If you spend any amount of time in Pakistan you will be invited to a wedding.  In fact this goes for most Muslim countries.

I remember arriving in Jordan to spend a fascinating couple of weeks visiting Petra, the desert at Wadi Rum, and Roman ruins in Amman and Jerash; on our first day we were invited to a wedding by friends of the people with whom we were staying.  They put us on a bus to a town two hours away with the memorable instruction to “Get off when the bus stops and look for a guy called Mohammed.  He has a beard”.  As you can imagine, that really didn’t narrow it down very much.  We turned up at the wedding, we were warmly welcomed, we were fed roast lamb with rice and yoghurt, and halfway through an elderly relative pulled out a pistol and started firing it into the air before his family wrestled him to the ground.


Anyway, I digress.  Getting invited to a wedding in Pakistan probably sounds like a wonderful way to learn more about the culture of the country, but in reality they are monumentally tedious and an almost complete waste of time.  Here’s what will happen:

  1. You will arrive early. Doesn’t matter what time you leave or however late you think you are, you will still be early. Probably very early.  You will therefore sit around in a near-deserted wedding hall or marquee while waiters walk around wondering who the heck you are, and what you’re doing.  If the wedding invitation says 8pm and you arrive at any time before midnight, you will be too early.  Trust me on this.
  2. Nothing will happen. In Western weddings there is usually a basic pattern: arrival, church service, food, dancing, etc. Over here you arrive, sit at a table, and…do nothing.  People mill around a bit.  People chat a bit.  People drink Pepsi a bit.  But that’s about it.
  3. Eventually, after several hours of pointless awkwardness, food will come out. This will be a highlight, because it’s Pakistan, and Pakistani food is sensational. Everyone will rush for the buffet and start stuffing biryani down like it’s going out of fashion.  If you politely stand aside to let the more senior people go first, you will not eat anything, as I have learned to my cost.
  4. After stuffing yourself with rice and chicken, desserts may be brought out. People here get inordinately excited about this, but Pakistani desserts are basically variations on a theme of Sweet Liquid In A Glass Bowl.  Everyone goes crazy for them, for reasons I have never been able to ascertain.
  5. Following the dessert course you return to stage 2 for as long a period of time as you think you can handle. Feel free to find the bride and groom and give them some money, but otherwise, just drift away.  You’ll easily be able to locate the bride and groom because they will be the ones looking utterly ludicrous.  The bride will probably look wonderful, but the groom won’t.  He’ll be the one wearing a jewelled coat, a completely idiotic turban with a crest, and a look of sheepish embarrassment stemming from the fact that he knows full well that he looks ridiculous, but his mother insisted.

I don’t know why South Asian weddings have come to be regarded as such vibrant explosions of colour and dancing and jollity.  For all I know that’s true in India or Sri Lanka, but around here weddings are just an exercise in tedium.  Of course you can’t ignore the invitation, though, as that would be disrespectful.  My advice?  Bring a Kindle.


It’s currently 15 degrees Centigrade.  In Britain, people would be out wearing shirts and thin trousers.  In Canada they would be wearing shorts and sandals.  In Pakistan, people are wearing just about anything and everything they can lay their hands on.

I’m not joking.  They are wearing woolly hats, padded jackets, scarves, shawls, and gloves.  And they’re been wearing them for over a month.  Ever since the temperature dropped below 25 centigrade (and that was some time ago, believe me) the good people of Pakistan have been wandering around dressed up like Ernest Shackleton about to set out on a voyage to the South Pole.

Because Pakistan is so hot for so much of the year any change in temperature has to be adjusted to.  We spend much of the year sweating like crazy and doing anything we can to cool down, so when the temperature drops our bodies struggle to adjust.  I find myself urinating all the time, because I’m not losing any water through sweating and my body adjusts accordingly (bet you wanted to know that).

The real challenge comes when it’s cold AND rainy.  That’s when people start to get sick, the gas pressure drops (because everyone is running heaters), and people publicly scold us for letting our kids run around without seven layers of clothing on.

Goodness knows how Pakistanis cope when they emigrate to Canada…

Recently we travelled to another city in Pakistan and returned to our home late in the evening.  While we were unpacking and getting the kids ready for bed there was a knock at the door.  My wife opened it to find our landlord’s wife standing there with a tray of food – rice, kebabs, and sweet custard – in her hands.  She bowed, handed it over, and quietly left.  We never asked for it – she just knew that we had been travelling, had not had any time to make food, and were therefore in need.  This kind of instinctive, unassuming hospitality is entirely typical of Pakistani people.

The thing is, handing back an empty plate is considered rude in this culture (as it is in other Muslim cultures, I believe).  So once we had eaten the kebabs and rice (which were predictably delicious) and washed the plate, my wife put some chocolate brownies on it and sent it back down.

