Islamabad: idyllic or insipid?

Published: June 28, 2010
A Pakistani model presents a creation during a fashion show in Islamabad . PHOTO: AFP

A Pakistani model presents a creation during a fashion show in Islamabad . PHOTO: AFP

A Pakistani model presents a creation during a fashion show in Islamabad . PHOTO: AFP Saidpur village is a relatively new addition to the list of places to go to in Islamabad. PHOTO: FILE

“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.

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Reader Comments (18)

  • Shahid
    Jun 28, 2010 - 3:21AM

    Islamabad is a slap on the face of the poor people of Pakistan. A personification of our elitist society, the exploitation of our masses and the nature of our self righteous “upper middle class” that claims to be the holiest of all social classes. Travel 2km from the constitution avenue and see the surrounding villages and the condition of the people. A city that is designed specifically according to the economic standing of various classes and keeps people of different financial prowess at bay from each other through its planning is the height of elitism. Socio-economically coherent neighborhoods emerge automatically but no city is planned according to such standards. That is blatant elitism.

    Sorry, nothing for Islamabad. Islamabad is a city of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.

    Only the elite class can be accommodated. Public transport in Islamabad is a long shot, just like finding human beings on other planets. Islamabad has been and still is being planned as an automobile dependent city. No public transport for the poor, working and middle class for they are considered not to be the real residents of Islamabad. Islamabad remains focused towards the elite only, there’s no doubt about that.

    Brasilia, Islamabad and Chandigrah were designed and founded in the same era (within a few years of each other). Although Brasilia is more populous than the other two, comparative progress of all three cities reveals the nature of their development and as to whose advantage the municipal authorities were working.

    Had the CDA Board been an elected body rather than a bureaucratic structure (in a perfect sense), it would have pursued poor friendly projects rather than catering to the elite at the expense of the poor using tax payer money. There would not be any 5 billion rupee projects as the “Citizens Club” rather there would have been a public transit system.

    The anti-poor character of Islamabad is visible in one of its most important aspects. While it is unrealizable that a city does not get divided into high and low income residential areas, Islamabad is perhaps unique for it was designed keeping in mind the grade structure. Government workers were shelved off in the farthest developed structure, far off from their working places and without public transport. Parks were developed alongside bureaucratic elite’s sectors while the other sectors rotted. In a city where the public graveyard has allotted areas (true for many graveyards in Pakistan as well), the distinction between classes is extremely visible and the nature of the city’s social atmosphere is abhorrent to anybody who seeks the promotion of social welfare. The very state of the villages that are within 15 minutes drive from downtown Islamabad is a symbol of the city’s atmosphere and the nature of its elite residents who have forced their welfare over public welfare in Islamabad and throughout Pakistan.

    Unnecessary ostentatious displays throughout the city, elite country and golf clubs developed at public expense, Islamabad personifies the character of the private transport using upwardly mobile urban middle and elite class, who are the majority readers here as well. For them, public transport and poor friendly cities are non concerns. A capital without a mass transit system clearly shows the social inclinations of the people living there.

    By not building pointless hotel-residential-office complexes and providing low cost housing to the hundreds of thousands of people who live across Islamabad’s edges in shanty homes we can create a far better and equitable capital. By providing efficient public transport in a city where it is absolutely easy to do so and by not letting the automobile sprawl increase. A city with a population of less than a million people shouldn’t be as automobile dependent as Islamabad is (I’m compensating for a higher median income).Recommend

  • Zeeshan Azam
    Jun 28, 2010 - 4:11AM

    Great StuffRecommend

  • Asad Hasnain
    Jun 28, 2010 - 10:48AM

    But talking about Islamabad and missing out the whole Brigade of “ex-army men” , a Whole cabinet of MNAs , a handsome bunch of old and middle aged bureaucrats,and the presence of fashion conscious rich lads and gals partying as wild as possible[may not be in clubs coz they have discs in their own villas] and not to forget the expenditure on cool and hot drugs by all above mentioned.. all these are part and parcel to Isb. [exculsive of R.Pinid]Recommend

  • Shahid
    Jun 28, 2010 - 6:07PM

    This write-up is a very realistic and honest depiction of not only Islamabad, but Pakistan at large. That is to say that Pakistan means Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi only. Peshawar and Quetta is nowhere to be seen in this piece. Thats why Pakhtuns and Baluchis are trying to measure their own way.Recommend

  • Bangash
    Jun 28, 2010 - 11:04PM

    Great point Shahid…..”Pakistan” is frequently reduced to three cities by Pakistanis themselves….Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore. Recommend

  • Hamid
    Jun 29, 2010 - 1:08AM

    I think comparative analysis of cities was not warranted for an article on Islamabad but I agree that for the elite Pakistan is usually confined to just Islamabad and Lahore and perhaps Peshawar for those living in Lahore and for those living in Karachi it is usually just Karachi although a little well travelled ‘adventurous’ Karachaites would recognize the aforementioned cities as parts of the country they are familiar with as well. That many are somewhat ignorant about smaller cities and towns is not out of general malaise though but I think it is more because of the tendency of the well-off Pakistanis to travel within Pakistan only to the metropolitans within perhaps a few hours drive of where they live. Pakistanis really need to get out a little more often and discover other parts of the country they have not been to! It is really a beautiful country with excellent people and a good time can be had vacationing in different cities and towns within Pakistan instead of flying to Malaysia or Dubai or some other foreign locale every year as a lot of affluent Pakistanis do.Recommend

