Pakistan, Lahore, September 2019
What is normal?
This question has been swirling in my mind for the two weeks I had the privilege to spend in Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan. Confronted with a different society with different values, my view on normality is challenged. How is it possible extreme inequality is accepted as normal here. What causes great wealth to exist apparently without any questioning in the presence of deep poverty. And how can in this environment enormous hospitality and friendliness be the norm, despite all this?
Corruption, hard work, and child labor
The inequality is clearly visible in daily life. For example next to the road to my working place I encounter a brick factory, where kids happily play around and possibly work (this was denied but I have my doubts) in a harsh environment. They live and play here next to the ovens, where their parents work. The sheds are just around the corner. Their attitude is proud and full of life, while some walk around totally naked.
“More than 12.5 million children are involved in child labor in Pakistan. According to Reuters, Pakistan’s Labour Force Survey, 2014-15 showed that of those children aged between 10 and 14 years active in child labor, 61 per cent were boys and 88 per cent came from rural areas.”
“The Sind province has banned child labour below 14 in 1915, and limits working hours for older adolescents to 3 hours per day. Domestic labour is however excluded and enforcement of the law is another matter.” (source: The Borgen project).
As a contrast just next to the brick factory lies the giant estate of a former prime minister Nawaz Sharif., who is now in jail on charges of corruption. He even annexed a public road passing his walled property. A greater contrast can hardly be imagined.
Furthermore, inequality is for instance also very visible on the streets due to the obesity of the rich. Obesity is a phenomenon now very common in many developing countries and I silently gloat when I see this “punishment” of the rich.
”In Pakistan, 38.8 per cent of the population is living in poverty, with one in four individuals living in acute poverty. For many citizens in Pakistan, it is hard to find a job or to secure one paying enough to provide for a family..” (source: The Borgen project).
There are no poor countries
Pakistan illustrates Hans Rosling’s analysis that there are hardly really poor countries left in the world, just many poor in many countries. The life and wealth of the upper classes in Pakistan are comparable and even exceeds the wealth of the upper-middle class in e.g. The Netherlands, where we lack the extreme poor.
This young state (1947) of around 210 million inhabitants is bustling with energy. The development of infrastructure and industrial activity impresses me. Despite all the difficulties they face in life the population is full of energy and motion.
The power of the kinship
Daily life is strongly controlled by kinship (the extended family) and Islam, both imposing strong rules on how to conduct life properly. The honor of the family “Izzat” depends on the opinion of others and is leading in every aspect of life. Arranged marriages, “purdah”, the exclusion of women of daily life, are the norm. If in public women are covered but exceptions can be made, e.g. in work environments.
and honour killings are the result of this attitude. As is at the same time the sanctity of the visitor. Pakistan is ruled by family clans and tribes. Quarrels are settled between kinship groups. The police are notoriously useless and conflicts are dealt with between the kinship leaderships. This can result in the consent to kill a perpetrator or to give away a girl with a sum of money to the insulted tribe. The woman is only slightly higher on the scale than animals. The latter are often treated terribly.
Read more about this in: “Pakistan a hard country by Anatatol Lieven”
Where the culture rules are strict and limiting, on the contrary, a very visible and remarkable phenomenon is the “kushras”. This is the name for transvestites dressed as a woman as in fact they are not. They are present at every street light asking for money. Allowed to dress up splendidly as they are men and live from voluntary contributions that are given frequently. They can earn a little by performing on (dancing) weddings, where they often uninvited appear and ask for their share. Socially “kushras” are accepted and honoured, for me a remarkable contrast with the otherwise very prude attitude towards anything that has to do with sex.
Two ends of the scale
I had two meetings with two opposites on the (in)equality scale. In both cases the similarity in the behaviour despite the difference in wealth was striking.
A Pasthun in Punjab: Kasim
As an example of the very well to do, by chance, I meet Kasim Ahmad Kahn at the Garrison Polo Club Lahore, a formidable stadium that is army property. It is here that every year, in this case on the 6th of September 2019 the traditional martial horse games are held, which include tent pegging. This military exercise simulates a fierce cavalry attack and is a test of horsemanship. His stables with over 60 horses and according to staff (some 30 to my estimate) are right across the road from the club. The stables are simple but maintained with great care so that the horses are kept in optimal shape.
The Pathan tribes
Kasim is Pashtun, a group of tribes living in the west of Pakistan and the east of Afghanistan, their home territory divided by the Durand Line. The British implemented a divide and conquer by splitting the area as they did so often like in Kashmir or Palestine. His hometown is Peshawar where his father owns the land and they live from the income they receive from the tenants.
