Wedding party just prior to mehndi
I’ll admit it. When my wife Zahra told me that her cousin Qasim was getting married in December, and that she intended to travel to Pakistan to participate in the celebration, I was nervous. I knew she wanted me to go with her, and most of me did want to go with her. But, I’d be lying to claim immunity from fears about traveling there. I think of myself as a fairly media-conscious guy, and am well aware of the biases that surround reporting on Muslim countries in general, let alone the country currently designated by said media as the world’s terrorist nexus. And while it’s true that marrying Zahra and becoming immersed in her world has provided an ongoing experience of Muslims and the Muslim community that stands in stark, beautiful contrast to the typical media-perpetuated view, it’s also true that the chaos in Pakistan is real. Last June, while my mother-in-law was in Pakistan procuring clothes for our wedding, a huge bomb blast at the Data Darbur Sufi shrine killed at least 40 people. This was the largest - but not the only - blast of 2010 in Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural capital and our destination.
I didn’t dwell for long in that fearful mental space, though. I knew that the chance of falling victim to such an attack was, statistically, highly improbable. The opportunities which awaited me quickly took anticipatory precedence: to experience the rich and varied Pakistani culture; to meet all of Zahra’s legendary khalas and the rest of the family; to participate in a full-scale Desi wedding; to indulge in the never-ending culinary pleasures; to take part in unexported Islamic ritual and practice while a guest on the Subcontinent; to witness the enduring legacy of ancient, unbroken Sufi lineages; and, most of all, to learn in a way that even the best books can never teach.
Flanked by Z and cousin Fatima
I was already well-provisioned with shalwar kameez thanks to Ammi’s earlier Pakistani mission on behalf of Zahra and my wedding. I had loved wearing the loose, flowing, subcontinental staples during our wedding week and looked forward to putting them back into service. As it happened, all of the Western clothes I’d brought ‘just in case’ lay unused for the trip’s duration. I went native upon waking on our first day, and never looked back. My native dress, along with the wispy-but-persistent mustache I’d grown prior to departure, combined to create Pashto-esque profile that many people remarked on with laughter. The many security guards who paid particular attention to me as we moved through Lahore’s shopping districts didn’t laugh, though. The lighter-skinned Pashtuns make up a bulk of the Pakistani Taliban, and are therefore subject to increased scrutiny in the now hyper-security conscious upper-crust areas of Lahore. I had the singular experience of being consistently racially profiled, even while feeling paradoxically grateful to be seen as a potentially dangerous terrorist rather than a vulnerable American. I would never presume to equate this experience with that of an actual racial minority being profiled, but I can say that my capacity for empathy in this area has definitely been expanded.
Overwhelmingly, the facet of Pakistani life which impressed me most was their focus on the importance of family. I experienced this most deeply through my budding relationships with members of Zahra’s family. As a white boy with a questionable religious background seeking entry into an accomplished Muslim family, I had some trepidation on how I might be received. I need not have worried. I was welcomed with open arms as aunts, uncles, and cousins of every tier, spanning generations, universally gave me their blessing. Indeed, upon my arrival I was informed that I would be serving as a member of Qasim’s wedding party, a duty which included several ritual components as well as much dancing and merry-making spanning a dizzying array of events, formal and otherwise. Merry-making being a specialty of mine, I was able to turn this duty into an opportunity to share my own brand of sanctified fun with my new family. We had a fantastic time. Throughout, I was struck by the similarities between this family and my own. Both sprawling, both highly motivated and high-achieving, and both animated by a deep love of God and a desire to serve humanity as a primary expression of that love.
The changing face of Islam was an intentionally unavoidable topic of conversation, and inseparable from the frequent political discussions. Before the trip, I made a commitment to have dialogues with as many people as possible about the politico-religious situation both in Pakistan and more broadly. I prepared myself by reading books (notably Ahmed Rasid’s ‘Descent into Chaos’ and, as a balance, Sayyed H. Nasr’s ‘Garden ofTruth). During my stay, as we moved freely through Lahore and Islamabad, I spoke with doctors, lawyers, politicians, servants, students, shopkeepers, philanthropists, and drivers. I spoke with young children, teenagers, adults, wise elders, and what we’d call Baby Boomers over here. Mainly due to the social custom of loose segregation along gender lines that was observed at some parties, I talked with more men than women, but it was the women whose sharing provided me with the deepest insight.
