Pakistan Diary

Day 8

I finished writing my journal late last night, and because I was tired I forgot to mention that my visit here has made national news. Yesterday morning Zulfiqar Abbasi brought a newspaper to Nadeem’s house. It was the Daily Khabrain, a widely read broadsheet in the Kashmir region written in Urdu. On the front page is an image of Mehmood Riaz (the Kashmir Information Minister) sitting in his armchair, with me and Kabir engaged in discussions with him. I am quietly alarmed by this development. Firstly we had not given permission nor been told this photograph would be used for publicity, I had assumed it was for records. Secondly I cannot read the text; if it reports that I am a politician and gives the game away that I am living in Pakistan for three months I had better think seriously about ending this trip. No doubt the Taliban or other extremist groups will read these papers and in my opinion a member, no matter how lowly, of Her Majesty’s government would make an obvious target. I cannot let an unquantified amount of people know what my travel plans are.

I ask Zulfiqar to translate and later, to be sure, I ask Waheed separately. Both translations corroborate. It reads, “Information Minister Mehmood Riaz meets with British Councillor Mr Michael and Royal Bank of Scotland’s Kabir Sabar”. It could be a lot worse: they could have published my surname; you can only see one side of my face; and I am in Western clothes (for the rest of the journey I plan to wear sharwal kameez). It does not state what my movements are and one can infer from the caption that I have probably already left the country. I am convinced that there is no way anyone reading this could know where my location will be in future. I search the internet to be sure and of all the other people I have met, I can only find one further piece of information: Marvi Memon has written on Twitter that she had evening tea with two British politicians, but does not elaborate any further. So I feel more relaxed and will be much more careful about the media in future. I save the paper for posterity. It was a close call.

So it is Monday morning and I have a full day planned. I get up early and Waheed and I go to buy sharwal kameez for me to wear. We go to an outdoor shopping area in the Blue Zone (a so-called district in the city), compared to Western standards it is unsophisticated, dusty and tatty. In Britain, whenever one sees a Pakistani immigrant in sharwal kamis and topi they usually wear an old-fashioned dogtooth blazer, Oxfam shop-esque jumper, or baggy beige anorak. I had up until now assumed that Pakistani immigrants had made an unsuccessful attempt to fuse Western and Eastern fashions by picking these items from the clothes rails of 1960s and 70s Marks and Spencers and never adapting the style. Actually, it was a misjudgement on my part. These anoraks, jumpers, and blazers spill out onto the streets of Islamabad from various clothes shops and I realise that they have not picked up the style in Britain, but have imported it from Pakistan. Waheed and I pick out three sharwal kameez: one grey, one white with embroidery, and one “skin colour”. I dislike the latter but feel I should get it because it is the most prevalent colour worn by Pakistanis over here. There is a power cut, the first I have experienced since arriving. Waheed pays and tells me if it was I who had brokered the deal it would have cost twice as much. I get three suits for about ?35, Waheed will not let me pay him back.

We also need to buy a phone card (I have used all my credit last night on two phone calls back home) and an internet top up card. The shopping district, the further one explores into it, turns into a bizarre; a labyrinth of narrow streets with shoe shiners, dozens of mobile phone accessory stalls, axe grinders and blade sharpeners. Almost every shopper and shopkeeper is male; it is midday and few women come out in the midday sun. Although I am with Waheed and our driver, Faisal, I really do not feel comfortable here. I stick out like a sore thumb, the place is bustling and there are absolutely no tourists or foreigners about.

We have finished shopping in the Blue Zone and we head to the car because we need to change some money. En route there are men having their beards trimmed in the street, boys pass us carrying plates piled high with hot naan breads and I see a school bus drive by. Pakistanis have no regard for road safety, the bus is crammed with children, heads poke out of the windows and on the roof of the bus twenty teenagers sit perilously holding on for their lives; no seats, no seatbelts, a roof rack similar to a camper van’s to keep them in. Oblivious to their likely impending doom, the children are having a bloody fantastic time.

Even the very richest in Pakistan have decidedly average cars; this is because they would have to pay enormous duty on importing a luxury vehicle and they probably do not want to chance getting it scratched and bashed on the disorderly roadways. Motorbikes snake in between traffic and women ride sidesaddle on the back; sometimes four people squeeze onto one motorcycle. Waheed does not know any specific reason why the shopping precinct is called the Blue Zone, and I ask him if there is a Red Zone. He says we are driving through it, I tell him that in the West a Red Zone is where prostitutes can be picked up and he laughs. Apparently the Red Zone in Islamabad is where the diplomats and politicians reside…

Before I left the UK I had done extensive research about my destination; Pakistan has had very bad press in Britain and although I knew the country to have dangerous areas, I wanted to make sure I was going with my eyes open. I had seen an Australian news clip on YouTube about the women of the Red Mosque in Islamabad. It reported that they were extremists that wanted to clamp down on the liberalisation of dress codes in the city and had even kidnapped and tortured a well-known madame who ran a well-frequented brothel. En route to the bank we pass the the same Red Mosque and many of the out buildings have been destroyed. Waheed, who sent two of his daughters to the Madrassa there, offers a different story to the news article I saw. He said the women of the Red Mosque did not torture the madame but convinced her to repent her sins; they are religous but not violent and had only wanted to ensure standards of decency were not compromised. The images of the burqa clad women brandishing sticks and marching through the city, chanting “Allah Akbar”, was a relatively peaceful protest in retaliation to two of their teachers being arrested for false counts of inciting terrorism. Whether they were extremists or they were devout sisters, Musharraf ordered the Madrassa section of the mosque to be bulldozed. According to Waheed many died whilst staging a protest inside the Madrassa as it was demolished, no one knows how many. Waheed thinks the value of the land played a part and that Musharraf had manfactured the atrocity to appear tough on terrorism. Either way, this crisis became the catalyst for major cities in Pakistan to be repeatedly attacked by terrorists; Islamabad has been on high alert ever since.

It is a beautiful day and we try one bank which has four guards armed with the customery baretta pumps action shotguns and AK-47s, but because they have run out of receipts we decide to go to another. We need to change ?5,500 cash into rupees so the charity can pay builders who have completed the final parts of the BHU. The next place we try is a money exchange, and the job is done. This money exchange has no guards and no CCTV so I am on high alert in case some chancer decides to steal two years’ wages from the unprotected counter. Unlike the UK, people wear ordinary civilian clothes when doing official jobs here. For instance, roadside repairs are done by people in everyday sharwal kameez, it looks as if someone has decided to take their home tools to the pavement just for fun, whereas in britain they’d at least have a fluorescent yellow jacket on. The same is apparent in the currency exchange; employees coming to bring large bricks of rupees from an undisclosed safe, looked like passers-by wandering in to peer over our shouldes and eye-up our ?20 notes. At times it was unnerving and I constantly imagined myself running after a would-be thief in the forethcoming moments.

When we get back I try on my sharwal kameez, Waheed says “Oh! Mr Michael sir you look very smart, just like an Afghani, or an Uzbeck or a Chechen Taliban”. I’m not sure how much this is a compliment, but I think he is part gesting. I’m getting on well with Waheed and he takes me very seriously, he respects what I have to say about the BHU and I am thankful for that. The rest of the day is taken up with me writing reports to Nadeem and arranging business meetings. Tomorrow we go shopping for more provisions because on Thursday I travel to Noon Bagla for the real hard work.

Pakistan Diary