Many accounts from Pakistan tell of violence, political corruption, the
oppression of women and the fundamentalist sects of the Muslim religion.
Photos show mobs of angry men shouting slogans. But that's only half the
I have visited Pakistan, including the Khyber Pass and Afghani refugee camps.
I've endured harassment as a woman in a man's world, the difficulty of speaking to other women, exposure to local corruption and open hostility toward a foreigner. I've also experienced a very different Pakistan and met Muslims who live a life closer to the true meaning of their faith. A few years ago, I spent several weeks travelling with a small group through the Hindu Kush mountains in the Northwest Frontier province. We trekked from valley to valley, across the mountain ridges, the only way into this vast area.
The people might speak Balti, Wakhi, Khowar or Barushaski, but the majority found a bond as Ismaili Muslims. From Gilgit and Hunza, to Chitral and the Afghanistan border, their common religious adherence permeated much of their everyday life.
Arriving from Peshawar and Rawalpindi, two things struck me immediately about the area-the courtesy of the men and the freedom of the women. The men talked willingly to the women, both foreigners and villagers, as equals, and their joking was non-sexist and fun. Groups of men from various villages took charge of the mules and kitbags. Only a few spoke any English, but their goodwill was evident as they showed us around their villages and introduced us to their families.
"Gusar chen (Let's go)," called out our guide, Bullu Khan, and this became a daily ritual. The villagers reached the summits long before we did, being used to the altitude, and would sit and wait, cheering us on. Concerned about our safety, they gave the women a hand over rickety bridges and rushing streams.
All the men enjoyed an excuse for dancing, usually impromptu affairs using plastic water containers as drums. Normally only men dance, but on one occasion they invited the foreign women to join them, cheerfully coaching us through the steps.
For economic reasons, the men spend many months trading or guiding, so the women are independent, taking on much of the responsibility for the households, crops and livestock. In contrast to many women elsewhere in Pakistan, they went unveiled, wearing vividly patterned shalwar kameez, the universal baggy pants and long shirt, with colourful headscarves. They talked to the village men and visitors without hesitation, even arguing firmly at times.
Arriving in the villages, both men and women welcomed us with smiles and bowls of yogurt and invited us into their houses for tea. Men shared the chores, even butter-making. They all wanted to know about our families. On the trails, we felt entirely safe walking alone.
The present spiritual leader of the Ismailis is Prince Kareem Aga Khan, a descendant of Mohammed. His philanthropic deeds are done quietly, often through the Aga Khan Foundation, operating in Pakistan and other countries in co-operation with various governments, including Canada.
We saw examples of progress in the communities. Most villages had schools and students showed off their books and announced, "listen to me-I can read English." Unlike the situation in much of Pakistan, the Aga Khan has actively encouraged education for girls, who talked to us with confidence. Teachers were keen to take us around, saying, "Please, come inside." We were shown primary health clinics, irrigation canals and local projects. "The Aga Khan gave us the money and we built it," they kept saying. Life is hard in the Hindu Kush, but the Ismailis were proud of their accomplishments and many looked upon the Aga Khan as a father figure. Last summer, I was delighted to be invited to Milad-un-Nabi, the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed, hosted by London's Ismaili Muslim community. Some of them came from northwest Pakistan, some knew the villages I knew, and all of them greeted me as a friend.
Whenever I read a report from Pakistan or Afghanistan, I remember the welcome we received from the people of the Hindu Kush. The lives of the Ismailis and the Taliban are worlds apart.