Diary of a French girl in Pakistan

On my visit to Pakistan for the first time ever, I distinctly remember the day I was crossing the Wagah border from India, listening to a song by Noori while my heart was beating fast – not out of fear, but in anticipation since I had been waiting for this day for a long time.

I was first introduced to the country by my Pakistani roommates many years ago when I was 18 and living in London. Their stories had piqued my interest right away. Finally, after all this time, I got the chance to come to Pakistan. It took me two months to plan my trip and included many nights of researching what to do and where to go.

When I arrived at the crossing, border officials welcomed me with a lot of curiosity and immediately began asking me questions about where I was from, if I was travelling alone, if this was my first time in Pakistan and what the purpose of my visit was. I answered them gladly with as much detail as I possibly could.

“I’m going there because I want to understand if Pakistan is really what the media portrays it to be. Honestly, I don’t believe even for a second what I see on TV.”

There were smiles all around me when I said this.

With so many happy faces, I could have stayed at the border chatting for ages with the friendly staff. But since I thought my friends would be anxiously waiting outside for me, I didn’t stay for too long. After a few more questions, smiles and many shukrias, I was finally on the other side. Pak-is-tan. I think I had to pinch myself a few times to realise that I was standing on Pakistani soil.

I sat on a bench next to a few old men while waiting for my friends to arrive. They looked at me, smiled and asked where I was from. I decided to introduce myself in Urdu and tried to speak the few words I had learnt on my own. I struggled, but they appreciated it so much.

I remember them telling me, “Don’t worry miss, although we don’t see many solo female travellers here in Pakistan, people will look after you like their own family. You’re also most welcome for dinner at our place…”

At that point, I knew that I’d be spending a fun-filled week with unforgettable experiences.

The moment when I crossed the border.
The moment when I crossed the border.

I had my first cup of chai in Pakistan – another thing off my bucket list – with them. A little while later, my lovely friends Faizan, Shah, and Lizzy came to pick me up in their shiny new car. I had met them online and this was the first time we were seeing each other in person. I was amazed at their kindness that they came all the way to pick me up. I said salam alaikum to them, khuda hafiz to the gentlemen whom I was having chai with, and I set off to discover Pakistan.

Coke Studio songs were blaring in the car as a perfect auditory introduction to the country. I looked out the window, soaking up the vibes I was getting from the city, especially Lahore’s canals and the lush green trees along them.

My friends are devoted bikers and own Karakoram Bikers, a company that arranges adventure tours on motorbikes around Pakistan. When they asked me if I wanted to explore Old Lahore on bike, I didn’t hesitate to say ‘yes’ even for a second. We set off on our bikes at full speed that same evening toward the chaotic but amazing androon Lahore.

As I was holding onto my friend on the bike, with the fresh breeze against my face and a new landscape around me, I felt a deep sense of joy and liberty.

Wazir Khan mosque was the first mosque I ever visited. Not bad for a first!
Wazir Khan mosque was the first mosque I ever visited. Not bad for a first!
I loved the colourful tiles at the Wazir Khan mosque.
I loved the colourful tiles at the Wazir Khan mosque.

First, we stopped at the Wazir Khan mosque, which I found breathtakingly beautiful. It was my first time to visit a mosque. Back in France, there aren’t any mosques where I live. The perception of Islam in my country is rather negative, but when I went inside the Wazir Khan mosque, I felt at peace. I am an anxious person and stress out easily, but all those feelings disappeared in that moment. I understood why Muslims go to mosques; it’s a place where you can escape all your troubles. Wazir Khan mosque will remain my favourite place in Lahore.

We ended the day with a stop at Pak Café, where we had chai (obviously!) and chatted away. A young lady sitting next to us turned around and asked if I was French (is my accent that obvious?). I responded to her in Urdu, which made her even more curious, and I was in for another set of endless questions!

Over the next few days, I had the chance to explore more of Lahore with another friend, Ahmed, whom I had also met online. While I was doing my research on Pakistan, I posted a question on Quora: “Is it safe for a 24 year-old girl to travel alone in Pakistan?” Ahmed was the first one to respond and since then, we kept in touch everyday until I arrived in Lahore.

I took a taxi from Chandigarh to go to Wagah. I felt a little scared, but Ahmed kept in touch throughout. He is one of the best Pakistani men I have ever met! I also met his family and they are all lovely. I hope to be able to host him in Europe when he comes.

He took me to his alma mater, LUMS. The red bricks of the buildings reminded me of England and the campus didn’t look very different from my university in Cardiff. I also saw a few foreign students and I could imagine myself studying there.

