Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas in Karachi

Five years ago on Christmas, I was at a bowling alley in Karachi and saw a boy dressed like Santa Clause walking around, which I thought was weird. Then my friend turned to me, "Merry Christmas! It must be party time in the States, huh?"

“Umm…” I had to think for a second. Coming from the U.S., I was an automatic expert on American culture, but I had never actually celebrated Christmas in the States. No Muslim-American I knew celebrated Christmas—the ultimate Christian holiday. “It’s actually more of a family holiday,” I informed him.

Well, turns out Pakistanis don’t really care for the truth about Christmas because, in this Taliban-plagued, 95% Muslim country, Christmas is party time. I was surprised enough when I saw Santa at the mall last week, thronged with Pakistani children. Then my Pashtun driver had the radio on "Jingle Bells." I looked outside and a street vendor was selling Santa caps.

My cousin commented that his Facebook feed was full of "Merry Christmas!" statuses-- more than any other holiday including Eid and Diwali-- and most of his friends have never been to the States.

Then I heard about Christmas parties. Of course, I had to go. The first place we went could have been on TV, which is actually my best evidence of what Christmas looks like—a huge, long table full of classic Christmas dishes, dimly lit, carols on CD, a tree full of ornaments, and Secret Santa. Then we went to a Christmas house party, where all the girls were dressed in red and wearing Santa caps.

So after years of, like many Muslim-Americans, secretly loving Christmas but always feeling a little left out, I finally celebrated it—in Pakistan. But the Christmas spirit here is about more than Santa and ornaments, it’s also the perfect reminder of Pakistan's progressive spirit.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Back in Karachi

I’m back in Karachi. I’ve missed it a lot since I left in August. But this time I’m not seeking constant travel and adventure like before, I’m more curious about Karachi itself and what it’s like to live here.

It was hard to leave Pakistan this summer. Even when I got homesick, it was because I was in Lahore and missed Karachi (sorry Lahoris but Karachi rocks). I ended up extending my trip by months and weeks. I didn’t book my ticket till the day before I had to leave, or risk being disowned by my parents.

You would think my parents would love that I wanted to be in Pakistan. After all, they did try to move here when I was nine, in an attempt to save me and my siblings from becoming “typical American teenagers.” But we moved back to the U.S. because security was so bad (early 1990s political violence) and now Pakistan more or less freaks them out like it would any American parent.

My friend Zaineb from New York City was in a similar situation. When the banking industry nosedived, she randomly decided to spend the summer in Pakistan. She ended up loving it so much she had “World War III” with her parents to convince them to let her stay here for good. By the end of the summer, both our parents were calling us and telling us Pakistan was dangerous while we rolled our eyes and haggled for extra weeks and days.

But I’m back now and things are different this time—I’m used to the security situation, having a driver, and wearing kameez shalwar. I’m still a wide-eyed American as far as my family is concerned, but to me things feel more familiar than foreign. Now I’m just curious to see how this month turns out: was the Karachi I discovered just a summer illusion or a city to live, work, and love like any other city in the world, and just one great untold story?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Pakistani Souvenirs: Where to Find Them

Pakistan is not exactly a tourist destination (thank you U.S. travel warnings since forever), so it’s tough to know where to go to find souvenirs and gifts. But with the art and political culture opening up, there is a lot of cool stuff around.

This is a list of shops and spots I discovered in Karachi. It should come in handy for those who end up there, including the flood of expats and their kids on ritual family visits during wedding season.

1. Daku (Bandit).

What: Politically-conscious t-shirts.
My Find: A t-shirt with a picture of U.S. drones falling on a village. The back says Stop Bombing My Country.”
Location: Zamzama. The store is closed for expansion but t-shirts are being sold out of Muneeb Nawaz at the end of the “Pizza Hut gully (lane).”

2. Gulabo.

What: Truck Art-inspired everything.
My Find: A pink canvas handbag with large Urdu script: Danger. Look, but with Love. (Yes, hopeful drivers do sprawl that on their trucks and buses.)
Location: Zamzama. At end of lane with Yellow, opposite Pizza Hut gully. They have a bigger store somewhere that you can ask about.

3. I ª KHI t-shirts. A rip-off of I ª NYC.

Where: Yellow and Deepak Parwani in Zamzama have some. Or become a fan on Facebook.
Why: These t-shirts are part of the famous city-wide graffiti campaign.

4. Citizens Archive Project.

What: Clever, historically-inspired mugs, postcards, and t-shirts. Photos here.
My Find: A mug that reads (one side): “What Hollywood icon once said, ‘You’re not famous till they can spell your name in KARACHI?' Other side: Humphrey Bogart.
Location: Defense. Visit Facebook for updated contact details.

