The #NotaBugSplat Art Piece in Pakistan Won’t Be Making Drone Pilots Feel Empathy
Earlier today, many publications, including VICE News, started reporting on a large art display in Northern Pakistan. Photos depict an open field or a rural farm on which a giant portrait of a young girl has been unraveled. It’s part of a project called #NotABugSplat.
Saks Afridi, the online PR rep for the project, says “for now, we’re an artist collective from Pakistan, USA, and France.” He won’t divulge precisely who else is involved for the time being. The French component, however, is reported to have been JR, who you may know from his sweet, humanity-affirming art, or his downright saccharine TED Talk.
As The Verge observed, #NotABugSplat is meant to show people coming together to say, “We exist.” In short, it’s like Banksy meets Kony 2012: Straight-up, uncut internet heroin.
As you know from reading this fine piece of journalism, once-great American manufacturing cities like Detroit and Cleveland are experiencing a cultural phenomenon: scrapping. People are literally ripping apart old schools, houses, hospitals, and factories and carting away their raw materials. In tonight’s episode of VICE on HBO, artist and world traveler (and expert butt painter) David Choe investigates the life cycle of scrap metal, from the people who risk their lives to find it to the yards that buy it, all the way to the Chinese traders who take it back home to build their economy.
Then it’s off to the Middle East, where VICE co-founder Suroosh Alvi reports on the effects of drone strikes in Pakistan. Extremism and militancy in the country have been growing in the wake of Obama’s drone campaign, and it’s not hard to see why. While the Obama administration touts drones as a surgical weapon that keeps American soldiers out of harm’s way, for the innocent victims, a.k.a. the “collateral damage,” drone strikes are hardly precise.
The VICE News Capsule is a daily roundup that looks beyond the headlines. Today: Myanmar’s war on opium, the Taliban destroyed Pakistan’s silk industry, the UK pulls out of Afghanistan and serious starvation risk among Syrian refugee children.
On the Front Lines of Gender Equality with Pakistan’s Lady Cadets
Lady Cadet Wardah Noor, a slim 24-year-old Pakistani with deep-set eyes and an erect bearing, has pinned all her hopes on becoming a soldier.
“I found my civilian life to be slow moving and unsatisfying,” she told me one evening in September after a full day of class and training exercises at the prestigious Pakistan Military Academy (PMA). Raised in a middle-class home, Wardah had already earned a college degree in computer science but found little opportunity in her small village in Pakistan’s Punjab province, where horse-driven carts were still the primary mode of transportation. She craved discipline and structure. She wanted, she realized, to join the army.
LC Wardah was one of 32 women, ages 23 to 27, who comprised the PMA’s 2013 lady cadet class. The Academy is located in the town of Kakul, just a few miles from the Abbottabad compound where Osama bin Laden was killed by a team of Navy SEALs in 2011. It’s Pakistan’s answer to West Point; it’s just as hard to gain entry, and those who do, go on to lead young soldiers into battle.
Gaining admission to the academy is highly competitive. Once enrolled, male cadets spend two years of rigorous physical training and the study of war craft. Female cadets at the PMA, however, receive only six months’ training and then are assigned duties that don’t involve direct combat, serving as members of the medical and engineering corps, or analyzing tactics and logistics, or even training future officers.
“I want to be a part of protecting my country from the terrorists, and protect our borders,” LC Wardah explained. “We have both external threats as well as internal threats.”
Population growth is slowing in most of the world, but not in Pakistan—the UN estimates that the country had 173 million residents as of 2010, up from 143 million in 2000, and only 111 million in 1990. This is a problem, especially in rural areas where poverty and lack of government services are widespread. DKT International, an NGO that provides birth control throughout the developing world, is among the organizations trying to contain the country’s population bomb, and it’s doing so with condom commercials that are too hot for Pakistani TVDKT was founded by Phil Harvey, who made his fortune selling sex toys, condoms, and porn through his company Adam & Eve. DKT sells rather than donates condoms in order to take advantage of retail distribution networks (shopkeepers have to be able to profit from something to stock it on their shelves) and because buying family-planning products encourages people to value and actually use them. A big part of DKT’s strategy is not just educating people about birth control but marketing their products, which is why they aired a commercial that showed Pakistani supermodel Mathira married to a goofball of a dude because he used the company’s Josh Condoms. Unfortunately, the spot drew complaints for being “immoral” and was pulled off the air in late July by conservative government censors.
