Finding the Fearsome and the Fearful in Pakistan

By Nancy Kaufmann

Before and during my visit to Pakistan, I encountered the question— often with looks of disbelief or suspicion—“Why on earth Lahore? Isn’t it dangerous for you?” I knew this reaction wouldn’t have happened with conventional destinations—places sporting warm beaches, ashrams, or architectural treasures—but fair enough: Why on earth Lahore?

After long years of interest in India—its food, its music, its aesthetic—I decided that I’d ignored Islamic South Asia for too long. Through my ESL work in Chicago, I’d come to know many Pakistanis personally and had recently joined the Lahore- Chicago Sister Committee. By early 2009 I bought a round trip ticket from Etihad (airline of United Arab Emirates) and arranged for home stays in Lahore through Servas, an international exchange program started by Bob Luitweiler, who was greatly influenced by Quakers, about 60 years ago and now active in 128 countries.

If my upcoming visit provoked the “Why Lahore?” question from concerned U.S. friends, and amused or confounded Pakistanis in Chicago, my visa application caused an even greater stir at the Pakistani Consulate, which quietly proceeded with time-consuming background checks and phone calls to Lahore. Such caution and wariness was to remain throughout my three weeks in Lahore, often surprising me. However, I came back understanding the mistrust.

Soon after landing in Lahore, my first Servas host, a middle-aged businessman living with his family in a typical walled family compound, said the U.S. Embassy had issued a travel advisory (news to me), and several days later I learned the Pakistani government was no longer granting visas to Americans without “conditions.” A scandal had broken in which five U.S. civilians had attempted to cross from Afghanistan into Pakistan with falsified diplomatic passports, understandably disturbing to Pakistanis. I was lucky to have gotten a visa when I did.

I wasn’t in Lahore for long before an experience I’d had years ago came to mind. One summer day a bat flew into an office in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was working. While the frantic bat ricocheted off office walls, most of the employees fled in panic. Even opening a window, we couldn’t coax the bat out. As work drew to a halt, I thought to phone a naturalist friend for advice. “Just remember: that bat is mortally frightened of humans,” he said. After learning it was a common brown bat, with a tiny mouth just large enough for catching gnats and mosquitoes, we understood that it couldn’t harm us. In fact, the naturalist assured us that brown bats in captivity often become so scared that they die of heart failure. The image that caused panic was that of a rabid vampire bat ready to sink its fangs into our necks, but on that summer day in Madison we were dealing with a harmless creature that could die from its fear of us.

“Lawless” Pakistan, harboring Osama bin Laden, aiming nuclear missiles at India, turning out wave after wave of Taliban, perpetrating cruel treatment of women in tribal areas— in short, a model for Muslim extremism—was in fact, I began to see, a poor country scared to death that the war in Afghanistan would spill yet further over its borders, resulting in chaos and the possible collapse of any remaining civil rule. Animosity with India has been long-standing. Now, adding to Pakistan’s grievances, as much as 30 percent of their fresh water supply from the Himalayas in Indian Kashmir has been diverted by India. Its border with an unstable Iran is hardly comforting. In short, there are threats from all sides. Of course, Pakistan is neither totally the hapless brown bat nor entirely the blood-sucking vampire, but I think Americans in particular, uninformed as they often are, tend to see more vampire than brown bat.

A process of self-destruction, like heart failure in the brown bat, is evident everywhere in Pakistan. Soldiers with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders blanket the city. Schools at every level, including universities, greet students with ominous security set-ups. My host family’s grandson, little 4-year-old Ibrahim, was used to walking past soldiers, rifles, sandbags, and cameras every morning at his kindergarten. Even mosques are guarded, with increased measures at prayer time, as are Shia buildings, because the Taliban consider Shias to be infidels. While I was in Lahore, there was another bomb blast that killed 41 people in a shopping center. As I was leaving, 90 spectators at a volleyball tournament in a Northwest Frontier province town died from a suicide bombing. A mother of teenagers told me afterwards that, as hard as it was, she urged her children to carry on as usual and not become hostage to the fear of terrorists.

