Analysis & Opinion

An American’s Connection with Pakistan over the Decades

Based in Kenya these days, Scott Gibbons is an American urban infrastructure planner and project manager, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that he can speak perfect Urdu. Apparently his connection with Pakistan had spanned several decades, at times it was for studies and at times it was for work or tourism. Having many good memories of living in Pakistan, he decided to share his impressions and views of those times.

Having read a lot of Rudyard Kipling books in his childhood made him very curious about India but chance brought him to Pakistan instead. Studying at the Duke University, he became interested in learning Urdu as one of his professors was Ralph Braibanti, founder of the American Institute of Pakistan Studies while another professor, Bruce Lawrence was well known for his research on Sufism. Receiving a UC/Berkeley fellowship to study Urdu after graduation, he left North America for Lahore to live with a Punjabi family in Samanabad for a year. Exploring the city after classes he would sample local delicacies like barfi and gulab jamuns, Westerners were not a common sight back then and shopkeepers would often call him in for a cup of tea. In those days, his language study group was interviewed by the newly launched ‘MAG Magazine’ and he had the chance to attend a concert by Mehdi Hasan.  Dwelling down memory lane, Scott mentions, “During my graduate studies I met members of the Allama Iqbal family and Farzand Ali Durrani from the University of Peshawar.” At Christmas, a Muslim tailor in the older part of Lahore invited them to their house for the entire day.

Recalling that, “so many taxi and rickshaw drivers didn’t want to or wouldn’t take money from me. Many times, especially at book shops the shopkeeper would ask a lower price from me that that marked,” Scott has many fond memories of Pakistani hospitality, he has even corresponded with many friends in Urdu for many years. Saying that people regularly offer to help in Pakistan, he mentions that during Ramadan many people would invite him to share their Iftar-evening meal to break the fast. Sharing some amusing unforgettable incidents such as when, “In Multan we ate tandoori chicken at the Go Go Snack Bar and everyone threw the bones on the roof below,” he obviously misses those days. While attending a wedding, a senior family member asked him about his parents and when told they had passed away, she hugged him and said “I will be your mother.”

Travelling through Pakistan, from Karachi to Moenjodaro, onwards to the north was the most amazing experience and he says, “ A year later I returned to visit Skardu, Khaplu and Hunza for the wonderful fall colors, apricots drying golden on the roofs, wheat harvesting.” Hiking across Shandur Pass with Godwin Austin’s nephew to Gilgit and camping with nomads, he liked it there so much that a friend invited him to settle in the northern areas to teach, so that he could hike and camp to his heart’s content. Meeting Junaid Jamshed of the Vital Signs pop group on a plane, he was given free tickets to attend his show around the time the hit number Dil Dil Pakistan was released.

During his travels he came across many interesting people such as the sophisticated landowner who educated him on Pakistani politics and the gap between political leaders and the general public before his servant came to cart his heavy luggage off to the first class compartment.

Having returned to the United States for further studies, he did not know he would soon be back in Pakistan again, this time for work. Scott says, “After finishing my degree in city planning I went to work in Washington, DC and soon had an assignment with the National Highway Authority in Islamabad, where I visited most of the areas in Punjab and NWFP. In another assignment I visited most secondary cities in Punjab. Living 3 years in Peshawar I again visited Swat, AJK, Gilgit, Hunza and the rest of the country. It was a great time. Good food, hospitality.” His counterparts in Lahore, Peshawar and Islamabad had told his company that they needed him because he had good knowledge of Pakistan.

Scott mentions how one of his field staff was named ‘Spin Badshah’, and the Punjabis thought that meant he was a good cricket player, but he told them in Pashto it meant the white king. His travels through Pakistan had helped him assimilate the different languages, cultures and traditions of the country. Remembering the obstinacy of his guard in Peshawar who wouldn’t sleep inside even on the coldest days, or his Afridi guard in Islamabad who used to stand on a chair and spray flying insects saying ‘bas khatm’ or rather ‘You are dead’ to each one, he had acquired an understanding of the different traits of Pakistan’s many ethnic groups. Remembering those years in Islamabad, he says carpet sellers there would keep telling him to take carpets home to see how he liked them and to pay later, he bought his first carpet at Punjab Small Industries and still has it.

After being away for a space of time, he visited Pakistan after 9-11, this time he felt something had changed, he says, “Ordinary people were still hospitable and welcoming, but government and the Westernized urban elites now had an edge.” Frequent administrative re-organization from one government to the other had been tough on the system, there was a change in the general attitude. Maybe more withdrawn, it was not that people were more materialistic as Scott feels most people everywhere have a more urban and rushed attitude nowadays, it was more like suspicion and distrust. New linguistic trends had set in over the years such as the usage of the Arabic ‘Allah Hafiz’ instead of the Persian-Urdu based ‘Khuda Hafiz’ and the more casual ‘Tum’ instead of the formal ‘Aap’, just like the usage of ‘tu’ instead of ‘vous’ in French seemed to indicate a decline in formality and respect, he also noticed more interest in religious education. It was not the 80’s decade any more, adapting to the possibility of new risks he started wearing the local shalwar kameez with Chitrali hat regularly to blend in and travel with ease.

However, returning to work in Islamabad after some years, he observed “rapid modernization and urbanization.” Having had the opportunity to observe Pakistan’s journey through several decades and having lived there during a couple of martial law governments as well as democratic rule, it was worthwhile asking him what is the main difference between Pakistan under democracy and Pakistan under martial law. Assessing the two, Scott observed that, “It is really hard to answer since the periods of each are different. In short, military/martial government reduces the power struggles within the society that can run wild under civilian govt. However, Pakistan had both restrictive and activist military governments with different effects. Was the civilian government democratic or merely giving opportunities and accolades to different leadership packages? I don’t know, but I don’t think there has been a people’s government with organic leadership yet, but that is a long story.”

Having always felt very safe during his travels in Pakistan, he feels conditions changed after 1995, these days he would recommend travellers to avail of organized tourism tours or visit the Northern Areas for more independent expeditions. As a rule, Pakistanis are very welcoming and hospitable to visitors as it is part of their culture and traditions. Having said that, Scott feels that Pakistanis were more curious about the outside world in the 80’s and were very interested in being friends with foreigners, nowadays they get their information from the media and have become more cautious.

Written by : Sabena Sidiqqi

Scott Gibbons was interviewed by Sabena Sidiqqi , Scott is currently working as a Technical Assistance for Kisumu Urban Project – Phase 2 (Government of Kenya), City of Kisumu, Kisumu, Kenya.