In Manto’s words, this is what Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi looks like

Published: February 1, 2015
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We live in strange times. Saudi Arabia’s ageing despot has finally died. The difference between then and now of course is that Saudi visits are hardly as honest and just as scarcely the bearer of good news for Pakistan’s perpetually-indebted elite.

If in the 1950s they brought some hope for the poor along with gold, now these visits carry a heavy price tag, despite assurances to the contrary from the country’s financial mandarins after the latest Saudi bequest of $1.5 billion in a scarcely-entertaining drama at the national level. And the heavy price-tag might end up consuming Pakistan itself.

Our dependence on Saudi oil, remittances and power politics has resulted in creeping Saudisation in Pakistan over the last two decades. Pakistan was never part of the Saudi neighbourhood, but due to some hasty and short-term decisions by its ruling elite, became an influential playground for Saudi Wahhabism and power politics, beginning from the nominally secular, democratic government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Contemporary Pakistan is more sectarian and intolerant than it was during the 1950s. As young people go viral over the recent examples of Saudi soft power in Pakistan manifesting itself in the ‘new’ car plates flashing Arabic and Arabised variants of the country’s name and world leaders – including our own – compete risibly to pay obeisance to the dead Saudi monarch and win the allegiance of the new one. The new Abu Jahls of the 21st century attempt to buy Islamabad with more hand outs – as if the grotesque structure in the Pakistani capital bearing one of their late monarchs’ names and quickly elevated to the status of a ‘landmark’ wasn’t enough of a provocation – ostensibly to press them into their own camp in their Cold War against a resurgent Shia Iran in the two current Arab flashpoints on Syria and Bahrain, a debilitating conflict being involved which might bring democracy to the benighted citizens of Riyadh sooner than later, but seriously push back the chances of a burgeoning democracy in Pakistan for some time.

Saadat Hasan Manto’s Eighth Letter to Uncle Sam reserves his sharpest pen for Saudi Arabia – and by extension for organised religion – with whom Pakistan’s ruling elite has forged a close relationship, to the detriment of both its politics and culture in subsequent years. And while it talks of the same, now-deceased, King Abdullah (there is apparently still an abundance of Abdullahs ruling in the Arab world) in the closing paragraph, it is thus a witty dismissal of Saudi expansionism in Pakistan, equally applicable to the 21st century.

“I am recounting briefly the eyewitness and ear-heard account of Saudi King Saud’s Mecca. He reached Karachi via aircraft along with his 25 princes, where he was heartily welcomed. He has other princes too, I don’t know why they didn’t come, maybe because two or three additional aircrafts would be required for the purpose; or maybe they are very young and they prefer their mother’s lap to the aircraft. It’s true, how can children, brought up on their mothers’ and she-camels’ milk, survive on Glaxo and Cow Gate dried milk.

Dear Uncle! It is thoughtful that if King Saud had with him his 25 sons, by God’s grace, only God knows how many girls there would be, may God give them long life, and save the King from the evil eye. Tell me that in your state of seven freedoms, is there any such iron man or human multiplier like him who has so many children?

Dear Uncle! This is all courtesy our religion Islam and this high honour was given to whoever got it. In my humble opinion, you should immediately declare Islam as your state religion. It will have a lot of advantages. Nearly every married man would be allowed to marry four times. If a woman gives birth to four children, even with a lot of miserliness, by this rule then 16 boys and girls should be proof of a man’s manliness and a woman’s fertility.

Boys and girls can be so useful in wartime. You are worldly-wise, you know better. I am a resident of Amritsar, thanks to Mr Radcliffe’s generosity, it has now relocated in India, where there was a hakim Ahmad Abu Turab. He married 10 times in his life, not four at a time, rather one at a time. He had numerous children from these wives. When he married for the last time at the age of 90, his eldest son was 75-years-old and the youngest son born of his last wife, was just two-years-old. He died as an immigrant here in Lahore at the age of 112. Some poet has divined his date of passing away in this famous couplet: ‘One longs for the buds which withered away without blooming’ (1271 A.H.). This was also thanks to the blessings of Allah and His chosen religion Islam. If initially your married men have any type of problem handling four wives simultaneously, you can invite King Saud here to make use of his services.

You are his friend; you and his late father were bosom buddies. I heard that you arranged a caravan of very grand cars as a gift for him and his harem. I think that King Saud will tell you all his presidential prescriptions. Nearly every country, except India and Russia, is taking an interest in Pakistan these days and it is all a result of your kindnesses that you have extended a hand of friendship and cooperation towards us; and we became so capable that others also began to view us kindly.

We Pakistanis are ready to die for Islam. There was a time when we were admirers of Mustafa Kemal Pasha and Enver Pasha; when news came of Enver Pasha’s death, all of us would mourn and shed real tears. But when it transpired that he is alive by God’s grace, we would dance with joy and light our homes with lamps. Mustafa Kemal and Enver were sworn enemies; but we weren’t aware of this. The Turks had no interest in Indian Muslims. They thought nothing of us that we were a little bit aware of. But we loved them since they were our Islamic brethren. We are so innocent and naïve that we even love the gooseberry and jasmine oil which ‘Prepared by Islamic Brothers’ is available here. When we apply it to our heads, we feel so refreshed that even the delicacies of our present Paradise can’t hold a candle to it. We are very foolish but endearing people. May God preserve all our qualities till world’s end.

