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

Far-right Le Pen, centrist Macron leading

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Centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen will contest the second round of the French presidential election, initial projections suggested Sunday, after a nail-biting vote seen as vital for the future of the EU.

Macron was projected to win between 23 and 24 percent in Sunday’s first round, slightly ahead of National Front leader Le Pen with between 21.6 and 23 percent, according to estimates on public television. The outcome capped an extraordinary few months for a deeply divided France, which saw a campaign full of twists and turns and a movement away from traditional parties.

The French vote was being closely watched as a bellwether for populist sentiment following the election of Donald Trump as US President and Britain’s vote to leave the EU.

Le Pen and Macron were the pre-vote favourites to progress to the run-off on May 7 but late gains by conservative Francois Fillon and radical leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon had blown the race wide open.

The vote took place under heavy security after the killing on Thursday of a policeman on Paris’s Champs Elysees avenue claimed by the Islamic State group.TOPSHOT-FRANCE-POLITICS-CONGRESS-PARTY-FN

North Korea says ready to strike US aircraft carrier

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North Korea said on Sunday it was ready to sink a US aircraft carrier to demonstrate its military might, as two Japanese navy ships joined a US carrier group for exercises in the western Pacific.

US President Donald Trump ordered the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group to sail to waters off the Korean peninsula in response to rising tension over the North’s nuclear and missile tests, and its threats to attack the United States and its Asian allies.

The United States has not specified where the carrier strike group is as it approaches the area. US Vice President Mike Pence said on Saturday it would arrive “within days” but gave no other details. North Korea remained defiant.

“Our revolutionary forces are combat-ready to sink a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with a single strike,” the Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, said in a commentary.

The paper likened the aircraft carrier to a “gross animal” and said a strike on it would be “an actual example to show our military’s force”.

The commentary was carried on page three of the newspaper, after a two-page feature about leader Kim Jong Un inspecting a pig farm.

Speaking during a visit to Greece, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said there were already enough shows of force and confrontation at present and appealed for calm.

“We need to issue peaceful and rational sounds,” Wang said, according to a statement issued by China’s Foreign Ministry.

Adding to the tensions, North Korea detained a Korean-American man in his fifties, bringing the total number of US citizens held by Pyongyang to three.

The man, Tony Kim, had been in North Korea for a month teaching accounting at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), the institution’s chancellor Chan-Mo Park told Reuters. He was arrested at Pyongyang International Airport on his way out of the country.

The arrest took place on Saturday morning local time, the university said in a statement, and was “related to an investigation into matters that are not connected in any way to PUST”.

North Korea will mark the 85th anniversary of the foundation of its Korean People’s Army on Tuesday. It has in the past marked important anniversaries with tests of its weapons.

North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests, two of them last year, and is working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the United States.

It has also carried out a series of ballistic missile tests in defiance of United Nations sanctions. North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile threat is perhaps the most serious security challenge confronting Trump.

He has vowed to prevent the North from being able to hit the United States with a nuclear missile and has said all options are on the table, including a military strike.

Worry in Japan

North Korea says its nuclear programme is for self-defence and has warned the United States of a nuclear attack in response to any aggression. It has also threatened to lay waste to South Korea and Japan.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday North Korea’s recent statements were provocative but had proven to be hollow in the past and should not be trusted.

“We’ve all come to hear their words repeatedly; their word has not proven honest,” Mattis told a news conference in Tel Aviv, before the latest threat to the aircraft carrier.

Japan’s show of naval force reflects growing concern that North Korea could strike it with nuclear or chemical warheads.

Some Japanese ruling party lawmakers are urging Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to acquire strike weapons that could hit North Korean missile forces before any imminent attack.

Japan’s navy, which is mostly a destroyer fleet, is the second largest in Asia after China’s.

The two Japanese warships, the Samidare and Ashigara, left western Japan on Friday to join the Carl Vinson and will “practice a variety of tactics” with the U.S. strike group, the Japan Maritime Self Defence Force said in a statement.

The Japanese force did not specify where the exercises were taking place, but by Sunday the destroyers could have reached an area 2,500 km (1,500 miles) south of Japan, which would be east of the Philippines.

From there, it could take three days to reach waters off the Korean peninsula. Japan’s ships would accompany the Carl Vinson north at least into the East China Sea, a source with knowledge of the plan said.

US and South Korean officials have been saying for weeks that the North could soon stage another nuclear test, something the United States, China and others have warned against.

South Korea has put its forces on heightened alert.

China, North Korea’s sole major ally, opposes Pyongyang’s weapons programmes and has appealed for calm. The United States has called on China to do more to help defuse the tension.

Last Thursday, Trump praised Chinese efforts to rein in “the menace of North Korea”, after North Korean state media warned the United States of a “super-mighty pre-emptive strike”.

UK is quietly changing its policy on Israel and Palestine

 

 

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Professor Kamel Hawwash

Palestinians were delighted to see 2016 end with the UN Security Council passing resolution 2334 which reaffirmed the illegality of Israel’s settlement enterprise. The passing of the resolution was facilitated by the US abstention in the dying days of Obama’s administration. The UK played a key role in the drafting of the resolution and then voted in favour.

