(The article was first published in Nov-Dec 2017 edition of Aurora.)
Like every other kid in the nation, I grew up thinking Pakistan was a country. It stood for the chand sitara, cheesy school tableaus and armed-forces-centric celebrations. In retrospect, the younger, naïve me had no frame of reference. It was only when I first had my passport stamped that I realised that Pakistan is an experience. A few intense years in the advertising industry and I was forced to look at everything from a marketing lens. Soon, Pakistan became a brand, with its own USPs, competitive landscapes and imagery ladders.
For the purpose of this write-up, I’m taking this evolution a step further. I’m trying to explore the things that make Pakistan unique; the nuts-and-bolts stuff that makes being Pakistani what it is. They are the unsung products, services and practices that define the Pakistani state of being. In a nutshell, these are quintessentially Pakistani experiences that we take for granted, but would miss if we were to relocate anywhere else in the world. Here’s my rudimentary list:
To this day, I fail to understand what exactly the flavour is of a ‘regular’ Peshawari ice-cream. Everyone in Pakistan gets it when you say you want some, but how will I ask for it at a Baskin-Robbins in Dubai? Is it vanilla-flavoured? Milk-flavoured?
No-name valet guys
Go to I.I. Chundrigar Road or Saddar at rush hour and you will instinctively look for ‘a guy’ who will park your car for you. You don’t know this guy, he doesn’t have a badge or a company card, and yet, you will gladly trust him with your car. I wish this guy was found elsewhere in the world too. Life would be so much more convenient!
Pretending not to be able to read
This is the acid test of being a Pakistani. Do you stand in the Pakistani passport line at the airport, despite knowing that the senior citizens and unaccompanied ladies and children queue is much, much shorter? Apparently, following clearly-visible signs is beyond us. I really wish I could cut lines like that elsewhere in the world too.
Sit-down dinner at midnight
As a country, we are pretty much night owls. I just can’t digest dinner at 8:00 p.m. – and I shouldn’t have to. However, it is only when we travel outside Pakistan that we realise that most dining places take their last order at 9:30 p.m. (probably because people move on to bars afterwards) and we, being ‘Late Latifs’ will have to settle for McDonald’s!
Freedom to jaywalk
I couldn’t understand this term when I encountered it the first time. Can crossing the road in any way really be illegal? I mean, it just seems so... inconsequential. Don’t the authorities have bigger fish to fry? Cross only on the zebra crossing? It just seems unnatural.
The ubiquitous tikka
Who would have thought that the most common food item on every menu in Pakistan would be such a rarity everywhere else in the world! They have biryani figured out and even managed a decent job with the parathas. But order a tikka and you are bound to get a random salan (confusingly named tikka masala!) or a bland-roasted chicken. Blasphemy!
Tank full kardo
If there was ever a lifehack listicle for petrol pumps, this would top the list. By default, when you ask a fuel station attendant in Pakistan to fill up the tank, he really, really fills it up, right up to the brim and way beyond the auto-full click indication by the machine. Our logic is, if it increases your driving range, safety be damned.
In my limited (and often elitist, overly-generalised, ethnocentric and a number of other self-deprecating adjectives) opinion, these are just some of the many unbranded products, services and privileges that brand Pakistaniat offers us and we take for granted.
While there is a lot of local stuff that is hard to find out of Pakistan, corn seems to be the absolute tease. The way we Pakistanis like it is just so simple to cook and yet, nobody else in the world seems to prepare it that way. Either it is too moist or too dry, or too fancy or too mass-produced... the right corn is hard to find!
The ‘halaat kharab’ excuse
A curse for the economy but a blessing for people that hate their jobs (that is most of us!), this impromptu holiday excuse is something that is becoming rare even in Pakistan. Out of the country, however (unless you are headed to Somalia), you will sorely miss this random excuse to skip work because of the strike/jalsa/dharna.
Your love for rain
Travel bugs will soon discover that the low season in most places coincides with the rainy season, which is absolutely bonkers! I mean, we Pakistanis know that rain is basically happiness falling from the sky. Heck, we even write songs about it! It’s very discomforting to see that the world treats rain as a negative thing because we know full well that a ‘beautiful sunny morning’ is an oxymoron.
Flagging down a bus/cab
Public transport has always been a hand gesture away, especially in Karachi. Whether it’s a bus or a cab, you can always flag it down, literally, wherever you are. Apparently, everywhere else in the world there are specific places called bus stops and taxi stands – and only there can you get in one. Fascinating, yet bizarre!
Fresh yoghurt with malai
I’m not a big yoghurt fan and I’m not entirely sure why my mother asks me to bring half a kilo of the stuff with malai. Yet, the fact remains that this option does not exist outside of Pakistan. The world might have moved towards packaged dairy but we still have a massive loose milk and dairy industry, which means we still get to enjoy our yoghurt fresh out of a clay pot.
Torrents and piracy
Were it not for a particular Rs 30 CD, holding a pirated version of Photoshop (and dozens of other software) back in the early 2000s, I probably would not be in advertising. Although I have now come to respect intellectual property and buy software and media, there is no denying the fact that as a nation, we are totally hooked on piracy. Try downloading that torrent in a developed country!
The ustaad mechanic
You will find this kind of automotive go-to guy in every neighbourhood in Pakistan, but will be hard-pressed to find a counterpart elsewhere in the world. They might not have had any formal training, but they know how to fix everything given enough WD-40 and a good toolset. Doesn’t matter if your car is a fancy electric or hybrid, built only for the Japanese market; the ustaad with his jugaar will throw enough kabuli parts at it until your problem is fixed.
This is a big factor for my nicotine-dependent brethren. We take the general smoke-ability in most spaces of Pakistan for granted. It’s only when we are restricted (and fined repeatedly) for the same offense outside the country that we realise what a blessing it is for our self-destructive habits.
In my limited (and often elitist, overly-generalised, ethnocentric and a number of other self-deprecating adjectives) opinion, these are just some of the many unbranded products, services and privileges that brand Pakistaniat offers us and we take for granted. I’m sure if one of you is up for an insight mining and perception mapping exercise, we could add a lot more to the list.
Umair Kazi is Partner, Ishtehari.