Many of us travel for business or leisure. But few ever take a trip that dramatically shatters their entire worldview of a country and a people in one fell swoop. I was lucky enough to have returned from just such a trip: a week-long sojourn in Pakistan.
It was a true eye-opener, and a thoroughly enjoyable one at that. Many of the assumptions and feelings I had held toward the country for nearly 30 years were challenged and exposed as wrong and even ignorant outright.
Yes, I was aware of all the reasons not to go, safety foremost among them. As an American, an Indian, and a Hindu there seemed to be multiple reasons for someone of my background to have concerns about security. Relatives and friends couldn’t hide their dismay and genuine fear; a frequent question was “why would you want to go?” The subtext is that there’s nothing to see there that’s worth the risk.
The Western and Indian media feed us a steady diet of stories about bomb blasts, gunfights, kidnappings, torture, subjugation of women, dysfunctional government, and scary madrassa schools that are training the next generation of jihadist terrorists. And yes, to many Westerners and especially Indians, Pakistan is the enemy, embodying all that is wrong in the world. Incidents such as the beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl, 26/11 and the Osama Bin Laden raid in Abottobad have not helped the cause either. Numerous international relations analysts proclaim that Pakistan is “the most dangerous place in the world” and the border with India is “the most dangerous border in the world.”
I’m not naive enough to argue that these proclamations don’t have some elements of truth; through extensive academic work on Pakistan’s governance, its history, and its nuclear weapons arsenal I know that some problems are real. Rather, I am here to tell you that these aspects are overblown; that this country is about so much more, a whole other and much larger, beautiful, glorious, and uplifting side not given equal time by the media. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. And it’s time that Indians and Americans acknowledge Pakistan for what it really is as a whole- and our ignorance for what that is.
It may be easy to dismiss my firsthand experience as anecdotal: yes, I stayed in affluent neighborhoods in large cities, mostly met those who belong to the educated elite, was protected by firearm-toting bodyguards, and rarely revealed my ethnic background to most of the new people I met. Funnily enough, I don’t think now that the absence of any of these factors would have changed my experience at all.
My trip to Pakistan was not planned much in advance. I was in Sri Lanka for a friend’s wedding and spent a great deal of time with two Pakistani friends from my undergraduate days at Georgetown. Both are now businessmen, one in Karachi and the other in Lahore. I was going to be in India soon, and mentioned that a trip to Pakistan is something I always wanted to do, but I was too scared to execute it. Over the next few hours, we had some beer and seafood by the hotel swimming pool in Colombo and got into a detailed and lively discussion, during which time they insisted I visit and guaranteed my safety throughout the stay. My concerns allayed, I promised to make it happen, probably the first person from my family tree to visit Pakistan since the bloody 1947 partition. I was fortunate to have the opportunity for a fully hosted trip and couldn’t pass it up anymore. I have realized now more than ever before how deep the friendships forged during college can run- cutting across borders, cultures, and time.
As I was about to land in Karachi on my flight from Colombo, Sri Lanka (direct flights from India are few and far between), I was gripped by a familiar fear. What the hell was I doing? What if I got detained in the airport and then deported because they found out my Indian ancestry and suspected my motives? How would my parents react if they learned I was the victim of a bomb blast while traveling around the city? On the plane I sat next to a very chatty and friendly executive from Lahore, who had gone to Sri Lanka on business. He was excited to tell me about Pakistan since it was my first visit, and the conversation was pleasant enough. But I kept feeling the growing knot of fear in my stomach. I tried to be brave as the plane landed. As my friend had said, 20 million people live in Karachi and now and then bad things happen, but the odds of it affecting me were very low.
Fortunately I got through immigration at the Quaid-e-Azam Airport quickly, and a friend was waiting for me with his pickup truck. The first thing I saw outside the airport was… a giant McDonald’s restaurant surrounded by a large and well-manicured green lawn. An unexpected welcome from the golden arches on a sunny, hot day.
