Islamabad, Pakistan by Car

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By Charis Boke

Faisal Mosque from Hills
It’s fortunate that most people in most places have the intelligence and common sense to recognize the difference between the attitudes and policies of a country’s government and those of its citizens. If that were not largely the case, the world really would be as dangerous a place as the U.S. government makes it out to be, and my trip to Pakistan would have been a lot less enjoyable.

A caveat: my April 2008 trip to Islamabad was something I did under the auspices of my Fulbright grant. And because the Fulbright programs are administered by the U.S. Department of State, there were many more security restrictions in place than were useful. If you find my experience and description of Islamabad a strange one, you’ll be about on the same page I was! Security restrictions notwithstanding, it was a great trip.

The first thing to note is that Islamabad is physically a little bit odd. The city was planned right after Partition in 1947 specifically to house the newly formed Pakistani government. When you look at a map of the city, it looks like a well-planned vegetable garden: neatly laid out rows and sectors, considered green spaces, a national park on the border, and the government offices in the center.

A Map of the City of Islamabad

That cartographic neatness isn’t odd in itself–what is always odd in planned cities is their, well, planned-ness. Lack of visible organic arising–they’re not messy enough! And when you take into consideration that most Southasian cities are overwhelmingly organic, narrow-streeted, crowded, hectic and hot, the cool(ish), wide tree-lined boulevards of Islamabad seem even more offbeat. They’re peaceful. They’re often traffic free. They’re usually more than two whole lanes wide, with some up to ten lanes wide. I saw an average of only two bullock-drawn carts a day–that’s not a lot!

Those may not seem like things worth pointing out to folks who haven’t spent time in Southasia–or, for that matter, in any developing nation. But living as I have in Nepal for these last 9 months, it was downright eerie. Where were the cows? The dogs? The rickshaws? How did the streets get so wide, the lines on them so well painted?

Fortunately for poor old me, the nice neat map layout had little, if any, reflection on how one is actually meant to get about by car in Islamabad. One way streets, dead-end, roundabouts, u-turns and more made it a little more confusing–a little more comfortable. The directions I was given to one person’s house went like so: “House 39, Street 20, Sector F 7/2.” That’s it. At one point, we were driving along one street looking for another street–Street 26 in Sector F 6/2. There was street 20, good, 21, good, WHOA, street 42 just flashed by! And now we’re back down to 31! If you don’t know where you’re going to begin with, you’ll never get there.

Even though the streets felt empty to me, there were still people clustered in various places. Men in shalwar kameez, the national standard dress, waiting for work on some corners; men and women waiting all day at different embassies to see if their visas would come through; men lounging at their friends’ shops drinking tea and talking, about politics, about money, about sports. All in Urdu, of course, the national language of Pakistan–but Nepali is a closely related language, so I was able to understand some of what people were saying.

I can’t tell you anything about restaurants or worship sites, both of which were forbidden territory for us Fulbrighters. Why, you ask? Well, the worship sites, as the government wants us to believe, are simply hotbeds of criminal activity, and liable to civil strife at any time. (Not true, just to be clear on that point). And the restaurants–last year, there was a bomb set off in a well-known Islamabad restaurant. The U.S. Embassy believes it was a blanket ‘western targeted’ bomb, though everyone I spoke to about it said that it was actually targeted at two specific westerners who were believed to be FBI agents. Nobody was killed, though several people were injured. The only restaurant I could go to was the one at the Serena Hotel: behind a car barrier, a bomb guard, a gate, a metal detector and a force of armed men sits the fanciest hotel in all of the city. There, ISI agents mill the lobby (Pakistani intelligence: I think it was them, anyway) watching comings and goings.

I can tell you about the shopping areas–that was something we could do more or less with impunity. The Blue Area, Jinnah Market, Melody Market, and other little nooks and crannies were a bit less organized in terms of vehicular traffic. Cars were parked haphazardly, carts occasionally blocked passage, it was very hard to find specific buildings. But inside the shops, which cater to some of the most privileged of Pakistan’s elite as well as to a sizeable expatriate community from many different nations, it was clean, well-lit, organized and friendly. The fabric shops sold bolts of fabric for women’s shalwar-kameez-dupatta (pants, shirt, shawl, Southasian style) and would pull down any of hundreds of three-fabric sets for you to look at on the counter, or in daylight, or against your skin, or maybe with another fabric that you like better.

