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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.

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It had been a tiring day.  With four kids under the age of six every day is a tiring day, admittedly, but yesterday had been particularly tiring.  The kids were off school because of the Eid holidays and all the places we would normally take them – the mall, the park, the other park – were all closed.  All of our Pakistani friends were visiting their families around the country so most of our friends were away too, but our families live in the UK and Canada and so we were on our own.  The kids were tired and irritable and fights kept breaking out.

Eventually, reluctantly, we put on a film for them to watch while my wife prepared dinner.  I collapsed onto the bed and opened my laptop to answer some of the many emails that were waiting for my response: funding proposals, meetings, requests for board minutes, and so forth.  I tried to get my brain into order, to assemble my thoughts, but it was like trying to round up a gaggle of hyperactive squirrels.  They kept wandering off.  This state of perpetual fatigue is, I think, going to be my salient memory of parenthood.  The other week my watch was showing the wrong date, and I only noticed ten days later.  I opened my laptop and started to type.

As if on cue, our baby boy, only six weeks old, opened his mouth and started to scream.

“Sweetie, can you get him?” called my wife from the kitchen where she was, by some kind of alchemy, turning fish, spinach and potatoes into something delicious.

I sighed.  My one chance to get something done today.  My one chance.  Once the kids are in bed and we have the house to ourselves all we do is collapse in front of a DVD, and often fall asleep halfway through an episode of the West Wing.  All of the work I was hoping to do today would have to wait until tomorrow.  It was frustrating.  I felt angry.  I felt tired.  I felt a whiney sense of injustice: why did we live so far from family and friends who might be able to help us?  Why had we gone so long without a day off?  Why had it been two years since our last decent holiday?

And then, as I picked up my new son and held him close, his eyes fixed on mine.  He pulled his head slightly back to get things into focus and stared at me.  And then, slowly imperceptibly, a tiny smile started to curl at the corner of his mouth.

We were sitting in our bedroom on Sunday afternoon when the rain came.  It came suddenly, without warning – from sunny skies to a torrential downpour in two seconds, as though God had flicked a switch and opened the heavens.  In an instant the sky turned dark as black clouds hovered menacingly overhead.  Sheets of water cascaded from the sky, and screams of delight echoed around our neighbourhood.

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In the UK people complain about rain.  However, in Pakistan, especially during the sweltering summer months, it is deeply loved.  The intolerable heat and humidity vanish in an instant as the clouds break: a cool breeze blows through the houses and people feel, for the first time in days, that they are able to breathe again.  Rain is wonderful, a gift, an occasion for rejoicing.

I dashed downstairs with the children.  Giggling loudly, they ran into the street, jumping up and down for joy.  Our landlord, normally a sober and respected doctor, took off his shirt and danced in the street.  His son and my son jumped on their bikes and went careering up the road, steering through immense puddles and overflowing gutters.  Our neighbours were out as well, playing in the puddles with their sons and daughters.  One even brought out his hosepipe and sprayed our kids as they ran past, laughing wildly.  We were drenched, all of us, instantly and completely, as though we had just walked through a waterfall.

We got to know our neighbours: the man from two houses up who was playing with his daughter, the respected old man from across the road who smiled indulgently at my daughter kicking water from a puddle, the teenaged girl from a few houses down who walked silently up and down the street with her iPod plugged into her ears, smiling quietly as the rain poured down her face.  Later our landlord’s wife brought out a plate of fresh pakoras and another of doughnuts which the children rapidly devoured before running back into the street.  Everyone was smiling, the habitual hassles of Pakistani life dissolving in the rain.

One of the great strengths of Pakistan is its communities.  Though largely lost in the West as we become ever more individualistic, community still exists here.  The social network is strong: neighbours advise us to put hats on our kids during the winter, recommend good schools or doctors, share festivals together.  We say “salaam-aleikum” to everyone we meet, and they do the same to us.  It would be strange not to.  In the UK we look largely to the government to provide a social net for us: advice, healthcare, money, security.  In Pakistan these roles are done by the community, and there is a beauty and strength in this that the West has mostly lost.  We share joys, sorrows, food, advice.

And rain.

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When the British captured the Punjab in 1849, in one of those acts of greed and military prowess by which my ancestors so distinguished themselves in the subcontinent, they realised two things:

  1. In the summer the plains of the Punjab are insufferably hot.
  2. In the summer the hills of the Punjab are lush, green and comfortable.

