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First published in the youth magazine, Laaltain.

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When one thinks of sacrifice, two historical figures stand above the rest – Jesus Christ and Imam Hussein. Jesus, according to Christian belief, climbed the cross to save humanity, while Imam Hussein offered himself to the desolate desert of Karbala to uphold certain values and rights. Imam Hussein’s sacrifice however remains singularly distinctive, as human history knows of no other individual who sacrificed not just himself but his entire kith and kin for a higher cause, a greater struggle.

I will not go on at length about the events that took place in Karbala, but the significance of a 1400-year old incident that still inspires organized activism around the world cannot be doubted.

There are times when one loses interest in a struggle, or the charm of the cause one stands for begins to fade away. Hopelessness creeps in, urging us to just give up. But it is precisely at such moments that our will is tested. How we then choose to respond is not only a testament of our resolve but a defining moment, because what we stand for defines who we ultimately become.

Pakistan is going through upsetting times, but the fight is not over just yet.

If outcomes were determined solely on the basis of greater resources or numbers, Karbala would have been a forgotten story. But the truth of the matter is that the alam (banner) of Hussein’s army, which was carried by the fallen Abbas Alamdar (standard-bearer) in Karbala, is visible in streets, villages and metropolises even today. I have personally witnessed the overwhelming effect on people that the story of Karbala has had. This is as clear a proof as any that strength is not derived from material advantage, but more often than not, is a result of un-wavering belief in one’s struggle and an unshakeable will. Perhaps the poet who penned these lines said it best:

Aik pal ki thi bus hakumat Yazeed ki /
Sadiyan Hussein ki hain, zamana Hussein ka

The future does not exist in the present, nor has it been promised to any of us. The glorious past depicted in the (distorted) books of history cannot be conjured, no matter how hard one tries. Thus all we truly have is the present – a present which reveals that 100 million-strong youth of Pakistan are yearning for a better tomorrow.

If the current situation of Pakistan were to be compared to a season, I would say it is like autumn. Autumn is when nightingales are melancholic because their gardens have lost spirit. Late-autumn days are thought-provoking; the shadows that fallen yellow leaves cast are overcome by hope that fresh ones in their place will bear a better garden.

As I currently complete a fellowship miles away from home in Europe, I yearn to return as soon as possible. I miss the struggle I saw on the streets of Pakistan every day. Every woman, man and child is a warrior fighting for their right to the basic necessities of life, and sometimes even their right to live. Even if some have given up, a vast majority still carries on. Every day they wake up to challenge a corrupt system, an unjust judiciary and an insecure security establishment. The astonishing thing is that most of them have not lost hope and continue to believe in ‘change’.

I have travelled all over Pakistan in the last few years, working on the ground with different communities and addressing a variety of issues. The smiles that appear on the faces of such people despite all their troubles, the courage that I see in the face of adversity and the will to carve out a better life and a better country resonates in every corner. We battled through the worst natural disasters of modern history, we ousted dictators, fought for our democratic rights – we are in the midst of a war that has caused unprecedented damage to our social fabric, but despite the extremism and intolerance that threatens our way of life, we find a way to co-exist in this melting pot of languages, ethnicities, cultures and ideologies that we call Pakistan.

The struggle that we see on the streets every day relays a silent message of hope; we might just find treasure in the ruin. The harsh conditions we face might end up helping us as the relentless rubs might polish the gems in us. The cracks in our society might be the opening points for light to enter. We only have to believe and shrug off the fear of failure, for even if we don’t succeed, we have a chance to fail better. We need to learn from Karbala how not to lose the most important resource we are gifted with: our determination.

Har daur apnay saath laata hai aik Yazeed
Har daur ku zarurat rahay gi Hussein ki

May the right to witness the spring, the yearning for true love and the event of Karbala inspire us to take Pakistan forward.

