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HomeApril 15-30, 2024Random Musings of A Senile Physician

Random Musings of A Senile Physician

Dr. Alaf Khan

This random compilation of memories of people, places, and events is dedicated to my godfatherly benefactor, the late Abdul Satar Khan Mohmand of Takht Bhai in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. 

These anecdotes were written down as and when they came to mind. There is, consequently, no continuity of subjects and no chronological sequence. Such a staggered text will, hopefully, make it more easily readable than one long continuous narrative.

I hope and pray it positively inspires some aspiring young readers.

Dr. Alaf Khan

The background: The print and electronic media have been abuzz since the beginning of this twenty-first century with the news of widespread bloodshed in Pakistan. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province has suffered the most. The Swat district and the tribal belt from Bajaur in the north to South Waziristan in the south have paid a heavy toll. The heavenly valley of Swat became a den of misery for its dwellers. A large part of the valley’s population had to shift to improvised camps in the areas south of the Malakand Pass. The Taliban virtually ruled the Swat district for quite a while. Entertainment like singing, dancing, and music was banned and girls’ schools closed.

Shabana was a young woman who earned her family’s livelihood through singing and dancing. A few Taliban, pretending to be customers wishing to be entertained, came to her house on 2nd January 2009. She was dragged out of her house, taken to Green Square in the center of Mingora town, and publicly shot dead. Some of her videos, photos, and currency notes were left on and around her dead body. 

Suicide bombers and terrorists using rockets, Kalashnikov rifles, and a variety of explosive devices targeted cinemas, buses, mosques, funeral processions, wedding feasts, crowded marketplaces, law courts, police stations, prisons, schools, universities, and military establishments throughout the province and beyond. Audacious jailbreaks let scores of terrorists escape from Pakistani jails. The army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi and Pakistan’s major Naval Base in Karachi are considered the two most secure establishments in the country. Both of them received lethal hits. A suicide bomber killed many soldiers when he blew himself up in the army’s commando camp in Ghazi near the Tarbela dam. It happened only days after the massive bloodshed in the Red Mosque in Islamabad. A similar suicide bombing killed many soldiers in the army parade grounds in Dargai at the foot of Malakand hills. A massive bomb blast in the crowded Meena Bazar of Peshawar city killed and maimed scores of shoppers and traders, most of them being women and children. A passenger bus in Peshawar’s Khyber Bazar was set ablaze by an explosion that turned dozens of passengers into charred corpses. Dozens of staff and students were massacred in an attack on Bacha Khan University in Charsadda.

Terrorists, on 7th August 2016, shot dead the president of the High Court Bar Association in Quetta, Balochistan. Almost all the attorneys of Quetta city and the victim’s relatives flocked to the local hospital where the dead attorney had been taken. A massive suicide blast inside the hospital’s crowded Emergency Department killed 90 persons — most of them attorneys— and injured over sixty. The massacre on 16 December 2014 of 132 children and 17 staff members of the Army Public School in Peshawar was an unthinkable atrocity. Gunfire and hand grenades killed dozens of civilian worshippers in a mosque at the Badaber air base outside Peshawar city. A powerful bomb blast targeted an election rally of the Awami National Party (ANP) in Peshawar on 10 July 2018. It killed 20 people, including the ANP leader, Haroon Bilour, and injured many others. Haroon Bilour’s father, Bashir Bilour, had succumbed to a similar bomb blast during a previous election rally. Four people were killed on 13 July 2018 in Domail near Bannu when a bomb hit the convoy of Akram Khan Durrani, ex-chief minister of KP province, who was contesting the federal elections of 2018. A deadly blast in Mastung, Balochistan, killed 150 and injured nearly 200 persons (BBC Urdu Service, 19 July 2018). The electoral candidate, Nawabzada Siraj Raisani, was among those killed. Ironically, his opposing candidate in the same constituency was his own brother. Malik Saad was my wife’s first cousin. He was an efficient Deputy Inspector General of Police in Peshawar. He was investigating some law-and-order problems in the city interior when a suicide bomber blew up in shreds both himself as well as Malik Saad and Police Inspector Khan Raziq. The carnage on 4th March 2022 killed 60 and injured 180 worshippers when terrorists targeted the huge congregation in the Risaldar Street mosque of Peshawar city. The Police Lines area, with its huge mosque, was considered a high-security Red Zone. It houses the head offices of many of the security agencies including that of the Counter Terrorism Department, CTD. A devastating blast during the afternoon congregation on 30th January 2023 destroyed most of the mosque’s structure, killed 90 worshippers, and seriously injured over a hundred (News International, 5 February 2023). The majority of the dead and injured were members of the police force (Daily Aaj: February 1, 2023). The suicide bomber was said to have been staying in this mosque during the preceding two days. Newspapers on 1st February 2023 also wrote of the suspicion that the killer might have brought in the explosives in an official vehicle with some insider’s help.

