Jemima Khan’s broken country

by Jemima Khan, The Sunday Times June 6, 2009

Jemima Khan

In Pakistan, refugee children live with the trauma of having witnessed beheadings, yet she still finds much to beguile her

The day I’m leaving for Pakistan a round-robin e-mail pings into my inbox from an address I don’t recognise, Wise Pakistan. The message reads: “It is important you watch this to see what’s coming.”

Ten men are lined up and each one is filmed talking inaudibly to camera. The first man is pinned to the ground by four others. His throat is slit like a goat at Eid and his head held aloft by his hair. The Urdu subtitle reads: “This is what happens to spies.” It’s a Taliban home video — to jaunty music — of serial beheadings. There are plenty of these doing the rounds nowadays.

I’m off to Pakistan for the children’s half-term. They visit their father there every holiday. I lived in Pakistan throughout my twenties. Now it’s a different place — the most dangerous country on Earth, some say — and my friends and family are worried.

For my last four years in Pakistan we lived at the quaintly named House 10, Street 1, E7. Two months ago a bomb exploded 100 yards from the house, killing four people; about 1,500 have been killed this year in terrorist attacks.

It’s hardly a tourist destination these days so I’m surprised to find that the flights are all full. I am an aerophobe; my real fear is getting there. The only direct flight is on PIA, otherwise known as Please Inform Allah. British Airways stopped flying there after the Marriott bomb attack in Islamabad last September.

As I’m packing, my London neighbour, the comedian Patrick Kielty, drops off a parcel containing The Complete Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook with a note pointing out the pages on how to escape when tied up, how to take a bullet and how to survive if you wake up next to someone whose name you don’t remember.

I arrive in Islamabad at 3am on a Sunday. With everything that’s going on in Pakistan these days — violent civil war in the northwest, 2.5m internally displaced people, a separatist uprising in Baluchistan, a hostile neighbour, corruption, recession, inflation, unemployment — I’m surprised anyone has the energy for swine flu paranoia, particularly as Pakistan is strictly a pork-free zone.

Yet before disembarking we are obliged to fill out two forms. Recent proximity to pigs and/or Mexicans will result in an obligatory spell in quarantine. It must be the name of the virus that’s causing alarm. Pakistanis dislike pigs. Until quite recently my children thought the word for pig was “gunda-pig” (dirty pig). The wild boar in Lahore zoo is squished into a cage so minute it can’t scratch its own back and people throw stones at it.

I’m staying with Imran, my ex-husband, and our children in the house I helped to design but which we never lived in together. It’s on top of a hill outside Islamabad. The courtyard fountain is a reminder of the insanity of political life in Pakistan, even on the periphery. It’s covered in the exquisite blue and white Multani tiles that almost landed me in jail in 1999. I bought them as a present for my mother but, before they reached the port to be shipped to England, they were impounded and I was charged with smuggling antiques (they weren’t, according to Bonhams and other experts here), a non-bailable offence.

I was pregnant and scarpered to England until there was a military coup six months later by the then friendly dictator, General Musharraf. The case was dropped, the tiles were released and I returned to Pakistan with an extra child in tow.

Had I been an aspiring politician, I’d have stayed put in Pakistan. A spell in jail is a prerequisite for anyone wanting to be taken seriously in politics. My ex-husband, who heads a political party, was jailed two years ago for treason and his popularity soared, according to Gallup polls. I should have considered this when campaigning vigorously for his release.

Islamabad was once considered an ideal family posting for foreign diplomats, green and clean and offering an easy life, if a little dull. Now, to get to my friend Asma’s house in an affluent area of the city, I have to go through four security checkpoints manned by armed police. We drink chai, feast on samosas and gupchup (gossip); but we mostly discuss the political situation and how dire it all is.

The next day I set off for the refugee camps close to the Swat valley, where the army is fighting the Taliban. Before I leave, Imran’s chowkidar (watchman) tells me that the newspapers in Pakistan are all funded by Yehudis (Jews). His Kalashnikov-toting commando — it’s the first time Imran has felt the need to have security — nods, adding that there are no Taliban. They are a fabrication by Jews and Hindus to destabilise Pakistan. He adjusts his belt of bullets.

Pakistan pulsates with conspiracy theories. One, which has made it into the local newspapers, is that the Taliban when caught and stripped were revealed to have been “intact, not Muslims”, a euphemism for uncircumcised. (Pakistanis are big on euphemisms.) Their beards were stuck on with glue. “Foreign elements” (India) are suspected.

