Judy Bello, reports from the 2012 Pakistan delegation
It’s midnight and I should be sleeping. I’ve just received my tea from room service, and settled in to contemplate the day. I woke late, the last leg of recovery from jet lag. Slept through the alarm and found myself showered and dressed in time to gulp a cup of tea before heading out. Today was a a ‘free’ day for the most part. Tomorrow will be filled with intense discussion, as yesterday was. But when you are traveling with a group, even a free day has to start at some defined moment. Today I will see the city.
Most of the group went for a walk in the countryside this morning, but Leah and I went with Shahzad’s assistants to the Lok Virsa Museum of Pakistani Culture and Folklore. Along the way, I realized that my early impressions of the city were skewed by incorrect assumptions along with the darkness of night and my exhaustion from the trip. The city is a small city, of only about 400,000 people. It was built, pretty much from scratch, during the 60s. The small airport serves a small city. Most of the roads have medians, which in daylight, give a sense of openness to the city.
Homes are generally set within walls, and government buildings set far back from the road. The city is utilitarian, but not impoverished. It was built to house government and military centers, and the people who work there. There is a generally affluent middle class culture with many new homes under construction, large, flat roofed cement structures with high ceilings, ornate windows and doors, balconies and walled courtyards that will house the family car along with a garden. Workers are often transients who come from somewhere else and live in temporary housing on or off the property where they work.
Since the city was built in the 60′s, everyone in Islamabad is from somewhere else. While exploring the museum, I learned that Marya’s family are Pakhtuns from Peshawar. Maryam misses winter because she grew up in Denmark, and only recently moved to Pakistan with her parents, who have their roots in occupied Kashmir. She said that she had heard the ratio of armed soldiers to civilians in occupied Kashmir is 1 to 10 . The other Maryam is from Karachi most recently, but her family sometimes think of themselves as refugees as her grandparents were, like so many others, forced to leave their homeland in India in 1947. Each of these young human rights workers has her roots in a war zone.
In the center, there is a Sufi room with wax figures of revered saints. The walls were hung with beautiful hand woven tapestries, and there are old metal dishes, pots and jewelry in cases. There are few serious antiquities in this city of barely 50 years, and a country of just over 60. But there is an attempt to understand a history that is, perhaps, too diverse to quantify and too scattered to be easily reassembled, and to connect it to the present. As we exited, a dignified scene composed of wax sculptures of Jinnah seated in a room with 2 women is followed by a brightly lit sculpture of Benazir Bhutto standing alone.
The museum has a few treasures, and it tells something of the history and culture of Pakistan and it’s people. We passed a bookstore as we entered, but unfortunately never found our way back to it. Also near the entrance, there is a large room with some modern works of art, much of it very political in tone. Satirical images of political figures beside a peace collage and a dove composed of oil painted fragments, perhaps a foot square. We did spend some time there on the way out.
After that, we visited Said Pur Model village. A simple village, more or less arranged around an open courtyard, set in a park like area. Flowering shrubs adorn the walls and potted plants set on the elevated walkways. In a central building there is a small gallery with a fascinating display of old 8 x 10 black and white photos of the early days of Said Pur village, and of Islamabad. Many of the photos in the gallery were of the reconstruction of the village, but many others captured the history of Islamabad, the planners, the early construction, the first baby born there. All this occurred when I was a teenager.
On the way in, we had passed through an intersection labeled ‘Zero Point’. I had asked Maryam, who was driving what that meant, and she said that this is the spot chosen to build the city of Islamabad. Now a busy intersection of 4 lane highways, it was once a crossroads in the open countryside. The gallery in Said Pur village had a photo of the original crossroads, a crossing of dirt roads in an open field in the shadow of mountains, where there is now a bustling city of 400,000 residents, and perhaps again as many transient workers.
On the way back, we went to see the central government area with the Parliament, the Consulates and the Presidential residence, but it was’t possible as the entire area was barricaded with shipping containers and with police checkpoints on the main roads to turn visitors away. The recent violence over the vulgar film released in the US has taken a toll. For the time being, the government is sequestered. One wonders if this was the intention of the Google Masters when they decided to take their stand on free speech with this vulgar, insulting and poorly produced video. Given that politically incorrect materials which do not incite millions of people to vent their very real frustrations are routinely removed from Youtube at the request of users. But this is the world as we know it.