September 13, 2010
Thirteen years ago, Wajahat Malik and I were both cast in a Seattle production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The show played for two and a half months to sold-out houses and peachy reviews and morale among cast and crew ran high. A number of us became close and cast parties frequently wrapped at 5:00 a.m. Malik (he went by his last name because Americans usually mangled his first) was a natural raconteur and delighted us with tales of growing up in Pakistan’s Mansehra Valley, where he and his friends sometimes listened to Bob Dylan and Supertramp in his Volkswagen bus, occasionally incurring his loving mom’s disapproval. One of his sisters was a physician, the other a banking executive and photos of his family’s home and the surrounding region were stunning.
Malik returned to Pakistan over a decade ago and has resided in Islamabad, the nation’s capital, for the past eleven years. He’s a documentary filmmaker and writer whose travels have taken him throughout Pakistan and large swaths of the globe. We’d fallen out of touch but had reconnected on Facebook in 2008.
When the horrific floods enveloped Pakistan at the end of July and beginning of August, I wrote Malik to see if he and his family were safe. He assured me they were, but said much of the country was ravaged to an almost unspeakable degree. Immediately, he had delved into the relief effort. Last week I interviewed him via email about the work so far, obstacles he and his compatriots face and why, despite everything, he remains hopeful.
Litsa Dremousis: Since the floods ravaged Pakistan, you’ve been on the ground helping with relief efforts. I can’t fathom what the experience has been like.
Wajahat Malik: This flood was the worst in Pakistan’s history and the devastation it caused was immense, beyond anyone’s belief. Literally, the whole of Pakistan drowned in the waters of the Lion River, also called the Indus. In the face of such calamity, the nation woke up and stood up to face the waters. People gradually came out of their slumber and then people from all over the country started rescue and relief efforts and helped the flood victims who had lost almost everything. There were too many hopeful acts of self-sacrifice and philanthropy to mention here. The horrific act that happened was when some ministers and local feudal lords in the Sind province used their clout and illegally broke the embankments to turn the flood waters toward the poor settlements in order to save their own lands and palatial farm houses.
LD: Some of the people you’re helping were incredibly poor before the floods. Do you think they have a chance at any sort of decent future? That is, with some kind of food and shelter and schools?
WM: Of course, it is always the poor and downtrodden who bear the brunt of such awesome calamities. Their lives have changed for the worse and the future looks quite bleak for them as the state of Pakistan cannot cope with the scale of the disaster economically. The flood victims have lost their houses, the crops and cattle stocks have been wiped out. Cultivable land has been either washed away or has silted up. Schools, bridges and roads have been inundated. The whole infrastructure has collapsed and it will take years and billions of dollars to rebuild what has been lost. Two million people have no shelter and are surviving on the hand-outs of the flood relief operations. They will have to be housed and rehabilitated. But the big question is, “How?”
LD: Has it been difficult to remain focused in the midst of so much death, loss and illness? How are you coping?
WM: Of course it is hard to carry on with your life when there is so much death and destruction around you. The images of the suffering millions in the flood waters haunt you all the time. When I sit down to eat at home, I feel guilty somehow and feel depressed.
LD: Have you seen anything you view as a miracle, not in the religious sense, but that it was inexplicably good in the middle of so much horror?
WM: No, I have not seen any miracles with my own eyes, neither have I seen footage of such a thing. But it is a miracle that Pakistan, despite the problems that it is plagued with, is still coping with a disaster of such a huge magnitude.
LD: On the flip side, what’s the cruelest act you’ve seen so far?
WM: Again, it would be those of certain corrupt and tainted politicians of the Sind province who, in order to save their land and palaces that they had acquired by sucking the blood of the masses, drowned the poor to save their riches. There is an enquiry commission that has been formed to investigate these criminal acts.
LD: What would you like those of us outside Pakistan to know about the floods? From what I’ve read, illness is spreading rapidly. Do you have loved ones who have become sick?
WM: The floods have obliterated the country’s infrastructure in terms of schools, hospitals, bridges and roads. Houses have been swept away, farm lands are destroyed and the farmers who were already living at subsistence level have nothing left. We are talking destruction worth billions of dollars. The poor who have lost everything and are sitting under the open skies and in the camps are drinking contaminated water and getting sick. In different areas, water-borne diseases have been reported to especially affect women and children, who are always the most vulnerable under these circumstances. No, my loved ones are fine and healthy, but the camps and shelters of the flood relief victims are rife with all kinds of diseases.
LD: From the outside, it seems much of Pakistan’s political unrest is the result of widespread poverty. Yet you seem to remain hopeful. How and why do you maintain hope?
WM: The Western media keeps harping on about poverty spawning the political unrest and turmoil in Pakistan. It is simply not true. It is the policies of America and its cronies that common people of Pakistan despise. And it is across the board. From the poor rickshaw driver to a person like me who has studied in America and has seen and read the world. We see eye to eye when it comes to the hyprocrisies of America and its allies. No amount of U.S. aid pumping billions to raise the standard of living of poor is going to help build the image of America in Pakistan. I remain hopeful because I know the people of Pakistan are not extremists or terrorists. On the contrary, we are one of the most hospitable people in the world. I am not being overly nationalistic–I’m saying it from my experience as a travel documentary filmmaker. I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and know its pulse quite well. We have been used as a buffer state to further the interests of the U.S. and its allies in this region of immense strategic value.
LD: Specifically, what have you been doing with the relief efforts? I know there’s so much to do–how do you prioritize what needs to be done first?
WM: I have been focusing on some Alpine villages in the Upper Chitral region in the Hindukush Mountains that were wiped out by flash floods. Luckily, there was no loss of life, but the already poor people lost everything. I have been collecting funds and sending food supplies to these villages because they are so far away up in the mountains that they were out of the reach of media and hardly anyone knew of their existence. Well, right now, food, shelter and clean drinking water are on the number one priority list as we are still going through the relief phase. But once the relief phase is over, we will go into rehabilitation and that means a lot of hard work and money. These people will need a lot of money to rebuild their houses and the government will need a lot of money to rebuild the infrastructure.
LD: Are you working with a relief agency or have you and your colleagues started your own group?
WM: I am working with a few dedicated friends and we are collecting funds from all over and sending the money to a friend in Chitral Town who is taking care of all the buying and distribution in Chitral Valley. This friend happens to be the Prince of the ex-royal family of the Chitral region, so it is easy for him to identify the needs of local people and buy and distribute food items locally.
LD: What can those of us outside Pakistan do to help?
WM: You can help by identifying people and organizations who are truly making a difference in Pakistan in terms of providing relief to the flood victims. And then donate money and share ingenious ideas for relief and rehabilitation and keep the issue alive in the minds of your compatriots and media, so that these people can be taken care of. And not forgotten because of donor fatigue.
LD: What keeps you going?
WM: The goodness of humanity and the everyday will to breathe keep me going. We don’t want to perish in the flood waters of despondency and grief. We, as a nation, are still alive and kicking. We proved that in the aftermath of the earthquake of 2005 and we will prove it again. Here is a poem I wrote recently on a positive note:
your hair is dripping with the stinking flood waters
your eyes are red with the extremist’s rage
your nose is dripping with the snot of bigotry
and your teeth are yellow with the stains of corruption.
please wash your face
brush your teeth,
wipe your nose
and straighten your beautiful hair
The sun is shining outside
It’s a new day