Jalala camp between Mardan and Mingora is the first point of refuge for those escaping the military operation in Swat. It’s full to capacity: 80% of internally displaced persons are children. Thousands have been separated from their parents when fleeing their homes.

Two children are fighting over coloured crayons when I arrive. A girl with blistered burns on her face from the sun shouts at a small boy who turns out to be her brother: “If you don’t give them back to me I’ll tell the Taliban and they’ll cut your throat.”

According to the teacher in the camp, every child has witnessed public beheadings. Eight-year-old Amina explains quietly from behind her teacher how she saw her uncle’s stomach gouged out by the Taliban. Another girl’s mother was shot for not being in purdah. And another was shot at with her family when she was walking outside during the curfew. Seven-year-old Bisma, I’m told, has seen all the male members of her family hanged in what has become known as Bloody Square. She doesn’t speak.

The children are equally afraid of the army. There’s a joke going round: “What’s worse than being ruled by the Taliban? Being saved by the Pakistani army.” When the chief minister landed in a helicopter next to the camp a few days ago, I’m told, the children fled screaming in terror to their tents.

A group of small children are drawing pictures, part of an art therapy programme run by Unicef in its child-friendly spaces within the camps. Here traumatised children can play volleyball, sing songs and be read stories in shaded safety.

A boy called Salman hands me a precisely drawn and signed picture of a Kalashnikov. A shy eight-year-old girl sitting cross-legged next to him, with her grubby green dupatta half obscuring her smile, offers me hers of a helicopter shelling a village. “That’s my house,” she says, pointing to some scribbled rubble.

Their schools and homes have been destroyed. All have had relatives killed. An orphanage in Mingora was caught in the crossfire when soldiers based themselves on the roof of the building with 200 children trapped inside.

After an hour and a half in the camp we are asked to leave for security reasons. Apparently the Taliban have been infiltrating, trying to recruit supporters.

There’s certainly support for the Taliban in the camps. They represent, for many, an opposing force to an army that “drones” (it’s now a verb here) its own people. America’s war on terror, supported by the Pakistani army, is unanimously viewed here as a war on Islam. Newborn twins have been named Sufi Mohammad and Fazlullah after the two militant leaders in Swat.

The following day I drive to Lahore. We take the M2 motorway. (There is no M1.) It’s expensive to take this route and lorries are banned. As a result it must be the most underused motorway in the world.

As I approach Lahore I get a text from Imran: “Don’t panic. There’s been a big bomb blast just now.” The Pakistani Taliban claim responsibility for the deaths of 30 people. The next call is from my mother who has converted worry into crossness.

Compared with the tranquillity and solitude of Imran’s mountain-top idyll, Lahore is mayhem. The sky is a tangled mess of electrical wires, the buildings are half built or half falling down. There is no respite from the 42C heat or the incessant traffic noise, which worsens at night. My mobile phone stops working and I complain that it has melted, but everyone laughs at me. Lahoris are the most telephonically dependent people I’ve met.

It’s the first time I’ve been to Lahore since I left Pakistan six years ago; and it’s where I shared a house for the first five years of my marriage with Imran’s father, his two sisters, their husbands and their children, 16 of us in total.

Imran’s father died last year and I’m here to offer condolences, a cultural imperative. It involves visiting the bereaved, in this case my former sisters-in-law, and offering a formal prayer in Arabic, arms extended, palms open, for the deceased.

I’m nervous as I haven’t had any contact with them — bar my Facebook friendship with the children — since getting divorced, but everyone is exceptionally warm and welcoming. I cry when I hug Imran’s niece, who was 13 when I first arrived in Lahore but is now married with a baby.

I’m staying at the haveli (mansion) of Imran’s old schoolfriend, Yousaf Salahuddin, in Lahore’s old city. He is known mostly by reputation, although that’s not necessarily an exclusive club in this conservative city.

You need only to read Salman Rushdie’s Shame to understand how important honour (izzat) and reputation are — although I shouldn’t really write that. The last time I admitted to having read Rushdie (for my university dissertation on post-colonial literature), I had a thousand placard-waving beards outside my door and adverts in the papers, calling me an apostate and demanding that my citizenship be revoked.