5. Great, cheap souvenirs without going to a bazaar.

What: Jewelry, souvenir trucks and rickshaws, home decoration.
My Find: Small, embroidered pillows from Afghanistan.
Location: An Afghan guy has a stand on the ground floor of Park Towers.

6. Caravan.

Why: Run by a Lahore-based NGO.
Proceeds benefit village handicraft-workers.
What: Candles, bags, stationary.
Location: Zamzama, next to Ego.

7. Al Falah, Village Embroidery Center.

Contact: Call 021 5804707 or try their website.

8. Hunar-e-Zan, A Project of Roots for Equity.

What: Handicrafts.
Location: Shop 167 at Gulf Bazaar.
Contact: Call 021 498 4409.

9. Itwar Bazaar!

What: Sunday market.
Why: Fun place to walk around, and you never know what you will find, including smuggled or somehow-damaged factory goods from China.
My find: Wall hangings, and a new pair of my favorite shoes (sold at Macy’s a few years ago)!
Location: Go with a local.

And to experience a bit of Karachi’s cosmopolitan culture while you are there, don’t forget to check out

Feel free to add tips or clarifications. I would love to hear about other finds so I can check them out next time I’m there.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Dear Sir

Pakistan has become more progressive, with women much more visible in schools, workplaces, and on the street, but everyone who matters is still assumed to be a man. I was once in a position where I received many job applications from Pakistan. They were almost always addressed, “Dear Sir.” Even if we were hiring from Pakistan, which we weren't, I would never hire anyone who assumed I was a man.

So when Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) did it to me, I reacted.


Please cancel my 8:00 am flight on Saturday. I accidentally booked it thinking 8:00 was 20:00. (I forgot they use military time.)



Dear Sir,

This refers to your email. We will look into the matter and confirm the refund.

PIA Customer Service


Please note that I am Madam NOT Sir. Women book plane tickets too.


Dear Ms. Nadia,

We apologize for the inconvenience caused to you by our email.



It would not be hard to change their automated response to “Dear Sir/Madam.” Perhaps more women need to book plane tickets in Pakistan. Or just react more.

(Feel free to send a protest note to my penpal at PIA:

ISI at the Afghan Consulate

I ran into the ISI, Pakistan’s notorious intelligence services, while looking for an Afghan visa in Pakistan.  Pakistan is not a police state, like Syria or Iran, so it’s not normal to run into an ISI agent.

The visa section of the Afghan consulate looked like a converted chowkidar’s (guard’s) hut, attached to the boundary wall of the consulate.  It was on a dusty back lane in a residential area.  And it wasn’t that easy to find, considering all the published addresses and phone numbers were wrong. 

The first time I went to the consulate—dark and un-air conditioned—I watched a fatherly consular officer taking thumbprints and congratulating young Afghan men on their new Afghan passports.  They looked like refugees working as laborers in Pakistan.  I was a bit amazed.  Afghanistan is often related to Pakistan, but these people spoke, acted, and looked completely different.  The fact that I had never before noticed Afghans in Pakistan reminded me how invisible and impoverished Pakistan’s almost 2 million Afghan refugees are.   

I looked a little out of place, with my wedge heels, big sunglasses, and U.S. passport.  Most of all, I was a woman on my own.

The visa officer told me what I needed to apply for a visa and I returned on the second day to submit my application.  When I walked outside, my driver was talking to someone, which was normal.  But when I got in the car, he didn’t go away.

“Is she from Pakistan?” he asked my driver at his window.  He looked like any man off the street, thin, dark, and wearing a dirty shalwar kameez.  “Why does she want to go to Afghanistan?”

“Who is he?” I was asking my driver at the same time.  “Why is he asking these questions?  Why aren’t we leaving?”

My driver was giving us both vague answers, so I tried to get the man to talk to me directly.  It took a few attempts.  I guess he was trying to be respectful.  Finally, he came around to my window.

“My friend wants to build a school in Afghanistan,” I explained, “I’m a student at Harvard.”

That probably made no sense to him, so he asked for all of my contact information.  I wasn’t eager to give all that up to a dirty man on the street, but I took a bet that he didn’t have email or international calling and gave him my Harvard Kennedy School business card.  He was instantly satisfied and we pulled away.

“Who was that??” I asked my driver in a dozen different ways.  I didn’t get any clear answers, only that he had something to do with the consulate. 

I went back the next day to pick up my visa.  When I left, my driver was talking to the same man, but this time he was wearing nice pants and a clean shirt.

He greeted me like an old friend, apologizing profusely.  “Your driver scolded me for scaring you yesterday.  I should have showed you my badge.”

He pulled out an ISI identification card.  On the back it said something like: This man has permission to enter and search anything he asks for.  An unlimited warrant!

