March 4, 2008

Living in the Boonies

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:19 pm by Iram

I’ve coined a new term for myself: directionally retarded. It was, afterall, my own fault that I ended up in the middle of nowhere today while driving to the designated voting area for my precinct. In my hurry to get out the door, I mapped out 111 Upland instead of 1111 Upland Ave. Thus, my attempt to be a responsible citizen and make my vote count ended with me on the phone with a friend and his computer screen while sitting in my car in the middle of a dirt road, staring at a threadbare abandoned sofa and it’s loveseat mate, trying to ignore the dead skunk that lay in a pile of congealed blood and guts just beside my car (I didn’t kill it, I promise), and inhaling the red dust thrown up by every single Ford F-150 that passed me by. There is something to be said about the pleasure that some of my neighbors must derive from leaving furniture on the roadside: here a sofa set created an almost sarcastic seating arrangement on the roadside, and just two days ago I almost suffered a head-on collision with a torn up mattress while driving south down the only elevated loop that runs around this great city in West Texas. Between these sightings and the massive tumbleweed that perpetually threatens to scratch away the already rusting paint on my poor car and to replace my arm hairs with spiny thorns, I can never forget that I am in cowboy country. And what better reminder than the fact that, as I stood in line to cast my vote at the obscure middle school on the country road, I was for that moment the only voter not voting in the Republican primaries.

February 13, 2008

Doesn’t 911 have Google maps?

Posted in Commentary at 2:41 am by Iram

I was standing in the parking lot at Target when I heard some excited conversation going on a few rows down. Assuming it to be somebody on the phone, I ignored it and continued walking to my car, but soon the sounds that I had taken to be conversation turned into pleas for help. I turned in the direction of the commotion and tried to figure out what was going on. An African-American woman was standing by her truck, screaming something into the cell phone that she held up to her ear with one hand, while using her other hand to try to lift a lump off the floor. I moved closer and realized that it was not a lump – it was a man.

It seemed that her husband had collapsed while getting out of their truck and she was on the phone to 911 to get some help. Within seconds a small crowd had gathered around the woman. While some of the surrounding people also pulled out their phones to call 911, others helped raise the man off the ground and sat him up in the driver’s seat. His face drooped on one side, and his breathing was labored and gurgling – he was having a stroke and it seemed like he was going to choke on his tongue if somebody didn’t do something about his position. But before anybody could make any comment, he collapsed over again, this time laying himself down on his side on the passenger seat. I watched the whole scene, frozen in place. Sure, I’ve read plenty of books about the multiple causes of strokes and the symptoms seen in admitted stroke patients, and even the drugs that we’re supposed to give to stroke patients, but not once did I read about what to do when somebody has a stroke right before my eyes.

As these thoughts wandered through my panic-stricken mind I realized that all of the callers on the line to 911 were looking at each other, shocked. They had been requesting an ambulance to the Target that sits on Old Spanish Trail across the street from the Reliant Arena, but no ambulance could be dispatched without a street address. Was it not enough that we’ve given you an intersection? Apparently not. Are you kidding me? What store posts its street address in front for all of the public to read? But the operator was adamant. She simply could not dispatch the ambulance without a street address. Finally, a security officer noticed the commotion and made his way over to the crowd. He gave us the street address and the ambulance came speeding from the nearby Houston Medical Center, but I still stood in shock. One thing that I DO remember about stroke is that the faster a patient receives treatment, the better their prognosis. But in this case, the poor man was denied help for an additional five minutes simply because nobody had the exact street address of the store. When we’re talking about blood supply to the human brain, five minutes is a very long time.

February 4, 2008

Trying to NOT pay attention

Posted in Randumb at 4:29 pm by Iram

I’ve decided that I really do like this place. Medical school overall has been a terrific experience. But, every once in a while, you end up with somebody – an administrator, a classmate, a professor – who really makes you wonder about the nature of your future colleagues. I’m sitting in class right now (yes, right now, as I’m writing this post). We’re supposed to be learning about toxicology, but this particular lecturer really has a fighting chance at winning the award for the most disengaging lecturer of all time. Not only did we have an exam this morning, this is the third hour of lecture after a very heavy lunch and I’m beginning to wonder why I even bothered coming. The funny thing is, it’s very easy to gauge how my opinions of a lecture rank amongst the opinions of the rest of my classmates. I signed onto aim, hoping to use it as a means of entertainment. When I first logged in (five minutes into the lecture when I realized that the professor speaks in a monotone that is sure to put me to sleep) there were only three people on my buddy list signed on, and none of them are in medical school. Within the next 15 minutes, about thirty members of my class had logged on as well. I wonder what would happen if all of us just decided to get up and leave and make a bold, although disrespectful, statement about the quality of the lecture. Would they fix it???? I doubt it. But it’s nice to imagine myself doing something like that anyways…

January 27, 2008

Me, Myself and I

Posted in Iramville at 2:50 pm by Iram

I like the dark.

I like thunderstorms more.

I have a weakness for dark chocolate and strawberries, sometimes together.

I have an even bigger weakness for potato chips. Keep them away from me (except for the Flamin’ Hot variety). My arteries will thank you.

I find the smell of jasmine essence divine.

When I was little I used to eat whipped cream sandwiches.

I make the best walnut brownies ever – ask my brothers.

I say *y’all* instead of *you all.* I think it’s a Texas thing.

However, I say *aUnt* not *aant*. It’s a British thing.

I lived in London for three years.

I still can’t speak Katchi, but don’t think I can’t understand what you’re saying.

My Urdu is lacking too. I simply can’t seem to remember which words are masculine and which are feminine.

In general, I don’t have proficiency for foreign languages.

I have a tendency to get lost, to drop things, and to walk into things. Please help me.

I have been white water rafting in the St. Laurence River.

When we hit the rapids I didn’t scream. I also didn’t fall out of our raft.

I enjoy taking risks and tripling my heart rate.

I refuse to bungee jump though. Something about bouncing up and down by my ankles doesn’t appeal to me.

I can’t swim.

I can barely ride a bike. The scar on my chin attests to that.

I can’t roller-blade.

