Amy Herdy's Pakistan travel diary, volume five

Categories: Politics

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Amir Mateen, the CEO of Rohi TV, with anchorwoman Asma Shirazi.

Editor's note: Amy Herdy, a former Denver Post and Channel 9 journalist who's currently the advisor for the University of Colorado at Boulder's CUIndependent.com online newspaper, has spent recent weeks in Pakistan under the auspices of the State Department. Her mission: to give students and professional journalists the tools they need to improve the media in their country. Below, find the fifth edition of her travel diary. Click on these links to read the first, second, third and forth, as well as this account of her first visit to the region.

You cannot be in Pakistan and remain unmoved by the human condition.

Thin young children wander in the street, weaving through lanes of careening traffic, rapping on car windows when they stop to try to sell someone inside a strand of jasmine blossoms.

Mothers with pinched faces clutch their infants and simply beg, holding the baby with one arm while using their other hand to touch their mouth and then hold out their palm.

And then there are the two million Pakistanis who have fled their homes in the country's embattled Swat Valley, where the army is fighting to contain armed Islamic extremists. The internal refugees are now desperately trying to survive in makeshift shelters with little food, water or hope.

One clip on television news showed two men locked in a violent struggle over a mattress.

These people are referred to in the media here as "IDPs," which stands for "Internally Displaced Persons." So the coverage ends up sounding something like, "The government is bringing aid to the IDP's..."

The acronym frustrates me. I've brought it up at every workshop these past two weeks.

"Should we be using just three letters to refer to all these people?" I ask everyone. "Isn't it easier to dismiss a human being when they are simply a category -- in this case, an acronym?"

Yet there's much more at stake here than immediate life or death. Many fear the long-term effects of this tragedy will result in more terrorism.

"These children, who experience great pain and hardship now, and the loss of their parents, in 25 years they will turn against us," one Pakistani man told me. "They will not forget. They'll nurture that rage in their hearts."

So, in the workshops, we talk about how to best tell these stories of tragedy and loss, and also the stories of courage and hope, in such a way that people are jolted out of their complacency to care.

I do believe that good journalism, vigorously practiced, can be the catalyst for change. But how do you motivate the journalists who face an endless array of stories dealing with death and destruction to continue? And more critically, how can anyone ask a journalist to cover a story that may get them hurt, imprisoned or killed?

Even for the everyday stories, how do you train them? Since government controls were lifted in 2002, the media industry in Pakistan has mushroomed, and the training and education piece hasn't been able to keep up. There are few schools here in Pakistan that offer a comprehensive journalism program. And there's very little time or money for any sort of professional development.

The issue of economic pressure poses another whole set of problems. In one of the most dangerous and challenging parts of the world in which to work as a journalist, the media here are paid very little.

The average salary for an Urdu print reporter in Pakistan is about $200 a month. Some make as much as $500 a month.

English-speaking journalists can make more -- an average of $500 to $1,000 a month -- because strong command of the English language requires more education. Of course, the broadcast journalists make more. No matter the position, however, very few media outlets offer benefits such as health or life insurance.

This is why, industry leaders tell me, journalists take bribes from those they cover. It is why they often quietly accept plots of land given to them by the government.

Faced with these circumstances, how can journalists in Pakistan do their job properly?

Yet how can foreign media, who are bankrolled and trained better, tell the stories of Pakistan with more passion and feeling than its own people?

And then just like that, the workshops are over, and I have only a small pocket of free time before I must leave Pakistan.

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Huma Ali and Amy Herdy.

On one of my last evenings, the U.S. Embassy's Constance Jones and I are invited to a party in Islamabad thrown by two local media figures: Huma Ali, the head of the Pakistan Federation of Journalists, or union, and Amir Mateen, the CEO of Rohi TV.

The two are roommates, and the party is at the home they share, an open, roomy villa with a large courtyard where the food is cooked and served -- grilled chicken, shrimp and vegetables. The walls inside the house are painted in bright, tropical colors and remind me of Florida.

We arrive shortly after 8:30, and as the evening wears on, about a hundred people mingle in and out. I note that Constance and I are the only two Americans. There is a real international mixture here, mostly Pakistanis but also Italians and Koreans and Cubans.

