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Travel in music: Chapter 28 - 2005, Pakistan

2020, the world is in confinement because of a corona virus. I have used this time to reminisce on my past through a musical blog series. They will take you through my peregrinations on this tiny, unique earth, in chronological order. Click on the song, use it as soundtrack, and enjoy!


2005 – Chapter 28 | When our agency asked for candidates willing to undertake a project in Pakistan, no one came forward except Leanne and I. The USA’s “global war on terror” was in full swing, and I suppose most of our colleagues feared it would not be safe. Conveniently, we were both very eager to discover the country and to work together. In hindsight, we clearly acted on the right instinct. Pakistan was not just a fascinating destination; it is where we fell in love with each other.

Because we were reporting on the textile industry, we split our time between Karachi and Faisalabad, with visits to Islamabad, Lahore and Multan. Along with China and India, Pakistan was one of the textile giants that most gained from the WTO elimination of global trade quotas in 2005. It was a cotton producing country, with a long-standing tradition, cheap labor and the economies of scale necessary to remain competitive. Pakistan produced few things – denim, linen, and towel fabric mostly – but it produced them in humongous quantities.

Hospitality was not in short supply either in Pakistan. Almost every factory visit or business interview led to a dinner invitation with extended family. It became so regular, in fact, that we guiltily dodged a few to keep some peace and sanity. We met a student who became our transcriber and soon befriended her whole family. They opened up their home, introduced us to friends and took us out to restaurants and mocktail bars. The friendship endured. Many years later, the whole family attended our engagement party in Belgium and one of the daughters paid us a visit in Mexico.

On a beach overlooking the Arabian Sea, we initiated conversation with a group of youngsters. They were cousins who had traveled from Faisalabad to Karachi for a wedding. The next day, we were the guests of honor at the wedding! The married couple, bedecked in jewelry, sat on thrones on a stage facing the guest tables. A giant partition split the room according to gender. I was sitting with the Karachi male relatives, a rowdy, jovial bunch who kept sneaking out to sip on whisky they had smuggled into the party, unbeknownst to the elders. Leanne and Marina, our very blonde Russian trainee, sat with their wives and sisters on the other side of the parapet, in what seemed to be the less fun half of the wedding. They explained that having foreign guests was a good omen and feted us accordingly. Of course, we were honored to witness such an intimate event but it also felt a little awkward to be treated like VIPs among people we had only met the day before. When we moved to Faisalabad a few weeks later, they took us in as if we were old friends.

We had a similar experience in Lahore, which we visited in the middle of Basant, the kite flying festival that celebrates the coming of spring in the Punjab region of Pakistan and India. Upon knowing we would be ‘alone’ (translation: without close family), a business acquaintance included us in all the festival celebrations. We danced on his rooftop, among his friends, while admiring the colorful kite ballet in the Lahore skyline. The next day, we traveled to the Waga border post where the changing of the guard on both the Indian and the Pakistani sides has turned into a spectacle hundreds of people attend. Waving flags and chanting nationalist slogans, the crowds watch a few soldiers in gleaming parade uniforms perform a ritual that says as much about the two countries’ rivalry as it says about their uncanny cultural similarities.

Perhaps such hospitality draws from the country’s ancient roots. Indeed, archaeologists have unearthed one of humankind’s oldest known settlements in Pakistan’s Indus valley. When we visited, the once glorious city of Mohenjo-daro was not much more than a large pack of ruins. However, we could still clearly see what sophisticated knowledge of civil engineering and urban planning this early civilization had, almost 50 centuries before our time.

We had a similar feeling of traveling back in time when we flew to Kabul. Taking advantage of the fact that a college friend worked in Afghanistan, I offered Leanne a return ticket on Ariana airline as our first Valentine’s Day present. War with the Taliban was still raging, as the many checkpoints and heavy military presence attested. However, we also felt a strange atmosphere of solidarity and almost careless abandon among the NGO and Red Cross workers we met on this short trip. Constant tension required an exhaust valve and Kabul’s wild nightlife clearly provided it. My friend was busy trying to build up civil society. Drawing on his extensive knowledge of the region and fluency in Dari and Pashtun, he toured the village “jirgas” (council of elders) to convince them to take part in modern parliamentary processes by appointing representatives of their tribe or region. He took us on one of these trips, to the entrance of the Panjshir Valley, where we spent two nights in a remote village. Snow capped the peaks of the Hindu Kush ranges, silvery streams shone on the mountain flanks, but the valleys were coarse and dry, dotted with mud brick villages. Through these indescribably beautiful landscapes, we rode jet-black horses; it felt like traveling through the pages of Joseph Kessel’s “Les Cavaliers”, the novel he devoted to the buzkashi-playing horsemen of Afghanistan.

Thanks to Peter Gabriel’s Real World music label, I was already a big fan of Qawwali music before traveling to Pakistan. In Karachi, I was finally able to attend live-playing ceremonies right in the heart of the Sufi mystics’ shrines. These were crowded, spiritual affairs where, amid hashish fumes and incense vapors, the trance-like rhythms of the tabla drums and harmonium melodies gained an almost hypnotic quality. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is the biggest ambassador of Qawwali. He opened it up to international audiences thanks in no small part to crossover performances like this one, with Pearl Jam’s lead singer, Eddie Vedder. As a nod to our shared love for Pakistan, when Leanne and I married in Cape Town three years later, we walked down the aisle to this tune, while I wore a traditional shalwar kamiz (a wedding gift from the family whose hospitality will always keep Karachi as a special place in our hearts).


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