He then went on for a few minutes as I tried to get in the car, “The work you are doing is wonderful.  You are studying very important things.  More of our young people should be doing such things.  We need more people like you.”  He sounded like a proud relative. 

Thank god I had my business card, I thought.  One of his higher-ups must have recognized my school.

At first I thought the ISI officer was suspicious of me as an American going to Afghanistan.  That would be difficult to get out of, if he thought I had other purposes and was making up our intention to build a school.  But then I realized he was probably on the lookout for Pakistanis trying to go to Afghanistan.  That made more sense, and I was even a bit impressed that the Pakistanis would put so much effort into monitoring the movement of their own (often problematic) nationals into Afghanistan.   

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Two Months in Pakistan

I have now been in Pakistan for two months, which is much longer than I had planned to want to be here. But when the time came to leave, I wasn’t ready to go.

I finished my internship in Karachi, and got to know my city and my family along the way. Karachi has changed so much. It now has a raging party and restaurant culture, like any major city in the world. Young boys and girls hang out, smoke, and party together. I never thought I would see Pakistan so cosmopolitan and liberal. (Pizza Hut was the most exciting thing to do in Karachi when I lived there in the early 90s.)

My journalist friend even wrote about me on Huffington Post and the Dawn Newspaper blog.

I came to Lahore for a meeting and ended up staying here for three weeks. The NGO I was working for just started their English summer camp, and once I saw the kids, I cancelled my plans to vacation in India. I signed up to teach in Minhala, a border village that was part of India until the 1965 war with Pakistan. The girls tell me they can see the lights of India from their rooftops.

The village, Minhala, is an hour and fifteen minutes from Lahore, through cattle, farmers, donkey carts, dung, and dust. And it’s sweltering hot, with the electricity hardly ever working, but I still look forward to school each day and am sad that tomorrow is the last day.

I am starting to miss home: my jeans, my independence, my sense of absolute security. For the past two months, I have constantly been balancing a dupatta (long scarf) on my shoulder, worrying that my driver and servants hate me, and developing escape strategies for every possible kidnapping/robbery/shooting (but not bombing) scenario in my head. But despite those mental adjustments, fed by my own American consciousness and very paranoid family, I have loved it here and I will miss it, a lot.

I am ready to book a return ticket. But first, I will take a break at a resort in the mountains in northern Pakistan, say goodbye to my family in Karachi, spend a few days in Kabul, and then fly home to Alabama with a stop in DC. Sweet home Alabama, seriously.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Peshawar PC Bombing

I got an email last night from a friend in Washington: Are you ok?

I thought he was just checking in since I hadn’t responded to his last email.  Then I saw another similar email and a few texts.

The Pearl Continental (PC) Hotel in Peshawar had just been bombed.  I had reservations there 3 weeks ago when a friend and I visited Peshawar, en route Afghanistan.  The Red Cross runs a courtesy flight between Peshawar and Kabul, which our host NGO in Afghanistan arranged for us to take. 

But we were nervous about Peshawar so our plan had been to camp out at the hotel, which is very close to the airport.  An American friend confirmed the plan was fine.  It is totally secure, he assured me, so secure that the U.S. Embassy is planning to buy it.

My uncle in Pakistan, who facilitates everything I do while warning that it’s a bad idea, discouraged staying at the PC.  There is a rumor that the Americans want to use it as a base, he said, and hotels are obvious targets.

I trusted the Americans’ security assessment over my uncle’s paranoia, and made reservations. But we cancelled them once we landed, worried we would get bored at the hotel.

Still, we convinced the family friends hosting us to take us there. I had been told that eating a sandwich at PC cafe was the most exciting thing to do in Peshawar.  But when a car bomb went off at a cinema that evening, we cancelled our tour.

If word gets around that the Peshawar PC was being used as a political and intelligence hub for the U.S., there are people in Pakistan who will feel it was a legitimate target.  Yes, this is the messy web that constitutes the Pakistani Taliban, but it is also the numerous Pakistanis who do not trust American intentions here.  

But the hotel was also being used as a base for UN and international aid organizations for IDPs in the region.  The injury of two UN aid workers in the attack means that desperately needed humanitarian efforts are likely to be curtailed.  If this happens, then the long-term secondary effects of this attack may be broader than the original blast. 

Monday, June 8, 2009

Police Encounter

Late on Friday night, my friends and I were headed to the Sindh Club, but we took a wrong turn, hitting a dead end.  As we turned around in the dark lane, a policeman suddenly came into view, blocking our car, with a huge gun strapped across his chest.  My friend, surprised, swerved a bit before stopping.

