Pakistan: Rugs!

Kris and I have a kind of deal with each other when we travel.  Rather than buy a bunch of trinkets as souvenirs, we give each other permission to seek out one really nice souvenir that we will treasure forever.

I decided that I wanted to buy a significant gem. A real “rock.” Something mined here in Sri Lanka. What a great souvenir that would be. So, along with the specialty texts on computational physics,  I shipped three carefully selected books on identifying and buying gems. From time to time I took the opportunity to visit jewelers, with Kris avidly encouraging me in this effort. She never seemed to begrudge me time in the jewelry stores. She was a very good sport about it, often pretending to be interested in the gems herself, sometimes even buying jewelery in an attempt to convince me that she was not really bored to tears during these long hours of my quest for the perfect stone.

At one point I had three different jewelers each holding a collection of stones that I was seriously considering buying. Playing the role, I even purchased a standard 10X jeweler’s loupe and a pair of specialist tweezers when I chanced upon a gemologist supply store. My suave, sophisticated, experienced purchaser of gems facade fell apart at the next jewelery store I stopped in as my inexpert tweezer work shot a large blue topaz clean across the jewelery shop as I tried to examine it with the loupe. Thankfully, no damage was done to anything, but my status as a poseur was revealed.

Eventually though, I gave up the quest, much to Kris’ sadness, as she could not return the amethyst earrings and the aquamarine “rock on a ring” she had purchased just to keep me company. It was many small things that discouraged me, but the biggest single reason is that I have lost all trust in Sri Lankan merchants.

Of course there have been exceptions. However, we have simply had too many examples of Sri Lankan merchants lying to our faces, even though, in some cases, we have been doing business with them for months now. In a weird, while not approving sort of way, I can understand the desperation of the shopkeeper who has one shot at selling a tourist some merchandise. It can be quite tempting, knowing the tourist will likely never again be back, to tell the tourist whatever they want to hear in order to make the sale.

As an example, everyone tells us that you can get clothes tailor-made here in Kandy really cheap and really fast. The really fast part is to enable tourists to pick up their goods even if they are on a short stay in Kandy. Well, I do not recommend it. First, if you are a woman, you will be groped during the measurement process. Second, there really is no need for the measurements in any case because the “tailors” do no fitting. The dart is a mystery to them. Sizing is done by eye, not by tape measure. They appear to be ignorant of patterns. The quality of the findings borders on the disposable. The seams are unfinished and the work sloppy and unprofessional.  Now, to be fair, long time residents eventually find a tailor and train them to make what they need. So long time residents often enthusiastically recommend the process to newcomers, even recommending specific tailors. But our experience is that even a recommended tailor will treat the newcomer as a golden goose to be slaughtered for immediate gain.

Just yesterday we were in one of the government run shops called “Laksala.”  The Laksala shops are a great idea. The shops are set up in places frequented by tourists and sell handmade crafts from all over the island. This gives Sri Lankan craftspeople retail outlets for their work in high traffic areas, leaving them to concentrate on their crafts. There are some really nice things for sale and even I could not pass up some beautiful batiks. But we also decided to buy a Sri Lankan flag, just for fun, to take home with us. I looked at the flag on offer and stated the obvious that is was made of polyester. “Silk,” the saleslady stated. Kris gave me a wink that told me that it was not worth pushing the issue. She had recently done a flame test  on some fabric that she had been assured by a fabric merchant was “100% cotton.” If you take a small bit of fabric and hold it in a flame, cotton chars slowly and evenly, like a candle wick. But synthetic fabrics melt and fuse as plastics do when heated. The twisted, drippy, melt,  reminding me of my days burning  up my sloppily constructed my plastic airplane models, showed clearly that the material was synthetic.

So, in the end, I decided that I could not be sure that, if I bought a gem in Sri Lanka, it would even be genuine, much less any kind of bargain. While I was disappointed, I did enjoy the process. I learned a lot about gems and handled and admired many fine specimens. For being just impure minerals, they do have a certain attraction.

But, my luck changed when my hostess in Pakistan, Dr. Grace Clark, turned out to be a genuine Oriental rug connoisseur. (In fact, she is so enthusiastic that I suggested at one point that she inquire as to the existence of a local chapter of “Rug Buyers Anonymous.”) Kris and I have long been intrigued by Oriental carpets, attracted by their beauty and durability. We made several visits to a rug shop in the Pioneer Square area of Seattle, kitty corner from the offices of NBBJ where Kris worked. We came pretty close to buying a rug just before we left Seattle, but were deterred by the high cost and the impracticality of dragging it along with us on our post-doc migration. We came similarly close to a carpet purchase in New Jersey at a yard sale of a divorcing couple, but could not quite justify the cost.

Dr. Clarks’ home in Islamabad has gorgeous Oriental carpets on nearly every horizontal surface.  It is a wonderful collection, diverse enough to use to  teach a complete course on the subject. My assigned bathroom had a small  “war rug.” These war rugs were woven in response to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and depict scenes of modern war. One of the images was clearly identifiable as a Russian Hind attack helicopter, but its rendering in wool made it look as if the helicopter had been knitted by Russian grandmas for their pilot grandsons. Now days, war rugs have been commercialized to the point that what is offered is sterile and uninteresting, resembling cheap tattoos. But Dr. Clark’s rug was clearly an example of an early, spontaneous response to the war and was quite interesting, if non-traditional. Dr. Clark also maintains a library of books on carpets. And, lucky for me, Dr. Clark graciously consented to take me rug shopping.

Over the course of my time in Pakistan, we spent over two hours in each of three separate rug merchants in Islamabad. I will describe the visit to the first merchant. Abdul Ghafoor Khudaybirdi’s card describes him as the “chief executive” of Pak Turk Enterprises ( As I recall, he is Uzbekhi. He runs the shop from a lovely home in a residential neighborhood. We are welcomed warmly, Grace is clearly a regular. Grace introduces me and I am admitted to the club. We are offered tea, coffee, or soda. The day is hot. I choose a cold soda. Grace tells him we want to look at rugs. We are taken upstairs to an interior room with stacks of folded rugs lining every wall, sorted by rug type. The owner, one of his sons, and a helper spend the next two hours with us.

