The Eid hordes
Islamabad, this small, somewhat pristine town with its mild routine was struck by an influx of visitors over the five-day Eid-ul-Fitr break this year. As usual, Islamabad’s residents had expected a quiet capital Eid with no one to disturb the peace. It wasn’t to be: our sources tell us that this Eid, Islamabad had approximately 200,000 visitors! Lord Almighty, for us the metro bus was the beginning of the end – and now this!
Thousands poured into the city as we gingerly drove out of our homes to witness the mayhem; motorcycles piled high with families whizzed past one’s front gate. Suzuki vans heaving with women and children dressed in rural-style Eid finery headed to the hills. Teenagers dressed alike in shiny matching shirts hung out of car windows, attempting the bhangra. And don’t forget the one-wheeling on motorbikes… “Uff, these outsiders infesting and infecting our lovely, calm, beautiful Islamabad,” we thought.
“Uff, these outsiders infesting and infecting our calm, beautiful Islamabad”
Lines of vehicles were jammed, either back to back on main avenues in Islamabad’s three central sectors – F-8, F-7 and F-6 – or were parked on lovingly tended green belts along the city’s main artery, the Margalla Road, part of which abuts the Faisal Mosque, a popular go-to spot. People were also headed to the Margalla Hills’ viewpoints and restaurants: Daman-e-Koh, Monal. Tourists, heading back from local hill stations like Murree and the Galliyat also drove through the capital for a final picnic, tea or dinner before returning to their villages and towns.
This is ‘our’ Isloo, if you please!
Who were all these people? The newspapers had no information. Facebook groups for Islamabad residents – apart from berating or defending the visitors – had no facts. Once again, the local administration had failed its residents and visitors. No directives had been issued about changes in traffic flow; in fact, no changes or diversions were made to the city’s traffic pattern. No arrangements were seen to accommodate this massive influx of visitors; the security seemed incredibly lax with all ports open and welcoming. Was the administration sleeping after a 29-day Ramazan stupor? Reports of freewheeling and one-wheelie accidents in the hundreds were disturbing, especially since the administration could have imposed a ban on the activity.
Residents like us (who subscribe to an elitist view of seething dismay at this mayhem) felt helpless as we negotiated invites for Eid tea and planned drives in our own civilised little two-mile radius in sectors F-8, F-6 and F-7. After all, it was this central part of town, where we lived, which was most affected. Not to mention our friends further afield in Chak Shahzad and Bani Gala, probably dealing with the downpour of traffic from the Murree hills; or in F-10 and F-11… but perhaps the visitors were not interested in those areas. Several of us got together with friends and family to go to the Centaurus Mall Cineplex to watch Bin Roye, Pakistani cinema’s new Eid offering – some cursed under their breath, some gathered their inner resources to face ‘the masses’. The centrally located four-level mall – merged with a luxurious residential three-tower high-rise – was one of the venues for this ‘tsunami. We arrived at the mall, stuffed ourselves into the lifts, avoided the long ticket lines and heaved a sigh of relief as we sat on our booked seats with our popcorn as the cinema filled up to capacity – only to feel a little more hemmed in.
To the consternation of many who don’t live here, Isloo-ites have a specific outlook, very apparent in our reactions. When too many ‘outsiders’ arrive in our city, it rattles us. We like our peace. There is an order with which we are comfortable. Crowds are not an attractive or common sight: nor is garbage, and frankly, we like knowing pretty much everyone in our town (or so we think). Getting across town has never meant more than a 25-minute ride. But this Eid, our chickens came home to roost.
Discussions at get-togethers took an angry turn. Where was the Islamabad we knew, the quiet city of our childhood in the 1980s and 1990s? When Eid meant empty avenues and no traffic, when the shops in Jinnah Market and Super Market were usually closed, open only till Chand Raat? When most Islamabad ‘locals’ went back to their hometowns and villages for the Eid break? When there were no malls or metro buses and no ‘Pindi boyz’ to disturb the peace? A simpler Islamabad when F-11 barely existed and D-12 was an anomaly? When the population hadn’t doubled and we knew everyone? Although, did we really know most people who lived in Islamabad? A myth, surely. But now, we don’t even know most of the people who come to Kohsar Market for coffee (another horror story, but for another time…).
