Is there a Pakistan to go back home to?

Published: January 19, 2011

This is not the Pakistan I grew up loving.

Last week, my husband and I finally booked our return tickets to Pakistan. It was a proud moment, happy moment, not just because we had been saving to buy them for months, but because we had not been home in nearly two years.

Two years! It seemed like a lifetime. We had missed much: babies, engagements, weddings, new additions to the family and the passing of old, new restaurants and cafés, new TV channels, even the opening of Lahore’s first go-karting park. I could hardly contain my excitement.

Yet, my excitement was tainted by a very strange and disquieting thought – was there even a Pakistan to go back to?

My family and friends would be there, yes, and the house I grew up in, and my high school, and the neighbourhood park, and the grocery store where my mother did the monthly shopping, and our favourite ice cream spot…but what about the country? I’m not talking about poverty, and corruption, and crippling natural disasters – I’m talking about a place more sinister, much more frightening…

A place where two teenage boys can be beaten to death by a mob for a crime they didn’t commit, with passersby recording videos of the horrific scene on their cell phones.

A place where a woman can be sentenced to hang for something as equivocal as “blasphemy”.

A place where a governor can be assassinated because he defended the victim of an unjust law, and his killer hailed as a “hero” by religious extremists and educated lawyers alike.

The Pakistan I knew

This is not the Pakistan I grew up loving. This vision of a bigoted, bloodthirsty country is just as alien to me as it is to you.

The Pakistan I know was warm, bustling and infectious, like a big hug, a loud laugh – like chutney, bright and pungent, or sweet and tangy, like anwar ratol mangoes. It was generous. It was kind. It was the sort of place where a stranger would offer you his bed and himself sleep on the floor if you were a guest at his house; a place where every man, woman or child was assured a spot to rest and a plate of food at the local sufi shrine. A place where leftovers were never tossed in the garbage, always given away, where tea flowed liked water and where a poor man could be a shoe-shiner one day, a balloon-seller the second, and a windshield-wiper the third, but there was always some work to do, some spontaneous job to be had, and so, he got by.

My Pakistan was a variegated puzzle – it was a middle-aged shopkeeper in shalwar kameez riding to work on his bicycle, a 10-year old boy selling roses at the curbside, a high-heeled woman with a transparent pink dupatta over her head tip-tapping to college, with a lanky, slick-haired, lovelorn teenager trailing behind her.

A Michael Jackson-lookalike doing pelvic thrusts at the traffic signals for five rupees, a drag queen chasing a group of truant schoolboys in khaki pants and white button-down shirts. Dimpled women with bangled arms and bulging handbags haggling with cloth vendors, jean-clad girls smoking sheesha at a sidewalk café, and serene old men in white prayer caps emerging from the neighbourhood mosque, falling in step with the endless crowd as the minarets gleamed above with the last rays of the sun in the dusty orange Lahore sky.

Faith and jalebis

My parents are practicing Muslims, and religion was always an important part of my life. Like most Pakistani children, my sister and I learnt our obligatory Arabic prayers at the age of seven; I kept my first Ramazan fast when I was 10, bolting out of bed before dawn for a sublime sehri of parathas, spicy omelettes, and jalebi soaked in milk.  By the time I was 13-years-old, I had read the Holy Quran twice over in Arabic, with Marmduke Pickthall’s beautifully gilded English translation.

But beyond that – beyond and before the ritual, or maddhab, as they say in Sufism, came the deen, the heart, the spirit of religion, which my parents instilled in us almost vehemently, and which to me was the true message of Islam – compassion, honesty, dignity and respect for our fellow human beings, and for every living creature on the planet.

So, while we as Pakistanis had our differences, and practiced our faith with varying tenor – some were more “conservative” than others, some more “liberal”, some women did hijab while others didn’t, some never touched alcohol while others were “social drinkers” – we were all Muslim, and nobody had the right or authority to judge the other, no red-bearded cleric or ranting mullah. There were no Taliban or mullahs back then; if they existed, we never saw them. Not on TV, not in the newspapers, not on the streets, in posters or banners or fearsome processions.