We are interested in traditional wool rugs, mostly. And so the son and the helper begin to take folded rugs from the stack, unfold them, and lay them, one on top of the other, in the center of the room. The owner makes a few comments, brings to Grace’s notice rugs of a style that she has shown interest in before, answers questions Grace has about age and origin. I see one I like and ask the price. I am politely told that this is not the time for that question. After some time, maybe forty or fifty rugs are piled in the middle of the room.

Now comes a selection process. Rugs are taken from the top of the pile one at a time and our reaction is solicited. Rugs are designated as of continued interest, or of no current interest and they separated into two piles accordingly. I find I have already developed a taste for these rugs. I have opinions. The rugs are beautiful and of many diverse patterns, but I like some more than others. Now we can ask the price. Cheap! At least by the standards of rugs Kris and I looked at in the US. About fifteen carpets make the “continued interest” pile, maybe four because of my interest.

We then proceed to the next stage. The fifteen elect are taken to an outdoor verandah on the second floor of the house, so we can see them more clearly in the full, clear, sunlight of Islamabad. Once again, they are laid out in front of us, one at a time for our admiration. Sizes are checked, prices are rechecked and compared. The selection process is repeated.

Though this is my first visit to a rug merchant in Islamabad, I have pretty much already made up my mind that between the prices, the self-evident quality, and the beauty of the rugs, that I am going to buy one. My four get whittled to two, then to one. Grace is not so sure. Since she is such a good customer, we are allowed to take six rugs back to Grace’s house without paying anything. One of the rugs is the one I am sure I want to buy, the other five are under consideration by Grace. The trial period will allow me to get Kris’ input, a real plus.

The owner of Pak Turk is a smart business man and has many things for sale in all price ranges.

Baluchi prayer rug

Tekke prayer rug

I buy a prayer rug (shown to the right) in the same style as the larger rug and a wonderful, not-quite-old-enough-to-be-antique, cylindrical wooden box with lovely painted decoration. The photo does not due the rug justice so I have added

Baluchi prayer rug, corner detail

Tekke prayer rug, corner detail

a detail of one corner of the rug.

We take the rugs back to Dr. Clark’s house and she  is gracious enough to let my rugs go first in her entrance hall. The rug lies in state while Grace does some research on the design in her book collection.  She is a bit worried that the design is not characteristic of the Iranian Turkmen carpets she has seen in the past. Close, but… Her library comes through and we find the particular pattern, characteristic of a Turkman tribe that lives just east of the Caspian Sea in Iran.

I send Kris photos by email. She thought it was pretty nice, too, and urged me on to buy it.

Oriental rug in entry hall

Oriental rug in entry hall

The rug is 11’2″x6’6″. Detail shots follow:

Corner detail, Tekke rug

Corner detail, Tekke rug

Tekke rug detail

Tekke rug detail

Tekke rug detail

Tekke rug detail

So, one of the last errands I had to run on the day before my return to Sri Lanka was to return to Pak Turk and pay for the rug. Fortunately, the owner was open late, accepts plastic, and the deed was done.

I was a bit apprehensive about the cost of getting it back to Sri Lanka. The airlines have gotten kind of schizo about baggage weight limits. So the economy class standard is said to be 20 kg (44 pounds), but enforcement is haphazard and excess baggage charges can be steep. Worse, the airlines often demand cash in local currency. On our trip three years ago, we were part of a nightmare scene in the Bangkok Airport where we were hit with about $100 in excess baggage fees and the airline, close to closing the check-in counter, would not check in our luggage until we came back with a receipt (only available at another counter) that could only be paid for in Thai baht , which we only discovered once we had stood in line at that counter through one slug of people. So we had to find an ATM in another part of the airport to gather enough Thai baht to obtain our receipt and get our baggage checked in all before the check-in counter closed. Boy were we pissed.

So when I returned to the Islamabad Airport, I did not know what to expect. I had no Pakistani rupees, a US $20 bill and two one dollar bills, and a credit card. I had weighed the bags and the total weight of all my stuff  was now about 40 kg. I am dropped off at the airport by a USEFP driver with plenty of time before my flight. An airport porter appears and puts my bags on a cart. The airport has  a good system. You need a porter. Only airport porters are allowed to “port” and the cost is a uniform $2 US. So now I am down to a $20 bill and my credit card, but hey! I had exact change for the porter.

Our first stop was a rude awakening at 2AM. It is the inspection station of the Pakistani version of the DEA and I am a bit shaken when the officer, grinning in a Machiavellian way, begins to poke into my new rug with what looks like an ice pick, but with a little hollow behind the point. So, while I stand there wondering if the price of the rug may have been low for a reason and contemplate the inside of a Pakistani prison (if I am lucky), the man stabs my carpet repeatedly, withdraws the pick, passes the entire length under his nose, and sniffs. He then searches thoroughly the rest of my bags, though somehow missing my prescription medicine. He looks a bit disappointed that he can not actually prove that I am a drug mule (I think he honestly thought he had a live one in me) but returns my bags to me with a look that promises that next time it will be different. You would, of course, assume that after having gone through all that, my bags would need no further checking to get through security, but you would be mistaken. I resolved not to get too worked up about excess baggage fees and just prayed to get out of Pakistan as soon as possible.

