By GIRLWITHABOOK Co-Founder, Lena Shareef
Going to Pakistan was nothing new for me. I used to live there when I was younger and I travel there almost every year (usually to attend a wedding) since I moved away. But never before have I ever traveled to Pakistan with white people. I’ve never even seen a white person in Pakistan before. This was all going through my mind as we sat, two white women and a brown one, at the Dubai airport waiting for our flight to Karachi, Pakistan.
I have never felt nervous while traveling to the homeland. Growing up, I remember friends or classmates always asking me, “But is it safe?” whenever I told them where I was going for summer vacation. At first I would respond with reassurances saying of course it was safe. Later in high school, I would joke around and reply, “Well, it’s safe for me,” implying that I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb in Pakistan. I wasn’t considered a minority there. At least not based on the color of my skin.
But as we sat at our gate waiting for our flight to board, I started feeling nervous. Not for myself, but for my friends. I knew they were excited to go, but I also knew they must be feeling at least a tiny bit nervous. It certainly wasn’t visible to me, but how could they not? No matter how much I tried to prepare them, describing the look and feel of Karachi (our first stop), what the people are like, Pakistani etiquette, the clothes, the food, everything, nothing was going to change the fact that they were going to stick out. That could get a lot of stares or comments from people passing us in the street. Even people commenting to their face. It also doesn’t help that on a political level, Pakistan and the U.S. don’t have the best relationship all the time. So yeah. I was nervous about the reaction we would get from friends and strangers alike.
Our plane landed in Karachi just a little past midnight. We were staying at the home of one of my father’s best friends and his wife for about ten days. I know we made the decision to start in Karachi out of purely logistical reasons. That’s the city I know best, it’s where almost all my family and friends are, we have the most solid contacts there. Even aside from all the logistical benefits, it was the best decision we made.
Jen and Olivia’s first introduction to Pakistan was in someone’s home, where we slept in super comfy beds, ate incredible home-cooked food, and finally had the chance to do our laundry. They got to meet my cousins, who took us to different cafes and restaurants where we could all hang out. And of course from a work perspective, Karachi was the best place to start our month-long journey in Pakistan. Our hosts took us to a wide range of schools and colleges throughout the city. We got to see it all, from Karachi Grammar School, known to be one of the most prestigious private schools in the city, to schools placed smack dab in the middle of Machar Colony, a slum in the city that holds close to 700,000 people.
Every Pakistani we came across, whether it was a family member or someone working at one of the schools we visited, I could see that they all wanted to show Jen and Olivia another side to Pakistan. They wanted to show the true beauty, because they knew that all we see on TV in America is the ugly, the oppressed, the helpless, and the weak when it comes to Pakistan. At times, I would even get defensive. I didn’t want my friends to pass judgement on the country or its people like they were just another culture from some third world country. It was unfair for me to think they would act like that, but I just really wanted them to see beyond the surface.
I thought I would be spending a lot of my time in Pakistan trying to either protect my friends or explain to them the harsher qualities of the country. After all, it took me years to love Karachi itself for what it is, the good and the bad. But of course, my friends didn’t need any of that. Instead, I realized that traveling to Pakistan with two white women changed a lot of my own notions about the place. I am so grateful to my family and our hosts for showing my friends the awesomeness that is Karachi, because it really did make the rest of our time in Pakistan all the better. And I am so humbled by the girls we met in all the schools who made us laugh and cry, and challenged our way of thinking by simply opening up to us and telling their stories.
I used to think that if I didn’t have any family there (a.k.a. any obligation to attend a wedding), then I probably would never visit Pakistan. But after this trip, I know that my bonds to the country are now deeper than that. As long as I have the means and the health, I will always come back.