Last night I was at a glittering fashion show, watching models in glamorous clothes walk down a runway while the city’s elite posed on the red carpet in their own show. The foreigners attending the show looked shell-shocked, as if they weren’t expecting to see such a spectacle in a developing country. They cheered and clapped and took photographs as each model emerged onto the ramp. I could only imagine the Facebook and Instagram posts the next day, telling their friends in their distant lands that Pakistan was wonderful, modern, daring, courageous.
One of them had told me, only the day before, to use my columns to write about the positive aspects of Pakistan, as if somehow I had failed to see the good in my own country, and only her magic eyes had uncovered this heretofore undiscovered secret. At that moment I remembered two visitors from England telling me breathlessly that Pakistan had such an amazing culture, and if only we knew how to appreciate what we had.
As I came home from the fashion show at night, I drove through a quiet neighborhood where Parsis, Christians and Hindus make their homes, and I saw a dozen neighborhood boys setting off crackers in the darkened street in celebration of Diwali. Six or ten little bursts of light, boys jumping away just in time, the girls gathered in a group a few feet away, watching them.
As soon as each little explosion went off, the children’s faces were captured in a frozen moment that made me yearn for my own childhood, and to wonder if their childhoods were as melancholy as mine had been. The childhood of electricity failures and candle-lit nights, and of darkness of another kind; of uncertainty, instability, and fear. They were called black days, those days. They leave black marks on your memory, too.
The bright lights of the runway and the flashbulbs of the red carpet, only a kilometer away at the five star hotel, already felt a thousand miles behind me.
I traveled across town the next morning and into the sleepy early morning traffic pushed in a government car, accompanied by a pickup truck of soldiers, clad in army fatigues and carrying Kalashnikovs. We passed by the Air Base and the Ordinance Depot, patrolled by more soldiers in watchtowers lined by sandbags and barbed wire. And my mind drifted to all the things I’ve seen in this country, as it says in the song by Moby:
Extreme ways that help me
They help me out late at night
Extreme places I had gone
That never seen any light
Dirty basements, dirty noise
Dirty places coming through
Extreme world alone
Did you ever like it then?
All the memories and images went through my mind, one after the other. The soldiers, the guns. The burnt-out cars on the streets after Benazir Bhutto was killed. The day Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged and the streets were emptier than an unfilled grave. The car parked on the side street with its windows shot out, glass like snowfall surrounding its wheels. Lines of ambulances going down the street to the site of a bomb blast. Bodies lined up on the streets, families refusing to bury them until they’d gotten justice.
And the other things. Afghan children in rags picking through garbage heaps, children begging at intersections, little girls and boys. Beggars with maimed limbs standing at your window, tapping on your soul with their amputated stumps. The buses crowded full of tired men and women, like slave galleons, transporting them to and from menial jobs that will never pay them enough to get rid of that debt or get that daughter married or send that child to a good school. The bodies of women shot by their own fathers, a piece of cloth thrown over their faces.
A man emerging from a sewer, covered head to toe in filth, because it’s his job to crawl through our dirt and find out where the blockages are.
I’ve seen so much in so many places
So many heartaches, so many faces
So many dirty things
You couldn’t even believe
Come to Pakistan, Jason Bourne. I’ll show you a thing or two. But don’t ever ask me to write about the positive side of Pakistan as if only your magic eyes can see it. Because my eyes are filled with tears that I spend too much time trying to punch away with my guilty fists.