We reach Islamabad after spending an inconvenient night. Escorted by the police, we change vehicles every twenty minutes. Sleeping is out of the question. At dawn, just a few kilometers from Islamabad, our vehicle runs out of gas. We are stranded in a suburb and after some helpless consulting, the officers get us a taxi and we dive into the country’s capital.
In Islamabad it feels like we have left Pakistan.
There’s not much left of the traffic chaos that has followed us to here. The streets are wide and clean, parks and lawns loosen up the concrete wasteland, marihuana grows wild on the roadside. The errant donkey carts have vanished. Instead, we find western cafés, fast-food chains and restaurants – clearly, an influence by the many foreign diplomats and expats.
Order and regularity mark Islamabad. In the 50s, the Pakistani government decides to replace Karachi as the capital and a planned city is built overnight – Islamabad.
The city from the drafting table is divided into sectors, straight lines, right angles. Broad alleys going one way for miles on end. The multi-lane Kashmir Highway intersects exactly in the middle of the city. Addresses are cryptic: you live in G-11/3 st.110 #112 or F-7/4 st. 28 #20. Every sector is arranged around its own market square where you can run all your important errands: shopping, eating, getting your hair cut. Islamabad is the country’s symmetrical pride.
However, there is no real city center. If you want to go out, you end up in the better-off sectors F-7 and F-6. The Khosar Market is kept firmly in foreign hand. Coffeeshop chains and expensive restaurants are side by side, a private security service and video surveillance watch the parking lot located in the front. Searching bags is a security measure to prevent terrorist attacks. It is even said that in one of the restaurants, Pakistanis are not welcome, they’d be bad for business. Instead, fair-skinned diplomats and suit-wearers sip their frapucchinos while a few steps away, beggars are hanging out on the streets.
But we don’t only encounter expats here. We meet students, graphic designers, web designers and communists. One evening we are sitting in a dark three-bed apartment. There’s an energy supply shortage in Pakistan. Electricity is only available for two hours in a row, then it is turned off for one hour by decree. Lights go out, displays, too, then the Wi-Fi signal disappears: time for talks. With Murad, a postgraduate in politics at the military academy, and Muhammad we talk politics. Both students are in their early thirties and don’t mince words. The government is ruled by the military, on all levels, the land is drowning in corruption, there are no authorities to exert control. Problems are solved with money.
Those without money have problems.
Inevitably, we address Pakistan’s image as a terror state and learn some sensitive information. For a long time, the state’s terrorism was part of the education policy. Sponsored by the aid organization USAID, millions of ideologically motivated textbooks that propagated the Jihad, the holy war, were distributed in the country in the 1980s.
While German students were counting apples and pears, Pakistani students multiplied with bombs and machine guns.
They were being prepared for a specific task: as young men, they would move to the nearby Soviet Union in order to destabilize the country as mujaheddins. From today’s point of view, this step really backfired on the western world.
Even today, Murad and Muhammad still remember the assignments from back then:
If you have ten bombs and ignite one…
Meanwhile, they and many of their fellow students are disillusioned. Pakistan has nothing to offer. But they can’t leave the country either. The Pakistani passport isn’t worth much in the world – for many that seems to be the worst fate.
We meet Kamran, a businessman from Islamabad, for lunch. The passionate cyclist and VW Beetle fan shows us Islamabad’s sunny side of life. Following Kamran’s suggestion, we hike through the Margalla Hills. Several hiking trails run through the green ridge in the north of the city and promise a magnificent view of Islamabad. This is where the inhabitants of the capital spend their weekends, go for picnics with their families or keep their bodies in shape by going for a run. We’re here to enjoy nature. But midway, we are stopped by two soldiers. We are not allowed to move on. No explanation. Further inquiries not welcome. It is not the first time that, without any apparent reason, we are stopped by the authorities, always in the name of safety, of course. We assume that some general or politician is having lunch in some restaurant nearby. Such trivialities are often the reason.
It’s the general arrogant airs of the security guards that makes these “security measures” particularly unpleasant for us. When we sit down on a bench in one of the better-off sectors, a guy suddenly approaches us. Without a comment and all smug, he starts searching our backpacks. Only after we are outraged, does he identify himself as an employee of a security service. But there’s no way one can tell from his appearance.
There are security guards and check posts everywhere.
There’re at least two security guards in front of every café and restaurant to thoroughly search us. Always emphasizing that it’s for our own safety – however, we feel like we’re potential suspects. Some foreign restaurants resemble a downright fort. Whoever wants to drive through McDrive has to have their vehicle checked for bombs. Even tracking dogs are employed.
The diplomatic enclave in the eastern part of the city, where almost all embassies and consulates are located behind a high security fence, sticks out like a sore thumb. You can only get there by going through several check posts and security checks.
For each visit to the enclave, one is only granted one permit for one embassy. A shuttle service takes the visitors to their desired embassy and also picks them up from there. If someone wants to visit a second embassy, they have to get themselves another permit.
A stroll through the city of diplomats? No chance!
On our way to the Indian embassy where we have to apply for our visa to continue our trip, we see different flags blowing in the wind: China, Kuwait, Saudi-Arabia, Finland. On a plot that’s the size of 21 soccer fields, the USA are currently building their new embassy. From what is being developed here, this will obviously serve for more than just consular matters.
Down the street, we discover an older diplomat in a light blue t-shirt and neon green sweats going for a run – followed by a black limousine with tinted windows at walking speed. Cafés and cash machines pass our view. There’s almost no reason for the diplomats to leave their fort. There’re even parties here. The Canadian and French embassies each have their own club where there’s live music and they serve alcohol – entrance for foreigners only.