An adorable girl I saw at the mosque even agreed to take a picture with me!
An adorable girl I saw at the mosque even agreed to take a picture with me!
Who does't want a photo with the majestic Badshahi mosque in the background?
Who does’t want a photo with the majestic Badshahi mosque in the background?

We then headed to the food street and sat at a restaurant overlooking the beautiful Badshahi mosque. I tried paratha, daal, and mutton, which was tender and cooked to perfection. I also had Nutella naan for dessert, which was amazing! Pakistani food in the UK is decent but it’s nothing compared to what I tasted here. I expected it to be spicy, but to my relief it was rather tolerable.

As we were having food and were immersed in conversation, a singer at the restaurant asked Ahmed if he had any song requests. Since Ahmed knew I was obsessed with Jal, he asked for one of the band’s songs. It was another unforgettable moment.

It was time to say khuda hafiz to the City of Gardens. Next stop: Islamabad. My university friend Sam came to pick me up from Ahmed’s place in his car. I couldn’t wait for the drive to Islamabad since I remember my roommates telling me how beautiful the route was.

Faisal mosque is completely different than the other two mosques I visited.
Faisal mosque is completely different than the other two mosques I visited.

As we made our way to the capital, it was the perfect time as the sun was setting and I could see the untouched landscapes. The land was mainly flat until we reached the hills a little before Islamabad. It was a beautiful sight, with the city lights in the distance as we slowly reached our destination.

What was soothing was the sufi songs playing in the car. My interest in sufism sparked a few years ago when my friends introduced me to it. I started listening to sufi music everyday, especially Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. When I was coming to Pakistan, I brought along a few Rumi books. Sufism, in both its poetic and musical expressions, makes me feel connected to the country.

The following day, I organised a little surprise for my friend and took him horse riding in the outskirts of the city, close to Margalla Town and Orchard Scheme, at the Orrick Horseback Riding Islamabad, which I had discovered online.

The sun was shining, the weather was cool, and we could hear the call for Friday prayers in the distance, which made it even more mystic. We became friends with the owner of the club, Orrick, a friendly Canadian expat who has been living in Islamabad since many years. We also met her lovely husband.

I stayed in Islamabad for a few more days, during which I had the chance to try out some more food by the Margalla hills and enjoy a nice walk by the Faisal Mosque, before heading back to England where I live.

I loved all the colourful, traditional outfits and couldn't help but wear one myself!
I loved all the colourful, traditional outfits and couldn’t help but wear one myself!
Trying to blend in as much as possible!
Trying to blend in as much as possible!
I am obsessed with shawls.
I am obsessed with shawls.

I really wish everyone has a chance to visit Pakistan. When I was doing my research before coming, all I came across was news about bombings, kidnappings, and how the country was not safe for foreigners, especially women travelling alone. But I knew that this was not an accurate picture.

In my time spent in Pakistan, all I saw was amazing hospitality, landscape, food, music, and the most welcoming people. Everyone was kind and loving, and they would do everything to make you feel at home. I haven’t come across such generosity anywhere else in the world (and I have travelled quite a bit).

I encourage you to go and discover Pakistan. I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed by the experience.

Thanks for Dawn news

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Turkish referendum: Powerful Erdoğan, PowerlessPublic

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In yesterday’s Turkish referendum to replace the current parliamentary system with a strong executive presidency, unofficial results show that 51.3% of the electorate voted in favour of the proposed constitutional changes while 48.7% voted against. The opposition parties are likely to contest this: the supreme election board unexpectedly decided to accept ballots without the official seals, after the voting process was over.

Nevertheless, the scene is set for Turkey’s new political constitution to be adopted to coincide with the November 2019 elections, unless early elections are held before then.

President Erdoğan has already played a de facto executive role since he was elected by a popular vote in 2014. With the referendum result, this de facto executive authority becomes de jure. His expanded powers will include the ability to issue executive orders, control the budget and appoint vice presidents, ministers, and high-level state officials. Erdoğan will now be able to rule until 2029 if he can win the next two presidential elections.

Despite the fact that Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), along with their major ally Nationalist Action party (MHP), declared victory, the percentage of yes voters (51.3%) was much lower than the two parties’ combined share of the vote (62%) in the last general election in November 2015. This suggests that the slim margin of victory for the yes camp is far from being a decisive win. Crucially, the major industrial, cosmopolitan cities such as Istanbul, Ankara, İzmir and Antalya voted no. In southeast Turkey, most Kurdish voters voted no too, likely in response to resurgent violence between the Kurdistan Workers’ party and the Turkish military since the summer of 2015, when the peace process ended.

In contrast, conservative and nationalist Anatolian voters supported yes. Many of them remain fiercely loyal to the personality cult Erdoğan has constructed around his macho leadership. These voters tend to be highly sceptical of the western nations and are nostalgic for the Ottoman imperial past.