My work over, I'm more relaxed than I've been in days. It' s very warm out, so I'm wearing a sleeveless tank with my long skirt -- which Constance has told me is perfectly acceptable here.

So when I'm introduced to a Pakistani woman who is identified as being the head of an NGO and she gives me a sharp glance, I briefly wonder why. She's wearing an all-white shalwar kameez. Huma introduces us, calling me, "an American journalist."

A few minutes later, I head to the drink counter to get some soda. I've learned these evenings can last a very long time -- I've been to two dinners that ran for more than five hours each -- and so, early in the evening, I load up on caffeine, another substance my system typically never gets. If drink a few Cokes now, I'll still be energetic after 11 p.m.

The NGO lady follows me as I'm walking back to the quiet corner where Constance, Huma and I have been talking. She's oddly charged, like she's also been drinking a lot of caffeine herself.

"So Amy, I want to ask you a few questions," she says with a pleasant tone, but as I turn to face her, I notice that her eyes are hard.

After regarding Constance and Huma, she suddenly leaves.

A few minutes later, I'm headed back to the drink room for more soda when I see her again. "So, you had a question?" I ask her as I pour.

"No, not anymore," she says to me, a glint in her eye. "I found out you are from the State Department."

"No, I'm not 'from' the State Department," I say to her. "I'm a journalist and I also teach. I'm from Colorado."

"Yet the State Department brought you here, yes?" she says.

"Yes, they did," I tell her, "to teach journalism workshops."

Her face darkens. "I HATE the State Department," she says to me with fury, and now I understand what is behind her revved-up demeanor. It's hate.

"I HATE Americans," she yells, waving a clenched fist in my face. "You need to leave our country, leave us alone! Our journalists do not need you to teach them anything!"

"Not according to them," I retort, ignoring the waved fist. One of the first things you learn as a journalist is that some people will hate you simply because of the profession. Or they'll hate you for the stories you do. Being directly hated for my nationality was a new one for me, but facing someone who was full of anger was not. Still, it's never easy.

"I've talked to many journalists here, and they all tell me they are in desperate need of skills training that has not been available to them," I tell her.

But I'm only midway through when she interrupts me. "I HATE Americans, HATE Americans!" she says with passion as I continue to finish, glaring at me. "I will not talk with you!"

"Of course you won't," I tell her, my frustration rising. "Because to truly talk with someone, that means you also have to listen, and clearly you're not capable."

I turn and walk away. A few minutes later, I'm standing with a small group in the middle of the next room when someone walks past and gives my left elbow a hard upward shove as they do so. It's NGO Lady, as I have now dubbed her, and she stalks away, her back stiff. I shake my head.

It's an amazing party. A photographer circulates like a buzzing bee, snapping so many shots that the pop of his flash becomes common. Some of the photos will later end up in the newspaper, I'm told.

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Constance Jones, Amy Herdy and Express TV's Quatrina Hosain.

I've been watching Quatrina Hosain, Constance's friend and the director of current affairs at Express TV, as she greets people. To some, she offers a hand to shake. For others, she will briefly cup her hand to her face and then gesture it toward them, never extending her hand very far.

Why the difference? I ask her.

"I only shake hands with someone I know and consider a friend," Quatrina, who is Pakistani, tells me. "Everyone else, I will give the gesture which means hello, but I will not extend my hand -- it's too personal. And Pakistani men will not offer their hand to a woman first. They will wait and see what she prefers," she explains.

I've also noticed the men offer a gesture where they lay their hand on their heart during a greeting. It's a sign of respect or caring, Quatrina tells me, and is a gesture only the men will make.

We mingle on.

After a while, I'm starting to get hungry, so I follow one of the wait staff carrying food to a room where the walls are bathed in a tangerine color. I take a seat on a couch so that I can balance my plate as I eat.

Next to me is a Pakistani man who specializes in textiles, and when he finds out I'm an American, he tells me that he tries to do business in America, but it's hard.

In order to respond to his client's ever changing needs, he needs to have more of a presence in New York, he tells me. But he can't afford to keep a warehouse there. And the Americans are too afraid to come to Pakistan for meetings and to view his products.

To top it off, there are heavy export taxes that are draining him, he said. And the monetary support that businessmen like him are sometimes offered does not help, he said. "I don't want a handout," he told me. "I want to be able to run my business in a competitive way."

