Dizzy in Karachi

I first learned of Maliha Masood’s work while editing Best Women’s Travel Writing back in 2010. Tim Leffel of Perceptive Travel nominated her return-to-motherland essay “Breaking Frontiers” for the anthology, and it deeply resonated within me. Having left her native Pakistan for the United States as a teenager, she too understands the complexities of identity. So I am happy to announce the publication of her new book, Dizzy in Karachi: A Journey to Pakistan, just out with the Seattle house Booktrope. It recounts her return to Pakistan after landing a summer internship in Islamabad. 9631918_orig

Tell us the story behind the title of your book.

The title is a play on words. Dizzy has a dual meaning. It refers to Dizzy Gillespie, who performed in Karachi back in 1956. The concert was a huge success and nurtured an entire generation of Pakistanis who were influenced by American pop culture, my father among them. He was a major jazz buff while growing up in Pakistan. Then one day, out of the blue, my dad talked about seeing Dizzy’s concert. He talked about the mad rush for tickets, the impromptu jam session and Dizzy’s signature trumpet with the bent bell.  So the reference to Dizzy is both the musician as well as the disorientation of going back home and finding it utterly beyond recognition. I was born in Karachi and spent my childhood there. I went back for the first time after twenty one years with the idea of rediscovering my homeland. What I found was a strange mix of the familiar and the foreign. The changes were enormous. And along with all those changes were so many contradictions. Pakistan is full of extremes. It can make your head spin.

What specifically compelled you to write the book?

I couldn’t get over the fact that my father had seen Dizzy Gillespie in a country that we associate with the Taliban. Something had to have gone horribly wrong between then and now. I wanted to find out how Pakistan evolved from this period of cultural sophistication during the 1950s to a spawning ground for terrorism and violence in our current day and age. So I started doing some research at my local public library and I learned that Dizzy’s concert was sponsored by the State Department during Eisenhower’s administration to foster cultural diplomacy. They used the power of music as a foreign policy tool and Pakistan was on the touring list for American jazz artists. Not just Dizzy Gillespie. But also Dave Brubeck and The Duke Ellington Band. I found all this very intriguing. It made me realize that there’s so much more to Pakistan than what we hear about on the evening news. You can’t understand the entire country based on the latest horror story in the papers. I wanted to provide another perspective, one that emphasizes the positive over the negative. Not to erase the negative imagery, but to add another element to the puzzle, one that we don’t often hear about or even know exists. So I decided to merge some history and culture with my travel adventures and put it all into writing. I knew there was a story to tell and it was too good to keep entirely to myself. That’s why I write. Not out of love, but out of necessity. It took seven years to figure out what form and shape this story would take. I struggled with the writing and kept hacking away until it all came together.

Tell us about your road to publication.

Once I had the manuscript in one piece, I started sending it out to agents and publishers. I got one rejection after another. I don’t think it was just a critique of my writing, which is hardly high brow literature. I think people were leery of reading something positive about Pakistan. They wanted something they were familiar with like the horror stories. I was pushing boundaries and that can be uncomfortable. I nearly gave up on this project and then I went to a local book fair and came across a small press based out of Seattle where I live. They got it right away. There are not many travel books on Pakistan. In fact, we don’t even use the words travel and Pakistan in the same sentence. I’m trying to change that perception. Dizzy in Karachi is part travelogue, part memoir and part country analysis. It’s a much broader perspective so you get to see many different angles on Pakistan. And it’s not just about the country. The bigger themes are much more universal, like cultural identity and belonging and the meaning of home. 7436047

Would you travel to Pakistan today?

Yes and no. I say yes because the country is at a very interesting place and there’s so much going on that’s new and exciting. Elections are coming up and Pakistan has passed a historical milestone in maintaining a civilian government for five years without military intervention. There’s also so much happening from a cultural standpoint. There’s a very strong independent media within Pakistan and they’re quite outspoken and critical of the status quo. I still find it amazing that a conservative Muslim country like Pakistan can air a talk show with a transvestite host! And there is a major fashion scene in the cities with catwalks and stunning models who happen to be Muslim women. I like all this edgy stuff. It blurs the lines between tradition and modernity. But still there are so many challenges to overcome. It’s a lot more dangerous now than when I visited ten years ago, which is why I wouldn’t want to go back today. I was very lucky in that I took so many chances and came away unscathed from the Khyber Pass and the North West Frontier province which is considered the heartland of religious extremism and militancy. I’m not sure I would be so lucky if I were to go back today. And I wouldn’t want to tarnish the memories from that first eye opening trip. The places I went to and the people I met made such a huge impression on me. I was taken in by utter strangers and made to feel home. It was incredible. I don’t think I could have that kind of luck twice. I saw so much of the country that you never hear about and it was the adventure of a lifetime. You can’t repeat that. It only happens once.

What was it like traveling alone as a woman there?

