Meeting a friend prior to my departure to Pakistan last December, I was left with a final message as we shook hands and parted ways: “Come back safely.” This was said with genuine concern rather than as a simple parting farewell, as if by merely setting foot in Pakistan I was brazenly putting myself in harm’s way. An Iranian colleague made a similar assessment of Pakistan, sympathetically comparing his country to mine. “The situation’s messed up,” he said. “For both countries.”
“It’s not quite the same situation,” I tried to explain diplomatically.
He didn’t seem to understand.
It isn’t quite the same situation, but I understood the perspective. Pakistani life seems bleak, dangerous and cruel, the ultimate rogue state amongst rogue states. Like many expatriate Pakistanis who have spent most of their lives abroad, I always take a defensive posture when acquaintances and friends ask if “everything is ok over there”, as if the entire country is on the verge of collapsing in on itself like a condemned building.
This past visit was the sixth one to Pakistan since 9/11, and one of innumerable other trips to the country since I was born. Since 2001, the state of affairs in the country has been dynamic if not chaotic: domestic terrorism has increased, military rule has come and gone, food prices have augmented exponentially, and floods and earthquakes have foisted more misery on the country. Yet my Pakistani experience—one I have experienced since infancy—has always been a prosaic one: The Pakistan of middle-class traditionalism, weddings, obligatory family visits and shopping trips.
This quotidian existence was in my mind on my last trip to the country, where much of my time was spent performing similar unremarkable activities. One afternoon in Lahore, the day after arriving in the city, I accompanied my father to the Anarkali bazaar to buy a dress for my niece. The bazaar is well-known in Lahore, supposedly named after a slave-girl said to be buried near there, herself executed by immurement by a Mughal emperor for her supposed seduction of the heir apparent to the throne. The legend seems to embody some of the social injustices faced now in Pakistan: class conflict, immutable patriarchy, violence as a tool too easily wielded by the elites against the weak.
We passed through alleyways full of jewelry stalls, dyers, and darzis (tailors). My father spotted a long, pink skirt in a stall full of hundreds of clothes for children of all ages. The dukhanwallah (shopkeeper) and he engaged in the usual mercantile game, where the former extolled the virtues of the fabric and the stitching, while the latter picked at flaws to lower the bargaining price. The dukhanwallah agreed to sell for 1300 rupees; the price spontaneously rose to 1400 rupees moments before my father paid him. This prompted another fierce discussion between vendor and client. Possibly amused by his audacity, my father acquiesced and paid the higher price.
It was an episode that was banal and ordinary, and all the more inspiring for it. I was struck by the enthusiastic and wily performance the shopkeeper engaged in, all for the sake of a presumably much needed sale. If the dukhanwallah represented a typical citizen, the average Pakistani was hardly a benighted creature suffering under miserable circumstances. This said more for me about Pakistan than gloomy, Western media punditry ever did: A suffering country, but one where pluck and a survivor mentality govern everyday life.
A part of me didn’t quite believe this observation. I was, perhaps, too inundated with the worst-case-scenarios of Pakistani life from both foreign and Pakistan media to believe in something so simplistic. Conversations with relatives about the current state of the country revealed little. I asked them frankly about their perceptions of the country solely revolving around geopolitics, the 2010 floods, life after Osama, perceptions of security, and so forth. Almost universally, I got the impression that the question itself was irrelevant: Yes, problems are there, but the country has bounced back (to a degree) from the floods, and safety is not something of more concern than it has been for years.
People were living their lives. Perhaps things weren’t that bad.
Those moments, with family and the shopkeeper, were those I wish my more doubtful foreign acquaintances could have partaken in. They would be moments when they realized that Pakistan is much more than a Talibanized source of world chaos, a perpetual land of corruption and self-inflicted violence. Undeniably, the violence, environmental damage, religious strife, and female disempowerment affecting the country is all too real. Yet, although Pakistan may not thrive the way it should, like the dukhanwallah it survives and lives on its own terms.