Putting aside the negative perceptions attributed to Pakistan and Kashmir, I can honestly say that both destinations were one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited, writes Dr Hanan Chehata.
The young boy, still in his school uniform and proudly sporting a green cap emblazoned with the word “Pakistan” across it bends into a crouch, places the freshly picked walnut on a flat stone, then picks up another rock and slams it down cracking the nut’s hard shell between the two surfaces. “That’s how we do it in Pakistan!” one of the guides for our trip exclaims proudly, as the boy’s family begin to pass around a plate piled high with freshly shelled nuts.
Knowing that this family – who recently lost their father and sole breadwinner – had little-to-nothing beyond the tent they live in, and the patch of ground where they grow their food, made the offer of their precious walnuts and the promise of tea all the more moving.
This was my first trip to Pakistan and Azad Jammu Kashmir (AJK), and after hearing about the hospitality of its people over the years, I was so pleased to finally have a chance to experience it for myself.
I was visiting Pakistan and AJK with friends as part of a sponsored charity walk for orphans, hosted and organised by the READ Foundation – a UK based charity that specialises in the education of children in rural Pakistan and Kashmir.
Pakistan is presented in a predominantly negative context in Western media: violent, dangerous, inhospitable, extreme and downright worth avoiding.
Whereas the reality, as we experienced it, could not have been further from the truth – at least in the areas we visited. Pakistan and AJK are much more of a rich and diverse tapestry than we are led to believe.
For instance, there is no doubt that Pakistan is a conservative Muslim country, but it is by no means the strict authoritarian patriarchal society I had come to expect. In just one short shopping expedition, we came across women wearing the full niqab (face veils); women wearing just the hijab (headscarf); women wearing no scarves at all and letting their long hair flow over brightly coloured traditional garments. We were even approached, in quick succession by three very brightly made up transvestites who were openly approaching shoppers in one popular shopping area in Rawalpindi. Let’s just say there was a lot more colour and variety than I had expected!
I had also come to expect a society where women are downtrodden and marginalised. That was certainly not the case. One of the appeals of the READ Foundation was the emphasis they place on the education of girls. We visited a number of READ schools, meeting hundreds of students, and came to appreciate the magnificent emphasis being placed on the education of women by the charity, and local communities too.
Approximately half the students we met were girls and many, in both urban and rural areas, told us they dream of careers in medicine, engineering and teaching.
I’m not unaware of the fact that we what we experienced was only a sliver of a snapshot of life in Pakistan. We were lucky enough to be hosted by an amazing charity. Our accommodation, food, transport etc were all arranged through READ, and was far better than we could have hoped for.
We were constantly accompanied by at least one of our guides – usually more – to help us haggle in the market, translate for the children we were talking to, or to encourage us to walk “just a little further” up the mountain so we would not miss the spectacular view around “just the next bend” (which, true to their word, always offered an even more spectacular view than the last.)
I’m also well aware that there are parts of Pakistan that are not as free and laidback as Islamabad or Muzzafarabad. I’m aware that prioritising the education of women is not encouraged everywhere in Pakistan but equally, we should also all be aware that the Pakistan we see in the news does not represent the entirety of Pakistan either.
Life there is so much more vibrant and varied than many of us give it credit for. Take something as simple as the weather. I had expected heat for the most part and cold in the mountains, but instead we were treated to panoply of climes. Upon our arrival we were greeted with a spectacularly active lightening display and thunderstorm, which lasted all night and all of the next day, followed by hail, followed by snow further up the mountains a few days later, and then days of glorious sunshine towards the end of our stay.
I even experienced my first earthquake on 26 October. We were in the mountains visiting a school in an extremely remote area that could only be accessed by foot, and which necessitated trekking up a steep, rocky pathway that ascended sharply alongside a stream running down the mountainside. We had been greeted by the entire student body and had been showered with flower petals, and presented with garlands as the students sung a song of welcome. We had just sat down to eat when we all felt the ground beneath us shake.
Ultimately, we were amongst the lucky ones. We just felt moderate tremors, barely noticeable at first until the table started shaking and we all rushed outside in time to see rocks fall down the mountainside in a small landslide.
I was later to learn that, at its epicenter, the earthquake measured 7.5 on the Richter scale. More than 330 people died in this quake.
This is one reason why READ is making sure some of the newly built schools are “earthquake proof”. Following the 2005 earthquake, which devastated so many homes, schools and lives, – including the damage or destruction of 139 READ schools, this recent earthquake was a reminder of why this is so important.
That experience aside, we felt entirely safe the whole time, whether walking through bustling markets or trekking up remote mountain pathways (again thanks to our amazing hosts from READ). There were no terror scares, attacks, drone strikes, or the like during our visit.
There is more to Pakistan than the headlines portray, and just because something is happening up in the north, near the border with Afghanistan or India, does not mean it impacts all of Pakistan. Instead, Pakistan and AJK are a rich tapestry of cultures, languages, people, attitudes and experiences.
The landscape is spectacular, parts barren and dry, others lush and verdant. The green trees covering the mountainsides reminded me of the forests of Lebanon. The bustling markets like a slower paced version of Cairo; and the snow covered peaks reminiscent of the magnificent mountains of Glen Coe in Scotland.
For my part, the READ Foundation has opened my eyes not only to the value and importance of the work they carry out but also to the beauty of Pakistan and Kashmir more generally and for that I am very grateful.
Dr Hanan Chehata has a PhD in Law, a Masters Degree in Criminal Justice, and an Honours Degree in Law. She was the Press Officer for the Middle East Monitor for two years, and during that time visited many areas in the Middle East including Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Sudan and beyond.