Pakistan’s dark age: The joke’s on us, and it’s no longer funny

With everything collapsing in the country, dark humour is the Pakistani’s only respite. But even that’s wearing thin.

People visit a market, where some shopkeeper are using generators for electricity during a nationwide power breakdown, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Jan 23, 2023
People visit a market, where some shopkeeper are using generators for electricity during a nationwide power breakdown, in Islamabad, Pakistan, January 23, 2023 [Anjum Naveed/AP Photo]

If I had a dollar for every time that I have heard the Pakistani people called “resilient”, I could probably single-handedly bridge our current account deficit while having enough left over to try to buy Kashmir from India.

We have been derailed by coups, split apart by civil war, faced multiple waves of attacks by armed groups and economic meltdowns, and are subjected to constant political shenanigans and yet we somehow keep going, much like a particularly demented energiser bunny who does not realise his battery ran out long ago.

We survive by using sarcasm so sharp it could slice steel. We have weaponised euphemisms and analogies (a skill honed by decades of on-and-off censorship and state repression) to the point that sometimes even we do not know what we are talking about. We cope by employing a humour darker than the Pakistani sky itself during our last nationwide power breakdown, the third of the kind in the past three years.

The lights went out at 7am on January 23, and despite repeated prayers and promises from the energy minister, remained off in most of the country till almost midnight.

Businesses shut down, hospitals could not function and just about every aspect of life came to a standstill as the power reserves of mobile phone companies and internet providers slowly ran out.

Faced with the crisis, those Pakistanis who still had some battery life in their phones immediately turned to the giant town square of social media, flocking to Facebook and Twitter not to post updates or exchange information, but to try and figure out what had happened. “You see, we couldn’t pay the IMF bill so they cut off our electricity,” wrote one person. Another thought that the standard tech support solution was in play, posting: “Well the country wasn’t working so we had to turn it off and on again.”

And so, we whiled away the hours, feeling as powerless as a Pakistani prime minister and trying to chuckle away the latest crisis.

But as is so often the case, the joke was on us. Because when the energy minister finally spoke about what had happened, he admitted that they deliberately “temporarily shut down our power generation systems” overnight as a cost-saving measure and then were unable to switch it back on again.

Let that sink in: They actually literally tried to turn the country off and on again and failed, much like the motorist who switches the engine off at a traffic signal to save on fuel and then is unable to restart the car. Meanwhile, 220 million people are stuck behind him and honking furiously.

The political backlash from the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) – always looking for an opportunity to savage the government – was immediate, as they pointed out that during their tenure, they managed to restore power within 12 hours after a similar breakdown.

“Oh great,” said Pakistanis: “We’re now competing over which government had the best national breakdown.” As for the current government, while the breakdown during the PTI’s tenure was labelled as the result of gross incompetence and negligence, this even more prolonged outage was ascribed to good intentions gone horribly wrong. There were mutterings about sabotage for good measure, just in case there are any buyers for the highly overused spectre of malign foreign interference. There were not.

Granted, trying to save a few of the country’s rapidly depleting dollars is a good thing, but this particular scheme ended up backfiring spectacularly. The Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry has estimated $300m in losses to the economy because of the power loss. And that is without calculating the amount of generator fuel burned by people trying to keep their homes, hospitals and businesses running.

But then, this is a typically Pakistani approach to firefighting: First we ignore the blaze, hoping it will die out on its own, then we fan the flames a bit, and finally, when it is a bona fide inferno, we try to douse it by pouring a few gallons of imported petrol on it. Shockingly, it never works, and yet we opt for this tried-and-failed formula every time thinking that it will finally, somehow work. It never does.

Meanwhile, we have a finance minister who thinks that keeping the dollar rate low is a sign of masculinity and is trying to stare the IMF down into submission, literally daring them to lend us money.

As a result, there are now two separate exchange rates in play and obtaining dollars is considerably harder than scoring drugs. Countless containers are stuck at Karachi port because there is not enough foreign exchange available to clear them.

And so, we end up doing the rounds of “friendly and brotherly” countries hoping for enough bucks to last the month. It is sort of like that relative who turns up at your house in a fleet of luxury vehicles, along with a full entourage in designer suits, eats your food and then asks for fuel money so he can get home.

You pay, knowing that he will be back next month. You pay him anyway because if you do not, the dramatic soul that he is, he threatens to shoot himself right in your living room and you do not want your nice upholstery stained with blood and bits of brain matter. That is right, we can find humour in humiliation as well.

But our smiles are increasingly strained, and the jokes are told through clenched jaws; our resilience is depleting faster than the government’s political capital. That is because, time and again, the system shows us that it does not care for us, that the game is rigged in favour of a rapacious elite that continues importing luxury cars when essential medical supplies rot at the port, awaiting clearance.

We see the machinations of a powerful establishment playing games while parents struggle to feed their children. We see politicians sniping at and sabotaging each other while businesses shut down. We see a government speaking loudly of sacrifice and austerity while constantly increasing the size of an already bloated cabinet.

And to bring that stark reality home once more, on the day of the blackout came the news that Rao Anwar, a policeman accused of numerous extrajudicial killings (reportedly at the behest of powerful state institutions), had been acquitted of the murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud, an aspiring model whose killing sparked protests across Pakistan five years ago.

Unanswerable even to the police hierarchy, Anwar was treated with kid gloves throughout the trial in marked contrast with the violence and humiliation meted out to less connected suspects, many of whom languish in jail for years without their case ever coming to trial.

These are just selections from the veritable buffet of injustices and distortions that we are force-fed on a daily basis; daily reminders that the vast majority of us are third-class citizens in our own country.

Now, if we could somehow monetise our sense of humour, we would be in the position of lending the IMF money. Sadly, such schemes remain the province of fantasy while in reality, the laughter is about to end. And when it does, what follows would not be funny at all.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.