While not formally denying its involvement in drafting the resolution, the Foreign Office stressed “the resolution was proposed and drafted by the Egyptian delegation”, adding that the UK, as one of the five permanent members of the security council, “engaged with” the text “as we do with all security council texts”. At the time, this put the UK on a collision course with Israel and raised the spectre of a disagreement on Israel and Palestine with the incoming Trump administration.

Whatever pressure was applied on the UK worked rather quickly as Prime Minister Theresa May heavily criticised outgoing US Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech on the Palestinian-Israeli issue delivered as he was about to leave office. He concluded that the two-state solution was “in jeopardy” and laid much of the blame at Israel’s expansionist settlement policy, driven by “the most right-wing government in history” and arguing that “the settler agenda is defining the future in Israel. And their stated purpose is clear: They believe in one state: Greater Israel,” Kerry said. He added that, “If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic, it cannot be both, and it won’t ever really be at peace.”

In a statement on Kerry’s speech, Number 10 made clear a more broad-ranging approach was needed to encourage peace and that “…the settlements are far from the only problem in this conflict. In particular, the people of Israel deserve to live free from the threat of terrorism, with which they have had to cope for too long”. In what was seen as a rebuke to Kerry, the prime minister’s spokesman said that Britain did not believe “that it is appropriate to attack the composition of the democratically-elected government of an ally. The Government believes that negotiations will only succeed when they are conducted between the two parties, supported by the international community.”

An explanation of May’s position was provided by Conservative MP and member of the Conservative Friends of Israel, Mike Freer. He argued that the prime minister had been “blindsided” by the Foreign Office which he described as having “a patchy record at the UN regarding Israel. This too I suspect may now change.”

In what seems to be a re-orientation of its policy on Palestine and Israel, the UK then refused to send a high-level delegation to the Middle East peace conference organised by France just five days before Trump took over as US president. The UK was the only major stakeholder in the conflict to send a low-level delegation while 36 foreign ministers as well as the US Secretary of State were in attendance. The attendees saw the conference as an opportunity to restate the international community’s commitment to a two-state solution and to express opposition to a move of embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

A Foreign Office statement said: “We have particular reservations about an international conference intended to advance peace between the parties that does not involve them – indeed which is taking place against the wishes of the Israelis – and which is taking place just days before the transition to a new American President when the US will be the ultimate guarantor of any agreement.” The statement further argued that, “There are risks therefore that this conference hardens positions at a time when we need to be encouraging the conditions for peace.”

The UK’s position on the Paris conference was a sign of departure from longstanding positions allied to those of the EU to ones that seemed to be looking across the Atlantic to the future Trump administration.

If further confirmation of the shift of UK policy was needed, then this came at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) 34th session.  The UK’s stance surprised most commentators as it changed its voting policy under item seven on the agenda which requires that Israel’s human rights record be discussed and scrutinised three times each year.

On this occasion, the UK representative to the UNHRC made a scathing attack against the Council, accusing it of “bias against Israel”. He further argued that, “The persistence of bias, particularly the disproportionate volume of resolutions against Israel, undermines the council’s credibility as the globally focussed and objective international human rights body we all want and need.”

Placing the UNHRC “on notice” the representative concluded that if things did not change soon, “in the future we will adopt a policy of voting against all resolutions concerning Israel’s conduct in the Occupied Syrian and Palestinian Territories.”

More recently, reports emerged of reluctance by the UK to issue a diplomatic visa to the PLO’s new representative in London, Ma’en Erekat. In an interview with the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, PLO Chairman and PA President Mahmoud Abbas implied that the UK was trying to “scale back” the status of the mission and that it was trying to “put restrictions and obstacles. But we told them that we want to be treated like before, to deal with the new ambassador just like the former ambassador.”

The UK would claim that its position has not changed. That it is still for a negotiated settlement based on the two-state solution, which was reiterated by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on his most recent trip to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian territories.

“Israel has first and foremost an absolute right to live in security, and the people of Israel deserve to be safe from terrorism,” Johnson said, stressing Britain’s “rock-like” support of the country. But he later added: “Of course we must also try to remove obstacles to peace and progress such as the settlements”. However, Britain’s most recent positions outlined earlier indicate a change of policy which seems to be moving away from the EU’s position to one more closely aligned with the Trump administration.

That should be very worrying to Palestinians as the US government is taking an unashamedly pro-Israel line, arguing Israel has been “treated unfairly”, that the settlements are merely “unhelpful” rather than illegal and that it should be left to the two sides to come up with a solution, ignoring the asymmetry of the situation. There is no acknowledgement of the history of the conflict and the injustice that befell the Palestinians through the creation of Israel or its continued serial violations of international law, international humanitarian law or even its immediate refusal to adhere to UNSC Resolution 2334 amongst tens of resolutions it has defied. There is no room for any criticism of Israel in Trump’s world.

As the UK seeks trade deals following Brexit, it is looking at the US and Israel as two close allies who might deliver deals quickly after exiting the EU. The powerful pro-Israel lobbies in the US and the UK will bring pressure to bear on the UK to side with Israel rather than with the weak Palestinians. It will celebrate Balfour’s centenary, or “mark it with pride” as the prime minister characterised it, with complete insensitivity to the Palestinians and their plight. In light of this, it is clear that the UK’s policy is moving towards greater protection of Israel while it abandons the Palestinians, just as it did in 1948.