Published in Express Tribune
It may seem ironic to promote tourism in Pakistan by writing about a natural disaster; but the level of hospitality that I experienced in Chitral surpassed any hospitality that I have experienced anywhere else in the world. PHOTO: ABDULLAH SAAD
Rooftops near North Jerusalem. Photo: Abdullah SaadI am originally a Palestinian from Jerusalem, and like many Palestinians, I suffer (or perhaps benefit) from a severe case of Wanderlust.
Dome of the Rock. Photo: Abdullah SaadThis means that we have to remain on the move because, as a nation that is mostly made up of refugees, hardly any countries present themselves as warm hosts.
People gathering around Masjid Al Aqsa on Eid. Photo: Abdullah SaadIt humbled me that during my time in Pakistan, I felt very welcome no matter where I went. Little experiences I’ve had here and there led me to think about the world in a more positive way, but personally experiencing a human miracle, however, can permanently instil a positive outlook in a person.
The Apartheid Wall. Photo: Abdullah SaadMy visit to Chitral at the end of August was one such miracle. Although I suffered the misfortune of being victim to a flood and landslide simultaneously, I was also witness to one of the greatest shows of humanity that I have experienced.
Chitral’s scenery. Photo: Abdullah SaadWhen I told my family and friends that I was headed to Pakistan, I was told that if I had to go, I should avoid the “dangerous North” of the country. There is a long history of Arabs having gone to the North of Pakistan and having their lives turned around. My namesake, Abdullah Azzam, was one such Arab who originally arrived in Pakistan as a teacher, but upon his death was known as “the father of global Jihad”.
A beautiful town in Chitral. Photo: Abdullah SaadIt did not help that he was also a Palestinian. This is not to mention, however, the infamous Osama Bin Laden, who hid in the north of the country for years; another Arab experience that shapes the view that my compatriots have of Pakistan and its northern regions. Despite the fact that I left Chitral with damaged ankle ligaments, my life changed for the better over there. I went there as a typically cynical student of political science and left having experienced a marvel that changed the way I viewed human nature. My arrival in Chitral was different from my arrival in Lahore roughly six weeks earlier. Contrary to my visit to the colourful city of Lahore, I had no knowledge of Chitral and its culture, and I went on my own rather than accompanied by a Pakistani. At the airport, I was received by Amaar, my Chitrali host. Even though I did not know what he looked like or who he was, it was not very difficult for us to locate each other. To my surprise, he greeted me with a huge, welcoming hug, as if we were long-lost friends rather than new acquaintances!
Chitral airport. Photo: Abdullah SaadThe first thing I did on my arrival, as all foreigners are required to do, was register with the police in order to be assigned a police escort. I was accompanied by the police escort over the next couple of days, as I explored the area around Amaar’s village – the quaint and quiet Garam Chashma, aptly named for its hot spring.
Garam Chashma. Photo: Abdullah SaadI could spend hours writing about the breathtaking scenery surrounding Chitral and the activities that we undertook during my stay; but frankly the highlight of my trip was the response to a heavy storm on the evening before my return to Islamabad.
Storm clouds. Photo: Abdullah SaadDuring the day we had hired a car and driven to Bomboret Village, a part of the Kalash Valley, which is possibly the most unique area in Pakistan due to the Kalash people’s preservation of their own distinctive culture.
Kalash Museum. Photo: Abdullah Saad
Kalash women in traditional attire. Photo: Abdullah SaadIn the evening, just as we were getting ready for our return to Chitral Town, heavy clouds began to gather on the horizon. In just an hour, we found ourselves in the midst of the worst storm I have ever seen, stuck in sloppy mud somewhere near Bomboret. The sheer force with which mud was hitting the side of our car made us realise that there was a good chance of our car falling into the river running parallel to the track.
A Chitral town. Photo: Abdullah SaadHence, we decided that the only thing to do was to abandon the car and remain on the move until we found some shelter. We left the car and started walking together, but due to the gathering darkness and heavy rain getting into our eyes, many of us got separated. After some time, I realised that I was alone and to make matters worse, I did not have my glasses or any light to guide me; not that I would have known which direction to go in, anyway. Eventually, after sloshing through mud and trying to stay on my feet, I came across two men, who thankfully turned out to be my police escorts. They literally held me by my arms and took me to a mosque, where I was greeted by an old Imam who later took me to his house. At the house, I was re-united with Amaar and the others in our group.
The group of men who saved me. Photo: Abdullah SaadWhat followed was even more exceptional, with people coming to the Imam’s house with essentials such as fresh clothes, water and in my case, footwear. I was amazed by the fact that in spite of the terrible weather, the life-threatening travel conditions for those walking on foot, and the difficult terrain, people still came out to our aid.
A view from the hotel. Photo: Abdullah SaadIt was truly the most heart-warming and humbling experience of my life. Despite the language barrier, my injuries and lack of vision, I was simply revitalised by the sheer humanity and generosity of the people who helped me during this experience. It may seem ironic, not to mention downright perverse to attempt promoting tourism in Pakistan by writing about a natural disaster; but the level of hospitality that I experienced far surpassed any hospitality that I have experienced anywhere else in the world.
Chitrali children. Photo: Abdullah SaadIt is incidents like these that make Pakistan what it is. For every disaster or crisis, there is always a great communal response, especially when guests are involved. However, these priceless incidents are hardly ever reported or appreciated. It is sad, as I told Amaar’s father that in England where I study, a man saving a dog from a flood makes the news, whereas in Pakistan, no news agency is interested in the rescue of a group of nine men, including a foreigner.
One of Methar’s castle. Photo: Abdullah SaadTo some extent this may partly be due to the fact that acts like these are considered normal by the helpful people of Pakistan and hence, nobody considers them newsworthy. However, I feel responsible as a writer who has personally experienced such amazing levels of concern and hospitality, to ensure that the story is told regardless.