Pakistan’s Unfortunate Embrace of the ‘Modern’

This is an interesting article sent to us by Usman Khan

The other day I attended a dawat by a fairly well off middle class Pakistani family. You know your average bi-monthly get-togethers where the chaps sit largely in cold silence while the women pontificate on everything from the best way to control their servants to the latest drone attack in FATA. Anyway I digress. Whilst there, the amiable host tapped into my love for all things sweet and whipped me up into a frenzy about a new ice cream that was to be served for desert. Well who can fail to be excited by ice cream? Not me, that’s for sure. Imagine my dismay then when, instead of being served an ambrosial, delicately crafted desert, I was handed cup of Wall’s ice cream with all the pomp and ceremony of a banquet in the court of Bahadar Shah Zafar. It seems that a local vendor had started selling small scoops from Wall’s various array of premium packaged offerings. It was not exactly what I had in mind. But perhaps that is my fault. If six years in Pakistan have taught me nothing else – then it is that unfortunately Pakistani’s do not have an eye for a good thing.

Let me explore this further. For many months I had been hearing rave reviews about the Monal resteraunt in Pir Sohawa, Islamabad. It was an architectural gem, I was told, on par with anything found in Europe and America, a testament of Pakistani ingenuity and skill. A grand, majestic, superlative restaurant if any there was one. Well from my two visits there the best I can say is that the food is good, if slightly overpriced. Otherwise the restaurant itself is a hideous monstrosity. Instead on erecting a gem of a building, made from locally sourced material and one in tune with its surroundings, the owners have created and absolute eye-sore which instead of complimenting its setting, imposes itself on the beautiful hill with the same brute force of a vexed khala or phupo. And yet it is heralded and loved rather than loathed and despised. The only possible reason I can think of is that it has marble floors, large windows and generally conforms to most locals idea of what is ‘Western’ or ‘Modern’.

Pakistan is not a country lacking in culture. In fact it is steeped in it. But instead of embracing it – Pakistani’s have chosen to turn their backs on their heritage and embraced a very disjointed and distorted form of ‘modernity’. The highest form of praise it seems is to describe a thing as modern or westernized. Nowhere is this better highlighted than in the consumer habits. So many a Pakistani would rather buy a Cornetto than go to a local Kulfi wala and eat something that is made of actual milk. Others are likely to opt for the odiousness of KFC rather than going to their local Tikka place and having a far better quality meal at half the price. And god forbid one has their furniture hand made from a master Chinioti carpenter when flat-pack furniture can be purchased from Ikea or worse still Metro. While there are even people who prefer to buy Nestle yoghurt as opposed to local dahi – because it has a rawaiti maza! Surely, I am not the only one who sees the twisted irony in that.

Whereas in the West – the fashion of the day seems to be the embrace of good local, high quality, well sourced and distinctive foods and products – here it seems that the conglomerates  and the culture of ‘identikit’ everything rules. Fashionableness and indeed status it seems is judged by branding as opposed to excellence. Which is a shame really because there is so much potential in the country for excellent local businesses to thrive and do well. There are certain exceptions to the rule. CoCo’s Den in Lahore is very notable one as are the fashion labels Khaadi and Ghulabo which have fused tradition with modernity to excellent results. But alas they are few and far between. For now though, it seems that the reign of Hyperstar and Pizza Hut is very much here to stay.


Filed under culture

16 responses to “Pakistan’s Unfortunate Embrace of the ‘Modern’

  1. Saima Yousuf

    Sadly, when I visited Pakistan a couple of years ago after 23 years of living in the USA, I was shocked and disappointed to find that the common foods offered at the Karachi Gymkhana, the Karachi Golf Club and the Karachi Marina consisted of chicken nuggets and french fries! I had been looking forward to real and authentic Pakistani food, but it seemed the pride was in showing of that Pakistanis were “up to par” with America, not just in food, but unfortunately fashion and lifestyle follow closely behind.

  2. Tilsim

    @ Saima

    There is another Pakistan which is not the Karachi Gymkhana, the Karachi Golf Club and Karachi Marina. On your next visit, if you go to the superhighway and sit under the stars on a charpai with takyas at one of the excellent new open air restaurants there, you will have had the authentic meal and experience that you are seeking. Karachi caters for everyone.

