Posts Tagged ‘ Lahore ’

Pakistan Should Open Itself Up to India

By Aakar Patel for Firstpost

India and Pakistan have a reciprocal relationship. If one does something to the other, send back a spying diplomat for instance, the other imitates this and also sends one back. One country’s visa regime mirrors the other’s. We would rather harm ourselves by an act that is imitative than let the other side get away.

The world sees this behaviour as childish, perhaps rightly.

India acted maturely in opening up trade unilaterally a few years ago. This is why the shelves of Thom’s Cafe and Bakery, where I shop for groceries in Bangalore, are filled with Shan Masala boxes.

Now an opportunity exists for Pakistan to take the lead.

Islamabad should open up its borders and give Indian tourists visas on arrival. The same conditions under which Indians are allowed into Sri Lanka and Nepal and Bhutan. A quick stamp on the passport and that’s it.

Vast crowds of Indians will come to Pakistan.

Sikhs on pilgrimage to Nankana Sahib and to see Ranjit Singh’s masoleum (totally empty when I went there 10 years ago) next to Lahore fort.

Hindus who want to see the Indus, after which their country is named, and their faith. Muslims and Hindus who want to visit Pak Pattan, Data Saheb, and the shrines of Rukn-e-Alam and Bahauddin Zakariya.

Pakistanis will be amazed by how many Hindus worship at Muslim shrines. Punjabis will come and see the cities of Lahore and Pindi, of which they have only heard about from their grandparents. India’s wealthy Sindhi community will come to Sukkur, Hyderabad and Karachi.

Three Muslim communities – Memons, Bohras and Khojas – have their headquarters in India. They have family ties to Karachi and also business interests that will benefit from regular visits.

Deoband and Nadwa scholars can exchange views with Pakistan’s ulema.

The package tour business, which is big in India, will bring in large numbers who might see a Pakistan different from the one in their imagination. College and school excursions, which are also big in India, will find new venues to take their students to.

Bollywood will be interested in new settings to shoot, and access to the cities will open up plot-lines.

As an intelligent piece in The Friday Times a few years ago noted, Indian tourists will blend in, dress modestly, not expect too much, be at home with the food and do shopping on a healthy scale.

The exchange rate of the Pakistani Rupee, whose value is a little over half that of the Indian Rupee, will give them a bigger budget than they have at home.

The Hindu middle class, especially Bengali and Gujarati, are adventurous travellers and will not be easily put off by a couple of bomb blasts as westerners will. Because Indian women are not secluded, whole families will come, especially if non-airplane routes such as road and rail are opened. Pakistanis will not be threatened by middle aged Indian men and women with squealing kids about them.

It will not be possible, given the mischief in Mumbai and in Parliament, for India to freely let Pakistanis enter. So reciprocality must not be expected immediately. But that shouldn’t be seen as a problem.

Pakistan has already accepted a break in the tit-for-tat relationship. Pakistan’s cricket team is likely to play in India while there’s no chance that India’s players will come to Pakistan. No other cricketing nation is willing either and so it’s not about Indian obstinacy in this case. Just the circumstances, which can be altered by a little wisdom.

It’s a profitable opportunity for Pakistan to benefit economically, improve its image as a safe place and normalise relations with India. Three things gained while nothing is lost.

Pakistan should open itself up to Indians without waiting for reciprocity. And it should do this in self interest.

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For Surjeet Singh, Life Unfolds a Guessing Game

As Reported by The Hindustan Times

“Pehchanon ji ye kaun hai” (guess who this is), is what Surjeet Singh often hears, as he relaxes on a cot in the sweltering summer heat on a farm in this Punjab village. Surjeet, 69, now plays this ‘guessing game’ several times a day, ever since he arrived in his native village last week, after more than 30 years of incarceration in Pakistan.
“There are several people from villages and other places coming to meet me despite the heat. Sometimes, my family members ask me to guess who a particular person is. Most of them look so different and older, just like me. It is hard to guess every time and then I try to identify them by their names. I can re-collect some names though,” Surjeet Singh told IANS with several people sitting around him.

