Sunday, August 28, 2005

Journey into the Heartland - Pakistan 2000

Found an old diary piece I wrote after a trip to Pakistan a few years back - enjoy if you want to read through it

Israel August 2005

Sunday September 24 2000

Hong Kong – Bangkok – Karachi

There is a saying that every journey starts with a step, for life on the road every journey starts at the excess baggage counter. When I talk excess baggage I mean excess baggage, once when travelling by myself I had 300 kilos excess baggage spread over three trolleys behind me, needless to say I paid for the fuel for that flight.

Correspondent Joe Kainz and I had decided that this twelve-day trip would be best done with a minimal amount of equipment as we are due to travel extensively over our time in Pakistan. From the south to the North of the birthplace of the Indus civilization.

Karachi the first destination nine hours later,

Customs come and go, but the machinations of customs at airports is something to behold and the power of the Customs officials pen is mightier than the sword, even in a country under military rule. Logic defies reality and what applied the last time you arrived with a mound of television equipment did not apply this time.

The first sense of arrival is the assault of the senses of another country, the noise of an airport at 9.00pm, the heat and the hustle of porters. The drive in from the airport is often the first time you can sit back and relax, the baggage has arrived intact the hotel awaits and you try to remember the differences from the last time. Perhaps what amazed me most was that for the first time in visiting Pakistan over the last three years was that I started seeing signs which had web addresses on them, but I must admit that they seem to have decided that the longer the domain name the better the site must be 23 letters before the dot com.

From billboards advertising the infernal golden arches to the decorated bus running the red light whilst taxi drivers laughed and the motorbike with a family of six abreast. Pakistan may be chasing the e world but life has not visibly changed in nine months.

Monday 25th September 2000
Karachi – Islamabad

Six hours later the roads are deserted and taxi drivers around Asia are convinced that the faster they drive the happier you will be, so on a greasy road with no traffic we set out for the airport and the domestic flight north 2 hours to Islamabad.

There is a saying in diplomatic and business circle here that Islamabad is not in Pakistan, but in fact Pakistan is 30 km’s from Islamabad. It is a city that is less than forty years old and was planned to serve the interests of locals and diplomats with no sense of direction.

The only sense of life in the drive from the Airport is the increase in police checkpoints, as a result of a market place bombing a week ago. The impression driving past these checkpoints is that they serve only to shake down local bus and taxi drivers.

The first story we are working on up here is the decline in Pakistan cultural heritage, which like the fate of so many other countries is seeing its archeological artifacts being smuggled and sold overseas. Our first interview was with Pakistan’s’ leading archeologist who has been studying the ancient history of this land for nearly half a century.

We were due to interview another person who is a leading expert in this field, but who is currently working for a Government department, but she told us that it was pointless to talk to her as she has to toe the official line and would have to lie, but was still willing to appear on camera if we wanted. We declined.

Mobile phones are essential tool in everyday living but buying a local chip to use is not the easiest thing to achieve in a minimal timeframe. A simple rule on the road, is that the more logical an idea the less likely it is going to work. After 20 minutes in the largest phone companies office, moving from office to office, floor to floor and selecting a suitable plan we were told that our phone is not compatible and we should go to the other company next door. 10 minutes later we had an operational phone.

You get to spend endless minutes aimlessly wandering around hotel shopping centres, knowing full well that they are overpriced, but the books tucked away behind the handicrafts can often reveal the most bizarre reading material – take tonight’s offering in the Holiday Inn Islamabad “ Treatise of Flexible Pavement Design “ a complete diatribe on how to build a multi lane highway. Very useful on the road, might have to build a road one-day.

Tuesday 26th September 2000

Every knows that the best light to film in is in the magic hour after sunrise and before sunset, the trouble is getting other members of the team to agree to get up in the dark and start work at 5am. This is the day after also getting up at 5am the previous day to catch a flight up here. Well Joe agreed and the day began with me asking the driver to slow down in a polite but firm tone.

Driving in Pakistan is regarded as a bloodsport with no rhyme or reason, why bother with a map when you can take 5 wrong terms, go in the wrong direction and ask endless people which direction. Today was no exception. We would be dropped off at one spot due to the road being so bad, (next time I will buy the copy of “Treatise of Flexible Pavement Design”) then we would find the driver where we originally wanted to go but could not because of the road.

You meet great unassuming people on the road who are brilliant in their fields of expertise and then you meet people who have not got to their position of influence by apparently valid means, today’s example was a person who insisted on sitting behind his desk with a room full of sycophantic underlings nodding to his every word. The after asking us to leave whilst he made a phone call for the whole building to hear with the door open, and then rings a bell to call another person to come running to summon us. Please give me a break from such fools.

It was a good days filming today, we had brilliant dawn light and the crossroads of civilization where Alexander the Great visited (well conquered) in 327BC is know recorded for posterity. Visiting a looted site makes you realize that the problem here is corruption at all levels and the looting will continue until there is nothing left unless corruption is tackled in Pakistan.

