Summers in the Motherland

Although the title conjures up images of the European countryside in my head, I was in a very different part of the world. Of course, you are well aware of this, having read the story of how I landed in Pakistan, and the later poetic snapshot of its present conditions.

Checkpoints across the Margallah road in Islamabad, the Majestic Tirich Mir in Chitral, double masala mutton champein by the candlelight in Lahore’s main market,  on a horsecart in flood-hit Darkhanewalla, a medical camp in Nowshera, and revisiting college days in Karachi. There was much to be impressed and distraught by in the span of  four months. As always, it is difficult to put one’s finger on the country’s defining trends. Is it the struggle of our labour classes, the potential of our youth, frustration with the sate, venal politicians across the horizon, religious and cultural barriers to progress, or the optimism of everyday heroes, the warmth of our family structures, the friendliness of ordinary people.

Perhaps we will never know. Perhaps we will develop our understanding of the country from an amalgam of editorials, feature stories, and op-ed pages. I don’t know, but it will always be a place that will continue to surprise, and hopefully, inspire.

In the time we have today, I wanted to talk about a few key observations.

Margallah road – where it all began – is not the same anymore. Its free spirit, has been dampened. The sense of freedom that it conveyed, is there no more. It is littered with check-posts, seven to be precise. 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it is manned by blue-clothes policemen, unfortunate enough to have one of the worst jobs in the country. Surprisingly, they are often in high spirits, I have always found them interested in exchanging a joke – nice, regular human beings. The state of Margallah road, where four boys with tremendous optimism began their adventures, is representative of the many challenges that Pakistan faces. As one makes the oft-interrupted drives along it now (No we wont stop going there!), indicators of turbulent times become apparent. The check-posts all the way to the Presidency tell us that the state lives in fear of certain segments of the nation. It continues to make decisions – social, economic, security –  that disappoint the people. After having gone through so much, after having suffered for so long, we have still not been able to see sincere leadership. On Margallah Road, political bigwigs and ego-inflated pseudo-leaders still continue to pass you by in their obscene convoys, sirens blazing.  It would be best not to say more, but I would like to close by saying that things have changed. There is more fear and uncertainty, as much as there is hope and determination. However, those in leadership should be ashamed of how much potential they waste with every day of poor decision making. However, it reminds us that to live lives of usefulness, one has to keep one’s mind firmly fixed on a vision of the future, an on what could be.

Driving along Margallah road, the hills can be seen in the distance

Our next stop will be Chitral – a valley full of hope. I was fortunate enough to meet a man that few in Pakistan have heard about. Indeed, his story, his tale of real-life heroism, should be famous over the world. He is the indefatigable Major Geoffrey Douglas Langlands (retd). Major Langlands – of whom you will learn more about in the next post – is the ‘Hero of the Hindukush.’ His life is a testament to the qualities of honesty, fairness, drive, and determination. He is a man that has never turned down a challenge, a man of unparalleled bravery. He is Principal of the Langalnds School and College, Chitral. It is a remarkable establishment. Nestled in the Hindukush mountains, under the watchful gaze of Tirich Mir, the school is home to almost one-thousand students. Twenty years ago, when Major Langlands took over, it had only eighty students. As the propeller-winged PIA aircraft made it into the valley, I thought of Pakistan’s lost narrative. Amidst the chaos and clamour of security issues, we often lose sight of initiatives that could be taken to build the country from the bottom up.

Major Langlands and Mr. Hussain at the Senior branch of the Langlands School and College, Chitral

In Sargodha and Nowshera, we switched vehicles in favour of something more rugged – 4×4 Jeeps. This summer, the floods hit Pakistan, affecting over 20 million people. In a show of bravery, compassion, and humanism, the Islamabad Jeep Club responded. Throughout my stay in  Pakistan, I was fortunate and proud to be able to participate in a relief operation alongside this organization. I cannot say enough about their courage, determination, and almost selfless devotion to the humanitarian effort. When disaster strikes, those in Pakistan always respond. As we saw during the 2005 earthquake, once again the country was gripped with an unrelenting desire to bring relief to those that needed it. Movements began across the country, as volunteer organizations worked along established NGOs to bring food, water, medical care, shelter, and hygiene kits to millions of people. Though the odds were daunting, and though Pakistan will continue to suffer from the effects of this devastating calamity, people were not discouraged from going out to help. The Islamabad Jeep Club (IJC), a group of off-road enthusiasts (www.ijc.om.pk/relief), began by distributing emergency food assistance through a langar system. The first few sites were in Nowshera, Charsadda, and Jhang-Sargodha. Next, the organization began holding medical camps, and distributing hygiene kits. Every single rupee on logistics was spent out of pocket by the members, and they drove vehicle after vehicle into flood affected areas. After gaining momentum, the effort gained tremendous strength, with missions going out every weekend. Permanent representatives were placed in each of the work sites, and they managed logistics on a daily basis. The next step that IJC took was to expand the work to the Northern Areas, and launch a project called RECONNECT. This effort saw IJC working to assist a village in the Utror Valley, adjacent to Kalaam in Northern Pakistan. IJC began by providing food assistance, but quickly learn’t that through a different kind of investment, they could bring the community back on its own feet – a fifty foot wooden bridge.  Therefore, IJC’s members traveled to the village (accessible only by helicopter), and held a grand jirga with village elders. After hearing the impassioned appeal of IJC, they committed to providing the manpower, while IJC arranged the material for construction. IJC also financed a teacher’s salary to get the village school started again. Soon, work expanded, and two other bridges were completed with the Club’s assistance. In addition, IJC helped to set up two small water channel driven power plants by motivating villagers to work on a self help basis. Over 200 households now have electricity once more due to their efforts. I cannot say enough about the drive, motivation, and dedication of the members of IJC. Even during Ramadan, while still fasting, they stood in the scorching heat to make sure ration was distributed properly amongst flood-hit villagers in the Punjab. Driven by passion, their have impressed everyone whose lives they have touched, and they can be proud to say that they have helped thousands. I hope that they will flourish in the years to come, and I hope that they continue their humanitarian work on a sustained basis.

The IJC distributes ration to flood affected villagers from Utror Valley

Therefore, in that part of the world, the struggle for socioeconomic justice continues. For today then, let us end this drive with a smile, a prayer, and resolve. We can listen to the radio as we drive back.

I should drop you home, for now.

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4 thoughts on “Summers in the Motherland

  1. Thanks for sharing your local insight and the pockets of perseverance and hope that exist even in the worst of times. Inspiring for all of us.

  2. Thank you Arsalan for the kind words. I would like to mention here that you are a big part of IJC’s relief effort. The tireless evenings you spent working with us for the planning as well as your help in the initial implementation of the project was commendable. I will not be exaggerating if I say that you are a big part of our success.
    Thank you
    Ehsan

  3. Dear Arsalan, on behalf of “THE 2010 FLOOD VICTIMS OF PAKISTAN( Sargodha, Jhang and Khushab chapter”)I thank you for your efforts in flood relief. God bless you.
    Shahid

  4. Ehsan bhai, thank you for your kind words, and the constant inspiration that you have provided. I can say with surety, that this summer has changed my life.

    Shahid bhai, it was an honour to stand with you, against the terrible tragedy that befell Pakistan. I know we played a small part, but there are great lessons to be learnt from it. When I saw the IJC, I saw not just motivated people, but also a powerful force. I know that the future holds many challenges for Pakistan. The services of IJC and its members will be required again, and I am sure that they will deliver.

    What we learn from these incidences is that with compassion, empathy, and bravery, we can help our countrymen get back on track when they falter.

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