Pakistan, day 15, 9th Aug
We have breakfast, we go for a walk around the hotel (Pearl Continental, Bhurban) grounds, kids make use of the swimming pool. At the checkout a Brit-Pak from Manchester gets irate at some guy jumping in front of him, good on him for making the point. People here seem to think that they can push to the front of the queue, there is no regard for convention nor manners, again it comes back to selfishness. I commended the brother on his resolve and vociferous defence of decency. I had some guy behind me holding out his key-card and trying to get the attention of the clerk, I didn’t say anything preferring to wait and see if the clerk would serve him first and then would take the lead from my Mancunian Brit-Pak brother, thankfully the clerk served me first, and I heard noticeable tut of disappointment from the chap. We check-out of the hotel and head for Muree Mall Road.
Muree, noted for its cool climate, shopping and its world famous brewery (they still make beer here!), this is where the British used to hang out in the days of the Raj and there is a rather elegant and generally well maintained church just off Mall Road. However, Muree is a dump and an unpleasant smell of an open sewer hangs in the air. Yes, other parts of it are nice, nice views and foliage etc., but it is a hovel and extremely crowded with gangs of child-beggars roaming and hassling the tourists. I have been here on a few occasions previously and it hasn’t improved one bit, the arrival of KFC is the only sign of “progress”. For me the novelty of Murree has totally worn off as had the novelty of PC Bhurban, I won’t be coming here again.
An hour or so later we set off to Islamabad and then back to Mirpur.
At 11pm the electricity went out and we had a heavy tropical storm, gale-force winds with dust and followed by lightening, thunder and torrential rain which stung when it hit you. Thankfully, the storm cleared the air as it was hot and muggy, the heat was like someone having a heater on right next you. The storm was a spectacle and I sat in my in-laws’ porch observing it. The gust of wind was very cool, it had a chill to it, the noise all around was cacophonous and after the swirling dust, the rain lashed down in sheets. This continued for about 40 minutes and I enjoyed every minute of it.
The electricity was out until 2am.
Pakistan day 16 10th Aug
Thoughts on Pakistan
I should really write this at the end of my visit but I have been in Pakistan for just over two weeks, and I think two weeks, for me, is enough really. I am really looking forward to getting back, you have a renewed appreciation for Britain after visiting Pakistan (in fact, not just Pakistan any country, even Western countries). If not for my wife I really would have no reason to visit Pakistan even though I have family here myself. Don’t get me wrong, we have some wonderful people in both our families, my life would be poorer for not having met or known them. I have renewed family ties and met new family members, however, almost everything else in Pakistan leaves me frustrated and angry. The main government sponsored slogan on roadsides is “faith, unity, discipline” – you see this everywhere in Islamabad, this is not what defines Pakistan and Pakistanis, it is an aspiration that isn’t about to be realised any time soon. You can’t engender those values just by a few roadside sculptures and slogans, a deep systemic change is required, from root to branch, from the basic institutions to the governmental
In Islamabad yesterday, I saw a poster with the words of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, who in 1947 said “we must fight corruption and bribery with an iron fist” and 62 years on, there is no sign of any iron fist, officials and politicians pussy-foot around the issue; Jinnah must be turning in his grave. In fact if you are not “on the take” then you are considered some kind of weirdo, treated like a pariah and shunned. Taking a bribe has become the norm, part and parcel of the daily life of official institutions. In some cases it may be poverty driven in most cases it is pure greed.
The utter shame of it all is that God has blessed Pakistan with so much naturally – oil, gas, minerals, water, every kind of seasonal fruit, vegetables and cereal, a population with so much potential that if guided and educated can achieve great things. It has every conceivable climate from mountain snow to desert sand with lush greenery, lakes and rivers.
Pakistan could be one of the top tourist destinations if a number of things are sorted out. Infrastructure is of prime importance for any economy – roads, power, water, communication. Roads and Power are both a shambles, the road contractors find ways of skimming the contract money to maximise profits at the expense of quality. They use substandard materials and labour and add a thinner than required tarmac surface which after a year or so begins to crack and slip.
