A week ago, in the course of my work trying to bring what I call the Pakistan that I know – the 98 per cent or so of Pakistan’s story that doesn’t get told in the US media – to the American public, I visited Houston for the first time. I went there because Houston is home to one of the largest Pakistani communities in the United States, and I wanted to start getting to know that community. In those terms, my weekend in Houston was successful (and many thanks to my generous hosts and new friends there, especially Omer and Mahenou Ilahi and Dr. Asaf Riyaz Qadeer).
But my first glimpse of Houston itself was depressing. Not surprising, mind you, but depressing nonetheless. It reminded me of a bitter lyric by the singer John Mellencamp: “I went down the highway ’til I came to Los Angeles/The Town of the Angels, the best this country can do.” My mother reminds me to be polite because Houston is where she was born, but I see little point in avoiding the evidence of my own eyes.
So far I’ve only glimpsed Houston, but that’s partly because I spent so much of my time there driving from one place to another on the freeways. I was staying in a hotel near the main airport (George Bush Intercontinental Airport – they don’t specify which George Bush), north and east of the city, and most of my appointments were south and west of the city, so several times I had to drive an hour or more, each way, around and/or through Houston, on unfamiliar, congested multi-lane freeways with confusing signs and exits. In that sense, I’m afraid it’s only too fair to say that I saw a lot of Houston – even if all I saw was the freeways.
I live by choice in Seattle, and there are a couple of things that it’s fair to say about Seattle: that it’s a bit smug, and that it’s very far away from the rest of America. It’s also quite a liveable and walkable place, and I find myself craving the chance simply to stay at home there and ignore the [stuff] that’s hitting the fan everywhere else. But that’s not an option. I fly a lot these days, often long flights – four hours each way to Houston and back – and I don’t enjoy it much.
Getting through a post-9/11 American airport is invariably a humiliating experience (and if I feel that way, I can only imagine how my Muslim friends must feel); on most flights they don’t even give you a free bag of peanuts anymore; and air travel is jarring in a way that I find more disturbing than interesting. To wake up in your own bed in Seattle and go to sleep in an airport motel in Houston is like getting beamed from the ship on Star Trek down to the surface of a strange planet with a noxious atmosphere.
Three years ago photographer Pete Sabo and I were preparing for a trip that ended up taking place in the spring of 2009 and resulting in my book Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010). I always point out very proudly that we made the entire trip overland; we didn’t get on an airplane from the time we landed in Mumbai until we flew home from Karachi six weeks later. It was exhausting but exhilarating, and the fact that we traveled overland is important. A premise of Overtaken By Events is that the Pakistan that I know and love is much more interesting than the Pakistan that we’re shown on television.
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