Unwittingly, we had started a game of hospitality tennis.  Our landlord’s wife felt obliged to send food back up – rice and lentil curry – so my wife returned the plate with a cake on it.  Pizza came up next, wrapped in clingfilm, and home-made cookies went back down again.  Hospitality was bouncing back and forth like a tennis ball at Wimbledon.  One day our landlord’s son got his exam results so my wife baked him a cake and sent it down, along with another plate of brownies – the hospitality equivalent of an overhead smash – and we thought that was the end of it…

…that is, until rice, chicken wings and salad came back up the stairs again, followed by a plate of samosas.

I don’t know when this match of hospitality will be over, but this I do know: I’m getting fat.

Imagine that one of your neighbours had a disagrement with another neighbour.  Imagine, say, that the neighbour on one side of your house had a disagreement with the neighbour on the other side.  Now imagine that they decided to settle the dispute by fighting.  Further imagine that they decided to fight it out in your back garden, even though you had nothing to do with the original dispute.

Congratulations: now you know how Pakistanis feel.

It has long been the fate of this corner of the world to become the battleground for wars that do not immediately concern it.  Pakistan has played host to more proxy conflicts than one would expect.

Think about it.  Alexander the Great breezed through here, his army passing a few kilometres north of where I am currently typing, on his way east.  The Mongol Emperor Timur came down from Central Asia, crossed the Indus in what is now Pakistan, and went on to capture Delhi.  The Persian Emperor Nadir Shah came through on his way to sack Delhi a few centuries later.

The British later arrived, trekking through from west to east in their ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan in 1839.  Pakistan then became the location of the Great Game as Britain and Russia fought out their differences in the late 19th century.  Then came 1989 and the war in Afghanistan, with Pakistan becoming a place for refugees, for arms storage, and training.  These days we see drone strikes and an increasing sense that the rivalry between the Saudis and the Iranians is being fought out in Baluchistan and, ideologically, the madrassas of Pakistan.

Perhaps the main problem is Pakistan’s conveniently strategic location, on the main route between East and West.  That is only going to increase as China invests in Pakistan in order to circumvent India and as foreign troops leave Afghanistan.  It is deeply unfair that the problems of the world are dumped in the lap of the Pakistanis and even more remarkable that they are still so welcoming to foreigners, considering what they’ve been through…

I bumped into an old acquaintance the other day.  He’s a guy from the tribal areas of Pakistan who drives a taxi for a living.  Like most Pakistani taxis, his is old, clunky, slow, and seemingly held together by little more than duct tape and force of habit.  Like most Pakistani taxi drivers, he overcomes these shortcomings with a solid sense of humour, a total disregard for safety, and a lot of prayer.  Every time he starts the engine, turns a corner or changes a gear he says the simple prayer “Bismillah” (“in the name of God”).  I’m not quite sure if this habit is charming or worrying.

Anyway, I asked him how he was, how his family was, and how he spent Eid.  For once his customarily cheerful face fell.  He shrugged his shoulders.

“I’m a poor man.  I couldn’t afford to sacrifice an animal.  What kind of Eid is there for someone like me?”.

I spent two years studying Urdu.  It was by turns tiring, fascinating, and tedious, but the result of those two years of study is that I can converse with more or less anyone across Pakistan about more or less any topic that comes up.  It was worthwhile, and I would recommend it to anyone.

Yet modern Urdu is a flexible beast and has taken on a great deal of English vocabulary.  Many Pakistanis will, in the course of conversation, flick English words into the mix – even words they don’t actually understand themselves: “actually”, “safety point of view”, “sincere”.  Some even flick back and forth between English and Urdu at dizzying speed, one sentence in each language, like some linguistic version of alternating current.

The other day I was trying to explain to our electrician that I wanted to install mosquito lights in our new house.  I took a deep breath and explained, in flawless Urdu:

“You see, dear brother, they are lights which are attached to the ceiling and which give out a strange sort of blue light.  When mosquitoes and other flying insects see this light they are attracted to it, and when they fly into the light they are killed, and our home is protected so that my children can sleep soundly at night.  Tell me, what are they called?”.

He thought for a moment and nodded.

“Ah yes” he said in Urdu, and then, in English:

“Mosquito lights”.

Why did I bother?

Pakistan has some of the most fertile farmland on earth.  A combination of frequent rainfall, warm temperatures, and a varied topography means that huge amounts of crops grow here.  Many areas get two crops of wheat a year, while fruit and vegetables of just about every description are able to flourish somewhere or other in this varied land.

