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I’ve been in Washington, DC for exactly a month now. And one thing that you have to do if you work here is networking. Which is an art form in itself. The networking is brutal (and tiring), and after a few weeks you’ll realize your spiel about what you do comes naturally to you. “Hi, my name is Huma, I work as a correspondent for Express, which is a (insert description based on who you’re talking to) would love to meet you and discuss (insert issue here). Let’s (insert: meet/i’ll call your assistant/email). ” Quickly whip out cards and exchange.

The next sound is of your brain cells dying.

But my gripes about having to do the meets and greets aside, DC is a wonderfully weird town. It is wonderful because its small and quiet, and has wonderful architecture, tree lined streets and some gorgeous sights. Everyone is friendly, and there is ample space to walk on the pavements. The food is fairly decent, and it is gorgeous in the spring.

The weird part is how everyone you meet either works for the government or a think tank or for the IMF or World Bank. As someone described it, its “like Islamabad with better restaurants and pavements”. You also witness how World Bank folks > IMF ones (will never recover from the experience of dancing with an IMF geek who gave me his business card afterwards. I suspect he is perpetually in networking mode, even at 2AM). Then, there is the abundance of shiny happy people. DC folks, sometimes its okay to look like slobs, and not as if you walked straight out of the Zara store.

And then, there is the part of being away from home, and you begin yearning for the small comforts. There are at least half a dozen of us looking for a place in DC that serves halwa puri in the morning (am convinced it exists somewhere). Watching the Pakistan-India match in a crowded room at a university and realizing how desperate the Pakistanis were to cheer on something that they clapped and roared when a shot of PM Gilani came on, and after the defeat, a boy turned to me and said, “why do we always have to bear this shame?” The raised eyebrow when you hand your green passport as ID at a bar. And sometimes, just wishing you were back in your room in Karachi, sipping chai.

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So I wrote a short piece about my visit to the Liberation War Museum for Express Tribune:

As a Pakistani schooled in a sanitised version of history, the museum makes one cringe with revulsion. Skulls and bones recovered from a killing field in Mirpur, Dhaka, stare at you from a glass cupboard. A black and white image shows vultures picking at the bodies of those left for dead. In another image, a snake is stretched out on the back of a dead body — an unknown victim of the cyclone that battered East Pakistan in 1970, and led to increased feelings of alienation amongst East Pakistanis with the slow aid response from West Pakistan. Lewd sketches of women are among the graffiti found in a Pakistan Army camp.

My tour guide turns to me, “You tell me, how can we forgive or forget this?”

You can read the entire article here. But I also recommend that you read the comment section. And after you’re done banging your head against the wall at the state of some Pakistanis’ perception of history and the extent of denial, please take a look at some of these photographs:

Sigh.

And bones.

The cyclone.

You can see the rest of the pictures from the museum here.

In retrospect, I’m not surprised that some people do think that the fall of Dhaka was due to an “Indian” or “international” conspiracy – after all, this is what they’re learning in their textbooks. But one would think – and this is very important – that if one has access to the internet and can spend their time leaving comments on say, Express Tribune’s website, surely they’d have time to, I don’t know, Google Bangladesh? Maybe read a bit of alternative history as opposed to the one they’ve been subjected to? Or is that asking too much?

Shredded - 1

Its only when you fly across India to get to Bangladesh [formerly East Pakistan], that you realize how cruelly the lines that partitioned the Subcontinent had been drawn. Who, in their right mind, would believe that a country could be governed when it was split apart – or as Rushdie describes it, a moth-eaten country.

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Hello Bangladesh.

The tigers!

Dishoom!

If there is one thing that has left me with an overwhelming sense of envy, it is the patriotism of the Bangladeshi people. I consider myself a patriotic Pakistani, and wouldn’t give up my green passport for the world, but the sense of pride here is something one must experience first hand. Arriving in Dhaka as the Cricket World Cup kicked off in the capital, you can feel how the people here are immensely proud of who they are and what their nation stands for, and this is fuelled further by being hosts of the CWC. Even though Dhaka is by far one of the most tourist-unfriendly metropolitans one has ever visited (the people are wonderful and helpful though); there are no signs in English, for example – and if you don’t understand Bengali, you might as well end up in another part of town [as I did, trying to get to the Liberation War Museum and ending up at the National Museum in another part of town]. One ends up feeling like a character from Scoop, “Anyone here speak English and knows a Prisoner of War?”

