Those were the days

Published: December 5, 2014
The writer is a columnist, a former major of the Pakistan Army and served as press secretary to Benazir Bhutto

The writer is a columnist, a former major of the Pakistan Army and served as press secretary to Benazir Bhutto

This week the pox on politics and how it is ‘played’ in this country, as well as on the ISIS and the various ‘strategies’ to take this poor country forward. This week another look at the past: at what great writer and gentleman and cricket commentator Mr Omar Qureshi used to refer to as “another country”. “The Past is another country” used to be the title of his articles in Dawn (A title I have his express permission to use if I should want to, by the way. May he rest in peace).

It was an April morning in 1979 I think, when my pal Sa’adi called me and said: “Japan jana hai?” After picking myself off the floor and brushing myself off (having fallen off my chair), and regaining my breath, I asked: “Kab?” “Parsoan,” he says. It so happened that his dear father who was to attend a trade fair in Tokyo had fallen ill with a cold and could not travel, entrusting the job to Sa’adi.

Two days later, Sa’adi and I were on a Cathay Pacific flight from Karachi to Tokyo via Hong Kong where we stayed with our college-mate, and now late friend Ilyas Butt (RIP) who was in the carpet business there. After three glorious days in Hong Kong, we boarded a flight for Tokyo, there to be received by young Zahid, a relative of Ilyas’s as also of the late Shorish Kashmiri’s.

Zahid used to live in the central Tokyo district of Ebisu, if memory serves, about a 20-minute walk from our old embassy located in one of the best areas of Tokyo, Azabu, and presented to Pakistan by the late Aga Khan, the present Aga Khan’s grandfather. As an aside, we have done to this precious jewel of a property what we have done to many other of our beautifully-located missions and ambassador’s residences: flogged it!

Anyway, back to our subject, which really is the ease with which we Pakistanis used to be able to travel across the world, requiring no visas for more than half of it, and where necessary could apply for and receive visas even while travelling abroad in countries where we were not resident. About which later.

Japan needs affectionate comment: The very first thing that struck us (Sa’adi had lived in New York City, on Madison and 50th, for many years) was the cleanliness of the city. Whether you were on the ritzy Ginza, or in a side-street sampling local fare in tiny Japanese cafes, or off what they called ‘wagons’ (what we call ‘rehris’), the place was squeaky clean.

As were the utensils in which you were served; the aprons of the cooks; the general air of the place. Remarkable, too, were the shouted welcomes that would greet you as you entered one of the establishments or stopped at one of the wagons. ‘Irrashaimase!’ (Welcome!) the hosts would say. Nowhere else in the world had I experienced this.

The very second was the lack of vehicular noise: even large trucks would drive silently by; there was no smell of fuel fumes in the air; and absolutely no blaring of horns. As we quickly found out, Japan was a highly cultured, polite country, and a delight to be in.

The long and short of it is that despite dispiriting reports from the other participants in the show, we made a success of it and sold everything — even though the site chosen for the fair was the 59th floor of a brand-new but barely tenanted (trust our brilliant babus!) building called Sunshine 60, then the tallest building in Asia but a good one-hour train ride from Central Tokyo.

We even laid out our garments on ‘wagons’ in the main foyer of the building which sent our sales soaring because there was more traffic of shoppers on the ground floor than on the 59th. I recall the then ambassador Mr Qamarul Islam holding us up as examples of hard work as we were the only participants who cleared their dues owed to the government!

Throughout the many years I then spent in Japan as an upshot of that first visit, I not once had a bad business experience finding the Japanese true to their word and so helpful towards their business associates.

A few words on the ease with which one could travel then. The now deceased American airline Pan American World Airways or Pan Am (which too used to fly to Karachi among so many others) came up with an Around the World in 80 Days fare in which you would travel around the world on a ticket costing $800 (!) and which was valid for a whole year.