I am, basically, not incredibly coordinated.

I did, however, manage to learn how to ski – one pole and two fences later.

I love receiving flowers, even though they die the next day.

I also love diamonds, even though some argue that children died for them.

I hate the *Birthday Song.* I never know what to do when people are singing it.

Babies make me smile. I pinch their cheeks.

When I was a kid I used to inject water into the abdomen of ants and slice open dead cockroaches to see what was inside. This is when everybody knew I would someday be a science nerd.

I have a fascination with the “Disney Vault” and everything that comes out of it.

I can never remember my dreams. That bothers me.

I like to laugh.

I am very easily amused.

I think wit is the greatest sign of intelligence.

I am an idealist. That doesn’t mean I’m naive to reality. I just choose to believe that there is a pureness in humanity and it will prevail.

I believe in the simple philosophy of Robert Fulghum. He’s right, everything I needed to learn I did learn in kindergarten.

I can’t balance a checkbook. Well, I can; I just don’t.

I am a commitment-phobe.

I am not an animal person. But kittens are adorable.

I am not a feminist.

I do, however, fully embrace and enjoy my femininity.

Still, sometimes I think life would be easier if I was male. Then I go to the mall.

If I were a guy, I’d be a total a**.

I am a tech-geek.

I am not a Republican.

I admire humility, confidence, passion and ambition.

Arrogant pseudo-intellectuals irritate me.

I am a pseudo-artist.

My journal can be corny. I apologize. I write best when I’m stressed.

My faith defines me.

I don’t believe in infinite truth. Truth is relative, perceived. Acceptance is enlightenment.

I do believe in fate, karma and the unforeseen.

I am flawed.

I don’t like to admit I am wrong. Ever.

I am nosy.

I question everything.

Often the expanse of the universe overwhelms me with my insignificance.

I am old for my age.

*Snow White* scared me the first time I watched it.

I have watched *My Fair Lady* more than you can count.

I think every young girl should have to read *Little Women* at least twice.

Cheesy Desi music makes me happy.

Actually, anything with cheese makes me happy.

I want a guitar. No, I don’t know how to play it. Yet.

The birthmark on my belly is starting to fade. That makes me sad.

I can’t dance, but that’s never stopped me.

I seem to wear a lot of pink, even more than purple.

In my room there is a tower of shoes that nearly reaches the ceiling. And yet I always seem to end up wearing the same two pairs.

I despise the word *dude.* Though, it’s crept into my vocabulary lately.

I say the word *like* at least 50 times a day.

I run my hands through my hair at least twice that.

I can count at least five little gray hairs on my head. Damn genetics.

I am probably taller than you, especially if I am in heels.

I want the *Cosby Show* life. Why can’t they make shows like that anymore?

I want to grow old like the *Golden Girls*, preferably in the Mediterranean.

December 2, 2007

Benazir Bhutto

Posted in Commentary at 4:40 pm by Iram

Amidst the recent crisis in Pakistan that ended in Pervez Musharraf removing his uniform and holding the Pakistani Presidential Office as a civilian, I received numerous questions regarding the return of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to the impoverished country that is my cultural motherland. Many were surprised at my outright dislike of Ms. Bhutto. After all, she was the first woman leader of a Muslim country. How could I, an independent Muslim woman who values liberty and women’s rights, not like the idea of a woman returning to office in Pakistan? It should be a symbol of forthcoming liberation and development in the country, shouldn’t it? When asked verbally I did my best to explain my opinion of Ms. Bhutto, her corruption, her utter lack of competency as a political leader, and her misuse of power. But for those of you who didn’t ask yet are still interested, here is an article published almost a decade ago in the New York Times that outlines Benazir Bhutto’s life story and her stint in the world of Pakistani politics:


A decade after she led this impoverished nation from military rule to democracy, Benazir Bhutto is at the heart of a widening corruption inquiry that Pakistani investigators say has traced more than $100 million to foreign bank accounts and properties controlled by Ms. Bhutto’s family.

Starting from a cache of Bhutto family documents bought for $1 million from a shadowy intermediary, the investigators have detailed a pattern of secret payments by foreign companies that sought favors during Ms. Bhutto’s two terms as Prime Minister.

The documents leave uncertain the degree of involvement by Ms. Bhutto, a Harvard graduate whose rise to power in 1988 made her the first woman to lead a Muslim country. But they trace the pervasive role of her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who turned his marriage to Ms. Bhutto into a source of virtually unchallengeable power.

In 1995, a leading French military contractor, Dassault Aviation, agreed to pay Mr. Zardari and a Pakistani partner $200 million for a $4 billion jet fighter deal that fell apart only when Ms. Bhutto’s Government was dismissed. In another deal, a leading Swiss company hired to curb customs fraud in Pakistan paid millions of dollars between 1994 and 1996 to offshore companies controlled by Mr. Zardari and Ms. Bhutto’s widowed mother, Nusrat.

In the largest single payment investigators have discovered, a gold bullion dealer in the Middle East was shown to have deposited at least $10 million into an account controlled by Mr. Zardari after the Bhutto Government gave him a monopoly on gold imports that sustained Pakistan’s jewelry industry. The money was deposited into a Citibank account in the United Arab Emirate of Dubai, one of several Citibank accounts for companies owned by Mr. Zardari.

Together, the documents provided an extraordinarily detailed look at high-level corruption in Pakistan, a nation so poor that perhaps 70 percent of its 130 million people are illiterate, and millions have no proper shelter, no schools, no hospitals, not even safe drinking water. During Ms. Bhutto’s five years in power, the economy became so enfeebled that she spent much of her time negotiating new foreign loans to stave off default on $62 billion in public debt.

A worldwide search for properties secretly bought by the Bhutto family is still in its early stages. But the inquiry has already found that Mr. Zardari went on a shopping spree in the mid-1990’s, purchasing among other things a $4 million, 355-acre estate south of London. In 1994 and 1995, he used a Swiss bank account and an American Express card to buy jewelry worth $660,000 — including $246,000 at Cartier Inc. and Bulgari Corp. in Beverly Hills, Calif., in barely a month.

