When I went to Pakistan in 2007, the country was embroiled in a huge constitutional crisis. In one day of violence in Karachi, 50 people were killed, butthis chaotic situation was not yet seen as news, as it would be a few months later after a suicide bomber killed Benazir Bhutto and sparked international interest in this country. Even Pakistan’s neighbor, Afghanistan, wasn’t garnering many headlines in those days. (Story continues below.)
Pakistan’s cities, however, were as chaotic then as now, and its countryside just as tribal and conservative. Violence was a daily staple of life there as workers went on strike and electricity stations were burned down out of frustration at not delivering more than a few hours of power daily. Islamists blew up shops selling music videos and “unseen hands” detonated bombs outside mosques. On one day Shi’ite parades were targeted; the next day, Sunni places of prayer would explode. Assassinations and kidnapping were commonplace as religious fanaticism intensified.
Almost none of this story made its way into the Western press. While policymakers examined exhaustively the tiniest hints of instability in Iran, disinterest greeted this daily evidence that Pakistan was on the point of collapse. As a freelance journalist, to be in Pakistan meant that I had to pay my own expenses, though my exceedingly hospitable host took care of my stay and part of my transport. While I had the freedom to travel, I did not speak Urdu and could not afford to hire a fixer, and this made my work as a journalist all but impossible to do. Aside from logistical issues, I was acutely aware that anything negative I wrote would reflect badly on my hosts.
So instead of reporting, I took photographs.
Leaving aside Afghanistan’s ethereal high-altitude light and the Iranian plateau’s deep earthly colors, Pakistan’s packed slums and overpopulated villages offered extraordinary photographic possibilities. Karachi is a cataclysm of noise and movement. Marketplaces hum with the activity of an overripe fertility tipping toward decay. Crumbling Raj era buildings bulge with humanity as a smothering humidity settles like a blanket over a body tortured by heat. With the relief of dusk descending, thousands of multicolored lights cast pools of glare over corners and signs that went unnoticed in the daytime. Twisting Urdu tumbles into capitalized English as sturdy as the colonial buildings that loom over chaos like ghosts from a simpler, more sparsely populated past.
I visited mystical shrine towns and photographed ecstatic Sufi ceremonies. In Peshawar, I wrangled my way into the off-limits tribal areas and documented the faceless stores selling assault rifles and bootleg alcohol. In the border town of Chitral, next to Afghanistan, Pakistan’s pagan Kalasha tribes celebrated the spring solstice with dancing and wine drinking under the watchful stares of armed soldiers sent to protect them from rising tensions with their Muslim neighbors.
My visits to these regions of Pakistan happened during a transitional moment—before the war in Afghanistan spilled across the border, tensions heightened even more, and this region became the focus of international attention. News organizations weren’t interested in these stories then, and they aren’t even very interested now. Fortunately, photographs I’d taken of mystical Islam in Pakistan, Iran, Syria and Turkey were brought together in an exhibit, “Sufism: Mystical Ecumenism
,” hosted by Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies.