Back in the day when opinion based polls became the fad – I say this like I was born a century ago but given the speed at which technological advancements in the means of communication is burgeoning, it is fair to say so- Islamabad was known as second most ‘unfriendly’ city in the world.
Islamabad: the administrative capital of Pakistan, a country infamous for its ‘terrorizing role’ in the comity of nations (obviously bombing countries for oil is less frightening than being Afghanistan’s neighbour).
The poll’s results were not too far from the truth. ‘A city of the working class’ is further away from the truth than this. Conjured up one day from Ayub Khan’s sleeve after he said the magic words, “let there be a capitol in the hills”, Islamabad took its place as the country’s capital city. The first sacrificial goats who had to move to the city- under- construction in the Margalla Hills, simply because they worked for the Government and Abraham had to prove his love for the Higher Being, now rejoice as the modern-day Isaacs. They not only inherited all the best of the boom, but also hold a prestigious place in the society as the pioneers of a new Pakistan. They have the enviable premium memberships in the city’s exclusive Islamabad Club. They have prime properties in the heart of the city, where in this day and age, it is inconceivable to buy a square foot of mud, unless of course you have made it to the exclusive Panama Papers.
But first, Mathew chapter four, verse eight: “Again, the devil took Him to a high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.”
Even the devil had the courtesy to show Jesus what he was talking about before he made his offer to worship him and all that. It is, therefore, only fitting that some description of the city I am in love with, is revealed.
Let me take you to a high vantage point in Islamabad, Daman- e- Koh, literally translated as “heart of the mountain”. If you drive up about 10 kilometers up the Margalla Hills, on your right you will see a turn for something akin to an observatory, where people can just walk around and enjoy an aerial view of the city. It is a place rampant with the tiny monkeys and adorned with ever green trees, pines and firs, with patchy green grass all over and the only shade above your head, being the droopy branches of these lush trees that line the walking path up to the high point. A ten minutes’ walk up the steep path and a few flights of stairs, one can walk into a clearing, guarded with rusty iron bars and some stone re-enforcements, but not tall enough to block the breath-taking aura of the country’s Capital, the house of the seat of the Government, Islamabad.
Among the few planned cities of the world, Islamabad can surely flaunt its orderliness and serenity that comes with being organized. Looking down from the high point of Daman-e-Koh, one can see why those who acquire a taste for this city find it hard to appreciate other cities in the world. The entire stretch is visible to the beholder without having to turn their neck. On the extreme left one can see the Rawal dam, the city’s only water reservoir, silently existing within the landscape. Staying on the left but moving closer inwardly to where one is standing, it is possible to notice the brocade of the oldest high rise buildings in the city, whitewashed in paint, attempting to hide the garbles of age, lined at 45 degrees of each other, equally well arranged as the network of roads and service roads in the city. These are the buildings that have housed the offices of the highest order in the country since 1960’s when President, General Ayub Khan decided to move the Capital of the country from the scuttling Karachi to the heart of the Potohar plateau. They are nestled in neatly arranged compounds within what was named “The Pakistan Secretariat”, starting from blocks A, B,C,D on the left on the parabola that the compound is and ending with blocks P, Q, R, S on the right end of the ‘U’ the Secretariat makes. Each block houses a Ministry. From the Food Security, Climate Change to Economic Affairs, Planning and Development, and the Finance Ministry. But more on this later.
As the roving eye moves from left to right, one can see the pines and firs down below lining the highways and the smaller roads that connect to it. Smack, in the centre of it all is the Islamabad Highway that starts from the foot of the Margalla Hills at the end where the city’s iconic landmark, the Faisal Mosque rests, and runs all the way to its twin city, Rawalpindi. Perpendicular to this road, and parallel to the Margalla hills, is the Margalla Road, that connects the sturdy white buildings of the Pakistan Secretariat to the furthest end of the city where the newest, shiniest sectors of Islamabad, have now sprung up. The city is neatly divided in sectors, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H and I. For the purpose of navigating the life of a public servant or any other citizen, the relevant sectors are, E, F, G, H and I. There is no justice like justice, if I don’t share the tritest most banal joke on the alphabets these sectors are jested for. ‘E’ is for the elite, ‘F’ stands for the filthy rich, ‘G’ for government servants, ‘H’ for higher education and ‘I’ for idiots. With this, I am aware I am giving away a snooty insider jest that the born and bred in Islamabad might hate me for, but it gives a fair idea of ‘town square’ jabber.
