Memories I live and breathe – the call to Pakistan

In this article, I take an introspective journey and consider my collective memories of my long-time relationship with Pakistan, and its dynamic contribution to our contemporary world.

Judge a moth by the beauty of its candle.

Shams is invisible because he is inside sight.

He is the intelligent essence

Of what is everywhere at once, seeing.


Pakistan tends to be a rather misunderstood corner of our planet, with a plethora of negativity and associated images emanating from international mass media. Undoubtedly, such an overrepresentation has contributed largely to a somewhat distorted image of the country. Through my first-hand experiences, I have subsequently sought to fill this enormous gap, with an aim to provide information and present this oft-maligned place in a more balanced way. Somehow assuming the role of accidental brand ambassador, I have found myself reporting on aspects of the country, which are often overlooked and shielded from the international eye. My writings have ranged from hard political, economic, and diplomatic to the more light-hearted. Yet, my attempts to present a Pakistan beyond the media stereotype have frequently been met with resistance. Further, my visits seem to have placed me in the precarious position of bringing a non-Pakistani voice to the table and consequently attracting criticism for such an ‘idealistic’ stance, as well as several rebukes for even visiting the country in the first place, given “The way they treat their women!” Sometimes, even I find the ignorance astounding: “Is that safe?”; “I thought everyone would be in a burqa!” while I’m left to explain that the dress code for women in Pakistan is largely not as in Iran or Afghanistan. Despite Pakistan being home to two Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including the youngest-ever, Malala Yousafzai, somehow the reality of many Pakistanis as urban, well-educated, ambitious, upwardly mobile, dynamic, and many with a strong entrepreneurial spirit, is getting lost in the fray. 

Frere Hall: Nineteenth Century architecture

No matter the amount of television news reports you see or articles you read, nothing heightens your sensitivity toward a place more than first-hand experience. My well-considered opinion is that Pakistan receives a lot of bad press and, frankly, deserves better.

The journey starts in 2007, when, as a student, I was invited to present a research study at a language-teaching conference, along with five other students from the University of Sydney. Our travels all over the country turned out to be a life-changing experience. My second visit was at the end of 2009, when a friend invited me to join her and her family for the end-of-year holidays. In 2012, a couple of brother-sister friends from Sydney decided to have a double wedding extravaganza in Karachi and it was such an honour to share in their happy occasions. In 2015, one of my best friends married in Karachi; the pre-wedding preparations were certainly fun, yet nerve-raking at the same time. The most recent visit, in 2019, was at the invitation of a friend in Lahore for his wedding celebrations. And the difference between a Punjabi wedding and a Karachi wedding really struck me!

Beyond purely social engagements, I manage to give at least one talk, and in 2019, I gave a talk to some very engaging high school students in Lahore and have previously appeared on a talk show for PTV World in Karachi. In Australia, I give occasional talks and enjoy attending functions to further Australia-Pakistan relations. Throughout those five visits, I have developed an affinity for colourful fashion and handicrafts; whether a Sindhi wall hanging with inlaid mirror work given to me by a friend in Karachi; a beautiful woven carpet from Lahore; a hand-made wooden- and silver-framed mirror, plus some leather and cowhide cushions, all take pride of place in my home. For special occasions, I like to wear “Made in Pakistan,” whether a striking shawl or one of my bespoke pieces by a designer friend in Karachi, co-ordinated with bangles and other fun pieces of which I have amassed quite a collection. A handbag by an iconic local leather goods brand has turned into a favourite and nearly always attracts a compliment every time I use it. There’s a little bit of Pakistan fairly close by at any given moment.

Distinctive Pakistani truck art

As much of the world is emerging from a harrowing couple of years since the start of the COVID19 pandemic, there is renewed excitement in the air. On the whole, Pakistan has fared well in the management of the pandemic, thanks to gold-standard tracing and record keeping developed during the polio vaccination drive. And I’m feeling the pull, back to Pakistan to reunite with friends who have become like family and experience more of the five Fs: friends, family, fun, fashion and food – khana: the most important word in Urdu! Overwhelming generosity and hospitality, historical treasures, archeological sites, the varied perspectives of multicultural Pakistan from the eastern areas of Punjab across to Balochistan towards Iran, each with their own identities uniquely expressed through differing customs, styles of music and varied spices used in their respective cuisines will captivate even the most discerning traveller and mesmerise you like a snake charmer on Clifton Beach, in Karachi. You, too, will submit.

A Punjabi wedding: a once in a lifetime experience – Lahore, Lahore hai!

On my last visit, I vowed to venture up north on my next visit. We had a glimpse of Pakistan’s striking northern beauty when we stopped in delightful Nathia Gali en route from Abbottabad to Islamabad, in 2007, and so the Himalayas are a huge draw card for the next trip. At the top of the list are Chitral, Mingora, Swat, and around Hunza, Skardu, and Gilgit. For geology enthusiasts, Pakistan is home to the second largest salt mine in the world: the Khewra Salt Mine, a prime tourist attraction, located in the province of Punjab. Thanks to policy reforms in recent years, rest assured that this kitchen staple will reach you directly from Pakistan. 