Pindi boyz: the slick young chaps in tight jeans who roam the city in packs
Oh God, these Pindi boyz
Lately, Isloo-ites have had to get used to something new: came the new Metro Bus and along with it those ‘Pindi boyz,’ a derogatory description of the slick young chaps in tight jeans who roam the city in packs all weekend and most evenings – many were seen this Eid, wearing identical clothes in celebration. This category also includes their more, well, desi brethren. Jumping onto public transport from downtown Pindi Saddar, they land up in central Islamabad to troll the mall, much to the chagrin of the local residents. Indeed, the mall authorities have issued a hundred-rupee entry fee specifically for these fellows.
At the mall
Deciding to take the bull by the horns, we ventured to the Centaurus to check out the crowds: the Pindi boyz, the ladies in chaddars, the families with kids… we wanted to know what inspired them to visit. A frightening sight greeted us at the entrance: a sea of people, just too many for the limited space, surely. Our modus operandi was going to be direct: walk up to people and start chatting to them. (Not something one does on a normal day, admittedly.)
They told us otherwise
We saw some women sitting near the escalators, clearly exhausted. Nighat Humaira looked like an average village housewife, but turned out to be a banking professional with the Islamic Bank in Bahawalpur. A widow in her 40s, she was visiting Islamabad with her teenage children, sister-in-law and brother. Much to our surprise, we found out they had come on a package tour, in a coaster, and their itinerary included Islamabad for a few nights at a guest-house and onwards to Swat.
Abdul Wasay and Abdul Hadi, her boys, were not impressed by Islamabad’s Lake View Park: they thought it dirty and the lakeside quite filthy and found it full of ‘too many people!’ Sister-in-law Sajda Parveen from D G Khan found Islamabad pretty, loved the sights she had visited – Faisal Mosque, Monal and Shakkar Parian – and especially loved the weather. Next to them, two young women, Deeba Nausheen and Nasira Parveen, with her two children in tow, also struck up a conversation. “Find us a job in Islamabad, please,” they said. “We are visiting relatives here and don’t want to go back to Gujrat and Kharian! Help us! We need a better income than can be found in our hometowns!” they pleaded. They kept breaking into English to show us they were educated.
Clearly, our preconceived notions about this group, which we’d assumed was ‘backward’ and ‘rural-looking’, took a turn on its head. With just a little effort, our assumption-ridden minds had changed their tune. Why don’t we do this more often?
They come from everywhere
A little more confident now, we approached a group of young men on the second floor. They had come from Battagram in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and initially looked rather loutish. The first, a slim 23-year-old Pathan, didn’t think it was appropriate to give his name since he was a government servant working in the Battagram health department – good call. With him was Gul Mohammad, a 21-year-old LLB student, and Mohammad Khalid, a carpenter, both from Abbottabad. Gul was an active Insafian and made it very clear that he planned to run for a youth seat in the upcoming local bodies elections. “Shouldn’t you get some work experience first, earn some money, become self-sufficient before joining politics?” we asked. “No,” he said, explaining that his ‘family business’ would support him while he pursued politics. Practical experience was not on his agenda. Ah, the energy of youth!
“How do you know I’m not a Taliban? Don’t go by appearances.” Cheeky bugger!
The friends were on a 24-hour junket from Battagram via Shangla, Swat and Mingora, and they planned to return home that night – part of the way on the Peshawar Motorway. When we spoke to them, it was nearly 11:00 pm and the boys had left Battagram at 6:00 am. Staying in Islamabad was not an option; even Rawalpindi was prohibitive for their pockets. But they looked as fresh as new cream – in their situation, we would have been knackered by now. “How is Swat?” we asked them. “Is it safe for women and families in the region?” Amused by the query, they showed us ordinary photographs of families arriving by the busload to visit a public park, have a bit of peaceful fun. “Were there any Taliban there?” we asked. Gul wasn’t thrilled with the term. “Terrorist, you mean,” he retorted, pointing to his clean-shaven face. “How do you know I’m not a Taliban? Don’t go by appearances.” Cheeky bugger!