The power was privatised under Benazir Bhutto and since then there has been a severe shortfall in the supply. Even under Musharraf this was not remedied and the whole of Pakistan is suffering as a result.
Pakistanis often blame America, India and the favourite enemy of post-modern Muslims “the Jews” meaning Zionist Israel, whilst none of the aforementioned have any special love for Pakistan, they have become a diversionary device for Pakistan’s problems. For politicians this is a godsend, instead on focussing on their own failures and derelictions of duty as “elected” officials, a mention of any one of the three aforementioned “enemies” conveniently moves the discussion away from politicians and their failures and the population has swallowed this hook, line and sinker. Only when Pakistan and Pakistanis take responsibility for their own problems, will they fix those problems and move forward.
I realise my observations are based on a small fraction of Pakistan but I can’t imagine the rest of Pakistan being any better.
Pakistan day 17 11th Aug
Went to bed at 3am waiting for the electricity to return after it went at 11pm yesterday night. Sat outside and waited and waited. It was stiflingly hot and unbearable inside. The power company teased us a couple of times by flickering the power a couple times for a few seconds.
Was up at 9.30am, really tired but can’t sleep.
At 2.00pm took the family to apply for NADRA NICOP – National Identity Cards for Overseas Pakistanis, we qualify for them due to parentage and they make it easier to travel Pakistan visa free. This is especially important and useful for my wife whose parents are both elderly and not in the best of health and any number of emergencies could require her to travel to Pakistan at short notice.
I was mildly surprised to see the NADRA process run very smoothly and efficiently. I expected typical third world bureaucracy and a couple of hours wait, we managed to complete the application process for the five of us in around an hour; the system works!
As a side note, I have been told that the whole NADRA initiative was at the behest of the then US Bush Government and personal bio-data is given to interested US agencies for “counter-terrorism purposes”, make of that what you will.
Pakistan day 18 12th Aug
Wow, no interruption to electricity supply at all yesterday and none overnight. There were rumours that the supply will be cut from 7am to 5pm today and tomorrow, it’s 1.45pm and the supply is up.
Took the kids swimming at the Regency Hotel in Mirpur, it’s plush and fancy but can’t imagine it being full most of the time, seems kind of deserted. The swimming pool is decent, pool side is hot and humid.
Had some pizza from the hotel’s restaurant and was surprised at how good it was.
Pakistan day 19 13th Aug
Went to Kahri-Sharif to the shrines of Pir-O-Shah Ghazi and his descendent Mian Muhammad Baksh who is considered the Rumi of Kashmir, such was his poetry and in particular his magnum opus Saiful-Muluk.
The beggars swarm around you, spouting well rehearsed lines, I’ve learned to ignore them, their persistence makes me more stubborn against them, if you give-in to one then all of them harangue you. So best to not even engage them in conversation. With regards to beggars and begging I have noticed a lot less this time around compared with 8 years ago. Previously, being accosted by beggars was a daily occurrence.
The shrine area is now part of the AJK Government Awqaf (Trust) and is well maintained and the shrines a beautifully decorated if a little glittery. I pray fatihah at both shrines. I notice a few people kissing and touching the tomb but I don’t see anyone “worshipping” the grave as is commonly alleged by certain sectarian mouthpieces.
Pakistan day 20 14th Aug
One day to go before we leave for home. All my wife’s family turn out to bid us farewell as we head for Islamabad, our flight is at 5.30am on Saturday and we have been invited for lunch around another relative’s house in Islamabad. This relative is a retired Brigadier who is a son of one of the cousins of my father, he is also related to my wife through marriage. They live in an army residential estate, green and leafy and very quiet. The house is nice, large and has a garden, the house is well designed and we find the house quite cool even without air-con.
