Friday, June 3, 2011

Between appearances and reality: Life in the most dangerous country on earth?

After spending a year in New York, returning to Pakistan has been a pleasant experience that exceeded all my expectations. The only thing that threw me off this week was a near death experience that brought the country’s security situation sharply back into focus.

After a year of reading bad news about Pakistan from a distance (frequent suicide bombings, OBL’s hide out, Raymond Davis, attack on PNS Mehran), I was itching to find out for myself how much the country’s security situation had worsened on the ground (as opposed to perceptions from a distance).

Before I share my thoughts on the security situation in Pakistan and my near death experience today, I can’t help but recalling a funny and relevant conversation with a cab driver in California, who was dropping me to Disney Land. My cab driver was a folksy middle aged man with a long white beard.

“Where are you from?” he asked innocently with a thick country accent.

“I’m visiting from New York,” I answered, not wanting to reveal that I’m originally from Pakistan to avoid the usual list of questions about security and life in Pakistan.

“Oh… New York,” he said. “I’m afraid of going to New York because it’s not safe. I hear there are lots of muggers outside Central Park.”

“Yeah… it’s bad but not as bad as they say it is,” I replied with a smile, thanking God that I didn’t tell him I was from Pakistan. If he felt New York was unsafe, Karachi would have freaked him out even more. And I didn’t want that discussion to get in the way of my uncontained excitement about visiting Disney Land for the first time in my life.

Later, as I boarded my return flight to Karachi from JFK, I told myself the same thing about Pakistan’s security situation for re-assurance: “it’s bad but not as bad as they say it is.”

I was excited about coming home. But my operating principle was to arrive with low expectations so I’d be pleasantly surprised when my expectations were exceeded.

For example, I expected there to be no electricity at home when I arrived because of power shortages. But I was pleasantly surprised when I had electricity and power shortages in my neighborhood were not as bad as I had expected (my friends warn me not to say this out loudly, lest our area gets jinxed - fingers crossed).

The security situation in my area has actually improved because of a new security check point in my neighborhood. Petty & serious crime has come down (in my neighborhood). This was great news I thought. Things are much better than I had expected.

And then reality hit me far quicker than I had expected.

Karachi’s security situation took a turn for the worse today. I was driving home and crossing a bridge over a neighborhood that is susceptible to ethnic violence.

As I ascended on the bridge, I could see a fire and smoke in the distance. But there were cars behind me and in front of me. So I kept moving.

A few seconds later, I realized there were tires burning in the middle of the bridge but no immediate indication of violence. That’s not too bad I thought. There was enough space for my small car to cross.

And then suddenly out of nowhere, a speeding caravan of rangers came racing up the bridge, driving full speed on the wrong way. The rangers came to a screeching halt 20 feet from my car. I heard four loud outbursts of gun fire.

At that moment, it was my turn to cross the burning tires.

My first emotion was confusion. Usually when you encounter such scenes (mostly in movies), there is music to cue you to duck your head or keep driving.  But there was no music playing in the background. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do because I couldn't identify which direction the shots were coming from.

I tried to make eye contact with the rangers to ask if I should keep driving ahead of the burning tires. But they were too busy trying to take their positions on the bridge.

If the rangers were going to engage with gun fire from the neighborhood below, I felt it was best to keep moving instead of being so close to them. So I kept moving.

Once I crossed the burning tires, I could see traffic was moving normally at the other end of the bridge. Fortunately, the rest of the ride home wasn't so eventful.

I’m not sure if this qualifies as a near death experience because amidst all the confusion, I didn’t trigger what should be an intrinsic reaction to say a prayer when I was actually unsafe for a brief few seconds.

In any case, the reason I’m sharing this incident is so that Karachi people take precautions when driving today and over the weekend.

Stay safe Karachi. Stay safe Pakistan.

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