“Ye budhi kaun hai (who is this old woman)?” was a question Surjeet popped in Punjabi to his relatives as an elderly woman came to meet him. He was told that she was a relative and he gave her a warm hug.

Surjeet wears a pair of white kurta-payjama and slippers as he wanders through his daily life and receives scores of visitors or meets them around his village. He returned home Thursday to a tumultuous and teary welcome from family and friends.

Among the visitors Saturday was Gurbaksh Ram, a fellow prisoner in Pakistan who returned to India in June 2006.

“I was with Bapuji in the Lahore jail for several years. I was released in June 2006 after, spending over 20 years in Pakistani jails. When I read about his return, I wanted to meet him,” Gurbaksh told IANS.

Among the visitors were two Sikh gentlemen who asked if he could recognise them.

“I am Bhai Singh and he is Vikar Singh,” one of them said. Surjeet had a hearty laugh as he hugged the taller Vikar Singh and remarked: “Ehh taan baba baneya phirda hai (he has become an old man).”

Besides the people who knew him from over three decades back, there are others who come to him with hope to hear about their own missing ones.

“Some people get their files and photographs of missing family members who are believed to be in Pakistani jails. They show him (Surjeet) the photos to know if he has met that person in Lahore jail,” one of his relatives said.

“He is very happy to be back in his country and among his family members and friends. Even though we were forced to sell our old house (where Surjeet lived) and land, this new house is lucky for us as it has brought him back,” Surjeet’s wife Harbans Kaur said.

“In the (Pakistani) jail, he had some facilities like regular power supply which is not available here. He is back now and my tension is over. I will put the entire responsibility on him. He will take charge of things,” Harbans Kaur, who supported her children in adversity after Surjeet went missing in 1982, said with a smile.

Surjeet languished in Pakistani jails for over 30 years after being arrested on charges of spying there. He was sentenced to death but the sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.

Surjeet was released from Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail early Thursday and made the road journey in a prison van to Wagah, on the Pakistan side of the border, before walking into India at the famous checkpost.

Political Instability Rises as Pakistani Court Ousts Premier

As Reported by Delcan Welsh for The New York Times

The Supreme Court dismissed Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on Tuesday, drastically escalating a confrontation between the government and the judiciary and plunging the political system into turmoil.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry declared that Mr. Gilani’s office had been effectively vacant since April 26 when the court convicted him on contempt charges because he refused to pursue a corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari, his superior.

Although the decision is unlikely to topple the government, many viewed it as the product of a grudge-driven tussle between Mr. Zardari and Justice Chaudhry, with the prime minister caught in the middle.

“The court has been gunning for the prime minister for a long time,” said Najam Sethi, a veteran political analyst. “Clearly there is a lot of politics in this.”

The order left Pakistan in a state of constitutional uncertainty, with the cabinet effectively dismissed. The court instructed Mr. Zardari to “ensure continuation of the democratic process” — words widely interpreted as an order to arrange the election of a new prime minister.

Legal experts said Mr. Gilani could not appeal the decision but that he may continue in an interim role until a successor is chosen. It was unclear what impact the decision would have on troubled negotiations with the United States to reopen NATO supply lines through Pakistan into Afghanistan.

As word of the ruling spread, Pakistanis held their breath for reaction from the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, whose top leaders held an emergency session at Mr. Zardari’s house. Television stations reported that the party had agreed in principle to accept the court’s ruling, but a final decision was not expected until later Tuesday.

Shahbaz Sharif, a senior leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N Party, which instigated the court action, hailed the decision. “It upholds the supremacy of the law and the Constitution,” Mr. Sharif said.

But it calls into question the validity of all executive decisions made since April 26, including the passing of the federal budget. One commentator said it “opened a massive legal can of worms.”

Speculation swirled about the identity of a replacement prime minister; among the names circulating were those of the foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, and various stalwarts from the party’s electoral heartland in Sindh Province and southern Punjab.

