My friendship with Pakistan dates back to 2007, when I travelled there for a conference with a group from university. I returned in January 2010 to reconnect with ‘family’ and friends and experience more cultural and historical gems; the seemingly endless generosity and hospitality is just an added bonus.
It’s apparent that Pakistan receives, on the whole, some pretty bad press on the international scene. With an aim to present a Pakistan beyond the media stereotype(s), I started to write about my trips on the nudging of a journalist friend. It may, and still does, come to many people’s surprise that I do not, nor have I ever had any reservations about visiting the country. If I believed even half of what was splattered over the nightly news, I doubt I would have gone there in the first place. After all, we are all aware how news media can sensationalise a news bulletin in order to sell an idea or perpetuate an ideology. Why didn’t I believe all those ‘shocking’ news bulletins and headlines? Well, who does believe everything they hear? There must have been a voice in the back of my head urging me to look past the media hype. A friend terms it, “the demonisation of Pakistan by the western media.” Noam Chomsky simply calls it “propaganda.”
Not once have I ever felt uneasy, insecure or in a threatening situation in any part of the country. We have been to Karachi, Abbottabad, Islamabad, Lahore, Murree, Nathia Gali, Multan and Thatta. Yet, I also realise that friends, hosts and people accompanying us keep their ear to the ground and are familiar with which areas and parts of cities to avoid. This is part and parcel of travelling in Pakistan; not something to get worked up about.
A few days into our visit in November 2007, General Pervez Musharraf sacked the Chief Justice, dismissed the judges from the Supreme Court and imposed emergency rule. Family members of our group were sending nervous emails concerned for our safety, thinking we must be in imminent danger, which couldn’t have been further from the case. We were, in fact, enjoying the sights and sounds of Karachi in between conference commitments. Further, our visit to Islamabad coincided with Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan. On arrival into the city, there was a strong army presence on the street and we learnt that a curfew had been imposed. A couple of hours later, it was lifted and our group then headed out to explore the city – business as usual.
Unfortunately, the list of cases which add fuel to so-called anti-American sentiment grows: Raymond Davis; ‘Memogate’; the issue of drones; plus the arrest of a US citizen in February at the airport in Peshawar for carrying live bullets in his luggage. Further, the American government has a distinguished resume outlining its accomplishments: Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq; and they satisfy well the criteria of meddling and interference in other countries’ affairs, dragging a few others into the fray along the way; but delving further into US foreign policy lies outside the scope of this short piece.
Broadly speaking, people are very quick to make judgments and draw conclusions based on one’s appearance and without knowing you personally. I too have been guilty of this over the years; but I’m working on correcting such a shortcoming! Both my mother and travel have taught me not to draw conclusions about people based on broad-based assumptions. Further, I reject stereotypes, learning long ago that they don’t exist – really they don’t – and to take everyone as an individual. I abhor pack mentality; and any form of discrimination stemming from one’s cultural, religious or ethnic background. Embracing diversity, we can all learn from each other and further, draw some inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream speech’ and apply it to our own situations. One of my mantras is to take people on their actions and by the content of their character.
Recently, however, there are some in and outside Pakistan who become nervous at the idea of a visitor to the country. While their concern is appreciated to a certain extent; in my opinion, it is unnecessary and such an overreaction only serves to taint the image of the country further. In short, I believe they are doing Pakistan a broader disservice. It’s undeniable that the country has its fair share of problems. What country doesn’t; but let’s not blow things out of proportion. In my opinion, the more people who travel to Pakistan, whether for work- or travel-related reasons, the more it will help to dispel any negative stereotypes from either side. In turn, visitors will assist an economy that is in dire need of a cash injection that will directly benefit people and communities, rather than being misdirected by the government, as funds currently are. A taxi driver who mumbles that all Americans should be blown to smithereens doesn’t mean that he will actually do it.
The thing is, I’m not American. I think that’s what stings the most! It almost feels as if Pakistan has indirectly rejected my presence, more recently, through no direct fault of my own. It is important to maintain a distinction between a government and its citizens, whose primary concerns and agendas are usually rather distinct. Suddenly, I feel like a victim; whereas I empathise with Pakistanis, as a collective, and how victimised some of them must have felt over the last 10 years or so through increased visa restrictions or outright rejections – particularly when wishing to travel to so-called ‘western’ nations – and random checks at airports, for example.
My aim is to discontinue the myth that Pakistan is in complete meltdown all over the country at any given hour and to dispel general paranoia from both a Pakistani and so-called ‘western’ perspective. Yes, there is some unrest periodically, but so can there be anywhere. Any ‘street’ disturbances are limited to a particular area of a city and are not indicative of across the entire city. As an Australian based in Karachi for a few years now asserts: “As normal in Pakistan, life goes on…” Even with upcoming elections, another friend in Karachi doesn’t foresee the next few months to be especially bad.
Believe me, the main threats a visitor faces are being killed with kindness and a caffeine overload from too many cups of tea; some inquisitive stares and, of course, getting stuck in a traffic jam. That’s the Pakistani way!
 Accounts of both trips can be found at: http://www.sadaewatansydney.com/unistudentspakvisit2010.htm
 Chomsky, N. (2002). Media Control: The spectacular achievements of propaganda. New York: Westfield.
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