In separate interviews in Karachi, Ms. Bhutto, 44, and Mr. Zardari, 42, declined to address specific questions about the Pakistani inquiry, which they dismissed as a political vendetta by Ms. Bhutto’s successor as Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. In Karachi Central Prison, where he has been held for 14 months on charges of murdering Ms. Bhutto’s brother, Mr. Zardari described the corruption allegations as part of a ”meaningless game.” But he offered no challenge to the authenticity of the documents tracing some of his most lucrative deals.

Ms. Bhutto originally kindled wild enthusiasms in Pakistan with her populist politics, then suffered a heavy loss of support as the corruption allegations gained credence. In an interview at her fortresslike home set back from Karachi’s Arabian Sea beachfront, she was by turns tearful and defiant. ”Most of those documents are fabricated,” she said, ”and the stories that have been spun around them are absolutely wrong.”

But she refused to discuss any of the specific deals outlined in the documents, and did not explain how her husband had paid for his property and jewelry. Lamenting what she described as ”the irreparable damage done to my standing in the world” by the corruption inquiry, she said her family had inherited wealth, although not on the scale implied by tales of huge bank deposits and luxury properties overseas.

”I mean, what is poor and what is rich?” Ms. Bhutto asked. ”If you mean, am I rich by European standards, do I have a billion dollars, or even a hundred million dollars, even half that, no, I do not. But if you mean that I’m ordinary rich, yes, my father had three children studying at Harvard as undergraduates at the same time. But this wealth never meant anything to my brothers or me.”

The Student
Privileged Learning, Populist Platitudes
Ms. Bhutto, a student at Harvard and Oxford for six years in the 1970’s, has always presented herself as a tribune of the dispossessed. In a Harvard commencement speech in 1989, she said that ”avaricious politicans” had looted developing countries and left them without the means to tackle their social problems. Since she was ousted as Prime Minister during her second term, on Nov. 5, 1996, on charges that included gross corruption, she has been the leader of Pakistan’s main opposition group, the Pakistan People’s Party.

Some details of the allegations against Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Zardari appeared in European and American newspapers last fall, after Pakistani investigators began releasing some of the Bhutto family documents. But a much fuller picture emerged when several thick binders full of documents were made available to The New York Times over a period of several days in October. The Times’s own investigation, lasting three months, extended from Pakistan to the Middle East, Europe and the United States, and included interviews with many of the central figures named by the Pakistani investigators.

Officials leading the inquiry in Pakistan say that the $100 million they have identified so far is only a small part of a windfall from corrupt activities. They maintain that an inquiry begun in Islamabad just after Ms. Bhutto’s dismissal in 1996 found evidence that her family and associates generated more than $1.5 billion in illicit profits through kickbacks in virtually every sphere of government activity — from rice deals, to the sell-off of state land, even rake-offs from state welfare schemes.

The Pakistani officials say their key break came last summer, when an informer offered to sell documents that appeared to have been taken from the Geneva office of Jens Schlegelmilch, whom Ms. Bhutto described as the family’s attorney in Europe for more than 20 years, and as a close personal friend. Pakistani investigators have confirmed that the original asking price for the documents was $10 million. Eventually the seller traveled to London and concluded the deal for $1 million in cash.

The identity of the seller remains a mystery. Mr. Schlegelmilch, 55, developed his relationship with the Bhutto family through links between his Iranian-born wife and Ms. Bhutto’s mother, who was also born in Iran. In a series of telephone interviews, he declined to say anything about Mr. Zardari and Ms. Bhutto, other than that he had not sold the documents. ”It wouldn’t be worth selling out for $1 million,” he said.

The documents included: statements for several accounts in Switzerland, including the Citibank accounts in Dubai and Geneva; letters from executives promising payoffs, with details of the percentage payments to be made; memorandums detailing meetings at which these ”commissions” and ”remunerations” were agreed on, and certificates incorporating the offshore companies used as fronts in the deals, many registered in the British Virgin Islands.

The documents also revealed the crucial role played by Western institutions. Apart from the companies that made payoffs, and the network of banks that handled the money — which included Barclay’s Bank and Union Bank of Switzerland as well as Citibank — the arrangements made by the Bhutto family for their wealth relied on Western property companies, Western lawyers and a network of Western friends.

As striking as some of the payoff deals was the clinical way in which top Western executives concluded them. The documents showed painstaking negotiations over the payoffs, followed by secret contracts. In one case, involving Dassault, the contract specified elaborate arrangements intended to hide the proposed payoff for the fighter plane deal, and to prevent it from triggering French corruption laws.

Because Pakistan’s efforts to uncover the deals have been handled in recent months by close aides of Prime Minister Sharif, who has alternated with Ms. Bhutto at the head of four civilian Governments in Pakistan since the end of military rule 10 years ago, the investigation has been deeply politicized. Last week, the Sharif aides forwarded 12 corruption cases cases against Ms. Bhutto, Mr. Zardari and Nusrat Bhutto, 68, to the country’s ”accountability commission,” headed by a retired judge, who has the power to approve formal indictments.

Apart from bolstering Mr. Sharif’s power by exposing Ms. Bhutto, Mr. Sharif’s aides hope to protect him against the possibility that she will one day return to office and turn the tables on him. Mr. Sharif, who is 48, battled for years during Ms. Bhutto’s tenure to stay out of jail on a range of corruption charges, including allegations that he took millions of dollars in unsecured loans from state-owned banks for his family’s steel empire, then defaulted.

The Heritage
Landowning Class Accustomed to Rule
The Bhuttos are among a few hundred so-called feudal families, mostly large landowners, that have dominated politics and business in Pakistan since its creation in 1947.

Ms. Bhutto’s father was an Oxford-educated landowner who became Pakistan’s Prime Minister in the 1970’s, only to be ousted and jailed in 1977 when his military chief, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, mounted a coup. Mr. Bhutto was hanged two years later, after he refused General Zia’s offer of clemency for a murder conviction that many Pakistanis regarded as politically tainted.

Benazir Bhutto, the eldest of four children, spent the next decade under house arrest, in jail or in self-imposed exile, campaigning against General Zia’s military regime.

