Perception versus Reality in Pakistan – November 2006

When I first told family and friends last year that I was going to be spending a week on business in Pakistan, I was met with a pretty uniform response:  a raised eyebrow and perhaps a look of disbelief.  This was invariably followed up with concern as to whether I’d have a bodyguard (no dice). 

Pakistan has an image problem.  Granted, its popular perception is grounded in tangible issues of insecurity, political instability, and the possibility that Osama Bin Laden is holed up near the Afghan border.  Still, during my initial visit and a follow-up trip this spring, I was surprised that my expectations didn’t really correspond to the country that I came to know.

As with most cities in the developing world, Karachi, Pakistan, is a city of contrasts.  In the wealthier districts of the city, a cosmopolitan crowd that would be at home in New York or London drinks lattes at Western-style coffee shops.  In such places, conservations are accompanied by background music that could have been supplied by 94.9 WHOM (apparently, Pakistanis like soft and easy favorites).    Only a few miles away, these Western influences are largely replaced by scrappy working class districts or poor neighborhoods.  Nearly all of the buildings are colored a dusty yellow that gives the cityscape a monotone beige hue.  It’s not exactly beautiful, but there is a distinct and engaging energy in this city of 14 million that is common to most of the world’s major population centers.   

The purpose of my trip was to work with an investment my company had made in an offshore call center business in Pakistan.  As I’m sure you’ve experienced, the phone never stops ringing these days thanks to calls from all kinds of companies offering everything from broadband to credit cards.  Many of these types of calls originate from call centers located in the Philippines, India, or even Pakistan.

You may have heard a little something about the types of people who work in these offshore call centers.  For example, maybe you’ve read that they are highly educated and that they study American accents and regional idioms as part of their job.  That’s not the half of it.  Of the thirty agent candidates at a recruiting session at the Karachi Marriot, all of the individuals had undergraduate degrees and about a quarter of them had Master’s degrees.  Roughly one-third of the applicants had grown up in the United States, Dubai, or Saudi Arabia, and spoke unaccented American-style English.  It was an impressive bunch, and that’s before counting the woman who had won an international singing competition and broke into song during the session.  I think she got hired.  She was lucky: of these thirty people, 2-3 individuals would be offered jobs. 

In Karachi, I also experienced first-hand a phenomenon that I like to call the “Made for TV” protest.  While driving through the city, I observed a group of about 50 individuals protesting the participation of women in a co-ed marathon.  While most of us wouldn’t agree with their position, we would respect their right to peacefully protest.  That night on television, however, when I saw this same event broadcast on an international news channel, the camera man had filmed the event in close range.  These camera shots made it look like there were hundreds of people at the rally rather than the small crowd that I had observed.  Perhaps it was just TV wizardry, but I found the slight of hand to be misleading.

A few days later, I found myself in Lahore, which is the country’s second city.  Unlike rough and tumble Karachi, Lahore is laid-back and lush.  The city is just 20 miles from the only functioning border crossing with India, Pakistan’s long-time rival in nuclear capability, cricket, and just about everything else.  Every day at sunset, thousands of Indians and Pakistanis gather on their respective sides of the border to participate in a memorable ceremony marking the closing of the gate for the evening.  High-stepping soldiers in formal dress perform what amounts to a “march off,” with each country’s finest striving for higher jumps and more impressive rifle flourishes than their rivals.  All the while, the crowds gather on bleachers to shout good-natured cheers amounting to “Go Pakistan!” or “India’s #1” while loudspeakers on both sides blast local music.  It’s complete chaos.  This ceremony was the daily equivalent of a pep rally before a homecoming match-up with Biddeford. 

These experiences speak to the contradictions that exist between perception and reality in Pakistan.  While we may see suggestive images on television or hear about instability in parts of the country, Pakistan also benefits from a rising class of educated young people who are working with eyes to the future.  At the same time, citizens living along a border that has seen over 50 years of conflict gather daily for a passionate but peaceful patriotic showdown.  While I certainly cannot claim to understand Pakistan, as I stood at the border looking across at India, I couldn’t help but throw my voice in with the crowd and shout “Go Pakistan” a few times myself.

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