Two uniformed bodyguards with rifles who were exceedingly friendly and welcoming climbed onto the pickup truck bed as we started on a 45-minute drive. I was impressed by the massive, well-maintained parks and gardens surrounding the airport. I was also impressed by the general cleanliness, the orderliness of the traffic, the quality of the roads, and the greenery. Coming from a city government background, I was surprised at how organized Karachi was throughout the ride. I also didn’t see many beggars the entire way. I had just spent significant amounts of time in two major Indian cities, Mumbai and Bangalore, as well as several second-tier cities like Mangalore, and none would compare favorably on maintenance and city planning, especially when it came to potholes and waste management. This was the first surprise; I was expecting that piles of garbage and dirt would line the roads and beggars would overflow onto the streets. Surely there is dirt and poverty in Karachi, but far less than I was expecting. Karachi was also less dense and crowded than India’s cities.
My second pleasant surprise was to see numerous large development projects under way. I had read about Pakistan’s sluggish GDP growth and corruption in public works and foreign aid disbursement. This may be true, but construction was going on all over the place: new movie theaters, new malls, new skyscrapers, new roads, and entire new neighborhoods being built from scratch. In this regard it was similar to India and every other part of Asia I had seen recently: new development and rapid change continues apace, something we are seeing less of in the West.
Just a few of the many highlights in Karachi included relaxing at beachside cafes, dining at amazing tandoori restaurants such as the massive Barbecue Tonight, an excellent burger/brunch joint called Xander’s, a visit to the historic and beautiful Mazar-e-Quaid where the nation’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah is entombed in a marble mausoleum, visiting a book fair next to the British-era Frere Hall, and a sailboat ride around the Karachi port where a magnificent crab feast fit for a Mogul emperor was served on board. The service was so impeccable, the cooks would crack and remove individual crab claw shells by hand to make it easier to access the fresh meat.
We were also able to do some things which may sound more familiar to Americans: bowling at Karachi’s first bowling alley, intense games of pickup basketball with some local teenagers at a large public park (these kids could really play), or passing through massive and well-appointed malls filled with thousands of happy people of all ages walking around, shopping, or eating at the food court. We even attended a grand launch party for Magnum ice cream bars, featuring many of Pakistan’s A-list actors, models, and businesspeople. A friend who is involved in producing musicals directed an excellent performance at the party, complete with live band, singing, and dancing. This troupe, Made for Stage has also produced shows such as the Broadway musical Chicago to critical acclaim with an all-Pakistani cast for the first time in history.
Even the poor areas we visited, such as the neighborhoods around the Mazar, were filled with families coming out for a picnic or a stroll, enjoying their weekend leisure time in the sun. All I could see were friendly and happy people, including children with striking features running around. At no time did I feel the least bit unsafe anywhere we went, and we definitely went through a mix of neighborhoods with varying profiles.
Lahore is more beautiful overall than Karachi or any large Indian city I’ve seen. Serious effort has gone into keeping the city green and preserving its storied history. Historians would have a field day here. In particular we saw two stunning historic mosques, the Wazir Khan and the Badshahi, both of which should be considered treasures not only for Muslims, Pakistanis, or South Asia, but for all of humanity. I felt it a crime that I’d never even heard of either one. Each of them in different ways features breath-taking architecture and intricate artwork comparable to India’s Taj Mahal. These are must-see sights for any tourist to Lahore. The best way to enjoy the vista of the Badshahi mosque is to have a meal on the rooftop of one of the many superb restaurants on Food Street next to the mosque compound. This interesting area was for hundreds of years an infamous red-light district, made up of a series of old wooden rowhouses that look like they were lifted straight out of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, strangely juxtaposed with one of the country’s holiest shrines. From the roof of Cuckoo’s Den restaurant, we could see all of the massive Badshahi complex along with the adjoining royal fortress, all while having a 5-star meal of kebabs, spicy curries in clay pots, and lassi under the stars. We were fortunate to have very pleasant whether as well. This alfresco dining experience with two good friends encompassed my favorite moments in the city.
