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Page last updated at 11:05 GMT, Wednesday, 1 July 2009 12:05 UK

Washington diary: Jackson in Pakistan

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

The untimely death of a global celebrity can prove to be a distraction in the most unlikely places.

Pakistan's Sindh provincial Minister for Culture Sassui Palijo lays a flower bouquet beside a huge poster of Michael Jackson during a ceremony on 29 June  in Hyderabad, Pakistan.
Michael Jackson's death prompted many tributes in Pakistan

I was in Pakistan last week when Michael Jackson breathed his last.

And although the region described by Barack Obama as "the most dangerous on earth" has plenty to worry about, nearly every single channel on my hotel TV - from Pakistani cable news to the morning prayers on the Baluchi version of Breakfast News - featured a story about the gloved one.

On one local station, most of the screen showed an imam apparently railing against the infidel invader - that would be America - while a small box in the bottom right hand corner displayed the skeletal face of one of the infidel invader's citizens pouting at the camera - that would be Michael Jackson.

The young soldier guarding our guest house even tried to do a version of the moonwalk to capture the moment of history.


Whether you are a die-hard Jackson fan from Albania beating your chest in despair, an LA groupie flocking to the rented Jackson mansion in Beverly Hills, or one of white-gloved Japanese mourners spotted by a colleague in California, the moments when just about everyone on the globe is briefly united in such fascination are extremely rare.

In the searing heat of an Islamabad morning, the Jackson moment evaporated within the hour and it was back to daily life.

Islamabad has always been a curious anomaly in South Asia.

Slums have seemingly been banished, and villas fill the tree-lined streets. The parliament is a flat slab that reminds me of the Kennedy Centre in Washington.

Matt Frei in the BBC World News America studio
Most of the time I felt as if I was walking on the moon rather than doing the moonwalk

Islamabad is as empty as Canberra and as artificial as Brasilia.

There is an old joke about these pop-up government towns: they are half the size of the Chicago cemetery and twice as dead. In Islamabad that does not apply merely to the atmosphere.

In temperatures of 46C (115F), the pavements seem to melt. The brain is poached and even lifting a glass of cold lime juice to one's lips feels like a work-out. Torpor numbs the senses.

Most of the time I felt as if I was walking on the moon rather than doing the moonwalk.

But what really struck me in my few moments of lucid reflection is the fact that Islamabad has turned into a fortress city.

There are roadblocks everywhere. You cannot even get close to the government quarter - it is blocked off to traffic from half a mile away.

Tank barriers are strewn across once busy avenues; balls of barbed wire roll around like tumble-weed.

Impressive security

At first I thought the parliament might be the sight of nuclear contamination. It was as isolated as a mini-Chernobyl.

What is toxic here is of course the politics of extremism.

Suicide bombers have been busy all over Pakistan, including in the once-sedate bureaucratic enclave of Islamabad. The Marriott Hotel, which I spent several weeks in after 9/11, was devastated by a truck bomb last November that left more than 50 dead and a tennis court sized crater.

It has since been refurbished, reopened and reinforced.

I have never seen anything like it. A 3.6m (12ft) bomb barrier surrounds the hotel. This is surrounded by another wall of grey rolls of Kevlar, the kind of stuff that goes into your flak jacket.

There is a small army billeted outside, made up of dozens of burly agents with walkie-talkies.

Cars are eased into an air-tight bomb chamber, where they are thoroughly inspected - a kind of car wash for explosives. The snouts of sniffer-dogs provide the final polish.

An army checkpoint in Islamabad, Pakistan
Islamabad can sometimes feel like a city under siege

The pedestrian entrance is a bunker with a security detail and several metal detectors. You think you are entering a nuclear facility.

The only reminder that this is in fact a hotel is a small mahogany desk manned by a hotel employee with a plumed turban and a red coat, standing behind a sign that says "Concierge".

The security arrangements are impressive. They seem to have worked so far.

But really this is no way to live.

Ultimately, the road blocks will only come down if there is a political solution to Pakistan's problems. And here I am less hopeful.

Violent death

The first problem is what they call the poverty bomb. Half the country of 165 million is illiterate. Roughly the same number of people live on $2 a day.

Pakistani democracy is forever diluted by the perils of dynasty. President Zardari is the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Their son, still a student at Oxford, is being groomed to take over one day. Mrs Bhutto's father, the other Prime Minister Bhutto, was executed by General Zia, who was himself killed by an assassin's bomb hidden on his plane.

Violent death is one of the hazards of the job of running Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the country's middle class has either moved abroad or is cowering behind ever higher walls as the Taliban and their allies plot the next suicide bomb.

What is the point of our country? Are we a garrison state? A Muslim state or a state of Muslims?
Pakistani government official

The only institution that really functions well in Pakistan is the army - and that is not a healthy situation.

A senior Pakistani government official put it like this over a bowl of pistachio nuts and some impossibly sweet tea:

"Every week I clutch my head in despair. Yes the army is finally taking on the extremists. But where are we really heading? What is the vision of Pakistan? What is the point of our country? Are we a garrison state? A Muslim state or a state of Muslims?"

If you no longer know what the point of your country is, it becomes very difficult to win any war, let alone one against an internal enemy that offers Islamic piety laced with anti-Western poison.

Pakistan's real enemy these days does not sit on the other side of the country's Eastern border in India.

It is the homegrown cancer of extremism, festering in the cities and fanned in the tribal areas, which is far more dangerous.

And yet most of the army's divisions are still lingering on the Eastern front - only two reserve divisions have been deployed on the Western border with Afghanistan, where the real battle is taking place.

"India is still our mortal enemy," a general told me. "They are using this as a diversion. It's a trap!"

And then it struck me. Without India as its cherished enemy, Pakistan - a patchwork of diverse people, languages and geography - would have to go back to the drawing board and redefine why it actually exists.

In that sense, it is a bit like the eerily morphing body of the late Michael Jackson: puzzling beyond recognition.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday on BBC News, BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).

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