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Qureshi's commitment to his country and his art was impressive, and so was his apparently sturdy faith in Punjab's civility and resilience. On the other hand, perhaps he was simply in denial.

If geography is destiny, there are few better examples than Punjab. Wedged between Central Asia and the subcontinent, the region was squarely in the path of invaders—Macedonians, Turks, Mongols, Persians, Afghans—as well as trade caravans traveling between the subcontinent and points west. Lahore became the capital of a succession of imperial dynasties, and a focal point of surprising diversity. In the late 16th century, the Mogul emperor Akbar infuriated orthodox Muslims by flirting with Hinduism and Christianity. The Sikhs who later ran the city and its environs paid for the upkeep of mosques and Hindu temples, along with their own gur­dwaras. The British added universities and stone churches, and Punjabis learned to love cricket and the queen's English, if not the queen herself.

All was torn asunder by the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947. Punjab was the richest and most bitterly contested prize, and the largest share, an area the size of Wyoming, was awarded to Pakistan amid a spasm of communal bloodletting that killed up to a million people. Five million Hindus and Sikhs fled to India, and eight million Muslims streamed the other way.

Punjab now accounts for almost 60 percent of Pakistan's economy and is slightly more populous than Germany, with about 90 million of Pakistan's 173 million people. In terms of income it is roughly on a par with Sindh, which includes the sprawling financial and industrial capital of Karachi.

The national capital was shifted from Karachi to newly built Islamabad, near the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, in 1967. But Lahore, a frenetic and timeworn city of eight million, is arguably Pakistan's cultural capital and a living expression of the history of its people.

Like the students at the arts college, the young men who attend Aitchison College, an exclusive boys' school founded by the British in 1886, reflect many of the contradictions of modern Pakistan. The boys wear blazers stitched with the Aitchison crest ("Perseverance Commands Success") and every day at sunset stand at attention in front of their dorms as the school flag is lowered to a bugler's squeaky rendition of the "Last Post."

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