Travels to Pakistan – A Jeddah-based journalist’s account

Pak Tea House is grateful for this contribution from Tariq Al-Maeena a journalist based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia – his account of travels in Pakistan is engaging. We are publishing the first three parts on his impressions of Islamabad, political intrigues of the Capital and his sojourn to Murree. The interesting bits are his comparisons with Saudi Arabia where Pakistan is viewed as a poor country. The remaining parts will be published later.  (Raza Rumi)
 
Pakistan Re-Visited – (1)
Islamabad
 
When the invitation came in from the Pakistani Consulate in Jeddah to visit Pakistan as part of a media delegation for the purpose of acquainting ourselves with that country, I had no moment of hesitation in accepting their gracious offer.  This in spite of my family’s vocal concerns about my personal safety, with pre-election violence that had plagued that country still fresh in their minds. 
 
I had been to Pakistan before, albeit the city of Karachi only and that was thirty years ago.  This trip would afford me the opportunity to visit several cities in Pakistan for the first time and my excitement at exploring new adventures knew no bounds and there was no stopping me.
 
It was PIA, the national airline that we boarded one night for our flight to Islamabad.  Along with me was the rest of the media delegation: Tariq Mishkhas, managing editor from Urdu News, Nasser Habtar, Al-Watan newspaper bureau chief in Abha, and Mohammed Yousuf, Arab News correspondent.
 
Having flown considerably on Saudia, our national airline, I had to admit that the service and seating comfort offered by PIA far exceeded our own.  The flight was smooth, and the service impeccably professional.
 
Some four and a half hours later, our B-777 touched down upon Islamabad airport.  One item that caught my attention was the singular runway that doubled as a taxiway, which I found odd for a capital city.
 
Pakistan’s capital nestles at the foothills of the Margalla Hills.   Spacious and carefully planned, Islamabad is a city of wide, tree-lined streets, and impressive public buildings.  Traffic jams were rare during our forays onto the public roads, and anticipated slums were nowhere to be seen. Sidewalks are shaded with rows of flame trees and hibiscus. Roses, jasmine and bougainvillea fill the many parks scattered around the city offering a haven of tranquility and harmony to its many visitors
 
We checked into the local Marriot Hotel and rested before we set off that evening for a short sightseeing trip.  Our first visit was to the National Monument in a park at Shakarparian set on a hill with some impressive looking monuments, and an expansive view of Faisal Mosque, an imposing architectural structure with four high minarets in Islamabad.
 
Designed to signify the unity, faith and discipline of the people of Pakistan, the National Monument is an icon represented by four massive blossoming petals, each symbolizing the four separate regions of Pakistan and the star and crescent along the inner walls of petals represent the star and crescent on Pakistan’s flag.  Our delegation was visibly impressed by the respect and cleanliness observed by all its visitors.
 
It is said that the Monument has been designed to reflect the culture and civilization of the country and also depict the story of the Pakistan Movement, dedicated to those who sacrificed themselves for future generations.
  
At 518 meters above sea level, Islamabad I was told is at its best from October to March, when visitors can enjoy crisp days and cool nights.  Once we were through with our visit to the monument, we set off to a restaurant at the peak of Margalla Hills, where we feasted endlessly on a sumptuous offering of mutton kababs, chicken tikkas and lamb karahis.  The cool wind blowing calmly across the hills did wonders to our appetites, before our group finally called it a day and turned in.
  
Pakistan Re-Visited – (2)
A den of intrigue

The Nadia Coffee Shop at the Islamabad Marriot Hotel is a place to be seen and heard.  Evoking memories of Humphrey Bogart and Casablanca, it’s ambiance of intrigue does it full justice as a den where plots are hatched by the minute.  It does not take a visitor long to run into politicians and deal makers from the various political parties and organs of the government, each busily engaged in some hush-hush conversation while indulging in a lavish delicacy promoted as ‘high tea’.  A smattering of Chinese and American delegations added to the conspirator theme of this colorful gathering.
 
In one short evening, I had the opportunity to chat with several colorful figures including the Pakistani Attorney General Malik Abdul Qayyum, Shahbaz Sharif, the brother of the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and a host of other political and media figures that sauntered in and out of Nadia.
 
To a visitor such as myself interested in Pakistani party politics, there was enough material to fill a book in such a short time.  One individual briefed me on the current situation at the time including the upcoming deadline for the restoration of the judges sacked by President Musharraf.
 
“You should know that Musharraf representing PML-Q is the best thing that has happened to Pakistan in these difficult times.  We were unfortunate to be the only country that had to deal head on with the Afghan situation for so long and it could have taken this country to an abyss from which we would have never recovered had it not been for his policies.”
 
“And contrary to what has been reported and what you may have heard, Musharraf is an honest man and a patriot.  Navigating the country in such difficult times is not an easy task, yet he has managed to forge Pakistan on the road to progress.”
  
“Today our economy is booming, and new industries are emerging.  Foreign investment has increased along with the stability of Pakistan.  These other political parties have their own agendas, which I assure you are self-serving, and not in the interest of the people of Pakistan.  Our national treasury has surplus funds, something that was missing for many years under the other crooked politicians.” 
 
Another, a staunch PPP supporter, was dismayed by his party’s embrace of Asif Zardari.  “Look, I was the late Mrs. Bhutto’s biggest supporter.  But after her death, I feel lost.  Her husband who is currently manipulating the judge’s issue for his own benefit will let this party down.”
 
“I worked with her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and was dismayed that she was married off to the son of a cinema owner with little education or political acumen.  He was previously known as Mr. 10%, but today defines himself as Mr. A to Z with everything in between.  Can you imagine that?”
  
