Bank Accounts for Afghan Refugees

Sher Khan (not his real name) is an Afghan, who was born in Pakistan and has known no other country. He is in his late twenties and already has three children. These children are technically Afghans but like their father have never known any other country but Pakistan – the adopted homeland of their grandparents. Sher Khan is an honest and hardworking man and performs his job as a watchman with vigilance and rare commitment. I have found him to be thoroughly dependable and better than those holding genuine Pakistani CNICs. I want to keep him for the long term and would like to deposit his pay check directly into his bank account on a monthly basis. The online payment is hassle free and can save me a lot of botheration. I can’t do it because banks have very strict instructions about not opening accounts for aliens without proper documentation. Sher is registered with NADRA as a refugee and has an alien card. The card expired last year and the renewal is pending because Government is yet to decide how long they would be letting Afghans stay in Pakistan. As per instructions received by the local banks, an Afghan residing in Pakistan should have an Afghan passport and work visa to open an account. Even this is problematic because the account holder has to frequently get the visa renewed to let his account remain valid. A bank account is a good way of keeping track of a monetary trail and brings the grey economy into the fold of the mainstream. Not allowing the Afghans to open a bank account is to encourage them to make financial transactions outside the tax net. This by extension denies the authorities to check the money trail and prevent it being used in any illicit activity. In my opinion the approach of excluding the Afghans from opening bank accounts is extremely counterproductive. They should be allowed to open bank accounts and be made part of the normal economic activity. Most Afghan refugees, like most Pakistanis are honest, hardworking and decent people. They should be integrated and not segregated. Most of us are apprehensive about the perceived harsh immigration policies that become part of the Donald Trump Presidency. The why should we be adopting patently bad policies to marginalize and antagonize Afghan refugees. These people have been in Pakistan for a number of generations now and therefore we must be careful in crafting our Afghan refugee policies. Better sense and prudence should be our leitmotif.


Wollaton Park – the Manor of the Dark Knight

Nottingham is known for Robin Hood and his band of merry men, who lived in the Sherwood Forest and robbed the rich to pay the poor. No one knows if he was a real person or a fictional character but Nottingham proudly uses him as a brand name. Legend has it that he was a heroic outlaw in English folklore, who was a highly skilled archer and swordsman. Traditionally depicted as being dressed in Lincoln green, Robin Hood became a popular folk figure in the late-medieval period, and continues to be widely represented in literature, films and television.  References to Robin Hood are found in the ballads of the fourteenth century.

Another character made Nottingham his abode in the twenty first century. In 2011, key scenes from the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises were filmed in Wollaton Park. Wollaton Hall was featured as the latest Wayne Manor. Movie was released in 2012. The location was well chosen by Christopher Nolan for the final instalment of his Batman film trilogy, and the sequel to Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008). The film grossed over $1 billion worldwide at the box office, making it the second film in the Batman film series to earn $1 billion. It is currently the 16th highest grossing film of all time, the third-highest-grossing film of 2012, and the fourth-highest-grossing superhero film of all time.

Wollaton Park is actually a deer park and home of Wollaton Hall, Nottingham Natural History Museum and Nottingham Industrial Museum in the heart of Nottingham. The Park is enclosed by a red brick wall at the start of the nineteenth century. Originally spread 790 acres (3.2 km2), land sales have reduced the park to 500 acres (2.0 km2). The park is home to a herd of red deer and fallow deer. At most times you can see them sitting in front of the Hall. You can go quite near without offending them. Other wildlife of note at the park includes a large corvid roost made up of rook, jackdaw, and carrion crow. Other notable species present at the site are populations of jay, nuthatch and sparrow hawk. Migrating wildfowl grace the lake in the winter and species of note include gadwall, northern shoveller, Eurasian wigeon and tufted duck. There is a good diversity of fungi present, especially in the winter months, mainly found near the wooded areas and the lake. A walk around the lake is most enjoyable.

In this park, during World War II American troops of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, were billeted here, waiting to be parachuted into Europe, which they did in June 1944. A small plaque commemorates this event.  Subsequently German prisoners of war were billeted here for employment in the locality between 1945 and 1947.

Wollaton Park is often used for events such as cross country races and music festivals. The park is often visited by physical fitness buffs and I saw a military style boot camp in progress, while I was there.


What if the West had lost Cold War?

