On the Record: Theatre of War

A Canadian playwright in violence-rocked Pakistan attempts to remain calm

Friday Night, The Levi’s Store, H-Market, Lahore, Pakistan. I’d tried on five pairs of jeans already. Why I needed five pairs of jeans I wasn’t exactly sure. But the Levi’s Signature Editions were eight bucks a pair and they seemed to fit pretty well. They were also taking my mind off things. I’d been having panic attacks ever since the blast in Karachi. Two days before, a one-tonne bomb went off in the downtown area, killing thirty-five people.


“Were you terrified?” I asked Samiya Mumtaz, a Pakistani actress I’d been working with the past week. She had immediately become a good friend and a gauge of all things dangerous.

“Not at all,” she said. She had landed in Karachi thirty minutes after the blast. “What was there to be afraid of? I missed it completely. The police were everywhere.”

She could tell that I was more afraid than she was, and I was twelve hundred kilometres away, safe in Lahore. Only later did Samiya mention that her hotel was directly across the street from the attack. She’d discovered this when she arrived at the Pearl Continental and the manager offered her an upgrade to a junior suite.

“But what about the room I reserved?” she said.

“Your room,” said the manager, “no longer exists.”

“That’s two bombs in ten days, Chris,” I said to Christopher Morris—theatre director, actor and playwright—reminding him of the mosque attack north of Peshawar near Swat.

Chris wrapped his woolen shawl around his face. He’s Irish-Canadian but looked Pashtun with the thick red beard he’d grown for the trip. He said, “Don’t worry, we’ll avoid the mosques.” We were taking all precautions.

“Whatever happens, I don’t want to be tortured,” I said. I had decided a bombing was okay, a kidnapping wasn’t.

Chris listened patiently.

“What the hell are we trying to understand?” I said. “That evil exists? That a few fundamentalist crazies want to kill people so they can live happily in the land of seventy virgins? Where’s the news in that?”

It was November 2010. In the year I traveled through Pakistan on a tourist visa, over five hundred bombs rocked the country, killing more than fifteen hundred people. Only a year before I arrived, the Pakistani Taliban occupied the Swat Valley. Daily drone attacks by the US army were landing in Waziristan. The porous Afghan-Pakistan border let in god-knows-who, the ISI—the Pakistani CIA—was funding you-know-who, and Osama bin Laden was living comfortably in his Abbottabad compound, smoking shisha and watching porn, if we’re to believe the reports.

I’d come to Pakistan with Chris to write a play about the way the “War on Terror” was affecting families of the military, namely, the Pakistan Army, the Afghan National Army and the Taliban. We’d already spent a month in Petawawa, Ontario, doing similar interviews with Canadian military wives. Pakistan was a totally different world, and a different set of circumstances. Chris and I were seeking out families of the Taliban. I wasn’t prepared. Hell, I was afraid to just walk down the street.

I was dying for a drink, but of course there aren’t any bars in Pakistan. If we wanted to drink booze, we’d have to get a license, something we were entitled to, thanks to our non-Muslim identities. Somehow it just didn’t seem worth the bother. Instead I smoked a Gold Leaf cigarette. On the front of the package a government warning showed a vivid and grotesque cancer of the lips—a jaundiced lip blossoming into tumour. It was disconcerting but also reassuring. To die of cancer. How utterly and terribly normal.

We drove past a mosque. Past rows of tak-a-tak, brain masala, prepared at the side of the road, with the chop-chop of men and their sharp knives. The sounds and smells of Lahore are confusing, sinister and delicious. I reminded myself that I wanted to be here: the opportunity to see the Pakistan not in the headlines, the Pakistan not-of-the-imagination, was one I didn’t want to pass up.

The problem with Pakistan, I decided, wasn’t that there were bombs going off everywhere. It was the randomness of the blasts, the unexpectedness of the kidnappings that got me.

“Ninety-nine percent of this country is open, beautiful and warm,” Daniel Lak, a former BBC correspondent said to me. But what about the crazy one percent? How do you get them out of your head? How do normal Pakistanis live with the random violence?