Explaining my question of corruption charges that had been leveled against the late Mrs. Bhutto, he countered that it was her husband who was the root of all evil.  “She would have been better off if she had married Imran Khan.  His honesty and her political savvy would have indeed given this country the ideal first couple.  Unfortunately, she allowed her husband Zardari a long leash, and it didn’t take long for this crook to amass a fortune at the expense of the people.  Sadly, now we have to contend with a lame-duck prime minister in the form of Jilani who is just warming the seat while Zardari manipulates the party politics behind the scenes.”
 
Another, expressing distaste for Musharraf and his policies told of how he felt his country had sold out to the Americans.  ‘Musharraf is a Bush baby.  When Bush talks, Musharraf listens and very attentively at that.  In the US President’s desire to strike at terrorists, countless innocent Pakistani lives have been lost.  He has to bear the conscience of their spilled blood.  He has traded out our sovereignty for his political survival.”
 
A media personality described how Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) was perhaps the best thing for Pakistan in these difficult times.  “The way he administered his province and some of the progressive actions he took as Prime Minister for the benefit of this country are still evident today.  Look, he went ahead in spite of all international objections and permitted our first nuclear testing.” 
  
Responding to my question on Mr. Sharif’s removal on unflattering charges, he went on. “Those were all trumped up charges.  You have to understand Pakistani politics.  He represented Punjab, and naturally that did not sit well with other ethnic groups.  Yet in the times he was in charge, a lot of Pakistani progress was made.  He will be back in power I assure you, for it will not take long for Zardari to make a mess of things.”
 
An MQM spokesman soon joined my table.  He lamented his party’s treatment at the hands of Nawaz Sharif, stating that nothing good would come out of that man.  ‘Today, there is hope; with an alliance of the PPP with our party, we should be able to neutralize this man.”  Asked about the violence in Karachi reportedly attributed to his party, he snorted, “What utter nonsense!  Our party is peace loving and we too want to play a positive part in the political process.”
 
With the buzz of such diverse views still ringing in my ears, I decided to call it a day.  What I found fascinating however was that each of these individuals would warmly greet others in that coffee shop that were on the opposite spectrum of the political sphere.  But then, isn’t that what democracy is all about?
   
Pakistan Re-Visited – (3)
Murree and the Saudi aspiration
 
On the day the Saudi media delegation was to take off for a road trip to Murree, my colleague from Al-Watan newspaper Nasser Habtar insisted we drop in to pay our respects to the Saudi Ambassador prior to our journey.  Nasser had come to know him well during his previous journey to Pakistan when he was stationed to cover the Afghan war.
 
Off to the Diplomatic quarters we went, a guarded and gated enclave that houses most of the embassies in Islamabad.  We were greeted warmly by the Saudi Ambassador, the honorable Mr. Ali Awadh Al-Aseeri, a very personable individual who immediately made us feel at home with his warm and welcoming demeanor.
 
Over Arabic coffee and dates, Mr. Al-Aseeri re-iterated the Kingdom’s stand on Pakistan.  ‘The Pakistanis are our brothers.  We wish many things for them.  Among them are a politically stable Pakistan, a united Pakistan, a strong and safe Pakistan and a sovereign Pakistan.  The Kingdom stands ready to provide whatever support is needed by our brothers.”  Such aspirations I might add are indeed on the minds of many Saudis, both in and out of the country.
 
Begging off his gracious offer for a lunch in our honor, we explained that we had a road trip to take to Murree, a hill station about two to three hours away depending on who was doing the driving and how frequently one wanted to stop and take in the breathtaking scenery.  We wanted to get there before sundown. 
 
Murree is a hill station some 2,300 meters above sea level.  The road from Islamabad was winding and narrow as we traversed up the mountains.  It was not long before the cool air had us turn off the air-conditioner in our vehicle.  The sites before us as we keep moving up were comparable to some scenic sites in the mountainous regions of Europe. 
 
 
As we passed several villages along the way, I could not help but marvel at the lack of potholes and diversions that we are so accustomed to back in Jeddah.  And all this in a country which many Saudis consider a ‘third world’!  Perhaps they should re-consider and very quickly.
 
Originally set as a British retreat during summer months during days of the Raj, Murree today hosts Pakistanis and others wishing to enjoy its climate, scenery and tranquility.  The government of Punjab has not failed to take notice of the potential of promoting Murree as an international tourist resort, and I am told that plans are in the offing for increased upscale lodgings and other facilities.
 
Along the way we happened upon a chair lift that seemed to shoot up treacherously along the sides of the mountains.  The group wanted to experience this ride, and although I am not particularly fond of heights, I went along.  I must confess however that halfway up that ride that stretches for several kilometers, panic started to set in as the grounds below kept receding further away.  Were it not for the comforting presence of my chair lift companion Tariq Mishkhas from Urdu News, I would have probably passed out.  If you are reading this Tariq, I owe you one!
  
Once we reached the top of the ride and with very weak knees, I took in the beautiful sites before us.  The unspoiled natural splendor prompted all of our delegation to vow that we would return soon and with our families.
 
Our hotel was the Pearl Continental, some thirty minutes past Murree proper in Bhurban, of fame recently for the Bhurban declaration signed between Nawaz Shareef and Asif Ali Zardari.  It was here that they signed a joint declaration for the return of the deposed judges by April 30 of this year.
 
Located at an altitude of 2000 meters at the foothills of the Himalayas, the hotel is aesthetically nestled within the natural surroundings, and was indeed a welcome stop after our long ride.  Far from the bustle of the capital city and with a sated stomach, the serenity of beautiful Murree soon had us tucked in comfortably for the night.
 
 A word about the author:  Tariq Al-Maeena is a Saudi socio/political commentator.  He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and can be reached at talmaeena@gmail.com

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