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Our son came back from his Sunday school class at church.  He was beaming from ear to ear and ran up to me as though burdened with some great secret which he just had to share with someone.

“Daddy, do you know what?” he said excitedly.  “Teacher said that if we ask Jesus for anything, he will give it to us.  Anything at all!”.

I smiled at him.  I knew exactly what he was going to say next and, duly, he did.

“I’m going to ask him for three Lego sets”.

I took a deep breath and prepared to shatter his first elementary steps into the world of theology but stopped, for the simple reason that the Bible does indeed say that.  Don’t believe me?  “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” – from Mark, chapter 11, verse 24.  This verse, which set my son’s imagination aflame with the glorious possibility of an infinity of Lego, also appeals to followers of the Prosperity Gospel, that appalling betrayal of the Christian faith which states that health, money and happiness are but a prayer away if you have sufficient faith.  Tell that to my friend Fi who prayed incessantly for her premature daughter to survive, only to watch her wither and die eight days later.  So here we have a problem: this verse is in the Bible, which to an evangelical Christian like me means that it is true, and yet it doesn’t always happen.  Many prayers go unanswered.  Dealing with this inescapable truth is the first step on the path to Christian maturity.

So where do we go from here?  We could look at similar verses such as 1 John 5: 14, which says “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”  The key words, of course, are “according to his will”.  An infinity of possessions are not his will for our life.  More challengingly, health may not be his will for our life either.

I am inclined to go further and say that the prayers we make are indicative of our life’s priorities and of how much our faith reflects the personality of Christ.  If our prayers are in line with the priorities of Christ then our will reflects his.  Should we pray for money and possessions, or for his kingdom to grow in the world?  For promotion at work or for greater wisdom in tackling the challenges of life?

God is not some cosmic slot machine whereby you insert a prayer and out pops a big bank balance or, sadly for my son, a new Lego set.  If we stop viewing him as a heavenly version of Santa Claus and start viewing him as a loving, sovereign creator in the light of whose glory our present world is a temporary inconvenience then we may find our prayers are changed.

Try explaining this to a 6 year old, though…

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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.

One of the most frustrating things about being a foreigner in Pakistan is that everyone thinks you’re a spy.  Everyone.  It’s deeply annoying.

Of course, nobody says it to your face.  Pakistanis are far too polite for that.  When I tell them that I am here to raise funds for an NGO which provides education and healthcare to people too poor to afford it for themselves they nod and smile and thank me – but I have no doubt that somewhere at the back of their mind is a niggling suspicion that I’m doing something else entirely.  That I’m not an NGO worker but instead Jason Bourne, or James Bond.  The fact that I’m not going to my office in the back of a fancy car but instead am sweating it out on the bus like everyone else doesn’t seem to dissuade them.  Maybe that’s part of my elaborate cover.

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A cartoon showing the Afghan Emir threatened by Russia and the UK, both of whom professed to be his friend and ally.

To be fair, their suspicion is partly logical.  There is a long history of Westerners meddling in Pakistan, from the days of the Great Game when British spies headed north in disguise to map out mountain passes and to bribe local leaders, all the way through to Raymond Davis, the moronic CIA contractor who shot dead two men in Lahore and bribed his way out of trouble.  You can’t blame Pakistanis for being angry about it.  Wouldn’t we be angry if a Pakistani intelligence official shot people in Birmingham or Liverpool and got out of trouble by handing over a suitcase of cash to the families?

But to attribute such nefarious motives to every single foreigner in the country is baffling.  I know many people who have dedicated their lives – their entire working lives – to providing healthcare and education to impoverished Pakistanis.  Doctors who could be earning six figure salaries in the West who spend their days sweating it out in Multan or Tank, saving the lives of people in return for a puny salary.  Foreign aid workers who come to Pakistan to administer aid grants from Western countries – immense amounts of money, donated by taxpayers in the West to strengthen educational systems in remote areas – who aren’t allowed to renew their visas and are forced to leave.  An entire hospital in the south of the country is on the point of closing because the only doctor can’t obtain a visa “for security reasons”.  Quite how an elderly female doctor working in a remote area poses a mortal threat to the stability of Pakistan is anyone’s guess.

Pakistan is a profoundly cynical and suspicious country.  That comes from being the punching bag for the world’s superpowers, I guess; it is reasonable enough to suspect the motives of people who have screwed you over in the past.  But to tar everyone with the same brush?  To attribute the same nefarious motives to every single foreigner who come here?  That is simply illogical.

So there’s not much point saying this, since people here suspect everything and trust no-one, but here goes: I honestly want to see Pakistan strengthened, made prosperous, to see its education system improved so that everyone can go to school, to see the economy flourish, to see clean water and power and books available to everyone, everywhere.  And you can quote me on that.

