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Sunday, December 21, 2014         

NEW YORK TIMES


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Pakistan Twitter star goes off-line, and fans worry

By Declan Walsh / New York Times

POSTED:



Declan Walsh / New York Times

KARACHI, Pakistan » "Where r u MAJOR ?? What happened 2 u ?? I hope u r safe from mad dog jihadis."

Electronic cries of anguish are ringing out across Pakistan's Twitter community over the abrupt disappearance of the popular satirist @MajorlyProfound, beloved for his acid commentary on the powerful and their prejudices. The unexplained closing of his Twitter account and a related blog on Aug. 4 has become the cybermystery of the moment among English-speaking Pakistani liberals.

Channeling the American comic Stephen Colbert, the determinedly anonymous blogger behind @MajorlyProfound adopted the voice of a pompous, paranoid, honor-obsessed nationalist — Twitter posts typically started with cries of "whoa!" or "OUTRAGE!!" — then took things a step or three further. The result was a searingly funny and often jet-black perspective on Pakistan's rolling crises that pushed the boundaries of what is considered politically acceptable — or personally prudent.

A Pakistani should have been given the honor of lighting the Olympic flame, @MajorlyProfound declared during the recent opening ceremony, in recognition of "our expertise at burning things" like NATO supply trucks and Indian luxury hotels.

Later, he suggested that the national team could do well in archery, but only if a photo of an Ahmadi — a religious minority that suffers grave persecution — were placed on the target board.

"Pakistani shooters sure to win gold," he wrote on Twitter. "But there is a danger they might throw grenade instead."

Such jagged wit won @MajorlyProfound more than 10,000 followers on Twitter, many of them influential in the Pakistani and Indian news media. Foreign journalists started to quote him in stories, sensing he had become a political touchstone of sorts.

But the man behind the phenomenon assiduously shunned the spotlight. "I'm just a nobody," he wrote in an email exchange started by The before his disappearance. "I like to poke fun at absurdity."

His disappearance left behind disconsolate fans and, perhaps fittingly, a swirl of conspiracy theories. Some speculated he had been threatened or abducted; others predicted he would reincarnate in a new guise.

Female fans — "wimmins" in @MajorlyProfound's world — were particularly upset.

"I am heartbroken," one wrote on Twitter. "What will happen to us wimmins now?" another asked.

The comments were, for the most part, tongue-in-cheek. But they also highlighted something serious: how the Internet has become an important platform for subversive satire, and outright social dissent, in a country where speaking freely can exact the highest price.

Over the past two years, two leading politicians have been shot to death for their public stances, and a prominent investigative journalist was killed under mysterious circumstances in April. This summer, Asma Jahangir, an outspoken human rights campaigner, spoke of a plot by the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency to kill her. And even the hint of blasphemous speech can bring witch hunts and criminal charges.

"On being asked if plasphemy law should be amended, 20(PERCENT) of beepuls said it should be retained, 80(PERCENT) killed the interviewer phor plasphemy," he wrote on Twitter last year, in calculatedly idiosyncratic spelling.)

And so creative young Pakistanis are turning to social media to vent their political frustrations.

A catchy satirical song by the Lahore band Begairat Brigade was shunned by the mainstream media last year, but caught fire on YouTube, where it became a Pakistani pop culture sensation. This year another little-known performer, Ali Pir Gul, scored 2.5 million hits on YouTube with a comedy rap that parodied the lifestyles of the feudal elite.

"Every day you see your government doing things that make you pissed. There's nothing to do except make fun of it," said Adil Hussain, a 23-year-old student who posts politically pointed cartoons on Facebook.

Twitter has played a cameo role in several national dramas. In May 2011, Sohaib Athar, an Internet cafe owner in Abbottabad, posted details on Twitter of a mysterious helicopter raid in his neighborhood that, hours later, turned out to be the U.S. commando assault against Osama bin Laden.

Later, Athar was called to testify before a government inquiry into the raid. As he left, he recalled recently, the presiding judge urged him to "tweet on."

Pakistan's beleaguered progressives, meanwhile, have come to view Twitter as a public square of sorts. A spontaneous Twitter campaign in January against Maya Khan, a television host accused of harassing courting couples with a camera crew in a Karachi park during her morning television program, helped lead to Khan's dismissal.

The figure behind @MajorlyProfound said he had been inspired to write by the novel "Catch-22." His target is a particular mindset that dominates public debate: the puff-chested vanities, poisonous bigotry and contorted logic of certain politicians, generals and journalists.

He views his alter ego as "the love child of Homer Simpson and Adolf Hitler," he wrote by email. "What would you do if that baby started saying and doing nonsensically stupid but scary things, yet ran a country and had a bunch of rabid supporters?" he wrote.

Why, turn to Twitter, of course. Recent events have provided a rich store of material, from the Cabinet ministers who claimed to have found a car that ran on water, to the tortured talks with Washington that centered on notions of national sovereignty — or, as he put it, "sovirginity."

Beneath the punch lines, however, lies a rumbling anger, particularly over the treatment of minorities. In Pakistan, "Ahmadis and Shias are treated worse than animals," he wrote by email. "More importantly, they are dehumanized."

For some, Twitter has filled a void left by the closing of teahouses and nightclubs that thrived during the 1960s and '70s, before the Islamist dictator Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq warped Pakistani society.

"Pakistan no longer has permanent public spaces for reasoned conversation," a lawyer, Feisal H. Naqvi, wrote in the newspaper The Express Tribune recently. He hailed (AT)MajorlyProfound as "Pakistan's sharpest wit."

But even the freewheeling Internet is not entirely insulated from the real Pakistan. Several extremist groups, including the charity wing of Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks, hold Twitter accounts.

Twitter's success has also sprouted legions of so-called trolls, users who direct abusive or threatening comments at other users. Women say they feel particularly vulnerable.

Such worries surfaced during a recent conference on social media, sponsored by the U.S. Consulate in Karachi and held at a luxury hotel. Organized under low-key conditions, owing to security worries, the conference featured lively debates on the uses and value of social media.

It also brought together Twitter activists who had previously only interacted online. Not all of it went well.

Heated exchanges between some rivals spilled into the hotel lobby. Since then, one Lahore lawyer has obtained a court order preventing three with whom he had clashed from commenting about him on Twitter.

One notable absence at the conference was (AT)MajorlyProfound. Jealously protective of his anonymity, he offered only that he is between 25 and 35 years old and comes from a middle-class background. His profile picture always features goats because, he said before his disappearance, Pakistani critics might "put up with sarcasm from a goat more than from a real person."

"On the Internet nobody knows that you are a dog. Or a goat," he said. "I could be anyone."






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