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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.

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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…

 

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.

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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…

We sat in the restaurant having breakfast.  This is one of my favourite meals of the day when done in proper Pakistani fashion: delicious parathas, fried circles of dough enriched with ghee, and puris, deep-fried dough puffs as light as air, with spicy omelettes and chickpea curry.  Everything was fresh and hot and we washed it all down with sweet yoghurt lassi and Kashmiri tea.

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Then I looked out of the window and saw three girls watching us through the plate glass.  With their pale skin and piercing eyes they had to be Afghans.  Their dupattas were wrapped tightly around their heads and they stood in silence, unmoving, watching steadily as I helped our daughter finish her drink, holding the straw so she could sip the last bits of lassi from the glass.  They looked similar enough to be sisters, aged perhaps 5, 7 and 9.  The oldest held a scruffy sack over her shoulder.  They would spend the day scavenging through the bazaars of Islamabad, collecting old bottles and rags to sell for a few rupees.  The restaurant’s cook, seeing them staring at us, started to shoo them away.  Perhaps he thought they would put us off our breakfast – and besides, Afghans are not popular in Pakistan.

I beckoned the waiter over and asked him to send breakfast out to the girls.  He nodded, smiling, and called to the cook to start preparing food for them.  A few minutes later a package of food was pressed into their hands and they were shooed away.  I had assumed they would eat it themselves but no, it was safely stowed away to be taken home for the family.  One of them, the oldest, smiled shyly as she skipped away.

Later, when we left, I saw the girls scampering away from our car in the car park.  I looked, surprised, and saw three stars which they had drawn in the dust of the rear windscreen.  Three stars scrawled in the dirt, a tiny fragment of beauty in a world in profound need of restoration.  The girls skipped away laughing, and, rounding a corner, were gone.

Over in the USA a bunch of ranchers were recently holed up in a wildlife refuge in Oregon, railing loudly against government interference.  Others are stocking up on guns: concerned by possible restrictions on the purchase of weapons, many people are buying rifles and pistols, resulting in the share prices of weapon manufacturers reaching new highs.  On the other side of the political spectrum people are railing against inequality, highlighting the plight of the American poor who drink poisoned water while men in suits take home unimaginably large salaries.

The current political situation is dominated by two men: one who criticises Muslims, who promises to ban refugees, and who pledged in a campaign speech to “bomb the shit out of Islamic State” – while the other, Bernie Sanders, is angry about inequality, about a culture based around the pursuit of wealth; one of his supporters said in an interview “I’m mad…you have to show some level of anger”.

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It’s not just America.  In my town in the UK the organisation Britain First recently held a “Christian march” through an area of town populated largely by immigrants, including many Pakistani Muslims.  The anti-Muslim organisation Pegida is growing in strength throughout Germany and also the UK.  The National Front is on the rise in France.  Attacks on Muslims in the UK are increasing.  The political spectrum is diverging sharply, with an uncompromising left-winger in charge of the opposition and a welfare-cutting right-winger in charge of the country.

I wonder if this era will, in hindsight, be defined as the age of anger.  Everyone, it seems, is angry about something or other.  Political disagreement is nothing new, of course, but the breadth and depth of anger felt by ordinary citizens around the world feels different.

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I wonder if technology is partly to blame.  We live in increasingly segmented lives, cut off from one another by smartphones and laptops, expressing our opinions and sharpening our ideas through Facebook.  We seem to spend less and less time actually talking to people, and once the variety and individuality of human beings have been removed, people become one-dimensional caricatures: a right-winger, a gay rights campaigner, a liberal, a Muslim – all targets for dislike and anger, if you happen to disagree with them.

Or perhaps there is something deeper at work: the death of ideas.  Throughout history popular discontent has been followed by a proposed solution.  Anger at the inequality of 18th century France led to the French Revolution.  Anger at the injustice of imperialism led to independence and nationalism (as with the foundation of the Republic of Pakistan, for example).  Anger at the aristocracy led to Communism.  Anger at religion led to the state-sponsored atheism of Soviet Russia.  Anger at warfare led to the foundation of the United Nations.  Our present era is still unequal, still stained by warfare, still haunted by abject poverty and lavish wealth, and yet – and yet we have run out of ideas.  We feel a sense of pain, of simple wrongness, at the state of the world, and yet where do we go from here?  Tyranny?  Several steps back.  Organised religion?  Led to the Crusades, to the Spanish Inquisition, to Islamic State.  Communism?  Nice idea, doesn’t work.  Nationalism?  It tore the world apart in the 20th century.  International cooperation?  It didn’t prevent the Rwanda genocide, nor the Vietnam war, nor the Balkan genocide of the 1990s.  Democracy?  Hamas were democratically elected, and Donald Trump may be as well.  Capitalism?  Doesn’t seem to promote equality, does it?

