Pakistan: the country I hadn’t known ‘Islamabad illusions’

Shahriar Feroze
Thursday, July 27th, 2017


The disciplined, calm and somewhat insensitive Islamabad maybe a new capital city but not without a few illusive features surrounding it… Shahriar Feroze writes on his illusions about Islamabad.


Yes, it is indeed a city to have shown a set of illusions to this first-timer in Pakistan. First, all the pulsating actions of a capital can be seen in Karachi, but the capital is Islamabad. Second, the well-organized, greener and regimented capital of Pakistan gives much ambience of a cantonment city – the military presence is absent. Even the city’s domestic airport is somewhat lesser imposing and smaller to Karachi’s Jinnah International airport – which is usually the other way round. However, being led by a new female protocol officer (whose name was a stark contrast to her physique) we now fell under the jurisdiction of the Islamabad city territory police. One of their jeeps escorted us all the way to the hotel – they would be glued to us for the next 48 or so hours.


With spacious roads and a thin traffic Islamabad has been nicely designed for a country’s administrative hub. Bulk of its architecture is a curious mix of modernity and Islamic arts, and its people rather insensitive. Perhaps it is the official status which has made its citizens rather relaxed and unresponsive.


An illusory city it seems because of its name too. The name meaning “Abode of Islam” is surely inconsistent to the purpose behind why the city was actually built. Though its geographical location is usually considered to be the key reason but, the country’s late military dictator Ayub Khan is reported to have decided to shift the capital from Karachi to Islamabad some time during the late 50s by focusing much on his hyped ‘development programme’. He wanted an equal distribution wealth and resources to be divided, so to ease the pressure from Karachi.


Whatever the actual cause may be, the city has an eerie similarity with Burma’s new capital city Naypyidaw. Both are two of the greenest and cleanest cities built under separate military regimes in Asia. Moreover, both are centrally located – and former capital cities of both the countries were too near to their coastlines – making them dangerously vulnerable to foreign amphibious invasion. On a religious count, two different religious institutions have become their respective land marks. At Naypyidaw it is the Uppatasanti Pagoda and at Islamabad it is the colossal Shah Faisal mosque.


However, having checked inside a quiet and cosy hotel with a number of five star facilities to our awe called ‘The Margaala’, it was the same old routine to be followed – a dinner with another bunch of journalists at the lavish Islamabad club next to the same old dishes and one-to-one chitchats. That said – travelling, attending conferences or a dinner party has become closely associated with whether you are in sync with the net or not. For some, to stay connected, with or without reasons, has become so important that they are continually asking for Wi-Fi passwords everywhere. It was bewildering when one of my fellow journalists did the same.


Assuming a six-footer handsome guy clad in a dark suit to be the club manager, he made a quick approach towards him and right away demanded the Wi-Fi password. The poor chap was actually the deputy MD of a television news channel. For the first couple of minutes he looked baffled and helpless. While he feebly kept looking in various directions, the doorkeeper sensed his need. He came and got the password from the reception. Relating to the incident we named him ‘Password’.


Whatsoever, this time the Pakistan group consisted of some twenty journalists from various modes, guessing their ages anywhere between 50 and 60. But they were unlike the Karachi Press Club journalists. They were smartly dressed and well spoken gentlemen with a lot of curiosity about Bangladesh.


At first blush it appeared, if Karachi journalists were interacting with us by getting closer to ground realities, press freedom and nostalgia – these very polished gentlemen were representing their respective media houses by showing their curiosity about a neighbouring country which they knew the least. Most of them merrily admitted their ignorance on Bangladesh, and we were not surprised.


This writer believes, the dinner organised by the Press Information Ministry (PID) carefully selected the crème-de-la-crème of Pakistan journalism otherwise the well dressed, smart looking and the well spoken ones. Apart from the close associate of the Information and Broadcasting Minister, the rest surely found us an amazing bunch.


Why shouldn’t they? Since when we are only following Pakistan in the wakes of terror strikes rocking a park, building or a mosque. Of course we follow otherwise too – when Pakistani politicians are discussing our Liberation War, and only sometimes if any ‘highly controversial’ statement is issued by their parliament or the Foreign Office. That said- the unrelenting exchange of artillery fire between the Indo-Pak borders, close military build-ups of the two armies, and the war fought over Kashmir do not stir up the cold-war era thrill any longer in Bangladesh.


They are may be following us when one of our RMG factory is struck by a disaster, and also when their cricket team loses to ours. Until quite recently they were following the developments in the hanging of war criminals in Bangladesh, and now most of them had stopped doing so.


However, in spite of all existing gaps between the two countries, it’s the prying about Bangladesh which is starkly noticeable almost in everywhere. After getting back at the hotel it was the couple of receptionists, then a hotel guest trailed by the head of hotel security who showered me with questions about Bangladesh.  And it is exactly during many such one-to-one conversations when this journalist was also asked – if majority of the country was Muslim or not?


