Archive

Pakistan

pakistan19

I stopped the car by the side of the road.  There was no fruit at the bazaar; the festival of Eid means that everything shuts down and there are as few supplies in the shops as there would be on Christmas Day in England.  The fruit-seller at the end of our street somehow had his cart piled with apples, peaches, bananas, and the last of the summer mangoes.

He greeted me warmly.  We chatted about prices for a while and then he started to put fruit into the set of scales on one end of his cart: first crisp red apples, then peaches, then mangoes which he said would be the last this year; they seem to disappear with the summer heat.  A kilo of each, plus a dozen bananas, came to about £4.

My daughter, five years old, climbed out of the car and came to stand by my side.  She watched the fruit-seller closely, then whispered in my ear:

“Why is his arm broken?”.

I hadn’t noticed, but his left arm ended below the elbow.  I asked him what had happened.  He told me how he was born in Kashmir near the Line of Control.  One day, as a child, he found a round, metallic object in a field near his house.  He picked it up, and it – a landmine, perhaps, or a bomb dropped from the air – exploded, taking off his left hand.  He told all of these things in the painfully straightforward, unemotional manner in which Pakistanis seem to relate extraordinarily tragic and painful things.

I translated for my daughter and she looked at him, wide-eyed.  He smiled and tickled her on the cheek.

“Praise God, you have wonderful children” he said, smiling.

We drove home in silence.  We stopped outside our house and I turned off the engine.  My son’s voice broke the silence.

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a war-stopper” he said.

taxi

I turned the key.  The engine chuntered, whirred…and stopped.  I tried again, and again.  Same result.  I sighed.  I was stuck by the side of a back street, somewhere in Pakistan, with an immobile vehicle.

This is not an ideal situation.  Before coming to Pakistan we received thorough safety and security training, and much of it seemed to revolve around attempting to avoid precisely the kind of situation in which I found myself.  Alone, stuck, on a hot day.  Diplomats in this position would be calling their emergency contact number and having a helicopter buzz in to pick them up, but people in my position don’t have access to that kind of thing.  The day was hot, and getting hotter.  A trickle of sweat ran down my back in a particularly insidious manner.

Suddenly a taxi approached.  It is always easy to tell when a Pakistani taxi is approaching.  It makes a sound like two pounds of rusty screws inside a tin bathtub being thrown down a flight of stairs.  The rusty bathtub approached and I hailed it with enthusiasm and not a small amount of panic.  I explained to the friendly driver what my predicament was, though no explanation was really necessary: clueless foreigner, immobile car – breakdown.  It’s not as though I was stopping to enjoy the view, which consisted of a few half-dead shrubs, a rusty dumpster, and a great deal of dust.

“No problem” said the taxi driver.  “Push it, it’ll start ok”.

I went to the back of my own car and started pushing, regretting almost immediately my decision to buy a black car.  The taxi driver was in the front seat.  I pushed, and sweated, and my palms sizzled audibly, and the car started moving.  After a few seconds I broke into a slow jog and the engine chugged into life.  The car drove away, slowed down, turned round, and came back to me.  I never once entertained the notion that the taxi driver would do anything else.  Pakistan is rather wonderful in that way.

I thanked him and offered him some money.  He refused, of course.  I insisted, of course, and of course he refused again.  I smiled and stuffed it into his top pocket.

The next day I got the battery changed.  Fewer breakdowns, hopefully, but also fewer opportunities to be blessed by an unexpected person.

IMG_1928

I finished speaking and sat down.  I took a long drink of water; public speaking always seems to leaves me parched.  The lady next to me turned to me with a sad look in her eye.

“5 years in Pakistan!” she exclaimed, shaking her head.  “How do you manage to live in such a terrible place?”.

I must have looked as astonished as I felt, because she felt the need to clarify her comment.

“You’re a Christian, and Christians in Pakistan are always living in fear from the Muslims.  How do you cope with it?”.

I thought for a second, then replied.

“I cope with it by remembering that what you’ve said is not true”.

