Just returned from Pakistan last Saturday (15th Aug) after visiting for the first time in eight years. The last time I returned, a few days later 9/11 happened. I was there for three weeks in total, my wife and kids went two weeks earlier than me. The main purpose of our visit was to meet with family, particularly my wife’s family, since most of my close and immediate family are in the UK now except for a couple of aunts and a cousin who are there. Were I not married to a Pakistani woman I doubt that I would visit Pakistan very much. The visit was very important for my kids to reconnect a little with their heritage and their cousins and extended family as well as improve their spoken Urdu. My boys (14 and 11) had a mixed experience, they enjoyed it but had a lot of complaints, they missed the comforts of home, computers, PlayStation etc so it was good for them to be disconnected for a while. Similarly with me, as you will see from my notes, I have very mixed feelings about Pakistan. I took my Blackberry and iPhone with me and half-heartedly tried to get them connected but in the end thought that it would be best for me to have limited connectivity since I am constantly connected at home, and so I didn’t. I used my Blackberry to write my notes during the trip to capture my thoughts, conversations and general comments. I am going to be sharing these with you, if you find them interesting and useful then great, if not then please ignore them. I have not copy edited them much and they were tapped out on the Blackberry keyboard either on the day or a day or so after the events. Sometimes I wrote them in the car/van journeys that we had on bumpy windy roads, so please forgive any typos, grammar mistakes etc, please do feel free to point them out so I can correct them.
Pakistan Trip, Day 0: Saturday 25th July 2009
Going to Pakistan after 8 years. Went in 2001 came back just before 911. Early start 1015 from Gatwick, Qatar Airways Islamabad via Doha. Hardly slept a wink, stress of travel and excitement of going to Pakistan and seeing my wife and kids after two weeks. On the ‘plane sat next to Michael (West Indian) from South London a fellow Gooner (Arsenal fan) going to Doha for the first time. Watched Monsters v Aliens, very enjoyable. Food: lamb biriyani, OK but nothing to write home about. Flight attendant Wilson from Kenya was a Chelsea fan. I commented on how Wilson looked more west African than East. Doha is hot and humid, you are met with a wall of heat and humidity as you leave the ‘plane. In the departure lounge at Doha got chatting to a middle-aged American couple, nice people, going to Pakistan for the first time. It would seem that despite the perceived dangers, Pakistan still attracts interest and visitors. Didn’t talk in any great detail, spoke about Obama and how he seems to be getting it right with the Muslim world in comparison to Bush. The gentleman was in agreement. On the flight from Doha to Islamabad sat next to a chap called Brian from Colorado USA, software trainer from a company called Xpect Software which specialises in a database systems of interest to governments, didn’t go into detail but I think it is a data warehousing, trending and data extraction application, the company’s strap-line is “Knowledge is Power). Going to Pakistan for the first time to train up people in the software. Seemed to be looking forward to visiting. Gave him some hints and tips and suggestions for his visit, suggested he purchase some rugs and pashmina shawls. Spoke about general things and about Islam and America. Told me he had his first child on the way. He had an excellent sense of humour and was an enjoyable travel companion.