Christopher Purdy, executive vice president for DKT, which has operated in Pakistan since last year, said the problem with the ad was not just Mathira’s image (she’s the Marilyn Monroe of Pakistan, he said) but the somewhat hidden implication that the couple had sex before tying the knot.
The ad was also accused of promoting oral sex because Josh Condoms come in a strawberry flavor, but that’s “in the eye of the beholder,” according to Christopher. “Why you’d want a strawberry-flavored condom is usually just to mask the scent of the latex,” he said. “The irony is that we’ve been selling strawberry-flavored condoms since we started [in Pakistan], and that’s our number-one variant.”
The first time I tried to buy condoms in Karachi, I caught the store clerk looking at my ringless finger. When I made a questioning face at his disapproving expression, he asked me if I had a husband. “No,” I admitted.
That’s when he told me he couldn’t sell me condoms. “I wouldn’t want my baby sister to be able to buy it so easily,” he explained. I nodded although I disagreed. “But, wouldn’t you want your sister to be able to have safe sex?” I asked him. I told him that if she was buying her own condoms, her having sex was probably inevitable. “Wouldn’t you rather she not get pregnant?” He shook his head and told me he’d rather she never have sex. Before I could continue to argue the point, he waved me along. “Try another store,” he said firmly.
I’d approached the street-vendor mostly out of curiosity. At a recent dinner party, one of my female friends told me that she was tired of her boyfriend showing up at her house without condoms. “Then he wants to have sex,” she said, rolling her eyes. I laughed, asking her why she didn’t just keep a box at home. Her eyes grew exaggeratedly round and she giggled. “How on earth could I possibly buy my own condoms? Women can’t just walk into a store and buy them!”
That’s when I realized that I had no idea how people in Pakistan bought condoms. Afshan, a representative at the Family Planning Association of Pakistan told me that 80 percent of Pakistan’s general stores sold condoms and that it was the most used contraceptive device in the country, with 12 percent of married couples using it as their primary contraception. It’s readily available everywhere from ramshackle kiosks on the city’s sidewalks to larger convenience stores with pharmacy counters.
Facedown in Chitral: Where Pakistani Muslims Go to Secretly Party
Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” is a 19th-century tale of empire, madness, and idolatry centered around two roguish British soldiers who take a perilous journey into Kafiristan, a hostile mountain region populated by pagans who kill and rob anyone foolish enough to set foot in their domain. Kafiristan took its name from the Arabic word kafir, which translates as “nonbeliever” or “infidel.” The region stretches across portions of what is today Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s not a nice place to live, but, as I discovered, it is a great place to party.
For nearly 70 years, up until 1896, the emir of Afghanistan offered bribes to the people of Kafiristan to discourage them from robbing outsiders and slinging their bodies off of mountains. The Kafirs took the money but refused to give up their marauding ways. Abdur Rahman Khan, nicknamed “The Iron Emir,” grew so incensed by this flagrant disrespect of his power that he sent troops into the Afghan-controlled portion of Kafiristan to discipline the local population. Kafirs were rounded up and given a stark choice: Islam or death. Naturally, most chose Islam, and the Afghan side of Kafiristan was soon known by the euphemism Nuristan, or “land of light.” These forced conversions and the change of moniker, however, did little to alter the nature of its people. In his 1958 book A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Eric Newby cataloged some common phrases in the Nuristani language at that time: “I saw a corpse in a field this morning”; “I have nine fingers; you have ten”; and “I have an intention to kill you.”
In the end, the Iron Emir was only sucessful in converting the population on the Afghan side. Across the Hindu Kush mountains, in Pakistan, a raucous pagan animism persisted. Today the descendents of these pagans live in what are known as the Kalash valleys: Bumboret, Birir, and Rumbur. They are the last animist tribe of Central Asia—a nature-worshipping island in a sea of Islam spreading out in all directions.
The Kalash people spurn Islamic law by drinking, taking drugs, and partying. For decades, pleasure-seeking Muslims have ventured to these valleys to get drunk on Kalash wine (which tastes like sherry) and the local moonshine known as tara (which tastes like schnapps). The drug of choice is opium brought in from Afghanistan or, more commonly, nazar, an opiate-based chewing tobacco, which oftentimes makes users sick and dizzy. Just like American kids who travel to Florida or Vegas to blow off some steam, devout Pakistanis periodically head up into the mountains for a taste of the debauched pagan life.