Any candidate, however, will need the approval of the P.P.P.’s coalition partners — smaller, ethnically centered parties based in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar, who are likely to seek fresh concessions from Mr. Zardari in exchange for their votes in Parliament.

The court decision advanced the likelihood that general elections, scheduled to take place by next spring, could be brought forward.

Equally, however, Mr. Zardari may wish to first resolve some of the governance failures that have marred his government’s reputation, notably widespread power outages and system failures that have continued for years. The court decision coincided with street agitation in Punjab, the country’s most populous province, where rioters burned buildings and clashed with police in several cities on Monday and Tuesday to protest power outages.

“Law has become subservient to politics, but this government had it coming. It has been singularly inept,” said Mr. Sethi, the analyst. “They had six months to anticipate the power crisis, and now it is upon them.”

In dismissing Mr. Gilani, the court chose the strongest option. It could have referred Mr. Gilani’s case to the Election Commission of Pakistan, which could have taken up to three months to adjudicate the case.

It comes at the end of a tumultuous week for the court itself. Last week, a billionaire businessman made explosive accusations in court and in the media that he had given $3.7 million in kickbacks to Justice Chaudhry’s son in order to swing several cases his way. The furor over those accusations, centered on the judge’s son, Arsalan Iftikhar, is now likely to fade as the country grapples with its latest political crisis.

Mr. Gilani’s dismissal stems from longstanding demands by the court that Mr. Gilani write a letter to the authorities in Switzerland to seek to reopen a dormant corruption investigation into Mr. Zardari’s finances that started in the 1990s.

Mr. Gilani refused, arguing that he was unable to do so because the president enjoyed immunity from prosecution. And the prime minister signaled long ago that he was ready to be dismissed or face prison in the case.

After Mr. Gilani was convicted on contempt charges on April 26, the speaker of Parliament examined calls for his dismissal from public office. The court intervened after the speaker, who is a member of the ruling party, ruled that Mr. Gilani should not be dismissed.

“What will happen to independence of judiciary if speaker or Parliament tries to scrutinize judicial rulings?” Justice Chaudhry said on Tuesday. “No one can undo a court verdict except a court of appeals.”

India and Pakistan: The Truth of the One Nation Theory

By Aakar Patel for FirstPost

The first time I came to Pakistan, I was taken aback at how good some of the infrastructure was. The airports at Karachi and Lahore were small, but they were efficient and well designed. I think my host told me the Japanese had built one or both of them, and those airports were a very different thing from the ones I had just taken off from in India.

This was when the government made the airports and as with all things the Indian government takes up, our airports were clumsy and barely functional. But a few years later this changed. Today the airports at Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore are pretty good. They’re not world class (nothing in India can ever be), but they are not embarrassing as the earlier ones were.

The differences that I had thought were significant turned out not to be so.

This led me to think of how similar we were as nations. Not in the sense that Mohd Ali Jinnah meant. I think it is fairly obvious that the character of India and of Pakistan is different when we observe their constitutions. India’s secularism is fundamentally Hindu in its nature. Pakistans constitution is Islamic by design and in appearance.

Though this is an important aspect of nationhood, however, it is only one aspect.

What I mean is how we are one nation in all the negative aspects. Our neighbourhoods and streets are among the most shameful in the world, because we are selfish and blind to the concern of others. Delhi’s drivers are as terrible as those in Lahore (and the women of Delhi and Lahore would concur on the behaviour of the loutish men of those cities). Half of us are illiterate and the half who are literate don’t really read much. The comments sections of Indian and Pakistani websites are the most dreadful in the world, without qualification. Hateful and pedantic, the product of minds who are only functionally literate. We think time will bring some big change in our society but it isn’t easy to see where this change is going to come from.

I know of few other nations where people would not be embarrassed at the thought of keeping servants. Few cultures would be so unaffected, so uncaring of privacy to not mind the constant presence of the servant in the house. I am not even talking about the bestial manner in which we treat them, because every reader of this piece, whether Indian or Pakistani already knows what I mean.

