The eye of the augur

Of Augurs and Haruspexes and Dying Airlines


There will come a time when the Houbara Bustard will become extinct. Driven by frustration and unable to think of a another way of destroying the environment, Arab princes will resort to the time honoured solution: oil; they will lower oil prices to crazy levels, and the stupid world, unable to believe its luck will manufacture and buy more cars and yet more, thereby doubling, tripling, quadrupling its consumption of oil. Finally some guy out there will come up with a wonderful idea. “Marhaba!” he will say (to the idea), and “Oh, ya Habibi!” (to the Royal Advisors). And then, because my Arabic fails me at this point, he will ask the Advisors to advise their royal patrons not to give up hope.

“Remember how we destroyed the wildlife of Pakistan. And its people helped? Well, they have another animal on the brink of extinction now, the familiar ‘bakra’, ya Habibi. Not only do they (and we) kill bakras on a mass scale on the occasion of Eid, but they kill one every time they wish to propitiate the Deity in that country.”

And after this the poor bakras will never know what hit them. Arab princes will arrive in hordes to kill black bakras and when the black bakras are closer to extinction the country will pass a law against killing them. Whereupon officials will come into their own. They will charge big money to override the law to issue licenses to kill the endangered animal until there is not a single black bakra to be found in the country.

And that is the comment for this week, frighteningly close to reality, and as frighteningly close to coming true.

Not that politicians and other mutts are new to superstition. Ne Win, who ruled Burma on and off between 1962 and 1988 considered the number ninety to be a lucky number. As a result he replaced the hundred Kyat note in the Burmese national currency with a ninety Kyat bill. He hoped by this move to win the blessings of his countrymen, and escape some kind of gory fate in the next world. Unfortunately it became a No Win situation. Excuse the pun. But for those of us who have a hard enough time calculating even in hundreds, the ninety Kyat bill proved to be as gory a move as the fate that hopefully awaited Ne Win in the next world. It’s hard to figure out how Ne Win imagined he’d win the blessings of his countrymen by such means.

He didn’t.

In India politicians are known to believe in black magic. They use tantric rituals to ward off the evil eye, wear certain colours during election time, and possess a preference for particular numbers which they incorporate into registration plates for their cars.

Yet it is still animals that suffer the most.

Pakistanis have what it takes to be entrepreneurs. Considering the lack of goals and materials, no impetus, and little encouragement, we manage to come up with remarkable results. The way some of us have done it is by identifying greed, fear, and the desire to work as little as possible as goals; politicians, officials and the Arab world as material; religious ignorance as impetus – and all of that as encouragement.

The joyous and morbidly non-vegetarian practice of ‘reading the entrails of animals’ and predicting the future was (and is) an art practiced in many countries. The Greeks and Romans did it.

You may have heard of the term ‘this augurs well’, which means that something bodes well for you. The term ‘augur’ comes from the Roman. It refers to the men who divined the Roman god’s will from various signs…weather patterns, animal behavior, crop growth. For special occasions they had a person called the ‘Haruspex’ who was trained in the particular art of reading an animal’s entrails. Just as we have state sponsored terrorism today, they had these state sponsored ‘entrail readers’ (which could stem one from the other, really) who ‘inspected the entrails of sacrificed animals’ to divine what these entrails foretold and got rich upon the proceedings.

It was a haruspex who warned Julius Caesar about the famous ‘Ides of March’ (coming up in under two and a half months, folks). It seems you did not ignore these people if you knew what was good for you.

Coming closer to home, there is apparently some self-styled religious authority, who clearly has a peeve against the RSPCA and is responsible for the massacre of a hapless bakra every day to keep the evil eye averted from the Chairperson’s person.

And of course the National Carrier, once a proud symbol of a promising nation, once a great airline to fly with turned a great airline to die with, was not to be left behind. But why bother going into details?

This is to encourage us all to pray for the black bakras. Please don’t disappear on us. Go in peace, rather than in pieces. May God grant our people wisdom to deal with issues as issues deserve to be dealt with, by diligence and hard work, proper maintenance of aircraft and other things. And may God have mercy upon the animals upon whom the eye of the augur turns, to the great detriment of that animal, its entire tribe and the country, but always to the great material advantage of the augur.




Rabia Ahmed

The writer is a freelance columnist. Read more by her at