In late March, I traveled from Istanbul to Islamabad. As the flight began, it occurred to me how certain experiences were peculiar to flights bound for Pakistan. I penned the following at various stages of the journey.

Credit: M. Y. for coining the term ‘Flight Number Bismillah,’ and for introducing me to it.


You know you’re on a flight to Pakistan when….

The overhead bins fill up faster than you can say “carry-on.”

You hear several aunties gasp “Bismillah!” as the plane begins to taxi.

There is at least one contingent of Haji’s on board, flashing smiles as they enjoy their newfound celebrity status.

There is at least one contingent of British Pakistanis on board, speaking a hybrid of cockney and Punjabi.

You are given a complimentary in-flight performance by the Pakistani Children’s Wailing Orchestra each time.

You start to see women wearing ‘joggers’ with shalwar kameez.

Instead of air-freshener, the plane smells of desi khana.

The carry-on of choice is a large black shopping bag.

You overhear the following words at least once during the flight “Who kia zamana tha jee Pakistan k liay. Bas ab halaat aisay ho gaye hain…

At least once, you also hear a mother saying to her kids: “Agar tum logon ne ab aur shor michaya tau!!!” The threat is delivered with that menacing hand gesture also known as a chapair.

This happens once during the flight: A well-to-do girl comes to sit in the economy area, and after taking a look at the masses, makes a face that says “why didn’t daddy send me first class?!”

When every glance exchange with guys your own age seems to say “Oai, kaun se visa par bahir gaye thay?”

The person in front of you decides to use their seat like their drawing room sofa.

You can go to the toilets to see a replica of Karachi’s open air sewer concept, even before you reach the actual city.

The announcement “Ladies and gentlemen, our aircraft has not reached its final destination, please remain seated and do not open the overhead bins,” has to be played multiple times.

The stampede that ensues at the end of the flight as people rush to the gate reminds you of the scene when Mufasa dies in Lion King 1.

By the time the plane reaches the gate, you have a new-found appreciation for life’s miracles.

If the Dubai, Riyadh, and Bahrain flights land around the same time as yours, you know the baggage claim area will look like a commodities packaging warehouse.

After watching Pakistani women wrestle suitcase after suitcase off the conveyor belt, while their children tantrums, you begin to wonder whether the mothers brought them along just for the extra baggage allowance.

No matter what the flight is like though, it is always great to be back in the Fatherland!


From Abu Dhabi, With Affection

Dear Passenger,

We are going places, despite all odds. Islamabad airport has not changed much over the years, except the new Benazir brand name. The security officials still greet you with a smirk, and are sure to pass a smart comment, before they let you go. Booking was cancelled for some strange reason this time, and the staff dealt with it in the usual manner. “No sir, you are not in the system,” and afterwards, perhaps sensing my motivation to return to school: “Jee in ka boarding pass bana dein. Kar dein gay jee, aap fikar na karein, bhejain gay aap ko school” Haha…at least there is never a dull moment, when you travel through our country.

Abu Dhabi Airport, or as a friend affectionately calls it, Aboo Dabby, has a glossy shine to it. It is bustling with people from South Asia and Europe, and you can hear crisp Arabic announcements over the loudspeaker. The airport is modern yet of traditional design, and it functions well. As I write this though, there seems to be some long hold-up in the line for checking in. One thing is evident though, Abu Dhabi has been able to market itself as a connecting point for travelers from different parts of the world. They enjoy the hospitality and connectivity that the city and its facilities offer. One wonders whether Pakistan could have succeeded in producing a similar model. A long time ago, Karachi was touted as being on its way to becoming a regional hub for trade and commerce, and an important destination on the international flight scene. None of that ever happened, perhaps because more immediate concerns took up the attention of policy makers.

This time we journey from the homeland, not very sure of when the return will be. You would be pleased to know that Margallah Road is still happening and still offers a picturesque drive through Islamabad. You must, of course, ignore the barriers, checkpoints and soldiers along the way. They are just symbols of the times that we live in, and a reminder of the hard work that needs to be put in to bring stability to Pakistan. The city was a little dusty this time, it hasn’t rained for several months. Many people attribute this to the indiscriminate chopping of trees in the capital, others to the evil deeds of the city’s residents. Take your pick, but not a drop of rain either way.

As I wrote before, much has changed, yet little at the same time. There are new challenges, yet the strategies to combat them are old. Adornments have changed, but mentalities often remain bound to obsolete values and traditions. However, the city trudges on, and we wish it best.

I wonder how you will be, Islamabad, when I roam your streets next. Take care of yourself.

Old Corolla is purring along nicely. We have a long way to go, but perhaps it is best to break the journey for now, and give her a rest. I will go ahead and drop you home, then be on my way.

Until next time.