Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Conversations from Pakistan

The feedback to my last blog post was overwhelmingly critical.

A close friend slammed the post as overly sensationalist and not representative of life in Karachi. “Unfortunately, much of the local media people have used cheap tactics to gain sympathy and build a reputation for themselves at the expense of the country,” he commented on Facebook. Karachi is not a war zone, millions of people live and work here.”

I wasn’t attempting to be sensationalist while writing my previous post but a critical mass of people felt it was unrepresentative of life in Pakistan. My original intention was to raise questions about our lives in Pakistan and whether we’ve grown too accustomed to the “abnormal” being our “normal”. Since that didn’t quite work out, I’ve decided to dedicate this post to sharing a montage of diverse experiences and conversations from Pakistan over the last 30 days.

The purpose of this montage is to offer an insider’s glimpse into a country that is clearly misunderstood. The purpose of reporting anecdotal news is not to hide the bad news that emanates from Pakistan but to place that news within some context instead of adding to meta-narratives about militancy, illiteracy and poverty in Pakistan.

Young businessmen bullish on Pakistan’s future: An overwhelming number of young Pakistani businessmen I’ve met are excited about business prospects in Pakistan. They point to the market fundamentals: a large young population, a consumption oriented society and an out flux of the business and intellectual elite of the country.

The majority of the 180 million people in this country aren’t going anywhere they argue, no matter how many bombs go off in a day. These people need to be fed, housed and clothed. Those businessmen who stay back in the country will do very well because they’ll be in a position to leverage these market fundamentals to their advantage, with less competition from other businessmen.

F-16 versus Youngsters: I was recently mentoring a group of school children in Muzaffarabad (Capital of Azad Kashmir). The kids, aged 9-12, wanted to play something fun so I taught them how to play hang man.

When I asked them to split into two teams and propose names for their teams; the first team unanimously named themselves “F-16” without even discussing it between themselves. The second team also wanted to be called F-16, but had to settle for another name; “youngsters”. I always thought shiny, unaffordable fighter jets had a constituency within the military only, but I was wrong…

When I asked the children what they wanted to do when they grew up, they said they wanted to become Doctors, Politicians, Scientists, Engineers, Imams and Army men. One encouraging common theme in all their discussions was a well articulated and visible desire to serve their country.

In search of good news from Pakistan: As part of the feedback to my previous blog post, I was advised by many friends to highlight and report good news from Pakistan. There are many significant and insignificant positive stories that can be reported from here. For example, there is a bustling new food street in Karachi doing roaring business, which shows the resilience of Karachi-ites to go out and have a good time despite the lack of security, electricity and water. There is a gleaming new 3-D cinema in Karachi as well, playing to packed audiences.

In more significant positive news, the security establishment is being held accountable for the first time in the country’s history by political leaders like Nawaz Sharif, who are saying the unthinkable out loudly (how much longer will he be allowed to speak up before he's silenced forever?). The media has rightfully made a lot of noise on Saleem Shahzad’s case. And heads have rolled (or atleast been transferred) for the appalling murder of a man in broad day light by the rangers. This is certainly progress and a positive affirmation of the strength of the civil society in the country. After all, that’s how things progress in Pakistan; one step backward, one and a half steps forward!

The decency of the Pakistani people:
While driving into Islamabad airport, the incredibly relaxed security protocol at the entrance forced a friend to comment that our country was surviving only on God’s grace. There used to be a popular saying that Pakistan was surviving only because of three A’s: Allah, America and the Army. The Army and America are struggling to assert their influence on the country right now. God’s grace is continuing to help us survive. But another factor helps keep this country together; the decency of the Pakistani people.

Think about it. We’re a proxy play ground for the great ideological battles of the day. Militant ideology spread & funded by the Arabs is wreaking havoc in our country via suicide & non-suicide bombings. We’re simultaneously fighting a war against these militants, funded by the US, which helps the militants justify their attacks on us.

On top of this, we have all the usual problems of corruption, illiteracy, poverty & lack of basic amenities like electricity. And yet, the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis remain law abiding citizens who try to make an honest living instead of taking up arms or resorting to violence. This is a remarkable testament to the decency of the Pakistani people. 
As my uncle jokingly says; God will arrange a special VIP line for Pakistanis on the Day of Judgment. “You’ve been through enough stress in your lifetime,” God will announce to Pakistanis. “Today, I’ll let you off easy for all your trouble.”

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.