The Alive and Well in Pakistan project provides independent reporting from and about Pakistan, humanizing Pakistanis for a global audience and giving Pakistanis worldwide an honest, sympathetic portrayal of their situation in the contemporary world that goes beyond the headlines and cliches, in film, print and other media such as short videos, still photography, and audio.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hi from Pakistan!

We've been in Pakistan for twelve days, and not incidentally it's also been twelve days since I posted a blog entry. It's been a very full twelve days, and I look forward to telling you all about it in future blog entries, in slide shows, and in the new book.

I'm ambivalent about blogging while traveling anyway, because traveling has to take priority; particularly in this era of global virtual connectedness, direct in-person experience is crucially important. So I'll be sharing more substantial material with you on this blog beginning very soon after I return home to Seattle on April 11.

For today, I'll say: Pakistan is, as ever, a jumble of maddening contradictions. The provisional triumph of the lawyers' movement on March 15-16 is arguably (or potentially) historic and merits a lot more, and sustained, respectful attention in the West and elsewhere outside Pakistan. Urban Pakistanis, whether they consider themselves "liberal" or "religious" or both or neither, are very worried about the situations in Swat and Waziristan and, indeed, in the Punjab, which is Pakistan's heartland. Everyone I've talked to has ruefully confirmed the apparent wisdom of my decision not to visit Peshawar. And yet the rest of the story is that life goes on.

The conditions that have kept me from blogging might be interesting to relate. For a week, Pete and I were in Islamabad, where the place we were staying happened to be somewhere without wi-fi. Our only options there were either to buy a card to connect via dial-up, or (as Pete discovered late in the week by trial and error) by going up on the roof and standing in a certain corner where we could pick up a neighbor's unsecured network. On a nearby street we could use an acquaintance's ethernet cable, but only outside of office hours, and we lost that option when his service got cut off because he hadn't paid his bill. So, out of desperation, we discovered that the Pizza Hut at the Jinnah Super shopping area had an unsecured network, and I could use it when we happened to be there, either stealing the network while sitting on a little concrete wall outside, or by sitting in a booth (and buying some food we didn't really want) in a crowded Pizza Hut.

Here in Kharian, a town on the Grand Trunk Road between Islamabad and Lahore where we're visiting an innovative small hospital, the only place I can get online is actually a hospital room, where a nurse sits at a desk with an ethernet connection. I happen to be alone in the room as I write this, but only because I insisted I needed 20 minutes by myself, and people are waiting for me.

We're driving two hours towards Kashmir today and back in the evening; we've delayed our return to Lahore by a day because of a high security alert in the wake of an attack yesterday on a police academy in which a couple of dozen policemen were killed. "I think security disturb you, you guys," said our very nice young driver, Tahir, meaning the checkpoints on roads entering the city. "You foreigners." So we're going to Kashmir today instead.

The photo is of Tahir (at right) on the Grand Trunk Road between Kharian and Lahore.

More soon!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On being overtaken by events, and personal danger

First of all, thank you very much to those of you who made financial contributions after I posted the last entry. My collaborators and I appreciate your support and, as soon as I can, I'll be sure to thank each of you personally. If you haven't contributed yet, or in a while, please consider doing so through the ChipIn widget in the right column of this page. Literally any large or small amount is helpful both concretely and in terms of our morale.

Writing about Pakistan, one is always being overtaken by events. This is one of the reasons I prefer writing books to writing topical articles that all too quickly become yesterday's news, and why my instinct is to hesitate to opine on Pakistan. There's plenty of opining out there already - too much, in fact.

When terrorists attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore on March 3, who could have predicted that less than two weeks later the situation in Pakistan would be so (provisionally) encouraging, the mood so (cautiously) jubilant? If you're not familiar with what happened in Pakistan on Monday, read this article.

I intended to write and post blog entries about our visits to Hyderabad (Deccan) and Delhi, but those can wait. In fact, I've already decided that I'm going to post weekly after this trip, drawing on the material from this trip for the blog even as I rework and repurpose it for the new book I'm writing. The book, by the way, is blossoming nicely into a fully-fledged, full-length sequel to Alive and Well in Pakistan.

In the meantime, I'll do my best to blog as often as possible while traveling, though practical considerations sometimes make it difficult. I'll try to post frequently, rather than composing formal 700-word essays, until I get back to Seattle in mid-April.

In this post, I wanted to comment briefly on the concern that many Indian as well as American friends (and relatives) have expressed for me and Pete Sabo as we get closer and closer in both time and space to our border crossing into Pakistan. I don't mean to sound high-minded, but I do feel a moral, or at least personal, compulsion to bear witness, to be there, to show up when a place and - more to the point - people I care about are being affected by the vicissitudes of contemporary history.

I don't think this is something everyone needs to do, or should feel compelled to do, but somebody does need to do it. If no one did it, we who live on the safer side of the looking glass would never have any direct, or even credible second-hand, knowledge of what actually happens in countries we consider "dangerous". Allowing the mere possibility of personal danger to keep us from ever visiting, say, Pakistan would be tantamount to expressing indifference to the fate of those who have no option but to live there. And I'm not willing to do that.

