Κυριακή, 6 Ιουνίου 2010
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"Pakistan and The Power of Prejudice against Muslim countries"
Any regular news reader who does a brainstorming on “Pakistan” would most likely come up with suicide bombs, Al Qaeda, terrorists, danger, violence. There is almost an imminent threat in the name “Pakistan” - for all that we know.
When I told my friends I was going to Pakistan, the reaction was the same almost everywhere. “You are going to Pakistan?? Are you crazy?” I am not by nature a fearful person, and I believe when your time has come to die, you will die, whether in a car accident or by a flower pot falling on your head at your doorstep. But these reactions were slightly unsettling, and they started to make me think. Maybe I should reconsider my trip? Was I unnecessarily putting my life in danger?
My German friend Michaela had moved to Islamabad two months ago, as her husband, a German ethnologist, had started working with an NGO there. She had invited me to visit. It encouraged me that Michaela, with her three-year old daughter and eight months pregnant with her second child, was going to live there for a couple of years. Then it could not be so bad after all. Travel advice on the website of the Foreign Commonwealth Office, however, did not make it sound too inviting. “All travels to Pakistan should be avoided”, hotels are subject to attacks, crowded places should be avoided, keep a low profile, vary your route if you go somewhere regularly, foreigners get kidnapped, and a long listing of suicide bomb attacks followed. What a dangerous, threatening place. The idea to go there seemed absurd.
Well, in spite of all that, I did not feel as if my time to die had come, and I really wanted to see my friend. So I decided not to think about it any more, and go anyway.
I am an ethnologist and have traveled in Asia before. But Muslim countries are still a different story, or so I thought. Of course I had a million questions for Michaela. What should I wear? Was there something I should do or absolutely avoid doing? Whom should I speak to or not speak to? Would the taxi from the airport kidnap me? Would they rob me or totally overcharge me?
After I had gotten precise instructions on how to get a registered metro cab from the airport upon my arrival in Islamabad at 2:40am, having packed the little I had that would be appropriate dress, I was on my way. On the bus to the airport in Athens I felt a little nervous. Oh well, I thought, if I am meant to die, then I am meant to die.
Getting on the plane in Qatar to Islamabad, the airplane was full of Pakistanis. A chubby Pakistani sat down next to me and greeted me with a friendly smile. I barely looked at him as I mumbled a greeting back, and the whole time on the plane I sat curled up in the farthest corner of my seat. The airplane wheels finally touched the ground in Islamabad. Flight over without bomb attack! A couple of Pakistani women next to me on the way out were delighted that I was going to stay in Islamabad, “It is beautiful to live in Islamabad - it is like a Western city!” Another Pakistani cheered out to me, “Pakistan is a natural beauty!” The positivity of people's reactions to me reassured me a little.
Having passed through customs, I hurried to the metro stand and booked a metro cab, following the instructions Michaela had given me. A shy man came up to me, took my luggage and politely directed me to the metro cab, a run-down car whose motor chugged helplessly when the driver tried to start it. After a few attempts, it actually came on.
We drove through the middle of the night, past at least five security controls with policemen on the road. Every time, the cab driver switched the light on in the back of the car and apologized, “Sorry for the inconvenience.” After about a thirty-minute ride, we reached our destination, and what I found during the course of my entire stay was much to my surprise. All major preconceptions we have about the Muslim world were challenged – Islamic fundamentalism, hostility towards foreigners and the Western world, women as victims, and last but not least the traveling phenomenon of ripping off tourists from wealthier countries who are not familiar with prices and customs. What is more, my insights into work in development aid were equally revealing.
Islamabad, a city about 50 years old, built for administrative purposes, is organized, clean, very green, with wide roads, and indeed much like a Western city. Women all wear the traditional kurtas; some of them cover hair and face, many of them do not. The supermarket had everything from German pampers to Greek olive oil. The fundamentalist Taliban are in fact a very small political party, terrorizing Pakistan's population in order to gain power. Suicide bombers are usually teenagers and oftentimes even children who are taken by force from their homes by the Taliban and are then trained and brainwashed in their camps.