Pakistan Trip, Day 1: Sunday 26th July
Arrived in Islamabad at 4 am, Islamabad Benazir Bhutto International Airport. It’s hot and humid though not as much as Doha. Surprisingly not that tired, managed to get a snooze on the plane. Islamabad Benazir Bhutto International Airport is a dump, needs demolishing and rebuilding, BB is probably turning in her grave. Islamabad is the capital, all the foreign embassies are here, it is an international city, such a shame and disgrace that your first impression is a dump of an airport. Typically, the immigration control is chaotic, no control of who should go where even though the queues are clearly marked, the airport police said to just join any queue. Takes the better part of an hour to get past the border control. Getting the luggage takes another hour or so. First pieces of luggage arrive within 10 mins last piece takes 40 mins or so. Was approached by a sister asked me if I was “sidi Mas’ud”, I think she said her name was Maryam from London. She said she was attending her cousin’s wedding and was going to be missing out on all the summer events, I told her that sometimes it is far more important to attend family occasions and strengthen family ties. Benni my youngest son couldn’t sleep and came to receive me with my dad’s cousin who, incidentally is my wife’s brother-in-law and shares the same first name as me. Arrived at my father-in-law’s first wife’s house (not my wife’s mother) just before 6.30 am. Still not feeling tired but prayed fajr and got in bed. Yusef my eldest stirred and sleepily extended his hand and gave me salams. Boys didn’t show it but they missed me too. I was awoken at 9.00am by my daughter Sumayya’s hugs and kisses, she really missed me. The electricity was off due to “load shedding” so it was hot and muggy. I’m told that there is a supply issue in all of Paksitan. Not having visited for 8 years people were very pleased to see me, kids who were 10/11 years old were now young adults and it was great to see them. Falaq, my wife’s niece, used to be a very shy little girl was now a confident young woman at university and hoping to do an MBA after her BA studies.
After a quick breakfast went out with the Mrs, her sister and bro-in-law to go shopping and to check out some prayer rugs for my Mihrabi.com venture. Popped into a place called Carpet Palace, quite a big shop and quite a selection. We then went to my usual supplier who has a much smaller shop but his prices were much keener and he was much more welcoming. I hadn’t intended to buy anything at the time but ended up selecting about 20 prayer rugs and 5 normal rugs. Check out Mihrabi.com for the selection.
We ate at Pizza Hut and was surprised at how good it was. They also had a much fuller menu than what we have in the UK. Later in the evening we ate at a Chinese restaurant Mei Kong, not the best Chinese food I have had but it was nice, clean and fancy. Kids really enjoyed it, for 3500RS (about �30) 15 people ate fairly well. We then hit the road and headed for Mirpur where my wife’s parents live and where we would be spending most of our time.
Pakistan Trip, Day 2: Monday 27th July
Arrived after midnight in Mirpur and went straight to bed. The tiredness of my travels has finally caught up with me. Slept well, in a room with an aircon unit. Electricity went at about 7am. The supply from Mirpur comes from the Mangla Dam, I am told that there has been a problem that the “motors” had burned out and they are being fixed and the supply is intermittently interrupted to allow for the maintenance work to be carried out. The supply remained interrupted until 2.30pm but the work had permanently fixed the issue.
Sat down with some young cousins and nephews, spoke about politics, Islam and other stuff. Kids here seem to be much more aware of politics and world affairs than Brit kids of a similar educational levels and ages. Even though their knowledge is not wholly accurate. They have a seriousness and maturity of discourse that is lacking in Brits kids.
As with most of the Muslim world, they are fixated with America and “the Jews” and how Israel controls the US. I conceded that perhaps that there are Jews who are in positions of power and influence in the US political system and corporate America, but, I argued, they are not there because of some conspiracy, they are there on merit, they are there because they were the best people for the job. Now, if they favour Israel and use that influence in Israel’s favour then that is no more than a Muslim would do (or should do) for the ummah.
The rest of the day pretty uneventful apart from taking photos of my rugs and prayer rugs.
Observation on architecture and town planning in Mirpur:
It is total anarchy, houses are big concrete monstrosities with no thought to aesthetics. On a plot of land, people will build a house on the entirety of the land and without any thought of a garden. It’s all about making a statement, make it big and let everyone know you have money. The houses, in general, are vulgar, classic nouveau riche syndrome. There is an inherent selfishness in the way people build houses, there is no thought given to the road outside or the neighbour.
Tomorrow off on a road trip, Rawalakot, Banjosa and that general area.
Pakistan Trip, Day 3: Tuesday 28th July
Awoke at 4.30am to flashes of lightening, hardly any sounds of thunder, just a distant rumble now and again. Got ready for fajr and went back to sleep, up at 8, we are off on a road trip at 11am. We have arranged two Toyota HiAces and we are about 27 people including kids and the two drivers. This is how we roll in Pakistan!
