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When I was a child the season of Advent seemed magical to me.  A time of anticipation, largely of the food and presents that would come my way when the Advent candle finally burned down to 25.  A time of joyous expectation.  It tied in with the decorations in the town centre, with the Christmas music on the radio, with all of the trappings of Christmas in a Western country.

The older I became, the more the glitter and magic of Advent wore off.  As I thought about the birth of Jesus it struck me that this was a rescue mission, a final and stunning act of lavish and proactive generosity on the part of a God who could not bear to be separated from his people.  My rejoicing was replaced with wonder as I realised just how much humanity needed God, just how much God longed to be reunited with humanity, just how extreme and astonishing the rescue mission was.

And now in Pakistan Advent seems more miraculous, more bizarre, more incredible than ever.  Most people here simply cannot believe that God would stoop to enter the world as a human: it would be beneath him, unworthy of his majesty.  I can understand the objection.  The incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ is a phenomenon not seen in any other religion, at any other time, anywhere else in the world.  How could a divinity lower himself to such a level?  It is unthinkable that God would require food, would stub his toe, would cry.  I understand the objection, though I do not agree with it.  The aspect of God’s nature which makes the incarnation possible is the unthinkable depth and breadth of his love.  He would do anything, anything, to be with his children.  What father would do less?

Apart from Pakistani Christians, nobody here marks Christmas.  Save for the gaudily-decorated lobbies of the expensive Western hotels there are no decorations, no Christmas songs, no Christmas adverts on TV.  We celebrate it quietly.  I enjoy this very much.  It is in keeping with the season of Advent: a secret rescue mission, a tiny baby delivered in a humble room in an irrelevant backwater of the Roman Empire, welcomed by lowly shepherds.  The baby who would go on to turn the world upside down after three decades in isolation.  Jesus, the ultimate sleeper cell.  Not many here know of him, but he is there, and his love is as broad and deep as it ever was.

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He died suddenly, over dinner.  Chest pains had been bothering him for a few hours but he disregarded them, saying that it was merely indigestion and that people should stop worrying.  He went out for dinner with friends and family at a restaurant and it was there that he died, collapsing suddenly as his heart stopped, his life vanishing as suddenly as the morning mist.

He was a Christian and had worked at the site manager for a church for several decades, earning a reputation for trustworthiness and kindness.  It was to that church that his body was brought.  A coffin was prepared, a thing of thin wood and black fabric, decorated with a single strip of silver fabric, and into the coffin his body was placed, smartly dressed in a clean shirt and trousers as though he did not want to disappoint God by slipping into eternity in old clothes.

The relatives all came.  In Pakistan burials take place quickly, usually within 24 hours, and no relative would want to disrespect the deceased by not attending the burial.  They came from all over the Punjab.  They left jobs and family life; no employer would begrudge them the day off.  Family networks are strong here, one of the few sources of support available to Pakistanis bereft of money or connections.

The funeral was swift: a Punjabi zabur (Psalm), sung from memory, and a reading from Scripture.  A simple but powerful message was given from the pulpit, one of strength and comfort drawn from the truth of the Bible and the confidence that Christians have in the eventual resurrection from the dead.  The congregation were invited to gather around the coffin.  A woman fainted.  Others wept, wailing openly over the face of their uncle or brother or father or friend, their grief made raw by the suddenness of it all: one minute ordering food and sipping Coke, the next dead, gone, a life ended.

The coffin was placed into a van and was driven to the cemetery.  Here are buried Christians from several centuries, from British imperialists to contemporary Pakistani Christians: he would share a patch of soil with the deceased “NCOs and Men of the Somerset Light Infantry, 1917-1919” and with his own wife, buried nearby after passing away a decade ago.

The mourners filed through the cemetery as dusk settled over the city, illuminating their path with the light of their mobile phones.  The coffin was nailed shut, his face seeing the light for the very last time, and was laid into the grave.  More prayers were said, spoken loudly over the sound of sobbing.  A bottle of rosewater was poured over the coffin and handfuls of soil were tossed in.  His son wailed, sudden and stunningly loud.  The grave was filled.  Lavish handfuls of rose petals were poured on top and candles and incense sticks were studded into the soil until the fragrant smoke rendered the fresh soil all but invisible.

Christians do not grieve as those without hope.  This does not mean, though, that we do not grieve.  The pain of burying a father still cuts deep.  The sudden disappearance of a human being, the vanishing of an existence, the final full stop at the end of a life’s tale – this is an event accompanied by pain and loss.  Yet there is still hope.  There is always hope.  More than that: there is assurance.  As the mourners made their way out of the dark cemetery, as the bats swooped and flitted around the streetlights, squeaking softly, hope still lingered, delicate and eternal.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.