The few foreigners in Islamabad are working as diplomats or in NGOs. They all live in spacious houses with gardens and servants. My friends, who had always lived down to earth and without luxury, were about to move in a two-story house with air-conditioning in every room, generator, air-filter, high-tech kitchen, a fridge that covered half a wall, an electric barbecue with party equipment for 50 people, garden, roofed veranda, three servants, and servants' quarters. It is easy to make a considerable amount of money working in development aid in a country like Pakistan, along with being equipped with all imaginable comfort at the NGO's expenses. Some foreign workers stay there for decades, implementing knitting courses - it seems rather easily done to repeat a project for a number of years without anybody really checking. In a project where seven schools were supposedly built, the control team was led to a fully equipped school. Overnight, the entire equipment was moved to the next one they presented, and thus seven schools were presented while there actually was only one. Needless to say where the funding went.
All Pakistanis I encountered were kind, warm, welcoming, polite, very hospitable and helpful and often went out of their way to be of service. As I was shopping - in an area forbidden to Americans by the American embassy due to danger of attacks - I was invited by the shop manager, a self-confident young lady who had done her MBA in Islamabad, to visit her at her home. At another occasion, my generous hosts at an abundant, delicious Pakistani dinner were former members of Parliament (with dinner conversation about the botox of Parliament members!). On my way home in their driver's car which they had insisted I take instead of a taxi, I had forgotten the exact address of where I stayed. I was very embarrassed, but the kind and patient driver circled every corner at 2:00am without a sign of annoyance until he finally and joyfully delivered me safe with an honestly happy smile on his face.
Anywhere I went, I was treated with kindness, warmth, and respect. Visiting some places in Islamabad, I was surprised to find that the current exhibition at the PNCA, the National Art Gallery, was in honor of International Women's day, with works by female Pakistani artists; the role of women in Pakistan was a prominent theme in their paintings. On leaving the huge, beautiful building that hosted at least five excellent exhibitions, the personnel not only woke the nearest taxi driver for me from his afternoon nap, but also bargained the price for me, about to wave him off when he was too expensive. At Lok Virsa, the local heritage museum, where tourists are charged 6 times the price of locals – still at an equivalent of about 2 Euros - the man behind the counter ended up letting me in for free when I explained I had not taken enough cash. The last room of the museum presented a vision of the future Pakistan – with men and women equal. A tablet listed the improvements of women's rights over the last decades.
At the cultural center “Kuch Khaas”, a series of documentaries were shown dealing with various social problems like the status of women in traffic, acid attacks, the spread of AIDS in marriages, human trafficking, etc. The filmmaker, a very modern, independent and self-confident, beautiful woman in her thirties, was present among a crowd of about fifty people, mostly Pakistanis, but also some foreigners. What particularly impressed me in her documentaries were women who insisted in being called “survivors” rather than “victims”; they felt they had passed their ordeal with “flying colors” (words of a survivor of an acid attack who had half of her face disfigured), and were determined to help others do the same.
I was not actually going to visit a mosque after what I had read in the internet – thinking of bomb attacks at mosques and Islamic fundamentalism - , but felt more comfortable after a couple of days. After my taxi driver to the Faisal Mosque had assured himself that I liked music, he proudly presented some happy Bollywood songs for me from Hindi (!?) movies in his blasting car stereo, delighted at my appraisal.
The Faisal Mosque, a majestic building and the largest mosque in South Asia, accommodating 300,000 worshippers, was surrounded by swarming crowds of believers. I approached it very carefully as I did not see a trace of a foreigner anywhere (during my whole week in Islamabad, I had spotted about 5 foreigners in total on the roads). With my hair covered by the shawl of my Pakistani dress, I slowly entered the mosque, trying to be as invisible as possible. I have never seen any building that suggested eternity and magnificence with its architecture as much as the Faisal Mosque. I walked around in awe. Some visitors wanted to take pictures with me, giggling joyfully when I agreed. At the shoe counter, people refused to take money from me in spite of the sign stating charges. In the bathrooms, the cleaning lady personally led me to the cleanest one. Rather than being rejected as a foreigner, I was honestly welcomed everywhere.
I do not mean to downplay problems, or see dire straits whitewashed in a rosy light. But I do mean to offer an alternative glimpse on a world that we have grown accustomed to see very simplified and generalized under certain headlines in the paper. When I thanked the hotel manager and told him my impressions, he had tears in his eyes. When I do a brainstorming on Pakistan now, I am thinking of smiling, friendly people who have completely turned around my preconceptions of what I thought to be a hostile Muslim country.