We did much more in Lahore. We were given a tour of the renowned Aitchison College, which one of my friends attended. This boys’ private prep school is known for its difficult entrance exams, rigorous academic tradition, illustrious list of alumni since the British founded the school, and its gorgeous and impeccably maintained 200-acre campus that puts most major universities icluding my own Georgetown to shame. Aitchison has been considered one of the best prep schools on the subcontinent since 1886. However, it would have been impossible to get a tour without the alumni connection because security is very thorough.
We went out to the village of Kasur, not too far from the famous Waga border with India, to see my friend’s agricultural business. This gave me a profile of village life, which like India makes up most of the country. The highway on the way was in very good condition, and the village was serene and pleasant, if poor. Just as with the cities, I saw lots of potential in this place. With more advanced farming, shipping, and storage methods, it’s quite likely that we will see much more wealth coming to Pakistan’s villages in the near future.
Beer seems to taste better when it’s bootlegged. There’s an alcohol prohibition in effect across Pakistan so there’s no other way to get it. One of the modern contradictions of Pakistani life is that the country has a top-notch brewer called Murree’s, set up during the British Raj, but the company officially exists only to export the beer- or to have it sold on the local black market, which is apparently insatiable. If you have the money and contacts, you are usually able to find booze. We spent two leisurely evenings in Lahore drinking Murree’s in my friend’s pool, swimming, chatting, and listening to music such as techno, hip-hop, and Talking Heads. Life does not get any better than that- in Pakistan or elsewhere.
This is a story about more than individual friendships, which brought me to Pakistan in the first place. I was hosted by a number of people in their homes, including a former high-ranking general of the Pakistani Army, and treated like a part of the family despite my background. I conducted several meetings, both formal and informal to discuss business opportunities, and was always treated with great respect. I made a number of new friends, people who I hope to stay in touch with and see many times again.
Indians and Pakistanis should take a step back and think about all of the things they have in common. The brand of Islam I saw in Pakistan was benign, mostly relegated to melodic prayer calls from the minarets, and pleasant salutations between people. It is not an in-your-face brand of the religion as I have seen in the Middle East, where everyone is forced to conform to rules about clothing or shutting down business during prayer times. Pakistanis and Indians are cut from the same cloth, and really aren’t that different from each other. I think this was my biggest and most pleasant surprise of all. The ill feelings that do exist are mostly manufactured for political gain on both sides of the border, or based on slights from decades or even centuries ago.
Though there are grand challenges, foremost among them the issue of Kashmir and related border disputes, these should be easily overshadowed by the economic opportunities available to Pakistan, India, and the West by increasing their level of international trade. In fact, I believe commerce and the march of capitalism will provide the path for India and Pakistan to become allies as nations and friends as people.
There are certainly other challenges. Terrorism and gangsterism are very real problems, and they are alive and well in Pakistan, especially in the rough terrain of the Northwest Frontier region ruled by tribal militias and their blood feuds. The army continues to play an outsized role in government, and there are not yet any better options as the civilian leaders are mostly compromised by business interests and cronyism in a land where feudal tendencies appear time and again. But even these problems can be overcome by bringing Pakistan deeper into the community of nations, and further integrating Pakistan into world markets. India and the United States for their part can do more to help bring this about. I am convinced that instead of the delicate dance the three nations have done around each other since 1947, it is time for all to become closer friends and drop the pretexts for moving backward instead of forward. What I saw in Pakistan more than the perils, is great potential.
I plan to do my part, and this piece is only the first step.
(UPDATE 9/2/12): Thank you readers for over 2,000 facebook likes, 300 tweets, etc. I am very happy to see the reception this piece has gotten. Check out this video of a Pakistani band singing one of my favorite songs all-time:
Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor.com.