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.

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