The Year of the Coup D’état: Fawzia Naqvi

Guest post by FAWZIA NAQVI

Imran Khan was not the first one to be obsessed with both cricket and politics. Saira and I beat him to it 20 years ago. We spent 50% of our time swooning over him and the other 50% worshipping Mr. Bhutto. 20 years later I believe it was I who got over Imran Khan and Saira who got over Mr. Bhutto. Although I must confess, it was Imran who adorned every inch of wall and closet space in my dressing room, the “shrine” as my brother labelled it. And it was Imran’s picture which popped out of the inside cover of my high school notebook. During moments of boredom and droning lectures I would stare at his picture for an hour straight and muse and sigh over the fact that one could see his house from the balcony of our school and perhaps today might be the day when he would come to pick up his sister from our school. The God, the Adonis, Imran was it for both of us.

I don’t know how Saira became an Imran groupie. I do recall well how I did. I was taken to my first ever live cricket match in 1976. My brother’s best friend pointed toward the field from high up in the spectator stands to what looked to me like white dots, and told me with much seriousness in his voice, “there over there is the most handsome man you’ll ever see…” and then he made his most remarkable claim, “he’s so handsome you’ll forget about Izzy!”

How could I forget about Izzy? My first crush in a series of crushes on my brother’s friends. I strained my eyes to distinguish one dot from the other moving about on the green cricket field of Qaddafi Stadium, but Imran’s qualities remained a mystery to me until Sikoo produced evidence, a colour photograph, proof that he wasn’t kidding. Two life altering revelations were made to me that day; I definitely needed glasses and yes Izzy was indeed history.

Pigtails and Ponytails
Lahore, 1977

I am sitting in the back seat of our second hand black Ford Cortina. My sister and I are being driven to school as usual by Painda Khan on a crisp Lahore winter morning. The lush green grounds of the Lahore Gymkhana appear temptingly in front of us every morning as we leave the gates of the Wapda Colony. Our car comes to a halt just before making a U-turn on to the main Mall Road. We are cut off by a convoy of brownish trucks rumbling down the Cantonment Bridge and passing in front of us one after the other, imposing their heavy presence on the otherwise open and pristine route to school.

We finally manage to turn on to Mall Road and are now squashed between two army trucks carrying soldiers. Soldiers with guns. Guns pointing down at us. The soldiers are perched high above in their trucks; their guns are levelled directly at the cars below. I glare at two soldiers glaring back at us all the way down the road until once again our car makes a U-turn just before Atchison College and on to Canal Road, leading to the old stately mansion which houses the Lahore American School. It is the year of the coup d’ etat. 1977. The year I began to separate everyone I knew in to those who were for and those who were against. It was also the year I met Saira.

The first time I saw Saira she wore a white shalwar kameez with a pink and white chequered sash, Esna Foundation’s uniform. Her thick wavy jet black mane was tied in two long pigtails which hung in front. I on the other hand was sporting the blue and yellow uniform of the Lahore American School girls’ soccer team. Blue shorts and yellow t-shirt, black soccer cleats and not so thick long brown hair in two ponytails hanging limply in front.

Saira had convinced me one night which I spent sleeping over at her house that she could do wonders with my hair and make it look straight, gorgeous and cascading at the ends just like hers. It was all in the blowing drying of course. My head was ducked under the tap, shampooed and conditioned. At 2 a.m. she began to curl and blow-dry my hair. At 4 a.m. after much tugging and pulling, rolling and unrolling, my hair was straight as a sheet, limp as a weed and smelling like a fresh fruit basket. Alas, she relented, our hair was different and we went to sleep exhausted with her efforts. But two decades later, forgetting that night in Lahore, she tried fixing my hair once more this time in New York. Unwilling to accept even now, that her ritual of a four hour blow dry every other day will only fry my head to a crisp. The results this time around were as expected, disastrous.

