First Impressions of Islamabad

Taken from the BBC website. Mr Alam has put down all that is negative about Islamabad and Pakistan. It is a shame that a man who probably spent his childhood growing up in Pakistan does not have a single positive thing to say about his country. Could he not mention the beauty of Islamabad, the greenery, the landscapes, the infrastructure of the city, the planning, the development, the high literacy rate, the architecture, and above all, the people.

There are problems with cities all over the world. I remember when I visited Philadelphia our family friends who lived there advised us not to visit certain parts of the city. Why? Because they were no-go areas even for residents of the city. Luckily, we do not face any such problems in our cities.

He cites lack of cinemas, theatres and public libraries and questions the city’s right to call itself a city. Though he makes a valid point about provision of such facilities in any city, I don’t think lack thereof makes it any less a city. Though it is unfortunate that there isn’t a cinema, it is understandable considering the decline of the Pakistani film industry. However, I am certain some will spring up soon with the advent of multiplexes in Lahore and Karachi. It is also unfortunate that there are no theatres, however, I am aware that plays take place in Islamabad regularly. Lastly, the lack of public libraries is something which the Government needs to look into. It is the federal capital and also, apparently, posesses the highest literacy rate. To encourage scholarly work and research and future academics we must build libraries in our most educated city. Or rather a city full of educated and professional migrants.

Islamabad is, although unlike most Pakistani cities, still very Pakistani. It has grand mosques, bustling bazaars and happening restaurants in good measure to make up for the lack of cinemas, theatres and libraries. Plus, Islamabad’s natural beauty is what makes it special and not many cities have such a huge portion reserved for forests and greenery.

At last it seems as if the sleeping city of Islamabad is finally awakening and forging an identity for itself apart from being the federal capital.

First Impressions of Islamabad by Masum Alam

The BBC Urdu Service’s Masud Alam has returned to live in Pakistan after 15 years abroad. In his first missive for the BBC News website from Islamabad, he finds everyday life there has become a little surreal.

Islamabad Highway was quietly welcoming.

It was just before dawn. The promise of light was hanging in the misty darkness.

Trees on either side of the dual carriageway formed a solid facade and looked like carved mountains.

The weather was pleasant and the driver who picked us from the airport seemed to respect the traffic rules.

Too much respect, really.

Especially when compared with the other drivers sharing the road with us at that early hour of the day.

He’d use the indicator every time he changed lanes, and would stop at red lights even when the intersections were clear as far as he could see.

Islamabad is possibly the only capital city that has no cinema, theatre or public library

A friend in Karachi had earlier advised me about late night driving in Pakistan: “Go with the flow and don’t stop at red lights after midnight, because if you do, it’ll throw other motorists a sure surprise and you will likely be rammed by the car behind.”

But that was Karachi, and this is Islamabad, I thought to myself.

Near Blue Area intersection, the traffic department of the Capital Development Authority tested the driver’s resolve to follow the traffic lights, come what may.

The signal turned red, and the digital timer next to it started backwards from 170 seconds.

That’s nearly three minutes! Three minutes wait on an intersection on which ours was the only car?

The driver stopped and pulled the handbrake on.

He looked right, left, in front, and then right and left again.

There was no traffic in sight. He fidgeted with the gear stick a little but didn’t move the car.

We sat quietly and waited.

Forty seconds before our signal was to turn green, a car zoomed past us.

Two more followed without even reducing their speed at the intersection.

It was enough to persuade our driver. He looked around one more time and then drove on through the red signal.

He didn’t stop at any traffic light after that.

Who needs a footpath?

Islamabad is, I’m told, unlike any other Pakistani city.

Based on my first impressions I tend to believe Islamabad is unlike any city anywhere in the world.

I’m not even sure if 900 sq km of woodland, cleared in part to house less than a million people, can technically be termed a city at all?

Man and machine are both welcome on Islamabad’s footpaths

If it can be, it’s possibly the only capital city that has no cinema, theatre, or public library.

There is a place called the National Library but it’s situated too deep in the seat of parliament, and therefore too well guarded, for a commoner to access it.

This theme of ‘provision without utility’ is replicated in a number of ways.

Take footpaths for instance.

There are pavements along the roads, at least in the core of the city, but they appear to serve anyone but the poor pedestrian.

I have done some arithmetic on this issue: You can’t walk for more than 30 feet on a footpath in any residential street without having to negotiate a) a driveway built a foot higher or lower than the footpath, b) extension of a garden, c) an open sewer manhole, d) heaps of construction material, e) a parked car, or f) all of the above.

I was walking on the footpath along Bhittai Road, that flanks Jinnah Super market, when I encountered a taxi driving straight at me, with all its four wheels on the footpath.

The driver seemed convinced of his right of way as much as I did.