Berlin has the distinction of being the final battleground of two wars – the Second World War and the Cold War. National Socialism was defeated here in 1945 and communism in 1989. The Berlin Wall has been torn down and the only vestige of the terrible barrier that separated the two German nations is a symbolic line of stones etched on the floor of Berlin. It is discernible at a number of places and is quite visible if you visit Berlin’s iconic landmark, the Brandenberger Tor. As a visitor to reunified Berlin, I often wonder what if the West had lost the Cold War.  Whenever I wonder aloud, I’m told quite authoritatively that it wouldn’t have been possible. The reasons that are quoted are as follows: The communist system was too controlled. People were oppressed and wanted freedom. The capitalist system despite its flaws gives people more choices and a way of life according to one’s own liking. True, but what if the West had lost and the communists would have won? The counter narrative is missing because history is often written by the victors. I was particularly moved, when I saw two monuments each celebrating a different memory, one in Berlin and the other in Budapest. The memorial to the fallen Soviet soldiers of World War II at Treptower in Berlin is massive and is spread over acres of land. It is embellished by statutes and stones carrying patriotic slogans. The memorial to the fallen Hungarian patriots of the 1956 uprising against the Soviet intervention is smaller and is restricted to a house called the House of Terror in Budapest.

The Soviet War Memorial and military cemetery in Berlin’s Treptower Park commemorates 5,000 of the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who fell in the Battle of Berlin in April–May 1945. It was opened on May 8, 1949 and served as the central war memorial of East Germany. Three more Soviet memorials were built in Berlin. One in the Tiergarten memorial became part of West Berlin and the other is in Schönholzer Heide. The focus of the Treptower ensemble is a 12-m tall statue of a Soviet soldier with a sword holding a German child, standing over a broken swastika. It marks the deeds of Sergeant of Guards Nikolai Masalov, who during the final storming of the center of Berlin risked his life under heavy machine-gun fire to rescue a three-year-old German girl whose mother had apparently disappeared.

Before the monument is a central area lined on both sides by 16 stone sarcophagi, one for each of the 16 Soviet Republics with relief carvings of military scenes and quotations from Joseph Stalin, on one side in Russian, on the other side the same text in German: “Now all recognize that the Soviet people with their selfless fight saved the civilization of Europe from fascist thugs. This was a great achievement of the Soviet people to the history of mankind.” At the opposite end of the central area from the statue is a portal consisting of a pair of stylized Soviet flags built of red granite. These are flanked by two statues of kneeling soldiers. Beyond the flag monuments is a further sculpture, along the axis formed by the soldier monument, the main area, and the flags, is another figure, of the Motherland weeping at the loss of her sons. As a poignant reminder of their heroic deeds of their countrymen, the Russian citizens of Berlin still come to lay flowers and burn candles at the main sarcophagus and offer a silent prayer and wonder if the course of history would have been different.

House of Terror museum located at Andrássy út 60 in Budapest, Hungary contains exhibits related to in 20th century history of the country under the communist regimes. It also serves a memorial to those detained, interrogated, tortured or killed in the building. Built after the collapse of the Soviet Union and opening up of Eastern Europe to capitalist ideology it is meant to castigate communism and fascism and contains material on the nation’s relationships to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. On the roadside is a display of the fallen heroes of the 23 October 1956 uprising against the Russian intervention. Imre Nagy, the country’s prime minister’s defiant address in the face of the Soviet takeover is emblazoned in bold letters. The exhibit inside is related to Hungarian organisations such as the fascist Arrow Cross Party and the communist ÁVH (which was similar to the Soviet Union KGB secret police). Part of the exhibition takes visitors to the basement, where they can see examples of the torture chambers. There are of course critics to this exhibition, historians, journalists, and political scientists, who argue that the museum revolves plays too much upon the victim-hood of Hungary under foreign occupation and ignores the contribution of the Hungarians themselves towards the perpetuation of the communist rule.

For someone growing up in the Cold War era and experiencing it first-hand these memorials serve as important reference point and reinforce the question, what if the West had lost the Cold War?

 

 

 

 


Pakistani Street Vendors on Alexanderplatz

Alexanderplatz in the heart of Berlin is a very happening place. On a warm summer day it is thronged by dozens of tourists out to enjoy the square abuzz with a lot of bohemian music and art activity. Artists with chalk or coal are drawing masterpieces that may last only so long as the next rain or cleaning up by the municipal authorities. Budding musicians are playing conventional instruments or just creating music by banging at pots and pans. Punks with needles piercing their lips and nose and hair garishly colored laze around, while lovers cling to each other in varying degrees of passion. Shirtless men with tattoos and pet dogs on the leash have cardboard signs declaring that they are shelterless and would you please kindly spare a penny, so that they can no doubt meet their quota of booze. Kiosks sell ice cream, while men carrying trays around their waist do brisk business selling cheaply priced wurst. Among this riot of color, song and music, you can see vendors selling peak caps, leather tank men caps, fur hats and gas masks belonging to the Soviet and East German armies. The newness of the caps is a fair indicator that these are not relics of a bygone era but newly made to attract the fancy of the tourist or the curious collector. By their appearance, the men selling the trinkets of the communist era seem to be from South Asian descent.