  • shahbaz
    Jun 29, 2010 - 2:39PM

    This write-up no doubt depicts the pompous and elite life style of the major cities of pakistan.harping on the same strings and more over same mantra besides,these cities and also mentioned the Pakhtunkhwa & Balochistan, south punjab is also a deprived of basice necessities of life seriously look inti this matter except discussing the Elite one…Recommend

  • ahmed
    Jun 29, 2010 - 3:59PM

    There are a lot of Pukhtuns in Islamabad. Even Karachi has more Pukhtuns than Peshawar. The only real issue is the elitest divide. Bringing in the Pukhtun and Baloch grivances and somehow linking them up with Islamabad is sheer nonsense.

    Karachi is run by MQM, Lahore is run by PML (N) and Peshawar is run by ANP. If Peshawar is not being developed like Lahore, or Karachi then its your leaderships fault vis a vis the ANP/MMA. Stop blaming PML (N) or MQM for Peshawar not being developed, they’ve got nothing to do with Peshawar. As far as Quetta is concerned, ask your sardars. Recommend

  • ahmed
    Jun 29, 2010 - 4:17PM

    Islamabad once had VARAN :(

    Islamabad has come a long way from the village i use to live in the 90s. The road network is just awsome now but public transport is a mess. How long can you expect people to jump on those rickety vans, where conductors keep shouting “melllooody melllooody melllooody, krachi coummpny”. Anyways the roads are awsome and signal free, you can now travel from faisal mosque to DHA pindi non-stop in less than 40 mins.

    I don’t know about hte chinese restaurants, but once there was only one restaurant called papasallis and we got so excited when KFC opened up in Pindi. Now KFC, Mcdonalds and Pizza huts are just everywhere. Also remember the good old “Munchies” which used to be dirt cheap a decade ago, now “Munchies” thinks it could sell its burgers at the same price as McDonalds.

    And then there was NAFDEC. Remember going there as a kid to watch Jurassic Park. There was a time when there was just one private school BeaconHouse and that too in a small house on Nazimuddin road. There was a time when Marriot had no security and we would crash somebodies wedding ceremony for free food. That is now simply impossible. There was a time when you could only hike to peer sohawa, and nobody knew what peer sohawa was.

    But the biggest problem with Islamabad is that nobody lives there permanently. There was a property boom, and people just found convenient to rent out their houses to cash in on the bonanza. Poor govt workers who once got the land for a few thousand ruppees sold their homes for a few crores and left the city, which changed its culture completely. With richer people moving in, we started seeing expensive cars and true elitest culture taking root in the city. The city was a city of poor government workers which changed overnight. Now its hardly recognizable. Life is just so much mroe flashier in this city. Friends and acqaintances just left and abandoned this city.Recommend

  • Reader
    Jun 29, 2010 - 7:52PM

    i <3 islamabad!Recommend

  • Jasmine
    Jun 30, 2010 - 10:08AM

    @Shahid.. your hate for the only decent livable city in Pakistan is despicable. Islamabad was planned perfectly in the manner it was, unfortunately as time passed on the “master plan” was changed. The designer of Islamabad ensured that each sector had a public school, a group of 4 sectors had a dispensary, there was a market and plenty of greenery. All large houses were connected to the smaller houses and class based divisions were not possible. One Mosque per sector and community centers. What it is becoming is because of the greed involved. But let me tell you, the people living in Islamabad pay quite a hefty property tax, and the people running the show CARE about what they are doing. If you see someone chopping a tree call the environment directorate they’d immediately arrive at the spot (trust me i did this yesterday they didnt even ask who was calling) , you get clean streets because the people really do the work (unlike in other cities where they get paid but they dont do their jobs). The city is not only for the elite, try visiting the public parks .. see the facilities are pretty similar in G-9 to those in F-10, the sunday markets are there.
    Public transport yes is an issue, but all efforts by Planning Commission and CDA have gone in vain BECAUSE of the elected governments who denied the schemes. If someday a metro/LRT system is built I am positive it will be termed as elitist as well.

    I’d ask you to lighten up and accept the good things that are still happening with this country.Recommend

  • Yousaf Gul
    Jun 30, 2010 - 2:56PM

    @ Shahid … I m sure only if you had your own house in Islamabad you wud ve never talked against on how it is and how it is brought up.
    It is one of the most beautiful capitals in the world and i think you should be proud of it being a Pakistani; not be Anti-Islamabad.

    Anyways i have noticed one thing that we Pakistanis are never happy for the betterment at any part of the country … We just have that “I” element….

