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We were having dinner with a Pakistani family in Toronto a few months ago.  The food, unsurprisingly, was excellent.  We chatted amicably about Pakistan and the things we appreciated and admired about it.  Our hosts found this strange, saying that they saw nothing good in Pakistan, but only corruption and anger.  It is odd but true that some of the staunchest critics of Pakistan are expatriate Pakistanis.  My wife and I found ourselves in the odd position of praising Pakistan to Pakistani people, who only wanted to criticise it.

The man who had invited us to dinner looked me straight in the eye.  “Of course you enjoy Pakistan” he said simply.  “You can leave any time you like”.

The statement was made so simply, so truthfully, that it cut through me like a knife.  He wasn’t being malicious or critical, he was merely stating the truth.  And it is undeniably true.  My white skin and British passport give me a uniquely privileged position in Pakistan.

Think about it: if I ever want to leave, all I have to do is buy a plane ticket and head to the airport.  I have enough money for it, and a choice of airlines and destinations, and I could be out of here in five hours.  I could come back in a week, or a month, or not at all.  If I get in trouble in Pakistan the British High Commission will (at least in theory) take the responsibility of getting me out of it.

And then there’s the traditional hospitality which Pakistanis extend to foreigners.  I am regularly waved through police checkposts.  I am never asked for bribes.  Everyone treats me like a celebrity, to such an extent that I am actually embarrassed by it.  A few weeks ago I was queueing at the bank to pay my electricity bill.  When the people in front of me discovered that I was a foreigner they all stepped aside – all twelve of them – and let me go first.  I was profoundly embarrassed but rather touched.

All of this is very nice, and very unfair.  Why should I be treated differently to anyone else?  If I were a Pakistani citizen, especially one without the benefit of wealth or personal connections, life would be much more difficult.  Is that fair?  Not in the least.  But that’s the kindness of Pakistanis for you.

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One of the most frustrating things about being a foreigner in Pakistan is that everyone thinks you’re a spy.  Everyone.  It’s deeply annoying.

Of course, nobody says it to your face.  Pakistanis are far too polite for that.  When I tell them that I am here to raise funds for an NGO which provides education and healthcare to people too poor to afford it for themselves they nod and smile and thank me – but I have no doubt that somewhere at the back of their mind is a niggling suspicion that I’m doing something else entirely.  That I’m not an NGO worker but instead Jason Bourne, or James Bond.  The fact that I’m not going to my office in the back of a fancy car but instead am sweating it out on the bus like everyone else doesn’t seem to dissuade them.  Maybe that’s part of my elaborate cover.

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A cartoon showing the Afghan Emir threatened by Russia and the UK, both of whom professed to be his friend and ally.

To be fair, their suspicion is partly logical.  There is a long history of Westerners meddling in Pakistan, from the days of the Great Game when British spies headed north in disguise to map out mountain passes and to bribe local leaders, all the way through to Raymond Davis, the moronic CIA contractor who shot dead two men in Lahore and bribed his way out of trouble.  You can’t blame Pakistanis for being angry about it.  Wouldn’t we be angry if a Pakistani intelligence official shot people in Birmingham or Liverpool and got out of trouble by handing over a suitcase of cash to the families?

But to attribute such nefarious motives to every single foreigner in the country is baffling.  I know many people who have dedicated their lives – their entire working lives – to providing healthcare and education to impoverished Pakistanis.  Doctors who could be earning six figure salaries in the West who spend their days sweating it out in Multan or Tank, saving the lives of people in return for a puny salary.  Foreign aid workers who come to Pakistan to administer aid grants from Western countries – immense amounts of money, donated by taxpayers in the West to strengthen educational systems in remote areas – who aren’t allowed to renew their visas and are forced to leave.  An entire hospital in the south of the country is on the point of closing because the only doctor can’t obtain a visa “for security reasons”.  Quite how an elderly female doctor working in a remote area poses a mortal threat to the stability of Pakistan is anyone’s guess.

