Motherland changeth, but changeth not

Not only had the sights and sounds which greeted me at Karachi airport not changed, but they were a world apart from the many countries I had just been to, including my last two stops, namely, Iran and UAE, both Muslim countries.

(Daily Times, 30 January 2014)

Last September, I fulfilled an old dream of travelling from Beijing to Moscow by train and then overland through eastern Europe to Turkey, Iran and a bit more.  But before describing this journey that took me to nearly two dozen countries over ten weeks, I will begin where my trip ended, in the motherland.

Not only had the sights and sounds which greeted me at Karachi airport not changed, but they were a world apart from the many countries I had just been to, including my last two stops, namely, Iran and UAE, both Muslim countries.

As I entered the passport control area of the airport, surrounded by a mass of ill-disciplined people, I asked the couple of officials hanging about where I could get the passenger arrival card which I needed to fill out.  They seemed surprised but produced one in the end.  On my previous visit, I had been given a departure card to fill out on arrival!

The throng – queues they were not – of people awaiting immigration clearance was much worse than I am used to in Pakistan.  As luck would have it, I had arrived at about the same time as two plane-loads of returning hajis, courtesy of Saudi Airlines. What a sight they presented: shabby of dress, ill of discipline, impatient of time and disrespectful of others!

Was their behaviour in spite of the pilgrimage or on account of it, I wondered.  One expects hajis to have taken an oath of future good conduct before God, but on the other hand they might think that, having wiped off their past sins through pilgrimage, they were now free to do as they pleased.

I could not resist asking the person in front of me, who lacked the ferocious look of many of the hajis, whether he was returning from the haj and if this was his first.  “No, it’s my third, Allah be praised”.  “But only one haj is obligatory, is it not?” I asked.  “Yes, but …” he began defensively. 

Interrupting him, I said that perhaps Allah would be more pleased with him if he had given to a charity all or part of the money he had spent on his second and third pilgrimages. He sheepishly agreed with me. Now going on the offensive, I thanked him for agreeing with me but added that it wasn’t enough.  If he was in agreement with me, he had a duty to propagate this view in future.  “You have a point there”, he conceded.

This little victory over a haji compensated for the inconvenience caused by the hajis.  When I emerged out of the airport building there were a million men and women waiting anxiously to greet the returning holies, blocking everyone’s exit. They screamed religious incantations as soon as one of theirs emerged, beaming with satisfaction and pride.  They had reduced an international airport into something of a fish market or a bakra mandi (cattle market)!

Nothing had changed in the motherland.

But change there has been.  The head covering for ladies (dupatta) is no longer obligatory for TV anchors and newscasters.  In fact, it is conspicuous by its absence.  In both Karachi and Islamabad, the only cities I visited, men and women moved about freely, beard or no beard, burqa or not, dupatta or no dupatta.

The big cities now have many modern shopping malls, which have made shopping easier and a more enjoyable experience.  For those who can afford to, that is.  For the vast majority, I am afraid, shopping even for the bare essentials is becoming an increasingly tormenting experience, given the high prices and widespread unemployment.

With the Margalla Hills as the backdrop, Islamabad is a beautiful city, with better roads, parks and buildings than before. I had occasion to see that the traffic police here are polite and helpful, but strict in enforcing the rules. The streets of Karachi, too, now look better with leafy trees adorning the dividers.

While there is increasing talk of privatization, Pakistanis still have very few choices when it comes to flying.  It is strange that while private airlines flourish elsewhere, they choke in Pakistan. Hajvairy, Aeroasia, Bhoja and many others have gone bust.  Only two – one and a half really – are now operational, namely, Air Blue and Indus.

As on previous visits, I counted the number of planes on the tarmac of the airports at Karachi and Islamabad, as an indicator of economic activity.  For the world’s 36th largest country in area and 7th in population, the numbers are depressingly low, no more than five, perhaps fewer at any given time.  The total operational passenger air-fleet of the country is less than half that of Sharjah’s Arabian Airlines!

The flag-carrier PIA may be in its death throes and private airlines may be struggling, but that great symbol of Pakistan, elitism or the VIP culture, is flourishing. 

One “respectable” lady – by all appearances a part of the English-speaking elite but devoid of the trappings or the currency of power – angrily complained about having to wait in the departure lounge and demanded of the Shaheen Airlines ground staff to be allowed to board the plane. The ground staff stood their ground with her.

But soon there appeared a gentleman and two young ladies, with a uniformed personnel of some kind to press their claim to board before anyone else.  Now, they were a different matter altogether, so the staff did not question their “right” and allowed the three to board first as soon as the aircraft was ready for boarding.

On the return flight from Islamabad, as every so often, I saw an underling of a “high official” board the plane with the brief case of his “sahab”, who would prefer to board last, after the “mob” had cleared.  How could the “sahab” suffer the ignominy of having to carry his own bag or to rub shoulders with the ordinary public!

President Barak Obama has no problem carrying his own brief case. In fact, everyone in the West, rich or not-so-rich, ruler and ruled, carries his own bag.  Not so in the Islamic Republic.

As they say in French, the more it changes the more it remains the same.

 By Razi Azmi


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5 Responses to Motherland changeth, but changeth not

  1. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Respected Razi Azmi Sahib,
    Thank you for this excellent piece. You make already familiar things (at least for us who reside in this ‘land of poor’ as Justice Kayani used to call it) look even more familiar.
    Looking forward to more on your travels.

  2. Nadeem says:

    As usual an excellent article. You have described the Delhi or Bombay airport of late eigthtees and nintees. Things have changed so much in India, Indira Gandhi international airport in Delhi is a world class airport in appearance as well as in services. Plenty of immigration windows, surprisingly smiling immigration officials, no hassle at the customs. It’s all probably because of privatization and foreign investment.

  3. Shahid Siraj says:

    Bang on target. Pinpointed major problems facing our nation: indiscipline, lack of civic sense (or lack of self respect and respect for others), hypocrisy, misdirected religious priorities, VIP culture. Looking forward to your travel experiences, especially in the backdrop of your past experiences of these areas. Comparisons will be really interesting.


  4. Pradeep Kalra says:

    Another good one.The author’s ability to give a clear and analytical account of his experience is admirable.Though I have never been to Pakistan yet going through the article and Mr Azmi’s honest and candid description made me feel as I was there.Also worth mentioning is his encounter with the thrice returned Haji which brought a smile on my face.One is compelled to be tickled by the author’s sense of humour.

  5. Javed Agha says:

    Reading your article made me as if I was in Karachi or Islamabad for real. Every word is true. I only wish hajis read your article and be ashamed of their bad behavior. Good observation on things and I believe that when you are in Pakistan your observation gets sharper.
    I am awaiting articles on your travels. Javed Agha

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