Benjamin Zand playing football with kids in Lyari PHOTO: NOFIL NAQVI/BBC
BBC journalist Benjamin Zand is no stranger to travelling. In fact, he makes it a point to visit places around the world that have a “bad reputation.’’
When he decided to visit Karachi, everyone warned him against it. He was told all kinds of stories about killings, abductions and, yes, he was also told to carry an old phone he wouldn’t mind parting with – something every Karachiite can relate to. He came, regardless, to see how much truth there was in the claims. In the period he was here, he shot a documentary to show the world a Pakistan one is not accustomed to seeing.
He had some fun times, as well as a few crazy moments. He was mistaken for a Liverpool footballer in Lyari; had his British queuing skills tested to the max; took a bus tour of Karachi; tried Pakistani dishes like biryani, daal and haleem; and even attended a gig with singer Ali Gul Pir in Hyderabad.
Although he’s currently off to another “dangerous” locale, he intends to return to Pakistan soon. “I hope to come back in 10 years and see the Lyari-based child who wanted to be president as president, and the one who wanted to be an astrophysicist an astrophysicist – that would make me happy.”
Quite naturally, The Express Tribune wondered what kind of an experience he had in Pakistan, so we decided to ask him.
ET: Tell us about your documentary. What is it about?
Pakistan seemed like a perfect destination. To many people the country has a very bad reputation, but over the years many of the friends I have in Pakistan kept telling me how the country is misrepresented – so I thought I’d come and see for myself. The documentary will be split into separate videos, which means more room for me to meet people. You’ll see me spend time with the kids of Lyari, at Kiran School and play football with rising talent from the area. And meet the ladies of Karachi United’s women’s team and play football with them. I find out about Karachi’s music scene, visit CityFM and head to a gig in Hyderabad with Ali Gul Pir. I spend time on the Super Savari Express and see a different side of Karachi. Go for some nice food and, relax on French Beach!
Benjamin Zand with Ali Gul Pir PHOTO: BBC
ET: Why did you choose to shoot the documentary in Pakistan?
Zand:Pakistan comes with so much baggage. Being a journalist, I had heard so much about the country, about conflict and chaos. And although it does have its issues, so does everywhere, I hadn’t heard much good about the place. Friends had been telling me for years that there’s more to Pakistan than the world thinks, so I wanted to see for myself. I just wanted to meet some people and to spend some time with young Pakistanis. I travel a lot, and I learned a long time ago that people were people wherever one was in the world. So I knew Pakistan would be no different.
ET: What impression did you have of Pakistan before coming here? Did your opinion change, positively or negatively?
Zand: To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what to think of it. I had heard a great deal of bad stuff. Especially about Karachi, about how dangerous it was, how I was going to get robbed and about terrorism there. So I was very apprehensive. But then I had people actually living there telling me of all the cool stuff they were doing, telling me I’d be fine and that the media had it all wrong. So I was confused but had an open mind. My opinion definitely became more positive. Mainly down to who I met. Without doubt the country has formidable problems it needs to overcome. But, nearly all the people I met were amazing. So welcoming, so ambitious, so curious and so willing to help – and I loved it. The heat was ridiculous. And Karachi is a bit crazy. But, all good things tend to be a bit rough around the edges. As with most places – Pakistan is full of great people who want to make a difference in the world, and I was lucky enough to meet some of them.
ET: Which Pakistani cities did you visit? Which one did you like best? What did you think of Pakistan’s biggest city, Karachi?
Zand: Sadly, I only visited two, Karachi and Hyderabad. This is probably my biggest regret as I would have liked to properly explore the country, meet more people and find more stories – but I didn’t have time and my visa didn’t really allow me to do so. I really, really wanted to go to Gilgit and explore the Hunza Valley, but sadly my visa didn’t let me! Thankfully, Karachi was interesting enough. With about 24 million people and being extremely massive, I felt like I had a good first experience of Pakistan. Karachi is without doubt crazy. Pure carnage, some may say. But I suppose that’s what makes it what it is. Before I came people made it out as if I was going to get robbed three times a day, I was told to take a rubbish phone and a rubbish wallet to give in case this happened. And, without doubt, that does happen. But, Karachi is a city of 24 million. There are going to be some bad people in that large a city. I just wanted to speak to the good guys, and I was happy to find that they greatly outnumbered the bad ones.
ET: Did you try any Pakistani food?
Zand: Of course! What do you take me for?! I tried daal, biriyani, haleem, BBQ, chai paratha, curries – which I can’t recall the names of – all washed down with a nice lassi. It was all delicious, except for being extremely spicy 87 per cent of the time! I’m half-Iranian so dishes like biriyani and kebab I was familiar with.
ET: Did you pick up any Urdu?
Zand: Hmmmm, not much! Let me remember. I think, ji is yes? Theek hai, okay? Mera naam hai is my name is?! I know khoda hafez (same as Persian) although supposedly I say it wrong, shab bekhair (same as Persian too), shukria. And I learned things like, “let’s be friends” and, “I like kebab” but I can’t remember them!
ET: Tell us about your visit to Lyari.
Benjamin Zand at Empress Market PHOTO: BBC
Zand: I actually visited Lyari a few times. Before I went the first time, I was genuinely worried. Once again, people had told me so many bad things – about drugs, guns and murder. But this time, it was the people in Karachi telling me I ought to be perturbed. The ones telling me before that I had nothing to worry about were now telling me to exercise caution. So I was a bit concerned. My first thought though when I hear of such places is, “It surely can’t be as bad as people say it is.” I’m from Liverpool in the UK and a lot of the places people would “never go to” were places I lived and hung out at – so I know how things can be misrepresented.