In 1987 she married Mr. Zardari, little known then for anything but a passion for polo. It was an arranged union, with Ms. Bhutto’s mother picking the groom. Many Pakistanis were startled by the social and financial differences. By the Bhuttos’ standards, Mr. Zardari’s family was of modest means, with limited holdings and a rundown movie theater in Karachi. Mr. Zardari’s only experience of higher education was a stint at a commercial college in London.

In part the match was intended to protect Ms. Bhutto’s political career by countering conservative Muslims’ grumbling about her unmarried status. Barely eight months later, in 1988, General Zia was killed in a mysterious plane crash, which opened the way for Ms. Bhutto to win a narrow election victory.

Years later, many Pakistanis still speak of the mesmeric effect she had at that moment, as the daughter who had avenged her father and the politician who had restored democracy. But euphoria faded fast. Within months, newspapers were headlining allegations of dubious deals. In the bazaars, traders soon dubbed Mr. Zardari ”Mr. 10 Percent.”

Twenty months after she took office, Ms. Bhutto was dismissed by Pakistan’s President on grounds of corruption and misrule. But the Sharif Government that succeeded Ms. Bhutto was unable to secure any convictions against her or her husband before Mr. Sharif, in turn, was ousted from office, also for corruption and misrule.

Mostly, Pakistanis gave Ms. Bhutto the benefit of the doubt after her first term, saying she might not have known what Mr. Zardari was doing. She was further aided by public suspicion of Mr. Sharif’s motives. A taciturn man who got his start in politics as a protege of General Zia, Mr. Sharif has left little doubt of his chagrin at having been overshadowed by Ms. Bhutto.

Part of his discomfort stemmed from her success in fostering a favorable image for herself in the United States, as a staunch foe of Muslim fundamentalism, a relentless campaigner for the rights of the poor and — a point she stressed in her Harvard speech in 1989 — an opponent of leaders who use their power for personal gain, then ”leave the cupboard bare.”

When she took office as Prime Minister again, after a victory in 1993, Ms. Bhutto struck many of her friends as a changed person, obsessed with her dismissal in 1990, high-handed to the point of arrogance, and contemptuous of the liberal principles she had placed at the center of her politics in the 1980’s. ”She no longer made the distinction between the Bhuttos and Pakistan,” said Hussain Haqqani, Ms. Bhutto’s former press secretary. ”In her mind, she was Pakistan, so she could do as she pleased.”

Ms. Bhutto’s twin posts, as Prime Minister and Finance Minister, gave her virtually free rein. Mr. Zardari became her alter ego, riding roughshod over the bureaucracy although he had no formal economic powers until Ms. Bhutto appointed him Investment Minister, reporting only to herself, in July 1996. They maintained an imperial lifestyle in the new Prime Minister’s residence in Islamabad, a $50 million mansion set on 110 acres on an Islamabad hilltop.

Within weeks of moving in, Mr. Zardari ordered 11.5 acres of protected woodland on an adjoining hilltop to be bulldozed for a polo field, an exercise track, stabling for 40 polo ponies, quarters for grooms and a parking lot for spectators. When a senior Government official, Mohammed Mehdi, objected to paying for the project with $1.3 million diverted from a budget for parks and other public amenities, Mr. Zardari ”categorically told me that he does not appreciate his orders to be examined and questioned by any authority,” according to an affidavit filed with the Pakistani investigators by Mr. Mehdi. A few months later, with the work in progress, Mr. Zardari had Mr. Mehdi dismissed.

The investigators say that Mr. Zardari and associates he brought into the Government, some of them old school friends, began reviewing state programs for opportunities to make money. It was these broader activities, the investigators assert, more than the relatively small number of foreign deals revealed in the documents taken from the Swiss lawyer, that netted the largest sums for the Bhutto family.

Among the transactions Mr. Zardari exploited, according to these officials: defense contracts; power plant projects; the privatization of state-owned industries; the awarding of broadcast licenses; the granting of an export monopoly for the country’s huge rice harvest; the purchase of planes for Pakistan International Airlines; the assignment of textile export quotas; the granting of oil and gas permits; authorizations to build sugar mills, and the sale of government lands.

The officials have said that Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Zardari took pains to avoid creating a documentary record of their role in hundreds of deals. How this was done was explained by Najam Sethi, a former Bhutto loyalist who became the editor of Pakistan’s most popular political weekly, Friday Times, then was drafted to help oversee a corruption inquiry undertaken by the caretaker Government that ruled for three months after Ms. Bhutto’s dismissal in 1996.

Mr. Sethi said Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Zardari adopted a system under which they assigned favors by writing orders on yellow Post-It notes and attaching them to official files. After the deals were completed, Mr. Sethi said, the notes were removed, destroying all trace of involvement.

When Mr. Sharif won a landslide election victory earlier this year, the corruption inquiry appeared, again, to fizzle. But a few days before the election, the caretakers hired Jules Kroll Associates, a New York investigative agency, to look for evidence of corruption abroad. The Kroll investigators put out feelers in Europe; Mr. Sharif’s aides said it was one of these that produced the offer to sell the Bhutto family documents, and that they took over from Kroll Associates and completed the deal.

The Negotiations
Flight and Crash Of a Dassault Deal
Potentially the most lucrative deal uncovered by the documents involved the effort by Dassault Aviation, the French military contractor, to sell Pakistan 32 Mirage 2000-5 fighter planes. These were to replace two squadrons of American-made F-16’s whose purchase was blocked when the Bush Administration determined in 1990 that Pakistan was covertly developing nuclear weapons.

In April 1995, Dassault found itself in arm’s-length negotiations with Mr. Zardari and Amer Lodhi, a Paris-based lawyer and banker who had lived for years in the United States, working among other things as an executive of the now-defunct Bank of Commerce and Credit International. Mr. Lodhi’s sister, Maleeha, a former Pakistan newspaper editor, became Ms. Bhutto’s Ambassador to the United States in 1994.

