A Rubberband Kind of Year:
See You Later Pakistan
By Bryan Farris
Perhaps it is fitting that my last month in Pakistan has been the month of Ramzan (Ramadan). For those unfamiliar, Ramzan is the month of sacrifice in the Islamic calendar. Jawad Aslam, my CEO, close friend and resident expert on all things Muslim, described Ramzan to me as “religious boot camp”.
On the surface, Ramzan is a month of fasting — no food, no water, no cigarettes, no consumption of any kind from about 4 am to sunset. Many shops are closed in the afternoon, and restaurants open around 6pm to serve a packed house the moment the fast breaks. The fast, however, is merely a symbolic (and admittedly difficult) gesture that represents a deeper sense of sacrifice. Muslims use Ramzan to give up bad habits, spend more time with themselves & Allah, and seek further enlightenment.
Though Ramzan makes it impossible to schedule goodbye lunches and teas with the many friends I’ll be leaving behind here in Pakistan, I’m glad to experience it at the end of my year here. As I look back to the kind of year its been, I see so many parallels with Ramzan. I gave up a lot to be here, and in the process I’ve come to know myself & the world around me in a much deeper way than before. Jawad jokes that I’ve aged 5 years in 10 months.
At the outset of this journey, I wrote that I expected to be stretched like a rubberband in the coming year. When a rubber band stretches, it snaps back, but it ends up larger than it was before. My hope was that the experience would broaden my horizons, but not so quickly that I snapped. It seems to have worked out. Admittedly, the tendons in my knees have tightened because I never quite felt comfortable running outside in Pakistan, but my perspective has been stretched beyond expectations.
Pakistan is a land of extremes: from extreme heat to extreme hospitality. From extreme religious sentiment to extreme devotion to food. From extremely exaggerated journalism to an extremely undervalued global reputation.
What most of the world fails to realize is just how beautiful this country is and how spectacular its people truly are. It is impossible to overlook the problems: Pakistan is facing lawlessness in Karachi, a violent political system, jaw-dropping inflation, an insufficient power supply and terrorists staking claim over the northern areas. These are real issues that do exist: but they do not define Pakistan—as much of the world would have you believe.
While it may be impossible to overlook the problems, it is (apparently) quite possible to overlook the splendor that a country like Pakistan offers.
· Where else do you greet every stranger with the phrase “Peace be with you”?
· Where else do you find BBQ Chicken Tikka that melts in your mouth?
· Where else is being 20 minutes late considered on-time?
· Where else can you see opportunity in every alley?
· Where else do motorized scooters (100% of which are red hondas) weave in between cars which cruise past rickshaws, which veer around donkey-pulled carts, which are dwarfed by strutting camels?
· Where else can you buy seasonal fruit on every single street corner?
· Where else do the echoes of a minaret bring an eerie peace to 4a.m. in the morning?
· Where else do you find a people who take prayer so seriously, they start every flight with one?
· Where else, but Pakistan?
I’ve come to understand that the world is not as the New York Times makes it out to be. That terror zones house people too. That 99.9% of people on this earth want to do good by eachother. That I, a white dude from San Francisco, can become friends with Aftab, a fellow engineer from far northern Pakistan (we’re facebook friends too, in case you’re scoring at home). I met Aftab on a trip to Chitral, where he builds micro hydro power plants in beautiful remote villages just a few miles from the Afghanistan border so that the poor can have lights at night.
There is so much opportunity in communities such as these; its staggering that the world chooses not to see it. I’ve seen the dark side as well: and yes, it is far from pretty, but it is not something to be afraid of. I’m not afraid of bombs or kidnappings or shootings — rather, I am deeply, deeply saddened by them. Terrorists are called terrorists because its their job to terrify you. Let them do that, and they win.
Do you know what terrifies the terrorist? Education and economic development. Opportunity. Terrorists have chosen their path usually because they didn’t have a shot at economically bettering themselves, but I’ll say more about that in another post another time. Pakistan is not a country of terrorists, but rather a country afflicted by terrorists.
Earlier this week I was driving to the Karachi airport, when the driver heard on the radio that there had been shootings nearby. If the news hadn’t alerted us, the ambulances flying past every two minutes probably would have.
As we approached, I noticed we were closely following a Toyota pickup truck carrying four sketchy characters, decked out in jet black shalwar kameez and carrying equally dark AK-47s. It was precisely the stereotypical scene that crosses people’s minds when they think of PK or a ‘war zone’. The men were strapping on ammunition vests and loading cartridges into their guns.
One man looked the part of a new-age pirate, with long black hair flowing out from under a tan & black checkered bandana. I’ll never forget the evil glint that I saw in his eyes. By my count, he was not Pakistani — not in the true sense. No… there is a reason that I saw this kind of man only once in an entire year. Real Pakistanis are the opposite of the stereotype in just about every way possible. And I meet them every day.
Pakistanis are hospitable. I’ve spent my entire time here living with a host family. At first I was a guest, but Jean, Wilburn, Asim, Maria, Susie, John, Ben, Thomas, Annie, Tashu and Ethan made me feel so welcome that they became family. I know I have a home here forever. Anywhere you go in Pakistan, people will welcome you with open arms (and probably a even a hug—from strangers too).
Pakstanis are loyal. I mean…crazy loyal. When you make a Pakistani friend, you’ve created a serious bond. Leaving is so hard because I feel such powerful ties with people here. For my farewell dinner, a co-worker (but really a new best friend), Jamshaid, made two 9 hour trips between our site in the flood affected areas and Lahore just to join for dinner. Another friend of mine who had moved out of Lahore months ago made a 250Km round trip to meet me for Sehri breakfast at 3am. I’ve never felt so honored.
Pakistanis love tea. If this isn’t self-evident, I don’t know what is. Pakistanis love to sit down, stir their chai and chat. Spending time with others and building quality relationships is so important. Back home people tend to fly through their days, but in Pakistan, every moment with another is cherished.
Pakistanis are optimistic. I’ve never been somewhere where young people were as energized about opportunities in their own country as here. There is a bright future ahead and Pakistan’s youth are driving it. A few friends of mine — Ali, Babar, Zehra, Saba, Jimmy, Khurram — have inspiring aspirations for change in PK (Pakistan). This is the Pakistan that the world needs to come to know. Yes, there are terrorists and violence, and that can’t be forgotten, but if that is your perception, then you are judging a book by the headlines.
Sure, there are probably safer ways I could have spent this year, but then I wouldn’t have been stretched in the way that I have been. Pakistan has become a part of me; it has forever changed me, my perspective on the world, and my trust in humanity.
Here’s to you PK (Pakistan).
Shukria, Allah Hafiz. (Thank you, may God protect you).
Currently a 2011 Acumen Fund Fellow, Bryan has long aspired to be a social entrepreneur with an aim to contribute to long term economic growth and progress in developing countries. He previously worked as a strategy consultant at Bain & Company graduate of University of California at Berkeley with a major in Industrial Engineering & Operations Research.
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