  3. Bade Miya

    Nice piece. Delhi is quite similar too. I remember sometime ago, when KFC was introduced in India, a local tikka-wallah started his own joint, JFC, which actually tasted far better than the KFC. JFC’s workers’ attire carried labels of JFC, although they were a little dirtier and the workers smoked bidi. JFC, of course, stood for Jagdish Fried Chicken! And, we always had Panasoanic and Takai Bush to go with Soni. 🙂

  4. AZW

    “Pakistanis have chosen to turn their back on their culture”.

    A bit harsh stereotype of the whole society, isn’t it the case here? Pakistanis live, eat, and breathe their culture. There are a few for whom KFC or McDonalds constitute as fine dining. They are allowed to eat what they like. I may not agree with this crowd, but it is their choice. Burns Road or inner Lahore food all the way for me.

  5. We should not be disturbed, shocked or disgusted to find “modern” foods and architecture around us as the places noted above are not in abundance. There are still lot of places where one can find our traditional food and architecture. And this happens everwhere.
    One can walk around in streets of Lahore, Karachi and other places where steamy and sizzling indigenous food is still being served in our very own traditional way. Life is still the same outside Gymkhanas, KFCs and Macs.

  6. shiv

    @Usman Khan
    I attended a dawat by a fairly well off middle class Pakistani family.

    Please allow me to nitpick. The above statement is an oxymoron of a type that is as common among English speaking Indians as it seems to be among Pakistanis.

    None of us wants to say “I am rich. Much richer than most”. Naturally – you think you are not rich. You look at Bill Gates or Zardari and think. “No, that’s not me. I am middle class”

    With respect, that is rubbish. In India if you speak English and own a car you are hardly “middle class”. You are pretty much among the top 10 % of India. The same is true in my observation of Pakistanis. A lot of Pakistanis on the internet speak of “middle class” by looking at themselves and deciding to place themselves in “middle class” because you know you are not poor and think you are not all that rich.

    Someone had calculated (some years ago) was that “Middle class” in India constituted a monthly income of about Rs. 5000 with a “middle class” family perhaps owning a two wheeler and a TV set. In India if you are middle class – you barely fall within the bottom income tax paying bracket.

    In general, in the subcontinent, if you speak English, own a car (or your family owns one) and travel abroad you are not middle class. You are wealthy. Your wealth is merely equal or better than Western middle class. Your status in society is higher.

    People from this group calling themselves “middle class” is a kind of faux play-acting that falls in the same genre as the women who pontificate on everything from the best way to control their servants . Or else it is an act of being blinkered and attached to a sort of old fashioned feudal reality of the sort where my late grandmother complained that a laborer who would work a whole day for 25 paise now demands tens or hundreds of Rupees.

    If you think you are middle class it could be that those below you are underpaid and are being cheated. Your “middle class” status rests on a whole lot of really poor people below you whose poverty you do not notice any more than my grandmother did.

    It is more likely that your servants could be middle class or aspiring middle class. Certainly in India a lot of people who were “servant class” are now becoming middle class – and many of their children aspire to and get placements in the humongous numbers of engineering colleges that have cropped up.

    Pardon me for saying so but I coined the term “R.A.P.E.” – Rich Anglophone Pakistani Elite for the wealthy Pakistani chatterati who think they are middle class but actually belong in the top 10 % income bracket of Pakistan terms.

  7. karun

    arey baba….each to his own…

    in fact i would rather let them ape all of western culture(trash if u may say so) than to sit tightly and smugly in the alleged superiority complexes of one’s own culture.

    Fast food is actually fast food. Its not rhetorical. MacD actually serves within flat one minute and Dominoes reaches your doorstep within half an hour. which Tikkawala will do that?

  8. karun

    pls note…constant innovation is the hallmark of western culture…may it be functional or design oriented. and thats what makes people choose Ikea over ‘chinioti carpenter’.

  9. Zia Ahmad

    The post reads like a call towards traditionalism. It does offer a stereotypical view of how modernity is confused with the general tendency to emulate the west. If a building looks like an eyesore to the writer, is he aware that modern art is essentially reactionary to the ornate sensibilties of more traditional forms. In the garb of the avant garde, the form is most of the times, intentionally and unintentionally, uglified. So that may explain the less than aesthetically pleasing qualities of the architectural design the writer speaks of. Even in the real west, such architectural wonders aren’t exactly dominating the landscape.
    And what’s the deal with comparing fast food joints with the local tikka wallah?
    “So many a Pakistani would rather buy a Cornetto than go to a local Kulfi wala and eat something that is made of actual milk. Others are likely to opt for the odiousness of KFC rather than going to their local Tikka place and having a far better quality meal at half the price.”

