A Foreigner’s View of Pakistan
By Akhtar Mahmud Faruqui
A land of entrancing landscapes and enchanting characters. A people with distinct contrasts and marked similarities. A social fabric spun around genetic diversities yet retaining an indisputable cultural identity. A rural setting pointing to the beginning of times and an urban scenario heralding the dawn of the twenty-first century. Many obscured Judes aspiring to work in glittering nuclear power reactors that testify to the country’s march in the twenty-first century.
A quick dash from tropical Karachi to icy Hunza enables one to experience such wondrous contrasts, such pleasant variations of climate, landscape and people that one could possibly encounter while traversing the arduously long distance from Sicily to Norway in Europe!
The claim might sound extravagant, nay, the exaggerated view of a starry-eyed Pakistani. Far from that. An eminent doctor, Professor Karl Irsigler, advanced it with no small degree of conviction when we met in Karachi sometime back. Hearing his observations about Pakistan at an official dinner hosted at the conclusion of his visit was an edifying experience.
President of the Austrian Society for Artificial Organs, Chairman and Founder of the International Study Group for Implanted Insulin Delivery Device, and a member of the New York Academy of Sciences, the Austrian doctor was invited to lecture at the leading medical centers in Pakistan. Spanning two weeks, his visit proved to be a memorable sojourn: for the Pakistani doctors, Professor Irsigler’s lectures were informative and illuminating and for the Austrian Professor himself the visit was rewarding and enjoyable.
The Karakorums, for instance, provided him “a testimony of the creation of the world.” The river has cut through the rocks, making gaping dents and the radiant layers of sulphates (yellow), iron (red) – “layers of past times” - tell the story of yesteryear, of centuries gone by. As for modern times, Islamabad, the youngest of Pakistan cities, has nothing comparable in Europe. “No new city of such dimensions has emerged though expansion of European cities has taken place,” Professor Irsigler observed.
The idyllic surroundings of Khunjrab Pass, Hunza, Gilgit, Gulmit, Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, though vastly different, are “evenly attractive.” Karachi’s long beach and the north’s prospective skiing spots are particularly enticing for tourists. The beach-skiing combination is a rare physical phenomenon, particularly if “packed together in such a compact space.”
Culture of the soul: Those who willingly endure all kinds of privations with marginal participation in the vast benefits of modern life - the Pakistanis inhabiting the northern part of the country - elicited the admiration of the Austrian. Inarticulate but free from affectations they were demonstrably free from superficial complexes too - neither overawed by foreign visitors nor inclined to envy their lot.
Dr Irsigler was invited to scanty homes by wayside shepherds as he trudged his way from Karimabad to Aliabad on foot. At some places he looked askance when offered presents and served apples as a gesture of hospitality. At the unfrequented wayside bazaars, no bargaining took place nor any attempt made to extract higher profits from the stray tourists. The behavior and attitude of the people “confirmed that the crust of civilization was extremely strong” and earned them a compliment: “They have a culture of the soul” unlike the poor in Europe where communism had made deep inroads and urgings of the soul evoked little response.
But the Austrian doctor’s experience in the cities was not quite the same. The educated class was generally self-assured and warm-hearted but a good many of the academics betrayed signs of servitude, reminding one of the British Raj and the “subcontinent’s deep rooted caste system.” The those-who-matter type appeared superciliously disposed and the middle-class majority looked somewhat diffident. To his surprise, a young lady doctor sitting in the company of her director considered it presumptuous to respond to Dr Irsigler even when his questions were directed to her! On each occasion, the director chose to reply on her behalf.
“A male-dominated society,” was his insistent charge, one he seemed to shed partly when he heard the giggles and peremptory tones of ladies in the din of the hilltop restaurant where we dined that evening. It did not need great persuasion to convince him that the Pakistani woman has been emancipated from the remorseless routines and mundane obligations of domestic life. That she has successfully donned the mantle of teacher, lawyer, diplomat, politician, judge, editor, newscaster and prime minister. The Herald, symbolizing the quintessence of journalism, was largely the effort of a gifted group of female journalists and testified to the forward plod of the fair sex. The behavior of the doctor was an exception to the general rule.
Irsigler junior, 22, and his mother appeared equally perceptive. Both expressed surprise that pretty Pakistani women hardly cared for their looks. “In Europe there is an unwritten rule to try to look attractive to your husband. This is not so in Pakistan,” complained Mrs Irsigler. The women appeared too obsessed with the upbringing of the children. “One good aspect of this attitude is that in Pakistan the kids have their mothers, in Europe they don’t,” remarked Irsigler junior.
Irsigler senior felt that the HBTA (Had Been To America) complex, a contagious rage among the educated Austrians, seems to have captured the fancy of many a young Pakistani. There is a scramble for boarding a trans-Atlantic flight to make a hurried pilgrimage to the New World. Those who can dash to the American shores proudly recount their experiences and affiliations; those who can’t are left to fret and fume and to treat life as a mere drudgery.
The HBTA complex in Austria was occasioned not so much by the American lifestyle as by the better working conditions offered by American educational, scientific and R & D institutions. Over a twenty-year period, the Austrians successfully closed the gap in the working conditions and the HBTA complex no longer stains the Austrian society. The Austrians found themselves at peace with their own country. This could happen to Pakistanis too. Given the will, the goal could be achieved. “Some of the medical institutions in Pakistan are comparable with the best in the world. They are unarguably manned by competent doctors and para-medical staff,” observed Dr Irsigler. There is no reason why Pakistan could not do equally well in other fields.
The road journey from Islamabad to Peshawar proved a hazardous experience for the visitors. Alarmed at the volume of exhaust from cars, trucks and buses – “well beyond the permissible limits and at least ten times that in Europe” - he made a pert comment: “The high incidence of lung cancer in the country was in no small measure due to air pollution from cars which would increase in the future” if remedial measures (like regular smog checks in Los Angeles) were not precipitously taken. In Karachi, he found the exhaust appreciably higher.
The pollution-lung cancer link re-echoed a New York medical examiner’s recent claim: “On the autopsy table it’s unmistakable. The man who has spent his life in the mountains has pink lungs. The city dweller’s are as black as coal.” Man pays dearly for trifling with the delicate chemical and climatic balances on which his very survival hinges.
Opportunities being few, as in most developing countries, Pakistan needs positive-oriented deviants to check its demographic growth and to usher the northern parts and rural countryside into the 21st century. A critical role could also be played by commerce and free enterprise. In the sixties and seventies, the Yugoslavians set out to improve their lot by going to Austria, Germany and Switzerland and bringing home handsome savings. They excelled in free enterprise and gave a spurt to the country’s economy. Pakistan could do likewise. The Middle-East earnings could be gainfully invested to give a fillip to the country’s economy by promoting free enterprise in a big way. The humdrum effort of buying plots and building plazas could hardly pay off in the long run, Professor Irsigler felt.
Summing up, he described Pakistan as a relatively young country with very many scenic attractions and a gifted people receptive to reform. The need to diffuse education and innovation among urban and rural dwellers was paramount for a forward push toward the 21st century.
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