One of the many privileges of living in Pakistan is enjoying its rich bird life. Due to its topographical variety Pakistan plays host to a huge range of bird varieties which migrate up and down the country. Most are easy to spot, even when you’re trying to do so while holding a toddler with one arm and attempting to stop three other children from shouting with excitement and scaring all the birds away. So without further ado, here are just some of the birds I saw last weekend in Murree…
Islamabad Literary Festival: Civil Society’s Day Out
uivaLiterary festivals have become quite a South Asian phenomenon in recent years. In India they have taken off in Jaipur, Chandigarh, Delhi, Kochi, Pune, Goa and a host of other locations. In Pakistan they have been taking place in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad for the last five years or so. The Islamabad Literary Festival 2017 took place at the Margala Hotel over the Easter weekend.
I have been attending the Lahore Literary Festival since it began, but this was my first time at its Islamabad equivalent. I find these events really heartening: it is undeniably encouraging to see thousands and thousands of people giving up their weekend to pack out a hotel in the centre of the city and listen to people giving lectures on the history of Pakistani literature in English, on Urdu poetry, or discussing recurrent themes in contemporary Pakistani literature.
Foreign observers have thankfully stopped finding this bizarre. In the early days of the Lahore Literary Festival correspondents from the UK and the US covered the event in tones of mild bemusement, employing gratuitously sensational phrases describing Lahorites dodging bombs to attend the festival. The festivals have been running for long enough now that they have become part of the social landscape, and foreigners air-dropped in to observe the event at the behest of some desk-bound editor no longer find them surprising. The sight of thousands of Pakistani people coming together to talk about books is no longer weird, as if it ever should have been.
These festivals, after all, provide an opportunity for Pakistani’s “liberal elite” to enjoy a day in the sun. I do not use that term negatively. Why should it be negative? The liberal elite of Pakistan have significant influence on society and use that influence positively and constructively. They come in their thousands to talk about poetry and novels, as well as less obviously literary topics such as Pakistan’s looming water crisis, and they clearly care. They do not come up with solutions to Pakistan’s problems – how could they, in a three-day event? – but the fact that discussions are ongoing, and passionately, is a positive start in itself.
The narrative about Pakistan is overwhelmingly negative. It is good to be able to report that thousands of people were willing to come out, discuss poems, buy novels, drink tea, and chat politely with anyone they could find. Clearly, it’s not all bad news.
Lahore, From Afar
The waiter brought the plates of food to our table, plonked them down, and walked away. We were in a French restaurant in a shopping mall in southern England. In an effort to replicate the French dining experience the restaurant had been decorated with old French film posters and tiled in black and white, and the bad service from surly staff added another layer of realism.
My son and I tucked in to massive dishes of mussels, since we were in the UK temporarily and were soon to be heading back to Pakistan where mussels are as rare as rude people. My wife had a steak sandwich. The other kids had asked for macaroni cheese, the kind of bland dish restaurants serve to children in an effort to keep them quiet. Outside, shoppers were dashing to and fro. A couple with a small child came and sat at the table next to ours and played with their smartphones until their child started screaming, at which point they gave a smartphone to him to keep him quiet. Our waiter came and dropped off a jug of tap water and seemed to think that he was doing us a personal favour by doing so.
Suddenly my wife’s phone bleeped. She checked it, looked at me, and said “Bomb in Lahore”.
The details were simple enough, containing the usual ingredients: a crowd of people in a city, a parked car, a network of people with murderous hearts. 8 dead, we were told.
Instantly my mind went back to Pakistan. I could imagine the crowded streets of Lahore, the throngs of people coming to see what was happening, the police shoving back the sightseers. The screams of the sirens carrying the injured to hospitals, the doctors and nurses rolling up their sleeves to perform their daily acts of heroism as they bandaged wounds and saved lives and informed grieving relatives that the man they sent to train as a policeman would not be returning home. I could imagine the screams of shock and the pain searing, agonisingly, into the hearts of people across the nation. I could imagine the cries of anguish from people across the country as they learned of a new outrage carried out by terrorists intent on destroying Pakistan.
