Pakistan to hold third round of talks with banned Tehreek-e-Labbaik party tonight

Traders shout slogans as they take part in a protest in Islamabad, Pakistan, on April 19, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 19 April 2021

Pakistan to hold third round of talks with banned Tehreek-e-Labbaik party tonight

  • TLP team allowed to meet arrested leader today after 11 policemen being held hostage released
  • PM says “great misfortune” political and religious parties “use Islam wrongly ... doing damage to their own country”

KARACHI/ISLAMABAD: Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Pir Noorul Haq Qadri said on Monday the government would hold a third round of negotiations with a banned religious political party, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, (TLP) tonight to end week-long protests being held across Pakistan by the group's followers.

Rioting by the rightwing group has rocked the country since last Monday when TLP chief Saad Rizvi was arrested in Lahore for threatening the government with rallies if it did not expel the French envoy to Islamabad over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) published in France last year. 

The protests have paralyzed major cities and highways, leading to the deaths of six policemen, according to the government, with thousands of TLP workers under arrest, police say. On Sunday, TLP also took a number of police officers and paramilitary troops hostage, releasing 11 policemen in the early hours of Monday after a first round of negotiations with the government. The TLP says dozens of its supporters have also been killed but hospital and government officials have not verified this information.

The riots have also prompted the French embassy last week to recommend all its nationals temporarily leave the country.

“We believe in negotiations and it’s our policy,” Qadri said in a policy statement in the National Assembly. “We held negotiations [with the protesters] yesterday, in the morning and the third session will be held tonight after the Tarawih prayer.”

The minister assured parliament the deadlock with protesters would be resolved through negotiations as per the aspirations of the nation. 

“No political, democratic and elected government can afford such things and whatever happened in the past few days is regrettable to everyone,” he said. 

Meanwhile, a nine-member TLP delegation will meet the party’s chief Rizvi in jail today, Monday, a spokesperson for the group said. 

“A nine member delegation of the religious scholars will go to Kot lakhpat jail to meet the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan chief Saad Hussain Rizvi,” TLP spokesperson Pir Ejaz Ashrafi, told Arab News.  

TLP chief Rizvi has called on the government to honor what he said was a commitment it made in February to his party to expel the French envoy before April 20 over the publication in France of depictions of the Prophet (pbuh). 

The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan says it had only committed to debating the matter in Parliament. 

In a veiled reference to TLP on Monday, Khan said: “ln our country, it is a great misfortune that many times our political parties and religious parties use Islam wrongly and use it such that they do damage to their own country.” 

Addressing the groundbreaking ceremony for the Margalla Highway in Islamabad, the PM said hurting people, properties and infrastructure would only hurt our own people and “will not have any impact on them [blasphemers].” 

He said he had launched a global campaign against Islamophobia and blasphemy, and would continue the effort: “At some point, people in the West will fear before insulting the honor of our Prophet (pbuh).” 

On Sunday evening, Information Minister Fawad Hussain Chaudhry had said the government was forced to launch an army operation against protesters after they kidnapped law enforcement officials.

“The government believes in negotiations but can’t be blackmailed,” he said. “The operation was started after police and Rangers personnel were kidnapped ... [Prime Minister] Imran Khan has the strongest affection with the Prophet (PBUH) and he has talked about this at every forum.” 

Earlier on Sunday, a police spokesman, Arif Rana, said the operation against the TLP had been halted as the attackers were armed with petrol bombs and a tanker with 50,000 liters of petrol. 

By Sunday evening, he said the situation was “at a standstill” with protesters sitting on roadsides with sticks and petrol bombs in their hands and law enforcement personnel standing guard. 

Last week, the interior ministry said it was moving to have the TLP party banned for attacking law enforcement forces and disrupting public life during its protests. The interior ministry’s decision has been approved by the federal cabinet but needs to be ratified by the Supreme Court for the party to be officially dissolved. 

In October 2020, protests broke out in several Muslim countries over France’s response to a deadly attack on a teacher who showed cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad to his pupils during a civics lesson. 

During similar protests in Pakistan, the government negotiated with the TLP and met a number of its demands, including that it would debate expelling the French ambassador in parliament. 

A deadline to make that parliamentary move expires on April 20. 