Three Khalas (Aunts)
In spontaneous dialogue with dozens of people, I asked questions that everyone in the world wants to know the answer to. I asked questions that I needed my own answers to. Where are the discernible voices of so-called moderate Islam in Pakistani society? Why are they so few? How can a small percentage of extremists gain so much power in Pakistan, and elsewhere? Why is a country founded on Islamic principles so corrupt? Who is bombing the Sufi shrines? Why? If Pakistani’s are against terrorism, why do they resent the U.S. presence so much? What do Pakistani people think about the U.S. and the War on Terror? Is Pakistan on its way to being a failed state? Who is responsible? Does worrying about who is responsible and assigning blame divert attention from actually solving Pakistan’s problems? Can they be solved? How? Why do non-Arab Muslims seem so hesitant to criticize Saudi policies that seem to contribute to an immoderate Islam? Why do so many moderate Muslims criticize these tendencies when speaking to other Muslims but not when speaking to white boys like me?
A deep exploration of the discussions I had surrounding these questions is beyond the scope of this reflection, but some key themes emerged which are worth sharing. Foremost among them was this: a person possessed of a typical American worldview, informed primarily by mainstream US media sources, is woefully underequipped to understand the practical consequences of the geopolitical decisions imposed on the region by their government. I don’t consider myself “typical” on this score, and I hang out with a lot of Muslims, yet these conversations exposed huge gaps in my knowledge. Over two weeks I received, first-hand, an essential crash course in the widespread politico-socio-cultural effects of U.S. interventionism in Central Asia and beyond. This education led directly to a change in my initial stance towards another common theme – the Pakistani predilection towards offering foreign-born conspiracy theories to explain their social ills. Commonly, in answer to many of the above questions, one or more of the big three - India, America, Russia – is cited as the provacateur. On the subject of growing religious extremism, Afghani refugee immigrants are often identified as a primary cause.
As it turns out, the intelligence communities of the Big Three are acting as agent provacateurs throughout various societal strata, whether through inciting political action, planting strategic misinformation, or otherwise. Likewise, Pashtun muftis filtering into Pakistan since the days of the Russian occupation of Afghanistan have profoundly altered the tone of religious rhetoric in the country, to the surprise and great consternation of that Pakistani Baby Boomer generation. Weighty outside influences have used Pakistan as a major playground in their Great Game for decades, a fact that cannot be overlooked. Pakistanis project the sources of their troubles outward because, especially since the 1980’s, this is an entirely accurate and rational, if only partial, framing of the situation.
Of course, the Pakistanis do have their own problems. At first, some people seemed hesitant to acknowledge these aspects of their country’s truth. Most Pakistani’s are fiercely proud of their country, and, understandably, aren’t immediately forthcoming about airing dirty laundry in front of a foreigner. During the second half of my visit, though, people opened up. The truth is that Pakistani people are acutely and desperately aware of the trouble their country is in, homegrown and otherwise. The class system, a dark legacy of the British colonial system, underlies the entire culture. The army’s longstanding policy of incubating radicals to fight proxy wars against India has directly contributed to the explosion in homegrown radicals whose aims are now global. Similarly, the Islamicization of the education system under General Zia’s dictatorship has yielded a generation of 30-somethings whose vision of Islam is starkly more conservative than their parents. These religious realities are coupled with an eternally ineffectual civilian government, which seems powerless to combat the rise of fundamentalism. Some branches of the media speak freely, but major swaths of the government and populace refrain from publicly speaking out against the fundamentalists, for fear of ostracization or assassination. Even still, the moderate majority mourns the Pakistan of even 10 years past, more progressive by miles than the one currently on display to the world.
The U.S. presence in Pakistan looms large over all discussions in this sphere. Almost universally, Pakistanis view the enduring U.S. mission as self-serving and counterproductive despite the significant influx of American dollars into their economy. This view has no correspondence with support of terrorism, utterly undermining bipolar notions of being “with us or against us”. A healthy percentage of Pakistanis I spoke with are, simultaneously, stridently anti-terrorist and unapologetically anti-U.S. Furthermore, the people I spoke with unanimous agreed that the current U.S. strategy was self-defeating at a level previously unimagined. Despite U.S. media reports of the success of the drone strikes throughout the Northwest Frontier Province, the strikes are seen by many Pakistanis as attacks on their own homeland. That the Pakistani government allows them to take place further undermines their credibility in the eyes of the people. Mediocre intelligence means that innocent civilians are killed as often as terrorists in these strikes. This is not propaganda, it is fact. The drone attacks have been the single biggest recruiting tool for Al-Qaida and the Taliban since the invasion of Iraq.