I was at an event in the UK speaking alongside other people working with the church in different parts of the world.  I had shared a bit about working alongside the church in Pakistan and about what it’s like in general to live there.  I had shared some anecdotes of Pakistani life and about what it’s like to live among such hospitable, warm people who go to such lengths to welcome us.  I also spoke of the pain experienced by many people – Christian, Muslim, and other groups – in Pakistan as they cope with instability and difficulty.  Apparently nothing I said registered with this particular lady, who was more than ready to condemn Pakistan as a hotbed of fanaticism and suffering, despite never having been there.

I am coming to realise that this narrative of a brutal, terrorised Pakistan is more widespread than I had thought.  Everyone, it seems, is perfectly ready to accept that the portrayal of Pakistan in the media as a place of cruelty and oppression is accurate, and as so few Westerners ever bother to travel to Pakistan to have this crude stereotype challenged, it obstinately persists.

What really bothers me more than anything else is that Christian organisations are involved.  There is no shortage of organisations which exist to support the persecuted church – and yet more often than not, this support goes no further than highlighting instances of persecution and then asking for money.  There are Christian organisations out there which directly benefit from publicising the worst things about Pakistan.  It’s practically an industry, and it sickens me.

Bad things happen in Pakistan.  Of course they do.  After five years there I could hardly fail to notice it.  Yet by focussing only on the negative aspects of Pakistan and sparing not a moment’s thought for the good aspects – the astonishing hospitality, the kindness, the warmth, the selflessness of so many Pakistanis, the many Muslim leaders I know who go to great lengths to support inter-faith dialogue in Pakistan, the many Muslim friends who call me to apologise whenever Christian suffer in Pakistan, the taxi-drivers who refuse my money on the grounds that I am a guest – when we ignore this side of life we are not being truthful, and we are not being fair.

I spoke to the lady for a few minutes, giving her a few examples of the beauty of Pakistan and of the kindness of its people.  She seemed surprised, but happy.  Then she added a question which is still resonating with me:

“Why don’t we hear more about it?”.

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.

Great_Game_cartoon_from_1878

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.

150623101322-pakistan-heat-wave-water-super-169

Hello and welcome to your daily weather show, with your host Shazia Mehmud.  It’s April now, so time to catch up on the latest weather predictions from our state-of-the-art forecasting centre in Lahore.  Summer is coming, so how’s the weather going to look?

First of all, we need to pay attention to a band of low pressure which is sweeping across the country.  This will have the effect of ushering in a period of hot, sunny weather across much of northern Pakistan.  However, across southern Pakistan, by contrast, there is a band of high atmospheric pressure coming in from the Arabian Sea, which will have the entirely different effect of ushering in a period of hot, sunny weather.

Central Pakistan will see a period of what appears to be hot, sunny weather.  In Baluchistan, on the other hand, the weather will be sunny and hot.  In northern Pakistan it’s worth considering the possibility that the weather will be hot and sunny, with very hot intervals.

Some readers have emailed in to ask how the weather will be in their locality.  Mahmud in Abbottabad, for example, says that his sister is getting married this week and wants to know if the weather will be suitable.  Well, Mahmud, we can confirm that the weather for your sister’s wedding will be hot and sunny.  Yasmeen in Karachi says that she’s planning a trip to the beach with her family but doesn’t want rain to spoil the day – no worries, Yasmeen, since the weather will definitely be hot and sunny!  And finally Nadeem from Gilgit wants to know if he will be able to do his outdoors photography course or if clouds will spoil the day – no need to worry, Nadeem, it will definitely be hot and sunny.

The situation is likely to change in a week or so, when a band of very hot weather will come in from Iran.  This will increase the temperatures by, ooh, I don’t know, lots.  Seriously, lots and lots.  Don’t worry, though, it will still be sunny.  Very sunny.

Oh look, a viewer from Multan has just texted in to ask if his team’s cricket match will be able to go ahead next Tuesday.  Well, sir, I have only this to say: is it possible for heat to stop play?  Or sun?  Ha ha, only joking!  Although seriously, you might want to check that out.