I ask an airline agent where to inquire about excess baggage fees. I wanted to avoid the Bangkok scene and confront the issue head on. She looks mystified and points toward the check-in counter. My porter tells me conspiratorily that it is best not to ask such questions. “Let them tell you that you have excess baggage,” he whispers. So we get to the check-in counter and the clerk looks at my ticket. “Your baggage limit is 30kg,” he announces without explanation. I place my bag and my rug-in-a-bag on the scale and start to place my backpack onto the scale as well. My porter grabs my arm and simultaneously the clerk says that I do not have to include my carry-on baggage. This same airline (Qatar Air) had insisted on including my carry on bag in the weighing in on the way to Pakistan and no explanation was offered for their generosity now. I looked at the scale reading: 33  kg, just three kg (7 pounds) over. The clerk announces “You have 3 kg of excess baggage” and begins to calculate. “That will be 5840 Pakistani rupees.” Me: “I do not have any Pakistani rupees.” Him: “Ah!” and recommences his calculations. Him: “That will be 72 US dollars.” Me, opening my wallet: “I have one $20 bill and a credit card.” Him: “Ah!” and takes the credit card. He holds it up to a superior. Eyes roll. Apparently, it is all too much trouble. My credit card is returned and I am sent on my way, my excess baggage fees ignored.

We approach the emigration station and my porter wants a tip. So he got the $20 bill, despite the fact that the reciept for the $2 fee specifically says not to tip. Well it was 2AM and, as innocent as I knew I was, I was just thankful to have avoided Pakistani drug court.

These days, many airport duty free shops and terminal waiting areas are destinations in themselves. Good food, good shopping, comfortable seats, free Internet access. Not the Islamabad International Airport. In contrast to my impressions as I arrived at the airport on my way into the country, the  waiting area for international departures is positively grim. The duty free shop at one end caters only to the traditional vices (hard liquor, cigarettes, perfume) and not any sign of the modern vices (cameras, computers, travel accessories). A small smoker’s room in one corner is full to overflowing, and, with the door propped open, not fulfilling its objective of protecting the rest of us from second hand smoke. There is one departure gate. The two hours I waited there made me wonder if I was being sent to a Pakistani prison.

The rest of the trip back to Sri Lanka was uneventful, but there is a postscript that I only learned about on our 31st wedding anniversary, May 27th. It seems that while I was in Pakistan, Kris was in cahoots with a local jeweler. Kris purchased the set of three stones I had previously been having him hold for me. Each stone is about 20 carats. One is blue topaz, one is amethyst, one citrine, all “fancy” cut and  closely matched in size. Kris had the jeweler set the stones in a row on a silver pin and she presented it to me on our anniversary. If you are in Gambier in late August, the pin will be on display, attached to my velvet tam as part of my academic robes.

So it looks like I will get the souvenir I was looking for after all, and a rug to boot!



Pakistan: Day 11680, Sunday

I have got to to get out of using my sleep cycle as a organizing principle of this blog. Who cares how much sleep I am getting or how long I lie awake at night before I fall asleep?

So, the title of this post comes from a great video piece in The Onion. It is a spoof on the numbered day coverage of the Iraq war. Here a TV reporter on the Line of Control between India and Pakistan tells about the non-events of the 11,680th day of the tensions between these two nuclear armed powers.

So let’s get to the interesting stuff: the War on Terror and Pakistan. The Fulbright conference talks on Sunday were about terrorism as it relates to Pakistan. The keynote address was given by Dr. Tariq Rahman, Distinguished National Professor at Quad-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and a 1995-1996 Fulbright Scholar at the University of Texas. Dr. Rahman’s official web page is a few years out of date, but he is an accomplished scholar and an outspoken voice for progressive Pakistanis. Many of the essays on his web site are well worth reading for a Pakistani perspective.

Rather than detail all the conference talks that I heard, let me instead summarize my impression of what is happening in Pakistan, vis a vis, the Taliban and Afghanistan. In addition to the talks at the conference, my impressions were formed by conversations at dinners, in meetings with academics after the conference, and in discussions with Pakistanis I met on the staff at the USEFP, including a delightful young woman who was born to a family of the warrior caste from the area around Islamabad. She accompanied me on a visit to the Physics Department at Quad-i-Azam University and I jokingly introduced her to my host as my bodyguard. To make this role seem plausible for this  beautiful, slender young woman, I added that she was trained in ten forms of ancient Pakistani martial arts. I learned about her warrior heritage on the ride home and suggested that maybe she was skilled in ten forms of ancient Pakistani martial arts. She laughed.

From an American perspective, Pakistan seems not to be a reliable supporter of the war on the Taliban in Afghanistan. It also appears not to be particularly stable, with the appearance of a credible threat of a Taliban takeover of this nuclear armed country. Democracy has only recently returned to Pakistan but democracy here is nearly synonymous with family dynasty and corruption. The CIA is using Predator drones to attack al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan while the US military is using Predator drones to attack Taliban targets thought to be involved in the war in Afghanistan. These attacks have increased in frequency since Obama took office. The US claims that the Pakistani government secretly supports the drone attacks, but the Pakistani government denies this more and more vociferously. What is one to think?

First let me say that we created a lot of the instability in this region. I will not claim to have made a detailed study of the modern history of Pakistan, but when India sided more with the Russians and less with the US after WWII, the US adopted Pakistan as its ally in the region. As with our “allies” in South America over the years, this often meant lending our support to dictatorial military regimes in Pakistan.

And then along came an opportunity almost too good to be true, certainly one that the administration of Ronald Reagan (the person I thought would forever top my list of worst ever presidents) was not going to pass up. The Soviet Union was involved in trying to suppress a rebellion in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union was “the Evil Empire” and here they were in a similar position to the one we were in in Vietnam. The Soviet support for North Vietnam and the Viet Cong was a huge factor in our humiliating defeat in South Vietnam. Now it was payback time! With the help of the Saudis as financiers and ideological supporters, and with the Pakistanis and the Iranians supplying safe havens, we created and armed an army of Islamic fundamentalists and their comrades in arms against the Russians, the northern tribesmen/warlords/heroin producers of Afghanistan.

And, sure enough, we made the Russians pay. Their humiliating defeat was surely a key in the breakup of the Soviet empire. The Russians retreated to their more traditional boundaries and are now fighting to hold the line in Georgia and Chechnya. For reasons that make me doubt the sanity of our national leaders, we continue to press them even there. (One of my hot buttons lately: Do we really want to go to war (potentially nuclear war) with the Russians over Georgia? Not the Georgia that contains the city of Atlanta, but the Georgia that borders on the Black Sea with a population about that of the US state of Alabama and an area about that of the US state of West Virginia.  Then why are we considering offering Georgia membership  in NATO?)