Typical Pakistani efficiency, no sign of our transport, we are told it will be late. So go off to see if I can get my Blackberry unlocked, no luck went to 2 places, would take a few hours and it would wipe my phone. So have to spend a few more days unconnected, no great loss, I enjoy not having the hassle and stress of constant connectivity. We are far too connected in the modern, we need to unplug to regain our sanity.
Finally we set off at 1.45pm heading to Kotli for lunch at a relative’s house and then on the journey proper. The journey is bumpy, twisty, windy across hills and low lying mountain passes, the journey to come will be more of the same only higher up.
We set off from Kotli later than we had hoped, as we visited some relatives, I visited my late grandfather’s half-sister who is in her 90s and has been incapacitated from a stroke from a few years ago and had lost her son recently (who was a majdub, will be writing about this further down). I have met her on a few occasions before and even though I don’t have many memories of her, the mere fact that she is my great aunt (my paternal grandfather’s half-sister) I feel a deep love and affinity for her, may Allah grant her ease in whatever form He chooses.
We finally set off at 6pm, the trip to come is going to be 4 hours of potentially very dangerous driving in diminishing light across ever ascending mountain roads that are not properly tarmacked or maintained, with sharp hairpin bends, rocks, trucks, other buses, pedestrians and vehicles oh and goats and cattle too.
I settle down and plug in my iPhone and listen to Sh Hamza’s lecture on Vision of Islam.
We arrive at a rest house outside of Rawalakot at around 9.30pm. It is pleasant but by no means luxurious. It is clean and comfortable and is set in very nice mountain surroundings and private, it’s just the 27 people of my wife’s family. It is quite cool and there is pleasant chill in the air. Temp has gone from a humid 40c to about 18c and dry.
Next excursion is to a place called Toli Pir, a mountain summit that is a place of outstanding natural beauty at 10500 ft above sea level.
Pakistan Trip, Day 4: Wednesday 29th July
After breakfast off to Toli Pir, it’s about 1 hour away. Journey pretty uneventful apart from some close to the edge encounters with mountain edges, not normally scared but I was certainly unnerved.
We stopped at a rest house perched on a hill, it was quite a picturesque place, the rest house disgusting though in a woeful state of disrepair and could do with a deep deep clean.
Thought: Pakistan has so much to offer tourists, wonderful and breathtaking scenery, great range of food, cultural variations every few kilometers, historical architecture, excellent seasonal fruit, great shopping, handicrafts, carpets and rugs, every imaginable climate from desert to snow-capped mountains. In some cases you can have all four seasons in one day and that is no exaggeration. A number of things beset Pakistan’s aspiration for becoming a top tourist destination (aside from the current terrorist threat) – road infrastructure, stable electricity supply and general hygiene and cleanliness. Road infrastructure is improving, but the electricity issue is not. These things coupled with political instability, also prevent Pakistan becoming a top economic force which, I believe, is eminently possible. Hygiene and cleanliness is a big problem, and I have no idea why. Cleanliness is a part of Islam, the name Pakistan alludes to being a place of cleanliness and ritual purity and yet this is not reflected in the population. It could be argued that this is an issue of poverty and/or education, but I believe, and I have witnessed this anecdotally, that even rich and educated Pakistanis have little regard for this, therefore I believe it is an issue of attitude.
