My fear was palpable as I entered Lahore, Pakistan’s city of monuments, which was quite high on my ‘I cannot ever go there’ list because of its projection as the home to violent Islamist fundamentalism.
But the moment I reached here, a lot of misconceptions — driven mostly by the media about this country of 200 million people — were shattered.
Lahore is not just about terror attacks, growing religious fundamentalism, gender segregation and Taliban militants with flowing beards. These are stereotypes derived from a small segment of its population and slapped to the entire nation. This culturally rich city has a history dating back to the times of Ramayana (11th century), and is a lot more about food, fashion and nightlife, a fact unknown to many.
Vibrant public spaces
The markets and roads of Lahore remain crowded throughout the night. Men and women are known to hang out and eat without fear at all hours. “Hamara shehar 24 ghantey chamakta hai jee (this city is alive round the clock),” a cabby told me.
A student, Aarif Kareem, who sat next to me at a coffee shop, told me, “We are not bad people. We are only being portrayed so. We also live as freely as those living outside Pakistan.”
Though religious extremism is growing in some parts of Pakistan, but it is not immediately perceptible in Lahore, which has battled several terror attacks, including the one on the Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009.
Food over fear
“We often come to this place for barbecue but never feel insecure or scared,” Rehana Khan, a business woman said while she shared with me a plate of lip-smacking lamb kebabs at a food stall outside the Qaddafi stadium, where the Sri Lankan team was attacked.
Love for movies and fashion
The influence of Hollywood and Bollywood at city’s popular haunts is evident. ‘Gerua,’ a song from Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol’s 2015 movie ‘Dilwale’ was playing at one of the eateries I visited. The place also had black and white posters of vintage Hollywood actors on its walls.
Of course, women here wear veils but they also wear western clothes. Apart from global cinematic influences, city-based Pakistani film industry, called Lollywood, has also been instrumental in driving the fashion trends in the country.
Women not restricted
Lahore women participate actively in public life. They hold jobs of all sorts, from businesses to administrative profiles. “For women, it is safe to walk around in the markets even during the night,” Khan said.
Lahore has mostly been successful in retaining its Mughal past, evident from the architecture of its famed monuments.
Lahore fort, Badshahi mosque, and Shalimar Gardens give the city its characteristic charm. A visit to Minar-e-Pakistan, the historic tower on which the Lahore resolution is engraved, completes the trip. The city also has an enchanting orchard along its canal. The exquisite flora offers an exquisite feast to the eyes and the heart.