Outside the restaurant the shoppers were dashing to and fro, bags of new possessions under their arms. My infant son spilled his water over himself. My daughter was ploughing steadily through her macaroni. My son was devouring his mussels. The people at the table next to us were eating in silence, eyes flicking to their phones every other bite. And far away, I thought I could hear the sirens.
Dinner with a Trump Voter: What I Learned
I have several friends who voted for Donald Trump. After Trump won the election I did the only productive thing I could think of: I invited one of them over for dinner.
Does that sound crazy? We live in particularly divided times. The online dialogue about the US election has been divisive at every level, with Nazi comparisons and vicious trolling flying around like confetti. My friend and I sparred online in our discussions of events, though thankfully we were more polite to one another than some people are. We have never compared each other to Hitler, which in the current climate makes our discussions oddly courteous.
But this is part of the problem, isn’t it? Online discussions are a terrible phenomenon. Email and Facebook are terrible means of communicating as they strip out the personal aspects of a discussion and reduce it to mere ideas. Offence is easily taken. We infer the worst intentions from comments, get defensive, and arguments ensue. So dinner it was, sitting and eating together, discussing things face to face. And here is what I learned.
- Not all Trump voters actually like Trump. My friend – a white, middle-aged, Christian man from a southern swing state – does not. He finds him crude and offensive. So why did he vote for him? Because he dislikes Clinton more than he dislikes Trump. It really is, for him, the lesser of two evils. The thought of electing a politician widely thought to be corrupt, duplicitous and incompetent was enough to make him switch to Trump. Interestingly, he would not have voted Trump if Sanders had been the alternative.
- A lot of American people feel left out, sidelined by what they see as a sweeping, liberal agenda that perpetuates intolerance in the name of tolerance. The social and political mainstream automatically condemns anyone taking an alternative point of view on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, unisex bathrooms, or immigration. Whether Donald Trump is likely to take a different stance on these issues is not important: what matters is that he is outside the establishment, refuses to subscribe to the liberal narrative, and enables their anger to be heard.
- Oddly (to me, at least) Trump is not seen by everyone as an aggressive candidate. My friend perceives him to be less interventionist and therefore less likely to embroil the USA in the mucky scuffles of recent years: Iraq, Libya, Syria, and so on. Trump as less warlike than Clinton? It sounds baffling, but that is how some people perceive him.
What mattered more than all of this was the simple act of meeting and talking in person. This enabled me to see my friend as a human, not as an abstract collection of ideas and motives. I saw him smile when I joked. I saw the pain on his face when he discussed abortion. The simple act of sitting together made me soften what I said to him (and he to me, I think).
I still disagree with him and I am profoundly shocked and worried by Trump’s victory. But in an increasingly divided world, and one that is separated and made more remote by the technologies that were intended to improve communication, I found it a helpful and uplifting experience. Politics cannot be boiled down to black and white issues, to anonymous and intangible ideas and policies. People, actual flesh and blood human beings, are involved at every level. Whether or not we agree – in fact, especially if we don’t agree – we have to listen to one another, lest our divisions grow even more stark.
An Open Letter to the People of the USA
I think I can remember precisely when I fell in love with America. I was driving on a highway somewhere in that enormous country of yours when I noticed small signs at intervals along the side of the road. Each sign bore the name of a particular group which had sponsored that section of road – the local chamber of commerce, the boy scouts from a nearby town, a group of veterans. At first I found that odd. In the UK the government would take responsibility for the roads rather than leaving it to citizens to tidy and maintain the highway – but then I realised how wonderful it was that local people would take the responsibility for doing it. It demonstrates pride, social investment in services, a sense of public spirit.
I’m really very fond of that country of yours. You are wonderfully kind and hospitable people. Your land possesses astonishing natural beauty. You have produced some of the great thinkers of the world, some of the greatest politicians, some of our most cherished inventions. America saved the world from Communism, saved Europe with the Marshall Plan, and gave us Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, and The Simpsons.
Of course it isn’t an entirely rosy picture. I cannot understand your obsession with guns – where else in the world would half the population defend the wide availability of weapons which cause 30,000 unnecessary deaths a year? Nor, as a Christian, do I appreciate your invention of the mega-church and the celebrity pastors, who all too frequently bear as much resemblance to the humble Prince of Peace as I do to an armadillo. And then let’s not forget that it was Americans who put cheese into a spray can, a crime which surely ought to have involved the International Criminal Court at some point.
