Pakistan before the Taliban: A photographic journey

The first in a series of ‘round-the-world photo essays that will also spotlight Iran, Iraq, Syria, North Africa, West Africa, Europe, and other destinations

d1f9He looked to be nine years old, and in the middle of a Pakistani park, in the middle of a bright spring day, he decided to do a headstand. Nearby, a boy his same age watched in amusement. Suddenly, a group of young Pakistani men stumbled upon the boy’s acrobatics. What happened next shouldn’t have surprised me: The men laughed. Pakistan. Nineteen ninety-four. A more innocent time in the country’s history. I lived there then, and I happen to photograph the headstand in all its glory. This is a side of Pakistan that still exists – a “normal” side that’s independent of the suicide bombings and political violence that have stained the country for much of the last decade. The photographs and video clips that emanate from Pakistan these days are soaked in bloodshed. Looking back at my time there, I realize how privileged I was to experience a period of relative calm – a period when a visiting American could approach strangers in Peshawar, Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore, and talk at ease – about Pakistan, the United States, foreign affairs, Pakistani and American music, you name it. Of course there were awkward situations when language barriers became an issue, but more often than not, there were smiles and recognition of moments that somehow seemed special.

All of these photos were taking during the 1993-1994 academic year, when I taught at Punjab University in Lahore, which is Pakistan’s cultural capital. Each of these photos tells a small story. I’m retelling those stories here and in the photo essays to come, which will spotlight more of Pakistan and spotlight other countries – particularly those in the greater Middle East and West Africa, where I’ve traveled extensively. First stop, though: Pakistan. The second-most populous Muslim nation in the world (after Indonesia), with 175 million people, Pakistan offers stunning contrasts and contradictions. In the country’s west, on the border with Afghanistan, are areas where the Taliban inspire fear and loyalty. In the east, bordering India, is a city like Lahore, where music – both secular and religious – pours from the streets. These 10 photos offer a glimpse at Pakistan’s recent past, when the Taliban had not yet been born. Pakistan is still a young country, created from the partition of India after World War II. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father, said of his country in 1948: “The story of Pakistan, its struggle and its achievement, is the story of great human ideals struggling to survive in the face of odds and difficulties.” Those ideals are on display here.

2e9bHeadstand in Lahore: In a metropolis of more than seven million people, it can be difficult to find a place for respite, but Lahore has beautiful parks and gardens, including Jilani Park, where I took this photo. The headstand was impromptu, as were the reactions of the men walking by. Jilani Park is where people go for strolls, and to see the occasional polo match at the Lahore Polo Club, which buttresses the park. (In this photo, you can see a horse and its rider in the background.) The head-standing boy is lucky he’s not wearing shalwar kameez, the traditional Pakistani outfit that features a long, loose-fitting top going down to the knees. Such a shirt would have flopped down and covered his eyes, obscuring the fact that I was delighted to take his photo. (The boy’s friend has on shalwar kameez, as do most of the passers-by.) In my memory of that day, the head-standing youngster continued his acrobatics for many minutes. He was proud to show off his agility. And seeing the world upside down can be an interesting escape from the everyday routine.

rsz_bicyclistBicyclist in Lahore: I was walking along a roadway late at night, going home after visiting a friend, when a bicyclist pulled up. He spoke not a word of English, and my Urdu was pathetic. Through gestures, he expressed disbelief that I would have to walk along the corridor as midnight approached. Would I like a ride? I looked at his bike, which wasn’t a two-seater. He pointed at the back – at the bookrack that hung over the rear wheel. Getting a ride from strangers in the middle of the night isn’t always a good idea, but his offer was so sincere that I said yes. Countless Pakistanis greeted me that way – treating me as a guest, even if they met me at an odd hour. I sat on the back of this man’s bicycle as we made our way to Gulberg, the area in Lahore where I lived. The moon beamed overhead. The air was still, except for the sound of our bike going over pavement and the occasional bump. When we got to Gulberg, I thanked the bicyclist for his generosity, then asked if I could take his photo. As he looked into the camera, he kept the same dignified pose that he had when he first stopped for me. In that instant, I thought I was the luckiest person on earth. To me, he represented Pakistan at its best.

rsz_pakistan_scrabbleScrabble player in Lahore: She was a friend of a woman I was dating in Pakistan. That day, we all played Scrabble – the English version – at my girlfriend’s house. (As far as I know, there’s no Scrabble version in Urdu, though there are versions in Arabic, Turkish and other languages.) In Lahore, my close circle of friends were all secular, and all liberal. My girlfriend, a smart and funny woman named Nadira, would have been at home in San Francisco, and, in fact, wanted to go with me to the United States, but our relationship frayed – for the better, it turned out. A year later, she met the writer V.S. Naipaul, and she’s now Lady Naipaul, living in England with her famous husband. Nadira and her friends were good with words. It’s one of the many things we had in common.