We divide ourselves into nations based on things like which animal the other eats or does not eat. The outsider probably sees no difference between us, and rightly.

We produce very little of meaning to the outside world, and it is tough to think of what our contribution is to the nations from whom we take so much. In science and technology we have nothing to offer the West, despite the boasts of Indians that we gave the world Arabic numerals and zero (I agree with that; we have given the world zero).

Pakistanis stake claim to Islams golden age. Daily Jang columnist Hassan Nisar often takes up this point. He says that the Arabs laugh when Pakistanis owns Islams achievements. What aspect of the conquest of Spain or the scientific revolution in Baghdad did Punjabis and Sindhis participate in?
To the world we are one people in that sense.

My friend Col Iftikhar, from Musharrafs batch in the Pakistan Military Academy, said he discovered this horrifying fact when he went to Mecca a few decades ago for Haj. He met some Saudis, one of whom asked him where he was from. Lahore, said Ifti. Where’s that, the Saudi asked (this was in the 70s). Pakistan, said Ifti proudly. Where’s that, the puzzled Saudi asked. Ifti took out a map and pointed. Ah, said the Saudi to his friends, he’s Hindi.

Our problems are so primitive that they should make us stop and repair ourselves immediately. But they don’t seem to affect us at all. Our media carry on like we are normal people. Reading the militant bombast of the strategic affairs experts in the newspapers of these two nations, the outsider would never suspect that these were two nations unable to even keep their public toilets clean.

Baisakhi Festival: Sikhs Pray For World Peace, Porous Borders

By Maha Mussadaq for The Express Tribune

Tears gushed down Supreet Kaur’s face as she stared at the shrine of Punja Sahib and prayed for less stringent border controls so she can visit Hassan Abdal every year for Baisakhi. The three-day festival ended on Friday.

Wiping her tears with her veil Kaur said that her ‘mannat’ — a prayer that she hopes will be answered by visiting the shrine this year — is that people around the world live as one and all borders become porous. “I want the world to live in harmony and peace. So far all my prayers have come true and I am sure this one will as well”

Supreet was not the only one to wish for easier access to the shrine. Thousands of pilgrims who came for Baisakhi prayed for a change in visa policy for Sikhs so that they are able to visit the shrine any time of the year. Some pilgrims complained about acquiring a letter of invitation from either family or friends in Pakistan for their visa.

Rajpal Singh said that it was unfortunate that many Sikhs could not visit Pakistan because of the restrictions. “Both governments should devise a verification system so that Sikhs can cross the border for religious rituals. Even a permit would be fine,” Rajpal added. “I want these restrictions to come to an end so we can visit other shrines in Pakistan, such as Baba Buleh Shah’s,” Supreet said.

Baisakhi is an annual event which holds a very special place in the lives of Sikhs. The day marks the beginning of the new solar year. It also marks the formation of Khalsa (the pure one). Sikhs believe that it was on this day in 1699 when the tenth Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh declared all human beings as equal.

On Baisakhi, traditions of Gurus were compiled by Sikhs. Guru Granth Sahib was established as their eternal guide and the holy book. Punja Sahib is one of the three holiest shrines for Sikhs because of a large rock bearing an imprint of Guru Nanak’s hand or punja, founder of the Sikh religion. Sikhs swim across the stream, making a wish as they touch the imprint.

Security

Due to security fears, Sikhs could not leave Punja Sahib without permission. Some 3,000 Rangers had been deployed by the Punjab government in and around the premises.

Arrangements

Approximately 8,000 Sikhs came to Punja Sahib this year for the annual Baisakhi festival. Singh said that he was extremely satisfied with the arrangements and was happy to see the hospitality of the Pakistani government. However, Major Singh, 67, said both governments should improve facilities offered to pilgrims, including operational bathrooms and lights in trains.

Thousands of pilgrims were accommodated inside the gurdawara like every year. A huge portion of Punja Sahib is still under construction but most pilgrims were satisfied with the rooms provided.

