Saturday, November 14, 2009

Packing for Pakistan

Art Malik - My pin-up Pakistani from my youth

What baggage am I packing with me on my trip to Pakistan?

I have been thinking about my visit to Pakistan for a few weeks now.  I have never been before – and I want to take a snapshot of my emotional response and limited perceptions of the country in advance.  Previous travel has revealed the how-wrong-I-was factor loud and clear.  So allow me to be ill-informed, naive, and for a moment – if only to pick apart my prejudice at a later date.

Although I haven’t been to Pakistan, I have been to Afghanistan and India and spent three years living in Sri Lanka, so I have had some experience of the region.  That said, living in Sri Lanka was as much preparation for India as Germany was for France.  Same same but different, one might say.

I know from books that Pakistan is a diverse land.  The Indus valley civilisation.  A busy commercial hub in Karachi. A Baluchistan that floods too often sweeping away cattle and livelihoods.  Devilish mountains bordering China that challenge its inhabitants and thrill European mountaineers. The notorious FATA region – much in the news of late, I imagine to be full of mountain peaks, hidden fortresses and secret tunnels.  And of romantic figures on horseback (not unlike 007’s friend Art Malik as a Mujahadeen Commander in The Living Daylights).  And everyone has an automatic weapon.

People are what gives a country it’s heart beat.  Having never been there my perceptions of the Pakistanis are cast by the diaspora community in Britain (including Mr Malik).  This diaspora was invited to the UK to work when Britain had a labour shortage in the 1950s.  This diaspora were offered refuge when the Mangla Dam flooded villages in Mirpur.  A community invited to settle. And increasingly the diaspora consists of professionals – doctors – offered a managed migration route to help the sick in Britain.   They number nearly a million in Britain – and yet how is it I know so little about Pakistan?

At the school I went to in Bristol, we never stopped to ask each other where we were from.  It’s only looking back and with greater knowledge of the world do I understand from given names that my school mates were likely Tamils or Muslims or Indian or African.  One of my first boyfriends was half Pakistani and half Scottish and equally proud of both – but this was unusual in inner city Britain in the 70’s and 80’s nobody seemed to wear their heritage on their sleeves.   Besides, we were raised not to question where someone was from, lest we view people as “the other” and offend, so of the many colleagues and friends I have spent time along side over the years, I have rarely asked them about their roots.  I feel slightly ashamed that I haven’t now.  Perhaps going to Pakistan will be a starting point for a deeper understanding of my diaspora friends.

Next week I will be tentatively dipping a toe in Pakistan.  It’ll be hand luggage only and I won’t go far, but it will be a starting point for what I hope will be the beginning of a beautiful relationship with a country that I have longed to visit for years – and often wonder why I didn’t.  I’m happy to share my first impressions and better informed emotional response with you on these pages (as I have with Iraq and Afghanistan and even France).

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