The rickshaw driver pulled up outside a shopping plaza. We were to wait for a friend of a friend. I had no idea what he looked like, but he wanted to introduce us to a Pakistani icon: Tariq Amin. A group of men gathered around a blazing trashcan and glared at Chris and I. Who were they with? What did they want? Did they want to welcome us or kill us?

Tariq Amin was a welcome sight. He was with two other men, late thirties, decked out for a Saturday night. We were upstairs in a Mexican restaurant called “Maya.” At the door we were greeted by a Pakistani man in a cowboy hat, tight blue jeans and a bandana around his neck. There was no one else in the restaurant, no tequila, no crooning mariachi, but plenty of salsa and tostadas and enchiladas. There were even fake cacti and Santa Fe art and Mexican desert scenes. And there was Tariq Amin.

“Give me a night with your hair,” he said to me, “and I’ll make you beautiful.” Tariq Amin—known throughout the country simply as Tariq—is forty-something, flamboyant, and totally outrageous. He lives and dies for fashion. Though married with two kids, he is rumoured to be gay—not an unusual dichotomy in Pakistan. Tariq is a celebrated hairdresser, and was in Lahore to conduct auditions for Islamabad Fashion Week 2011.

“They need to be tall, slim and young,” said Tariq, explaining the criteria. “We get so many who come in, five foot eight, five foot nine, and I’m like, ‘Honey, I can make you look fabulous, but I can’t make you six foot one’. Tariq lit up a cigarette.

From what I could gather, Tariq was Pakistan’s number one fashion icon. But he was clearly more than a fashion connoisseur—he was the guru of all things beautiful. I noted his silver hooped earrings, his black and white Prada button-down, and his black eyebrows that a Time magazine reporter once described as “two hissing cats.”

Tariq first gained renown thanks to the hair salon he opened in Islamabad (he had originally trained in hotel management in Boca Raton, but when he returned to Pakistan he learned that he stood to make more cutting hair than working in a hotel). His salons are famous all over Pakistan, and amongst foreigners. At a hundred bucks a pop, Tariq coiffs thecrème de la crème of the country. So-and-so of ABC news claimed she couldn’t wait to get back to Pakistan so Tariq could “spend some time with my hair.” Even though he’s a fashion icon and celebrity—appearing in some of the hippest and more controversial videos of the contemporary Pakistan music scene, including scenes of bondage and flogging—Tariq still cuts hair every day, from 10 to 6, in his Islamabad salon.

“It’s what I’m passionate about,” he said. “Cutting hair isn’t just about a hair cut. It’s about making people feel good about themselves. I love to make people feel good.”

We ordered a round of nachos and sodas. I asked him about the bomb in Karachi, and he looked at me like I’d just ruined the party. “So there was a bomb in Karachi,” he said. “So what? Let’s talk about things that are positive. Fashion is positive. Hair is positive. It’s a requirement, the way you require a dentist or someone to fix your eyes. People need to look good.”

I could tell my line of questioning was making everyone uneasy. Fortunately Chris changed the subject.

“Do you know any good parties in Lahore?” he asked.

Tariq took the bait. “Honey, there are five thousand parties happening right now in this city. You tell me what you want, we get it.” He explained the party network, which took place mostly in people’s houses. It involved anything and everything. “Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll baby. Whatever you want, you can get it right here in Lahore.” He is the Mullah of Partying, the Maestro of Good Times.

Tariq told us stories from life in the fashion industry; drug-addled gatherings full of people partying the night before Ramadan, trying to cram in as much coke and booze before the fasting began. In his telling, I could see that he thrived on the contradictions of his country, and the contradictions in himself. I wasn’t quite as comfortable.

“But what about the extremists?” I asked. “Aren’t there threats against you?” I’d heard rumours of a fatwa on his head. He was annoyed by my questions.

“I’m trying to be positive and think about the bigger picture and not the repercussions of a small minority group. If people want to kill me, let them kill me. Tariq Amin can’t be a hypocrite.” He lit up a cigarette and stroked his goatee. “He can only make you beautiful.”