Arrived at the base of Toli Pir, it looks vast, lots of greenery. I can’t believe the amount of rubbish that has accumulated, I have noticed that there is no concept of proper and controlled waste disposal amongst the general public (let alone the government). It seems everyone from the lower, poorer classes to the higher bourgeoisie educated and moneyed classes deem it a right to litter and just throw rubbish anywhere. I have seen people build vast, luxurious and opulent houses akin to palaces and yet they empty their household rubbish pretty much on their doorstep or on the vacant plot next door. In most cases the local municipal authority provides no waste collection or disposal and this in turn is because people will not pay local taxes. There are two simple solutions to reduce household waste – incineration and composting but I guess it is easier to just empty your bin on the street. I mentioned this to my wife and she pointed out that there are people who make a living out of rummaging through such household waste looking for plastic bottles, bags and wrappers, tin and metallic objects and anything else they can salvage to sell. She said “Pakistanis have been recycling for years!”, she has a point, but, I argued, the organic waste matter gives rise to vermin and rodents and that leads to health issues.
My 14 year old son Yusef had a wrapper that he wanted to dispose of, he said to me “I’ll just throw it on the floor like everyone else” I told him that, that is not a good idea and as Muslims we should not pollute our environment needlessly and that he should place it in a bin regardless of whether the contents of the bin end up on the floor by someone else’s hand. He then came to the realisation “then I guess it is not good for your soul to litter” I was impressed at his conclusion.
Later that evening I discussed the issue of littering with one of the organisers of our trip, my wife’s cousin’s son Fayaz aka Bubloo (educated, well paid accountant and worldly). I told him that the simple issue of littering is indicative of the general malaise in Pakistani society. It boils down to selfishness and disregard for what Allah has entrusted to us. Even animals do not pollute their environment and when they do it is a sign of a serious underlying sickness.
Back to Toli Pir – it was a gradual ascent on foot and we had to stop a couple times to take a breath and gather the kids. The views on the way up were pretty breathtaking and reaching the plateau near the summit was even more so, down in the distance was a river snaking its way through the mountain range, the river looked dry, my guess is that it is due to the summer months or the water has been blocked to allow for the massive road building to go ahead. The plateau was a field of grass, clouds drifted past beneath us and wisps of ghostly vapour floated past suspended in the air. The view was truly stunning, it was cool without a chill and the air was fresh. There were a lot of other tourists and families but there was a serenity that one could find a spot and seclude oneself for a few hours in contemplation and remembrance of God.
We sat and ate mangoes and peaches for a couple of hours and wandered around taking in the vista. Then we descended and headed to Banjosa another natural beauty spot. I visited Banjosa in 1989 with some friends from Lahore and it was a really amazing place, spiritual even. We went towards the end of August it was cold and wet but added to the mystique of the place. There was a lake in the middle with trees and grass all around, a rest house on the top of a grassy knoll over looking the lake and a cafe/restaurant shack next to it. It was pretty much untouched after that, it was really picturesque. Unfortunately it is not the same anymore, ubiquitous litter, throngs of tourists. The rest house and the shack are still there but some shops and other out buildings have sprung up. The serenity and “spirituality” of the place have gone and I felt saddened and disappointed.
Heading back to our base camp and looking forward to a barbecue.
Arrived back and had a little game of tape ball cricket, loosely Pakistan v England, my team “England” lost the toss and were fielding. We had a total of 27 to chase. My opener hit the ball out of the “ground” and was out, as that was the rule. My son Yusef came in and was out first ball, oh the shame of it, in comes my next player, all this while I am the non-strike batsman, he hits the ball for one run, I am on strike, first ball I get the bat on the ball, a defensive stroke to get the measure of the pitch and the bowler, the light is fast diminishing as sunset approached. Second ball, whizzes past my bat. Third ball I expertly despatch for a 4 through the covers. Bowler changes, I get a feel for the conditions and I think I can get the total, fourth ball narrowly misses the stumps, maybe I was being optimistic. Fifth ball, get a defensive stroke on my back foot and try for a single and then the rain starts and boy does it start, it was a real soaking, heavy and you feel as though you are being slapped from heaven with each rain drop, thunder and lightning and torrential. It put paid to our match and barbecue.
Had dinner and hit the sack. We leave this place tomorrow to travel to Dheer-kot a good 4 hours drive in much same conditions as the last few days.
