When you are living in the most dangerous country in the world, you should be wary of your favourite adjectives. But then a journalist without an arsenal of lethal adjectives is like a Taliban without long oily hair.
And so the saga of the Pakistan-based foreign correspondent starts. He or she ventures out in the field with an adjective-loaded pen – safety pin safely unsafed – and proceeds to fire off semi-automatic, staccato shots. Lock, aim, fire. Collateral damage be damned.
The morning papers are stained with bloodied ink of the carnage loosed upon hapless natives. To their utter horror, they realise they have been described to death by the fearless correspondent-warrior.
The adjectives are fired like silver bullets, aimed to ensure front-page bylines in their publications. Often the right datelines make careers, and perhaps none more so than the “badlands” of Pakistan. Here Islamabad has “leafy neighbourhoods”, where the politicians are always “scheming” and the generals are perennially “ambitious”. And this is just the start, because the foreign correspondent working his fingers is just getting warmed up.
So the chief judge is “mercurial” and the media that laps up his every word is “feisty”. And when it is not busy being feisty, it is “fiercely independent”. But not so the institutions. No sir, the foreign correspondent knows well that institutions are either “weak” or “crumbling”, never just plain institutions.
Then the adjectivised brutality really picks up. So Rawalpindi is always the “Garrison town”, even though few in, say, Iowa would know what Garrison means. I don’t recall the last time Fort Meade was described as Garrison Town.
Peshawar, on the other hand, has “dusty bazaars” which are “infested” with “glowering” Pashtuns, who by the way are also, like the media, “fiercely independent”. Then there are the “doe-eyed” militants locked in mortal combat with “local” army commanders, who always seem to be “trigger happy”. Somehow they always serve “sweetened milky tea” to foreign correspondents. Thank God these commanders don’t speak in “clipped” British accents any more. That would have sounded so “quaint”.
What is, however, not quaint is the way that political leaders are adjectivised. So Imran Khan is still “cricketer-turned-politician”, even though he played his last match before most foreign correspondents were born. Would these reporters have adjectivised a British politician as “war-correspondent-turned-prime minister” when he said in a speech: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…….”
Winston Churchill clearly did not mean to fight the Nazis with adjectives alone.
Perhaps, if modern-day Pakistan-based foreign correspondents were reporting from France in the 1790s, their copy would have read: “The ambitious chief of the French armed forces today overthrew the civilian government of France in what is being described by Paris-based Western diplomats as a coup long in the making. General Bonaparte, a Corsican-born, vertically-challenged hero of many battles, is now in control of the violence-wracked country. Enveloped by domestic convulsions, and mismanaged by bickering nobles and bourgeoisie, France was teetering on the brink of a civil war. The army intervened to restore order by taking control of all key institutions. Leaders in Washington and London have condemned this undemocratic move and warned the new military ruler of France not to export what he calls his ‘revolution’.”
In the end, Bonaparte was not killed by the English language.
Neither are modern-day Western leaders. So while Pakistani generals may be “Janus-faced” and the ISI will always be “shadowy” and its operators often “gung-ho”, reporting on Washington and London is surprisingly adjective-free.
So somehow Barack Obama is never described as the “African-American” President of the United States. He clearly does not “snarl”, “sneer”, or “snicker”. Similarly, David Cameron is never the “young baby-faced Prime Minister”, and Angela Merkel is hardly ever the “plump oval-faced” Chancellor. Sure, Putin is “stern” and as we are always reminded, a “former KGB operative”.
And so Asif Zardari, we are repeatedly told, was known as “Mr Ten Percent” and Nawaz Sharif is “billionaire industrialist with Rightist leanings”. A foreign correspondent’s copy, clearly, needs to “show, not tell”.
But why? I could venture into the deep thesis of Orientalism, but let me not. A simpler explanation is because the editors at these foreign publications demand a certain style. The foreign correspondents reporting from “exotic” locations, where a “life is cheaper than the bullet that takes it”, have to conform to corporate demands. Many have internalised this style, while others let the desk editors do the Stylebook adjectivisation. Some foreign correspondents have spent enough time in Pakistan to know its nuanced life, while other “parachute journalists” use adjectives as crutches to bolster their “fact-challenged” reportage.
Pakistanis reporting for foreign publications get the rawest of deals. They have to insert adjectives in their copy like a poisonous pill. But like Socrates, they sip from the cup in deference to a larger and more noble professional cause.
The result is a colourful picture of Pakistan for the world to read. Here “moustachioed” and “turbaned” men rub shoulders with “powerbrokers in pin-striped suits”, who are always fighting a losing battle with brass-laden generals who always “swagger”.
Yes, this is a war we fight on a daily basis. It is a war of adjectives that slash like a whip and cut like a scimitar. At the end, the poor Pakistani journalists can only look at the foreign correspondent and say with a resigned shrug: “Saala angraizy kee maar dey giya” (He vanquished me with the English language).
Adjectivise this, baby!
The writer is the host of “Tonight with Fahd” on Waqt News. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @fahdhusain