At least this is one particular question which was not expected from anyone in Pakistan except foreigners. The question automatically arises – what are they taught about Bangladesh? Not that we provide with highly commendable information about Pakistan to our younger generation , but because of the absence of teaching true historical facts and a growing animosity – the people in both countries are sadly peppered with misconceptions and lies about one another. Thinking about all these issues back and forth this tired traveller fell asleep.


Our most important day of the trip in Pakistan would be the next day in Islamabad. Almost with no intervals – we were scheduled to attend three back-to-back meetings beginning with a visit at Islamabad‘s monumental Faisal mosque.


The itinerary stated that we would be meeting the Information Minister first. Second in line was a meeting-cum-lunch with the chairman of SASSI (South Asian Strategic Stability Institute), and the third and final meeting with the foreign secretary at the Foreign Office.


Almost a habit by now, failing to show up and report on time forced the protocol officer to cancel the trip at the Faisal mosque. The domineering protocol officer reminded of my mother. She would check, cross-check, shriek and inflict pointless fear before embarking upon every trip. The young security police in-charge officer appeared even more tensed. He clearly defeated the chimney by smoking some 7 cigarettes in less than an hour. We later came to know that the ministry’s protocol team had a tough time with the previous delegation team. In the midst of all these our mission commenced once again.


Located in the fourth floor of the Islamabad secretariat, the employees of the Ministry of Information, Broadcasting & National Heritage warmly showed us in through the secretariat building strikingly identical to our Motijheel secretariat. The difference is that ours is often crowded with brokers and dubious characters roaming about Scott free and here the building was nearly empty. We could only spot its occupants.


The meeting with the Information Minister lasted for about 45 minutes which also revealed the calibre and elegance of an astute female politician. Appointed on one of the reserved seats for women – the Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, Ms. Marriyum Aurangzeb seemed thoroughly well informed about almost all our enquiries.


Art, Culture to latest statistical reports on Pakistan’s combating of terrorism; regional and global diplomacy to the functions of media broadcasting in Pakistan – she seemed like having all information right on the tip of her tongue. Her carefully crafted answers were objective, but she herself, like many of her contemporaries new little of today’s Bangladesh. It was expected that she would somehow – at some point raise – the common sharing of a historical bond between the two countries, and this she did with cautious selection of words and emotions. There were, in fact, a number of traits which our sitting female MPs could undeniably learn from her, and one of them is – how to speak right on the topic without getting needlessly diverted. Needs mentioning: when it comes to deal with Pakistan, most of the time there is always a sudden emotional outburst which most of our politicians somehow fails to tackle. This writer believes it’s right on this topic where careful and judicious selection of words and calmer expressions make a lot of difference in shaping opinions. Finishing on her we took off to a different world.


Arriving at the recently shifted SASSI campus from the secretariat building was a speedy change in terms of intellectual atmosphere, people and topics of discussion. The country’s off-beat independent think-tank meant for promoting peace and stability in the region is currently headed by a relatively young Dr. Maria Sultan. Sitting inside a humid small conference room she played a detailed PowerPoint presentation focusing on CPEC, the China-Pakistan economic corridor and the potentials of China’s ‘One Belt and One Road’ initiative by excluding India out of the scene. An important indisputable fact, which most Pakistanis, however, quite often fail to realise, is that – given our geographical location with India on three sides and the ‘invisible’ Indian political influence even on more sides – Bangladesh is not in any position to break free from the Indian sphere of influence anyhow. Apart from historical ties, given the country’s booming economy and military prowess, it is an important neighbouring state for all the SAARC countries. Unlike Pakistan it’s important for Bangladesh to strike a balance to maintain a healthy relationship with both China and India. However, by the end of the lunch session the old geopolitical truth appeared clearer once again – for more than sixty years the Pakistan – China relationship has thrived smoothly and perhaps too smoothly. From this writer’s end, he only wished if Pakistan could revive some of its historical cooperative ties like the RCD and CENTO while shifting the country’s focus solely from China.


The SASSI team was an interesting combination of the old and new – senior retired military officials, fresh graduates and strategic thinkers. The young members of the team beamed with commitment. To cut a long story short, SASSI glows with all potentials to play a key role in Pakistan’s diplomatic, military, geopolitical and regional game planning. After meeting strategists, our next destination was the Ministry of Foreign affairs. It was another theatrical shift.


Being the son of an international bureaucrat and a diplomat has given me quite a few opportunities to meet up with a number of high-ranked government officials. But the hour long meeting with the incumbent Pakistan Foreign Secretary as a member of the journalists’ delegation team was quite an eye-opener for exploring at what length women empowerment was taking place within the highest bureaucratic echelons in that country. Also, in a single day we had three consecutive meetings which were all being led by women. The Information Minister was a woman, then the key strategist of a think-tank was a woman and now the Foreign Secretary followed suit.