As we talk, there is a woman wearing a blue tunic with what resembles a matching blue bandana wrapped around her hair, listening intently.

"You are American?" she calls to me from across the room, and I nod. " Why are you here?"

"I'm a journalist, and I was teaching journalism workshops on advanced interviewing techniques and trauma reporting," I said.

"What about our nation that is traumatized because of the U.S.?" she asks me, and I'm not sure that I heard her correctly, so I lean forward.

"Traumatized?" I ask, and she nods, and the woman next to her looks at me with disdain. "Paralyzed," that woman says with contempt. "Paralyzed by the U.S."

"How do you tell the story of our traumatized nation?" Blue Bandana challenges even as she turns away to talk to Paralyzed Comment Lady. "You can't."

I shrug as I disagree. "Sure, you can," I say to the air in general, and at that, Blue Bandana turns and regards me with interest.

"How so?" she asks, and pats the seat of a plush red velvet bench near her.

Why not, I think, so I walk over and sit next to her. "If you want to tell the story of a nations' trauma," I tell her, "then do it through the individual stories of its people."

She shakes her head. "It will not make a difference," she says.

"It can," I reply. "I've seen it happen, many times. I've seen stories that bring about change. And not just in the U.S.," I counter. "When Musharraf imposed martial law in Pakistan in 2007, the media's reporting of the public outcry played a large role in it being lifted."

The woman I now think of as Paralyzed Comment Lady talks to Blue Bandana as if I were not there. "Why do you talk to the American?" she asks her.

But Blue Bandana does. Her name is Fatima, she tells me, and she is a member of the communist party in Pakistan, made up of workers and peasants.

"The U.S. is guilty of imperialism," she tells me. "Pakistan doesn't need American interference."

"What about the U.S. aid for the displaced persons from Swat -- what about that kind of interference?" I ask her.

"We don't need your help," she tells me.

"So would you let them suffer?" I ask her. "Because they have been for weeks now, and Pakistan has not been able to meet all of their needs without help."

"We don't need U.S. help. It's interference, it's imperialism," she tells me again.

"But you didn't answer my question," I tell her. "What about the children who will starve, or the ones who are sick and can't get medicine? Do you let them die because you don't want help from the U.S.?"

"When we had the earthquake in 2005, we didn't need your help," she tells me.

"And there have been many disasters since then," I say to her. "Earthquakes, and bombings. There is only so much catastrophe one country can manage on its own."

"Besides," I say to her as I lean toward her intently, "you still didn't answer my question. Do you let them die to make your point?"

"So now you are a reporter?" she asks me, sitting up and watching me carefully.

"I'm always a reporter," I tell her, and then I give her a friendly smile to show I mean no harm.

She pulls out a cigarette. "Do you smoke?" she asks me as she lights up, and I tell her no.

"Most Americans don't smoke," she says to me, ""but many of us here do."

"I'm from Boulder, Colorado, where there are lots of mountains," I tell her, trying to make friendly conversation. "People there like to do things outdoors, so they don't smoke. There are even many professional athletes who train there because of the altitude."

"Are you an athlete?" she asks me.

I shake my head no. "Oh no, not like them. I just run for fun."

"And what is the most distance you have ever run?" she asks.

"A marathon, so 26 miles," I tell her.

"You ran 26 miles?" she asks me in disbelief, and when I tell her that I' ve run seven marathons, it's the first time in the conversation that she regards me with something other than contempt.

Then Paralyzed Comment Lady, who has been sitting quietly, speaks again. "No more from the American," she says to Fatima, and then says something to her in Spanish. Two Cubans have sat near us on another couch, listening intently.

"Do you speak Spanish?" Fatima asks me, and as I shake my head no, the respect in her eyes quickly vanishes. You stupid, imperialist American, her look tells me, you don't even speak other languages. She turns away and starts talking to the Cubans in Spanish.

Then NGO Lady walks into the room and sits near us. She shoots me a challenging look, but I'm done. The Orange Room has now become North Korea, so I leave.

Feeling rebuffed, I wander back outside. Constance is deep in conversation with two Italians. I find an unopened bottle of water to drink and begin to type the notes from all these conversations into my Blackberry. I try to send some e-mails to friends and family back home, but for some reason they won't go through. My inbox is empty -- no new messages of cheer or love. People I care about are starting their day even as I'm ending mine. I miss them.