So it is with sadness that I look upon the mess you seem to have brought upon your own heads. At first this increasingly bitter election campaign made me feel angry – how dare Donald Trump speak like that; how dare Hillary get away with being so duplicitous – but now I just feel sad. Whether one or the other wins, almost exactly half the country will be seething with rage. Whoever wins, everyone seems likely to lose. How did it come to this? How did the nation of Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Thomas Jefferson descend to such a level of crudeness and vituperation? What was once intelligent debate has turned into insult. What was once public discourse has turned into slander and abuse. At one point two candidates for the most powerful job in the world were arguing over ther size of their genitals. I hate to think what George Washington would have made of it all.
Somebody will win this election, but that is not the point. It is what comes after the election result that concerns me. Where do you go from here? What comes next? More division? More political insult and division? More cynicism from people angry – justifiably so – at the self-serving, squabbling élites who refuse to utter a single word unless it has been weighted, fine-tuned, and presented to a focus group in order to maximise its impact? Or will you look back at 2016 as the moment you came close to the edge – and changed your nation for the better?
The system is broken. Everyone says it. I think so, too. The two-party system naturally leads to separation and an entrenchment of dogmatic belief. Politicians have become adept at spin, at the cynical manipulation of truth to fit their own ends. Small wonder nobody wants to trust a politician.
But here’s the thing: you and I are part of the system. We are, all of us, a part of society. We are involved. We can change it. Ordinary people can change it. That is what has always happened. Did Lincoln throw his hands in the air at the evils of slavery and blame the system? Did Dr. King sit in an office moaning about civil rights? Did Eleanor Roosevelt resort to writing newspaper columns criticising the lack of cooperation between the nations of the world? It is not enough to complain about the bad things in the world; we have an obligation as conscientious humans to improve them.
You chaps have always been good at that. The Berlin Wall was bad; you managed to have it knocked down. The world was not enough; you sent men to walk on the moon. Slavery was bad; you fought a war to end it. The situation which faces you is bad too. So stop bitching and do something positive about it. That, surely, is the American Way.
Most of the rest of the world wishes you well. I certainly do. Although seriously, cheese in a spray can? What were you thinking?
With best wishes
A Sweaty Pilgrim
The One-Armed Fruit-Seller from Kashmir
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.
Dear World: Stop Slandering Pakistan
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?”.
The Plane to Toronto
I remember the first time I ever visited Canada. I was staying with the parents of my girlfriend, who would eventually become my wife and the mother of my kids, and reading the list of phone numbers attached to the fridge in the kitchen. The list of names struck me. It seemed as though every single surname came from a different country: Adourian (Armenian), Hadjis (Greek), Podbielski (Polish), Yu (Chinese), Santos (Filipino)…on and on it went, a veritable United Nations of personal contacts, polyglot and multicultural, touching almost every nation in the globe from Scotland to El Salvador. I grew up in 1980s Britain so was used to having friends from a range of countries, but never a range this wide, this disparate.
Halfway through the flight from Istanbul to Toronto I was wandering around the plane with a baby strapped to my chest. The other three kids were sleeping, having finally exhausted the entertainment possibilities afforded by watching Tom and Jerry cartoons and pressing the call bell to ask for apple juice. As I strolled up and down the aisles I was struck, again, by the diverse range of nationalities on board: the Pakistani family sitting behind me, the Iranian man in front of me, the elderly Greek lady who beams at me whenever I walk past and insists on patting the head of the baby on my chest. Two rows back, as I pass, I see an Eritrean man asking a Korean for advice on filling out the customs declaration.
I always wanted to travel. Growing up on a small island encouraged this itch to go overseas, to find new places, to leave damp weather and EastEnders as far behind me as I could manage. I went to Bruges, Belgium, and remember staring with bewitched fascination at the departures board in the train station; from here one could take a train to places as exotic as Copenhagen, Milan, Zurich, Paris. The departure screen at Heathrow airport had an even more powerful effect. I was only heading to Amsterdam but handing over some more money and heading to a different gate could see me end up in Mexico City, or Calgary, or Manila. I found it utterly thrilling. I still do.
