Pakistani portraits

Published on openDemocracy, by KHALDOON AHMED, August 19, 2013.

Pakistan is a country standing at the crossroads. From Karachi to Peshawar, a series of snapshots provides a glimpse into the dangerous inequalities and snatches of hope that fill Pakistani life. I was born in London, but used to visit Pakistan with my family during the summer holidays. In March 2013, I travelled from Karachi in the South, to Peshawar in the North. I took a notebook and a camera, and saw a Pakistan I had not seen before. Here are ten people I met.  

Mohammed Abbas: … //

… Magdalena Masih:

  • Magdalena works as a cleaner in the flat of my friend Faizan, a British Pakistani journalist living in Islamabad. I talked to Magdalena as she ironed clothes. Her husband George, and son Adnan, had also come along to clean.
  • “I was born in Layyah, a village on the Indus river between Multan and Dera Ismail Khan. My father went there from Sialkot because he wanted to the work on the land. We are Christian. My father was uneducated, and I also didn’t go to school. The village was not good. The zamindars (landowners) used to beat us up, and force us to work without pay.
  • “I was married to my uncle’s son aged 23, and we moved to Rawalpindi. Now we have four children. Life in the city is 75 per cent better than the village. Here people don’t care if you come or go. Our neighbourhood has both Christians and Muslims living in it. We have had problems because of our religion, but I leave everything up to khuda (God). I prayed to God for children, and He gave me children. I prayed to God for a car, and He gave us a car.
  • “We leave home at 8 o’clock in the morning, and go to work in different houses in Islamabad. We get home at eight thirty at night, eat, and go to sleep. It’s tough. We work hard so that our children don’t have to do what we had to do. All my children are doing well in their studies. My son is doing icom (business studies) and my daughter likes drawing.”

Mustafa Kamal Mufti:

  • Mustafa is 21 years old. He is my cousin Saud’s friend who has just started work in a bank. I had gone with Saud to Karachi Station to get a rail ticket to travel to Bahawalpur. Mustafa had just finished work close by, and we went to eat biryani in Chundrigar Road.
  • “I came to Karachi from Islamabad aged 12. It was a bit of a shock. In Islamabad we had a big bungalow and a driver. Life was comfortable. My father was an engineer working in the oil industry. He wanted to move to Karachi because he grew up here. But I didn’t want to come. It was hard to adjust to the new life. In Karachi everyone just works and goes home.
  • “I was always good at studies. My father wanted me to study medicine or go into the civil service. But I decided to study business administration at the bachelors level. My two older sisters are studying business and accounting. My mother is an Islamic preacher. She has opened her own Islamic education centre as part of the Al-Huda (The Guidance) organization.
  • “The first job I did was last year as a copywriter in ecommerce. Then I got my current job in the bank. I also give tuition to students on the weekends. I’ve applied for a graduate training position at the State Bank of Pakistan, but competition is intense. There are 15,000 applicants for 30 jobs. It’s funny, but I got my idea of becoming a banker from American movies. I saw films like Wall Street. I guess I was seduced by the glamour and glitz of working in finance.”

Meister Waheed … //

… Mohammad Naim … //

… Amjad Ali Kalyar … //

… Mohammad Ayub:

  • The town of Kana is just a few miles outside Lahore on the road to Kasur. My mother’s family has a small piece of land here. I went there with my uncle, who has set up an industrial unit, and grows vegetables on a patch. The fields of wheat had an intense green colour. There I met an old man. We sat on a charpay (traditional string-bed) and drank tea.
  • “I come from a village 40 miles from Delhi. At partition in 1947, we walked in a kafila (convoy) to Pakistan. We spoke Mewati, which is a Rajasthani language. We left behind many people, and many were massacred on the way here. I saw wells full of corpses.
  • “In Pakistan the re-settlement department allotted us 8 acres of land. We were farmers in India, so that’s what we carried on doing here. My family grew wheat and chick peas, and we built a house.
  • “I decided to go into the milk business. I went to Karachi and had a shop in Korangi, selling milk and yoghurt. At that time 200 people from this village were in Karachi. In the 1980s the halaat (security situation) deteriorated, and I came back here.
  • “A Muslim has principles, and does not lie or cheat. In the old days if a girl was walking at night wearing jewellery, someone would escort her home. Now they loot them. I read the newspapers, and there is no sakoon (peace). Our leaders don’t follow Islam. General Zia’s rule was good, but our present government only gives us trouble. They are thieves.”

Rajab Ali Sayed … //

… Akram Varraich … //

… Dr Nazo Jogezai:

  • As a psychiatrist practising in London, I was curious to know about mental health in Pakistan. I visited the Institute of Psychiatry in Rawalpindi, and there met Dr Nazo Jogezai.
  • “I see a lot of people with social problems that turn into psychiatric symptoms. Often we see young men and women who suddenly stop talking, or lose the use of their limbs. It’s usually a result of stress, and this is hysteria or conversion disorder. It is the result of having no way out, and the body produces these symptoms as a last resort. These people often go to ‘spiritual healers’ first, and only come to psychiatrists when they have tried everything else.
  • “At the moment I am working on an internationally funded project with heroin addicts. We prescribe them buprenoephine, which reduces their craving for opiates. The addicts are a very marginalised and destitute group of people. They suffer a lot of stigma, and are abandoned by their families. It is really very sad. They are often injecting poisonous contaminated heroin. Two of my patients died in the cold. Addiction is a big problem in Pakistan, and started with the Afghan war.
  • “There are so many problems in this country. Where do you even start? The system produces so much inequality. Someone educated in English schools has nothing in common with the person educated in a madrassa. They are aliens to us, and we are aliens to them. There is so much insecurity: bomb threats, mobs, protests. With every bomb blast you get shaken up, and scarred. But still you go to work. You become a stoic.”

(full long text).

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