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Vacation to Pakistan lands reporter in midst of military conflict (9 photos)

Trip degenerated into stress and chaos; It was a reminder of how much home in Orillia is appreciated

Vacation is my favourite time of the year — especially since this year I was going to spend a whole month with friends and family.

I headed to Pakistan determined to make this trip more about rediscovering the culture and learning more about contemporary trends being followed by the younger generation.

Little did I know, I was about to discover what it felt like being in the middle of a military conflict and a possible nuclear standoff.

After travelling for 24 hours, I was tired, dirty, bloated, and hot when I landed in Pakistan early in the morning of Feb. 4. Immediately, what I saw reminded me of some of the things about Pakistan that had bothered and stressed me out when I was living there until 2011.

The immigration section at the airport was chaos, no one was willing to line up at the appropriate counter. Lining up is a waste of time, someone said to me, as I tried to point to them that they were cutting in front of me.

There’s culture for you, I thought.

Take a deep, deep breath and don’t start off your journey with a fist fight, I told myself. There will be plenty more opportunities to do that.

My parents were on time and awaiting my exit and quickly herded me off to the side when they saw me. I walked out onto the floor, which was covered in rose petals that people had thrown at their loved ones returning from the small pilgrimage, umrah.

Boy, what a lovely welcome, I thought.

Owing to the fact that I had to attend a wedding the same day, I went to sleep so I could be in some presentable shape later that night. My mom woke me up a few hours later and asked me to come along with her to the market.

As I stood on the step to a small shop, I felt a hand touch my arm. I turned around and saw a strange man grabbing onto my bicep to try and push me aside.

I ranted off some curses and asked what the hell he thought he was doing. He looked up, startled at a feminine voice, instead of the male voice he had expected.

I knew what had happened. I have really short hair and was wearing a long baggy sweater that didn’t really reveal to him any gender characteristics. He’d thought I was a boy and was trying to move me out of the way so he could squeeze in to the tiny shop.

He apologized profusely when he realized he’d made a mistake. I told him he should be patient and not just go around trying to push people out of the way - man or woman.  

That was day one, only a few hours into my trip. My mom told me to brace myself — and to grow my hair longer for my next visit.

Wedding season, as usual, featured lots of dancing, eating, and meeting up with relatives —the same ones for several days. It eliminates the need for having to go to everyone’s place separately.

Then began my explorations of the city. First, my dad took me to the newly built Army Museum, which was very good establishment propaganda.

I was quite impressed by how well maintained and organized the museum was. There were female tour guides taking groups around. The museum honoured fallen soldiers since the independence of Pakistan. It had exhibits of all the wars fought between Pakistan and India.

Nicely done, Pakistan Army, I thought to myself.

The other cultural event I went to was the Lahore Literary Festival. It was a gathering of thinkers and doers who had come to talk at book launches, panel discussions, all around feminism.

“Wow, this is some real progress,” I said to my mom, as we walked out of the venue. “At least people are talking about how to change women’s on-screen roles to create a trickle-down effect into real life.”

“I told you so,” she said smugly.

I’m one of those people who work out even when on vacation. My mom had bought me membership for the gym she attends, so I would go work out early in the morning. I would quietly take my weights and bar to a corner of the gym and just go through my hour-long routine.

Of course, everyone noticed the stranger with short hair, I mean really short hair, wearing a tank top and spandex, lifting weights, which are traditionally considered men’s tools.

One day, after staring at me for about 15 minutes, a lady worked up the courage to approach me and initiated the most abrupt conversation I have ever been a part of.

“Are you a student?” she asked.

“No,” I replied, not volunteering any other information.

“Are you married?” she asked.

“No,” I said, not that you should be asking me that; or that it should matter.

“Then what do you do?” she continued with her interrogation.

“Well, I don’t understand what you’re trying to extract from me,” I said.

She gave up and walked off.

I knew exactly what she’d been trying find out. I just didn’t want to give away the farm.

It was a reminder that women are expected to either be studying or be married. There is no spectrum from which you can choose a status, or just be.

I mentioned it to a cousin of mine who is a mixed martial arts instructor and a filmmaker. She said she was surprised I’d forgotten that’s how women have always been viewed here. I said I thought things might have changed.

She said there are some signs of progress, for instance large infrastructure projects, massive shopping malls, and more attention being paid to historical monuments and buildings, but other than that, things are the same.

And she would know, since she is one-fourth of a company that is helping corporations fulfill the Pakistan supreme court’s order mandating plantation of 10,000 trees per year.

Good for the environment, I thought. Lahore used to be lush green, but it’s since become a concrete jungle that isn’t attractive at all.

It’s also close to New Delhi in India.

This is the famous border where Pakistani forces, less in number but not in courage, bravely fought off Indian troops in 1965. And it looked like there might be a bit of a throwback to those times with India and Pakistan, once again, poised for war.

It all started in mid-February after a suicide bomber in the Indian-occupied Kashmir killed 40 Indian soldiers. The Indian media’s immediate reaction was to blame it on some random Pakistani-based militant group. The only problem was their evidence was non-existent.

Things escalated after much raving and ranting from the Indian media, while Pakistani news channels kept presenting counter evidence to the Indian government’s theories.

Indian planes crossed over into Pakistan’s airspace, and both militaries were on high alert, as was I.

Soon after, Pakistan's air force shot down two Indian MIG fighter jets and captured the pilot for the one who fell on the Pakistani-occupied Kashmir territory.

This was happening too close to my departure date, and as I had suspected, both governments shut down their airspace.

Oh, boy, here we go, I thought to myself, as I snuck out my prayer mat and started imploring for things to de-escalate and calm down so I could come back home.

There was a point when my misery made my mom come up to me and say, “I want you to leave.”

“I’m trying,” I said.

It wasn’t as if the city was under curfew or we were unsafe or I was by myself in the middle of nowhere. It was just that these aren’t circumstances I have become accustomed to for a home.

Home is in Orillia, where I work, relax, learn, participate in community events, and hang out with my friends.

Eventually, the stand off ended after the captured pilot was returned to India, and international pressure increased on the Indian government. The airspace was re-opened on March 3, and I was able to catch my flight on March 5.

Once again, after 24 hours of travelling I arrived in Toronto groggy, exhausted, and drained, but very happy to be back home.

Mehreen Shahid

About the Author: Mehreen Shahid

Mehreen Shahid covers civic matters under the Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the Government of Canada
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