If you are at all curious about the state of international relations you have most likely heard about the recent poll involving the bombing of the fictional city known as Agrabah. Thankfully the sample size from this poll is relatively small. However it is still rather embarrassing and I do feel that the fear mongering in America has been especially strong this year through the largest media outlets. Hot off the latest major party debates military strikes and terrorism have been hot topics and candidates from both the red and the blue have either recently commented on or presided over some rather dubious foreign policy matters. The majority of what we hear from our Government about the Middle East seems to be about terrorism. When a young Des Moines woman reached out to me about a trip that she was taking to Pakistan, I was certainly intrigued. Upon her return home I sat down and had a chat with fellow Iowan, Maribeth Savage, about her recent travels.
Marco Battaglia: Well, to start things off how about we start with how you wound up on this visit to Pakistan?
Maribeth Savage: I befriended some people that live in Pakistan while studying abroad in London. I was invited to visit and I decided to go. The mere mention of the name Pakistan was enough for many among my family and friends to oppose this trip. The day that I was to take my first flight of the trip, from Des Moines to Chicago, a Russian plane was shot down along the border of Turkey and Syria. The US Government issued a travel warning and everyone was nervous. Despite some last minute jitters I decided to stick with my travel plans.
MB: How would you describe your journey?
MS: Well, to start off due to the international events the TSA was in full force at the airport. It felt very tense with a ton of agents on duty. The journey was a good twenty-five hours long. My final flight landed in Lahore, the second largest city in Pakistan. The city is known as the heart of Pakistan primarily due to a cultural heritage which influences everyday life for the citizens of the country. I quickly noticed that I was visiting a city where traces of history go as far back as 4000 years. The city has been the capital of various empires over centuries. When I stepped outside of the airport in Lahore I noticed about five hundred people just standing outside of the airport. I also immediately noticed a burning smell. I realized that it was smog. I have lived in London and this pollution struck me as much worse.
MB: What was your first impression of Pakistan?
MS: My first impression of Pakistan was that it was not like a middle-eastern country commonly depicted in the media or in American cinema, certainly not war torn towns and camels roaming around, nor was their language Arabic. The city was lively and full of people.
MB: Can you describe what you noticed about the food and perhaps some of the meals that you ate while in Pakistan?
MS: The first major difference from Iowa was that there were no pigs and no drinking of alcoholic beverages! The first meal that I ate in Pakistan consisted of pulao (a rice dish), cauliflower, daal (a soup), mixed vegetables and chicken curry. It was served with fresh green salad and raita (a yogurt with diced cucumbers, onions, tomatoes and black pepper). During the stay I also enjoyed other dishes like biryani (a spicy rice dish), various types of daal, and potato bhujia (Curry) which I have since learned how to prepare myself. I did notice that they had many food chains that I recognized. I even saw a Sarpino’s pizza! I noticed that the fast food seemed much more like home cooked meals than what we are used to in the states.
MB: Is there a common dress for females in Pakistan?
MS: To my knowledge Pakistani women do not wear hijabs. I would say that most of the younger women that I encountered dressed similar to American women. I did not gather that there was an expected or necessary dress for any women in Pakistan. I visited various shopping centers and was quite impressed by the fancy clothing.
MB: What are some of the sights that you took in during your stay?
MS: Among the most notable sights that I visited were the Badshahi Mosque, and the Lahore Fort. I also visited the Minar e Pakistan (literally the Tower of Pakistan) a public monument located in Iqbal Park. I visited the recently developed suburb of Bahria Town which has developed various residential sectors inspired by international architecture, including that of ancient Egypt. I also got to see a replica of the Eiffel Tower. One of my trips was a visit to LUMS, Lahore University of Management Sciences. I also encountered a fellow American girl from Chicago who was working for the University. During my stay my friends also took me on a road trip to Murree and Islamabad. The Motorway was a comfortable and interesting drive as we passed through orange producing farms, famous worldwide for their kinnows and citrus fruits. I was also able to journey through the Kallar Kahar region as we reached the capital city, Islamabad. We spent the day in Islamabad visiting the Faisal Mosque, which at one time was the largest in the world. Islamabad was much less crowded and greener than Lahore and had more of the feel of an American city. We reached Kashmir Point Murree late in the evening. Murree is at an altitude of 8000 feet. It is the beginning of mountain ranges in Pakistan which go all the way up to K2, the second tallest peak after Mount Everest. It is one of the two mountains which have never been climbed in the winter, the other, Nanga Parbat, is also in Pakistan.
MB: What vibe did you from the people towards their government?
MS: For having such a huge population there seemed to be a general air of peace. I saw huge political protests that seemed very calm and appeared very civil. They seemed commonplace.
