Abbas Zaidi
Injustice Of The Opposites

For they give to each other justice and recompense
For their injustice
In conformity with the ordinance of Time
.


      
It's almost evening. I am standing on the bridge of a river not far from the Jurong Bird Sanctuary in Singapore, separated from my family that awaits me in Kuala Tilong where I work as an expatriate. Separated because of a laptop. A precious little, worthless laptop!
      I bought my laptop seven years ago. I was single then. The Internet was a new phenomenon at that time and had hit Kuala Tilong like a tsunami. Very few people had access to it then, and yet everyone was consumed with the desire to enjoy its wonders. Novel expressions like www, http, server, e-mail, browser, protocol, mailbox, Netscape, total gossip, naked chicks, naughty girls, and a cluster of hot and bitchy sites mainly defined the zeitgeist of Kuala Tilong. It was the pre-Pentium era. A 486 laptop, a rarity at that time, was the ultimate symbol of technological savvy-dom. Friends and acquaintances were in awe of my laptop. They came in droves to see it, to congratulate me. I carried it around with love and pride, as if a baby had been born to me. People would see it, see me. All those moments I would miss and pray for my deceased parents who despite their limited means provided me, all through my childhood and beyond, with the latest gadgets and novelties-microscope, telescope, walkie-talkie, pocket radio, and many more-that no one else in our village had, a place where even electricity was unknown. I wanted to be the most educated and high-tech person in the village, and they, supported by some well-wishing relations, made it the sole goal of their lives to fulfil my ambition. . .
      Once in the Kuala Tilong fish market a sartorially-dressed Chinese gentleman offered to log my laptop on, using his mobile. I consented. He fixed a wire between his mobile and my laptop, and hit a hot site. It electrified the entire place. Buyers and sellers left their places and flocked around. The show seemed to last ad infinitum, but had to be cut short when we found women and children trying to peek through the crowd. I don't have to tell you how enviously people looked at me and my beloved treasure!
      One of those days I went to the United States embassy to get a visa proudly carrying my cute laptop along. The visa officer could not resist having a go at it. Without much ado, she gave me a 5-year multiple visa. Days later, I walked through the immigration line in New York holding my passport in one hand, and my laptop in the other. I had the same childhood sense of being special.
      About one year after I bought my laptop, several things happened: I got married, the whole of Southeast Asia plunged into the notorious economic crisis, and Pentium 1 was born, soon to be followed by Pentium 2. More significantly, new kinds of software came to the world that were beyond the capacity of 486 computers. Suddenly my laptop became outdated! But to me it remained special, just like I remained special and childlike to my parents even when I was a grown-up and doing all those not-so-desirable things. . .