But back to Afghanistan. Once the Russians left we declared victory and went home. But who did we think was going to take over in Afghanistan? And did we imagine a well armed group of Wahhabi inspired, fundamentalist Muslims to feel grateful for our help, much less form a moderate, stable government that would enter a strategic alliance with us against, say, Iran? And we had encouraged close ties between the Pakistani equivalent of the CIA, the ISI, and the people who would come to power in Afghanistan, namely the Sunni fundamentalists, the Taliban.

Let’s face it. We made our bed here and now we are lying in it. If there is any silver lining here it is that maybe governments are starting to realize that supporting terrorists, even if you agree with their causes, or just want to have a proxy fight with an enemy, will come back to bite you. So India, under Indira Gandhi, supported and trained the LTTE. They paid her back by assassinating her son. This year, India did not interfere with the Sri Lankan government wiping out the LTTE. Pakistan has supported insurgents in Kashmir and Afghanistan and now find them attempting to take over Pakistan itself. The Pakistani Army is now in a push to destroy the Taliban in Pakistan. And we, having created the jihadist movement to punish the Russians, are now condemned to relive Vietnam in Afghanistan. Have we learned our lesson?

(A bit off topic, but maybe representing a light at the end of the tunnel: Some major party politicians in Tamil Nadu shamelessly and recklessly exploited the conflict in Sri Lanka in the recent Indian elections. Some went so far as to say that they would guarantee the creation of a separate state in Sri Lanka for Sri Lankan Tamils if elected. These politicians were uniformly and decisively defeated at the polls helping the Congress Party in India to form a stable government with no need for participation by extremist groups. Compare that to the fear-mongering that lead to GW Bush’s re-election in the US.)

Another problem the US has in Pakistan is in trying to identify the players. From my  talks with Pakistanis, the issue is that pretty much every Pakistani can be classified in many ways. Are they successfully engaged in the modern, Western-oriented, capitalist economy, or not? Are they successfully engaged in the traditional feudal economy, or not? (For example, I was told that it is not only the Taliban that want children not to go to school. There are many feudal lords that prefer their people ignorant, and thus easier to control, as well.) Are they Sunni? Sufi? Shiite? Christian? Hindu? Fundamentalist or moderate? Which of the many languages do they speak? What tribe do they come from? Are they Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashtun, or Beluchi? Have they been displaced by war? Are they trained for war? By whom?

It was interesting to observe that the Muslims I met in Pakistan used the same language that I’ve heard Christians in the US use in regards the culture wars: “Who are XXX to decide what my faith is?” Substitute “Taliban” for XXX in the case of Pakistani Muslims and “fundamentalist Christians” in the case of US Christians. For the record, leading Pakistani Muslim religious leaders recently met and declared that suicide bombing was against Muslim law. They would have done the same thing for Predator drone attacks, but it is not Muslims carrying out these attacks.

One effect of these multiple ways of slicing the Pakistani populace is the apparent difficulty of reconciling agreements made with the government of Pakistan and the actions that actually take place in Pakistan. The Pakistani government mostly speaks for…the Pakistani government, and, with the restoration of democracy, secondarily for the progressive, West-leaning population. And “government” does not include the army, which seems to form its own semi-autonomous entity whose aims and goals are not always identical with those of the government. Many Pakistanis I talked to were concerned that the army was not serving the democratically elected government. They argued that if the army truly supported the government, then the army would have prevented the advance of the Pakistani Taliban toward Islamabad a long time ago. Several Pakistanis felt that the army’s lack of action conclusively demonstrated the army’s sympathy for the Taliban. The other issue raised was the competence of the military. Many claim that the military is entirely focused on the threat from India and thus the army’s weapons and tactics are inappropriate and ineffective for combating the Taliban guerrillas, despite the Taliban being a demonstrably greater threat to…whom? Of course, everyone I talked to were progressive Pakistanis, so the Taliban threat is to progressive Pakistanis, their lives and their modern way of living. They are the part of Pakistan the West supports, but they are not all of Pakistan. In fact, I am not sure just how much of Pakistan they do represent, population-wise. The respected Pakistani newspaper Dawn had a poll on its web site. The question, arising from a statement made  by a Taliban leader, was “Is democracy incompatible with Islam?” The Taliban leader’s answer was “yes” with the implication that the decisions of a democracy should always be subject to review by religious authority. When I last saw the poll, Dawn readers were about evenly split on the issue.

And then there are the leftovers from supporting the insurgency against the Russians in Afghanistan. After 9/11, we asked the Pakistani military to do a complete about face, from providing training and arms to the Afghan Taliban, to demanding the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban be wiped out. Under military rule, Pervez Musharraf mostly did stop supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, but, as you  can imagine, this 1984 style shift of enemies left people generally confused and unsettled about us.

And speaking of 1984, we have now completed a rapproachment with Pakistan’s great enemy, India. We, of course, do not see it this way. We believe we can be friends with both Pakistan and India. The Pakistanis (and, I dare say, the Indians) probably do not see it this way. From the Pakistani perspective, it was one thing when both India and Pakistan had US sanctions against them because of their development of nuclear weapons. But now we have concluded a deal to end those sanctions on India, effectively admitting India to the legitimate nuclear club, but leaving Pakistan as a nuclear pariah. France rushed in to conclude a nuclear deal with Pakistan “in principle”, but the US Congress, not without reason, continues to pressure Pakistan on a number of fronts, the nuclear arms issue being one of them. You can imagine that, from a Pakistani point of view, there is now some uncertainty about whose side we are on.