Approximately, 2,300 Sikhs travelling from India have been accommodated in more than 400 rooms in Punja Sahib. Paramjeet Singh laughingly said just sleeping under a shade at Punja Sahib is more relaxing than any other place in the world. “It’s not about my physical needs; I am spiritually satisfied.”

Business opportunities
A large number of men and women had set up their stalls at the back of the gurdwara. Hindu vendor, Inder Kaur had come from Sindh to sell jewellery made in Mumbai. He said merchants make approximately Rs25,000 in three days. “I love shopping here because they sell items such as clothes or even bindia that we do not get in Pakistan,” said Kalvinder Kaur, who was buying bangles from Inder.

Pakistani militant taunts US: ‘I will be in Lahore tomorrow’

By Sebastian Abbot for The Associated Press

One of Pakistan’s most notorious extremists mocked the United States during a defiant media conference close to the country’s military headquarters Wednesday, a day after the US slapped a $10 million bounty on him.

“I am here, I am visible. America should give that reward money to me,” said Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, referring to the fact that the bounty was given to a man whose whereabouts are not a mystery. “I will be in Lahore tomorrow. America can contact me whenever it wants to.”

Analysts have said Pakistan is unlikely to arrest Saeed, founder of the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, because of his alleged links with the country’s intelligence agency and the political danger of doing Washington’s bidding in a country where anti-American sentiment is rampant.

Saeed, 61, has been accused of orchestrating the 2008 attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai that killed 166 people, including six American citizens. But he operates openly in Pakistan, giving public speeches and appearing on TV talk shows.

He has used his high-profile status in recent months to lead a protest movement against US drone strikes and the resumption of NATO supplies for troops in Afghanistan sent through Pakistan. The supplies were suspended in November in retaliation for American airstrikes that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

Hours before Saeed spoke, US Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides met Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar in the nearby capital, Islamabad, for talks about rebuilding the two nation’s relationship. In a brief statement, Nides did not mention the bounty offer but reaffirmed America’s commitment to “work through” the challenges bedeviling ties.

Increasingly ‘brazen’ appearances
The US said Tuesday it issued the bounty for information leading to Saeed’s arrest and conviction in response to his increasingly “brazen” appearances. It also offered up to $2 million for Lashkar-e-Taiba’s deputy leader, Hafiz Abdul Rahman Makki, who is Saeed’s brother-in-law.

The rewards marked a shift in the long-standing US calculation that going after the leadership of an organization used as a proxy by the Pakistani military against archenemy India would cause too much friction with the Pakistani government.

This shift has occurred as the US-Pakistani relationship steadily deteriorated over the last year, and as the perception of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s potential threat to the West increased.

Bounty backfire?
The US may be hoping the bounty will force Pakistan to curb Saeed’s activities, even if it isn’t willing to arrest him. But the press conference he called at a hotel in the garrison city of Rawalpindi on Wednesday was an indication that is unlikely, and the bounty may even help him by boosting his visibility.

At the hotel, located near the Pakistani army’s main base and only a half hour drive from the US Embassy in Islamabad, Saeed was flanked by more than a dozen right-wing politicians and hardline Islamists who make up the leadership of the Difa-e-Pakistan, or Defense of Pakistan, Council. The group has held a series of large demonstrations against the US and India in recent months.

Some in the media have speculated the movement has the tacit support of the Pakistani military, possibly to put pressure on Washington.

“I want to tell America we will continue our peaceful struggle,” said Saeed. “Life and death is in the hands of God, not in the hands of America.”

Denies involvement in Mumbai massacre
He denied involvement in the Mumbai attacks and said he had been exonerated by Pakistani courts.

Pakistan kept Saeed under house arrest for several months after the attacks but released him after he challenged his detention in court. It has also resisted Indian demands to do more, saying there isn’t sufficient evidence.

The bounty offers could complicate US efforts to get the NATO supply line reopened. Pakistan’s parliament is currently debating a revised framework for ties with the US that Washington hopes will get supplies moving again. But the bounties could be seen by lawmakers and the country’s powerful army as a provocation and an attempt to gain favor with India.