The next morning Chris and I packed up for Islamabad. On our way to the bus we stopped at Hotel One; auditions for
Islamabad Fashion Week. Outside the hotel, the military checked our bags for possible explosives—Eid was approaching and security was particularly intense. Inside, a poster by the front door read, “Tariq Amin wants you for Islamabad Fashion Week.” A dozen or so twenty-something men in chic designs, all by local designers, waited their turn to be called. Tariq and two other fashion experts sat at a panel, á la American Idol, waiting for the men to strut their stuff.

Tariq barked out orders: “Strut, strut!” “Show me your six-pack!” “That’s it, honey, you’re beautiful!”

I asked one of the models what makes Tariq special.

“He understands what it takes,” said the eighteen-year-old, looking nervously at his shoes.

“And what does it take?” I asked.

“To be tall, to be thin,” said the young man. “And to have a sense of inner faith.”

Chris and I were waiting for a rickshaw by Mall Road when a stranger grabbed my arm.

“Please,” said the stranger. I realized he was missing an arm. His breath smelled like spoiled meat. “Tell the world we’re not all crazy terrorists. We don’t want to blow everything up. Tell the West we want to live.”

There were no tourists, no terrorists, at least not beside us. But there were condemnations coming in on the news: Pakistan Harbouring Evil. Pakistan Not Doing its Job. Drone Attack Kills Fourteen  in Waziristan. A rickshaw picked us up and we sped forward into another world.

“War makes people closer to God.”

Esther, Sampson and Sharon Sarmas were gathered in their living room beneath a wall of photographs depicting Esther’s husband, Major Rauf Sarmas, killed in the line of fire by a Taliban RPG in Waziristan in 2007. Major Sarmas was the first Christian “Shaheed” (martyr) in the Pakistani army. He had been unarmed, helping his fallen mates into ambulances, when the RPG fell. A large piece of shrapnel hit him in the back and the head; he died of a brain hemorrhage.

The room was crammed with photos of the Major. In each photograph he was wearing his military uniform. He had a thick black moustache, closely shaved face, handsome dark hair and fierce eyes. A small plaque on the coffee table read, “Eighty-three died for the love of Pakistan.”

In another corner, a sticker: “Jesus Protects this House.” A letter from the army, in both English and Urdu, praised the Major and his devotion to Allah—after all, he was a Shaheed, even if he was also Pentecostal.

“I go to school not knowing if I’ll come home alive,” said the daughter Sharon, talking about the violence that had penetrated the once peaceful Lahore. “That’s just the way it is. One gets used to these things.” Sharon was seventeen, serious, and had plans to be a dentist. She spoke evenly, without affect: you expected
sorrow but instead you got a smile and a plate of gingerbread cookies. “Would you like some more chai?”

“It was God’s will,” said Esther, mother and widow, talking about Major Sarmas’ death. “My husband saved sixty people. He was told by headquarters, leave your post, run and save your life. But he said, ‘I will not leave my men. I will not abandon them’.” When Esther smiled it was like make-up, a new face. “Jesus took my husband at the moment he was supposed to be taken. I am lucky my husband died in this way.”

Esther recounted the story of how her husband was killed. She showed no signs of remorse, sadness or fear. The children were particularly level-headed and well-adjusted. The moment was bizarre and fascinating: a life insulated from fear through faith.

A few days previously Chris and I had traveled to a small village south of Lahore to listen to the stories of women who’d lost husbands or sons in battle. The last image of that trip was a ninety-two-year-old grandmother weeping by the shrine of her grandson, smearing the dirt of the grave on her wrinkled face. The Sarmas’ response was completely different, and something I wasn’t altogether comfortable with. But who was I to say how people should respond to a loved one’s violent death? Does it matter how we find solace? Maybe the rules are different in a war zone.

Sampson, the eldest, said, “The main point is my father was the first person in Pakistan history to be a Christian martyr.”

“Jesus Christ died for the whole of humanity,” said Esther, smiling again. “My husband died for his country. It was a martyrdom, big sacrifice. My husband knew he was going to die. He prepared us for it. Every time he left he said, ‘I might not come back.’ God took my husband’s life. It was his wish to die.”

We ate buns and biscuits, drank milky tea. The morning sun warmed the room.

