At the very last moment, as my trip is winding down, the office of Constance Jones, Cultural Attaché at the US Embassy in Islamabad, sets up a visit for me at Government College University in Lahore and Fatima Jinnah Women’s University in Rawalpindi. It’s difficult to capture everything that happens in the 36 hours after I leave Karachi for Lahore to the next night when I return to Karachi from Islamabad. In the discussions that ensue on both campuses that I visit, conversation rotates from questions about why Pakistani writers produce work in English, a writer’s responsibility, why writers pick certain subjects, and the politics of language in Pakistan. It’s exciting to see so much student enthusiasm about literature – and writing.
Mixed into the talks and readings are encounters with friends from different times in my life. At Government College, Fatemeh, a friend from school in Karachi (who now teaches in Lahore) appears, as does a friend from Houston, Shaista, who has recently moved to Lahore. In Islamabad, I see Tasneem Ahmar and Zaffar Abbas, old friends from The Star, and Quatrina Hussain, a friend from college.
And in both Lahore and Islamabad, there is more tension than in Karachi – a sharp contrast to how it was for decades when there was an ongoing civil war in Karachi. But now, given the Marriott bombing, the Lal Masjid debacle and the spiraling situation in Swat and Peshawar, Islamabad feels like a war zone. And in Lahore, following the bomb blasts at the movie theaters, every conversation touches back on the devastation in Swat and Peshawar.