I had an immediate flash back.  When I was in fifth grade, my family lived in Karachi.  A policeman stopped my mom, saying that she tried to hit him.  He asked for money and she had to give it to him.  If she didn’t, he would take her license to the police station, where they would demand an even bigger bribe.

But that was during the day, at a major intersection.  It was now very late at night, in an isolated area, my Pakistani-British friend didn’t speak Urdu, and did I mention we had two American white guys in our back seat?

A policeman questioned my friend roughly: “Where are you going?  Why are you here?  Why didn’t you stop?  Show me your license.  Open the trunk.  Get out of the car.”

I immediately started making phone calls for back-up, but couldn't explain where we were.  I knew the cops just wanted money, but with edgy officers in a dark lane, anything could happen.  I didn’t know exactly what, but this is Karachi, and they didn’t need a reason. 

The officers were looking into the car.  “These are my friends,” I tried to explain in Urdu, because western faces are very unusual in Pakistan.  One of them calls himself Plato (to disguise his real name) in Pakistan.  They are both interning in Karachi for the summer. 

The officers ignored me.  “Get out of the car,” they said to the Plato and his friend.

They were searching the guys, asking for IDs, pulling out wallets.  My American instincts were to get out of the car and yell at them, but my Pakistani sensibilities told me to stay quiet.  As a woman, it would be inappropriate for the officers to even talk to me, and it was best not invite interaction.

Then my friend came back to the car, and the police let Plato and his friend back in too.  Suddenly they became friendly, offering directions to the Sheraton.  It was over.  They were letting us go. 

I yelled at them in Urdu, fully within my privileges as an irate, educated woman. “Why were you trying to scare us like that??  These guys are visiting Pakistan, and they are our guests.”

“There are bomb blasts happening in this country, don’t you know?  Bomb blasts,” a senior officer said in the we’re-just-doing-our-jobs tone.

I almost thought there was a fraction of sincerity in what he said.  But as we pulled away, Plato informed us, “They pulled a 1000 rupee note out of my wallet.” 

When I told my family the next day what had happened, they confirmed that things could have gotten much worse.  It’s normal for police to stop people for bribes, but in our circumstances, there are many other ways that they could have made money off us.  The stories they told me are too scary, twisted, and obscene to repeat. 

The incident left me with a lasting sense of insecurity.  It is so easy to get comfortable and have a good time in Karachi.  It’s not until a guy shows up with a gun and you feel a loss of control that you realize how quickly things can change.

The next night, I was eager to get home early.  I had tried to defy the culture and stay out late at night, but I realized how much safer and more comfortable I felt at home.  I suddenly understood why women in Pakistan tend to stay at home, or other private spaces, and always escorted.  It is not so much because of cultural or religious conservatism, which is what I always assumed, but because of the lack of security and protection, and the culture of exploitation, on the streets outside.  

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Visit to Swat and Buner IDP Camps

When disaster hits a country like Pakistan, where nobody trusts the government, private relief becomes the way to get things done. This happened during the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, when the roads going up north were clogged with volunteers and relief supplies, and it is happening again with the ongoing IDP crisis.

This weekend, I visited IDP camps in Swabi, about twenty miles from Swat and Buner. I was with a group of businessmen-philanthropists who had filled a truck full of food, medicine, toys, and sewing machines in Karachi, and sent it on the three-day journey ahead of us.

We were consistently impressed by the UN camps we saw—even more so because they were run by the Government of Pakistan.

The first, called “Chota Lahore,” meaning "Little Lahore," was bustling with market activity. Small, makeshift shops lined the dirt path leading to the camp. People were also lined up to get their national ID cards (in order to receive aid) and medical care. A huge UN World Food Programme tent anchored the camp.

Next, we visited a beautiful government school housing IDPs. We had to confirm several times that it was a government school—the spacious, green campus looked like it should belong to the military or a private institution. One room, covered in colorful bolts of cloth, hummed as about eight women stitched away furiously on sewing machines. And kids were taking lessons in at least two classrooms, while another room was being used as a clinic.

We finally drove deeper—into a sea of white tents in an open field. The sight was incredible, but what we saw next was truly shocking. A black chord was strung across the front of each tent, seeming to connect them in their long rows. Electricity.

We could see large electric fans whirring inside, critical in the intense heat. We were told that officials allowed "loadshedding" (Pakistan's daily electricity outages) in the nearby town, but not in the camp. Even Islamabad doesn't get electricity 24 hours a day.

Clean water was also being delivered to the front of each tent. We passed a two story building under construction, all gray cement, and were told that it had been raised in the past five days. A soccer field was also being developed.

This was all Government of Pakistan. A sign read: Electrified by the Peshawar Development Authority. The man managing the camp was part of the Government of the Frontier, and the business-philanthropists, normally government skeptics, could not stop raving about his sincerity and commitment. (As a woman, I was somehow tricked into waiting in the car so did not meet him.)

