Pakistan Diaries: Introduction

Badshai mosqueIt had been twenty-five years since I was last in Pakistan and fifteen years since I had spoken to my father.  In between then and now had been almost a lifetime of events.

My father had divorced, remarried, divorced again, and again remarried.  Surprisingly, I love both of my stepmothers (and my mother) very much, though that experience had been hard on all of us kids.  In late 2003 I reached out to him to reconcile our 15 year silence.  As we continued to talk, at the end of 2004 he offered to show Pakistan to Sarah and I.  I couldn’t imagine declining.

All kids of immigrants who aren’t close to their foreign families feel a hole where others trace their lineage.  I certainly felt like I was missing something.  Now my father was handing me a chance to fill that vacuum.  So in the second week of December, Sarah and I jetted off to Pakistan, my ancestral homeland (or one of them, at least) to seek adventure and answers.

Pakistan had been through a series of leaders and lately, a coup that seems to have produced a benevolent military dictator.  First the US condemned the coup, then we were thrilled to have an easy-to-deal-with ally in the region after 9/11 who didn’t have to answer to a legislature or a general popular vote.  However we were subsequently disappointed to find that his top nuclear scientist, AQ Khan, was undermining global security by selling nuclear weapons technology to the rest of the world in violation of Pakistani and International law.  I discovered Pakistan is like that, a lot of potential with mixed results in the delivery department.

The Pakistan I returned to resembled little of the Pakistan I had visited before, but the core elements remained:

  • Expectations for everything from customer service to literacy remain low.  When Americanized Pakistani’s justify it by saying, "Relax Shabbir, this is Pakistan," I want to scream at them about the ambition-crushing effect of low expectations.
  • There still remains, and the economy depends upon, an incredibly poor segment of the population who makes no more than $50 per month.  This cheap labor permeates everything.
  • Entire areas of the country and their native people remain ungovernable by the Pakistani and American military.  Rebuking the life’s work of Ghandi, these free tribal peoples prove that a good rifle and really difficult terrain can be another excellent path to independence.

When we began plans to visit Pakistan, many, many people discouraged us from going.  Most of the objections were of the safety variety.  Many of our friends and colleagues spoke of "the dangers in that part of the world" without ever looking at a map to see what they were speaking of.  Every time someone piped up to say, "Please don’t go", my opinion of them dropped a little bit.  None of this was based on any real knowledge about safety, just the perception that a country with lots of Muslims must not be safe for Americans.

The worst example was a conversation Sarah had with an unnamed person that went something like this:

She: I really don’t want you to go, you know it’s not safe there.

Sarah: Not safe?  We’re traveling with a doctor.

She: You shouldn’t go, the US embassy was just bombed there.

Sarah: Um, that was Saudi Arabia, not Pakistan.

She: Whatever.  You know we’re sending more of our troops there.

Sarah: No, that’s Afghanistan and Iraq.  Do you even know how to read a map?

While in Pakistan, we saw some amazing things, and were prevented from seeing a few things because of security concerns.  One day my father spent hours trying to hire a private security firm to take us to some 5,000 year old ruins, because of the risk of kidnappings on the road.  The previous week two Chinese tourists had been kidnapped going to the same ruins we wanted to see.  One was killed, and the other was being held for ransom.  Their guards were of no help.

Over and over again I listened to fruitless conversations that ended with my father say something that sounded like, "blah blah blah American couple blah blah blah.  Uh huh.  Ok thanks bye".

Right about the time I was thinking that maybe everyone was right about Pakistan the television started covering the tsunami damage.  Here I was in this "really dangerous part of the world" and I was fine, but thousands of people who were sitting on a beach vacationing in a virtually no-risk environment were drowned.  My moment of apprehension evaporated and I realized that if we had stayed home, I would have regretted skipping this trip for the rest of my life.

Table of contents

A note on the diaries
Although we were gone for about three weeks, reading my diaries from each day proved to be incredibly boring to me.  I’ve edited them down to entries on particular events, topics, or places that struck me as providing a particularly striking contrast.  They remain, however, in the rough chronological order I experienced them.

These diaries were written on my Dell C400 laptop (an awesome, though now discontinued machine) that I lugged around Pakistan with a small eletrical adapter for British style outlets.  The photos were taken with a Canon Digital Rebel DSLR camera and the standard 18-55mm lens.  I use a Qantaray circular polarizer for excessively sunny outdoor shots to reduce the glare, and a Qantaray 70-300mm telephoto lens when I can’t get close to my subject.

The photo album for this website was created with JAlbum 5.1, an amazing piece of software for publishing photo albums.  My website, of course, runs Movable Type 3.1.


  1. Mariam on April 22, 2005 at 6:46 am

    Hey, why all of your photo links are broken?

    [Thanks for the notice, I’ve fixed the photos. -Shabbir]

  2. saleem on September 1, 2005 at 12:45 pm

    nice journal. i think the links are still broken though.

    [Thanks, the links in the table of contents were off due to a Typepad change I made. -Shabbir]