It wasn’t a perfect society – far from it. Inequality and abuse were rampant, and daily life for a poor person could be unbearable. But they were the kind of problems that every young, developing, post-colonial nation faced. It was chaotic, but it was sane.

The war that changed my country

Then 9/11 happened, and society as my generation knew it began to unravel.

It started as a reaction to the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the “clandestine” war in Pakistan – a reaction shared by Pakistanis across the social spectrum.  But somewhere along the way, the anger and grief mutated into a suicidal monster of hatred, robed in religion and rooted in General Zia’s pseudo-Islamic dictatorship of the 1980’s and the US-funded Afghan jihad. Pakistan was engulfed by frenzy, an unspeakable frustration, not only at the neighbouring war that had expanded into its heartland, but at everything that was wrong with the country itself. And like the hysteria that fueled the Crusades or the 17th-cenutry Salem witch-hunt, religion was the most convenient metaphor.

I don’t claim to understand it all, or be able to explain it.  But what I do know is that, alongside the two purported targets of the war on terror, there is no greater victim of 9/11 than America’s indispensable, ever-“loyal” ally and doormat, Pakistan itself.

Maybe I’m romanticising a little. Maybe I’m being over-nostalgic about the past, and the Pakistan of my childhood. But that’s the only way I can retain some affection for my country, the only way I can sustain the desire to go back and live there – if I know and remember in my heart, that it has been better. That it was not always like this.  That it was once rich, multifaceted, beautiful, tolerant, sane – and can be again.


Manal Khan

A freelance writer and photographer based in Madrid, Spain, who loves old cities, tall trees, dark chocolate, and being inspired. She is a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism and a Lahore native. Manal blogs at "Windswept Words" (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Swaliha

    Au contraire, our support and providing shelter for Afghan refugees in 80s brought this upon us. We have very stark cultural difference. Iran kept them in camps and they were not allowed to mingle with the local population, while we welcomed them with our hearts and opened our homes for them. They became an integral part of the fabric of our society. But over decades their doctrines and thoughts started influencing the populace. And hence we have this menace on our hands, but these extremist, intolerant elements are still in minority and I am confident that moderate Pakistani youth is about fed up with the unrest and soon going to reject these element. Tunisia and Egypt is great [email protected]: Recommend

  • Amjad

    It is up to the new generation of Pakistanis to build the nation as we wish. We have been blessed with the most beautiful nation on earth. Whatever shortcoming are there are due to our own selves. Rather than criticize anything, each and every Pakistani needs to adopt a project or support an organization which is doing good work. This is the way we can transform the nation. I’m tired of old men who sit around and complain in chairs but do nothing but exhale hot air. It’s 2011 and it’s up to us alone. Pakistan Zindabad!Recommend

  • Andy Martin


    You said it all except the fact that Israel and Pakistan are the two top recipients of American Tax Payer’s dole. Pakistan was different from Bangladesh or Bihar in terms of visible poverty because most of the growth was basically the American dole driven. Pakistan was different even in 1971, even after killing and raping close to 3 Million and 0.5 Million respectively in then East Pakistan it was kept in dark by their America supported foreign whiskey drinker Generals and anglicized elites. Recommend

  • Andy Martin


    Punjabi Taliban and LET are not something Afghanis have created. 25% of Hindu-Sikh population of present day Pakistan was reduced to less than 2%, not by Afghanis. How did you miss the Chanda boxes at every grocery store for Kashmir Jihad? Recommend

  • Tayyab

    Very well written indeed but i don’t agree with your basic premise. Vivid childhood memories certainly eluded your perception of the home land. Perceptions change over time and information / disinformation plays an important role in forming opinions. My point being that there was always an extreme waiting to be unleashed. Only way to fight extremism is by bridging the gap between extremists and moderates. We have done the worst we could by shifting the moderates to the other end of the spectrum and this has created the confusion. It is still the Pakistan that you loved and yes there is a lot to be done but trust me we are better off today than we were two decades back.Recommend

  • Nadiya Rehman

    Amazingly written. i feel exactly the same way. it is so true. i am a poetess. i am writing a poem these days on the same issue. where is our land.. i often wonder… its tragic how we cant prove to people that it was such a happy and pretty place to live in. Recommend

  • Hafeez

    Yes, There is a Pakistan to go back to.

