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We were having dinner with a Pakistani family in Toronto a few months ago.  The food, unsurprisingly, was excellent.  We chatted amicably about Pakistan and the things we appreciated and admired about it.  Our hosts found this strange, saying that they saw nothing good in Pakistan, but only corruption and anger.  It is odd but true that some of the staunchest critics of Pakistan are expatriate Pakistanis.  My wife and I found ourselves in the odd position of praising Pakistan to Pakistani people, who only wanted to criticise it.

The man who had invited us to dinner looked me straight in the eye.  “Of course you enjoy Pakistan” he said simply.  “You can leave any time you like”.

The statement was made so simply, so truthfully, that it cut through me like a knife.  He wasn’t being malicious or critical, he was merely stating the truth.  And it is undeniably true.  My white skin and British passport give me a uniquely privileged position in Pakistan.

Think about it: if I ever want to leave, all I have to do is buy a plane ticket and head to the airport.  I have enough money for it, and a choice of airlines and destinations, and I could be out of here in five hours.  I could come back in a week, or a month, or not at all.  If I get in trouble in Pakistan the British High Commission will (at least in theory) take the responsibility of getting me out of it.

And then there’s the traditional hospitality which Pakistanis extend to foreigners.  I am regularly waved through police checkposts.  I am never asked for bribes.  Everyone treats me like a celebrity, to such an extent that I am actually embarrassed by it.  A few weeks ago I was queueing at the bank to pay my electricity bill.  When the people in front of me discovered that I was a foreigner they all stepped aside – all twelve of them – and let me go first.  I was profoundly embarrassed but rather touched.

All of this is very nice, and very unfair.  Why should I be treated differently to anyone else?  If I were a Pakistani citizen, especially one without the benefit of wealth or personal connections, life would be much more difficult.  Is that fair?  Not in the least.  But that’s the kindness of Pakistanis for you.

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I stopped the car by the side of the road.  There was no fruit at the bazaar; the festival of Eid means that everything shuts down and there are as few supplies in the shops as there would be on Christmas Day in England.  The fruit-seller at the end of our street somehow had his cart piled with apples, peaches, bananas, and the last of the summer mangoes.

He greeted me warmly.  We chatted about prices for a while and then he started to put fruit into the set of scales on one end of his cart: first crisp red apples, then peaches, then mangoes which he said would be the last this year; they seem to disappear with the summer heat.  A kilo of each, plus a dozen bananas, came to about £4.

My daughter, five years old, climbed out of the car and came to stand by my side.  She watched the fruit-seller closely, then whispered in my ear:

“Why is his arm broken?”.

I hadn’t noticed, but his left arm ended below the elbow.  I asked him what had happened.  He told me how he was born in Kashmir near the Line of Control.  One day, as a child, he found a round, metallic object in a field near his house.  He picked it up, and it – a landmine, perhaps, or a bomb dropped from the air – exploded, taking off his left hand.  He told all of these things in the painfully straightforward, unemotional manner in which Pakistanis seem to relate extraordinarily tragic and painful things.

I translated for my daughter and she looked at him, wide-eyed.  He smiled and tickled her on the cheek.

“Praise God, you have wonderful children” he said, smiling.

We drove home in silence.  We stopped outside our house and I turned off the engine.  My son’s voice broke the silence.

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a war-stopper” he said.

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I turned the key.  The engine chuntered, whirred…and stopped.  I tried again, and again.  Same result.  I sighed.  I was stuck by the side of a back street, somewhere in Pakistan, with an immobile vehicle.

This is not an ideal situation.  Before coming to Pakistan we received thorough safety and security training, and much of it seemed to revolve around attempting to avoid precisely the kind of situation in which I found myself.  Alone, stuck, on a hot day.  Diplomats in this position would be calling their emergency contact number and having a helicopter buzz in to pick them up, but people in my position don’t have access to that kind of thing.  The day was hot, and getting hotter.  A trickle of sweat ran down my back in a particularly insidious manner.