Islamabad is comfortable, perfect to recharge for a few days, to do nothing but eat and sleep.
But the city also lacks something special. To us, Islamabad is no place that we’ll long remember.
With Rawalpindi, also lovingly called Pindi, it’s a whole new ball game. Rawalpindi borders to the south of Islamabad and is also called the capital’s ugly sister. And, indeed, Islamabad and Rawalpindi appear to be twins: fraternal twins, from different fathers. They are so close together that a sheet of paper will fit between them. Where one city ends, the other one starts.
It’s dusty and loud in Rawalpindi. The honking traffic squeezes through the city’s crowded streets. Small alleys and dilapidated houses dominate the picture. Itinerant vendors sell fruits and vegetables from gigantic, improvised, cobbled-together wood carts. Entire streets are hemmed with vendors selling socks and flower binders.
You can find anything here, from laxatives to dentures. Chai wallahs hurry from one side of the street to the other to make sure their customers get to enjoy their product while it’s still hot. To us, the ugly sister is more much charismatic than its fraternal twin.
Everyone here can do business. In Rawalpindi, we quickly realize that Pakistan is a country where anything is possible. There are no restrictions, no limitations, as long as one knows how to deal with the given circumstances.
We meet Babar; a man with a friendly demeanor and a thick moustache under his nose. He insists on showing us his very own Rawalpindi – and that is deep down in the shady underworld. Until recently, Babar worked as a real-estate agent but ever since he’s been a child he’s dreamt of mafia stories. While children his age wanted to become a fireman or policeman, Barbar only had one wish: to be a godfather.
But over time, Babar realizes that his career in the family business does not suit his nature. Babar is no criminal, just a sympathizer. He withdraws from the business, but the mafia remains loyal to him. He still meets up with godfathers and heads of the clan. During our time with Babar, we also have the opportunity to get drunk with one of Rawalpindi’s dons.
Our acquaintance pays off: suddenly, the tailor works much faster and at the fruit vendor we only pay half the price.
But it doesn’t stay our only contact to the underworld. It seems Babar knows everything and everyone. Corruption in construction projects? Over there! Illegal sales of contraband? This way! Drugs and prostitutes? Two blocks down!
The mafia is above all, but it also knows how to take care of the population’s concerns. There’s rarely anyone in Pakistan who trusts the police and the state authorities. Instead, the mafia helps with its parallel law.
On one of our walks we stop in front of a huge wall and a crowd of people that are pressed against an embellished iron gate. A dozen men have gathered here. Some are in fancy suits, others in the traditional shalwar kameez. They are carrying flower chains and boxes laden with candy. In the middle, two white horses are curried and spruced up.
We join the crowd and within a few seconds, Babar is also given a flower wreath.
A new senator was appointed and we’re at his public reception. The heavy iron gate opens and allows for a view over the huge property. Rose garden, fountains, alleys – and at the end of the long, drawn-out driveway, an impressive villa surrounded by pillars.
The crowd pours in onto the property, there’s music and the horses start to dance, it’s raining confetti and an elderly man with dark-dyed hair and hollow brown eyes is adorned with flower chains from all directions. He shakes hands, smiles to the left, smiles to the right. The new senator.
Babar explains: when a senator is appointed in Pakistan he’s rarely had a strong political career. Instead, big bucks were paid. A senator position in the governing party (naturally, it’s cheaper for the opposition) costs about 11 million US dollars. A respectable sum that cannot be provided by just one person. So, if someone wants to become a senator, they go look for sponsors. And they also go look in the shady corners.
The public reception isn’t so much a party for the newly appointed senator but much more a presentation of his financiers.
Outside the villa stands a long table. Beverages and appetizers are served. We look around the premises and soon find ourselves in front of a huge entrance door to the villa. Servants hurry back and forth, a few guests have gathered in the lobby and we enter. Suddenly, a man hastily approaches us, he promises us some chai and firmly sends us into gender-segregated halls. I find myself in a living room with an ostentatious interior design. Oil paintings are hanging on the walls, a crystal chandelier shines from the ceiling, thick carpets muffle my steps, heavy upholstered furniture stands in the middle of the room. There’s a deadly silence, but I am not alone. About twenty men are sitting around me, old and young, in fine suits or leather jackets. Most men have a moustache, bushy or trimmed. What they all have in common is their scowl. I sit down on the only available space left on the couch, dare a friendly “Salaam” and shyly smile around.
No reaction – and if so, then only because some of the scowls are getting even more glowering.
Uneasy, I shift around and eye my neighbor. A guy in a leather jacket who stolidly stares ahead. I feel out of place and do a runner before my promised chai arrives.
In the room next door I meet Babar who is sitting in a gilded wing chair upholstered in velvet. Behind him, a stuffed leopard hisses from the side table, a family picture stands in front of it. When I tell Babar about the strange constellation I just fled from, he breaks out in laughter. I learn that I was amidst Rawalpindi’s most important dons and representatives of different clans. They all supported the new senator financially and are now expecting a service in return. And indeed, soon the senator hastily passes us and disappears into the living room. A few minutes later, the group leaves the villa in unison.
Rawalpindi takes our breath away. We breathe the city’s dirt and can’t stop laughing. What have we gotten into? But at some point, it’s time for us to leave. Via the Karakoram Highway we go deeper and deeper into the Himalayas.
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