Last year, Mujahid Torwali and I started to collaborate on getting some student supplies for his underfunded government school in the Swat Valley of northern Pakistan.
Rizwan Ali Shinwari is a PhD fellow in the political science department at UMass Amherst. Through mutual friends we met in 2018. But, just four days after we first had coffee, he was injured very badly in a bike vs. car accident. He then spent several weeks in the hospital recovering from surgery and his injuries. To this day, he is still recovering.
This guy, at the Peshawar wedding. He did this for five very long minutes. I’m sure he was just cold and had never seen a movie about Dracula.
Ahhhhhh, Home Sweet, Karachi!
During 2017 visit, I spent the majority of my two week trip in Karachi. So coming back felt familiar. Well, I mean, it’s a city of 15 million so can it really ever be familiar to a foreigner, right? Well, at least the hotel was.
First, I’m not entirely comfortable with “celebrity” to describe my experience. It was just as much about being an “oddity” in Pakistan. Fine.
Before my first trip to Pakistan in 2017, I was told/warned by co-workers who had previously traveled there that because of my skin color and height (6’4”/1.95 meters) I would attract extra attention from strangers. Given I was anxious about the image of Pakistan that I had formed over years of negative media coverage (never will one see a story in the news titled, “Today Was Peaceful in Pakistan” because headlines like that don’t sell ad space) I just thought this attention would be negative in nature and unwelcome.
I’ve never been one to desire attention from crowds of people, regardless of the country. It goes back to my childhood when, despite my advanced height even then, I just wanted to blend in and not be noticed.
Once I got to Pakistan, I did receive A LOT of attention from strangers. When I walked into a store or a room or down a street, it was as if everything stopped and all heads turned to stare at me. When I walked around in public, many who saw me would follow me with their eyes as I walked past. Fortunate for me, I was always with my Pakistani friends and I could whisper to them that I was being stared at and they reassured me that I was a novelty to them. However, I could take the multiple staring episodes for only so long. Eventually I would make eye contact and either nod my head at them or smile and wave. Nearly 100% of the time they smiled, waved back or approached me to shake my hand or take a picture.
During the recent trip, I experienced very little of this in Islamabad where foreigners are much more common in public. Peshawar was the opposite experience. We had been told by faculty at a Peshawar school visit that they couldn’t remember the last time an American had been on campus. I had grown comfortable enough at this point to approach staring people in Peshawar with a smile and a shake of a hand. Note: I did this only with young and adult men and I rarely made eye contact with women much less smiled at them. Its an established cultural rule to not engage with women unless they engage you first.
In summary, I think my experience feels less like a celebrity and more like a diplomat. I think my simple presence on a street, in a classroom or a restaurant sends a message that Americans want to be engaged with Pakistanis. Too many times I heard from Pakistanis that they thought the U.S. hated their country and expressed surprise at seeming me and my colleagues.
I had the enormous pleasure of traveling to the city of Peshawar in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Peshwar’s age is not scientifically confirmed but it could be up to 3,000 years old. During its long history it was a stop along the Silk Road that has connected Europe with Asia for hundreds of years. Peshawar was also the staging area for the freedom fighters (mujahedeen) who fought the Soviets during the occupation of Afghanistan. The famed Khyber Pass is less than an hour away and Kabul is just a few hours by car.
In 2017, I visited Pakistan for the first time.
Before I went, I peppered my Pakistan-experienced co-workers and Pakistani friends with lots of questions about the country. Some answers were detailed while I often got a version of “Pakistan affects people in different ways” which meant “Ken, you’ll just have to get there and see what happens!”. The 2017 trip was shocking in several ways. First, the graciousness and curiosity of the Pakistani people. Second, the environment of Pakistan was a firehose of stimuli affecting all of my senses.
My 2019 trip shaped up to be the same “cultural firehose”. But this time, with my previous experience still fresh, I was prepared.
Or, so I thought.