Mr. Schlegelmilch, the Geneva lawyer, wrote a memo for his files describing his talks at Dassault’s headquarters on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. According to the memo, the company’s executives offered a ”remuneration” of 5 percent to Marleton Business S.A., an offshore company controlled by Mr. Zardari. The memo indicated that in addition to Dassault, the payoff would be made by two companies involved in the manufacture of the Mirages: Snecma, an engine manufacturer, and Thomson-CSF, a maker of aviation electronics.

The documents offered intriguing insights into the anxieties that the deal aroused. In a letter faxed to Geneva, the Dassault executives — Jean-Claude Carrayrou, Dassault’s director of legal affairs, and Pierre Chouzenoux, the international sales manager — wrote that ”for reasons of confidentiality,” there would be only one copy of the contract guaranteeing the payoff. It would be kept at Dassault’s Paris office, available to Mr. Schlegelmilch only during working hours.

The deal reached with Mr. Schlegelmilch reflected concerns about French corruption laws, which forbid bribery of French officials but permit payoffs to foreign officials, and even make the payoffs tax-deductible in France. The Swiss and the French have resisted American pressures to sign a worldwide treaty that would hold all businesses to the ethical standards of American law, which sets criminal penalties for bribing foreign officials.

”It is agreed that no part of the above-mentioned remuneration will be transferred to a French citizen, or to any company directly or indirectly controlled by French individuals or companies, or to any beneficiary of a resident or nonresident bank account in France,” one of the Dassault documents reads.

Negotiations on the Mirage contract were within weeks of completion when Ms. Bhutto was dismissed by another Pakistani President in 1996. They have bogged down since, partly because Pakistan has run out of money to buy the planes, and partly because the Pakistan Army, still politically powerful a decade after the end of military rule, waited until Ms. Bhutto was removed to weigh in against the purchase.

A Dassault spokesman, Jean-Pierre Robillard, said Mr. Carrayrou, the legal affairs director, had retired. Two weeks after he was sent a summary of the documents, Mr. Robillard said that the company had decided to make no comment.

The Profits
Scams at Both Ends Of Customs System
One deal that appears to have made a handsome profit for Mr. Zardari involved Pakistan’s effort to increase its customs revenues. Since fewer than one in every 100 Pakistanis pays income tax, customs revenues represent the state’s largest revenue source. But for decades the system has been corrupted, with businesses underinvoicing imports, or paying bribes, to escape duties.

In the 1980’s Pakistan came under pressure from the International Monetary Fund to increase government revenues and to cut a runaway budget deficit. During Ms. Bhutto’s first term, Pakistan entrusted preshipment ”verification” of all major imports to two Swiss companies with blue-ribbon reputations, Societe Generale de Surveillance S.A. and a subsidiary, Cotecna Inspection S.A. But the documents suggest that this stab at improving Pakistan’s fiscal soundness was quickly turned to generating profits for the Bhutto family’s accounts.

In 1994, executives of the two Swiss companies wrote promising to pay ”commissions” totaling 9 percent to three offshore companies controlled by Mr. Zardari and Nusrat Bhutto. A Cotecna letter in June 1994 was direct: ”Should we receive, within six months of today, a contract for inspection and price verification of goods imported into Pakistan,” it read, ”we will pay you 6 percent of the total amount invoiced and paid to the Government of Pakistan for such a contract and during the whole duration of that contract and its renewal.”

Similar letters, dated March and June 1994, were sent by Societe Generale de Surveillance promising ”consultancy fees” of 6 percent and 3 percent to two other offshore companies controlled by the Bhutto family. According to Pakistani investigators, the two Swiss companies inspected more than $15.4 billion in imports into Pakistan from January 1995 to March 1997, making more than $131 million. The investigators estimated that the Bhutto family companies made $11.8 million from the deals, at least a third of which showed up in banking documents taken from the Swiss lawyer.

For Societe Generale de Surveillance, with 35,000 employees and more than $2 billion a year in earnings, the relationship with the Bhutto family has been painful. In addition to doing customs inspections, the company awards certificates of technical quality. In effect, its business is integrity.

In an interview in Geneva, Elisabeth Salina Amorini, president of Societe Generale, said the Pakistan contracts had been the subject of an internal company inquiry. But Ms. Salina Amorini, a 42-year-old lawyer, said the company had reorganized its government contracts division under a new executive and had sold Cotecna, acquired in 1994, back to the family that had previously owned it. The internal inquiry, she told reporters in Geneva last month, had shown ”a number of inadequacies which enabled certain irregularities to take place.”

Ms. Salina Amorini said in the interview that a study of Societe Generale’s dealings with Pakistan had uncovered a $650 million shortfall in customs revenues that the Bhutto Government was supposed to have collected over a 21-month period in 1995 and 1996. She said the company had reported the shortfall to Washington-based officials of the monetary fund and the World Bank, which monitor customs revenues to check Pakistan’s compliance with conditions set for emergency loans. The conditions are meant to help the country avoid default on its foreign debt.

Officials at the two financial institutions are investigating the Swiss company’s report to determine whether the customs system was corrupted at both ends — from commissions paid to Bhutto family companies on the preshipment inspection contracts and, later, in illicit payments by Pakistani importers seeking to avoid the customs duties that the Swiss companies had determined they owed.

The Gold Connection
Granting a License, Reaping a Profit
Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast, stretching from Karachi to the border with Iran, has long been a gold smugglers’ haven. Until the beginning of Ms. Bhutto’s second term, the trade, running into hundreds of millions of dollars a year, was unregulated, with slivers of gold called biscuits, and larger weights in bullion, carried on planes and boats that travel between the Persian Gulf and the largely unguarded Pakistani coast.

Shortly after Ms. Bhutto returned as Prime Minister in 1993, a Pakistani bullion trader in Dubai, Abdul Razzak Yaqub, proposed a deal: in return for a license to import gold, Mr. Razzak would help the Government regularize the trade.

In January 1994, weeks after Ms. Bhutto began her second term, Mr. Schlegelmilch established a British Virgin Island company known as Capricorn Trading, S.A., with Mr. Zardari as its principal owner. Nine months later, on Oct. 5, 1994, an account was opened at the Dubai offices of Citibank in the name of Capricorn Trading. The same day, a Citibank deposit slip for the account shows a deposit of $5 million by Mr. Razzak’s company, ARY Traders. Two weeks later, another Citibank deposit slip showed that ARY had paid a further $5 million.

