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Last Updated: Friday, 5 January 2007, 17:41 GMT
First impressions of Islamabad
Islamabad view
Green in the winter: Islamabad can be beautiful
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?

Car on the footpath
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.

Street sign
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."

This debate is now closed. Here is a selection of comments you sent.


For all the terrible things about Pakistan that Mr Alam has observed, it obviously also gave him a good education and the ability to get a job in the UK so he could be allowed to come back and look down on his own country. This article tells us more about Mr Alam than about Pakistan (or the Indian sub-continent for that matter).
Raja Goplan, India

Its all true. The writer was trying to create humour from the sad state of the country and its capital. Its weird how people coming from abroad find our misery and problems funny instead of worrying.
Imran Suhail, Pakistan

Hey Masud Alam, what about Bangalore as your next destination? Here you have lots of cinemas, libraries, thousands s of parks, pubs, discos, nightclubs, traffic is like Islamabad, footpaths are good and greenery everywhere, people are helpful, and very much cosmopolitan.
Himanshu Jani, Bangalore, India

Why do writers from western countries always search for the faults in our countries, and never highlight the positive side of our countries?
Virender Thakur Madrid(Spain)

Cities evolve over time, they cannot just be planned and built, otherwise they have no character. India has a similar city, Chandigarh that I have visited. Nice place but no character, although they do have plenty of pubs and cinemas :-)
J. Singh, USA.

Why did you decide to come back to Pakistan? Guess we will never know the real reason given the fact that the world has changed after 9/11, and Asians are having a tough time in the west. Lets see when you find something positive to write about....too much grumbling will turn you into a grouch and rub off onto your kids.
Parveen, Pakistan

The choice of good words does not make any article praiseworthy. It is the theme and tone which makes it worth reading. Unfortunately the writer could not see the beautiful landscape, the relatively organised life, beautiful buildings, large universities and parks...nothing but negatives. Can't you make similar observations about the UK cities?
Zahid ur Rehman Khokher, Karachi, Pakistan

I have been to Islamabad once, when I was 13 years old. I wasn't very impressed with the dust, noise and flies. However, when I saw how most of the people are willing to help each other and the relationship between the neighbours and the respect for elderly and women the dust, noise and the flies didn't matter. I was involved in a bus accident in Pakistan. Every one was asking every one else if they are ok and needed any help. I was involved in a car accident in UK and every one was so busy to go on their way that no one even stepped out of their car. So forget about any help. In fact the accident had caused them inconvenience and they were shouting abuse. People matter not the traffic lights.
Robbina Qureshi, UK

I think Mr. Alam is well aware of rules of the game of living in Pakistan: 1. Nepotism and patronage is the foundation on which society stands. Never try to undermine these foundations. Rather learn the rules to build up your own useful network. 2. Get rid of all the rubbish you have accumulated in your head about rule of law etc. Never cross the way of powerful and mighty. 3. A little sulking about the "system" is allowed now and then. Just to keep your blood boiling on the mornings you have difficulty coming out of bed. 4. A lifetime of prudence in observing these rules may elevate you to highest places in Pakistan in due time. Otherwise God may help you.
Masroor Bangesh, Germany

Mr Masud Alam, what a negative person you are! I am saddened that you could not find any thing worth praising or even slightly positive to report. Is this to please your British masters or your Indian friends? I am sure you are not blind but most probably you have come to Pakistan complaining that reporting negatively is your "professional and national duty". Please change your attitude and find positive thing about your country, its people, and way of life.
Moaz Sharif, Canada

As Mr Alam is finding, conditions in Pakistan (and other third world countries) are not as good as in the UK, etc. But the Pakistan economy and those of many other poor countries have been expanding, and creating more wealth and opportunities for their people. Hopefully things like satellite TV, the internet, etc, will improve public awareness of various social issues, and there will be increased pressure on governments to manage things better. NGOs can play an important role. Hopefully standards of education and administration too will improve. With such changes, hopefully conditions will gradually improve in the poorer countries. One has to be understanding and patient.
Rajiv, India

I think your reporter is used to of locations outside South Asia for too long now. Send him to any city in this region and you would find the same things. Of course Indian cities have cinemas, and libraries etc, but when talking about public amenities, India and Pakistan all seem to be same. Send him to Pune for example and let him face this situation all by himself.
MKS, India

I totally agree with the writer as I have seen all this happening in Pakistan myself, but still I am a bit surprised to know that Islamabad is no different even though its the capital city. The question is why our president and prime minister are unable to do anything about it?
Mansoor Ahmad, England

I grew up in Peshawar, a city three hours away from Islamabad. Unfortunately I had to travel to Islamabad more frequently than I wished for. I found the city quite boring and dead but this article was interesting, even if it was quite exaggerated! First of all, security guard mania can be found anywhere in Pakistan and the same goes for the Nestle drinking fad. Islamabad really does not need cinemas because there are plenty in Rawalpindi - its twin city. To take Islamabad on its own without considering Rawalpindi is a mistake. As for hepatitis - prevalent as it is - the advice received made me laugh out loud. But I guess everybody has their own personal safety benchmark!
Amna, Canada

I really enjoyed this article. It shows the true colours of Pakistan. If only Pakistan did not spend so much of its annual budget on the useless armed forces (full of skinny men) then maybe they could take care of all of their citizens.
Usi Ali, Manchester, UK

Great observations by the author, but how did troop deployments at the airport escape his eyes? This was the first thing I noticed when I landed in Islamabad. There were people who were working and then there were people in uniform, standing around like spectators! You see them everywhere from baggage handling to immigration. They are just there to oversee! I think this is the general thinking in Pakistan and is dutifully followed by everyone, particularly by the state.
Ruthless Operator, France

I have been visiting Islamabad for many years now, as I have very close family there. So I looked forward to reading this article. You can imagine my shock then on discovering such a negative article that doesn't depict the Islamabad I have ever visited. Every city has its faults, Islamabad, however, is clean, well-planned and incredibly orderly. It is certainly unique, there is no other city in South Asia that is as well organised! What it lacks in character, it makes up for in other ways.
Natasha, UK

I agree that Islamabad is very different from other cities in Pakistan. Ever since successive governments commercialized the capital there have been plenty of large advertisements and billboards erected where ever there is space. I wonder how much money the Capital Development Authority is making from these garish billboards? Islamabad was the only city that was peaceful and where natural scenery was retained, but now that look has totally gone.
Mrs Aamir, Pakistan




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