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I try to take the kids out for a treat individually every now and again.  With four of them in the house it is difficult to give them individual attention and so, once a fortnight or so, I will take one of them out for what we call Treat Day.  The format is predictable: a trip to the bigger of the two shopping malls in our city, where I buy them an item of clothing and then an ice-cream.  It doesn’t take much to enthral my kids.

Yesterday it was the turn of our second youngest, only 2 years of age.  She hopped into the car singing “Treat Day, Treat Day” all the way to the mall.  We parked in the underground parking lot – when the weather is hot, parking in the open is liable to turn your car into an oven – and took the lift up.  She pressed the lift button and giggled for joy.  We picked out a new shalwar kameez for her – which is to say, she picked out several and I chose the cheapest, least garish one – and she carried the bag out of the store by herself.

We went to the bookstore where she chose a new colouring book, and two others to take home to give to her brother and sister.  We went to the supermarket where she bought a lollipop for herself and two more to take home and share out.  Then we went to one of the ice cream shops on the top floor.  She gazed, open-mouthed, at the array of colours on offer and eventually plumped for a combination of strawberry cheesecake and Nutella.  We found an empty table and sat down.

And she stared at her ice cream in awe.  The world, for her, seemed to stop in its tracks.  I chivvied her along.

“Come on, sweetie, eat your ice cream” I said.

Slowly, tentatively, she picked up her little plastic spoon and transferred a tiny speck of it onto her tongue.  She swallowed it and raised her eyebrows in delight.  Then she returned to gazing at it in adoration as though the small paper cup was the Holy Grail.

I was getting impatient.  I had things to do, shopping to collect, and then I had to get home in time for a conference call.  When you’re raising four children in Pakistan with minimal support, life never stops being busy.  I tapped my foot impatiently.

And then I felt ashamed.  For me, Treat Day was something on the diary to be ticked off before moving on to the next task.  For my daughter, Treat Day was a unique chance to be the centre of attention rather than a small, indistinguishable part of family life.  This chance to have new clothes and an ice cream only came around every couple of months.  I was sitting there checking my watch and tutting impatiently but my daughter was drinking in the moment, enjoying every part of it from pressing the lift button to sitting in the front of the car.  When we got home she would recount the story to her mother and her siblings.  She would tell her teacher at school about it the next day.

She’s not going to be small forever.  One day it will take more than a new shirt and a cup of ice cream to enthral her.  One day pushing the button for the lift will not be exciting; it will be an insignificant task carried out by adults, like me, who tap their feet impatiently, frustrated by any delay to their busy, busy lives.  The small wonders of life shrivel as we grow.  Why should she not pause to enjoy it while it lasted?

And so I sat, and watched, and stopped worrying about the next thing in my schedule.  Conference calls could wait.  Emails can be answered tomorrow.  I stilled my tapping foot, calmed my impatient heart, and focused on my daughter as she transferred tiny specks of ice cream to her mouth, her eyes open with with wonder.

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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…

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We were stuck in traffic in Abbottabad.  We had turned off the main road onto a side street barely wide enough for two cars to pass.  A van was parked on the left hand side and when we pulled out to pass it, another van headed straight for us.  He screeched to a halt in front of us.  As I prepared to back up, another van pulled up behind us, and another behind him.  The van in front of us attempted to back up, but two more vans pulled up behind him.  We gazed at each other through our respective windscreens.  The engine idled away.  In the car seat behind me our infant son started to whimper.

It had been a bad week.  The attack in Lahore had shocked us deeply, dragging us into a familiar mood of anger, sorrow, and desperation.  The same evening there was a riot in Islamabad.  Schools were shut, the buses were cancelled, and the city ground to a halt.  We needed a holiday, so we loaded up the car and drove north through the green hills of Hazara District.  And now, a few metres after turning off the Karakoram Highway, we were stuck.

The crucial thing, I knew, was not to lose my temper.  But this is easier said than done when there are four small children in your car who have already driven for four hours, and when your nerves are frayed to breaking point from the stress of driving up one of the most stressful stretches of road in the country.  Pedestrians were filtering through the traffic jam, glaring at us as they squeezed past our car as though we were personally responsible.

There is something about being glared at by a succession of bearded Pakistani men which makes one reconsider one’s life options.  What a peculiar circumstance to find oneself in!  Stuck in traffic in a town four thousand miles away from my own country, eight thousand miles from my wife’s own country, in the town famous for being the final dwelling place of Osama bin Laden.  The men passing our car looked fierce, warlike, with turbans, straggly beards, and default facial expressions of profound grumpiness, as though I had wronged them in a past life.