I wonder if modern angst stems from this simple fact: that we can see ever more clearly that the world is imperfect, that we deeply believe that it ought to be perfect, and that we have run out of solutions.  Inequality and strife lie at every turn, so we withdraw into our technological bubbles and feel a profound sense of unease.

 

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I pushed open the door of the shop and walked in.  The transition was startling.  Outside was a busy road with minibuses, trucks and rickshaws clattering to and fro, creating the noisy backdrop which features in all of my memories of Pakistan.  Next to the road was a muddy pavement, puddled with water and deeply rutted, and then was the shop, a plate-glass thing of wonder.  It was beautifully clean, air-conditioned, and well lit.  It was a housewares store and rows of lamps, sinks, toilets and bathtubs greeted me, all impeccably clean.  This was where wealthy Pakistanis come to decorate their homes.   A smartly-dressed attendant came straight over to ask if he could help me at all.

“I need some tiles” I said after we had salaamed back and forth for a bit.

“Just this way, sir” he said and led me to a corner of the shop lined with tiles of every conceivable colour and design.  These ones were from Germany, he said, and these from Switzerland, and these from Turkey, and these from China, and which would I like?

I asked for the prices.  My purchasing decisions in life are generally dictated more by price than by design, and I’m glad I asked because the price of these tiles was high.  I tentatively asked if there was anything cheaper.

“Well, yes” he said hesitantly, “we do have cheaper ones.  But they’re Pakistani”.  He shrugged apologetically.  After I persisted in asking to see them he grudgingly took me to a separate display of local tiles which were just as beautiful as the imported ones but for a fraction of the price.  I bought some of them – but only after insisting repeatedly that they were fine for my needs.  I know that shop-keepers will automatically try to upsell their products, to make as much money as possible from a transaction, but this felt different.  It was as though anything locally made was inferior, shoddy, not worthy of my attention.

Pakistan has an inferiority complex.  It is baffling.  I appreciate that the country faces challenges and is maligned in the media, but the criticism levelled at Pakistan by its own citizens is bizarre.  Wealthy people will only purchase imported products, turning their noses up at anything local.  Pakistani people will sometimes criticise Pakistani people, insisting that most of them are crooks.  A mechanic once told me that everything could be found in Pakistan, except for “an honest person”.  And then there was the security guard who told me that Pakistani people couldn’t be trusted – yet as he himself was Pakistani I wasn’t sure whether I should trust that statement or not…

Yes, Pakistan faces problems – but it also contains some remarkably friendly people, some stunning scenery, the best fruit in the world, some of the best pottery in the world, and an automatic hospitality of genuine warmth.  I just wish more Pakistani people would feel proud of themselves and of their remarkable, fascinating country.

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I rolled up to the traffic light and stopped.  The engine rumbled quietly as it idled.  By the side of the road a beggar girl was waiting: a small, thin waif, perhaps four or five years of age – exactly the same age as my own daughter whom I had just dropped off at school.  My daughter was probably playing in the garden by now, or inside learning the alphabet, or singing songs, or painting, while this little soul was standing bereft by the side of the road.  She, and hundreds of girls and boys like her, spends her days tapping on car windows in the hope of receiving a few rupees which they can take back to their parents, or to the avaricious gang leaders who run begging cartels like some ghastly business of destitution and deceit.

She saw my car and came walking over.  I rooted around the floor of the car.  As a rule we try to avoid giving money to these kids since it goes straight into the hands of the gang bosses who organise beggars.  Instead, we try to keep a stock of food items inside the car to hand out – packets of milk, juice boxes, individual packets of biscuits, that kind of thing.  The rule seems to be that money goes to their bosses but anything else can be kept – and it is both heartening and soul-destroying to see how a five rupee pack of biscuits can make the faces of these precious kids light up.  A packet of biscuits or a small juice box is really a drop in the ocean, quenching their thirst or sating their hunger for a couple of minutes, but what else can we do?  We have six jobs between us as it is and simply cannot do anything more for them except hand over a bit of food and a few kind words.

But not this time.  We were out of food: no milk, no biscuits, no juice boxes, nothing.  Not even any small banknotes; anything larger than 50 rupees would be noticed by someone else and it would be taken from her.  I looked at her with sorrow in my eyes.  Then, suddenly, I noticed something on the floor of the car: a cheap plastic toy from a Happy Meal that one of my kids had enjoyed the previous day.  I picked it up and handed it to her.

Her eyes lit up and a smile creased her face in two.  She looked at it with joy and then back at me, before tucking it into a fold of her clothing.  It occurred to me that this tiny, cheap plastic trinket, toyed with for a few seconds and then lazily dismissed by my own kids, was probably the first toy she had ever owned in her life.

Then the light turned green, the car behind me beeped irritably, and the beggar girl receded into my rear view mirror.