SANAM MAHER is a journalist based in Karachi. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera, BuzzFeed, The Caravan, the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound,Roads & Kingdoms and the New York Times’ Women in the World. Below you can read an excerpt from “The Sensational Life And Death Of Qandeel Baloch” which is her first book. Read the review of the book here. Courtesy: Aleph.
“Excerpt from The Sensational Life And Death Of Qandeel Baloch”
When she can’t sleep, which is often, she watches movies or YouTube videos and scans Facebook and Twitter to see what people are talking about. One night, she is bored and decides to talk to her Facebook followers in an audio-only live session. They hear the wail of sirens and the sound of honking cars as she sings songs on request and answers some of their questions. Her phone keeps buzzing. She pleads, please stop calling my personal number. She apologizes for the noise. ‘I live near the main road next to the sea, where the McDonalds is,’ she explains. She is alone at home in the dark, lit only by the gleam of her laptop. ‘I’ve opened the windows because there’s no electricity. So that’s why you can hear the traffic.’
She starts asking Ahmed what is going on in the news and what people are talking about. What is trending right now? she tries to find out. Cricket? Politics? Football? She wants to make videos on anything that people are discussing—because in this way, they will also discuss her.
I act from the heart and I think from the heart. I’m not desperate for fame. Fame is chasing me, I’m not chasing it.
One evening, she is feeling low and calls a friend in Islamabad. She starts weeping on the phone. He tries to cheer her up. At the time, the former World Cup cricketing champion-turned-politician Imran Khan is making news as his second marriage has ended in divorce. Her friend jokes, ‘Chill out. Don’t be so sad. Maybe you should just marry Imran Khan.’ In the morning, he checks Facebook and sees that after they had ended their conversation, Qandeel posted a new video on her social media pages.
In it, she is lying on her bed. She pulls up the front of her low-cut top. There is a black tattoo, one of the temporary ones she loves to put on her arms and neck, above her breasts. Her full lips are a bright red. She dedicates a song to Imran Khan. ‘I like you so much, and I love you so much,’ she says. ‘If Reham has left you, then there’s still so many who want you. I am one of them. I want to marry with you. Will you marry me? Please?’
By morning, she is flooded with calls from news channels. They have found a new angle in their relentless coverage of the divorce. Soon, the video has been watched more than 830,000 times. A female television anchor calls her shameless.
These girls who call me ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’ and other names are the same girls who talk about respecting women.
She makes a few more videos. She gets more hits. On Twitter and Facebook, she pleads with Imran Khan to accept her proposal, and people make fun of how she pronounces it—‘par-posal’. ‘I just want you to be mine,’ she tweets. ‘People tell me he will only keep you as his maid,’ she says in one interview. ‘But I would agree to that too. Anything for Khan sahib.’ She is back in the news. The Imran Khan angle works.
I always choose the wrong man. I don’t have a special person. He comes in my thoughts and dreams. He’s very good. He’s just like Imran Khan. Other than Imran, I’ve never told someone ‘I love you’.
She knows that not everyone is happy with the videos. Mec scolds her for losing focus. Stay away from politics, he tells her. He wants her to stick to the videos where she sings or dances or is funny, like when she asked, ‘How I’m looking?’ He says she is being foolish and getting caught up in the hits and attention.
In Islamabad, men start asking Jalal, her old martial arts instructor and friend, for her phone number. At a dinner, her name comes up. He doesn’t understand why everyone is talking about her so much.
At home, he looks up her Facebook page and sees the videos and photos. He feels ashamed. She is insulting herself. When he tries to talk to her about it, she gently brushes him off. Sir, leave it be, she says. I’ve understood these people. I know better. I’m happy. I’m getting what I want. She tells him she has finally figured out how to make money. After she died, he would think of this conversation and remind himself that attention was worse than heroin.
Ahmed sometimes tells her not to talk about certain things. It is too risky. Anyone can get angry about any small thing, he warns her. But they would all say later that she did not listen to anyone, not Mec or Jalal or Ahmed or anyone who really knew her.
Whatever you try and stop me from doing, I’ll do that even more. I’ve been like that since childhood.
Two months later, she sees on the news that the president has spoken out against the celebration of Valentine’s Day as a Western concept. On social media, many are treating the statement with derision. The news is being covered internationally as well. She makes a new video. In it, she is lying in bed, wearing a low-cut red dress that shows off her cleavage. Her bed sheets match her outfit, and her dress rides up her legs to reveal her pale thighs. ‘They can stop to people go out,’ she says, ‘but they can’t stop to people love.’ She says the same thing once more, this time in Urdu, with the exaggerated American accent she uses, as though she is not used to speaking the language. Just like another rich brat who went to an English-speaking school. ‘Woh logon ko pyaar karnay se nahin rok saktay. Kuch bhi kar lein. (No matter what they do, they can’t stop people from loving).’ She whispers the message again: ‘logon ko pyaar karnay se nahin rok saktay.’
The politicians are ‘ghatiya’ (shameless) and ‘idiots’, she says with disgust. ‘At least Imran Khan doesn’t do this. That’s why I always support Imran Khan.’ She adds a personal message for him: ‘Imran, Happy Valentine’s Day. I know you’re alone and you don’t have a Valentine. I don’t either. I’m also alone. And I don’t want you to be my Valentine. I just want you to be mine… Forever.