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2011

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Author: Michael Champion

The journey has been a long one and I am one of perhaps three or four white people on the flight to Islamabad, it was delayed an hour because PIA missed the take-off slot. Mostly the passengers speak in Urdu and wear traditional Pakistani clothing, some wear Western attire and I am the only passenger in a tweed jacket and chinos. The only two entertaining parts of the flight are when I accidently eat an entire chilli during dinner and have to serruptitiously poke my mouth into a yoghurt for two minutes; and when a passenger’s overhead luggage starts leaking and showers him with water.

Islamabad airport could do a lot better, it is ugly, tired and run-down. Urdu script is everywhere but I am able to read most of the signs and adverts which tend to be in English. There are many guards here, they are armed with AK-47s and pump action shotguns. I feel excited and relieved the flight is over, finally I am here!

I am met at the Arrivals lounge by a man with a sign for “Mr Michel” and I guess correctly it is for me. We take a shuttle bus to the Rawal Lounge which seems to be the VIP section of Islamabad airport. I am asked to sit down in a leather armchair as my greeter takes my passport and, after a brief conversation with security, ushers me through without even looking at the photograph in the passport.

I wait for my bags for two hours and begin to curse that I have not taken out travel insurance but they eventually arrive. As I walk towards my car I am greeted by a small man with angular facial features and a wide smile which exposes gappy teeth. He introduces himself as Waheed Gilani and is to be my guide whilst I conduct my work here. Waheed speaks good English and we make small talk whilst Nadeem’s driver, Sabar, taxis us to the Shah family home in Bani Galla. Nadeem is the chairman of the AHS Foundation and will be here during my first week. Waheed, who wears western attire, strikes me as a very friendly man, he is in his mid forties and tells me there will be plenty of work this next few months. It is 27C and I realise why I am the only passenger wearing a tweed jacket and tie.

En route I see several buses and lorries which are decorated in an outrageous fashion. Around the wheel arches and bumpers are dozens of dangling silver medalions. They have multi coloured wind mills on the engine grill which whizz round, horns and tassels. They are painted elaborately in greens, reds, oranges, yellows and have poetry and pictures emblazoned on ever spare panel. Waheed explains these are commonplace, that almost every lorry, truck, bus and van is decorated in this traditional style. At this moment I feel I am a long way from home, but the outlook is positive.

After forty minutes drive we arrive at base camp in Islamabad. I follow Waheed to the dining room for breakfast with Nadeem who is in good spirit and I am thankful to see a familiar face.

Another guest at the house greets us, his name is Kabir Sabar, he is a senior banker with RBS. He strikes me as a very impressive man and tells me that he is organising various visits and people for me to meet in Pakistan, I am thankful for his hospitality. He later tells me more of his extensive involvement in British politics and that he has stood for Parliament in England.

I have run out of cigarettes at this point, Nadeem has gone into town, so I ask Waheed to show me the direction to the shops. He says he will walk with me. We eventually walk out the drive of the house in Bani Galla and take a dusty track through some fields. Several skinny cows block the path but move when we approach and the sun beats down from above. The local village shops strike me as being quite run down. They are terraced concrete boxes, litter and dust borders the roadside and many locals, all dressed in traditional clothing, stare at me in my Western garb. I buy 60 cigarettes for the equivalent of ?2.20 and am very pleased.

Later in the day Nadeem returns with a friend, Zulfiqar, who is in the steel trade and hydro electric plants. He is amiable and promises to see more of me during my stay; he will help whenever he can with the work I am doing.

Its dinner time and Nadeem and I are driven to his friend’s house. We meet Dr Farooq Beg, his wife Huma and her father Murtaza. Farooq and Huma are successful documentary makers, have produced films and programmes the world over, including for the BBC, and has won awards at Cannes. Huma is also a famous presenter in Pakistan; in fact as we sit and wait for them in the drawing room we can hear her on the television. Her father is the former Minister for Defence Procurement, he studied at the Woolwich Arsenal and is a great admirer of the British Navy. I tell him about the Champion family history during the Indian Mutiny, the VC that was won, and although he finds it of interest I am reminded that in this part of the world it is known not as a mutiny but as the Great Sorrow.

Farooq, Nadeem and I go out for dinner in a Western restaurant and afterwards go to a place where “young pakistanis hang out”, its called the Hot Spot. This is an American Diner, the walls are adorned with Western flags and Americana, they serve burgers and ice creams and if it had not been frequented by people with beards and Pakistani clothing, it could have been a burger bar back home.

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