Last, but certainly not least, there is the issue of corruption. Pakistanis  described the government in Pakistan as pervasively corrupt. Not that this is any different from any earlier government in Pakistan. The two most influential political parties in Pakistan, the current ruling party, the Pakistani People’s Party (PPP), and the current opposition party, the Pakistani Muslim League (PML-N) are considered essentially equally corrupt. Government posts are given to the supporters of the party that won the most recent election without much regard to experience or competence.  Government salaries are uniformly low, so using ones political appointment to maintain a standard of living commensurate to ones political appointment is a standard practice. As I will describe in a separate post, there was some discussion of a program to introduce recent advances in physics education to Pakistan. One person told me quite directly that I should not even think of doing it at a public university as most of any grant money would be siphoned away as “administrative costs” and end up in a politician’s pocket. This concern has also been raised by the US Congress is their deliberations about increasing military support to Pakistan.

I will say that democracy as practiced in Pakistan seems little different from democracy practiced in India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. The major parties are all associated with a family, kind of like The Godfather. So in Pakistan the PPP is the party of the Bhutto family. The current prime minister, Asif Ali Zardari, is the husband of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto. Probably the strangest example to a Westerner is the Congress Party in India. Congress was the party of Mahatma Gandhi. Then Indira Gandhi. Then Rajiv Gandhi. Now, Rajiv’s Italian born wife, Sonia Gandhi. The Indian electorate seemingly did not care that Ms. Gandhi was not even a native of India. Perhaps for this reason, Ms. Gandhi did not put herself up as prime minister, instead supporting the current prime minister, Manmohan Singh. (Or perhaps she had noticed that all the previous Gandhis had been assassinated? Or, given that Singh is an economist, maybe she channeled Clinton’s rule that “It’s the economy, stupid.” In any case, she remains both alive and the leader of the Congress Party.)  But Singh is getting on in years and recently had heart surgery. So, everyone expects that Singh will retire in a few years giving way to Rahul Gandhi, Sonia and Rajiv’s son.

You may have read recently about demonstrations in Pakistan that succeeded in restoring the ousted, respected, non-corrupt, chief justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court. An independent and incorrupt judiciary is a necessary component of a true democracy, so this was good news, right? The Pakistanis I met agreed that the restoration was a good thing. But, in Paul Harvey style, I will now give you “the rest of the story.” The demonstrations were led by the leader, Nawaz Sharif, of the opposition party, the PML-N. Restoring the ousted chief justice seems like an appropriate thing for the opposition party to be doing. But there is more. It seems that both Mr. Sharif and the current prime minister of Pakistan, Mr. Zardari are under investigation for corruption. Conviction would disqualify the the guilty to hold public office in the future. So a subtext of Mr. Sharif”s leadership to restore the chief justice was to protect himself and his party. For, given the personal and family nature of politics in Pakistan, if Mr. Sharif were to be found guilty and unable to stand for election, not only would he and his family suffer financially, but also his political party. The reluctance of Mr. Zardari to reinstate the chief justice was along similar lines. If he were found guilty, then his family and party would be ruined. The expectation now is that with Mr. Sharif’s success in reinstating the chief justice, neither man will want to go to court, so some accomodation, bypassing the Supreme Court, will be worked out to forgive both men’s past corrupt activities, thus maintaining the (corrupt) status quo in Pakistani politics. And now you know…the rest of the story.

So what is the take away message about Pakistan? Are the Pakistanis the “good” guys or the “bad” guys? The take away message is that we Americans have to stop thinking in these simplistic terms. Life is messy. “Surgical” strikes aren’t, and, if they ever are, Big Brother will have finally taken over. Innocent civilians will always die in war. War will always be hell and lacking in moral certitude.  I have become profoundly less interventionist in viewpoint the more I have learned about the history of  US actions in Asia. Post World War II, we just do not have a good record of securing peace in Asia. And I would say that a big reason for that is that we do not know enough about Asia to appreciate what is really going on. And until we do, we should resist easy categorizations and keep our military at home.

Hmm. Why did I think you  would be any more interested in that diatribe than my sleep habits? I will have to think this over before I post again…


Pakistan, Day One, Saturday

My alarm clock brought me back to consciousness, two hours after my head hit the pillow. I pulled myself together, opened the door to my room and awaited developments. Soon, I was greeted by Dr. Grace Clark, the executive director of the USEFP, in whose residence I was being billeted. Dr. Clark and I introduced ourselves to each other over a delicious breakfast of bacon and eggs. Dr. Clark is a specialist on aging and most recently a Marylander.

We headed to the conference site at the Allama Iqbal Open University. A difference between Sri Lanka and Pakistan was immediately apparent. In Sri Lanka and Pakistan institutions and businesses employ private guard services. The difference is that in Pakistan, the private guards are heavily armed, mostly with shotguns. There was at least one, shotgun carrying, guard at Dr. Clark’s residence. Armed campus security guards waved us through to the building containing the auditorium where all the conference talks were being held.

Once inside, I was directed to take my seat at a table on the podium as I was the last speaker of the first session of the day. Thank goodness I had taken the time to prepare my talk beforehand! The talks were loosely about education and my talk on computational science education, “Computational Physics at the University of Peradeniya,” stood out a bit. Other talks had titles like “Literacy challenge in Pakistan,” “Madrassah reforms: issues and challenges,” and “Today’s Pakistan: Challenges and opportunities for the blind.” (I should mention that the conference theme was “Today’s Pakistan: Challenges and Opportunities” to explain the similarities in the titles of the talks.)

Despite the singularly scientific nature of my talk, I was warmly greeted afterwards as we headed out for a tea break.  I got my first taste of a wonderful aspect of Pakistani hospitality. Those who know me, know that “mixing” in groups is not one of my strong suits. But, throughout my time in Pakistan, Pakistanis who noticed me standing alone would make a point of approaching me and starting a conversation. It was delightful, and so  consistent, that, like the Sri Lankan  practice of adopting strangers into their families, it must be a national characteristic of Pakistani hospitality.

