By Sonya Rehman
Just a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting Ethan Casey, an American journalist who was recently in Pakistan gathering material for his second book, the sequel to ‘Alive and well in Pakistan’ (published by Vanguard).
The heat wave in Lahore had not yet hit, but it was almost there – hanging by the periphery waiting to unleash its toasted, crispy spell on the inhabitants of the city.
And the morning that I had met Ethan (at the Lahore Gymkhana) with his friend, Pete Sabo (who had accompanied him on the trip), the weather was rather pleasant and thankfully, not uncomfortably warm.
Sitting outside on the veranda which overlooked Gymkhana’s plush green lawn and the tennis courts (towards our left), Ethan began tracing his journey as a journalist, and the path that led him to Pakistan – a path which would keep bringing him back to the country over the next many years.
Ethan’s story is an appealing one. Nursing an irresistible urge of wanderlust in his early 20s, Ethan set out for Nepal as a student in 1986.
Growing up in a small town in America where everyone was white, “Life was nice but kinda boring”, Ethan stated with a grin, “My parents were a little unusual; my father in particular, encouraged me to be curious about the world. He set the example by leaving Texas and going to other parts of America. So that prepared the way for me to leave America…”
“At the time”, Ethan continued, “Asia was really far away from America, there was no internet and I had no particular reason to go – I just felt that I was young and that I really needed to be far away from home. So I did and spent six months in Nepal and had lots of adventures. And that established my interest in Asia. Years later I went to live in Bangkok because I wanted to make a career as a journalist, because I realized that you can’t just write a literary masterpiece and expect to make a living – so journalism was a way to get paid to write…and also get paid to see the world.”
Working as a freelance journalist and a foreign correspondent in Bangkok for a few newspapers, Ethan eventually found himself taking an avid interest in the Kashmir situation in the mid-90s.
Around that time, “The Kashmir uprising was heating up, and so I started reading up on it and thought; ‘well I want to go there and see it for myself’. In 1993, during the siege of the Hazratbal shrine, militants had taken hostages and were inside the shrine. The Indian army had surrounded it and the siege lasted for several months. It was a big thing at the time…something that had caught the world’s attention for a little while; and just after that I decided to go to Srinagar, Kashmir.”
Ethan traveled to Kashmir several times over two years (in 1994 and 1995) and began nurturing a deep interest in the Kashmir issue since it defined the relationship between the countries of both Pakistan and India. Infact some of his experiences in Kashmir are recorded in a few chapters in ‘Alive and well in Pakistan’.
“Kashmir led me to my interest in Pakistan”, Ethan said amidst the shrill cries of the peacocks that strutted about in their cage (situated on the lawn). “And so I visited Pakistan in March in 1995 because I felt it was important for me to travel into Kashmir through the Pakistani side and talk to Pakistani and Kashmiri politicians and the people. So that’s what I did, and that piqued my interest in Pakistan itself. I met people, heard stories by the Pakistanis (which I was able to cover as a journalist), and I just kept going and coming back to Pakistan…”
Making long, extensive trips to Pakistan back in 1995, Ethan decided to travel to Karachi, which was at the time, bullet-ridden (literally) by sectarian violence. And then in 1999, “During the Kargil situation, I visited in the LOC for the first time in an army jeep with a Major”, Ethan recounted, “1999 was an interesting time to be here in Pakistan as Nawaz Sharif’s government was getting more and more isolated till the coup happened in October”.
“This book…” Ethan stated, pointing at a copy of his book (which he’d brought for me), “Covers a decade worth of my experiences in Pakistan from 1994 to 2004 on a personalized level…in the sense that it isn’t specifically about politics. It’s almost the only book about Pakistan which isn’t about politics”, chuckled Ethan.
A month or so ago, I’d happened to have met a Malaysian who told me that he found Pakistan to be something of an incredible enigma. Even though he was floored by the country, its people and its culture, he was still realistic and understood its drawbacks. Yet, he, just as Ethan, found himself consistently pulled back to Pakistan.
I told Ethan this. To which he said: “A few years ago, I was sitting in Najam Sethi’s office talking about politics – every time I come to Pakistan I look him up since he’s been in the thick of Pakistani politics. So I asked him if he thought Benazir would ever come back into power, and he chuckled and said; ‘Well, stranger things have happened!’ and at the time there seemed to be no chance of her coming back, bit she did. Let me address this a bit more”, Ethan said whilst he reclined back into his chair, “Western people are always predicting doom for Pakistan – but I’ve been watching and visiting this country for 15 years, and it hasn’t yet broken up. Now it is a country with very severe problems – it’s not what people outside think it is…So for me, as an American, who tries to communicate to Americans about Pakistan – it’s an uphill battle. Pakistan is a durable nation. People here have achieved something – several generations have pioneered a nation which didn’t exist before…you’ve had to start from scratch, you’ve had a lot of disadvantages and a lot of things which have gone against you. At times Pakistanis have been their own worst enemies but they’re also remarkable and deserving of respect. Pakistan is a country which deserves respect just as much as any other nation does.”
Just then, a waiter arrived, a smart man in his 30s with a bit of a belly. Placing an order for toast and porridge (for himself and Pete), Ethan told me about his experience at the Beaconhouse National University (BNU) here in Lahore where he taught International Journalism in 2003.
“At the time in my late 30s, as a journalist, traveling and working largely alone for a decade, is a lonely life. You also develop these working practices of what it means to be a working reporter, and to teach was a great point in my life and career. The compulsion to teach others forced me to articulate it for myself. I had a blank slate to teach, whatever I wanted under the rubric of International Journalism. I learnt as much as I taught at BNU.”
In addition to penning his sequel book, Ethan also runs a blog which is basically an extension of his book, ‘Alive and well in Pakistan’.
“I think books are great but in today’s world blogs are also where a lot of people do their reading.”
“Most Americans think I’m crazy to be in Pakistan”, Ethan laughs. Then how does he justify himself when they ask him why he’s coming to Pakistan?
“I don’t need to justify myself”, he laughs again, “I’d tell them Pakistan is safe and interesting. It has become personally very important to me. As a personal commitment it’s become important for me to keep coming back – even if Pakistan were to be in (God forbid) a really awful situation, much worse than now, I would still feel a compulsion to come back.”
As he completed his sentence, the waiter brought two plates of eggs and toast. Apparently, there had been a misunderstanding. The waiter had thought Ethan said ‘poached’ when infact he’d asked for ‘porridge’.
An insignificant misunderstanding which made all of us smile and laugh a little (including the waiter); Ethan and Pete gracefully settled for the toast which was brought with butter and jam.
Interestingly, over the course of the interview, I discovered that Ethan speaks at churches, civic organizations, rotary clubs and universities about Pakistan. “It’s important to take this human dimension of Pakistan and show it to Americans.”
So what’s the response been like (since some Americans do carry a certain level of anger and resentment towards Pakistan)?
“Americans have been on a steep learning curve since 9/11”, Ethan replied, “And it represents the beginning of the end of American innocence…”
At the end of the interview, I had realized something, as I made my way back to my car. And this was that perhaps we as Pakistanis take our country for granted.
To the foreign eye, Pakistan stands as an enigma, a pomegranate ripe with seeds of the ‘unexpected’ – which could explode at any given minute.
Maybe this is what leads foreigners, like Ethan to our land. And maybe, just maybe, this is what makes them fall in love with a country whose inhabitants have always taken for granted.
The Friday Times