Mr. Michael Champion visited Pakistan in 2010, for 3 months to assess the requirements of Health Centre. Below are few pages of his diary.
The journey has been a long one and I am one of perhaps three or four white people on the flight to Islamabad, it was delayed an hour because PIA missed the take-off slot. Mostly the passengers speak in Urdu and wear traditional Pakistani clothing, some wear Western attire and I am the only passenger in a tweed jacket and chinos. The only two entertaining parts of the flight are when I accidently eat an entire chilly during dinner and have to surreptitiously poke my mouth into a yoghurt for two minutes; and when a passenger’s overhead luggage starts leaking and showers him with water. Islamabad airport could do a lot better, it is ugly, tired and run-down. Urdu script is everywhere but I am able to read most of the signs and adverts which tend to be in English. There are many guards here, they are armed with AK-47s and pump action shotguns. I feel excited and relieved the flight is over, finally I am here! ; I am met at the Arrivals lounge by a man with a sign for “Mr Michel” and I guess correctly it is for me. We take a shuttle bus to the Rawal Lounge which seems to be the VIP section of Islamabad airport. I am asked to sit down in a leather armchair as my greeter takes my passport and, after a brief conversation with security, ushers me through without even looking at the photograph in the passport. I wait for my bags for two hours and begin to curse that I have not taken out travel insurance but they eventually arrive.
As I walk towards my car I am greeted by a small man with angular facial features and a wide smile which exposes gappy teeth. He introduces himself as Waheed Gilani and is to be my guide whilst I conduct my work here. Waheed speaks good English and we make small talk whilst Nadeem’s driver, Sabar, taxis us to the Shah family home in Bani Galla. Nadeem is the chairman of the AHS Foundation and will be here during my first week. Waheed, who wears western attire, strikes me as a very friendly man, he is in his mid-forties and tells me there will be plenty of work this next few months. It is 27C and I realise why I am the only passenger wearing a tweed jacket and tie. En route I see several buses and lorries which are decorated in an outrageous fashion. Around the wheel arches and bumpers are dozens of dangling silver medallions. They have multi coloured wind mills on the engine grill which whizz round, horns and tassels. They are painted elaborately in greens, reds, oranges, yellows and have poetry and pictures emblazoned on ever spare panel. Waheed explains these are commonplace, that almost every lorry, truck, bus and van is decorated in this traditional style. At this moment I feel I am a long way from home, but the outlook is positive.
After forty minutes drive we arrive at base camp in Islamabad. I follow Waheed to the dining room for breakfast with Nadeem who is in good spirit and I am thankful to see a familiar face. Another guest at the house greets us, his name is Kabir Sabar, he is a senior banker with RBS. He strikes me as a very impressive man and tells me that he is organising various visits and people for me to meet in Pakistan, I am thankful for his hospitality. He later tells me more of his extensive involvement in British politics and that he has stood for Parliament in England. I have run out of cigarettes at this point, Nadeem has gone into town, so I ask Waheed to show me the direction to the shops. He says he will walk with me.
We eventually walk out the drive of the house in Bani Galla and take a dusty track through some fields. Several skinny cows block the path but move when we approach and the sun beats down from above. The local village shops strike me as being quite run down. They are terraced concrete boxes, litter and dust borders the roadside and many locals, all dressed in traditional clothing, stare at me in my Western garb. I buy 60 cigarettes for the equivalent of ?2.20 and am very pleased. Later in the day Nadeem returns with a friend, Zulfiqar, who is in the steel trade and hydro electric plants. He is amiable and promises to see more of me during my stay; he will help whenever he can with the work I am doing. Its dinner time and Nadeem and I are driven to his friend’s house. We meet Dr Farooq Beg, his wife Huma and her father Murtaza. Farooq and Huma are successful documentary makers, have produced films and programmes the world over, including for the BBC, and has won awards at Cannes. Huma is also a famous presenter in Pakistan; in fact as we sit and wait for them in the drawing room we can hear her on the television. Her father is the former Minister for Defence Procurement, he studied at the Woolwich Arsenal and is a great admirer of the British Navy. I tell him about the Champion family history during the Indian Mutiny, the VC that was won, and although he finds it of interest I am reminded that in this part of the world it is known not as a mutiny but as the Great Sorrow. Farooq, Nadeem and I go out for dinner in a Western restaurant and afterwards go to a place where “young Pakistanis hang out”, it’s called the Hot Spot. This is an American Diner, the walls are adorned with Western flags and Americana, they serve burgers and ice creams and if it had not been frequented by people with beards and Pakistani clothing, it could have been a burger bar back home.
I am woken up by Waheed, my guide, at 6am and get up for breakfast. Today Nadeem and I will be travelling to the Indian border city of Lahore. Nadeem tells me the British were very proud of Lahore and they produced in the city the world’s largest network of canals. Apparently, the journey to Lahore takes three hours, but because we are taking the toll road (called the M1) there is little to no traffic and I have to say the road is as good as any English one. Half way we stop at a service station. They are quite dissimilar to the UK ones, firstly they resemble a 1970s-housing estate row of shops; concrete, unsophisticated signage etc. However, there are also a few stalls littered around; people who stop here tend to be more wealthy because the toll road is considered expensive. It is dusty, the sun is overhead and the temperature is almost 30C, there are no clouds. Nadeem and I sit down at a plastic table to order food, there are many, many flies. All of the shop keepers here are in traditional Pakistani clothing (called sharwal kameez). All people working are male and almost all have a beard of some design and are wearing a hat (called Topi). One of the shop keepers asks Nadeem, in Urdu, if I am a Muslim. I don’t need the translation because he’s been staring at me for two minutes and I hear the word “Muslim”. Staring is not uncommon here, I have a beard and my skin colour is similar to Pushtoun Pakistanis – many people have commented if it weren’t for my clothes I would look exactly as if I had come from the North West Frontier or Baluchistan. I go to the toilet and although it looks like a standard gents bog, the smell is unbearable, and there is a forboding sound of drip drip dripping echoing around the place. I hold my breath. I then convince myself that the food I have just eaten is definately going to make me ill and I remember the dirty, stained napkin they provided.
