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     Volume 6 Issue 22 | June 8, 2007 |

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Seven Days on the Other Side

Elita Karim

Faisal Mosque in Islamabad.

On May 22, 2007, a seven-member team of journalists from Bangladesh was invited to a week long tour of Pakistan; a country not on the top of anybody's list for a visit with all the violence and unrest. The delegation comprised of Doulot Akter of The Financial Express, Alpha Arzu of The New Age, Golam Mustofa Sarwar of Ittefaq, Ataul Gani Osmani of The Independent, Salim Zahid of Jugantor, Shariq Rahman of The Probe and myself.

The scorching heat hit us as soon as we stepped out of Karachi International Airport. Trying with all my might to keep my eyes open and smile at Mr. Salman, the protocol officer who would be accompanying us everywhere in Karachi, I came face to face with McDonalds! It's been more than five years since I had been inside McDonalds, I thought to myself. All around me, burly men dressed in shalwar kurtas were walking by, while burkha-clad women were entering McDonalds keeping a strong hold on toddlers and shopping bags with both hands.

Main Street, at the Taxila City Ruins.

We drove over one fly-over after another, while on our way to the guesthouse, for which Warid Telecom in Pakistan sponsored the accommodations. Karachi seemed to be an extension of the Middle East, as one elderly journalist had put at the Karachi Press Club that we visited later on. Standing on the borders of desert areas like Baluchistan, a normal summer day in Karachi would be around 37-40 degrees Celsius with hardly any rain in the city. “Karachi would get clogged with water if it ever did rain!” exclaimed Rizwan, one of the Warid officials from Lahore who we met at the guesthouse.

Something that fascinated me on the streets was the local bus in Karachi. Other than the series of buses that carried company logos, advertisements of soft drinks, telecom companies and detergent powders, the local buses of Karachi were a sight to cherish for any foreign visitor. Decorated with colourful paper-cut outs, glittery cloth pieces and flashing aluminium lights, these traditional red buses were as glittery as Christmas decorations. Further down the streets, we even found toy replicas of these traditional buses for foreign visitors to buy as souvenirs.

We visited the Karachi Press Club the next day. Located at the centre of the city, the ancient architecture of the structure took our breath away. This 117-year-old structure had big windows, broad staircases and high ceilings amongst many other homely features. Beside the club, visitors could loiter around in the lawn and enjoy cups of coffee. The 'homeliness' that I felt within the club did not stop there. The members of the club took us under their wings and gave us a warm welcome. In between all the discussions regarding politics, trade and social issues in both the countries, these elderly journalists reminisced about the years before 1971, when journalists from both the countries worked together. How do they view the war between the two lands in 1971, we ask them. For a moment, there was meaningful silence in the room. Many of these older journalists had been there and probably even saw many of their fellow Bangladeshi colleagues suffer and even sacrifice their lives during the Liberation War. Many of the journalists wanted to say so many things, but all they ended up with was, “What happened back then was very tragic.” Moving on to the present political conditions of the two countries, the same journalist commented on the recent events that had taken place in Karachi. “The people of South Asia end up showing the streak of cannibalism that they possess within. During riots here in Karachi, we saw people lynching young people as old as fourteen and dancing on dead bodies.” Despite the numerous differences that I can count on my fingers between Pakistan and Bangladesh, some things stay the same.

A scene from Food Street in Lahore.

The highlight of the Karachi visit was the visit to Clifton beach. Sitting amongst families, school children, camels and horses alike, we came across a young photographer who was walking about from one place to another, asking visitors if anyone would like to take a picture besides the splashing waves or the decorated camels. I kept looking at these camels and horses and wondered at the visitors who were paying Rs 40 to Rs 200 just for a ride. Though I have never been a big animal-person, I have always imagined myself riding a white stallion on the beach, with my hair flying against the wind and music playing in the background. Here was my chance to live my dream. Unfortunately, the horses were too dirty, wobbly and expensive. I had to settle for a camel ride. Alpha Arzu from the New Age and I bargained with a camel keeper, as was the custom, agreed on an amount and finally got ready to ride our camel across the desert (rather the seashore). A word of advice to all those who are always looking for adventure out there, go for a horse ride rather than a camel ride, and even if you do go for a camel, never choose the back seat. While on the camel, my screams of fear and pain were mistaken for screams of joy and excitement. The camel keeper got encouraged and had the camel run faster. That night, I had to walk off the muscle strains before I could sit properly again.

Islamabad seemed to be a different country all together, as compared to Karachi. Comparatively a new city, Islamabad was still under construction as we saw when the delegation landed at around 10:30 pm that night. Divided into sectors categorised under alphabets and numerals, the best thing about the city was its cool weather. Roads and buildings were covered with trees and flowers such as the different hues of bougainvillea.

Islamabad seemed to encompass both modernisation in terms of infrastructural development as well as tradition still holding the remains of ancient civilisations. We were taken to the Taxila museum, situated a little away from the city, and one of the old city ruins as well. History had never seemed so exciting ever before. We gaped in wonder at the statue of the Fasting Buddha from the Gandhara Civilisations, the little glass ornaments, cooking utensils, water purifiers, the architecture.. At an actual Taxila site where the city ruins were kept intact, we saw that this ancient city was planned according to sectors, with residential areas behind the commercial buildings. “The city plans of Islamabad are based on the ancient designs of Taxila,” explained one of the guides at the site.

