Pakistan is Beautiful, I’ll Come Back Soon

James standing with his fiancée Anum, speaking with Anum’s 94-year-old grandmother, the matriarch of the Mirza family estate, near Jhelum, Pakistan at the couple’s engagement party.
James standing with his fiancée Anum, speaking with Anum’s 94-year-old grandmother, the matriarch of the Mirza family estate, near Jhelum, Pakistan at the couple’s engagement party.
Last month if you’d told me that Pakistan looked like Arizona, I’d tell you to go fly a kite, which in some parts of Pakistan is now illegal.

Pakistan is a paradox, it is one of the most beautiful places you could ever visit, but you don’t hear about that on the news. It is full of bright, educated, exciting people, but you won’t read about them in the newspaper. It has a storied history full of kings, battles, and innovations that you won’t learn about in schools.

No, this isn’t a mountainous region in America’s southwest, this happens to be the road to Rawalpindi from Lahore shot from the inside of a beautiful Daewoo bus.
No, this isn’t a mountainous region in America’s southwest, this happens to be the road to Rawalpindi from Lahore; photo taken from the inside of a beautiful Daewoo bus.
I recently visited Pakistan with my longtime girlfriend, Anum, to meet her extended family and take part in a formal engagement ceremony in the city of Jhelum, about an hour and half outside Pakistan’s capital city Islamabad.

I’m a white, 26-year-old Canadian man, who until recently was a religiously unaffiliated. Anum’s family is large, Pakistani and Muslim, made up of wonderful learned people who have lived extraordinary lives. When I told my friends and family that I was going to travel to Pakistan for two weeks, to the outskirts of the capital and take part in a traditional ceremony for an engagement, I received a lot of questions and concerns. To allay those fears, I want everyone to know that Pakistan is a beautiful, peaceful and thriving nation where the most dangerous aspect of the culture is found in driving habits and public policy on the country’s “mixed use” roadways – which are a hellish mixture of donkey carts, ubiquitous Honda motorcycles and drivers in sedans who are more suited to rally-car races than urban transportation.

You see, kite flying in Pakistan is one of many things that albeit more precarious and more interesting  than it is in the west.

Pakistan has cacti, further proof that Pakistan is really Arizona in disguise.
Pakistan has cacti, further proof that Pakistan is really Arizona in disguise.

Every year groups pay for large ornate bamboo kites to be built to have them battle in the sky. They plan incessantly, spending fortunes on these kites. The strings they use to float them in the air are coated with powdered glass called door (sic) and is known elsewhere as cerol. People fly their massive kites in an effort to cut other kite flyers’ strings.

The reason it is banned in the city of Lahore, Pakistan, is because having children and men racing through the city  on roof tops with their eyes in the sky is inherently dangerous. When a kite is cut the string covered in glass floating through the streets can pass by the throat of a motorcyclist, which are numerous, and largely unprotected, helmet-less and often burdened with two children and a few bags of groceries. A cut kite string becomes a flying sword. Kite wars in a busy metropolis is a public safety hazard, people were hurt, or even killed in the yearly kite flying festival. The kites themselves are prized trophies, which makes them valuable. People will run after them on roof tops tracking them as they descend deeper into the city. Imagine a child running atop roofs of brick homes and ledges, only to misjudge a long distance and land halfway through a window or stuck on a rod iron gate, another four or five boys will make the jump safely but a tragedy has occurred.

In Pakistan the rules of the road allow just about everything from donkey carts, to transport trucks. They also have a more liberal use of the exterior of vehicles. Forget about seat belt laws, they have them, but if you’re willing to ride on outside of a taxi-van in Pakistan, no one will stop you.
In Pakistan the rules of the road allow just about everything from donkey carts to transport trucks. They also have a more liberal use of the exterior of vehicles. Forget about seat belt laws, they have them, but if you’re willing to ride on the outside of a taxi-van in Pakistan, no one will stop you.
The city of Lahore looked at the issue and came to the conclusion that while kite flying and the traditions around it are, while exciting, a public safety nightmare. The tradition known as Basant has been banned since 2007.