As if the omnipresent security operations weren’t bothersome enough, no day passed without four or five power outages, each lasting an hour. Although the blackout times were supposed to be according to announced schedules, we all saw how capricious their onset could be. No dinner began without our wondering if it might end in darkness. The rich have their own generators—the financial equivalent to owning a second car—while the less well off make do with backup systems, storage battery lights, gas lamps, and, for those who can’t afford anything more, candles. I was told that it gets worse in the summer when fans deplete available power. For me, this burden on daily life fits into the image of the self-destructive brown bat. Untold resources have been plowed into nuclear weapons, but, ironically, Pakistan’s being outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has hampered its development of nuclear power for peaceful purposes, a measure that might keep the lights on.

“An Afghan,” one of my hosts observed as we wove in his car around a horse-drawn wagon. I wanted to know how he knew, as I could see no distinguishing sign. “I just know an Afghan when I see one,” was his answer, as if that settled it. Pakistan is now home to over two million Afghani refugees—a burden it can ill afford. Desperate neighbors from the west have poured over the border in the past decade, the exodus peaking at over five million in the autumn of 2001.

One of my host’s nephews, a student in IT, hoarsely shouted over the loud roar, “Keep your head down! Otherwise it’ll hit on the roof!” Sound advice, it turned out, as our driver sped his two stroke auto-rickshaw over potholes in ferocious traffic, clearing vehicles on either side often by no more than an inch. With no regard for lanes as we know them, no seat belts, and no speed limits, I was shocked by what amounted to daily grave danger for Lahore’s citizens. I later learned the rickshaw driver was 14 and no doubt unlicensed.

A common sight was that of a mother, sitting side-saddle in grey clouds of exhaust, holding an infant with one arm and the motorbike’s male driver with the other. “The slightest impact, and that baby goes flying,” I protested, only to have my worry met with a shrug and an Inshallah—God’s will! Almost no helmets, no bike rear reflectors, and young kids in cars, bouncing around not buckled up, all seemed to blow self protection to the wind.

Pakistanis appeared to be considerably more cautious when it came to their interactions with foreigners. I’d gone with a mission that I thought could lay some groundwork for a pen pal exchange between school children in our two sister cities. I carried letters in my suitcase written in pencil on lined paper by fourth graders from a Chicago public school. I was taken aback by the hesitation from schools whose responses seemed overly cautious. I believed this to be a benign effort bound to please both sides and offer a chance for greater awareness between school kids in Chicago and their counterparts in Lahore. I left one school with polite assurances that, if parents agreed, the letters could be released. Later my host family’s neighbor hinted that, owing to parents’ concerns, getting permission might remain an obstacle. Risk having a child sail out of a fast moving vehicle, but be careful about permitting pen pals from the West.

“Do Americans think we’re all terrorists?” I heard repeatedly. This question had me wilting inside because I knew that, except for a better informed and more educated segment, many in fact do. Then I’d hear, “We know we have a bad reputation in your country.” Sometimes I tried to smooth that one over with some mention of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Pakistani Sufi pop singer much enjoyed in the U.S. Other times, when I sensed a level of trust and understanding, I described the vitriol against Muslims on am radio. It was tough assuring Pakistanis that we didn’t all view them as vampire bats. I knew that, once back home, I’d have my task cut out in conveying my impressions of Pakistanis as harmless brown bats bouncing hither and yon, about to self-destruct. No doubt many will dismiss me as simply naïve.

Nevertheless, the skepticism I anticipate has to do with that elephant in the living room: Islam. Founded as an Islamic state in 1947, with Muslims numbering 97 percent of the population, Pakistan envelops the visitor in a totally Islamic environment. The Badshahi Mosque in central Lahore holds 55,000 worshipers. Pork—doesn’t happen; alcohol—nowhere in public; beards are prescribed; men’s shalwar pants are worn well above the ankle as mentioned in the Qur’an— all these practices are immediately apparent. One can barely find an outdoor spot where the minarets aren’t thrusting into the sky. Inescapable are the azans, the calls to prayer five times a day. Loudspeakers mounted atop buildings are within earshot of all. In homes, little two-by-four rugs are thrown down and business as usual stops. Sometimes busy people ignore the call, but no one is spared its seductive entreaty to pause, reflect, or simply perform a ritual while kneeling, rump in the air.

