The timing was almost too perfect.
The morning before I was supposed to depart Denver International Airport bound for Washington D.C. and then Pakistan, I visited an international leadership class at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy for a story.
The lesson of the day? Pakistani activist and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai.
Pakistan, which at the time remained a distant locale dripping with uncertainty and maybe some danger, had fallen into my lap. Well, at least for a lede on a local education feature.
But I couldn’t help thinking that was kind of like how the whole trip had fallen into my lap about two years earlier, when an editor nudged me to apply for the program coordinated through the International Center for Journalists.
At that time, in the fall of 2014, I was barely three months out of college and doing a not-so-decent job of faking it/making it at the Aurora Sentinel. Pakistan seemed so wildly abstract.
Some two years later, the air of unattainability remained. It was a place relegated to headlines, the @CNNInternational handle and the occasional Aurora Public Schools SmartBoard. That feeling of remoteness seemed to persist no matter how many coincidental lessons and appearances the Paksitani people made in my every day life.
“You’re going to Pakistan?” friends would say. “Wha — how?”
“Yeah, so they tell me,” I’d reply. “I’ll believe it when I’m on the plane.”
The trip had been canceled, postponed and thrown into purgatory about three times. I was not optimistic. My trepidation was so steadfast that when I couldn’t immediately find my printed-out confirmation code to hand to the Etihad Airways rep at the counter, I thought that was it — the caper was up. No Pakistan for me. Figures as much. It’s not like it could actually, like, happen.
Then, seemingly instantaneously, I was there; Islamabad, Pakistan, population 2 million, the fabricated capital constructed by the Pakistani government barely 50 years ago.
Though nary a Pakistani would ever admit it, the country and its capital appear, per se, to mirror observations I’ve heard and read about a certain neighbor and mortal enemy: India. Moving through the place is more than an assault on the senses — it’s a bare-knuckled pummeling of all sensory receptors.
Wet, heavy air strangles the skin and lungs, which provides a particularly sobering sensation for someone who’s spent the past six years in the high desert of the arid Rocky Mountains. Sewage mixes with cologne mixes with kabob to form an ever-changing olfactory blanket that can betray the nose with only the slightest breeze or change of direction. My early soundtrack to the city and the country was an ever-present cacophony of Yamaha motorbikes and the whispered melodies of a very foreign Urdu language. The hazy ghosts of the nearby Margalla Hills and a smattering of palm trees acted as the backdrop to a soupy web of motor traffic and pedestrians. The folds of women’s hijabs galloped in the smoggy wind, while the baggy flaps of their male counterpart’s salwar kameezes imitated the feathery dance.
We spent five days meeting with many of the city and country’s brightest and most sanguine, as well as many feigned, bureaucratic optimists, including education reformers, media watchdogs, reporters, senators, and government squawk boxes. Those conversations led to a sea of Wikipedia-style facts and figures, the likes of which made for teeming reporter’s notebooks and constantly buzzing synapses. All of the statistics are immense, and many are underpinned by somber realities.
For example: In a 2013 poll, 90 percent of Pakistani respondents said suicide bombings are never justified in the name of Islam. That compares to just 40 percent of respondents who thought the same in 2002, according to Michael Kugelman, a senior program associate at the Wilson Center, a D.C.-based think tank. Nearly 120 Pakistani journalists have been killed since 2000 because of stories they had reported, according to the Islamabad-based nonprofit Media Matters for Democracy. The United Nations estimates about 42 percent of the country’s children are stunted, meaning they’re not growing as quickly as they should be. Approximately 24 million Pakistani kids are out of school, according to a recent UNICEF report. Some 60 percent of the country’s population is under 30.
In Karachi, the umpteen-headed sea monster that refuses to keep still and is gunning to become the world’s largest city, the numbers pack even more of a wallop. Though the government hasn’t conducted an official census since 1998 — so as not to redraw highly regarded political district lines — current estimates put the city’s population at about 24 million people. That’s roughly equivalent to the entire population of Australia. The city is technically overseen by a mayor who is currently in prison. There’s no public transportation system. The metropolis is home to an estimated 1.7 million motorbikes.
Life in Pakistan is a departure from life in America, to be sure. There are few female drivers behind the wheel or the handlebars. Government offices and facilities are threadbare, and serve as foils to the constant opulence seen in Washington D.C., Denver and elsewhere. Traffic has its own mind and its own pulse. Protocols surrounding waste disposal are loose at best.
But for all of the differences, there are myriad points of overlapping culture. While there are plenty of covered heads and beards, there is also a consistent smattering of blue jeans, Nikes and graphic t-shirts. Cell phones are cheap and they are everywhere. Sports —namely cricket — consume a vast swath of the country’s some 200 million inhabitants. Patriotism, or at least the appearance of it, is ubiquitous. Green and white crescents coat highway overpasses, rear-view mirrors and T-shirt vendor’s stalls. Media are vibrant, consumed and struggling to adapt to the new world of tiny blue birds, online advertising and short attention spans.
As a visitor for just less than two weeks, it’s impossible and downright unfair to synthesize the cogs of a country in a magazine report published in a tiny hamlet — in Pakistani terms, as I was repeatedly told — across the world. The preceding 1,000 words merely serve as a snippet of how I got there, and what I saw. The use of wide brush strokes certainly abound.
Take away what you will. Just know that while dangerous at certain times and in certain places, the country is not a war zone. Pakistan and its people have infrastructure and art and commerce and innovation and anger and brawn and brains and hope. And that should mean something. That should matter.