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High Life, Low Life

On New Year’s day, at lunch, my friends Meher and Sarwar Naqvi, Pakistan’s former Ambassador to Austria were reminiscing about the annual New Year Concert on the eve and New Year’s morning in Vienna. Vienna is a city famous for music and this is a spectacular concert that is televised live and broadcast globally. They were invited to sit in the President’s box where they had a bird’s eye view of the concert hall below.

Meher told me, “Zainab, European leaders would walk in quietly, discreetly, with no fanfare, and they would take their seats. They didn’t have special seats in the front row of the hall. They didn’t have special security. Their wives weren’t overdressed or bedecked with jewels. After all, the attitude there is that government is there to serve the people.” And then she added “But when Zubin Mehta arrived, the crowds would part. He was like Moses parting the seas. People are impressed by talent. People are not impressed by power. Power is bestowed upon them by the people to serve the people.”

They told me that the palace in Vienna has no guards outside, and how surprised many of their Pakistani friends were when they would go sightseeing. Sarwar was remembering his time as Ambassador of Pakistan and how, often when he visited European leaders, he would arrive at their homes and be greeted at the front door by the wife and served tea and a home-made cake baked by them.

A far cry, the next day, when I went to Karachi. Of course, I had gone to visit a few friends, not leaders, so no protocol required, but my family’s flat is near Bilawal House. It was just days after the Ashura bombing so you can imagine the security. There were ship containers blocking the roads. A 200 yard stretch of road was blocked off and instead I had to make my way through a maze of diversions. I should have had a four-wheel drive, but it was a friend’s car and he luckily hasn’t complained of any damage as yet! It was an obstacle course which took me over fifteen minutes each time I didn’t get lost. But when I did get lost, that was an entirely different matter.

Admittedly there is a huge security issue here, currently. But did the security issue come first or the attitude of our elite. Historians and biographers (see Antonia Fraser) have refuted the claim that Marie Antoinette ever made the arrogant and socially insensitive statement “let them eat cake”. She had once been a popular princess, but the fact that she lived so ostentatiously at a time when her nation was in the throes of a financial crisis earned her the ugly and unshakeable title of “Madame Deficit”. Even the good deeds she had done, the charity she had dispensed, the kindness she had shown, her compassionate and “public nature for sweetness and mercy” was all forgotten. The rest is well-known history.

So, when the convoys of V.I.P. cars drive by, we don’t know, they may be on their way to cut the ribbon for some new hospital, or to donate funds to some educational institute, or to make policies which will solve our CNG crisis in the long run. All we know is that we’re stuck there in a twenty minute traffic jam. I look at the queues of cars waiting at the petrol pump across the road. I’ve been reading about the CNG crisis, not really understanding what it means. But when it’s there, staring at me, in my face, a two-fold line of tens of cars desperately refueling their car cylinders and cooking cylinders because they have no gas at home, it makes me realize how bad things are becoming for the common man.

I think of the many ways for our leadership to serve the public or disturb the public as I’m waiting to get to school to pick up my children, and the car to the left of me has an elderly person who needs to get to a doctor’s appointment, the driver to the right of me will lose his job if he doesn’t get to the airport to collect his boss, and the car behind me needs to get to a civil society meeting. What are the repercussions of holding up the traffic? This one simple gesture of convenience for a V.I.P. can cause upheaval. Life for the common man is still essentially about making ends meet. That is simply what it is about, and the more of a struggle that becomes, the more the resentment rises, the more desperate everyone gets.

When Hazrat Ali was Caliph he was known for being an ascetic. He dressed simply and he ate food like the peasants. In fact the bread he ate was deemed to be so coarse that when a visitor asked to share a meal with him, he wasn’t able to swallow the bread. Hazrat Ali lived like this because he felt, as the Caliph, it was the only way to understand the problems of the common man.

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