Why I love Pakistan

Despite its terrible troubles, this part of the western subcontinent is lively, beautiful and misund

I've worked in Mumbai and been in India many times, but have always had an ill-concealed soft spot for Pakistan, which sits in the west of the subcontinent.

Pakistan has a much longer history than its three-generational link to 1947 -- it's the land of Gandhara Buddhism, Ashoka and his pillars, the lovely city of Lahore and the archaeological remains of Mohenjo Daro as well as the Indus Valley civilisation. And, like India, it's a land of stunning landscapes, peaceful farming lands and a tight bond between land and people.

It is also at this moment a troubled part of the world. Like India, Pakistan has been able to do little about the rising poverty of its rural poor. Unlike India, it has a long way to go to expand the educated middle class which, over the border, has been responsible in great measure for a buoyant and expanding economy.

Pakistan trains fantastic lawyers (often called to the Bar in London), doctors, engineers, bio scientists, economists and statisticians, teachers and IT specialists, but they often struggle to find the rewarding careers that would be theirs in the west. However, this is beginning to change, largely due to the return of a young generation of American-educated go-getters.

Crucially, the middle classes have also found it difficult to penetrate politics through the National Assembly, where zaminder (landowning) interests and opaque power deals between the army and religious parties predominate. As in India, you need deep pockets and good connections to enter politics. As Salman Rushdie said in Shame (1983): "You can get anywhere in Pakistan if you know people, even into jail."

If India mutters about the ever-present "foreign hand" interfering -- with justification, as both the KGB and the CIA have held sway in New Delhi at different times -- Pakistan has it for real.

Saudi Arabia's charming export of Wahhabism (latterly in the form of the Taliban and al-Qaeda) has been wreaking havoc in the region for decades, destroying the indigenous and centuries-old subcontinental Sunni Sufi mysticism and putting pressure on Pakistan's courtly and aristocratic Shia intelligentsia as well as its Ahmadi, Hindu and Christian minorities.

It would have needed an exceptionally strong, moral, good, worldly and intelligent leader of Pakistan in the 1970s to avoid the lure and trap of Saudi money, which was accepted to improve the country's infrastructure and real estate. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was not it.

While Pakistan's international image has suffered immeasurably in the intervening years, I would urge all who love the subcontinent to look past the headlines and the international analysis, and see a country which, for the moment at least, is cut off from its continental neighbour. Here are my own reasons for loving Pakistan:

1. Women are noisily at the centre of Pakistani life. Challenging and vocal, they sit at the heart of the family and have made good progress into professional and political life.

Declan Walsh reported the terrible attack on the Ahmadi community in June, and noted that it was three women from different parties -- ANP's Bushra Rehman, MQM's Khushbakht Shujaat and PPP's Farahnaz Ispahani -- led by the former PPP minister Sherry Rehman, who crossed the floor in the National Assembly and made sure the legislature said "no".

In human rights and the state's nurturing of all religions and religious minorities, Pakistan has never gone far enough. But with 30 per cent of seats in the National Assembly occupied by women (India has 10 per cent), they are playing a more significant role in the legislature. That may help bring the country back to Jinnah's original ideals of a tolerant, secular nation.

2. Pakistan has a line in very attractive men, from old heart-throbs such as Tariq Ali and Imran Khan to a younger generation such as Lahore's most happening export to Bollywood, Ali Zafar.

Outlook India recently ran a fascinating piece about the film history of Peshawar: Shashi Kapoor and Shahrukh Khan's families were from this region. I very much hope that Sanjeev Bhaskar won't mind if I put his handsome features down to west Punjab, where his family lived for centuries (his father's ancestral village was Badhoki Gosaiyan).

And you will be hard pressed to find sweeter coverage than the respectful and affectionate writing about women in the weekend papers.

3. Pakistan has a varied and lively media, though perhaps not always on the side of the angels. But probably more than India, it has a range of sophisticated English-language newspapers (firmly on the side of the angels), including Najam Sethi's PEN Award-winning Friday Times and Karachi's Dawn. (Their closest competitors in India are Vinod Mehta's Outlook India and the Hindu.) Both are written in classic, poised prose and boast incisive columnists as well as world-class books, arts and cultural coverage.

In Mohammed Hanif, Ali Sethi, Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie, Pakistan has a growing raft of writers (some of them Harvard-educated) who explore political and social themes.

4. The country survives daily life on humour, a curious cross-blend of the subcontinental and something rather like Oxbridge Private Eye. But if in the west the well of ribaldry comes from the misfortune of others, in Pakistan, the humour is rather more subtly how people try to find their way out of that misfortune.

It's a richer hoard altogether that provides endless material at social gatherings, as well as for TV star transvestites such as Begum Nawazish Ali.

Over the border in India, the vaudeville slapstick of Mr Bean appeals greatly to audiences. Pakistan finds itself closer to Yes Minister.

5. Pakistanis adore their children: to be born into a settled family in the subcontinent is to enter a very happy world of love and adoration. Only Italians compare in their child-worship. It's not such a strange thing to mention, because in the west there are still hints of Victoriana in our upbringing -- don't talk with your mouth full, don't point, it's rude to stare, say you're sorry.

If you're a boy in Pakistan or India, you're on a winning ticket. Not only will be you adored and pampered, but you'll be allowed just as rich an emotional life as the girls. By contrast, British boys are expected to rein it in. Pakistani fathers are proud as Punch of their girls and their ability to outshine the boys with top marks at school and university.

6. It is a country that thrives on mixed metaphors. So, for those to the west of the border, the song I choose for you is the hauntingly beautiful "Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai" ("What Is This World to Me?").

It comes from the film about mistaken identity and lack of life's essentials Pyaasa (Thirst, 1957), directed by and featuring Guru Dutt, a Hindu whose melancholy perhaps made him an honorary subcontinental Muslim. The melody was written by S D Burman (a Bengali Hindu), the lyrics were written by the Urdu poet Saahir (Abdul Hayee, a Punjabi Muslim) and they were sung by Mohammed Rafi (another Punjabi Muslim). You can watch it here.

It's worth remembering that although the song does not have a happy ending, the film does.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.