“Do women wear the burqa in Pakistan”; “is it true that Pakistanis keep their women indoors and casually hang around with Kalashnikov rifles?”; “does the Pakistani cuisine mainly comprises insects and rice?”. These are just a few random examples of common questions about Pakistan that I came across growing up in my country, Morocco.
I was heavily influenced by Bollywood ever since I was a child; binge-watching Bollywood flicks, nonchalantly singing and dancing to songs like Main Nikla Gaddi Leke, totally unaware of where Lahore – where the singer had allegedly left his dil – was located. As any other Bollywood buff in Morocco, I had grown up believing that whatever lay across the border from India was dangerous. Until one day it finally struck me to start my own research on this country called Pakistan.
My mission was simple, the means, however, were not so much. Being a ’90s kid, I did not have the internet to help me get instant answers. I would spend hours browsing my father’s library desperately in search of something on Pakistan. The more I read about it, the more passionate and adamant I became to pursue the dream of visiting the country someday.
With the advent of the internet, however, everything I’d ever wanted was available at the click of a mouse. Online encyclopedias and documentaries helped me associate clear images to the words I had devoured back in my father’s library. By the time social media emerged, I had gathered ample knowledge about Pakistan and platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter further helped me connect to people in Pakistan. That is how I became the administrator of one of the most popular virtual book-clubs in Pakistan, Bookay. It was, in fact, a Bookay friend who helped me with the virtually insurmountable visa process that Pakistan has in place for Moroccans.
My journey in Pakistan began in Karachi. It was a conscious decision as I knew it would require a lot of energy and patience to move around the busy metropolitan, and enthusiasm is usually high in the first few days of a vacation. Despite my tight schedule – given the number of online friends I had to meet in a span of only two days – I did manage to get a sneak peek at the innumerable wonders that the city contains.
My first day in Karachi started with a mouth-watering Balochi breakfast, after which I had a traditional paan. Ever since I’d read about paan in my father’s books, I had been besotted with the idea of it. It did not disappoint. I will never forget the way I felt when I took that first bite. It was just so different from anything I had ever eaten in my life. Later, I tasted the best biryani ever, at one of my dearest friends’ places which turned me into a believer. I am now a devout member of team-Karachi Biryani because; aaloo (wink-wink).
It was also an opportunity for me to experience what it felt like living in a joint family system. The system is not quite the vogue in Morocco any longer. Hence, the concept was alien to me. Being invited to a house that was jam-packed with people was an eye-opener. It was strangely pleasant to know an extended family could live together peacefully.
I spent the next day attending a literary event organised by Joy of Urdu at the British Council, where I had the chance to sing one of my most beloved nazms Hum Dekhenge. My last hours in Karachi were spent at Bagh Ibne Qasim. The trip ended with the last sip of my favourite karak chai at Clifton beach while witnessing the last sunset in this beautiful, wondrous city.
My next destination was the capital, Islamabad. Despite the overall quietness of the city, it was quite happening for me. I was interviewed on national tv about my love for Pakistan, how it all started and how I ended up making my dream come true after more than two decades. I was lucky enough to take a voyage through ancient history by visiting Dharmarajika Stupa and walk through the world’s earliest university, Takshashila University.
The next station was Peshawar and I won’t lie to you, this was the most exciting part of my entire journey. Peshawar has always been synonymous with terrorism in my part of the world. Hence, physically going there without any sense of danger, was the most liberating feeling in the world.
I hardly got to spend a day in Peshawar but I did manage to visit Bala Hisar Fort, finally, take a look at the breathtaking building of Islamia College University and Peshawar University. I ended the Peshawar chapter with the famous Charsi Tikka; hands down the best thing I had come across in Pakistan to date.
I witnessed the first snowfall of my life in Murree. Being a huge hill station lover, stopping over in Murree on my way to Lahore, was exactly what the doctor ordered. It helped me relax a bit and regain my senses after a rollercoaster of emotions meeting hundreds of friends and acquaintances, trying to visit as many places as I could.
I made more memories in Lahore than all of the other places combined. My first night in the city coincided with my birthday which I, along with some friends, celebrated at an Atif Aslam concert, one of my all-time favourite singers. I did manage, in Lahore, to finally witness with my own eyes the grandeur of Lahore Fort, Sheesh Mahal, Minar-e-Pakistan, walk through universities I had always wanted to visit and pose next to the desi Eiffel Tower in Bahria Town. I also made sure to fulfil some childhood personal wishes like taking a memorable picture in front of Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital, the tomb of Allama Iqbal and having the early-morning breakfast of halwa puri and lassi in Old Lahore. I finally got the chance to meet one of the most popular artists in Pakistan, Ali Noor from Noori, which was one of the highlights of my visit to the city.
From the moment my plane landed in Karachi, to the moment it took off from Lahore for Casablanca, my experience in Pakistan was no less than magical. My people in Pakistan unknowingly made me realise every dream I’d ever had in my father’s library while going through those books on Pakistan. They made me experience things I could’ve never imagined I could ever do. Things like crossing half of Pakistan on train while drinking chai and humming to the tunes of Bhaavein Jaan Na Jaan, touching the snow for the first time in Murree, experiencing the la-jawaab taste of paan in Karachi, and countless unique and unconventional experiences that made my whole stay in Pakistan an unforgettable memory.
I came back to Morocco with eyes full of tears, two huge bags full of gifts and a piece of my heart left in Pakistan.