Pakistan, the Surreal – Asia

The mind of the first-time American visitor to Pakistan tends to reel a little.

My Kashmiri, a friend and I play a midnight round of miniature golf under a full moon. Then we share a hookah in this middle-class playground in Lahore, the country’s second biggest city.

Pakistan – the surreal
I study the deep and wide fissures in the rooms still standing of my friend’s sister’s house in Muzaffarabad, 14 months after the earthquake killed as many as 80,000 people and left 3.5 million homeless. Many in this city, the capital of Azad Kashmir, were among the dead and injured. (Azad Kashmir is the semi-autonomous part of Kashmir that lies in Pakistan.)

I look into the face of the still grieving mother for her 23-year-old daughter who perished in the quake. Almost everyone lost someone. This young man lost his wife and child. This man, his father. This one, his brother. But this little girl, my friend’s niece, was pulled from the rubble of her school by her uncles; unhurt, three hours after the quake flattened it.

Pakistan – all too real
At times the place seems hallucinatory, especially on the main streets of the big cities. The din is exuberant, unrelenting, deafening. The tide is relentless. Tiny auto rickshaws and scooters bear whole families. Open-sided minibuses glow like lanterns at night. Big buses carry people pasted to their sides. Wood-sided trucks lumber. Almost every vehicle is a hand-painted kaleidoscope; a riotous display of flora, fauna, saints, demons, creation. Forget traffic lanes.

In contrast, Islamabad, the capital, seems too orderly. It’s a planned city, constructed in the 1960s, and designed by a Greek urban planner to have broad avenues linking color-coded zones, each with its own commercial center. One of Asia’s largest mosques, the four-minaret white Shah Faisal Masjid, dominates the city to the north.

The lovely Shakar Parian (Sugar Steps) park overlooks the city. Its Lok Virsa (the People’s Place) showcases Pakistan’s ethnic quilt of Pashtuns, Baluchis, Kashmiris, Punjabis and Sinds. (The quilt is fraying in the Tribal Territories on the Afghan border, where Pashtun tribes are largely left to run their own affairs, and in Baluchistan, where secession threatens.)

Islamabad was built next to the ancient city of Rawalpindi. “Pindi” is very unplanned, except for the cantonment, where the British had their homes, cricket grounds, officers mess, polo grounds and barracks. Well-off Pakistanis live there now.

The good life?
The rich and the growing middle class must be the target of giant billboards showing happy people enjoying hip clothes, luxury homes, Japanese cars, refreshing beverages. Cable TV ads (you watch the U.S. election results on CNN, Fox News and Al Jazeera) portray the same perfect world our ads do. This country must be doing great, you think. But then you read in one English-language daily that the poverty rate is down from 37 percent to 27 percent.

You read about outbreaks of dengue fever in the major cities. You read that dozens of people who drank illegal moonshine have died, poisoned. And that buses seem to be crashing all over the country.

Maybe, you think, it’s better not to read the papers, especially on the day when a madrassa (religious school) near the Afghan border – a terrorist training place, in fact, says the government is blown up by a Pakistani gunship, with the connivance, or at the behest of the Americans, most people seem to think. And who can prove it not so? You learn to avoid “politics". Too much anger. Too much thinking the worse (for example, that our own CIA caused 9/11 to happen).

Your visa is issued by the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. So you are surprised to see the big Anglican cathedral in Lahore, built by the British, as well as the “I am the way” Jesus decal on the windshield of one rickshaw; the driver, a Christian who feels no need to conceal the fact. In truth, there are many Pakistani Christians. Lahore, which centuries ago was a Sikh capital, still has one of the major pilgrimage sites of the Sikh religion, the tomb of Ranjit Singh. While we are in Lahore, thousands of Sikh pilgrims cross the border from India and are warmly received. Traditional Islamic tolerance of other religions prevails, it seems.

Fundamentalists are growing in strength, though. A current proposed change in the rape law is a hot issue. The current law, based on the Islamic code of law, the Sharia, requires a woman to produce four male witnesses to the rape. The new law would place rape within the country’s criminal code, and drop the death penalty for sex outside marriage. An Islamabad protest rally the other day brought hundreds of veiled woman into the street. As supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamist organization, the women want the law to remain unchanged.

A Big Tent
Pakistan is being pulled in many different directions, by forces within and outside the country – modernizing forces, conservative forces – leaned on heavily by the U.S. Trying to remain loyal to its Islamic roots, its president, Pervez Musharraf, walks a minefield.

The country had one of its finest, most unified hours, though, when the earthquake struck on October 8, 2005. Many spontaneously poured in from all over the country to help any way they could. They found a people without self-pity and refusing any contemptuous sorrow. Just give us shelter. Help us rebuild. But more than one year later, thousands still live in tent cities in Muzaffarabad and in more remote areas. The coming winter promises to be harsher than the last, they say. To be fair, the disaster was so overwhelming that even the combined efforts of citizen volunteers, foreign governments, global non-governmental agencies, the Pakistani army and several Islamic charities have fallen short.

I am invited to peer inside the large tents where my friend’s relations are still living; on the site of their destroyed home where their father died. Huge old beds, carpets and pillows fill the homey tents. You almost wish you could live in one, inside a close family helping each other through.

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