Bad news from Pakistan are all partial truths: the versions of events that sell because they’re exciting and spicy. — AFP
I was recently in Lahore for some fieldwork towards my PhD and I can tell you what everyone else will tell you: it’s actually, really quite bad.
But, that’s not what this blog is about.
Sure, during my 3-week sojourn, the Guddu power line tripped twice; we queued for hours for petrol; and millions of Pakistanis watched schools turn into even more barbaric versions of themselves.
But, these are all partial truths: the versions of events that sell because they’re exciting and spicy.
Sensational, they pander to apocalyptic imaginaries of Pakistan, not unlike Hollywood’s obsession of the same for America (and, sometimes, the rest of the world); which is why they’re best left in cinemas.
Ordinary life — under the vitriolic spew, mad traffic, guns blazing, fires raging – is about Pakistanis who are staunchly human, surrounded by confused and inefficient systems against which the only natural response right now seems to be aggression.
Yet, we are about 180 humans waiting patiently in line at the Shaukat Ali Road PSO, some of us jaywalking across the road to get tikkai from Model Town Flats, others settling for Qalandri daal chawal, many loitering around, joking or complaining about the government, then hopping back into the car to creep up a few feet.
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The time my sister and I queue at Allahu Chowk, and have to push the car, every boy or man who passes by or is in a nearby car offers to push instead if we want to get back into the car. We give them ripe, plump kinoon in exchange. (I still push with them and nobody comments on a girl pushing a car.)
My sister goes to get groceries on her bicycle and nobody says anything to her; she later reveals to me that in my absence, she’s made a regular habit of it and has gotten quite trim in the process. We live in the middle-class Faisal Town, the boys of which area are often quoted as being ‘pervs’ until you accost them to draw them into conversation about what a good job PHA’s done with Motiya Park and they offer their cricket bat to you if you want to play for a while.
Everybody cheers. One of the boys watching turns out to be the fruit seller at Kotha Pind, to where I have been a regular customer since I first moved to Lahore in 2003.
He gives me a tremendous discount because I’m home after such a long time and the weather is pleasant.
The fishmonger at the Canal exit onto Muratib Ali Road also gives me a discount – of 1,000 rupees – because I tell him I haven’t enough money that day to buy the Maan Sher he’s just brought in that morning from Chashma Barrage.
On an evening when petrol isn’t such an issue, I head out to buy some clothes because I’m in Lahore in the winter after three years. The car overheats and an uncle driving a rickshaw stops with his entire toolkit and fixes the fan by the flashlight of my reliable Nokia 1260.
Maybe I should have been scared; security is simultaneously unreliable and priceless these days.
Despite the intense uncertainly, however, memory and trust still lives in our people: some of the oldest guards at GC greet me warmly and instead of asking for my ID card, ask how my studies are going in England and when I will come back home.
The deputy registrar buys me coffee and also reminds me to hurry back home.
How can I not consider this when I ring an old professor from GC, who instantly recognises my voice and is promptly at the university the next day to allow me to interview him for my research?
I chase students for my research, especially since their schools are shut and I can’t get a hold of them.
I am moved by those who open up their homes, lives and deepest frustrations and even guilt to me in the hope that it can ‘make things better for Pakistan’.
People believe in me and it makes me want to believe in them and I can see that is how we can start to build back trust.
The morning I am leaving, the country is in a blackout and the airport is in chaos, working off emergency lights and just two counters.
The man behind the check-in desk allows me six kilos of extra weight for free because he believes me when I tell him I’ve been in town for research and my luggage is mostly books and papers (100 per cent true).
All he asks in return is, ‘bas yeh na kehna ke Pakistan achi jaga nahin hai’ (just don’t say Pakistan is not a good place).
How do I tell him what Pakistan means to me, whether as research question, conflicted home or soft spot tucked away deep under a hard demeanour?
Maybe my story is constituted by exceptions, yes.
Perhaps biased by the part of town in which my family lives or the sort of person I might be or that I’ve spent years roaming the streets, building deep connections with Lahoris.
I know for every good story I narrate, somebody can counter with 10 bad ones. But this isn’t a competition and that’s the point.
Pakistan lives because it still has good people and if we can remember that more often and learn to value each other for whatever goodness we have left – regardless of how various our belief systems might be – we can take ginger steps towards reclaiming tolerance.