The two camps looked at the constitution through different lenses. For yes supporters, the failures of past sclerotic coalition governments and threats against national security were at the forefront. The no camp, on the other hand, were concerned with the separation of powers, checks and balances, and threats to democracy. What this stiff competition and close result show is that a significant portion of Turkish society is seriously concerned about the state and future of Turkish democracy. Socio-economic stability, peace and the normalisation of Turkish politics cannot be achieved unless these concerns are addressed by President Erdoğan.

Questions over the fair and free nature of this referendum have been raised. The campaign was conducted under the state of emergency declared after the attempted military coup last July. Since then, many dissident academics, journalists, civil servants and elected politicians, such as the pro-Kurdish leader, Selahattin Demirtaş, have been jailed and silenced.

One of Erdoğan’s first moves after the result will be to officially rejoin his Justice and Development party, since the constitutional change abolishes the non-party-political nature of the presidency. At the end of the day, the AKP does not mean much to its base without Erdoğan at its helm.

 

(The Guardian )

What Would a US-European-Russian War Look Like?

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Tensions between the United States and the major European imperialist powers and Russia are at their highest point since the Cold War. The danger of a military conflict between the two largest nuclear powers has never been greater.

Since the April 6 missile strike, the Trump administration has issued new threats against Syria and new ultimatums to Russia to end its support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad. On Wednesday, President Trump defended the unprovoked strike and called Assad a “butcher.”

The G7 powers over the weekend lined up behind the US strike and its pretext—the totally unproven claim that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town. They endorsed Washington’s renewed drive to topple Assad, Moscow’s only Arab ally in the Middle East.

Russia has responded by stepping up its military support for Assad. Last Friday, it discontinued its coordination with the US aimed at avoiding encounters between US and Russian jets and announced that it would upgrade Syrian missile air defenses, which already include advanced S-400 and S-300 radar/missile batteries. It diverted a frigate with cruise missiles to the Eastern Mediterranean. And it issued a joint statement with the Iranian military warning that it would respond with force to any new act of aggression against Syria.

The recklessness of US policy was highlighted by Defense Secretary and retired general James Mattis, who told reporters on Tuesday that Syria would pay “a very, very stiff price” in the event of another chemical attack, which is undoubtedly already being prepared by the CIA and its Al Qaeda-linked proxies in Syria. Mattis offered assurances that the situation would not “spiral out of control,” based on the assumption that Russia would “act in their best interests,” i.e., back down.

What is most astonishing is the virtual absence of any discussion in the US and European media of the danger of a war between the US and Russia and the consequences of such a turn of events. What happens if a US jet is shot down by a Russian anti-aircraft installation or Russian jet? One can only imagine the frenzied demands for retaliation that will spew out of the press and politicians of both countries.

How many millions will die in the opening minutes of a nuclear exchange between Russia and the US? Neither the New York Times, nor the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Times of London, Le Monde, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or Sydney Morning Herald is even raising these questions.

There have, however, been revealing commentaries in certain more specialized publications. The Conversation published an article on April 7 (“Why US air strike on Syria deeply threatens military clash with Russia”) making the point that the danger of a clash between the US and Russia is much greater than in 2013 because Russia has in the interim firmly established a military presence in Syria.

“So, if the new aim of the Trump administration is the removal of Assad from power,” the article states, “this could only happen through a major confrontation with Russia.”

Russia Beyond the Headlines published an article on April 7 outlining three possible scenarios following the US attack on Syria. The first, and presumably most likely, is “Armed conflict between Russia and the US.” Sooner or later, the article notes, the “logic of confrontation will force Russia to respond with force.” It quotes a Russian international security expert who warns that “we cannot fully exclude the use of nuclear weapons.”

An April 7 article on the Defense One web site explains that a US assault on Syria would for the first time in the “decades-old counter-terrorism fight” pit the United States against a “real, modern and well-armed military,” resulting in a war “of exponentially greater scale.”

Steven Starr, a senior scientist at Physicians for Social Responsibility and associate with the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, who is a noted expert on the life-destroying environmental consequences of “nuclear winter,” explains that once a nuclear exchange between Washington and Moscow gets underway, the death toll will be in the high tens of millions within the first hour, and that will be only the horrific beginning.

The two countries have between them 3,500 deployed and operational strategic nuclear weapons that they can detonate within an hour. They have another 4,600 nuclear weapons in reserve and ready for use. Given these vast numbers of mega-weapons, there is a strong chance that most large cities in both countries will be hit. Starr estimates that 30 percent of the US and Russian populations will be killed in the first hour. A few weeks later, radioactive fallout will kill another 50 percent or more.