To every autumn, spring
To every heart, true love
To every struggle, Karbala

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi 

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Cross posting documentary made on me & PYA by Al-Jazeera English, highlighting some of the work we do.

 

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First published Council on Foreign Relations website

The following was written by Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi, the founder of Pakistan Youth Alliance and a member of Khudi Pakistan. He tweets at @ali_abbas_zaidi.

It was November 1979. Anti-American outrage filled the streets of Pakistan. Several U.S. facilities were attacked across the country. A mob in Islamabad nearly burned the U.S. embassy to the ground. The chant “Kill the American infidels!” echoed in the air in response to the siege of Mecca’s grand mosque, Islam’s holiest site.

Pakistani crowds angered by the unprecedented events unfolding in Mecca concluded that such a plot could only be orchestrated by Americans. It turned out they were wrong. The homegrown radical group in Saudi Arabia that led the bloody siege had no link with the United States.

While the U.S.-Pakistani relationship has experienced many changes in the decades since, miscalculations of ground realities on both sides and anti-American sentiment have remained.

The majority of people in Pakistan admire the way Americans live—almost every Pakistani family has a member settled in the United States—but a glaring majority hates the impact of U.S. policies in Pakistan. The United States is considered by many to be the “great Satan.” Every U.S. political move in Pakistan is interpreted as an effort to destabilize Pakistan or to fight a war against Islam. Aggressive rhetoric on the Pakistani side—at times reflecting an unrealistic worldview and at times responding justifiably to belligerent U.S. action—molds mass perceptions.

A few months ago, I was in Kot Addu in the south of Pakistan’s Punjab province filming recent flood damage in the area with a British filmmaker named Oliver. He was confronted by a local who, after pushing Oliver, scanned the sky and shouted “drone, drone” as if Oliver’s tripod and camera were the equipment that maneuvers drones. Bear in mind that south Punjab has never had a drone attack and is very far from the area where drone attacks take place.

For me, this incident highlights an important fact for U.S.-Pakistani relations. The general public in Pakistan cannot be expected to understand the complicated nature of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. When something goes wrong in Pakistan, the public relies on their interpretation of the events at face value. In the case of drone attacks, for example, the United States must consider this effect and act more responsibly.

Many of my American friends ask the same question: “Why do they hate us?” By way of explanation, the discourse rampant in Pakistani streets is closest to what most Muslim-majority communities feel. The invasion of Iraq, decades-long support for oppressive governments, bias in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the killing of thousands of innocent Muslims, recurring stories of torture and abuse of prisoners—all have combined to generate suspicion of the United States within Pakistan. When Pakistanis find evidence that the United States applies its values of democracy and human rights selectively depending on its interests (the Raymond Davis episode and “collateral damage” from drone attacks being prime examples), for many, suspicion turns to hate.

Finally, solidifying this ill will is the lack of understanding between the two countries on a human level. People-to-people, civil society-based contact and interaction is scarce, and misconceptions are aided by a U.S. media that does not propagate alternative opinions from within U.S. society. The result is the image of the United States as a monolithic society.

Disagreement is a trait of democratic society and should be considered a strength rather than a weakness. If on-the-ground dissent in the United States can be understood in Pakistan, and communication between the United States and regions that “hate” the United States is given importance in the international media, the United States’ monolithic, negative image will become less rampant in Pakistan and other Muslim-majority communities. This will not only benefit the image of the United States worldwide, but will give “conspiracy theorists” reason to look within before pointing the finger at the United States.

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First published: Ceasefire magazine UK

The past decade has seen millions marching against the Iraq invasion and other wars, millions more helping and being helped as natural and man-made disasters struck from Japan to America. Just in 2011 alone – much to the amazement of political and social scientists – we witnessed the street revolutions of the Arab Spring. A revolutionary wave of demonstrations not only toppled decades-old dictatorships but have prompted a healthy ‘culture of debate’, across the world.

