“What do you think of the Karachi bombing?” I asked the man seated next to me in the general enclosure at Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore, during a Pepsi Cup one-day international cricket match between Pakistan and South Africa, in September 2003. I meant the bombing that had happened the previous month, which had caused the South African team to consider backing out of its tour of Pakistan.
My seatmate on the uncomfortable concrete bleacher was Mohammad Faisal, a bearded young teacher of English and mathematics from a village near Gujranwalla, about 100 kilometers from Lahore. He had arrived that morning with twenty other young men in the bed of a Toyota pickup truck, and this was his first visit to a proper cricket stadium. He wore a clean shalwar kameez and spoke English slowly but correctly. He might have been any of numerous severe-looking bearded men one passed daily in the street. Pakistan’s citified elite, people like my tennis pals at the Lahore Gymkhana and my teaching colleagues at Beaconhouse National University, called such men “beardies.”
“Such unusual incidents could happen anywhere,” he assured me.
I asked what he thought of the New Zealand players who had decided not to come to Pakistan. New Zealand Cricket had given individual players the option of staying home without risking penalty. One could understand their point of view. I had never been to New Zealand, but I gathered it was not unlike Wisconsin (“America’s Dairyland”), where I grew up. It must have shaken the players, and their families back home, when a suicide bomber had killed fourteen people outside their hotel in Karachi the year before.
On the other hand, was it a proper cricket series between two national teams if fans in major cities such as Peshawar and Karachi were unable to attend matches, or if top players from one team didn’t take part? And Pakistanis lived daily with the danger of bomb blasts. Why shouldn’t New Zealanders, especially those who had chosen a public role as international cricketers, live with it as well?
“This kind of thing makes Pakistan seem like a dangerous country,” said Mohammad Faisal. “Bangladesh toured recently, and it was entirely peaceful. They are human beings too. To say they will not come as white men is not a good gesture. They are raising it to the level of a political gesture.” (He pronounced the word with a hard g.)
When the match was over, with Pakistan victorious 267 runs to 225, the general enclosure fans surged down toward the pitch, the water taps, and the exit. Clearly, the high fence between the stands and the pitch was there for a reason.
“Maybe I will come to your village sometime, if that’s all right,” I said to Faisal, who had taken it upon himself to be my host and protector throughout the eight-hour match.
“Yes, of course,” he said. “We would be honored. You’re not afraid of coming to a village where almost everyone is Muslim?”
“No, I’m not afraid,” I said. “Should I be?”
All the men standing around nearby thought that was really funny.
“It was you who made our journey memorable,” said Faisal to me. “At first I didn’t know what you would speak to us. I was a bit shy. But you speak to us very nicely. In my village I have no one I can speak English with.”
“Do you have email?” I asked him.
“No. We don’t have that facility. Only phone. We will meet again, inshallah.”
My serendipitous encounter with Mohammad Faisal stands in, for me, for my entire personal relationship with Pakistan over two decades and counting. I might well be an alert reporter and a good writer, but if there’s anything for which I would really like to claim credit, it’s simply for showing up – and for continuing to do so. I’m no expert on Pakistan or anything else, but I think expertise is overrated anyway. I’m just a guy who was and is willing to show up. And that counts for a lot, especially in today’s world. As my esteemed colleague Anthony Davis pointed out to me years ago, “There’s no substitute for the sniff on the ground.”
My book Alive and Well in Pakistan serves as documentation of what resulted from my showing up and sniffing on the ground: one American’s greatly augmented appreciation for the diversity of human societies and ways of living in and through history as it unfolds. More specifically, the book documents how I came to know Pakistan, both topically and personally, during a period that has become characterized globally by an avoidable tragic standoff between the self-styled liberal West and the Muslim world. In a single sentence in his review in The Daily Telegraph, Alex Spillius said everything that needs to be said about what I tried to achieve: “The author’s real journey is a search for common humanity.”
My search was successful but is ongoing, even lifelong, and it’s more urgent now than ever. These days, I consider my most useful role to be sharing with American audiences – not only policymakers, but especially ordinary middle-class people away from the East Coast, and above all students – what I refer to as the Pakistan that I know and love (as distinct from the Pakistan that they see on television). I feel a bit abashed about doing something so mundane as reminding Americans that Pakistanis are people too, but sadly it’s necessary. And what puts me in a position to do it is that, years ago, I was willing to make myself personally available and vulnerable to people like Mohammad Faisal, in the general enclosure at Gaddafi Stadium.
What Faisal and I talked about is important, too. He was understandably keen to dispel the widespread impression that Pakistan is a dangerous place. Unfortunately, that impression is correct. But – I think this was his point – every other place is also dangerous, and we don’t actually have any right to be safe. And if we make our own safety our paramount goal, then not only must we sacrifice our freedom (because it’s not possible to be both free and safe), but we’ll never visit or get to know each other.
In my public and college speaking around America, there are a few questions that I always get asked. One is whether I’ve ever felt myself in physical danger in Pakistan. The answer is yes, two or three times since 1995. Another is whether I plan to go back. The answer to that one is also yes, emphatically, and not only because I anticipate it with pleasure, but because I feel a personal responsibility to continue bearing witness, to follow through, to keep faith with my Pakistani friends and continue sharing their stories and worries with my fellow Americans. I know that Pakistan is not completely safe, especially anymore, but I have no right to be safe. The appalling attack by the Pakistani Taliban on schoolchildren in Peshawar drives home the point yet again, and all too forcefully.
So I will return to Pakistan, inshallah, soon and often. I was there most recently in early 2011, when the Raymond Davis affair was current and just before the killing of bin Laden; it was not an especially comfortable time to be a white male American in Pakistan. And, as always, a great deal has happened since then. Pakistan is always in flux and often in turmoil. (But that’s true of the world as a whole – indeed it’s one of the universal truths that Pakistan has taught me.)
Regardless of whether and when I return, what is most important and valuable is that I went to Pakistan when I did, in the past, in times and in contexts when I was able to get to know the country and its people directly and personally, in ways that would not be available to me now. One place we can never travel is back in time, so it’s crucial to seize every opportunity to experience history, and each other’s humanity, as alertly and honestly as we can, while we can.