After tea,we heard the keynote address by Retired Justice Nasira Javed Iqbal, a former judge, a member of the Pakistani Bar Council, and former Fulbrighter to Harvard. She gave a very interesting presentation on the importance of a unified system of justice to preserve the integrity of Pakistan. Her talk was a response to the Pakistani government sanctioned, planned implementation of Sharia law in the district of Swat by the Taliban. Considering that all members of the Pakistani parliament were threatened with beheading by the Taliban if they voted against the agreement to implement Sharia law, I thought Justice Iqbal’s remarks were quite brave.

Lunch was held under a tent outside the auditorium building. All the food I had in Pakistan was outstanding. My fellow lovers of spicy food should be green with envy. Lunch too soon over, we were herded back inside the auditorium for the afternoon session that dealt with environmental opportunities and challenges. After another tea break, we attended a shorter, final session that lasted until 6PM. Two of these talks were about the history and issues of identity among the Pashtun people. As I understand it, when the British drew the line between what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, they used the principle of “divide and conquer.” The British attempted to split each of two major tribal groups in the region, the Beluchis and the Pashtuns, by the drawing of this border. The two groups, with family on both sides, have tended to treat the border as non-existent over the years, and this, of course, has played a role in our current failure to keep the war in Afghanistan confined to Afghanistan. The Pashtuns have been pushed around quite a bit recently, by the Russians, the US, and the Pakistanis. Later during my visit there was a round of “targeted” killings in Karachi. These were mostly recently arrived Pashtuns being killed by Karachi locals, with some Pashtun revenge killings thrown in. Creating peace in this region depends quite a bit on creating  security and an economic future for the Pashtun and Beluchi people.

After the conference sessions were over, we traveled to the Lok Virsa. The Lok Virsa appears at first sight to be a museum, but there really are few antiquities in the museum. Rather it is more a display of the artifacts of the many cultures that make up the nation of Pakistan. We had to do a quick-step through the museum as it was close to closing time, but it was very interesting. Then we retired to an outdoor restaurant that had been set up for the conference. Sri Lankans and Pakistanis share the tradition that the meal comes at the end of the evening, so it  turned out to be yet two hours before we would eat. But once again, the Pakistanis displayed their remarkable hospitality and I thoroughly enjoyed many conversations that evening.  We were also treated to a program of classical Pakistani music with the performers on a stage set just in front of a wall of beautiful examples of Pakistani architectural carving. Dinner was served and, it still takes me by surprise, everyone promptly went home.

Traveling with the meeting sponsor, Dr. Clark, meant we stayed until pretty much until everyone else had departed. But, though it had been a long couple of days, I was wide awake, until the very moment when my head hit the pillow and then it was “lights out.”


War over, classes over, time to go home

I walked into the Physics Department tea room on Tuesday where a half-dozen physicists had gathered to hear the President of Sri Lanka address the nation on TV declaring victory in the war on terrorism. As I sat down the department head noticed me. “We have foreign professors come and foreign professors go, but you come and look…” he said, pointing to the TV screen. “Yeah”, I replied, “Why don’t they have my picture on the TV?”

Kris and I have come to Sri Lanka at a very interesting time. When we arrived, the LTTE controlled maybe 20% of the country, and now they have been completely defeated in a military sense. All the LTTE leaders are dead, a certain “live by the sword, die by the sword” form of justice. They literally fought to the last man. I can not admire this, as romantic as it sounds from a distance, because of the suffering they caused to so many even when it was clear they would lose. Their “last stand” was more of an expression of their fanaticism, their lack of touch with reality, than their devotion to their cause. Their cause would have been better served had they surrendered much earlier, or if the leaders had fled the country.

But though I sympathize with the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils, I can not be sorry for the death of the LTTE leadership. Their complete annihilation should give the island some peaceful breathing room, some time to start to heal the differences, to build a sense of Sri Lankan identity that rises above cultural differences. But that time will be limited, so the healing work to be done must be done urgently, as urgently as the movement of troops in wartime.

Classes at the University were supposed to be over yesterday, Wednesday. But then the war ended and I knew it was coming. Sure enough, on Tuesday, the President declared Wednesday to be a national holiday, wiping out the two final classes I was to teach. I decided there was nothing in Electromagnetic Theory that would justify bring the class back together, but met today with the Computational Physics class as it was their last opportunity to finish their projects. New Year’s, Poya Days, the celebration to end the war, all happened on the days I had classes. It was uncanny.

Final exams in both classes are still pending, but that was the last class meeting for me in Sri Lanka. For this last class, I wore a sarong. I told the students that they had honored me all year by wearing the national costume of my country, so on the last day of classes, I wore the national costume of their country. Actually, on me, it looked more like I was a tourist dressed for the beach than anything else.

So, the war is over and classes are over. My work here is done. Time to head home.


Weather report: Humid

I am not making this up. A news item a couple of days ago reported that the government Meteorology Office predicted that the weather would be “humid” for the next two weeks.

Are they kidding? There has not been one day here that I would not describe as humid. Reading this news report reminded me of a weather report I think I remember from Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update : “The weather  for tonight is predicted to be dark, with continued dark until the early morning hours.”

The air is so humid in Sri Lanka. How humid is it, Tim?

  • It is so humid here that  according to official government statistics, every year an average of 51.5 drunks drown because they couldn’t tell they had  inadvertently staggered into the Indian Ocean until they were 100 feet underwater.
  • It is so humid here that  Sri Lanka has the world’s only coastline that is not fractal.
  • It is so humid here that scales have to be corrected for buoyancy.
  • It is so humid here that many plant species do not need roots. (True.)
  • It is so humid here that in a recent sports scandal, track and field athletes were caught using performance enhancing flippers.
  • It is so humid here that a confused water monitor was spotted 100 feet above the level of Kandy Lake. (True.)

Readers  who live in or who have visited Sri Lanka are encouraged to add more examples in the comments.


