On a freezing February morning in a bustling Soho cafe, I was to meet American-born Lebanese, Afeef Nessouli.
A New York-based CNN reporter, with a focus on Middle Eastern politics, Afeef had recently visited Pakistan on a "no-agenda" trip — today, he was bounding with energy to tell me all about his experiences.
Having grown up in Karachi, I was equally curious to learn what his perception of Pakistan was.
Afeef's stories were about places even an average Karachi dweller would rarely go to, he met with inspiring people that I wish to meet some day and most of all, he ended up engaging in interesting conversations with the public in ways that I, as a Pakistani, have never been able to.
“Pakistan is a very complex part of the world; its fabric woven with intricate layers of cultures and sub-cultures,” says Afeef Nessouli.
With Afeef’s background in politics, he opened with his biggest revelation about Pakistan:
It’s nothing like how the American media portrays it to be.
His friends too, couldn't wrap their heads around the idea of him visiting Pakistan.
“Why the hell would you go there? You will get killed,” he was frequently told. Afeef doesn’t blame them; the news on their TV screens and mobile phones tells them so.
“The US media, like in many other countries, just picks up on the most sensational aspects of a region and runs with it for maximum attention, ignoring the many exciting things happening in Pakistan,” Afeef says sipping on his latte.
Here, he shows me picture of himself with two security guards carrying assault rifles.
Anxious to hear more, I prodded him to tell me what he thought about the people.
“The first thing that struck me was the unity among Pakistanis against fear,” he blurts out. He commented on seeing more people out on the streets now, than three years ago, when he visited the country for the first time to attend a wedding.
Also read: Why every Indian should visit Pakistan
Back then, he was alarmed to learn that there was little or no concept of outdoor activity, perhaps largely driven by fear. He found it unsettling that many people spent a lot of their time indoors or in their cars.
“This time, I was happy to see the outdoor chai culture in Pakistan thriving, these people aren’t afraid.”
I felt the same during my visit to Karachi in December of last year — it seemed people were now refusing to be afraid; it’s funny what a cup of tea under the open sky can symbolise.
Afeef especially noted how the current debate in the country was essentially revolving around the people’s prime concern: protection for their children.
“The tragic APS attack on schoolchildren last year has been a major turning point in the overall mindset,” Afeef says.
Out of all the people he met during his trip, his meeting with Gauher Aftab struck me as the most interesting.
Gauher was brainwashed as a 12-year-old child by militants in Pakistan. Now, at the age of 30, Gauher runs a digital movement aimed at preventing Islamists from radicalising children — through a comic book series.
Afeef tells me when Gauher was recruited into a life of religious extremism by his teacher. He had just moved from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, with the isolation that cultural barriers bring.
From his own experience, Gauher thinks that playing on emotional vulnerabilities is a very, if not the most, powerful method of recruitment. Luckily, Gauher’s family was able to pull him away from his teacher’s influence but this experience was the ultimate breakthrough moment for him, leading to his digital movement.
I personally found it fascinating how Gauher chose to deal with his trauma and now, filters through it to help others. Rather than simply condemning religious extremism as a harsh ideology, these comic books focus on the day-to-day events that could possibly lead impressionable youth towards extremism.
“The art is powerful yet simple enough to explain the story to someone even if they can’t read the words,” Afeef says.
What really astounded Afeef was the over 70 per cent mobile phone penetration in the country!
“Smart phones are a whole different kind of movement there, but the good thing is, the antidote is also right in your hand,” Afeef reflects, referring to the digital version of Gauher’s comic books that is in the works.
Afeef’s friend, Sahar Ahmed arranged a trip to Aman Tech in the Korangi industrial area of Karachi where he met young Pakistanis being taught employable skills.
“If half of the Pakistani population is under-21 and lacks access to basic education. It is important to provide the undereducated youth with an alternative to gain access to a steady stream of income.”
To Afeef, women in Pakistan appeared generally conservative with a striking correlation between their progressiveness and their class status, he found upper class women to be more liberal and forward thinking.
However, I feel Afeef’s take on Pakistani women was a little dusty partly due to the media’s portrayal of only these two extremes and completely missing out on the educated and growing middle-class, where young Pakistani girls are becoming increasingly progressive and career-oriented.
Additionally, it should be noted that Afeef spent the majority of his time in Pakistan either hobnobbing with the elite or meeting people at the grass root level.
Walking towards the subway, dodging water puddles on the icy street, Afeef had one last thought as we parted:
“I see an astonishing resilience in the people of Pakistan — I wonder if that is partly due to their family values and bonds, that are probably the strongest I have ever seen. Everyone from your immediate family to your extended uncles and aunts look out for you, no matter how old you get! The interdependence is fascinating.”
On the rocky subway ride back home, I couldn’t help but wonder if it were indeed these family bonds that were holding the country’s basic fabric intact, despite everything?
I walked away from my chat with Afeef Nessouli hopeful that more people like him, are out there repairing public perceptions the world over.