Rizvi became the leader of the Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan party in November after the sudden death of his father, Khadim Hussein Rizvi. 

Rizvi’s party wants the government to boycott French products and expel the French ambassador under an agreement signed by the government with Rizvi’s party in February. 

Tehreek-e-Labiak and other religious parties denounced French President Emmanuel Macron since October last year, saying he tried to defend caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as freedom of expression. Macron’s comments came after a young Muslim beheaded a French school teacher who had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in class. 

The images had been republished by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to mark the opening of the trial over the deadly 2015 attack against the publication for the original caricatures. That enraged many Muslims in Pakistan and elsewhere who believe those depictions are blasphemous. 

Rizvi’s party gained prominence in Pakistan’s 2018 federal elections, campaigning to defend the country’s blasphemy law, which calls for the death penalty for anyone who insults Islam. It also has a history of staging protests and sit-ins to pressure the government to accept its demands. 

In November 2017, Rizvi’s followers staged a 21-day protest and sit-in after a reference to the sanctity of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was removed from the text of a government form.

From remote Baloch towns, young Pakistani creators of humanoid bot unveil ‘Bolani’

Updated 13 May 2021

From remote Baloch towns, young Pakistani creators of humanoid bot unveil ‘Bolani’

  • Shahwani and Rodini are physics students at the University of Balochistan
  • Say the self-funded robot took them six months to make from scratch with ‘zero support’

QUETTA: It’s an unlikely trio in an unlikely place-- two smart young Baloch students stand proudly outside their university in Quetta with an all-white, five feet, four inches tall humanoid robot between them. 
Aziz Ullah Shahwani, 24, and Mukhtiar Ahmed Rodini, 25, are students of physics at the University of Balochistan, and the robot they created, named Bolani, is their final project.
“I didn’t take any interest in technology-related experiments till I graduated school due to the absence of a physics teacher in my native district Kalat... but when I came to the University of Balochistan for my master’s degree in physics I decided to invent something new, something no other student in the history of UoB has done,” Shahwani told Arab News, as he proudly unveiled Bolani outside the Physics department of his university.

Five feet, four inches tall humanoid robot Bolani is ready for a walk at the Physics Department of the University of Balochistan, Quetta, May 4, 2021. (AN photo)

Coming from the remote Kalat and Sorab districts in Pakistan’s restive southwestern Balochistan province, Shahwani and Rodini are largely self-taught, and said they had received close to no financial support during their endeavour from their university or the government of Balochistan.
The two boys from these distant Pakistani towns worked for six months to conquer the impossible, working on advanced 3D softwares, even welding and painting the body of their robot themselves.
“While making Bolani, I learned the use of new software and 3D printing,” Shahwani said. 
“Because I have designed Bolani by myself on solid work software, it was an unforgettable experience,” he continued.
Bolani is named after the famed mountain pass Bolan, roughly 127 km from the capital Quetta, south of the Hindu Kush mountains. 
For now, Bolani can move forward and backward, he can move his eyes, neck and jaw and can shake hands with human beings when Shahwani, gives him the command through an app installed in his mobile phone.

Aziz Ullah Shahwani and Mukhtiar Ahmed Rodini check Bolani's circuits at a lab of the Physics Department of the University of Balochistan, Quetta, May 4, 2021. (AN photo)

Mukhtiar Ahmed Rodini who assisted Aziz in building Bolani, said they wanted to create something new instead of submitting research papers like everybody else.
“We took assistance and guidance from our professors because after thorough searching we couldn’t find the robotic circuits and motors in Quetta... later we installed locally purchased motors in order to finalize Bolani,” Rodini told Arab News.
“Bolani cost us Rs.50,000 ($326) and due to the lack of financial assistance, we used iron and steel to shape the humanoid robot,” Rodini said. He added there had been ‘zero support’ from the university’s higher authorities and provincial government.
Shahwani and Rodini are now planning to upgrade Bolani with additional features like voice and face recognition censors that will allow the robot to talk.
Professor Ajab Khan Kasi, head of the physics department at the University of Balochistan supervised the students while they built Bolani and said their creation was a ‘milestone’ in the history of the university.
“It took six months to complete the robot and during this period, Aziz and Mukhtiar have done all the processes with their own hands... even the welding, coloring and mechanical work on Bolani,” Professor Kasi told Arab News.
“The humanoid robot has been working in 9 degree freedom which allows him to move his hands, neck and eyes,” he said.