Perhaps that is the real power of the modern, multicultural world: that cultures that were once separated by oceans and continents are now next-door, down the street, running the local superstore. I find this just as thrilling. The challenges of multiculturalism are far outweighed, in my view, by the benefits.
The plane landed. An elderly lady, either Pakistani or Indian, was waiting quietly by the aisle as everyone filtered past. It turned out she was waiting for someone to help her fetch her suitcase from the overhead locker. I duly took it down and handed it to her.
“Shukriya” she said quietly, “thankyou”.
“You’re welcome” I said in Urdu, and we both went our separate ways.
Pakistani Weather Forecast
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…
Valentine’s Day and the Battle for Pakistan
Yesterday was Valentine’s Day, the day on which the violent martyrdom of a Christian saint is commemorated by people buying chocolate and flowers, for reasons known only to the kingpins of Western commercial excess. In recent years this event has been marked by increasingly nasty arguments about whether or not the day ought to be celebrated at all. In brief, the argument goes thus:
- The significant number of Pakistani people who look to the West celebrate it by buying roses to mark their love for their spouse, just as people do in the West. This is entirely natural for people who drink Pepsi, use Facebook, watch Star Wars, and generally look to the West for cultural guidance.
- Religious protesters, on the other hand, see Valentine’s Day as just one more example of Western immorality, with people flaunting love which ought to be conducted privately and with modesty (and, once suspects, with a burka over its head).
Thus it was that legal notices were issued in conservative parts of the country officially banning people from selling flowers or anything else associated with Valentine’s Day – and then the startling spectacle of the President of Pakistan Mamnoon Hussein himself saying that it ought not to be celebrated as it has no connection with Pakistani culture, as if the sight of a boy shyly handing a bunch of red roses to his girlfriend is a mortal threat to the nation.
All of this gave the rest of the world a good opportunity to laugh at Pakistan, which is something that everyone except Pakistanis seems to appreciate, but there is something deeper going on here.
It is the battle for the soul of Pakistan.
Pakistan has an identity crisis. It has always had one. Pakistan was founded as a homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent, and yet substantial numbers of Hindus, Sikhs and Christians live here; the founder of Pakistan, Jinnah, said in a speech that religion would have nothing to do with citizenship in Pakistan. Great – except that as 97% of the population are Muslim, their voice dominates all, and it is now an Islamic Republic with a number of Islamic laws to deal with things like divorce, rape, blasphemy, and so forth.
Another identity issue is modernity. Some Pakistanis wear Levi jeans, carry iPhones, eat at Dunkin’ Donuts, and speak English better than I do. Others live in rural villages, farm wheat, and live as though the 16th century is just around the corner. Equal citizens, different planets.
And then there is religion. Many Pakistanis are liberal, Westernised, drink alcohol, do not observe the fast of Ramadan, and have probably never seen the inside of a mosque. Others (more numerous) are profoundly religious, and model their lives in every conceivable respect on the life of the Prophet of Islam. Some of these – a small proportion, but an increasingly vocal one – cannot abide the thought of public space in Pakistan being in any way un-religious. Almost everything and everyone in Pakistan, religious or not, pays at least lip service to the forms of Islam. Every bus ride or plane flight begins with an Islamic prayer for travelling. Every rickshaw drivers whispers “In the name of Allah” before beginning a journey. In the West we agonise about whether religion has a place in the public sphere; Islam has no such qualms.
This doesn’t bother me in the least. Why should people not be proud of their faith? I deeply respect my many Muslim friends and admire their devotion. Yet what worries me is that while I’m sure the majority of Pakistanis find the Valentine’s Day ban to be laughable, almost none of them speak out against it. A small, fanatical core of noisy hardliners, unrepresentative of the nation as a whole, have hijacked the debate. I couldn’t care less about Valentine’s Day, but the bolshy intransigence of the fundamentalists concerns me deeply.
And that is the battle for the soul of Pakistan. Today it is about red roses; tomorrow it will be…