Slightly over a year ago construction work started in Rawalpindi and Islamabad.  Construction work is nothing new around here – Pakistan’s population is growing rapidly and houses are constantly being enlarged, with office blocks and malls mushrooming in similar profusion.  But this construction work was on a different scale.  Some of the most important roads in Rawalpindi and Islamabad – Murree Road, 9th Avenue, the Kashmir Highway, Jinnah Avenue – were torn up, more or less at once.  That’s perhaps half of the most significant roads in the capital of Pakistan rendered unusable overnight.


Predictably, chaos ensued.  Real, genuine chaos.  Journeys that would previously have taken twenty minutes took an hour or more.  Dust clouds erupted from the construction sites.  When It rained – and last winter it rained a lot – the dust turned to mud, and cars slipped and slid across the cities.  I remember one on particular evening travelling from southern Rawalpindi to central Islamabad, and spending nearly two hours in a clunky, smelly taxi, stuck in traffic, surrounded by thick clouds of choking dust and the constant blaring of horns.  If Dante added more circles to his vision of hell, that would have to be a prime candidate.


Now, though, all is forgiven.  The metro bus is here!

If you’re wondering what a metro bus is, here is an explanation: it is a transport network, with a single dedicated roadway and stations along the way.  Only metro buses can use it, meaning that there is never any traffic.  Thus the journey from southern Rawalpindi to the centre of Islamabad is reduced from an hour or more to a mere 30 minutes.

And that’s not all.  That journey of an hour or more would have been spent jammed into an uncomfortable, crammed minibus, with no air conditioning, no comfort, and no space for luggage.  These minibuses are incredibly unsafe, badly driven, and hellishly uncomfortable.  In their place we have brand new Turkish buses, spotlessly clean, with air conditioning and automatic doors.  They leave every minute – miss one, and you only have to wait for sixty seconds for the next.

And even THAT’S not all.  The stations are fully automatic: you simply beep your token or card against the terminal and you can walk straight through.  A ticket for any single trip costs 20 rupees (roughly $0.20).  No queues, no bother, no stress.  Even the stations are wifi-equipped.


The metro bus is now my preferred form of transportation.  It is completely effortless and utterly wonderful.  Complaints have been raised about its cost – and to be honest it cost an absolute bundle, perhaps $400 million, with the usual accusations of corruption and nepotism (to give an example, the contract for providing the stations with flowers and trees was given to a company run by the brother of a government minister) – but these seem churlish in light of the fact that the capital of Pakistan now possesses a public transport system that, honestly, would not be out of place in any city in the world.

It’s an odd feeling, in a country where so much is neglected, poorly-maintained, shoddy, broken, or generally worn down, to use a publicly-funded amenity which is genuinely world-class.  God bless you, Metro bus, and may you bring joy and ease to many millions of Pakistanis.

A new metro bus service recently opened in Rawalpindi and Islamabad.  This deeply impressive, stunningly efficient service is really something remarkable and I will write about it at a later date.  What I want to write about today, however, is how the authorities responsible for its construction go about claiming the credit for it.


On the day of its inauguration massive posters were plastered over every single one of its 20 or so stations.  These posters bore the faces of Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, and of Shahbaz Sharif, his brother, who is the chief minister of the Punjab.  At every single stop commuters were reminded of precisely who built the metro bus, and to whom the credit should go.

This habit of loudly claiming credit for acts of civic generosity is not uncommon in Pakistan.  Our kids enjoy going to a large park near our house.  Outside its main gate is an immense rock with the names of the people responsible for its construction carved into its monolithic face.  Another park in Rawalpindi is called “Nawaz Sharif Park”, just in case you weren’t sure whom to thank.  Hospitals and charitable institutions frequently bear the names of the people who founded them: the Shaukat Khanum cancer hospitals, the Begum Samina Khan Welfare Trust, and so on and so forth.  Any form of charitable activity is loudly and brazenly flaunted to ensure that its beneficiaries are fully cognizant of the generosity of those responsible.