Wednesday 27th Sept 2000

Islamabad – Karachi

A travel morning down to Karachi and a rise in temperature of about 10, in fact a boring day on the road with a couple of feature interviews and a late night interview with a psychiatrist. We have started working on the second story about the state of women’s mental health in Pakistan and the treatment they receive which involves trance dancing and chains in temples. That is tomorrow night so I am looking forward to some good pictures and something different to say the least.

The afternoon saw us wrap the last interview up with the Director General of the Department of Archaeology, the office was ancient to say the least. It is not until you stop and look around, did I realize that there were no computers on any desk. All communication was done in longhand and involved people walking in and out of offices. The Director had an email address but I could not figure out where the computer lived.
A hour off to try and get some shopping for clothes before heading to Thatta tomorrow was thwarted by the fact that every shop was closed in Karachi, except for shoe stores. Why no one knew they were closed because – well because.

Two Days later Friday 29th September 2000 6.30pm

Post Thatta and the Shrine Therapy Story.

Thatta is about two hours South East of Karachi, then turn off the main road and head south for another hour into the heartland of the Sind Basin, cross the Indus River and keep going. Eventually you come to the town of Chuhar Jamali, the closest village to the Sufi Shrines. Electricity is spasmodic and you realise that the whole world has not grasped the e world, when there was not even a fax machine in this town let alone a computer anywhere.

Sufi shrines are best described as tombs of mystic or holy men, like many shrines in the western world these attract pilgrims and devotees who believe that the power of devotion and worship can help them. The main concern for Pakistani health officials is that due to poverty and illiteracy is that some people have come to rely on these shrines as their primary source of medical help, forgoing modern medicine due to the cost.

The shrines of Ali jabar and ali 2 attract around 30,000 devotees a month, situated in the middle of fields 6 km from the village of Chuhar Jamali, people are living for years in mud and stick shanties in the most brutal and harsh landscape. The temperature in summer rarely drops below 40; there is no shade apart from the temple and mud huts, which become furnaces and ovens.

The dirt and filth defies words, and sanitary conditions belong to another century. Families endure these conditions in the hope of a miracle and they can afford the cost of hope.

We arrived as the sun was dropping and the sound of drums heralded our first exposure to what was to become probably the most bizarre night of filming in my career spanning more than two decades.

On the steps of the shrine three drummers pounded out a rhythm and in the forecourt of dirt and rubbish four devotees were literally shaking themselves to trance frenzy, rolling and running up the stairs to the shrine to throw themselves down in an uncontrollable tangle of limbs. The eyes were not focused and the drums kept going for over an hour.

The first person came forward with his miracle cure story that involved the Sufi replacing all his internal organs, over the next sixteen hours we were presented with stories of cancer and hepatitis being treated by the power of the Sufi.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this shrine therapy is that a large percentage of the devotees are women with obvious mental health problems from paranoid schizophrenia depression. They pace the shrine with clocklike timing, running and slamming into walls on occasions; standing and spinning the head with hair flying or speaking in tongues while shaking uncontrollably.

Another woman in her mid twenties sat chained to the bars of the shrine window so that she would not run away and hurt herself of others. Her husband sat holding her hand; it was a heartbreaking scene to see this tragedy unfold in front of the camera lens.

Inside the temple and around the outside women arched backwards and slammed into the marble floor with howls of demonic possession and pleas for help from the Sufi, whilst family members tried to minimize their injuries.

Dawn broke and the early mist light revealed a scene of controlled peace, only the occasional voice pleaded in the echoes of marble. Families that were leaving collected their possessions often a straw mat and tin cooking pot, whilst others rubbed mud from pools of wastewater and dirt onto the heads of infants seeking a miracle.

As we drove away, I thought how lucky some of us are in this world and the plight of others were the greatest possession they have in life is hope and no one can take that away from anyone.

Karachi was a welcome site and entering the city graffiti on a wall proclaimed “Crush India” welcome back to Pakistan 2000.

Saturday 30th September 2000

Time to move onto the new stories, Junoon the band has received so many international accolades over the past decade and have laid claim to the title to the biggest band in Asia.

The problem of piracy of music and CDs is beyond words on in South Asia and a factory we visited produces 12 million CDs a year it produce more but it has not got enough machines, full capacity twenty four hours a day seven days a week.

Today was also one of those great days of fixers getting things wrong, to the point of Fawlty Towers proportion. We asked how many people were expected at the concert, whether the venue was indoors or outside and what time was Junoon due on stage.

Emphatically after checking and much discussion amongst the fixers and driver it was agreed that
1. The Concert was indoors
2. The anticipated crowd was 800 maybe 900
3. The group Junoon will start at 9pm , yes 9pm

That was the end of discussion, “Let me tell you” is a Pakistani way of saying listen I know what I am talking about. What would you know you do not live here, ha ha ha I am the expert.

