family. When the operations started, being the coward that I was, I moved to Abbottabad for the sake of my children’s education. My children study in Burn Hall (established by the British, and one of the top schools until a couple of decades ago. It is now run by the Army/ex-Army people). My shops are all destroyed now, and I have been forced to drive a taxi to earn a living. I can not pay my children’s school fees, and have been trying to talk to the Army decision makers. I have written them letters in which I tell them that I am not asking for compensation for the shops that have been destroyed, or a plot in exchange for the land I can no longer use, I am asking you for a discount in my children’s school fees as I can no longer pay them with the earnings I make from the cab I drive. They respond in the negative, saying we can not do anything for you. Now you tell me what kind of feelings will I have for a country whose army destroyed my livelihood and can not help me educate my children?

When I asked him what he thought of the APC and the talk of talking with the Taliban, he said that if our government had to hold talks with the Taliban on a peace process, they should have done so a few years ago instead of now, when everything is destroyed by the conflict. He gave me the analogy of a family where only one brother is full of mischief. The father, along with his other sons, first of all tries to discuss the issues that the problem child has, and get him to behave. If the son carries on his offensive behavior despite his father and brothers’ advice, only then they can take measures like kicking him out of the house.

Though I may not agree with his analogy, the driver probably had his own brother on his mind, as, just before the ride was over, he told me he has brother who is a captain in the Army. His brother was recently posted to Waziristan, of all the places, and said he will fight his neighbors and family if ordered, because the army is a servant of the government. The cab driver and his family agree.

And yes, in case you were wondering, he wore a long beard.

Staying in Pakistan

I have been asked countless times why I am wasting my life Pakistan and why haven’t I applied for immigration yet. This post has been lying in my blog drafts for many months – today seems to be an appropriate day to publish it. Happy Independence Day.

A few months ago, I asked a friend who was in Sweden for studies if he was planning to come back to Pakistan any time soon. “Are you kidding me?” was the incredulous reply that I got. Last year, the same friend was discussing how to ‘make a change in Pakistan’ with me over Skype.

I was not really surprised by his response. Over the years, I have seen dozens of my friends leave Pakistan one by one. 45 of my 50 classmates from school, and an even higher ratio of my university class fellows are no longer living in Pakistan. I have seen them change from Pakistan-loving students going abroad for just a couple of years to get their degrees, into expats, and later, into ecstatic foreigners updating their Facebook status when their passport color changes from green to blue or red. One by one, their H1B visas have transformed into green cards or European citizenship, their toddlers have grown into teenagers that are no longer fit for the harsh Pakistani lifestyle, and their careers and mortgaged houses have helped them to cut off their remaining ties with Pakistan.

The few friends who still have parents in Pakistan because they could not go through the ‘family reunification‘ process do visit Pakistan every few years, usually armed with video cameras, to film the land of their birth, to show to their friends in the land that they belong to now. To me, they are visitors, though their legal status may still be overseas Pakistani. My own uncles and aunts are amongst those people, urging their nephews and nieces on each trip to ‘not be a fool and apply for citizenship to another country – any country’, promising that a ‘brighter future’ awaits us. Maybe they advocate immigration due to their unease at the thought of people still wanting to live in a third-world country while they made their choice to upgrade their living standards, or maybe they are just proud of their accomplishments – but usually, they sound more like immigration agents than visiting relatives.

Many of my friends still stuck in Pakistan have their Canadian or Australian immigrations in process, they call it their ‘safety-net’ but we know better. They know they will end up joining the rest of the escapees, spend their lives abroad, and perhaps a few of them will choose to coming back in the final years of their lives, just to retire and be buried here. I have seen it happen before. I expect to see it again. After all, it is our own Pakistani mindset that changed the phrase پاکستان زندہ باد (Long live Pakistan) to پاکستان سے زندہ بھاگ (Get out of Pakistan alive) – a phrase that ceased to be funny many years ago.

Imran Khan believes that expats and overseas Pakistanis can bring about an economic revolution in Pakistan – probably because he hangs out in a different crowd than the average Pakistanis, but I doubt that the thought of direct or indirect economic revolution ever crosses the minds of my overseas Pakistani friends. I would love to be corrected on this – I think that except for a handful of Pakistani entrepreneurs who have made mad money abroad, the majority of expats can only bring a few thousand dollars per person to Pakistan on the average as remittances, and that too only while they have immediate relatives alive in Pakistan to send money to. I believe that after two or three decades, their family members will either die or join them abroad, their ties with Pakistan will finally be severed, and they will have no reason to send their hard-earned money ‘back home’, resulting in a Pakistan that got a bit of dollars and pounds over a few years, and lost a lot of talent – many future generations of talent.

