Poor, Poor Pakistan

9 July 2010

The Swat near Birkot, ancient Bazira

In 2004, Marco and I visited Pakistan. I was writing my book about Alexander, and because it is easy to make errors when you describe places you haven’t seen, I needed to go there. It was absolutely sensational – especially our first impression of the Grand Trunk Road, with sport cars on one lane and camels on the other. As Rudyard Kipling said: “touching the Railway and the Telegraph on one side, and, on the other, the days of Harun al-Raschid”. Nor will I forget Uch: after driving through a forest of palm trees, there was the sudden view of those splendid medieveal buildings.

A Buddha from the Museum of Lahore.

A Buddha from the Museum of Lahore.

Peshawar, which has a nice museum of Gandara art, was unpleasant. In Islamic countries, mosques are always open to foreigners, just like churches are also open to anyone who wants to go there. God wants to be accessible for everyone who turns to Him, as an Iranian cleric once said to me, inviting me for a cup of tea. However, in Peshawar, I was for the first time denied access. It’s a long way from the Twelfth Rock Edict of king Ashoka, which we read later that day in Shahbazgarhi:

“Contact between religions is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others.”

Pathan boys collecting eggs in the ruins of Charsadda

We visited the Swat Valley, one of the most beautiful places on earth. The tea served in the Pakistan road houses is usually disgusting – the water is boiled with milk, butter, and sugar – but on that afternoon, we found it acceptable, and that evening, while we were sitting in a nice garden looking at the river at sunset, we felt completely at ease, even forgetting our customary precautions against mosquitoes.

Jaulian, detail of a stupa

Jaulian, detail of a stupa

That was 2004. The war in Afghanistan had already began. We saw several refugees, we listened to the opinions of our hosts, and we drank tea in a roadhouse with people who were at the same time angry at the West and fascinated by the two tall westerners who were visiting them. In Karachi, we heard, a bomb had exploded. Yet, we usually felt safe. It was only in a hotel at a bank of the Indus that we had something to fear: the malaria mosquito.

Back home, I saw TV-images of Multan, and I thought “Hey, I’ve been there!” But then I saw how a dead body was dragged through the streets. Not much later, an earthquake hit the central Punjab, and I am pretty sure that some people were killed in a house where we had been invited. The hotel in Islamabad where I bought my salwar and kameez, was destroyed by a bomb. The Swat valley was first destabilized by the Taliban, conquered, reconquered by government troops. Today, forty-five people were killed by a suicide bomber in a town we visited.

And yet. Pakistan is also the country of Taxila, the museum of Lahore, the Shalimar Gardens, Shingerdar, the Rhotas Fortress, and countless kind people. It’s the land of the restaurants in “food street” in Lahore, it’s the land of splendid rivers, it has roads with beautifully decorated lorries, and I will never forget Multan’s flowers. It is so sad what happens over there. Pakistan deserves better.


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