St. Mathew’s Church, Nathia Gali, built 1914

My memories are, indeed, vivid and wonderful, past and present, and fill me with warmth and gratitude for all the amazing friendships and connections forged throughout the years; and every time I return, the memories and friendships just keep getting more wonderful and more amazing. It certainly feels like the time is ripe to relive some old, treasured memories and create some new ones!

Danielle M. Gehrmann

The above version has some minor modifications and hyperlinks, which were missed in the original publication at:

All photos are from my personal collection.

Acknowledgement: Much appreciation to Brigadier Shoaib bin Akram for his patience, generosity, and assistance in the publication of this article.

Australia and Pakistan: A Neglected Relationship?

How stronger ties are both politically expedient and economically advantageous for both countries. 

In this article, Professor Saleem H. Ali and I collectively consider how to use ecological and economic incentives to build an unusual dyad of international relations between our two lands.

For most Australians, Pakistan remains a distant and dreaded land. The popular connection which once existed through cricket between the two countries has also been muted. Pakistani fans are unable to have any international games on their home turf for several years due to concerns about security. When Pakistani sports teams visit Australia, the reception is one of trepidation with fears of asylum seeking; add to this bad press from ostensibly Australian diseased sheep slaughtered inhumanely by local authorities in 2012. As Australia’s relations with India seem to improve, the relations with neighbouring Pakistan appear to be at best a standstill. This is alarming for the Pakistani diaspora in Australia who now number at just over 30,000, according to the 2011 Census.

With almost $90 million in aid funds allocated for Pakistan in the coming fiscal year, Australian taxpayers also deserve to be further engaged on activities between Australia and the world’s sixth largest country in terms of population. It is not enough to simply lump it together with the war in Afghanistan as a “frontline state.” Rather, it is high time Australian diplomats engage with Pakistan for investment and strategic partnership. As Australia firms its relations with China, it is also important to note the strong relationship which China has with Pakistan. The new Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, has already visited Pakistan, but has yet to visit Australia. Further, at the end of June the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, visited Pakistan to meet with the leadership in Islamabad to discuss a variety of issues, including how to enhance mutual trade and investment.

Australian political leaders have been shy of visiting Pakistan for security reasons, but former foreign minster, Bob Carr, wrote an oped for one of Pakistan’s most popular English-language dailies on 19 June of this year noting how Australia and Pakistan were “blazing trails.” The article celebrated a history of friendship between the two countries and was a positive step in recognising the salience of this relationship.


Migration from Pakistan to Australia has followed two parallel and equally dominant paths — the educated professionals looking for opportunities to advance their careers, and the disenfranchised minorities seeking asylum. Both these demographics have immense economic and political relevance in the current national debates on immigration.

Human connections and high politics: from left, Dr. Mehreen Faruqi; Diane Hiles; Julian Burnside QC; Ali Mohammadi (Photo credit: Alison Martin)

Human connections and high politics: from left, Dr. Mehreen Faruqi; Diane Hiles; Julian Burnside QC; Ali Mohammadi (Photo credit: Alison Martin)

Originally from Lahore, Dr. Mehreen Faruqi arrived in Sydney 21 years ago. She is the first Pakistani-Australian to be elected to parliament and is a member of the New South Wales (NSW) Greens Party. Formerly Academic Director of the Master of Business and Technology Program and Associate Professor at the Australian Graduate School of Management within the Australian School of Business at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), she has just finished up at the university to assume her new role at NSW Parliament House. She has immense pride in her roots; her family were part of the Independence Movement toward the creation of Pakistan in 1947. As her family showed conviction for their ideals, so too does she – her passions being sustainability, educational and social justice and multiculturalism. On her annual trip to Pakistan to visit family, Dr. Faruqi also finds the time to collaborate with universities and NGOs to deliver short courses on sustainability and environmental management. Her endeavours extend to work on the project ‘Sustainable and Cleaner Production’, which aims to develop a model for sustainable production in the textile and tannery sectors in Pakistan and is funded by the European Commission – the textile industry being of enormous export value to Pakistan.

Notable Pakistani Australians Profession
Fawad Ahmed cricketer
Noshi Gilani poet


Sohail Inayatullah futurist

political scientist

Saeed Khan poet, activist

former president of PAA

Zaffar Khan author, life coach, speaker

GM of Dial-a-Doctor

Usman Khawaja cricketer
Mustafa Qadri founder and executive director of equidem research and consulting
Iftikhar Rana president of PABC

former president of PAA

Waqar Younis cricketer

sports commentator

Irfan Yusuf lawyer

social commentator

Despite the challenges of education in their land of origin, Pakistani immigrants generally place a very high value on education; and as Dr. Faruqi confirms: “[as a Pakistani immigrant] it isn’t a matter of ‘if’ you will go to university, but ‘what you will study’ when you go to university” – further reflected in data through the Department of Home Affairs, where, in Australia, around 50 per cent of those born in Pakistan hold an undergraduate degree or higher qualification, versus 20 per cent for the rest of Australia. Apart from being well-educated, Pakistani-Australians are also young – 52 per cent are 25 – 44 years; 29 per cent are professionals and 10 per cent are in managerial roles.
Professions of Pakistani-Australians
Source: Department of Home Affairs, Immigration and Citizenship

The diaspora has spawned organisations such as the Pakistan Association of Australia – PAA – which serves to raise cultural awareness of the Pakistani community. The strong philanthropic and charitable ethos of the association has seen its involvement in various fundraising activities for both Pakistan and Australia, including the 2010-2011 floods in Southern Queensland. Another organisation, the Pakistan Australia Business Council – PABC – identifies potential business links, facilitates introductions and cements such connections between Australian and Pakistani business people; in particular, in the medical surgical instruments sector, as well as in the textile and arts-and-crafts sectors. The association’s president, Mr. Iftikhar Rana, indicates that Australian businesses are impressed with the overall quality and price of Pakistani products but there is clear risk aversion that prevents broader investment. Yet, from BHP’s investment in the Zamzama gas field to dairy farm improvement technologies, Australian businesses have found opportunities in the country despite the security cautions.