This is only a partial list of the carnage that has devastated families, towns, businesses, and institutions in Pakistan. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province has suffered more than the rest of the whole country. ***

Badaber is an air base on the outskirts of Peshawar City. It was an American air base during the Cold War of the 1950s. From there, U2 spy planes flew over the USSR. Gary Powers flew his infamous U2 over the USSR during Eisenhower’s presidency of the USA. The Soviets announced they had shot it down. The Americans felt certain the Russians were bluffing as the U2 was thought to cruise at an altitude of over sixty thousand feet. The Americans believed such an altitude was beyond the reach of any Russian missile of the time. The Russians allowed Eisenhower to repeat his denials a few embarrassing times before he was defrocked. The Soviets showed and interviewed Gary Powers on Moscow television shortly after Eisenhower’s repeated public lies. It is amazing how many of our so-called World Leaders wear shame-proof skins. Eisenhower and, later, Gen. Powell proved as good at false denials as the prime ministers and presidents of many other countries.

A suspicion prevailed that a Russian agent in the Peshawar’s Badaber air base had tampered with the U-2’s altimeter which then gave a false high reading of the plane’s altitude. What presumably Gary Powers saw as sixty-two thousand feet was much lower and well within the reach of the Russian missiles. Gary Powers was later bartered across the Berlin Wall for a captured Soviet master spy. Gary Powers’s wife had, in the meantime, secured a divorce decree from the court during his detention in a Moscow prison. Powers came back to a broken home and a mute American federal government. Spies are called assets as long as they are free to operate. They are disowned without qualms when they get caught or killed. Gary Powers was one such discarded asset. I vividly remember watching these events on BBC television in our hostel in Glasgow University, Scotland. 

The Taliban, an amorphous conglomerate of diverse factions with an opaque agenda, has been inflicting heavy losses on the American, European, Afghani, and Pakistani armed forces and paramilitary personnel. Pakistan’s civilian deaths, casualties, and destruction of its institutions have been phenomenal. Like the mismanagement of Afghanistan by the American and NATO forces, Pakistan’s response to the turmoil was also half-hearted and haphazard for quite a while. The appointment of Gen. Raheel Sharif as Pakistan’s army chief was expected to at least partially remedy the mess. This remedy itself inflicted great misery on the people of the region. American drones probably did kill several terrorists, but their missiles also dispatched hundreds of innocent men, women, and children to their Maker. Modern warfare has added some new terms to English vocabulary, e.g. Collateral Damage and Friendly Fire. These words do not stir any feeling of guilt, grief, or remorse in the hearts of the perpetrators. The terms, however, are painfully meaningful if the victim happens to be your child in a primary school that has been hit by a drone-fired missile or by a gunship helicopter. One such USA helicopter hit killed 12 Afghan police officers in Helmand province. The carnage was reported as Friendly Fire (The Guardian, 22 July 2017). You mistake your son for a burglar and shoot him dead. That is Friendly Fire. You aim a Cruise missile at a ‘terrorist camp’. It falls short of its target and wipes out an entire village near the camp. That is euphemistically labeled Collateral Damage. 

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan and the adjoining tribal belt suffered massive bloodshed, large-scale destruction of homes, schools, and marketplaces, and agonizing population displacement during the first fifteen years of this twenty-first century. Mass evacuation of the people of FATA and the Swat District to makeshift camps in other parts of KP province has bred the term IDPs — short for Internally Displaced Persons. The term IDP is not as benign as it sounds. It means abandoning your home, your town, your crops, and your livestock, and being lodged in makeshift camps for an unpredictable length of time. Homelessness is a state we never think of till we are homeless.

FATA is a long, narrow strip along the northwestern part of Pakistan. The western edge of the strip marks Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. Though geographically a part of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, FATA had been federally administered through the provincial governor in Peshawar till its merger with the K.P. province in 2018. The belt had, till then, existed as seven administrative zones called Political Agencies. These are, from north to south, Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram, North Waziristan, and South Waziristan. The crafty British ruled these tribes through a few bunches of Tribal Elders, called Maliks, who were suitably manipulated and adequately gratified by officials of the Raj. Those officials, titled Political Agents, were loyal servants of the British Crown. Their prime concern was the security and expansion of the British Empire and the prevention of a Russian crawl into British India via Afghanistan. We inherited the skeleton of that British-made civil service without much concern for the security of the region or the welfare of its inhabitants.

