We are a couple of thousands of feet above the ground. In awe, I witness an intimidating but beautiful thunderstorm, and I repeatedly wait for the next lightning to strike to briefly illuminate the dark sky, so I can catch a glimpse of the Himalaya Mountains. The turbulences are much heavier than I have ever experienced them before, and as I hear the voice of the pilot through the speakers, I already expect to hear some bad news. The clouds are obstructing his view, and due to the bad weather conditions we cannot land, he says, subsequently letting us know that there will be a delay. At least I can continue watching nature tell its dramatic story in the sky on this special night, the night in which I seek to return to my country of origin.
So far, in various destinations of this around the world trip I was confronted with different chapters of my past life, be it the night when I reunited with Chris and his mom in Alexandria who used to be my neighbours when I was seven years old, meeting my former band mate Daniel in Hollywood, who was part of our band when I was twenty years old, or seeing several of my relatives again in the United States, in Australia and in UAE, all of whom I had seen the last time in Pakistan, when I was eleven years old. However, nowhere will the feeling of nostalgia be stronger than in Pakistan.
Approximately half an hour passes until the pilot gives us an update. If the stormy weather won't allow us to land, he explains, we will run out of fuel. Therefore, we may have to land in Lahore first. Wherever we land, as long as we land, that would be great, I begin to think. At least he has not told us to say our final prayers. What a bad timing it would be to die, moments before reaching the most important destination of the biggest journey in my life. There are literally hundreds of relatives in Pakistan that I am looking forward to meet, many of which I haven't seen since 1996, and many of which I yet have to meet, be it in Lahore or in Islamabad, and no matter where this plane will land in the end, I will have relatives waiting for me. Nevertheless I hope to land in Islamabad, because my aunt and cousins are waiting for me at the airport. At least the storm seems to be over, I notice moments before the pilot makes one final announcement. We are about to land in Islamabad.
Let There Be Light
With tears of joy and open arms my aunt welcomes me back. On our way to their house in Rawalpindi I feel like an eleven-year-old kid again talking about all the moments we shared in 1996. Finally, we reach the house where I spent most of the time as a kid in Pakistan. "Thank God, it's still standing", says my aunt, explaining to me that the house has incurred a lot, from several burglaries to floods. "You know that in Pakistan the water is scarce. One day I was praying to God that we need water. My prayers were heard, our house was flooded", she says jokingly, "And then we prayed even more often to God to make the water go away again!", she adds laughing. The water scarcity has been an issue between India and Pakistan since the secession of the latter. The exceptional population growth made matters only worse, as much more water needed to be shared in a comparably short amount of time. When the state Pakistan was created in 1947, less than 40 million people were living in the country. Today, in 2010, Pakistan's population is 180 million, and that is only the official number.
It is almost a shame that I don't plan to explore Pakistan's incredible natural assets. But it would be a bigger shame not to try and meet as many of my relatives as possible, my one and only goal here, even if I know that one week may not be enough to see all of them. So, on the following night many relatives gather in my aunt’s house, and we wait for the electricity to come back on. Power outage is another common issue here. Even the first time when I came to Pakistan, the electricity kept going on and off on a daily basis. Today is no different, and somehow, the darkness in the room is not disturbing me, but much rather has a nostalgic effect on me. Soon, the brothers of my mom, as well as their wives and kids arrive. For an hour or so we sit in the dark and have an emotional and elaborate conversation, while highly anticipating the electricity to come back on, so we get to see each other's faces clearly after nearly one and a half decades. As the lights finally go on, my relatives and I finally really get to see each other. My uncle who has been sitting beside me all the time, is now analyzing my face, probably noticing how much I resemble his sister, and begins to smile.
Nothing in this around the world trip made me feel more nervous than the thought of this moment right now. It feels so weird to me being halfway through flying around the world, and now to suddenly find myself surrounded by so many people that care for me so much. Because I am not used to it, at first it is hard to cope with all the love and warmth that I receive from everybody. Not only am I overwhelmed by all they say to me and do for me, but at the same time I am fascinated by all the similarities that I notice between my relatives and myself even after all those years, be it the body language or the way of talking, as well as our similarities in taste. However, it is not only my relatives who remind me of so many childhood memories in Pakistan. Even the most arbitrary objects, smells or sounds are sources of nostalgia, be it the courtyard in the middle of the house or traditional dishes like Paan, one of my favourite dishes in Pakistan, which consists of a belet leave containing dry pieces of areca nut and a variety of sweet flavours that are characteristic for the Indian subcontinent. Even the smelly gullies on the streets make me smile. The feel of nostalgia gets even stronger as I spot all the animals that my uncle is keeping, most notably the lambs and the sheep, and of course everybody in the room knows this story revolving around this one sheep and myself, the one sheep that I considered my friend, when I was in Pakistan as a child. Day in and day out I kept feeding him and imitated the sounds he made. Soon, however, I was told that my friend would be slaughtered for the Eid festivities. "We cannot allow this injustice to happen!", I said to my younger cousin Ali on the night before Eid. Ali, the same cousin who came with me when I reunited with Chris in Alexandria a couple of weeks ago, listened to me carefully and agreed that we needed to do something. Therefore, we secretly conspired against the rest of the family to initiate a rescue operation for the sheep that was still tied to a rope downstairs in the courtyard. So, we quickly rushed to the kitchen, grabbed a knife, tiptoed our way down to the sheep, cut the rope, opened the gate and helped him to escape. Back in our room, we felt relief and were ready to go to sleep. It didn't take long, however, until my brother and some older cousins came to ask us, what we had done with the sheep. They didn't buy us acting like we had no idea, because we did not execute our plan very well and even left the knife in the courtyard. An hour later they found my friend on the streets. The next night they slaughtered my friend and in the evening I ate him. At least he did taste really good.