It may seem churlish to complain about this.  After all, there is plenty of need in Pakistan, so surely any effort to tackle the immense inequality in Pakistani society is to be praised, right?  And of course this phenomenon is by no means limited to Pakistan.  Hospitals in the West are frequently labelled with the names of the donors who made their construction possible.  I heard of a church which organised a giving day to raise funds for some project or other, and loudly and publicly proclaimed the names of those who had given the most.  Friends of ours who organise charitable events and ask for sponsorship have lists of people who have donated.  There is an option to make one’s donation anonymous, but nobody ever does.

Jesus, on the other hand, told his followers to give so secretly that even their left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing.  The correct model, he said, was a widow donating a tiny amount in secret, rather than braggarts donating as lavishly and as ostentatiously as possible.  The point is this: what are the intentions of the giver?  Are they honestly aiming to effect a radical redistribution of wealth in order to improve global equality, or are they trying to buy themselves some credit?  If their goals are merely selfish then it devalues the whole exercise, making a noble act somewhat seedy.

As someone whose livelihood depends entirely on the charitable giving of others, this affects me profoundly.  I’ll be thinking about this topic more and more as I travel on our beautiful new metro buses…


I’ve always enjoyed airports.  The idea of travelling has always appealed to me; I grew up in a small island and the thought of breaking clear of the boundaries of the English Channel and finding new land, new cultures, new languages, has not yet stopped being exciting.  I remember looking up at the departures board as a child and being thrilled by the thought of the exotic places named on it: Muscat, Mumbai, Brunei; the entire world only a few hours away.

In airports all of the world’s cultures, religions and languages are compressed and mingled together: Indian Sikhs flying to Delhi rub shoulders with bleary-eyed businessmen coming from Chicago; Pakistanis with prayer caps and long beards politely hold the lift doors open for African families dashing to make their flight to Freetown or Abidjan.  Nobody says much – the British reserve really does rub off on anyone who comes through here – so instead everyone goes about their business quietly, privately, peacefully.

Airports are great levellers.  Everyone has to go through check-in; everyone has to go through security; everyone stands around and looks up at the monitors to see where their aeroplane is waiting.  People from wildly varying backgrounds, with wildly varying levels of wealth and wildly varied lives, are rendered temporarily equal by the mundane modern realities of catching a flight: belt off please sir, can I see your boarding pass madam, do you have any liquids in your bag?  Even the rich and mighty must bow before contemporary society’s demand for unimpeachable security.

I find myself talking to a British marine biologist who has just arrived from Sydney and looks utterly befuddled, peering around him with weary eyes, unsure of the time zone he finds himself in.  Then he says goodbye and makes his way off to a flight somewhere else.  A Congolese charity worker sits down and we chat in French.  He, too, looks exhausted, being halfway through a trip from the Congo to Paris for a conference on street children.  He talks wearily about his work.  When I ask if he has children a smile breaks across his weary face. Yes, he has three.  He is proud of them.  Then he, too, says goodbye and makes his way to his hotel.

Today’s world seems to be supremely characterised by division: between religions, between races, between rich and poor, between old and young, between wealthy Europeans and the dozens of desperate migrants who risk, and often lose, their lives in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean barriers of opportunity.  Yet here, in the anonymity of a modern airport, the divisions are temporarily levelled.  The marine biologist, the charity worker, the businessman – all are rendered briefly equal.  As Pakistanis say, “hum sub insan hain” – we are all people.  And all the people go about their life’s journey, as we always do, and as we must.

Damascus: the Jupiter temple (III A.C.) in front of Omayyad mosque

Back in 2007 I went to Syria and Jordan on holiday.  I flew with a friend to Damascus, travelled to Hama and Homs, visited the astonishing Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, and wandered around the old city of Damascus with my jaw hanging down.  I had long been interested in Byzantine history and the history of the Middle East and the experience of seeing everything first hand was unforgettable.  We walked, took buses, ate in local restaurants, drank mint tea, and gaped at such a remarkable and historic country.