I grew to like the azans and found a kind of comfort in them. For me it amounted to a kind of time-out, a la Islamique. Behavioral therapists in the United States have recommended similar practices for everything from stress reduction to support for self-actualization. Not a day passed without hearing this captivating, and musically quite beautiful, call for and reminder of whatever might be transcendent in my own life.

From the start, I decided I wanted to separate the basic tenets of Islam from its cultural trappings. I did the same for Christianity. Islam teaches absolute equality among individuals (with all this implies), charity, and reconciliation. Christianity teaches a love-your-enemy ideal, compassion regardless of another’s group connection, and forgiveness. “So what separates us?” I’d often challenge, which usually led to a friendly discussion. Of course, though, the actions of our respective societies have left scars. The Crusades might as well as have been perpetrated yesterday, and there’s hardly an American who can shake the association between 9/11 and Islam. Ignorance on both sides doesn’t help.

What surprised me was the extent to which Christians and Jews seem to be seen as monolithic entities rather than two world religions, both having a wide spectrum of belief, all quite familiar to us in the West. Most dismaying perhaps was the blanket disdain by many for Jews. From a 22-year-old call center employee in Pakistan working for a U.S. debt collection agency in North Carolina, I heard: “Treatment of Palestinians is the will of Jews, period. . . . The U.S. is a puppet of the Jews. . . . The media is controlled by Jews.” I tried gently to counter this by describing my own experience with Jews in Germany and the United States, but soon saw he was speaking from rhetoric he’d heard. He’s sorely in need of enlightenment, I thought. But so are listeners to am talk shows in the United States who want all Muslims out of the military, if not completely out of the country.

It bothered me that I was seen in crude terms such as Christian, often with little chance to define myself better as I can back in Chicago. A 21-yearold who’d just begun his own plumbing supply business asserted as truth: “The West [read: Christian for his purposes] wants to conquer the Muslim world,” and “Christians would like to see Islam cease.” Every Pakistani I talked with was convinced that 9/11 was a conspiracy, most often with a Jewish ingredient. However, in these instances of their identifying our moves abroad as Jewish or Christian-driven, I usually ended up acknowledging that the history of the past 1,500 years might have them feeling paranoid. Certainly a measure of paranoia has swept my own country in the past decade.

Aiming for a lighter topic one evening, I commented to another young man that the Lonely Planet guidebook advises Western visitors to Pakistan not to assume that men holding hands or walking arm in arm means an erotic relationship. I added that, since I’d seen this in Lahore, it was helpful to learn that these gestures simply meant friendship. My listener bristled: “The Qur’an absolutely forbids homosexuality!” Trying to give a conciliatory response, I said that the Vatican has taken a similar stand. It was immediately clear to me that this young man, the son of my host’s neighbor, took my comment as agreement with his view. For every Pakistani I encountered, Christianity—into which they invariably lumped me—had no internal variations. It seemed to them just one menacing behemoth from the West.

It’s so obvious: we need to talk, to get to know one another. Oceans and ignorance separate us. The Lahore-Chicago Sister City program holds potential— I wouldn’t volunteer for its efforts if I thought otherwise. However, the program is a small step, regrettably confined most of the time to elite groups. Visas and favorable exchange rates are not available to the average Pakistani. For the present at least, other than pulling up stakes and getting a green card to drive a taxi, or being fortunate (and rich) enough to study at a U.S. university, Pakistanis are not going to visit. They’ll watch our movies, be lured by our fast food franchises (Lahore now has a Starbucks), scrutinize our every move in the War on Terror, take note of civilian deaths from drone attacks, and, with legitimate fear, look west to Afghanistan.
Nancy Kaufmann was a member of Madison (Wis.) Meeting until 2002, attended Berlin (Germany) Meeting for several years, and now attends Evanston (Ill.) Meeting