I visited Pakistan after 5 years in December. I couldn’t do much there due to the weddings of both my brother and my brother-in-law. I stayed in Islamabad (my parents) and Wah Cantt (my in-laws), but also visited Karachi. But I thought it might be a good idea to blog about my observations.
Some things have changed in Pakistan while others remain the same. For one thing, air pollution has definitely increased, causing both my wife and me allergy problems. Traffic is as bad as ever. My Dad was initially afraid of letting me drive as he thought I had forgotten the cut-throat suicidal way people drive there. There is now toll collected on some highways in and around Islamabad. Military personnel are exempt from paying all toll except for the Islamabad-Lahore motorway (the only really limited-access highway in Pakistan.)
Religion seems to have taken on new life in Pakistan. I saw a lot of guys with beards and women/girls with scarves. These were no so common 5 years ago in the major cities. It especially seems that scarves for women are getting popular among high society. I don’t remember anyone wearing scarves 10 years ago. Women who wanted to cover their heads (most of the women) wore a “dupatta” or “chador”. Expression of religiosity and piety has also definitely increased.
Along with religion, anti-US feelings have swept the whole country. Almost everyone I met did not like the US, though to different levels. What I found surprising were the anti-US feelings among college-educated, well-to-do and moderate people. The Taliban themselves were not popular but the US action in Afghanistan was definitely disliked. Similarly, people were definitely against the war against Iraq. There was a general feeling that the US was against Muslims. Most people condemned the terrorist attacks of September 11 but talked in the same breath of it not being an act of any Muslim. Osama Bin Laden was only liked due to the fact that the US was after an “innocent” man. There were people who believed in strange conspiracy theories about the destruction of the WTC (4000 Jews, Mossad, CIA, Jews celebrating, explosives in WTC to bring it down, etc.) You probably have heard them all. Though I was probably not able to change anyone’s mind, I was at times able to dominate the debate and make people agree to some of my points. Despite all the anti-US feelings and conspiracy theories, I believe it is good that people there don’t condone the terrorism. That to me means they are still not beyond the pale.
It was amusing to hear people asking us about the problems and persecution we suffer here. On this topic, I believe I did a good job in convincing people. The most common topic of conversation was the special registration of non-immigrants from specific countries (including Pakistan.) I became convinced that though there might be some national security value to these regulations, it is definitely a huge public relations disaster alienating both the Pakistani visitors in the US and the general population back in Pakistan.
I also found it interesting that people’s feelings about the Musharraf government did not correlate with their feelings against the US. People who were in favor of Musharraf did not like the US as well. A caveat: Most of the virulently anti-US people were definitely anti-Musharraf also.