“All sickness is a result of sin,” Esther told me. “If you cast away your sins, then you will be healed.” I’d told her I couldn’t eat her sugar cookies because I’m diabetic. So all I needed to do was believe in Jesus to save thousands of dollars in medical expenses?

My friend Samiya Mumtaz, the actress, asked Esther, “Aren’t you angry with those who killed your husband?”

Esther said, “I’m not angry at anyone. My husband wanted to die for his country.”

“What about Musharraf?” asked Chris. In 2007, before then-President Pervez Musharraf had officially decided Waziristan was in big trouble, he’d sent soldiers like Major Sarmas to the front lines without ammunition.

“How can I blame Musharraf?” said Esther. “It was God’s will.”

“But surely someone made a decision to send him to the front lines,” I said, taking my chances on a cookie.

Nobody said anything. Uncomfortable looks were exchanged. Finally Sharon spoke up.

“One day we were interviewed on Pakistan national radio. The announcer gave a summary of my father’s life. It turns out my father had volunteered to go to Waziristan. We didn’t know. His tour of duty had ended but he asked to stay on.”

Esther said, “He wanted to be a hero. He loved the army. Maybe more than his family.”

Sampson told us a recurring dream: he shoots the shit out of the enemy and their bullets never hit him. In his dreams he is strong, immortal, huge. In reality he’s been an expert marksman since the age of nine.

“Who is the enemy in your dreams?” I asked, half-expecting him to say it was the men who killed his father. But he didn’t. He said, “Anyone who attacks my country.”

Samspon confessed that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the infantry.

“I want to be a warrior,” he said. “I want to defend my country.”

His mother shifted in her seat.

When we asked Esther how she felt about her son following in his father’s footsteps, she shrugged her shoulders. She was resigned to it. “If it’s God’s will, then he will fight.”

Samiya, a mother of two, was incredulous. “Really? You’d let him fight?”

“I cannot stop him.”

“Of course you can,” said Samiya. “You’re his mother.”

“If God wants him to fight, he will fight.”

Sampson leaned forward. “The point is we cannot stop these people from killing. We must fight back. I must defend my country.”

“War is unavoidable,” said Esther.

Like Samiya, I had trouble believing Esther would let her son join the army, or that she wouldn’t at least be tormented with worry. I imagined her alone in bed, unable to sleep at night, her son traversing the same dangerous border regions as her late husband. How could she endure it? And why endure it at all when she could say, Enough. Or could she? Maybe Esther was right. Maybe war is unavoidable. We only have to give it some kind of meaning; otherwise we’ll go crazy.

Esther admitted she didn’t like that her husband had joined the army. Twenty years ago she asked him to quit so they could move to America. But Major Sarmas didn’t want to. And now Esther was forced to return to the same refrain: He died for his country. He died for Jesus. He was a hero. Maybe she’d said it so many times she had finally come around to believing it. Sharon, the soon-to-be dentist, brought out more cookies.

Later, Sampson pulled out his tablas and played a song. He sang it in Urdu, over and over again. Esther explained that her husband wrote this psalm and would sing it for hours at a time on his harmonium, or with no accompaniment, only the wind, as his fellow soldiers recounted him doing for three hours straight the evening before he died. I asked Esther if it wasn’t incredibly hard when the Major died.

“My relatives and me were crying. I cried because I missed him being with me. But my children were very strong, they did not cry. My son was saying, ‘Why do you cry? We don’t cry.’ So I stopped.”

Sampson continued to sing:

Jesus will watch over me
Jesus will take care of me
He will hold me when I fall….

EF—A Child’s Narrative:

It was decided to train EF as a suicide bomber. He was reluctant. EF received detailed training. This training lasted approximately one month, following which he was taken to the location where he was supposed to execute this task.

Student art from Sabaoon School, Pakistan

Student art from Sabaoon School, Pakistan

He reached the location a day before the act was to be carried out. EF was equipped with a gun in his right pocket and a hand grenade in his left. The jacket was to be blown up by him—apparently this time there was no remote control, which is usually with the “handler.” His colleague dropped him off at the mosque. EF stated that he was fearful at the time. EF stated that he was willing to execute this until a night before the act, when he had a nightmare: if he were to carry out this mission he would burn in the fires of hell.

