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"Islamabad is not Pakistan"

Pakistan, November 1, 2010

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“Islamabad is not Pakistan.” I’ve heard this several times, and I’ve only been here 24 hours. The idea is that Islamabad, as the capital, is so orderly and sanitized that it doesn’t resemble the rest of the country. The phase is expressed with an interesting mix of humor, admiration and dismissal — sort of like how back home we’d say “Princeton’s not New Jersey” but with a more exotic flair.

Islamabad doesn’t look like anyplace I’ve been in South Asia before. The city is divided into an organized grid, including embassies, government buildings and leafy residential streets. Motorists politely glide over wide, well-paved avenues. It’s quieter, calmer and less chaotically spirited than I expected.

Another thing that surprised me — and that never fails to surprise me in some of the insecure countries where Mercy Corps works— is just how human Pakistan is. Media reports do a thorough job of highlighting exceptional and often horrific events: bombings, insurgencies, Wikileaks scandals.

But they don’t highlight the clusters of young people who go for blissful weekend hikes in the hills above Islamabad. They don’t tell you what it’s like to shop for a shalwar kameez elbow-to-elbow with a hive of women in a fashionable downtown store. They don’t convey how awe-inspiring it is — as a non-Muslim — to hear the call to prayer early in the morning. In short, they don’t highlight the multitude of small, uneventful vignettes that comprise life in Pakistan and everywhere else in the world.

That’s not to say that Pakistan does not have challenges. It has plenty, and some are dire. I’m sure I’ll witness many such challenges in the coming days as I travel to flood-ravaged areas of Sindh province. But challenges should fortify, not sever human connections. People are, after all, just people.