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Attack on Cricketers in Lahore Strikes at Pakistan’s Heart and Soul

by Kamila Shamsie, 3 March 2009

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The Guardian, 4 March 2009

This attack struck Pakistan’s last redoubt of national pride

In a country accustomed to horror, we cling to a different narrative, where cricket is heart and soul. Today, that lies in tatters

On a bright morning in March 2004 I heard a cheer so loud it drowned out all conversation in the stands of Karachi’s National Stadium. I looked immediately to the field, thinking the cricketers must have walked on to warm up before the game commenced. No one but cricketers could draw that kind of cheer from such a heterogeneous Pakistani crowd. But the field was empty, and for explanation I had to turn towards the entry to the stands, where a large group of spectators had just walked in, carrying with them the largest Indian flag I had ever seen. The cheers for those Indian spectators and their flags went on all through the day, and when the nailbiting game ended in an Indian victory, every Pakistani still left smiling. "Cricket won today," someone told me. "The nation won today," someone else said.

When anyone claims cricket is "just a game", I always point back to that bright Karachi day and try to explain the euphoria that raced through those stands, the sense of history pausing in its tired, war-mongering steps and considering another route. Observers, both national and international, correctly analysed that the cheers for the Indians revealed the deep desire of "the average Pakistani" (a term synonymous with "cricket fan") for the governments of both nations to put aside their jingoism and bellicose posturing.

But there was something else at play in Karachi that day. The citizens of that bloodied, resilient city were sending a message to cricket boards worldwide which had long deemed Karachi too unsafe to play in, often scheduling tours that excluded the National Stadium. The message was this: "Come and play here; we are not terrorists."

Pakistan is not a country that attracts international audiences and participants from the world of arts and culture. So, all my life, cricket has been the only truly high-profile opportunity for the world to see televised images of Pakistan that are not about politics or terrorism - or, increasingly, the grim overlap between the two.

Cricket is front and centre, heart and soul, of the "alternative narrative" of Pakistan, the story that isn’t about destruction and terror but rather about all the aspects of life in Pakistan worth celebrating, and also, just as crucially, about all the aspects of life in Pakistan as unremarkable and harmless as a ball tapped to mid-on for no run in the last session of a dead rubber.

With the attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore, that alternative narrative lies so wounded it’s hard to imagine how it will ever recover. How can we ask anyone to visit us, if even cricketers aren’t safe? How can we feel safe ourselves when we have seen one of our most glorious cricket pitches turned into a helipad for the army to airlift players out to safety?

The attack on the Sri Lankan players and their security detail is not an isolated horror, nor is it the worst thing to happen to Pakistan in the last few months. The bombing of girls’ schools, the attack on civilians by the armed forces in their failed attempts to curb militancy, the defence of "honour killings" by members of the government - all these crimes speak to the rot in the system in a profound way. But the reason so many of us are knocked sideways by this particular attack is that the terrorists have reached into that place we always thought of as refuge, that place in which Pakistan could compete with the best in the world, that place where we had space to believe that a man running in to throw a red sphere at another man holding a piece of wood was the most vital matter to which the nation had to attend.

"Perhaps, though, if we are to try desperately for a silver lining, we can say ..." one of my friends ventured, in response to the attacks, before her voice trailed off into gloomy silence.

But I knew the end of her sentence. "When a group attacks cricket it ensures that the whole nation will turn against them, rise up against them. So if people believe it was the Taliban or the Lashkar-e-Taiba ..."

But the sadder truth at the heart of Pakistan’s psyche is that we have been made so cynical, so mistrustful of the world that there is unlikely to be agreement about who sent the gunmen. The government is already saying the attack was meant to destroy Pakistan’s international reputation (which every Pakistani recognises as code for "India did it".) And if the Taliban or the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba or any other group is blamed, there will be many who’ll say that cricket is so beloved that the attack is just a set-up to harden public opposition to those groups and justify any action the government takes against them.

A couple of weeks ago in Karachi, I was being interviewed on a talkshow. "What are the three things you want for Pakistan?" my ebullient host asked.

"Get rid of the Taliban. Overhaul the political system so we don’t see any of the old faces again. And please, find someone willing to come here for a cricket tour."

As of yesterday, I have to take that last hope off the table.

• Kamila Shamsie’s new novel Burnt Shadows is published this week