And now we can go live to our very own weather reporter who has been standing outside the studio here in Lahore to report on our own weather.  Zubair, how are things out there?  Hello?  Hello?  Zubair, can you hear me?  What’s that?  He’s collapsed from sunstroke?  Well, I guess that answers my question!  Thanks for your dedication to duty, Zubair!

That’s about all for today, viewers.  Remember, watch out for hot weather, also sunny weather, and especially very hot and sunny weather, variations of which will be on the cards until, ooh, November.  Until then…

_75267470_022525676-1

We were stuck in traffic in Abbottabad.  We had turned off the main road onto a side street barely wide enough for two cars to pass.  A van was parked on the left hand side and when we pulled out to pass it, another van headed straight for us.  He screeched to a halt in front of us.  As I prepared to back up, another van pulled up behind us, and another behind him.  The van in front of us attempted to back up, but two more vans pulled up behind him.  We gazed at each other through our respective windscreens.  The engine idled away.  In the car seat behind me our infant son started to whimper.

It had been a bad week.  The attack in Lahore had shocked us deeply, dragging us into a familiar mood of anger, sorrow, and desperation.  The same evening there was a riot in Islamabad.  Schools were shut, the buses were cancelled, and the city ground to a halt.  We needed a holiday, so we loaded up the car and drove north through the green hills of Hazara District.  And now, a few metres after turning off the Karakoram Highway, we were stuck.

The crucial thing, I knew, was not to lose my temper.  But this is easier said than done when there are four small children in your car who have already driven for four hours, and when your nerves are frayed to breaking point from the stress of driving up one of the most stressful stretches of road in the country.  Pedestrians were filtering through the traffic jam, glaring at us as they squeezed past our car as though we were personally responsible.

There is something about being glared at by a succession of bearded Pakistani men which makes one reconsider one’s life options.  What a peculiar circumstance to find oneself in!  Stuck in traffic in a town four thousand miles away from my own country, eight thousand miles from my wife’s own country, in the town famous for being the final dwelling place of Osama bin Laden.  The men passing our car looked fierce, warlike, with turbans, straggly beards, and default facial expressions of profound grumpiness, as though I had wronged them in a past life.

Surrounded by seemingly hostile people I was struck with a profound sense of not wanting to be there.  Of not wanting to be in Pakistan at all, really.  A sincere desire to be somewhere, anywhere, else, preferably somewhere with a beach and a succession of cold drinks with little umbrellas in.  I couldn’t take it any more.  The heat, the traffic, the unrelenting stream of bombs and protests and overwhelming public anger, the caustic and abrasive daily grind of Pakistani life.

Suddenly the driver of the van in front of us clambered out of his vehicle and came to my window.  He looked angry.  The crowd paused to see what would happen.  I took a deep breath, prayed briefly, and opened the window.

He thrust his hand into our car and shook mine warmly.

“I am most sorry for inconvenience” he said, smiling gently.  “Perhaps if you move car back just a little bit, we will be able to make progress”.

He moved to the back of our car and encouraged the vans behind us to shuffle backwards.  One by one they did, opening up space for us to reverse into.  Once his path was clear he got back into his van and drove off.  As he passed our car he stopped, held his hand out to shake mine, and thanked me warmly.

“Thank you so much, sir” he said with a simple smile.  “Welcome to Pakistan”.

 

0a4e6ead_2791343f

Yesterday evening seventy citizens of Pakistan were blown apart by a suicide bomber at a park in Lahore.  The death toll will rise.  It always does, especially when seriously wounded people are left to the tender mercies of Pakistan’s healthcare system.  Many were women and children.  Families were enjoying the cool spring weather, taking advantage of a day of rest to push their children on the swings and buy ice creams.  It must have been a wonderful time.

Then a suicide bomber parked his car near the gate, next to the swings, and detonated his device.  Now those same families are ripped apart; their laughter transformed into screams and terror by means of twenty kilos of explosives and a bag of ball bearings.