The scenario doesn’t seem much different from the international aid that our rulers are constantly begging for – the only small difference being that the aid would be willingly given by people-formerly-known-as-Pakistani . I am not sure if an economist (and I am not one) would confirm or refute my theory, but I believe that those of us living in Pakistan that leave a 50 rupee tip for the waiter, spend 100 rupees on a rickshaw ride or buy a 500 rupees t shirt from a local shop are contributing more to the Pakistani economy than all the overseas Pakistanis that manage to send a few million rupees back home to their families in Pakistan – after working hard for a major portion of their lives – to buy a decent house so that their Christmas holiday visits to Pakistan are more pleasant.

My father was born in India in an area called Dehradun. With its lush valleys and winding roads, Dehradun doesn’t seem much different from Abbottabad. When my father discovered Youtube recently, and was checking how much his birthplace has transformed, I recalled my grandmother’s stories about the 1947  Partition, the loss of life and property that the family had to suffer and the relatives that were left behind. Just as I will not move to Dehradun to grow old and die, it would be illogical to expect my friends’ kids or my cousins to come back to Pakistan, to the villages and mohallahs of their parents, just to contribute to the economy of their parents’ homeland – a country they can’t really call their own – one riddled with poverty and terrorism and all the troubles of the world that their parents ran away from.

Nationalism has been called the ‘measles of mankind’ – living in Pakistan, we have seen more than our share of man-made boundaries turning some men into emotional fools and others into tyrrants and opressors. To me though, choosing to stay in Pakistan is not about nationalism or patriotism – but leaving it is about cowardice and laziness.

My friend and family abroad did not leave to be ‘citizens of the world’, and most of them did not end up trotting the globe to live their lives to the fullest, or to gather wisdom from other cultures. Their reasons to leave Pakistan were more basic. They left to lead easier, more secure  lives, to make more money and to drive fancier cars. The academic types left to get their PhDs, and then decided that Pakistan does not offer the kind of opportunities in their field of their research that would motivate them to come back. For one reason or another, they managed to stay out of this country. There is nothing wrong with choice they made, they are free to live their definition of a good life, but I do wish that instead of coming back to die in Pakistan, a few of them decide to come back to live. As ‘foreign-returned’ Pakistanis, they will automatically be part of the elite class, and will even get to watch the same TV shows and follow the same sports events that they are currently investing most of their remaining lives in.

I watched this video (in Urdu) recently,  in which Hasan Nisar, a brutally honest Pakistani columnist or a traitor/CIA agent, depending on your ideological inclinations, claimed that if America opens its doors for Pakistanis today, all healthy Pakistanis will be gone in less than 24 hours. I think his generalization is off by a few hundred people – there are at least a few of us who will choose to stay when given the choice to leave, not because we hate the West or don’t want to earn more money, but because our definition of happiness involves improving what we can improve in the system that we live in instead of switching to another system to live predictable, easy lives. Some of us who choose to stay in Pakistan, idealistic fools that we may be, do so to try and make a change in our surroundings, a much harder task than changing our surrounding.

As John F. Kennedy put it:

Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men.


Journalistic Methods in Pakistan

One of the problems with news reports, whether in print or on a screen, is that most of us care enough to consume them but not enough to verify whether they are completely true, partially true or a whole pack of lies. This behavior is understandable as we have more important things to spend/waste our time on, like work, family and consumption of mindless entertainment.

All this changes if you are the news. After the ‘OBL tweet’, the more that I have tried to stay away from interviews and journalists, the more I have been thrust back into them. Ironic as it is, the last few months have allowed me to interact with a lot of journalists and observe how they go about practicing their profession. There are a few journalists who impressed me with their honesty and unbiased reporting, but the majority of journalism that I have witnessed has to do with loaded words, double-barreled questions and twisting of facts to paint a pre-conceived picture of the news, as they want to show it – some call it a ‘package’ in journalistic lingo. I had the chance to speak about my impression of journalism candidly with Steve Myers from Poynter, when he invited me for our SXSW 12 panel and talks at a few other institutes last year, and it was an educational experience. I have been trying to lay low and focus on my work instead of being a journalism critic since then – a role which I am still unqualified for, but it gets harder to ignore when you are the one being misquoted.

