Pleasantly Surprised, In Islamabad

By Yoginder Sikand

Islamabad is surely the most well-organised, picturesque and endearing city in all of South Asia. Few Indians would, however, know this, or, if they did, would admit it. After all, the Indian media never
highlights anything positive about Pakistan, because for it only ‘bad’
news about the country appears to be considered ‘newsworthy’. That realization hit me as a rude shock the moment I stepped out of the plane and entered Islamabad’s plush International Airport, easily far more efficient, modern and better maintained than any of its counterparts in India. And right through my week-long stay in the city, I could not help comparing Islamabad favourably with every other South Asian city that I have visited.

That week in Islamabad consisted essentially of a long string of
pleasant surprises, for I had expected Islamabad to be everything that
the Indian media so uncharitably and erroneously depicts Pakistan as. The immigration counter was staffed by a smart young woman, whose endearing cheerfulness was a refreshing contrast to the grave, somber and unwelcoming looks that one is generally met with at immigration counters across the world that make visitors to a new country feel instantly unwelcome. Outside the airport, Nadeem, a driver sent to
pick me up, gave me a warm handshake, and when, shortly after, he learnt that my grandfather was born in his own native Abbotabad, a town not far from the Afghan frontier, he pressed on me a hearty, sweaty hug.

‘Bhai Sahib, This is the land of your ancestors!’, Nadeem beamed. He insisted that I travel with him to Abbotabad and stay with him in his home and try and search for the house where my grandfather had lived before the Partition. I seriously wished I could, I told him, but the vexing visa regime between India and Pakistan strictly forbids citizens of both countries from stepping out of the cities for which they have been granted permission to visit.

No sooner has the visitor stepped off the plane in Islamabad and
drives into the city than he is forced to realize that whatever the
Indian media says about Pakistan and its people is basically bogus.
No, Pakistan is not a ‘fundamentalist’ country, teetering on the verge
of a take-over by ‘religious radicals’. No, Pakistan is not a
‘prison-house of Muslim women’, who are allegedly forced into wearing
tent-like burkhas. No, Pakistan is not a ‘failed state’ that produces
nothing. Flowing beards and skull-caps are conspicuous by their rarity
in Islamabad as are burkhas. Women drive and shop and work in
government and private offices. Most basic consumer items are produced
within the country. And, as in India, despite government ineptitude
and convoluted elite politics, the country survives and is not on the
verge of total collapse, contrary to what Indians are made to believe.
The Islamabad Club, where the organizers of the conference I had come
to attend had put me up, seems like a relic from colonial times, only
that it was built much after the British departed. It is the favourite
haunt of Islamabad-based bureaucrats, army officers and landlords,
heavily subsidized for their benefit, as in the case of similarly
stuffy elite watering holes in India. I would have actually preferred
to stay in much more austere surroundings—after all our conference was
all about democracy and social justice in South Asia—but I comforted
myself with the thought that a bit of luxury for just a few days would
not do me major harm.

Islamabad, in some senses, is like Chandigarh: a new, planned, modern
city, set up on decidedly Western lines. It was founded in the 1960s
when the capital of Pakistan was shifted from Karachi. It straddles
the foothills of the Margalla range, which leads on to Kashmir in the
north-east and the North-West Frontier Province, near Afghanistan, in
the west. It is divided into numerous zones, each having its own
markets, schools and other such institutions. The city’s roads are
fantastically smooth and wide and enclosed by broad grassy banks.
Carefully manicured gardens and thickly wooded parks stretch for
miles. Cobbled paths lead up to trekking trails in the nearby
mountains and enormous bungalows enclosed in private gardens line the
streets. The air is remarkably clean and crisp, traffic jams are rare,
and one can reach one end of the city from the other within just half
an hour.

Since Islamabad is a new city, it boasts no historical monuments worth
seeing. Yet, the city has its own share of attractions for the
visitor. The massive Pakistan National Monument atop a hill that
commands a majestic view of Islamabad is an architectural marvel, and
so is the massive Faisal Mosque, one of the largest mosques in Asia,
so expansive that it accommodates an entire university in its
basement. Equally bold and striking are the Pakistan National
Assembly, the President’s House, the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, the
Supreme Court and a host of other swank buildings housing government
offices that line the main Constitution Avenue. The Rawal lake on the
outskirts of the town extends far into the distance till it meets the
horizon, and, like the rest of Islamabad, it is clean to the point of
appearing thoroughly sanitized, at least to the Indian eye. On the
banks of the lake are a number of welcoming restaurants, and a small,
whitewashed temple, a testimony to the times when, before the
Partition, there was a sizeable Hindu community in the area. Nestled
on the other side of the lake is the glamorous Daman-e Koh or ‘The Lap
of the Mountains’, a thickly forested valley, and the best way to
spend an evening in Islamabad is to drive up there for the icy breeze,
a dinner of biryani and an assortment of kababs, a live band singing
melancholic Hindi film numbers from the 1960s and a panoramic view of
the city below.

The suave and gracious Kamran Lashari, head of the Capital Development
Authority (CDA), the body entrusted with developing Islamabad, was our
host one night, having invited us to a sumptuous dinner at the
fabulous Lake View Park, a large expanse of green located on the banks
of a placid lake at the edge of town. I tell him, and I hope he knows
I am serious, that Islamabad is the best city I have ever seen in
South Asia and remark on how well-managed it is. And so do the other
Indians who have also been invited that evening, fellow participants
in the conference.

