Alistair Caldicott

Batting for Pakistan

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16 - Islamabad - Rockets and Technocrats

In many ways, Islamabad seemed strangely like Milton Keynes, but without the painted concrete cows. I had one of the tiny Pakistani taxis all to myself and my luggage. It was spacious bliss compared to the internal constraints of a rickshaw.

My driver, a chap called Zahid, and I exchanged some pleasantries before we ran out of phrases to cheerfully remark to each other in our different languages. So, in order to break the uneasy silence of me sitting next to him for the next hour or so with nothing to say, I suggested he could put some music on. This was a schoolboy error. His idea of music and my idea of music were two very different and entirely separate things. I had thirty minutes of religious Allah chanting to smile and nod to before we arrived at my hotel in Islamabad. Reception was a building site. And my room wasnt much better, with a grimy bathroom and only marginally less dusty. For good measure it was laden with an exposed grid of loose wires to trip over. But it would do.

Islamabad was almost like a different country. It had something that was noticeably absent in many other Pakistani cities, space. Pakistans artificial capital was designed by a Greek. There were no street names, just a confusing system of numbers and letters. It was all roundabouts and avenues. The most important one was Constitution Avenue, which the locals called Suspended Constitution Avenue. Pakistan is undoubtedly one of the worlds most corrupt countries.

I set off to see my final mosque, another one of the worlds largest. It was the eye-catching Faisal Mosque, a white desert tent structure with rocket shaped minarets. Apparently the American CIA once thought that real, giant rockets were being concealed inside the minarets.

The buildings was supposed to reflect the hopes and aspirations for the people of Pakistan, and with minarets shapes like rockets some might say it has done this reasonably accurately. Whether this building was a thing of beauty or not is a matter for debate. You certainly cannot miss or ignore it though.

The Faisal mosque was named after King Faisal, the Saudi Arabian monarch, and it was built with that countrys money. In some ways it looked like a big white Arabian tent. Once you had seen it, that was it. It was not that more exciting than any other modern white building.

Far more entertaining were a couple of signs on its vicinity. Ladies Are Not Allowed Without Proper Dress & Purity. Gossip is Against the Prestige of Mosque and is Prohibited. Proper dress and no gossip; a double whammy for potential women visitors, wherever they might come from, there then.

I learned of another wonderful piece of Pakistani logic. The countrys naval headquarters were based in Islamabad, hundreds of miles inland from the substantial slice of coast Pakistan occupies overlooking the Arabian Sea, and one of the world biggest port cities, Karachi. But there you go. In Islamabad, home to the countrys governing class, they even have special signs pointing the way for TECHNOCRATS.

Aside from the Milton Keynes analogy, another city which Islamabad reminded me of was Brasilia, the Brazilian capital. Both cities were constructed out of virtually nothing at around roughly the same time, in the early 1960s. They both had an air of rushed grandiosity about them, as well as retaining a strangely sleepy and subdued feel. It was an orderly, and comparatively discreet city, but there was a certain staidness about it too.

Islamabad was a city with no real centre. Streets and districts didnt really have names. They had letters and numbers instead. G7, F3 and E4. I presumed it was to make navigation easier, but it didnt prevent me from getting hopelessly lost on a number of occasions. Even a bright yellow and red sign advertising the delights of the BRITISH SLIMMING CLINIC was of no use to me. I would be too busy eating curries to fit in a visit. Maybe I could try the INSTANT SLIMMING CLINIC instead.

The next day I came down from my hotel room. Amongst the cables and rubble, it seemed that reception had disappeared altogether. It had moved around the corner. Every time I came in or out, there was a new exit and entrance, which made for a fun game of guessing where it would be next. Having said all that, this hotel had one tremendous positive going for it. They automatically changed the television channel onto showing the cricket when it started. This was much appreciated, as I had virtually forgotten that England were still playing and losing games of cricket in Pakistan, so low was the expectation of a good result.

I took a walk around the block, which meant going from G7 to F5. Each time I entered a new district, I learnt that England had lost another wicket. I bought a traditional hat from Ali & Sons. I saw a shop selling tables, chairs and carpets. It was named Dynasty Carpets The only problem was that the D was missing from the shop front entrance sign, and the Y was falling off. And the thought occurred to me that it was possible to identify the capital of a country from the abundance of furnisher retailers doing business, as well as the signs for technocrats as well of course.

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