Bolani can move his eyes, jaw and neck on commands sent to him via Bluetooth. (AN photo)

For now, Shahwani has said he will upgrade Bolani by installing motion sensors, and aims to continue his studies. He said he is now looking for support from the government and his university. 
But until that happens, he said, the two of them would not feel disappointed.
“Because we are inspired by Pakistan’s Nobel prize laureate Dr. Abdul Salam and the young Dr. Yar Jan Baloch who works as a space scientist in Cambridge University,” he added.
“We are following in their footsteps.”

Pakistan reaffirms support for Palestine as Israel renews deadly airstrikes on Gaza

Updated 13 May 2021

Pakistan reaffirms support for Palestine as Israel renews deadly airstrikes on Gaza

  • Current flareup is the deadliest outbreak since the Israeli war on Gaza in 2014, in which 2,300 Palestinians were killed
  • Pakistani president, PM say are mobilizing the international community for the Palestinian cause

ISLAMABAD: President Arif Alvi and Prime Minister Imran Khan reaffirmed to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday Pakistan’s support for Palestine, as Israel renewed deadly airstrikes on the Gaza Strip on the first day of Eid Al-Fitr.
The violence flared on Monday, when Israel dropped bombs on the self-governing Palestinian territory, which have since killed more than 83 Palestinians, including children, and wounded hundreds of others, according to Palestinian health authorities.
In response to the airstrikes, Hamas, which controls Gaza, fired rockets into Israel, killing seven people, Israeli military said.
The flareup is the deadliest outbreak of violence in the region since the seven-week Israeli war on Gaza in 2014, during which 2,300 Palestinians were killed and over 10,000 wounded as Israeli forces bombed residential buildings, hospitals and schools.
In a letter to Abbas, President Alvi conveyed his “deep sadness and concern over the series of violent attacks perpetrated by Israeli occupying forces.”
He reaffirmed “Pakistan’s abiding support for a just settlement of the Palestine issue in accordance with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions and for the establishment of an independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian state, with pre-1967 borders with Al-Quds-Al-Sharif as its capital.” 
“I reassure you of our efforts in mobilizing the international community for the Palestinian cause and to continue raising voice for the Palestinian people,” Alvi wrote.
PM Khan, meanwhile, held a phone call with Abbas, during which he “reassured President Abbas of Pakistan’s efforts in mobilizing the international community against such flagrant violations of human rights and international law,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement.
“Prime Minister condemned the attacks on innocent worshippers in Al-Aqsa Mosque and lethal air strikes by Israel in Gaza, resulting in the death of so many civilians, including children.”
The latest wave of violence in the Middle East escalated in the final days of the fasting month of Ramadan after Israeli police fired tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets, and stun grenades at Palestinians gathered at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem — the third holiest site in Islam.
The violence was triggered by protests and clashes as Israeli forces tried to expel Palestinians from their houses in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem and hand over their property to Jewish settlers.

‘French perfume and a cellphone’: Eid in the digital age for Pakistan’s Pashtun youth

Updated 13 May 2021

‘French perfume and a cellphone’: Eid in the digital age for Pakistan’s Pashtun youth

  • The elaborate tradition of Eid gift giving has decreased in practice in southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but continues in most rural parts of the province
  • Taking Barkha to the girl’s family is an occasion in itself, with women and children dressing up and making a grand entry with singers and dancers

PESHAWAR: In Pakistan’s conservative Pashtun societies, where arranged marriages and engagements are the norm, commitments of love involve elaborate family traditions that come alive for Eid — though the tides are ever so slightly changing.
A few days before Eid Al-Fitr, doting groups of women family members from the newly engaged boy’s side traditionally decorate baskets and fill them with gifts for the to-be bride and her family. The tradition is carried out in some form or the other across Pakistan, though in more urban towns, it carries far less of its traditional flavor. 
“Barkha is a beautiful tradition practiced in most Pashtun inhabited areas but is especially kept alive by the Yousafzai tribe in Swabi, Mardan, Buner, and Swat districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” Meraj Humayun Khanm a Khyber Pakhtunkhwa-based educationist, social worker and politician, told Arab News.