As planned, the next days I stay busy meeting many of my relatives in Pindi and Islamabad. On one day, some of my closest relatives take me to Murree, a nearby mountain resort town. While driving up the mountain, the girls in the back are singing along a trendy Pakistani song that is playing through the louderspeakers, and they do so loudly and a little bit too enthusiastically. A beautiful moment. Why can we never see moments like these in our news media reports on Pakistan? Apparently, people like my uncle Asif will never be newsworthy. He is too funny and spreads too much positive energy for a report on Pakistan. He treats his wife and kids too well and jokes with them way too much to be of interest for the bigger news media outlets in the West. And there is no chance that I would ever get to see my female cousins from Pakistan in Western news media reports either, because they don't look repressed and depressed at all, they just are not suitable for a report on girls in Pakistan. Some of them are not even wearing a headscarf. And those who do, they also smile and look happy. My cynical thoughts quickly fade away, as we arrive in Murree, where we spend a magnificent day that only strengthens my desire even more to soon return to Pakistan.
Because I am running out of time, on the following day, a cousin of mine and I prepare to go to Lahore, the cultural capital of Pakistan. As we reach the bus station, my cousin and I see a group of protesters. Maybe this is the moment when I can report on something what makes people angry and sad, something newsworthy. My cousin looks at me with concern and is about to say something, but before he can do so, I say: “I know.”, and we distance ourselves from the protesters. Inside the bus on our way to Lahore, I start to feel a little bit sick. The closer we get to our destination, the less I can bear the climate. Once we arrive, I am feeling really sick to my stomach. My cousin is telling me a story while we walk in the streets of Lahore, close to the border to India, but I cannot understand anything he says because I am too distracted trying not to vomit. In the middle of the street I interrupt him and ask him to wait a minute, he turns around and looks at me as I put a painful effort in letting my lunch out, till I remember that I had barely eaten anything today. “God, why do I always feel sicker and sicker, the closer I get to India?”, I say jokingly, alluding to the animosities between India and Pakistan. It is a shame that I never really got to see the stunning beauty of the country, because as a child I had a hard time in India indeed. For the most part I was puking or sleeping. Otherwise I only have vague memories such as walking down a dirty street, whose concrete was covered by thousands of flies. Every reluctant step that I took led to the death of many dozens of flies, and I only started walking faster once deformed beggars started approaching me, touching me and asking me for money. One good moment that I do remember in India is when my parents left me alone in the hotel to meet friends. Eight year old kids get bored very easily, so I looked at the menu, which was in English. I decided to call the staff and order a variety of things. When my parents came back and saw the bill they had to pay, my dad was rather amused, realizing that I could communicate with others in English and take care of myself already.
In Lahore, while hanging out with some of the boys in a shisha bar, I am once again beind reminded of the very simple realities of everyday life in Pakistan that many people in Europe unfortunately hardly perceive. It prompts me to discuss this with my cousins, who are curious to know how we in the West perceive Pakistan. In Europe, usually, when we hear or see something about Pakistan in the news, I explain to them pretty straightforward, it is in the context of terrorism, repression, whatever makes people angry or sad. You don't see the loving and caring husbands and fathers, you don't get to see people smiling, you almost get the impression that women wearing headscarves constantly look depressed, that women who live a traditional lifestyle, or women who are religious, are unhappy. It is important to report the issues in every country, but it is a problem when you are made believe that the rare, extreme and negative cases are common, and the common, normal and positive cases are rare.
We are back in Rawalpindi, watching some kids playing in the cemetery. Playgrounds are not as common here as in Germany. Cemeteries are. Looking back at the last days, it has been indescribable to see my relatives again, but before I fly to the next destination, I need to visit three of my closest relatives, even if I cannot see them. My cousin, who also went to Lahore with me, helps me to find the three graves. It takes a while, but eventually we find the graves of my father's parents, who passed away a few years ago. Remembering their unconditional love, I say some prayers, before looking for the third grave, the grave of a person who was a role model to many, an educated woman full of wisdom, always soft-spoken, and yet a great and respected authority figure. She was the woman who seemed to hold the entire family together. And she always said „Forgiveness is the best form of vengeance”. Not for any reason was she called the "Gandhi" of our family. Eventually, we find the third grave, where my cousin again helps me to recite the prayers correctly. Six months ago, as I was in the middle of my preparations for the around the world trip, my grandmother from my mother’s side was ready to leave this world. "She asked for you in her deathbed", my mom told me. Now I stand here, too late, looking at her grave, then looking at my necklace with the Quranic verses that my mother gave to me as some kind of protection on the night before everything changed and intuitively decide to leave it here.
"You see? I can still do it!", says my grandfather with a big smile in his face. He is the last part of my grandparents that is still alive, and indeed, he is still very fit for his age, I realize after he takes the badminton bat from my little cousin and challenges me to a match. As I prepare for my next flight, cousins, uncles and aunts of course ask me to return very soon, and I tell my relatives in Pindi the same thing that I told my relatives in Lahore. It will not take another 14 years for me to return to Pakistan. Maybe not even 14 months. And so I make the promise to return to Pakistan in 2011, to stay much longer than this time, and who knows, maybe, by making this promise, I might have just laid the foundations for a second travel adventure. But first I should focus on flying around the world, because the journey is not quite over yet, and coming up next is the country, of which I know the least.