JANINE LAZARUS finds peace in Pakistan
My eyes opened in Pakistan.
I flew into Karachi last week with a mixture of emotions, not least of which was palpable unease.
Weeks before I left, reports of contact killings, bombing threats, riots and kidnapping had pebbled the press like automatic gunfire. My client in Karachi described the situation as “tense and fluid”, whatever that meant.
This was my third journey into Pakistan but it didn’t make me feel any easier. Three weeks before my first excursion into the country in 2009, the hotel I was booked to stay in got bombed. Add to this, the ominous security briefing I received on arrival.
The security guidelines, tucked into an inconspicuous medium-sized envelope, provided a gamut of emergency contact numbers from Vigilance Supervisors to Security Managers across the country. But the one criterion that gave me pause for thought was the instruction to travel “under requisite security cover.”
True to the security checklist, a designated driver whisked me away from Karachi International Airport with an armed policeman riding shotgun. The fact that neither of us could converse in a mutually understood language made things even more strained.
I lost count of the security checkpoints, booms and armed personnel – and that was just on exiting the terminal building. More of the same awaited us as we drove through the midnight streets of Karachi.
Reading the rest of the checklist under the light of my mobile phone, I was instructed to avoid markets, shopping centres, public gatherings, “well-known expatriate meeting points” like restaurants, and “western” chains such as Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Under the strict directive “never to display a high profile,” I spent the rest of that uncomfortable road trip huddled on the back seat.
Well, I’m ashamed. I was seeing things through the eyes of the western media, tainted by barrage upon barrage of negative press coverage. More disturbing perhaps, is that Pakistani journalists seem to echo the distorted views of their western counterparts.
Writing in the daily newspaper Pakistan Today, columnist Imran Husain penned a harrowing account of his country in his February 16 column entitled: “Inside the volcano.”
“Last night, it came to me,” he said. “This feeling of unease, insecurity, uncertainty gurgling within like burning rocks, melting earth, sounds of guts spewing, imminent disaster. It’s like being inside a volcano. That’s Pakistan today, a recipe for disaster, waiting to spew its bowels.”
Now, if that is the view of the local media on the ground, then the west cannot be entirely blamed for their poisoned pens. And apart from the violent language of political instability, widespread corruption and visible military intervention, there are other factors to consider. Unemployment is sky high, inflation is a cause of great concern, and GDP growth doesn’t seem to anywhere near an upward trajectory.
But life – even in a war zone –goes on. Like everywhere else, people go about their business, doing their best to eke out a living and get on with things. The outdoor restaurants still make money, as do the hawkers selling their wares on the dusty street corners.
Motorists skillfully traverse the chaotic street, jockeying for position with multi-coloured buses and trucks. Old motorcycles – seemingly a preferred mode of transport – also find a way to their destination. Layers of soft fabric shroud the pretty faces of female passengers precariously riding pillion on these motorbikes, their dark eyes peering at their surroundings.
The locals are faultlessly polite, smiling at the slightest hint of a greeting. In fact, during my week-long stay in a solidly walled-off hotel in the city centre with the requisite armed guards and dogs, the staff fell over themselves to be of assistance.
It was evident during my Media Training programme that the business leaders in this city have earned their stripes. Their grasp of their country’s precarious position is almost impossible to argue with.
Has Pakistan earned its nefarious reputation? Is the media agenda distorted?