Like it or not, we live in interesting times. There is danger and uncertainty; but we are also living through one of the most creative periods in the history of mankind. My recent visit to Pakistan certainly proved this point.
My itinerary was disrupted by the escalation of tensions between two nuclear neighbours.
The main purpose of my visit was to promote Worcester and to meet the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, an ex-Worcester Grammar School pupil and Worcestershire County Cricket Club player. I had messages and letters from auctioneer Phillip Serrell, RGS Worcester and the County Cricket Club to deliver to the PM, as well as good wishes from the city. Unfortunately, the threat of war meant I was not able to meet him, but I delivered the letters to the British High Commission in Islamabad instead.
My tour started off with a visit to see the Mayor of the Gujranwala, Sheikh Sarwat Ikram. Gujranwala is the city of my birth and is known for its culinary delights as well as the city of Pahelwans – roughly translated as wrestlers!
A grand traditional welcome awaited me and I addressed the city council and members of the chamber of commerce. I was awarded the Mace of Wrestlers and a traditional Punjabi head dress known as a Kula!
I then went on to Lahore to meet the Mayor, retCol Mubasher Javed, at the iconic city hall building on the Mall Road – a beautiful legacy from the British colonial era. We talked about improving relations and friendship between our cities and exploring any opportunities that may arise after Brexit.
This was followed by a visit to the capital, Islamabad, where I saw the Minister for Kashmir, Mr Amin Gandapur. This was a real bonus; we discussed issues affecting the overseas Kashmiri population, of which there is a small community here in Worcester.
Naturally the conversation led to the crisis in Kashmir and the right to self- determination for the Kashmiri population – an issue that is a thorn in the side of the world’s conscience and one that needs to be addressed if we are truly interested in peace in the region.
Next up was a visit to the Islamabad Press Club where I saw a tribute to murdered journalists around the world. Pakistan’s press is remarkably free and liberal and not at the mercy of state control or political influence. However the threat and fear of violence is very real, and many have died delivering the truth. I paid my respects and delivered a short speech on press freedom, fake news, neutrality and ethics.
A four-hour drive to Mirpur Azad in Kashmir was the highlight of the trip; the beautiful scenery, winding roads, lakes and mountains are all visons of a paradise on earth.
During the drive I got a call from a friend who also lives in Worcester who happened to be visiting his mum in the village of Nakyal. He spoke in a worried voice, saying there had been firing and shelling overnight and they’d had to evacuate the women and children in the village to safer ground.
The reality of the situation began to sink in and I felt some fear. The Government announced that air space was to close due to the imminent threat of war. I calmed my nerves by thinking about my family back home. I reassured myself that PM Imran Khan is a capable and diplomatic leader who does not want war – especially not a nuclear war.
As we arrived in Mirpur, the gateway to Kashmir, I noticed an extremely large billboard in the distance with a vaguely familiar figure on it. As we got closer I saw to my surprise that the Mirpur Municipal Corporation had commissioned the poster with my picture on it to welcome me to the city! I was naturally gobsmacked. One thing I have learned about Pakistani culture it is that they don’t do things by half, and they certainly lived up to that reputation.
A meeting with the CEO and cabinet of the corporation resulted in an interesting discussion around recycling and waste management. The city is roughly the size of Worcester and has a population of around 150,000.
Arriving back in my home village, I met with local Christians and admired the native population’s effort to help this community to build a church tower. With intense poverty and homelessness in large parts of the country and land prices doubling every three to five years, the contrast between the rich and the poor is self-evident. For many, faith in God sees them through their daily existence.
I always say that, despite the chaotic driving, state of its infrastructure and poverty, Pakistan is a country of miracles, great natural resources and beauty. Its people are passionate, innovative and entrepreneurial; they always find a way.