These protests shared a number of common techniques of civil resistance, through sustained campaigns involving strikes, demonstrations, marches and rallies, as well as the use of social media to organise, communicate, and raise awareness in the face of state attempts at repression and media/internet censorship.

The Arab Spring confirmed the significance of the power a “common” man or woman can possess. Dictionaries and historical narratives have undermined the usage of the word ‘activism’. It is now usually understood to be intentional efforts to bring about social, political, economic, religious or environmental change. Activities that are usually understood to be ‘activist’ in nature include protests, walks and demonstrations. This is only partially correct.

Activism is not necessarily about ‘change’ for change’s sake, activism also exists to maintain and protect the valuable freedoms and rights secured through the sacrifices and resistance of those before us. Activism is not only rebellious protests challenging authority but a broad set of activities to meet clear ends and objectives, to instigate a debate in society, and therefore to continuously meet evolving circumstances.

As such, it might not necessarily involve any ‘protesting’ at all. Let us remember that not everything that calls itself “activist” is inherently positive in its nature. Many “activist” groups and organisations across the world work diligently towards outcomes that others would hardly describe as ‘positive’.

Possibly due to the confusion that surrounds the word, historians have not been able to produce a ‘history of activism’. And yet, shouldn’t we start seeing our own common history of mankind as precisely that? A ‘history of activism’? After all, human history and progress have been built, in one way or other, upon various types of “activism,” all the way back to when the first human being stepped on earth.

Every one of us is affected by the happenings around us. From bad drainage across the street to extremist organisations propagating intolerance. From domestic state policies that need to be opposed to Imperial oppression that should be resisted – everyone is affected. Some feel the need to ‘do something’ and try to challenge, inspire and lead whilst others, convinced that one voice, one action, or one person are helpless against the enormity of the task, resign themselves to do nothing instead. The former are called ‘activists’, the latter I call ‘slacktivists’.

With advances in telecommunications and internet technology, we are more exposed to information than ever before. With a sudden burst of social networking sites, we are more powerful than ever before. The ease with which digital activism can be the driving force behind tangible output is awe-inspiring. Blogging is already the new face of media: we all can be journalists and activists. The only ingredient that distinguishes an activist from a slacktivist is the will and the desire to do it.

Of course, it’s not all about marches and campaigns. Volunteer work for a social cause is an equally valid way to alleviate poverty, fight corruption or to ensure equal rights of education and health facilities to all.

Complaining about contemporary state of affairs is easy; trying to work towards how you envision your society, country or world ought to be is the real test. As we move further and faster towards a more globalised world, with technology that enables us to matter beyond our mere physical borders, we as global citizens need to realise that we matter. And activism, in whatever form, is the spark that leads to the streets, to the ‘change’ that we, the global masses, aspire towards.

Some believe an activist is born and cannot be ‘made’. I don’t: every man and woman is born an activist. Whether we admit it or not, it is carved in our common history and, whether we like or not, it will define the future of our humanity.

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi is featured in ‘Activate’ a new series on Al Jazeera English following activists

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Crossposted from my piece on Dawn on Yaser Abbas and mentions on Newsline Magazine’s blog reg PNS Mehran attack.

The night of Sunday, May 22, 2011, will be remembered as one of the most haunting nights in the history of Pakistan. While Pakistan was still reeling from the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad on May 2, the 16-hour operation against terrorists at PNS Mehran served to add salt to the wounds of the nation.

At 10:40 pm I received a message from some course mates while having dinner together that a “P3-C Orion has been hit”. I tweeted this instantly, seeking confirmation from the media as I did not know whether the aircraft was hit in the air or on ground. This was the first and last message I would hear from my friends, who were now engaged in the operation.

At 12:54 am my social media feed read: My junior Lt Yaser and guards in his Squad are in the operation theater, the doctors are not confirming their condition, but saying that they have been shot – O negative blood is needed at PNS Rahat.