Things were not perfect of course, detailed here. The heat, in the open field, meant that many people were getting sick. And only a fraction of the IDPs are in camps. Much more destitute tents were pitched on the side of the highway, and there are certainly much more isolated, scattered IDP populations.

But the camps taught me two things. First, they demonstrate what the Government of Pakistan can do, given the right combination of political will and international pressure. International pressure is powerful currency in Pakistan, but it takes much more than that to overcome to hurdles of capacity, bureaucracy, and perceptions of national interest. To get action to back up words, our demands must make as much sense in Islamabad and Multan as they do in Washington and Cleveland.

Secondly, I learned that governments are not enough. Even at the height of its effectiveness, it was clear that civil society in Pakistan has a critical role to play in filling obvious, and less obvious, gaps. Private citizens, not the government or UN, were providing sewing machines to the IDPs, generating income and clothing for a population that has nothing but what they were wearing the day the bombing started. Similarly, I saw many children excited and jostling for juice boxes, being handed out daily, like cones from an ice cream truck. This was also privately arranged, along with a monitoring and enforcement mechanism to prevent juice box littering.

And it may only be local hospitality that has made this crisis barely manageable.

But the real fears are for the future of the camps. I worry that as international attention drifts, they will become neglected, like the Bajaur camps I saw in Peshawar, or informally settled, like Afghan slums in Kabul and Karachi. There are also serious questions about the rebuilding of Swat and the tribal areas, completely destroyed through war, and the return and rehabilitation of refugees.

Regional stability and international security are tied to these questions. Harnessing Pakistani civil society, through public-private partnerships domestically and internationally, will multiply our capacity to grapple with the challenge.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Fashion as a Social Indicator: Capris and Burkas

I came to Pakistan quite confident in my kameez shalwar from five years ago.  But as I got ready for work on my first day, my cousin assured me, “Don’t worry, everyone will know you are from America.”

Men in Pakistan can wear Western clothes but, for women, kameez shalwar are a staple, if not a must.  It consists of a long shirt (kameez), baggy pants (shalwar, think Jasmine’s harem pants) and a long scarf worn across the shoulders (dupatta).  The three-piece outfits were always a package deal, meticulously coordinated.

Now, however, the kameez shalwar is beginning to look like western clothing.  Tops are stitched to look like dresses, shalwars have been replaced with “trousers,” and dupattas are being discarded.  And tops and bottoms are now sold separately, mix and match, just like jeans and t-shirts.

Hemlines are also being raised, as they were throughout the 20th century in the United States.  Women are now wearing “capris,” and compensating for it with long, loose shirts.  Capris are a critical victory.  I fought my own battle at home a few years ago.  But now they have been incorporated into the traditional dress in a conservative Muslim country.   

But like everything in Pakistan, the world of fashion is stratified.  There must be at least as many burkas in Karachi as capris, although the two worlds rarely meet.

When I lived in Karachi, in the early 1990s, none of my many aunts covered.  Now, they all wear burkas when they leave the house.  Burkas have become a common sight on the streets of Karachi, among women who must walk or use public transportation, especially in the poorer neighborhoods of town where the upper classes would never venture. 

I assumed that burkas reflect increased religiosity.  For my aunts and many middle class women, it might.  But it has also become a new standard of conservatism—fashion with a function, to avoid harassment and the prying eyes of men.  Harassment has always been a problem in Pakistan.  And in a society with no social protections, burkas offer a way for women to be completely hidden, while completely exposed. 

Both capris and burkas make a strong statement, in defiance of one another.  And inherent in the skin they expose, or their folds, is class, education, international exposure, discrimination, and gender-based violence, as well as religious ideology.  Whether these two worlds come closer together, or continue to define themselves in opposition to one another, reflects the struggle for the future of Pakistan. 

Friday, May 29, 2009

In Search of Defense

Yesterday’s attacks in Peshawar (now seven blasts in Pakistan since I got here last Monday) and the Taliban-issued warnings brought a moment of tension in my family.  So far, the conflict hasn’t reached Karachi, but they fear it is getting closer.

The Taliban’s warning is to civilians: leave the northern cities (Islamabad, Lahore) as we escalate attacks on government and security facilities based there.  Undoubtedly, those who can leave will trickle out—those with foreign passports, visas, education, and means.  The exodus has been going on for years, but war threatens to be the final drain on Pakistan’s human and financial capital.   

My uncle cautiously asked me last night to return with him to New Jersey.  Over the past few years, my relatives who always lived in Pakistan have been setting up a second residence there.  

