“So, what’s Pakistan like?”

Published: January 15, 2017
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It has the world’s most majestic mountains that will take your breath away. PHOTO: MAJID HUSSAIN.

The old man had the most startling blue eyes, the kind that glittered in a wizard-like way. He was a contractual worker fixing some room in the building where I work, and I met him in the kitchen over my morning coffee. He asked where I’m from and widened his eyes. He didn’t comment on how good my English is, but how American my accent is (which I take no offence or pride in – it’s not the two years of Master’s in St Louis but all those American movies and TV shows I watch).

And then he asked me that question,

“So, what’s Pakistan like?”

The question always bounces off me like a gummy ball against the wall. It’s a loaded question, even if it’s not really meant to be, and I usually respond in two ways:

1. The most generic of answers:

“Oh, it’s really nice.”

Which means absolutely nothing and really, when you think about Pakistan, nice really isn’t the most appropriate adjective. How about – incredible, wild, crazy, tragic, beautiful, turbulent, difficult to describe?

2. Or I say something completely inane like,

“Well yeah, the traffic is horrible.”

Which is true, of course, but when someone asks about what your birthplace/homeland is like, do you really want to start, and in most cases end, with that?

For some reason the question makes me antsy. I feel the need to invite the inquirer to a presentation where I can have at least 30 minutes to go through a stack of 15 slides, highlighting some aspects of what my country is like. There is an insistent need to not say anything negative because there is already so much negativity out there. But if I don’t mention any of it and say it’s beautiful and lovely and the crispy tandoori parathas make everything worthwhile, then I’d feel dishonest because how can you not mention the poverty and the overpopulation and the widespread intolerance?

See my dilemma?

What’s it like?

I wish I could say it’s horrifically dirty and there are slums like Machar colony in Karachi where children about the size of bonsai trees run around barefoot in five inches of sewerage, poking at tired dogs with patches of skin visible on their skeletal bodies.

There are so many people – it’s like when you shake a can of Pepsi and open it, and there’s an explosion of foam, people pouring out, milling about in streets, squatting on their haunches, sipping tea from small glass cups, standing behind stalls selling bright purple eggplant and pale coloured cabbage, spread out on dry grass in parks sharing sandwiches and samosas, buying plastic jewelry and plastic slippers in markets, perched precariously, three, four, five and a baby on motorbikes, playing ludo late at night under streetlights…

It’s haphazard and unruly; nobody follows the traffic rules and there are too many cars, the bus drivers are psychotic and pedestrians more thrill-seeking than the young men who throw themselves off cliffs – they’ll dart in front of speeding cars or pause in the middle of crossing the road to glance back at a straggling child. There are no bus lanes, no bike lanes and the 1,000 ton-containers are never bolted down on their barreling wagons. Sometimes there are cows and camels.

We have too many stray dogs and cats and street children and beggars with amputated limbs.

And then there is the sea that surges on and on, despite everything that has happened, and there is joy at the dirty, polluted smudgy Sea View beach where thousands of people wade in, fully clothed, holding hands as the gray sea sweeps over them, toppling them like an unruly friend, backing away just so they can get back on their feet again and then coming back again, cresting, jumping over, drenching, and if you want, there is popcorn and french fries and charred cobs to munch on.

And sometimes there are fiery sunsets that whip across the sky like the orange-gold-yellow streaks of paint by a madly talented artist and your mind is wiped clean of all thoughts as you watch the burning ball of sun slipping slowly down and into the misty gray sea.

It is scattered with large pockets of intolerance that breeds in small madrassas and small minds, fanned by poverty and frustration and evil. It is fed into young minds and shared in fancy living rooms and offices too.

It is peppered with smaller pockets of beautiful, brave people who speak out against injustice and preach love and peace, it’s scribbled in moldy notebooks and discussed on the grey seats of classrooms and in cozy cafés with art on the walls and warm orange lamps, and every now and then at larger gatherings under palm trees and wind-blown canopies next to stalls of books and children browsing through them.

It is populated with passionate, persistent people who have left lofty jobs and neat queues to come back to their unruly messy country and work there despite its maddening ways.

It has sunny blue skies.

And when it rains in Pakistan, people don’t put up their umbrellas or pull on their Wellingtons, they rush out and get drenched. Kids hop around in puddles and mothers fry pakoras and friends share cups of steaming tea.

It has people who are nosy and judgmental and you call all strangers aunties and uncles and bhai and behan, and old women you meet for the first time on a bus will ask you if you’re married and why you don’t have kids and what you earn, and many men will stare at you as you walk down a crowded street.

It has people who have hearts as big as the sky and if you visit their house, with a survey or a question, they’ll offer you anything from fried bhindi to roasted peanuts, and chai – they’ll always offer you chai. They’ll help you reverse out of a tight spot and they’ll help you change your tire, and they’ll give you directions even if they don’t actually know the way, and you can always ask to hold their cherubic baby, they won’t think that’s creepy at all.

It has hundreds and thousands of people who march for things they don’t fully understand.

It has artists and film directors and writers and festivals celebrating culture, literature, food, music, and these are slowly growing.

It has mouthwatering delicious food – Karachi’s bun kebabs to Lahore’s fresh water fish and tikkas to Peshawar’s chapli kebabs and have you ever tried the cottage-cheese rotis in Hunza served with apricot chutney? Fruits and vegetables and nuts and don’t ever forget the chai, the spherical dense doughy parathas crispy on the outside and soft and buttery on the inside.