It was during the uprising of 1857 his family sided with the British, who in turn showed their gratitude by including them in their cavalry. In 1946 tanks replaced the horses but his family has been in the army, also after the birth of Pakistan. Kasim owns two houses in Lahore and runs the stables mainly to play polo. Occasionally his staff trains children but his passion is to play and enable friends to do the same. He does not take money for playing polo.
His horses come from the army facility on the other side of the stadium, that is to this day breeding mules for military purposes. It is only the mules who can draw mortars and artillery in the mountains and bring supplies, the latter serve as the “jeeps” of the army in mountainous areas. With the mule breeding, a good lineage of horses is a necessity. The male horses are sold to Kasim, who in turn trains them for the polo game. “Dressage is for gentlemen” he explains “polo is for ruffians” and this shows in the way they are ridden. Polo horses are worn out at the age of around 15, the tendons give up, everything in the body is stretched. They are not killed but remain at the stables to old age.
Pakistani hospitality explained
I am warmly invited to ride his horses and at no charge. It is his pleasure to make his guest happy. As to hospitality, in general, he explains to be a guest in the house is protected. Once he gave a party and the local police made a picket in front of his house. They did not enter but were in search of someone who had been accused of criminal behaviour. No way the police would dare to enter his house, knowing this would cause a major incident. Kasim told the police the complainant could come in to settle the dispute with the person concerned but they could not reach an agreement. In the end, Kasim helped him to escape through the backdoor and told the police he was not present anymore. He had fulfilled his duties as a host and the police understood and withdrew.
I was told that hospitality is not reserved for foreigners like me but for all strangers.
“Honest pakistani are mostly hospitality lovers. They will do anything they can do to serve guests specially from outside their culture or tribe when they are fom out of country or out of province or tribe.”
“Punjab people of tribal areas are much more caring towards their guests. They can even sacrifice their lives for the sake of guests. We have many cases like this in those areas. They love to serve all strangers as their guests.”
The polo experience
I had the privilege to ride 4 of his magnificently trained and maintained horses. And to have hand made polo boots made by his local craftsman.
When I leave I am invited to come with him to a traditional hunt. An invitation I am tempted to accept one day.
The other end of the scale:
Mohammed Mashid and family in Johar Town
In much the same way I meet someone on the other end of the scale. A religious celebration of some sort has blocked the centre of Johar Town, one of the many suburbs of Lahore. The place is otherwise bustling with mobile vendors and eating stands but is now shielded of completely for a celebration of the birthday of a Muslim saint. I am explicitly advised not to enter the secluded area.
Just next to my hotel there is a steel gate where washing is left to dry. I have noticed it before but this time I pass the gate at just the right moment: it is opened by a young woman exchanging an empty car battery with a recharged one with a merchant. These serve as their electricity supply lacking a live electric connection.
The workings of the kinship in Pakistan
My smile opens the gate further and I am allowed to enter a new world. The enclosed area is home to a group of families (a kinship group) of around 30 persons, that run on normal days some of the mobile shops supplying food like corn cobs on the street. There are around 8 improvised sheds with no more than a simple cooking area and a place to sleep and give shelter for the rain.
No, these are not the poorest, they are living in very modest circumstances. But they manage and are proud they make it. It is clear from the quality of clothing, their physique that is less worn out than that of the ultra-poor.
The pride and self-conscious attitude strike me. The meticulous housekeeping and cleanliness show an organized civilization. There is even some money to keep doves as a diversion.
Today is a forced holiday for Mohammed and his extended family. Food is cooked on small stoves with some spare wood. All equipment is meticulously clean. Their belongings are stacked in boxes. As the temperature is high most of the living is outside with charpoys, bed frames with ropes as support, are the furniture.
Hospitality to the stranger
I have to sit with them on the charpoys (the universal bed like sitting arrangements). We exchange niceties and have complete understanding though we do not speak one word of each other’s language at al.
I drink the best chai I ever had and am allowed to take some photographs, even of the women who run daily life here. Of course, the head needs to be covered. Money is not accepted, it is their pleasure to entertain me in their modest dwelling.
They have not much but share and above all appear to live a harmonious worthy life with small means. I am impressed by so much friendliness and modesty.
We are the exception
To conclude: On leaving Pakistan I realize my questions remain unanswered. Here normality is different from mine. It is just the way it is. What stays with me is the friendly smiles and the deep connection I felt during these encounters. Also, I marvel about the enormous impact, in this case partly also positive, of the social rules. The relative equality in my country may be the exception rather than normal.