In November 1994, Pakistan’s Commerce Ministry wrote to Mr. Razzak informing him that he had been granted a license that made him, for at least the next two years, Pakistan’s sole authorized gold importer. In an interview in his office in Dubai, Mr. Razzak acknowedged that he had used the license to import more than $500 million in gold into Pakistan, and that he had traveled to Islamabad several times to meet with Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Zardari. But he denied that there had been any secret deal. ”I have not paid a single cent to Zardari,” he said.

Mr. Razzak offered an unusual explanation for the Citibank documents that showed his company paying the $10 million to Mr. Zardari, suggesting that someone in Pakistan who wished to destroy his reputation had contrived to have his company wrongly identified as the depositor of the money. ”Somebody in the bank has cooperated with my enemies to make false documents,” he said.

The Documentation
Erasing the Proofs Of Secret Power
The Pakistani investigation of Ms. Bhutto’s two terms in office has tied a range of overseas properties to her husband and other family members. Among these are Rockwood, a 355-acre estate south of London, and a $2.5 million country manor in Normandy. The listed owners of the manor, which is known as the House of the White Queen, are Hakim and Zarrin Zardari.

Other properties that Pakistani investigators have linked to members of the Bhutto family include a string of luxury apartments in London. Pakistan has asked the United States Justice Department to investigate still more bank accounts and properties, including a country club and a polo ranch in Palm Beach County, Florida, said to be worth about $4 million, that were bought by associates of Mr. Zardari in the mid-1990’s.

The Pakistani request to Washington, made in December, also sought help in checking allegations that some of Mr. Zardari’s wealth may have come from Pakistani drug traffickers paying for protection. In the past decade, Pakistan and its neighbor Afghanistan have become the world’s largest source of heroin, shipping 250 tons of it every year to Europe and the United States.

The purchase of overseas properties by well-connected members of the elite in a developing country is hardly a new phenomenon. But the disclosures about Ms. Bhutto’s family have underscored a trend that international financial officials have long found troubling: the willingness of the monetary fund and the World Bank to prop up economies like Pakistan’s that have been bled dry by corruption.

A former high-ranking official of the World Bank in Islamabad who requested anonymity acknowledged that both institutions were all too willing to make additional loans on the vague promise that corruption would be reined in. ”We made a mantra out of the phrase ‘good governance,’ ” the official said, ”as though we intended to try and stamp the corruption out. But the truth is that we turned a blind eye.”

In the years Ms. Bhutto was in office, Pakistan received billions of dollars in new loans, mostly to enable it to pay interest on its debt. By 1996, interest on the accumulated public debt, including $32 billion in foreign loans, was absorbing nearly 70 percent of state revenues. With Pakistan’s defense costs absorbing the remaining 30 percent, scarcely anything was left for the social programs that Ms. Bhutto had promised.

While the Times inquiry confirmed some of the allegations made by the Pakistani investigators, other matters remained unresolved. For example, none of the documents for the foreign bank accounts or offshore companies uncovered thus far bear Ms. Bhutto’s name, nor do any of the letters promising payoffs make any mention of her.

The only document that refers to Ms. Bhutto is a handwritten ledger for an account at the Union Bank of Switzerland in Geneva. In Mr. Schlegelmilch’s handwriting, the ledger contains the notation ”50% AAZ 50 % BB.” This account showed deposits of $1.8 million for one 90-day period in 1994 and received at least $860,000 in payments by the two Swiss customs-inspection companies.

Some of Ms. Bhutto’s friends say she cannot fairly be held accountable for her husband’s questionable deals, since she was too busy as Prime Minister to know of them. Others say Ms. Bhutto, having lost her father and both of her brothers in tragic circumstances, became overdependent emotionally on Mr. Zardari.

Her younger brother, Shahnawaz, died of poisoning in Cannes, France, in 1985 after a dispute that Murtaza Bhutto, her older brother, linked to arguments over family assets stashed in Switzerland. Murtaza Bhutto was killed in September 1986 after a long-running power struggle with his sister and her husband. Mr. Zardari has been charged with masterminding the second murder, but he and Ms. Bhutto say he was framed.

Officials say Mr. Zardari made no attempt to disguise his activities from his wife, holding meetings on some of his deals in the Prime Minister’s residence, and invoking his wife’s authority when ordering officials to override regulations meant to prevent graft in the assignment of contracts.

Furthermore, several senior officials in Ms. Bhutto’s Governments said they had met with repeated rebuffs when they tried to warn her about Mr. Zardari. One senior minister said that when he had raised the issue, ”She said, ‘How dare you talk to me like that?’ and stalked out.”

Nor has Ms. Bhutto made any effort to distance herself from Mr. Zardari. In the Karachi interview, she said her husband’s deals had been made only for Pakistan’s benefit. ”He’s a very generous person,” she said. ”His weakness, and his strength, is that he’s always trying to help people.”

The tax returns filed by Ms. Bhutto and her husband in her years in office give no hint of the wealth uncovered by the Pakistani inquiry. Ms. Bhutto, Mr. Zardari and Nusrat Bhutto declared assets totaling $1.2 million in 1996 and never told authorities of any foreign accounts or properties, as required by law. Mr. Zardari declared no net assets at all in 1990, the year Ms. Bhutto’s first term ended, and only $402,000 in 1996.

The family’s income tax declarations were similarly modest. The highest income Ms. Bhutto declared was $42,200 in 1996, with $5,110 in tax. In two of her years as Prime Minister, 1993 and 1994, she paid no income tax at all. Mr. Zardari’s highest declared income was $13,100, also in 1996, when interest on bank deposits he controlled in Switzerland exceeded that much every week.

Pakistan’s inquiry is in its early phases, but it has already prompted international action. Swiss officials have frozen 17 bank accounts belonging to the Bhutto family, and authorities in Britain and France are searching for other accounts and properties.

