Monday, June 28, 2010

Islamabad: It's-lame-abad

“Islamabad isn’t the city that we grew up in,” deplore Islamabadis.

Back then, life seemed simpler. There was just one restaurant (Papasalli’s), one hotel (the Marriott), one fast food joint (Mr. Chips), two Chinese restaurants, and its residents were absolutely fine with it. Now, the city’s chief attraction for many visitors is that many of its restaurants serve liquor.
Recent émigrés to the town, who moved from bustling cities like Lahore and Karachi for their careers or to marry Islamabadis, are often appalled by the eerie quiet of the streets as early as 9 p.m.  “It’s like a ghost town,” a recent arrival comments, while a previous resident remarks, “it’s a place for retirees; anyone younger would go crazy!”

Up until recent years, Islamabad was the one place where one could safely be a pedestrian without raising an eyebrow, where a woman could ride a motorbike without going side saddle and could wear short shirts to markets without getting ogled, and where people generally led a peaceful if sleepy, fishbowl existence. Kids didn’t know what bombs were and there was no need for emergency drills and security precautions at schools. Then the Lal Masjid debacle happened and Islamabad was forced to wake up from its deep slumber to face distressing reality. Suddenly, going for a jog in the popular cricket grounds on Margalla Road meant getting glared at by Asiatic tablighis in Capri-length shalwars.  It’s track is now as empty as the city’s streets once were.

In recent years, the socio-cultural fabric of the city has changed immensely. While some expatriates made their way back here post 9/11, a number of them, as well as other residents, have fled for ‘crime-free’ places like Dubai, tired of incessant bomb blasts in recent years. So, too, did a large portion of Islamabad’s international community, with the exception of journalists who had steadily been arriving and setting up bureaus since the Afghan war.

The foreign community, always cliquey, is even more so now, despite some trying to pass themselves off as locals in shalwar-kameezes that are never quite trendy enough to be convincing. One can’t really blame them for preferring to dine and party at embassy clubs within the confines of the diplomatic enclave.

Islamabad may be small and have limited recreational options, but life here comes with a hefty price tag: real estate prices are exorbitant and household help is often paid double or triple the salaries of domestic staff in Karachi. It’s transitory community means that one can always meet a new face at a gathering, which is rarely the case in Lahore, but by the time one makes actual friends among diplomatic circles, it’s time for them to get transferred to another location.

“Social cliques are small but quite welcoming. It’s generally not very snobbish and bitchy like Karachi, nor is it super-ostentatious like Lahore,” an observer remarked. “You don’t come here expecting a nightlife. People generally don’t entertain lavishly or try too hard to keep up with the Javeds” (desi speak for Joneses).

Islamabadis have a more German than Pakistani concept of time.  “It’s surprising, but people are actually very punctual and leave quite early too,” said another émigré.  It’s hardly surprising though, if one lives in the centre of town and everything is literally a two-minute drive away.

“Conversation isn’t always shallow, either, and the fact that you can have an actual conversation says a lot about the people here.” One can fraternize among intellectual and literary circles, attend book readings and art exhibits and make the most of available cultural outlets.  The sleepy little hamlet may have woken up, but, like all places, it’s really what you make of it.

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