I can still remember the moment I fell in love with Pakistan. It was in 2011, shortly after we had arrived in Pakistan to work for a Christian charity, and I was going home one evening in a taxi. After chatting for a while we arrived at my home and the driver adamantly refused my money. I should keep my Rs200, he said politely, because I was a guest in his country. He simply would not take it.
The cognitive dissonance that I experienced at that moment — the confusion, the stark difference between what I was expecting to experience and what I was actually experiencing — has been ever present during the seven years my family and I have spent in Pakistan. Pakistan is renowned in the West as a place of violence, terrorism and intolerance. The Pakistan we have experienced, on the other hand, has been kind, hospitable and imbued with a generosity of spirit that defies belief. Something was wrong, rather wonderfully and surprisingly wrong, and I have been grateful for it for the last seven years.
We live in an era of deep and widening hostility between people from the worlds of Christianity and Islam. In the West, Muslims are all too often depicted as violent and backward, while in other nations Christians are held to be intolerant and arrogant. I, a Christian, have spent seven years in a country that is perhaps 97% Muslim, and my family and I have been treated with nothing but kindness. It was profoundly humbling. It still is.
Before we left the UK to come to Pakistan friends were concerned for us: is it really a good place to raise children? We brought one son here and had three more children in Pakistan. When my second daughter was born our landlord’s mother held her in her arms, stroking her tiny hands, tears of joy streaming down her wrinkled cheeks. When our second was born in 2015 a complete stranger rang our doorbell, congratulated us, wished my son a long and happy life, and walked away. I have no words to express how deeply I love this land. I have tried to convey my appreciation for the untold beauty of Pakistan in my book Notes From A Sacred Land and I can assure you that my appreciation is sincere.
And yet the love we feel for Pakistan and for its people has always been alloyed with pain. Pain, because of the poverty experienced by far too many of Pakistan’s citizens. Pain, because of the increasing level of paranoia within Pakistan, a paranoia that requires even bakeries and pharmacies to employ Kalashnikov-toting security guards. Pain, because of the terrorism which over the last seven years has turned public schools and places of worship into gore-spattered graveyards. There is so much beauty here, and with it so much pain, and so it is that Pakistan has taught us so much about the preciousness and the fragility of human life.
Yet nothing has caused us so much pain as the manner in which we are leaving Pakistan. In recent years the official attitude towards foreigners in Pakistan has changed. NGOs have been closed down. People running hospitals in remote parts of the country, providing vital health services to the poor, have been expelled from the country for no obvious reason. Even for the foreigners who are permitted to come here, vast swathes of the country are off limits: a friend was recently denied permission to have a holiday in Hunza, another faced harassment for visiting Sindh, and when my family visited Shogran for a holiday we were only grudgingly granted permission to go and were accompanied by an armed policeman wherever we went.
It is absolutely right that the authorities should carefully screen foreign visitors to Pakistan. Any sensible country would do the same. Yet the recent wave of paranoia about foreigners is blinding the authorities to a simple fact: that there are many foreigners who want Pakistan to prosper and who would gladly dedicate their lives to improving the lot of Pakistan’s citizens. To treat these people in this way is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. My wife volunteers at a school, importing books from the West at great expense in order to build up its library so that children can have access to quality reading material. I wrote a book about the positive side of life in Pakistan and have given talks all over the country, including at the US Embassy and the British High Commission, in an effort to promote a more realistic and hope-filled image of Pakistan.
And in spite of this we have been waiting for a renewed visa for more than a year. No visa, no news, no information, just a subtle implication that we ought to leave. We cannot remain in a limbo forever. Our children are starting to forget what their grandparents look like. And so it seems that the immense privilege of calling Pakistan our home, of being able to tell people in the West that we live in a beautiful place among profoundly kind people, is to be taken away. The mehman nawazi has come to an end. We leave at the end of April and we will do so with heavy hearts.
And so goodbye to all that: goodbye to the beauty of the Kaghan Valley, goodbye to the breathtaking sight of the Badshahi Mosque, goodbye to the spectacular monsoon rains, goodbye to the shopkeepers and taxi drivers who force me to have chai and refuse payment, goodbye to the daal chawal and the halwa puri I love so much, goodbye to the unending generosity of the people of Pakistan, goodbye to the countless Muslims who, in an era of suspicion and anger, have greeted this Christian gora with far more kindness than I deserve. You have taught my family so much, until recently you have welcomed us so warmly, and we will always be grateful.