Time Travlers Guide to 21st Century Pakistan

Pakistan's flag
Asia » Pakistan » Islamabad
June 7th 2014
Published: June 9th 2014
Edit Blog Post

beard or veil?beard or veil?beard or veil?

One of many images painted on a metal wall in Saidpur
I follow Paul Theroux's advice in the Tao of Travel: always bring a book along that is completely unrelated to where you are going. For me, reading such a book becomes a vacation from the vacation. Accordingly, I am accompanied on this trip by Ian Mortimer's The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England. But this choice turns out not to be so unrelated. The parallels between traveling through 16th Century England and traveling through 21st Century Pakistan are striking. Both places are frustrating—important institutions like the courts and government don't work, people are trapped by class and religion, donkeys pull carts down busy highways, and living in the Marriott is just like living in a medieval castle. Yes, inside finely costumed women are being photographed in front of the hotel's aquarium, but on the other side of the hotel's thick, tall blast wall is a city on war footing.

It seems as though Pakistan has made a deal with the US: cut back on the drone strikes, and Pakistan will turn up the heat on the Taliban. In response, the Taliban has sent waves of kidnappers and suicide bombers to Islamabad. There are checkpoints at every
Big BrotherBig BrotherBig Brother

Photo taken by students on receiving end of my video lecture.
major intersection, soldiers holding machine guns and draped in bandoliers are everywhere, and armored vehicles rumble through the streets. Frighteningly, it takes about two days before all of this seems completely normal. It makes me wonder about our "normal" in the US.

What the hell am I doing here?

I'm in Islamabad to implement the recommendations I made at the end of my visit last year. The goal of these recommendations is to modernize AIOU (Allama Iqbal Open University.) AIOU is Asia's largest open university, specializing in distance education, and with over one million students. It is a lifeline to people—especially for women—living in Pakistan's remote regions.

The need for modernization is painfully evident on a tour of the university's dusty dark data processing center, where I see piles of boxes containing millions of applications. Between the piles hunched clerks laboriously transcribe the applications into the university's database. They stand at attention as I enter each room with the director. She tells me that a good clerk can process 800 applications per day. I think I'd rather mine coal.

There seems to be a mismatch between my perception of my mission, and the perceptions of my
cool signcool signcool sign

Cool sign in the bathroom of the Marriott ballroom.
hosts. The urgent work that needs to be done—installing a complicated multi-layered application on AIOU's server—is of secondary importance to my hosts. Instead, I am handed an itinerary busy with meetings. The meetings are with top administrators of AIOU and other institutions. But the meetings have no agendas. They are all form and no content. I show up and am placed in a waiting room. A chai wallah brings me a cup of tea. I take a few sips and then I am moved to another waiting room, where another chai wallah brings me another cup of tea. After about three waiting rooms I am taken back to the original waiting room where I meet my official. I take about five minutes to explain the purpose of my visit. To break the awkward silence that follows, I repeat what I just said, maybe altering the words slightly. Finally the official will make a nonsensical recommendation, which must be followed in order to retain his support. The AIOU administrators seem ponderous and phlegmatic. My theory is that gas is leaking into all of those waiting rooms.

After several days of meetings I insist that we get to work. I am given a couple of assistants who, I am assured, can do the work themselves. It is immediately evident that this is wildly untrue. I take over the installation process; I battle power outages, slow networks, and frequent popup windows warning me that AIOU's software is unlicensed. My assistants look on in admiration. Training the faculty to use their new software will be another challenge.


At one of the aforementioned meetings I meet AIOU's new vice chancellor (by law the president of the country is chancellor of all of the country's universities, so vice chancellor is a highly political appointment.) The new vice chancellor is the chair of Islamic Studies (all of the administrators at AIOU have multiple jobs). His physique, clothing, and beard remind me of Mr. Natural. Before I've identified anyone in the room I've just entered, he scuttles over and hugs me. I feel true affection in his hug, unlike the polite hugs we dispense in America. He buries his face in my shoulder and refuses to let go. A few days later I repeat this story to some colleagues and they roar with laughter. Apparently homosexuality is rampant in madrasas and among the Taliban. This is well known I am assured. Apparently the strict separation of men and women is the cause, just like in prisons.

