25 November 2010 in Pakistan
Here I am in Pakistan having such an incredibly interesting time I can’t quite believe it. I’m in the Ladies- only wing of the hotel, and they really do know how to make a girl happy - there’s a red silk kimono, bath salts, fresh flowers, and a young woman just delivered to my room a plate of fruit, a large cake and a ribbon-wrapped box of sweet biscuits.
I can’t really begin to summarise the last few days so won’t even try. I’m here doing work with the British Council, running two two-day creative writing workshops in Karachi and Lahore. Coming to Pakistan with the BC means that I am able to meet a big range of people I would never get to meet as a tourist, and running workshops for young Pakistanis is great fun - they are a very lively and talkative bunch, and Pakistanis turn out to be very funny and hugely hospitable.
But what a difficult place to live and work; this is clear to me even as I go about in my BC bubble, chauffeured around in my armoured car, viewing the world through tinted glass, my companions all English-speakers. In Karachi everyone is as paranoid about a new menace - mosquitos carrying dengue fever - as they are about being blown to bits. Lahore looks slightly less decrepit than Karachi and is much much greener. There are guards with huge automatic weapons parked in jeeps and in sandbagged turrets everywhere in both cities, in front of shops and apartment buildings as well as government buildings. The BC workers in Karachi refer to their compound as their comfortable prison - three layers of armed and fortified gates to get in; in Lahore, the hotel is completely fortified, cars enter via a series of checkpoints including a station where they are swept for bombs; a publisher who invited me to dinner in her home has a guard armed with a submachine gun in her front garden 24/7. Terrifying.
And yet. And yet. Pakistan is strangely familiar to me. This must be for a big mix of reasons - the colonial links, of course, and the first, second, and third generation Pakistani communities in Britain; Pakistani names are not new to me, the food is familiar, the way the women dress, the gorgeous colours of their fabulous cotton and linen shalwar kameez: even the burka is familiar to me from Shepherd’s Bush and Leicester. And being in Pakistan does make me think more about Leicester and its extraordinary mix of people from the sub-continent, and how lucky I am to work in that milieu at DMU. And it is odd, coming to a place where terrible things happen all the time, where people die from floods and quakes and bombs and dengue fever, in one of the hottest geopolitical frontlines on the globe, and to feel so strangely at home.
Maybe I’m fooling myself and the tinted glass has distorted my view. And I’m a sucker for a fruit plate.
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