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No stranger to Karachi

Updated April 21, 2016

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KARACHI: Having visited the city four times since 2003, Mauritius President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim knows her favourite Pakistani food (nihari), clothing brand (Khaadi), musicians (Nusrat Fateh Ali and Atif Aslam) and has even enjoyed a stroll at Clifton beach.

But what was most surprising about the graceful, articulate head of state is that she effortlessly switched to Urdu in the middle of the interview. “Hum bhi thori Urdu bol lete hain,” she smiled.

It was a humble admission. Ms Gurib learnt to read and write Urdu at school in Mauritius, where students can opt to learn one of several languages. When asked how she managed to maintain her fluency, she laughed: “Bollywood movies help! I can speak and understand it but unfortunately I am not able to write and read Urdu anymore.”

Ms Gurib’s recent visit to Karachi marked her first visit as a head of state. Previously, she has visited to collaborate with Karachi University’s impressive Hussain Ebrahim Jamal (HEJ) Institute of Chemistry, where Mauritian and other foreign students pursue PhDs. “It’s a world-class centre,” Ms Gurib said about her visit to the university this week. As someone who studied chemistry at the UK’s Exeter University, she feels the subject is very close to her heart and often describes herself as one of the rare leaders who “came to the presidency from a lab”.

As the first female president of the country — and that too from the minority Muslim community in her country — Ms Gurib is a big proponent of inter-faith and community dialogue.

“In this world, people have made a business out of fear; when you don’t know your neighbour, these fears can be exploited. As president my agenda is to take action to promote harmony.”

She talked about how her country’s strong cyber laws had resulted in imprisonment of those who incited violence and engaged in hate speech against any religious community.

President Gurib takes pride in hosting the heads of different religious communities for events together, where they eat and talk with each other to create an environment that fosters goodwill and tolerance. “Successive governments in my country have been careful not to let this spark [of religious friction] be ignited — it can badly affect the economy,” she said.

“We have specific cultural days where, for instance, we will celebrate one community and dedicate the day to their music and films,” she said, adding that Pakistani films were also aired on Mauritian television channels.

Asked as to how she felt about Karachi’s transformation over the past decade, she said the city was moving in the right direction. “There is definitely a better perception of security,” she said, adding that she was pleasantly surprised to see vocal, entrepreneurial women sending a positive message to the world about Pakistan.

Meanwhile, special assistant to the chief minister on culture PPP lawmaker Sharmila Faruqi was eager to show the visiting dignitary the very best of Karachi. She said: “I wanted to take her to eat at Okra and to Dolmen Mall, but the security situation is such that we couldn’t.

“The president didn’t want to inconvenience anyone with her protocol.” But the restrictions didn’t keep Ms Gurib from procuring Khaadi kurtas for herself and her father through her secretary. “We both bonded over how we are daddy’s girls!” exclaimed Ms Faruqi.

Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2016