My Trip to Pakistan
Finally, after a gap of seven years, I made plans to go to Pakistan! I had long decided to not even think of going to Pakistan unless I could go for at least 4-6 weeks, but an opportunity presented itself that permitted that allowed me to go for only 16 days; it did not take long for me to decide that even though it was the peak of Summer and the time was extremely brief (for me), I would still go. With temperatures ranging from 40-44C (112-120F), I was assured by my family that I would die there; my response was that as long as I had one mango in each hand and one in my mouth, I would die happy.
I first went to the Netherlands where my sister lives, with my wife. During the nine days we were there, we thoroughly enjoyed the country, it is beautiful and the people are very nice. It was strange that whenever I would meet a Dutch person, we would talk about different things, but then they (yes, THEY) would bring the discussion to Geert Wilders, the Nazi wannabe and to a person they would say how disgusting a person he is and how embarrassed they are to have people like him among them; it went a long way to reassuring me that the Der Fuhrer lovers are still a tiny minority in that country.
We then went to London for a few days and then my wife headed back home while I continued to Pakistan.
Arriving in Karachi was a change; the temperature was right up there around 39C/110F and it only dropped by about 10% at night. Fortunately, many rooms had air-conditioning, so sleeping at night was easy. Pakistan is also beset by “load-shedding”. This means that in the middle of things, the electric company would shut off power to an entire neighborhood for an hour. But the people of Pakistan had developed ways to deal with this too, they had backup battery power which would last an hour if used frugally and they also had backup generators, which would kick in as soon as the power was out. This meant no air-conditioning, but the fans and some lights would work.
Good thing I was not thrown by Karachi weather because when I arrived in Lahore, it was 44C/120F, but it dropped to about 39-40C/110-112F in a couple of days.
Mangos! I thought I had died and gone to heaven! I had not had a decent mango since I first left Pakistan in 1974. During moments of desperation, I would buy a mango from a local store which would be green so I would wait for it to ripen…they would rot before they would ripen and I never had one that tasted acceptable. This time in Pakistan, the mangos were heavenly. I could smell them almost a block away and they tasted like God’s personal gift; each strain tasted different and each was delicious to the point of pure ecstasy…I ate mangos several times a day, towards the end, I threw caution to the winds and even had mango milkshakes from street vendors. Summer heat or not, it is worthwhile going to Pakistan, just to eat the mangos.
Most people do not start their morning before 11:00 a.m., which was a problem for me because I was ready to get out and meet friends at 8:30 a.m.! After wasting almost an entire day waiting for people to wake up, I decided to target a few who would awaken for their morning prayers (before dawn), meet them at 8:30 a.m. and then find my way to the late sleepers. Shops generally did not open before 11:00 a.m./12:00 p.m. and would close by about 8:00 p.m. (restaurants and cafes remained open most of the night), but the people were still bustling about at 2:00 a.m. which is when I would call it a day. This was my routine: no sight-seeing, no shopping; just visiting people from 0800 to return home at about 0200…full throttle, for every day that I was in Pakistan…even then I had to cut people off my list because I had no time left.
The people of Pakistan are some of the most generous, hospitable people one can find. I found them to be very polite and courteous even when the situation was not a favorable one; tea was insistently offered wherever I went, even among shopkeepers. Arriving any time within a few hours of mealtime was a problem because they would insist on having me over for lunch or dinner. People were ready and willing to speak freely against the ills that Pakistan is mired in…everybody is interested in the politics of the nation and of the nations impacting Pakistan (India, Afghanistan, US, Iran).
I spoke to many different people, from intellectuals to politicians (there IS a difference), to students, Mullahs, cabbies and servants.
I found people and things much changed. Some of my friends were important politicians, some colonels and generals in the Army; some were businessmen/women, some eminent scholars and one a high-court judge. I discovered that one of my friends (a Baluch tribal chief) was unavailable because he was wanted by Pakistani and US forces; his older brother had already been killed. Another friend was a most humble person who, it turned out, was one of the main geniuses (now retired) behind the development of the A-Bomb and the Missile program (Hatf and Shaheen). The latter revealed this as he explained why he had dropped out of touch for so many years.
I was fairly certain that my Pashto (my third language) had rusted out because of lack of use in the years I have been away, but I was pleased to note that it all came back and polished up very fast. One of my cousins has two Pathan servants with whom I spoke in Pashto, they were not only surprised and delighted, but they refused to believe that I was not a Pathan and was actually an Urdu-speaking relative of their employers. Sindhis were impressed by my accent, but there was no arguing the fact that my grip on the language was pathetic. Conversing with Punjabis was not a problem; I could understand 100% of what they said and they could understand 100% of my Urdu.
