High fashion, (more) music, and coffee in Lahore. A lot can change in for 4 short years.

A man walks across the street in the scenic neighborhood of Defence, in Lahore, Pakistan
A man walks across the street in the scenic and affluent neighborhood of Defence, in Lahore, Pakistan.

One of my favourite holiday destinations is Lahore, Pakistan, where I lived and worked for a year after finishing my graduate degree.

These days, I don’t travel to Lahore as often as I would like, but had the opportunity to visit last month after more than four years. Pakistanis make up one of the largest expat communities in the U.A.E., so both Emirates Airlines and Etihad Airways have daily flights to different cities across the country. Admittedly, my timing was terrible. May marks the beginning of summer and unbearable levels of humidity. The short walk from the front door to the car leaves your fresh, starched kurta a damp mess. Frequent power outages in developing countries like Pakistan makes insulation from the heat a daily challenge.

But the weather in Lahore was nothing like I remembered, and evenings were pleasant enough to sit outside or explore the city. About a decade ago when I was intern with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, my drive to work meandered past a wobbly mound of garbage and household trash. The streets are still lined with beautiful old trees Lahore is known for, but swept clean of litter. From my base in central Lahore I saw lush greenery and people of all ages pounding clean pavements for their daily errands and walks. The megacity of Karachi in the south – population 27 million –  has outsourced it’s waste management to a Chinese company, and a similar arrangement had been made for Lahore. I would soon discover that this was just one of many changes that had transpired since my last visit.

It’s easy to summon despair over Pakistan’s prospects, given the reams of negative press it receives. But alongside the very real problems of poverty, corruption, illiteracy, and water scarcity, exist communities of creators, thinkers, problem-solvers, entrepreneurs, and celebrations of sufi saints.

Here are some of the things I discovered during my recent trip to Lahore:

  1. Pakistan Railways. In preparation for my trip, I spotted a stunning photograph of a train at a railway station in Lahore on Instagram by Pakistani photographer Salman Alam Khan. The caption read: “Lahore Railway Junction is the central railway station of Lahore. It was built in 1860. The station served as the the headquarters for the Punjab Railway before partition.”
    A photography by Pakistani photographer Salman Alam Khan of the Pakistan Railways station in Lahore, Pakistan. Taken from Instagram @thesalmanalam
    Photo credit: Salman Alam Khan @thesalmanalam

    I took a screen shot of the image and quickly sent it to my friend; I absolutely had to check out this historical site. Further research revealed it was one of many tracks laid by the British during colonial rule of the subcontinent and stretches from Torkham in the north to southern port city of Karachi, operating both passenger and freight trains.Holding a platform ticket at Pakistan Railways station in Lahore, Pakistan.

  2. We purchased platform tickets for 10 Rs. (10 cents American) and walked around, venturing inside a dining car which had tables adorned with white linen and a single red carnation. Our arrival coincided with the departure of an overnight train to Karachi. As the horn reverberated through the still night air, throngs of last minute passengers pushed and pulled, crushed by the weight of belongings packed in rope, plastic, cardboard, unstitched cloth, and suitcases. Amid hoots and cheers, the train heaved and pulled away from the platform. My friend remarked that many were probably on their way to celebrate an urs, or the death anniversary of a South Asian Sufi saint.  In a country with a staggering gap between the very rich and the very poor, it was heartening for me to see a relic of the past working to serve the needs of so many who cannot afford air travel, or the purchase of a vehicle.
  3. Cafe culture. There has been an explosion in the number of cafes since my last trip to Lahore four years ago. Both indoor and indoor, these cafes are serving up Italian espresso, handmade pastries, and artisan pizza in cute and stylish interiors. No Starbucks, which means homegrown, independent establishments have space in the market to compete. They are popular, and none more so than Rina’s Kitchenette, which I visited three times at their new location in Gulberg for their killer banofie pie. Yum.
  4. Organic, locally made beauty products. Pakistani women are known to put natural ingredients in their hair and on their skin. While making things by hand is the norm in Pakistani culture, commercially successful organic beauty brands are popping up. Leading the charge is KishMish Organics, a line of handmade skin and hair care items that is 100% natural and organic. It is the brainchild of Mariam Omar, a fierce, multitasking entrepreneur who simultaneously manages a beauty salon and is a single mother to two young children…and 10 pets! I tried the Papaya Fruit Mask and Miracle Cream, and noticed a marked improvement in the texture and appearance of my skin within days. If you can get your hands on these awesome products, be sure to stock up.
  5. Beautiful (and very expensive) high fashion. Pakistani textiles are beautiful, and the textile industry is the largest manufacturing industry in Pakistan. In the last decade, the fashion industry has seen explosive growth. Whereas a few designers dominated the retail landscape for high end traditional wear in the past, the market today is crowded with designers big and small, comfortable designing Pakistani and western wear alike and often blending the two to stunning effect. Top tier designers produce one-of-a-kind pieces, and charge heady prices. I walked into Faraz Manan’s boutique on M.M. Alam Road to enquire about the price of an outfit. Made with beautiful hand-stitched embroidery and gold beadwork on handmade rose-colored cloth, it had already sold for an astonishing USD 10,000. (Yes, totally outrageous. In a country marred by poverty, this is a reflection of the deep divide between the very rich and the very poor). Fortunately, one can find more reasonably priced options. While the trend is one of high mark-ups, today there is more choice and creativity in textiles.

