I am sitting on a Lahore bound bus at Wagah, the border crossing point of Pakistan and India.
I have just arrived from India, crossing the intimidating stretch of neutral ground under the stern glare of Pakistan’s hulking, bearded border soldiers. The bus fills to capacity, and then, in true sub-continental fashion, exceeds it. All eyes are on me: my 6’3" frame and fair complexion are not exactly inconspicuous. Not for the first time (or the last), I am questioning my decision to come to Pakistan. Perhaps I should have listened to my mother.
From behind, floats a soft voice. "Hello friend! Where are you from?" Three beaming smiles instantly put me at ease. And so begins a conversation that will last until the bus pulls into the station at Lahore, drawing in several other curious passengers eager to test out their English skills and quiz me about cricket.
"If you are ever in Karachi," says my new companion Asif, "we will look after you." He gives me a friendship bracelet, the same style that he and his friends are wearing. "That is a Muslim promise". His friend checks him and mutters something in Sindhi. "No, that is a Muslim and Pakistani promise." The bus murmurs and nods in agreement. All this was not what I had expected — but then again, to assume anything in Pakistan is to know nothing.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, argued in a recent radio interview that the US needs to understand Pakistan better. Not understanding Pakistan — in the US and around the world — has created fear, stereotypes and bad foreign policy. Pakistan is an emerging nuclear nation and will play a pivotal role in achieving peace in the region. The country will be a key factor in US and, by default, Australian foreign policy for generations to come. Western politicians and media alike have too often neglected to look beyond the headlines and sensationalism, and engage with the Pakistan that desperately craves peace, democracy and respect.
Our opinions of Pakistan are too frequently formed through false assumptions and inferences. The spate of terrorist and retaliatory attacks across some of Pakistan’s major cities over the past weeks has only darkened its gloomy image in the mainstream media. We are reminded nightly of suicide bombings, of crazed citizens flamboyantly dancing over burning effigies and flags of Western enemies, and of extremists preaching hatred. These events do occur and should be reported but anyone who has spent any length of time in Pakistan discovers soon enough that wandering strangers are far more likely to be invited to sit down for a meal, cup of chai (tea) and presented with endless gifts and keepsakes than to be kidnapped, blown-up, or shouted off the street.
Less visible in the Australian media than terror, death and the ostensible scourge of Islam is the fact that in this country of over 170 million people, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) — Pakistan’s coalition of hard-line, conservative, Islamic political parties — was crushed in the February 2008 elections, winning a mere seven out of an 342 seats in the national assembly.
And of course, what of madrassas, those hate-inspiring bastions of anti-Western indoctrination? Madrassa expert, C Christine Fair observes that the percentage of children in Pakistan who attend madrassas is so low that it can be attributed to a rounding error. Further, she claims, those that do produce terrorists (as is undoubtedly the case) are not Madrassas at all, but in fact training camps that need to be dealt with as training camps.
There’s no doubt that life is hard for the average Pakistani. This much was clear to me as I meandered through the cities and towns across the country, from the flyblown streets and fetid air of Karachi, a city so hard that the pigeons of Australia’s suburban centres are replaced by innumerable, circling and swooping hawks; to the fetid broken paths of Uch Sharif, where cattle, goats and the homeless eke out a living on sewage and litter swamps the size of soccer pitches. Research by the World Health Organisation shows that a third of the country’s citizens live below the poverty line. Only half the population is literate, and less than 1 per cent of total GDP is spent on health services. (By contrast, Australia spends about 9 per cent). Unemployment is rife and those with the means to attend university still find it difficult to find work once graduated.
In spite of all this, the people have not lost hope. A visit to the isolated domed mausoleum of assassinated former leader, Benazir Bhutto and her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, brought a chance meeting with a professor who had travelled to pay his respects with his young son. After breaking the ice with talk of cricket, he turned to politics. When he spoke of the future, he expressed hope, checked with sadness. He looked down at his son as he spoke of the day Bhutto’s son Bilawal, currently studying in England, will return to challenge for power. "He will see what Pakistan can become," he said. "Then we may have democracy. Our stomachs may still be empty, but our minds, at least, will be free."
Pakistan has real problems, but it is also home to real people with real values who are forgotten in the media tempest about the "war on terror" and the scaremongering and stereotyping it produces. This remarkable country has unjustly become a pariah state; greater understanding is the only remedy.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.