The single most common theme that arose in discussing causes of current troubles was the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The contempt with which Pakistani people describe this decision is difficult to overstate, considering that it’s viewed as a root cause for much of the chaos they’re currently enduring. When the lion’s share of U.S. military resources left Afghanistan in 2003 to lead the invasion of a sovereign Muslim country, it could not have been a more perfect scenario for Al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan and the remote tribal areas of Pakistan. Bases and training camps were rebuilt and fortified, and recruiting exploded. Extremists from all over the globe converged, responding to what was viewed by most of the world as America’s aggression in Iraq. Much of the current difficulty in Pakistan is directly attributable to America’s decision to effectively abandon Pakistan and Afghanistan for several years of adventure in Iraq. It’s almost impossible to have a conversation with a Pakistani about this subject without hearing a note of betrayal in their voice. It is not an academic exercise for them. With the exception of American soldiers and their families, the Iraqi invasion continues to affect Pakistani lives far more than it affects most Americans, who have never felt so much as a tax increase to pay for it.
At the Fort
Enough politics! In truth, the conversations that informed these musings weren’t just political discussions. They were a part of that universal tapestry of human interaction common to all cultures, but with potent manifestations unique to each. These conversations took place as we drove from the spectacular Shalimar Gardens to the sublime Data Darbur shrine, laughing and struggling to convey a particularly anachronistic linguistic flourish. They happened over brewed coffee (finally!) after an excellent American meal. They happened on a rooftop with a 50-mile view of Lahore, after being schooled on the dying art of raising homing pigeons. They happened in a shisha tent, talking about server virtualization with a bona-fide Pakistani IT project manager. They happened, time after time, with my new family members eager to share their indefatigable love for this beautiful, complicated place. They happened after receiving the finest massage of my life at the hands of Nikoo, head servant, mechanic, mystic, comedian, political theorist, brother, and gold-standard manifestation of the servant-leadership philosophy. And they happened, finally, over the final two days of our trip, as we journeyed to Islamabad.
In Islamabad we stayed with the family of Zahra’s great-uncle, Dr. Naeem Ghani. Beginning in the 1960’s, Uncle Naeem spent three decades as a physician in the service of the Saudi royal family. Ammi had told me that he was involved in humanitarian and philanthropic work, but I was unprepared for the magnitude of his efforts. In the early 90’s, driven by the systemic lack of educational opportunities for non-elites in Pakistan, Uncle Naeem started a one-room school program to teach women’s vocational skills. Since then, the school has grown into a foundation-supported campus serving 7,000 students across a full range of ages and disciplines. The Sultana Foundation draws support from hundreds of donors, and sits on a beautiful campus of at least 10 buildings outside of Islamabad. All privately funded, the school has feeder relationships with some of Pakistan’s finest colleges, and provides substantial scholarship assistance to students in need.
Uncle Naeem is highly accomplished and deeply read in many fields. He’s also a really humble guy. We talked for hours about human development, psychology, politics, war, peace, generosity, philanthropy, education, love, forgiveness, and Pakistan. I already knew he was an accomplished doctor and a world-class philanthropist, but he never mentioned that he was also the president of a renowned magazine and a participant in a national-level anti-terrorism task force. The two days we spent with him filled me with hope – for Pakistan and for the world.
Ammi and I high above Islamabad
Many of my new family members are fighting the good fight,. Qasim has just started his job in the new Anti-Corruption commission in Islamabad, a position not without legitimate dangers. Auntie Tehmina recently lost her re-election bid as a member of the National Assembly, but she will run again. Among other progressive platforms, she has proved to be strongly committed to raising education levels among the poor. Like Uncle Naeem, she believes that education is the most important factor for improving Pakistan’s health. Uncle Shahiq just retired as the Secretary of the Senate, where he spent years working to achieve real progress in a difficult bureaucratic environment. They and many others were inspiring examples of people who continue to believe in Pakistan, despite knowing better than anyone the seriousness of the situation they are in.
Pakistan is beautiful. Badshahi Mosque, Data Darbur, The Faisal Mosque, Jaigur’s Tomb, Lahore Fort, Red Square, the Himalaya Mountains are all images that will stay with me forever. Its rich, multicultural history coupled with the independence and modern character it had to fight to achieve give Pakistan a distinct character. The Pakistani people are among the most welcoming and generous I have ever met. The Sufi-tinged expression of Islam embraced by Zahra’s family and the bulk of Pakistanis, which is rooted in principles identical to the best expressions of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, is without question a joyful and life-affirming spiritual path. Pakistan has problems. Big ones. But the best people in Pakistan don’t see it as a lost cause, and I believe them. With education, effort, and a willingness on some small part of the rich and privileged to become active, transformation is still possible. I’m really looking forward to my next visit.
More photos of the trip can be seen here.