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In Dhaka, there is no avoiding the past. Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman’s posters line the streets, and on walls, there are graphic representations of a member of the Pakistan Army snatching the dupatta of a Bengali girl. By the end of the visit, I had told so many people I was from India to avoid getting into a 1971 conversation, that the waiter at the hotel’s restaurant kept consoling me when Bangladesh’s batsmen hit fours and sixers against India in the first Cricket World Cup match.

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The tiger.

As one travels around Dhaka, which really is quite a beautiful city, one feels a sense of irrevocable loss – we lost a beautiful city, and a wonderful nation with such rich culture and diversity, and we’ve left millions of people with a deep-rooted hatred for what happened to them at the hands of those wearing Pakistan Army uniforms – and for what?

I have never wanted to apologize so badly for something I wasn’t even responsible for.

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You can see the rest of the pictures from Dhaka here

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The jharoka.

hai.

It is, I suppose, a matter of over stretching the truth that I call myself a Punjabi (cynics, spare me the “we are all Pakistanis first, I KNOW that and consider myself a Pakistani first too). I’ve barely lived here, and my Punjabiness only comes out when faced with a “How many lassis can you drink in a row” competition and speaking rudimentary Punjabi without faltering when faced with anyone who refuses to speak Urdu. Also, I can’t remember for the life of me what khabbay and sajjay means.

But that doesn’t explain the goofy grin on my face that lasted for four hours [trust me, I looked at myself in the mirror and I looked like a moron but I couldn’t stop smiling] when I was on the bus from Islamabad to Lahore. Being back at home, where malai toast and aloo ka parathas taste sublime, where the paranoia in the air and the sight of the numerous policemen patrolling the streets is offset by the simple pleasure of sitting on a verandah and looking at an ancient tree. A dog allows you to nuzzle his ears, and commuting in the city means you get to pass through tree lined streets and ancient lanes. Pigeons take a dip in the pool in an ancient mosque, and refuse to acknowledge your presence. Names of areas that sound like they came out of a novel; “Baghbanpura, Mughalpura, Infantry Road,” and the generosity of your friends and family.

Then there is the calm, which belies the tension in this country. At the shrines of the Sufi saints, some of which I visited in the past two weeks, there is a sense of serenity and faith, that come what may, there will always be someplace that you can call home, someone you can turn to. Whether this faith is misplaced or not is a conclusion that I’m equipped to make. But it is this that makes the bombing of Baba Farid’s shrine yesterday all the more tragic, because if they take away the spiritual crutches, then many in this country have nothing else to turn to.

Anyway, this post is now bordering on the sappy. In conclusion, all I have to say is this: it’s good to stop running, and just breathe and revel in the simple pleasure of calling a place home.

[P.S: A special shout out to my hosts in Islamabad. You know who you are, and Islamabad would not mean anything to me without you guys.]

[P.P.S: Pictures from the Lahore trip can be seen here and from Bulleh Shah’s shrine here]

My article on Skardu has been published in Express Tribune’s magazine today, and saves me having to write another blog post:

The river.

Clouds.

Shimmer.

In the heart of Baltistan lies the Skardu Valley, surrounded by the majestic Karakoram mountains and interspersed with rivers flowing with such force that it makes one wonder why the rest of the country is crying itself hoarse over water scarcity. This July, I boarded a van from Gilgit and set off to the Skardu Valley on a route that was death-defying and heart-attack inducing. Phrases which one had only read dully in Geography textbooks — such as “the Karakoram Highway is a feat of engineering” — suddenly came to life and assumed meaning as one came across plaques bearing the names of Pakistanis who had died in the construction of the road.

Entering Skardu at dusk, one’s first impression is that it is an army town. A check post registers all outsiders. On finding out that I was travelling alone, the army sentry gave me an incredulous look. Maybe he’d have been happier if I’d been a RAW agent?

But after a gruelling seven-hour journey, if one was looking forward to collapsing in bed, it was a vain hope. From my balcony in the Hotel Mashabrum, I could see the river streaming, ice-capped mountains stared back, stars started to glimmer, and the last of the weary fishermen and fishing enthusiasts trudged back, without any catches. In the distance, I could hear the roar of the river as it made its way through the city.

The next morning, I went to the Deosai Plains, accessible via a dirt road that cuts an uphill route through the mountains. One can see melting glaciers and streams of ice-cold water gushing down the mountain and falling into the valley below. But it’s fairly hard to concentrate on the sights of nature when you have a driver like Nasir, who fed my appetite for the ludicrous with his anecdotes about the Line of Control, which lies nearly six hours away from the town of Skardu.