Solar opportunity

Entrepreneurs are often the motivating forces for investment in emerging markets, often spurred by the growth potential of new technologies. Jeremy Higgs is one such Australian entrepreneur making a distinct impression on Pakistan. He first went there on an AIESEC program in October 2007 and has been based in Karachi ever since. Until March 2013, Jeremy was the Executive Officer of the Network of Organizations Working for People with Disabilities, Pakistan – NOWPDP – part of the Aga Khan National Council for Pakistan. While with NOWPDP, interest in another venture was simmering away in the background and Eco Energy Finance was born on 1 April 2013, with Jeremy as co-founder and director of operations. Pakistan’s unreliable – and at times non-existent – source of electricity means that around 65 million people are off the energy grid altogether in a country with a population of just over 180 million; and as per usual, it is the ‘last-mile’ people who have the least access to resources. Eco Energy Finance seeks to address this considerable gap.

Initially, this social enterprise received a grant from an investment firm in the USA and also raised donations. The company distributes solar-powered lamps to areas around Badin and Thatta, in the Province of Sindh. In 2012, the Pakistani government removed customs duties and sales tax on solar products – a considerable incentive and potential business opportunity.

The strong social ethos of Eco Energy Finance is having profound effects in the reduction of energy poverty. This renewable energy source eliminates the cost of replacement batteries and kerosene for hand-held torches and kerosene lamps – the main source of lighting up until now. Women do embroidery by the light for longer hours and these products generate income for the villagers and their communities. The income from this brighter and cleaner light source goes toward repayment of the loan they had to purchase the lamp. Indeed, such positive economic, health, educational, and environmental impacts can be described as a true investment in the future of Pakistan.

Speaking from his home in Karachi, Jeremy admits that the wait for the visa from the Ministry of Interior was drawn out and while many Pakistanis show a curiosity towards him, he has not been on the receiving end of any overt xenophobic experiences. When asked what has captivated him about Pakistan, he responds matter-of-factly: “The entrepreneurial ethic.” It appears as if this young entrepreneur is living just that.

The power of solar: Australian entrepreneur, Jeremy Higgs of Eco Energy Finance, displaying a lamp from Sydney-based company, Barefoot Power, in rural Pakistan. (Photo: courtesy of Eco Energy Finance)

The power of solar: Australian entrepreneur, Jeremy Higgs of Eco Energy Finance, displaying a lamp from Sydney-based company, Barefoot Power, in rural Pakistan (Photo credit: Eco Energy Finance)

The Australian connection with Eco Energy Finance also extends to the technology which they use for the portable lamps. The manufacturer of these lamps is a Sydney-based company, Barefoot Power, whose CEO, Rick Hooper, identifies his firm as a social-for-profit company, which seeks to improve livelihoods in areas which have an unreliable or non-existent electricity supply. Rick affirms that the benefits to people and communities are palpable. Small vendor shops trade for up to four extra hours per day, due to use of the Barefoot lamps in their shops. Considerable demand for more products means Barefoot is continuously adapting new products specific to the Pakistani market and its CEO forecasts an exponential growth in the Pakistani market in the coming years.

Aid versus trade

In comparison with around $90 million in annual aid delivery from Australia to Pakistan in 2012, trade flow between the two countries in the same year was around $870 million. All the same, as the Pakistani Consul General in Sydney, Abdul Aziz Uqaili, admits, it is heavily tilted in favour of Australia, due to the import of high demand Australian products into Pakistan.” He adds that further trade imbalance is caused by education services to Pakistani students and the continual high demand for technical assistance machinery for textile production. To the detriment of bilateral trade links, current duty rebates to Least Developed Countries – LDCs – prompt Australian buyers to source products from countries with duty incentives; however, a promising sign is the withdrawal of these duty incentives to LDCs by the end of 2014, which will pave the way to allow Pakistani exporters increased opportunities in Australia. The Consul General is also hopeful for a successful outcome to allow the importation of the citrus fruit, kinno, the next step in trade negotiations between the Pakistani Mission in Australia and Australian authorities.