As we leave I notice an elderly white woman, she is dressed in all white robes with a scarf and has a large necklace with a wooden cross about three inches in length. Nadeem thinks she must be a missionary or a nun; Pakistan’s population is 1.6% Christian, almost three million people, and the white part of the Pakistani flag represents the non-Muslim population and the role they have to play in the country. Green is a traditional colour of Islam. Like Islamabad, Lahore has many road blocks. A typical road block in Pakistan will involve the following: We drive up and slow down to a bottle neck. There is a concrete wall about three feet high, or a steel barrier. There are about a dozen armed police, mainly with shot guns, sometimes they have AK-47s and now and again they have what look like Heckler and Koch MP5s. The busier roads have sandbag bunkers with army personnel wearing helmets and carrying assault rifles. A policeman with a holstered pistol will look into the car at the passengers, more often than not they wave you through, and sometimes they ask you a question or two about what you’re doing and where you’re going. You chicane past two more barriers and continue on your way. Pakistan is on high security alert.
There are some sriking differences between Lahore and Islamabad. Lahore is what most Westerners imagine a city in the Indian subcontinent to be like: cars sharing a three laned road five abreast, cattle on the roadside, tens of thousands of people squashed onto the pavement, spilling into the road, men wash themselves in the canals, and there is a repetitious sounding of car horns in the air. Beggars with children or heinous injuries have mastered, totally mastered, the art of pulling a face which in turn pulls at your heart strings. They knock at the car window when you stop at the traffic lights. You do your best to ignore them.
Unlike Lahore, Islamabad is modern (conceived in the late 1960s), is an organised grid system of roads like Manhattan or Washington. Rickshaws and cattle are banned from the town centre, and it is far cleaner. Despite this, at the moment I prefer Lahore, I prefer it because it is what I imagined Pakistan would be like. It offers no surprises and I am comfortable with this. We pull into the Pearl Continental 5-star hotel. There is a 10ft wall surrounding the perimeter of the hotel and rolls of barbed wire crest the top. Hundreds of concrete bollards are lined evenly infront of the wall to stop cars ramming through. The front gate has many police, all armed. They stop us, check inside the bonnet and boot of the car for bombs and wheel a mirror around all sides of the car to check the underneath. We are waved through.
Nadeem and I then go through airport style security scanners and go into the lobby of what is a very fine hotel. This is where most of the upper and business classes meet, there are white businessmen too and Pakistanis often wear suits. If one sees a Pakistani in sharwal kameez, they are well pressed and trimmed with gold thread or diamond cufflinks. Nadeem conducts business, and we drive on to see a solicitor friend of his. Some solicitors in the UK own their own practice and so does Umar Mahmud Kasuri, but few own their own tower. Kasuri and Associates is based on the ground floor of Kasuri Tower. Actually its no more than eight stories high but its in the city centre and Umar, I am told, is one of Lahore’s top legal practitioners and corporate and tax consultants. We then visit the house Nadeem is securing for his friend, he takes the keys from a housekeeper who sleeps outside the front door on a mattress and we leave again for the Pearl Continental. It takes three hours to return to Islamabad, the roadblocks are more thorough at night and the police shine torches into the car. After seven hours in the car I am ready for bed. It is midnight and tomorrow I leave early for a fourteen hour round trip to Noon Bagla!
I am woken up at 6am again by Waheed. I close my eyes and a second later it is 7.12am, so I have delayed everyone by thirty minutes and I don’t have time to have a proper wash or carefully choose what I will wear. We are driving to Noon Bagla today so I wear my new hiking boots, brown combat trousers and a black t-shirt. I do not wear my Tilley Hat, Nadeem says it marks me out as a Westerner, but I think he’s actually embarrassed to be seen with me in it!
En route to Noon Bagla we will have to stop at or pass through Muzaffarabad (Kashmir’s capital city) and Murree which is a hill top town bordering Kashmir. I am told that many old British families live in Murree, though still a minority, they are descendants of the Empire. The journey to Muzaffarabad will take three and a half hours, and it can take a similar time to Noon Bagla. We drive in convoy with two other people who we meet in Islamabad, they are: Zulfiqar Abbasi (whom I met day 1) and his wife Zakia. Zulfiqar is the President of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce, but much more importantly he is the President of the Kashmir Cricket Board! The further we are from Islamabad, the higher the ground we ascend. Kashmir is the foothills of the Himalayas. The roads begin to snake and wind up green mountains peppered with fir trees.