On this trip I bonded with a lot of the kids in the family, many of them were looking forward to khalu (the word for “uncle” meaning maternal aunt’s husband) Masud’s visit, as some of them remember me from my previous visit when they were 6/7/8/9 years old. In the family I am the entertaining uncle, I have a few “magic” tricks that kids love, I can juggle (just about) and so tend to leave a lasting impression on them. Those kids are now almost young adults and whilst we joke and laugh, we also discuss more serious topics and, as I mentioned before, I am impressed with their maturity and lucidness and coherence of thought, even if perhaps their ideas are a little simplistic and narrow.
Yesterday, I was talking to Zartasha, my wife’s cousin’s daughter, she is about 12 years old, and she had a clear idea of what she wanted to be, “a doctor” she told me, with full conviction she said that she wanted to help people especially the poor. She lamented the fact that a lot of people in Pakistan seem to be selfish, she told me that she thought that Islam was followed with more conviction in England and America than in Pakistan and this upset her greatly. I was impressed by her confidence and maturity of thought which you don’t find that often in kids of a similar age in the UK.
Today, 14th August is the day Pakistan was born in 1947, it was the day when it became free from India and British Rule with much sacrifice, bloodshed and strife. Much merriment and celebration is made, flags are waved, people are happy and all their worries for one day are put on the back burner. Nationalism and patriotism are the order of the day, young men – three to a motorbike – race others and wave flags, radio shows play “patriotic” songs and talk about the day, repeat various words and speeches of Qa’id-e-Azam – Muhammad Ali Jinnah – people are invited on the shows to comment and sing; the national party is in full swing. Official buildings are adorned with lights, this is particularly distasteful and somewhat ironic considering the frailty of the electricity supply and “load shedding”, it’s a slap in face to see such frivolous waste of resource at a time when the whole country is suffering.
The sad reality is that Pakistan is not independent or free. It is a slave to foreign powers and is also being eaten from within by corrupt politicians and institutions, the feudal lords have many people enslaved in the worst imaginable conditions and circumstances. Most people in Pakistan are no better off, their predicament would be the same even if they were still part of India, in fact, it could be argued that they would have been better off as Indians.
Yawm-e-Azadi is a sedative for the masses, a get out of jail card for the politicians who whip up a nationalistic fervour to hide their inadequacies and failures, “no matter what, we are Pakistanis”, “we have an atom bomb”, “God Himself is running our affairs” – really? Don’t you guys recognise Divine warnings and punishment?
We decided to try and take the kids to McDonald’s in Rawalpindi that evening as it is our last day in Muslim country where we could have a McD’s burger, but with all the celebrations going on it is going to be difficult. We end up at Rahat Bakers in Saddar. Rahat Bakers is considered one of the best bakeries in Pakistan and I was impressed. It was very modern, very clean. Cakes, breads, pizza, roast, Bombay mix, ice cream and other goodies all looked fantastic. We buy a few items and I have to say the quality was excellent.
This was another thing I noticed, may businesses that are either old family business have gone up a few levels in their professionalism and presentation. The same is true a number of new business, their corporate identities are slick, their shops are clean and glitzy and deliver a very good shopping experience. Shops like Junaid Jamshed, H. Karim Baksh, Khaddi, Gul Ahmed, Chen One and a host of other retailers have really raised the bar for businesses in Pakistan to a new level.
Anyway, we try in vain to reach McD’s but can’t get near the place and decide to leave it, much to the disappointment of the kids and me too, after three weeks of standard south Asian fare, I could have done with something else! We head to my elder mother-in-law’s house where we will try and get a couple of hours sleep before we go to the airport to catch our flight at 05:30am.
Pakistan day 21 15th Aug
Decided to just snooze on my mother-in-law’s sofa (couch) rather then go into a deep sleep on a bed. Besides, it is really hot and humid and not conducive to a good sleep. I drift in and out of sleep. We head out at 2.30am, the kids are drowsy, my daughter is still asleep but partially wakes up as we get in the car, she is not happy and a fight ensues, she manages to calm down and properly wake up.
At the airport we are quite literally the last people to check-in, a family arrives after us and are told that there are no more seats on the flight, I think we got lucky, alhamdulillah.
The flight back was pretty uneventful apart from sitting near someone from my Aylesbury that I was acquainted with. The stopover in Doha was a couple of hours and we were on our way.
