Sunday, November 1, 2009

Open letter to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton

Here the grasses blow in the wind....the sun was out and so were we, but I felt a sadness I couldn't reach. My friend Faiza emailed me from Pakistan today with the following open letter and I need to share needs to be read and passed along....

(by Feryal Ali-Gauhar)

Open Letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Your Excellency,
Allow me to apologize to you for not being able to be present during
your address to civil society at the hallowed campus of Government
College University in my beloved city of Lahore. Much as I would have
wanted to benefit from the wisdom of your analysis and foresight, I
could not make the journey quickly enough from the remote town of
Chilas where I was in consultation with the proponents of a major dam
which shall displace 32,000 people and submerge 32,000 ancient rock
carvings if and when built. Allow me to further explain that since
flights were cancelled from the nearest airport in Gilgit, a tedious
five hour journey on the Karakoram Highway, I was compelled to take
the road journey over the Babusar Pass situated at an altitude of
14,000 feet above sea level, travelling a total of eighteen hours to

Your Excellency, it was during this eighteen hour journey through some
of the most desolate yet spectacular landscape of my country that I
imagined speaking to you, being unable to join the privileged few who
were invited to hear you speak both in Lahore and in Islamabad. As the
vehicle carrying us made its way carefully over open culverts
fashioned by the able engineers of the China Construction Company, as
it slid over six inches of freshly falling snow, as it dipped into
crevices swirling with glacial melt, and as it glided smoothly over
the bits of tarmac which have survived the devastation of the 2005
earthquake which killed 70,000 people in these remote parts, I spoke
to you, imagining that you were truly interested in what I, an
ordinary citizen of this, my beloved, blighted country had to say.

But before I put those words down on paper, Your Excellency, allow me
to welcome you to my country, this broken jaw of your kingdom. Allow
me also to congratulate you, belatedly, on your appointment as
Secretary of State of the most powerful nation on earth. That
President Barak Obama had the prescience to see a woman in this
commanding position is also a move worthy of appreciation. That you
were his opponent in the Democratic Party’s primaries shows the
objectivity and wisdom in President Obama’s selection. That you are a
woman signifies the possibility that you will bring sanity to the
White House, and by extension, to the Pentagon. For if the world was
to be run by women, Your Excellency, it is quite possible that today
we may not be mourning the brutal deaths of millions killed in the
many wars over the past many centuries.
Your Excellency, it was at the outset of the second Gulf War in March
2004 that I resigned from my honorary position as Goodwill Ambassador
for the United Nations to which I had been appointed by Dr. Nafis
Sadiq, then the Executive Director of the United Nations Population
Fund. For five years I had tried to bring to the attention of my
department the fact that the issue of population, poverty, and peace
cannot be addressed without empowering women to deal with all of
these. It was, and still is, my firm belief that women will not choose
war over negotiating peace, that given a choice, they will not produce
children who must go hungry, that they are the backbone of a nation’s
economy and cultural articulation, and that they hold the key to the
myriad conflicts which rage like an uncontrollable conflagration,
destroying a world built by men and predicated on inequity and

It is unfortunate that I was unable to convince my department of the
value of the genuine empowerment of Pakistan’s women, beyond the
provision of services and family planning counselling. It is equally
unfortunate that I was being seen as the face of the United Nations at
a point when this esteemed organization was totally impotent in the
face of your country’s insistence on invading Baghdad. My protest at
this incapacity led to my resignation, something I have never
regretted and would do time and time again, for protest is my right,
and practically the only thing left to me to use with clarity, dignity
and purpose. And it is through this fissure that I hope to be able to
insert these words, Your Excellency, through the cracks in the
daunting security which surrounds you during your visit to my country.

Your Excellency, before me, wrapped in a piece of fabric stained with
grime and fragile with wear, lie the gifts I received from the family
I recently visited in the hamlet of Thor which straddles a glacial
stream rushing down the majestic Karakoram mountains. This parcel was
given to me by the woman whom I met while conducting a Cultural
Heritage Impact Assessment for the proponent of the Diamer Basha Dam.
It contains what she had gathered in the fading light of autumn from
the forest surrounding her stone hovel which she shares with eight
children, her husband, several goats, a cow, two dogs and a ginger
kitten with a broken leg. Lying inside this piece of fabric were a
couple of pomegranates, some dried mulberries, and a handful of
apricot kernels. When I shook out the piece of cloth containing these
precious gifts, I realized that it had been carefully embroidered with
intricate designs resembling the motifs I had seen etched into the
dark surface of the igneous rock which lies scattered across hundreds
of miles of this desolate landscape, described as the “abomination of
isolation” by the British who wished to consolidate the far reaches of
their empire in the nineteenth century. That this family lived just
besides the 19th century British-built rest-house, perched on a cliff
over-looking the thundering rivulet running down from the melting
snows, appeared to me a fitting irony: rampant poverty living in the
shadows of the greatest empire of the modern world.