The problem was a US visa which I had never applied for before then. So off I marched to the US Embassy in Tokyo, filled out a simple form, and handed it to the Japanese gentleman processing the applications. It was 10.30 in the morning I guess. “Please come back at 3pm and pick up your passport,” he said.

I had a snack at a small restaurant near there, walked around the Imperial Palace moat, sat down to read one of my favourite authors Yukio Mishima and when it was close to three, walked to the US embassy and picked up my passport duly stamped with a five-year visa! Compare this with the angst most embassies (thankfully not the Americans) give you: even the Sri Lankans who too have withdrawn visa-free travel to their country by Pakistanis.

Indeed, travelling by air within the United States was like travelling by bus, with families literally walking to the entrance to the pier (when they appeared at airports) and up to the plane itself at small airports. By God, how the world has changed for the worse.

The past WAS another country, another world.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 5th,  2014.

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Reader Comments (34)

  • Arijit Sharma
    Dec 5, 2014 - 2:24AM

    Kashmir. Enough said.


  • wb
    Dec 5, 2014 - 4:35AM

    This is a surprisingly naive article by Mr. Shafi, I’m used to reading whose profound articles.

    Why do I say this?

    Mr. Shafi must know that even those days were as bad as today. Today’s problem existed even in 1947. But they hadn’t manifested themselves.

    In the early days of cancer, you feel healthy. You find no problem with your body. That doesn’t mean you had no cancer.

    And in case of Pakistan, the cells of cancer were introduced on March 22, 1940.


  • Shuaib
    Dec 5, 2014 - 5:20AM

    So saddening. Our past was so full of promise :'(


  • Ahmed Bilal
    Dec 5, 2014 - 6:04AM

    And Mr. Shafi, Pray tell us why are the Pakistani’s treated so unwelcomingly everywhere in this world.


  • Mani m
    Dec 5, 2014 - 7:56AM

    Indeed the end is near…


  • Saleem
    Dec 5, 2014 - 9:53AM

    It isn’t easy for Indians to get visas too. Just do a simple google search.


  • Salman
    Dec 5, 2014 - 10:11AM

    I used to study in Syracuse, NY in the early eighties and for five dollars at Syracuse Airport a porter would pick up your baggage from your car, check it in, and bring you your boarding pass.

    Thanks to our brothers in faith these little conveniences and pleasures are a thing of the past not only for us Pakistanis but for the whole world.

    Those truly were much simpler and pleasurable times.


  • GS@Y
    Dec 5, 2014 - 10:50AM

    @Arijit Sharma: Not really. I have no idea what you are blabbing about.


  • bahadur khan
    Dec 5, 2014 - 11:18AM

    This article is nostalgic, in the sixtie and seventies, airplanes used to leave delhi, stop at tehran,/cairo for fuel then go to London. similarly KLM used to have flights from Amsterdam to singapore via riyadh, mumbai, singapore. China overflying was not there. Karachi was hub of Pan am.European airlines used to stop at karachi on their way to Peking (in those days) Cairo was hub of Air India, Next came global oil crisis, geo political changes, direct flights across China from europe. The importance of Karachi, Delhi , Mumbai. Chennai as gateway to Malaysia, australia reduced. There are other issues.


  • Jor El
    Dec 5, 2014 - 11:59AM

    @Saleem: Absolutely correct !!! Becoz there r too many of them n a limited no. of visas …


  • Shazia Bangash
    Dec 5, 2014 - 12:01PM

    Never thought I’d see the day when Kamran Shafi would write an article that makes a case for voting for Imran Khan .. but this article does just that! ;-)


  • Saif
    Dec 5, 2014 - 12:37PM

    dont try to fake urself as an Indian ..Indians have no issues in getting visas to US or anywhere in Europe ..