Ms. Bhutto described the investigation as a persecution. At one point she attacked the Clinton Administration, saying it had ignored her plight while deploring the treatment of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader and Nobel laureate.

”This is the most horrendous human rights record, what is happening to me, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan,” Ms. Bhutto said. ”It is shocking to see that the Clinton Administration talks so much about Burma, when this is happening to a woman who leads the opposition here.” Tears welling in her eyes, she added, ”The Bhuttos have suffered so much for Pakistan.”
Correction: January 10, 1998, Saturday An article yesterday about corruption in Pakistan misstated the year that the brother of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was killed. It was 1996, not 1986.

Because of an editing error, the article also referred incompletely to Hakim and Zarrin Zardari, the owners of a manor house in Normandy. They are the parents of Mrs. Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who is the focus of a corruption inquiry.

Correction: January 23, 1998, Friday An article on Jan. 9 about the financial dealings of the family of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan referred incorrectly to the holder of a 1990 contract to provide preshipment verification of major imports for the Pakistani Government. The contract signed by Ms. Bhutto’s Government was with Cotecna, a Swiss concern, which later became an affiliate of Societe Generale de Surveillance, another Swiss company; S.G.S. was not the holder of the 1990 contract.

September 28, 2007


Posted in Randumb at 11:41 am by Iram

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

–William Ernest Henley

September 20, 2007

A Serenade from the Laughing Spaceman

Posted in Randumb at 5:50 am by Iram

As sung by Spock on the Star Trek episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” that just happened to be playing when I turned the t.v. on during breakfast this morning.

Take care young ladies and value your wine.

Be watchful of young men in their velvet prime.

Deeply they’ll swallow from your finest kegs,

Then swiftly be gone, leaving bitter dregs.

Ah, bitter dregs.

With smiling words and tender touch,

Man offers little and asks for so much.

He loves in the breathless excitement of night,

Then leaves with your treasure in cold morning light.

Ah, in cold morning light.

September 11, 2007

Reflections After a Whole Year in Medical School

Posted in Iramville at 4:58 pm by Iram

I began to pave my path to medical school many years ago, at the young age of 4. I was in Pakistan, visiting my extended family, when the neighbor knocked on our door. She was in a desperate state, carrying her young son in her arms, and was begging for the help of my aunt who was the only physician at the time in our family. I don’t remember many of the details regarding the child’s illness or my aunt’s treatment, but I do remember announcing to everyone right then and there that one day I would be a doctor so that I could help the neighbors too. Since then, I have done quite a bit of growing and maturing, but even on entering medical school last year and donning the shortened version of the white coat my ultimate goal was the same: I was here to help people and make their lives, and even their deaths, better and more bearable.

The first year of school has changed my perspectives on a career in medicine quite profoundly. I have learned a lot about the complicated nature of my goal. I have seen patients deny our care, preferring a “dignified death” to pills and side-effects that promise to keep their brain functioning and their heart beating but cannot cure their ailing souls. I have witnessed physicians teetering across the gray line between minor manipulation and outright fraud in order to provide patients with the care that they need but cannot, by any means, afford. I have experienced the difficulty of juggling multiple responsibilities while constantly staring at the second hand that simply will not tick any slower. Overall, beyond the textbooks, studying and exams that define the first two years of medical school, I have learned a lot about what struggles physicians face on a day to day basis trying to ensure that every single individual under their care receives – and accepts – the appropriate treatment. Issues such as patient autonomy, Medicare, palliative care and noncompliance have moved from being in a mere shadow in some dark corner of my unconscious mind to the forefront of my conscious thought. Throughout all of this, though, my ultimate goal has not changed. I am still here to better the quality of life and death of those around me who honor me by putting their health into my hands. And although I can now recognize, and even lament at, the many roadblocks that make such a noble path so difficult, it has only furthered my appreciation for all of the health care providers that continue to put in their best effort at patient care.

Life as a physician will never be easy, certainly not in the field of Family Medicine that I currently plan to pursue. When you are delivering life into the world with one hand, you are covering a face with stark white sheets with the other. Time spent with family inevitably turns into time shared with a pager and a cell phone, giving instructions to strangers on the other end of the line. I still have several years before I hit this stage in my career, but when I do I hope to be able to incorporate some ideals into my lifestyle that will not only help me serve my patients better, but will also help me maintain my own health and family relationships. I want to be the doctor that is always available to help – whether my patients come in with an illogical concern to which I simply have to patiently listen, or they come to me injured and bleeding hoping for ointment for their wounds. At the same time, I also want to be the doctor that knows when to shut the phone off and pay attention to my own family members, who will someday contribute to the world’s future in a way that I myself will never be able. I also want to be the physician that realizes that my own health needs to be at the top of my priority list; I cannot help my patients if I myself am not in prime condition to think and act. I never want to give up on new ideas and treatments, or close my mind to innovative research projects, but at the same time I never want to recommend any of these to my patients without thoroughly doing my homework first. And perhaps most importantly, I would like to gain the respect and trust of my colleagues and friends and have them know that I will never do anything less than what is within my means to approach any situation that is brought to me. I think my ideals are best summed up by the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is the meaning of success.”

September 10, 2007

Arranged Marriage – A Modern Perspective on a Seemingly Archaic System

Posted in Commentary at 3:25 pm by Iram

This article, published by the New York Magazine, strongly reverberates with many of my current viewpoints regarding the system of arranged marriage that is so deeply rooted in South Asian culture. At an age where many of my friends, myself included, have begun to wonder who that special someone will be who will come and sweep them off their feet to live happily ever after, I can deeply appreciate the sentiments expressed herein by the writer. So, to all of those lovely ladies with whom I have spent evenings and nights discussing and dreaming about ‘HIM’, enjoy!

Is Arranged Marriage Really Any Worse Than Craigslist?

As with any singles Website geared toward one community, you also get your interlopers. A 44-year-old Jewish doctor managed to make my dad’s first cut: He was a doctor. Mark said he believed Indians and Jews shared similar values, like family and education. I didn’t necessarily have a problem with his search for an Indian wife. (Isn’t it when they dislike us for our skin color that we’re supposed to get upset?) But when I met him for dinner, he seemed a decade older than he was, which made me feel like I was a decade younger.

