Monday, June 28, 2010

Rawalpindi: Islamabad's Ugly Step-Sister

The twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi may share the same dilapidated airport, but not much else. Leaving the airport, scenic Islamabad lies in one direction, and boisterous Rawalpindi in the other—on the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak.

In the ‘good old days’ before Islamabad’s roads had a steady flow of traffic, Islooites only visited Pindi for essentials. During that era, the only international bank was Citibank, in Rawalpindi. If your car broke down, you had to go to Pindi to fix it. 

“People went to Pindi out of necessity, nobody ever wanted to go there,” stated a reminiscing Islamabadi. “Pindi is Isloo’s stepsister rather than a beloved twin!” 

Even today, many Islamabadians have no desire to drive to Pindi unless it’s to disdainfully watch a movie at the only available multiplex.

While Rawalpindi is an old city with decaying Partition-era buildings, Islamabad is a youthful, pre-planned city segmented by numeric and alphabetic grids. Rawalpindi is ridden with rickshaws and down-market commercial areas while Islamabad boasts hilly vistas, allergy-ridden mulberry trees and the occasional wild boar. Rawalpindi houses cantonments and generations of families, while only a portion of Islamabad’s population has lived in their city their entire lives. Isloo’s remaining populace includes temporary residents from government bureaus and international agencies and missions, and migrants from frontier regions amid growing security issues. In other words, their ‘twin cities’ status is inherently deceptive: they really couldn’t be any more different.

The political capital stands apart from the rest of the country in that it has few billboards, a mere handful of beggars, and virtually no rickshaws. However, to the horror of its residents, Islamabad is steadily attracting an increasing number of “Pindi people.” An influx of people from neighboring Rawalpindi, bottleneck traffic caused by a multitude of checkpoints and endless VIP entourages, and scores of underpasses have transformed Islamabad’s once empty streets that were abused by teenaged boys pretending to be Nascar racers. Behaviour, too, is becoming more typical of Pakistani societies: from hormonal ‘Jinnah boys’ in the city’s Jinnah market blaring Bollywood music, to frenzied society women at designer lawn exhibitions, desperately elbowing others out of the way.

Islamabad’s small-town charm seems to be dwindling in the process of Pakistanization. “Kohsar market (a picturesque market square that caters to a cosmopolitan niche) was the personification of Islamabad,” describes a life-long resident, “quaint, small, and unique, with diverse imports. Now our city is populated with Pindi masses who come here to work and socialize and increase the traffic on our streets, not to mention a growing nouveau riche class with 7-series cars who have made everything incredibly tacky.”

The fact that Islamabadis tend to look down their noses at their neighbor means that on Chaand Raat, for example, excitedly screeching cars at the city’s markets will bear Rawalpindi license plates while Islamabadians remain snootily at home.

Step-sisters, for sure.

Top ten reasons to love Isloo (according to residents interviewed):
10. “There is less conspicuous consumer consumption, so it’s less flashy.”
9. “It has a small community feel and it’s easy for friends to pop over.”
8. “The mountains are lovely and there are lots of outdoor activities, like climbing and hiking.”
7. “You can find a wider range of books in Islamabad, and a good range of non-Bollywood DVDs including foreign language films and historical TV series’.”
6. “It’s not too polluted and you can breathe better.”
5. “There are always new people to meet, people are always coming and going.”
4. “It has all four seasons.”
3. “It’s more diverse and international than your average Pakistani city.”
2. “It’s less cliquish and materialistic than Karachi, and more intellectual and professional than Lahore.”
1. “It’s not Pindi!”

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