Coming back to Pakistan after 10 years, what struck me again and again was how little had changed—indeed, the whole country seemed to have been preserved in a rather gritty aspic. This was a feeling shared by colleagues who had also not returned during that period—and while this timelessness has its charms, it also has enormous dangers. Development in the "developing world" may well be of a thoroughly ambiguous kind, but elsewhere in Asia change of one sort or another is at least visibly occurring. The failure of successive civilian and military governments to develop Pakistan is a greater long-term threat to the country than anything the US can do, and it is this which in the end gives the islamists their prestige in an increasingly despairing society.
And if Pakistanis can at least congratulate themselves on having escaped the catastrophes which have befallen Afghanistan to the West, the view to the East is positively alarming. India may not be about to join the Asian tigers, but its economy in recent years has been growing at many times the rate of Pakistan's—on the basis of a population which is seven times Pakistan's. This suggests that if Pakistan goes on trying to compete with India militarily, it will sooner or later share the fate of the Soviet Union and spend itself into the ground. Hence in part the near-universal insistence on the need for nuclear weapons as a security guarantee of last resort, which will supposedly save Pakistan from ever having to fight to the death against overwhelming odds.
Twelve years after the death of General Zia-ul-Haq, the military are once again in power. The general in charge is different, but with a couple of high level exceptions, the politicians who are seeking to share that power are the same ones. So too for that matter are most of the reliable local journalists and pundits—if only because when their families can afford it, so many educated and dynamic youths head straight to Western universities as soon as they have finished high school, and never come back; so the local intelligentsia—already very limited in numbers—is not being replenished at anything like an adequate rate.
For me and the other returnees, this changelessness was comforting, as if we had somehow cheated time. It was also very convenient that the old contacts book was still entirely valid, and old friends remain not only old friends but valuable sources. Most of us have got fatter, some of us thinner, but most of us are still walking around. The good hotels remain good in the same old way, the bad ones bad in the same old way. The theme from Doctor Zhivago still tinkles in the lifts and the restaurants.
But these are the whimsies of a visitor. If you are a Pakistani, this lack of change is considerably less comforting. For one thing that has not remained static in Pakistan has been the population, which has gone up by another twenty million or so over the past decade (it is difficult to say by exactly how much for there has been no census in this period). The continuing high birth rate (official figures say that this has come down to 2.3 per cent, but NGOs dispute this and say that it is still closer to a disastrous three per cent) owes much to the acute lack of education, and especially of course female education. Birth control is also enormously hampered by both old local conservatism and new islamist radicalism—though like their catholic equivalents, the islamists have never bothered to notice that the Koran, like the Bible, says nothing on this subject. Meanwhile there are few new jobs for the millions of youths who pour onto the market, for the economy has been stagnant for years.
My first thought on seeing the downtown areas of Peshawar and Lahore was that my age was beginning to tell; so that what had seemed a romantic, fascinating anarchy on my first visit now seemed a pullulating, choking chaos. Well, age may be part of it. But everyone is agreed that as millions of new births, and millions of new migrants have flooded into the cities over the past decades, they have indeed become even more crowded, even less manageable, and even dirtier—on that, the air pollution statistics tell their own story. In the entirely foreseeable future, Pakistan will face a water crisis—and if some of the more pessimistic scenarios for global warming come true, this could become a disaster which will destroy the country.
Even the Moghul monuments of Lahore, the architectural glories of the country, are crumbling away from neglect, under-spending, pollution and the brutish behaviour of the local population. Everything in the inner cities is greyish yellow: the air, the dust, the concrete and brick of the houses, whether one-storey shacks lining the outer roads, or the fantastically heaped tenements of the inner cities. In the poor districts, the last mud houses of the cities seem to melt imperceptibly into the yellow-grey earth of the countryside. The smog produces fantastically-hued sunsets, and a full moon really does look like an enormous yellow cheese, many times its usual size.
Through this haze loom the fantastically-decorated lorries and buses, with the great peaked wooden roves overhanging the cabs, like war chariots of the ancient world which had somehow acquired engines and horns. In Pakistan the gods and goddesses of India are replaced by film stars and pastoral scenes on the painted panels, but the effect is the same, as are the various tassels and banners to ward off the various forms of the evil eye. In this monochrome visual wilderness, any splash of colour is refreshing.
And through all this the rich, the powerful, and the Westerners cruise softly in their air-conditioned, tinted-glass vehicles like ghosts, moving in a different dimension and breathing a different air from the human masses all around. This dream-like feeling of separation, of unreality was accentuated by the way my driver seemed to glide through the traffic as if it was indeed insubstantial—whereas at a rough count, if I had been driving myself in Lahore I would have killed or seriously injured 18 people, two horses, two donkeys and a camel. Five lives would have been lost at one go, when a man on a scooter positively festooned with infants crossed sharply across our nose at an intersection. My driver didn't turn a hair.
So you want your dream to go on, and try not to think too much about what lies beyond it, and whether it is really a healthy dream. But if the Pakistani elites don't wake from their own dreams and start working seriously and honestly to reform their country, and if they do not receive enormous help from the West, then even their rosy dreams are sooner or later going to turn into nightmares.