What struck me most was the hospitality with which we were greeted.  That trip probably marked the beginning of my love affair with the Islamic world.  Even in 2007 Syria was reckoned, at least in the West, to be a dangerous and hostile place – not quite noxious enough for Bush to include it in his notorious “Axis of Evil” speech but certainly worthy of an Honourable Mention.  The reality we encountered was entirely different.  On our first night we stayed at a Catholic guest-house run by nuns – and quite openly too, there being little to no hostility between Syrian Muslims and Christians.  Armenian and Orthodox churches were everywhere.  We walked down Straight Street in Damascus, site of St Paul’s historic meeting with Ananias, and were greeted warmly and with no fear whatsoever.  We visited Christian monasteries which didn’t even bother to post security guards at the gate.  Everyone we met was kind to us.

That was when I began to realise that we needed to start distinguishing between the politics of a country and the opinions of its citizens.  The Syrian government was a long way from a democratic haven but I realised how unjust it was to connect those policies with the Syrian people.  We Westerners affix labels to places like Iran, Syria and Pakistan and lazily assume that the labels are also transferable to the people of those countries – but this is not so.

And now I read the news and am heartbroken by what Syria has become.  Millions of refugees forced from their homes by the barbarity of Islamic State.  Thousands killed.  A civil war that shows no signs of ending.  Fundamentalists from around the world seemingly in competition with each other to reach new heights of murderous savagery.  Who would have thought, in the aftermath of 9/11, that new evils would arise to make even that mass slaughter seem civilised by comparison?

I want to remember the Syria I encountered in 2007, a place of remarkable harmony and welcome, not the Syria that we see now.  I also want to remember the words of Habbakuk, a prophet in the Bible, who looked at similar cruelty and barbarity and received consolation from God:

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
    but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
    but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
    Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
    so that justice is perverted.

The Lord’s Answer

“Look at the nations and watch—
    and be utterly amazed.
For I am going to do something in your days
    that you would not believe,
    even if you were told.


The taxi creaked as it rattled over the rutted road.  The driver looked sideways at me and smiled appreciately.

“You look good in that shalwar kameez.  You’re practically Pakistani!”.

“ I like Pakistan” I replied.  “It is a wonderful country in many ways”.

He sighed.

“Everything here is corrupt.  This country has everything: coal, gas, oil, fruit, wheat, and yet people are hungry and poor.  This country will never get better”.

We drove past a CNG filling station.  Compressed Natural Gas is the fuel of choice for Pakistani taxi drivers simply because it is cheap, yet because of shortages it is only available for two days a week.

“Look at that line of cars!” he said as we drove past a queue of battered taxis several hundred metres long.  “They’ll be waiting for five, maybe six hours just to get enough gas for the day’s work.  Most of them probably got up at 4am to start queueing.  They are poor, and their children will be poor, and their children’s children will be poor, and nothing will change”.

I sat in silence.  The taxi swerved around a pothole, then swerved back again to avoid another.  The road was corrugated and cracked like the cover of an antique book.

“And look at the roads!  Nobody fixes them, and this is not some tiny village, this is one of the biggest cities in Pakistan.  Even village roads in your country are probably better than these”.

I didn’t say anything.  He was right; they are.  His voice was not angry or bitter.  It was worse than that: it was numb, as though despondency had anaesthetised his ability to care.

Struggling to make him think more positively, I asked what he thought should be done to improve things in Pakistan.  He sat quietly for what felt like an age, then said:

“I don’t know”.

Last autumn we took a trip to the Kaghan Valley in northern Pakistan.  This valley is located north of Islamabad, adjoining Azad Kashmir, and requires a drive of some 7 hours from the capital.  Now, driving for seven hours in Pakistan is not something to be undertaken lightly – traffic is bad, and Pakistani driving habits cause significant amounts of stress, even without the added complication of having to swerve to avoid camels on the road – but the drive is well worth it.

