Published: September 2007
Don Belt

Best

The best moments in Pakistan, for me, were spent with ordinary people doing extraordinary things—a young woman like Maria Butt, bravely participating in the Lahore Marathon to show that she's not intimidated by religious hard-liners, who'd declared the marathon un-Islamic (since women would be competing) and urged their followers to attack the runners; bright-faced young volunteers from the fishing village of Mubarak west of Karachi, where the local public school, underfunded and neglected by the government, is being taught by village kids whose main qualification is that they completed the eighth grade; environmental activists like Sharmeen Tariq of Lahore, who works to enact emission standards and raise public consciousness to fight the pollution that is choking her beloved country. These Pakistanis inspire me. They are battling incredible odds—theirs is a poor and beleaguered country, where anyone might be forgiven for turning cynical, or throwing up his or her hands in frustration. But these people are doing their best to make Pakistan, and the world, a better place for their children and grandchildren.

Worst

One morning I met with militant leaders of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, including firebrands from the girls' madrassa next door who'd recently taken over a children's library to protest against Pakistan's government and push their demand for sharia law. As I interviewed the girls, whose faces, including their eyes, were concealed behind black veils, we were surrounded by other women brandishing weapons—long wooden staffs—and lean young jihadists from the mosque next door, who were armed with axes and automatic rifles against an attack by the government forces who'd surrounded the mosque complex. They expected the assault to begin at any minute. The low point, for me, came when the girls led me on a tour of the occupied library. After stripping the library of all books deemed un-Islamic, they'd packed every room of the building with human shields—girls from the madrassa, many of whom couldn't have been more than ten or eleven years old. Seeing those scared little girls, the children of poor families who'd sent their kids here not to wage holy war but simply to learn to read and write, I realized how far the militants were willing to go to make their point—and how little regard they had for innocent life. Last month, the government finally stormed the Red Mosque, the occupied library, and the girls madrassa, killing more than a hundred militants and an unknown number of students in the process.

Quirkiest

As photographer Reza and I explored the crowded streets of Lahore's Diamond City one Sunday afternoon, a young guy in a funky feathered hat and multicolored cape walked by leading a black dog, a white goat, and a monkey in a little circus outfit. From his clownish dress—and his colorfully adorned animals—it was clear he was some kind of a street performer. When he and his entourage ducked down a tiny side alley, we followed. We caught up with them at the box office of a back-alley movie theater, which was showing a pirated Bollywood gangster flick. The performer paid his money, entered the darkened theater, and set himself and his animals up in a row of rickety seats near the front. I asked the 70-year-old bearded guy collecting tickets at the door whether bringing livestock and trained monkeys into movie theaters was prohibited in Lahore. "Of course not," he said, looking at me as if I were nuts. "Animals need to be entertained as much as we do." Reza and I watched the movie for a while from the aisle. When we left, the street performer and his monkey were engrossed in the show, and the dog and the goat were asleep. The rest of the audience still hadn't given them a second glance.