Two Faces of Modern Pakistan

Indian porters carrying goods to the border of Pakistan at Wagah

Six days ago, I walked over the border between India and Pakistan at Wagah. The only official crossing along the two countries’$2 1,000-plus-mile border, Wagah is the one place where you can enter without fear of being shot by one army or the other.

Clearing Indian customs, I followed a line of blue-shirted porters, mostly Sikh men carrying huge boxes on their heads, as they walked through a quarter-mile no man’s land. At the border, they came face to face with a row of gray-shirted Pakistani porters, and without ever stepping across the line, each Indian wordlessly shunted his load onto the head of a Pakistani, who wheeled and marched back to load his box onto a truck on the Pakistani side. Obviously, it would be easier to drive a truck through. These men, who will likely spend their entire lives shuttling boxes across no man’s land, seemed a perfect metaphor for Indo-Pak relations.

The handoff

The border was drawn here at partition in 1947 to leave the Punjab’s cultural capital Lahore part of Muslim Pakistan and the Sikh holy city of Amritsar in India. Every evening at sunset, an elaborate ceremony is performed when the iron gates of the border are sealed. Indian and Pakistani guards, in elaborate regalia and feather-crested hats, conduct a trumpet-blaring, gate-slamming, goose-stepping “battle of looks, alertness and vigour,” which, according to the Punjab Tourism Board, “will thrill and haunt you for ever.”

Pakistan’s landscape is identical to its neighbor’s: the flat sun-baked farmland of the Punjab. One difference is the excellent condition of infrastructure in Pakistan: modern highways and overpasses connect all major cities—unlike in India, which is wealthier, per capita, than Pakistan. At the Pakistani checkpoint, three European motorcyclists argued with the guards about how much baksheesh they have to pay to get permission to drive their bikes through Baluchistan to Iran and onward through Turkey back to Europe. Apparently, despite a seismic shift in geopolitics, the Hippie Trail still exists, if you are willing to risk a flat in Quetta or Bam.

Badshahi Mosque, Lahore

I took a taxi to Lahore to meet my partner, a stringer for National Public Radio who has a week of assignments in Pakistan. We both live in Delhi, and while I insisted on experiencing the haunting thrills of the border, she had sensibly flown. Lahore, with its 15th-century fort and magnificent Badshahi mosque, is second only to Agra’s Taj Mahal as a monument to the grandeur of the Mughal Empire. Contemporary Pakistan—what Seymour Hersh insists on calling “the most dangerous country in the world”—is a study in contrasts, and our host in Lahore, Fasih, was pretty far to one end of the spectrum. A scion of an elite, liberal family, he lives with his parents in a mansion in the Cantonment district and hobnobs with stars in Lahore’s budding film industry, better known as Lollywood. Educated at Amherst and Columbia, Fasih is one of the young liberal journalists who provide a voice of dissent and secularism in Pakistan. But even among Pakistan’s cultural elite, extremism has a strong pull. Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the mastermind of the Daniel Pearl kidnapping, graduated a few years before Fasih from the same posh Lahore private school. He now waits on Pakistan’s death row.

Behind a huge gate and an armed guard, watching Sex and the City on Fasih’s DVD player, it was easy to forget that this is a country that has the death penalty for blasphemy and prescribes stoning as punishment for adultery. Even though these sentences are never actually carried out, they are on the books, and a slight shift in the political wind could bring their enforcement back in full. Most of the debate over the so-called hudood ordinances goes on among the English-speaking elite; among the mullah-influenced majority, they elicit little protest.

“Well-Known” indeed

Four and a half hours by bus is the capital, Islamabad. A leafy grid plan surrounded by arid hills, sleepy Islamabad looks like nothing so much as Boise, Idaho. That is if the malls in Boise sold T-shirts bearing pictures of Osama Bin Laden with the curiously obvious slogan “Well-Known” underneath. Or if the preferred public statuary was nuclear missiles. If you don’t have business in the citadel-like diplomatic enclave, there is little to do there, and most shops are closed by 7 p.m. Islamabad is kept remarkably quiet by a ubiquitous machine-gun-sporting police force, with most of the civil unrest occurring in teeming Karachi hundreds of miles to the south. As an object lesson in urban planning, it is a perfect capital for a series of military dictatorships: built as far away from the people as possible. All public buildings, even the library, seem designed for easy conversion into fortresses.

At dinner, a European journalist friend who’s been based for several years in Islamabad held forth on Musharraf’s frequent proclamations about social change in Pakistan: “Every week he makes a speech about how Pakistan must move away from extremism, how society must bring women up, educate them. For two years he has said this and nothing changes. In India, even the poor have a voice, they want things to change. Here, there is talk, but there is no will. Nothing changes at all. Ever.”