Suddenly a taxi approached.  It is always easy to tell when a Pakistani taxi is approaching.  It makes a sound like two pounds of rusty screws inside a tin bathtub being thrown down a flight of stairs.  The rusty bathtub approached and I hailed it with enthusiasm and not a small amount of panic.  I explained to the friendly driver what my predicament was, though no explanation was really necessary: clueless foreigner, immobile car – breakdown.  It’s not as though I was stopping to enjoy the view, which consisted of a few half-dead shrubs, a rusty dumpster, and a great deal of dust.

“No problem” said the taxi driver.  “Push it, it’ll start ok”.

I went to the back of my own car and started pushing, regretting almost immediately my decision to buy a black car.  The taxi driver was in the front seat.  I pushed, and sweated, and my palms sizzled audibly, and the car started moving.  After a few seconds I broke into a slow jog and the engine chugged into life.  The car drove away, slowed down, turned round, and came back to me.  I never once entertained the notion that the taxi driver would do anything else.  Pakistan is rather wonderful in that way.

I thanked him and offered him some money.  He refused, of course.  I insisted, of course, and of course he refused again.  I smiled and stuffed it into his top pocket.

The next day I got the battery changed.  Fewer breakdowns, hopefully, but also fewer opportunities to be blessed by an unexpected person.

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I finished speaking and sat down.  I took a long drink of water; public speaking always seems to leaves me parched.  The lady next to me turned to me with a sad look in her eye.

“5 years in Pakistan!” she exclaimed, shaking her head.  “How do you manage to live in such a terrible place?”.

I must have looked as astonished as I felt, because she felt the need to clarify her comment.

“You’re a Christian, and Christians in Pakistan are always living in fear from the Muslims.  How do you cope with it?”.

I thought for a second, then replied.

“I cope with it by remembering that what you’ve said is not true”.

I was at an event in the UK speaking alongside other people working with the church in different parts of the world.  I had shared a bit about working alongside the church in Pakistan and about what it’s like in general to live there.  I had shared some anecdotes of Pakistani life and about what it’s like to live among such hospitable, warm people who go to such lengths to welcome us.  I also spoke of the pain experienced by many people – Christian, Muslim, and other groups – in Pakistan as they cope with instability and difficulty.  Apparently nothing I said registered with this particular lady, who was more than ready to condemn Pakistan as a hotbed of fanaticism and suffering, despite never having been there.

I am coming to realise that this narrative of a brutal, terrorised Pakistan is more widespread than I had thought.  Everyone, it seems, is perfectly ready to accept that the portrayal of Pakistan in the media as a place of cruelty and oppression is accurate, and as so few Westerners ever bother to travel to Pakistan to have this crude stereotype challenged, it obstinately persists.

What really bothers me more than anything else is that Christian organisations are involved.  There is no shortage of organisations which exist to support the persecuted church – and yet more often than not, this support goes no further than highlighting instances of persecution and then asking for money.  There are Christian organisations out there which directly benefit from publicising the worst things about Pakistan.  It’s practically an industry, and it sickens me.

Bad things happen in Pakistan.  Of course they do.  After five years there I could hardly fail to notice it.  Yet by focussing only on the negative aspects of Pakistan and sparing not a moment’s thought for the good aspects – the astonishing hospitality, the kindness, the warmth, the selflessness of so many Pakistanis, the many Muslim leaders I know who go to great lengths to support inter-faith dialogue in Pakistan, the many Muslim friends who call me to apologise whenever Christian suffer in Pakistan, the taxi-drivers who refuse my money on the grounds that I am a guest – when we ignore this side of life we are not being truthful, and we are not being fair.

I spoke to the lady for a few minutes, giving her a few examples of the beauty of Pakistan and of the kindness of its people.  She seemed surprised, but happy.  Then she added a question which is still resonating with me:

“Why don’t we hear more about it?”.

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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.