I listened helplessly as my host explained in a language unknown to me
that her husband was being threatened by the powerful land-owners of
the area to give up his little patch of land on which his family eked
out a meagre existence. This patch of land shall not be submerged by
the 100 kilometre long reservoir of the proposed dam, but before the
river is dammed, this family, and many like them, shall be damned to
displacement, dispossession, and the absolute disarticulation of
everything they have known for centuries: their music, their songs,
their stories, their way of life. There shall be many like them,
“collateral damage” in the path of progress of a country starved of
energy and full to the brim with contradictions which flame the fire
of terror.

Why do I tell you this simple story, Your Excellency? Why should you
be concerned about the lives of an obscure family living in some
remote region of a country considered to be the pariah of nations for
its involvement in the breeding of terror? Why should your mind be
cluttered by the details of the lives of ordinary Pakistanis who
struggle to survive all sorts of neglect and deprivation? After all,
the simple mantra chanted by your government and those before it is
that by bringing democracy to these conflicted lands, the world shall
be a safer place. And democracy is what supposedly describes the
dispensation in our Parliament today, and even for the several years
before that, despite the fact that the self-appointed head of state
was nothing but a military despot wearing the disguise of well-cut

I tell you this simple story for the simple reason that perhaps the
problem lies in the details, Your Excellency, in the details of
ordinary lives. The problem itself is simple, and the solution is not
as simplistic as American foreign policy would like us to believe. The
problem, Your Excellency, is the wilful and malevolent perpetuation of
a universal state of inequity and injustice – a state of dangerous
contradictions poised to implode despite the many hasty and
ill-thought out designs to alleviate the burden of poverty and
privation. Today I see you standing before a computer, accompanied by
a permanently beaming President and a stately Minister who gives away
money to the needy, once a month, as long as the needy are defined by
a certain parameter. Your Excellency, apparently you are to push a
button on the computer which shall randomly select a winning family
which shall benefit from the munificence of a government functioning
almost entirely on the rhetoric generated by martyrdom. That this
family is then to return the awarded amount while those in government
have loans worth millions of dollars written off is an irony as sharp
as the fact that the family in Thor Nallah had never heard of this
benevolent scheme, nor have they ever received the benefit of
electricity which could possibly power a computer on which their names
could be listed.

Your Excellency, I had worked with my mother in the region of Gilgit
Baltistan for thirteen years before her untimely death in the region
she had come to love. For most of the people of this region, as for
most of the people of the four provinces of my beloved country, such
schemes have remained inaccessible, much like gainful employment,
health care, education, land, and the most ubiquitous of all rights:
justice. It is ironic that those who have denied the people of
Pakistan these essential rights are the ones you are now accompanied
by: the grinning and ingratiating folk who surround you on your visit.
Your Excellency, how can we possibly be anointed with the ink of
Democracy when the parchment we have been writing on is brittle with
conflict, fragile with prejudice, and infested with a feudal ethos
which eats into the very fabric of democratic principles? How can we,
ordinary Pakistanis, believe that those with whom you do business are
truly representing our interests, the interests of the family in the
Thor Nullah and countless others like them in Awaran, in Badin, in
Zhob, in Gwadar, in Dir, in Bakkhar?

Your Excellency: I am not trying to dissuade you from your noble
mission to inform us of what is already written in blood, the blood of
men and women and children killed in a war we did not create. As I
write this, news filters in of the deadly bombing of the heart of my
father’s beloved city Peshawar. Tonight the sound of mourning, of
women wailing for lost children, of babies seeking lost mothers, shall
fill the sky above my country. Can you hear that song, Your
Excellency, that lament of despair, that elegy to a nation defeated by
those who sold it for another song, a song of greed and a malignant
lust for power? That is not a song anyone would willingly want to
hear, and unless you and those in positions as significant as yours
are willing to hear that elegy, I fear that very soon, too soon
perhaps, there shall be no space for further burials in this beloved,
blighted country of mine. In closing, allow me to offer you the lines
of the wonderful British poet who made America his home: I am moved by
fancies that are curled/Around these images, and cling:/The notion of
some infinitely gentle/Infinitely suffering thing. (T.S. Eliot –
Yours most sincerely,
Feryal Ali Gauhar


The Artist Within Us said...

There is much to ponder upon.

I for one feel it is time for the US to leave the region as we cannot be in the middle of a civil war and that countries like Pakistan need to come to terms with their neighbors.

We can assist in the negotiations, but we cannot continue spilling the blood of our American citizens nor that of those in the country we find ourselves in.

There are no easy answers, but not until we change our dependancy on oil for alternative methods that are clean and environmentally friendly, we will continue to lose American lives in foreign countries.

The fact that China is building a dam to harvest the countries resources for itself is a problem not only for Pakistan but all nations.

I know I have gone off in all sorts of directions, but as a non-American living in this country I consider my host, I wish all conflicts to stop and that no more blood is spilled, regardless of ones political views or nationality.

Thank you for sharing and wishing you a wonderful week,

Maggie Neale said...

Thank you, Egmont, for your thoughtful response. I value human life above all else. I feel the human suffering in this and wish I knew how to help this letter find its way into the readership of those who could make a difference. I still believe we, as humans can, make a better world for all...killing is not the way!