A little girl looks at artificial jewelry at an Eid stall in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, May 6, 2021. (AN photo)

“Women, usually sisters, cousins, and aunties of the engaged boy carry three new unstitched suits — one for each day of Eid — shoes, cosmetics, henna, four to six sets of bangles and jewelry in one traditional basket called shkare,” Humayun said. 
The baskets include a day’s meal for the family, including country chicken cooked in cow ghee and bread, as well as a variety of homemade confections. 
But even in these deeply conservative towns, where segregation between betrothed couples is common until they marry, things are changing in the age of digital love.
“I am sending her a French perfume and a cellphone, hoping her parents will allow her to get in touch with me,” Naqeeb Khan, a real estate dealer in Peshawar, told Arab News.
Khan is engaged to a girl from his ancestral village in Mardan who he has never seen.
“My younger sister has promised to get me her photos when they take Barkha on Eid day,” he said.
In southern, more “modern” districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the tradition of Barkha has decreased in practice but it is still very much alive in most rural parts of the province as well as in the tribal districts.

Girls try bangles for their brother’s fiancée at an Eid stall in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, May 6, 2021. (AN photo)

Anwar Zeb was engaged at the end of last year in his native Buner. 
“I prefer letting my fiancée choose her own stuff so I send over money to let her do her own shopping,” Zeb told Arab News.
“My mother is 60 years old and even now, every year my uncles send over her Barkha consisting of the new suits and traditional edibles,” he said.

Another key role of the boy’s family after an engagement — especially the aunties — used to be finding coy ways of somehow connecting the newly engaged couple.
“The aunts would try various rudimentary techniques, making it possible for the two to occasionally meet and understand each other before their wedding,” Pashto history professor Noorul Amin told Arab News.
But modern technology has relieved the aunties of that hectic job, as most couples now use their mobile phones and the Internet to get to know each other before they marry.
The parents too, are changing their minds.
“Allowing a monitored connection between the children is not an issue in my sight,” Naqeeb Khan’s to be mother-in-law told Arab News through an intermediary.
“I think it will help them in understanding each other better and increase their chances of living a happier life ahead,” she said.

Taking Barkha to the girl’s family is an occasion in itself. Women and children dress up in their finest clothes, making a grand entry with singers and dancers.
Traditionally, the women play music with a dhol or drum. They sing songs on the way and inside the girl’s house, sit and chat with the bride, apply henna to her hands, show off her gifts, and have a meal together.

But as with all things, time has changed much. 
Anabia Yusufzai from the village of Katlang in Mardan was in a hurry as she downloaded songs onto a flash drive and collected a bluetooth device on her way out, as she left for the home of her uncle’s fiancée with the to-be bride’s Barkha.
“I don’t like the idea of carrying around drums and singing women,” she said. “It’s a lot easier just using a gadget.”

Saudi Arabia to invest $500 million in Pakistan’s energy sector — FM Qureshi

Updated 13 May 2021

Saudi Arabia to invest $500 million in Pakistan’s energy sector — FM Qureshi

  • Investment expected to improve Pakistan’s energy mix, as the country wants 60 percent of its power to be clean energy by 2030
  • Qureshi says a delegation of Saudi officials is scheduled to visit Pakistan after Eid Al-Fitr holidays

ISLAMABAD: Saudi Arabia is going to invest $500 million to strengthen Pakistan’s energy sector, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi announced on Wednesday, the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) reported.
The investment will come under agreements on cooperation in energy and infrastructure that were signed during Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s last week visit to the kingdom.
Last year, Khan promised that by 2030, 60 percent of all energy produced in Pakistan will be clean energy. Currently the country gets over 60 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels, nearly 30 percent from hydropower, 5 percent from nuclear power and below 5 percent from renewables.
“The $500 million from Saudi Arabia would improve Pakistan’s energy mix balance,” Qureshi said, adding that it would also help decrease electricity rates.
About 30 percent of Pakistan’s population still lacks access to electric power due to its high costs in the country, according to World Bank data.
Qureshi, who was a part of Khan’s entourage during the recent Saudi Arabia visit, said that a delegation of Saudi officials would visit Pakistan after Eid Al-Fitr. He added that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, on whose invitation Khan visited the kingdom, would “soon” also pay his second visit to Pakistan.
When the crown prince visited Pakistan in February 2019, the two countries signed agreements for $20 billion investment projects.