I walk up to one of them to find who he is. Ali can be between somewhere between mid-thirties to early forties. He is dressed smartly and is wearing sandals. We make small talk. How is business doing? Not bad given that there is an economic crisis. He can’t really complain and can make upto a thousand euros but then how much is enough? He wonders philosophically. He has been in the business for the past 5 years. Previously the Germans would buy stuff from him but now it is mostly tourists looking for souvenirs or students wanting a fancy headgear for a party. On a good day he can sell upto ten caps and knows how to get their price worth. He is from Mundi Bahauddin in the Punjab and so are all the other ‘colleagues’ of his on the square. They come from Gujranwala, Rawalpindi and even one from Bhai Phero. He has been in Germany for seven years. He is married to a cousin, who has been in Germany before. One can only make out that he got his legal status by marrying her. He has children and they visit Pakistan every year. You can’t say anything to the children in this country because they can call the police and they can take them away and put them in the custody of the government. This is not his only grouse. People in Germany consider Pakistan very poorly. They even rank them below the Afghans. What a shame, after all we brought the Berlin Wall down. This place that is humming with activity wouldn’t have been there, if it hadn’t been for us. Our leaders are bad. They cannot stand up for their people and make a case for them. The Afghans are also an ungrateful lot. We did so much for them and now they speak ill of us. Isn’t this a case of the pot calling the kettle? Yes, the Germans are very hardworking people. They are very well organized. They can do their work quickly. They only keep the minimum staff to get their work done. They work for five days and for the remaining two days they party. But you work seven days? Our case is different, he says with a twinkle in his eyes. Of course you can take a photograph of my caps but please keep me out of the frame. Would I like a cup of coffee? No thanks I say. He smiles broadly and I move on wishing him and my other countrymen working on Alexanderplatz well.

 


Why there will be no coup in Pakistan?

We have just witnessed high drama in Turkey. A segment of the military tried to briefly takeover the government but failed to do so. The elected government asked the people to come out on the streets in their favor and the rebellious soldiers fled in the face of street power that they hadn’t reckoned with. Pakistan and Turkey have a common history of coups. In both countries the military considers itself the custodian of the nation’s physical and ideological borders. In both countries the military has the licence to give a course correction, whenever it is felt that the system is going awry. This right – a constitutional one in case of Turkey and legal one under the doctrine of necessity in Pakistan – has produced long periods of military rule. Turkey has been free of martial laws since the end of 1980s, while Pakistan saw off its last military ruler in 2008. Counting out the recent attempt to disrupt democracy, Turkey has made considerable progress as a stable democracy. In Pakistan democratic traditions are still fragile, there is a skewered civil-military relations and each instance of political turbulence makes the rumor mill run amok predicting that a military putsch is around the corner.

I am no sage but in my opinion there is no imminent possibility of any political coup taking place in Pakistan like Turkey. The reason is quite simple. The Army in Pakistan is strong and doesn’t need to remove a weak and pliant civilian government. From experience it has learnt that it is better to pull the strings from behind the curtains instead of being in the front and be cursed by the common man for his daily miseries like power outages and corruption. Each military dictator had to relinquish power in face of popular unrest after having failed to resolve the country’s multifarious problems. After the return to civil rule it has been fairly smooth sailing for the military. The previous civilian government simply did not interfere in their affairs and gave the powerful army chief and the intelligent head extensions in their tenures of service to keep them happy and out of their hair. The present government lost its political clout when it was jolted by street power demonstrations in 2014. Thereafter it ceded so much space that it simply could not recover. Army occupied the vacuum created and the civilian government just did their bidding. The Army chief became extremely popular and the prime minister plagued by financial scandals just took a long leave of absence on medical grounds and nobody missed him for more than a month.