Back in Heathrow, I noticed a young western lady in the queue for passport control behind us and she looked very familiar. It then clicked that this was Jemima Khan nee Goldsmith, the ex-wife of cricketer turned politician Imran Khan. I nudged my wife and told her that Jemima was in the queue, she joked “trust you to find a pretty young lady in the queue” (!!!). My wife looked over to her and said hi, Jemima responded quite warmly and with no hint of haughtiness or pride, it was a genuine and humble acknowledgement, she looked utterly ordinary and not what we come ot expect of celebrities. Jemima still enjoys a cordial relationship with her ex-husband, and it is said that she still holds affection for Pakistan. I think perhaps she was in Pakistan for the 14th August Yawm-e-Azadi celebrations.
Passport control is busy, Jemima discovers she can use the business class and VIP queue and heads off; lucky her. Takes an hour for us to get through passport control. Once through we head off to claim our baggage.
Our baggage starts to appear after about 10 minutes of waiting, “yes” I think, we should be out of here in no time. All bags come through and we are waiting on the last one. And we wait, and wait, and wait…the same three bags go around and around on the carousel, none of them our missing one. This is a classic case of “counting your chickens before they hatch”. I get a ‘phone call from my brother, who is picking us up, I decide to send my wife and kids out while I talk to the baggage handling company about our missing piece of luggage.
It turns out that our missing suitcase is on their system, it didn’t get transferred to our connecting flight and is expected on the next flight in. I am told that it will be sent to us on Monday.
We are absolutely shattered, the tiredness of the return journey catches up on us, I am determined to stay awake until our normal bedtime, it is only 5pm, luckily my team Arsenal are playing today against Everton in the opening Premiership fixture of the new season, so that will help me stay awake for a couple of hours. It’s a great result in celebration of my return to the UK, Arsenal thrash Everton 6-1 in an excellent attacking display, with new boy central defender Thomas Vermalen in a composed and authoritative debut game, the new season looks promising for Arsenal.
So all in all, I enjoyed my trip to Pakistan, I would have loved to have done more travelling and a lot more photography than I did, but family commitments and reliance on others for transportation doesn’t make for a good sight-seeing trip. On top of that, the weather is a major factor in preventing travel, it flitted between blazing heat and humidity to torrential rain. I think the next time we go to Pakistan it will be in the school Easter holidays for two week, when the weather is mild and pleasant.
Pakistan is a wonderful place if its shortcomings are overlooked, the problem is that the shortcomings are so “in your face” and all too common that it is not easy to overlook them, the irony is that Pakistanis themselves have for a long time buried their heads in the sand and either don’t see the shortcomings at all or just choose to ignore them because to acknowledge them would mean that they would have to deal with them, and they are not in a position to deal with them.
I hope and pray that Pakistan is delivered from those who are eating and corrupting it from within and from those who are damaging and injuring it from without, greatness truly awaits Pakistan and Pakistanis if they are but patient and upright. Pakistan is littered with pockets of barakah (blessing) and khayr (goodness) which you can feel and experience, I see this in some of its people and in some of its places, there are true Sufis amongst the charlatans and brigands who don their attire and sully their names and this noble tradition, then there the ordinary people who have such deep and unshakeable faith, who are selfless and giving and have utter reliance on God, who do not take from the forbidden and will suffer personal loss in place of disobedience to God. It is these people who are truly sincere and faithful to the land of their birth and their forebears. Then there are the Sufi tombs and shrines littered the length and breadth of the nation, tombs and shrines of those ancient saints who were the means by which Islam spread in these lands, to whom those of us from this region owe our Islam to and our eternal gratitude that were were delivered from polytheism and into tawhid. JazakAllahu-kharan one and all.
May Allah bless and raise Pakistan from this nadir which it has languished in for too long, may Allah, grant sincerity to the people and those who are put in positions of power and make their faith and duty unshakeable.
And Allah is All Seeing and all Knowing and Bestower of gifts and Remover of cares.