The fading past

February 21, 2021

Saud Mukhtar explores the changing demographics and culture of Islamabad over the last five decades

Like Washington DC, Canberra and Chandigarh, Islamabad is a planned capital. There was a famous quip in the 1980s that it was thirteen kilometres from Pakistan. Built in the early 1960s, it has evolved as a city that is quite different from Lahore or Karachi. That, however, is also the way its residents want it to be, different. In the early 1970s, when the new city was still in its infancy, an American journalist is said to have deprecatingly remarked that Islamabad was half the size of Arlington National Cemetery (located near Washington DC) and twice as dead. Since then, it has come a long way.

Saud Mukhtar, who belongs to a family that has lived in Islamabad for three generations, has written a concise, personal history of Islamabad – charting its evolution and nostalgically remembering its fading past. Mukhtar, who currently works in the development sector with a foreign donor agency, has previously been associated with the financial sector. Apart from two years spent in Multan as a child and two years at LUMS in Lahore for his MBA, he has lived nearly all his life in Islamabad. His grandfather was among the cohort of government servants who moved from Karachi to Islamabad in its early days. His mother, who came to Islamabad with her father, used to commute daily to Rawalpindi on a double-decker bus, as there was no girls’ college in Islamabad in those days. Most of the anecdotes in the book about Islamabad’s first decade or so have been narrated by his mother, Tasneem Mukhtar.

Although it can be categorised as a light read, the book is also likely to be of interest to long-time residents of Islamabad as well as those who have migrated to the city in the last couple of decades. It is well-researched and sheds light on some of the less known facts about Islamabad’s history. In the 1950s, before Ayub Khan came to power, the first location proposed for Pakistan’s capital was near Khushab in central Punjab. As president, Ayub Khan formed a commission headed by Gen Yahya Khan in 1959 that in its report five months later suggested another between Rawalpindi and Murree. Yahya Khan also served as the first head of the Capital Development Authority (CDA). The first commercial building in Islamabad was Shehrzad Hotel. It now houses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The first residential house built in Islamabad belonged to a minister from East Pakistan, Abdullah Zaheer ud Din aka Lal Mian. Qandeel, a Lahore-based newspaper, awarded a gentleman - Abdul Rahman from Arifwala - a prize of Rs 1,000 for proposing the name, Islamabad, for the new capital. Later, the CDA’s name selection committee chose it.

Over the last five decades, Islamabad’s demographics and culture have changed significantly. The most interesting and nostalgic section of the book deals with landmark buildings, noted places to visit and famous eateries - of which many have disappeared over time: Siraj Covered Market; American Centre; British Council Library in G-6; NAFDEC and Melody cinemas; Ambassador Hotel in Aapbara; Taj Mahal Hotel in F-7; Aga Khani Samosa place in G-6; Sam Burger in F-7; Off-beat music shop; Lotus Lake; and Chand Sitara view from Shakarparian. Melody cinema was burned down by a militant mob protesting the gunning down of a sectarian leader in 2003. British Council and American Centre libraries closed down due to security concerns in the wake of War on Terror post 9-11. Siraj Covered Market, a mini-mall built well before the concept became popular in the country, had to be shut down after the death of its owner as his family could not manage it.

Islamabad has seen a number of migrants arrive in several waves during the last few decades. Among the first arrivals were government servants, including a sizeable Bengali population, who came from Karachi in 1964. Islamabad’s first major market – Aabpara - is named after a baby-girl born to Bengali parents. Unfortunately, after the fall of Dhaka in 1971, these Bengali residents moved to Bangladesh. In the first two decades, an overwhelming majority of the people came to this city for employment reasons. During the 1980s, a number of well-off Afghan families settled in the city to avoid the war in Afghanistan. As law and order situation in Karachi deteriorated during the 1990s, a number of families arrived in the city from Karachi. When Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province saw unrest and terrorist violence in the wake of Afghan war after 2001, a sizeable population belonging to various areas of KP migrated to Islamabad. Over the last decade, a number of Chinese professionals have become residents of Islamabad on account of the growing CPEC project portfolio.

Growing at a frenetic pace, Islamabad today is suffering from a number of problems such as inadequate and unaffordable housing, insufficient public utilities and decaying public infrastructure. Islamabad’s master plan, drafted by a Greek town planner Constantinos Doxiadis in the early 1960s, was meant to be reviewed after twenty years. After nearly sixty years, a thorough review has yet to be undertaken. A number of urban planners have suggested that Islamabad needs to be redesigned and re-imagined in order to make the city more inclusive so that it creates adequate employment opportunities and caters to the needs of various income and demographic groups.

A civil engineer by training, Mukhtar is well-aware of the city’s needs. The last chapter of his book, therefore, briefly touches upon some of the changes that Islamabad has to embrace to retool and equip itself in terms of infrastructure to face the challenges posed to a fast-growing city in the Twenty-First Century. CDA’s urban planners also need to read this book and incorporate some of the recommendations in the revised master plan for the city.

Fading Memories of Islamabad

Author: Saud Mukhtar

Publisher: Takmeel Printers, Lahore, 2020

Pages: 147

Price: US$4.99

The writer is an Islamabad-based   independent researcher and consultant.

He tweets @AmmarAliQureshi and can be reached at

The fading past: Review on Fading Memories of Islamabad