Harvard Kennedy School students visit the country and closely experience its life, culture, beauty and hospitality
Last month, nine students from the prestigious Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) made an 8-day trip to Pakistan. This initiative was led by Sobia Maqbool, currently studying at HKS, and facilitated by Adnan Afaq, Managing Director (MD) Pakistan Credit Rating Agency (PACRA). The idea was to introduce Pakistan as a country with cultural depth, warm people and immense hospitality. Together, they started work on making this a memorable experience. Sobia is a member of the Harvard Pakistan Student Group (HPSG), which provided a platform to launch this idea.
The vision behind arranging this trip was to dispel misconceptions regarding the country and also create awareness about the actual issues on ground. Students from the Kennedy School go on to become legislators and social entrepreneurs. Sobia and Adnan wanted this powerful group of student body who are potentially the policy makers of tomorrow to have an opportunity to experience the real Pakistan.
TNS had a detailed talk with the members of the visiting group, the Pakistani student at HKS that organised the trip and the hosts. Excerpts follow:
Sobia Maqbool (Lead Organiser):
As I started my two-year programme at HKS in August 2015, I faced various questions regarding Pakistan, such as opportunities for women in terms of access to education and professional fields and impact of the security situation on daily lives, etc. While engaging in dialogue with fellow students, I realised that the most meaningful way to bridge this gap between perception and reality would be to arrange a trip to Pakistan.
Country specific student bodies regularly arrange trips to their countries of origin; however a Pakistan trek could not be arranged in recent past. I decided to rekindle this practice and arranged a presentation about Pakistan. We received interest from a large number of students and a group of 8 was eventually finalised. At the time of this trek, various other student groups were visiting places such as Korea, Japan, Palestine, etc. It is important to mention that this trip was self-financed by the students. From visa solicitation, which was very graciously facilitated by the Pakistani Embassy in New York, to the final dinner, I think the hospitality of people of Pakistan stood out at every step of the way.
What took months of planning and organisation, the trek culminated into a journey through Pakistan that I will never forget. I experienced Pakistan like never before and have a greater sense of hope for its future. I am happy to have played a role in uplifting the image of my country.
Adnan Afaq (Host):
It started off as assisting Sobia with a few arrangements. But her enthusiasm was all engulfing and to say the least I ended up as an equal partner in putting together the trek. My children, Palvashae Hussain and Humza Hussain, also became equally engaged in formalising the trek itinerary.
The challenges were: limited time and budget and so much to do, to see. From the Wagah Border ceremony to Polo Match and tour of the old city of Lahore including the Fort and the Badshahi Mosque; from high mountains to the Arabia Sea; and then the tastes of our exotic food and chaat. While introducing Pakistan, there were three elements in my mind that I wanted the trek people to experience -- our wonderful people, their warmth, generosity and hospitality.
We arranged meetings with a number of philanthropists including Edhi, Citizens Foundation, Damen (micro finance] and Sami Mustafa. Some of these could not take place due to cancellation of the Karachi trip.
The second was to get them to understand the political and economic dimension of Pakistan. A presentation at Pacra was arranged. Arrangements were made to meet Shahbaz Sharif, Baber Ali, Asad Umer, Gen Musharraf, Imran Khan to name a few. Again, some of these could not materialise due to cancellation of Karachi trip.
And then the third was to see and taste Pakistan. So we planned to visit 4 cities -- Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and Skardu -- in 8 days. Skardu was the most daring and adventurous. As it turned out, rain came and we had to drive back: over 24 hours of thrilling drive through exotic high mountains, waterfalls and heavy mist; eating at roadside cafes and crossing landslides on foot. It was an unforgettable journey.
Naina Adnan (Host):
As their host family, we wanted to introduce these students to the family culture of Pakistan. We live in a joint family system and there are 10 people who live under one roof. So the students had the opportunity to see how we live together.
In contrast to the general perception of women in Pakistan, they had the opportunity to meet women of different ages in my home wielding authority and respect.