While the number of business visas issued for travel to Pakistan for 2012 was up on 2011, it is still relatively minor at 216 and 141 respectively, largely due to security concerns. Yet, there are opportunities for Australian businesses to invest without the need for in-country foreign staff, through franchise business models. Gloria Jean’s Coffee and Irish company Butlers Chocolate Cafés have followed such a path and Austrade is exploring other business opportunities. Nicola Watkinson, Senior Trade and Investment Commissioner for South Asia based in New Delhi, is buoyed by a “strong interest in how [businesses in Pakistan] can grow and take on opportunities”, along with a general openness to discussion. Austrade identifies the agribusiness and energy sectors as the main opportunities for commercial collaboration between Australia and Pakistan. Given that food security is an issue in South Asia, Austrade’s resource focus is on working with citrus and sugarcane growers and, dairy and cattle farmers in development, strategic engagement and growth opportunities. Ms. Watkinson recognises the potential with regard to the renewable resources sector, acknowledging Australia’s innovation and industry expertise – specifically in the solar sector – as a useful resource to be applied in a number of areas, which includes in the agribusiness sector, for domestic use and in the construction of a solar-powered desalination plant in Karachi to convert seawater to drinkable water.

An area of the service sector that remains untapped is the call centre phenomenon, such as has been established in India and the Philippines. Harnessing the skills of Pakistan’s considerable English-speaking population and its quality, reliable telecommunication links is certainly worth due consideration. Further, potential opportunities for Australian businesses to cultivate prospects without the need for in-country foreign staff lie in the highly developed information-technology industry. While Austrade denies a current high demand in this industry, a multi-million dollar partnership agreement has been struck between an Australian investor and a Pakistani biometric research and integrated workforce management company for the development of next generation biometric solutions, such as Retina, Iris, 3D Face and Palm Vein recognition algorithms, with a focus on Australian security, payments, and workforce management.

In recent years, education services have become a high priority of Australia’s broader foreign policy agenda; in particular, intake of international students, whether scholarship recipients or fee-paying. People-to-people links certainly have advantages for future potential business ties; however, the cons due to relocation from one’s home environment are potentially fraught with issues, such as separation from family and various other accompanying social problems. If use of aid funds were to centre on infrastructure development inside Pakistan for institutional facilities, teacher qualifications and ongoing professional development within the education sector, this would goad well toward a mutually constructive long-term investment strategy. Capacity building in the educational sector – in particular, at primary and secondary levels – is paramount in order to induce a concomitant effect of stabilising in-country security and building confidence of foreign investors while preventing exodus of human capital.

Asylum alternatives

While the asylum-seeker debate endures and regional settlement alternatives on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea are in their fledgling stages, recent boatloads continue to arrive with Pakistanis on-board; testament to the grim situation from which they are fleeing. Harken back to the 1970s, when the incumbent government wanted people to flee Vietnam because it helped bolster the Cold War ideological campaign against the ‘evils of communism’. Public opinion was therefore mostly in favour of accepting people arriving by the boatload, whereas today it is the polar opposite. Is contemporary public opinion a reflection of government ideology or is the government a reflection of its constituents’ will? Australian taxes used to fund the entire asylum-seeking infrastructure would be better syphoned toward strengthening governmental, educational and energy infrastructures inside Pakistan. The table below shows the types of visas issued to individuals of Pakistani origin in the 2011-2012 financial year and pertain to permanent arrivals (except as students and for business visas – the latter are noted for calendar year 2011).

Type of visa Number of visas issued
Family migration 845
Skilled migration 1862
Students 6203
Business (temporary) 900
Special eligibility 5
Humanitarian 84
Protection visa grants 403
New Zealand citizens 91
Other non-program 26

Source: Department of Immigration and Citizenship

Dr. Faruqi affirms that developed countries, such as Australia, should take a leadership role on environmental issues and agrees that Australia, in its support to Pakistan, could encompass investment in the solar energy and hydropower sectors with regard to infrastructure development: “International aid is one way Australia can support Pakistan to move to a cleaner, renewable energy future; but to be successful, long-lasting programs and projects have to be developed in consultation with the communities on the ground, not using a top-down approach. The aim has to be to increase local capacity and empower communities to be self-sufficient.” With some foresight, capacity building in these sectors holds the potential to empower all stakeholders.

A more concerted approach to strategic investment – in particular in the renewable energy sector – would hold numerous mutual benefits. Dr. Faruqi adds that avoiding the use of untapped coal in Pakistan, reduction in the dependency on oil and stimulation of economic growth through a reliable energy supply are some of the advantages. Further benefits encompass improved education and health outcomes – in particular for women and children – fulfilment of basic needs of communities and poverty reduction. A rethink in the strategic use of aid could assist to stem the need for the vulnerable and marginalised to flee in utterly hopeless, desperate and urgent circumstances. It would therefore make more sense and, at the same time, be more mutually advantageous to strengthen educational, as well as other institutions inside Pakistan. To this end, the creation of opportunities inside Pakistan should be a fundamental strategic goal.

The way forward

Indeed, there are serious challenges which confront Pakistan in terms of energy shortages, industrial closures and the continuing scourge of extremism. Still, Pakistanis continue to be among the most successful diaspora communities and despite all the turmoil, foreign remittances have kept the country on an economic growth path albeit far more slowly than development professionals would have hoped. Australian investors have an edge over British and American investors in the country because of a generally far more positive impression of Australia and Canada in Pakistan than the other two anglophone heavy-weights. Yet, Australia and Canada have kept Pakistan at arm’s length with modest aid programs and few serious efforts at trade and investment. Despite its many challenges Pakistan is still the world’s second-largest exporter of textiles with a fairly experienced industrial workforce. Even with all the negative media attention, Pakistan ranks higher than India by more than 20 points on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index. Nicola Watkinson concurs with this comparative assessment. Since assuming her new role earlier this year, she has visited Pakistan and is “upbeat” about the country’s prospects and particularly impressed with a “stronger international outlook than expected” and “high level of entrepreneurialism” of Pakistani businesses.