So I decided to go anyway, and thankfully, for me – it wasn’t that bad. Once again, everyone treated me with respect and kindness, and I couldn’t really have asked for anything else. The place clearly has a chequered past and present, but the people I spoke to were just so appreciative that the media was there in the first place, doing something that wasn’t about violence and gangs. I think there should be more positive stories from the place. In so many cities, areas like this become the bogeyman, an area people tell their kids to steer clear of. As a consequence, the prevalent mind set just restricts the area from growing. So, more people should take the opportunity to visit there – connect with another side of their city and do what they can to help.
ET: Tell us about your experience with those impressive kids from Kiran School.
Zand: Well this was obviously a major highlight of the trip. It is no exaggeration to say I don’t think I’ve ever met more impressive kids. As soon as I arrived at Kiran School, my first destination in Lyari – I felt completely welcomed and just so happy to be with these kids. I was taken on a trip around the school with kids who were eight, nine and 10. The confidence with which they talk and act, and the ambition they have for what they want to achieve when they grow up is testament to the things they’re learning at the Kiran School. The fact the school teaches both parents and children is a really beautiful thing and something great for an area that has a lot of issues, so it’s a trip I’ll cherish for a long time.
ET: Tell us a bit about your Super Savari experience.
Zand taking a tour of Karachi PHOTO: BBC
ET: Did you make any Pakistani friends?
Zand: I made a lot. I genuinely met some people I hope to stay in touch with. The hospitality people showed and their willingness to help was just amazing. All the young Pakistanis I met were so chilled out and easy to get along with, so hopefully we are now BFFs.
ET: Any good, bad or funny incident that you’d like to share?
Zand: One funny moment was when I was playing football in Lyari. I had turned up out of the blue and there just happened to be a huge match going on – a Lyari version of Barcelona versus Real Madrid if you wish. The stadium was packed, and there were people training everywhere – some with amazing skills. I came to speak to a few people, and also brought some clothes just in case I could have a friendly game of football. Within ten minutes, I was told I had to play in a game that was just about to start. Already apprehensive because I needed to play football in front of thousands of hard-core Lyari football enthusiasts – I quickly changed into my football kit. As I walked out, I remembered I had my new shiny, luminous red Liverpool jersey on.
As I entered the pitch, a huge crowd gathered, presuming that I must play for Liverpool and be amazing at football! I sucked it up, and spurred myself on to handle the pressure. As the game began, it was a tough one, my team giving me the ball every two seconds expecting me to score from the half way line, and the other team was taking me out every three seconds to show me how the game is played in Pakistan’s little Brazil! Eventually, I scored two goals and my team won 3-2. I’d like to believe it’s because I am that good at football. But, it was actually because the referee was being hospitable and didn’t want me to lose! I was told he was telling the kids that I had to win. So he gave my team two extremely contentious penalties and free kicks! We all smiled, laughed and celebrated at the end so it was okay.
There were also a lot of crazy moments. There was the time we were driving from Karachi to Hyderabad along a highway that was under-construction. It was an excessively hot day and our air-con in the car wasn’t working. We were slowly dying as the car was heating up to insane levels and we were stuck in the never ending traffic, I also needed to pee which wasn’t good. As we hit yet another diversion stuck behind a big construction truck we dreamed of driving off road, onto the tractor-filled under-construction road, and speeding around all the cars stuck in traffic till we reached our destination. We realised though, that would be crazy. Barely two minutes later, the car in front turns off the road down a ditch, onto the under construction road. Then the car behind us does the same. Then pretty much every car around us did, driving away to air-con filled freedom as we patiently waited behind a construction truck on the diverted road. My British patience and queuing skills being tested to the max.
ET: What advice would you give to anyone wanting to visit Pakistan?
Zand: My advice would be to try as hard as you can to forget what you’ve been told about the place and just go. It will definitely be different to what you’re used to, and it will be hot, busy, loud and a bit crazy – but if you just take time to speak to people and listen to them you’ll have a great time and realise they aren’t too different. Try as many foods as you can, but be careful as some can be spicy and hard on the belly! Try and make some friends before you arrive as that will help make your trip go well – it’s not always the easiest place to travel around as there’s not a huge travel scene yet. And there a lot of guns! So you’re going to have to get used to it. It can be a bit overwhelming sometimes, it was for me. All in all, just make sure you’re willing to understand. To hear why they think what they think, to walk in their shoes and see things from their perspective. It’ll expand your mind and you’ll have a good time.
ET: Will you visit again?
Zand: Definitely. As I said, I have to go to Gilgit, it just looks incredible up there. So, if anyone wants to come then let me know. You can be my little travel buddie.
ET: What message would you like to give to the people of Pakistan?
Zand: Thank you for being so welcoming. Keep encouraging foreigners to come and keep welcoming with open arms. We need a bit more unity in this world and you can be part of it by connecting with the people who think differently from you. Try and understand them as they try and understand you. Good luck for the future – hopefully you can achieve whatever you want to achieve in a more inclusive society. And, try and spend some time visiting areas you’ve heard bad things about, they’re not going to get better if no one’s willing to visit and listen to those who live there – Lyari being a prime example. Finally. I’ll see you soon! I’ll be back. Save some daal for me.