People make generalisations about Pakistan all the time. I don’t like it when they do, because they tend to be negative – “it’s dangerous”, “Pakistani people hate the West”, “it’s a failed state”. But here I am making another one: Pakistan is a remarkably hospitable country.
It really is. I used to post updates on Facebook of all the times people treated me differently because I was a guest: taxi drivers who refused to take my money, vegetable sellers who were so charmed by my stuttering Urdu that they gave me free tomatoes, shop-keepers who invited me to drink tea with them after an acquaintance of, oh, two minutes. After a while I stopped because there were just too many stories, and people were getting bored of them.
Perhaps in stopping these updates I did a great disservice to the people of Pakistan because hospitality is the salient characteristic of the people here, by a long way. When you watch the news you may get the impression that people here are angry and hostile. When I walk through the bazaar, on the other hand, my impression has been unremittingly positive. People here are instinctively and unfailingly polite, charming, helpful, and welcoming.
I have so many anecdotes I hardly know where to start. A week ago I went to a different bazaar to buy vegetables and had to insist four times before the stall-holder would accept my money. A taxi-driver a month or two earlier was slightly easier; I only had to insist three times. Once I was driving with a friend when his car broke down. Two passers-by dashed over to help us push it to a nearby gas station to get it fixed and steadfastly refused payment afterwards. Buying bread from a tandoor (clay oven) a while back was tricky in that the roti-wallah refused payment on the grounds that we had been away from Pakistan for a month and he wanted to welcome us back. Another time, on a trip to a city in the Punjab, some desperately poor people invited us into their home and insisted that we drink Pepsi, even though the price of a single bottle could have fed their family for a day.
I can’t promise that this hospitality is innate among every single person in Pakistan; I imagine there are some who are so hostile to the West that, were they to meet me, hospitality would be the last thing on their minds. What I can say is that after two years and several hundred personal meetings with Pakistani people every single one has been polite and hospitable.
Here’s a final thought. If a Pakistani were to travel to the UK, or Canada, or the USA, or somewhere else in the West, and met two hundred or so individuals, would every single one be hospitable and polite to them? How about you – if you met a Pakistani on the streets of London or Toronto wearing shalwar kameez and a prayer cap, what would your initial thoughts be?
Next time, why not try being polite? Saying “salaam aleikum” and smiling goes a long way, you know. It might be the most Pakistani thing you do all day…