Kabir says he will take me to the grandest mosque in Islamabad, if not Pakistan. It was built by the Saudis and is called the Faisal Mosque. As it is Friday prayers I expect that it will be quite busy and I look forward to seeing this important site.
When we arrive I notice the mosque (masjid in Urdu) is a contemporary-looking building and I recall that this is always likely to be the case; Islamabad is a city only about forty years old. Four white concrete minarets dominate the skyline and erupt from the four corners of the building. Frankly I am a little disappointed in the architecture; this is not my sort of design. The most impressive mosque I have seen is the Muhammad Ali mosque in Cairo, and although this is a similar size, the Faisal masjid impresses by the virtues of practicality and scale rather than the aesthetic. I make a comparison with the practical and uninspiring churches in the UK built in the 1960s and 1970s to their architectural predecessors which attract people worldwide if only to look at their beautiful craftsmanship. The mosque can apparently accommodate 300,000 people praying at once, but this would mean two thirds would be outside the main hall and praying in the open air.
We take our shoes off and walk round the grounds, the Margalla hills dominate one half of the skyline and add to the aesthetics of the holy site quite considerably; the hills are breathtaking and impress against the mosque like a towering wave about to break over it. The interior of the mosque is modern and there are a dozen wooden cases all holding beautiful hand-painted Qur’ans almost a meter in length. For Friday prayers, the main prayer room is only a quarter full, previously I had assumed that in Pakistan all mosques would be over spilling in attendance, this is not the case.
It was not the hills, the minarets, nor the scale of the masjid which had its the most striking impact on me. It was the sermon. I had previously read the Prophet Mohammad advised against shouting and encouraged his followers to speak gently and kindly. The Urdu lecture, which was amplified by a series of hundreds of speakers in all corners and areas of the mosque was delivered by quite an invigorated, passionate Imam. The tone and intonation was similar to a rallying speech delivered by a generalissimo. What may have sounded rousing and inspiring to the native ear, was actually quite aggressive and frightful to mine. I was later assured that the Imams at the Faisal mosque are quite moderate.
We then visit the tomb of General Zia Ul-Haq, he conceived the idea of Islamabad and is buried in the gardens of the Faisal Mosque. He was an important military dictator. There is controversy surrounding his death; that the General died with several of his key allies, including the US ambassador to Pakistan, when his plane lost control. The tomb is modest in size and visitors leave plastic bags filled with biscuits and loaves of bread.
En route to the Marriott Hotel we are stopped by a police blockade. This time the policeman is quite interested in me. He asks Kabir where we are from and he replies we are from the UK. The policeman disagrees and says that I am an undercover American, that I am a spy or a Blackwater operative. He persists but we are able to convince him of the truth, especially when we tell him we are late for a meeting with Dr Donya Aziz MNA. Americans are generally disliked in Pakistan, they are central to many conspiracy theories regarding Pakistan’s troubled history and most Pakistanis believe there are hundreds, if not thousands, of undercover CIA or Blackwater operatives in the country. The Pakistan government outwardly condemns this and vows to arrest anyone who cannot prove their identity. The British, although widely thought to be servants of the USA, are praised for their administrative legacy, for example the canal routes in Lahore, farm irrigation and railways.
When we get to the Marriott it is impossible to tell it was devastated by a suicide bombing in 2008 which killed over fifty people and injured two hundred more. Of course the security is very tight and our vehicle is searched. This is one of the more rigorous inspections, they check the boot and bonnet and the underneath. Kabir and I walk through airport scanners and we take a look round the plush hotel. Dr Aziz arrives, I had seen her speak briefly in the National Assembly the previous day and so I was quite enthusiastic to meet her. We sat and had chai (tea) and cakes in the restaurant. She seemed genuinely interested in the aid project I am here for and tells me to keep in touch. She invites me to a talk on Corruption for young Pakistanis which will be attended by some MNAs, it is on Tuesday, I tell her if I have not by then gone to Noon Bagla I would be delighted to go. Dr Aziz is about thirty-five and speaks with an American-International school accent. Kabir and I leave to buy some provisions, I need to trim by beard in preparation for tonight’s dinner with the President of Kashmir.
Before dinner Kabir has organized a meeting with another MNA who also lives in Bani Galla. Her name is Marvi Mamon and by the end of our meeting I am convinced she is someone to watch. Her house is a typically lovely Bani Galla villa, we sit down in her lounge and discuss politics in depth. She is attractive, assertive and evidently a formidable intellect, she was educated around the corner from me at the LSE. She is a very liberated woman, has a thirteen year old son and is divorced. She regales us with several remarkable stories.
Marvi, we hear, went on an ordinary political demonstration in support of engineers, two hundred of whom were also with her. She had previously organized with police where the demonstration would take place, as was her right to do so. Whilst marching to the spot, peacefully, the police fired tear gas canisters at them. This in itself would be an outrageous occurrence, but when she learned that the police had decided to charge the engineers with criminal activity she staged a separate protest. She stayed on the road side in the parliamentary complex until 4am. Then she stayed for a further four days on hunger strike, finally getting all her demands from the Prime Minister after staying on the road side for seven days with little food, no shelter and no change of clothes or washing facilities. By the end of the demonstration it had become a huge national story.
Accordingly this had a profound effect on Marvi’s life, she says that living rough has given her a new perspective on life and she has given up all her VIP privileges which come with being an MNA, for instance she flies economy class now. At the moment she is particularly active in raising money for the flood disaster.