The Serena Has Eyes...and other thoughts from 10 days in Pakistan
THE NICEST HOTEL IN PAKISTAN has eyes and ears, I was warned. In fact, the resort is so disorientingly big that a personification effect plays out with tricks of the eye, that when wandering the palatial corridors you can begin to imagine yourself in a belly—lined with fine art, vases, large mirrors—of some immense sentient being, one that shifts itself imperceptibly when your back is turned.
The Serena Hotel in Islamabad is the country’s gathering spot at a convergence of modern-day trading routes and diplomatic channels. Over a week, the grounds of the complex is host to serious-looking huddles involving: cadres of lighter-skilled Saudis in white thawbs; darker-skinned polysyllabic Indians; stoic Mongolese; a handful of Europeans, all seemingly traveling solo and keeping to themselves, quietly absorbed in phone calls, staring at their complimentary copy of The Express Tribune, occasionally meditating. And, of course, the Chinese are there, lots and lots of Chinese spread eagerly in the lobby’s sitting sections. An American here and there, possibly, but not likely. Pakistanis on whirlwind trip into Islamabad for government meetings; Pakistanis in olive drab military fatigues patterned for concealment in the brown sands of the country’s arid regions. They are all spotted roaming the halls, strolling along the breezy walkways of the Serena’s verdant garden, sprawling supine by the outdoor pool in a fluffy spa robe and slippers, dining in one of the hotel’s six restaurants.
And everyone is at the morning’s breakfast buffet—the great equalizer—cutting in line at the omelet station and awkwardly bumping elbows reaching for a croissant.
I arrived around 2:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, part of a group of eight U.S. journalists spilling groggily out of a shuttle van after roughly 20 hours in the air. Hotel staff scanned our luggage, shone flashlights in the van’s back windows and slid mirrors under its carriage—a common inspection routine at Western-leaning luxury hotels across South Asia. Except here they scanned everything twice.
Pakistan, after all, embroiled in decades-old conflicts from its two neighbors: To the southeast, India has been mortal enemy number one since Pakistan was carved out as an Islamic republic during the partition of British India in 1947. To the northwest, Afghanistan has descended into chaos as the U.S. military’s bungled Middle East strategy since 9/11 has prolonged war with the Taliban, sending thousands of Taliban-affiliated insurgents into Pakistan through a porous border. Terrorism has wracked Pakistan, killing thousands of people in the last decade. In 2008, just a five-minute drive from the Serena, terrorists set off a truck bomb at the entrance of the Islamabad Marriott, killing 54 people and wounding 260 others. A grim Pakistani joke: The only border without a military build-up is the Indian Ocean—but the country’s powerful intelligence agency is catching wind of an uprising.
So the redundant bag screening—and even the smattering of checkpoints on any given road—was to be expected and quickly blurred into background of life there. More subtle, and insidious, movements in Pakistan, have complicated signs in a country whose democracy is fragile and power still tilts in favor of the military and the intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence.
I don’t claim to be Pakistan expert, though I’ve read a few books about it and I’ve had a curiosity about South Asia for some time. I also had limited time to see the country on my own, so any kind of towering thesis would reek of arrogance. But there is one thing I wanted to work out in some form of writing upon my return, as a way to parse it. I’m not claiming to have solid answers; in fact, I can can say I have a lot more questions. For starters, if the Serena shapeshifting exists, who’s controlling it? What do they want? And what does it mean for America?
My group was organized by the International Center for Journalists, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that provides resources to independent media organizations in developing countries, often places that restrict press freedom. In addition to running workshops and exchange programs in Africa, Latin America and Central Asia, the group has a strong presence in Pakistan, not least of which because a program manager, and leader of this trip, is from Karachi.
My newsroom, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, has sent a couple staffers to Pakistan as part of the ongoing exchange programs between U.S.-Pakistan newsrooms.
The ICFJ’s Pakistan endeavor has been funded by the U.S. State Department, using money earmarked by Congress in 2009, the last time a major aid package was approved for Pakistan. But with the State Department’s sponsorship came strict security protocols similar to those imposed as part of any diplomatic trip. requiring journalists to travel in a van accompanied by an armed guard and to avoid places marked as terrorist targets by the U.S. government.
I’ve mentioned the seemingly irresolvable 71-year-old conflict with India—it took a turn for the worse in 2014, when Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister, and both sides quit talking to each other, according to Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States. But what about the U.S.? Rarely are America’s diplomatic relations with another country so unclear, so hot and cold, so misunderstood.