In Turkey as well in Egypt military coups were launched after extensive foreign propaganda against the elected government. In Egypt the government of Muhammad Morsi was kicked out after merely a year in power because his Islamic credentials and method of governance became repugnant for the people and world at large. The Egyptian military gladly rebounded and resumed from where the previous military strong man Hosni Mubarak had left. In case of Turkey, President Erdogan was also becoming increasingly autocratic and there were reports in the international media condemning him for his strong arm tactics against his political opponents. There are also allegations of foreign sponsorship of the coup makers by the reclusive cleric Fethullah Gülen. In case of Pakistan there is a lot of domestic bad press against the current political leadership but neither the international media is hostile nor are there any known foreign sponsors. At most international leadership is dismissive about the present prime minister but there is no suggestion or encouragement of military interference.

So why should the Army to interfere with a political government that hardly poses a threat to it and creates no problems in its working? In any case it has its hands full with Operation Zarb-i-Azab launched over two years ago to root out terrorism in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The present Army chief wants to leave behind the successful completion of this counter insurgency campaign as his legacy.  Seen from this perspective, the civilian rule under the watchful gaze of the military is likely to continue in the foreseeable future without recourse to martial law.

 

 


Goodbye Lenin

The city of Berlin has many ghosts to exorcise. During the last century it was possessed by demonic spirit of Nazism and then it became the battleground of competing ideologies of communism and capitalism. At the end of the Cold War, a new and unified nation emerged from the ashes of the past. It may have been the triumph of capitalism but not everyone exulted when the wall came down. Party apparatchiks and high ranking cadres were left confused and befuddled. For fifty years what had become a life style was suddenly destroyed and torn asunder. Those dedicated to the former communist regime were left jobless and without a purpose in life. Goodbye Lenin is a movie that poignantly brings across the tragedy in the lives of those, who were raised in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and who came to believe in the Party ideals.

Described as a tragicomedy, Goodbye Lenin is a movie in German language which was produced in 2001 and released in 2003. It can be seen with English subtitles and is considered a classic that truly sums up the change that visited German around the turn of the last century. Directed by Wolfgang Becker, the cast includes Daniel Brühl, Katrin Saß, Chulpan Khamatova, and Maria Simon. Most scenes were shot at the Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin and around Plattenbauten near Alexanderplatz.

It is a story of a woman in East Germany, whose husband has apparently deserted her for the allure of the West to raise her two young children, a son and a daughter alone. As the political scene in Europe moves towards a dénouement, the son takes part in a demonstration against the communist regime is hauled up by the East German police. The mother sees her son being beaten and arrested and suffers a heart attack. Her condition worsens and goes up into deep coma. The boy is released in the evening to visit her mother. There he comes across a young nurse, whom he had met at the demonstration. The two fall in love. The mother remains in deep sleep for eight months and wakes up after the Berlin Wall has broken down, Erick Honecker is gone and socialism has given way to capitalism. By this time the son Alex has lost his job as a TV repairman and has been hired by a West German cable TV company and is paired with a young West German, who is an aspiring film maker. The daughter Ariane leaves her studies in the university to become a Burger king drive through attendant.

The doctor warns the family that the mother should under no circumstances be shocked or she would suffer a relapse. Thereafter with Alex in the lead it becomes a struggle for the family and their friends to resurrect former East Germany for the mother to let her lead a life that she has always believed in. It is humorous to see how the house is restored to its former austerity and how bits and pieces of the old products brought into the house to keep the mother from learning about the changes that have taken place around her. Fake TV programs and news reports are made and eating products repackaged to keep the charade alive. In between the long lost father is also found and it is learnt by the children to their utter chagrin that he had not abandoned them but that their mother had actually refused to open the letters that he had been sending to them. There are a number of hilarious escapades but in the background the hurt and the loss felt by the East German keeps playing out as the mother finally dies happily in the state she had always believed in.

 

 


Mostar

Travelling in the bus from Dubrovnik in Croatia to Mostar in Bosnia Herzegovina is interesting experience. Dubrovnik is a small landlocked isthmus and is connected with the rest of the country through the Neum corridor. So there are multiple immigration checks en route. The border control personnel get into the bus and stamp the passport. By the time you have crossed all the border posts, you’ve have acquired at least half a dozen stamps on your travel documents and it appears that you’re extremely well-travelled.

