Peace, Parks & Pakistan

After a period of relative rest, Pakistan is dominating world news once again. American drones hover kilometres high above the country, a woman has been stoned to death outside Lahore’s High Court and Uzbek terrorists attacked Karachi’s international airport. Meanwhile the Pakistani army is extending the airstrikes on Pakistani Taliban hideouts in Waziristan. Seemingly worlds away, Park F10/2 in Islamabad is like a bubble; a place without bomb strikes, public stoning’s, or terrorists. Just people kicking back and playing badminton.

It is around six o’clock, the sun is loosing its intensity and the temperature descends to an acceptable 35 degrees Celsius. Bearded men, moustached boys and shaven adolescents from Islamabad’s sector F10/2 move in groups in a little neighbourhood park; a lazy strip of green grass with swings and shaded benches, encircled by a knee-high Victorian fence.

Two little girls swing with big smiles up and down, a group of secondary school pupils is discussing the team-composition of a soon to be played soccer match and the rest of the park is reserved for cricket – after the downfall of field hockey and squash, the national (sporting) obsession of Pakistan is cricket. Whoever is interested is invited to join a quasi-professional game, the intensity is overwhelmingly enough to prevent most players from batting (sixteen men per team is way too much). Improvised cricket balls (taped tennis balls) fly outside the park and result in applauded 6-pointers. An ice-cream cart passes by with its familiar happy tune and soon ice-cream is shared among the children of the park. Elderly men in kameez (long Pakistani shirts) oversee this daily ritual in silence.

Part of Park F10/2’s ritual is Jens, a slim German in the second half of his fifties that has been living in Islamabad for five years now. Arriving by bike at the far side of the park for his daily pleasure: badminton. Leaves are carefully swiped off the little field, lines are drawn and a ragged net (two bamboo-sticks, six stretched ropes on a 1.55 meter high) is professionally set up. The net is put up exactly on top of a newly planted little tree, so it will not be harmed. Jens has the major responsibility to guard the little tree – never touch a tree planted by a Pakistani family! Jens’ badminton field is without doubt “the best badminton field of Islamabad” and ready for the match of the day: a game against Ahsan. Ahsan is a bearded Pakistani intellectual of thirty. He washed himself before playing, so he could do his prayers on time, and in purity, after the game. The cricket, the swings, Jens and his badminton field all form part of the peaceful rhythm of Park F10/2. It reminds me of pictures from the Netherlands back in the ’50’s.

  Welcome to Kumaon

The peacefulness of Park F10/2 contrasts immensely with the life outside the park. Life outside the park is filled with NOCs (Non-objective clearances) for every travel outside the city. Outside, hiking Marghala hills and visiting markets are forbidden due to security reasons. Drivers take a different route every time to prevent any pattern. Embassies are clustered in a hermetically enclosed enclave and at famous places Pakistani military stands on high alert with machine guns, ready to protect against IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Sandbags and strong men protect schools. The wide green avenues of Islamabad are filled with Rangers, Military police, regular Police and other uniformed units. In other words: Pakistan is, as we would expect it to be by reading the local and international newspapers.

Park F10/2 and the alarming security measures are two conflicting worlds in the same city. Surprisingly, even behind the superficially peaceful world of F10/2 there exists a complex world of contradictions. Half of the cricket team dreams about serving in the Pakistani army (I want to serve the Pakistani people) and at the same time about a peaceful European existence (I heard Europe is not like the US, it is peaceful, hey?). Male colleagues defend gender equality fiercely, while married to a loyal housewife from an arranged marriage at the same time (I don’t cook, it is not our culture). To talk about sex is not done, but the taxi driver advices me openly to cheat (you are 30 and need to get a wife, she is your property, and in Pakistan you will still enjoy yourself with other women). At a hockey tournament teams smoke cigarets secretly behind the sport hall, while a boy prepares a joint quietly in Park F10/2 (you want one?). Street criminality is virtually non-existent and is seen as self-evident, while the same people could post merciless statements (the terrorists are financed by India, they should kill all of them). In short: war, poverty and lack of freedom have, although hidden, put their scars in the hearts and minds of Park F10/2’s people.

But it is nice to fool yourself; the way the girls laugh whilst swinging, the cricket, the ice-cream cart and the badminton of Park F10/2 are all real. Jens is a veteran and does not concern himself with US-drones, gender equality and smoking joints. He successfully ignores the complex Pakistani reality and just bikes to Park F10/2. It doesn’t matter whether or not Pakistan is breaking news next week as well, Jens drew his conclusion: “let’s just play badminton”.

Floris de Roy van Zuydewijn is a writer, economist and a contributor to FLINT. He is currently based in Islamabad.