Just a few minutes later, we learnt that our brave junior had breathed his last. A couple of my close friends had also been shot.

I remember playing cricket with Yaser; he was an amazing athlete and one of the brightest students at the College of Aeronautical Engineering, Risalpur.

His course mate Abdullah talks about his personality:

“I haven’t known a more genuine person. The academy really puts you to test and only a fortunate few come out victorious. Lt. Syed Yaser Abbas represented the best of his kind and always managed to pass with flying colors. As per tradition, we called him ‘Naval Yaser’ (since he was part of the Pakistan Navy). Yaser was very close to me. Any person who has been at a boot-camp, will realise that when we call our course mates, our brothers, we mean it in the truest sense.

Ever since the PNS attack, I have endlessly recalled and relived the memorable times I have spent with Yaser – teasing seniors, late night gatherings, group study sessions, sitting on the roof-top chatting until late night, watching T20 world cup matches, mast qalandar sessions and the MOHA, CS gaming sessions – the list is endless. Yaser would also be early to bed the night before an exam, while we crammed but somehow he still managed to get better grades than us. He was also the one in the group who always had a bag of eatables on hand.

Yaser’s most distinctive feature was perhaps his loud, hearty laugh that could be heard long before anyone saw him coming. He always insisted he was an introvert back home, but we never really got to see that side of him. He was always joking and fooling around.

Spontaneity was his forte. Yaser executed unplanned, last-minute trips with ease. He never shied away from helping anyone who asked for his help. Even if you asked him at 3 am to come over, there he would be with his car.

All of us had been, in the last four months, planning a reunion. Just a day before the PNS Mehran attack, Yaser told me, he probably wouldn’t be able to make it for the reunion because his leaves had been postponed. He asked that we carry on without him, to which I replied that we could wait until he was granted leave. Who would have known then, that he would be the cause of our much-awaited reunion. May Allah bless his soul.”

Yaser was chatting with his friend, Umair before resuming duty that night. His last Facebook status update reads: finding it hard to bear the unbearable, need guts!

And much like the proverbial teaching in the military: no guts, no glory – his bravery, courage and sacrifice will be remembered for a long time to come.

Written on the walls of College of Aeronautical Engineering are the words ‘The Few, The Proud’. Yaser is most certainly among the few who have made his college and everyone who knew him proud by being nominated for the Nishan-e-Haider.

With the media coverage Yaser has received, he may be known to many as the face of the PNS Mehran attack, but there are tens of thousands of young men like him who have died fighting for their country.

Terrorist sympathisers are quick to point out that it is the US who has brought their war into Pakistan among other defenses for these heinous attacks of terrorism. In the face of haunting attacks such as that on PNS Mehran, even the thought of a terrorist sympathiser among us is appalling.

I believe nothing can be more tragic for a nation, which is still confused about who their real heroes are.

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi is an aeronautical engineer, a poet and a social activist who is the founding force & chairperson of the Pakistan Youth Alliance. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

— interview on Channel News Asia

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100 days have passed since the worst humanitarian crisis in modern history ravaged 1/3rd of Pakistan. We tried to contribute in our humble capacities; We had young men and men leaving work, studies and families to reach out to affected compatriots. We saw mothers crying and hugging children not of their wombs like they were their own, we saw fathers saving lives of children they did not have any blood relation to, we saw boys shedding tears and lending a helping hand to sisters, we saw sisters bringing water to brothers not related to them.

Irrespective of ethnicity, language, regionalism and religion– Pakistanis reached out to their affected compatriots. Irrespective of whys, what’s, when’s and how’s – We saw Pakistaniat during 2005 earthquake, Swat IDP crisis, Baluchistan earthquake and once again during 2010 flood relief efforts.

