Is there a Pakistan to go back to?

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Resting by the Kunhar River near Balakot, Kaghan

Published in The Express Tribune Blog, January 20th, 2011 

Last week, my husband and I finally booked our return tickets to Pakistan. It was a proud moment, a happy moment, not only because we had been saving to buy them for months, but because we had not been home in nearly two years.

Two years! It seemed like a lifetime. We had missed much: babies, engagements, weddings, new additions to the family and the passing of old, new restaurants and cafés, new TV channels, even the opening of Lahore’s first Go-Karting park. I could hardly contain my excitement.

Yet, my excitement was tainted by a very strange and disquieting thought – was there even a Pakistan to go back to?

My family and friends would be there, yes, and the house I grew up in, and my high school, and the neighborhood park, and the grocery store where my mother did the monthly shopping, and our favorite ice cream spot…

But what of the country? And I’m not talking about the poverty, and corruption, and crippling natural disasters – I’m talking about a place more sinister, much more frightening…

A place where two teenage boys can be beaten to death by a mob for a crime they didn’t commit, with passersby recording videos of the horrific scene on their cell phones…

A place where a woman can be sentenced to hang for something as equivocal as “blasphemy”…

A place where a governor can be assassinated because he defended the victim of an unjust law, and his killer hailed as a “hero” by religious extremists and educated lawyers alike…

This is not the Pakistan I know. This is not the Pakistan I grew up loving. This bigoted, bloodthirsty country is just as alien to me as it is to you.

The Pakistan I know was warm, bustling and infectious, like a big hug, a loud laugh – like chutney, bright and pungent, or sweet and tangy, like Anwar Ratol mangoes. It was generous. It was kind. It was the sort of place where a stranger would offer you his bed and himself sleep on the floor if you were a guest at his house; a place where every man, woman or child was assured a spot to rest and a plate of food at the local Sufi shrine. A place where leftovers were never tossed in the garbage, always given away, where tea flowed liked water and where a poor man could be a shoe-shiner one day, a balloon-seller the second, and a windshield-wiper the third, but there was always some work to do, some spontaneous job to be had, and so, he got by.

Our impromptu guide in Lahore's Old City

My Pakistan was a variegated puzzle – it was a middle-aged shopkeeper in shalwar kameez riding to work on his bicycle, a 10-year old boy selling roses at the curbside, a high-heeled woman with a transparent pink dupatta over her head tip-tapping to college, with a lanky, slick-haired, lovelorn teenager trailing behind her.

A Michael Jackson-lookalike doing pelvic thrusts at the traffic signals for five rupees, a drag queen chasing a group of truant schoolboys in khaki pants and white button-down shirts. Dimpled women with bangled arms and bulging handbags haggling with cloth vendors, jean-clad girls smoking sheesha at a sidewalk café, and serene old men in white prayer caps emerging from the neighborhood mosque, falling in step with the endless crowd as the minarets gleamed above with the last rays of the sun in the dusty orange Lahore sky.

Badshahi Mosque, Lahore

My parents were practicing Muslims, and religion was always an important part of my life. Like most Pakistani children, my sister and I learnt our obligatory Arabic prayers at the age of 7; I kept my first Ramadan fast when I was 10, bolting out of bed before dawn for a sublime sehri of parathas, spicy omelettes, and jalebi soaked in milk.  By the time I was 13, I had read the Holy Qur’an twice over in Arabic, with Marmduke Pickthall’s beautifully gilded English translation.

Freshly fried, sticky hot delicious jalebi

But beyond that – beyond and before the ritual, or maddhab, as they say in Sufism, came the deen, the heart, the spirit of religion, which my parents instilled in us almost vehemently, and which to me was the true message of Islam – compassion, honesty, dignity and respect for our fellow human beings, and for every living creature on the planet.

So, while we as Pakistanis had our differences, and practiced our faith with varying tenor – some were more “conservative” than others, some more “liberal”, some women did hijab while others didn’t, some never touched alcohol while others were “social drinkers” – we were all Muslim, and nobody had the right or authority to judge the other, no red-bearded cleric or ranting mullah. There were no Taliban or mullahs back then; if they existed, we never saw them. Not on TV, not in the newspapers, not on the streets, in posters or banners or fearsome processions.

It wasn’t a perfect society – far from it. Inequality and abuses were rampant, and daily life for a poor person could be unbearable. But they were the kind of problems that every young, developing, post-colonial nation faced,  and the worst thing that could happen to you when you stepped out of the house was a petty mugging or a road accident, not a suicide blast.  It was chaotic, but it was sane.