Bare palms this Eid as pandemic dampens Pakistan’s henna obsession

Updated 13 May 2021

Bare palms this Eid as pandemic dampens Pakistan’s henna obsession

  • Mehndi applied to hands has long been a traditional celebration marking Eid and weddings across cultures
  • Apart from the business side, the joy of socializing during henna application has been lost

RAWALPINDI: As another Eid Al-Fitr arrives under the shadow of the pandemic, celebrations are dampened around the world. In Pakistan, the government has advised citizens to celebrate simply, and among the many festive practices compromised on, is the art of henna, or mehndi. 

Mehndi is produced from the leaves of henna plants and has played a significant role in expressions of celebration in South Asia for hundreds of years.

The night before Eid, henna artists are invited to private homes where groups of family members gather to get their palms made up. In bazaars, long queues of people wait for busy artists speedily creating designs on hundreds of women a day-- sometimes well into the early hours of the morning.

But since last year, henna artists say nothing is the same.

“The pandemic has really badly affected my work. I’m still better off than many others, but because the majority of my work was traveling for bridal bookings, I took a hit,” Sara Vazir, a henna artist, told Arab News.

Vazir, 33, has been working with henna since she was 11 and has built an international clientele for her business, ‘Sara’s Henna.’

Sara Vazir shares her henna designs with over 80,000 followers on Instagram, on December 13, 2020. (Photo courtesy: Sara's Henna)

“As for Eid, that [business] has completely stopped since the pandemic began ... a year and a half now. I have two small kids and I do not want to take the risk; I don’t want to go to people’s houses or call them over,” she said.

Vazir’s designs are inspired by mehndi from around the world. 

Moroccan style henna art has fast become one of the most popular, with geometric designs featuring dot work and diamond shapes that borrow from the Afro-Arab country’s architectural styles. 

Pakistani fashion brand Ethnic borrows Moroccan henna designs for their Ramadan 2021 collection. (Photo courtesy: Ethnic)

Even Islamic imagery like domes and symmetrical arches are common in popular henna design. In recent years, simpler designs have become trendy. 

Some brands like Dastaangoi and Kolachi mehndi in Pakistan have encouraged people to DIY their mehndi at home, and have released mehndi design kits featuring designs rooted in different henna traditions.

Storytelling platform Dastaangoi and organic henna brand Kolachi Mehndi collaborate for an at-home Eid mehndi kit featuring style inspirations across cultures. Photo shared on May 4, 2021. (Photo courtesy: Kolachi Mehndi)

But apart from the business of henna design, it’s the socializing aspect-- the part that creates happy memories-- that has been hurt.

“When I work on clients now, it’s not the same fun of a group getting together and sharing in something joyful because we have to be careful,” Karachi-based henna artist Shahtaj A. Khan told Arab News.

“It’s sad that this traditional happy moment is disappearing.”

Some mehndi artists like Khan are continuing to see clients under strict SOP’s, wearing masks, shields and working outside in the open.

A girl gets her hand decorated with henna paste at a marketplace during the holy month of Ramadan ahead of Eid Al-Fitr in Karachi on May 8, 2021. (AFP)

During weddings in Pakistan and India, the hands of the bride and her closest women friends and family are filled with intricate details bordered with thick lines, motifs of flora, peacocks, paisleys, and checkered patterns. There is an entire wedding occasion dedicated to the ritual of this application, called simply, the ‘mehndi.’
Umme Kulsoom Huzaifa Lathi, who has decorated hands around the nation including for Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari on her wedding, told Arab News that these days, being careful was paramount.

Pakistani henna artist Umme Kulsoom Huzaifa Lathi shares a photo with Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari whose hands she has decorated for during a mehndi bridal session on January 29, 2021. (Photo courtesy: Kulsooms Henna)

“Since last Eid, business has picked up, but everything is done extremely carefully,” Lathi told Arab News over the phone from Karachi.

“We follow all the guidelines because we want things to get back to normal... and hopefully artists like me can see their businesses get back to normal too.”