Armed with shovels and garbage bags as they swept the streets of Lahore, these young Pakistanis braved the June heat — more than 38 degrees in the shade — as they sought to bring about tangible change
As far as Sundays go, it was as good as they get. It started with my morning paper — usually a distressing experience but today, in the weekend section, I saw pictures of people at two different events wearing the green ribbons that I had designed as an expression of supporting our troops and our nation. (I must mention that there is a man in Faisalabad whom I have never met who refuses to charge me for producing them).
These are people who generally appear in the trendy Who’s Who sections of magazines, socialising at the most upscale venues. And yet this Sunday they looked different — for once — like they not just belonged to Pakistan but cared about Pakistan.
Amidst all the disturbing news about killings and displaced people, I saw, in another newspaper, the mention of Hum Pakistani, an umbrella organisation I am involved with, that brings together more than 20 NGOs to help the displaced victims of the war in Swat.
It is the first time so many groups have come together. The result? Rs 8 million worth of goods which have already been sent to Mardan and other affected areas and distributed by our sister organisations; and another four million which we have just raised and will be sending soon.
There was a report of entire villages near Swat in which ordinary citizens had taken up arms against the Taliban, aiding the army to help push them out. And there was a story of the Sunni Tehreek, in Lahore, protesting against the Taliban. This one struck home because just the day before, I had seen this very group of maulvis yelling “Taliban murdabad!” on the Mall. Wow, I had thought. The times they are a-changin’.
Here in Lahore, Sunday lunch is generally a time when we eat too much and spend the rest of the day rubbing our bellies. But this Sunday, I decided to join my friends who have started the Critical Mass Movement. Part of a global green movement, Critical Mass of Lahore is a group of environmentally conscious cyclistas who want to stop our reliance on gas-guzzling, smoke-belching vehicles.
It was only as the 25 of us started to ride around Lahore on our bicycles that I realised there was more to this movement than the green angle; it was a way of connecting with your city and its people in a way that is simply not possible from a car.
It was a way of seeing people whom we often dismiss as being sub-human from behind our shatterproof windowpanes, a way of experiencing the sounds and smells of a city we love yet experience through a bubble. But most of all it was a way, for me at least, of getting over any fears of Lahore being unsafe.
Yes, people were curious and many of their reactions amusing — like the mullahs who decided to blast loud romantic Indian music from a khoka as we waited for the railway crossing to open — but not once did we feel threatened.
Starting from Zakir Tikka House, we rode our bikes through the Cantonment, over the Mian Mir bridge, down the Mall, past Zafar Ali Road, through Main Market, to Hali Road, through Liberty Market, to the 7-Up factory and across the railway crossing to the Cantonment again, where we stopped at Zakir Tikka House.
But it was in Main Market that we came across another socially conscious group, Zimmedar Shehri, sweeping garbage from in front of a store. As a puzzled New York Times reporter recently wrote, “It was a strange thing to do, particularly for such students from elite private schools, who would normally spend Sunday afternoons relaxing in air-conditioned homes”.
And yet, armed with shovels and garbage bags as they swept the streets of Lahore, these young Pakistanis braved the June heat — more than 38 degrees in the shade — as they sought to bring about tangible change. They say that they are saddened to see the country they love being home to one of the largest slum populations in the world. What they are trying to do is to nurture in people a community spirit that comes through working shoulder to shoulder with others, whether it is by clearing up year-old refuse from the marketplace or helping buy books for students.
They believe that instilling civic sense into the citizens of Pakistan is crucial and say that they strive to bring people together, teaching them to love their soil as dearly as they love their own home.
Yes, watching these well-dressed people sweep the streets of Lahore is a “strange” sight for many, including the New York Times reporter. But then there are many strange things happening in Pakistan these days. Twenty-five of us cycling through the streets of Lahore must have been an odd spectacle. I know the success of something as simple as the Green Ribbon Campaign, that symbolises our support for our troops and our nation, is a new one for many.
Watching a group of maulvis chanting anti-Taliban slogans on the Mall Road was a strange sight, for me at least. And, last week, seeing a teenaged girl in Liberty Market wearing a t-shirt that said, “No one’s leaving home. I love Pakistan” was not something I had seen before. In fact, this whole sense of pride and ownership that seems to be taking over the nation is quite novel.
Yes, strange things are happening in Pakistan these days. And it is about time.
Ayeda Naqvi is a journalist who lives and works in Lahore. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org