I have not been to Switzerland or Austria but I am told it is supposed to be similar to the alpine scenery there, but on a much larger scale. We get into Murree, it is a town centre very much like the other 1970s council estate concretia I have seen. But the roads are narrow and dusty and the shops are a metre either side of you. People walk in front of the cars, cattle roam freely and when people see me through the window they often double take. Everyone here wears sharwal kameez. The view here is impressive, it is a town built on the summit of a small mountain and when you take in the view, you can see dozens of other mountains littered with villages which sit perilously next to sheer drops and cliff faces. The roads we travel are still snaking against a mountain range, cliff face on one side, sheer drop on the other. The roads in Kashmir are noticeably worse than the ones on the way to the border; this was the epicentre of the 2005 earthquake and Waheed, who journeys with us, points out that their is flood damage too. There are tell-tale scars and signs of disaster en route to Muzaffarabad. Football-sized rocks often litter parts of the road, having fallen from the cliff face. There are many pot holes and large cracks in the asphalt which has not been newly resurfaced. Occasionally roadside about half a metre wide and two metres long has disappeared into the chasm. There are various signs which report the work of a charity, e.g. “Islamic Relief Leicester UK Branch…” Waheed says the roads were totally destroyed after the main Earthquake, he had to walk from Muzaffarabad for days to find his family’s home which had collapsed and killed his father.
Nadeem, says he was there too, only a couple of days after the earthquake: he helped a woman bury her own children; saw the earth open up and take people and houses into its mouth, only to be slammed shut again burying them alive; he said for days afterwards the mountains still shook. We stop at the Pearl Continental hotel in Muzaffarbad, very tidy place and clean. Again shotgun and AK-47-weilding police check our cars before we park up. Nadeem, Zulfiqar, Zakia and I go for lunch, the driver and Waheed wait outside. The view from the restaurant is panoramic and magnificent. All of the main landmarks in this dirty and very damaged city can be seen. There are dozens of pink buildings, these were all built by the Turkish who contributed very significantly to the relief work. I can also see the Mazaffarabad cricket stadium. Its no Trent Bridge but its the perfect talking point for Zulfiqar and me: “I’m actually the founder of the Carlton Club Cricket Club Zulfiqar…” ten minutes later I have an invitation from the President of the Kashmir Cricket Board for the CCCC to visit, play two matches, meet several dignitaries and tour Kashmir. All food and driving and security will be provided. We just need to pay for flights and accommodation. I’ll put it to our Secretary and see what he has to say!
Now we are travelling to Noon Bagla and this is the main reason I am in Pakistan; to work in the Basic Health Unit which the AHS Foundation have just built there. But I won’t be staying in Noon Bagla for long, today’s visit is so Nadeem can check the building and negotiate the sale of further land from the tribal elders for further developmental work. It is the first time I will see the village. The road to Noon Bagla no longer warrants the accolade “road”, it is a collection of uneven rocks and dust. We have not stopped ascending since Murree, three hours ago. The views are the most spectacular and breathtaking I have ever seen. But the road is getting narrower and narrower and soon we are inches away from sheer drops of what I’d estimate to be 600 meters. I silently pray that no vehicle comes the other way, there are very few passing points.
Our arrival into Noon Bagla village receives attention. Village elders, by that I mean men over the age of fifty with beards, missing teeth, weathered faces and local clothing and hats, arrive and come to the medical centre to greet us. No sooner than I alight the car, I am saying my salams (Asalam-u-alaikum, or “God be with you” in English) to about ten of these men. These are the people I will be living with for the next several weeks; I could not look more different! At this point I realise, if I am going to fit in in Noon Bagla I have no choice but to pull my socks up and learn Urdu to a more proficient standard, and buy a few sets of my own sharwal kameez and ‘go native’ The BHU is of very good standard, and easily the best building in the village. The facilities inside are of working order and are shiny and new. Many of the pre-earthquake houses are propped up with timber shafts, the outside walls badly damaged by the quake. Cracks are visible and several houses are abandoned.
Kabir has organised this day for me and he has an exciting schedule of government MNAs and Ministers lined up in the Pakistani National Assembly buildings in Islamabad. We are both picked up by Mubashir, an assistant and cousin to the Deputy Speaker, and a Bhutan. This means he is white with green eyes, his hair is light brown but he has noticeable blonde hairs in his moustache and beard. He comments that if I wore shalwar kameez and a Chitrali Topi I would be indistinguishable from them. Mubashir’s driver takes us to the National Assembly buildings, en route the police presence is overbearing and on every corner. Mubashir opens the sun roof and puts a blue police light above. Every junction of the roads surrounding the parliament buildings are, as you would expect, blocked by both the military and police. There are barbed wire blockades and patrols of armed soldiers. Bunkers are built in to the sides of the roads with helmeted soldiers carrying assault rifles. After being stopped twice and questioned, Mubashir gives directions for us to pull into a subterranean car park. A guard in military attire and peaked hat salutes us and we follow him into the National Assembly building from underground.
The complex is vast, the decor is twenty years old and a little scruffy, we go into a lift, go up a floor or two and head straight into the Deputy Speaker’s waiting room. The anti rooms are packed with aides, we pass them and then bypass twenty or thirty constituents and we go straight into his main office. Mubashir explains that the Deputy Speaker is running late, is still in session, and suggests we go to watch him from the VIP gallery. We agree. At all times we have a security escort, but I believe it is more to ensure we don’t get lost, and that we don’t go where we shouldn’t. We enter the VIP entrance, a guard protests we havn’t any papers to allow us here, our guard tells him off and we sit down. These are the best seats in the house. The assembly room is large and circular. The National Assembly members sit on the ground floor and the Senators (our House of Lords) sit on a gallery above them. There is a beautiful gold circular centerpiece elevated from the ceiling with Arabic script from the Qur’an. Only ten meters away is the charismatic Leader of the Opposition Nisar Ali Khan. He stands and shouts, waves his hand in the air and shouts more. He accuses the Prime Minster and members of the ruling PPP of corruption. He says Transparency International has proved the PPP are corrupt, they reply in turn that Transparency International itself is corrupt!