  • Billy
    Dec 5, 2014 - 1:47PM

    I have only heard about the ‘Pakistan’ you wrote about and I would never wish my children to see today’s Pakistan; I hope they get to see a more tolerant one when they grow up. The ‘Another Pakistan’ was comparatively much tolerant, adoptable and easygoing. Today, faith has overpowered humanity. My dream to see this country go secular is dying with every passing moment.
    Live and let live. May God bless Pakistan!!!


  • Prad
    Dec 5, 2014 - 2:03PM


    Sir you should do a google yourself.

    More countries give indians visa free access than either pakistan or China . Pakistan ranks third from bottom.


  • Parvez
    Dec 5, 2014 - 2:47PM

    I went to Japan for the first time in ’70 and I still maintain its a country all can learn from…..especially us.
    It all went wrong……when ‘ religion ‘ was dumped on us.


  • Raj
    Dec 5, 2014 - 5:08PM

    Sometimes I wish I had been born 10 or 20 years earlier. A much simpler world. I do realize that to some extent this is an elitist argument as the “elite” was much smaller then and so fewer people had cars and fewer people were able to afford air travel and so they were pampered more in a sense. Of course, you also had less terrorism and less security checks etc.


  • Sexton Blake
    Dec 5, 2014 - 7:17PM

    If you go back a hundred years or so passports and visas were virtually unheard of, but then many things have changed. For example,the basic form of Pakistan transport was walking, and if you could afford the luxury of a train the person in charge of the system was British.


  • Solomon2
    Dec 5, 2014 - 7:53PM

    It’s like what happened to the U.S. in the nineteenth century. In the 1830s, following a slave revolt, most slave states outlawed talk of Abolition. After that political and social battles became contests of one-upsmanship: who was more pro-slavery and anti-Abolition than the other? After a generation on this upward spiral of bigotry the Southern populace was radicalized and war broke out when the South decided to secede, fighting not just their former countrymen but oppressing their own in the bargain.


  • Shahid
    Dec 5, 2014 - 8:54PM

    One of the reasons pakistan came into existance because people wanting Pakistan never imagined that there will be passport and visa requirement to travel Between India and Pakistan. This had been told to me by an elderler person who was Aligadh university student and pro pakistan Activist before Partition.he said that they did not know what form of division there will be.He said that it was not even in thier wildest dream that how people in two countries will be cut of from each other.


  • Prad
    Dec 5, 2014 - 10:20PM

    Have read some heart touching stories of indians and Pakistanis visiting each other’s countries. Our people are so similar, but fundamentalism and politics have destroyed a natural freindship.

    In the UK, although we stand proud for our motherland, our near neighbours are of Pakistani origin and we and they treat each like extended family. Diwali and Eid we share food and at times of happiness and sadness we are there for each other.

    Sadly Pakistan has been going in the wrong direction for too long, am not sure if that can be reversed and I fear India will be dragged along a more intolerant path too, if our relationship persists in this direction.

    Best wishes



  • Ranjha
    Dec 5, 2014 - 10:35PM

    What? Not a single pathetic, bitter, hateful comment against Imran? You need to change your brew!


  • Sexton Blake
    Dec 5, 2014 - 10:50PM

    Dear Shahid,
    An excellent missive. It is my view that the saddest thing, which has occurred in my lifetime, is that India/Pakistan was split, and that two great groups of people have been torn apart and cannot be friends.


  • Yo2Da2
    Dec 5, 2014 - 10:59PM

    @Shahid: If everything had been clearly spelled out for everyone, then the chances for a Partition would have vanished. Fear, uncertainty. and doubt were used by the promoters of division, as those attributes are still used today. Unfortunately, the rivers keep flowing and we cannot step in the same rivers ever. The past is prologue.


  • Raja Porus
    Dec 5, 2014 - 11:11PM

    The biased comments of Indians on this platform are both revolting and disgusting. Jealousy seems to be the flavour of the day in India. They can’t bear to see Pakistan doing well. How unfortunate.