Almost a year after we had met Saira had begun her incredible metamorphosis in to one of the most attractive, and sought after young ladies in Lahore. While I remained much the same girl. Another year older and on my way to plumpness. The only positive change to my appearance was that I no longer wore what I considered thick ugly eye glasses all the time. I had made the revolutionary transition to soft contact lenses, which my sister bought for me from her hard earned money. I cannot recall the Optical shop. All I remember is that it was dark and somewhere near Ferozesons Bookshop.

The eye examination was quick, the lenses took forever to arrive, coming from Karachi via “abroad” I believe. Almost every day we would anxiously check to see if the lenses had arrived and when they did, I wished they hadn’t. The ordeal of putting alien objects inside my eyes was bad enough when the optician placed them inside each eye. But my first attempt at home was impossible. Moreover, the saline solution came in a drip form and had to be hung from the bathroom doorway. It was my brother who stuck each lens inside my eye for the first time at home, telling me I was on my own the next time around.

However, despite my new look; incredibly, Imran Khan did not notice me any more than before. But then again he didn’t notice Saira much either. On that score at least, she and I remained equally unrequited. To this day I am incredulous about Imran not noticing Saira and wonder if there is something she hasn’t quite told me yet. She does though tell me on a regular basis about this or that dinner party she attended where Imran was present and continues the same lament, “hai, he didn’t even notice me! Mai ithni aah… chheeeeee laag rahi thi (I was looking so good) I even plonked myself down in front of him. He must have been scared off by my thunder thighs!” “Just not possible,” I would tell her. “Regardless of your thunder thighs…I don’t see what you still see in him?” “Hai naah….. heen. He still has that something….” “Yeah, that Missing Link kind of something,” I chime in. “Idyiot. How could you be so disloyal?” She chides me laughing, putting her feet up on the centre table in her upstairs lounge and dragging on her 20th cigarette of the day.

Looking back at our girlhood years I have to say, when your best friend looks like Saira, there is only one thing left to do. Leave the country and work on your brain.

One of my most vivid memories is of Saira and I sitting on the front steps of my house. She in her uniform and I in mine. It was the first day we had met. We met by chance really. She had come to visit our neighbours whose daughter and been out at the time. I was commissioned to rescue Saira from boredom, which I promptly did by suggesting that we take refuge next door on my front steps. Some where between the openings in the hedge dividing Auntie Saleem’s house from ours, she declared quite proudly, “my father is a baar-is-ter.” And noticing that it clearly made no impact on me mainly because I had no idea what a baar-is-ter was, she went on to reveal that in fact he was one of Mr. Bhutto’s baar-is-ters. My awe struck expression revived her fast sagging spirit enough to tell me more, “Abu says that he can arrange for me to go to the High Court and watch the trial, if you want to come.” I was even more awe struck now. And relieved. I think both of us were. We agreed on Mr. Bhutto. There would be lots to talk about now. Imran Khan had yet to make his debut in to our conversation.

We immediately sat down on the steps and started talking about how we could possibly help get Bhutto Shahib out of jail. Saira informed me that her father visited him regularly in jail and that her mother sent food and was also going to bake a cake. How simple it all seemed then. A momentary drama ending inevitably, with our hero charging out of Lahore jail, and taking control of matters once again. Capturing our imaginations he would once more be jumping on to podiums making noisy speeches to adoring crowds, waving his arms about, voice cracking at a higher pitch. Bhutto would be back at the helm, we just knew that to be the truth. The undercurrents of his removal from the stage remained largely beyond our realm.

That day on my front steps no other possibility existed in our 12 and 14 year old imaginations. We delighted in the thought that perhaps we could help him to freedom by talking about it and planning little schemes. We decided that we would hide a nail file in the cake Saira’s mother would bake and attach a little note to it with instructions just in case Mr. Bhutto did not know what to do with it. We planned which day we would attend the court session. But we never did. Soon after our plans were made the trial and the courtroom became restricted to pre-approved individuals. And before we knew it Bhutto was taken from Lahore to the Central Jail in Pindi.

