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Yesterday was Valentine’s Day, the day on which the violent martyrdom of a Christian saint is commemorated by people buying chocolate and flowers, for reasons known only to the kingpins of Western commercial excess.  In recent years this event has been marked by increasingly nasty arguments about whether or not the day ought to be celebrated at all.  In brief, the argument goes thus:

  • The significant number of Pakistani people who look to the West celebrate it by buying roses to mark their love for their spouse, just as people do in the West. This is entirely natural for people who drink Pepsi, use Facebook, watch Star Wars, and generally look to the West for cultural guidance.
  • Religious protesters, on the other hand, see Valentine’s Day as just one more example of Western immorality, with people flaunting love which ought to be conducted privately and with modesty (and, once suspects, with a burka over its head).

Thus it was that legal notices were issued in conservative parts of the country officially banning people from selling flowers or anything else associated with Valentine’s Day – and then the startling spectacle of the President of Pakistan Mamnoon Hussein himself saying that it ought not to be celebrated as it has no connection with Pakistani culture, as if the sight of a boy shyly handing a bunch of red roses to his girlfriend is a mortal threat to the nation.

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All of this gave the rest of the world a good opportunity to laugh at Pakistan, which is something that everyone except Pakistanis seems to appreciate, but there is something deeper going on here.

It is the battle for the soul of Pakistan.

Pakistan has an identity crisis.  It has always had one.  Pakistan was founded as a homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent, and yet substantial numbers of Hindus, Sikhs and Christians live here; the founder of Pakistan, Jinnah, said in a speech that religion would have nothing to do with citizenship in Pakistan.  Great – except that as 97% of the population are Muslim, their voice dominates all, and it is now an Islamic Republic with a number of Islamic laws to deal with things like divorce, rape, blasphemy, and so forth.

Another identity issue is modernity.  Some Pakistanis wear Levi jeans, carry iPhones, eat at Dunkin’ Donuts, and speak English better than I do.  Others live in rural villages, farm wheat, and live as though the 16th century is just around the corner.  Equal citizens, different planets.

And then there is religion.  Many Pakistanis are liberal, Westernised, drink alcohol, do not observe the fast of Ramadan, and have probably never seen the inside of a mosque.  Others (more numerous) are profoundly religious, and model their lives in every conceivable respect on the life of the Prophet of Islam.  Some of these – a small proportion, but an increasingly vocal one – cannot abide the thought of public space in Pakistan being in any way un-religious.  Almost everything and everyone in Pakistan, religious or not, pays at least lip service to the forms of Islam.  Every bus ride or plane flight begins with an Islamic prayer for travelling.  Every rickshaw drivers whispers “In the name of Allah” before beginning a journey.  In the West we agonise about whether religion has a place in the public sphere; Islam has no such qualms.

This doesn’t bother me in the least.  Why should people not be proud of their faith?  I deeply respect my many Muslim friends and admire their devotion.  Yet what worries me is that while I’m sure the majority of Pakistanis find the Valentine’s Day ban to be laughable, almost none of them speak out against it.  A small, fanatical core of noisy hardliners, unrepresentative of the nation as a whole, have hijacked the debate.  I couldn’t care less about Valentine’s Day, but the bolshy intransigence of the fundamentalists concerns me deeply.

And that is the battle for the soul of Pakistan.  Today it is about red roses; tomorrow it will be…

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People make generalisations about Pakistan all the time.  I don’t like it when they do, because they tend to be negative – “it’s dangerous”, “Pakistani people hate the West”, “it’s a failed state”.  But here I am making another one: Pakistan is a remarkably hospitable country.

It really is.  I used to post updates on Facebook of all the times people treated me differently because I was a guest: taxi drivers who refused to take my money, vegetable sellers who were so charmed by my stuttering Urdu that they gave me free tomatoes, shop-keepers who invited me to drink tea with them after an acquaintance of, oh, two minutes.  After a while I stopped because there were just too many stories, and people were getting bored of them.

Perhaps in stopping these updates I did a great disservice to the people of Pakistan because hospitality is the salient characteristic of the people here, by a long way.  When you watch the news you may get the impression that people here are angry and hostile.  When I walk through the bazaar, on the other hand, my impression has been unremittingly positive.  People here are instinctively and unfailingly polite, charming, helpful, and welcoming.

I have so many anecdotes I hardly know where to start.  A week ago I went to a different bazaar to buy vegetables and had to insist four times before the stall-holder would accept my money.  A taxi-driver a month or two earlier was slightly easier; I only had to insist three times.  Once I was driving with a friend when his car broke down.  Two passers-by dashed over to help us push it to a nearby gas station to get it fixed and steadfastly refused payment afterwards.  Buying bread from a tandoor (clay oven) a while back was tricky in that the roti-wallah refused payment on the grounds that we had been away from Pakistan for a month and he wanted to welcome us back.  Another time, on a trip to a city in the Punjab, some desperately poor people invited us into their home and insisted that we drink Pepsi, even though the price of a single bottle could have fed their family for a day.

I can’t promise that this hospitality is innate among every single person in Pakistan; I imagine there are some who are so hostile to the West that, were they to meet me, hospitality would be the last thing on their minds.  What I can say is that after two years and several hundred personal meetings with Pakistani people every single one has been polite and hospitable.

Here’s a final thought.  If a Pakistani were to travel to the UK, or Canada, or the USA, or somewhere else in the West, and met two hundred or so individuals, would every single one be hospitable and polite to them?  How about you – if you met a Pakistani on the streets of London or Toronto wearing shalwar kameez and a prayer cap, what would your initial thoughts be?

Next time, why not try being polite?  Saying “salaam aleikum” and smiling goes a long way, you know.  It might be the most Pakistani thing you do all day…