The next day he felt very nervous upon reaching the mosque. EF stated that he went into the mosque and noticed the guard was staring at him. EF watched the guard leave. EF stated that he was unable to either shoot the guard or any other person who approached. The instructions were to throw the grenade to the left. When people rush to the opposite side of the grenade blast, then he could throw himself in that crowd and blow himself up.

Standing at the entrance to the mosque, EF was plagued with more doubts. He did not feel it was right to execute so many people, and wondered about the teaching that he would go to heaven and receive beautiful virgins. EF was transfixed on that spot, no doubt looking strange.

During this time, the guard had already alerted the local police who came and arrested him. People who had gathered at the mosque for prayer started to beat up EF. In the scrum, EF remembers feeling ashamed and embarrassed. He states that he did not feel the need for revenge. He felt he deserved to be reprimanded for considering carrying out this act.

At Sabaoon, EF has adjusted very well and participated in his academic and vocational curriculum with zeal. He feels that he is in heaven now. Next year EF will be sent to a boarding college.

EF is seventeen years old.

Dr. Feriha Peracha may be small and delicate, but she’s a forceful presence. Her eyes blinked rapidly as she fired through various child narratives like EF’s, all of them interviews compiled by her and her mental health team. “This boy is amazing,” Dr. Peracha said, pointing to her computer. “He was trained to put on a suicide bomb jacket and walk in front of a militant, so if he were in danger he’d blow himself up. The army brought him in. Do you see the way he uses red in everything? Look at that house!”

Chris, Samiya and I were in Dr. Peracha’s house in Lahore, looking at paintings created by the boys from
Sabaoon school. The paintings were stunning, disturbing and heart-breaking. They were part of the children’s art therapy.

“You have to understand,” Dr. Peracha said. “This is not a religious issue. It is about wanting a better life. Paradise. Who can blame them? They come from such poor families.”

Dr. Peracha is a psychologist on a dangerous, one-of-a-kind mission: she runs the Sabaoon school in Swat.
Sabaoon was created by the Pakistan National Army following the takeover of Swat Valley from the Taliban in 2009. The idea was to rehabilitate boys between the ages of ten and eighteen who had been abducted by the Taliban (families were given the choice—hand over your sons or one hundred thousand rupees, an amount no one had). The majority of the children at Sabaoon were suicide bombers who were either captured or surrendered before blowing themselves up.

The school started when the army apprehended a number of child militants. A general in command at that time, known to Dr. Peracha from the relief work during the earthquake in Kashmir, requested that Dr. Peracha interview and profile the first twelve child militants they’d apprehended from the camps of the Taliban.

“For me it was something I could not say no to,” she said. “I was curious and it was also something that bothered me a lot: how can children get involved in militancy? Of course I was afraid to do this, too. I didn’t know what I was getting into.”

“Wasn’t it dangerous?” I asked.

“Of course it was dangerous,” she said, recalling the first time she met the kids. “Throughout the journey, I kept thinking, they’re militants! But as soon as I met them they were just children. They were so vulnerable.”

She showed us photographs of bunk beds tucked in with baby blue sheets, paintings by the students as part of their art therapy, and the beautiful surroundings of the school.

“I take them into the mountains and show them how beautiful their country is. I try to teach them that this is their paradise, that paradise isn’t somewhere they go to when they die.”

It’s a major point for Dr. Peracha and a core part of the rehabilitation therapy at Sabaoon school: a humanistic teaching of Islam.

“The kids, they come here, and they don’t understand anything about the religion. So I teach them what jihad means—the inner struggle, not some war with America. I say to them, math is your jihad. Family is your jihad. It doesn’t mean you kill people. Nowhere in the Koran does it say that.”

It was hard to take this all in: a modern, humanist Islam taught by a woman to former Taliban child suicide bombers?

“Of course, these boys have such terrible male role models,” she said. “They need someone like me. I’m like a mother to them.”

