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Published: December 25th 2007
It's Christmas Day in Islamabad. Actually, it isn't - it's the birthday of Pakistan's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, so there's a public holiday here, too. But I've been wished 'Merry Christmas' many times over today by well-meaning Pakistanis, who are very surprised when I tell them 'thank you very much, but I am not a Christian'. Earlier, when I had a picnic in the sunny Rose Garden, a young man approached me, handed me a beautiful pink rose and said 'Merry Christmas', before disappearing amongst the trees. Bless.
I arrived back in Islamabad three days ago, and I have to say that this time my perception of the city is completely different - in particular after spending much time in Peshawar, Chitral and the North-West Frontier Province. Islamabad seems very calm in comparison, and is actually a pleasant, laid-back and beautiful city. It is surrounded by hills and has many tree-lined avenues and large parks. What strikes me most though is how relaxing the city is. There is hardly any traffic, very few people, very little noise. It's urban, but also spread-out: with no real city centre, the markets and bazaars are in each of the districts, and not even
they are busy. I like it - and it's just what I need after the challenges and the freezing cold of the last weeks. I'm feeling more than a little run-down, with a bad cold, a nasty-sounding cough and a case of extreme exhaustion. I can really do with a week of doing nothing. And it looks like this wish is being granted: I am stuck here for a week until I get my Indian visa. I am passport-less until then.
My visit to the Indian Embassy yesterday was rather amusing. I arrived at 8 am at what looked like a bus station. There were several desks spread around inside the enclosure, with groups of Pakistani men sitting around it. A bearded official filled in the visa application form for me and asked me if he could have my business card. Sure, I said, if you like. He then continued to say that he would like to be my friend, gave me his business card and insisted that I can call him whenever I need help. I can even stay with him. Hm, thank you, I mumbled, a bit confused. He proceeded to ask me whether I am here
for business. No, I said, I am here to travel. When he translated this to the men sitting around the desk, I heard a collective gasp. 'Really?' they asked. 'And do you like Pakistan?' 'I love it', I replied, 'and I am returning, inshaallaa.' They smiled broadly in unison. Pakistan does not get a lot of tourists these days, due to its portrayal in the media, but I can honestly say that I have made extremely positive experiences here so far. The people are beautiful, hospitable, kind. Undeniably, there are problems and dangers, like in many other countries, but once you're here, you realise that it's nowhere near as bad as you'd think. It's an interesting, diverse and wild country.
On Sunday, as I sat in the park doing some writing, I was approached by a large Pakistani family (men, women, children). The women shook my hand and two of the men, who spoke English, told me that they were Pathan, from the SWAT valleys, and would I like to come with them to their uncle's house in Islamabad? Not having anything better to do, I said, 'sure, why not?', and followed them to their car, where we crammed ourselves inside the vehicle. I counted: we were 13 people, including myself, in a small car. But it was surprisingly comfortable. There was a moment again where I asked myself 'what the hell are you doing, going off with a bunch of strangers into the unknown?', but my intuition about these people was extremely positive, and one thing I am really learning on this journey is to say 'yes', now more than ever. We went up to the new Pakistani monument, which has sweeping views all over Islamabad, and then went back to the uncle, Aurang Zeb's, house. Here, I was immediately tucked up in the family's bed with velvet blankets as the children grouped around me, fed biscuits and tea, brought walnuts and honey, and shared dinner with them: they taught me how to eat milk rice with my right hand. Eating with your hand is good for getting the stomach used to bacteria, apparently. I spent a wonderful afternoon and evening with this generous family, who dressed me up in a purple shalwar kameez which they insisted I take home, mendhi'd (henna painted) my hands, gave me little gifts, and showed me all of their family photographs. I had some interesting conversations with them about their culture, too. The Pathan people are quite conservative Muslims. Izhar, the handsome 20-year old son, said to me, 'I like that you wear shalwar kameez. If you had not worn this, we would not have spoken to you in the park.' I asked him, 'Why can't women go to the mosque?' He replied, with a serious expression on his face, 'Women are only for the home. Their place is inside, in the house.' 'Do you really believe this?' 'Yes', he said. Strange as this all seems to me, I try to be open-minded about their culture and customs, although I do find it sad that many of the women have to wear burkhas that loses them their peripheral vision, and there were times when I looked at Sumaia, a sensitive and artistic ten-year-old girl with a talent for languages, wondering what her future would be like. Yet I was so pleased to be able to meet the women of the family, who, inside the home, seemed strong, confident and content. They were fussing over me like mother hens, and I was overwhelmed by so much hospitality and kindness. Just as we were about to have dinner, Izhar received a phone call from a neighbour in the SWAT valley. A suicide bomb had just gone off in their village, killing 14 or so people, and all the mirrors in their house were broken. The family looked shaken, but said it happens quite a lot there at this time.
After a great evening, we exchanged addresses and telephone numbers, and I promised to visit them in their home in the SWAT valley when I return to Pakistan.
I visited Shah Faisal Mosque the other day, one of Asia's largest mosques. The main prayer hall has room for 10.000 worshippers, while the courtyards and verandas can accommodate another 64.000. I haven't really visited many mosques before, and was completely blown away by the experience. It's a huge place, with crescent moons on the outside - very atmospheric as the sun was setting - but what really moved me was the atmosphere on the inside. It's a huge open space, with a women's gallery upstairs (only men can enter the actual prayer space in the front). I heard beautiful, arabic singing through the speakers, and the men kneeled and bowed in unison to the sounds of 'Allah-oh-Akhbar', while the women upstairs prayed and did the same. I don't know what it was, but I was so touched by witnessing that moment that I started to cry. As I watched and listened, all I could feel in the mosque was an overwhelming feeling of love, and reverence. It felt sacred and powerful, and once again I was so grateful to be able to experience this, to get a feel for so many different religions, and to sense the one thing that flows through all of them, despite the wars and violence committed by some: love.
Well, it's been a very pleasant, chilled-out day so far: the weather is warm, with a slight breeze, and I've been sitting in the garden of my hotel for most of the day, reading, quite aptly, Jonny Bealby's fantastic 'Silk Dreams'; and wandering the bazaar near my hotel, buying fruit and other essentials. After two unsuccessful trials at using some of the run-down Internet cafes in my 'hood', I have given in and treated myself to using the very posh Business Centre at the 5 Star Serena Hotel, where I have a Broadband Connection and very big desk.
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