    Love Islamabad; Love Pakistan and Move on…..Recommend

  • Laiba Jehangiri
    Jun 30, 2010 - 4:49PM

    Islamabad is a very serene and beautiful city of Pakistan.Recommend

  • Mahvesh
    Jun 30, 2010 - 5:09PM

    Shahid, I completely agree with you. One only has to see the recent “development” on the Faisal Avenue to realize how there is no place for a pedestrian in this place – the footpaths that were made less than a year ago along the Avenue were recently torn down again to be replaced with a drainage system. The park adjacent to the Avenue in G-6 now has roads running through it.
    Don’t say Islamabad is equally developed – it’s only the sectors F and E that are kept beautiful. The rest are falling apart. As for the rights of the lowly in this city, you only have to consider the fact that the very elitist Citizen’s Club was going to be constructed in F9 park – the only large open space that’s open to all. Until recently, CDA did not have to consider the fact that the middle-income group would be moving/commuting to Islamabad. It is still going along, working at this ‘city’ as if it is sparsely populated, and that too by the elite, mobile-driven section that Shahid mentions. Idyllic, certainly. But only for those who have money to spare. Recommend

  • Jul 1, 2010 - 10:24AM

    Why not bring Varan back to help Islamabad commuters?Recommend

  • Nida
    Jul 23, 2010 - 1:12PM

    I was born and bred in Lahore and just recently moved to Islamabad. although its been a year but still i consider it recent.before moving to Islamabad, islamabad held the place of a fantasy land for me. the beautiful mountains, the gorgeous scenery, the wide roads to almost everything seemed perfect. however, it is upon moving here and living here for a year that you realise how many loopholes its planning has. for one second, kindly put the scenery and the mountains aside. important but seriously when u live in a city, and want to lead a city life, scenery is only secondary. being an upper middle class person, educated at the best private school in lahore, honestly i do not know much about the problems of the lower class. however, even for the upper middle class, i firmly believe it is not a city to live in. a) it is not a city. b)its just a very modernised countryside and nothing else c) due to the bureaucratic monopoly, the mind sets of the people are very restricted. in other words, they will never ever work towards thinking outside the box. the development side of Islamabad is basically restricted to 4 sectors, F6, F7, F8 and E7. even F10 is not tht developed or oomph of elite. your entire city is mainly concentrated in these 4 sectors. your main market is only Super and Jinnah Super. for eating out, its Rendezvous circle, Pappasallis and max 4-5 more restaurants where a person like me can potentially go to. I AM SORRY BUT IN ALL HONESTY I REFUSE TO ACCEPT THAT THIS PLACE QUALIFIES TO BE CALLED A CITY. ITS LITERALLY LIVING IN COUNTRYSIDE. for how long can u possibly go to the same old places?
    secondly, being a student, the cafes here are super expensive. every single time you go out for sheesha, expect to spend at least 500. and this is without proper food. if u want decent family outing, expect to spend a 1000-1500 per head for absolutely mediocre service and food. i dont mind paying but atleast do justice to that money and not just try paying your rent out of it.
    as far as the people go, they have the same inefficient, just get work done, lethargic attitude. being a student, i remember how competitive it used to be in lahore. over here there is absolutely no competition. the students are not even motivated. their exposure of international higher education is basically going to University of Toronto, or some State uni in America or London Met. not criticizing these unis but seriously is that the max u aim for? not taking in to account exceptions, mind you. i know people here studying at Ivys and top notch universities in UK but they can easily be counted on your fingers. such low aims and non competitiveness was a complete turn off for me.
    thirdly, a select group of people are too involved in partying and thier own small group of people, that they do not at all know about the rest of the world. their exposure is mainly limited to Islamabad. very few have ever been out of Islamabad ona regular basis. i also noticed this surprising hostility towards people from Karachi. i am not from Karachi but seriously why? i have always revered it as a city where u learn a lot in terms of efficiency and competition. also the huge population of Peshawar immigrants will leave u wondering, if the local language of our federal capital is pushto?Recommend

  • Nida
    Jul 23, 2010 - 1:13PM

    also these peshawar immigrants have absolutely no exposure as to other cities, for them Islamabad is THE MOST MODERNISED PLACE ON THIS EARTH. seriously, have u ever frequented any of ur retail brand outlets? they are always empty or carry the old collection. so fashion wise automatically they are a step behind. YES SCENERY IS IMPORTANT BUT HONESTLY QUALITY OF LIFE IS ALSO IMPORTANT.
    just having a government house in f6 at the end of your career doesnt mean you are the elite. 5years later u will move out of that house and probably shift back to the house u constructed in I8 where despite government control, conditions are really bad. in all honesty the roads are bad, the houses are very badly built. there is this thekaydar culture where cheap gawdy houses are built by contractors and rented on extremely high prices. trust me it kills to pay for ****! (excuse my language)
    lastly, i believe having no industry at all over here and this development sector mafia has generally instilled this air of inefficiency, bad exposure and indifference. having a house in F6 is the height of everyone’s career here.


    P.s: im sure many people from islamabad would disagree with me, but being an outsider i cant help being blunt about these facts. my fantasy landRecommend

  • Nida
    Jul 23, 2010 - 1:15PM

    *has disappointed meRecommend

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