Page last updated at 10:03 GMT, Thursday, 22 October 2009 11:03 UK

Tale of two Pakistans

Pakistan has been described by Newsweek magazine as "the most dangerous place in the world". However, as intense fighting continues and casualties rise, Mohammed Hanif in Karachi says that for the moment there is still a thriving social life.

Last week I received an e-mail from the foreign editor of a European newspaper who said: "So I wonder if you could write a story for us about living in Pakistan which, looking from here, seems to be the bottom of hell."

Pakistani cricket fans celebrate their country"s team victory in the final of Twenty20 World Cup against Sri Lanka, in Islamabad, Pakistan on Sunday, June 21, 2009
Pakistan is also a place for celebrations following sporting victories.

I was tempted to write to him and tell him that we were not at the bottom of hell yet, but we were trying hard to get there.

Or something like, yes, we are at the bottom of the hell but at least the weather is fine.

I also thought of asking whether the bottom of hell is supposed to have hole-in-the-wall cash machines and art galleries.

Do they allow children to play cricket in the street there? Is dancing at weddings allowed?

'Bad name'

I did not write it because I realised that I was thinking like a certain kind of Pakistani.

There is a certain kind of man or woman here who is very concerned about the image of their country.

Not that they are unconcerned about suicide bombers, or about the electricity crisis or about urban slums or the fluctuating fortunes of the Pakistani cricket team.

They do care about these things. But they think that the Taliban and the power crisis and dropped catches are bad because they bring their beloved country a bad name.

Earlier this year there was a film celebrating the lives of four professional Pakistanis. According to the makers of Made in Pakistan, the show was a response to a Newsweek cover story which described Pakistan as "the most dangerous place in the world".

The documentary might not have made Newsweek change its editorial judgment but it played to packed houses with a red-carpet reception and half-a-dozen television crews.

A mother with her daughter who was injured in the bombing at Islamabad's Islamic University
During the first two weeks of October there were 13 attacks in Pakistan, including one on the Pakistani Army's headquarters

Image conscious Pakistanis are likely to point out that despite all the country's troubles it is a vibrant democracy.

They never forget to remind us that Pakistan has some of the liveliest pop music in South Asia, our contemporary art is hot property at Sotheby's, our writers are nominated for international awards and our philanthropists fund world-class hospitals.

They tend to forget that this is no consolation for someone trying to escape South Waziristan with American drones in the sky, the Pakistan army closing in and the Taliban digging in their heels for yet another last stand.

'Bottom of hell'

During the first two weeks of October there were 13 attacks in Pakistan, including one on the Pakistani army's headquarters.

During the same two weeks, a painfully detailed production of Chekov's The Seagull had a successful 10-day run in Karachi.

At another venue local actors put together a female version of The Odd Couple and the Abba musical Mamma Mia opened to a standing ovation.

There were scores of other events across the country, such as the 25th anniversary of a street theatre group, a film festival for children, dozens of music concerts, thousands of weddings and endless games of street cricket. One does not expect so many people frolicking at the bottom of hell.

Social networking sites were split between people who were commenting on the authenticity of the Mamma Mia costumes and those asking 'What is happening to my country?'

The other day I was reading an article by a friend who hates musicals. She had written that the Karachi opening of Mamma Mia might be the last stand against the Taliban, but it was still girls in spandex singing Abba songs.

While reading the piece, I turned on the TV and saw that the Taliban had been on the rampage in Pakistan's cultural capital, Lahore.

Recently these attacks have been happening with such frequency that I have come to believe that if you turn on a local news channel and stare at the screen long enough a bomb will go off somewhere.

On this morning, an explosion in Kohat killed more than 50 civilians. As I was reeling from the gory images, another story broke... an attack was under way on a police commandoes facility in Lahore. Then more breaking news... an investigation centre had been targeted.

Soon my TV screen was split in three and I could follow the progress of all three attacks.

'Bright spots'

Later in the day, social networking sites were split between people who were commenting on the authenticity of the Mamma Mia costumes and those asking "What is happening to my country?".

Searching for bright spots in Pakistan, many foreign newspapers have recently done soft stories on the country.

They have covered Pakistani painters, philanthropists, rock stars and, in one desperate piece, Facebook protesters.

What we tend to often forget is that the cultural activities we want the world to focus on take place in a middle-class, affluent bubble, with electricity generators on standby, private security guards with scanners, and which are often bankrolled by mobile-phone companies or fast food chains.

Outside this bubble, millions try to eke out a living, then go home to watch the horrors of the day on their split screens.

Not too many of them get to go to the theatre to sing along with those jaunty Abba songs even if Money Money Money is the only anthem allowed at the bottom of hell.

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SEE ALSO
Country profile: Pakistan
14 May 11 |  Country profiles


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