After arriving at the massive Pakistan Air force Museum grounds set in a sprawling park of 10 acres place with a stage being prepared in the middle of the park to be told that at least 8,000 tickets had been presold and hopefully Junoon would on stage around midnight. Joe and I laughed not at the situation but at the fact that the fixers seemed pleased that everything was as they had arranged.

We finished filming at 3.45 am the next morning in a dark Karachi street with a dead cat in the middle of the road.

Sunday 1st October 2000

The low point of the day was a get together of politicians and newspaper editors in the evening. It is no wonder that Pakistan faces the 21st century in such dire straits, as a nation it behind Bangladesh in almost all aspects now. These somewhat august gentlemen seem to consider yelling as a form of conversation and even the listening was beyond their level of manners. I left the evening assured that the military has a role in the future of Pakistan; at least they can provide order amongst the ruins of democratic chaos. The newspaper editor’s voice the future, but it sounded very much the past.

Politicians in Pakistan believe that to serve the people, they must have been to prison to suffer the indignity of the masses. These same people drink and eat whilst outside their drivers wait hungry, they are given the leftovers from the dinner party whilst the after dinner drinks are passed around. These same drivers all want the military to remain in power when asked off the record.

Monday 2nd October 2000
Karachi – Lahore

It was meant to be an easy operation, as promised by a Chief Minister “ have whatever you want, take it you have my permission”. It was a simple matter of dubbing some video from the archives of the Local Archive for Culture office of Sufi Music, enter the well yes but no world of Pakistan. To make matters worse one of our local fixers managed to totally confuse everyone by arranging something we did not ask for and compound the problem by having all discussions in Urdu and leaving us to sort out a mess we did not want to be in. It ended with Joe signing a bit of paper on behalf of the network saying we would not use any material, which has the same legal binding as me signing on behalf of Microsoft because I am running Windows 98.

An evening flight to Lahore and the final story – Imran Khan Profile and Feature Interview.

Tuesday 3rd October 2000
Lahore – Karachi

Lahore has the richest colonial history and buildings, the trouble is seeing it through the pollution. If the famed Red Fort has an enemy it is not the ravages of the elements but the exhaust fumes that by sunset reduce visibility to a couple of hundred meters.

The final story is Imran Khan, the famed Pakistani Cricket captain and living legend that eight years ago gave Pakistan the cricket world cup. Following the death of his mother from cancer he has devoted himself to building a hospital for cancer sufferers in Pakistan, providing free treatment to all that cannot afford it.

Stepping into the hospital was like stepping from the third world to the first world; this hospital could be in any major city in the world. The faces of the children in the wards upon seeing Imran was of bewilderment being to young to know who he is, but the faces of the mothers and fathers with their sick children when they talked to Imran revealed a glimpse into why there is hope here when every other section of society is collapsing due to corruption and mismanagement.

Pakistan Airlines flight to Islamabad tonight was delayed 4 hours because, well we never found out. So to avoid any problems the solution was to announce that it was a free seating flight. Meaning sit wherever you like, first come first serve. Enjoy your flight Inshallah.

Wednesday 4th October 2000
Islamabad – Attock – Middle of Nowhere – Islamabad

Is it the messenger or is it the message, comes to mind following Imran Khan on the campaign trail in the rural areas of Pakistan. The crowds come to see and meet him, but are they receptive to his vision for Pakistan. The team around him gave me great hope as men who have a vision without corruption but could it work here is the question.

Imran at times is the great sportsman, but a reluctant politician on the stump, he seemed to find it hard to just go and talk to people and shake hands like politicians in the west, but then again this is not the west. We visited three villages during the day, at the last in a fresh plowed field as the sunset Imran gave a passionate speech and left the stage to be mobbed by the crowd just wanting to shake hands with a living legend in a country where there are few.

Thursday 5th October 2000
Islamabad – Karachi – Kuala Lumper – Hong Kong (Next Day)

With the trip nearly over, we have only the final interview to complete. The final sit down feature interview with Imran at home. We sat down for nearly and hour and quizzed Imran on why he should lead this nation and life under Imrans vision.
The trip was over and effectively we just pack and travel home. Sitting in the departure lounge in Karachi I figured that in the past twelve days we had spent nearly eighteen hours in airport lounges waiting for various Pakistani flights, checked in and out 14 times from hotels. We had shot nearly 19 hours of videotape to be edited down to 5 feature stories.

The final laugh was at the airport leaving Karachi. Remembering back to the first day and the request that we send an equipment list in advance to assist Customs, I asked the Customs officer for a fax or email address, only to be told that sorry we do not have an email and nor do we have a fax machine. The largest airport in the country and they do not even have a fax machine. When pressed for how we relay the required information, we were told to send a letter addressed to Customs, Karachi Airport, and Pakistan.

Imrans vision has a long way to go, but as we saw at the shrine – hope shines eternal in Pakistan.

Malcolm James
September/October 2000

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