And it has the world’s most majestic mountains that will take your breath away and when you stand in front of a snowcapped jagged brute of a mountain with the sky for a crown and the sun for a mirror, it will be like a zap from a wand. You’ll be turned into a tiny speck of dirt and you’ll never feel so insignificant and you’ll never love that feeling of insignificance anywhere else.

So you see, “what’s Pakistan like?” is not an easy question to answer.

Because, you see, Pakistan is complicated and rich and diverse and beautiful and horrible all at the same time.

And then, Pakistan is home.

aisha.iqbal

Aisha Iqbal

The author has recently moved to the UK. She is working part-time at a nonprofit in Nottingham and her new year's resolution is to write more. She blogs at sidewalk-scribbling.blogspot.co.uk/

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

  • Azam Gill

    An outpouring of passion under controlled penmanship makes it a stirring read – thank you.Recommend

  • wb

    Why don’t you tell him the truth that Pakistan was created out of hatred and fear of other religions, so one word that describes Pakistan perfectly is HATE?

    But then, this is applicable to all Muslims and not just Pakistan. So, not a unique answer.Recommend

  • umar

    Brilliant blog. The way you transitioned from all the negatives to the positives is amazing. “What Pakistan is like” can never have a single line or a paragraph answer. There are so many good things. Unfortunately there are even worse things. My take is that if you are a rich person in Pakistan (at least own a house with two cars and 25 lacs in the bank) Pakistan is a great place. If not then your life can end up in a struggle and waste. Secondly, if you are a social person then its more likely you will like Pakistan due to perennial social events and gatherings. However, if you are an introvert you don’t have much to do in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Rohan

    An original iSiSRecommend

  • liberal-lubna-fromLahore

    i dont get it …
    the author is pakistani
    she’s being asked the question of what is pakistan like…..why?

    another fake liberal attempt to make pakistan have a bad image in the world.Recommend

  • fze

    The punch line of the article is the last line. Pakistan is home.Recommend

  • Daviduke

    “there are slums like Machar colony in Karachi where children about the size of bonsai trees” how can you compare them in this manner. You know there are sensible words such as “malnutrition”Recommend

  • https://latestgadgets.tech Amna Rizvi

    Pakistan is HOME!Recommend

  • middleway1

    Looks like you are the one full of hate-for Pakistan and IslamRecommend

  • Mohammed yusuf

    Being born in the uk with Pakistani parents and living in Pakistan for the last couple of years I think this writer has done a fantastic peice.You have really pulled my heartstrings and yes I do sometimes miss Scotland the Glasvegian people are very friendly and if your walking down the street people will speak to you like in Pakistan and then the fish and chips the best in the world in the uk, but you know something with all the problems in Pakistan this country seems to carry on the people are so resilient.I love the hustle and bustle of lahore the bazaars the man on the road frying sweets the smell the sounds and one thing special about Pakistan for me it’s my parents homeland a place were. Millions of people have made sacrifices for us to have this country today.Long live Pakistan we love you.Recommend

  • wb

    It’s our moral and ethical duty to hate the haters.Recommend

  • Parvez

    I liked the writing style……and you are right …..you can get out of Pakistan but its difficult to get Pakistan out of you.Recommend

  • Rohan

    It is created out of hatred ,wake up smell the coffee,the same 2 reasons why it May not exist soonRecommend

  • fze

    That’s why you are found 24/7 on our websites. Recommend

  • Alka Rim

    Despite space constraints, Ms. Iqbal has beautifully described what Pakistan is like in a nutshell. The best part of the blog is her candidness, her neutrality, and, that she is unbiased. While straddling several horses (describing the good, the bad, and the ugly) Ms. Iqbal has maintained her poise and aplomb. Truly speaking, to a total stranger like myself who is not familiar with Pakistan, it does give a glimpse into a fascinating country. I look forward to reading more of her writings. Recommend

  • Ahmed Ata Khan

    Awesome article. Hats off to youRecommend

  • Raza

    Nicely written, can relate to most of it :)Recommend

  • Raza

    agreedRecommend

  • mian khan

    i am a pakistani.I live in lahore.Pakistan’s estimated population in 2015 is over 191.71 million,making it the world’s sixth-most-populous country, behind Brazil and ahead of Nigeria. During 1950–2011.
    http://www.mobiringtone.com/channel/4/message-ringtones/Recommend

  • mukoo

    For a while i was immersed in your deep wonders of words,its so poetic!Recommend

  • Sane

    Indian trolls: welcome for your hatred against Pakistan as usual. Rush rush and rush.Recommend

  • wb

    Because of cold, I’m sleeping early and waking up late these days. That’s why I’m here only for 14 hours.Recommend

  • Sane

    Read this to know, what extremist (Taliban) Hindus are doing with Muslims. Indian trolls do not say that it is published in a Pakistani newspaper as you are trolling 24/7 on Pakistan website.

    http://tribune.com.pk/story/1298023/hundreds-indian-muslim-girls-forced-converting-hinduism/Recommend

  • fze

    Find a job for yourself so that you have less time to troll our websites and get heart burns. It’s the best way to stay healthy, by minding your own business.Recommend

  • Sarah Khan

    I LOVE THIS PIECE!Recommend

  • wb

    RAW pays me to troll Pakistani forums. So, why find another job? And as a vegetarian for most of my life, I’ll always be healthier than you.Recommend

  • Leila

    Really easy to talk about how “wonderful” Pakistan is and how it’s “home” when you’re living comfortably far away.Recommend

  • Kasturi K

    narcissistic attitude….Recommend

  • wb

    You should demand your fees back from your English teacher. Clearly, she has failed you in understanding Narcissism.Recommend