    First of all a cornetto is not exactly qulfi and vice versa. And you have to ask which ice candy is more hygenic.
    As for the tikka/KFC bit. Like Karun said, one is fast food the other aint. And tikka joints can be as expensive (Bandu Khan/Chatkhara) and you’ll find many fast food joints that offer moderatly priced foodstuff.
    You dont have to be afraid of modernity but dont be scared of it

  10. PMA

    Monal resteraunt in Pir Sohawa, Islamabad is a fine place. It is a bit pricey and the structure is not an architectural master piece, but it provides a respectable place for a night out in Pakistani conservative lifestyle. Those who can afford it can take their family and friends there for good food, clean air and fantastic view of the Capital. I give it four stars.

    And Coccoo’s Den. Iqbal Hussain should add an elevator and staircase outside his Haveli for easy access to the roof-top restaurant. Heaven forbid if there is a fire inside the building. Again the view of the Baad Shahi Masjad and the Shahi Qala is great but the Lahore air pollution could make you ill if you are new in town. And if you are a vegetarian then neither one of these two restaurants is for you. I give three stars to the Den.

  11. Usman Ahmad

    First of all as the poster I have to clarify the fact that my name is not Usman Khan it is Usman Ahmad.

    Someone noted that there is still an abundance of traditional Pakistani culture – and that is true of course – but personally I believe that is more due to a lack of development in many parts of the country as opposed an embrace of the regional traditions.
    What I find disturbing is that there is an all too frequent embrace of western awfulness as opposed to what is good about the region.
    Let me take to the example of the Haweli – how many old Haweli’s have been preserved in cities like Lahore not many at all – I think you could count them on your fingers – these are heritage sites. Instead Lahoris revel in and feel proud of places like Hyperstar. – What is that all about. Some of the posters may beg to disagree but the truth is that the process of erosion has started and looks set to continue unabated.

    @Shiv – I stand corrected. How truly awful of me to judge class standards through my British sensibilities. As for myself I definitely fall in to the ‘middle class category’ as prescribed by you and lower middle class at that. Anyway that was not really the point of the article but I stand corrected nonetheless.
    @PMA – how you can describe Pir Sohawa as a ‘fine place’ is beyond me. The restaurant should have been made using local materials and in compliment to its surroundings – maybe in the style of exaggerated rest house or hill station. Instead what you have is this marble clad monstrosity on this wonderfully beautiful hill. Here I think Pakistan has much to learn from Africa – particularly up and coming tourist destinations like Madagascar who are erecting wonderful buildings which embrace both elements of brilliant western design and African culture, which help the local economy and which are aesthetically pleasing.

    Finally, surely its not a bad thing to support local businesses even big Pakistani companies like Hico or Nurpur. So next time you want to quench your thirst with a Nestle juice give Shezan or the local juice corner a chance.

  12. stuka

    This article reminds me of a certain section of Delhiites as well.

  13. Ibn-e-Maryam

    If people living in Pakistan want to eat chicken nuggets, KFC, or any other food served by foreign food chains, they are labelled as abandoning their culture. This is generally done by people who live or have lived in foreign countries for a long time and now they have suddenly discovered ‘local culture’.

    Please, let people have some enjoyment in their troubled lives in this country, even if it comes at eating ‘foreign foods’. So, bring me some nuggets and zinger burger, and I will have chicken tikka and sushi, and Italian and French deserts. Hmmm hmmm, hmmmmmmmmm

  14. skarlok

    tastes and cultures are dynamic and always changing. To say a culture should always stick to its traditions is like nailing a coffin over it. Cultures are dynamically changing as they are continuously being affected by internal and external influences.

  15. @shiv

    While your point is well taken, I must point out that people place themselves in their societies on more than just their relative wealth and social capital. Control over one’s own destiny and capacity of one’s own and his ‘class’s’ ability to bring about desired change also matters a lot.

    In India atleast, most people who would identify as middle class do not control their own destiny, one run in with a rich person, powerful politician or bureaucrat and they will be shown their place. Also, the collective lack of interest in politics makes the ‘class’ politically impotent.

    The situation in Pakistan cant be very different and therefore the self miscategorization.

  16. Usman Ahmad

    @skarlok – the point is not that they should stick exclusively to tradition or abandon all elements of Western culture – I am arguing against the way it is embraced. In Pakistan you will find very little good quality produce despite the fact that it is one of the worlds largest food baskets. I think Pakistan needs to take a look also at Italy which meshes history and heritage with modernity very well and show more respect to the brilliant wealth they have in their own land.