By Edward Esposito, RTDNF Secretary-Treasurer
Ed Esposito is part of a delegation of Americans supported by the International Center For Journalists, and filed this story from Karachi. To follow Ed's journey, visit his station's website.
As we near the conclusion of our visit to Pakistan, it's obvious democracy is a wonderful thing. It's also incredibly messy.
Our timing could not have been better to visit this nation that's lived on the front lines of the war on terror for decades. Pakistani's of all political stripes, even in public pronouncements from the military, are proud of their upcoming elections. It will be the first time in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan's relatively short history that a civilian government will transition to another citizen-elected civilian government when elections are held later in the year.
It is very difficult for one used to the American system of governing to comprehend; dozens of political parties, a handful with true electoral power, forced to work in coalition with each other to make government work. Our friends across the rest of the West's democracies understand the process far better than we do, but it is democracy controlled by public vote regardless and that's what we all have in common.
The rub comes in the nuances and dramatic nature of Pakistani politics. Parties are elected, not necessarily candidates. They are formed on the basis of religious, parochial and ethnic self-interest and openly operate as such. The people I've spoken with, both official and unofficial, paint a nation of incredible opportunity and potential. But it's also one mired in corruption, failed government, hyper-parochial interests, religious strife and above all the impact of nearly two generations of being on war footing.
Even in Lahore, a beautiful city that evokes images of Paris coupled with the legacy of the mighty Mughal Empire (at left: the Elephant Steps at Lahore Fort, where rulers used to ride to their palace rooms atop elephants) where the cultural heart of Pakistan beats strong, one cannot escape the constant reminder security always comes first. On the Friday we spent in Punjab, the faithful were joyously celebrating the birth of the Prophet with parades and processions. All without the ability to use a cell phone; the government claims it had intelligence that threats rose to the level to shut down service terrorists could use to coordinate attacks.
Of course, that leads to questions on how this cellular-obsessed society coordinates help and relief in the event of an attack. Such is the dichotomy of Pakistan. Even within the shadow of the walls of Lahore Fort, an edifice dating back to the reign of Mughal, Sikh and British rulers one sees armed private and public police armed and always watching, including snipers in watchtowers. Even leading into the beautiful and majestic Badshahi Mosque, where the faithful and visitors leave shoes behind as a measure of respect. Even walking past gates and high walls protecting schools and trade institutes one cannot do daily business without security. All those resources toward preventing tragedy; if only a fraction of those resources could go toward assuring delivery of basic services for even the poorest, those for whom survival is their overriding concern.
In Lahore, there were two experiences that seemed to sum up for me the unique character of Pakistan. After a visit with the dynamic leader of the Punjab Information Technology Board, we went to the 18th floor for the view from the highest building in the Province. At the top, we met the "Spider Men" who strap on a harness, screw in a bolt, tie it to a rope and then just drop off the roof to their daily job -- washing the office tower's windows. I asked them if they made enough money to warrant such a dangerous job; they all laughed.
The other experience came at the Wagah Border Crossing, a gate marking the border with India and separating the nearby cities of Lahore and Amritsar. Before these two nations split in 1947, families and businesses walked these roads without trouble. Now India requires a visa, and they aren't easy to get. Even without gates and walls, the border is a very real thing accentuated during times of tension over Kashmir, where both nations have claims and not to mention those who'd like to see it as an independent nation. In the weeks leading up to our visit, soldiers on both sides were murdered.
But at Wagah, members of the Pakistani Rangers have orchestrated what may be the most unusual way of keeping border peace in the world. It's been toned down a bit since former Monty Python member and British filmmaker Michael Palin called "choreographed contempt." The ceremony marking the lowering of both flags, fists clenched and shouts exchanged by both sides before a formal handshake, might just be the most entertaining way of defusing international tensions I've ever seen. And it all comes with cheering, flag-waving crowds.
As Lahore is cultural, Islamabad is coldly professional. Marble buildings line the wide streets of the Red Zone, where the President, Prime Minister, Parliament and Supreme Court hold sway over the bureaucracies of national government. It has been the most westernized until you go to the gleaming Faisal Masjid, the fourth-largest mosque in the world and largest in South Asia. Under it's roof it can easily hold 10,000 people; outside on it's marble plaza and on the property adjacent it can, and has, held 280,000 people taking part in prayer. It was started in 1976, finished ten years later and paid for by the government of Saudi Arabia in what would be about $120 million dollars today. It dominates the Margalla Hills and despite early criticism it did not honor traditional dome structures of other mosques, it's scale silenced the critics. It's four minarets flank the four highest corners of the complex.
This is a country with ancient and modern architecture side-by-side, and both share a similar dilemma; beautiful fountains standing dry, unused, lacking water and reliable power. Across the country it was not uncommon for visits to offices, restaurants and hotels to "blink out" for a moment or two as the overstrained power system is subject to daily load sharing. Conversation continues without missing a beat; those using computer displays have battery backups for projectors and TV screens. It's in the 70's and considered cold here; I cannot imagine the discomfort and deathly risk in areas of Pakistan when the power is out for hours at a time in places where the heat of summer kills.