Many of those killed were Christians.  They, like my family and me, spent Sunday morning at church rejoicing in the glorious triumph of Easter Sunday, when Jesus rose from the dead and conquered death and sin.  They, like us, shared lunch with family and friends.  They, like us, went out to celebrate in the evening.  Yet we were not attacked and they were.  The same people who laughed and rejoiced in the victory over the grave are now, themselves, in the grave.  Life beat death, and then death came back in the darkness of a bomber’s heart and in the shape of chemicals and ball bearings.

And yet this is not over.  After the attack messages started circulating asking for donations of blood for the wounded.  A Lahore taxi firm offered free travel to anyone going to hospital to donate blood.  People of all religions are united in condemning the attack.  The condemnation even united India and Pakistan: the hashtag prayforlahore is trending in India.  Hospitals in Lahore are crammed – literally crammed – with people queueing to donate blood.  Probably most of them are Muslims.  I am crying for gratitude as I type.

Still the pain remains.  This is a profoundly beautiful and deeply misunderstood country, full of polite, kind, honourable people – and yet a country bedevilled by violence perpetrated by a minority of deranged lunatics who kill indiscriminately.  They target Christians, and Hindus, and Shias, and Sunnis, and the Pakistani soldiers who give their lives to protect Pakistani civilians: they are against everyone, except their fellow bigots.

And yet they will lose.  Pakistanis are too good, too decent, too strong to give in to this mass murder.  Love will win in the end, though the path to that victory may be littered with more bodies.  Life will triumph over death.  Easter is not the end, but the beginning.

IMG_20160312_1047179_rewind

We were sitting outside the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore.  A light rain was falling.  We huddled underneath a large umbrella and sipped the cups of chai which we had ordered.  We needed the warmth from the tea as much as the caffeine, in much the same way that people in England drink tea to dispel the murky chill of February days more than for the actual taste.  My son looked around.

“I don’t think God can love people here” he said sadly.

I was surprised by this.  My wife and I have made a point of teaching our children that God loves all people equally.  This is a fundamental tenet of our Christian faith, and a great number of cruelties in the world can be directly attributed to the mistaken belief that some people are more loved by God than others.  I asked him what he meant.

“Look at all the garbage” he said mournfully.  “How can God love people when they don’t care for the world he created?”.

I looked around.  There was, indeed, a lot of rubbish.  Paper cups, empty crisp packets, cigarette packs, crushed juice boxes – the detritus of a thousand tourists was strewn all around the courtyard in front of the mosque.  During our train journey to Lahore we had looked out of the window to see immense piles of trash heaped up on the sides of the railway embankments, flung carelessly out of houses and left to fester.  It is a part of life in the developing world that we have not yet learned to deal with.

“Well”, I said, “do you remember how Mummy and I told you that we love you always, even when you’re naughty?”.

He nodded.

“We do that because God loves us even when we’re naughty” I continued.  “Even when we do bad things, God always loves us.  So we should always try to be better”.

He was silent for a while, looking around at the heaps of rubbish strewn around the courtyard of one of the most magnificent mosques in the world.  Then he said:

“That’s a lot of love”.

In recent years the Pakistani rail network has become a byword for mismanagement and neglect.  Rolling stock is old, trains are frequently delayed, and stations have not been improved since the days of the Raj.  However, in May 2015 Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif inaugurated the “Green Line Express”, marking the first major investment in the railways for some time.

The Green Line runs from the Margalla Station in the capital, Islamabad, all the way to Karachi, stopping at place such as Rawalpindi, Lahore, Bahawalpur, and Hyderabad, among others.  I recently took the Green Line from Islamabad to Lahore with my son and father.  The train itself is shiny and new, with a Chinese locomotive and locally-made carriages.  The driver was happy to show us into the engine, much to my son’s delight, and was clearly proud of being involved with such a modern project.

