It is a privilege that you have joined me on what will be our first long drive together. hopefully, it will be the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship. interestingly, and unexpectedly, we actually find ourselves beginning this adventure in Islamabad, the city which has captured your chauffeur’s thoughts so often.
It has been a year and a half since I last visited the homeland. It is not much time, though it is enough to make you long to drive in the streets of F6, buy challi from the challiwallas in super, and perform the ritual tawaf around hotspot. You think of your friend’s homes and the city’s landmarks. Through careful following of the news, I knew better than most what Islamabad was going through. Events of the last nine years have taken their toll, and it shows.
I still went in thinking that everything will be fine, the same. At least one can classify the city as a happy place in ones mind, right? If you have grown up in the Islamabad of old though, you will be ill-prepared to see it in its present state. It has changed.
Traffic was quiet and organized, and the evenings were cool and calm. Autumn brought in blazing yellow and red colours, and regular thundershowers would ensure that the city received a proper wash regularly.
Now, traveling through sleepy old Isloo, it is hard not to feel a sense of dread. One gets used to it, and it goes away after a while, but it is part of life. The new order places top priority on security. Margallah road, where all great long drives began, is home to no less than six checkpoints along its length. In addition, some embassies there have built their fortification walls so large that they encroach upon half the road! What once made for an idyllic drive – pine trees passing by and the smell of resin in the air – is now a constant reminder of the failure of federal level policy making in Pakistan. It is strange to feel ill at ease in Islamabad, which used to be a very safe environment. If peace of mind was part of the battlefront, then we have lost much ground already.
In the sights and sounds around the city, is is plainly visible that the city is the capital of a country that is making the transition to a security state.
Otherwise the city is still alive, and life goes on behind the barbed wire and concrete blocks. Many new restaurants have opened up (a trusted life-barometer in any Pakistani city), there is an active theatre scene, and markets remain stocked with goods and shoppers (though the economic downturn has taken its toll on consumer behaviour). Islamabad is still fun, and in between the checkpoints, you do get a glimpse of the good old days – narrow streets, few cars, and less noise. People are still lively, and there are many citizen-sponsored initiatives which are trying to improve the situation.
Times change, and so must we. The gear shifts and the steering turns. We are home for today.