Pakistan Re-Visited – Lahore, Karachi and Reflections

This is the second post on the travelogue by the Jeddah based writer Tariq Al-Maeena on his travels to Pakistan.

Pakistan Re-Visited – (4)
The road to Lahore

On a day following several meetings with officials from the Pakistani government that ran later than scheduled, we missed our flight reservations to Lahore. Faced with the option to drive from Islamabad to Peshawar and take a flight to Lahore, or else take a four hour drive to the Punjabi city, the Saudi media delegation unanimously opted for the latter. The drive would provide us a closer insight into the countryside of a country that was quickly garnering admiration from each one of us by the moment.

A few miles out of the city of Islamabad we soon passed a toll-booth on the outskirts of the city and were soon on our way in a Toyota Crown graciously supplied by our host on the M2 expressway that would lead us to Lahore. A six-lane highway that was meticulously clean and well asphalted with none of the pot-holes and road carnage we have been so accustomed to in Jeddah had us all marvel at the will of the Pakistani road authorities who have indeed managed to maintain a world class motorway.

An hour into our journey, we passed through a hilly region noted on either side by well planned trees and shrubbery. The road was clean and traffic laws strictly enforced. Road signs every few miles reminded motorists not to litter, and there was ample evidence that motorists paid heed. Our group was definitely taken aback with the ease and comfort of driving as we moved on. Contrary to our expectations, we did not witness one road incident that would have raised alarm.

Towns and villages flashed by; names like Kallar Kahhar, Chakwal, Gujran and Sarghoda sped by, each with its unique flavor. Some were farming villages, others terraced communities that lay on either side of the expressway. Halfway en route, a rest area beckoned us, and we decided to stop for a short break and some refreshments. Similar but so unlike the SAPTCO rest stop between Jeddah and Madinah, this rest stop afforded its guests a full fledged restaurant and other amenities. The difference lay in its standards of cleanliness. Even the restrooms had us Saudis shaking our heads at the pitiful conditions some of us have encountered at the SAPTCO stop. And this was supposed to be a third world country?

As Lahore beckoned closer, cattle, sheep and goats graced either side of the motorway, their herders keeping an attentive eye on their herd. Haystacks and smoke columns for making and baking brick appeared far and wide, a sight alien to us tourists. Once past the final toll booth, our driver pulled over to the side and inched closer to a patrol jeep with full armored commandos with their M-4 assault rifles and state of the art Glock 18 pistols.

Alarmed at the site and wondering if we were heading into a war zone, our guide mollified us by explaining that these were members of the Punjab Elite Forces that were generously detailed to us by the Governor of Punjab not for protection but for navigating the crowded city streets of Lahore easier.

Although the basic premise of the US-trained Punjab Elite Force is to curb terrorism and serious crimes, we soon appreciated their commanding presence as they quickly shooed the traffic ahead to either side of the road making our journey to the hotel fast and unencumbered. With the ‘NO FEAR’ logo visibly printed on their dark tee-shirts, our convoy was indeed a force to be reckoned with.

Our first evening in Lahore concluded with a visit to Anarkali Bazaar, reputed to be Lahore’s third gift to the world. Named after the famous courtesan of Emperor Akbar’s court, Anarkali is one of the most enchanting places in Lahore. The Bazaar is one of the oldest surviving markets in South Asia. Originating from the Mall near Lahore Museum, it’s a maze of narrow alleys and lanes stretching northwards towards Old Lahore.
It has a captivating history related to the character after which it is named. According to the legend Mughal Emperor Akbar’s son Prince Salim fell in love with Anarkali, Emperor Akbar’s courtesan who was given the title of Anarkali or ‘Pomegranate Blossom’ due to her charm and beauty by the Emperor himself.
Anarkali Bazaar is a shopper’s heaven selling virtually everything from handicrafts to souvenirs; antiques to artifacts; electronics to every sort of clothing, ready made garments and woven clothing. In scenes reminiscent of old downtown Jeddah, shopping is delightful here and bargaining is the order of the day. In addition to these shops, many sidewalk cafes afford a variety of dishes to suit any palate, and it was not long before our group sat at one of these outlets and immensely enjoyed a meal of barbequed delicacies along with a complement of fresh fruit juices.

It is indeed a bustling monument of activity to the living legend of Anarkali, and one that had us eventually pleasantly exhausted and ready to call it a night.

Pakistan Re-Visited – (5)
Karachi – Jeddah’s sisterly city

If ever a city in Pakistan evokes memories of back home and the city of Jeddah, then it is the city of Karachi with its chaotic hustle and bustle. The helter-skelter nature of its residents is very much comparable to Jeddah’s residents. As busy as Lahore, but perhaps with the unique flavor of being a vibrant coastal city, Karachi has indeed a distinctive charm of its own.

We flew in one early afternoon from Lahore on PIA, the national airline that has been gathering increasing admiration for its turnaround in passenger service and on-time performance. My last visit more than three decades ago did not help much in my recollections of the airport or the rest of the city. So much has changed since. Karachi has had its share of violence and mayhem over the years, and there was a period in recent times that one would be over his head for considering a trip to this city. But things are different now.

Whether it was the recent elections or the resilience of the Karachi-ites to put all that violence behind them and move on, one can just surmise, but the evidence before us presented a city on the move. Construction was booming in the newer parts of town, while several cleanup operations were observed elsewhere. New roads and arteries were being set throughout the city.

And yes, Karachi does have its share of crowded streets and traffic jams, but if you chose your outings carefully, you can avail yourself of an uneventful experience. And let me assure you; the roads we traversed upon are in far better shape than our own.