Australians who dare to defy the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) travel warnings are often pleasantly surprised by the level of developed infrastructure in the country. Pakistan does indeed face development challenges; but, if the negativity and reluctance to engage continue it will simply make matters worse and an opportunity for mutual gains for countries such as Australia will be missed. As noted by the regional manager of Austrade in Pakistan, Azhar Shah, “the opportunities for cooperation between Australia and Pakistan are considerable but some leadership and persistence is needed.” Mr. Shah noted that the import of Pakistani mangoes into Australia is one example which is being actively pursued. The United States and Canada have allowed mango imports from Pakistan for some years, but Australia only agreed to their import in September 2013 and commercial prospects are now being explored.

Australia’s aid program also has a regional dimension for South Asia, but there has been scant effort to use aid as a diplomatic means to improve relations between countries in the region, particularly India and Pakistan, or as a stimulus for trade opportunities. Even with the recent change of government, Australia’s foreign policy remains a perennially debated topic; the importance of a regional approach to South Asia and the salience of Pakistan must be considered more directly. The constructive role Australia can play in this pivotal and relatively proximate part of the world needs clear leadership and agency, particularly following the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Stability in South Asia is only possible if Pakistan can be constructively engaged with clarity and without condescension.

Original article published in National Geographic in 2013. 

I have a dream…

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.[1]

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.”[2]

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!

Pakistan 176

[1] Accounts of both trips can be found at:

[2] Chomsky, N. (2002). Media Control: The spectacular achievements of propaganda. New York: Westfield.

The version above has some minor modifications. The original article can be found at:

Building bridges with peace parks

We all have to start somewhere and why not start with the citizens in the case of India and Pakistan

An instalment of ‘Conversations’, the ongoing email exchange between an Indian and a Pakistani journalist in this newspaper included a discussion on war memorials and peace parks, and the notion of such memorials and parks in India or Pakistan, or potentially a joint venture as a path to reconciliation (‘Push for peace parks,’ Aman ki Asha page, Political Economy section, Mar 28, 2010).

The inspiration stemmed from some precedents already set, hinging on universal philosophies of peace parks as places of introspection, reflection, greater understanding and healing. For example, the one between Israel and Jordan, the one running along the former Iron Curtain and a proposal for one between the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot territories, which incidentally would be more vital than ever given Cyprus’s recent election results.

Initially, I found the idea rather jarring – pretty out there and even alien. Then another example sprang to mind: the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Commemorative Site at the Gallipoli Peninsula (Gelibolu) in Turkey. During the First World War, a protracted military campaign took place mainly between the Australian, British, and New Zealand forces and the Turkish Army. An annual dawn service is held there to commemorate the bravery and sacrifice of the ANZACs.

Many say that these battles left an indelible mark on the Australian psyche and have become a large part of Australia’s national identity. Even though all the Australian First World War veterans have passed on now, the numbers of attendees are increasing every year at the Gallipoli dawn service. ANZAC Day parades are held in most Australian cities and descendents of First World War veterans have been given permission to participate in place of their deceased relatives, proudly wearing their medals.

Due to the increasing number of people making the pilgrimage to Turkey, the Gallipoli Peninsula underwent extensive excavations and rebuilding between 1999 and 2000 through a co-operative process between the Turkish, Australian and New Zealand governments:

On the tiny beach affectionately called ANZAC Cove, where the ANZACs landed at dawn on 25 April 1915, an enormous epitaph is inscribed with the moving words:

“Those heroes that shed their blood

and lost their lives…

You are now lying in the soil of a

friendly country.

Therefore rest in peace.

There is no difference between

the Johnnies

and the Mehmets to us where they

lie side by side

here in this country of ours…

You, the mothers,

who sent their sons from far away


wipe away your tears;

your sons are now lying in our bosom

and are in peace.

After having lost their lives on this

land they have

become our sons as well.”

–Atatürk, 1934

The writer of these lines was the Turkish commander at Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal who later became Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey and its first president. Atatürk means ‘father of Turks’. It could be said that he played a similar role to Mohammad Ali Jinnah Quaid-e-Azam in the creation of Pakistan.

On a visit to the Gallipoli Peninsula some time back, I felt a sense of unification about the whole place. The Lone Pine cemetery set up on the hill above Anzac Cove has a Wattle Bush, which is an Australian native flower. This addition gave the whole place a further unifying feel.

These days, Turkey and Australia have remarkable political and diplomatic relations. At the time of the First World War, Australia was allied with the British forces and, along with New Zealand, became involved in the war effort due to its close ties to Britain. Some would say that Australia’s involvement in the war was therefore a case of ‘guilty by association’; nonetheless, if it weren’t for their enemy status at one time, perhaps the ‘friendship’ wouldn’t be so strong today. In other words, this shared historical enmity seems to bond the two countries today in such a way that if they hadn’t have been through this, then this sense of fraternity would not be so vibrant.

