Trip to Pakistan

July 5, 2007 by  


Siraj Wahab, By Special Arrangement with Arab News

The soaring minarets of the majestic King Faisal Mosque in Islamabad reach heavenward and reflect the nation’s confident drive to the future.

“Can you accompany us to Pakistan to cover the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers in Islamabad?” Well, it is the dream of every Indian to visit Pakistan just as it is the dream of every Pakistani to visit India. The reason is simple: Each wants to see and to feel how the two countries have progressed since independence six decades ago. I have always been fascinated by Pakistan, its people and its cuisine, its poets and playwrights, its hockey players and cricket champions. “Yes, of course,” was my instant reply to the man at the other end of the line — the senior adviser to the secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. “Will you have problems getting there?” he asked, obviously referring to my being an Indian national. “Please check it out with the Pakistani Consulate.”

The next day, my call was at the office of Pakistani Consul General Masood Akhtar. “Just come down and it will be taken care of.” So armed with my passport and the mandatory exit/re-entry visa, I arrived. Akhtar is a thorough gentleman with a great sense of both history and humor. A poet at heart, he advocates person-to-person contact between India and Pakistan. “We have nothing to hide,” he told me. “I am glad you are going there. You will see for yourself what a proud and colorful nation we are. What appears in the media is far from reality. You will discover this for yourself.”

The consul general had not even completed his comments plus an odd couplet here and there when my passport arrived with a Pakistani visa duly stamped on it. It was issued gratis with permission to travel wherever I wished. “You got your visa before you even finished filling out the forms. Will this happen anywhere else in the world?”

“Nowhere,” I nod in affirmation. Akhtar doesn’t indulge in theatrics. What he does is what he believes in. He has demonstrated this on several occasions during his four-year term in Jeddah. In the process, he ruffled many feathers, but then he is a quintessential Pathan from the Afridi clan. “We say what we mean and mean what we say.” Ten days later I was to realize that Pakistan was teeming with people such as Masood Akhtar — full of warmth and kind spirits, big hearts and legendary hospitality.

The flight to Pakistan was circuitous. We were flying Emirates and so had to make the mandatory visit to Dubai. After just three hours in the air I felt tired. The prospect of spending four more hours before my final destination made me even more restless. There is not much that you can do at Dubai’s splashy airport except watch people of all nationalities coming in from all directions and running off in the same. Shopping, if any, at the famous Dubai Duty Free is an activity reserved for the return trip.

As we leave the plane in Islamabad, a blast of hot air hits my face. It is hot as expected because it is the middle of May. Not much to write home about the airport itself. It is ordinary; there is nothing “extra” about it. It is, however, very clean. Just as I am completing the immigration formalities I bump into Pakistan’s best-known TV personality Dr. Shahid Masood. He works out of Dubai but has arrived in the Pakistani capital to get a first-hand feel for the fast-changing political developments in the country. After exchanging pleasantries and our contact details, we head in different directions.

All the immigration kiosks are staffed by women. Modestly dressed in elegant uniforms, they seem self-assured. As one of them patiently flips through the pages of my passport, I wonder why this country always gets a negative press. Why doesn’t anyone write about these little aspects of Pakistani life that so contradict the negative images in the media. The Pakistan we see in pictures transmitted by Associated Press, AFP and Reuters is that of a failed nation where everyone is armed, and bearded men bay for blood. Where women are subjugated and humiliated and every mosque is associated with Lal Masjid. All nonsense. “What?” the immigration attendant asks me, because without realizing, I had muttered that last a bit loudly. “Nothing,” I excuse myself sheepishly. “Thank you.”

A Pakistan Foreign Ministry representative is waiting for us foreign journalists at the airport. We get into the plush car that takes us to our destination — a small, but cozy guest house far from the city center. I don’t mind it; I hate five-star hotels. Everything about them is so artificial, right from the guy at the door to the one at the front desk. They are paid to smile even when they are cursing the guests under their breath — just like overworked and overtired airhostesses. The guys at the guest house are exceptionally warm. They greet us as if we are long-lost relatives. The rooms are cozy and airy, and from my balcony I have a breathtaking view of the city itself. It is all green, and the heat that greeted us at the airport is no more. What a relief. We dump our luggage and head straight to the Foreign Ministry offices to get our badges.

The summit begins next day. “So what do we do now?” we ask our guide Kamran Khan, an affable and well-built Punjabi from Gujranwala. “I can take you around the city.” “Yes,” we say, and off we go. Islamabad is a beautiful city — no two opinions about that. It is neat and green and nestled nicely among the mountains. It has wide, well-maintained roads. The city was built during the 1960s to replace the port city of Karachi as the nation’s capital. Karachi, the military planners felt, was vulnerable to Indian attack from the sea. “Islamabad was considered safe because it is surrounded by these mountains,” says Khan and then interrupts his thought for a while…

“There,” he points to the clearly visible minarets pointing skyward. “That is the famous Faisal Mosque.” We are far away from the mosque. “That is at the extreme end of Shaharah-e-Islamabad,” adds Khan. To be honest, the only thing I knew about Islamabad was this beautiful mosque. In Eid editions, we invariably carry a picture of this beautiful mosque filled with the faithful dressed in their colorful best. It makes a fantastic Eid picture. The other thing that I knew was that near this mosque Gen. Zia-ul-Haq rests in peace. Gen. Zia is my favorite. And much of my opinion about him is based on brilliant articles written about him by Natwar Singh in Indian newspapers. Singh was India’s ambassador in Islamabad during much of Gen. Zia’s time.

