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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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

Chinese bombers ‘on high alert’

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un attends a target-striking contest by the Korean People's Army
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un attends a target-striking contest by the Korean People’s Army CREDIT: REUTERS/KCNA

North Korea’s neighbours continued to amass substantial amounts of military hardware in the region on Friday as tensions escalated ahead of a major military anniversary for Kim Jong-un’s regime next week.

There were reports of increased activity from Chinese bombers and Russia deploying troops to its Far East while South Korea was put on heightened alert ahead of 85th anniversary of the foundation of its Korean People’s Army on Tuesday.

With regional analysts fearing that the North’s defiant young dictator will order another missile or nuclear test to mark the occasion, South Korea announced it was placing its forces in a state of heightened alert.

The build-up of tension come as a US aircraft carrier navy group continued to move towards Korean waters, amid reports that the heads of the Five Eyes intelligence agencies – the US, UK, Austrialia, Canada and New Zealand – were to hold their annual meeting in a secluded New Zealand mountain resort.

US officials said Chinese bombers had been put on “high alert” in order to react to a potential crisis on the Korean peninsula, several reports said.

The steps would bring the aircraft up to “full readiness through intensified maintenance,” and would “reduce the time to react to a North Korea contingency,” reported CNN, citing a US defence official.

The move was swiftly denied by Beijing.

It comes after US president Donald Trump cryptically told the media on Thursday that “some very unusual moves have been made over the last two or three hours” by the Chinese.

Mr Trump also said he was confident Chinese President Xi Jinping would “try very hard” to pressure North Korea over its nuclear and missile programmes.

Observers believe Mr Trump’s confrontational stance towards North Korea is aimed at pressuring China into reining in its wayward neighbour.

He tweeted on Friday: “China is very much the economic lifeline to North Korea so, while nothing is easy, if they want to solve the North Korean problem, they will.”

Chinese media has suggested in recent weeks that Beijing could halt the supply of crude oil to North Korea, a move that would put huge pressure on Kim’s regime.

But an influential Chinese newspaper said on Friday that China cannot force North Korea to give up its weapons without help from other nations.

The state-run China Daily said: “No party can fulfill the mission single-handedly. Washington must be aware of the limitations to Beijing’s abilities, and refrain from assuming that the matter can be consigned entirely to Beijing alone.”

Donald Trump and Xi Jinping
Donald Trump and Xi Jinping CREDIT: AP

Fears are growing in the region that any provocation from Pyongyang could prompt a strong response from Mr Trump, whose administration has declared on multiple occasions that the era of “strategic patience” was over.

The Kremlin refused to discuss reports that Russian military hardware and troops were being moved towards the border with North Korea.

Residents and local media in Russia’s Far East reported large military convoys travelling in the direction of the North Korean border since the weekend.

A video published by local news site DVHab.ru showed a train carrying twelve tracked vehicles, including Tor surface to air missile systems, travelling through Khabarovsk in the direction of Vladivostok.

Earlier reports in South Korean media that China had sent 150,000 troops to its border with North Korea were dismissed by Beijing last wee.

Beijing fears any potential conflict in the region would result in pro-US troops on its border, and also cause a huge refugee crisis in its north-east.

South Korean officials said it was prepared if Pyongyang provoked hostilities amid the escalating tensions.

“It is a situation where a lot of exercise equipment is amassed in North Korea and also a lot of strategic assets are situated on the Korean peninsula because of the South Korea-US military drills,” said a spokesman in Seoul.

“We are closely watching the situation and will not be letting our guards down.”

North Korea on ‘maximum alert’ ,US on blind way

Pyongyang tells Washington its nuclear weapons are ‘not an illusion’ following US threats.

North Korea has warned its army is on “maximum alert” after the US vice president visited the heavily militarised border between the two Koreas and reiterated Washington’s position that “all options are on the table” in dealing with Pyongyang.

Sin Hong-chol, North Korea’s deputy foreign minister, told Al Jazeera in an exclusive interview on Monday that Donald Trump’s administration “should look at the world with open eyes”.

“The time of dictating orders by brandishing the US military might has gone. If those businessmen in power in the US thought of intimidating us by any military or sanction threats – as the [Barack] Obama administration used to do and failed – they will soon find out such threats are useless,” Sin said.

“If we notice any sign of assault on our sovereignty, our army will launch merciless military strikes against the US aggressors, wherever they may exist, from the remote US lands to the American military bases on the Korean peninsula, such as those of Japan and elsewhere.”

Sin also said the six-nation talks aiming to make the Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons were “throttled at birth”.

“The nuclear weapon in our possession is not illusion; it is not a commodity that may be traded for American dollars – nor is it for sale. So it cannot be put on the negotiating table with the aim to rip it off,” he said.

Tensions between Pyongyang and Washington have soared in recent weeks, as a series of North Korean missile tests have wrought ever-more bellicose warnings from Donald Trump‘s administration.

On Monday, US Vice President Mike Pence – visiting the world’s most heavily militarised border that divides the two Koreas – hinted military options against the North have not been ruled out.

“The people of North Korea, the military of North Korea should not mistake the resolve of the United States of America to stand with our allies,” Pence said, adding “the era of strategic patience is over”.

“All options are on the table as we continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of South Korea,” he said from the village of Panmunjom, inside the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).

On Sunday, Pyongyang conducted its latest missile test, which the US and South Korea said crashed in failure after only a few seconds upon launch.

The Trump administration has indicated it will not allow North Korea to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the western United States.

Pyongyang insists it needs a powerful arsenal – including atomic weapons – to protect itself from what it says is the ever-present threat of invasion by hostile US forces.

Speaking to Al Jazeera from Seoul, Korea specialist and author Donald Kirk noted the rhetoric between the rivals continues to escalate and a “violent confrontation” was a real possibility.

“Certainly the tension level is very high. Vice President Pence talked very tough today… He left open the possibility of a pre-emptive strike,” said Kirk.

Tensions between Pyongyang and Washington go back to the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty. But the heat has been rising rapidly since Trump took office in January.

The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier has been diverted back to the waters off the Korean peninsula after heading for Australia , and US satellite imagery suggests the North could conduct another underground nuclear test at any time.

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.