Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
30 March 2016

In a single day, I saw the best and the worst of Pakistan

From Mughal wonders to a modern atrocity.

By Mishal Husain

This week I saw the best and the worst of Pakistan, in a single city on a single day. The city was Lahore, the historic heart of Pakistan’s richest province and political base of the governing party. The worst has been well documented – Sunday’s attack on a park full of families, including many Christians celebrating Easter weekend. The television news channels began to attach names and faces to the dreadful numbers – a woman incoherent after the murder of her three children, a family that had lost eight members.

Only a few hours earlier, I had been experiencing one of the glories of Pakistan: the architectural legacy of the Mughal emperors, who ruled a swath of south Asia for two centuries. They developed and feted Lahore, and on that Sunday I had been into its walled Old City to see some of the extensive restoration work under way.

I found the first evidence of it only a few hundred yards inside the city’s Delhi Gate, where the 17th-century Shahi Hammam or Royal Bath has been painstakingly and beautifully restored. Here, the appreciation is not only of the fine building but of the elaborate steam heating system that lies beneath the floor, testament to the ingenuity of the Mughal period. This was an empire of Muslim rulers who built pleasure gardens and monuments to their beloveds as well as forts and mosques – well worth remembering in an age of headlines about the so-called Islamic State.


Old build or new?

On this visit to Lahore, I found cultural heritage and its preservation to be a hot topic outside the walls of the Old City as well as within. A group called the Lahore Conservation Society is battling plans for a new Metro line because of its proximity to landmarks such as the Shalimar Gardens, built by the emperor Shah Jahan, whose most celebrated project was the Taj Mahal.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly round-up of The New Statesman's climate, environment and sustainability content.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

The gardens, which show how the Mughals combined elements of Islamic garden design with Persian influences, are recognised by Unesco as having outstanding universal value and, along with the Lahore Fort, as amounting to “a masterpiece of human creative genius”.

At first glance this appears to be a classic case of development v conservation, but the activists say their gripe is not with the Orange Line itself, but its elevation above ground. Their call for the line to go underground may be the point of compromise with the government of Punjab Province, which is keen to be remembered for delivering on infrastructure. It just has to balance modern wishes with the legacy of an earlier generation of builders, the Mughals.


Passion and blasphemy

In the capital, Islamabad, I saw destruction rather than construction, thanks to the actions of protesters who converged on the city to mourn the hanging of a man who committed an act of extreme violence. Just over five years ago, the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was shot dead by one of his own bodyguards. The assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, regarded Taseer as a heretic because he had spoken out about the misuse of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law.

After the murder, Qadri was hailed as a hero, and on the significant 40th day of mourning for him, his supporters marched on Islamabad. Despite roads being blockaded with shipping containers and although mobile networks had been shut down, some protesters managed to get through tear gas fired by the security forces and stage a sit-in outside Pakistan’s parliament. In their wake was a trail of damage – cars and lorries torched, some of the Metro stations in Islamabad attacked – along with hundreds of thousands of inconvenienced and out-of-pocket fellow citizens, unable to get to work or get home, because of days of religious fervour and fury.


Never stumped

This trip was my first to Pakistan since reporting on the Peshawar school attack in December 2014, and this time I brought my children along, keen to show them something of a country that I grew up visiting every year. They’ve enjoyed the experience, and cricket has played a big role in that. They love the game, as do most people here, which means there is always something to talk about and, even better, people to play with. The boys carry a set of plastic stumps, a bat and a tennis ball almost everywhere they go, and before you know it there’s a game on. No Urdu and no English required – cricket is the universal language.


Naans and rickshaws

There are times when cricket has proved to be too much of a distraction, as I found within the historic surroundings of the Old City. I’d be urging the children to look up at carved wooden balconies, only to realise they were far more interested in the street cricket going on in the side alleys. But one of my favourite spots in Lahore, the Wazir Khan Mosque, did capture their attention, with its courtyard laid with zigzag red bricks and its renowned tilework and paintings. As I approached the pulpit, I was intrigued to see an inscription in English on the side – the entire wooden structure had been presented to the mosque by the new viceroy, Lord Curzon, in 1899, “in memory of his first official visit to Lahore”.

After the mosque, the final flourish of our city tour awaited – hot naans from the tandoori shop opposite and a ride in the most striking vehicle I have ever travelled in, an open rickshaw decorated in the multicoloured style of Pakistani truck art and designed to take tourists whizzing through the maelstrom of the bazaar.

We left the city walls hours before Lahore’s peace was shattered by the heinous park attack, a reminder of the immense challenge Pakistan faces in combating the terrorism that has blighted it in recent years. But the country also has much to offer, not least in the great city of Lahore. 

Mishal Husain is a presenter of BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme. Twitter: @MishalHusainBBC

This article appears in the 30 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The terror trail