The majestic mosque sits at the foot of the lush green hills. It represents an eight-faceted desert “tent” supported on four giant concrete girders surrounded by four 90-meter high concrete minarets. The central “tent” is faced in white marble and decorated inside with mosaics and a spectacular chandelier. An international competition was held in 1969 in which architects from 17 countries submitted 43 proposals. After four days of deliberation, Turkish architect Vedat Dalokay’s design was chosen. Construction of the mosque began in 1976 and was entirely funded by Saudi Arabia. It cost more than SR130 million. The mosque was completed in 1986. I read somewhere that many Muslims criticized the mosque’s unconventional design at the time of its construction. Unlike traditionally-designed mosques, it lacks a dome, and, like a tent, the weight of the main prayer hall in the center is supported by the four minarets. The interior of the prayer hall holds a very large chandelier, and its walls are decorated with mosaics and calligraphy by the famous Pakistani artist Sadeqain. The architecture is definitely a departure from the long history of South Asian Muslim architecture. Without a doubt, the mosque is now the city’s most recognized and well-known sight.

After three days of covering the OIC event, we are bored. The other journalists rush to cover other stories. I am not interested. I instead decide to head to Lahore. “Jinne Lahore Nayee Dekhya O Jamya Nayee.” One who has not seen Lahore is not born, goes a famous Punjabi saying. “It is the heart of Pakistan,” says Azhar Masood, our very knowledgeable bureau chief in Islamabad. “Your trip will be meaningless if you skip Lahore.” I decide to go via the country’s first motorway, which was built by deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif under a special agreement between the Pakistan government and the South Korean industrial giant Daewoo. The bus service is called the “Daewoo Express,” and it takes just four hours to travel the distance between Islamabad and Lahore. Again a woman called Sadiya makes the customary announcement in crisp English and Punjabi Urdu at the start of the journey. It all sounds like a plane journey except that we are on terra firma. I want to interview her and do a full-length story on her. The world has had enough of Mukhtaran Mai. But I hold myself back fearing that I might miss the scenery. I want to feel the Pakistani landscape.

Lahore is the site of the first Mogul conquests of India. Situated between the Mogul centers and the strongholds of Kabul, Multan and Kashmir, the city had great strategic importance for the empire. Lahore became the most important Mogul city after Agra, until Shahjahanabad (Delhi) eclipsed them both. Akbar rebuilt an earlier fort on the site, enlarging and strengthening it by replacing the original clay walls with solid brick masonry. Lahore Fort is contemporary with Agra Fort, and is based on the same formal organization, although it is smaller, and distinguished by strong Persian stylistic influences, as well as Hindu influences also apparent at the Agra and Delhi forts. Akbar’s successors, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and other Mogul and later Sikh rulers would make revisions, replacing many of the original buildings but the underlying organization has remained. The fort is awesome.

One of the most impressive places in Lahore is the Badshahi Mosque. Red sandstone and white marble are the dominant materials in the mammoth mosque. The arched entrance opens on a large quadrangle paved with solid bricks. To the west of this square is the mosque, with three marble domes. The incredible symmetry of these giant domes is a marvel of harmony in stone. With its numerous chambers and halls, its minarets and domes, which make free use of inlaid marble, this mosque emanates a surprising calm considering its enormous size.

Just at the entrance is the famous poet Iqbal’s mausoleum. According to books on Iqbal, one design for the mausoleum was rejected because it showed Catholic influences. Another design, submitted by an architect from Hyderabad in India was found more suitable but rather too delicate. Its architect, Zain Yar Jang, was called to Lahore where Iqbal’s trustee, Chaudhury Muhammed Hussain, took him to the poet’s grave. “On one side is the mosque, which represents the glory of Muslims,” he said. “On the other is the fort, which represents their wordly power. The tomb between them would look nice only if it effused simplicity with strength. These were also the prominent aspects of Iqbal’s own temperament.” At Iqbal’s tomb I am reminded of what the great poet said about Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. “You are a patriot while Jinnah is a politician,” Nehru quotes Iqbal as saying in one of his books. Nehru and Iqbal shared, as many will recall, a similar Kashmiri Brahmin background.

There is no comparison between India and Pakistan in terms of geographical area. India is huge — too huge. And until Pakistan achieved nuclear parity with India, there was no question of Islamabad’s military disadvantage compared to Delhi’s. The three wars that the two countries fought demonstrated beyond any doubt India’s conventional military superiority. But having gone nuclear, Pakistan effectively neutralized India’s conventional superiority. The chances of any war between the two South Asian giants now look pretty remote. “This change of atmosphere has lent a new dynamism to relations between the two countries,” points out Azhar Masood. Pakistan is a confident nation now. It doesn’t suffer any longer from insecurity complex, and it is no longer paranoid. For those who have not noticed, it no longer blames the Indian intelligence agency, RAW, for each and every blast occurring in the country. This is exactly what the late Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai advocated in the 1970s. He rightly felt that a confident and strong Pakistan was good for India.

Indeed, confident Pakistanis are now craving democracy. The voices against dictatorship have become shriller. It was the fear of India that forced a terrified population into the willing arms of the military. That is no longer the case, and this was made doubly clear by a poster that I saw on a roadside hotel in Islamabad. It was aimed directly at the men in uniform: “Apne mulk ko fatah karna band karo” (Stop conquering your own nation).

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