I was talking about the fortunate tour of King Saud but became emotional singing praises of Islam, the thing is that one has to sing Islam’s praises; after all what are these Hindu, Christian, Buddhist religions? Is there anyone among their followers who can claim to be the father of so many healthy boys. That is why I advised you that you should appoint Islam as the United States’ state religion so that you don’t have the need to conquer Japan to produce bastard children.

Dear Uncle, do you like this bastardisation? I’m a Muslim, swear to God and His Prophet, I hate it immensely. If producing children is such a need, such an easy method exists in Islam: arrange a nikkah, and produce children at leisure. In my opinion, you should also marry four times. If Auntie is still alive, no problem, you can convert to Islam and marry three more times. Here in Pakistan you can marry the famous actress Ishrat Jahan Babbo, as she has an experience of various husbands.

King Saud has a very alluring personality. Immediately after stepping out of the plane, he embraced the Governor-General of Lahore’s Mochi Gate Mr Ghulam Muhammad Khan and displayed the ‘Islamic Brothers Regd.’ brotherhood and love which was really infidel-shattering. The Muslims of Karachi raised slogans in his honour over and above their own stature, and took out processions and feted him to feasts, maintaining Islam’s centuries-old traditions in doing so. King Saud had brought with him a box full of gold, which proved almost-impossible to carry for Karachi’s labourers. He sold this gold in Karachi and kindly granted 10 lakh rupees to Pakistan. It was decided that this money would be used to build a colony for poor immigrants which would be named Saudabad. Allah’s name remain?

Reliable sources have informed that King Saud wants to marry two of his sons in our Pakistan by way of solidarity. If we should be so fortunate, I’ve heard that when Begum Shahnawaz could not find a suitable match for the Arab princes in Karachi, she telephoned Begum Bashir to initiate the same process in Lahore. Since Lahore, after all, is Lahore, would there be any shortage there of nubile girls fit for the princes? So I’ve heard that Begum Bashir together with Begum GA Khan and Begum Salma Tassaduq carried out the duties of traditional matchmakers and approached the leading families on the exalted princes’ behalf but alas! They weren’t successful. The reason being mentioned is that the young and unmarried girls of our upper class are not too fond of these Arabian camels.

In my opinion, this is their mistake. Before this, when Pakistan had not come into being, Indian Muslims did have such a connection with Saudi Arabia. A young woman from the family of Maulana Daud Ghaznavi and Maulana Ismail Ghaznavi had entered into marriage with King Saud’s father, the late Abdulaziz ibn Saud. You might know that Maulana Ismail Ghaznavi performed 28 pilgrimages in this respect though just one pilgrimage was enough. The heart heavy and that pilgrimage notwithstanding, Begum Bashir, Begum GA Khan and Begum Tassaduq have had to face a failure in this good deed but I’m sure some nightingale will emerge, two such girls will be found who will be elevated by the princes from Hijaz.

In a previous letter, I had written to you something about our women here, probably about those blouses which are worn by the older women and display their boot-tree-ascending tummies, due to which the chairman of our university’s Persian department, the respected Dr Muhammad Baqir was really upset. He abused me in a sophisticated manner and declared me accursed and plagued because I have dishonoured our women. O Allah, help me! Whatever I put down was just that such semi-naked frivolities don’t suit the old women at their age. I fear that if the doctor reads this letter of mine, he will again allege that I have dishonoured our ‘woman’ once again.

Actually, the thing is that we are simple-minded and foolish people by nature, our women are wind-vanning hens, wherever the wind blows, they go there. The Shah of Iran graced us with his presence, the upper-class girls preened themselves as best as they could since His Highness was available at that time, having divorced Fauzia. However, he took only a passing interest in them and married Surraya Isfandyar upon his return to Iran. Then Prince Aly arrived, he was also available, since your very own Rita Hayworth had obtained a divorce from him. Our upper-class girls tried very hard to straighten peak and parting of their hair and prissy and preened, but that prince dashed all their hopes and began an affair with another of your very own, Hollywood actresses Gene Tierney. May God eternally preserve your state of seven freedoms.

Then the King of Iraq came but our unmarried girls were severely disappointed to see him, because he was a teenager. One of them said, ‘Oh! It’s still playing days for the boy why the poor chap has been burdened with government’. Similarly another old woman (whose tummy was not very revealing) taking pity on the King said, ‘why would the poor child be interested in old geezers, go and summon his age mates and have them meet him’. So he too went.

Now King Saud arrived. He was feted along with his 22 or 25 princes in Government House, where all married and unmarried girls and women of high society participated. Cigarette-smoking was not permitted, not even to (Crown-Prince) Abdullah, however he is very safe without the cigarette smoke and he received this privilege owing to his vintage Islamic hospitality. His two dozen princes bought several Pakistani shoes in the Anarkali bazaar and gave a proof of their solidarity and good wishes. Now these shoes will walk on the sands of the Arabian Desert and imprint the temporary stamps of their longevity.”

Raza Naeem

Raza Naeem

The author is president of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. He is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and translator. His translations of Saadat Hasan Manto have been re-translated in both Bengali and Tamil, and he received a prestigious Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship in 2014-2015 for his translation and interpretive work on Manto. He is presently working on a book of translations of Manto's progressive writings, tentatively titled Comrade Manto.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.