I don’t know what to think anymore when I hear the word Pakistan; it still elicits a longing to drop everything and take the first flight there but simultaneously also makes my heart sink.
I feel a sense of tranquility when I go to Pakistan. It is my escape, my haven. The love and compassion my relatives shower me with is overwhelming. When I’m there, the atmosphere is so rich it doesn’t matter if the electricity is not around long enough for me to charge my phone, the water only runs at certain times of the day, and the internet is so notoriously unreliable I can ‘regrettably’ inform people on departure not to bother e-mailing me because I won’t be able to reply.
How the locally-wired internet connection consisting of half-a-mile of wire originating from the local internet cafe four doors away, snaking along walls and up concrete stairs and under wooden doors to the relevant USB port managed to clunk along long enough for me to rank 300 preferences for my house jobs is no small wonder. Maybe it was the desire to get away from the devil in disguise (also known as a computer) with which I have a turbulent but obsessive relationship when back home in England, but after about number three I didn’t care anymore. I simply clicked blindly down the list 297 times till I was done. I was lucky I got my first choice; otherwise I would no doubt have been cursing my laissez-faire attitude when the reality of ‘real’ life inevitably hit home on entering the glass doors at the Allama Iqbal International Airport.
I incorrectly pride myself on a trip some years back to Kashmir, and how I loved living in a solitary house high on a mountain, a place with no gas or electricity with scorching hot days and sub zero nights, a four-hour trek from the nearest road. A technology-free bliss where the only beast was nature and the only vice, food. My attitude no doubt is the ill-informed arrogance of another silly western tourist who thinks they’ve lived it rough despite not having to lift a finger whilst out there. I like to hope that at least my heart was in the right place.
For me, being in Pakistan gives me a sense of peace, but as a colleague recently pointed out, the only reason you enjoy the simple life on your excursions is because inevitably, you know the comforts you will be going back to. Of course, at the time I vehemently denied any such claims, but honestly speaking he certainly had a point and most probably hit the nail right on its head.
What of those people who don’t have a parallel universe, for whom life is so difficult that even their dreams cannot afford thoughts of a better life? I won’t even mention the government or struggling finances or natural disaster – some of the biggest crises facing Pakistan today. I want to instead focus on situations at a more individual and anecdotal level. My last trip to Pakistan was a short one, in five days what happened in our small town alone made my heart bleed.
Firstly, as I step through the familiar metal gates of the house that my grandfather built, I spot my uncle across the courtyard; he has white bandages across his head and with a circle of blood seeping through just to prove the injury is real, Bollywood style. It transpires that the cracked forehead and 17 stitches are a result of being head across the head repeatedly with a cricket bat while defending a young boy who unwittingly enraged a gang by likening one of them to a canine. A minor tiff has resulted in a bloodbath. Their intentions were to kill. Thankfully, acknowledgment of my families’ political connections protects this child at least from a further attempt.
I hear of a young woman, no older than me, whose husband has thrown her out because he can no longer support her, her own family want nothing to do with her. The local darbar is the only available sanctuary for her and her young child. But for how long I wonder, even places of worship these days are not free of predators.
The situation reminds me of how one of the young men across the street broke off his engagement on realising his soon-to-be-wife suffered from asthma. ‘I can’t support her illness,’ he said. Initially I blamed the lack of education and male idiocy, but on reflection maybe he was simply being a realist, maybe he had done her a favour by being honest now rather than when she would be at the hospital with an infective exacerbation and he couldn't afford the bills…
On another day, I’m due to go to a bookshop with my cousin to pick up some discounted medical books when he tells me he has to be elsewhere. “I’m here for only six days, and you have another commitment, how could you be so inconsiderate?” I say melodramatically, and then immediately regret it. He informs me he is going to the funeral of his friend and the friend’s family. They have been murdered in cold blood the day before they were due to move house, two teenage brothers and their mother killed for inheritance.
Finally, the day before I am due to return I go out for some last minute shopping. I have barely whet my appetite when my mobile phone starts ringing non-stop. Several members of my extended family have all taken it upon themselves to tell me to get home ASAP. Three bombs in the local vicinity have gone off, more are expected. Being the stubborn person I am, I continued to shop until I am hunted down and escorted back home. My theory is, if I’m going to die it doesn’t matter where I am, it’s going to happen, but I guess staying in a burning building is not the wisest of choices. I had the luxury of walking away, but what of those out there trying to fend for their families; it’s a double-edged sword for them – possible injury or death or a hungry family? Thankfully no one is injured, this time at least.
And these are only the events I have heard about, there are countless others I have been fortune enough to be shielded from. What is going on? Asian culture is built on the foundations of hospitality and kindness, so why is there silence and not uproar everywhere?
Martin Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness comes to mind, it suggests that individuals learn to feel helpless after observing other people going through uncontrollable events. The notion of feeling unable to do anything to improve their situation is unfortunately rife among people living in Pakistan today. The distress caused by these perceived uncontrollable events leads to disruption of emotion, increased aggression and impaired problem-solving, ultimately a vicious circle.
Furthermore, American sociologist Harrison White suggests that the concept of learned helplessness applies not only to individual psychology but also social function. He proposes that when a culture or its political identity fails to accomplish necessary goals, insight into that society’s collective ability also suffers. Pakistan needs a miracle.
Where do we start in putting back the pieces of our country? How do we restore some sort of harmony to both the hearts of individuals and to the soil of the nation?
*Cover design by Eefa Khalid/Dawn.com
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