It's Troubled, But It's Home
During the winter holidays, much of the Pakistani diaspora makes its way back to the homeland. It is wedding season and -- for those with the means and of a secular persuasion -- party season as well. Flights are fully booked, airfares are astronomically high, and even circuitous itineraries via places such as Istanbul and Muscat are in great demand.
Middle-class families in Pakistan often tell a similar tale of numbers. Of my parents and their siblings, 13 people in total, 11 live in Pakistan. But of their 26 children -- my generation -- 15 of us reside abroad. Pakistan has become an increasingly unsettled place, and many of my peers have voted with their feet.
But not always with their hearts. As my wife and I board our flight from London to Lahore, evident all around us is a longing for home -- for the friends and family who are central to Pakistani culture in a way that many foreigners find so remarkable. (As an admiring American roommate of mine once said, "All you guys do is hang out.") This duality of Pakistan as a place both troubled and normal, a place capable of producing a large diaspora while also affectionately tugging at those who have left, is often lost on the world's media. International news outlets tend to cast Pakistan as the one-dimensional villain of a horror film, a kind of Jason or Freddie whose only role is to frighten. Scant attention is paid to the hospitality, the love for music and dance, or the simple ordinariness of 164 million people going about their daily lives.
As we take our seats on a Pakistan International Airlines Boeing 777, my fellow passengers do not look to me like embodiments of the hearts and minds of an important frontline state in the "war on terror." They look like people excited to be headed home.
We touch down early on the morning of Sunday, Dec. 23. One of my brothers-in-law is getting engaged and a cousin is getting married, so I am soon busy running from one family event to another, often followed by late-night hangout sessions with old friends.
Naturally, we talk politics. It is immediately evident to me how unpopular President Pervez Musharraf has become. A year ago, many people said that he was at least partially good for the country. But Musharraf's conflict with the judiciary, suppression of independent television channels and crackdown on pro-democracy and human rights activists have embittered most of those who previously gave him credit for economic growth and stability.
My brother-in-law is much younger than I am, in his early 20s. He and his friends are poster boys for the "enlightened moderation" that Musharraf claims to want to promote. One is a computer programmer who works for a small company in Lahore that designs particle effects (smoke from explosions, blood splattering from gunshot wounds) for international video game studios. Another is a film student working on a pilot for a television show for his college thesis. But even liberal young Pakistanis like them are keen to see an end to Musharraf's rule. I hear again and again that Pakistan needs to give democracy a chance, and that for that to happen, Musharraf must go.
I accompany my wife's family to my brother-in-law's engagement. It is customary for the prospective groom's family to go to the home of the prospective bride and make a formal proposal for her hand. The lights go out in the middle of our visit -- due to power shortages, Pakistan suffers from rolling 30-minute blackouts -- and we have to wait in darkness before the bride-to-be can make her appearance and rings can be exchanged.
The following day I am chatting with my parents when a friend calls and tells me to turn on the television. At first, it seems that there has been an explosion at a political rally attended by Benazir Bhutto, but that Bhutto herself is unharmed. Later, the news channels say that she has been injured and taken to the hospital. Finally, we hear the announcement that she has died. I am surprised by the strength of my reaction. It is the most upsetting event in the history of Pakistan that I can personally recall.
Riots soon erupt across the country, most violently in Karachi, where my cousin's wife, a microbiologist, has just completed a medical ethics exam. Her taxi is attacked by a gang of teenage boys who smash its windows with sticks. The driver manages to turn around and escape, and she spends the night at the nearby home of a friend, unable to make it to her destination until the following day because of the violence in the streets.