Pigtails and ponytails flying, Saira and I have learnt to ride bicycles. We have been learning for days, our teachers are the neighbour’s 9 and 10 year old sons. Now we have finally gotten the hang of it and have broken free of our instructors. We are racing down the road inside the walled Wapda Colony and trying to reach its front gates, our absolute limit. Saira rides Suloo’s bike and I have commandeered our cook’s bicycle. Just before we turn the bend we pass my special tree which stands like a sentry at the corner. On its trunk I have recently engraved with a sharp stone a heart shape with the letters ‘FN + IK’. The heart was still visible in 2001, the last time I went back to visit Wapda Colony.

We hear the drone of an airplane; we already know what it is. It is a surveillance plane which begins its rounds every day around 5pm or so. As always curfew will be imposed around 7pm. We are already at the gates of the colony and both of us feel the same anxiety. We must get home before the plane spots us, afraid of some unknown reprisal. Martial Law has been imposed since July 5th, neither she nor I understand it’s do’s and don’ts.

We hear our parents talking, worrying, predicting. Everyone speaks in hushed tones all around us. The presence of an army uniform creates tension, nervousness. We know times are different, restrictive. The opposition newspaper “Musawat” keeps appearing in both our homes with blank columns and entire pages blanked out, it is our first taste of censorship. And yet in a bizarre sort of way, like an amusing game we wait every day to see what shape the paper will appear in. I cannot read Urdu but my parents read every remaining, permitted word aloud to us and translate what I cannot understand.

I begin saving every copy. I don’t know why, perhaps I begin to sense a need to show evidence at another time, a testimonial to the days we are witnessing. I begin to understand that there is something acutely different a foot and I shall live through it.

This summer Saira and I peeked in to our past by rummaging through my trunk of letters to each other, diaries and memorabilia which lie safely in my parents’ home in Karachi. In between sips of homemade whipped up espresso, we laughed hysterically at ourselves and at our naivety, mostly about boys. Usually those boys who were crazy about Saira and those I was crazy about. We laughed at our seriousness and at our firm belief that the world did indeed rest on our shoulders. As we dug deeper in to the trunk we found at the bottom saved copies of “Musawat” which still lay neatly wrapped in plastic bags. I still cannot read Urdu so Saira reads to me the headlines among blank yellowing columns and pages.

We find the one edition we are searching for. April 4th, 1979 there is a poem written on the side of the front page… “Mai Islamabad kay Koofay say Sind Madinay Aayin Hoon….” A poem written about Bhutto’s widow and her mournful journey back to his hometown the day he was hanged in Rawalpindi’s central jail. It makes both of us pause; go back to another place in time.

The gates of the colony are still open; the main Mall Road usually buzzing with cars speeding by is now barren. A sudden din of silence falls over the colony and the surrounding area, and now the dominant sound comes from the airplane above. We know that any moment army trucks will appear over the bridge and begin marching down the now virtually empty Mall Road. We must not be seen by them. Why? We don’t quite know. We just know that we must not be visible when they appear. Saira and I turn our bikes around quickly.

Pigtails and ponytails flying once more, we tear down the road, peddling furiously and hurtling over speed bumps. We get to the colony’s Mosque and turn in to the lane of my house. We are now safely out of sight of the main road. Looking up at the plane which is hovering above the colony, we are sure it is watching us.

Two girls breaking Martial Law.

(Fawzia Naqvi works for Open Society Foundations and lives in New York.)

See also:

6 thoughts on “The Year of the Coup D’état: Fawzia Naqvi”

    1. Its a great privilege that you liked this was important to remind myself of who I am and why this endless quest for truth and justice. It began seemingly innocently, but the force of the events left indelible marks on many of us. Three decades later, our foundations are still shaking. And what better moment than Benazir’s death anniversary to remember.


  1. Hi my family member! I want to say that this article is
    awesome, nice written and come with almost all
    vital infos. I would like to see extra posts like this .


We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s