  • Rao
    Dec 5, 2014 - 11:22PM

    @Sexton Blake:
    It is true. But others like Indian princes and their entourage also used to travel in trains. During 1857 indian troops were transported. Those trains saved the day for the Brits!


  • SAL
    Dec 5, 2014 - 11:43PM

    @Saif: Then why and how 500,000 Illegal indian’s are in US, and, want to apply for immigration amnesty.?


  • Rao
    Dec 6, 2014 - 1:23AM

    Haven’t you used this comment elsewhere before ? These numbers are outrageous exaggeration, for it is impossible now to escape FBI and police net! The slightest difference alone invites trouble and suspicion.


  • Cool Henry
    Dec 6, 2014 - 4:35AM

    @Raja Porus: You are probably a rare gem that thinks Pakistan is doing very well and the fact that Indian are jealous as a result….WOW


  • TooTrue
    Dec 6, 2014 - 6:03AM

    Yesterday we tried to apply for a Pakistan visa in Bangkok and were told by the hijab wearing woman that we had to apply in the US. Take that you damn Americans!


  • javed Iqbal
    Dec 6, 2014 - 3:14PM

    the world in going forward whereas we are in reverse gear


  • javed Iqbal
    Dec 6, 2014 - 3:34PM

    @Arijit Sharma: Don’t be happy. We, the both nations, are facing identical treatment around the world. If same visas / travelling resections are not applied to your country, be sure 90% Indians will be settled in civilized states like USA, Canada, Australia and Europe.


  • Raj - USA
    Dec 6, 2014 - 7:56PM

    In the late 80’s or early 90’s, many airlines here were selling tickets for around $300 valid for one year. You can fly any number of times in their airlines, anywhere they fly, for one year. You can just walk in the airport and take any of their flights and there was no need to book youf flights in advance too. Many times then, I have arrived at the airport just 15 minutes before the flight departure time and have boarded domestic flights. I have boarded international flights, arriving just 45 minutes before flight departure. Then came 9/11, metal objects screening and physical checking of handbags. So, you need to arrive at the airport 45 minutes ahead of the flight time. Then came the London incidence where a 22 year old woman and her husband, carrying an year old infant were trying to take chemicals in the aircraft, disguised as baby milk for the infant. They wanted to prepare the explosive in the toilet of the aircraft. So came restrictions that you cannot carry any liquids and can carry only limited quantity of toothpaste, make-ups and perfumes. Now, the security checks take much longer. You need to be at the airport at least an hour and half before the flight departure time for domestic flights and at lest two and half hours before flight departure for international flights. It takes an hour to hour and half longer than before for each passenger to board aircrafts and they cannot carry any liquids. Massive amounts are also spent by airlines and government agencies for these added security measures. If one could calculate the additional costs that are incurred worldwide due to lost man hours and for additional security measures it would run into trillions of dollars every year.


  • Yo2Da2
    Dec 7, 2014 - 12:03AM

    @javed Iqbal: Another reason is people of South Asia and parts of the Middle East look alike to most Westerners who cannot tell a Muslim from a Hindu or Jew or Christian or atheist. Called the “spillover” effect.


  • Sexton Blake
    Dec 7, 2014 - 10:06AM

    @javed Iqbal:
    Dear Javed,
    I live in a Western country, and certainly cannot pick the difference between Indian and Pakistan accents. However, I have always thought that if you can invite someone home for dinner indicates that you admire him/her. Thus far I may have been fortunate, but all the Indians/Pakistanis I have met have been excellent dinner companions. What I have noticed though is that migrants from lower socioeconomic groupings do not fair very well, but they usually work hard, and their children do well, and their grandchildren do exceptionally well. I think the old saying, “Rome was not built in a day”, still prevails. I will be 80 in a few months and have started to realize that the decisions made by my parents to move 65 years ago are paying off handsomely. Of course the going has been a little tough along the way, and I wish certain things had not happened.


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