Visits to Faisal Mosque and Damn-e-Koh confirmed my theory that Islamabad was probably one of the most peaceful cities in the country. The mosque, attached to one of the biggest universities, the Islamic University, was literally covered with marbles and gold. The insides of the mosque had bookshelves lined up where people after prayers could refer to Islamic texts and translations of the Holy Quran. Moreover, the area practically reflected an aura of inner peace and beauty.

Wagha Border in Lahore.

Damn-e-Koh is located high up in the mountains, developed further to make it into a colourful spot for tourists. Starting from roadside musicians to monkeys dancing on the footpaths, this place attract a number of visitors and tourists especially during the spring season.

At the FPCCI and at a meeting with the State Minister for Information, we were told constantly about how Pakistan wanted to have stronger trade relations with Bangladesh. The vice president of FPCCI, Mohammad Farooq Dadabhoy, asserted on the fact that, like all the other countries, Bangladesh should organise single country trade fairs in Pakistan. “We are always interested in exporting goods from Bangladesh,” he says. “Somehow, Bangladeshi traders simply emphasise on import of raw materials from Pakistan, for instance cotton.”

We went to Lahore by road, our very last stop. As our coaster drove on the famous motorway, built on the mountains connecting Islamabad and Lahore, the members of the delegation got to know each other better. By then, we had all become used to the Pakistani food, the ways of the society and also the language. In fact, our fantastic grasp on Urdu led us to many victorious, though minor, conquests in Pakistan. For instance, Shagor Sarwar from Ittefaq was looking for paan after a hearty dinner at the famous Food Street in Lahore. After hours of searching for this deshi delicacy, he finally found a roadside stall selling a variety of paan. Smiling like a happy child with all the ice cream in the world to eat, he was seen explaining to the paanwallah, the paan eating habits in Bangladesh. The shopkeeper's look of confusion increased when Shagor said in the strange mix of Bangla and Urdu that he was using to communicate with the natives, “Hum bhi majhe majhe paan khata.” (I tend to eat paan sometimes as well).

The State Guesthouse where we were put up in Lahore was more than 250 years old. It was right out of a horror movie, complete with hundreds of rooms with gloomy pictures, king-sized closets and fireplaces. I was certain that dead people often visited the large halls, the breathtaking lawns and the beautifully furnished bedrooms while we slept or were out for the day.

The historic tombs, palaces created by the Mughal emperors, the legendary Shish Mahal, music blaring out from a nearby tea stall, the chaos and commotion created by traffic jams and large numbers of people walking from one place to another in the city took us all back home to 'good old' Dhaka City.

Food Street, a famous street in Lahore where families dine out, became immensely popular with the delegation. Not only did we get to eat cheap, we also got to witness the real Lahorites, as they call themselves, in action. Food Street, a long stretch of street filled with shops and stores on both sides of the streets, catered to people from all walks of society. The street would open up at around 5 pm and go on till well after midnight to the wee hours of morning. Though most of the food on Food Street is traditional Pakistani, two of the most famous eateries were the only ones selling fish, something that Lahorites tend to eat mostly during the winter season.

The trip to Pakistan would have been incomplete, if we had not visited the Wagha Border. Thousands of Indians and Pakistanis had thronged each side of the border, singing patriotic numbers, entertaining the audiences with dances and instruments. Soldiers from both the countries showcased their strength, banging their feet on the ground, screaming out incomprehensible words and carrying out identical feats of strength and power amidst the cheering crowds. In the end, soldier representatives from both the countries hoisted their national flags, shook hands on no-man's-land and stepped back into their own territories. To my knowledge, this is probably the only form of bondage that I have ever seen in public between the two nations.

Something that I could not help noting was the contradictions in the way women were seen. There were many women reigning over various professions, for instance journalism, both electronic and print. In fact there were quite a few female camerapersons taking our footage during the meeting with the Governor. However, on the other hand, women were hardly seen on the streets of Pakistan. We were even told that women did not go to cyber cafes in Pakistan as it was not acceptable behaviour on the part of a woman. Thus many of us were stranded in the country with no connection with Bangladesh for a whole week, if one does not count the virus-infected computer at the guesthouse that is.

There were times when I thought that I saw a little bit of guilt in the eyes of the common people who we met and spoke to randomly on the streets, or even the journalists, once we would tell them that we had come from Bangladesh. The shadow of guilt would flicker in their eyes for a moment and then disappear as quickly as it would appear. “What the authority back then in Pakistan did was not right,” remarked one senior journalist from PTV mentioned to me in Islamabad. “But that authority does not exist anymore and the bond between the people of the two countries should be built once again.” It was obvious that he like many of his compatriots did not see the need for official apologies. I wondered at the hospitality that we received from the people of Pakistan, the love and the care that they gave us in the seven days that we were there and the friendships that we made with many in those few days. “The past still exists in Bangladesh, even though the authority does not, as you say, in Pakistan,” I said respectfully to the elderly journalist, also one of the pioneers of electronic media in Pakistan. “We still have survivors, innocent sufferers and rape victims from the war, living the horror that they did in 1971, even now. I don't know if merely creating a bond of friendship would have anyone forget the atrocities committed 36 years ago.”


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