Nuclear winter, a new Ice Age caused by the environmental impact of nuclear war, will “probably cause most people on the planet to die of starvation within a couple of years.”

Then there is the possibility of a high-altitude detonation triggering an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that destroys electronic circuits over an area of tens of thousands of square miles.

“A single detonation over the US East Coast would destroy the grid and cause every nuclear power plant affected by EMP to melt down. Imagine 60 Fukushimas happening at the same time in the US.”

being prepared behind the backs of the American and world population by the power- and profit-mad criminals in the Pentagon and the CIA, with the full support of both parties and the political and media establishment. People living in cities from New York to Boston to Philadelphia to Detroit, Chicago and all the way to Los Angeles and San Francisco will likely be obliterated within minutes of the beginning of such a war.

What preparations are being made? What is the survival plan? There are none. The silence of the media and politicians is not an oversight. They know that should this prospect become a subject of public discussion, the shock will produce uncontrollable social convulsions.

The astonishing recklessness of the ruling elite has an objective source. It is the global crisis of the capitalist system, which finds its sharpest expression in the long-term economic decline of the United States. Even during the Cold War there remained within the dominant sections of the ruling class a certain caution. Now, the relentlessly aggressive tone of the media and constant demonizing of Russian President Putin almost seem calculated to provoke a military clash. There is, in fact, a significant faction within the ruling elite and the state that is prepared to do just that.

This horrifying prospect cannot be averted through appeals to the powers-that-be. The entire history of the 20th century, with its catastrophic wars, shows that the only way to prevent war is through a mass movement of the working class. Workers and youth must confront the urgency of the situation by organizing mass protests directed toward the building of an international anti-war movement based on the working class to put an end to imperialism and capitalism.

Joint operation against Fazlullah ‘possible’

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    ISLAMABAD – Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan Dr Omar Zakhilwal yesterday hinted that a joint operation against TTP leader Mullah Fazlullah could be possible in near future, as he expressed hope for improvement in Pak Afghan relations this year.
    In an exclusive interview with Waqt Television, the ambassador said Afghanistan could never allow India to use its soil against Pakistan, terming such an impression to be an insult to the whole Afghan nation.
    Talking in programme ‘Embassy Road’, he expressed the hope that the relations between Islamabad and Kabul would see an improvement despite the current chill in bilateral ties.
    Hinting at the backchannel efforts for normalisation of relations between the two neighbours, Dr Omar Zakhilwal said, “The year 2017 will see the relations between the two countries turning warm from cold.”
    Dispelling the impression of framing anti-Pakistan policies on the pull of India, Afghan Ambassador said his country was a sovereign state and it charts its policies on foreign affairs, national security, and economy purely in line with the national interest. Believing that Kabul was doing New Delhi’s bidding was therefore an insult to the whole Afghan nation, he added.
    When his attention was drawn towards the use of Afghan soil for terrorism in Pakistan and the concerns of Pakistan government in this connection, the Afghan envoy said that it was on the demand of Pakistan that Afghan authorities had killed Qari Yasin and some other terrorists wanted by Islamabad.
    To a question about handing over of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan leader Mullah Fazalullah to Pakistan, who is hiding somewhere in Afghanistan, he said that he was not a lame duck which the Afghan authorities could hand over to Pakistan. But he said that a joint operation against Fazalullah could be possible.
    He, however, demanded of Islamabad to also take action against those militants who were openly roaming around in Pakistan and were engaged in the terrorist attack of heinous nature in Afghanistan.
    Recalling the visit of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to Pakistan soon after assuming the office, the Afghan Ambassador said that he had undertaken the visit despite advice from certain quarters not to do so, but he had put his credibility on the stake and finally left Islamabad empty handed.
    He further said that it was on his advice that Ghani held meeting with the then Army Chief of Pakistan.
    When asked about Pakistan hosting the dialogue between Afghan government and Taliban for bringing lasting peace in the restive country, Ambassador Zakhilwal said that actually in the meetings second or third line leaders of Taliban had participated and the key figures remained away from the exercise.
    To a question about easing out the tension on Pak-Afghan border, he said that tensions were not in the interest of either of the countries, which are knitted in the historical bonds spanning over several centuries.
    The Afghan ambassador also said that trade between the two countries was adversely affected by these border closures and claimed that bilateral trade had sharply declined over the past five years from $5 billion to $1.5 billion. Now, Iran had captured the vacuum created in the trade to the border tension, he added.
    The Afghan envoy stressed the need for more exchanges of culture, parliamentarians and traders delegations so that the misunderstandings on both sides could be contained.