The proceedings of the house are done in English, the Deputy Speaker is in the chair, his name is Faisal Karim Kundi and he is friends with Kabir. Some MNAs will speak entirely in Urdu, others will speak entirely in English, others will mix and match. The Prime Minister walks in casually and people walk over and shake his hand, so does the Leader of the Opposition. MNAs don’t shout “Yeah Yeah Yeah” like in the UK, they clap the table top if they agree with something. Kabir says they’ve tried to copy the Commons but its gone horribly wrong. It is also far more animated than the Commons, one MNA was shouting with rage that he was being disallowed to speak to his amendment to a bill, and I am informed that fights have been known to break out on the floor here. Even so, the Assembly is poorly attended and only a quarter full, these MNAs apparently have more holidays than sessions. We get bored and I am delighted that I can smoke in the corridors of power. It is suggested we wait in the actual Speaker’s office (she is on holiday) and we agree. Expecting it to be full we both find ourselves alone in an Office of State. A large mahogany desk is at one end of the room, two Pakistan flags are either side of the Speakers green leather chair. Above her chair, for everyone to see, is a large portrait of Jinnah. One item of particular interest is the actual letter of resignation from General Musharraf, it is even signed by him. I speculate how much it is worth as I have collected autographs in the past. We get bored of waiting and are informed that the Dep Speaker is still running late, so we go for lunch. A guide escorts us to the dining room reserved only for MNAs. Unfortunately it resembles a leisure centre canteen. We do actually get to meet Faisal Karim Kundi, but he only has time to have his picture taken with us, which will go on his website. However it was pleasant to sit in with him and see how he dealt with eight constituents at a time.
We leave and take the Dep Speaker’s bullet proof car to Kashmir House, this is where the Kashmir Government Ministers have their apartments. It is still in Islamabad of course. This building is less grand than all the other Pakistan governmental buildings (all of which are quite plain, modern, concrete and monolithic), we are escorted in by a man with an AK-47 and led to Mehmood Riaz’s apartment, the Minister for Overseas, Information and Environment. Apparently the Minister is also a British citizen and lived in Slough for several years. His wife and children are still there and he visits them on holiday. Mr Riaz, who is an amiable and polite man, tells us that he, himself, narrowly avoided a bomb which blasted 30ft from his car only this month in Islamabad. He has a very influential voice in determining which way Kashmiris vote in Britain, and his electorate is actually made up of several hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris who live in Britain and have a vote from abroad. Our final outing of the day is dinner at Wazir Ahmad Jogezai’s house. He is the former Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, and a PPP (Pakistani People’s Party) member. He was a MNA for thirty years.
En route we pick up Nadeem. Jogezai must be about seventy, is rotund and a real character. He has several friends at his lounge table and they are smoking cigarettes and cigars. The conversation is good, amongst the group are a quiet and sober young man who is to soon present a current affairs and political show on Pakistani television, and Ali Qadir Gilani, the impressive Group Director of Interflow Group – a media group which own cinemas, news channels and radio stations. Wazir, our host, provides us with a delicious spread of local food and by the end of the night, he tells me I can be counted as a member of his family and visit whenever I please.
Kabir says he will take me to the grandest mosque in Islamabad, if not Pakistan. It was built by the Saudis and is called the Faisal Mosque. As it is Friday prayers I expect that it will be quite busy and I look forward to seeing this important site. When we arrive I notice the mosque (masjid in Urdu) is a contemporary-looking building and I recall that this is always likely to be the case; Islamabad is a city only about forty years old. Four white concrete minarets dominate the skyline and erupt from the four corners of the building. Frankly I am a little disappointed in the architecture; this is not my sort of design. The most impressive mosque I have seen is the Muhammad Ali mosque in Cairo, and although this is a similar size, the Faisal masjid impresses by the virtues of practicality and scale rather than the aesthetic. I make a comparison with the practical and uninspiring churches in the UK built in the 1960s and 1970s to their architectural predecessors which attract people worldwide if only to look at their beautiful craftsmanship. The mosque can apparently accommodate 300,000 people praying at once, but this would mean two thirds would be outside the main hall and praying in the open air. We take our shoes off and walk round the grounds, the Margalla hills dominate one half of the skyline and add to the aesthetics of the holy site quite considerably; the hills are breathtaking and impress against the mosque like a towering wave about to break over it. The interior of the mosque is modern and there are a dozen wooden cases all holding beautiful hand-painted Qur’ans almost a meter in length.
For Friday prayers, the main prayer room is only a quarter full, previously I had assumed that in Pakistan all mosques would be over spilling in attendance, this is not the case. It was not the hills, the minarets, nor the scale of the masjid which had its the most striking impact on me. It was the sermon. I had previously read the Prophet Mohammad advised against shouting and encouraged his followers to speak gently and kindly. The Urdu lecture, which was amplified by a series of hundreds of speakers in all corners and areas of the mosque was delivered by quite an invigorated, passionate Imam. The tone and intonation was similar to a rallying speech delivered by a generalissimo. What may have sounded rousing and inspiring to the native ear, was actually quite aggressive and frightful to mine. I was later assured that the Imams at the Faisal mosque are quite moderate.
