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.”



1 Comment

  1. July 18, 2009 at 12:41 am

    […] Educational Foundation in Pakistan (USEFP) made good use of my ten days in  Pakistan. I have already mentioned my talk given at the Fulbright Alumni conference on my work establishing a computational physics course at […]

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