Each sector has its own ‘Markaz’ of sector centre, usually the market place for groceries and daily amenities. These market places are not visible from the highpoint and I am aware that I must not over sell the appeal of the city, lest I become unpopular among the locals who like their peace and quiet and have great distaste for rowdy southerners who are rampantly choosing to locate to the city in recent years. However, a famed ‘Deer Park’ is visible from Daman-e-Koh. Right at the beginning of the road to this sight-seeing spot, there is a Zoo and an old park where wooden swings and jumping castles and all sorts of basic entertainment for children is available. But the place is smallish and not challenging or attractive to children above the age of 6. I digress. Let us rove the eye back to the left.
Perpendicular to the Pakistan secretariat is the most serene drive of the city: the drive along the Constitution Avenue. Across the road from the Secretariat is where the government guest houses, named after each of the provinces are located. The Constitution Road is probably the country’s most important road as well. Apart from the Pakistan Secretariat, you will also see the magnificent Parliament house on your left, as you drive from the foothills of the Margallas, towards Rawal Dam. A few more minutes and the architectural delight of the sophisticatedly angled Supreme Court of Pakistan’s grand structure is before you. Cruising at the speed of 20 km/h is absolutely essential to be able to appreciate the opulence before you (it is ironic because Pakistan has only now moved to lower- middle income status and yet we obviously did not skimp on state offices).
Right next to it is the Prime Minister house with its light pink marbled domes and pillars. An expanse of about a kilometre long or so, it is one of the largest structures on the block. Across the road there are more state offices including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which interestingly enough is not housed within the secretariat along with other ministries. The Federal Board of Revenue is also housed in a building across the road from the Prime Minister’s Secretariat. Right on the middle of the road is a roundabout. On one side are these state offices, and the other opens to a smallish stadium of sorts, that is popularly known as D-Chowk (yes this is where all the recently famous sit- ins/ Dharnas were staged). The view is nothing short of grand no matter which direction in the Constitution Avenue you are driving on.
No matter how many times you drive towards the Margallas from one end of the Constitution Avenue to the other, it won’t tire you. For each time, the sky above the hills will be different, and the lushness of the green carpet over the hill tops will be a different hue; emerald, viridian, juniper and pine. The breeze is a different story each day, a varied concoction of humidity and heat, cold and cloud. I have yet to meet a person who has lived in Islamabad, dispute this claim.
Now let me describe the security routine briefly, for my dear readers, for it is important to understand the current in the air. The Constitution Avenue and the surrounding buildings and areas are also known as the “Red Zone” among the law enforcement agencies and the security protocols at the highest offices. In recent days, the media has also picked up this word and now the entire world knows this area as the Red Zone. It is not literally red of course, neither is it infamous for any informal economy transactions that becomes active during the wee hours of the night. It is primarily because this area has the country’s most important offices including the Diplomatic Enclave where all the embassies have their offices. The security in this area is therefore, the most notorious for their detail orientation and gruff behaviour with anyone within the parameters of the place. Anyone who has no business being there is discouraged from entering with these barriers to entry. And I don’t mean the intangible ones’ economists talk about.
On each entry point to the area, there are heavily armoured check posts, with at least three to four armed policemen and army personnel. Apart from these, there are individual check points at the entrance of each official building and compounds in which they are house. The security team at the entrance of the Secretariat is just the start of a rigorous security check points mania. The compound where Ministry of Finance is housed has their own dainty little check post, with not so dainty looking men blocking one’s way. However, a car with a green number plate opens many doors, simply because extra scrutiny is not required for a government owned car, carrying a public servant.
The Q- Block. The house of the country’s treasury; the Ministry of Finance. The treasury of questions and quests. An old, elegant but simple structure with six floors, painted white from top to bottom, angled at 45 degrees to the P-Block just next door. A fair square tuft of grassy land faces the building, surrounded by char-coaled concrete paths, and a parking lot for officers just opposite the building. The bright yellow lines at the edge of the paths look rather striking especially on hot summer days, like that of 7th September 2015, the day I first stepped in to the office I’d be frequenting quite often in the coming years.