We then visit the tomb of General Zia Ul-Haq, he conceived the idea of Islamabad and is buried in the gardens of the Faisal Mosque. He was an important military dictator. There is controversy surrounding his death; that the General died with several of his key allies, including the US ambassador to Pakistan, when his plane lost control. The tomb is modest in size and visitors leave plastic bags filled with biscuits and loaves of bread. En route to the Marriott Hotel we are stopped by a police blockade. This time the policeman is quite interested in me. He asks Kabir where we are from and he replies we are from the UK. The policeman disagrees and says that I am an undercover American, that I am a spy or a Blackwater operative. He persists but we are able to convince him of the truth, especially when we tell him we are late for a meeting with Dr Donya Aziz MNA
Americans are generally disliked in Pakistan, they are central to many conspiracy theories regarding Pakistan’s troubled history and most Pakistanis believe there are hundreds, if not thousands, of undercover CIA or Blackwater operatives in the country. The Pakistan government outwardly condemns this and vows to arrest anyone who cannot prove their identity. The British, although widely thought to be servants of the USA, are praised for their administrative legacy, for example the canal routes in Lahore, farm irrigation and railways. When we get to the Marriott it is impossible to tell it was devastated by a suicide bombing in 2008 which killed over fifty people and injured two hundred more. Of course the security is very tight and our vehicle is searched. This is one of the more rigorous inspections, they check the boot and bonnet and the underneath. Kabir and I walk through airport scanners and we take a look round the plush hotel. Dr Aziz arrives, I had seen her speak briefly in the National Assembly the previous day and so I was quite enthusiastic to meet her. We sat and had chai (tea) and cakes in the restaurant. She seemed genuinely interested in the aid project I am here for and tells me to keep in touch. She invites me to a talk on Corruption for young Pakistanis which will be attended by some MNAs, it is on Tuesday, I tell her if I have not by then gone to Noon Bagla I would be delighted to go. Dr Aziz is about thirty-five and speaks with an American-International school accent. Kabir and I leave to buy some provisions, I need to trim by beard in preparation for tonight’s dinner with the President of Kashmir.
Before dinner Kabir has organized a meeting with another MNA who also lives in Bani Galla. Her name is Marvi Mamon and by the end of our meeting I am convinced she is someone to watch. Her house is a typically lovely Bani Galla villa, we sit down in her lounge and discuss politics in depth. She is attractive, assertive and evidently a formidable intellect, she was educated around the corner from me at the LSE. She is a very liberated woman, has a thirteen year old son and is divorced. She regales us with several remarkable stories.
Marvi, we hear, went on an ordinary political demonstration in support of engineers, two hundred of whom were also with her. She had previously organized with police where the demonstration would take place, as was her right to do so. Whilst marching to the spot, peacefully, the police fired tear gas canisters at them. This in itself would be an outrageous occurrence, but when she learned that the police had decided to charge the engineers with criminal activity she staged a separate protest. She stayed on the road side in the parliamentary complex until 4am. Then she stayed for a further four days on hunger strike, finally getting all her demands from the Prime Minister after staying on the road side for seven days with little food, no shelter and no change of clothes or washing facilities. By the end of the demonstration it had become a huge national story. Accordingly this had a profound effect on Marvi’s life, she says that living rough has given her a new perspective on life and she has given up all her VIP privileges which come with being an MNA, for instance she flies economy class now. At the moment she is particularly active in raising money for the flood disaster.
This morning Kabir left for the UK and Nadeem flew to Karachi on business. There have been four major terrorist attacks this week, one on a mosque yesterday which killed over seventy people. None of them, thankfully, are in Islamabad and tend to be prevalent in the turbulent tribal areas near Peshawar. So today is the first day, since landing, that I am not to be a part of Nadeem’s nor Kabir’s outrageously busy and energetic schedules. I look forward to the rest and am particularly excited about sending emails to my friends and family. Shaguthta, the house cook, is on form as always. All week we have had freshly cooked meals, whatever we fancy, and the dining room table has been set in case we decide to eat. She cooks the best Indian cuisine I have tasted, and it is very different to the Indian meals I am used to back home. There is far less sauce and the food is healthier. Before arriving to Pakistan my friends had joked that I would have to fend off all kinds of insects and monsters. I know they exist out here but I’m happy to say things havn’t been too bad.
In Noon Bagla, I noticed a nest of about twenty spiders underneath the overhanging roof, but they were all legs and no body and that sort I can deal with. One night, in Islamabad, before getting into bed I saw a strange grasshopper-like creature, but I took care of it by throwing a boot. Its remains are still on the marble floor. People here do mention that Dengue Fever is occurring in areas of the country, especially Lahore and this is also mosquito season. Having said that, I used my mosquito repellent on the first night and since then have complacently neglected it and have not been bitten once. All week it has been very hot, but it gets dark at about five o’clock and then the temperature drops to 8C.
I noticed in Noon Bagla it was even colder than that. The locals here find the night time temperature uncomfortably cold, whereas I am uncomfortable with the daytime heat. Several sounds are constantly audible in Islamabad: barking dogs, crickets and insects at night, birds during the day, the sounding of horns in traffic (though not in quiet Bani Galla), and the intermittent Call To Prayer from the mosques. I seem to have accidently synchronized my smoking habit with the Call and every time I leave the house for a cigarette, “Allah Akbar” resonates. The Call does not sound attractive to foreign ears, but slowly I am getting used to it. It may sound better if the mosques sounded the same call, by the same Imam, at the same time, but one can hear several versions of it at different volumes depending on the proximity of the minarets. Frankly today has been a lazy one in terms of activity, but I spend several hours writing up my journal, recording my experiences. At twenty eight minutes past eight in the evening however, there is a gunshot. It sounds quite close and also sounds as if it came from a sports rifle, I pause and listen and then there is another one only a minute later. I walk to the front door to investigate and can see nor hear nothing. I speak with Waheed and he says it is a frequent occurrence in Pakistan, and that it is probably someone’s wedding or birthday. People fire guns here in celebration and a couple of single shots is quite tame; normally a burst of bullets from an AK-47 is the fashion! This will explain why Pakistan is one of the world’s largest consumer of bullets.