      Things change with time. Despite the love, the memory, and the companionship, the laptop became of little use. I decided to sell it only to discover how cheapened and un-fancied it had become! That only caused my pristine love for it to rush back. I decided to have it upgraded; no matter at what price. I consulted all the vendors I could. They told me that my laptop could not be upgraded. One bloke suggested that it might be possible to have it upgraded in Singapore. That's how I decided to visit Singapore.
      I soon found out that getting to Singapore was not as easy as it used to be. On my previous dozen or so visits I was not required to obtain a visa, but in the wake of 9/11 the Singapore government had imposed new restrictions on Pakistanis. Only Pakistanis indeed. A Pakistani must be sponsored by a Singaporean in order to qualify for a visa. My Singaporean friends who would previously bicker with one another over rights to be my host, refused to sponsor me, fearing that in case I did something terrible, they would have to face their own government that is not known to be kind to criminals or their accomplices. Through the Internet I was able to procure a letter of invitation from a dental surgeon, saying that my wisdom teeth needed immediate attention. The Singapore High Commission in Kula Tilong was not impressed. But then as if all the doors were thrown open: a daughter of the driver of Singapore's High Commissioner flunked 'O' Level English literature. Since the Caucasian teachers have frantically been springing off Kuala Tilong for higher salaries in Hong Kong, I was one of the few left with the much-revered UK qualifications in English literature. The driver, a Singaporean Tamil, procured me a gratis visa. He even drove me to the airport in his boss's car!
      At the immigration counter in Singapore I was asked to stand aside from the queue. My green Pakistani passport was repeatedly scanned. I was put through countless queries of wheres, whys, whens and hows. Later the customs officers checked every stitch, every nook of my holdall, which was all I had by way of luggage. After seven hours I was in Singapore! But finding a hotel was a problem. The only place that accepted me was a small squalid hotel near the Changi Prison. It was in fact a place of pandemonium frequented by the relatives of the prisoners.
      The Singapore computer experts told me that being a clone and technologically obsolete, the laptop could not be upgraded, and that I would have to live with it. After that at every look that I cast at that machine I felt like a husband who had been living with an unfaithful wife. I must sell it even for peanuts, I decided. But Singapore is so fast and high-tech that no one even remembers if there ever was a 486 computer. Vendors and technicians are not willing to touch or even see a 486, let alone buying it. Then, why not go home? Alas, it is not that simple! As I was planning to return home, the Bali blasts took place. Now all of a sudden Muslims, especially Pakistanis, are suspect. There were some Pakistanis holidaying in Bali on the day of the blasts; they are in custody now. They might be sent to the Guantanamo facility (Imagine if it was not a “facility”!), or rot in Indonesian gaols. There is immense fear amongst Pakistanis in Singapore of being arrested on the suspicion of terrorism. A few of them have already been taken into “protective custody”. Now every Pakistani is avoiding meeting his countryman. In principle, I can just leave Singapore. I am on a valid visa. I have a respectable teaching job in Kuala Tilong, a country considered friendly by Singapore. But even this is not that simple. I have some corrupted files-a dozen or so articles on the Taliban misdeeds that somehow became a numerical and alphabetical jumble-on my hard disk that I cannot delete. Post-Bali bombings, the Singapore authorities now require all passengers to check in four hours before the flight departure time. I have heard that Pakistani passengers are especially subjected to thorough checking; even their laptops are minutely scrutinised. A rumour says that only yesterday two laptop carrying Pakistanis were detained by the immigration for undisclosed reasons. I am sure this computing clone of mine will be checked at the Changi Airport (two minutes' drive from the Changi prison). Won't those corrupted files become good enough evidence against me?
      I fear that the clone will become evidence against me. Remember after the Taliban were routed in 2001, many laptops were discovered in Kabul that had “invaluable terrorism-related information”?
      Why not just leave the damned little thing behind in the hotel? Not at all. If I leave it behind, I am sure the Singapore intelligence spooks, known for their brilliance, will discover “cryptic messages” linked to Al-Qaeda, resulting in my ending up as an “Al-Qaeda operative”. The CIA, the FBI and others will have little difficulty in proving that I trained in Afghanistan before being sent to Southeast Asia “on mission”. Will anyone care to know that I am a Shia Muslim? Does anyone know that if Osama gets hold of a nuclear bomb, his target will not be Israel or the United States, but the Shia Iran? (Osama et al's anti-western logorrhoea brings them authority, clout, and following. The same goes for their opposites.). But it is an incinerated Iran-and the rest of the Shias the world over-that will cool his eyes and temper. Does anyone know that there are hundreds of fatwas issued by the Taliban and blessed by Osama declaring that you can still eat from the plate that a dog has licked, but it becomes dirty and divinely forbidden (haram) if a Shia has even touched it? That to kill Shia men and rape Shia women are the surest ways to enter Allah's Paradise? Will today any journalist or think tank tell the world that not a single Shia was directly or indirectly involved in 9/11? The world still remembers and mourns the destruction of the stony Buddhas in Bamiyan by the Taliban, but no one even knows of the thousands of Shia women-flesh and blood and human-raped by the Taliban in the same area. So if I am a terrorism suspect no one will listen to my argument because justice and truth are the most glaring casualties in the strife between the Noble Jihad and the War on Terror. Call me to be at the fag-end of my sanity (because of my present situation), but isn't this Jihad-War complex actually an all-empowering, trillion-dollar prime-time show on the world stage acted by hate and fear entrepreneurs, theological careerists, mercenaries, plunderers and politicians on both sides of the divide? What can one-one who does not want to belong to either side of the divide-do when these be-with-Us-or-with-Them opponents bandy about their Manichean edicts with the zeal, zest and gusto of rival beaus who must make slick fashion statements at a high society ball, but who must also stay in balanced measure in order for the ball to go on? Hasn't this tacit social contract between the Jihad and the War condemned us to the perfect existentiality of freedom? Free to choose between Us and Them? Or be damned if we choose neither?
      Hence, if those mysterious looking jumbled files raise suspicion and I am arrested, who will listen to “an illegal combatant” who cannot appeal to any law in the world for protection? If the Prophet Muhammad who lived 1400 hundred years ago can be “proven” to be a “Terrorist” post-9/11, why can't I be?
      I cannot smash the machine because it might attest to my culpability beyond doubt: the “destroyed” messages might turn out to be codes of “nuclear” kind. This devil of a machine cannot be dumped into a river, or else, because in Singapore the omnipresent eyes and the omni-range ears of the government are more wide-ranging than one can possibly imagine. Given Singapore's penal system, life imprisonment will be an existential luxury; the only other choice being the gallows.
      So, what am I to do now?

      It's midnight now. The only sources of light are the stars up in the moonless sky and the lamp posts beyond. The bridge is immersed in darkness. As I stare down as if into an abyss, smoking cigarette after cigarette, thinking about my beautiful wife and very, very lovely little kids, I feel pairs of eyes piercing my back. I wonder if my childhood ambition-fuelled by parents and whetted by well-wishers-to be educated and high-tech was in my own interests.