As business reporter, I set out to write something for the Post-Gazette about this, with a focus on how trade has fared between Pakistan and Western Pennsylvania, a big manufacturing hub that has strong ties with many countries. The basic finding from that angle: there is virtually no trade, despite the best efforts of a fledgling U.S.-Pakistan chamber of commerce and a Pittsburgh business consultant who, married to a Pakistani woman, has been urging businesses to invest for years.
All ties seem to be strained, if not severed entirely, over the issue of Pakistan’s perceived support—or failure to eradicate—terrorist networks that are wreaking havoc in Afghanistan (remember, Pakistan’s other neighbor). On this issue, there’s plenty of heated disagreement between Pakistani officials and U.S. government, which has now burned more money on the Afghan war effort than on the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after WWII—a staggering statistic that highlights the unfathomable failures of the 17-year war. President Trump has removed billions in aid to Pakistan this year to escalate the U.S. position; the United Nations has placed Pakistan on a “gray list” of countries that are believed to be financially supporting terrorism.
It’s clear that relations have hit a low point.
At the same time, our trip in March emphasized Pakistan’s healthy array of civil organizations that are studying a garden variety of broad problems and shedding light on them—the dearth of public education and child labor; journalist deaths and implicit censorship; outright censorship at the state-run media channel; in Karachi, a lack of ambulance services and shortages of drinking water; and, yes, in a particularly fascinating visit to one group, fighting the scourge of terrorism by training mothers who to spot warning signs. Some efforts are led by artists.
At the National Artists’ Convention in Islamabad in February, the head of the national arts council told us, participants called for a national culture policy and better funding. At T2F, a two-story art gallery, cafe and performance center tucked in a hot dusty alleyway in Karachi, you could feel the creative oasis that its founder, Sabeen Mahmud, inspired. Sabeen was gunned down while driving three years ago, just blocks from where we had stood.
In fact, my biggest takeaway from 10 days in Pakistan, as happens so often visiting places like this, is the discovery that most average folks who roam Karachi and Islamabad do seem to grasp that their country has major, almost incoherently big problems and are optimistic about fixing them. Just one shelf of titles in Saeed Book Bank, a bookstore in Islamabad, Pakistan, packed with floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall books spread across three floors connected by a spiral staircase, say it all: What’s Wrong With Pakistan?; The Pakistan Cauldron: Conspiracy, Assassination & Instability; Breakdown In Pakistan: How Aid Is Eroding Institutions For Collective Action; Playing With Fire: Pakistan At War With Itself; Sleepwalking to Surrender: Dealing with Terrorism in Pakistan; Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding.
It was the optimism that struck me. The Western view of the Middle East and Asia as the “other” part of the world has always been an oversimplification, one that ignores and dehumanizes the people who live there. It has always been the task of a journalist, particularly one dropping into a distant land with the goal of reporting home, to take a hard look at an area and give the honest truth with the time and resources you have. And that was my assessment. I was not surprised Pakistan mustered its second consecutive peaceful transition of power this summer (though, of course, I’m also anxiously watching to see how the new prime minister governs.)
Pakistanis we met, both in our scheduled meetings that packed most days, but also when we’d venture off for an occasional—yet still heavily controlled and guarded—excursion through a market, seemed not like the maligned, antithetical “other” but doing pretty much the same thing Americans do: shopping, eating ice cream, driving, going to work. (Throwing in another acknowledgment here that our group was required to steer clear of a long list of places compiled by the U.S. State Department’s security wonks, a list that some of us, I should note, gently protested, to no avail. In Pakistan, the overlap between government-forbidden spots and areas of journalistic interest is vast. [One State Department forbidden zone that was especially baffling for our group was the entire historic city of Lahore, considered by many Pakistanis to be the cultural heart of the country, but just days after we landed in Islamabad, a suicide bomber there killed nine people and injured 35 at a police checkpoint.])
At the highest levels, it’s also clear the distrust in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is mutual. The surveillance state in Pakistan targeted our group, calling to interrogate the ICFJ program manager while we were in Islamabad—a detail we were instructed by ICFJ to not report for at least a few months.
This surveillance is something, as I mentioned, we were warned about up front. Some scenes described by U.S. journalists who served stints as foreign correspondents in the region comically play out like a bad spy movie. In some instances, there’s surveillance is in plain sight—often due to shoddy execution on the part of the I.S.I. One American reporter who stayed in the Serena around the time of its opening was heading down a stairwell when he noticed a small doorway in the wall between two floors. He poked his head in and saw an empty room with rows of computers and telephones, evidently a room to listen to monitor communications in the hotel. Other journalists have heard audible clicks when agents pick up to listen, or an agent will grunt or mutter or breathe loudly.