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to speak at the Social Media Mela in Karachi. Since May 2011, I have only scanned a very small portion of the thousands of articles written about Abbottabad, OBL and my tweets from ‘that night’, but while wasting time at the airport due to a delayed flight, I came across this ‘news’ from The News about my session at the SMM that day, and it shocked me by revealing that I had a daughter that I did not know of!

This piece of journalism has been nagging me for two weeks now, so I have no choice but to criticize it line by line – maybe this will even help a journalist or two, but at least writing it down will help me get it out of my head.

So first of all, the title – it says

The night that changed a tweeter’s life

Thankfully, my life has not changed much due to ‘the night’ – I am still living in Abbottabad, I am still doing my software consulting, and it has not made me richer by even a single penny (or rupee), but I guess that does not make a good headline.

The article then says

On Twitter, he is known as ‘Really Virtual’, but people worldwide know him as the guy who live-tweeted the Osama bin Laden raid in Abbottabad.

It is actually ReallyVirtual, or @ReallyVirtual – spaces are not allowed in twitter handles, but I guess the author doesn’t use twitter that much.

Before tweeting about the raid, the biggest achievement of Sohaib Akhtar’s life was to open up a coffee shop in Abbottabad, as he quipped he did not like the coffee there. But all that changed on the night of May 2, 2011.

The media people at SMM were given press kits, and the schedule in the press kit had the correct spelling for my name (for once), so this is a rather serious mistake. If this mistake was in a software, it would have been reported as a bug to be fixed in the next version – too bad news articles do not have next versions.

Then there’s the matter of the coffee shop being my ‘biggest achievement’ – at no point during the interview did I say or imply that. I do remember saying the coffee shop was an experiment in many interviews, but an experiment is certainly not a big achievement. Even the multiple technology patents that I have worked on or the successful silicon valley startup that I was a founding member of are not really ‘big achievements’, though they are much bigger than the experimental coffee shop that I started. The coffee shop is now being run by my wife and is doing well.

Sitting opposite the corporate lawyer and session moderator, Ayesha Tammy Haq, Akhtar spoke about how he did not know for an hour that a raid was under way. “Around 1am, I saw a helicopter hovering quite low in Bilal Town where I live, which is a rare event. And I tweeted my thoughts.”

The FAQ on my website has all the details about the raid and the tweets, but I guess the author wasn’t listening to me during the session and did not bother to check facts before writing the article either. I did not see a helicopter, I heard it, and to quote the Abbottabad Commission judges, I was an ‘audio witness’. I do not live in Bilal Town, I used to live a couple of kilometers away from it, a fact that I have repeated too many times to mention, in interviews and the FAQ as well.

For a minute, the helicopter took a few circles and then he heard a loud explosion that shattered a window of his house. And Akhtar tweeted that as well.

There’s a difference between ‘shattered’ and ‘shook’ or ‘rattled’ – the explosion did not shatter any windows, but I guess shattered sounds cooler so the author went with that.

“I tried giving it the benefit of doubt by thinking that it might be a UFO but it turned out to be more than that.” He, however, took the whole incident a lot more seriously when he started getting calls from the people he knew.

When people use quotes around text, at least I expect the enclosed text to have been actually uttered by the person quoted. What I said was that there were all sorts of rumors in the air, that it was a UFO, that it was an enemy aircraft etc. – I did not ‘give it the benefit of doubt by thinking that it might be a UFO’. An explosion is serious enough, so I did not need calls from people to take it seriously, I don’t know why I was quoted like this in the article.

“They informed me that a raid had apparently taken place around my area and a terrorist had been caught,” he shared with the audience that listened intently to his every word.

Nobody informed me about a raid around my area at that point in time, nobody said anything about a terrorist being caught either! There is no tweet where I shared this with the audience.

Curious to know what happened next, Ayesha asked him what he did after that. “Nothing,” he replied, “I tweeted that, went offline and read a book.”

Ah, finally something in the article that I agree with!

The next morning, Akhtar woke up to the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed by the US Navy Seals in a midnight raid. But what disturbed him more was that he had 25 missed calls and above a hundred emails on his account. And to top it all, he reached a whopping 105,000 followers on Twitter within a few days.

25 missed calls? Never said it. Above a hundred emails, okay, though I remember saying a couple of hundred.