I was torn.  I have loved every moment of my past two weeks in Pakistan and the only question in my mind has been if I should come back to the States at all when the summer is over.  The idea of things getting so bad here that I have to leave is depressing.  I want to stay. 

And I am not the only one.  So I will do what the rest do: move to Defense.  Defense Housing Authority, like most secure areas of town, is a residential district developed by the military.  It is where most of Karachi’s elite and western classes live and play.  In Defense, people throw lavish parties and spend thousands on dinner, while on the other side of town women wear burkas in the streets, beggars plague cars for 10 rupees (less than a dime), and mobs burn cars.

But it is not all hedonism—it reflects a Western standard of living, and it is as much a part of Pakistan as the mullahs and the madrassas.  It is also how life goes on in a city otherwise full of violence, poverty, and lawlessness.  And as much as the IDP camps and slums, it is a side of Karachi that I want to explore. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Day in the Life of Pakistan: Beyond Lahore Blasts

The Lahore bombing has captured the front page of the New York Times.  But violence and terrorism is a daily and diverse experience in Pakistan.  

Here is a look at some of the headlines from this past Saturday's Frontier Post, a paper that was started in Peshawar and Quetta.  These are in addition to the regular stories on military operations in northern Pakistan, U.S. drone attacks, and the IDP crisis.  

Two Officials Kidnapped

French Tourist Kidnapped in Balochistan

Taliban Warn Lady Members of Parliament

Strike Kills 6, Sindh Refuses to Accept IDPs
(Story: City and businesses shut down throughout province, including Karachi, to protest influx of refugees.  Fifteen vehicles torched in addition to death and injury.)

Husbands Chop Off Hands, Burn to Death Wives

Jandola Blast Leaves Four Soldiers & Children Dead

Dir Explosion Kills Soldiers and 4 Rebels

Blast Damages Police Checkpost

School Blown Up in Mohmand

Four Hurt in Grenade Attack

10-Year Old Girl Killed in Aerial Firing During Marriage Ceremony (followed by mob violence)

3 Shot Dead in Firing

These events go under the radar internationally and even Pakistanis are too jaded to pay attention to the specifics of daily terror. But it shapes the national consciousness and core of every Pakistani. Americans will have to somehow tap into this if they are ever to win hearts and minds in Pakistan.

My aunt predicts that the next bombing will be in Karachi or Islamabad, since the last two have been in Lahore (today) and Peshawar (Saturday). 

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pakistan vs. Afghanistan: Developed, Safe, and Liberal

Rory Stewart, now at the Kennedy School, once said that even if we worked in Afghanistan for 30 years, it would only be up to the level of Pakistan.  This was a bit shocking, because I have always considered Pakistan a failed state.  

But after three days in Afghanistan, it feels SO good to be back in Pakistan.  Finally, I don't have to cover my head and wrap myself up in a chador (literally means "blanket").  I can wear jeans and decent shoes without worrying that I look too western.  There are women on the streets, and no blue burkas.  

I can also move freely.  Pakistan can be dangerous, and there are incidents every day, but life is bustling and it goes on.  In Afghanistan, however, people are very conscious of the security situation.  There is security everywhere-- foreign militaries, Afghan, and private-- and we were hardly allowed to walk on the streets.  

Afghans made surprising comments, like "Education in Pakistan is very good."  Pakistan is actually notorious for its failed education system, but the comment reflects that good education is at least available in Pakistan.  And after meeting officials in Afghanistan and seeing the level at which they were struggling, I realize how much more evolved, sophisticated, even effective, the Pakistani government is.   

The experience made me appreciate Pakistan much more, especially Karachi.  Instead of
 complaining about how backwards the country is, we should recognize the positive trends and focus on protecting them.  If we do not value the progress that has been made, we risk losing it to the trends of fundamentalism and violence that are taking hold in other parts of the country.  And once lost, as it was in the 1980s, it will take decades to recover from.

I am told that Kabul before the Soviet invasion was a stunning city.  If Pakistan's economy does not improve and Afghanistan's situation continues to migrate across the border, there is a danger that everything that Pakistan has achieved will be destroyed, as it was in Afghanistan.  

Slums AKA IDP Camps of Kabul

This morning we asked to see a slum in Kabul. We were taken to a camp for IDPs from Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. I am repeatedly seeing that the line between "slum" and "refugee camp" is pretty blurry. 

The camp was crowded and dilapidated. It looked like a mass of cloth tents from the top, and within were streams of what was probably more sewage than water. We were told the camp had been there for about two years.

A woman took us into our home. She said that people had come to Kabul because of bombing in Helmand, indicating that they fell from the sky-- airstrikes. She drew her hand across her arms and legs, indicating the people who lost limbs. It must have looked like this, it looks like exactly the same camp.