Getting my Pakistani visa

I have not traveled very much in my life, at least not internationally. So, in that way, this has been quite a remarkable year for me. Kris and I traveled to Ireland for a Christmas holiday early in our married life. I presented a paper at a conference in Aix-en-Provence in my last year as a graduate student, after which Kris joined me and we drove around France, took a train to Amsterdam (arriving, quite by accident on the Queen’s Birthday), before flying back to Seattle from Amsterdam. Excluding Mexico and Canada then, the only other significant travel before this was the trip to Singapore, Bangkok, and Siem Reap three years ago.

Largely, getting a visa is relatively easy for Americans. Many countries grant Americans tourist visas automatically upon arrival in the country. Long time blog readers will recall that we did have some trouble getting our Chinese visa. The Sri Lankan visa process was tricky, but then we were applying to reside in Sri Lanka, not just be tourists in Sri Lanka. (In fact, Sri Lanka is a country that automatically grants tourist visas to Americans upon arrival.)

Well, I have already given away the surprise in the title of this posting, but I was invited to travel to Pakistan by the United States Educational Foundation in Pakistan (USEFP) and I returned  yesterday from a nine day visit to that country. I am now back in Sri Lanka, safe and sound. I did not post about my trip in advance because I knew that some readers of this blog would be alarmed at the prospect of me going to Pakistan. But let me say that, just as the news reports about Sri Lanka give one a grossly exaggerated view of the danger of traveling to Sri Lanka, the same can be said for Pakistan. I can honestly say that at no time while I was in Pakistan did I feel the slightest anxiety about my safety.

But, of course, before I could travel to Pakistan, I had to obtain a visa. This turned into the most uncertain and most expensive visa application process to date.  I started by finding the web site of the Pakistani High Commission in Colombo (“High Commission” is the English-system term for “Embassy.”) I then tried to email to get instructions on how to apply. Every email address that looked even remotely appropriate turned out to be dead email addresses. Despite hating talking on the phone because of my hearing problems, I finally contacted the HC by phone. A nice person gave me the correct URL for the instructions to apply for the visa. So I downloaded and studied the requirements.

Requirement number one, since I was not a tourist, was a letter of invitation from my hosts, the USEFP. This was duly and timely supplied. Requirement number two is to fill out a long application form. Not too bad. Requirement number three is a fee of about $100. This seems somewhat odd and discriminatory against Americans, since a Sri Lankan traveling to Pakistan would have only had to pay a visa fee of $1.  I was to learn later that the reason the fee is so high is that this is what the US charges Pakistanis (and Sri Lankans and Indians, among others) to come to the US. Requirement number four is two 1″x1″ photos of myself.

So, I gather all this stuff together and head off on a three hour train ride to Colombo. A tuk-tuk takes me to the Pakistani HC. A big, beautiful plaque proclaims this gate to be the Pakistani HC. I tell the guard that I am here to apply for a visa. He takes me inside where a woman tells me that I have to go to the other entrance where they accept visa applications. So I turn toward an interior hall and ask if this is the right way. No! I have to go back out onto the street, walk about 100 m (100 yards) back up the side street that this entrance faces, turn left on the main road, walk maybe 35 m from this side street to the next side street, then 100 m back down the side street to the other side of the same house.

I do so. Now I find myself at the end of the side street, not a sign in sight. I walk around a bit. I back  track a bit to see if I missed a sign, then finally try a little alley to the left of the end of the side street with a half-open gate at the end. I approach the gate and discover that there is a plaque on the part of the gate that is open that proclaims this as the Pakistani HC, but with the gate open, the sign is not visible from the road.

I walk into the courtyard where I find a covered, outdoor area furnished with down-at-the-heel living room type furniture. To one side are parked the motorbikes of the HC employees. A Sri Lankan policeman strolls around the courtyard, bored to tears. There is an oldish man sitting on a chair in the covered area. He asks what I want. I tell him I wish to apply for a visa. A flicker of surprise appears, briefly, in his eyes and then his expression returns to its impassive state. He motions me toward a window in the side of the building. Again, a brief flicker of surprise, and then a cold glare that I last saw on the faces of Cambodian border guards. I hand him my papers and he begins to examine them. He actually seems to warm up a bit as I really did seem to have everything in order. Things were looking up. After asking me to take a seat, he goes off to consult someone and comes back after some time. There was just one problem, he said. You have to explain your presence in Sri Lanka by means of a letter from the Fulbright Commission. I am to arrange to have the letter sent and then come back in a few days.

Rats! Well, it is not too bad. As the HC is not too far from the Fulbright office, I take a tuk-tuk over there. In addition to the very friendly people, the new Fulbright office (the  US  Sri Lankan Fulbright Commission, USSLFC) is one of the better air conditioned places in Colombo and I was cooked after waiting in the open air at the Pakistani HC.

Hold on, the USSLFC  people say. For me to travel out of the country, I need the permission of the USSLFC  board of trustees. Translated, this means no letter today. Sigh. So I do a few errands and take the three hour train ride back to Kandy, bloody, but unbowed. On the train, on the way back,  I get a phone call from the superintendent of the visa section of the Pakistani HC in  Colombo (the guy who was sitting behind the window). He tells me that the Pakistani consul wants to see me, can I come back tomorrow at 10AM. Oh, and they still need a letter from Pakistan. Well, no, I  tell him that I can’t come back tomorrow because I have to teach, but I can come back next Tuesday. Yikes! I say to myself. Why would the Pakistani consul want to see me? As for the letter, I assumed that since he already had a letter from my hosts in Pakistan, he had misspoken and really was referring to the letter from the USSLFC.

Well, I was a bit freaked about the consul meeting. I contacted the USSLFC and the  Fulbright liaison at the US Embassy in Sri Lanka and asked for a clue what this might be about. Should I go alone or should someone from the US Embassy accompany me? I almost, but did not say, “You did not see the look in the superintendent’s eyes! Can I please have a Marine come with me?” That is when I learn that interviews are routine. The US Embassy interviews every applicant for a visa to the US.  I was told it was likely he just wanted to ask me questions about why I was going to Pakistan. Wear a tie.

