Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Greetings from Pakistan! (And no, I havent gotten married)

I've been in Pakistan for nearly ten days now, and while most of the days were in Islamabad, relaxing with friends and family, I was reminded of how dire the situation is on a constant, day-to-day basis. There are police checkpoints everywhere. The checking would add at least 5 or 10 minutes to your commute, in a city that is pretty small - compared to Lahore at least.

While I was in Islamabad, the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar (the only 5 star hotel in the entire Northwest Frontier Province just an hour north of Islamabad) was bombed, in very much a similar style to the recent bombings at law enforcement agency offices in Lahore, as well as the Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad of last year. Combine the two, and you have nothing but mayhem - a terrorist's dream come true. Many of my friends and colleagues reminded me to take good care when I visited Pakistan in January 2008. Lahore had just experienced its first major terrorist attack during my visit at the time, when the police contingent outside the Lahore High Court was attacked by a suicide bomber. Imagine the fear in our hearts when we realized this was a short distance away from my cousins' law offices.

My family and I went out to dinner to the now-renovated-and-open-for-business Marriott Hotel when I was in Islamabad last week. To call that place a fortress is an understatement. I wonder if Israelis live in as much fear of terrorists as we civilian Pakistanis do now? I mean, there was a checkpoint down the road from the hotel, then one in front of it. Cars are simply not allowed inside the hotel complex anymore (I wonder where the valet service took our car that night?). We walked through a 15 foot barrier of sand, water and concrete, through metal detectors and then finally down a newly constructed ramp that brought you right in front of the hotel doors. A lobby that once buzzed and hummed with energy was now a barren wasteland. I could even hear the silverware clanking, something impossible if you were ever there when the lobby restaurant's singer sang old film songs and the dozens of guests chatted while foreigners conducted business.

My father has solemn memories of the hotel from last year. He often went there for dinner or high tea and the staff recognized him - some of whom lost their lives in the tragic attack. One of the waiters serving us that night survived. What questions, or memories, must haunt them? I shudder to think and hesitate to ask. Needless to say, dinner is bittersweet. It might be a world class establishment, but unfortunately, its recent history will always guide its future.

I arrived in Lahore on the weekend and feel as if ive been stuffed inside a brick oven! It's so hot that I can honestly feel the heat seeping into my skin from the sofa, for example. Westerners cannot understand the lifestyle here, because they are so accustomed to air conditioning. Well, that's a joke here, since the electricity doesnt work half the day - literally! It's called loadshedding and happens in India as well, but it wreaks more havoc across the border, here in Pakistan, because of the dire economic situation.

Speaking of which, the budget was just announced and education accounts for barely one percent of GDP. Industrialized nations budget between three and five percent for education, so we have a long way to go, definitely. The World Bank came out with a report (or some sort of assessment) which I cant locate for now, but the two important conclusions from the article I read were that 1) Madrassah enrollment accounts for around one percent of student enrollment in educational institutions. ie, madrassah students should not be looked at as a credible threat to the country or international security, for that matter. And 2) Private schools are increasingly taking on the challenges that the public sector has shied away from. Private school students have shown superior performance and overall more "bang for the buck".

It should come as no surprise that there is yet another increase in defense spending. Power to the army! I can understand why we need to increase it (can we get some serious support to fight the Taliban, please?), but please, someone explain to me why the U.S. needs to do so? The military-industrial complex in the U.S. that a former U.S. President warned of (Truman? Eisenhower?) is very much a reality in Pakistan as well. Read Ayesha Siddiqa Agha's work for some fascinating insight on this topic, but meanwhile, i've become a staunch supporter of at least direct support to the Pakistani army. They're the ones on the frontlines, fighting this raging insurgency in the country's north. They, along with other law enforcement officers/officials, will always be prime targets. They need true and real assistance. A simple bullet proof vest will go far.

I was pleasantly surprised - and a bit taken aback - when I saw an ad in the local paper for a company that produced these and other vests and devices that might protect law enforcement officers. Great to see that the product is in the marketplace, but why must this company advertise these goods? Is it not logical that the army definitely needs these, no questions asked? I remember an episode of Larry King Live from last year when the American entertainer, Cher, was making the rounds in the media drumming up support for helmets that soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan should use considering the roadside and suicide bombings they were fast becoming victims to. Well, now our soldiers need them too. I'm surprised no one is asking these logical questions and demanding these devices be mandatory. In due time, I truly hope.

And lastly, it's become customary for my South Asian friends to tease me about my age and marital status (i'll be 28 in September and am single). At about my age, South Asian men and their families embark on a journey to find a suitable spouse for the "candidate". Marriage is essentially a social contract in South Asia, as well as the Arab world in general. Spouses (or couples, by extension) are not just friends and companions but also agents of social change, in that, they build bridges and establish linkages among families. This was especially common in the Mughal/medieval times when marriages were almost solely done by virtue of family background. As long as there were similarities between prospective spouses, the rest could be worked on.

So alas, this brings me to my predicament. An eligible bachelor, on vacation for several weeks in his native hometown, yet no word of marriage, or even an engagement? Some of my South Asian friends inquired - half-jokingly - about my "plans" for this trip. My answer of "rest, relaxation and recreation" did not go far with them. For now, I am not letting this issue stress me out. I enjoy what independence I have and am hopeful for the future. A positive approach should do me well, I think!

On that upbeat note, I part ways. Since there is plenty to update you on, i'll try to write soon...