I visit Pakistan December 12 – 17, 2012. These five days are filled with painful emotional upheavals and furtive arrangements by my hosts to keep me safe. This narrative will, hopefully, give you an idea of rot that is gripping this once wonderful and proud nation. There is not one person who has a good word to say about the overall health of this country and many ruefully mull the good old days of military rule, unanimous this is the only institution that has a shot of changing Pakistan’s fast eroding kismets. After a haunting emotional day December 13 visiting with victims and families of sectarian shooting in Karachi, I head for Multan and dangerous NWF provinces. CAI has built hundreds of one-bedroom homes for flood victims in Punjab; I want to inspect these and close the project file.
December 14, 2012
I wait for flight PAI332 to be announced but nothing happens by 11AM departure time, so approach the information desk manned by an elderly man reading an Urdu newspaper. I wait for him to notice me but he is much engrossed with the news or ignoring me. Sallam, I say. He raises tired eyes to look at me then elevates bushy eyebrows in a question mark. I ask him about the flight to Multan. He mutters something ineligible, but speech is difficult; his mouth is full of paan spit. Sorry, I say, I do not understand. Irritation flashes in his eyes. He turns his mouth to the skies and mumbles ineligibly again. Frustration and irritation flash in my eyes. He gestures me to wait, gets up and spits into a nearby trashcan. Aree, he says, flashing paan stained blood-red teeth my way, wait by gate number 17, you’ll be called when the flight is ready.
I wait by gate 17 in apprehension for another thirty minutes. My schedule in Punjab / NWP is tight, many housing and other projects to visit / inspect, awesome exotic Punjabi teeter curry to devour. The time by flight PK332 on the monitor suddenly flashes and changes to 14:40; there is pandemonium in the waiting area at the same instance. About thirty men surround the desk by the gate, there is shouting and mayhem; I can’t understand a word as everybody is yelling. The pretty PIA counter clerk panics and bolts, clacking high heels making her flight to safety comically awkward. A uniformed PIA man replaces her sentry but is instantly besieged and the mayhem continues. When he tries to flee, the protesting group surrounds him, blocking escape; a scuffle ensues. This continues for sometime before several armed security men muscle in and temporarily disperse the crowd, rescuing him. The crowds gather again and begin denouncing PIA; colorful curses and accusations of corruption, theft and incompetence gain momentum. I get into a conversation with a fellow passenger who informs me our flight to Multan is diverted to Islamabad because the scheduled Islamabad flight is technically air-unworthy. The order comes from higher-ups; there are two senior military officers who have to be in Islamabad pronto.
So I wait in the lounge, which now has a deserted look, except for the protesting Multan group, whose energy levels have much mellowed. Ignoring no-smoking signs throughout the terminal, several in this group light up. There is an immediate request and caution over the intercom for passengers not to smoke; it is smugly ignored. Since my sect is a target, I recite my dhor salaat stealthily, then lay down among empty cushions. When I awake with a start at 14:30, there is little change in the flight status, still shows 14:40 departure. I wait until 15:00, still no change. Very worried, I cautiously approach the help desk again, now manned by an attentive and eager to help young lady. She speaks English as well; my fortunes have much improved. Aree, she says, puzzled, this flight is cancelled! Sorry Sir, you’ll have to go to PIA counter outside and reschedule for next flight. And when is the next flight? Only PIA can tell you Sir. And why am I not told about the flight cancellation, why is the status still showing 14:40 on the monitor? Aree, kya boolu. So sorry Sir.
I have a staggering headache by now; I call my host and he is on his way to pick me up. There are other disquieting events brewing in Karachi. I get frightening news alert on my cellphone; a midair collision between Emirates and Al Etihad airlines over Panjgor, Sindh is averted at the last minute due to non-functioning radar. The Shia ulemas of Pakistan have begun a protest sit-in in the center of city (I later learn sixty thousand people join the protest; the Governor agrees to meet with leaders of community) in protest against the governments inability / unwillingness to stop sectarian killings, so the already snarled Karachi traffic goes overtime, delaying my drive to Mehfil e Murtaza. All gas stations in Sindh are boycotting the sale of CNG due to their displeasure with the Supreme Court; queues of vehicles stretch for miles all over the city. Then, at about 10PM, shops and businesses come under fire from snipers; the entire city center empties out within ten minutes. Scared shitless, I make it to my hotel safe. I am to take a flight to relatively safer Islamabad tomorrow at 10AM; I can’t wait.
December 15, 2012
I am awake by five today, eager to go to the airport, but the day starts ominously; a news alert informs me that entire Sindh is gripped by fear, all businesses, schools and public transport is shut. Sweet Mother Mary, what next?! My host’s driver takes less than fifteen minutes to reach the airport on deserted roads, an otherwise forty-five minute drive. The flight to much cooler Islamabad is eventless, the PIA flight arriving five minutes early even though we take off fifteen minutes late, thanks to strong tail winds aloft. My host takes me to visit a remarkable high school for financially challenged boys outside the city, Uswa College – remarkable what few dedicated individuals can accomplish. These boys come from very remote, financially struggling areas of Pakistan; this school turns them around and boasts of fifth overall academic excellence in 2012 from all Islamabad high schools.
Dingy Margala Hotel in Islamabad is a sprawling state owned complex with so many armed security personnel, it is difficult to figure who is a protector and who may be potential adversary. With almost all men sprouting at least a fistful of facial hair, I stand out like a sore thumb. Seeking refuge in my room, I retire early; dicey Hangu / Gowat beckons me tomorrow. I am in deep slumber so it takes a couple of rings before I realize it is not adhaan I hear, but my cellphone; it is my host from Karachi. I am truly sorry Yusufbhai, this Pakistan trip of your is completely ruined. Eh? I am a little groggy, so perhaps do not understand him; this host is not prone to calling me wee hours for such trivial protocol. We are cancelling your trip to Hangu and Gowat tomorrow due to security concerns. There is an ongoing rocket attack at Peshawar airport and people have been killed. The road leading to Hangu passes through that general area so I am not taking a chance on your safety or you getting stuck in Hangu or Gowat and missing your flight Tuesday. Laa ilaa ha ill’Allah!
I am now more than eager to head home but cheap airline tickets are not changeable or refundable.
December 16 / 17, 2012
I am holed up in my hotel room with few sporadic, guarded visits to progressive institutes Jamia Kothar Girls College, Hadi TV, Jamia Imam Sadiq (A) and Jamia tu Zahra (A).
Wee AM December 18, 2012
I despair for this country, feel sorry for her. And feel sorry for myself, ruing missed teeter curry.