There is something magnetically attractive about boxes of old photographs. Having recently acquired a scanner I dug around in the depths of the storeroom and the past began to unfold along with a few surprises. Perhaps the biggest surprise was just how quickly and dramatically the place I live in, both the house and the city, has changed in the last 12 years. The house we bought stood alone, surrounded by fields on all sides and visible from the main road a quarter of a mile away. Today it is surrounded by more houses. Access was by a dirt track but now there is a tarmac road to the front door. A sewer line. And the date palms have gone.
Further afield and the road to the airport was a single lane unpaved mud bath, and Fauji Chowk seems to have been permanently under water. Traffic in the city centre was a lot thinner in the early 2000s than it is today but the same beggars hover around Farid Gate, seemingly untouched by the passage of time.
Opening the folder ‘1993’ and taking out the packet marked ‘Pakistan’ there I am on Khunjerab top in a driving snowstorm holding up the bicycle that I had ridden all the way from Karachi. The picture was taken by a border guard who showed me the record that was kept of all the cyclists who had passed that way — a handful then but a steady stream of long-rangers shuttles up and down the Karakoram Highway now even in these uncertain times. Although I did not know it, at the time the picture was taken I had already met my future wife, and life had turned a hidden corner. We married in March 1995, and barring a few sideways steps into Afghanistan I have lived and worked in Pakistan ever since.
This exercise in nostalgia does have a point other than an amiable ramble through my back pages; namely to recognise how quickly the world around me has changed and mostly for the better.
Pakistan gets a bad press, and with some justification. It is regularly reported as being at the bottom of this or that development indicator, castigated for being a terrorist seedbed and proliferator, corrupt, inappropriately profligate and generally something of a basket case among the international community. To a greater or lesser extent all of that is true. It can be frustrating and paradoxical, perverse and irresponsible in terms of governance federally and provincially and yet it persists, refuses to become the eternally-touted failed state.
Unfortunately, good news does not sell newspapers or fill up airtime across the electronic media platforms — which has more than once led me to wonder if there is a niche market for a good-news newspaper but I digress. Living as I do both inside and outside the culture it is possible to look through more than a single window and whilst it is undeniable that through one window things look dark, bleak and bloody; in the window at the other corner of my mental house things look considerably brighter.
The country really has moved forward in a host of ways since I first set foot — or wheel — here 22 years ago. The evidence for that lies in the pictures that are now being scanned into my PC. Whilst we all indulge from time to time in the ‘Oh but it was so much better back then’ game; one has to remember that ‘back then’ there was another generation also looking backwards and saying the same thing.
There is nothing remotely romantic about standing ankle-deep in reeking sludge to buy one’s vegetables — yet until as recently as six years ago that is what you did if you shopped as I did at the aforementioned Fauji Chowk. There is no longing for the time before broadband. No misty-eyed remembrance of trying to make an international phone call from a roadside hut or having to book that call at least two days in advance — yes, and there is a photo to prove it.
So my Suggestion Of the Week is that we all take the time to look out of another window occasionally. Who knows what you might see.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 5th, 2015.
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