Origins in the Kashmir dispute
Saeed founded Lashkar-e-Taiba in the 1980s allegedly with ISI support to pressure India over the disputed territory of Kashmir. The two countries have fought three major wars since they were carved out of the British empire in 1947, two of them over Kashmir.

Pakistan banned the group in 2002 under US pressure, but it operates with relative freedom under the name of its social welfare wing Jamaat-ud-Dawwa — even doing charity work using government money.

The US has designated both groups foreign terrorist organizations. Intelligence officials and terrorism experts say Lashkar-e-Taiba has expanded its focus beyond India in recent years and has plotted attacks in Europe and Australia. Some have called it “the next Al Qaeda” and fear it could set its sights on the US

* Associated Press writer Asif Shahzad contributed to this report from Islamabad.

Pakistan’s Sesame Street: Can an Urdu Elmo Aid a Blighted Nation?

By Aryn Baker for Time

For a 3-year-old who has yet to master the use of the personal pronoun, Elmo is a whiz at foreign languages. Already fluent in Chinese, German, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic, among others, the fluffy red icon has just picked up Urdu, the most common language in Pakistan. At a time when the U.S.-Pakistani relationship is at its worst in more than a decade, Sesame Street — the quintessential American children’s television program — has burst onto the Pakistani scene in a flurry of fake fur, feathers and infectious ditties about the letter alef, or A.

With its background of ripening wheat, banyan trees and a center stage that features a village snack shop overflowing with exotic fruits and vegetables, the set of Sim Sim Hamara, as it is called in Pakistan, may seem far removed from the urban street scene familiar to most Americans. But the lovable Muppets, child actors and messages of tolerance are pure Sesame. And they have all been brought to life in Pakistan with the help of a $20 million, five-year grant from USAID.

Developed in 1969 by TV producer and early-childhood-education advocate Joan Cooney, Sesame Street was designed to tap the addictive qualities of television to bring early literacy education to American preschoolers. The “quaint” American streetscape, as Cooney then called it, has since grown into the “longest street in the world,” with more than 20 unique programs worldwide, according to Sesame Workshop’s senior vice president of global education Charlotte Frances Cole. Some features dubbed segments lifted from the American version; others, like Sim Sim Hamara, which means Our Sesame, are created in partnership with local production teams to reflect native culture. In Pakistan, Big Bird and Oscar have been replaced by a self-involved crocodile and a donkey with rock-star ambitions. “Children have to be able to recognize their environment and their friends if they are going to learn,” says Faizaan Peerzada, who directs Sim Sim Hamara from a studio just outside the city of Lahore. “So we had to give Elmo Pakistani citizenship.”

On a tour of the workshop where the show’s Muppets are made, Peerzada, a master puppeteer with more than 40 years of experience directing educational puppet shows for Pakistani children for the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop, slips his hand into a limp, feathered pocket of gray felt. Even without eyes, the unfinished puppet springs to life with the mannerisms of an owl, swiveling its head to listen as Peerzada expounds on Sim Sim’s potential with evangelical zeal. Underfunded and neglected for more than 30 years, Pakistan’s education system is in a parlous state. The recently released Annual Status of Education report in Pakistan reveals that nearly 60% of school-age children can’t read, or even do basic, two-digit subtraction problems. For a country where 35% of the population is under the age of 14, the consequences are enormous.

“As a nation, Pakistan has failed its children,” says Peerzada. If Sesame Street brought the joy of learning to generations of American preschoolers, why can’t it help teach Pakistan’s 66 million children under the age of 14 how to read? he asks. “Our children deserve this. All children deserve this,” he says. Obviously a television program that airs twice a week can’t compensate for missing teachers and limited school access, but it’s a start. “To me, Sim Sim Hamara is a gift to Pakistani children, and a window into homes that might think their children are better employed in the fields than at school,” says Peerzada.

