My father was convinced I would come running back to Toronto in a week. I’d go, I’d see, and then I’d leave.
Instead, I went, I saw, and then I fell in love.
There were bombs, riots and target killings, but Pakistan stole my heart. What was supposed to be a vacation became a three-month adventure with a road trip from one border to the other. It was the first of four trips I would make.
I was seven when my family immigrated to Canada. Settling in was a breeze, and it didn’t take too long to call it home. When I turned 15, I told my parents I needed a vacation, and Pakistan was an obvious choice — I spoke the national language and I had relatives there. It was the safest place I could visit alone.
The Pakistan I remembered was one with family gatherings, extravagant celebrations and warm weather. Yet my family and friends insisted I would be in for a rude awakening. Some were cynical and thought I’d get married, or be kidnapped by the Taliban, but I was too excited to care.
The first wave of culture shock hit soon after I landed at the Jinnah International Airport. Men stared me down like I was an object of intrigue. On my way home, a donkey cart barged through traffic. There were jasmine sellers and rickshaw drivers. On the walls of bridges and roads, words like “do not spit here” were painted in Urdu, Pakistan’s national language, over which were big stains from betel leafs and perhaps other things I wanted to ignore.
It was loud, dirty and rambunctious. But I didn’t see the Taliban I was told about, the blue burkas I’d seen on TV, or any clear signs of danger. That’s not to say they didn’t exist, I just hadn’t seen them.
After my jet lag wore off, I stepped out to do some shopping with a chaddar (shawl) draped around my head. My family thought I was paranoid — according to them there were no Taliban in Karachi and everyone was very modern. When I saw my grandmother’s maid, who spoke broken English, wore jeans and chatted on her cellphone, I was convinced Karachi wasn’t as oppressive as it’s thought to be. If she was representative of the poor in Pakistan, I had yet to see what the elite were like.
The dollar is far stronger than the rupee, so splurging in Pakistan doesn’t feel bad. You buy the fabric, take it to dyers, painters, screen-printers, embroiderers, and then to the tailor. It’s a long process that includes yelling, because time management is still a foreign concept to Pakistanis. On my shopping trips to markets, I interacted with what most Pakistanis call “the lower class.”
I met displaced Pathans from Afghanistan that blamed the Taliban for their financial woes, and I met some who believed women should be forbidden to leave the home. There was a man with a dancing monkey entertaining pedestrians. Children would knock on my car, asking for money. People would later tell me the beggars work for
gangsters, and their babies are quiet because they’re given small amounts of heroin. There were eunuchs, derogatorily called hijras, that would request money in return for blessings or sexual favours. Although they were from different walks of life, they all shared a common thought: all we want is roti, kaparda aur makan (food, clothing and shelter).
One night my aunt Mahera took me out to eat at Avari Towers. As we waited in the lobby, a waiter with a tray full of beer walked past me into a private room. Alcohol consumption is illegal in Pakistan, but here there was bubbling beer, flowing like it was the norm. The drinkers were what most Pakistanis call “the elite.” They have unreasonable amounts of money, own big mansions and bribe their way out of the law. You can find their wives shopping on the upscale Zamzama Street, carrying designer bags while their drivers wait nearby.
I became friends with two people who fit this category: one was the daughter of a feudal lord and the other was a Brooklyn-raised rich kid. At social gatherings of young people, there was pot smoking, makeout sessions and occasionally a bottle of Black Label.
The longer I stayed in Karachi, the more I realized that danger was thriving in the city. I was living in Clifton, a posh and relatively safer area; I never witnessed violence there.
One day we dined out at the Village Restaurant, close to the Metropole Hotel in Clifton. My friend Messum casually said that was where the journalist Daniel Pearl was abducted. His nonchalant tone was eerie.
I knew terrorism was common in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, but the dangers in Karachi were hidden in layers of McDonald’s and Pizza Huts. Many people had their phones stolen at gunpoint. Some knew of others that attended madrasahs (Islamic schools) to be recruited by the Taliban.
Occasionally, strikes would take place and the whole city would shut down. People would set fire to cars and tires.
Two months into my vacation, my great uncle Ather decided we should go on a family road trip from Karachi to Ziarat, a city near the Afghanistan border. The landscapes were stunning: mountainous terrains, freshwater streams and apricot gardens. There were bearded and turban-clad men, and most of the women I saw were in burkas. I wore jeans and my head was uncovered, but I never felt harassed or scared. The people were welcoming and posed for pictures; it was obvious that not everyone was dangerous. Pakistan has a huge Hindu population in the province of Sindh — Karachi alone has more than 20 temples scattered across the city. I visited the Thar Desert, which borders India and hosts a predominantly Hindu population. The local Sindhi culture mimics that of neighbouring Rajasthan. Our host, Capt. Ashiq Ali, took us around the local villages. The women wore ghagras and cholis (long skirts and small tops) and baiyyan (bangles) covered their arms. They were kind and welcomed me into their homes. There was no sense of hostility among the Hindus and Muslims. They were poor, but satisfied with what they had. This was the Pakistan that I hadn’t seen on TV.
I remember crying on my flight back to Toronto. I’d left a piece of my heart behind.
My second trip to Pakistan was in December 2008. The Pakistani military launched Operation Rah-e-Nijat against the Islamic insurgency in Swat, and my cousin Raahim left to fight.
The first Pakistan Fashion Week was held and the outfits displayed were modern and revealing. Nothing much had changed in Karachi, but I still hadn’t had enough of it.
In July 2010, I went again. The flash floods that summer claimed hundreds of lives. I crossed the bridge over the flooding Indus River and drove to Ghagar Phatak to provide supplies and food to the displaced.
I visited the Chaukhandi Tombs, an Islamic cemetery constructed during the Mughal rule that is marked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In May 2012, I made my fourth trip back. By now Frere Hall — a town hall during the British Raj — was open to public again after being off limits following a terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy which was situated right across the street.
It’s impossible for me to write about four trips in one piece, but the essence of them is the same: Pakistan is ravaged with violence, but it’s possible to survive there. Terrorism is still present and people are dying, but the nation’s resilience is worthy of applause.
While in theory it exists, in reality there is no Islamic Republic of Pakistan. There’s just Pakistan, with diverse people, beliefs, lifestyles and cultures.
And it’s beautiful.