Reeling at the quality of conversations we were having with those we usually discarded as the hoi polloi, we realised we still hadn’t come across any Pindi boyz yet. Better look out for some and speak to a few. Keeping our eyes peeled for shady characters, we bumped into a bunch that seemed to fit the bill. To our surprise, they turned out to be a group of young men from Lahore – all of them small business owners and shopkeepers in the Lahore Station area – who had come to enjoy the cooler northern weather. They had a lively conversation with us, describing their trip to Murree and their impressions of the highway patrol officers en route: they praised them effusively for handling the choked traffic on the Murree Expressway. To hear praise of our public officials for a change brought a smile to our faces. Ironically, these very same Lahore chaps, who we’d labelled ‘Pindi boyz,’ found the Rawalpindi crowd unfriendly and went on to praise Islamabad as warmer and more welcoming. Looks can be so deceiving…
It’s a melting pot out there
Now more confident, we approached another group of average blokes who, we were convinced, were from the neighbouring city. “My God!” was our immediate reaction when they told us they were Hindus from Sukkur, also on a ‘City Special’ package tour of the holiest Sikh gurdwaras located in northern Pakistan. Their tour had taken them to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur on the River Ravi in Narowal – the burial place of Guru Nanak Sahib – and they were on their way to Gurdwara Punja Sahib in Hasan Abdal, 30 km from Islamabad. They were spending their nights at the holy sites. At Rs 15,000 per head, the trip was affordable for this group of childhood friends: Shankar, Laxman, Mukesh, Manish, Khem Chand, Akash and Sanjay. Young professionals doing their thing. Who would have thought?
The most endearing conversation of all was with a group of young boys hanging out near the cinema. Young engineering students from Temal Gargh in Lower Dir, these 10 boys were just 16–18 years old. What threw us off were their swanky jeans and trendy shirts. We asked them at least three times if they were really from Dir. Confident and adventurous, they’d hired a van, come down to Isloo and were crashing at an uncle’s home in Turnol. Their plan was to catch the 2:00 a.m. show of Bajrangi Bhai Jan and then go to Nathia Galli the next day. Not for a second did we sense any awkwardness common among many rural young boys. In fact, they wanted the website details for where this piece would be published. We were impressed. ‘Naya Pakistan’? It seemed we were in a bubble while the rest of the country was carrying on with their lives. This was probably the most feel-good moment in a long time.
Exhausted, we sat down for a coffee at Cinnabon on the lowest level of the mall, still watching people walk by. Two trendy young girls in Eid finery, heels and mehndi included, came and sat at the next table. Of course, a chat was compulsory. The pretty older girl, who can’t have been more than 22, dived into a speedy account of her Eid activities: two days in hometown Peshawar, now visiting relatives in Islamabad, loving the Centaurus Mall because here she didn’t have to cover her head, but it wasn’t as if in Peshawar they didn’t have a good time! Amazed at her confidence and her desire to enjoy herself, we laughed at her description of ‘trying-to-be-trendy’ Hayatabad. “Nothing like the Centaurus,” she said, as her chaddar kept falling off her head. This was her Dubai, her Bangkok.
Changing our minds
Quite an introspective experience was our Centaurus stroll, where we had learned more about our prejudices than we’d expected – prejudices that were being swiftly trashed as we proceeded forward. Many of these ‘visitors’ – whom we usually pooh-pooh as the ‘great unwashed’ (to be completely politically incorrect) – gave us a wake-up call and we realised we were in no position to judge by appearances alone. This was the middle class of Pakistan from Bahawalpur, D G Khan, Dir, Lahore, Gujrat, Sukkur, Peshawar – working professionals, students, young and old families on holiday traipsing all over Pakistan from Nathia Galli to Swat, stopping over in Islamabad.
Why did we think we knew otherwise?
Amna R. Ali is an arts and culture journalist who began her writing career with The Friday Times and has most recently worked with Newsline and Hello. Nilofer A. Qazi is a political scientist with a conscience
Seems like very interesting article. Thanks Amina, but I had to find more time to read it, I just seen glimpses only.
Such a superficial & half-bred analysis of social ethos! My God. You shop in chic place & you are educated. You have an account on FB & you are almost an intellectual. Wear one kind of clothing & you are liberated! Great.
Fascinating! Really enjoyed it. This portrait of Islamabad and Pakistan is centuries away from the days of my youth and even later when i returned to Pakistan from the U.S. , Switzerland and Canada. Once i stayed in Islamabad for an extended period in Winter. It was beautiful but dull. Driving on Khyaban-e-Iqbal, I used to call it Byaban-e- Iqbal. I Did enjoy hiking with friends to the top of the Margalla hills. Thanks Amina and Nelofer for an enjoyable early morning reading. The piece was very well written.
arrogance or a joke? i couldn’t get what the author was trying to tell the reader.