This morning Nadeem is getting ready to leave for the UK. Zulfiqar and Zakia Abbassi call by to drive Nadeem to Benazir Bhutto airport in Islamabad. The airport is actually situated in Rawalpindi, but as the city adjoins the Capital they raise the airport’s profile by naming it after the former President and the Capital’s namesake.
Over breakfast I talk with Zulfiqar about his invitation to Washington to receive an award for promoting peace. He will meet President Obama but he plays down the importance of the event as he will be one of a few hundred guests. I decide to go with Nadeem to see him off at the airport and convey my thanks. We wait with the Abbasis in the Rawal Lounge and enjoy chai and biscuits. I am really very gratelful for this unique experience he’s given me and I hope I can live up to his expectations. He says he wants me to finish this work and become, by doing so, a more organised and sharp individual, focused on my goals and ready to achieve anything I set my heart on.
On the way home Waheed buys me a sim card, finally I can call home and I do. Although I’ve only been away for a week it feels I have been gone for far longer and the cultural differences make it obvious how far from home I am. My morale is boosted when I get to speak with my parents and my friends in Yorkshire. Its one thirty in the morning and I finally get up to date with my journal and emails. On Monday I am off to buy sharwal kameez and provisions for Noon Bagla. Its bed time, and almost fittingly, in the distance, I hear another gunshot
I finished writing my journal late last night, and because I was tired I forgot to mention that my visit here has made national news. Yesterday morning Zulfiqar Abbasi brought a newspaper to Nadeem’s house. It was the Daily Khabrain, a widely read broadsheet in the Kashmir region written in Urdu. On the front page is an image of Mehmood Riaz (the Kashmir Information Minister) sitting in his armchair, with me and Kabir engaged in discussions with him. I am quietly alarmed by this development. Firstly we had not given permission nor been told this photograph would be used for publicity, I had assumed it was for records. Secondly I cannot read the text; if it reports that I am a politician and gives the game away that I am living in Pakistan for three months I had better think seriously about ending this trip. No doubt the Taliban or other extremist groups will read these papers and in my opinion a member, no matter how lowly, of Her Majesty’s government would make an obvious target. I cannot let an unquantified amount of people know what my travel plans are I ask Zulfiqar to translate and later, to be sure, I ask Waheed separately. Both translations corroborate.
It reads, “Information Minister Mehmood Riaz meets with British Councillor Mr Michael and Royal Bank of Scotland’s Kabir Sabar”. It could be a lot worse: they could have published my surname; you can only see one side of my face; and I am in Western clothes (for the rest of the journey I plan to wear sharwal kameez). It does not state what my movements are and one can infer from the caption that I have probably already left the country. I am convinced that there is no way anyone reading this could know where my location will be in future. I search the internet to be sure and of all the other people I have met, I can only find one further piece of information: Marvi Memon has written on Twitter that she had evening tea with two British politicians, but does not elaborate any further. So I feel more relaxed and will be much more careful about the media in future. I save the paper for posterity. It was a close call. So it is Monday morning and I have a full day planned.
I get up early and Waheed and I go to buy sharwal kameez for me to wear. We go to an outdoor shopping area in the Blue Zone (a so-called district in the city), compared to Western standards it is unsophisticated, dusty and tatty. In Britain, whenever one sees a Pakistani immigrant in sharwal kamis and topi they usually wear an old-fashioned dogtooth blazer, Oxfam shop-esque jumper, or baggy beige anorak. I had up until now assumed that Pakistani immigrants had made an unsuccessful attempt to fuse Western and Eastern fashions by picking these items from the clothes rails of 1960s and 70s Marks and Spencers and never adapting the style. Actually, it was a misjudgement on my part. These anoraks, jumpers, and blazers spill out onto the streets of Islamabad from various clothes shops and I realise that they have not picked up the style in Britain, but have imported it from Pakistan. Waheed and I pick out three sharwal kameez: one grey, one white with embroidery, and one “skin colour”. I dislike the latter but feel I should get it because it is the most prevalent colour worn by Pakistanis over here. There is a power cut, the first I have experienced since arriving. Waheed pays and tells me if it was I who had brokered the deal it would have cost twice as much. I get three suits for about ?35, Waheed will not let me pay him back.
We also need to buy a phone card (I have used all my credit last night on two phone calls back home) and an internet top up card. The shopping district, the further one explores into it, turns into a bizarre; a labyrinth of narrow streets with shoe shiners, dozens of mobile phone accessory stalls, axe grinders and blade sharpeners. Almost every shopper and shopkeeper is male; it is midday and few women come out in the midday sun. Although I am with Waheed and our driver, Faisal, I really do not feel comfortable here. I stick out like a sore thumb, the place is bustling and there are absolutely no tourists or foreigners about. We have finished shopping in the Blue Zone and we head to the car because we need to change some money. En route there are men having their beards trimmed in the street, boys pass us carrying plates piled high with hot naan breads and I see a school bus drive by. Pakistanis have no regard for road safety, the bus is crammed with children, heads poke out of the windows and on the roof of the bus twenty teenagers sit perilously holding on for their lives; no seats, no seatbelts, a roof rack similar to a camper van’s to keep them in. Oblivious to their likely impending doom, the children are having a bloody fantastic time. Even the very richest in Pakistan have decidedly average cars; this is because they would have to pay enormous duty on importing a luxury vehicle and they probably do not want to chance getting it scratched and bashed on the disorderly roadways. Motorbikes snake in between traffic and women ride sidesaddle on the back; sometimes four people squeeze onto one motorcycle. Waheed does not know any specific reason why the shopping precinct is called the Blue Zone, and I ask him if there is a Red Zone. He says we are driving through it, I tell him that in the West a Red Zone is where prostitutes can be picked up and he laughs. Apparently the Red Zone in Islamabad is where the diplomats and politicians reside…
Before I left the UK I had done extensive research about my destination; Pakistan has had very bad press in Britain and although I knew the country to have dangerous areas, I wanted to make sure I was going with my eyes open. I had seen an Australian news clip on YouTube about the women of the Red Mosque in Islamabad. It reported that they were extremists that wanted to clamp down on the liberalisation of dress codes in the city and had even kidnapped and tortured a well-known madame who ran a well-frequented brothel.