Surrounded by seemingly hostile people I was struck with a profound sense of not wanting to be there.  Of not wanting to be in Pakistan at all, really.  A sincere desire to be somewhere, anywhere, else, preferably somewhere with a beach and a succession of cold drinks with little umbrellas in.  I couldn’t take it any more.  The heat, the traffic, the unrelenting stream of bombs and protests and overwhelming public anger, the caustic and abrasive daily grind of Pakistani life.

Suddenly the driver of the van in front of us clambered out of his vehicle and came to my window.  He looked angry.  The crowd paused to see what would happen.  I took a deep breath, prayed briefly, and opened the window.

He thrust his hand into our car and shook mine warmly.

“I am most sorry for inconvenience” he said, smiling gently.  “Perhaps if you move car back just a little bit, we will be able to make progress”.

He moved to the back of our car and encouraged the vans behind us to shuffle backwards.  One by one they did, opening up space for us to reverse into.  Once his path was clear he got back into his van and drove off.  As he passed our car he stopped, held his hand out to shake mine, and thanked me warmly.

“Thank you so much, sir” he said with a simple smile.  “Welcome to Pakistan”.

 

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Yesterday evening seventy citizens of Pakistan were blown apart by a suicide bomber at a park in Lahore.  The death toll will rise.  It always does, especially when seriously wounded people are left to the tender mercies of Pakistan’s healthcare system.  Many were women and children.  Families were enjoying the cool spring weather, taking advantage of a day of rest to push their children on the swings and buy ice creams.  It must have been a wonderful time.

Then a suicide bomber parked his car near the gate, next to the swings, and detonated his device.  Now those same families are ripped apart; their laughter transformed into screams and terror by means of twenty kilos of explosives and a bag of ball bearings.

Many of those killed were Christians.  They, like my family and me, spent Sunday morning at church rejoicing in the glorious triumph of Easter Sunday, when Jesus rose from the dead and conquered death and sin.  They, like us, shared lunch with family and friends.  They, like us, went out to celebrate in the evening.  Yet we were not attacked and they were.  The same people who laughed and rejoiced in the victory over the grave are now, themselves, in the grave.  Life beat death, and then death came back in the darkness of a bomber’s heart and in the shape of chemicals and ball bearings.

And yet this is not over.  After the attack messages started circulating asking for donations of blood for the wounded.  A Lahore taxi firm offered free travel to anyone going to hospital to donate blood.  People of all religions are united in condemning the attack.  The condemnation even united India and Pakistan: the hashtag prayforlahore is trending in India.  Hospitals in Lahore are crammed – literally crammed – with people queueing to donate blood.  Probably most of them are Muslims.  I am crying for gratitude as I type.

Still the pain remains.  This is a profoundly beautiful and deeply misunderstood country, full of polite, kind, honourable people – and yet a country bedevilled by violence perpetrated by a minority of deranged lunatics who kill indiscriminately.  They target Christians, and Hindus, and Shias, and Sunnis, and the Pakistani soldiers who give their lives to protect Pakistani civilians: they are against everyone, except their fellow bigots.

And yet they will lose.  Pakistanis are too good, too decent, too strong to give in to this mass murder.  Love will win in the end, though the path to that victory may be littered with more bodies.  Life will triumph over death.  Easter is not the end, but the beginning.

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We were sitting outside the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore.  A light rain was falling.  We huddled underneath a large umbrella and sipped the cups of chai which we had ordered.  We needed the warmth from the tea as much as the caffeine, in much the same way that people in England drink tea to dispel the murky chill of February days more than for the actual taste.  My son looked around.

“I don’t think God can love people here” he said sadly.

I was surprised by this.  My wife and I have made a point of teaching our children that God loves all people equally.  This is a fundamental tenet of our Christian faith, and a great number of cruelties in the world can be directly attributed to the mistaken belief that some people are more loved by God than others.  I asked him what he meant.

“Look at all the garbage” he said mournfully.  “How can God love people when they don’t care for the world he created?”.

I looked around.  There was, indeed, a lot of rubbish.  Paper cups, empty crisp packets, cigarette packs, crushed juice boxes – the detritus of a thousand tourists was strewn all around the courtyard in front of the mosque.  During our train journey to Lahore we had looked out of the window to see immense piles of trash heaped up on the sides of the railway embankments, flung carelessly out of houses and left to fester.  It is a part of life in the developing world that we have not yet learned to deal with.

“Well”, I said, “do you remember how Mummy and I told you that we love you always, even when you’re naughty?”.

He nodded.

“We do that because God loves us even when we’re naughty” I continued.  “Even when we do bad things, God always loves us.  So we should always try to be better”.

He was silent for a while, looking around at the heaps of rubbish strewn around the courtyard of one of the most magnificent mosques in the world.  Then he said:

“That’s a lot of love”.