Plus, believe it or not, many people who live in Pakistan actually like it there, for many good reasons.  :-)

I took the photo that accompanies this post. It's Pete Sabo, my friend and traveling companion who is taking most of the photos on this trip, with a camel in the background, in Agra near the Taj Mahal last Sunday. I thought you'd like to see the face of the guy who's usually behind the camera.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Revisiting Kashmir

The headline of this post is a little deceptive, since we haven’t visited Kashmir on this trip and are not planning to, except perhaps briefly on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control. But in Bombay I got a chance to revisit the situation of Kashmir, from the perspective of an Indian’s experience.

Kurien Abraham is a 31-year-old South Indian, a Christian, who works as a desk editor for the business TV channel UTVI. When he was 24 he was working for ANI, a service part-owned by Reuters that produces wire stories as well as shows for Doordarshan, India’s little-watched government-owned channel.

“I wasn’t prepared to go to Kashmir,” he told me. “I just walked into the office and they said, ‘Go.’ Because things were heating up. I didn’t know what to expect. I covered really bad encounters, and I thought it was too early in my career for me to see such things.”

Kurien spent five months in Kashmir in 2002, the first three weeks in Jammu, then in areas near the Line of Control.

“The problem was that I was sent there to get stories about good things that the army was doing,” he said. “The standard question you’re supposed to ask is, ‘Why is your life so miserable?’ And they’re supposed to answer that it’s because of Pakistan, because they’re shelling. But if you ask them honestly, they’ll say it’s because of both sides.

“You can’t go on like that. But I’ve learned that most of reporting is like that: you try to get them to say what you want them to say.” He says this apparently not in bitterness, but with a chuckle. “Kashmir shapes you in terms of what kind of journalist you want to become. You’re forced to say and do things that – either you want to say and do them because you want to get the story, or …”

“Would you be willing to speak candidly about it?” I asked him.

“Sure. As I said, it’s a free country.” He laughed. “But you’ve been to Kashmir?”


“It’s a strange place. You feel sorry for the army people, and you feel sorry for the Kashmiris. Most of them just want to go to war, to get it over with. Most of the army, they don’t know what they’re doing there. It’s a conscious effort to keep North Indians away from Kashmir. All the soldiers are from Southern battalions and from the Northeast. So they don’t know why they’re there. So they take it out on the people.”

I wrote this post on the train from Hyderabad to Delhi, where we arrived Thursday morning, and I've just now (Friday evening) been able to publish it. We had a fascinating 4-5 days in Hyderabad, which I’ll try to write about next. If possible, I’ll post twice more before leaving India – once each about Hyderabad and Delhi. I promise at least one photo with the next post.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Lahore, as seen from Mumbai

MUMBAI - The unavoidable topic - this week's elephant in the subcontinent - is the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore.

Pete Sabo and I returned Tuesday morning to our friend Kurien Abraham's apartment in Santa Cruz East after interviewing Mahrukh Inayat, a reporter for Times Now, India's top-rated English-language TV news channel, about her native Kashmir and her experience of reporting the 60-hour terrorist siege in Mumbai last November. Kurien walked in and told us about what had just happened in Lahore, and we spent the next hour watching Times Now.

Mahrukh's boss, Arnab Goswami, was hosting the Breaking News coverage. Kurien and others described Times Now to us as "the Fox News of India," but now he clarified: "They're not actually right-wing; they're sensational. Anything that sells." Goswami called Lahore "the epicenter of the political free-for-all in Pakistan right now" and interviewed K.C. Singh, former secretary of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, who suggested that if Shahbaz Sharif - brother of former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and strongman of the country's crucial Punjab province - were still running Punjab (he was sacked by the Supreme Court last week), the attack might not have happened. "It's a very, very dangerous vacuum that's been created at the center of Pakistani life," said Singh. "I think America needs to stop supporting President Zardari and stop pushing the Sharif brothers into a corner."

I know Liberty Circle, the scene of the attack, well. The suit I've been wearing to all those Pakistani charity banquets and gatherings around North America was tailor-made at a shop in Liberty Market just down the street. If you've read Alive and Well in Pakistan, you'll remember the long passage recounting the Pakistan-South Africa one-day cricket match I attended at Gaddafi Stadium with great enjoyment, in the general enclosure (the cheap seats), in September 2003. Now, there's serious talk of Pakistan becoming a "no-go zone" for international cricket - and anyone who knows this region knows that that's a big deal.

The fact that the attack hits home for me personally does give me pause, but it also underscores what I feel as a vocational compulsion to bear witness. That, and eliciting and transmitting human sympathy and understanding, are really the only useful things a writer can do.

I intended this post to cover some interesting conversations we had here in Mumbai about Pakistan and related topics, but the Lahore attack happened. Perhaps I'll write another one Friday night on the train to Hyderabad and post it from there.

The photo accompanying this post is of me at Juhu Beach with Vidha Saumya, a young Indian woman who recently studied at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, where I taught in 2003-04. You'll hear about her in future posts and in the planned new book.