I arrived home on Sunday after my whirlwind trip to Karachi and Lahore. The trip both confounded and confirmed my expectations. I’ll admit that I was tense a lot of the time, if not a little scared too - there is nothing relaxing about travelling in an armoured car with an armed guard past buildings that are heavily fortified with sandbagged turrets and sleepy armed security men watching as you drive by. But everyone I met did so much to keep me at ease, and to demonstrate how, exactly, life does go on in Karachi and Lahore, and young people there are as funny, as irreverent, as excited and as full of ambition as young people anywhere. The two-day workshops themselves went really well, and were a lot of fun for me.
Of course after one week I have no special insights to offer into life in Pakistan, only a few observations. I met women in positions of authority everywhere I went, from the principal of the National College of Arts to the head of OUP in Karachi, to within the British Council itself. The Council is huge in Pakistan, more than 180 employees throughout the country, and only 4 of those are non-Pakistanis. There’s a massive underclass in Pakistan, and all Pakistanis of means have servants: I’d hazard a guess that a family like mine, with the kinds of jobs my husband and I have here in London, equivalent in Karachi, would have probably 3 or 4 servants, maybe even 5. We’d have our clothes made by our tailor. We’d have a driver.
Inflation has hit hard in Pakistan in the past five years; for instance, a woman told me that after the 2005 earthquake if she went to the supermarket and bought 4 bags of sugar for her own kitchen, she’d also buy 10 bags of sugar to give to the earthquake relief effort. But this year, with the floods, giving on this scale has been much harder to afford. My colleague in the Lahore office - a middle class woman, a well-educated professional - told me a bit about her experiences of the past couple years: May 2009 at around 11 in the morning a huge bomb blew up next door to the British Council, blowing in all the windows in the building, and bringing down ceilings. It was a miracle that no one was hurt. When she made her way back to her flat later that day, she discovered that all the windows had been blown in there as well. During the floods this year she was away on a family visit in Balakot, in an affected area: the hotel she’d had tea in the previous afternoon was washed away, many houses between where she was staying and the river disappeared completely, and it was pure luck that the bridge in the town withstood the enormous pressure from the flooding water as it rushed down the valley, and she was able to travel out of the area eventually. She showed me videos she’d taken on her phone. She is not blase about these events, but life goes on, life must continue.
Many people told me with sadness about how they used to love to holiday in northern and eastern areas of the country that are now no go areas, in particular the gorgeous Swat Valley; one couple told me they had given up entirely the idea of being able to go on vacation anywhere in the country. As well as the bombs, there’s a new fear: mosquitos bearing dengue fever. No one sits outside in the evening - the mosquitoes come out in force from dusk onward. After Sept 11th, the Council closed its offices to the public temporarily, reopened and then closed again permanently, closing access to their libraries, as well as stopping all on-premise teaching and training, so now all the Council’s efforts are outward facing, with no public access to the buildings. Some good initiatives have come about because of this - for instance, they now focus on teaching teachers how to teach English - but the loss of the libraries and physical access to the Council must be mourned. Mohsin Hamid spoke of his memories of being brought to the Council buildings in Lahore to watch nature documentaries made by David Attenborough: it might sound whimsical, but this kind of loss of access has its significance. From all these stories I got a strong sense of the way in which the current situation forces life to close down in many ways.
The hotels are all like giant impenetrable fortresses, because many hotels have been targetted by the bombers, though again, staying inside a heavily fortified hotel did not make me feel safe. There are men with guns absolutely everywhere, with roadblocks and checkpoints; at night the armoured vehicle I was travelling in would simply drive through all the red lights, though the roads were fairly deserted anyway.
But there is also much to celebrate. Pakistani popular music is a hotbed of experiment and activity; people are fashionable and sharp and satirical, and of course, obsessed with politics - empowered by their obsession with politics, I’d say, your average educated Pakistani infinitely better informed about both regional and global politics than your average educated Brit or American. It’s a vibrant and very young country and it has a wild free press that seems to be grabbing its chance to open up discourse and debate in many directions all at the same time. There were a few entertaining stories in the press while I was there - a bunch of gov’t MPs have been exposed as having fake university degrees; the fake mullah who’d been informing on the Taliban for the Americans was unmasked. The rumour mill is gigantic and conspiracy theories abound: the Indians caused the floods because they’ve dug a gigantic hole in one of the glaciers - or is it the Americans who caused the floods by microwaving the glaciers from their satellites?
In Karachi the streets are crowded with buses and motorised rickshaws and they are things of great beauty and charm, covered from top to bottom in glorious ‘truck art’ - the photo here is of a little model rickshaw I was given by the British Council (I was showered with gifts, absolutely showered). These buses and rickshaws are reason enough for me to get back to Pakistan before too long: I didn’t get to go on one, in fact, I didn’t even get a chance to take a photograph of one. In Lahore, which is more stately and felt a bit quieter and more formal than the wild west style chaos of Karachi, people ride big old-fashioned proper bicycles. And then there’s the staring, which, I’m told, is a national pastime: once I’d been reassured by my Pakistani friends on Facebook that staring is just part of life I began to rather enjoy it. In Village restaurant in Lahore one evening, a small girl all dressed up in sparkling blue and silver stood beside me and stared at me for a full ten minutes. I didn’t mind. Next time I’m in the country I plan to do a great deal of staring myself. There’s a lot to look at in Pakistan.