2007
12.19


SYNOPSIS: A bit about the party system and politics in Pakistan.

As any travel guide to Pakistan will tell you, things heat up during election times…  Yes, it concerned me that I would be in Pakistan leading up to one of the most important elections in recent years, but it also intrigued me.

It was impossible to miss that it was an election period in Pakistan.  Roads sides, bulletin boards, houses, shopping streets and cars were plastered with election posters of all sorts, shapes, and forms.  A bewildering number of faces were staring down at you from every corner.

Men on all of them, with one notable exception:  Benazir Bhutto.  I asked Shabir, our driver, how he could make sense of this.  The faces changed from town to town; and even though a few crept up everywhere, the overwhelming sense one got from the posters was that of utter political chaos.  I had noted some curious symbols on many of the posters and Shabir helped me to unlock the secret:  It does not matter so much who is looking at you from the posters; what matters is their party affiliation.  And that affiliation is made clear for the many illiterate, a-political, and uneducated masses by clearly recognizable symbols:  There was the tiger party, the tea-cup party, the book party, the elephant party, the number party, the bicycle party and most of them all, the arrow party!   Knowing that, the fog began to lift and one could begin to make sense of various towns and their loyalties.

Pakistan has been a political mess from its inception swinging back and forth between dictatorships which abolish parties and times of democracy which bring forth a bewildering number of unprepared political parties, none of which can rule without alliances.  Not only that, as Shabir pointed out, the political parties are usually dominated by single, influential families who still rule rural Pakistan like medieval feudal lords.  You’d be well advised to “vote” in line with your feudal lords or else…   The Bhutto family is a good case in point.

Political rallies have traditionally been the scene of sectarian, political, and ideologically driven violence.  I had promised myself that much:  Stay away from any rally!  For the most part, we succeeded in that but once we turned a corner in a small town and found ourselves in the middle of a  crowd listening to a political speech.  We tried to retreat only to find ourselves cornered by a political parade.   Nothing threatening happened.  The count of dead political candidates leading up to the 2007-2008 election in Pakistan was listed around 50; not very encouraging for any aspiring politicians.

The ultimate death that year was the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on December 27, 2007 after she had given a speech at a political rally in Rawalpindi.  Saeed’s office was located in Rawalpindi.  But that day, we found ourselves in Lahore, next to Bhutto’s Party Headquarters!

Here is a link to the political parties in Pakistan for further reading:   http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/pakistan/political-parties.htm

2007
12.19

SYNOPSIS:  My bewildering first day in Pakistan: Benazir Bhutto’s House, a Homosexual, a Prince, Saeed’s Family and a Beer.

As I left the airplane maneuvering my way through the throngs of people heading towards immigration, I was faced with several choices aside from the obvious “Pakistani Citizens”. There was a lane for “Foreigners” and one for “Women traveling alone”. I had to made a decision which of these two fitting category was supposed to take priority. in the eyes of the immigration officers. I chose “Foreigners” for the line was shorter, and things went smoothly. I had my passport stamped without any further questions.
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Saeed Khan, my travel agent would pick me up. I was glad, that I would not have to make any decisions on this trip. Saeed and I had been in contact for months and weeks working out a travel route through Pakistan. He is a seasoned travel agent, but used to “nature” tourism. People,
typically from Europe, come to his country to ski, to climb K2, and to go fishing. I was his first “cultural” tourist. I think he enjoyed the challenge.
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But instead of the middle aged man I expected, a young guy approached me – he had no trouble spotting the only foreign tourist – said my name, grabbed my luggage and started to run off with it. For a split second I worried about having just been robbed of my suitcase, but no, the young man raced out to a jeep parked in the lot where Saeed was waiting for me. All was well!
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I needed no rest, so Saeed took me to his office where I finally could unload the thousands of dollars I had strapped around my waist. Cash only was his request for payment. That settled I knew that I had to spend no further thought on any expenses for the next two weeks. Hotels, drivers, food, entrance fees, guides; Saeed would take care of it all. I knew that in the future I would not be able to continue this kind of travel, but it was reassuring the first time around as I stepped into a country by most others considered dangerous.
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A gentleman was sitting at Saeed’s desk and I was introduced to “one of the princes of Swat”. Wow, a prince! This is probably the first and only time in my life that I will have the distinction of shaking hands with a real prince. The prince did not look happy though and neither did Saeed. Swat would be off limits for me. Things had escalated there in the last few weeks and months. The Taliban had taken over more and more of the Swat Valley. My safety could not be guaranteed and no matter how badly I wanted to see the ancient Buddhist remains of the Valley, Saeed would not take me there. I had to accept his decision.
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But to make up for my disappointment, he handed me over to his son Adam and my future driver Shabir, the young man from the airport. They would take me around Islamabad and show me whatever I wanted to see for the next few hours. That was an offer! First we went to a trendy cafe – the style you would expect in Paris or more recently in the US as well. Starbucks, so to speak, without the brand name. Young people were hanging out there talking on their cell phones. Then we drove through an administrative districts with mansions to behold. Gleaming white buildings, really palaces, were lining the road; embassies and government buildings. The roads were practically empty since there were road blocks at every intersection in this part of town for security reasons. Whoever wanted to cross town on business would probably avoid this district. We were not held back; just profiled.
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After that, I tested the offer I had, to go anywhere I wanted. Can you take me to Benazir Bhutto’s house? Sure, why not. OMG! Just 24 hours earlier I had promised that I would not do anything risky, that is anything even more risky than going to Pakistan in the first place. BB’s house had been  in the news over the last few weeks. There were riots, guards keeping her under house arrest, clashes between various political factions. Things had quieted down over the last few days though and I felt comforted by the reaction of my two guides Adam and Shabir that they felt there would be no problem checking out her street. A road block slowed us down and in front of the house there was a guard posted in a small hut. He did not seem to mind our presence. I got out to inspect the various election posters displayed at the house. The house itself seemed of modest size, but that was deceptive. Shabir assured me that it was plenty big. I could not believe that I was standing in front of her house. I was really here. In Pakistan. In Islamabad. In Benazir’s Street. Some things are just too strange to dwell on.
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It was getting dark and Shabir suggested one more stop: A shopping mall. Just so I could see that I had not arrived in the wilderness. There were modern western-style shops, a huge book store, clothing boutiques. The place was hopping with young people strolling, eating ice cream, holding shopping bags. As we searched for a parking spot a strange character approached us. Nothing so strange about him/her if we had been in New York or even Ann Arbor. He was a homosexual, dressed as a woman with plenty of makeup. With a friendly smile he approached our car, stuck his head into the driver’s window (which in this country is on the right side of the car), inspecting the foreign specimen. He said something I could not understand and after exchanging a few words with Shabir he left. What was that? I thought homosexuality would get you into prison in this state driven by Islamic values? Where am I?
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We had encountered a Khusra.  I was impressed that the Pakistanis had found a way to bypass the strict interpretation of Sharia which would have put this man/woman into prison or cost him/her his life. What I could not fathom was the common wisdom that went with it: Khusras are poor men born without male genitals! A natural euneuch of sorts.  That’s why they have no option but to dress as women and to survive in society as singers, dancers, and prostitutes. They live in their own communities and are tolerated and pitied by society… I am not kidding! A man as worldly as Saeed honestly believed this. After I got over my initial urge to burst into laughter out loud, I bit my tongue and let that myth live. Whatever it takes…
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My head was spinning already after only a few hours in Pakistan. When in the  evening, Saeed offered me a welcome beer, I was floored. Beer in Pakistan. Another thing that did not fit my world view. But I was too tired to sort that one out. I slept like a rock that first night.
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Good night.