Two further examples come to mind: first, Japan and Australia were enemies during the Second World War. Despite some existing tensions with regard to Japan’s involvement in whaling, on the whole the two countries enjoy strong economic, commercial and cultural ties.

Second, the recent plane crash on Russian soil and subsequent deaths of many of Poland’s highest government officials, including its president, appears to have been a catalyst in the thawing of Polish-Russian relations; united in tragedy. We all have to start somewhere and why not start with the citizens, in the case of India and Pakistan?

A friend recently reminded me of the relatively new social networking media in our midst, such as Facebook and Twitter to name a few. These have become invaluable social tools, connecting people all over the world. So, why not get the citizens of India and Pakistan connected? From little things big things grow.

The examples of Turkey and Australia, Japan and Australia, and the recent positive development in Polish-Russian relations suggests that shared bonds of enmity do not exclude a future productive relationship between two countries. There is hope.

The version above has some minor modifications. The original article can be found at:

Beyond the conditioning

The email was brief and to the point:

Dear Danielle,

If Pak stops sending murderers to India things will improve.



I was pleased to receive this comment, because it showed the writer had read the piece and thought about it. Unfortunately, he hadn’t understood my main premise: that citizens can’t be held responsible for the policies of politicians and the misdemeanours of a few.

I wonder if he’s heard of the Amistad, a project that aims to establish constructive communications between the people of Cuba and the United States. The politics of both countries continue on a divisive course; however, there has been some relaxing of visa restrictions between the two countries in recent months, paving the way for people to see relatives after years apart (see:

The blame game is clearly counterproductive and juvenile. I believe that a shift from the high-handed and seemingly futile political maneuvers towards open and honest communication between citizens can lead to greater understanding.

My faith was restored by another email, in which the reader – let’s call him Ash* – felt compelled to share what he termed as his “personal experience and understanding about what we as children have been taught”. He wrote: “What we have been exposed to as children reflects who we are as adults. I was born and raised mostly in Pakistan growing up on the constant negativity about the nation “across the border.” It was not til I went to study in the US that I realized that so many of us (Pakistanis and Indians) have been fed all this hatred against each other since childhood. Although there are some issues that spark instant reactions from both sides (Kashmir, or the wars and terrorism) but I have found that on a common ground (the US) we tend to leave our prejudices aside.”

He continues: “I was really surprised to find out from an Indian friend of mine that they are taught the exact opposite of what we are taught in primary school regarding the war of 1965. We are taught that the Indian army was planning to attack and they had decided ‘we attack tonight and we’ll have breakfast in Lahore.’ They are taught that the Pakistani army had planned the attack and decided that ‘we attack tonight and we’ll have breakfast in Delhi.’ So much propaganda to justify who actually won the war.”

He feels it is such conditioning on both sides over the years that has brought us to where we are today: “It would be a great advantage to both the countries and the whole region if this animosity ends. Generation after generation being played by a handful of leaders on both sides for their own political agendas.”

His point about what we are taught from a young age and the impact that has on shaping opinions into adulthood reminded me of a Bulgarian friend whom I travelled with in Turkey a few years back. When we met up in Istanbul, she confided in me her initial reluctance to visit Turkey. What had been ‘drummed into’ her at school about Ottoman history and their iron-fist occupation of Bulgaria from the twelfth to the early twentieth centuries had led to her negative preconceptions of Turkish people.

She even told me how acutely aware she was of having the chance to turn back before reaching the border. This was how strong those instincts were. She was to call me on arrival at the bus station in Istanbul and asked a fellow passenger if she could borrow his phone. The passenger, a Turkish gentleman, happily obliged. When a second (Turkish) person, an employee at the bus station, let her also use their phone, she was floored. Her perceptions about Turkish people were turning out to be ill-founded. They were capable of kindness and compassion!

As Ash puts it, “conditioning” does appear to play a major role in shaping an individual’s opinion. That is why it’s important for people anywhere to question what they ‘hear’, by doing their own research and creating their own experiences, no matter how they go about that. The stories recounted above support the mantra of not believing everything one hears or reads without giving it a second thought.

Broadly speaking, I see one of the functions of a diplomat is to iron out the mistakes that politicians make; then let’s hope we, as individuals, can take on a more prominent diplomatic role; precisely a role that Ash has discovered outside Pakistan on neutral territory. Having forged such friendships outside India and Pakistan indeed may demonstrate the positive potential meeting under those circumstances holds.

Call me an idealist, but if governments and individuals gave less thought to competing than to engaging with each other, our world might become a more peaceful and harmonious place.

*Names changed to protect privacy

This article is a follow up to ‘You lived through the experience?’, Aman ki Asha page, The News, Mar 31, 2010.

This version has some minor modifications. The original article above can be found at: 

You lived through the experience?

“Your words are guesswork.

He speaks from experience.

There’s a huge difference.”

So wrote the thirteenth century Sufi poet, Jelaluddin Rumi. The translation from the Persian original of his poem, “Judge a moth by the beauty of its candle”, continues to resonate today, even in our post-modern world (The Essential Rumi, C. Barks & J. Moyne, New York: Harper Collins, 1995.)

Rumi sought a higher form of spirituality then, just as many millions of people do today around the world.