,As a small illustration of the fertility of this country’s land I took a brief tour of just one garden, belonging to friends of ours.  In this small garden alone there are the following fruit trees:









And that’s without mentioning the peaches of the Swat Valley, the grapes of Baluchistan, the lush watermelons that grow in the Punjab so plentifully that they are practically given away during the summer months, the mangoes of northern Sindh, the cherries of Gilgit, the walnuts of Hunza, the apples, the grapefruit…


I sat in the property office chatting to the dealer who had just found us a new house.  I had to drop off some documents so that he could draw up our rental agreement.  This was a task that could have taken all of fifteen seconds, but this being Pakistan, it was taking significantly longer.

Bureaucratic inefficiency, maybe?  No.

Bad traffic causing me to arrive late?  No.

Pakistani hospitality?  Yes.

“Before you go, have chai with us” said the dealer politely.  His co-workers nodded eagerly.

“It’s kind, sir, but really, I must go” I said.  Perhaps strangely, it’s actually polite to refuse at least once.

“No really, you must drink chai with us.  Just a small cup” he insisted.

“Dear brother, you are so kind, but I have many tasks to do.  I’m afraid I really must go”.

“Dear sir, you are our guest!  Please, do us the honour of drinking chai with us”.

I hesitated, my resolve weakening by the second.  He smiled and played his trump card.

“Besides, I have already ordered it.  Look, here it is now”.

A tall Pashtun man from the frontier walked in and placed a steaming cup of chai in front of me as though it were some kind of votive offering.

The property dealer smiled.

“And now, we drink”.

Every morning a chap on a bicycle wobbles over to our house and passes a newspaper through the front gate.  Though a daily newspaper is something of a luxury, we like to be informed of what is going on, and reading a Pakistani newspaper gives us a good insight into the inner workings of this marvellous and baffling place.

If you don’t have a Pakistani newspaper to hand (and if you’re not in Pakistan, that’s quite likely to be the case) then I’ll save you the trouble by providing you with a summary of what it will inevitably contain:

  • Political leaders giving sweeping assurances on the state of the country.
  • A report on the current power issues plaguing the country, including phrases like “loadshedding”, “bill arrears”, and sweeping assurances from political leaders that the power problems will be resolved within 12 months (they repeat this statement, on average, every 12 months).
  • Heartbreaking news about the number of polio cases in remote parts of the country.
  • Political leaders requesting the Supreme Court to take “suo moto” notice of some problem or other (I have no idea what this means).
  • Advertisements for luxury cars that 99.9% of the population of Pakistan could never dream of being able to afford.
  • Updates on the recent travails of the Pakistani cricket team.

Reading the paper is made significantly more charming by the quaintness of the English that the journalists employ.  Pakistani newspaper journalists seem to be stuck in a time-warp, using antiquated language and syntax that probably stemmed from some 19th century manual on sentence construction.  Some of their sentences are of epic length:


Some columnists use a friendly, informal style which I find immensely appealing.  Take, for example, this person lamenting the lack of garbage disposal facilities in Islamabad:


Here’s that suo moto thing I mentioned.  I’d be surprised if anyone outside the Supreme Court actually knew what it meant:


Then we have the letters section, invariably full of lengthy, impassioned pleas for the betterment of Pakistan.  Generally these will contain a call for revolution, but not much detail about how it will be achieved:


 The best thing I ever read in a Pakistani newspaper was an article about terrorism which described terrorists as “miscreants”.  Miscreants!  A group of murderous barbarians described using a word which is normally employed when referring to misbehaving schoolchildren.  Somehow things don’t look quite so dark when viewed through the majestic prose of the Pakistani journalist.  Long may it all continue.

The mechanic took the wheel off my car, stuck a jack underneath it, and levered it, wobbling, into the air.  The brake pads were squeaking and needed changing.  He hitched up his oil-stained kameez, grabbed a hammer, and started whacking at the brake discs with worrying force.  It was 9am and the bazaar was unfurling itself into life like a cat waking groggily from a fireside nap.

The shop-owner flicked through a newspaper while he waited for his chai to cool down.  He clicked his tongue in sympathy at the news, a veritable cavalcade of depressing stories: political deadlock, the anti-terrorist campaign in North Waziristan, the floods in Multan.  He read out one particularly heart-rending story about a bridegroom in Multan who was caught in floodwater and drowned in front of his new bride, shaking his head sadly and saying “Allah, have mercy”.

I asked him whether he would be able to find replacement brake pads for the car.  He smiled and reassured me that it would not be a problem.

“I had forgotten”, I said, smiling, “in Pakistan everything is available!”.

He fixed me with a bleak, level gaze and muttered, in a funereal tone:

“Everything, except for two things”.

I raised an eyebrow inquisitively.

“A man who tells the truth, and a man who is sincere”.