Eye Opener: An Indian-American Visits Pakistan
Posted by usindiamonitor
Many of us travel for business or leisure. But few ever take a trip that dramatically shatters their entire worldview of a country and a people in one fell swoop. I was lucky enough to have returned from just such a trip: a week-long sojourn in Pakistan.It was a true eye-opener, and a thoroughly enjoyable one at that. Many of the assumptions and feelings I had held toward the country for nearly 30 years were challenged and exposed as wrong and even ignorant outright.Yes, I was aware of all the reasons not to go, safety foremost among them. As an American, an Indian, and a Hindu there seemed to be multiple reasons for someone of my background to have concerns about security. Relatives and friends couldn’t hide their dismay and genuine fear; a frequent question was “why would you want to go?” The subtext is that there’s nothing to see there that’s worth the risk.The Western and Indian media feed us a steady diet of stories about bomb blasts, gunfights, kidnappings, torture, subjugation of women, dysfunctional government, and scary madrassa schools that are training the next generation of jihadist terrorists. And yes, to many Westerners and especially Indians, Pakistan is the enemy, embodying all that is wrong in the world. Incidents such as the beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl, 26/11 and the Osama Bin Laden raid in Abottobad have not helped the cause either. Numerous international relations analysts proclaim that Pakistan is “the most dangerous place in the world” and the border with India is “the most dangerous border in the world.”I’m not naive enough to argue that these proclamations don’t have some elements of truth; through extensive academic work on Pakistan’s governance, its history, and its nuclear weapons arsenal I know that some problems are real. Rather, I am here to tell you that these aspects are overblown; that this country is about so much more, a whole other and much larger, beautiful, glorious, and uplifting side not given equal time by the media. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. And it’s time that Indians and Americans acknowledge Pakistan for what it really is as a whole- and our ignorance for what that is.It may be easy to dismiss my firsthand experience as anecdotal: yes, I stayed in affluent neighborhoods in large cities, mostly met those who belong to the educated elite, was protected by firearm-toting bodyguards, and rarely revealed my ethnic background to most of the new people I met. Funnily enough, I don’t think now that the absence of any of these factors would have changed my experience at all.The Genesis
My trip to Pakistan was not planned much in advance. I was in Sri Lanka for a friend’s wedding and spent a great deal of time with two Pakistani friends from my undergraduate days at Georgetown. Both are now businessmen, one in Karachi and the other in Lahore. I was going to be in India soon, and mentioned that a trip to Pakistan is something I always wanted to do, but I was too scared to execute it. Over the next few hours, we had some beer and seafood by the hotel swimming pool in Colombo and got into a detailed and lively discussion, during which time they insisted I visit and guaranteed my safety throughout the stay. My concerns allayed, I promised to make it happen, probably the first person from my family tree to visit Pakistan since the bloody 1947 partition. I was fortunate to have the opportunity for a fully hosted trip and couldn’t pass it up anymore. I have realized now more than ever before how deep the friendships forged during college can run- cutting across borders, cultures, and time.Karachi
As I was about to land in Karachi on my flight from Colombo, Sri Lanka (direct flights from India are few and far between), I was gripped by a familiar fear. What the hell was I doing? What if I got detained in the airport and then deported because they found out my Indian ancestry and suspected my motives? How would my parents react if they learned I was the victim of a bomb blast while traveling around the city? On the plane I sat next to a very chatty and friendly executive from Lahore, who had gone to Sri Lanka on business. He was excited to tell me about Pakistan since it was my first visit, and the conversation was pleasant enough. But I kept feeling the growing knot of fear in my stomach. I tried to be brave as the plane landed. As my friend had said, 20 million people live in Karachi and now and then bad things happen, but the odds of it affecting me were very low.Fortunately I got through immigration at the Quaid-e-Azam Airport quickly, and a friend was waiting for me with his pickup truck. The first thing I saw outside the airport was… a giant McDonald’s restaurant surrounded by a large and well-manicured green lawn. An unexpected welcome from the golden arches on a sunny, hot day.Two uniformed bodyguards with rifles who were exceedingly friendly and welcoming climbed onto the pickup truck bed as we started on a 45-minute drive. I was impressed by the massive, well-maintained parks and gardens surrounding the airport. I was also impressed by the general cleanliness, the orderliness of the traffic, the quality of the roads, and the greenery. Coming from a city government background, I was surprised at how organized Karachi was throughout the ride. I also didn’t see many beggars the entire way. I had just spent significant amounts of time in two major Indian cities, Mumbai and Bangalore, as well as several second-tier cities like Mangalore, and none would compare favorably on maintenance and city planning, especially when it came to potholes and waste management. This was the first surprise; I was expecting that piles of garbage and dirt would line the roads and beggars would overflow onto the streets. Surely there is dirt and poverty in Karachi, but far less than I was expecting. Karachi was also less dense and crowded than India’s cities.My second pleasant surprise was to see numerous large development projects under way. I had read about Pakistan’s sluggish GDP growth and corruption in public works and foreign aid disbursement. This may be true, but construction was going on all over the place: new movie theaters, new malls, new skyscrapers, new roads, and entire new neighborhoods being built from scratch. In this regard it was similar to India and every other part of Asia I had seen recently: new development and rapid change continues apace, something we are seeing less of in the West.Just a few of the many highlights in Karachi included relaxing at beachside cafes, dining at amazing tandoori restaurants such as the massive Barbecue Tonight, an excellent burger/brunch joint called Xander’s, a visit to the historic and beautiful Mazar-e-Quaid where the nation’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah is entombed in a marble mausoleum, visiting a book fair next to the British-era Frere Hall, and a sailboat ride around the Karachi port where a magnificent crab feast fit for a Mogul emperor was served on board. The service was so impeccable, the cooks would crack and remove individual crab claw shells by hand to make it easier to access the fresh meat.We were also able to do some things which may sound more familiar to Americans: bowling at Karachi’s first bowling alley, intense games of pickup basketball with some local teenagers at a large public park (these kids could really play), or passing through massive and well-appointed malls filled with thousands of happy people of all ages walking around, shopping, or eating at the food court. We even attended a grand launch party for Magnum ice cream bars, featuring many of Pakistan’s A-list actors, models, and businesspeople. A friend who is involved in producing musicals directed an excellent performance at the party, complete with live band, singing, and dancing. This troupe, Made for Stage has also produced shows such as the Broadway musical Chicago to critical acclaim with an all-Pakistani cast for the first time in history.Even the poor areas we visited, such as the neighborhoods around the Mazar, were filled with families coming out for a picnic or a stroll, enjoying their weekend leisure time in the sun. All I could see were friendly and happy people, including children with striking features running around. At no time did I feel the least bit unsafe anywhere we went, and we definitely went through a mix of neighborhoods with varying profiles
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