rsz_sidewalkdentistDentist in Karachi: The sidewalks of Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial port, bristle with everything for sale – not just clothing and food but services such as dentistry. This sidewalk dentist would do work right on the spot – everything from teeth-pulling to check-ups, all for a small fee. At around 14 million people, Karachi is double the size of Lahore. At all hours of the day and night, its streets teem with workers, revelers, and others in a hurry. Like New York, it’s a city that never sleeps, but its streets are full of people like this dentist – entrepreneurs waiting and sitting for those who have time to slow down.

rsz_karachi_breadmakerBread-maker in Karachi: Walk around Karachi and other cities in Pakistan, and you’ll find shopkeepers who make tasty, pita-like bread that bubbles on the surface when hot. The bread-makers use round ovens, reaching into them to grab the finished product – and give it to eager hands like the one stretching for this one. Called roti, the bread goes for pennies. It’s one of the country’s staples. Seeing the bread made and sold is a treat. Eating it is, too – especially with rice and meat inside. Making roti can also be exhilarating, as evident by the smile of this bread-maker’s face.

rsz_peshawer_music_manInstrument-maker in Peshawar: Peshawar is the major city in the North-West Frontier Province that borders Afghanistan. It’s Pakistan’s gateway to the Khyber Pass. It’s also home to one of the world’s greatest bazaars: Qissa Khwani, where you can find people who’ve spent a lifetime perfecting their craft. The man in the white hat is a long-time instrument-maker. He’s holding a sitar that comes from the northern city of Chitral. On his shop’s walls are rababs, a plucked instrument from Afghanistan. The man with the mustache? A friend of the shopkeeper, he was one of the funniest Pakistanis I’ve ever met – someone who, like Charlie Chaplin, used physical humor (facial expressions, hand-waving – you name it) to make people laugh. He liked to laugh himself. I wanted to stay in touch. I’m sure I gave him my card, but I never heard from him again.

rsz_road_to_gilgit2Bus headed to Gilgit: Eventually, the bus got there, but in this moment, it needed serious repair. While waiting, its passengers – including the man on the right – got out and stretched their legs, then sat down anew. What better place for a bus to break down? In the distance were the peaks that make up the Karakoram – the mountain range that connects Pakistan to China. Gilgit is at the base of that range. The mountain enclave is unlike any other in Pakistan. Glaciers crowd in from all directions. Hiking a short distance puts you atop ridges that give you the feeling of ascending the world. On a clear day, you can see miles and miles away. To get to Gilgit, you can take a quick plane from Islamabad or a slow bus like the one here. I chose the bus. Festooned with colorful imagery, the bus lets you take in the winding roads and incredible scenery for which this part of Pakistan is known. As I found out, breakdowns are to be expected.

rsz_poloPolo in Gilgit: It’s not just Gilgit’s mountains that attract tourists and locals – polo matches draw spectators who thrill at the sight of men on horses competing to hit a ball forward. Polo has been played in Gilgit for generations. Every July, an all-star polo team from Gilgit battles one from Chitral, in a winner-take-all event that becomes the talk of northern Pakistan. The polo match here was in September. Hundreds of fans lined the sidelines to observe and (occasionally) scream. I stumbled on the match by accident – which made attending that much more rewarding.

rsz_gilgit_kids_1rsz_gilgit_kids_2Young students in Gilgit: Even with their guardian nearby, the students were willing but perplexed. Why would I want to take their photo? The first image I snapped captured their cautious outlook. Seconds later – after they got used to my presence – they relaxed and gave me the kind of smile that’s priceless. Soon afterward, they and their guardian were off to school. Going to school is a universal experience, whether it’s the mountainous reaches of Gilgit or the low plains of Lahore. In Gilgit, the kids wear uniforms and ties that make them appear like early achievers.

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5 Responses to Pakistan before the Taliban: A photographic journey

  1. Nick Obourn says:


    Thank you for posting these photos and the text to go along with it. It really does feel like these portraits are from a time that is now gone. A good friend went to Afghanistan last year and spent nine months working for humanitarian organizations. His photos were all up on flickr and in each one he is meeting someone new and laughing. It’s these kinds of evidence we need in the western world to provide that our stereotypes are not true. Though Pakistan might be more violent now, we only see the horror on the news and I am sure these people still exist and go about their lives with the same kindness and ease.

    • Thanks for the comment. “A time that is now gone,” is a good way to put it. That’s interesting about your friend’s experience in Afghanistan. It’s the laughter that’s always so revealing – and surprising in its own way.

  2. Caitlin Kelly says:

    Thanks. These are lovely and tell us much more about that part of the world than just reports of terrorism and violence.

  3. libtree09 says:

    Terrific post.

    I worked in some communists countries twenty years ago and came away with similar impressions while the embassy painted one picture, reality was quite the opposite.

    I am curious though why would a country with such a rich history of song and dance and hospitality fall victim to a hard line arab version of Islam? I just don’t get it.

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