Pakistan Trip, Day 5: Thursday 30th July
We set off to Dheer-kot, there is a massive road building project across Azad Kashmir, in the main brought on by the earthquake 2 years ago, the going is very slow, the Hiace not getting above 20 or 30 kph as the roads are raw and incomplete, this trip is going to take a good 4 hours.
Arrive at the rest-houses in Dheer-kot at about 5pm, again its situation, geographically, is ruined by the state of it; it is not nice. Our party will be divided between the rest houses and the family house. My wife, daughter Sumayya and I walked to the rest house further up, and as we approached it my daughter stops and pulls me back and says “I don’t want to go, there’s something here”, my wife were a bit freaked out by this as she refused to go any further. We decided that we’d stay in the family’s house.
As I was making wudu, my prescription eye glasses broke, one of the arms came loose and broke off, luckily I had a pair of prescription sunglasses that I would have to make do with until we returned to Mirpur and so the rest of the trip was seen through my sunglasses.
There is not really much else here, we are here just because one of our number were invited by a family whose late father was a good friend of. No need for the rest of us to be here really and I am disappointed and very annoyed at the waste of a day as we sit around for hours doing nothing, I busy myself with reading and complain to my wife at the boredom and waste of time and perhaps said much more than I should have, the Mrs. is a bit upset.
The family is hospitable and pleasant and they put on a nice table spread of food.
They have a fig tree that has small figs about the size of a 10p piece, they were very sweet and tasty. Someone argued that they were not figs but, I countered, they were the same as any other fig that I have eaten except for size.
Pakistan Trip, Day 6: Thursday 31st July
Still in Dheer-kot, we have been invited to breakfast around someone’s house, again it is a friend of the same person in our group as before. We are running late as it is 10:45.
The house is situated on the side of a mountain, our Hiaces take us to a spot and the drop us off, the rest of the way is a mountain hike and it takes us 10 mins across uneven terrain and greenery with women and kids. The house is in a lovely spot, however, it is clearly earthquake damaged, cracked and battered.
In the room in which he was sleeping, on the main support beam across the room, he has written “la ilaha ilaAllah Muhammad ur-rasulAllah” he is convinced his house didn’t collapse on him because of that.
The damage is extensive I asked him if he is not concerned that the house is structurally unsound and that it may fall on them yet? He said with certainty “what more can happen? the worst is over”, I asked if he was going to demolish and rebuild and he said that he just can’t bring himself to demolish it just yet, it is a house in which he has invested much emotion and sentiment and just can’t bring himself to do it, but, he concedes, it is something that he will have to do.
Breakfast becomes brunch as it is midday when breakfast is served, we eat, the food is good, we make our goodbyes and head for Islamabad via Sozo Adventure Park in Muree.
Sozo Adventure park has about 15 fairground style rides, entry is RS320 (less than £2.50) for adults and RS180 (£1.30) for kids under 10. The first ride I go on totally does in my stomach, and I feel sick and don’t attempt anymore rides. Had a horse ride with my daughter which she thoroughly enjoyed. My boys enjoyed it even though they cynically compared it to theme parks England, both ended up vomiting.
We left Sozo and headed to Islamabad for dinner at The Mini Golf Club, a mini golf club with a fancy restaurant. Food was good but not particularly special and it was comparatively pricey by Pakistani standards. The kids opted for KFC and to be honest I wish I had too.
We headed back to Mirpur and got back at 1am
Pakistan Trip, Day 7: Friday 1st August
Spent most of the day resting and recuperating from the rigours of travel.
Reviewed the photographs from our trip, came out quite good. Everyone was impressed.
Prayed Juma’ at a local Ghausia Mosque, came back got asked by a relative if I prayed at a “grave worshippers mosque” I said that I saw no graves, nor did I see anyone worshipping them. Didn’t fancy getting into a lengthy discussion on the subject, it was the old Barelwi/Deobandi argument.