Emma Duncan is the Deputy Editor of The Economist. She is the magazine’s chief reporter, writer and editor on climate change. She has also held several other posts on the paper, including Britain Editor and Asia Editor.
In 1988-89, she wrote “Breaking the Curfew” (Michael Joseph), a book on politics, culture and society in the troubled state of Pakistan.
Following are a few excerpts from her wonderful book on Pakistan.
“There are three stages of acquaintance with the place. At first, it is wholly mysterious. The visitor wanders through the narrow alleys of bazaars, his senses confused by the strangeness and excess of everything. There is too much noise, and greater variety of it than in developed-country cities; motorbikes, rickshaws with their silencers removed, horse-drawn Tongas, people shouting louder than they do in the west. The foreign nose, which has inured itself to the strong smells of spices and sweets, is suddenly assaulted by the odor from a row of old sheep heads staring out of a butcher’s shop. There is more color everywhere, partly because warmth opens doors and brings life to the streets, and partly because Pakistanis like their clothes, their buckets and their Lorries bright. A couple of hours of all this drives the newly-arrived foreigner, dazed with the heat and the oddness of it all, back o his hermetically-sealed room in the Lahore Hilton where they swear they boil the water.
The foreigner with a few contacts then embarks on the next stage. A telephone call to a friend of a friend usually produces a dinner invitation that night, where in London it might yield an offer of drinks a week next Thursday. The dinner is at a house in one of the more central suburbs-the continental equivalents of Hampstead or Keningston-furnished as the house of a much-travelled Londoner might be. There are four or five good Persian carpets, curious carved wooden antique chairs, some delicate geometrical Baluch embroidered shirt-fronts used as cushion covers, and maybe some Koranic Calligraphy framed on the wall next to the antique water colours of the Punjabi landscape.
There is quite a lot of whiskey to drink, or gin and lime-no tonic- and bowls of peanuts or spiced dried lentils. There are a couple of businessmen there with their wives-one of whom teaches in a nearby girls’ college in the university-a politician who is a nearby landowner, and a couple who are both civil servants. The civil servants were both at Cambridge, and the other men at American universities of varying qualities. The language is English, with occasional anecdotes and bits of reported speech in Urdu; the films, plays and books are all British, American or European. The humor and the conversations are familiar; the manners better. The edge of snobbery in the social gossip is slightly sharper than in London. The political gossip is odd only in that there is so much of it, and most of the guests seem to be related to some of the protagonists. The foreigner returns to his hotel room a little unsteadily, with a couple more invitations and a comforting sense of finding himself among fellows.
The third stage is the most uncomfortable. The visitor discovers that the politician, a sensible man with an economics degree and a vision about the development of his constituency, was elected mostly because he is a living saint. The businessman who was talking about the profitability of his ultra-modern textile mill is said to be one of country’s main heroin traders who is allowed to carry on his operations because he is in partnership with a general. Two bottles of the civil servant’s whiskey-at 1,000 rupees each-were drunk, his marble floor is covered in silk carpets and his son is at university in America, yet his official salary is 9000 Rupees(300 pounds) a month. His wife, with whom the visitor had a fascinating conversation about tradition and superstition and its oppressive effect on the women of Pakistan, has refused to allow her daughter to marry a boy who is not Sayyed, a direct descendant of the prophet. The man who proclaimed himself an atheist and despised the government’s fundamentalism beats himself in the Shia processions at Muharram. The visitor then feels duped: why do they pretend to be in twentieth-century Europe when they’re in seventh-century Asia? How can educated people justify benefiting from superstition and ignorance? Why do they complain about the state of their government and their laws when they are profiting from the anarchy? Why do they criticize the Army’s power when they’re working with the soldiers? He may choose to take the next plane out, or he may stay to watch how the people live and try to unravel the contradiction and the inconsistencies.
Women provide the oddest contradictions. You see few enough on the streets. Most of those are shrouded from head to foot: the more modern and the poorest show their faces. A horrified American in Peshawar said to me that the way the South Africans treated blacks had nothing on the way the Pakistanis treated their women. Many Pakistanis are disgusted, publicly as well as privately: a supreme court judge, for instance, published a long article in ‘The Nation’ in 1988 on ‘Crimes against women in Pakistan’ discussing not only common practices like cutting off the noses of women suspected of adultery, but also the new Islamic laws brought in by Zia which he considered both discriminatory and open to abuse. ‘It is said’ he began, ‘that most law suits are caused by women, money and land in Pakistan. This reduces the position of a woman to chattel and makes her a symbol of respectability and social status like money and land. These are the characteristics of a retrogressive, feudalistic, male-dominated society.’ His article ends up on Islam, as such discussions so often do: pious Pakistanis worry how it can be that a religion which is supposed to promote good for both sexes is abused and twisted to oppress one.”