Everyone wanted to know him all of a sudden. While he was taken aback by the “sudden attention”, he said that it was overwhelming to the point of being harassed.

Nobody wanted to ‘know me’, they did want information about Abbottabad, what the town was like, what was happening, and all the stuff that journalists are interested in – ‘knowing’ me was not one of them.

The people in the audience wanted to know if he was “bugged” by the intelligence agencies or was he threatened with dire consequences, to which Akhtar politely replied, no.


“The first people to meet me were Mosharraf Zaidi and Omar Warraich. The media was the only department that harassed me. So I wrote answers to all the repeated questions that news channels were asking me and posted them online.”

‘The media’ in its entirety did not harass me, only one outlet tried to get in touch with me by coming with the local police to the coffee shop, which does not look good for business and I would count as harassment.

Akhtar also made it to Time magazine’s issue about the raid and the man who live-tweeted it.

Ayesha asked him if he was afraid. “I was for a while. Afraid of the impact this incident would have on Abbottabad and our country.”

The incident not only earned Akhtar many followers, but instilled a feeling of responsibility in him as well.

“Some people tweeted that Pakistan is in the Middle East and that I’m an Arab tweeting from God-knows-where. But I clarified that. Similarly, there were equally outrageous remarks about our country that I clarified as well.”

Arab tweeting from God-knows-where”? God knows where the author got this line from. I don’t remember mentioning any outrageous remarks about our country either. I remember mentioning there were incorrect facts about Pakistan that I tried to correct when I could, and still do.

For people outside Abbottabad, the reality that the Osama bin Laden was found and killed in their own country was difficult to accept. But Akhtar said the people in Abbottabad forgot about it a few days after the incident. But the changes were evident and hard to ignore.

“For instance, there were security checks that are usually found in Lahore and Islamabad. People were not used to that. Similarly, foreigners were thoroughly checked etc. So all of that was difficult to adjust to.”

Changes that were difficult to adjust to, never said anything like that.

What is most striking about Akhtar is his down-to-earth nature. He was sitting easily and had no airs about him as he spoke about the incident and his life after it.

Aww thank you for the compliment dear author, but I don’t see any reason to be proud of the tweets or to develop an attitude due to the whole episode.

Married and father of a daughter, he said he had met with the judicial commission on the raid as well.

I have a son! Male, boy, 9 year old, and no reason to believe there is a daughter out there that I fathered either.

When asked about what Justice Javed Iqbal had told him as the investigation got over, “He said tweet on,” he replied smiling.

At least the news ends with something that I actually said.

So there it is, a news article on me, dissected, which is probably a typical example of how news/non-news in Pakistan is written/created. I do hope the Pakistani journalism industry matures to a point where people like me start to reconsider consuming traditional news again, but until then, I will let my Twitter feed push the news to me.

The Cost of a National Holiday

Nusrat Bhutto, the wife/mother/mother-in-law/grandmother of our past/present/future rulers passed away in Dubai yesterday, and an unexpected national day of mourning with a national holiday was announced in Pakistan immediately by the ruling party. I am not really knowledgeable about her sacrifices for democracy in Pakistan but I am concerned about the impact that an unofficial holiday has on Pakistan, as thousands of lives were affected by this holiday, including mine. My son had an exam today and was up preparing for it till late night, while I had a meeting with the Abbottabad Commission in Islamabad in the morning, and had rescheduled my work routine around the trip to Islamabad. Both were postponed due to the holiday.

With all the free time on my hands today, I have been estimating the impact this holiday had on my country, and here is my guesstimate:

The official population of Pakistan is around 160,000,000 – assuming that ten percent of the population did not work today due to the holiday, that is 16,000,000 man-days of work.

If a person works for 250 days per year, that is 64000 man-years.

Assuming an average person’s professional career spans 80 years (though I think it is closer to 40), this translates to 800 life-times of lost work.

In other words, it would take 800 people their entire lifespans to make up for the work that was not done due to today’s holiday.

I hope my math is wrong, but I do believe that there are better ways to recognize a deceased person’s contributions to a country – ones that do not deprive the same country of 800 lifetimes of work.


Just out of curiosity…

The answer choices have been compiled from the various ways that I saw fellow Pakistanis around me celebrating the independence day today – both online and offline.
Please spend a few seconds of your precious time to answer the question below. I will share the results’ summary whenever I am able to.

P.S. #Pakistan #PakistanZindabad