“When you climb one of the mountains near Kargil, you can see the Indian side of the border. There’s a mountain there that’s been taken over by the Indians, so we call it Kafir’s Peak,” said Nasir.

At my incredulous look, he explained, “Because it’s been taken over by kafirs.”

Aman Ki Asha anyone?

But when one reaches Deosai, all previous sights are forgotten. Blooms of every colour dot the plains and low-hanging clouds seem to kiss the ground, as marmots (a type of squirrel) race around and, on spotting humans, scamper back to their burrows.

On the way from the Deosai plains to the Bara Paani bridge, also affectionately referred to as the jhoola bridge (see image to understand why), is a makeshift WWF camp. The members of the camp kindly offered us a cup of sugary tea and, more to the point, use of their port-a-loo, while explaining their work. Deosai, apart from being one of the most beautiful sights in Pakistan, is also home to 70 bears, according to the last census of their species. “Are you,” I asked, “friends with them?” my imagination going haywire with images of grizzly bears attacking helpless eco-activists.

“Of course, we have names for them too. Big Boy, Shaitaan, and Aunty.”

“Why is the female bear called Aunty?”

“Oh, she gives birth to two children at a time.”

Heading back to Skardu after downing a cup of over-sweetened tea, one comes across the jewel-toned Satpara Lake. But once work on the Satpara Dam is completed, the lake will dry up. At the Satpara Lake Inn, one can see the remainders of a small island and a mosque that were submerged after work on the dam began, a powerful reminder of the battle between energy needs and environmental degradation. There was also a poor buffalo that had got stranded in the water, and as half a dozen onlookers watched, it managed to swim back to shore. That’s Animal Kingdom — 1, Nature — 0.

On the outskirts of Skardu are the ancient Buddha carvings but the first thing one sees is a sign asking, rather than declaring: “It is forbidden to stone the stone statue?” Clearly the administration overseeing this site is still undecided on whether stoning is kosher or not. The carvings themselves have been tampered with and certain portions chiselled out.

The next morning I headed out to the Mantokha waterfall, where ice-cold water from melting glaciers and snow streams down the mountains. At Mantokha, an electricity pole had fallen down in the river, and villagers were busy retrieving and erecting it again. Also on the itinerary was the Shigar Fort, a 17th century fort that has been restored to its former glory, and is currently used as a hotel by the Serena chain. En route to Shigar Fort, one can see villagers working away at the wheat thresher to make flour. More than the actual destinations, it is the route that is fascinating, passing through towns and villages, and terraced farms on mountainsides, one spots people working in the fields, ferrying loads of wheat in baskets strapped to their backs. The route to Shigar cuts through mountains where one can see the barren valley where many centuries ago a river flowed.
For a journalist trying to take a vacation, one of the benefits of Baltistan is that newspapers arrive two to three days late, which makes it easier to disconnect from reality. But on my third day, I was shocked out of my vacation stupor. I was on my way to Khaplu, where a 19th century fort is located; nearby is a 700-year old mosque built almost entirely out of wood and painted in vivid hues. I was admiring the wheat crop in full bloom along the countryside when my thoughts were interrupted by Liaquat, my driver for the day, “Osama was here.”
I yanked off my headphones in annoyance. “Osama who?”

“Bin Laden. He came to the town of Ghawari, a year before 9/11. Lots of people in the village met him. He stayed for about two weeks.”

A minute ago Ghawari was to me one of the many scenic villages that dot the landscape in Skardu Valley. Now, it seemed defiled by the fact that OBL had been here. How he got into a town where one has to cross an army check post and for outsiders, a mandatory registration of their NIC number and the car’s license plate number with the authorities is required is anyone’s guess.

Liaquat, like his friend Nasir, also had a tale or two about the Line of Control. According to him, a few months ago, an Indian truck had an accident, which led to crates of alcohol being overturned into the river. As the cargo floated down the river into Pakistan, Pakistani villagers fished the brandy and sold it for a tidy profit. Just another one of those confidence building measures that we so desperately need between the sniping neighbours.

In the evening, our destination was the Katchura Lake, nearly 45 minutes away from Skardu. The sea-green lake is unblemished, and at sunset, one of the most peaceful places that could be. This excursion was followed by a failed attempt to have dinner at the uber-pricy Shangrila Resort, which also boasts its own private lake and five-star treatment. After forking out a 200 rupee entrance fee (just to have dinner, mind you), one discovered that dinner was still in the process of being prepared. Clearly, as tourist numbers dwindle, Shangrila Resort’s cooks revert to operating on Pakistan Standard Time.

