In contrast to what it may seem from afar, the life of a correspondent in Washington working for a Pakistani news organization is not easy. When it's quiet, there's the searching for morsels on the websites or in newspapers to fill the day's quota; when it's busy, as it has been this past fortnight, there's the dilemma of what to report and what to leave out.
If you work for a daily newspaper, the nine-hour time difference between Washington and Pakistan means there's just about till 3 pm (midnight PST) that you can file. Often when developments are taking place as thick and fast as they have been since September 11, you have to decide whether to remain glued to the television set for updates from the cable networks or go the various briefings.
Being present at the briefings means capturing the odd nuance here or sensing the emphasis there, absorbing a bit of the atmosphere. The briefings, and there have been almost additional daily news conferences by the secretaries of state and defence as well as the attorney-general, start around midday, and if you attend even one of them, the chances are you will probably miss out something that has happened in between. No Pakistani news organization has an office in downtown Washington, which means that commuting time has to be taken into account. So, sometimes these days, you are forced to work from home, unshaven, ungroomed, and divide your attention between your computer and the television and the telephone. It's a highly unsatisfactory way of working, but there it is. There's no escape from it.
Where the September 11 attacks have changed so much, they have also, therefore, partly changed the life and working style of Pakistani journalists. The attacks have created emotional conflicts also. You might have wanted the religious extremists who hold all of us in Pakistan hostage to be checked; you might have boiled over with rage at what the Taliban did to the Bamiyan Buddhas and what they have been doing to their own people, particularly the women, and wished you could get rid of the Taliban albatross; you might have wished someone with guts to come and put an end to the Kalashnikov culture brought about by the Afghan jihad of the '80s. But now that some if it seems about to happen, you wish it had been done by Pakistan itself rather than under pressure and without the bullying "You are with us or you are against us".There's little comfort in being told that Pakistan is a front-line state. No one seems bothered about what the consequences might be. Where once Pakistan was not mentioned at all, now it is there in briefings and newscasts everyday. But, while official pronouncements have been scrupulously correct, there is a sneering tone underlying many of the things being said and written. You squirm when at a briefing you hear an American colleague ask Secretary Colin Powell whether Pakistan is to be trusted, whether the Pakistanis are "prepared to put their money where their mouth is".
Or when a columnist for the right-wing National Review Online says the US should invade "their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity" or when the chief editor of The Washington Times recalls, at a time when civilization is supposed to have progressed, how Gen John Pershing had dealt with "Islamist terror" in the Philippines in 1911 - by requiring six of those arrested to dig their own graves and see pigs slaughtered before they were shot to make sure they "never saw paradise" - and then disingenuously suggests that he is not recommending that kind of punishment for Osama bin Laden's evildoers, but saying that "merely telling the story would tell the Taliban warriors, loud and clear, just how mean the infidels are prepared to be".
You do not consider yourself a Pakistani journalist with chips on his shoulders who must ask a patriotic-sounding question at every briefingks but when basic issues are not raised and discussed, as for instance the causes that lead to anti-American anger or, in the narrower context, why India has been grappling with militancy for over a decade in Kashmir, then you feel a little frustrated.
When you see a learned piece in a national daily asserting that all of Balochistan is pro-Taliban and Al Qaeda, you cannot, can you, write a letter to the editor that the Balochs in Balochistan have been angry for a very long time at the demographic changes brought about in their province by the influx of Pathans from Afghanistan. What do you do when confronted with a straight piece of news management like Tuesday's leak that the Bush administration was ready to declare support for a Palestine state before the Sept 11 attacks, but was overtaken by events?
No, it is a pretty difficult time for anyone trying to get the balance right. It's not easy to get over prejudice, whether your own or someone else's.
This article was published in Dawn, a Pakistan newspaper.