Then 9/11 happened, and society as my generation knew it began to unravel.

It started as a reaction to the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the “clandestine” war in Pakistan – a reaction shared by Pakistanis across the social spectrum.  But somewhere along the way, the anger and grief mutated into a suicidal monster of hatred, robed in religion and rooted in General Zia’s pseudo-Islamic dictatorship of the 1980’s and the U.S.-funded Afghan jihad. Pakistan was engulfed by a frenzy, an unspeakable frustration, not only at the neighboring war that had expanded into its heartland, but at everything that was wrong with the country itself. And, like the hysteria that fueled the Crusades or the 17th-cenutry Salem witch-hunt, religion was the most convenient metaphor.

I don’t claim to understand it all, or be able to explain it.  But what I do know is that, alongside the two purported targets of the “War on Terror”, there is no greater victim of 9/11 than America’s indispensable, ever-“loyal” ally and doormat, Pakistan itself. 

Maybe I’m romanticizing a little. Maybe I’m being over-nostalgic about the past, and the Pakistan of my childhood. But that’s the only way I can retain some affection for my country, the only way I can sustain the desire to go back and live there – if I know and remember in my heart, that it has been better. That it was not always like this.  That it was once rich, multifaceted, beautiful, tolerant, sane – and can be again.


25 thoughts on “Is there a Pakistan to go back to?

    Saeed shaikh said:
    April 12, 2016 at 9:32 pm

    I live in USA for 30 yerrs what I need to back Pakistan and live back permanently I have my Pakistani passport and Id. What else I need to live as a Pakistani please help me I am ready to go

    Close Encounters said:
    September 13, 2013 at 10:31 am

    Just came across your piece. Evokes similar feelings although I lived there much earlier-the heydays of Pakistan in the early sixties. Tragedy.

    travelerreport said:
    October 30, 2012 at 5:28 am

    Pakistan is a nice country with sometimes an ugly face. Lack of tolerance despite of the messages of the sufis, radicalization of Islam due to the disappointment towards the western democracies, the never ending poverty, indian policies that encourage the hate between the two countries, the inability of the Pakistani to find proper solutions to their own problems ( corruption,..)

    aqsa said:
    July 18, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    And here is another story of a better Pakistan. Sometimes I envy you guys so much. Wish I have such memories when i grow up :(

    businessbrainsindia said:
    October 5, 2011 at 11:49 am

    Hats Off !

    alya said:
    February 1, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    Very well written>
    I am first gen. born in the U.S.
    I moved to Pakistan for 8 years after I got married. I visited every year for 6 years and then stopped.
    I have not been back for five years, it is almost too painful.
    Again very well written

    shayma said:
    January 30, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    absolutely beautiful, Manal. i am older than you, so i can tell you that the Pakistan of my childhood (earlier than yours :) was not like it is for the children growing up there now: evacuations bec of bomb threats, no visits to Liberty Market at night for a soft cone- maybe there will be a bomb there…no long visits to dupatta gali- everyone has to hurry up and leave, lest there be some mayhem… none of that was there when i was growing up. i love your lyrical pieces- it’s beautiful. x shayma

    Urvashi said:
    January 29, 2011 at 11:19 pm

    I have to agree with the above comment :)

    Amna K said:
    January 29, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    Every time, and I mean EVERY time I read your posts, I cannot help admiring endlessly the way you write. You are simply a brilliant writer.

    hunaid baliwala said:
    January 26, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    hello Manal,
    My name is Hunaid Baliwala and I am the general manager for Bridges TV. We recently started a blog section in hope of creating a forum that can help foster better understanding of the Middle Eastern South Asian (MESA) region.

    Your pieces are interesting and we would like to see if we can put your content on our site as well. To find out more about our blog please visit If you have any questions I can be reached at

    I hope to hear positively from you soon.