Honor Killings

It's hard to imagine a more religious country than Pakistan. In the middle of a conversation everyone disappears to pray. A sticker on the ceiling of my hotel room points toward Mecca. When a cop dies in the line of duty the newspaper says he "embraced martyrdom." As religious as Pakistan is, it's not religious enough for the Taliban who are imposing sharia law along the western frontier. But even the Taliban are finding it tough to supplant the brutal tribal codes that predate Alexander the Great. The codes are evident in the daily news stories about "honour" killings. A striking case occurred a few days ago when a family murdered their daughter on the steps of the Lahore courthouse in front of plenty of witnesses, cops too. Her crime: marrying for love, the most common offense. There were close to 1000 cases last year in Pakistan. This doesn't count the lesser punishments such as the report in today's paper about a girl whose father cut her nose off for running away from the man he gave her to when she was nine. While the outcry in the Islamabad papers is admirable, there are few arrests in these cases.

Lost in translation

Wednesday night I had dinner at the Fulbright House with my dear friend Adele. She and I met as Fulbright scholars in Sri Lanka back in 2001. She stayed on and wrote a fabulous book about Sri Lanka called Not Quite Paradise . She is the most intrepid individual I know. The Fulbright house is in a leafy neighborhood of Islamabad where the embassy keeps the Fulbright scholars under house arrest. The Fulbright program just restarted after being suspended for seven years. For security, the Fulbrighters aren't allowed to leave the house unless they are being driven to their jobs by the designated driver. This rule even applies to the several scholars who are Pakistani-Americans with family nearby. At dinner I was pelted with questions about what it was like outside.

A former colonel in the ISI (Pakistan's CIA) was also a guest at the table. He now works for the US embassy implementing their draconian security policies The Fulbrighters had asked him to join us so they could complain about

Hard to tell the difference between celebration and demonstration. Both involve lots of chanting and firing shots in the air.
their restrictions.

I asked him about Bin Laden. The colonel claimed that Bin Laden, like the Fulbrighters, was under a kind of house arrest enforced by the ISI, and that this arrangement had been approved by the US. That wasn't in Zero Dark Thirty, I objected.

Next, I wanted to know if I was being followed by the ISI. Yes, he said flatly. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "I'm sorry, did you want me to lie?"

After dinner the colonel offered to drive me back to the Marriott. The streets were dark, construction and police barricades blocked the major routes. After about 45 minutes of driving through unfamiliar looking neighborhoods the colonel pulled over and said, "This is really embarrassing, but I'm afraid that I'm lost."

More dangerous, but shorter

Sunday I managed to escape Islamabad and my entourage for Ayubia National Park, a large forested area in the mountains on the Kashmir Highway. The original plan called for my hosts to take me on a Saturday outing, but then everyone got sick, including me. I had some form of dysentery, which I was able to subdue with my stash of cipro. My minder, Atif, came down with typhoid. (Imagine how shocked you would be if your neighbor came down with typhoid. Here, it's not so uncommon. Nor is polio, which is coming back because the Taliban won't let children in their territories get inoculated. I had to get inoculated for both before I left.)

Just outside of Islamabad the road begins a steep ascent. Tahir, my driver, surprised me by swinging off on a narrow side road, saying only "more dangerous, but shorter". Besides steep drops at the edge of the road and appalling pot holes, the main problem was that it was a one-lane road with two-way traffic, and lots of it. Just outside of the town of Murree cars coming down the road were trying to force their way around a hairpin turn. Uphill traffic was doing the same thing. No one wanted to take turns, everyone wanted to be next around the curve, which was so sharp that it required vehicles to make a three-point U-turn to get around it. Such a maneuver would be hard enough without a car coming in the opposite direction blocking your way. It took us 30 minutes to get around that curve.

This man and his family insisted that I share their last piece of roti with them.

In the next town the road was blocked by a large political rally. I discovered later that people were celebrating a local politician's election. (The line between local politician and feudal lord is very gray.) The street was jammed with trucks carrying chanting men, megaphones were blaring, shots were being fired in the air; I sank into my seat.