Pakistan is a profoundly cynical and suspicious country.  That comes from being the punching bag for the world’s superpowers, I guess; it is reasonable enough to suspect the motives of people who have screwed you over in the past.  But to tar everyone with the same brush?  To attribute the same nefarious motives to every single foreigner who come here?  That is simply illogical.

So there’s not much point saying this, since people here suspect everything and trust no-one, but here goes: I honestly want to see Pakistan strengthened, made prosperous, to see its education system improved so that everyone can go to school, to see the economy flourish, to see clean water and power and books available to everyone, everywhere.  And you can quote me on that.

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I have spent the last four years of my life living in a country that is 97% Muslim.  Before that, I frequently travelled to Muslim countries such as Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Morocco, and Zanzibar (a strongly Islamic island belonging to Tanzania).  I have studied the history of Islam extensively.  My landlord is a Muslim, most of my friends in Pakistan are Muslims, many of my friends back in the UK are Muslim, and in the UK I lived in a town which was 25% Muslim.

I am also a committed Christian.

Is there a contradiction here?  Not a bit of it.

We live in turbulent times marked by division and mistrust. People in Europe are increasingly wary of Muslim people – in recent elections nationalist parties made large gains in the UK, France, Netherlands, Greece and Austria.  Many people watch the news about Islamic State and terrorism around the world and link it to the Muslims they see in their neighbourhoods, even though only a minute fraction of Muslims worldwide are involved in terrorism.  I have heard several Christian preachers give talks on Islam which are brimming with suspicion and hostility.  So you might think that a committed Christian like myself would be similarly brimming with hostility towards the Muslim people among whom I live.

But I’m not.  Not at all. Not even close.

So why not?  Among the many reasons I could pick to answer this question would be the following:

1. Because Islam and Christianity are really quite similar.  Shocking, isn’t it?  Yet they are both monotheistic religions, share a number of fundamental beliefs, and recognise characters such as Abraham, Moses, Job, David, Solomon, Mary, and Jesus.  We have different opinions on the nature of Jesus, and that is important – but I have so much more in common with a Muslim than I would with an atheist.

2. Because Muslims are wonderful.  Anyone who is surprised by me saying that has probably never travelled to a Muslim country.  The hospitality, the kindness, the instinctive respect for Christianity (yes, I mean that!), the constant, unfailing kindness.

3. Most importantly, because Jesus commands his followers to treat others with love.  This is the Golden Rule, the chief summary of the teachings of Jesus, whom Christians recognise as the son of God. We are to love others and to live in peace with them.  Does that mean that we are to hide our own faith?  Not at all; we are called to be ready to give an answer for the hope that we have, and to do so with gentleness and respect.  Am I less of a Christian for loving Muslim people?  Well, was Jesus any less of a Christian for loving Samaritan people, the enemies of his day?

If we continue to love only our colleagues, our friends, our families, the people who share our nationality or skin colour or religion, the world will continue to be a divided and suspicious place.

If, on the other hand, we are able to overcome the fences that divide nationalities and religions, we might become agents of transformation, and the age-old mistrust between Islam and Christianity might finally be bridged.  Do I love Muslim people?  Yes, I do.  And so should you.  If Jesus had lived six hundred years later then he would have done so too.

 Hold on tight, here comes a comment which is Completely Blindingly Obvious: Pakistan is a very religious country.

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 Not much of a surprise, is it?  Pakistan was the first Islamic state ever founded, carved out of British India by the iron will of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and set up as a homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent.  Muslims from across India moved here, fearing for their future in a Hindu-majority country, while Hindus and Sikhs living in what was about to become Pakistan flooded the other way.  Right from the outset Pakistan’s identity was defined by the religious persuasion of the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants.

 And this religious identity runs even deeper than that.  Pakistan is a pretty loose-knit country, consisting of a range of ethnicities with not a whole lot in common: Punjabis, Pakhtuns, Baluchis, Sindhis, Kashmiris, people from the Northern Areas, and then a whole new group of Mohajirs – refugees who fled here from India and made a new life for themselves.  In my experience these groups have only a few things in common: hospitality, the ability to cook amazingly good food, a distrust of India, and Islam.  And even the Hindu and Christian minorities, about whom I will write in greater length another time, are deeply religious.  Early on in our time here I tried to explain to someone that modern Britain is a mostly secular country – but trying to translate “atheist” into Urdu proved tricky; nobody really knew how to say it, so we ended up by using the word “pagan” which is not really the same.

