“Islamabad isn’t the city that we grew up in,” say Islamabadis. Back in the eighties, nineties and noughties, life seemed simpler. There was just one restaurant (Papasalli’s), one hotel (the Marriott), one fast food joint (Mr Chips), and a grand total of two Chinese restaurants. Its streets were empty enough for young boys to behave like Nascar drivers and visitors regarded the city as a transit stop before Murree and Nathiagali, unless of course they were governmental employees, diplomats or United Nations workers.
In recent years, Islamabad has experienced a small-scale cultural revolution, despite the combined aftermath of 9/11, the Lal Masjid operation and hellish security issues. Nowadays one can relish an art exhibit at the gargantuan National Gallery or attend a showing at the Khaas cafe-gallery, or even listen to readings and performances at the nearby Kuch Khaas cultural space. Embassies add to the cultural fabric of the nation’s capital by hosting foreign language film screenings and musical recitals. Saidpur village is an architectural rendition of a quaint Pakistani village (sans cow dung), featuring cafes, a Hindu temple and a Nomad art gallery.
Kohsar market, described by a long-term resident as a personification of Islamabad itself, is a small square where a variety of imported food and other products are on retail and attracts a cosmopolitan crowd. The city’s main bookshop, Saeed Book Bank in Jinnah Supermarket, has a wonderfully organised array of titles, and various second-hand bookshops around town also provide literary gems. Nepali and Kashmiri shawls and Afghani jewellery are available at Maharaja and other shops at the Supermarket.
The Serena offers a tranquil view of the city at its outdoor Rakaposhi cafe, whereas heartier appetites may be appeased at Luciano’s Cafe at Brabus. In temperate weather, one may jog around the Margalla track complete with a stunning hilly backdrop, or hike up a hilly trail.
In terms of natural beauty, the city is at its best in the spring, when flowers bloom, and in the fall, when the leaves of trees actually turn a crisp orange. Daman-e-Koh offers scenic vistas and virtually twinkles at night. Man-made Rawal Lake, once a shimmering mass of water, has shrunk to pitiful dimensions and although one may still enjoy its view, the same cannot be said for its boating.
Emigres from bustling cities like Lahore and Karachi are often taken aback by the eerie quiet of the streets as early as 9 pm, but Islamabad residents seem genuinely content with small-town life. However its blissful, fishbowl existence comes with a hefty price tag, as real estate prices are exorbitant and household help is paid up to triple the salaries of domestic staff in Karachi.
Islamabad’s transitory community means that one may meet new faces at gatherings, which is rarely the case in Lahore. While there are always new arrivals, there are frequent departures too, so friendships are often brief. Observers note distinct characteristics that make the Islamabad society unique in Pakistan, “Social cliques are small but quite welcoming,” while another remarked, “It’s generally not snobbish and competitive like Karachi, nor ostentatious like Lahore.”
A resident stated, “You don’t come here expecting nightlife. People generally don’t entertain lavishly or try too hard to keep up with the ‘Javeds’” (desi speak for Joneses). Another attribute that makes Islamabadis different from the rest of Pakistan is their concept of time “People are actually quite punctual,” remarked one observer “but nowhere else in Pakistan is everything a three-minute drive away if you live in the city’s centre!” Interesting, insipid, idyllic – it’s Islamabad.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 28th, 2010.