The woman tried to show us around. She pointed to one house, a girl was visible through the doorway, sitting with her head down on her knees, holding herself tightly and rockin
g. "Sick, sick," the woman said. When the girl looked up, we noticed tears in her eyes. She put her headdown again, in apparent agony. The woman said they did not have money to send her to hospital. Next door, the girl's newborn baby was sleeping. The girl was too sick to feed the baby. 

We insisted the girl be taken to the hospital immediately and gave them some money, but I was shocked. Once again, my assumptions had failed me. UNHCR logos were visible-- were they not providing or attending to the healthcare needs of IDPs from southern Afghanistan? Between the UN, U.S., Europeans, etc. etc. etc., was no one looking out for one of the most desperate, and potentially dangerous, populations in Kabul?

There were only three small tent schools in the camp, run by a local Afghan NGO. They were full of little boys and girls, only a small fraction of the kids in the camp. Most families would not send their girls to school. But that is even more of a reason to build schools and work with the IDP population. Isn't that why we got rid of the Taliban, and isn't secular education one of the most effective forms of resistance to its resurgence?

We left the camp, deciding it was best not to linger. But I left with several themes reinforced in my mind. Through Lebanon, where I had spent time researching U.S. (nonexistent) policy towards Palestinian camps, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, I was seeing that refugee camps are actually slums, they are the source of incredible violence, radicalization, and human misery, and are consistently and stunningly some of the most neglected spaces in our foreign policy and global security outlook.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Forgotten Children of War

In Jalalabad, we visited Save the Children. I wanted to know what programs were in place to deal with children traumatized from the effects of war.

In thinking about international security, I have never thought much about children. But that changed in January, when I spent time in Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps. It was during Israel's operations in Gaza, and I watched as children in the camps struggled to cope with the graphic images and stories that were being constantly reported. Aggressive behavior was already a common problem. It did not take much guessing to figure out how at least some of the kids I met would end up, as they grew up into an atmosphere full of militant groups, weapons, and anger.

U.S. airstrikes take place around Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, the most famous of which was "the wedding incident."

TIME Magazine reports: "According to U.N. figures, 2,118 civilians were killed in conflict-related violence last year, a jump of nearly 40% compared to the year before. Of that figure, pro-government [coalition and Afghan] forces were responsible for 828 deaths."

Save the Children told me that the kids in a nearby village still wake up in the middle of the night crying, "American bombs are coming!" They also showed me pictures of child soldiers recruited by local commanders (anti-Taliban) in the area. But when I asked if there were any efforts to help these kids deal with the trauma, they were confused.

We are already seeing the effects of post-traumatic stress at home, in the soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. But nothing seems to be in place to deal with the generations coming out of war in our overseas combat zones. If it only takes one person, or a few, to produce a suicide bomber, then the violence we are seeing today might only be a foreshadowing of the instability and global terrorism that is to come.

Similarly, among IDPs from Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas and SWAT, I worry about the effects of war trauma. But Afghanistan and Pakistan are struggling just to provide medical care to the victims of war. They are not equipped to provide specialized psychological care to children. The international community must lead the way, starting in urban IDP camps and training locals to provide long-term care.

Building a Model School in Afghanistan

We drove through the mountains to Jalalabad today. It was beautiful. It took four hours instead of two because the road was clogged with trucks-- evidence of heavy international aid as the UN and NATO work to rebuild Jalalabad after decades of war. We had been told there was a risk of roadside bombs, and we were so close to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that our host offered to take us over and back (legally, of course).

We visited government, private, and NGO-organized (non-governmental) schools in Jalalabad. My friend Umaimah, another Harvard graduate student, and her friend Mona are considering opening a school there through their organization Dreamfly.

The responsiveness and enthusiasm that Dreamfly is receiving is surprising. Umaimah and Mona only thought they would start Dreamfly's second school in Afghanistan, but the Afghans have taken it on as much more. Everyone from our host NGO to the Minister of Education has dubbed it the "model school" project.

The schools were depressing. Jalalabad is evidence of how Afghans are struggling to build their nation from scratch. The government
school consisted of boys studying under trees, on prayer rugs. The school had over 1000 students. It turns out that 60% of Afghanistan's schools do not have permanent buildings.

We interviewed the kids at the private school, asking them what they hoped to be someday. They all responded excitedly: doctors, engineers, teachers, even President.
(Watch out Karzai.) If these kids can beat the odds and fulfill their dreams, then maybe a stable, prosperous, self-sufficient Afghanistan is within reach. The generation of leaders that Afghanistan needs might be on the rise.
But they will need much more help-- not more dollars, but more effectiveness. Seven percent of the world's children who are out of school are in Afghanistan.

