I returned from Pakistan earlier this month to interview people for a Master’s dissertation. Some heroes, others villains. I had high hopes. But poring over my receipts and transcripts, I realise I only got 65 per cent of what I wanted. Only four people will read my completed paper and I will be one of them. So, after seven weeks of cancellations, fights, gossip, no-shows, radio silence, scorn and tears I have some thoughts about How Not to Do Your Research in Pakistan. Here is my advice.
1) Be organised but not too much: You can’t force people to talk to you — they will either help or they won’t. Their availability and willingness will quickly become apparent. You know the joke about Pakistani timing? It’s not a joke. Being late is not so much an unfortunate incident as a national pastime. When everyone is late, nobody is on time, yet the only person getting angry about it is you. So, arriving way after you’d agreed to meet someone has a weird logic to it, while trying to impose punctuality on Pakistanis is a form of colonialism. That said, when Pakistanis are early, it’s a sign of qayamat.
2) There is never a slow news day: I made the mistake of choosing to focus on journalists working in one of the busiest, craziest and most intense news patches in the world. The nature, scale and volume of stories that occupy the nation’s newsrooms and television studies on a daily basis would make the hair of Western hacks turn white. Suicide bombings, bijli, targeted killings, sectarian violence, gang warfare, arrests of former leaders, strikes, drones and bans. It is a tsunami of news and one that leaves journalists and editors with not much time on their hands.
3) Coffee is for wimps: The people who are happy and willing to help you because they want to will do so, regardless of where you go and whether you can reward them with anything more than a hot beverage and cheesecake. This may suggest they lack gravitas and insights, but don’t be fooled. However, there are those for whom nothing less than a slap-up meal will do and they’ll be offended if you suggest a supermarket or a mall as your preferred venue. Oiling the wheels with eight kinds of naan and a billion handis may expedite things, but this method could be construed as bribery. How dare that US intelligence officer suggest that Pakistanis can be easily bought with a dinner? Doesn’t he know it takes at least three?
4) Get a car or use someone else’s: You come from a land of walking and public transport. You think having a driver unnecessary and self-indulgent. You are wrong. Pakistan is not pedestrian friendly. I speak from experience when I say that people will stare as you dodge potholes and fruit carts while making your point about how independent you are. Nobody cares. They want to know why you’re not in a car. A six-minute stroll can feel like a six-hour Bikram Yoga class. Crossing the road, especially in Karachi, is a game of chicken that you will always lose unless you a) take 30 minutes to do it or b) ask an armed guard to help you. Of course, I have not done either of these things.
5) Embrace difference: Being of Pakistani heritage is not the same as being Pakistani. Trying to sound Pakistani will make you sound Welsh — or worse still, Indian — and you will have even more problems trying to be understood. So, use your accent to full effect. The same applies to hair and wardrobe. Do not try to compete because the fashion cycle moves as quickly as the news cycle. Pakistani women possess a superhuman ability to repel sweat and frizzy hair. You are not that person. Also, if someone asks if you’re Canadian, say yes because Pakistanis love Canadians.
6) It’s not you, it’s them: You will be stood up. People who agreed to a time and a place and a date simply won’t turn up and you won’t hear from them again. You will be on your way to meet someone and, as insurance, call them to make sure they are on the way too. They aren’t. You’ll wonder why they didn’t let you know that they had become unavailable. Stop wondering. It is just something that happens and it will happen at least once. Do not laugh when someone suggests you make another trip to Pakistan to try and catch them at a better moment.
7) Everyone is someone: Everyone is someone in Pakistan — even more so when they are right in front of you wanting to know why you haven’t spoken to them or anyone in their network. Revealing just one of your references can lead to colourful outbursts. This would never happen back home, you tell yourself. But you are not at home. Also, remember that saying about having to kiss a lot of frogs to meet your prince? Researching in Pakistan is exactly like that but without the kisses, the frogs and indeed without the princes. Agreeing to meet everyone can throw up surprising results.
8) Have a plan B — have fun: If you’re not the sort of person who can go with the flow, at least have other things to fill your time with while you’re waiting for people to return your call/email/SMS or you’re just waiting for them to turn up. Do not sit in Avari, seething with anger. Pakistan is never dull but if your trip is, you’re doing something wrong. Make friends and say yes to everything. Go to parties, launches and meet-ups. Track down the nearest movie theatre, spa, swimming pool, park, historical or cultural places of interest. Pack a camera and take some books that have nothing to do with the topic of your research — and always ask for the Wi-Fi password. The only thing worse than not getting your research done in Pakistan is not doing anything else while you’re there.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 31st, 2013.
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