Lashari tells us, and he has every right to beam with pride at this,
that till he took over his present position some four years ago, the
annual budget of the CDA was a billion rupees, with some eight-tenths
of this being funded by the Government and the remainder being
self-generated. Today, the CDA’s budget has increased twenty-five
fold, and the ratios for government and self-generated funds have been
reversed. He talks excitedly of his future plans, of the many new
architects, designers and construction companies that have come up in
Pakistan in recent years and about how he hopes to work with some of
them for projects that he has conceived.
For fellow Punjabis like myself, Islamabad feels just like home. Most
of the city’s inhabitants, as indeed most Pakistanis, are Punjabis,
and are essentially no different from fellow Punjabis across the
border in India, although, I personally feel, perhaps a shade better
looking! And, as an employee of the Indian High Commission in
Pakistan, who travelled in the same plane as myself on my return, also
a fellow Punjabi, quite rightly remarked, ‘If you want to learn
etiquette, learn it from the Islamabadis’.

But then, Islamabad is as representative or otherwise of Pakistan as
posh South Delhi or any other similar elite-inhabited part of any
other Indian city is of India as a whole. Islamabad is decidedly
elitist, the poor, mainly people who work in the homes of the rich and
for the CDA, being confined to a few anonymous working class
localities in the city or commuting everyday from neighbouring
Rawalpindi. As Zaman Khan, a burly, friendly worker in a posh
restaurant quipped when we got down to talking about mounting
inflation and rapidly expanding socio-economic inequalities in India
and Pakistan, ‘There’s hardly any difference between our two
countries. I am sure you have fancy quarters in cities in India that
are reserved just for the rich, just as Islamabad has. What difference
does it make if the houses and localities of the rich are so beautiful
and comfortable? The rich here and in India as well must be equally
indifferent to poor people like us.’

True enough, and yet another thing of the many things that India and
Pakistan have in common. But notwithstanding Zaman Khan’s astute
observation, Islamabad, I must admit, excited me in a special way, and
I long to return soon.


Filed under Islamabad, Media, Pakistan

12 responses to “Pleasantly Surprised, In Islamabad

  1. Yogi,
    If you thought Islamabad airport was plush, you will probably be in a shock when you see Karachi airport.

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  3. Thank you for visiting, Yogiesh.

    You know, I really appreciate your gesture to make it a point to write this post. As an Islamabadi and having lived a lot in both Karachi and Lahore, I can tell you Islamabad is quite better regardless of what people tell you about it.

    We have a very small but vibrant theater scene, a vibrant art scene and the literary corner has been ever green. You must have heard of Parveen Shakir and Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

    But like the rest of the country, Islamabad could use some improvement, become a better city. I need to visit India now to return the favor.

    You are welcome to the city again anytime. *Missing Islamabad*

  4. Dear Phil
    Many thanks about your comment.

    Yogi’s article was great especially as it tried to demolish the general myths on Pakistan.

    Well, I lived in Islamabad for many years and liked it for its connection with Nature that the current municipal authorities are trying hard to erase. About the arts scene, I disagree for it just lacks the diversity found in other cities and towns. There is too much of bureaucracy and nouveau riche (fattened by corruption, greed and land prices) in Islamabad and the expats make the matters more complicated – the anti-culture classes residing amid the ‘oriental’ lens and worldview of the diplomats and the development agencies.

    The underclass of course has no place – out in the suburbs, villages or if lucky in Pindi- they are not even allowed to cross the new highways built in the capital.

    what a culture – a reflection of complete elite bias – the parody presentations of broadway musicals ‘sold’ as arts is quite reflective of this trend.

    Please check out Isa Daudpota’s article on this blog-zine that also moans about similar issues.

    Where in the world my friend McDonalds is allowed to be built in a public park? Can we imagine doing that in NY’s Central Park or London’s Hyde Park- after all these are cultural meccas of our elite. And where else a high-rise crumbles with an earthquake tremor and no inquiry is completed, no one brought to justice and no building laws implemented.Instead we want to ape the 7 star hotels of Dubai fame…

    I am obviously quite upset about the way the beautiful Isloo is being made into another greed-land. And this has nothing to do with your positive remarks (some of which I agree with)….


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  6. koi mujhey bulao na islamabad dobara juldi!!!!!!!!!

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  8. nikita

    islamabad is like chandigarh?? i better visit it soon.

  9. having visited islamabad recently, i had the same thoughts..

    it’s a lot like New Delhi, but better organized.

  10. Good to listen that there is something good in Pakistan but if you come to New Delhi, you will find a big city with 16 million population, 4000 MW power supply, 7500 public transport buses, 65 kms. of Metro rail network (185 kms. of metro rail network will be operational by 2010), organizing Commonwealth Games in 2010, more than 100 flyovers etc. City for all as it costs LPG cylinder for Rs 305, petrol for Rs 45 per litre, Electricity for Rs 1.40 per unit only etc. In the world, I think Delhi is the best city which is for all rich and poor.

  11. i think whole Pakistan and Pakistani people are Pleasant and gullible but something is really very bad. What I say all one knows.

  12. Vessi

    WOw what a report.

    I also live in Islamabad and it is the most beautiful city in south asia.