My father’s screening method is hardly foolproof. Once, he was particularly taken with a suitor who claimed to be a brain surgeon at Johns Hopkins and friends with a famous Bollywood actress, Madhuri Dixit. I was suspicious, but I agreed to speak to the fellow. Within seconds, his shaky command of English and yokel line of questioning—“You are liking dancing? I am too much liking dancing”—told me this man was as much a brain surgeon as I was Madhuri Dixit. I refused to talk to him again, even though my father persisted in thinking I was bullheaded. “Don’t you think we would make sure his story checked out before marrying you off?” he said.

Sometimes, though, you get close, really close. A year ago, I was put in touch with a McKinsey consultant in Bombay whom I’ll call Sameer. I liked the fact that he was Indian-American but had returned to India to work. We had great conversations on the phone—among other things, he had interesting views on how people our age were becoming more sexually liberated in Indian cities—and I began envisioning myself kept in the finest silk saris. My father kept telling me he wanted it all “wrapped up” by February—it was only Christmas! Sameer had sent a picture, and while he wasn’t Shah Rukh Khan, he wasn’t bad.

Back for a break in New York, Sameer kindly came to see me in Brooklyn. We went to a French bistro, where he leaned over the table and said, “You know, your father really shouldn’t send out those photos of you. They don’t do justice to your beauty.” Sameer was generous, good-natured, engaging, seemingly besotted with me, on an expat salary—and also on the Atkins diet to lose 50 pounds. My Bombay dreams went up in smoke.

In this, I guess I am like every other woman in New York, complaining a man is too ambitious or not ambitious enough, too eager or not eager enough. But they are picky, too. These men, in their bid to fit in on Wall Street or on the golf course, would like a wife who is eminently presentable—to their boss, friends, and family. They would like a woman to be sophisticated enough to have a martini, and not a Diet Coke, at an office party, but, God forbid, not “sophisticated” enough to have three. Sometimes I worry that I’m a bit too sophisticated for most Indian men.

That’s not to say I haven’t come to appreciate what Indian men have to offer, which is a type of seriousness, a clarity of intent. I’ve never heard from an Indian man the New York beg-off phrase “I don’t think I’m ready for a relationship right now. I have a lot of things going on in my life.”

Indian men also seem to share my belief that Westerners have made the progression toward marriage unnecessarily agonizing. Neal, a 35-year-old Indian lawyer I know, thinks it’s absurd how a couple in America can date for years and still not know if they want to get married. “I think I would only need a couple of months to get to know a girl before I married her,” he says.

In more traditional arranged marriages—which are still very much alive and well in India—couples may get only one or two meetings before their wedding day. In America, and in big Indian cities, a couple may get a few months before they are expected to walk down the aisle, or around the fire, as they do seven times, in keeping with Hindu custom. By now I certainly think that would be enough time for me.

Other Indian women I know seem to be coming to the same conclusion. My friend Divya works the overnight shift at the BBC in London and stays out clubbing on her nights off. Imagine my surprise when I discovered she was on, courtesy of her mother, who took the liberty of listing Divya’s hobbies as shopping and movies. (I was under the impression her hobbies were more along the lines of trance music and international politics.) Though she’s long favored pubgoing blokes, Divya, like me, doesn’t discount the possibility that the urologist from Trivandrum or the IT guy could just be the one—an idea patently unthinkable to us in our twenties.

It’s become second nature for women like us to straddle the two dating worlds. When I go out on a first date with an Indian man, I find myself saying things I would never utter to an American. Like, “I would expect my husband to fully share domestic chores.” Undeniably, there’s a lack of mystery to Indian-style dating, because both parties are fully aware of what the endgame should be. But with that also comes a certain relief.

With other forms of dating the options seem limitless. The long kiss in the bar with someone I’ve never met before could have been just that, an exchange that has a value and meaning of its own that can’t be quantified. Ditto for the one-night stand. (Try explaining that one to my parents.) The not-knowing-where-something-is-headed can be wildly exciting. It can also be a tad soul-crushing. Just ask any single woman in New York.

Indians of my mother’s generation—in fact, my mother herself—like to say of arranged marriage, “It’s not that there isn’t love. It’s just that it comes after the marriage.” I’m still not sure I buy it. But after a decade of Juan Carloses and short-lived affairs with married men and Craigslist flirtations and emotionally bankrupt boyfriends and, oddly, the most painful of all, the guys who just never call, it no longer seems like the most outlandish possibility.

Some of my single friends in New York say they’re still not convinced marriage is what they really want. I’m not sure I buy that, either. And no modern woman wants to close the door on any of her options—no matter how traditional—too hastily.

My friend Radhika, an unmarried 37-year-old photographer, used to hate going to her cousins’ weddings, where the aunties never asked her about the famines in Africa or the political conflict in Cambodia she’d covered. Instead it was, “Why aren’t you married? What are your intentions?” As much as she dreaded this, they’ve stopped asking, and for Radhika, that’s even worse. “It’s like they’ve written me off,” she says.

On a recent trip to India, I was made to eat dinner at the children’s table—they sent out for Domino’s pizza and Pepsis—because as an unmarried woman, I didn’t quite fit in with the adults. As much as I resented my exile, I realized that maybe I didn’t want to be eating vegetable curry and drinking rum with the grown-ups. Maybe that would have meant they’d given up on me, that they’d stopped viewing me as a not-yet-married girl but as an unmarriageable woman who’d ruined her youth by being too choosy and strong-headed.

This way, the aunties can still swing by the kids’ table as I’m sucking on a Pepsi and chucking a young cousin on the chin, and ask me, “When are you getting married? What are your intentions?” And I can say, “Auntie, do you have a boy in mind?”

August 22, 2007

Something to contemplate…

Posted in Randumb at 6:17 pm by Iram

“If you want to explain a poison properly, what then is not a poison? All things are poisonous, nothing is without poison; the dose alone causes a thing not to be a poison.”

~~Paracelsus (1493-1541)

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