American aid goes to expand hydroelectric power; those projects are much needed, but also not enough to keep pace with demand. It takes years to get these projects from the vision to the done stage. As one Pakistani political leader told a meeting of young people looking for answers on the economy said, Pakistan is a country that "…needs vision, political leadership and the ability to get it done." He said everything would be fine with those three criteria. People here certainly have vision, and there's no lack of political passion. The ability to get it done remains the big test.
Beyond the "official speak" one gets from American Embassy officials, Pakistani government, education and business officials and the "inside the bubble" chat at social events I found a conversation with a 27-year old mechanical engineering student one of the most enriching experience here. Muhammed doesn't believe Osama bin Laden was killed here; he wants the U.S.. military presence in Afghanistan and the specter of drone strikes on his sovereign nation stopped; he wants Pakistan to have breathing room to solve it's problems on it's own. He is passionate in these beliefs, isn't optimistic the politicians have the will to carry out even their own answers but he wants this country to stand on it's feet again. He challenged me in conversation but also accepted the challenge back from a stranger with religion, nationality and politics creating a wide gulf. But we both listened to each other, and respected the other's opinions. I found that to be a good sign.
His generation has never seen a country that doesn't have roadblocks, x-ray and metal detector stations, armed guard shacks outside walled enclaves and a life that doesn't have to treat security as life and death. As we travel through the cities of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad we were always accompanied by a guard who was literally "riding shotgun", as seen in the photo at left.
My young friend's generation can only listen to parents and grandparents who talk of glory days when Pakistan embraced growth and development as a western economy while remaining true to it's roots as an Islamic Republic. He hears others when they speak with pride on growing as a democracy while lamenting the stability when the Army was in charge. He accepts corruption as a part of life, but doesn't like it.
Regardless, he still believes in his homeland.
My takeaway: it can be a violent country where Taliban, political thuggery and criminals vie for most outrageous acts of violence against opponents and innocents alike. Even today headlines scream of a cleric and his guard murdered on the streets of Karachi, one of at least nine targeted killings. Expressing opinion can have deadly consequences. That's why those who choose to talk about the future in terms of reality show real courage. There's so much rumor and word-of-mouth accepted as fact. The vigorous free media have been at it for only ten years, but already they show great promise but as with the rest of democracy it is a messy process. Critics openly note how television talk shows routinely denigrate into name-calling and shouting matches; there's a need for respectful and serious public debate, but so long as cash-starved news channels live or die by their ratings alone to match huge start-up and operating costs the ratings will continue to determine the style of the debate playing out nightly on the tube. There are more news channels here than in the United States, a fact not lost on those working to build a vital, open and free Pakistan media.
This is a nation hungry for political leadership but still not quite sure on how to exercise their power to reward vision and initiative and punish impotence. But above all, it's full of people like those at the Edhi Foundation.
Founded by Abdul Sattar Edhi and still run by Edhi and his remarkable wife Bilquis, seen in the photo at left, the Foundation manages the largest ambulance system in the world. They make sure poor people can still have emergency medical access; they make sure the bodies of the unwanted still have proper burials as human beings and not just untouchables; they provide food, shelter and education to girls and boys with nowhere else to go.
He says he's just doing God's will, turning the other cheek to critics and even those who would harm him.
There is a story of his grandson's death, poisoned by a woman at one of his shelters because she had been admonished to clean herself. He didn't press charges with police, or return the favor as so many seem to do in a family blood feud. He mourned the death of a little boy but said it would only do the woman worse to put her in jail. She was re-located to another shelter, as were others involved in this most horrible of crimes.
That power of forgiveness and charity that transcends borders, religious belief and political standing. Looking at people as human beings first, not chattel determined by economics or social status. That's the Pakistan I'm bringing back with me when asked in America what it's like here. We have many differences of faith, politics, and world view. At the end of the day, we're still human beings who want to be respected and tolerated as we are asked to respect and tolerate others. Seeing Pakistan not as another place on the map makes a difference. There are 180 million reasons to care about a nation at the crossroads of democracy, one that will be a player in world affairs regardless of the direction it's people choose to take at the polls later this year. It is far better to view them as friends.
Esposito is part of a delegation of American journalists visting with colleagues in Pakistan as well as meeting with community, government and business groups in the country. Other journalists participating in the program include Karen Bordeleau, acting executive editor of The Providence Journal, Providence, RI; Allie Shah, reporter, The Star-Tribune, Minneapolis, MN; Mark Albert, reporter, KSTP-TV Minneapolis, MN; Farrah Fazal, reporter/anchor, KSDK-TV, St. Louis, MO; Alicia Dean, assistant news director, KXAN-TV Austin, TX; Michael Clapp, web editor, Oregon Public Broadcasting, Portland, OR. The program is administered by the International Center for Journalists with funding from the U.S. State Department.