    Sadaf said:
    January 25, 2011 at 9:59 am

    What a fascinating post. It was so well written and thoughtful. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    DR.S.G.NAZRE ATHER said:
    January 25, 2011 at 12:52 am

    a pakistani by birth
    missed the main stream left for a better future lost the roots
    today i am an ALIEN in my own KARACHI because nothing is same
    i dont know what happened its me or my KARACHI
    but something is very wrong

    zainab said:
    January 25, 2011 at 12:40 am

    I would like to know your comments after you come back from your trip. Living outside Pakistan and listening to Geo news and other channels which only talk about the negatives going on in Pakistan, one develops a fear of one’s own country. There are many things which are getting worse, but its really not as bad as it seems either.
    For example, did you hear about this,
    and what about the response to the flood victims by our countrymen and women? People from all walks of life come forward with all their help anytime there is any disaster in the country. Is that not warmth?
    As you said, our society has always been far from perfect. People have short memories. I grew up in pakistan and do remember all the murders of innocent people by the hathora group etc, the violence in karachi during the 80s and 90s, the killing of a noble man like governor hakeem saeed and day light murder of sitting prime minister’s brother with never any culprits getting caught. One of the most frightening memories of my childhood is watching a man forcefully throw his 4 or 5 year old daughter repeatedly to the ground because she had picked up something from a shop. As always, a big crowd has gathered in the bazar who only wanted to look and do nothing. (My mother took the courage and rescued the poor girl ). I can totally imagine this scene on news channels again and again if it had happened at the time of cell phone cameras and if there was no rescue.
    We have always been a violent society. The thing which has changed dramatically is the projection of all violence on news channels and the endless commentary on it.
    And yes, this ‘drama’ of friendship with india and how our cultures are the same!

    mrtoenail said:
    January 24, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    I wuv Pakistan.

    suraiya kasim said:
    January 24, 2011 at 10:34 am

    Completely agree with Mahum, We love our country but sometimes don’t like it very much!

    mahum said:
    January 23, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    manal, this is a beautifully written article that cuts close to heart even for the generation that started off without the terrorism and now has to go to school/ college every day, even when there is a bomb-blast at the other end of the city. as a student in the states, i find it hard to explain to strangers sometimes that despite all, i still love my country; though most days i don’t like it very much. but like & love are worlds apart, the later being deeply ingrained in an unreachable place. i have seen the past of the pakistan you talk about and am familiar with all the sights you potray, and it still exists like little scuttling beetles under a large ugly rock. just wish the country wasn’t being over-run by man-made and natural curses and disasters. war spills over since the boundaries that are on paper don’t necessarily exist on the land. from the micro (self) level to the macro (governance) level, there need to be major reevaluations to see what works and what doesn’t; then improving (note i’m not saying “changing”, since “change” is never possible) the things keeping us back. so i urge all who read this article & comment to look deeper into the dictum that runs your lives and think if it isn’t the attitudes of individual majorities that are reflected on our country’s image. also, we are severely lacking a spirit of nationalism which seems to prevail in the countries on the world’s forefront. if there is more than one person in the room there will be utterly contradictory opinions on what pakistan is. there is no longer a common thread to bind us; the religion aspect, now, working not to bring us closer but to tear us apart. being a muslim = being a pakistani & vice versa, but who is to say what either is? so pose well-formed questions and try to come up with sane, practical answers. work on lifting the suffocating rock off our existence.

      mahum said:
      January 23, 2011 at 3:40 pm

      ps. very well-composed photographs!

    Hope for Pakistan | Living in interesting times said:
    January 22, 2011 at 9:11 am

    […] other article I read was by Manal Khan. It was a lament for the Pakistan, and specifically, the Lahore, that […]

    Ahmed Omar said:
    January 22, 2011 at 8:11 am

    Well written and honest post Manal!

    Sadness said:
    January 21, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    Well-written but sadly you have no right to complain. Its easy to criticize from sitting abroad and talk negatively about Pakistan. But if you were so concerned, you would be back home trying to do something to make a change.

    nr said:
    January 21, 2011 at 11:53 am

    beautifully written

    Ather said:
    January 21, 2011 at 8:45 am

    Very well said. I also remember the Pakistan you have described, and fervently hope that I get to see it again in my lifetime.

    Ugly Shoelace said:
    January 20, 2011 at 8:05 am

    Though a lot seems to have changed and when one thinks about it, it feels like all the beautiful things have vanished and might never appear again but there is still hope.

    I hope you enjoy your trip back home :).

    Zuhaib said:
    January 18, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    Manal, u r so true in highlighting every single issue we r dealing here but sad part is that major chunk of our so called literate citizens appreciates the death penalty of Aasia bibi, considers heroic act of Mumtaz qadri.
    Once again beautifully crafted article. Hats off….your write ups are so close to my life

    fuss said:
    January 17, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    McCarthyism never seems to get old for American policy makers, despite every charter of rights and freedom.
    Much like blasphemy never seems to get old for our bearded brigands, despite the Justice Munir Report of 1954.
    Still, there’s no place like home.

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