    I feel awareness is much more now than ever. People are waking upto the realities. What we need is to keep hopes alive & keep on trying to make it better. day is not far when we shall see a big change.

    People will rise against these dacoits, jageerdars, corrupt politicians, mullas who have ruined the image of our religion & beloved country. Time is ripe for a change. Gone are the days when a Jageerdar would threat or lul people to vote for them, Industrialist came to power & never paid any taxes themselves. Those who wlooted public funds in the name of NRO will be brought to justice. Mullas who destort the image of islam will be challenged & will not be allowed to take people as hostages.Fauji Generals played in the hands of foreign governments & killed or help foreign troops to kill innocent peoplle in the name of collateral damage.

    All this is possible if we educate our masses about how to get out of this mess. Only way is education & self reliance. Learn our religion from its source that is Quran, not from Mulla. Be honset to ourself & to our country, pay our taxes & vote for the right people , not Lesser Evils. The only way forward is to get the justice sysetm right. If Judiciary is independent, the rest will follow. Pakistan has no shortage of resources. It is the lack of ouw will & self reliance which is keeping us down.

    Best wishes


  • saad

    beautifully written, brought tears to my eyes. but i think the nature of the pakistani people has not changed, they are still the loving and caring people they always were. Recommend

  • sbm

    @Hamza Baloch:
    beautiful poemRecommend

  • Nobody

    @srikanth jagath:
    Nice to hear that. I too have made many Indian friends who are dear to me, and I also take an interest in what’s going on within India. The still-existent negative sentiments between the two countries often baffles me as I see no point. We can only hope for the best regarding the present and future relationship of the two countries. Cheers! Recommend

  • Nobody

    @Muhammad Afzal:
    With respect to what you said and your experience in the states, I disagree on some points. The reason you see people marching for gay rights or parents that give their daughters equal freedom as their sons, or people stopping at a bar for a drink on the way home from work is because people are able to live life as they want to. There’s a higher level of acceptance and tolerance, comparitively speaking. So while you may not be happy about seeing these things or exposing your children to it, think of it more as a way of learning and accepting tolerance. You also have the freedom to live as you want to, conservative, moderate, or liberal, muslim or not, true pakistani or not. As long as you don’t expect the same from others or impose your beliefs on others, then it’s YOUR FREEDOM. That acceptance is lacking in too many people in Pakistan. Live and let live. It’s not a perfect society, as there’s no such thing, it’s just a more free society.
    That being said, I still have high hopes for Pakistan, which for some may seem naive, but I see no point in accepting things as they are instead of fighting for a better tomorrow. Hope Pakistani’s don’t lose that hope. Recommend

  • saqib wasim

    i like the line ” this is not the pakistan that grew up loving ”……. but i want it to be that pakistan. common youth get up for the sack of you motherland get upRecommend

  • Kiran

    This is such a brilliant article. You’ve captured feelings just beautifully. You’ve just made me cry sitting at my office desk :PRecommend

  • Madiha Javed Qureshi

    Hey…the things u really love no matter what dey become u never ask ur self that IS THERE A PAKISTAN TO GO BACK TO??? if u do…den u dont love it enough….
    Things get worst before they can get better…Have Faith There are Good People Working In Pakistan for Its Betterment!!!Recommend

  • S

    I love Pakistan and will never give up on it..i still see hope …we need to be united..positive. We need to fight our fears and stick to what is right and necessary for our country’s peace and is very easy to raise fingers on the corrupt system. but we got to see how we are bringing about a change as an individual. We need to stand up and contribute towards our country rather than being selfish and running away from our root problems. Think about your country and with will pay you back with all the HAPPINESS AND MEMORIES EACH ONE OF YOU WISH FOR!! at least take a step..if you cant walk a mile..:)Recommend

  • Arshia kadri

    @Abdulaziz Khattak …..about” profile” you mention in your comments I think people live abroad have better chance than in Pakistan.What do you call Target killing ???? the worst profiling one can ever imagine!!Recommend