MB: Can you describe the power outages that are common in the country?
MS: The power goes out five times a day for an hour at a time. The wealthier people have generators that kick in during these outages. When generators were available it took from two to five minutes to go from the start of the outage until the generators kicked in.
MB: What did you notice in terms of pop culture?
MS: I noticed that they have access to many of the same Hollywood movies, television, and video games that we do. Sons of Anarchy appeared to be a popular television program. I was able to experience the Pakistan cinema. The most popular sports appeared to be cricket and squash. It did not appear to me that there was any interest at all in the most popular American sports.
MB: Did you encounter any LGBT peoples?
MS: I did. I do not believe that violence against these peoples is common there. I did gather that they would have trouble finding work. It seemed that those that I encountered were beggars primarily. There are televisions shows that feature gay Pakistani people.
MB: During your stay in Pakistan do you think that there was anyone besides your friends that knew for certain that you were American? Where you always with your friends or did you have someone looking out for you at all times?
MS: I had a plenty of people that seemed intrigued by me and some that asked me where I was from. I had kids that would look at me because of my light skin. But I did not encounter any major issues due to being an American or light skinned. I was with at least one of my friends every time that I ventured out and about. There are security people everywhere. It seemed like there was armed security at least every five houses. There were guns everywhere. I went into multiple houses that had walls full of guns. The gun laws appeared very loose or nonexistent. I did not notice crime or drugs that are common in the states at all. I never saw anyone noticeably drunk. I saw people smoking tobacco.
MB: What did you gather the religious sentiment was like in Pakistan?
MS: I did some personal research on the peoples views of religion. I found out that the majority want the same peace and harmony that we seek in the west. They also have many of the same aspirations despite living in a lesser developed region of the world. The people in Lahore were generally friendly and never hostile. Very few Pakistanis and Muslims from Pakistan are terrorists or their abettors. In fact they and their religion despise the terrorists of the world as well. I heard the call for prayer, the “Azaan”, when I arrived in Lahore and also when I was departing. The call for prayer was five times a day. It did not feel like prayer was expected or forced.
I found this conversation to be quite fascinating. I have always been interested in the Middle East. I took some time to research Pakistan on my own and here is some of what I learned. Pakistan has a 1,046-kilometre (650 mi) coastline along the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman in the south and is bordered by India to the east, Afghanistan to the west, Iran to the southwest and China in the far northeast respectively. It is separated from Tajikistan by Afghanistan’s narrow Wakhan Corridor in the north, and also shares a maritime border with Oman. With a population exceeding 199 million people, it is the sixth most populous country on Earth and it is the 36th largest country in the world in terms of area. Pakistan is the second most populous Muslim-majority country and has the second largest Shia population in the world after Iran. About 97% of Pakistanis are Muslims. The majority are Sunni, with an estimated 5–20% Shia. The government is a Federal Parliamentary Republic and more than sixty languages are spoken in Pakistan, including a number of provincial languages. Urdu is the national language and it is understood by over 75% of Pakistanis and the main source of nationwide communication. English is the official language of Pakistan and it is primarily used in official business, government, and legal contracts; the local dialect is known as Pakistani English.
Pakistan is a rapidly developing country and is one of the “Next Eleven”, the eleven countries that, along with the BRICs, have a high potential to become the world’s largest economies in the 21st century. At this juncture 21.04% of the population lives below the international poverty line of US $1.25 a day. The Constitution of Pakistan requires the state to provide free primary and secondary education. In October 2014, Pakistani education activist, Malala Yousafzai, became the youngest ever person in the world to receive the Nobel peace prize. Pakistan currently hosts more refugees than any other country in the world. Pakistan has active professional wrestling and live music communities. World renowned Japanese professional wrestler, Antonio Inoki, has a storied relationship with Pakistan going back almost forty years. In 2013, Inoki offered to lead peace negotiations between the Pakistani government and the Taliban. “I feel bad seeing Muslims fighting against each other, which is why I decided to travel back to Pakistan and offer my services in facilitating talks,” Inoki said at the National Press Club in Islamabad. Inoki also expressed his desire to meet with the Taliban: “If someone wants to fight, he should do it inside a ring.” Inoki’s gesture was not dismissed. A former minister from the federally administered tribal region, a Taliban stronghold, joined Inoki at the press conference.
Maribeth Savage would highly suggest a visit to Pakistan and she would be happy to answer any questions that you may have about the country. Feel free to contact her with questions via email at (Poogles234 (at) gmail.com)
“Burke said that there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate, more important far than they all.“ Thomas Carlyle
Marco Battaglia writes for the Iowa Free Press and is a proud member of The Fourth Estate