    A model walks the runway in an outfit by Pakistani designer Sania Maskatiya at Beirut Fashion Week
    Pakistani designer Sania Maskatiya showcases her collection earlier this year at Beirut Fashion Week
  6. More and more music. I always get to experience live music when I travel to Pakistan. My friend is a talented and successful musician, and through her I listen to all kinds of new Pakistani music and meet other musicians. She showed me the inside of two professionally constructed independent music studios. Like the growth in fashion, Pakistan’s music industry has grown by leaps and bounds. I can no longer keep track of all the musicians and bands that exist today, working inside and outside the country. Musicians are now making their own independent production facilities with state of the art equipment, further expanding the space for artistic expression and supporting other artists. While religious extremists in other parts of the country rant and rave about the illicit nature of music and dance, the reality is they’re up against a formidable grass roots movement of musicians, producers, and increasing musical and artistic output. In fact, they’re pretty outnumbered, a fact that mainstream news consistently misses.

In the News: Hijab, Hijab, Hijab. Why Are We Obsessed With a Head Scarf?

Model Gigi Hadid on the cover of Vogue Arabia's first issue, March 2017
Supermodel Gigi Hadid on the cover of Vogue Arabia’s inaugural issue, March 2017

In the past week, I have come across more articles on hijab, the head cover worn by some Muslim women and others, than any other news story. More than the war in Syria.

This week alone, government officials, a multinational corporation, individuals, and the European Union are using hijab to articulate a wide range of positions. A symbol of resistance and opportunity for some, a tool of oppression for others.

These are some of the stories making headlines right now:

1. Nike unveils the Pro Hijab for Muslim female athletes. Priced at USD 35 and available in 2018, the Pro Hijab is targeted at consumers in the Arabian Gulf who wield enormous purchasing power. Like many other international brands, Nike is keen to target this demographic. Possibly the biggest hijab story of the decade. 

2. The European Court of Justice delivers a landmark ruling which states the workplace ban on headscarves is legal. Amnesty International warns the ruling “panders to prejudice.”

3. A Pakistan government official wants to make hijab mandatory for female students at colleges in the province of Punjab. To sweeten the deal, extra marks will be rewarded to those who comply. The good news: the government has rejected the proposal. The bad news: this will not end attempts to control what women can and cannot wear.

4. In the age of President Trump and his Muslim ban, women are choosing to embrace hijab as form of resistance, introducing a modern-day counterpoint to a widely accepted image of hijab as oppressive.

5. Backlash to Nike’s Pro Hijab gives rise to #BoycottNike on social media. Many accuse the company of making money off the subjugation of Muslim women.

Controversy surrounding the hijab is not new. If I were to calculate how long the hijab has been an object of public scrutiny, I would need to go back many hundreds of years.

European art of the 12th century and onwards depicts inhabitants of Muslim lands as exotic, backward, violent, and sexually depraved. Artists reimagined the private spaces inhabited by Muslim women and often showed them in the nude, the ultimate “unveiling.” Jean August Dominique Ingres’s Grand Odalisque of a young Oriental chambermaid, hookah pipe in hand, is one of many such paintings of the period. Like others, he never visited the Orient.

Oriental painting of a young chambermaid in the nude
Jean Augusta Dominique Ingres, Grand Odalisque, 1814, Musee du Louvre.

It’s a long running obsession by any measure. Unbelievably, this makes he hijab the most controversial piece of cloth in history.

In comparison, hijab in the UAE is apolitical. Who wears it, how they where it, when they wear it, and why they wear it are all non-issues. No one forces you to wear it, and no one yanks it off if you do (looking at you, France). There is no religious police. Notions of modesty for Emirati society are not religious; they are deeply cultural.

I feel like a broken record. There are plenty of women who chose to wear it, and lead productive lives while doing so. What will it take for us to turn the page and move on from the hijab to a point where it simply does not matter what a woman wears?