En route to the bank we pass the the same Red Mosque and many of the out buildings have been destroyed. Waheed, who sent two of his daughters to the Madrassa there, offers a different story to the news article I saw. He said the women of the Red Mosque did not torture the madame but convinced her to repent her sins; they are religous but not violent and had only wanted to ensure standards of decency were not compromised.
The images of the burqa clad women brandishing sticks and marching through the city, chanting “Allah Akbar”, was a relatively peaceful protest in retaliation to two of their teachers being arrested for false counts of inciting terrorism. Whether they were extremists or they were devout sisters, Musharraf ordered the Madrassa section of the mosque to be bulldozed. According to Waheed many died whilst staging a protest inside the Madrassa as it was demolished, no one knows how many. Waheed thinks the value of the land played a part and that Musharraf had manfactured the atrocity to appear tough on terrorism. Either way, this crisis became the catalyst for major cities in Pakistan to be repeatedly attacked by terrorists; Islamabad has been on high alert ever since.
It is a beautiful day and we try one bank which has four guards armed with the customery baretta pumps action shotguns and AK-47s, but because they have run out of receipts we decide to go to another. We need to change ?5,500 cash into rupees so the charity can pay builders who have completed the final parts of the BHU. The next place we try is a money exchange, and the job is done. This money exchange has no guards and no CCTV so I am on high alert in case some chancer decides to steal two years’ wages from the unprotected counter. Unlike the UK, people wear ordinary civilian clothes when doing official jobs here. For instance, roadside repairs are done by people in everyday sharwal kameez, it looks as if someone has decided to take their home tools to the pavement just for fun, whereas in britain they’d at least have a fluorescent yellow jacket on. The same is apparent in the currency exchange; employees coming to bring large bricks of rupees from an undisclosed safe, looked like passers-by wandering in to peer over our shouldes and eye-up our ?20 notes. At times it was unnerving and I constantly imagined myself running after a would-be thief in the forethcoming moments.
When we get back I try on my sharwal kameez, Waheed says “Oh! Mr Michael sir you look very smart, just like an Afghani, or an Uzbeck or a Chechen Taliban”. I’m not sure how much this is a compliment, but I think he is part gesting. I’m getting on well with Waheed and he takes me very seriously, he respects what I have to say about the BHU and I am thankful for that. The rest of the day is taken up with me writing reports to Nadeem and arranging business meetings. Tomorrow we go shopping for more provisions because on Thursday I travel to Noon Bagla for the real hard work.
Last night before going to sleep, I spoke with my friends in London and Liverpool, and I cannot tell you how much it boosts morale only to share my experiences with them for a small while. I can tell that they are still concerned for my safety in Pakistan; but I have to say I do feel that everything is under control here and I have my wits about me. For every extremist wanting to attack foreigners, it feels there are a dozen Pakistanis who totally adore having us around and, certainly in my case, will go out of their way to make you feel comfortable, show you off to their family and friends, feed you, and keep you safe. I am sitting in the covered porch way at the front of the house in Bani Galla and watching the servants’ children playing cricket and badminton on the driveway. When I watch, I realise that Pakistan will always be a great cricketing nation; ten-year old boys catapult full-sized cricket balls at dangerous speeds towards a friend who effortlessly taps it away with a full-sized bat. No pads, no fear, these children make it look easy and I am not joking, they would get into the Carlton Club Cricket 1st XI without a problem.
Over breakfast Waheed teaches me some Urdu and I have agreed to teach him some advanced English to reciprocate. Today I tell him about the Philosophy of Mind and the differences between Epiphenomenalism, Dualism, and Materialism. I also teach him a bit about “Paradise Lost” by John Milton. Waheed invites me to meet his bother-in-law’s family in Islamabad and I agree; he says he is going to get his hair cut too, I ask if I can get mine done at the same place and he resists. He thinks the barbershop will be too dirty for me and that I should go to one of the hotels. I scoff at this and insist that I have my hair cut at the same place he always goes; I will have no refusal.
Forty minutes later I am sitting in an antiquated barber’s chair, in a room only about 10ft x 8ft. The shop is in the middle of a dusty and impoverished suburb. The standard of the neighbourhood is one up from a shantytown; the roads are mud tracks, the houses are flat-roofed clay boxes, countless telephone wires swoop from overhead and at the side of the road green algae creeps its way out of the open sewers. The barber’s tools are basic, the shop is filthy, they have never had a white customer and, with a cigarette in his mouth, he begins to cut my hair without even consulting what style I want. I start to have my regrets. Forty minutes after that, I am convinced I have never had such a skilful and excellent haircut in my life! The barber, who scrutinised every hair on my head and face through his spectacles, moved at great pace snipping away and turning his arm, elbow and wrist at different angles to give me a short back and sides, plus beard trim which easily outdid the so-called traditional barbershops in St.James’s. A British haircut of that standard would cost ?30, this Pakistani barber resolutely refused to take any money and said if I left any it would be an insult; I was a guest in his neighbourhood. In many ways the common Pakistani is far poorer than we, but he never has to shave himself, clean his own shoes, or tailor his own bespoke clothing; those are all provided for him at cheap, affordable cost.