Beyond the demonstration we entered a forest. Beautiful brightly-colored umbrellas and kashmir shawls hanging for sale by the side of the road created a tunnel of color. We stopped in Nathia Gali to eat lunch at the base of a waterfall. The restaurants tables were set in the water so that we could cool our feet while we ate.

After lunch we backtracked to the village of Dunga Gali, where Tahir dropped me off at the head of a trail that terminated in the village of Ayubia, where Tahir would be waiting for me with the car. I asked if it was safe. Apparently unsure, Tahir repeated my question to a passing boy. The boy said that the trail was safe, there were cops stationed at intervals along the way. I wanted to know why cops were necessary, but couldn't make my question understood.

The trail was carved into the side of a steep forested mountain. In the distance, when the haze thinned, I could see the snow-capped peaks of the mountains of Kashmir. Monkeys climbed through the trees eating leaves. The Pakistanis who encountered me on the trail were stunned. Each time the same conversation:

"Where from?"
"Welcome, welcome, welcome. Please tell everyone in your country that we are not all terrorists."

Next, they all wanted their picture taken with me. This was a laborious process with larger groups as each member of the group took turns photographing me with the other members of the group and with each camera.

When they found out I was a computer science professor, a group of zoologists from nearby Abbottabad (where Bin Laden was caught) begged me to come to Abbottabad to give a lecture. They would cover all expenses. I felt like a movie star, Richard Gere, or maybe Big Bird.

Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


waterfall restaurantswaterfall restaurants
waterfall restaurants

Lunch is served at tables set in the river.
little hustlerlittle hustler
little hustler

This little girl sold me some earrings. When I asked her how much, she said 50 rupee. Later I found out it was 50 rupee each.
steep slopessteep slopes
steep slopes

Taken on the trail Ayubia

Troops of these monkeys traveled through the forest canopy above me as I walked
View from trailView from trail
View from trail

In the distance, behind the clouds, is Cashmere.
hiding from the sunhiding from the sun
hiding from the sun

I love Pakistani head wear. The ruins behind are the ancient city of Sirkap, built originally by Alexander the Great, then again by Ashok.

Sticker on my ceiling pointing to Mecca

9th June 2014

I always look forward to summer when many of our bloggers take their annual vacations...
and in your case, do academic exchange programs. Reading about your frustrations with setting up the AIOU (only vowel missing is E for Energy and/or Efficiency) online program, I started brainstorming solutions, like hosting the site in Canada as the hosting location with all the servers is irrelevant on the internet. Your observations about life in Pakistan are very insightful. Interestingly, your past blogs have been more humorous, with this being more somber given the circumstances. Stay safe. I look forward to your future blogs.
10th June 2014

Having a nice time
Hi,Jon, Come back home in one peace. All the best
10th June 2014

I really enjoyed the reading. Fantastic trip. I would love to go sometime. Hugs from Argentina.
11th June 2014

Great photo
13th June 2014

"Please tell everyone in your country that we are not all terrorists"
Excellkent blog Jon, one of your best. The difference between perception and reality flows through a lot of this blog. As I have discovered in many destinations with poor safety reputations, they are usually the friendliest and least threatening of places; sure they are some very perilous parts, but they can be easily avoided if you do research. This blog has convinced me more than any other I have read on Pakistan to travel to that country.
14th June 2014

An adventure!
I really enjoyed this post. Pakistan has dropped off our travel radar for safety reasons, but we hope than changes soon. Safe travels...
2nd August 2014

A message to all 21st century people
Dear Mr. Computer science, being a citizen of Pakistan i didn't understand your reason for presenting this black side of the picture. If the reason is directly or indirectly related to the religion of Muslims(Islam) then let me introduce you some 21st century people(60,000/year from all over the world including 20,000 /year from USA alone) who reject this so called version of 21st century and choose to become Muslim and start praying towards the same Qibla which you mentioned in your post. And if your reason for this post was to prove that you are good in pointing out only negativity than let me introduce you some people from Pakistan who can write similar posts about your so called 21st century countries too but they don't do it because they follow some good rules which comes from the religion called Islam.Looking forward to your future posts.

Tot: 0.094s; Tpl: 0.014s; cc: 17; qc: 25; dbt: 0.0455s; 1; m:domysql w:travelblog (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.2mb