People in the West seem to think that Pakistan is a dry, dusty and unappealing place.  I can’t think why this is, since northern Pakistan has some of the most astonishing scenery I have ever seen, easily the equal of the Swiss Alps or the Rocky Mountains.  Pakistan also has the added bonus in that, unlike Switzerland or Canada, there are almost no tourists here, meaning that these vast mountainous panoramas, lush valleys and alpine lakes are yours and yours alone.

We stayed in Naran in October.  This is right at the end of the tourist season as almost everything shuts down for the winter, since it gets remarkably cold.  Even in October the night-time temperature dropped to around zero, and as there is no such thing as central heating in Pakistan the temperature outdoors is basically the same as the temperature indoors.

An unprepossessing situation for a holiday, you might think.  Well, if you idea of a great holiday is a beach and a swimming pool and an open bar, you’d probably be right.  If, on the other hand, you see travel as a way of discovering new places, encountering different cultures, and learning more about the world, I can think of nowhere better.

Enough writing.  Let the pictures do the talking!







The car scrunched down the gravel track, bumping from rut to rut before lurching to a halt in front of a battered old gate.  Children turned to look as we got out of the old Toyota.  Elderly men squatting by the side of the road stroked their beards pensively as they observed us.  As we pushed open the gate and entered the graveyard it felt as though several hundred pairs of eyes were fixed on us.  They weren’t hostile, merely curious, as the locals tend to be when a tall Englishman and his Pakistani friend turn up in a bazaar in northern Pakistan.

I had come to visit Murree’s Old Cemetery.  Murree, a town some forty miles from Islamabad, flourished when the soldiers and administrators of the British Raj realised that spending the summer months in the verdant foothills of the Himalayas was preferable to sweating it out on the plains of the Punjab.  Every summer, as the sun soared in the Indian sky and the mercury rose ominously, the British would flee, trailing up into the hills like animals fleeing from a brushfire.  Here they would remain for the worst of the summer heat.  Here they built hotels and cottages, here they danced, here they came to recuperate from injuries sustained on the battlefields of the empire.

And here they died.  The cemetery tells their tales well enough.  Rows of graves, some plain, others ornate, some crowned with crosses which seem incongruous in what has now become the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, tell of the generations of British imperialists who died here, so far from home.  Some graves are those of soldiers – “In Memory of Lt. David Albert Beere”, “Pte. R. F Theobald” – others of administrators – “Charles Arthur Sharpe, scholar of King’s College Cambridge and Engineer in the Public Works Department of India” – while others are painfully personal, such as the grave of one Violet Rose Ward who died aged 30 leaving a husband and both her parents, or that of young Heather June Finnegan who died in 1945, aged 7.  The cemeteries of Murree – there are several – testify to the diversity of the British Raj.  All of society was here, from babies to grandparents, brilliant young scholars to hoary old veterans of the Afghan Wars, and when they died they were buried in traditional Anglican cemeteries, a last taste of home in a distant land.

The Old Cemetery is overgrown now.  Many of the graves are broken, their headstones toppled by tree roots, while goats crop the grass and leave their droppings on the decaying slabs of marble.  It is neglected, ignored by the seething masses that throng the bazaar outside.  It is a poignant place, full of memory, a corner of a foreign field that is, somehow, England.  We pushed the gate open, let it creak shut behind us, and walked back to our car as a squadron of emerald parakeets careered overhead, the sound of their screeching echoing around the valley.


When we spent time in the UK recently I was surprised by how negative Pakistan’s reputation was.  We bounced back full of exciting stories about Pakistan, photos of its stunning beauty, anecdotes of the hospitality of its people, and nobody could believe us.

“You mean it’s not just a desert?”.

“You mean people are actually friendly?”.

“You mean there are parks, and pizza restaurants, and literary festivals?”.