I would describe my own spiritual experience so far as, in a word, holistic. I consider myself rather fortunate – or perhaps just brainwashed – by a mother who espoused acceptance of people no matter what their culture or religion. She taught me about the importance of what comes from a person’s heart, rather than how often they go to their house of worship or what they eat on a certain day or do at a certain time of year. She practiced kindness and goodwill towards her fellow human beings every day. For her, religion was essentially a private matter – and what has religion got to do with friendship anyway?

As a child, I remember visiting the homes of family and friends from Germany, Iran, South Africa and China, to name a few. Looking back, I guess you could say that my childhood was a cultural tapestry, with a German father and a British-Irish mother. My mother was an excellent judge of character. She recognized positive and negative traits in people regardless of cultural or religious assumptions or stereotypes. This forms part of my set of values that I have happily chosen to continue to practice.

In 2007, one of my university lecturers invited me and five other students to present papers at the Society for Pakistan English Language Teachers (SPELT) conference held annually in different cities of Pakistan.

After visiting Pakistan, I also travelled to Dubai. Since I was wearing a shalwar kameez and had mehendi on my hands, let’s say I did attract a bit of attention. Expatriate Pakistanis in Dubai were delighted to learn that I had just come from Pakistan and were very interested to know where I had been and how I found Pakistan I wrote about this trip for Sada-e-Watan in 2008: ‘Sydney University students visit Pakistan,’

When my friends and I encountered expatriate Indians, they couldn’t hide their astonishment. We get similar responses in Australia; comments range from: “What on earth did you go there for?” to “You lived through the experience?” One day in Canberra, some Indians approached my friends and I, curious to see us dressed in shalwar kameez (we had just had lunch at the Pakistani High Commission). The conversation turned to music and one of them said: “Oh, they (Pakistanis) just rip-off Indian songs and palm them off as their own.” I was flabbergasted by their continual cynical remarks. Happily, I know several Indians in Australia who have unprejudiced thoughts towards Pakistanis and associate regularly with them. Invariably it turns out that those who have unkind words to say have not ever even visited the country. I wonder how they can pass comment on a place they haven’t ever been to?

Perhaps such prejudice is not surprising given the lack of contact between the people of both countries. During my visit to Pakistan in 2007, I remember meeting a charming lady who runs the Modernage Public School and College in Abbottabad alongside her husband. She told me about an exchange program some students from their school were arranging with a school in India. Unaware of the significance of such contact, I thought of this simply as a wonderful way for young students in different countries to get to know each other. I also didn’t really understand what she meant by the struggle that Pakistanis face when trying to obtain a visa for India. I recently learnt of the reciprocal visa restrictions on Indians and Pakistanis trying to visit each others’ countries: city specific, police reporting, no tourist visas etc.). She also talked about the malleability of children in general and how they don’t seem to harbour prejudices like adults do. I still didn’t understand exactly what she was driving at. It was only recently after subscribing to a friend’s newsletter that I began learning about the divide and even lack of knowledge in general about every day life in Pakistan and Pakistanis.

It is obvious that the media on the whole tend to project a distorted view of Pakistan and its people. If I believed even half of what I saw in the nightly news in Australia, I doubt I would have visited Pakistan in the first place. Now, having enjoyed my first visit tremendously, I jumped at the chance of a second visit with a friend and her four children this year.

My travels to several countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and North America, including six months studying in Italy, have taught me much about our marvellous planet and the peoples who inhabit it. It doesn’t appear to me to be particularly complex. On the contrary, it’s rather simple. Everywhere I’ve found similarities: people thinking about their jobs and their children’s education, going shopping, making sure their family has enough food or going to various houses of worship for spiritual guidance. Everywhere there are a few rotten apples in the barrel who spoil it for everyone; but at the end of the day, we probably all have pretty similar aims in life.

We would be hard pressed to find two countries with closer historical, cultural, ethnic and in some cases religious bonds, than India and Pakistan. With so many similarities why is there such a focus on perceived differences? I have faith that Indian and Pakistani brothers and sisters will not continue to play into the hands of those individuals who have decided that a particular perennial line of argument keeps their political agenda alive. Most politicians and sections of the media have not really contributed to any sense of courage and hope among their people or attempted to shed past antagonisms, moving forward to embrace a positive future. Most rely on blaming the other country for all their problems, making the citizens of India and Pakistan pay for failed governmental policies.

My vision for India and Pakistan is that their peoples will start to listen to each others’ stories and begin demolishing the wall that hinders efforts to live in harmony as neighbours.

The original link can be found at:

This version has some minor modifications.

Holiday snapshots from Pakistan

A report on my second trip to Pakistan at the beginning of 2010. On our return, my travelling companion and friend, Huma Ahmar, and I had a lot of fun and laughs writing this:

“Breathe and smile!” This philosophy stood us in good stead during our recent trip to Karachi, as some considered us rather brave travelling with four young children (ages 11-4)! We met up in Hong Kong and travelled to Karachi on Pakistan International Airlines. This was Danielle’s second trip to Pakistan (she wrote about her previous trip for Sada-e-Watan in 2008: “Sydney University students in Pakistan,”

Exhausted after the long night flight and transit through Islamabad, we ambled out onto the sun-drenched forecourt of Jinnah International, where we were warmly greeted by Huma’s family. There was an instant sense of familiarity as we were swept up in the chaotic Karachi traffic. We had arrived.