Since the topic has now shifted to women, it’s not only the brains but also the beauty that followed. Undeniably, Pakistan has got some of the most stunning looking females. Without pinpointing at any one in particular, for this writer it seemed, the more you advance towards the direction of north, their number increases by the scores. Living in a classic patriarchal Muslim society, this writer quite disagrees that the situation of Pakistani women to be similar to the whole Arab world. Apart from a few the closed local communities many have picked up singing, acting and modelling to steal the sleep of innumerable Bollywood actors and producers. If Pakistan somehow revives its lost movie industry – it will surely poise a great threat to its neighbouring movie industries. It cannot just happen without their women. What is more, for the habitual ‘visual sinners’ like this insatiable traveller – good looking women in this country is almost ubiquitous. The bad news, however, the conveniently clad very good looking ones take little interest on their dark and modest looking Bangladeshi counterparts.


However, the Foreign Secretary Ms. Tehmina Janjua does not fall in the beauty list anyhow, but she surely appeared to be one of the most humane and unassuming of diplomats. Her command over spoken English was equally admirable as the Information Minister and the SASSI chief. She welcomed us inside the plush conference room with calm and carefully chosen words, and vividly explained of an expat Bangladeshi friend who worked and lived in Italy. Surely her anecdote made us proud.


The seasoned diplomat whose career spans for more than three decades, and with the last being Pakistan’s permanent representative to the UN didn’t hadn’t actually sound in the likes of a shrewd diplomat at all. No wonder why she has been reported to be so pro-actively vocal on the topic of human rights violations.  It may be wrong – but according to this writer the post of the head of UNHRC fits her best. From her we came to learn that Pakistan now has deployed female envoys to some of the most important countries. Also in terms of recruiting officers it’s the women who came up with the brilliant of results in recent times. Fortunately enough, a number of our female diplomats are also doing remarkably well, but we are yet to appoint a female Foreign Secretary.


As the meeting came to an end the sun was now leaning with a brilliant light over the Foreign Office’s green premises. Our ‘motherly strict’ protocol officer informed that instead of being taken directly to the hotel we would be (probably by her mercy) taken for a short break at the Shah Faisal mosque. Our head of security in-charge seemed most reluctant as he kept puffing his fag. Well, duties are duties whether one likes it or not.


Reflecting back while sitting inside our bus, the relatively quiet city, consisting of mainly Federal Government offices, the Parliament House, the official residences of the President and the Prime Minister along with the Diplomatic Enclave was enough to reveal – how a capital city should be appropriately planned and then regularly maintained clockwise. Islamabad in recent times is also catching up with a vibrant night-life with opening up of designer boutique shops, restaurants and foreign fast-food chains. In about fifteen minutes time we arrived near the open expanses looking at the direction of a nearby clearly noticeable mountain range.


Perched at the foot of the Margalla hills – the westernmost foothills of the Himalayas – the colossus Faisal mosque openly echoes of the age-old closely-knit Pak-Saudi ties, the might of the petro dollar and a diverse blend of art deco and traditional architectural design styles, but not divinity. Given the relevant power and authority, this writer would have probably converted the mosque and its premises into a vast Islamic Art gallery and library with innumerable visible calligraphy to be seen everywhere.


The imposing mosque had also appeared a repeated confirmation for more aid and assistance from the oil-rich state. Unlike with Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia’s long-standing and comprehensive association with Pakistan have been operating at many levels and for many years now, including trade, governance and values, health, education, culture, politics to security, Whereas in my country, the Arab desert oasis pops out into our minds only when our Prophet, expat labourers, Mekkah – Madina, grants and donations (of course behind the facade of religion), Hajj and the sumptuously sweet dates are discussed.


Whatever, surrounded by the mountain range, the vast mosque compound was filled with men, women, children to toddlers. It‘s the all-embracing warmth of the mosque which stands unique, it includes and also invites all to explore the god almighty inside his house and by their own. Not that our mosques are not welcoming, but we have made them far too inflexible for the free movement of our women and children, and almost inaccessible for female foreign tourists to explore on their own. That said – those who take Pakistan to be a country in the likes of an extreme Shariah state – please know it is not like how the Western media actually portrays it. With or without the veils and Hijab women are moving about everywhere freely – at least in the cities visited by this writer.


The stopover at the Faisal mosque was a quick one before we arrived at our hotel, and there were no more meetings or invitations. It was time to relax.  The next day our team will be taken to mountainous Mureee for a day out excursion, but the time spent at Islamabad had moved too quickly –leaving behind a series of illusions for my memoirs.


The writer is a keen traveller and a journalist

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