Yousaf is Lahore’s best host, tirelessly generous and entertaining. His house is a dusty jewel hidden in a tiny alleyway in what was once Lahore’s red-light district, known as the Heera Mandi. It is now inhabited mostly by cobblers and paan sellers. The haveli is one of the few existing traditional houses built in red brick around a central courtyard. Cherie Blair, Mick Jagger and Elizabeth Hurley have all been guests here.

Once a politician in Benazir Bhutto’s government, Yousaf is now a music producer and fashion aficionado. He has girlfriends — plenty and young — he smokes, he serves alcohol in his home, he loves music and models and he parties with Lollywood’s glitterati. He also has a deep knowledge of Sufism and is a passionate supporter of restoration work in the old city.

Like everyone here he likes to opine: where Pakistan has gone wrong, where politicians have gone wrong, where the interpreters of Islam have gone wrong, where Imran has gone wrong and, by the end of our stay, where I’ve gone wrong. He also loves to eat, usually after midnight.

JP, a film-maker friend, is here to research a film about Pakistan. We head for tea with Iqbal Hussein, who paints dancing girls from the red-light district for a living. His mother was a prostitute.

As we arrive he is packing up his paints. His models, two gypsy sisters, one clutching a baby, are sitting quietly motionless on a mattress in a dark, windowless back room in his studio. Every half an hour in Pakistan there’s “load shedding”, when the electricity cuts out.

We sit in candlelight in the thick, still heat and the girls sing classical songs, using upturned metal cups as instruments. Chewing betel nut, they giggle and reveal red-stained teeth. We cheer and clap and chuck rupees in appreciation.

I’m starting to feel sick and dizzy from the heat. Everyone’s face is coated in sweat, strands of hair stick to the girls’ faces as they sing, but nobody else seems bothered. Finally they take pity on me and we retreat prematurely to the dark, fabric-swathed, air-conditioned inner sanctum of Yousaf’s haveli and stay there until nightfall when the old city begins to wake up.

Yousaf has invited a qawwali singer, Ustad Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, a huge star, to perform privately for us in his smoky underground music chamber.

Rahat’s family have been qawwali singers for 600 years, the skill passed down from generation to generation. He shows me a video on his mobile phone of his five-year-old son performing qawwali. He has been training the child since he was two. The little boy sits cross-legged on a chintzy sofa, raises his tiny palms to heaven imploringly, closes his eyes and starts to sing, smashing his hands back down on make-believe tublas and throwing his head back in mock ecstasy with all the passion and panache of his ancestors.

We’re joined by Iman Ali — or “monster” as Yousaf calls her — one of Pakistan’s most famous models/actresses. She’s dressed in tight jeans, a sleeveless top and kitten heels. I’m in what I’d always thought was the obligatory billowing white cotton.

She’s extremely opinionated even for this ready-steady-rant society, prefacing each pronouncement with, “Well what would I know? I’m just a dumb model but . . .” She’s very bold and at times perspicacious, especially about religion.

She tells us that Indians are all “cry babies” and Muslims would do better to be cry babies, too, and that way gain equal levels of sympathy abroad. I like her forthrightness. She says things others wouldn’t dare to say here, albeit euphemistically.

She questions how it is that she is the most successful celebrity in Pakistan and yet the poorest. Then she answers herself: “They must have other sources of income.” JP looks perplexed. “Illegit,” she enlightens. Pakistani actresses and models have traditionally emerged from the red-light area. They must have “friends”, she adds for good measure. Dosti (friendship) is a euphemism for client, while shadi (marriage) means sex with a client.

I return to the calm of the capital, scoop up my cricket-fatigued boys at 2.30am and head to Islamabad airport — now renamed Benazir Bhutto International by her widower, the president. We join the end of a 20-coil queue that snakes from the car park towards the distant terminal.

The airport was the first glimpse I had of Pakistan all those years ago. It’s the country I feel I grew up in and was a part of, arriving at 20 and emerging a decade later a more questioning and conflicted person. I am still maddened by its faults but I bristle and become defensive if others criticise.

As we’re jostled along towards the check-in area, I think about Pakistani society. It is an endless contradiction — hostile and hospitable, euphemistic and unambiguous, spiritual and prescriptive, aggressor and victim. Nothing sums up its topsy-turvy nature quite like the Heera Mandi in Lahore, one of the most conservative cities, where the prostitutes wear burqas and girls with honour dress like Wags.

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