While completing a semester abroad at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore during my fourth year at the University of Western Ontario (UWO), I realized I had a real passion for traveling. In 2005, armed with a Media and Information Technology Bachelor’s degree from UWO, I set out to experience new cultures by starting a one year internship at the Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan. I soon entered a world that was foreign to me. Before embarking on this adventure I set three goals for myself: to gain practical experience in my field, to add value to the University and to gain a deeper understanding of the culture. Did I know what I was getting myself into? Only time would tell…
My personal experience
international It was relatively easy to fit into a private university which is built on international standards. Language wasn’t a barrier since English was the official language of at the University but, culturally I honestly did not know what to expect in Pakistan, especially Karachi. I didn’t have any family or friends. The practical and emotional support in getting settled, understanding new surroundings, and making social connections to break the isolation were missing. Simple tasks such as getting a cell phone, groceries or a shalwar kamis (the most basic attire for women) turned into complicated matters. When venturing into the city, it is necessary to communicate in Urdu and be able to bargain with everyone including taxi/ rickshaw drivers and shopkeepers. Initially, I lacked these skills. In addition, the thought of being overcharged agitated me.
After one and a half months in Karachi, I met a young, local designer, Farah. She designed my shalwar kamises according to the latest trends in the industry. In terms of women’s fashion in the work place, I was now the woman to watch. It’s every girl’s dream to have her own personal designer and I had found mine. Since I adopted the culture of wearing shalwar kamises at work and was eager to learn the national language Urdu, my colleagues started to teach me key phrases which would be used when communicating with shopkeepers and taxi drivers. Then I took the initiative to learn to read and write basic Urdu as well as become fluent in conversational Urdu by taking private lessons. Now I was able to become a Karachiite and take part in the local culture such as taking an auto rickshaw on a regular basis; eating delicious cheap street food from side street kitchens which sold anything from spiced chai to freshly spiced barbecued fish or chicken; embracing the local culture of shopping from the bazaars that sold shawls, costume jewellery, stylish shoes, fabrics, handicrafts and many other items.
Within six months, I was able to communicate in Urdu, feel comfortable in the local attire and had made friends who became like family. For example, Farah took me into her family during national holidays such as Eid-ul-Fitr, a four day national celebration to mark the end of the month of Ramadan. This is the Muslim equivalent to celebrating Christmas. Women usually put henna on their hands and people wear new clothes to commemorate the occasion. Children are also encouraged to greet their elders in exchange for cash, eidi. Thus, I was able to observe and experience the local customs and traditions and gain a greater cultural appreciation of Karachi. During the last six months of my trip, I traveled with my friends to other major cities in the country like Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan; Lahore, a hub for artistic, cultural and intellectual activities; and the Northern Areas, an area filled with majestic mountain views, glaciers and valleys.
I didn’t want any other international visiting professionals, especially recent graduates, to face the same difficulties as myself. Therefore, I took the initiative to develop the University’s Expatriate Network along with two other young visiting professionals. The objectives were to provide practical, emotional, professional, social and cultural support to people who join the University’s family through pre-arrival support over email, in-person support upon and after arrival, and ongoing group activities. A support system was now in place and I left knowing that I had added value to the University in my own way.
My cultural experience
I was some what settled at this point and it was time for me to learn more about the culture. My first step was to learn about Pakistan’s history and here’s the short version. Allama Mohammed Iqbal, a poet and philosopher from Lahore, proposed the creation of a separate Muslim state on those parts of the subcontinent where there was a Muslim majority while Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a prominent lawyer at the time, turned it into a reality. As a result, in 1947 the Indian subcontinent gained independence from Great Britain and separate nations were born: Pakistan and India. Until today, Jinnah also known as ‘Quaid ��"i-Azam’ or ‘the great leader’ is the most respected individual in the country. He continues to be a legend for all Pakistan resulting in his name and image can be seen on many roads and buildings throughout the country. It wasn’t easy to create state institutions from scratch and things became more difficult when Jinnah died 13 months after Independence. On August 14, 2007, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan will celebrate 60 years of independence, but it’s a nation that has suffered three periods of martial law and two military dictatorships. Pakistan is a turbulent state.
I was working in the Public Affairs Department at the University and in order to be successful, I had to become familiar with the structure of the media industry in Pakistan. I quickly learned that the government’s virtual monopoly of broadcasting industry collapsed when President Pervez Musharraf increased freedom for the print media and liberalized broadcasting policies. It resulted in an expansion of the private radio and television stations creating more competition for the state run Pakistan Television Corporation. In addition, many Pakistanis watch international satellite TV channels, via a dish or an often-unlicensed cable TV operator. Indian entertainment channels that focus on Bollywood such as B4U and STAR TV are extremely popular. Despite ongoing conflicts between Pakistan and India, Bollywood films are sold freely in all DVD stores. In the print world, newspapers are published in both English and Urdu. Newspapers published in Urdu a have a broader reach and can be controversial at times since they appeal to the masses compared to the English ones that are skewed to the better-educated society of Pakistan. Similar to Canada, there’s a monopoly in the industry and the main players are The Jang Group (publishing Urdu Daily Jang and English daily The News), the Pakistan Herald Publications (publishing English daily Dawn and The Star), and the Nawa-i-Waqt Group (publishing Urdu daily Nawa-i-Waqt and English daily The Nation).
I’m a first generation Canadian Muslim who has always been in touch with my roots, but I’ve never visited a Muslim country until this trip. My immediate reaction upon arriving in Pakistan is that being a Canadian Muslim and being a Muslim in a Muslim country are completely different. In Pakistan, religion is intertwined into every aspect of one’s every day life where as in Canada there is a clear separation. For example, Muslims are required to pray five times a day and prayer time and area are allocated for individuals in the workplace. Moreover, during the month of Ramadan everything in society changes to accommodate those who are observing the fast. People fast from sunrise to sunset, hold special prayer sessions and have shortened work schedules. Shops are also closed during the day, but are open after Iftar (where Muslims gather as a community to break their fast) until late into the night. Breaking the fast is a big social event for Muslims. Street stalls sell fancy treats such as samosas and jelabies while restaurants have exclusive deals for the month. For instance, Pizza Hut had all you can eat pizza for 6 dollars. If you’re new to the city and looking to get acquainted with the restaurant scene, this is the best time to do it.
Was I able to achieve my goals during this experience?
I was able to gain practical industry experience by working in the Public Affairs department. A mega cosmopolitan city like Karachi and the University campus that were once foreign to me became my new homes. It was now a place where I belonged professionally, culturally and socially. Acquaintances first became friends and then turned into family. I was now able to walk around the University campus and bump into people whom I knew - it was a comforting feeling. Lastly, Pakistan is a country that has been hit hard by many media stereotypes, but if one goes beyond that, one realizes that it has a culture and history that is rich and vibrant. It’s something that everyone should experience. It was the link with the locals that made me enriched and enhanced my adventure to Pakistan.