I didn’t really find it too difficult since I had done quite a bit of traveling in the Middle East. My first book, Zaatar Days, Henna Nights is about my adventures backpacking Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. Mostly solo. I did this almost as a dare, something I had to prove to myself. I knew it would be difficult and that’s why I did it. Pakistan was different. You were considered insane if you insisted on traveling alone as a woman. People thought I didn’t know any better even though I was well aware of the risks. But just like going to the Mideast, I was determined to travel somewhere difficult. I thought Pakistan would be more comfortable turf because it was home, but strangely enough it was not. Pakistan doesn’t have the infrastructure that’s friendly to independent travel. There are no subways in the cities. No decent public transportation. You can try the public buses but there’s no such thing as timetables and schedules. It’s hard to travel alone in Pakistan for anyone, regardless of gender. You need friends and contacts to open doors. I didn’t have much in the way of contacts, but I met people through my job and one thing led to another. When people learned I was not just Pakistani but also American, they were a lot more open and friendly. I got the VIP treatment. They admire you in a sense for taking to the road and being adventurous. But they also consider you a bit of a loony. I got used to it. I knew I wasn’t breaking the law by traveling solo. Just breaking stereotypes. And I’m all about that.

What surprised you about Pakistan?

How urban it is. We tend to perceive Pakistan as this desert backwater land with mountains and jungles, but so much of the country is big cities, crowds, pollution, traffic jams. It’s also very commercialized. There are so many shops and things to buy from textiles to shoes and amazing handicrafts at bargain basement prices. In the bigger cities, you’ll find a strip mall at just about every traffic roundabout. And food. You can always find something to eat at all hours of day or night. The choices are endless from fancy air conditioned restaurants to street vendors and even burger joints. I loved shopping in Pakistan. The selection and prices are some of the best I’ve seen anywhere in the world.

Any frustrations?

The complacency. Pakistanis love to complain but they don’t want to lift their finger and do something about the problem!  It’s part of the national psyche, this whiny culture. And it drives me nuts. It’s probably because I’ve become too Americanized. I’ve gotten used to rolling up my sleeves and dealing with issues head on. But in Pakistan, this kind of attitude is not the norm. They would just laugh and say nothing ever changes and there’s no need to make a fuss and you just have to live with it. So there’s a kind of fatalistic mentality and I find it difficult to accept. Karaachites are somewhat better. Their complaints have a hint of hopefulness. And they have taken some action. Like with the Orangi Project, one of the world’s biggest development programs to revitalize urban slums. They got running water, computer, basic health care and they did it all without the help of the government. But then there are things you simply cannot fight, like power cuts. It happens routinely and I still remember growing up in Karachi and doing homework by candlelight because of bijli failure. This is still a major problem. It’s not just terrorism and violence. It’s practical stuff like losing electricity in peak summer for up to 18 hours a day.

What was your favorite place?

The Northern Areas. Hunza. The remote mountainous region of Pakistan often referred to as the rooftop of the world. I traveled there by Winnebago on a fabulous road, the Karakoram Highway, which is considered the eighth wonder of the world. It’s an amazing road, literally carved out of the mountains and connecting Pakistan to China. I went there in the company of real life princes and princesses. It was like something out a movie. And the characters I met were very charismatic. One in particular was my guide, Adam. He was my sole companion on a two week trekking trip in a remote wilderness. So much could have gone wrong. I had some mishaps, but I also had the time of my life. You can read about both in the book!

What did this trip teach you?

It’s a cliché but it’s really true: Home is where the heart is. I had traveled all this way to Pakistan hoping to find a sense of home but it wasn’t there. I had it all along in Seattle where I spent my formative years. It has shaped me and made me the person I am today. I learned that home doesn’t have to be a single entity. It can be many different places. And I felt most at home where I was a stranger among strangers. I guess that’s the immigrant’s perspective. To belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

What are your predictions for the future of Pakistan?

The country has so much potential. And so many setbacks. I think it’s a very delicate balancing act. There will be a national election on May 11 when the civilian government will hand over power to another democratically elected party. But having elections is not enough. Pakistan needs solutions to its rising unemployment. No one wants to invest in a country with a major security threat. On the foreign policy front, the US keeps criticizing Pakistan for not doing enough to curb violence especially along the porous Afghan border. Pakistan already has its resources stretched, and I think this will be an ongoing dilemma. The military needs to be less involved, but it’s also a stabilizing force. As for religion, Pakistan has never been able to reconcile the tension points between Islam and the West, but it was never meant to be this puritanical. The founding principle was that of a secular nation with religion as a private concern. Pakistan would be a lot better off by realigning itself to this original vision and I’m not very optimistic that would ever happen. But I do think Pakistan needs to be less reactionary and more inclusive when it comes to building ties with the West. We have to start a new dialogue, one that emphasizes the positive over the negative. I would like to think that Dizzy in Karachi is one those contributions. There needs to be more. A lot more.