Light in the darkness of Pakistan

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December 29th 2007
Published: December 29th 2007
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In this morning's newspaper, I read that foreign travellers in Pakistan are advised to stay in their lodgings for the moment until the situation becomes clear. As Islamabad is relatively quiet, I venture out to test the waters two days after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The streets are more lively than yesterday - there are some taxis whose drivers try to get my attention by slowing down and calling to me, and there is a long queue of cars, blocking half of College Road, trying to get into the petrol station - there was a petrol strike yesterday. Armed policemen supervise the road.

A 40 day mourning period has been declared in the tribal areas, and the protests, violence and standstills throughout the country continue. I read a poignant column in the paper by Shireen M Mazari, which says, 'The US continues to harp on the election-on-time theme but in the face of the latest national tragedy, before elections can offer a meaningful return to democracy, civil society needs to heal its wounds.' The healing of wounds seems to be the prevalent emotion here today, the return to some kind of normality. There's controversy raging through Pakistan as the Interior Ministry spokesman claimed that Benazir was not killed by a bullet or a piece of the bomb, but that her head hit a lever of her car instead when she tried to get back into the car after emerging from its sun roof. Nobody really believes this, in particular because the doctors who provided initial treatment after the incident told the media that she was hit by a bullet, but then mysteriously changed their statement on Friday. I have to say it reeks of a 'blame the victim' mentality, and it sounds unlikely to me.

My Pakistani friends are very sweet - the family from the Swat valley calls me every day to check that I'm okay and ask me not to go out at night; and friends from Chitral do the same. I try and meet up with Izhar, my Pathan friend, today but he can't find a bus to get to Islamabad. Aurang Zeb, his uncle, calls me and picks me up in the afternoon with his friend Tariq, a kind man with a black beard in a white shalwar Kameez. Together, we drive to Islamabad hospital, where the two men work. They show me their offices, and we have a cup of green tea with another friend and colleague of theirs. All three men come from the North-West Frontier Province, but live in Islamabad with their families since many years because of their jobs. As the sun is still shining, we decide to drive to Rawal Lake. It's hard to believe that this is Islamabad: a large, beautiful, calm lake spreads out in front of us, boats glide across it, families with children sit on benches and wander the neatly kept lawns. Aurang Zeb points to a large house on top of a hill on the far side of the lake. 'Do you see that house there?' he asks. 'This is Imran Khan's house.' 'Is he still in prison?', I ask. 'No', he laughs, 'he was in India yesterday. You know, he is a politician now. But not a good one. He's a good cricketer!' We pass a little stall on which people can shoot cute little hand-modelled clay figures with a rifle. As I look at them, the stall holder entices me to try my luck. Much to the bemusement of the men that stand around the stall, I take the rifle and aim three times - failing miserably. Aurang Zeb takes the rifle off me and, with one precise aim, shoots one of the clay figures, which tumbles tragically to the ground. As we walk on, I ask him, 'Have you been to the army? Or why is your aim so good?' 'No', he replies with a grin, 'but I'm from the North-West Frontier.'

When we return to Islamabad, I am invited to visit Tariq's home and meet his family. I am welcomed by his wife, a wonderful spirit with a broad, infectious smile, and their four children: two girls and two boys, who rush excitedly around me and offer me peanuts. Tariq's wife makes me some chai and asks Tariq whether I am not scared to be in Pakistan at this time. 'No', laughs Tariq and tells her in Pashto, their language, 'Madam is not afraid!' Like all the Pakistanis I meet, they seem anxious to hear my opinion about their country, and their faces glow with joy when I tell them that I like Pakistan, and in particular, her generous and hospitable people. And they are equally anxious for somebody to tell the outside world that they are not all militants or extremists, and that they, the people of Pakistan, are yearning to live in peace like any other nation. 'People here in Pakistan not happy', sighs Aurang Zeb later, as he drives me home. 'Economically, politically. They not happy - this why now this mess here'. He shrugs and points towards the streets.

It seems that the Gods have smiled upon me again: it's actually a blessing in disguise that I am without passport and stuck in Islamabad. There has been a huge wave of violence throughout Lahore, where I would be now had the visa processing been quicker. There have been numerous protests, fires, smashed public and private vehicles and blocked roads. It's unclear whether the city will be safe enough for me to travel to by Tuesday, as also trains and the train station have been attacked, and the service to India has been suspended. Islamabad seems like one of the safer places to be right now. Inshaalaa.


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