Fast forward to next Tuesday. The USSLFC board had approved my request by email and a letter was waiting for me at the USSLFC office. I hopped on the train (or I hopped as well as I can hop at 0610  in the morning) and rode back down to Colombo. A tuk-tuk took me to  the USSLFC office where I picked up my  letter, then off to the Pakistani  HC.  I proudly turned over my letter and was shown to the consul’s office for my interview. The consul (actually is business card said “counsellor” so I am less sure that he was “the” consul) sat behind a large desk. I sat on a chair across the desk from him and there was a muted TV in the corner of the room off to my right that was showing what looked to be the Pakistani equivalent of CNN.

The consul started by calling me a brave man for volunteering to come to Sri Lanka. I told him that I was not so much brave as a better than average calculator of statistical risks. Then he asked why I would take on the perhaps increased risk of going to Pakistan. I told him that I was not crazy, that evangelizing about computation science was not worth dying over, but that I had confidence in the determination of the USEFP, backed by the US Embassy in Pakistan, that I could make the trip safely. As it was, my travel was restricted strictly to the capital city of Islamabad.

Then he asked me what I perceived to be the cause of the trouble in Pakistan. I do not know what possessed me to say anything other than “I don’t know”, but I said, “Well, it can’t be helping that the US is killing people in Pakistan in Predator drone attacks  without the permission of the Pakistani government.” “Exactly!” he said, and he launched (if you will pardon the pun) into a half  hour lecture on the situation in Pakistan. The drone attacks were killing civilians as well as militants, the people in the country were angry, causing them to sympathize with and support the militants. He told me that no one had ever conquered the people in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The British (“upon whose empire the sun never set”) could not conquer these people, the Russians with all their brutality could not conquer these people, and the Americans were failing in their  efforts to conquer these people, so “Why does the West expect tiny Pakistan to do what no other country in history has been able to accomplish?” The drone attacks are big news in Pakistan and three times during the half hour lecture images of drones appeared on the TV. Each time they appeared the consul interrupted his lecture to point the drones out to me. Basically, I replied with sympathetic noises, because I am sympathetic. Frankly, I expected that Obama would have stopped the drone attacks upon taking office. It really is a provocation and an insult to an ally to be bombing  their country without their active participation. At the end of the interview, pleasant words were uttered and it looked promising once again.

The superintendent of the visa section showed me to the open-air waiting area, returned to talk to the consul, and returned about fifteen minutes later. It turned out that I had not misheard about the need for another letter from Pakistan. My letter of invitation from the USEFP included the information that I would be attending a Fulbright Alumni conference to be held at the Allama Iqbal Open University in Islamabad. They now wanted a letter from the Allama Iqbal Open University confirming that there was indeed a conference to be held there. Sigh, no visa today. Back to Kandy, empty-handed.

Well, that Tuesday was the day before the entire nation of  Sri Lanka takes off to celebrate Sinhala and Tamil New Year for ten days.  Things were starting to get a bit tight. But, hey, it was just one more letter, right?

The USEFP arranged to have the letter faxed to the Pakistani HC in Colombo. As expected, I did not hear from them until the end of the New Year’s break.  “Where is your letter?” the superintendent asked?  “I was told it had been faxed to you,” says I.  “It has not been received.” So off I go to fax my copy of the letter to them. The deadline is getting closer. I call the next day to ask if the letter had been received? “No.” I panic a bit. Maybe the HC  just does not want to tell me straight out that they do not want me to go to Pakistan and are giving me the runaround instead. After all, fax machines give receipts. In a last ditch effort, I re-send a fax of my copy of the letter and the USEFP  re-sends their fax of the original.

The deadline has arrived. My flight leaves early Friday morning April 24th. It leaves so early in the morning that I decide to spend the night in a hotel in Negombo (the town closest to the airport) the night before, so I can get some sleep before leaving on the long trip. I hire a car and driver to take me to the Pakistani HC on Thursday the 23rd. One of two things will happen. The visa will be denied, I will retrieve my passport, and be driven back to Kandy. Or the visa will be waiting for me and the driver will take me to Negombo, the town closest to the airport. I am uncertain enough that I do not even book the hotel room in advance, relying on the depressed travel industry for an available room.

My driver  comes at noon on the 23rd. We drive to the Pakistani HC and arrive at 3PM. This is an hour before they open their window  to hand out visas. But, as  I settle into an old sofa to wait, the old man in the courtyard announces my presence to someone and the superintendent of the visa section of the Pakistani High Commission in Colombo appears a few minutes later. I pay him the $100. He wants four photos. I am savvy enough by now that, despite the fact that the website indicated that only two photos were necessary, I am, in fact, carrying eight.  I hand them over without mentioning the discrepancy. And he hands me my passport with the Pakistani visa affixed therein.

So, off we go to Negombo. I decide to do a little scouting for my sister Shannon’s arrival and we go to the Brown’s Beach Hotel.  This seems promising as it is an Aitkens Spence property, the same company that owns the Kandalama Hotel. This hotel is relatively old and the prices correspondingly less. I am received in high style. Yes, they have a room. I, in turn, have a valid  credit card and a residence visa qualifying me for the resident rate. The room with breakfast comes to about $50. Upon completion of the financial arrangements, someone drapes a (cheap, but it is the thought  that counts) shell necklace over my head and a cold fruit juice is supplied. A ride to the airport is arranged for the morning (about $15) as is wireless Internet access in my room (about $12  for 24 hours).

The hotel is in a lovely setting. It is right on the beach. Every room has a balcony that overlooks the Indian Ocean. The downside is that once you leave the lobby area, the age of the hotel shows. The room could use a paint job. Some of the fixtures are dated. The rooms are not sealed against mosquitoes. But everything works, including the air conditioning, and for $50/night, it is a bargain. Not recommended for honeymooners, but recommended for people who want a reasonably priced place to stay on the beach.

So, I checked my email, sent a message to my Pakistani host that I was on my way, did some web surfing, had dinner at the hotel restaurant overlooking the ocean, missed Kris, and turned in early.

More on Pakistan in my next installment.