The jewelery shops were full of gold bangles, necklaces, precious stones–wearing gold jewelery is of high social value in Pakistan, India, Nepal, indeed most of the region. Many poor women have all their wealth in their jewelery. And the book stores! One in particular I want to recommend if you’re ever in the area: Saeed Book Bank. I’m a bookstore connoiseur, and this hit top marks. There are some insightful, fascinating things written and printed in Southasia that are just not available in bookstores in the States, not even small, liberal, independent bookstores.

I did drive by Faisal Mosque, which was hands down the largest mosque I’ve ever seen, though I don’t know where it figures in world-scales. Faisal Mosque I wished greatly that I could have gone up and walked around the building, but alas! It will have to wait until my next, less restricted trip to Pakistan. We also drove up the hills to the north of town to two places, one a lookout spot called “Daman-e-Koh,” and the other a higher-up lookout which includes a restaurant called “Pir Sohawa.” Both have magnificent views of the city in all its’ sprawling glory–Quaid-e-Azim University far off to the left (east), the Supreme Court and President’s house more or less south of the lookout, and Rawalpindi visible off to the west-south-west. You can also see, from there, the highways which lead to Lahore, Karachi, and Peshawar. View from Pir Sohawa

Daman-e-Koh and Pir Sohawa are both tucked into border areas of the National Park up in those hills; one morning we went hiking up one of the several trails into the park before it got too hot. By 8 am it was 34 degrees celsius, but the hike was beautiful. Scrub-brush, pines, and low deciduous reminded me vaguely of northern California drylands, and also pointed out how close to desert Islamabad really is. Charis in the hillsIn the evenings (particularly weekend evenings), Islamabadites flock to these hills. The temperature drops, and people hike up or drive up to sit and chat with friends, to have picnics with families, to meet boyfriends and girlfriends. Of course, the people who have the social mobility to do the latter are the elite in a city of the elite–but I was honestly surprised that people were able to meet friends of the opposite gender at all, given the coverage that western media provides on Pakistan.

Certainly the situation in rural areas is different than in urban areas, and I can’t speak about it except to say that I have been told it is much stricter on gendered rules. Even in Peshawar, a female friend told me, one of the larger Pakistani cities which is in the Northwest Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan, even in that urban area the dupattas that women wear with their shalwar kameez are big enough to swathe their entire body if need be, and certainly big enough to drape over their head and torso at all times. Though I did see relatively few women in Islamabad wearing the headscarf called a hijab, the number was still around 40%, and is higher in rural areas. If it is truly the woman’s choice to cover her head in the sight of her god, more power to her–but who can ever tell what is really women’s choices in situations like that?

The people I got to know in Pakistan were largely academics, many of them at least partially educated in America or Europe. In the course of our conversations over two weeks, the overwhelming impressions I got were several. First of all, many are skeptical about the current U.S. and Pakistani administrations’ abilities to make headway on any of Pakistan’s problems, let alone solve them–just as I am skeptical. Secondly, some of them are practicing Muslims and do not believe that the radical Islamists are following a right or good path through Islam. And thirdly, most of them are working as hard as they can in an oppressive, unbending political situation to try to make some small dent in the difficulties that Pakistan faces–some of the hardest workers are those least ‘experienced.’ The young, the fresh-out-of-school; like anyone anywhere, folks just mostly want to make their country a safe and healthy place for their children to grow up in.

Me: Is there any kind of comparative religions program at Quaid-e-Azim University?
Professor: No, not really. For religious education, the only thing offered is really the programs at the madrassas. There’s not comparative studies.
Why not?
Professor: Well, the people who would teach it fear several things. One: student body disapproval. There are some strict Muslim students who might protest against the classes. Two: governmental reprimand, and three: radical reprisal. There’s too much in the way of teaching it.
Me: Do you think there will ever be a program like that?
Professor: There was once, and there may be again. Once you have all your degrees you should come back and give a seminar on comparative religions; you are most welcome.

(Here are some photos from the University) Part of Qaid-e-Azim University CampusQaid-e-Azim University Gate

I’ll be back. There aren’t many places in the world where you get to see road signs which read ‘Lahore,’ ‘Peshawar,’ and ‘Kashmir Highway.’ Lahore, PeshawarKashmir Highway, this way!Devi

2 comments on “Islamabad, Pakistan by Car

  1. hayat on said:

    Nice one thanks for favourable comments about Pakistan and seeing a few pics from Uni, Quaid e azam university Islamabad.

  2. Ahmed on said:

    Thanks for sharing your article.

    I have been planning to visit Islamabad shortly and was looking for some info which I found in your article. Thanks

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