On the second day, we ventured out for a spot of afternoon shopping in Bahadurabad with Bhabi, sister-in-law in Urdu. How fashions can change in two years! Yet, the new styles started to grow on us by the end of the afternoon and we did indulge in some new pieces.

Some exciting events figured in our packed schedule. Three birthdays punctuated our time in Karachi and we managed to stretch them out pretty well too! There was a family dinner at Largess and an afternoon tea, lunches at Lasania and Arizona Grill in Zamzama and cakes galore, of course! Plans were in full swing for a reunion with Huma’s English Department pals from her student days at Karachi University and about 13 of us made it to Roasters in Zamzama. The lively atmosphere grew as everyone was taking a trip down memory lane while having a chuckle about the good ol’ KU days. Usually, when you’re the outsider at these types of gatherings, the stories and jokes tend to be a bit lost on you; but we all had a memorable evening filled with fun and laughter.

An inspiring occasion held at the Arts Council was an evening dedicated to the Student Movement of the 1950s. We were kindly invited by Zakia Sarwar, whose late husband was one of its leaders. The theme of the evening was “Looking back to look forward.” The occasion, in part, paid homage to the collective efforts of many students of the day rallying for their rights across Pakistan; this nostalgic journey was made through slide presentations, short documentaries, impassioned speeches, a rich vocal performance by Tina Sani and verbal accounts in person from those who were intrinsic to The Movement. Reminiscent of students’ politics it took Huma back to her days at KU. The electric atmosphere of the evening was heightened by the time the acclaimed band ‘Laal’ hit the stage (see: They are doing a fantastic job of raising awareness of both the students and the working class about their rights and the bright future that awaits them should they decide to move forward and claim it. They are indeed friends of democracy and human rights. As the name suggested, “Looking back to look forward” certainly fulfilled its promise. Beena Sarwar, the daughter of the late Dr. Mohammad Sarwar, is making a wonderful effort of continuing his legacy. She and her colleagues are doing an amazing job of providing a platform for the Pakistani youth to express themselves, something that they need in these challenges times. We wish them luck!

The following day it was off to the beach Pakistani style. West of Karachi, French Beach was the perfect soothing tonic. It was great to see Omayr again, who had been so gracious during Danielle’s 2007 visit. Our group spent the afternoon out on the beachfront merrily chatting away and getting acquainted. After a feast of succulent crabmeat prepared by one of the locals, it was time to sink into the lounges and gaze dreamily out over the Arabian Sea, losing ourselves in more conversation.

We managed to take the kids to the National Museum of Pakistan to change their impression that “Karachi is a place with hot bazaars and lots of people”, which is their standard response when quizzed about the city. So, after a spot of lunch at Alpha Restaurant and a quick peak in at Zainab Market – we couldn’t resist – it was off to the museum for a dose of culture and history and to learn about the Indus River Valley Civilisations, the Mughal Dynasty and Quaid-e-Azam. So-called ‘normality’ then returned when we headed to Clifton Beach for a heady mix of camel and horse rides and snake charmers by sunset. Only in Karachi! The four year old took a liking to a very cute “baby snake” that the snake charmer had brought out to show; but a meltdown nearly occurred when informed that she couldn’t take it home with her. Thankfully, it was averted with chocolates.

Huma’s father wanted to take the whole family on a day trip outside Karachi and Thatta was chosen as a place of historical interest. It is a city known for shrines of the various dynasties that once presided over the landmass that is now Pakistan. He was fortunate enough to get a special pass and we indeed felt privileged to have the opportunity to visit this area and learn something about important bygone epochs. The tombs at Makli remind one of the intransience of life and the permanence of death. The fine workmanship and the vibrant colours have withstood the test of time. It was a picture perfect day as the bright, clear sun, cloudless, blue sky and golden, sandy colour of the stone provided a striking landscape to photograph. Our next stop was the beautiful mosque in the town centre built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in the Fifteenth Century to thank the townspeople for their hospitality while he was staying there. What a generous gift!

The end of our stay was drawing nigh, so the pressure was on to fit in all our shopping as there were a few gifts to pick up for people at home and we were both in need of adding to our bangle collections. Our friend Farah was obliging and offered to take Danielle to all the right places. We picked up pretty much all we needed at Gulf Market before moving on to Jafferjee’s, the place known for its quality leather goods. After making a pit stop at Butler’s in Zamzama to pick up some delectable chocolates, we joined the family for high tea at The Village at Seaview.

Now, what trip to Pakistan would be complete without getting mehendi done!

Uzma and Danielle caught up one last time for coffee at Butler’s and before we knew it we were being pushed into a rickshaw with a reassuring: “Say no more, I know someone”, and off we flew to the parlour.

Hectic was an understatement! Those 12 days were certainly an unforgettable adventure! So many things to do, so little time. Unfortunately, we still left some disappointed faces in our wake. The front door felt like a revolving door at times and the phone seemed to ring non-stop; no sooner had people waved goodbye than the phone rang and some others were on their way round. We slotted in numerous visits to the homes of family and friends new and old; and well, we did leave some things undone; so we’ll just have to readmit those to the ‘to do’ list for our next visit.

The original link can be found at:

The version above has some minor modifications.

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