Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


God, Faith, Courage, Love – First Stop: Allama Iqbal International Airport.

5 Jun 2010

Image courtesy Wikipedia

I’m about to land in Lahore, the city I grew up in, the city I love.

My thoughts have raced on this dimly lit plane (it seems the effect of load shedding have reached 35 000 feet into the air too), and I’m not sure what to think as I go in.

After a year in quaint Princeton, with its zero night life beyond the university and hardly any people, Lahore seems like a roller coaster. I love both places. As I travelled through New York this past year, I realised how bigger a city it was compared to Lahore. But both have around the same amount of people. For some reason, while New York is the mammoth that must be navigated, Lahore is this comfortable place, a place I can easily navigate, very small in the amount of information/obstacles I must deal with to do what I need to do. Part of this of course has to do with me living there all my life, but there is more.

Lahore is a small city in the sense of its segregation. Everybody is on to you in New York straight out of Penn Station on the road. In Lahore, social circles limit who you’ll see and what you’ll do, yet a great spirit of freedom enriches the city, and I can’t wait to experience that again. This segregation also means that gossip circles are that much more efficient and hence, that much better.

I’m about to embark on a journey to explore Lahore and beyond as I never have before. The Princeton University Music department has graciously funded my efforts this year to go around Pakistan visiting musicians and artists and talk to them about life in the war. My Professors Tom Weber and Gary Schneider have kindly accepted my request to advise me on this journey.

Think of this blog as part music journalism, part self exploration, part chronicles of life in the Pakistani war.

I met various sorts of people as I prepared to get back home.

I had a little chat with a friends father as we ate dinner in Princeton, he is a Chemistry Professor ad was discussing his efforts as a teacher to try and educate his youths beyond the book. A very nice man, his son is a mentor and a brother to me. The conversation eventually went to who to blame for part of the mess, and General Zia made another rather inglorious entry into a conversation I was having. Turns out musicians aren’t the only ones that find fault with the Zia period. My friend’s father recalled the new rules that would put Quranic verses in to science textbooks.

On the shuttle to JFK I met a Princeton post grad student. He was a math researcher, and teaches Math every other year. He asked me about life in Pakistan, about how I got to Princeton ( I told him I had to go to Islamabad for the visa (assuming the I came on a plane joke was not appropriate here) but he meant to ask about my education). I told him I wanted to go traveling around, exploring Pakistan. He asked if that was safe.

I don’t know.

I told him what can you do, if an attack is going to happen in a targeted area, then it’s going to happen, should I stop living life? And since attacks happen even outside of combat zones, what can you do? He agreed and was bewildered at the same time. He said he was pretty sure my family would be worried, I assured him they would.

I’m not sure what to expect. Should I be cautious in my movements? Should I try to be a bold journalist that goes where someone needs to go? Or should I just live life normally like I have for eighteen years, the end of which saw military check-posts on major roads and security booths outside schools?

Honestly, I was leaning to be somewhere between the last two. I’m not sure if the last is possible at all, but Coke Studio should help with anything. Coke Studio, the musical sensation I’ve mentioned before, is back this summer, and the Coke ad campaign is bound to be everywhere.

While I followed the news closely these past few months, I’m not sure what the psyche is in Pakistan at the moment. I have a bone to pick with the news coverage of the war. Just this semester, it was March I think, I learned of a bomb blast in Lahore as I procrastinated during a class. My parents had resisted mentioning it over the phone to avoid alarming me. The blast referred to a government office, under the FIA. I knew there was an ‘under cover’ FIA office opposite my best friends’ houses in Model Town. But I couldn’t make sure it was that. All the news reports mentioned was a ‘residential area’. For loved ones who need to know critical information, news outlets failed us.

My adept facebook stalking skills eventually got me to what I was looking for but that is besides the point.

Either way, I look forward to exploring home once again. I look forward to hearing the azaan (call to prayer) every few hours from mosques everywhere, something that I’ve imagined in my head as I walked to my dorm room multiple times. I look forward to the crazy traffic and to drive through it. I look forward to meeting cherished family and my best friends. I look forward to the cheap roadside food and the ridiculously cheap mobile phone services. I look forward to using my old phone that works everywhere except 1981 Hall where I lived this year. I look forward to the delicious food (yes food has to be mentioned twice, I am Lahore after all).

All this time apart has made me realise how much easier it is to be spiritual in Pakistan. I don’t mean this to be judgmental of either place, just an observation. The country runs on faith, every other sentence mentions our relationship with God, every action has a greater meaning. The food also helps.

I don’t look forward to the power cuts or the shoddy internet, but that’s life, I’ll smile over that. At least I don’t have to worry about paying ridiculous money on cell phones (and I mean really ridiculous trust me).

Part of it is just being closer to friends and family, of knowing that we are all in this together. As my friends descend onto this beautiful city from all over the world, we are all glad to be home, not having to worry about the safety of our families from afar.