They therefore decided to move their capital from Rawalpindi to Murree during the summer months.  The entire British administration of the Punjab shifted into the hills for a summer of dancing, shopping, and gardening.  I have a map of Murree from the 1920s which marks all of the cottages built there by the British, all of them given suitably English names: Dingley Dell, Strawberry Villa, Derbyshire House.  It was as if the green hills and regular rainfall reminded them so strongly of England that they sought to recreate a second England here, far from home.

We are currently doing the same.  At the moment we are living in a building that was originally constructed as a sanatorium for wounded British soldiers.  An Irish missionary by the name of Miss Sandes built it as a way of keeping bored soldiers away from the opium dens, brothels and drinking establishments of India.  It is a beautiful place of lush grass, trees, birds and butterflies.  It had, I imagine, the same effect on the wounded soldiers of the Raj as it is having on us: soothing our souls, calming our stress, taking us away from the summer heat and into a place of coolness and comfort.  Our children spend their days running through the grass, exploring the trees, finding lizards and ladybirds, gaping at the spectacular and varied birdlife that zooms overhead.

The soldiers of the Raj are long gone, and even their graves that dot the Murree hills are being eroded, worn away by the slow but incessant passage of time.  Yet the buildings they left here are still being used to bless and refresh their distant compatriots, warriors in a different struggle, ambassadors of peace in a time of strife and fear.

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It’s summer in Pakistan.  This is a time of the year that most people dread, for the simple and entirely predictable reason that It’s Very Hot.  The temperatures in our city don’t go much above 42 Celsius but further south it’s more like 45, and sometimes over 50 Celsius if you live in Multan or Sibi.  That is hot, especially for someone like me from England, where anything over 20 Celsius is considered hot and anything over 30 is usually sufficient to melt roads, stop trains, and cause everyone to moan.

Summer has one advantage, though: fruit.

You just can’t believe how good Pakistani fruit is.  Really, you can’t.  Comparing Pakistani fruit to the kind of fruit you buy in a Western supermarket is like comparing Monet’s paintings to the crayon scrawls of my one year old daughter.  My personal favourite are the peaches – but cherries could also be considered, and mangoes, and apricots, and I’d better stop here lest this blog turn into a shopping list.

Watermelons are good too.  People here seem to go crazy for them.  Fruit-sellers in the bazaar are usually a restrained bunch, but once the watermelons arrive they walk around shouting “Watermelons!  Fresh from the field!” and even grab your arm to convince you to buy one, as one did to me this Tuesday.

How they make any money from them is a mystery to me.  Currently they’re selling for 25 rupees a kilo, which means that a decent-sized melon of 3kg can be had for 50p.  Entire trucks filled with nothing but watermelons, dark-green globules of deliciousness, cross Pakistan from top to bottom, loaded down with a commodity with a retail price of 15p a kilo.

To put that in perspective, a litre of milk (roughly 1kg) sells for 115 rupees.  A kilo of flour costs 40 rupees.  A litre of oil is probably 80 rupees.  A kilo of lentils costs 120 rupees.  Watermelons are worth less than half of the cheapest comestible I can think of.  And that final selling price of 25 rupees a kilo is the final stage of the supply line: in order to get the watermelon from the field to the bazaar involves buying seeds, watering the plants, paying someone to harvest them, paying someone else to load them onto a truck, paying the truck driver, paying for fuel for the truck, and paying someone else to unload them – and then the salesman in the bazaar will want his cut as well to make it worth his while.

So what’s my point?  Simply this: poverty is cruel.  If any of the people in the supply line were earning anything close to a living wage, enabling them to educate their kids and buy medicine and live in a decent home and eat well and save for the future, the price of watermelons – the price of everything – would be higher.  Much higher.  But since so many people in Pakistan live perilously close to the poverty line, desperate for any kind of work that will keep the wolf from the door, they can’t afford to ask for better wages.  If they did, someone else, equally desperate, would take their job.

It’s a sad realisation that poverty actually benefits me personally.

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I remember September 11th 2001 very clearly.  I had just started a temporary job during my year off before university and was on my second day of training.  Over lunch a murmur went around the staff room and someone switched on the TV.  We all watched, horrified, as one of the World Trade Centre towers collapsed.  I was shocked – we all were, everyone in the world was – but I consoled myself with the thought that people had probably been evacuated by then.

Then I was informed that they hadn’t been evacuated, and thousands of them were dead.

I went home on the train.  My Dad picked me up at the station.  He had been sitting in front of the TV all afternoon, crying.

Those attacks marked what seemed like a new level of terrorist horror: televised mass murder on an immense scale. Yet more recent events have surpassed even that appalling act of cruelty: the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and, more recent yet, the unimaginable savagery of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.  Who, on September 11th 2001, would have thought that even that day of cruelty and destruction would one day be surpassed by levels of savagery even higher, even more cruel, of beheadings and massacres and people locked in cages and burned alive?

