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.