By now starving, on my return I wearily asked the hotel manager, “It’s 9 pm. Is it safe to go out for dinner alone?”
He smiled. “Madam, this is Baltistan.”

Twenty minutes later, I was pouring copious amounts of delicious tomato soup down my throat at the homey Indus Motel. Around me foreigners and their translators played games of cards, some watched news bulletins, and others ate their meals in silence. As visitors skipped through the city, the rest of the valley prepared to go to sleep.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 8th, 2010.

See the rest of the pictures from Skardu here.

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The fight - III

By the time I ended up going to Skardu, after a day of indecision and counting pennies left in the bank, it was my third trip [albeit on a different route] on the Karakoram Highway. This time around, I was the only woman in the bus – and similar to my experience in Karimabad, everyone on the bus took it upon themselves to ensure I felt comfortable and was never ill at ease. Of course, this turned a bit awkward when the bus stopped at a rest house at Astak Nala en route to Skardu and everyone urged me to check out the “ladies room”. Attempts at explaining that I just wanted to stretch my legs and have a nicotine break did not go down very well, but the uneasiness vanished away the minute a friendly old uncle urged me to sit down and have a cup of tea and roti with him, and explained to me how Radio Pakistan, where he was employed as a director, functions in the Northern Areas.

But back to the route and the sights: the crazy goras [who I later met in Skardu] who decided to enjoy the seven hour journey on the perilous road where one is easily in danger of having their head lobbed off by the mountains if they’re not careful on the top of a bus. There are the plaques that one comes across often, bearing the names of those killed during the KKH’s construction [according to Wikipedia, 810 Pakistanis lost their lives in the process of building the road], and the rickety old bridges, that link towns and villages together. The yaks [or are these goats?] fighting on the mountainside, with the white one rearing up to lock horns with its mate. The frequent travelers on the Gilgit-Skardu route call out to their friends working in shops or walking by on the road along the KKH, and dozens of streams of melting snow trickle down the mountains. The arguments on the bus: Babar Awan, PPP and fake degrees and the helpful suggestions of what one should do in Skardu. Apricots were left to dry on the rocks, and enterprising villagers flag down every bus and sell them to the by-now starving visitors.

And while the trip is exhausting [you spend seven hours in a bus and then we’ll talk], it leaves one oddly invigorated – there is so much to see and feel, that one is just left breathless by it all. But that’s nothing compared to what the Skardu Valley has to offer, but that’s a story for another day.

The Skardu pictures are still in the process of being uploaded, but you can see the ones from the Gilgit-Skardu route here.

P.S: My deepest condolences to the families and friends of those who lost their lives in the horrific incident in Islamabad yesterday.

Clouds.

Cherries

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There is something magical about Karimabad. Not Disney created, Harry Potter worthy magic, but a quiet overpowering of one’s senses. It’s in the glow of the snow-capped mountains in the Karakoram range that glint in the sunlight, the messages spelt out on the mountains during Imamat Day celebrations, the winding route of the Karakoram Highway that leaves you breathless with awe and fear. The people add to the magic: the woman who runs her grocery store and the old man who runs a restaurant and will pick fresh cherries for you for dessert. The children who wave hello as you walk by, the residents who stop and ask how you, a perfect stranger, are and the girls who skip to their school. The mother shepherding her children down to the Jamaat Khaana in their new clothes and the grizzly old shopkeeper who has adopted a family of cats, with a special carton with bedding dedicated for them. The magic is in the food: fresh cheese, chapatis gleaming with apricot oil, spinach and fresh bread. It’s in the noises you hear: the faint whirring of the moths, the cries of the birds, the rushing water of the Ultar glacier as it streams downwards into the city of Karimabad. It’s the happiness you feel when you see children playing in the streets and singing national anthems, and in the butterflies that whizz past you as you walk down the paths, the sense of security you feel when no one harasses you or looks at you with a lecherous leer as you walk alone through the markets. There is a sense of wonder at the resilience of the people of Hunza, how they manage to open their stores day after day, polish and dust their wares and wait for the tourists that may or may not show up – yet they will have smiles, they will be polite, and they will answer your barrage of questions with remarkable reserves of patience. It is the feeling of being blessed for being alive as you look up in the sky and see the valley light up with strings of fairy lights draped on every house. Sigh.

You can see the rest of the pictures from Hunza here.