Apparently the shop owners in the trendy market had objected to taxis taking up parking spaces meant for shoppers, and so authorities had allotted the entire length of footpath to the taxis.

To be fair to the said authorities, they haven’t inconvenienced anyone.

Those who live around Jinnah Super are too posh to be seen walking on their own two feet.

Those who do, find it easier to walk on the road rather than the pesky footpaths.

Outsourcing, Pakistan-style

At any time of the day or night there are more security guards in a street than pedestrians.

There are few provisions for the disabled on Islamabad’s streets but plenty of signs

I’m not quite sure what purpose they serve, except keeping an eye on each other, monitoring the comings and goings of female servants, and forming opinions about their character based on these observations.

I say that not on a hunch but going by the advice our neighbour’s guard volunteered about the two maid servants who came to us looking for work.

The Urdu papers term the proliferation of guards a fad and a status symbol, and refer to the uniformed men as ‘security mafia’.

I see it as an expression of private enterprise’s triumph over the state.

And it isn’t restricted to security affairs.

For sending simple documents – something like a bank’s welcome letter to a new customer – a private courier is trusted more than the state-run postal service; to ensure uninterrupted power supply, invest in generators and related gadgetry; for clean drinking water call Nestle or buy a filtering system.

The state it seems, has outsourced all responsibility to citizens.

Doctor’s advice

Our stomachs are holding up remarkably well so far against the onslaught of unfamiliar or long-forgotten food contents, thanks in part to a doctor friend whose detailed advice covered every risk posed by man, beast, nature, machine and the government.

One of the more alarming bits of advice was about the prevalence of hepatitis and the suggestion that one of the places one could get infected is a dental surgery!

So how does one safeguard against it?

Here is what the doctor prescribed: “Run the full vaccination course; don’t go near a government hospital; choose the most expensive private surgery; insist that the instruments be disinfected twice; and then don’t let the orthodontist put anything in your mouth.”

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3 thoughts on “First Impressions of Islamabad

  1. I agree with Hakim, and having had the opportunity to live in several cities in my lifetime (both in and outside Pakistan), I would call Masum Alam’s ‘first impression’ of Islamabad a disappointment not of what he saw but what he chose to focus on. Like many Pakistanis today, he unfortunately compares everything he sees in Pakistan only selectively with the best of the world.

    Drop all pretensions (even nationalism) and one has to realize that even being the capital, Islamabad is located in a third-world country (or in politically correct terms, a less developed country). As such, to expect the services offered by Pakistan (or the city of Islamabad) to be comparable to the services offered in the likes of Tokyo, New York or London would be quite unfair. If one were to look beyond that, cineplexes and theatres are the domain of the private enterprise: they are there only if the private backers of those enterprises can make a profit, if they can’t it is better off for them to invest in something else. Admittedly, lacking a library is shameful but I would rather have the state spend on a primary school for children that would otherwise not even know how to read a food label let alone think about borrowing from a library.

    And if one is really interested in comparing, why compare just the best aspects of the foreign state to not-so-good aspects of Pakistan? Why not admit to the presence of slums of New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C.? Hakim mentions Philadelphia and I agree with him. In addition to Philadelphia, I’ve lived in NYC and I’ve visited Washington D.C. One is home to most powerful state in the world and the other is possibly (barring London), the financial hub of the world. There are parts of these cities I would not even drive through at night (compare with stop at traffic signals), let alone walk in.

    Why forget the fact that this summer there was a week-long electricity/power outage in a suburb of New York City, and despite the state’s best promises none of the people or businesses affected got any reasonable compensation. Why not realize that people in foreign countries also ‘skip’ traffic signals or speed (and are proud of it): only they check for cops to see if there are any around.

    I’m not excusing all that our cities and our country lack; All I’m trying to say is that every city/country in the world has something you can pick on. Unfortunately our cities have more to pick on but I know there are other countries/cities in the world that are even worse off than ours. And we cannot ignore or lament what our countries lack. Instead we should take the good with the bad and try to improve the bad, instead of blaming it on others.

  2. Having known Masud Alam I might be able to dispel sarcasim associated with his passage. Masud is drawing our attention to rising social and economic disparity in our society, Islamabad is used for its ostensible manner. In very crude terms, I would say Lahore, to a great degree, is representative of social and economic trends of Punjab, same for other provincial capitals with exception for Karachi, which is not very representative of Sindh primarily due to the exodus which changed the demography of the city at mid-night of 14th August 1947. However, people, especially Sindhis, are gradually coming to terms with the shocking experience of Karachi. In a same way, Islamabad’s socio-economic trends are utterly alien to the citizens of Pakistan from other areas, gloating Islamabad as the capital of a highly centralised state some times draws to unreconciled facts and unpleasant experiences which are inescapable due to centralised state.

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