Entering into Bosnia you witness a number of mosques and churches and Christian and Muslim cemeteries along the roadside and you can almost get the sense that one side of the road is inhabited by Muslims and the other by Christians. As we got off the main bus stop at Mostar, our host Senel was at hand to receive us with his car. His establishment in the heart of the old city has a 9 rating from Airbnb. Senel had fled to Germany during the war and returned because he says he loves his city, where he knows almost everyone. This was not the sentiment of another Bosnian I met. Arman, a cousin of Senal, whose taxi we hired for a day trip around Mostar, spoke of German officials threatening forced eviction if they and other Bosnian refugees did not leave after the end of war.  Both Senel and Arman spoke good German from their times as refugees and I could make good conversation with them. One thing that came out was that they don’t wear their religion on their sleeves. Despite the ravages of the war and the genocide, they want to live in peace and bear no grudges for the past. Despite stark reminders of the war like the pock marked walls and reminders of NEVER FORGET, the city has healed fast and is on the road to recovery.  Bosnia is not part of the EU but the prices of foodstuff and rents are lower than neighbouring Croatia. It’s now thronged by tourists. Incidentally Pakistani peacekeepers played a prominent role in restoring peace in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Mostar has an old war charm about it and has a distinct Ottoman heritage. It is also known as the place where east meets west. Its most famous landmark is Stari Most, literally the Old Bridge, over the River Neverita. It connects the two parts of the city. Constructed on the orders of Sulaiman the Magnificent in 1566, the bridge was designed by Mimar (Engineer) Hayruddin, a student and apprentice of the famous architect Mimar (Engineer) Sinan. An exemplary piece of Islamic architecture in the Balkans, the Old Bridge was destroyed on 9 November 1993 by Croat forces during the Croat–Bosniak War. After the war it was rebuilt with the help of the UNICEF and was reopened on 23 July 2004 in all its old splendour.

The old bazar cobblestoned and lined by stores selling trinkets and souvenirs is magical place. A singing minstrel in old ottoman dress complete with a red fez cap and baggy trousers strums his stringed musical instrument and would be happy if you throw a few coins for his labours. The city’s unique appeal is the quaint restaurants, some of them located just next to the ancient river with its clear waters. A meal in these cafes is a memorable affair. The lavender scent wafting by is mesmerising and large portions of trout or kebabs with freshly baked bread are mouth-watering. The old bridge is naturally the most frequented place in the city. Located just next to the bridge is a divers’ club, where daredevils change before jumping off the bridge in the cold waters of the river below to let the passer-by that they know no fear. A short walk away from the old bridge is another famous bridge known as the crooked bridge. The area around it is overflowing with flowers. A number of mosques in the old city resound to the call of the azan but the attendance is thin. The maghrib prayer of the mosque, where I prayed was led by a very young man without a beard. Many of the minarets bear green flags with Islamic symbol of a half moon and a star. Looked like the flag of Pakistan minus the white patch. This is, is however, not the official coat of arms of the Republic of Bosnia Herzegovina. I saw similar fags in other places with Muslim majority.

The charm of the old city is many splendored but you can venture out and see more sights in the surrounding area. We hired a taxi and visited Tekia of the Dervish in Blagaj, the old fort in Paticelj and the amazing waterfalls in Kravica. The Tekia is an amazing place. Nestled in the foothills of the mountains, it was a place where the sufi saints of different tarikas would pray and conduct dhikr – the practice of systematically reciting Allah ho. The symbol ‘ho’ in Arabic is written at various places in the Tekia. The prayer place and niche are ideal for meditation. Even today, a prayer call is alluring and mellifluous and is impossible to ignore.

The settlement at Pocitelj has a Muslim fort and a mosque. The business is slow here as salesmen and women sit outside on an exceeding hot day to sell their ware. I climbed up the tower of the old fort that is in need of urgent restoration but provides a good bird’s eye view all around. As I wondered around and entered the mosque to offer prayers, my wife in her own exploration met the Imam’s wife, who took her to her home for a a very welcome glass of sherbet and a cup of Turkish coffee. As I came out of the mosque, she told me that the Khanum has gone below.    I don’t know how they conversed with each other because ‘zaban-i-yaar-i-man Turki o’ Turki name danam.’ Roughly translated it means: The language of my beloved is Turkish but alas I don’t know Turkish.

A visit to the magnificent waterfalls at Kravica neatly rounded off our day trip. There are about a dozen cataracts that are falling down a steep precipice, not quite as high as the Niagara falls but easily accessible for all those who wanted to beat the heat. Lots of people were taking a dip in the extremely cold waters in skimpy swim suits, others were sunbathing and tanning their European bodies and enjoying their beer in the shade. Despite all the rush, the waters were not muddied and there was no litter around the place.

Mostar underwent a long siege and suffered the worst that human beings can do to each other. Twenty years from the genocide, they seem to have recovered from their trauma and fast returning to normality.