One thing I noted with some dismay and amusement was that fact that when I left Pakistan, Urdu was the main medium of communication in radio, TV and newspapers (and among people too). Now I saw that the media have slipped into what I call “Urlish” a hybrid between Urdu and English where people speak about three Urdu words and five English ones. Even the Urdu language newspapers, would have entire headlines using English words transliterated into Urdu (“Chief af the Department af Public Works Inaguration Ceremony”, “India and Pakistan Faren Ministers meeting”). Often, when reading billboards, I would wonder if I had forgotten how to read Urdu until it occurred to me that I was reading English, written in Urdu (“Atomobile Repair Clinic”). Urlish represented the implied sophistication levels of the people using it, suggesting that these people are intellectuals and learned. On the other hand, most of the people of Pakistan who can barely write their names, have little or no idea as to what is being said on national radio, TV or newspapers; it demonstrated the growing gap between the tiny ‘haves’ and the overwhelming ‘have-nots’’.
The rich in Pakistan are so fabulously wealthy that they don’t know how to spend their money…a trip abroad costing a quarter of a million dollars, was not even worth thinking about. On the other hand, the poor are so incredibly poor that they don’t know how to feed themselves or their children. People are giving their children away to orphanages in hope that the children have a better life, while the number of poor who are committing suicide out of desperate poverty, is increasing; one woman laid herself and her four children on rail tracks as the train came and people say that one child tried to break away, but she dragged him back. Food is costing more and more, people are reproducing without let, in part because of religious instructions against birth control, in part because of controlling, ignorant husbands who will not permit their wives to use birth control and in part, because of policies from the US, that ban any aid to health agencies that promote birth control.
As I once remarked to a friend, one can find religion (Deen) at every corner of Pakistan, but faith (Iman) is seldom seen anywhere. People take their (majority) religion very seriously; being A Sunni Muslim is of paramount importance although it is sometimes hard to figure that out because people also divide Sunni-ism into different sects. These days in Pakistan, the Barelvi and Deobandi (Sunni) Muslims are at each other’s throats. Of course, everyone believes that their school of faith is the single valid one and the rest are condemnable and doomed. In the name of God, these God-fearing people have been bombing each other’s Mosques and holy sites.
Shias are rejected by many Sunnis as near-heretics, I found some people arguing why Shias are not really Muslims, based entirely on fiction. When I tried to correct them, I found them getting very agitated and finally, accusing me of siding with “them”. Shia Mosques and sites of congregation, have been bombed at great human toll.
Qadianis (Ahmedis) are the most persecuted class of people in Pakistan. The stories going around about them are so transparently false that it takes a particular kind of fanatic or fool, to believe them, yet many people who I otherwise respected, took extremist stands against Qadianis. I have friends in Pakistan who are Qadianis, but they have not revealed their faith openly for fear of persecution. Qadiani Mosques have been bombed recently.
Hindus are rejected because they are associated with Indian and there are many different fantasies flying around, about their faith, seeking to prove that they are “Kuffar” ( “unbelievers”, word I detest). However, Hindus are left more or less, alone…probably in part because Hindus maintain a very low profile.
Christians are basically ignored, they are left to their own devices and generally not held in high regard although Christian Schools and Christian Hospitals are considered the best available. It is fascinating that when Christmas season approaches, Christians as well as Muslims (in big cities) join in the revelry, with parties, Christmas cakes, Christmas eve celebration parties and even Christmas day parties. For Muslims, it is not a religious consideration as much as a festive occasion that they love to participate in.
Wherever I went, I found people very agitated about US involvement in Afghanistan and in Pakistan and deep resentment of the slaughter the US is continuing in both countries, I found that the hate of the Drones is now a visceral reaction and even though Pakistan is permitting the basing, flights and attacks by Drones from and in Pakistan, the resentment is not against Pakistan, but against the US, for using them. People invariably complained about how casually the US kills innocent people along with suspects who are not even proven guilty and people hate American administrations for it.
Surprisingly, their hate does not extend to the individual American or even to the United States, but to the rulers of the country who are responsible for committing these atrocities. I heard many people demand why American leaders such as Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, were not being hauled up in international court on War Crimes charges. They also resent the US’ favorites attitude towards India and the complete opposite attitude towards Pakistan. Most Pakistanis could not understand why Pakistan is treated like a criminal even though Pakistan is being bled to death in America’s “War!” on terror, while India gets all the goodies, including nuclear technology. There are deep suspicions that India and the US are conspiring to destroy Pakistan.
