As I prepare to travel to Pakistan — the first such visit in five years — I am filled with admiration, amazement and apprehension. They say the past is a different country. And Pakistan is certainly a very different country from the one I left all those years ago.
Pakistan and I have both changed. I am obviously older (but not wiser) than the young, naive and rather demure girl who boarded the plane from Islamabad to Brussels with her parents and sister. At the time, I believed I would be away for a few months, may be a couple of years. Several decades later, Europe has become a core part of my identity and existence and Brussels is “home”, a city that has nourished and nurtured me through good times and bad.
Pakistan’s transformation is more starkly radical. Sometimes I can hardly recognise my country of birth. There is much still to admire and love — and to yearn for on cold European winter evenings. Family and friends of course. The food and some of the music. The stories being told by old writers and new ones whose books I devour avidly. The artists whose pieces stir long-buried memories.
But what I admire most is the resilience of the people. The indomitable spirit of the so-called common man, the “ordinary” people — or the “masses” that the Pakistani politicians refer to in derision — who keep the country humming and running against all odds.
You see that unbeatable spirit everywhere, among the people displaced by floods and the deadly fighting between the army and the Taliban, after the tragic deaths of innocent civilians caused by drones, among the thousand Malalas still determined to go to school and the sick people waiting patiently for a doctor to see them in crowded hospitals.
But that resilience is also about being optimistic about the future. Going to work every day in packed buses, facing harassment, electricity breakdowns, rampant inflation and corruption with stubbornness and stoicism. And to keep going on and on. I admire Pakistani business leaders and innovators who still invest and believe in the country. The young and the daring entrepreneurs. People who speak up for tolerance, resist the siren song of conformity and compromise.
I have seen the same energy and resilience in many other parts of Asia and in Africa. But recently rarely in Europe. The Eurozone crisis has exhausted Europe and joblessness rates are much too high, especially for young people.
But speak to young people in China, India and Indonesia and it is clear that they believe in a better future. Visit the countries and it is clear that people’s lives are getting better. Of course there is still inequality, poverty and hunger. But the governments in these countries are trying hard to tackle the multiple challenges they face. Are Pakistani politicians doing the same?
So what about my amazement? Well, I suppose it’s about the patience of the people, the willingness to put up with mediocre and often corrupt politicians, war-mongering soldiers, inequality and unfairness and the rampant lack of the rule of law. Elections have not led to real democracy. All that aid money pouring in, has not led to sustainable growth and development.
Reading the online version of the front page of Dawn fills me with wonder at how quickly Pakistan’s political landscape has turned into a dark, cruel, repetitive circus. The scowling, angry features of former cricketer Imran Khan, the crazy pronouncements of the Canadian preacher, the ever-chubbier and dishevelled, helpless look of the prime minister and the semi-lucid mutterings of the scion of the Bhutto family.
And then there is the apprehension. Despite the disappointment and the disillusionment with a country which I once called home, I suppose there is still some lingering connection, a hope that Pakistan will survive the challenges of the 21st century, stand proud and tall and become an integral part of a rising Asia.
It would be nice if Pakistan was in the headlines not because of the antics of the likes of Junaid Jamshed, anti-India rants by the foreign ministry, suicide bombings and hate-Malala crazies as well as the treatment being meted out to Asia Bibi but because the country was breaking new ground, turning a fresh page, opting for sanity rather than madness.
After so many years and so many wonderful experiences in Europe and Asia — not to mention the lessons in honesty, sincerity and fearlessness that I learned from my father — I wonder if I will be able to stay silent when I encounter intolerance and religiosity and the blatant disregard for the rights of women, children and minorities that seems to have become part of the national discourse.
Across Asia, there is hope and progress. Viewed from Brussels, it certainly looks like this is the Asian Century, a time when Asia is coming of age, growing and developing.
Pakistan has a choice: it could join the Asian mainstream and give its people the life and future they deserve or it can opt to be part of a self-destructive Middle East mindset and stay on the periphery of a dynamic and vibrant Asia. I know what I would choose — but do they?