I found myself in Washington DC, in the month of June 2008, at the Marriot, just before sunset. I sensed a commotion in the hotel — the kind of commotion you see at Penn Station during the rush hour, that is if you are familiar with New York City, or at the old Islamabad Airport during the Hajj flights. People dragging their luggage — and children — into the hotel, many crowding around the hotel reception, checking in, some gathered around the elevators going to their rooms, others going up and down the escalators, and many lounging around in the lobby, and a few — very few — sitting in the not too visible areas in the bar.
They were mostly Pakistanis, some in business suits, some in their ethnic attire, women wearing colorful dresses and jewelry as if attending a wedding party. I soon found out why.
The Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America (APPNA) was holding its annual get-together. They do this every year in different cities of the United States. Dozens of doctors from all over the country, along with their families and friends, had descended upon the hotel.
Initially, the chaos in the lobby was a bit overwhelming, but after a while, I got used to it and even started enjoying the scene, its vibrancy, and color.
A majority of families, I found, were from small-town-America. Therefore, their excitement about being in the capital of the country was understandable, even though it spilled over at times.
The APPPNA organizers had, thoughtfully, installed signs in the hotel lobby directing the guests to different areas and rooms set up for different events. A signboard, conspicuously placed in the lobby, showed the precise timings of the five daily prayers while another sign pointed to a prayer area.
Walking down the maze of corridors in search of my room, I saw a younger man hurriedly emerge from his room, presumably an APPNA member who had already checked in, his trousers rolled up above the ankles, water dripping from his bare arms, and droplets of water hanging from his sparse beard. “Which way is the qibla?” He asked me. Without any thought, I pointed westward — or what I thought was westward. He thanked me and quickly retreated into his room, to say his Maghrib prayer, I guessed.
It occurred to me later that the qibla in the US was eastward. I felt a bit guilty misinforming the man, but then remembered the sacred injunction: “To Him belongs the East and the West … so, whichever way you turn your face doesn’t really matter…” And, to further calm down the qualms of my conscience, I reassured myself that I had given the information in good faith.
Among the many activities of professional and general interest, the APPNA organizers had also set up a bazaar in the hotel basement. The different stalls catered to both the secular and spiritual needs of the delegates and their families. On display were dresses, jewelry — and “halal cosmetics”. I knew of halal food but hadn’t heard of halal cosmetics — until then. They also sold books on subjects ranging from commentaries on the Quran to ways of cleansing one’s body — and the soul.
With an eye on the deep pockets of the doctors, there were stalls selling properties in Dubai, and other opportunities for investments. The women thronged the bazaar most of the time.
When Pakistanis come together at any place, discussion on politics cannot be left out. In fact, politics seem to be their passion — other than cricket and religion. Not necessarily in that order.
A special session, open to everyone, to discuss the political situation back home was one of the events. in the context of the then-ongoing lawyers’ movement. (A brief background of the lawyers’ movement is given at the end of the story.)
The Association had invited a few prominent Pakistanis — politicians and others — to speak at this session. They included Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan, Justice Wajihuddin Ahmed, a former judge of the Supreme Court, Ahsan Iqbal of the PML-N, Farooq Sattar of the MQM, and Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan’s newly appointed ambassador to Washington DC.
All 300 seats in the hall were taken and many people were standing at the back and on the sides.
The speeches were followed by a question-and-answer session. It was clear at the outset that the APPNA crowd was divided along the same political lines that were drawn so deep on the political landscape of Pakistan. They expressed their opinions passionately, often angrily, just as it had been visible in Pakistan since March 2007, when the Lawyers’ Movement against the removal of Chief Justice bu General Musharraf had started.
A vociferous section of the audience was for the restoration of the pre-November 3 Judiciary, which was the topic of discussion. Aitzaz Ahsan received a standing ovation from the audience, both before and after his speech. He played a leading role in the Lawyers’ Movement. Someone from the audience even hailed him as “Obama of Pakistan!”. (Obama was the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, the first African-American to be nominated so, and was hugely popular and expected to win the presidency.)
Ahsan Iqbal of PML(N) was heard patiently. Farooq Sattar (MQM) was occasionally heckled with shouts of “May 12!”, but managed to say what he had to say. But all hell broke loose when Ambassador Haqqani came on stage.
Mr. Haqqani speaks well and writes well. His recent book “Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military”, according to Professor Stephen Cohen, “is a brilliantly researched and written book that should be required reading for anyone who wishes to understand this increasingly important state.” But on stage, Mr. Haqqani was like a fighter rooster that went for his “opponents” with rebuttal, repartee, wit, and verse. It was an Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth kind of performance. Mr. Haqqani would have won hands down if it were a college debate, but he didn’t seem to win many friends among the APPNA doctors in the hall that day.
The acrimony generated during the political debate, however, seemed to disappear by the evening when during a music show, the doctors, having done with their Isha prayers at 10.15 pm, broke into a wild bhangra dance that lasted well past midnight.
During one of the trips to my room, I got into an elevator where there were already a few white folks. (White folks in the hotel stood out because they were outnumbered by Pakistanis.) Just when the doors of the elevator were about to close, an ample, cheerful Pakistani woman, in her colorful flowing dress, accompanied by three children, ranging in age from about 7 to 12, rushed in. We all squeezed and pulled in ourselves to accommodate the woman and the kids. When everyone was in and had pushed their destination-floor buttons — the children pushing more than one — the doors closed and the usual awkward silence fell in the elevator.
The woman broke the silence and addressing her children announced, like a schoolteacher to a class: “Hey, let’s sing Pakistan’s national anthem.” The children bashfully looked at their mother with a question mark on their faces. They didn’t seem to think singing in an elevator among strangers was a great idea. But the mother’s excitement was irrepressible. Like the conductor of a choir, with one hand raised, she piped up with “Paak sarzameeen shaadbaad…” The children, embarrassed, simply stared at their toes.
The strangers in the elevator, bewildered, slipped out at the first stop of the elevator. I listened to her solo performance in silence. Hadn’t she been so out of tune, I would have joined in, too.
Patriotism, I guess, affects people in different ways, especially when they have been away from home for too long, but I am sure there are better ways and occasions to exhibit it than in elevators among strangers.
Overall, it seemed the APPNA doctors had a good three days of R&R — Recreation and Religion, that is. What they also need, I guess, is a bit of Renaissance and Reformation.
Note on the Lawyers’ Movement
The lawyers’ movement was triggered by the then military ruler General Musharraf forcing the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, to resign. Chaudhry refused. General Musharraf sacked him along with several other judges. The lawyers all over the country revolted. This gave rise to a countrywide movement, led by prominent lawyers and joined by nearly all segments of the civil society. Aitzaz Ahsan, a renowned lawyer, and a progressive politician played a leading role in the movement. He drove Justice Chaudry to address different bar associations all over the country. He also wrote a poem, which became an anthem of the movement, and was recited almost at every protest rally. General Musharraf was ousted in 2008, elections were held, a PPP government, led by Asif Ali Zardari took over, which, hesitated to reinstate Iftikhar Chaudhry as the Chief Justice of Pakistan. So, the movement continued till Asif Zardari was forced to reinstate Chaudhry.
At the time of the APPNA gathering in Washington DC, Chaudhry had not yet been reinstated, and the PPP government led by Asif Zardari was reluctant to reinstate him. Tempers were high against Zardari.