The mood towards the US has changed considerably. One Kashmiri fellow I met told me how grateful he was to the US forces who sent their aid and doctors to Kashmir after the Earthquake disaster. He told me many of his family and villagers might have been dead were it not for the wonderful American soldiers. “Then they turned around and began killing our brothers and sisters in Pakistan and Afghanistan”, he noted sorrowfully.
One long-term note of serious concern is that some very wealthy people I met, told me they were not investing in the US any more nor were they buying US stuff unless absolutely necessary. Some people told me they had sent their children abroad for higher education…but they would not send anyone to the US because “they have no respect for us”. The alarming part of these experiences is that not only are we losing investment money now, we are also losing the chance to help create minds that could be favorable to the US, when they return home and attain influential positions.
Taliban are received with mixed responses.
Almost every person I met, disliked or detested the Taliban philosophy of extremism and bombing; people cannot fathom how anyone can bomb Mosques (“the house of God”) or kill innocents while trying to make political statements. People were divided on whether all the violence was Taliban-generated or whether there weren’t many small groups who would say they were Taliban just to gain extra prominence. Clear distinctions were made between the “Afghan Taliban” and the “Pakistani Taliban”; the former were seen as fighting against occupation and oppression by outsiders (the US; hardly anyone noted the other members of the so-called “Coalition of the Willing”), while the latter were seen as criminals and extremists seeking to impose their extremism on the public. Some people did support the idea of a certain level of religious intolerance, but I suspected this was because they had not been exposed to ideas other than what their religious leader told them. The Pakistan Province of former NWFP (now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) had voted for a strict religious government some time ago and discovered that these people were strict almost at the Taliban level and inept to boot…the government was gone at the next elections. There was also respect for Taliban leaders like Mullah Omer, who could bring order and discipline among people and reduce local crime with a simple order. Speculation is that the US will finally accept a major political role for the Taliban and thus Mullah Omer (or his successors, if he is killed), the US will declare victory and Afghanistan will remain in the same morass it is in now…or worse.
In the meantime, there is a huge amount of money being made in the occupation of Afghanistan. Rumors are that many foreign (US) officers leave the forces and become private contractors, billing the US as much as 10-20 times the cost of the material they supply. There are also rumors that sometimes the foreign contractors send substandard shipments to Afghanistan and then leak details of the convoy to the Taliban who obligingly destroy the convoys…contractors make huge monies and get to sell the same stuff to the forces again. There is a lot of resentment against the Pakistanis and Afghans who are in the business of supplying US forces in Afghanistan, one merchant marine (Pakistani) captain I know told me he refused to command a ship with supplies for the Afghan front even though he told me he really needed the money and the US was extremely generous with the wages.
People resented the fact that the US was bombing border villages and towns, killing suspects and innocents without pause or regard. US influence is seen as being so pervasive that many local bombings (including suicide bombings) are ascribed to US plotting to destroy Pakistan; as one Pakistani remarked, “America does not want Pakistan to die, but it does not want Pakistan to recover either. America and India will be happy as long as Pakistan remains in ICU”. At the same time, people want to visit the US, they want to meet Americans and many want to emigrate to the US; nobody I met, was in support of violence perpetrated by Muslims, in the US, in fact, many thought the Faisal Shahzad incident (car-bombing attempt in NY) was created by Americans to generate hate against Muslims. American fast-food (McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC) are considered highly-desirable food, it was a constant battle to persuade my hosts to get Pakistani food instead of being subjected to US junk-food.
Pakistan has become a very oppressive state. There are spies everywhere and phones are monitored by banks and banks of people on a 24-hour basis. People are monitored because of what they say and are then followed until the time is ripe and plucked off the streets. I was told at a number of places, to curb my expressed opinions…even by friends who were in the intelligence business. There is almost no law or order in Pakistan, those who are in positions of power can get away with anything at all, from tax-evasion, to stealing utilities services, to bribery and murder. On the other hand, those who are poor or without connections are preyed-upon, by the lowest of cops, by thugs and by the rich.