During our 35 deliveries so far, in 27 different locations — We once again felt Pakistaniat from Karachi to Khyber and beyond. From Canada & Australia to USA, UK and Japan – we saw humanity bonded. We thank the generous donors, who listened to our plight and gave us the opportunity to serve our country, with over 36 Million PKR (420,000 USD) raised and disbursed so far. We thank 100 odd young relief workers, who volunteered their time and energies with us. This by the way, is not the end, but the start of the tedious and more energy consuming efforts to rehabilitate millions who are still desperate for our help.

The youth of Pakistan was once again on the forefront, to deliver help to their countrymen in need. This disaster showed us hope, and like rightly said “From Floods, Pakistan’s New Generation Emerged”.

Lets live up to the spirit of Eid of Sacrifice and own the 7 Million still homeless; the 22 Million who still wait for us..

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First published on Dawn.

[ Read series of  my blogs published in Dawn regarding Pakistan Floods 2010 as we made regular deliveries to flood affected areas. Till date, have made 34 deliveries, worth 35 Million PKR (0.42 Million USD) helping around 44000 families. Previous ones can be read at: Hungry and homeless and Without a roof over their heads ]

Changing the mindset

We, Pakistanis, have a certain pattern of responding to national disasters. The kind which involves developing a bubble of patriotism and its quick bursting after a certain period that is only effective for short-term solutions. Such has been the case with the recent floods in the county. It has been nearly three months since the waters gushed through our lands and although water levels have receded, the biggest natural disaster in modern history still yearns to create the hype it deserved. There has been an exponential decrease of passion, donations and the will to rehabilitate the 20 million affected by the floods once the holy month of Ramazan ended.

We travelled to Dera Din Panah, in South Punjab to make another delivery of relief aid towards the end of October. We had already visited this particular area twice earlier, but continuous calls for help from the locals forced us to take note of the immediate need of the affectees. With supplies of blankets and warm clothes for about 1,000 families, we left for the area. With the onset of winter, the needs of the people have changed from ration and temporary shelters to warm clothes, self-sustaining rebuilding projects, prolonged medical care and permanent shelters.

As per our survey, 140 houses in basti Hyder Ghazi, 25 in basti Sattiwala, 21 in basti Bhagsar, 40 in Jamali, 18 in Mir Hassanwala, 30 in Samandari, 10-15 in basti Arra, 20 in Mai Sohagan and, around 100 houses in main city had been completely destroyed. Farmers, labourers and small-scale businessmen have taken loans from families and friends and have started rebuilding their houses, while those who couldn’t afford to are still waiting for some sort of relief.

The situation had changed in the past few weeks as only traces of water and its destruction remained. This town had been adversely affected, with nearly 99 per cent of it underwater. Locals told me only one street, which housed the mausoleum of Sufi Saint Syed Abdul Wahab Bukhari, known as Hazrat Din Panah, after whom the town was named, did not drown.

The complaints people had (from the shopkeepers to small farmers) were the same: not having enough money to start running their business again, not having enough money to prepare farmlands as the cost of per acre cost to water their fields had increased considerably as the canal irrigation systems had been damaged due to the floods. Local labourers also stated that ‘foreign’ NGOs were not involving local manpower for rehabilitation, which could be beneficial to the community and also provide these people with a steady source of income.

The solution, as they put it, was to start self-sustaining projects involving the local communities, like providing business-related aid to help small business owners, providing diesel or bearing the cost for preparing the farmlands of local farmers, stressing upon NGO’s to hire local laborers for rebuilding projects and other entrepreneurial projects which can be sustainable and will help the locals stand on their feet again.

This rehabilitation phase will cost us more and require more focus. We cannot let the notion of “we have already helped,” run unbridled through our masses and the media must play its role in creating this awareness. It doesn’t feel like we are in midst of one of the biggest humanitarian crisis of recent history. We must change this mindset, in whatever capacity we can.

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi is an aeronautical engineer, a poet and a social activist who is the founding force & chairperson of the Pakistan Youth Alliance. He can be found on Twitter and is available on Facebook.

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