Year-end is always an exciting time for newspapers and magazines. It requires a special edition: articles that capture the year gone by, some that might project into the new one, profiles, obituaries, analyses, entertainment, satire, the whole enchilada.
Writers, used to the exercise, gear up and when the call or, as is now the case, the email comes, they roll up their sleeves. A couple of hours, a few cigarettes and three cups of tea later, you are done, though not dusted. You let the article get cold for an hour, if you don’t have another pair of eyes, give it a once-over and send out the email, article attached.
If the publication has professional desk-hands, you can expect a playback. If not, you can hope they would take out any mistakes instead of putting a few in.
The job done, you move on, as does the publication.
This year, however, I sat back to brood over the year that’s almost gone by, a few days remaining. What would I do if I were asked to identify 2018 with the most significant person or event or entity: Imran Khan, Khadim Rizvi, Naya Pakistan vs. Purana Pakistan, brown-washing teams from Down-Under… what? At some point I crossed them out from the list. As happens at such moments, I decided to switch off and watch a film instead. Later, while talking to a friend, I put to him the question: what was most significant in 2018? Pat came the reply: khalai makhlooq!
Bingo, I said. But how does one write about something or someone that’s there and yet not there? One doesn’t even know if it’s a thing, a person, a collection, an idea, a response, a narrative, an unseen force.
You see, profiling a person or a thing is easy. You have a set of facts and you ground whatever you have to write in those facts, or if it’s a thing, in specs. You sit down and start working your fingers to the bone, moving through a tested framework and, if you are lucky, manage it with a few clever turns of phrase.
But how does one profile khalai makhlooq? The English-language describes the term as (space) aliens or extraterrestrial life. As one of my friends, a historian who also likes Isaac Asimov, said to me: “The possibility that aliens exist is one that must be conceded as logically and mathematically probable. However, the sheer size of the universe and the limited temporal duration of sentient civilization indicates that the probability of actually encountering ET civilizations is close to impossible.”
However, regardless of which way one cuts it, khalai makhlooq relates to life that occurs outside Earth, the planet we inhabit, and travels to Earth in what we call UFOs or Unidentified Flying Objects. There are stories about UFO sightings but they are just that, stories, like the folklorish Will O’ the Wisp, the ghost light seen by travelers at night over bogs and swamps.
In other words, am I writing about a life as fantastical as the dagger in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. / Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible / To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but / A dagger of the mind, a false creation, / Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?”
The year 2018 in Pakistan saw constant references to khalai makhlooq: social media had it as a running motif, people joked about it, whispered about what the khalai makhlooq was doing and was capable of doing. The references, especially from political parties allied with the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the party itself, seemed to be a term used for, as another friend said to me, “Kratocratic mist.”
Kratocratic? I asked. Yes, he replied.
Now, kratocracy is generally defined as a “government by those who are strong enough to seize power through coercive means, social persuasion, or deceptive cunning.” Moreover, such a government has the power to determine both right and wrong, and what constitutes “the greater good.”
But pray, what about the mist?
“Mist or fog was more in the ontological sense. The omnipresence, in reality, and in our perception of reality,” he said.
That makes it very interesting. Once again, we have omnipresence and the dialectic between reality and perception, almost like between “Being” and “Nothing”. Is it reality or is it perception? Is there a force in the sociopolitical life of Pakistan, referred to as khalai makhlooq, that is a being or nothing, reality or perception? If so many people, even counting out the partisan, keep talking about khalai makhlooq, there must be something to it. What exactly is the nature of this being-nothing? At what point does it become Becoming?
I asked another friend, a reasonably non-partisan young man. What he said was more or less this. It’s a parallel state that has, through vast resources and manufactured popularity (the first feeding the second), finessed a stranglehold over foreign policy and national security, and now hopes to find a similar equilibrium in domestic politics. It is (in)famously short on introspection or course correction, and has continued to push the envelope apropos of civil liberties, as voices recede. And it is also used as a much-needed fig leaf for an exhausted, venal segment of the political class, as well as the only prism through which the foreign press can justify an incredibly stupid occupation next door.
This appears to me to be a pretty trenchant analysis. It also leads me to believe that somewhere between being and nothing, this khalai makhlooq does become Becoming.
When I ran this by another friend, she thought the khalai makhlooq was a well-meaning force but its woeful lack of self-awareness made it ineffective and, therefore, dangerous. Apparently, the khalai makhlooq also obsesses with a definition of “national interest” that is, for the most part, passé. Sometimes, in its great reformist spirit, it also considers any form of dissent as treasonous. At least its anonymous digital troopers consider dissent as ‘hybrid war’.
My own sense is that the khalai makhlooq is not extraterrestrial at all. If anything, it is firmly grounded in this territory. So much so that it considers this land as the center of the universe. The sobriquet has more to do with its interplay and use of new digital technologies: what my friend called ‘mist’ or what some might describe as miasma. It’s elusive, changes shapes, but it’s around us like a spirit.
I have reason to put it thus.
Take, for instance, the Army in this country. They wear jackboots and rather early in the life of this country fell for Nancy Sinatra’s song, These Boots are Made for Walking: “These boots are made for walking / And that’s just what they’ll do / One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.”
Result: military coups. Overt, unapologetic, and quite often rather crude.
Not so with the khalai makhlooq: It permeates everything and yet you don’t hear the boots. It uses people and bots to bully into submission voices it does not like. Occasionally, like Odin, it takes dissidents to Valhalla and while it might keep some there, others are returned. Those who return do not speak. Like Keats’ knight in La Belle Dame Sans Merci, they sojourn by the cold hill’s side, alone and palely loitering. So help me Darwin!
Haider is the executive editor at Indus News. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider