With great apprehension, I crossed the border from India into Pakistan, and made my way into Lahore. I quickly realized my fears and worries were misplaced, and my preconceived notions of what Pakistan would be like were quickly dispelled. Pakistan was utterly iconoclastic.
I expected to find essentially a “Muslim India,” some combination of Saudi Arabia and India. Rather, most women were dressed either in Western style, or in a vivid display of colored and floral pattern veils and robes. While some were in black, eye-slits only veils, most guarded their modesty in a rainbow of colored ones that loosely covered their hair. Meanwhile, while some Pakistani men looked straight out of the Taliban, others looked straight out of a Pakistani GQ.
Lahore is an utterly cosmopolitan city, with all the trappings of Western life, including McDonald’s, KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts and even a Pizzeria Uno. Lahore also has a very developed cafe culture, with locals sipping lattes all hours of the night.
“Fortune favors the bold,” as Jules Verne wrote in Around the World in 80 Days; this applied to my arrival in Lahore, as I came just in time for Basant, a huge spring kite-flying festival that Lahore celebrates with utter glee.
People fly kites, shoot fireworks and party royally. The night was aglow with lights and kites. Music was pulsating and people were dancing on rooftops across the city. Giant fireworks lit up the sky and raced across the purple horizon, and the crack-cracking of celebratory gunfire filled the air.
An Afghan introduced himself to me, and said he hated President Bush. I found similar attitudes among native Pakistanis. A cab driver named Tariq said, “I hate President Bush, but President Clinton was good. Maybe Clinton’s wife will be the next president, and things will be better between America and Pakistan.”
Next I visited Rawalpindi, the twin city of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. While I was there, Vice President Dick Cheney was in Islamabad for a meeting with Pakistani President Pervez Musharaf.
In the Western press, the meeting was characterized as Cheney pressuring Musharaf to do more in the war on terror. But every Pakistani I met said it was really related to Iran – US designs to attack it and demands for Pakistani support for such a strike.
Pakistanis I spoke with were uniformly critical of the war on terror and America’s invasion of Iraq. One questioned how America could have blundered so badly in Iraq as to turn Saddam Hussein into a symbolic martyr. Moreover, when it came to 9/11, I heard conspiracy after conspiracy theory even from the most educated of Pakistanis.
On a night train from Multan to Karachi, I shared my sleeper berth with a Pakistani couple. We spent the ride discussing the relationship between the Islamic world and the West. They expressed their frustration that the West seems to think that all Muslims are terrorists. “There are fanatics in Christianity and Judaism too, but it seems that the media only wants to portray Muslims as terrorists,” they said practically in unison.
The security situation in Pakistan was always looming in the background during my travels. As I was visiting Islamabad, two suicide bombers attacked the airport and a luxury hotel – far enough away from where I was wandering that I had no idea. I found out about the attacks the following day, noting also that four more suicide bombers in the cell were still on the loose. Later in my travels, while I was visiting Multan and planning a day trip to another city, a bombing took place against an anti-corruption judge, and the police cordoned off the city, with no one allowed in or out.
With that said, the Pakistanis have an attitude that I would characterize as utterly Israeli when it comes to their security situation: they go about their daily lives and don’t bother dwelling on the insecurities that exist within their society.
When the issue of Israel came up, I heard many different viewpoints. A Pakistani named Jad asked, “What does Israel matter to Pakistan? Has either country ever fired a shot at the other?” Others were more focused on the Palestinian issue – not questioning Israel’s right to exist, but wanting to see the Palestinian issue resolved in a “just” manner.
I’m sure I could have found far more extreme opinions, but I spent a lot of time guarding my own identity and refraining from engaging in political discussions with people other than those I knew or with whom I felt more comfortable. The most ironic thing I heard from the Pakistanis is that they thought Israel to be a very dangerous country in which to live, based on what they saw on TV. I replied that there had been far more bombings in Pakistan during the two weeks I was there than in the last few months in Israel.
I found Pakistanis themselves critical of the situation in their own country. People said it seemed the only institution that really functioned was the army. Meanwhile, they spoke resignedly about the corruption that plagues their society.
Pakistan is a fascinating yet complicated place, filled with unbelievable hospitality and utter contradictions. The images we see of Pakistan are always of the little madrassas in the tribal areas, or anti-American/anti-Israel rallies, and never things like the Basant celebration or the cosmopolitan life of Lahore.
This wandering Jew had a fascinating two weeks there. And in a closing note, I would like to mention that my trip through Pakistan was conducted in honor and in the memory of Daniel Pearl, who will always remind me that “I am Jewish.”