A to B: Cars like tanks

Travel through Pakistan is intimately segregated by class, writes Samira Shackle. If you're rich, you just keep driving.

We are driving along the highway, a big, multi-laned road that could be in any major European country, when we realise we’ve missed the turn for Attock. There is nowhere to turn off the highway for miles; by the time we finally manage to get off the road and drive back the way we came, it is getting dark. I tweet an inane joke about being lost in north-western Pakistan. A response comes back: “I’m not sure you want to be roaming around that area at this time of night.”

Now we are on the Grand Trunk (GT) Road, one of the oldest roads in South Asia, which stretches from Bangladesh across northern India and Pakistan, and up to Afghanistan. In Pakistan it spans the most populous province of Punjab, from Lahore in the south, through Islamabad and up to the north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). It pre-dates the highway and you can tell; the road is more uneven, there are pedestrians walking on dusty pavements, and the motorbikes which are an ever-present feature of driving in Pakistan’s cities – thankfully absent from the highway – are back in force.

Not only are we lost, we are lost in a militarised zone, Kamra. The site of a large airbase, and cantonment, the town was attacked by militants a few years previously. Pakistan’s atomic assets are stored nearby. The authorities are jumpy about foreigners being in the area.

We pull up near the pavement, and in broken Urdu, I ask a man the way to Attock, where we are visiting friends. He gestures up ahead, and tells us to take the next left. “Isn’t that the airbase?” I ask. He nods. “You’ll need your ID cards.” “We’re foreigners,” I say, “we don’t have ID cards, but we have passports.” He shrugs. “You can try.”

In front of the airbase is a huge statue of an eagle, reminiscent of the Third Reich. We drive up to the toll booth. This was an error: the guard is unimpressed to say the least. “Who are you? What are you doing?” We’re trying to go to Attock, to visit a friend, I explain, thrusting our passports at him. He looks suspiciously into the car, taking in the box of cherries, the discarded sunglasses, the printed out Google maps. We can almost see him register that we are idiots rather than spies, and that this isn’t a fight worth fighting. Wearily, he tells us foreigners are not permitted to drive through the airbase, and sends us back on our way. Eventually, we get there. Our host’s first question: “Have you been followed?”

Travelling around Pakistan, one of the main priorities is to “keep a low profile”. You don’t want to attract the attention of the security services, terrorists, or, perhaps the highest risk, local criminals. In the face of poor law and order enforcement, foreigners and those with means – those most likely to face a threat – take steps to ensure their own security.

The road trip from Islamabad to Attock and nearby village Shadi Khan, on the border of Punjab and KPK, was one of many I took while living in Pakistan’s capital city. The network of highways allows easy travel around the province, and the relatively stable security situation – Punjab is one of the safer parts of Pakistan, and the National Highway Police well-respected – means it’s possible to travel around the province by road. This was a shock after living in the southern port city of Karachi, where the very idea of a road trip was unthinkable. The city, Pakistan’s economic hub, is volatile and dangerous, a melting pot of ethnic and sectarian tension, intense poverty and ostentatious wealth, and warring gangs and mafias vying for control. During the months I lived there, numerous work trips were cancelled due to law and order problems on the roads: a running gun battle here, an explosion there.

Across this intensely class-bound country, your means of transportation is a marker of status. One measure is that if you are rich, you have a car but do not drive it yourself (a driver does that), if you are middle class, you drive your own car, and if you are poor, you cannot afford a car at all. At the bottom end of the spectrum are the private minibuses which rocket around with passengers clinging to the sides and the roof, or the auto-rickshaws which buzz around the city. Those who can manage it may invest in a motorbike. It is hair-raising to see a family of five crammed onto a single motorbike, babies and all, the women riding side-saddle to preserve their modesty, weaving in and out of traffic.

Islamabad, the capital, is a planned city, built on grid system with greenery everywhere. As in many other countries, foreigners often break the norms, riding motorbikes or bicycles or even – gasp – walking. In Karachi, a sprawling megalopolis, this would be unthinkable. A functioning, business-like city, it has huge roads with five lanes of traffic, which fast descend into insane jams, particularly given the frequent road blocks and security alerts. Many of the wealthy always travel with a driver or even an armed guard, to give at least the semblance of extra security. An air-conditioned car feels like a small tank against the chaos outside, but in fact, you are not really protected at all. Muggings at gun point, which are so routine in the city that many people carry two phones so they can give one over to robbers without much inconvenience, mostly happen in queues of traffic: a man on a motorbike drives up to your window and points a gun at you. There is not much a driver can do in that situation. Kidnapping, the other main threat, can also happen while you are enclosed in the apparent safety of a car. A family friend was kidnapped by terrorists on his way to work; gunmen surrounded the car and knocked out the driver.

Like the highways across Punjab, the main roads in Karachi are wide, freshly tarmac-ed, and highly functional. But despite the self-contained bubbles, the cars which the wealthy always travel in, safety is still a concern. Driving to the beach on the outskirts of the city one day, we had to pass through Lyari, a particularly dangerous part of town. My friend, driving the car, explained: “It’s fine, but you don’t stop the car for anyone or anything. Even if someone smashes into the back, you just keep driving.”

There is something strange about never really walking on the street. I lived in Pakistan for the best part of a year but never got the smell of the place, the feel of it, except for walking between car and destination. But you can see plenty from behind the windows of a car. It is a beautiful country, with varied terrain and people with remarkable fortitude. You just keep driving.

This post is part of A to B, the New Statesman's themed week of posts on transport and travel.

Two men celebrate Pakistan's Independence Day in Karachi. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".