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…
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?”.