Like the original, Sim Sim Hamara is a half-hour-long program divided into skits, song segments and celebrity appearances designed to appeal to a wide spectrum of Pakistani society. The Muppets caper with live actors on a set that combines features recognizable across the country, a kind of Pakistani Main Street that doesn’t stand out as belonging to any particular region. A dhaba, the ubiquitous snack-and-grocery shop that is the center of any Pakistani community, stands in for Mr. Hooper’s store, and is manned (or womanned) by a heavily made up Muppet auntie who anchors the show with amusing lessons about manners, safety and healthy eating. In an effort to promote tolerance in a country marked by ethnic divisions, the Muppets’ skin colors range from brown to pale orange.

Most striking, however, considering Pakistan’s male-dominated society, is the lead character, Rani, a 6-year-old female Muppet who captains the cricket team and who is passionate about science and reading. In a country where only 22% of Pakistani girls complete primary school, Rani is a model of female empowerment. But it doesn’t stop there. The rest of the show’s characters encourage Rani’s quest for knowledge — “Where does the sun go every evening?” was a recent one — modeling acceptance of women’s progress for a wider society. “You are not just teaching little girls that they can have dreams,” says Sesame Workshop executive vice president Sherrie Westin. “You are also teaching boys that it’s O.K. for girls to have those dreams.”

Of course progressive values in one culture can be interpreted as transgressive in another. Sim Sim Hamara has the added burden of being sponsored by the U.S. in a country where American meddling is viewed with increasing hostility. For that reason, the program’s authors have had to broach sensitive issues with subtle creativity. One recent segment opened with a despondent Baily, the would-be rock-star donkey, who decided he would never sing again because someone told him it would make him grow horns. “This is how we get at the idea of mullahs who are against singing,” explained one of the producers. The skit ended with the appearance of one of Pakistan’s most famous rock stars leading the whole cast in an uplifting song about believing in your self, entitled, fittingly, “Faith.”

Teachers who see it as a way to promote literacy at home have praised Sim Sim Hamara, as do children who have never really had a program to call their own. “I find that those who regularly watch Sim Sim Hamara know more about health and body parts and their functions,” says Islamabad school principal Masart Sadiq. “They get lots of ideas about careers, which they discuss with their teachers too.” Aniqa Khan, a 12-year-old from Rawalpindi, says she now wants to be a pilot, like Munna, Rani’s 5-year-old Muppet co-star. “He is excellent at math, which inspires me to spend more time on math.”

So far, and against fears in a country where the assassination of a governor accused of blasphemy was celebrated in the streets, there has been no negative response to Sim Sim Hamara. “I think my biggest fear was that the program would be misunderstood before it even aired,” says Peerzada. “People might have thought it was some kind of brain-washing project. But at the end of the day, all we are doing is teaching a child to count.”

The same could not be said of reactions to the program in the U.S., where Fox News in October dubbed Sim Sim Hamara a boondoggle for Elmo and conservative commentators quickly took up the cause. But as Sesame Workshop’s Westin points out, $20 million pays for a lot more than Elmo’s Urdu lessons and a plane ticket to Pakistan. It covers a state-of-the-art studio, high-definition digital-video equipment that won’t be obsolete in a few years, and the foundations of an educational institution that, if all goes to plan, will provide Pakistani children with the basic-literacy building blocks that have been the mainstay of early-childhood education in America for more than four decades. Current estimates say that Sim Sim Hamara is reaching more than 3.5 million Pakistani children who have no other access to preschool education. “This is a smart investment,” says Westin. “Early-childhood education is one of the most effective ways to build stability in any country. An investment like this is not only going to benefit Pakistan, but our children as well. If we can help to create a more peaceful world, that is a benefit to all of our children.” And that sounds like something Elmo would love, in any language.

Pakistanis for Peace Editor’s Note– We commend this great project by the United States government and the USAID program. The $20 million grant and this educational program will not only help the children of Pakistan who are not provided an adequate educational system by their own government but a program like this goes a long ways in the betterment of ties between the United States and Pakistan and leaves a lasting legacy for the area’s children for years to come.

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