I think back to the shape-shifting in the Serena. In my opulent hotel room, which had a bedside control panel to manage all the various lights and air conditioning, the lights turned occasionally took on a life of their own. The second night there, I was too jet-lagged to sleep and was restlessly pacing around by the window, taking in still blue night, the calm empty pool beneath the silhouetted outline of the distant Margalla Hills, when the lights suddenly came on. A few nights later, I came back to all the lights on and air conditioning whirring on high and the buttons of the control panel punched out. I immediately checked my bags to make sure everything was still there; luckily, I had taken my camera and notebooks with me for the day, and there were otherwise no signs of tampering or burglary. Still, paranoia seized me. I did my best to ignore it—sleeping with the lights on and in the freezing temperatures, resisting the urge to inspect the tiny lens-looking thing with blinking red light installed in the TV, to casually try to lift the room’s assortment of picture frames and mirrors.
Everything seemed to blow over once we left the Serena Hotel and landed in the oppressive dry heat of Karachi. I ended up writing the best story I could for the newspaper, based on what I saw, heard and experienced.
It was an unforgettable trip, and some of the best moments involved dipping a toe into the upscale culture of Pakistan. That very idea is incongruent with the average American’s idea of the country, that we could explore hushed museums filled with modern art, stumble upon a prolific street artist at work on a piece of the famous Pakistani truck art, wander through a gigantic collection of coins dating back millennia, visit multiple art schools dedicated to drawing, film, theater, performance.
I heard the most renowned Sufi singer perform at a glitzy outdoor corporate-sponsored event in Karachi with a red-carpet walkway and mirrored walls. Our group sat in the back corner, wearing traditional Pakistani formal wear we had purchased earlier that day at the Clifton seaside mall complex, which was packed with fashionable consumers giving us sidelong glances as we browsed a rack of Punjabi kurtas, trying to find the right size and color.
I sipped chai on the sprawling multi-level patio seating of The Monal, a high-altitude restaurant perched in Margalla Hills overlooking the twinkling lights of Islamabad, after wolfing down plates of spicy lamb, chicken and beef with rice.
I strolled casually down Port Grand, a carnivalesque boardwalk in Karachi with a vendors hawking fried foods and ice cream. There was a booming karaoke stage with a DJ, a psychic who offered to reveal fortunes for $10, a cricket match on an outdoor jumbo screen. It was our last night there, warm and merry. As the sun dipped below the watery horizon, the moon appeared as a slender crescent—not unlike that on the Pakistani flag—above the hulking vessels tied up to the port. The crowds were embracing us, all-smiles, asking for selfies, appreciating the novelty of a dozen or so Americans. A local television reporter, sweating with enthusiasm, interviewed three of us live, beamed to God knows how many Pakistani living rooms.
A short walk out from Port Grand, winding along a dark path, almost directly underneath the festive cheers on the boardwalk, our program manager led us to arguably the most remarkable place of the entire trip. With no markings or signs to announce it, in an open-air space about the size of a tennis court, was Shri Laxmi Narain, a 200-year-old Hindu temple—a Hindu temple that has somehow survived Karachi’s onslaught of development—including Port Grand—and the political and religious hostility and strife that has scarred so many parts of this restive city of 20 million people. I removed my shoes at the entrance and stood in awe of the shrine, its golden statue and offerings bathed in red light and incense.
You can see why, after assembling these mixed, vivid moments like these, it becomes hard to draw a cohesive impression of a place. I would argue that difficulty is a good thing in the long run.
My approach to writing about places is to absorb the true character of a place through immersions—extended periods to wander, partly alone, though ideally with local guides most of the time, to weave a compelling, nuanced story that can transport readers directly into that place. The ICFJ trip was extraordinary in that it existed at all, allowing journalists like me to give U.S. readers a glimpse into a largely unknown society. It’s an encouraging sign, a taxpayer-supported recognition of a reporter’s power to sway audiences to truth, that facts, an unbiased eye and good storytelling can cast light on an enigmatic state. (Though funding has almost certainly dried up for good under the Trump administration, which cut aid to Pakistan this year.)
The questions I’m left with, as I sit back at home, make me eager to return. To ask more questions. To head back into the belly of the Serena and ponder the question: Is all really lost between America and this country?