 See?  Pakistan is a country which has no comprehension of the word “atheist”.  It’s probably like trying to explain to a man living in the Gobi desert what snow is like.

 This identity affects more or less every sphere of Pakistani life.  The daily routine is punctuated by the call to prayer which echoes out at defined intervals.  Friday, the holiest day, sees most shops shut.  If you ask someone how they are they will probably respond “thanks to God, I am well”.  Everything has religious names – shops might be called “Bismillah Drinks Stall” (Bismillah means In the Name of God) or “Praise God Chicken Shop”.  I once bought some house plants from a guy in the bazaar who prefaced every single comment he made with the phrase “Insha’allah”, which made for a slightly odd conversation:

 Me: How much is that one?

Salesman: God willing, it is two hundred rupees.

Me: And that other one?

Salesman: God willing, it is only one hundred and fifty.

Me: Ok, I’ll have that one and that one.

Salesman: God willing, that is ok.

Me: How much does it come to?

Salesman: God willing, three hundred and fifty rupees.  But, God willing, as you are a guest, I will make it three hundred.

 And so on.

 There are two points I particularly want to make.  Firstly, the vast majority of Muslims I meet here are charming and polite in the way they present their religion.  Of course, there are different faces of Islam in Pakistan – there are groups who will murder Shi’a people because their interpretation of Islam differs from their own, for example – but every Muslim I have met has been polite, interested, and sincere.  I’m a Christian, so they disagree with me, but they do so nicely.

 And the second point is this: I like the religiosity of Pakistan.  I like that religion is a big deal here, because it’s a big deal with me.  I like the fact that I can walk into the bazaar and have a conversation about religion with just about any stranger I meet.  Modern Britain is so aggressively secular that any mention of religion marks you out as some kind of weirdo; received wisdom is that religion is dangerous, warlike and retrograde.  Over here, by contrast, everyone talks about religion, among most Pakistanis there is an ingrained respect for faith, and generally it is peaceable.

 There are exceptions, of course.  I’ll write about those later.  But the broad picture is probably a lot more pleasant than you’d think from reading the Western media.  As a Christian I much prefer a country which writes “Praise God” on its buses to one which writes “There is probably no God, so stop worrying”…

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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…

One of the consequences of living in a newsworthy country like Pakistan is that people always want to know what it’s really like.  The media is at least partly responsible for this interest: people see images of bomb attacks, drone attacks, protests and other events in Pakistan, then remember that they have a friend living in that same country, and immediately want to know how things seem from our perspective.

 Answering this question takes more time than they usually want to spare for the simple reason that Pakistan is a complex country.  Everyday life defies simple explanations, which is what people usually want.  Contrasts exist in Pakistan like nowhere else I’ve experienced.  I’ve seen camels strolling casually down a major city street, side by side with brand-new Land Cruisers and Corollas.  I’ve seen brand-new frozen yoghurt shops that seem to have come straight from California – and penniless Afghan orphans sitting outside, sifting through rubbish to earn a crust of bread.  In major cities here you can eat imported American cheeseburgers alongside Pakistanis wearing designer clothing and taking pictures of each other on iPhones, and then walk outside to see homeless casual labourers dressed in rags waiting for work.

The simple answer is that there are lots of different Pakistans.  A very religious Pakistan, and a largely secular Pakistan.  A rich Pakistan and a poor Pakistan.  A safe Pakistan and a dangerous Pakistan.  A Pakistan of startling beauty and a shockingly ugly Pakistan.

So, in an attempt to answer this question, I’ll write a series of blogs about this wonderful, perplexing, bizarre country, in an attempt to provide a more rounded and realistic impression of Pakistan than one tends to get from the news outlets.  Stay tuned!