I’ve been trying to put the actions of Islamic State into a historical context.  It’s all too easy to look at current events and assume that they are more dramatic, more cruel, more terrible than anything in human history, because they are happening to us, and they are happening now.  The immediacy changes things.  So how does Islamic State fit in, when seen in a historical perspective?

One thing which occurred to me is that the actions of Islamic State are not unprecedented.  Beheading enemies is a tactic that has been used countless times throughout history: by the Mongols, by the ancient Persians, by the French revolutionaries, by countless movements across history.  Killing one’s enemies by removing their heads from their shoulders was not invented in 21st century Syria.

Nor, for that matter, is burning people alive.  Islamic State did this to a captured Jordanian pilot, and even filmed the event, but again, this is a tactic as old as humanity itself.  Joan of Arc was burned by the English in 1431.  Christians were put to death by burning by the Emperor Nero in 64 A.D.   Rebels and criminals were burned to death by the Ancient Babylonians a full eighteen centuries before the birth of Christ.

So why are the actions of Islamic State so deeply shocking?  I think there are two reasons.  Firstly, because of media.  Gruesome executions throughout history leave little mark on us now because the only records we have of them are either written accounts, or engravings such as those seen in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.  Compare the shock-value of these hand-drawn pictures with the shock value of an actual colour video of the event, with sound, and the difference is evident.

The main reason, though, is this: because the execution of Joan of Arc happened nearly six centuries ago, in a primitive age of brutality and violence and sickness, whereas the actions of Islamic State are taking place in an era of relative liberty and progress.  We have the UN Declaration of Human Rights, we have democracy as the most common form of government, we have relative human equality (or at least the aspiration to achieve human equality), we have education and healthcare and prosperity.  To look upon the crazed cruelty of Islamic State is to open a window and peer back into the murky depths of man’s historical cruelty.

Islamic State is not really any more cruel than any of the myriad savageries committed by humans over the centuries: the Mongol armies who made entire pyramids of the severed heads of their enemies, the armies of Cromwell who packed women and children into Irish churches and burned them alive, the execution of Robert Damiens in 1757 who attempted to kill the King of France and was stabbed with red-hot pincers, had molten lead poured over his wounds, and was then dismembered and burned alive.  The difference is that they are happening now, in an era in which personal liberty is taken, broadly, for granted, and they are being filmed.  To look upon the actions of the psychopaths of Syria is to look back at the dark, murderous past of humankind.

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Whenever I need a reason to love Pakistan, and these days I often do, I go to get something fixed on the car.

This might sound odd.  Coming from the UK, as I do, mechanics are people to be avoided as much as possible, because they are so expensive.  The hourly rate they charge for labour means that even the smallest job is going to set you back a bare minimum of £50, and if your car’s problem is in any way serious, you will pay a lot.  A LOT.

This is not the case in Pakistan.  Labour here is cheap – a consequence of high unemployment and low literacy, which together result in a large pool of unskilled labour.  This is sad, but it does mean that car repairs are cheap too.  Once I needed to have the head gasket on our car fixed, a job which cost me £400 when I had it done in the UK.  In Pakistan the same job cost £15 – and even then the mechanic winced, blew out his cheeks, and sighed deeply when he informed me of how serious the problem was.  I tried to act sad, but inside I was rejoicing.

When I show up at the mechanic’s shop he welcomes me with open arms, invites me to sit, and orders tea.  For a few minutes we sit and drink and chat, catching up on what’s happened since I was last in, and eventually we come round to the reason for my visit.  I explain as best I can, he nods wisely, and he instructs one of his juniors to open the bonnet and start pulling things out.

Everything that is good about Pakistan can be seen at the mechanic’s shop: the ingenuity, the hospitality, the hard work.  With little more than a spanner, a jack and a piece of cardboard (to lie on when they peer under the car) they can fix almost anything.  When it turned out that I needed my transmission fluid changing, a junior mechanic was sent out to find the best quality fluid available.  When the rear brake shoes were proven to be in need of replacing another junior was sent out in the pouring rain to find new ones.  While they worked I sat and drink tea and chatted.

Eventually the work was done.  The mechanic sighed heavily, looked at me with sad eyes, and delivered the bad news.  For four replacement brake shoes (imported from Japan, not inferior local ones), replacement transmission fluid (again, superior Japanese quality), new wipers, and repaired brake pads, it came to…

“Eight thousand rupees [roughly £50].  I’m sorry, but prices are high these days.”