I visit Waheed’s house, I meet several of his wife’s family and one of his sons, a polite and lively ten year old. The house is very tidy and clean, the various members of his family are quiet and respectful towards me. I am made to feel very welcome and we have tea whilst discussing education; it seems that many send their children to Madrassas (religious schools, some quite hard-line) because they are free or very heavily subsidised. The state education is an aberration and private, secular education is for the elite – so this is how the Mullahs are able to sustain their congregations, by providing free education in exchange for indoctrination.
In the evening, I have my first independently arranged engagement. Dr Donya Aziz (the Member of the National Assembly I met at the Marriott) has invited me to a British Council talk on corruption in politics and its affects on the Pakistani youth. I am dressed in white embroidered sharwal kamis and sit near the front. True to form with all things here, it starts well over an hour late. The British High Commissioner sits on the front row and so do several of his assistants, two sit next to me. I decide not to let them know I am British and just to listen into their conversations for the time being. There is nothing of interest to overhear, Donya Aziz comes up and asks me how I am, shakes my hand and I strike up a conversation with her. Then Faisal Kundi, the Deputy Speaker, arrives and calls me over, slaps me on the shoulder and shakes my hand vigorously. I return to my seat and notice the very intrigued looks from the British delegation, I’ve not been on their radar and they are clearly interested to know why I am so familiar with the main speakers. One asks what I’m doing in Islamabad, I tell her about the AHS Foundation’s charitable mission. The only bit of gossip I overhear is a man from the High Commission in Kabul and the woman from the High Commission in Islamabad are dating. All the British are in Western attire, they clearly think I have gone native.
When I get home I have dinner and talk more with Waheed. One of our dishes has red carrots, I ask how they have become this colour and apparently its natural. Carrots in Pakistan are a bright red colour, I’ve never heard of red carrots before now. I ask what other unusual dishes there are and there is one called Kapoora, which is lamb’s testicles, and there is also lamb’s brain. I decide it would be a shame not to try these at some point.
Waheed, Sabar (the driver) and I go shopping for essential items in the morning. We return to the same market we always go to; it is still bustling but because I am in local clothing and I can make basic conversation in Urdu I find it far less threatening. In fact, I am getting used to the culture and I am fitting in well. I have organised a tour of two facilities today; they are both owned by Khaqan and Saleha Khawaja. One is a General Hospital giving free and subsidised treatments to the poor, the other is a Dental hospital of the same ilk. The General Hospital is in Rawalpindi – a major city adjoined to Islamabad; the area is dirt poor and many of the houses are clay huts with corrugated tin roofs, I see a beggar with twisted legs shuffling along the road with the help of his hands. We are driven straight to the front door and are received by the Chief Executive, several professors and doctors, its as if it were a Royal visit. The hospital, by British standards, is antiquated, crowded, and dirty. The Chief Executive takes us to every department including radiology, labour, dental, laboratory, blood bank, operating theatre, sterilisation etc. Even though each facility has only one room, the hospital has one hundred beds. Zakia, who has joined us, tells me that this place is remarkably cleanly; the government hospitals for the poor are so bad you have to wear a facemask to stop yourself fainting from the stench.
The Dental Hospital is actually part of another business they own called the Margalla College of Health Sciences. They have 320 students all being taught dentistry alone, paying privately and no doubt, contributing to the success of the subsided Hospitals. Admittedly, within the context of similar Pakistani ventures, I found the facilities here impressive. They employ several of the country’s leading dentists; one I spoke to was trained at Edinburgh University. The equipment is as good as any you would see in a British Practice too. I am successful in getting them to donate two wheel chairs and three beds for the Noon Bagla BHU and after the high profile tour with our entourage of cameramen and lakhees with pads, we leave for lunch. Saleha books us a table at the Pearl Continental Rawalpindi. We go to the Chinese cuisine restaurant and despite being closing time, they keep it open especially because she has asked. Finally, we drive to Zakia’s house for tea and biscuits.
The conversation in amicable and Khaqan shows me the hand gun he carries around for personal protection. It is a 9mm Taurus and he always leaves the safety off in case he needs to use it quickly. I take out the magazine, cock it and practice. He asks me what gun I have with me and I tell him none. He then asks if I have a security detail and what guns they carry. When I tell him I do not have a security detail he speaks with Saleha and Zakia in Urdu for ten minutes; he is obviously under the impression I should carry a gun, the others obviously think he is overreacting.
Later that night I ask Waheed if he thinks I should buy a gun and he is emphatic that I shouldn’t. The village is a community and they will all be looking out for my welfare. The BHU has a guard called Bashir who will be acting as my nightime security anyway; but he says it is on the honour of the village to make sure I have a comfortable and enjoyable time. I ask him about hunting in Noon Bagla and he tells me there isn’t any. I am surprised and so I ask if there are any tigers, he replies “no”. Any bears? Not that he’s seen. Elephants? Only in India. Any deer? Never reported. Wild pigs, rabbits even? “No Mr Michael, but there are plenty of rats.”