Finally the plane arrives. Eighty 30-something men rush to the boarding gate. A Pakistani airlines representative barks at them, “This is not a bus! You have assigned seats. Step back!” These laborers are rushing to leave India for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, transiting through Lahore, trying to earn more money. I board the plane, smile at the anxious worker beside me and stroke my beard.
August 6, 2007 5:26 PM
August 9, 2007 12:19 PM
Lahore, Pakistan - "It's all about me and I in America," says Umer Naru, elongating his vowels. He's a young director putting on the Neil Simon play "45 Seconds from Broadway" with high school drama students and recent graduates in Lahore, Pakistan. The play is about a talented, egocentric American playwright surrounded by aspiring directors and performers. To director Umer and lead actor Waleed Zaidi, Americans are a lot like the protagonist -- blunt, bright, but self-absorbed.
This applies both to the country, they say, which has selfishly pursued its own interests in Pakistan, and to Americans, who are as Umer says willfully "ignorant of the world." The former they have learned from parents and textbooks, the latter they know from Fox television broadcasts that find their way over here, and from relatives abroad. I try to dig further into politics and get a rebuff: "Look, America has done very little good here; they use us and we are then bombed," says Waleed. "We stay away from politics….We just live our lives."
As I watch them rehearse on the roof of a nearby primary school late at night -- to save money -- I see what they mean. These student actors drip with sweat as they squint at their scripts by the light of a billboard. They've fundraised for this play themselves over months, soliciting local sponsors. It's a labor of love.
August 10, 2007 1:30 PM
Lahore, Pakistan - When Pakistani rock stars Ali Azmat and Mekaal Hasan were hitting their teens, U.S.-backed military dictator Zia-ul-Haq “Islamized” Pakistan. “There was no entertainment; nothing. It was the worst time to be a teenager in Pakistan. We just roamed around on bikes,” Ali complained. “I didn’t drink until I was twenty-five!”
But during this time, American programming came through. Pakistan and the U.S. were allies. And as Zia-ul-Haq sobered up Pakistan, urban-dwelling Ali and Mekaal could still get their eyeballs in front of TV screens and watch MTV once in a while. “Black suite, white socks, Jackson changed everything; 'Thriller' changed everything,” says Ali. “Your MTV sent out videos of rockers with girls roller blading on Miami Beach….Fireworks. Chicks. Big cars. You’re like ‘Holy Fruity!’ I want to do that action on guitar myself.” So Ali imitated big singers from Bruce Springsteen to Eric Clapton, and found he could hit the high notes. His friends loved it. He felt liberated by it.
And after a while of imitating American sound and the style -- “Long hair, glamrock, cheetah print pants” -- he “got interested in...actually hearing the great musicians.” And with friends like Hasan, he traded dubbed tapes of Western bands, from famous to obscure.
August 14, 2007 11:00 AM
Lahore, Pakistan - "I'm a drag queen, darling…not an extremist…and I still say if Pakistanis had more self-respect, we'd be even more anti-American," says Ali Saleem, who glosses his lips and dons a sari each week to interview celebrities and politicians on his TV program Begum Nawazish Ali, a talk show sensation in Pakistan. "I'm not speaking religion; it's common sense."
From politics to culture, Ali says American intervention in Pakistan has “brought nothing but sadness” by supporting dictators and rendering Pakistan’s people impotent, constantly looking to the outside world, particularly the U.S., for help solving its own problems.
He sees his TV show as an attempt to rekindle a sense of pride and responsibility in his viewers. He uses our interview to call for a boycott of all American goods and cultural products. Pakistanis must “Turn within for inspiration.”
August 17, 2007 3:36 PM
For three decades, Ahmed has been investigating the nexus between the Pakistan military and extremist groups, roving tribal lands in between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Over the years, his books and articles have been translated into all local languages, spawning many enemies “bearded and non-bearded” who accuse him of undermining his religion and his state. He’s received so many death threats that he lives in a house encased in sheet metal. A spindly man with a fat shotgun guards the iron gate entrance.
Knowledge is a dangerous thing for Ahmed. When I told the Pakistani Press counselor in DC that I would be visiting Ahmed, I was told "not to put that in writing because Islamabad won't accept your request." Ahmed's family shares the burden. Over a pasta lunch, Ahmed’s Spanish wife tells me with a laugh how anxious her family back home still is about her safety, two decades after she left Spain. Their eighteen-year-old daughter chuckles, and pets one of their three dogs.
Ahmed believes his research is worth the risk. The mountains and valleys surrounding Afghanistan are among the least understood parts of the globe, he says. And he believes his findings help policymakers understand and alleviate tensions in the volatile region. He's shared his research with the world and has had high hopes, particularly for successive U.S. administrations. In recent years that hope has been dashed.
Until Bush came into office, Ahmed thought his words mattered to America. In the 1980s, he discussed Islamic resistance with ambassadors over tea. In the 1990s, he collaborated with policymakers to raise Afghanistan's profile in the Clinton White House. But during the Bush administration, he feels his risky research has been for naught.
Links & Resources
- About this Project
- Email Me Here
- Press Coverage
- Link To This Site
- Song Recommendations
- Join me on MySpace
- Join me on Facebook