A quarter-century after my last visit, I found these snapshots of life in a relatively young country that’s trying to find its fit.
PAKISTAN - The man steering a donkey cart on the highway was not what caught my eye. By that point in a recent trip to Pakistan, I had grown accustomed to the sight of donkeys in traffic — ambling alongside rickshaws, tattoo-painted buses and motorbikes carrying entire families.
What stood out were the white ear buds dangling from the donkey driver’s ears.
It was just one of many split images of old and new realities colliding and commingling in this still-budding South Asian country.
The last time I was in Pakistan was 1988. Benazir Bhutto had just been elected Pakistan’s first female prime minister — the first female leader of any Muslim nation and so far the only one. Her victory energized the masses, stirring optimism about the country’s future.
Twenty-five years later, I returned to find pictures of the late Bhutto plastered everywhere — often with the title “shaheed,” or “martyr,” next to her name. Even the airport in Islamabad, the nation’s capital, was named for her after she was assassinated while campaigning in 2007.
I toured Pakistan as part of a seven-member delegation of American journalists on a trip organized by the Washington D.C.-based International Center for Journalists and funded by the U.S. State Department.
It was a rare chance to get an up-close view of a country that has long been a strategic U.S. ally and has become even more significant since 9/11. A nuclear power in a tough neighborhood, Pakistan has the sixth-largest population in the world and is projected to have the fourth-largest in just a few decades.
Though my visit was professional, the experience was also deeply personal. I longed to reconnect with the land my parents left in the late 1960s to pursue the American dream — the place that held fond memories for me from childhood visits there. I was eager and nervous at the same time to see how the passing years had changed us both.
The portrait that emerged from my whirlwind tour of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad was vibrant, and filled with stark contrasts that reflect a resilient young country still trying to find its way 66 years after gaining independence.
“Pakistan,” as one political leader we met put it, “is a country that is striving to become a nation.”
Here are some of the images that stay with me:
Twice a day, on the eastern border between India and Pakistan just outside the city of Lahore, a ceremony unfolds that is part pep rally, part pro wrestling cage match.
Pakistani and Indian soldiers face off in front of the iron gates that separate the two nations, strutting and staring with intimidating zeal.
On the Pakistani side, hundreds of onlookers wave green-and-white flags and chant, “PAKISTAN, ZINDABAD!” or “Long live Pakistan!” On the Indian side, an equally boisterous crowd cheers for “Hindustan.”
Tensions had flared again between India and Pakistan in the weeks before we visited, as soldiers clashed over the disputed territory in the Kashmir region. But at the border ceremony, the confrontation between turban-clad troops was only theatrical bravado. Extending one leg above their heads, the soldiers marched toward one another, high-kicking and stomping like bulls preparing to charge a matador. They stopped in front of the gate and raised their arms, flexing their muscles. The crowd screamed.
I wanted to scream, too. I felt myself getting worked up inside and wanted to join the chorus of voices cheering for the home team. But I refrained from getting too carried away, remembering my role as a journalist. I scanned the stands full of faces that resembled my own, smiling at the sight of all those Pakistani flags waving in unison.
As the sun began to set, the soldiers untied their respective national flags, taking them down for the night.
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