Thursday, February 4, 2010

Marigolds in Islamabad

Marigolds in Islamabad
What had I expected really? Suicide bombers? Hostility? Or overwhelming pleased-to-see the foreigner friendship? Cups of chai, pot holed roads, a country in chaos? Who did I think I was, Greg Mortenson? Taliban leaders, horse-backed Mujahadeen (no sign of the lovely Art Malik), War-lords, Drug-lords, Time-lords? I found none of this. Not so much as a scuffle, or a raised voice. No one spat in my direction. No one was intrigued.

Please don’t take the above photograph as any indication of indulgence.  I simply felt I missed a trick by posting “Marijuana and Porcupines” and including a photo of neither.  This image is a fine example of the road side bush discovered on a stroll late one night.  The branch was taken to the light of a security hut and photographed on my iPhone, then discarded (really) – to the amusement of the local armed security guards who observed the process.

My back of a fag packet/envelope style blogging came to an abrupt end in Islamabad as a) the wireless connection failed on all but my iPhone and b) I had no time to myself to indulge.  Any moments alone involved preparing for bed (which included fleeting telephone goodnights to my husband that were slurred with exhaustion) and preparing for the following day.  I did once or twice screw up my eyes and palm top blog, but frankly I didn’t find the experience satisfying enough.

So, sorry, my bad – not quite the live-from-Pakistan experience I had hoped.  I am back at home now, drowsily reflecting on my high speed visit to Pakistan.  Islamabad appeared to me to be a quiet, calm city and nothing like the Asia I know.  I rarely saw people on the roads and the streets were wide, clean and sensibly driven on.  Like New York, the ready-made capital is arranged in a numbered grid system.  Areas have innovative names like F7 and F6.2.    I understand that I spent most of my time in an affluent area – but why is it that the most soulless places on earth are those that are home to the wealthy?  And we still aspire to live in them.

I have never yearned to climb a mountain like I have over the past couple of days.  Islamabad may be flat and dull, but on one side of the city (the north I think) the horizon sits high above grassing hills and rugged peaks.  With every fresh, chilly early morning start – I glanced to the beckoning range and vowed one day to make an ascent.  I longed to get a view of the city from on high – feel some strength in seeing long distance and understand better where I was.  I began to feel very claustrophobic and more and more cross with the ever-increasing invitations from my friends and colleagues.  Why don’t you stay longer?  We should visit Lahore.  If you have time, I can show you better mountains in the beautiful Kashmir.  Why aren’t you in Karachi where the media is at?  Frustration isn’t a strong enough word.

I got over-excited by a trip to the “market”.  Longing for some hustle and bustle, I leapt out of the car to take pictures at the flower market.  Perfectly arranged, with an overwhelming scent in the dusk light, the flowers were being sold by quiet, polite traders who looked a little baffled by my desire to photograph them.  The child in the pictures used perfect English, allowed me to take his photo, but offered no real hard sell on the flowers (see album in my previous photo blog).  I’m not sure how comfortable my Pakistani/British friend felt about the photo shoot and whether she felt I was patronising her nation in my search for camera thrilling images.  She stayed in the car and seemed pleased when we headed off to do some proper shopping at the F7 market.

Anyone who knows – The F7 market isn’t really a market is it?  I wanted music and laughter, banter and barter.  Instead I got rows of glitzy shops surrounding a square in which were parked many, smart cars.  We were a group of four Brits, clearly not from round there, but people were generally uninterested in us.  I exchanged smiles and Salaams, and my friend had a hundred scarves shown to him (extremely excellent price), but generally we were left alone to point out funny shops names, ponder a nibble on some neat crinkle cut chips, and amble around in our own time.

Then I spotted the Marigolds.  In the centre of the square, in full bloom and my heart softened as I remembered how the same flower had greeted me at the airport.  What had I expected really?  Suicide bombers?  Hostility?  Or overwhelming pleased-to-see the foreigner friendship?  Cups of chai, pot holed roads, a country in chaos?  Who did I think I was, Greg Mortenson? Taliban leaders, horse-backed Mujahadeen (no sign of the lovely Art Malik), War-lords, Drug-lords, Time-lords?  I found none of this.  Not so much as a scuffle, or a raised voice.  No one spat in my direction.  No one was intrigued.  The most venom I saw was a poorly scrawled “Dow with USA” on the wall.   But what I had discovered was in fact a treasure. The majority of people were just getting on with life.  Getting on buses, shopping, going to work, loving their children, eating a meal.  It might have been an average experience for me, but I hate myself for expecting anything more.  I have written much about how we define peace and what the absence of violence might look like.  Well, for me – it looked like Islamabad.   And I won’t ever take it for granted again.  Not in Pakistan and not anywhere.  I must remember I am a nomad, not a tourist.

Marigold,  I’ll be back.

May Peace Be Upon You (and no, I’m not stoned).


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