The smog, the army and the selfie (Pakistan #1)

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The plane descended into darkness, a strange concept in today’s world of glittering cities and expendable energy. Little by little, however, as we inched closer to the ground, the faint shine of street lamps and cars made its way to my drowsy eyes. The air had a familiar heaviness to it, like in most of the developing world, where smog is king in the skies. Few of my days were graced by direct sunlight, whether because of this or the mist that plagues these lands in the colder season.

Three things are a constant in Lahore, from my gathering. They permeate everything, leave nothing untouched or unscathed; first is the smog, the typical mark of a developing nation, alongside the joys of electricity and gas shortages. There is a certain beauty in it, as we realize just how easy our modern lives actually are, hot showers on demand, constant access to “basic” activities such as charging our phones.  The lights flicker back on, with them the soft buzz of the generator.

The traditional Lahori breakfast, nihari, sheermal and khamiri roti , together with some delicious meethi Lassi (which apparently has something in it that makes people become sleepy), was a good started for the day, even though I have been promised that day to day breakfast is generally just butter on toast and some boiled eggs. In many aspects, as much as some locals would hate it, Lahore reminded me much of India (which isn’t such a big surprise as India and Pakistan were one country until they partitioned in 1947).

What was different was, oddly enough (by virtue of not seeing this in India), the second constant: the army. From the constant presence of armed men, to areas such as “The Cantonement” where, in a small corner of my visa, I am expressly prohibited as a foreigner from entering. The army is equally divisive in terms of popular opinion – ranging from saviours to a force that stands in the way of progress. Their presence is in part understandable considering that the border areas the country shares with Afghanistan is plagued by the Taliban; yet never had I felt unsafe during my stay. Whether it was because of the army, or whether it was because I was with my friends, there was never any feel of unease.

Badshahi Mosque and Lahore Fort

It was perhaps suiting that our first visit would be to a mosque, considering the spirituality of the country and the influence that Islam has over it. Alcohol is illegal in practice (even though it can be found in some hotels); then you find out that Trump’s idea of creating special cards for Muslims isn’t all that new considering in Pakistan your passport has your religion written. Should you be Muslim, it is illegal for you to distribute, possess or consume alcohol. If we learned anything from the Prohibition however, it’s that you can’t really stop people from consuming alcohol, and this is how the concept of “booze dealers” emerges.

As we took off our shoes, and stepped upon the cold, brittle ground, all you could see is people taking selfies and walking around in pairs or groups, chit-chatting about the most mundane problems. There was no zealous priest nor jihadi waiting to decapitate me for daring to be a non-muslim (I say this because I am quite certain that would be the view some people have on Pakistan). There were again similarities to be drawn between India’s Agra (the Taj Majal) and the Badshahi Mosque – the marble surrounded by the redness of the bricks, and the same sad kind of neglect that these buildings were suffering. Stunning pieces of architectural wonder that were just rotting away.

 

What you then soon realize is that the third constant is the seemingly endless joy of life that Pakistani’s have – whether this is translated in their love of food, of haggling to get a free desserts, of taking selfies, of crazy dances at weddings. There is a celebration of life even among the harsher conditions, the smog, the army, at times perhaps even despite them.

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