I had spent a better portion of my childhood in that city, and for me it was akin to going back home. Memories of Purani Numaish and Mohammed Ali Jinnah Road soon reinforced the reality of this visit as I visited Darul-Falah, the house I grew up in as a child, and where we had once feted the late King Faisal during one of his visits to Pakistan. It was gratifying to note after all these years that the new owners had left the Darul-Falah nameplate just outside the resident gates in its original condition.

The Governor of Sindh was kind enough to detail us a patrol vehicle with a detachment of the Karachi Police, and for similar purposes as in Lahore. However, they were not as aggressive or effective with Karachi’s wayward traffic, but we did not mind having them along for the ride.

A highlight of our trip included a visit to the mausoleum of the founder of Pakistan, the Quaid Azam, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. The way to the mausoleum is a terraced and landscaped avenue emphasized by fifteen successive fountains. The mausoleum is an impressive landmark of Karachi. Nearby are the graves of Liaqat Ali Khan, the first Prime Minister of Pakistan and the Quaid`s sister, Fatima Jinnah.

Constructed with white marble and graced with curved Moorish arches and copper grills, the mausoleum rests on an elevated 54 meter square platform. An imposing crystal chandelier almost four storey high that was presented by the people of People’s Republic of China dominates the vast center hall.

Around the mausoleum there is a park fitted with strong beamed spot-lights which at night project light on the white mausoleum, which allows the glowing tomb to be seen for miles at night. The mausoleum is usually quiet and tranquil considering that it is in the heart of this bustling city.

The actual grave site is located in an underground chamber that our group was fortunate to visit, courtesy of the caretaker Major S. Ather Mir (Retd.), the project manager of the site who is also responsible for the 53 hectare park encompassing this immense monument and meticulously maintained. Also included is a museum exhibiting original cars and pieces of furniture and clothing once used by the late Mr. Jinnah.

From there it was off to Clifton Beach, a popular destination for the locals. Situated on the Arabian Sea, the beach hosts several attractions for picnic goers, including amusement parks, animal rides and restaurants. On the pretext of a photo opportunity, Nasser Habtar and I convinced one of our group members, Tarek Mishkhas to saddle up on a seated camel, while privately telling the camel herder to get the camel up and running as soon as he was saddled up.

As the camel lurched up, and then swung back, the look of terror on Tarek’s made for some interesting snapshots. The shock and jolt of that ride did little to ease the ‘Delhi belly’ syndrome poor Tarek was suffering from, but he was a good sport about it.

After a round of roasted corn stalks and pani purri or goal guppas from a sidewalk vendor on the shores of Clifton, our group split up, some to meet up with MQM officials while others opted for a shopping spree on Tariq Road, a mega polis of shops displaying everything imaginable.

I finished off the evening with some local companions indulging in what I categorically regard as the world’s best barbeque outlet; Bundoo Khan with its mouth watering kebabs and parathas, and topped it off with sweet Faluda in the downtown Saddar area.

Pakistan Re-Visited – (6)
A Time for reflection

On the day of our departure back to Jeddah, with our bags packed and goodbyes dispensed with, our group found itself together at the coffee shop of the hotel. There each one of us talked about whether this trip had changed our opinions of Pakistan and its people.

This was a country of about 160 million people scattered about 5 individual provinces including Kashmir. As the world’s fifth largest democracy, Pakistan has had its share of questionable leadership, but there is enough evidence that the country’s progress had not taken a back seat.

We all agreed that the media had been over blowing Pakistan’s lack of safety and security. Never once had we felt threatened for our personal safety during our entire trip, and there were many times when individually we would set off on our own to the busiest sections of the cities we had visited.

Nether were our pre-visit ideas about a dirty and poor country justified, for we saw enough to prove otherwise. The infrastructure wherever we went was either in infancy or the process of being upgraded.

We also felt that in the context of their internal politics, news of Pakistan’s emerging industries and economies were continuously being relegated to the back pages of the media.

Perhaps it has more to do with Pakistan’s pre-occupation with conflicts at their northern borders over recent times, but little is written on the fact that with more than 100 universities and150 research institutes, Pakistan produces 100,000 engineering graduates annually, and another 100,000 technically trained graduates.

More than 50 foreign companies have set up R&D facilities in Pakistan recently. Some of these include multinationals such as GE, DuPont, Bell Labs, IBM and Microsoft among others.

In the business of automobiles, Pakistan manufactures and sells engine components to five of the world’s largest manufacturers. Suzuki and Hyundai are recent entrants to the manufacturing buzz in Pakistan setting up full fledged plants, with Pakistan taking its rank as the ninth largest automobile manufacturer in the world.

Along with heavy industry, Pakistan is also one of the world’s largest exporters of textiles and related products. Garment exports alone are expected to fetch in $8 billion by year’s end.

In its quest for self-reliance, Pakistan is among seven countries in the world that launch their own satellites. It is also among a few countries that have developed and built their own nuclear power capabilities using their own indigenous technology.

New emerging industries in areas of interest include mecha-tronics, bio-technology, pharmaceuticals and clinical research. And foreign investment has shown a remarkable increase in recent years. Ironically, Gulf countries awash with high returns on the sale of oil have yet to take advantage of an educated labor pool and invest heavily in this growing economy.

And as with the aspirations of the Saudi ambassador in Pakistan, we too wished well for our Pakistani hosts, for they do have a country that should make Pakistanis everywhere proud and more determined to develop their political participation in a positive manner. It is their country, and they should all join hands under the crescent and the star, the symbol of their flag to ensure a secure and stable government, free from personal agendas.

As we settled in our seats for the flight back home, individually we all vowed inshaallah that we would one day return to Pakistan and with our families. We had had but a glimpse into this land of resilience, tourism, resilience and all of us wanted more.

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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