Each segment of FATA is populated by a major tribe such as Mohmand, Afridi, Orakzai, etc. A major tribe is divided into several subtribes. Each subtribe branches out into a variable number of clans. Families belonging to a clan usually live in clusters of adjoining dwellings. Such a cluster, called a village, is a small number of mud huts with thatched roofs, watchtowers, and a water well. The depth at which a well reaches groundwater has varied greatly. In my childhood in the 1940s, the groundwater level was seldom less than 200 feet deep. Many men lost their lives while manually sinking these wells. The construction of the Warsak dam on the Kabul River in the 1950s greatly raised the groundwater level in the surrounding hills and valleys. In Khaar , the capital of Bajaur Agency, water now gushes out if you dig or drill a hole as little as 15-20 feet deep in places.

Subtribes and clans are generally named after some remote ancestors. There is, however, no uniform system of naming the major tribes. The name of a subtribe usually ends in the letters zai which means progeny of. Utmanzai, Halimzai, Khwaizai, Dawezai, and Tarakzai are examples of subtribes of the major Mohmand tribe. A clan’s name generally ends in khel. A khel is a group of related families much like the Scottish MacMillan, McDonald, MacKenzie, McPherson, etc. I belong to the Izzatkhel clan of the Utmanzai subtribe in the major Mohmand tribe. This nomenclature, like any other man-made rule, has exceptions. The name of even a major tribe may end in zai like that of a subtribe. The Mohammadzai tribe of Hashtnagar in the Peshawar valley got its fame because of its politically prominent son, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, alias Bacha Khan. Yusufzai (or Yousafzai/Usafzai) is a major tribe in Swat District and Mardan Division. It recently acquired its fame through Malala Yusufzai of Swat Valley. Likewise, Orakzai is a major tribe despite its subtribe-like name.

Paternal lineage determines one’s pedigree in the Pashtun culture regardless of one’s maternal descent. The Pashtun practice of paternal lineage goes against the notion that the Pashtuns might be the descendants of one of the Lost Jewish Tribes. Judaism, as a rule, adheres firmly to maternal lineage. You are a Jew if your mother is a Jewess even if your father is a gentile (non-Jew). There is, after all, no guarantee that the husband of one’s mother is factually one’s biological father. Paternity was, thus, prone to uncertainty until the advent of DNA matching. Motherhood, unlike paternity, is immune from any such doubt. The woman who gave me birth was unquestionably my biological mother. The Lord, it is said, shall call each of us out of our long slumber on the Day of Resurrection as the son (or daughter) of the woman named so and so. The Compassionate Lord, it seems, shall not embarrass anyone whose mother might have conceived him/her out of wedlock. 

The Pashtuns’ adherence to paternal lineage should not be seen as a form of gender bias. An unmarried European, American, Canadian, or Australian woman also has the same surname as her father’s. Richardson is always the surname of all the sons and unmarried daughters of Mr. John Richardson regardless of their mother’s maiden surname. About ninety percent of Western women abandon their paternal surnames and adopt the surnames of their husbands at marriage. Miss Judith Smith, daughter of Mr. Donald Smith, becomes Mrs. Judith Wilson when she marries Mr. David Wilson. Some go only halfway and, with the aid of a hyphen, combine their paternal and spousal surnames (Podcast Feature, The Guardian, 2016). Miss Mary Frazer, for example, marries Mr. William Brown. She may choose to be called Mrs. Mary Brown or a hyphenated Mrs. Mary Frazer-Brown. She can always revert to her maiden surname as Miss Mary Frazer if her marriage to Mr. Brown collapses. It is no insult to a British or American woman to be called by her husband’s last name. How many of us know the maiden surnames of Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Laura Bush, Jacqueline Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, Theresa May, Angela Merkel, and Margaret Thatcher? They all adopted the surnames of their husbands without feeling degraded. The rapid spread of same-sex marriages in the LGBTQ community is likely to create problems with retaining or discarding one’s primary surname. Naming children born to male couples through surrogacy is another riddle. It becomes rather complicated if one of a lesbian pair gets her ovum fertilized in a test tube with the sperm purchased at a sperm bank. Lodged in the womb of a surrogate mother, the fertilized ovum is ultimately delivered as a normal baby. Such three-parents-and-one-baby is no longer science fiction. 

Let the gays and the lesbians worry about the names of such shared babies just as they are fighting for their rights to use any toilet whether marked MEN or WOMEN.

Adoption of the husband’s surname after marriage is now, in some societies, considered derogatory to a woman and a negation of her individuality. Italy was the first European country that, as of November 2016, officially dropped the rule of entering the husband’s surname on a woman’s marriage certificate. 

(To be Continued)


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