There are some very sincere, approachable, and committed
people in Afghan Education Ministry. But given the massive foreign assistance and attention that Afghanistan receives, their continuing struggle with basic education, and their excitement about a Harvard graduate student who has chanced upon the country, I can't help but wonder if the international community is engaging the country in the most direct, obvious, and important ways.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Peshawar: Taliban, IDPs, and Car Bombs

Yesterday, a fellow Harvard graduate student, Umaimah, and I left Karachi for Peshawar. We would have to spend the night there before we could catch a connecting flight to Kabul. Peshawar is heavily Talibanized and we were nervous about the trip, so we turned down offers to be shown around the IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps in the region. But as we whiled away the hours at the home of a family friend (the safest thing to do, especially for girls, in Peshawar), we came to regret the decision. I called up Khalid, a contact that my uncle had sent to Peshawar and instructed to stay there until we made it out safely, and told him we would like to see the IDP camps.

IDP camps were probably not on the list of safe things to do, but Khalid was eager to please. He arranged private security and got us access to a UN camp on the outskirts of the city for refugees from Bajaur, one of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which was reduced to rubble by the Pakistani Army in its 2008-2009 operations against the Taliban.

The camp looked like destroyed mud ruins. Like many IDP camps, it was originally developed for Afghan refugees, then destroyed when they chose or were forced to leave. Deeper in, simple white UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) tents were set up. The people told us that they had been in the camp for 8 months, displaced before the current Swat crisis which has captured international attention. They had been living in primitive conditions-- no electricity, little or no running water, suffocating heat, inadequate provisions, and the kids could not go to school because they had to help with survival. For example, they only way to create fire to cook food was to burn trash. So we met several kids carrying bags of empty juice boxes and other trash that they had spent all day collecting. At least one of those boys had dropped out of school to collect trash. 
All of the kids were filthy and improperly clothed. We were told they cried all night because of the mosquitos and cold. UNICEF logos were everywhere.

The women and children seemed happy to have visitors, but the men were frustrated and skeptical. They had been forced to leave as the Pakistani Army began bombing and bulldozing their homes to root out the Taliban. One man told us that soldiers looted their homes before bulldozing them, and they left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Like everyone else, he was angry and confused. Nobody knew the Taliban or where they were, only that their lives had been destroyed by the Pakistani military. Now, they had been forgotten in camps, victims of an older crisis, while Swat IDPs nearby were receiving an outpouring of attention and aid.

As it started to get dark, our escorts rushed us out of the camp. We were told there had been a huge car bombing in the city. It was the third that week. As soon as we got home, I turned on the TV and searched for the news, but as soon as I found it, the electricity went out, which happens several times a day in Pakistan.

That night, I could not stop thinking about the people I had met in the camps and the Taliban and criminals that haunted the city outside. Our host, on the way home from the airport that morning, had told us about how scary conditions had become in the city. Bombings, kidnappings, and Taliban harassment and violence, especially towards girls, had become common. It felt like Afghanistan before the Taliban took over. Everyone who could leave Peshawar had left. They had already sent their kids abroad and, despite being well established in the city, were only waiting for their foreign visas to leave. They would abandon their property and businesses, and leave with little. There were no buyers these days, only sellers. But they had no choice.

I could not help but ask our driver, himself once displaced, the simple question: why are these bombings happening in Peshawar? Does anyone claim responsibility or explain? Yes, he said, sometimes the Taliban does, but really, people here are just fed up with their lives. The economy is so bad, people have nothing. They can barely survive. There is so much misery. Of course people like that find an outlet for their anger in violence, and become susceptible to groups like the Taliban that seem to give them some purpose or meaning in life.

Peshawar was chilling, but I only caught a glimpse. I plan to return to spend more time in the IDP camps. The camps are dangerous-- not as much for me, as for the future of Pakistan and regional and international security.  After all, the Taliban came out of madrassas in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.  And I want to have a better sense of how aid commitments and announcements coming out of Washington are on the ground.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


I'm sitting in the lobby of the Serena Hotel in Kabul. Earlier this month, I bought a one-way ticket from Cambridge to Karachi, and I've already seen and experienced more of Pakistan in the past week than I ever have from any of my previous trips here. I've visited a madrassa in Balochistan, an IDP camp in Peshawar, run into the ISI, and talked to a members of an Islamic political party working providing relief in the northern areas.

Around these experiences, I've been struggling to adjust from the liberal American lifestyle I've come to take for granted, with the expectations of a conservative and elite Pakistani society: balancing capris with chadors, becoming dependent on maids and drivers, and realizing my vulnerability as an adventurous, single woman in Karachi.

I have many stories and reflections to share, but since it's late, I will start with the one that is most fresh in my mind and save the rest for later.