For anyone who is scared of Pakistan, I want to get this across to you before I write about this nation’s beauty. This is a country with deep pride and an insatiable thirst for freedom. Despite anything you may have watched on CNN or read in the Washington Post, the economy of Pakistan is thriving, girls are being educated, people live safely leading admirable lives as writers, doctors, lawyers and businessmen.

irls and boys playing cricket on a school trip inside the Rohtas Fort. Yes, girls can play with boys, and yes, they are attending school.
Girls and boys playing cricket on a school trip inside the Rohtas Fort. Yes, girls can play with boys, and yes, they are attending school.
You can walk the streets without fear of being shot, robbed or hectored in any way.  Women own businesses, teach in schools, drive cars and live free. You can shop openly, eat in marketplaces and restaurants in peace, walk the foothills of the Himalayas comfortably in the midday sun and pray to whatever God you wish to.

In little more than 10 days I saw girls and boys playing cricket together on school trip in a 15th century Mogul Kingdom era fort. I spoke with people who grew up walking the foothills of the Swat Valley hand-in-hand with Muslims, Hindus and Christians. I met men who’ve fought in wars, led armies and healed people. Nothing has meant more to me than when they welcomed me into their homes and arms with love and peace as easily as they’d welcome a newborn brother or sister. I’ll be friend and son to hundreds of them and that’s in the face of prejudice and aspersions espoused on a people by the power politics at play in a region that has been under constant foreign occupation, covertly supported armed struggle and now a drone and propaganda war since at the very least 1971.

Soldiers shelter themselves in a tower from the mid day sun at the Rhotas Fort.
Soldiers shelter themselves in a tower from the midday sun at the Rhotas Fort.

 

Look, when Afghanistan was invaded by Russia then later by the United States, it pushed millions of Afghan refugees into Pakistan. That rocked the cultural fabric of basically a brand new nation that already had enough on its plate. Its genesis.

Imagine for a moment that the United States was located in the centre of Europe instead of on a giant island off alone as it almost is today, and that just after the Revolutionary War, when the country was bleeding hungry and tired, the military depleted, the farmland burned and cities crumbled by canon, that 4-million starving refugees, some of whom who have never left their villages in the mountain before walked across America’s boarders and set up shop for life because of an armed struggle that was threatening their lives. It isn’t as easy as, “let’s stop sectarian violence and get all these peoples in line so they aren’t a threat to the world (which they are not)”. These are people who have been displaced by two brutal wars and have been dropped into a country that isn’t even 100 years old. That country happens to be a nuclear power with one of the largest standing armies in the world – which not surprisingly and perhaps because of this, is surrounded on all sides by countries that are unstable themselves. Pakistan isn’t perfect but it’s wonderful.

Anum Khan and James Rubec getting ready to dance at a pre-engagement party in Jhelum Pakistan in December of 2013.
James and Anum getting ready to dance at a pre-engagement party, called “Baat Pakki”,  in Jhelum, Pakistan.
The city of Lahore can manage to ban a tradition of kite flying because it is a danger to the public. I think it is time for the world’s powers to do the same but with Pakistan. They should stop trying to control populations through fear by funding insurgencies, propping up tribal factions or amplifying the voice of  well-intentioned but deeply flawed perceptions of regions, religions or peoples and places.

Three facts to learn about Pakistan:

  1. Women and girls live freely in this society. They go to school, they go to work, and lead successful lives.
  2. The most dangerous thing in the country is its roadways. The nation hasn’t had cars for all that long, they are still working out the kinks when it comes to public transportation and the rules of the road. If you’re not a local, take a cab or get a driver.
  3. Radical Islam doesn’t exist, and certainly not in Pakistan. That term is bigoted crap invented by ignorant policy makers and lazy journalists who don’t look much farther than the press releases burped out of the offices of said ignorant policy makers. Murderers and terrorists are not true Muslims, no matter how they identify themselves or how the media reports their goals and intentions. It is high time we stop denigrating the second most populous religion in the world because we are too damn lazy to understand what’s really going on. If you’re blowing up markets with bicycle bombs, you don’t represent Islam.

Ask me if I’m going to return to Pakistan, and I’ll tell you I will and as often as I can. I’ll bring my mother here. I’m going to eat Falooda with my dad in a Lahorian marketplace and get some Chicken Karahi for my sister with fresh roti and a Sprite with lime for her children. I’m going to bring my kids here, climb mountains and hunt goats. I can’t wait.

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