In recent years the Pakistani rail network has become a byword for mismanagement and neglect.  Rolling stock is old, trains are frequently delayed, and stations have not been improved since the days of the Raj.  However, in May 2015 Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif inaugurated the “Green Line Express”, marking the first major investment in the railways for some time.

The Green Line runs from the Margalla Station in the capital, Islamabad, all the way to Karachi, stopping at place such as Rawalpindi, Lahore, Bahawalpur, and Hyderabad, among others.  I recently took the Green Line from Islamabad to Lahore with my son and father.  The train itself is shiny and new, with a Chinese locomotive and locally-made carriages.  The driver was happy to show us into the engine, much to my son’s delight, and was clearly proud of being involved with such a modern project.

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Seating was comfortable, in 6-berth sleeper compartments, consisting of three bunks on either side of the carriage.  Refreshments are frequently served – sandwiches and the ubiquitous Pakistani chai – and I understand that a full cooked meal is served to those continuing all the way to Karachi, though as we were only going to Lahore we were not able to partake.  Amenity kits, consisting of a toothbrush, toothpaste, a comb, a shoe mitt and soap were handed out.  Each compartment has six pillows and thick fleecy blankets, as well as a flatscreen TV.  WiFi was supposed to be offered but it never worked for us!

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We left on time and arrived in Lahore on time.  On our return journey the train arrived fifteen minutes late – not bad, considering it had travelled something like 1300km through unseasonably heavy rain and localised flooding!  We enjoyed chatting to the many friendly Pakistani people on the train who were all hospitable, kind, and eager to share their food with us.

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Prices are slightly more expensive than regular trains or buses – but the Green Line is immeasurably more comfortable and a much better way of meeting Pakistani people.  I would recommend it without reservation – but be sure to book tickets in good time as the service is very popular.

I seem to make a habit of missing obvious tourist attractions when I travel.  I spent a year in Spain and didn’t once visit Barcelona, nor Seville.  I grew up in the UK but didn’t visit the Lake District, one of our premier sites of natural beauty, until I was 25.  I travelled all around Tanzania and didn’t go to the Serengeti National Park, which is more or less the only thing that the majority of tourists in Tanzania actually DO see.

Last weekend I remedied a significant oversight on my part by visiting the Lahore Fort.  This is one of Pakistan’s premier attractions and one of its six UNESCO World Heritage sites.  Built largely during the reign of Moghul Emperor Akbar, between 1556 and 1605, it occupies a significant chunk of the north western corner of the Walled City of Lahore.  We turned up in a rickshaw and were deposited a few hundred yards away from the entrance, since renovation work to the next-door Iqbal Park prevented our rickshaw from getting any closer.

First, the positives: Lahore Fort is a really impressive place.  It covers a huge area of land and its walls and towers still possess a real sense of grandeur.  Entering the Fort entails climbing up a set of shallow, broad stairs which seem oddly disproportionate, until you learn that they were thus built so that Emperors could ride their elephants right into the Fort itself.  The walls command an impressive view over Old Lahore.

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Much of the artwork in the individual palaces and rooms which make up the bulk of the Fort is remarkably beautiful: elegant carvings, fine stone inlays, delicate stone tracery.  The skill of the artisans who produced such beauty has to be appreciated.  Furthermore, the Fort uses open space very well: fountains and lawns stretch in front of the visitor, fringed with trees.  The Lahore Fort put me in mind of the Alhambra, another magnificent Muslim palace with beautiful artwork, fountains, and gardens.

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And now for the negatives: everything is neglected.  It is heartbreaking to see.  Magnificent painted ceilings are now stained with damp, their colours faded and worn.  Whole sections of delicately inlaid stones depicting elegant floral patterns have been chipped out, leaving gaping holes.  The 19th century cannon which stand in front of the Diwan-e-Aam have crisp packets jammed into their muzzles.  Most appalling of all is the graffiti: names of visitors scribbled in black marker pen, scrawled directly onto ancient stonework and mosaics.  Mobile phone numbers, inane comments, childish insults, etched onto a UNESCO World Heritage site!  It is unthinkable.  Imagine the outrage if visitors wrote their names in Tippex on Stonehenge or the Taj Mahal – that is precisely what has been done, and continues to be done, at the Lahore Fort.

I don’t understand it.  This is the premier tourist attraction in Pakistan, a country which, contrary to popular belief, is actually packed with fascinating sights.  And yet instead of being revered as an example of Muslim achievement and architectural excellence – which it undoubtedly is – it is scribbled on by idiotic schoolchildren as if it were nothing more than a discarded scrap of paper.

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Where are the UNESCO funds being used?  Not to employ guards, nor to employ guides; not a single one was in evidence.  Is it really that difficult to prevent people defacing a monument of international historical importance?  Do people here really care so little about their national story?