IMG_20160311_1426205_rewind

Seating was comfortable, in 6-berth sleeper compartments, consisting of three bunks on either side of the carriage.  Refreshments are frequently served – sandwiches and the ubiquitous Pakistani chai – and I understand that a full cooked meal is served to those continuing all the way to Karachi, though as we were only going to Lahore we were not able to partake.  Amenity kits, consisting of a toothbrush, toothpaste, a comb, a shoe mitt and soap were handed out.  Each compartment has six pillows and thick fleecy blankets, as well as a flatscreen TV.  WiFi was supposed to be offered but it never worked for us!

IMG_20160311_1442105_rewind

We left on time and arrived in Lahore on time.  On our return journey the train arrived fifteen minutes late – not bad, considering it had travelled something like 1300km through unseasonably heavy rain and localised flooding!  We enjoyed chatting to the many friendly Pakistani people on the train who were all hospitable, kind, and eager to share their food with us.

IMG_20160311_1617199_rewind

Prices are slightly more expensive than regular trains or buses – but the Green Line is immeasurably more comfortable and a much better way of meeting Pakistani people.  I would recommend it without reservation – but be sure to book tickets in good time as the service is very popular.

I seem to make a habit of missing obvious tourist attractions when I travel.  I spent a year in Spain and didn’t once visit Barcelona, nor Seville.  I grew up in the UK but didn’t visit the Lake District, one of our premier sites of natural beauty, until I was 25.  I travelled all around Tanzania and didn’t go to the Serengeti National Park, which is more or less the only thing that the majority of tourists in Tanzania actually DO see.

Last weekend I remedied a significant oversight on my part by visiting the Lahore Fort.  This is one of Pakistan’s premier attractions and one of its six UNESCO World Heritage sites.  Built largely during the reign of Moghul Emperor Akbar, between 1556 and 1605, it occupies a significant chunk of the north western corner of the Walled City of Lahore.  We turned up in a rickshaw and were deposited a few hundred yards away from the entrance, since renovation work to the next-door Iqbal Park prevented our rickshaw from getting any closer.

First, the positives: Lahore Fort is a really impressive place.  It covers a huge area of land and its walls and towers still possess a real sense of grandeur.  Entering the Fort entails climbing up a set of shallow, broad stairs which seem oddly disproportionate, until you learn that they were thus built so that Emperors could ride their elephants right into the Fort itself.  The walls command an impressive view over Old Lahore.

IMG_20160312_1003137_rewind

Much of the artwork in the individual palaces and rooms which make up the bulk of the Fort is remarkably beautiful: elegant carvings, fine stone inlays, delicate stone tracery.  The skill of the artisans who produced such beauty has to be appreciated.  Furthermore, the Fort uses open space very well: fountains and lawns stretch in front of the visitor, fringed with trees.  The Lahore Fort put me in mind of the Alhambra, another magnificent Muslim palace with beautiful artwork, fountains, and gardens.

IMG_20160312_0920065_rewind

And now for the negatives: everything is neglected.  It is heartbreaking to see.  Magnificent painted ceilings are now stained with damp, their colours faded and worn.  Whole sections of delicately inlaid stones depicting elegant floral patterns have been chipped out, leaving gaping holes.  The 19th century cannon which stand in front of the Diwan-e-Aam have crisp packets jammed into their muzzles.  Most appalling of all is the graffiti: names of visitors scribbled in black marker pen, scrawled directly onto ancient stonework and mosaics.  Mobile phone numbers, inane comments, childish insults, etched onto a UNESCO World Heritage site!  It is unthinkable.  Imagine the outrage if visitors wrote their names in Tippex on Stonehenge or the Taj Mahal – that is precisely what has been done, and continues to be done, at the Lahore Fort.

I don’t understand it.  This is the premier tourist attraction in Pakistan, a country which, contrary to popular belief, is actually packed with fascinating sights.  And yet instead of being revered as an example of Muslim achievement and architectural excellence – which it undoubtedly is – it is scribbled on by idiotic schoolchildren as if it were nothing more than a discarded scrap of paper.

IMG_20160312_1010014_rewind

Where are the UNESCO funds being used?  Not to employ guards, nor to employ guides; not a single one was in evidence.  Is it really that difficult to prevent people defacing a monument of international historical importance?  Do people here really care so little about their national story?