There are incredible amounts of money to be made by doing nothing, just by having connections and obtaining permits to do certain things. One young son of an influential politician was talking to me and telling me what a great businessman he was and how he had made millions. Since he was only about 20 and had not yet earned his bachelor’s degree, I listened with great interest. It turned out that he used his father’s political connections to obtain construction contracts and then served as a proxy for real contractors who did all the work and got paid…and gave him a “commission”. Even the late Benazir Bhutto was reputed to have taken millions of dollars in graft in order to grease people’s stalled permits. Many public construction works are started by breaking ground and piling mounds of rock…and then nothing; the contractor has taken his contract money, paid off the civil administrators who have paid off the politicians and there is nothing more to do. Although incredible amounts of money are being spent, hardly anything gets fixed and as result, the entire infrastructure is falling apart. In the meantime, vast sums of money are being sent by corrupt politicians, to banks in Europe and the US from where it is being “invested” in properties and businesses…without a single question being raised either in Europe or in the US, as to the moral, ethical or legal origins of these monies.
Politicians have learned that invoking God is a good thing to do so they strongly support religion; they go for Haj, they even pray when they are being watched, but in private, they are entirely different animals. Years ago, I had heard the some politician ask for this bribe envelope to be delivered after the breaking of the fast. The hypocrisy is increased exponentially; I was told of a certain maulana who was on an international flight and drinking the free liquor fast, but when the food was served, he asked if the meat was halal! I was sitting at one influential politician’s home one evening when he ordered his whiskey to be brought out and offered me some but I refused; he poured himself a double shot. In a short time, a couple of other politicians arrived, they were duly offered the whiskey and each poured himself a generous portion. Eventually, another political figure arrived and the host indicated to his servant that the whiskey be offered to the guest; the guest looked at the whiskey and said, “ let me offer my prayers first”. He then disappeared as my stunned mind tried to decide whether I had actually heard what I thought I had heard. I was still struggling with my astonishment when he returned, sat down and poured himself a generous draft of the whiskey and we continued with our discussions of national politics. By the time dinner was served, the entire bottle of whiskey was empty.
Most politicians in the opposition, hated the ruling People’s Party and its boss Asif Zardari (Benazir Bhutto’s husband now aka “Mr. 80%”) on grounds of excessive corruption. This was strange coming from supporters of the main opposition party of Nawaz Sharif who, if anything was at least as corrupt as the incumbent; their members of the National Assembly were also up to their eyeballs in graft.
The one politician who was being watched closely by all, is Imran Khan. He is a reputation of being incorruptible and a man of principles even when his views are unpopular among other politicians and with the US. Imran Khan has been raising funds for a cancer hospital that he has opened in Lahore, that has a sliding scale fee based on the person’s stated assets and income, right down to free. I heard one man tell me that he was in the waiting room when Imran Khan’s father came form some medication and stood in line. The man was astonished that Imran Khan’s father, who could easily jump lines, was also required to stand in line and wished other politicians were half as honest. Imran’s standing in the first elections was poor, he managed only about 7-9% support. This last time however, his candidates received 19%, which is a breath-taking improvement…and it is increasing! Speculation in political circles is that if he should form a coalition with Jamaat-e-Islami, he would sweep the nation. Even though it is unreal to think that Imran would form a coalition with a religious right party, politics does make strange bedfellows; he is the politician to watch and in my opinion, he is the best hope for Pakistan.
Politics in Pakistan are so chaotic and there is so much corruption and lawlessness that I fear for Pakistan; I fear that within the next four years…six at best…Pakistan will experience a volcanic revolution which will be unbelievably bloody. There is such a vast poor class and an almost non-existent middle class, that it will not take a great push to bring about such a revolution, all that is needed is a well-dispersed movement that has not yet proven their corruption, with promises and bang! The Army is already separating in two segments, those who swing to the religious right and those who prefer less right-wing positions. Religious Right is very well-established across Pakistan, it is organized and has a good following; The right wing is thoroughly disgusted with the corruption and is willing to put most of the corrupt, to the gallows. If these parties join with the right-wing of the Army, revolution suddenly becomes reality.
One need not fear that such a revolution could send “The Bomb” into the wrong hands; the military is fiercely loyal to Pakistan and even when they are personally corrupt, they will not permit anything to happen which may make Pakistan weaker…even if they end up fighting each other (temporarily), it is unlikely they will allow the nuclear arsenal to become compromised or, to fall into outside hands.
I wish I could have gone for four or six weeks, but my budget and my responsibilities at home (US) would not permit that. I went to Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad/Rawalpindi; I would have also gone to Peshawar, but time was very short and I could not locate my friends there and some were not in town during my window of time. Since I had decided I was not doing any sight-seeing, I decided to go to cities where I had already located friends. I returned, with some satisfaction of having met so many of my friends and relatives, yet with regret that I did not have enough time to sit and talk in depth with them; as before, I left it to “next time”.
Oh, the mangos…!
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