If you subscribe to similar notions then permit me to educate you: Pakistan is, at times, a completely wonderful place.  It is exotic, vibrant, and beautiful.  The food is fantastic.  The people are warm, friendly, unfailingly polite.  I have not once encountered hostility from anyone even though I am a foreigner and a Christian.  The young people here are intelligent, well-informed, enthusiastic, eager to learn, full of ideas.  The elderly still subscribe to old-fashioned notions such as courtesy and etiquette, such as standing when a lady enters the room.  Everyone offers you tea.

Perhaps oddly, the beauty and potential of Pakistan can be heartbreaking too.  The scenery here is stunning, easily the equal of Switzerland or Western Canada, but where are the tourists who would bring money and support jobs?  Young Pakistani entrepreneurs are some of the most vibrant in the world, so why are their efforts choked by official corruption?  Most painfully for me, why are such marvellously kind people viewed with such scorn by the outside world?

They deserve better.  Pakistan deserves better.  This is a land of immense potential.  May that potential be fulfilled, and soon.


So after 2 months in the UK, 3 months in Canada, a lengthy pause in my blogging efforts, and several long-haul flights with children, we are back in Pakistan.  I had forgotten how dusty, humid, and interesting it is over here, and just how warm and kind the people are.

We have arrived at a time of political tension, with large protests in the capital and ongoing fighting in the tribal areas between the army and militants, but despite the difficulties it is genuinely wonderful to be back in our own home, driving our own car, in a country we have come to love.

I might even blog more regularly…after all, Pakistan is a remarkably interesting place, sometimes for the right reasons…


A while ago it became necessary, for various reasons, to make a trip to a town some hours to the north of Rawalpindi.  As this was before we purchased a car we had to make the trip by bus.  You might think that would be a hardship, public transport being generally regarded as less preferable to private, but Pakistan is blessed with the Daewoo bus company.  This company – Korean, I think – has brand-new, air-conditioned buses which run to time, which have TVs, and whose staff even go to the trouble of handing out free snacks and cold drinks during the journey.  It’s an excellent way to travel.

             Anyway, I digress.  We hopped in a taxi and started to make our way to the Daewoo terminal.  It was a spectacularly bad choice of vehicle: run-down, clunky, and in remarkably bad condition, even by Pakistani standards.  The rear windscreen was a piece of clingfilm.  It rattled and banged like a loose door in a strong wind.  The driver was intent on stopping to fill up with CNG (compressed natural gas, the same LPG that some people use in the UK).  We insisted that we were in a hurry, so he grudgingly agreed to get us there and fill up afterwards.

 “Do you have enough gas to get us there?” we asked, more than a little anxiously.

 “Oh yes, no problem.  Don’t worry” he assured us.

             Well, he didn’t.  About three hundred yards from the terminal the car gave one last, sickening rattle and the engine died.  Coasting to the terminal was out of the question since Mehrans have a top speed roughly equivalent to that of a sloth with a sprained ankle.  We came to a halt by the side of the road – a four lane road, with cars weaving in and out at high speed, I might add.  He jumped out and started to push.  I jumped out and started to help.  Jodie stayed in the car and started to pray.

             Pushing a car down a Pakistani highway is the kind of thing life insurance companies don’t cover you for.  If you read the list of exclusions it’s in there somewhere, between “training to be a lion tamer” and “flying metal-tipped kites during thunderstorms”.  Cars blared their horns as they swerved around us.  Buses screeched their brakes in anger as they narrowly avoided slamming into us.  And the driver and I plodded stolidly on.  We came to a junction where two more lanes of cars joined our road, meaning that even more cars were desperately trying to avoid hitting us.  It really was quite terrifying.

             And then it was over; we pushed the car to the side of the road, paid the driver, took our bags, and dashed to the bus station, only to find that instead of being five minutes late, as we had thought, we were actually forty-five minutes early, which gave us plenty of time to thank God for his protection and to vow never again to stop a taxi driver filling up with CNG.