At the dinner hosted at our place, we invited a lot of ours and our children’s friends. There were many interesting people like Artist Adnan Jahangir who gave a live kathak performance, political activist Andaleeb Abbas, Saira Afaq and Arsalan Razak. I arranged home cooked food for my guests. We had also set up a tandoor (clay oven) which was very fascinating. Some of the students also tried their hands at making roti. The ambience was thoroughly appreciated.
Following are some observations of HKS trek members:
I am surprised to find so much diversity in the country. During our stay and interactions, we met different ethnic groups that have their own distinct identities. The journey from Skardu to Islamabad provided us an opportunity to see majestic Himalayas in the Hindukush range and follow the mighty Indus River. It seemed things were lost in time. Meeting with the people of KP was also a great experience. They were very loving and friendly. Till then, we had seen the faces of Pashtuns mostly in the media linked with war and terrorism.
I had a different perception before coming to this country. Most of the people I knew were scared as well at the idea of my coming to Pakistan. They thought Americans were not liked here and terrorist incidents could happen anywhere and anytime. However, my stay here turned out to be quite pleasant. I moved around in busy areas but there was no catcalling. Instead, people welcomed us and came to our help whenever we needed any assistance. Overall the food was quite delicious and I enjoyed it.
I have observed that the image of the West is quite different in Pakistan and these views are shaped by the war on terror. The mass media definitely has a major role in shaping these opinions. Today, I know Pakistan as a country that has a peaceful history and the good thing is that terrorist incidents have receded. Despite the challenges the country is facing, people are mostly optimistic. I met the legendary Pakistani businessman Syed Babar Ali and found him full of passion. Poverty and the huge income disparity are the things that I think the Pakistan government must handle on a priority basis. This experience is also shaped by the efforts put in by Sobia and Adnan who were with us to show us around.
The way we were welcomed here was amazing. Everyone was warm -- the hosts, the organisers and all those whom we were introduced to. We got a chance to know about the history and culture of Pakistan. This helped us understand the country and its people better. The tonga ride and the visit to historic sites in Lahore was a memorable experience. One thing that I closely observed was that there was a glaring disparity between the rich and poor.
There were several memorable moments during my stay in Pakistan, but I think I enjoyed the road journey from Skardu to Islamabad the most. This was not part of our plan and we embarked on it when our return flight from Skardu was canceled due to bad weather. The views of picturesque valleys and snow-peaked mountains and the sweet memories of warm and friendly people we met on our way are still fresh in our minds. I have found similarities between Pakistan and India. Even the accents are quite similar, especially in the northern India. I have a lot of Pakistani friends in the US. On this trip, I have realised that what’s in the news is materially different from the reality. I also met Imran Khan and enjoyed the healthy discussion we had. I have worked with Tony Blair in the past. I have found many similarities between these two leaders. Both Imran Khan and Tony Blair have charisma in their personalities.
Though I live in the US, I am the son of Pakistani immigrants and most of my extended family lives in Pakistan. I have been to Pakistan over a dozen times but this time it was a totally different experience. I travelled out of Punjab and saw my country with a different angle. I represent both the worlds and can best relate to their issues.
The Pakistani expatriates talk a lot about their country which is no doubt a dramatic and exciting one. I stay connected with my family as I know my roots are here. At some point, I consider coming to Pakistan to contribute to its development. I have interests in health systems, including global health, and would love to help Pakistan use its full potential. I really enjoyed meeting Imran Khan. He is very popular among the expatriates.
I was curious about coming to Pakistan. I had grown up differently than others in the US. I saw all the developments post 9/11. But I don’t think you can paint 200 million people with one stroke of brush. But unfortunately there is nothing to contradict the narrative that we have in the media about Pakistan. In short, I would say that I am more fascinated with this place that is complicated and interesting.
It was Irene who told me about this trek. At first, I was reluctant but on her insistence I agreed to join it. I have grown up in Congo, so the security threat was not something new to me. In Pakistan, I never felt we were in danger. And one reason for this was that I knew we were in good hands. It was a pleasant surprise for me that there was no fear of street crime while we travelled around in the northern areas. We would leave our wallets and other valuables in the vehicle and roam around freely.