Pakistan is an extremely complex country, said foreign correspondents on Sunday at a local gathering in southern port city of Karachi.
As foreign reporters, it is our job to not just report to a foreign audience but also inform perceptions on both sides, said a Western correspondent for a London-based paper, who has served in the volatile, nuclear-armed nation of 180 million for around seven years.
Besides several Westerners, the panel featured two guests from neighbouring, arch-rival India, with which Pakistan has fought three major wars in the past six decades.
Pakistan is a particularly complex country, but there is a particular tendency to simplify it in the foreign press, said the author of a recently-published book on the particularly ‘hard’ country.
Despite the Islamist insurgency, that has cost Pakistan over 35,000 lives in the past decade, some adventurous foreigners keep coming back for more.
What keeps us coming back is the hospitality, the beaming British author said. The hospitality helps build confidence – an official you meet today may be the brother or uncle of someone you had dinner with last night, he stated matter-of-factly.
The officials may be awfully frank, but then you cannot believe everything you hear at parties, especially as the evening wears on, the author said in a veiled reference to the Islamic Republic’s official ban on alcohol consumption.
Alcohol, however, is largely consumed by the well-heeled sections of Pakistani society.
All foreign correspondents end up meeting the same six intellectuals around this particular coffee-table in Lahore, he said. The audience laughed heartily.
We must resist the tendency to do that and step out, the author said.
The problem, however, lies at our home countries with publishers, and editors of world’s leading dailies, to whom we must sell these alternative stories, he added.
The global pre-occupation with Pakistan’s security situation is slightly exaggerated, said the veteran London-based paper’s correspondent who recently switched ships to a New York-based publication.
The country has been at the front-line of the global war on terror against Islamist jihadists since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon.
It is unfortunate that all foreign correspondents resort to the same stories to represent the soft side of Pakistan, said the veteran in a veiled reference to the Foreign Correspondents’ Burden. Key among those is a story on Murree Brewery, he added.
There is a shock and horror at finding out that not only a lot of alcohol is consumed in this predominantly Sunni-Muslim nation, but a whole lot is also produced here, he added in a bid to caricature the naivety of foreign audiences. The auditorium rang with a resounding applause at the tongue-in-cheek reference.
He also lamented the depiction of fashion shows in Karachi as a vehicle of expression against the Taliban. The southern port city is one of the most violent megacities in the world, with a population of over 18 million according to unofficial sources. It is only eclipsed by the dusty, north-western city of Peshawar which has borne the brunt of the war against Islamist jihadists.
The Indian author and journalist shared their happiness at the warmth and hospitality they received in Pakistan, and insisted that visa restrictions should be removed.
Our friends and family at home felt that Karachi’s streets are lined with sharp shooters and that we would be dodging the bullets on our way to this literature festival, said one, dismissing the common misperception amongst Indians.
Over a 1,000 people died in sectarian violence and drive-by shootings in Karachi last summer, according to a photo caption in a leading magazine’s cover story on Karachi titled ‘Pakistan’s dark heart.’
Published in The Express Tribune, February 13th, 2012.