I've been here for nearly two weeks now, and for the first time, I feel a pang of homesickness.

And then I hear it: the unmistakably cheerful high piping of a flute. Music has been playing all evening, but this song has a striking familiarity for me. Could it be...

It is: It's "The Hustle." Suddenly I'm in seventh grade and somebody's mom is giving our class dancing lessons after school. We fold up the metal chairs in the cafeteria and line up wearing our flared jeans and do "The Hustle" over and over again.

That twelve-year-old girl inside me still loves to dance.

I move quickly, following the song. Oh, no, it's coming from the Orange Room, my North Korea of the party. I stand in the doorway, hesitating, and then friendly Quatrina catches sight of me.

"Amy!" she greets me gleefully. "Do you know to do 'The Hustle?'"

Do I ever. So does she. And Quatrina and I start dancing in the middle of the room. Soon, Constance joins us, and we're all doing the disco step, step, step, step and laughing. More people begin to dance. We play "The Hustle" again.

Then the song fades and we all stand still, listening for what will play next. It starts with a slow strain, and the female voice is also suddenly very familiar. Quatrina and I recognize it at the same time. We look at each and shriek like a couple of teenage girls, then grab imaginary microphones, put our heads together, and dramatically sing the lyrics.

"First, when there's nothing but a slow glowing dream

That your fear seems to hide deep inside your mind

All alone I have cried silent tears full of pride

In a world made of steel, made of stone...."

The beat picks up. It's "Flashdance," the theme song from the movie of the same name, and now we're Jennifer Beals, bopping around the room, determined to make our dreams come true against the odds.

"Well I hear the music, close my eyes, feel the rhythm

Wrap around, take a hold of my heart"

The music's loud, so we scream the chorus.

"What a feeling/Bein's believin'

I can't have it all, now I'm dancin' for my life

Take your passion, and make it happen

Pictures come alive, you can dance right through your life"

Fatima, Paralyzed Comment Lady and NGO Lady are still sitting against the wall, and from time to time, I notice them shooting disdainful looks in my direction. The Cubans, however, have jumped up and are dancing.

Then "Flashdance" ends, and as the dramatic keyboard notes of the next song begin, once again, Quatrina and I clutch each other and scream.

It's "I Will Survive." Once again, we grab our imaginary microphones.

"At first I was afraid, I was petrified

Kept thinkin' I could never live without you by my side...."

And when we get to the middle of the chorus, I turn to directly face my unfriendly audience, who are all smoking and brooding. I grin in mischief as I point right at them and sing as loudly as I can:

"Weren't you the one who tried to break me with goodbye/ did you think I'd crumble?

Did you think I'd lay down and die? Oh no, not I/I will survive

For as long as I know how to love, I know I'll stay alive

I've got all my life to live, I've got all my love to give

I will survive. I will survive! Hey, hey!"

The room is soon packed, and the music plays on. A bevy of what they call Hindi filmi music is next, all with pulsing beats. There is one song that causes Quatrina to wrinkle her nose, "Yuck, I hate that song," she says, and since I'm closest, I lean down to change it. Suddenly there's a hand on my arm. It's Fatima.

"No imperialism, no imperialism!" she says to me, but her face is as earnest as it could be, so I laugh and pat her reassuringly.

"It's okay," I tell her, "Quatrina hates the song and asked me to change it."

And then everybody is dancing, including Fatima, Paralyzed Comment Lady, even NGO Lady. We move around each other, clap and wave our hands in the air.

All too soon, it's time to go. Quatrina is giving Constance and I a ride home, and she needs to leave.

I go to thank one of the hosts, and then step back inside the Orange Room. I don't know why, but I want to say goodbye to Fatima.

She's still dancing, and is actually in mid-whirl when I touch her arm from behind. She turns to face me and says my name in recognition: "Amy!"

I simply stand in front of her, my arms at my sides, at a sudden loss for words. What do I say? "Hey, just wanted to tell you goodbye, have a nice life, hope you don't hate all Americans so much, some of us really do try..."? It all sounds ridiculous, so I say nothing.

And suddenly she offers her hand. I take it and smile, she smiles back, and we shake while she says one word with a small tip of her head.

"Pleasure."


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