I couldn’t help but notice Dr. Peracha shaking when she talked. Hers is a dangerous job and it was no wonder she was on edge. Dr. Mohammad Farooq Khan, a Muslim scholar, psychiatrist and philanthropoist, as well as former vice-chancellor of the Swat Islamic University in Mingora, used to teach at Sabaoon. In the summer of 2010 he was shot to death in his office by Pakistani Taliban. A well-known and highly respected voice of the moderates, Dr. Farooq Khan wrote articles and books that denounced suicide bombing as well as the Taliban. Dr. Peracha’s family was rightfully concerned for her safety.

But, she told us, she can’t stop with her mission. She feels an incredible obligation to the children. By the time I’d met her in 2010, several dozen children had already come and gone through the school (and since the time of our initial interview, close to two hundred boys have attended Sabaoon; in May 2012 the school will be transferring to a smaller venue with the remaining child militants of the Swat area). And while the therapy was intense, involving a re-learning of the tenets of Islam, as well as sports and art therapy, the larger problem has been how to reintegrate the children back into their communities. Once they expel the violence—if indeed they can do that—then what? How do the children not get sucked back into the hands of the militants? How can one school reform a region, a country, compel it to leave violence behind? The rings under Dr. Peracha’s eyes said it all. If the militants didn’t get her, the stress would.

Dr. Peracha got up from her desk and paced the room. She was revved up, adamant that we understand the violence was not a compulsion of religion. “It’s about going to heaven, a desire for a better life,” she said. “Because they’re so poor, they’re of low socio-economic strata, and they are told if they blow themselves up they’ll go to paradise. That’s why these kids do this. For the children it’s nothing at all about Islam. You kill someone and then you go to heaven. The real problem is there’s just nowhere for them to go.”

She argued that the entire situation would be different if there were jobs for the kids. “Make Swat like Bangladesh,” she implored. “Give us a free market, build some factories, put in some industry, give these people something to live for, something to do.”

Listening to Dr Peracha, it seemed hers was the only sane course of action—there was no option but to tackle the violence at its root; starting with the children.

“We’re connected to Swat, all of us,” she said. “These children are the next generation, the ones who will or will
not become terrorists. We need to affect that fate.”

Dr. Peracha showed us one boy’s canvas, which stretched the length of the room: black footprints were the ones that led the child into the school and his coloured footprints the ones with which he hoped to use in leaving. Another boy painted a house without doors or
windows. Many of them painted snakes, phallic symbols, Dr. Peracha suggested, though to me it seemed more the shadow, the sinister, the venom trapped in their veins. The most enduring image was how the boys painted the backgrounds. At first, it appeared to be black rain. Upon closer inspection, it was clear that it was a rain of mortar.

Samiya offered to massage Dr. Peracha’s shoulders. When the doctor let Samiya touch her, we all breathed, I think, for the first time.

Lahore, the Old City. Saturday night. In a teahouse by the ornate seventeenth-century Badshahi mosque, Samiya, Chris and I talked about how to help Dr. Peracha. Belief, despite the consequences, or with the hope of better consequences; I supposed this kind of thinking is infectious in this part of the world. It’s only a question of which idea, which conviction, you latch onto.

Two men in the corner of the tea-house, I noticed, in shalwar kameez, were watching us, smoking. One of them chatted incessantly. The other sneered.

Back in the car, Samiya drove us through the city streets. Suddenly she gunned it and we were careening, going faster and faster.

“Those men,” she said, matter of factly. “They’re following us. They think I’m a prostitute.”

I twisted around in my seat. It was the two men from the teahouse. They were metres behind us in a white sedan, weaving in and out of traffic. I tried to gauge their expressions through the windshield. Were they laughing or screaming?

I had a sudden memory from earlier that day when we met with an artist who paints prostitutes of the red light district. He said he’d been receiving death threats lately from the extremists. Then he confessed: he had produced a painting so dangerous no one could ever see it.

“Why paint it then?” I asked.

“Because I had to,” he said. And the way he said it, I could see: painting, survival, belief—it’s as natural as breathing.

Samiya coolly navigated our way through the city streets. She sped up, blowing through a traffic light and veering abruptly onto an onramp. Soon enough, we’d left the ogling men behind, though by then I wasn’t quite sure where we were or how we were going to reach our destination.


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