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Exploding Cherries

Exploding Cherries

Author: Mohammed Hanif
Publication: Outlook
Date: March 16, 2009
URL: http://www.outlookindia.com/full.asp?fodname=20090316&fname=Cover+Story&sid=4

Introduction: Where is the backlash of the Pakistani cricket fanatic?

Cricket legend and self-appointed cheerleader for the Taliban, Imran Khan, told an Australian TV channel in October that militants would never attack a cricket match or cricketers in his country because Pakistanis love cricket too much. I am not sure where Imran Khan got the impression that militants respect people's favourite pastime. It might have something to do with the Pakistani cricketer's newfound love for orthodox Islam. Some of our star players like Inzamam-ul-Haq, Mohammed Yousuf and Shahid Afridi are now full-time preachers and part-time cricketers. On the crease, some of the juniors even mutter verses from the Quran before facing a fast bowler. Khan may have concluded that the militants would spare their brothers in faith after seeing their piety on the pitch. He forgot about the visiting teams, for whom cricket might be their only religion.

A tragic and terrifying attack like the one that happened in Lahore this week is no time to remind celebrities how naive they can be in their public pronouncements. Imran Khan is one of the many mainstream politicians, commentators and socialites in Pakistan who seem to think that if they slip in a nice word about militants, they will reciprocate by showing restraint, or at least not attack the only cricket team in the world brave and friendly enough to visit Pakistan during the past 14 months.

Imran Khan had made another prediction in his interview. "There will be a severe backlash against the militants if they attacked cricketers, because Pakistanis love their cricketers too much."

Pakistanis also have some other well-documented passions: they love to send their children to the best schools they can afford, they are mad about pop music, and they like to also indulge in the occasional dance routine.

During the past few months, militants have shown no respect for any of these popular pastimes either. There was no backlash when more than 200 schools were demolished by the Taliban in the Swat valley. There was not a squeak of protest when more than 500 music shops were shut down in Mingora, the main town in the valley. There were only murmurs of horror when a dancer named Shabana was dragged into the city square and killed. ("Don't slit my throat, just shoot me," Shabana was reported to have said.) Intellectuals like Imran Khan who are remarkably, and rightly I must add, articulate when it comes to lecturing America about its foreign policy, and documenting Israeli atrocities in Gaza, did not utter the word 'dancer' or 'Shabana' because they thought it might infuriate the militants.

I was desperately hoping that Imran Khan's prediction about a popular backlash would turn out to be true this time. A lapsed cricket fan myself, I do realise the kind of demented emotions it evokes amongst otherwise sensible people in the country. As the celebrated Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie puts it, "Cricket is front and centre, heart and soul, of the 'alternative narrative' of Pakistan." But this story isn't just about destruction and terror, but about all the aspects of life in Pakistan worth celebrating, and also, just as crucially, about all the aspects of life in Pakistan as unremarkable and harmless as a ball tapped to mid-on for no run in the last session of a dead rubber.

But looking at the TV coverage of the attacks, that hope has already begun to fade. There is a backlash under way, but it's not directed at the attackers or the ideological environment that breeds them. The incident is already spiralling into the ugly rhetoric of this being 'Our Mumbai', and arguments that go like, "since some of the Mumbai attackers went from Pakistan, so these boys must have come from across the border".As we watched the looped visuals of young men, barely out of their teens, wearing white sneakers and backpacks, strolling on the green grass outside Qaddafi Stadium and shooting at an ambulance, a very popular presenter on a big news channel explained the incident. "Which country didn't want the Sri Lankan team to come to Pakistan? Which country was very upset when the Sri Lankans decided to come and play in Pakistan?" India, of course. "We don't even need to guess who is behind these attacks," he concluded his argument.

It might be too early to tell who was behind these attacks, as old-fashioned journalists are fond of saying, but we can safely say that pictures of young men wearing sneakers, backpacks and brandishing AK-47s, and TV presenters demanding revenge, will be the only spectator sport on Pakistani TV channels for some time.

(Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif is the author of the acclaimed novel based on President Zia-ul-Haq's assassination, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, published by Random House, India.)

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