It was a hot July 2008 afternoon in an air-conditioned office in Lahore, Pakistan. The colonel sahib said, “Son if this room is full of delicious food, would you eat all?” Staring at him blankly and then at the wide desk between us, I did not know what to tell him.
I was a sophomore in Government College University (GCU), Lahore. Founded in 1864 in the British time, GCU is one of the oldest institutions in the country. Its alumni include Noble laureates, prominent philosophers, government dignitaries and Rhodes and Fulbright Scholars.
Coming here from a small, remote village in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest and mineral-rich province along the western borders with Iran and Afghanistan, was a long-awaited dream. My dream came true: however, it was on the verge on being shattered. I had gone into depression because of the new and challenging environment of the metropolis. I feared to leave GCU for good. I feared ruining my once-in-a-lifetime chance of getting higher education.
At the time, there were six universities for twelve million people in Balochistan, out of close to a hundred in Pakistan. Four universities were newly established. The oldest two were the University of Balochistan founded in 1970 and the Balochistan University of Engineering and Technology in Khuzdar in 1987.
The former, located in the provincial capital, Quetta, was often in a state of chaos. It was home to contentious, and at times violent, ethnic politics by students from two dominant ethnic groups—the Baloch and Pashtuns—in the province for space and political clout. The university in Khuzdar was not much different in this respect. The news was that this was the Pakistani military establishment’s policy of divide and conquer.
The situation in educational institutions and in the province worsened further after the killing of veteran Baloch nationalist leader Akbar Bugti in August 2006 by the Pakistani Army. Bugti’s killing marked the culmination of the almost six-decade-long conflict between Islamabad and the Baloch people for control over resources in the province. The ensuing spiraling of conflict and instability and lack of learning opportunities in the province forced young men like me in droves to safer and better cities for higher education.
I went to Lahore in 2007: however, the fear of violence chased me there, as Pakistan came in the grip of great terrorist violence in 2007. Universities and other educational institutions in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the northwest of the country came under attack by the Taliban as they considered university education a symbol of modernity and infidelity. At one point, universities in Pakistan turned almost into military cantonments. Heavily guarded, entering them felt like crossing the Wagah Border into India. Sadly, this remains unchanged, as the influx of students from underprivileged areas into bigger cities has burgeoned.
The thought of returning home scared me because I did not want to disappoint my family, which was supporting me, and my widowed mother who had just begun seeing the fruit of her hard labor taking shape. I was the first in my family to get into a prestigious university by the standards of the time and our resources. Going to Lahore was the dream of many.
What scared me the most were the much-anticipated taunts of friends and relatives if I had returned home. Instead of giving in to depression and leaving Lahore, I took on the fight, and in the process, my sadness got to an unmanageable scale. The worst thing was that for some time I could not talk about my depression to friends and family because of shame.
Men are supposed to be strong, we were told. In a male-chauvinistic culture, mental healthcare ranged from primitive to non-existent, as if we are made of steel, as the expression in Pashto goes. Contrary to cultural beliefs, the reality is that close to 50 million Pakistanis suffer from common mental disorders. Mental illness affects 15 to 35 million adults, which makes about 10 to 20 percent of the total population. To treat them, Pakistan has only 400 trained psychiatrists.
In Lahore, it began to dawn on me for the first time what I had lost in fifteen years in my hometown. I had received a formal education, but it had not prepared me for the challenges of university-level education. I learned most of the things in elementary and high school by rote. I had no idea of critical thinking and reading because I never had the chance to read books other than memorizing aged textbooks. At GCU, the discussions of classmates about Harry Potter and other books they had read disheartened me.
I am now beginning to understand the advantage of cultural capital many of my classmates had over me and my friends from Balochistan and other far-flung, rural areas of the country. English was second nature to girls and boys from the elite or higher middle class of Lahore. Some of these students were talented writers who I admired highly. Reading their writings gave me the inspiration to become a writer one day.
My time in high school was very different. The walk from home to school and back was two-hours long. It was excruciating in the summer heat. My most significant success was to save myself from fainting during this endless going back and forth for five years. What comforted me, however, was the comparison to students from the far-flung corners of the area, who used to walk for one-fifth of the day over and down the mountains to get to school and back home. I was lucky if I had some leftover pieces of bread from the previous night to take with me to school.
For years, I borrowed school books from other students or relatives in other towns because, sometimes, free textbooks from the government did not reach us due to fraud and embezzlement. In both elementary and high school, instead of extracurricular activities, I performed the teachers’ chores. Bringing them tea from their home or my home, occasionally, pressing their feet and head during class and cutting grass for their cattle were just some of the things many students used to do.
Life was difficult at home, too. I was two years old when my father died in a truck accident in the Punjab province in Pakistan’s east. My mother raised six children under harsh socio-economic conditions. From childhood, my brothers and I herded our joint family’s sheep in the foothills of tall, neighboring mountains. We used to climb the mountains for wood foraging and had our donkey or our backs for bringing the wood down home for cooking and heating purposes. Water was scarce too. We had to go long distances for fetching water in buckets and handcarts for drinking and bathing uses. Many times we walked barefoot to school because my mother could not afford to buy us a pair of slippers.
There was no library in my school or town. I had read about it in school books but had not seen one until I was eighteen years old. Although there is a lack of fresh data, according to a survey done in 1990, Pakistan had 1,430 libraries, including academic ones for slightly over a hundred million people. In other words, there was one library per approximately 74,000 inhabitants. These libraries had a total collection of 15 million books. However, the number of libraries and book collections may have increased by now, but my childhood schools still remain without one.
In contrast, in 2006 the United States had almost 32,000 libraries, which means one library per 10,000 inhabitants. Nearly twenty-eight years ago, Israel had 3,420 libraries for a population of five million. Tanzania, one of the world’s poorest countries, had 3,200 libraries in 2006 for its forty million people.
The people of Pakistan are among the poorest in the world. With approximately 200 million people, the country ranks 147th out of 188 countries in the Human Development Index. Pakistan has a desperate education crisis. As of 2015, the nation spends only 2.6 percent of its GDP on education. This figure is the lowest in South Asia.
In contrast, the largest share of its national expenditures goes to defense. According to a May 2017 report, Pakistan’s defense budget for the 2017-18 financial year was Rs920.2 billion (USD$8.65 billion). It was seven percent higher than in the 2016-17 fiscal year, which was Rs841 billion (USD$7.9 billion). The United States has added to this by providing over USD$17 billion in military assistance compare to USD$13.5 billion in economic assistance since 1982. Some analysts argue this weight behind military rulers by the U.S. has derailed democracy and hindered development in Pakistan.
At GCU, the size of libraries and the number of books excited and inundated me simultaneously. One library was bigger than Quetta International Airport in my city. To make up for the loss, I wanted to read everything during my four-year stay in Lahore. I desired to devour some sections of the three libraries on campus. I spent most of my time in these libraries. I missed lunch for want of time and money.
I read newspapers and magazines which I had never heard of before. I spent my late nights in the library of the University of Animal Sciences within walking distance from my university. On weekends, I used to go to old bookstores and bazaars on the famous Mall Road to buy books. These wanderings changed my life, as I came to know about more books and my interest and began to read voracously.
A lot has faded from my memory from my time in Lahore but a few things besides depression remain ever fresh. One is the feeling of flipping through the pages of the old books and the aroma of antiquity in them that touched the soul deeply. I also vividly remember meeting and making friends with poets and writers during these wanderings. I was young and did not have quite a handle on argumentation with stranger intellectuals, but I loved being in their company. To many of my classmates, I was a nerd with heavy frame glasses, carrying a stack of books and wandering from store to store and library to library. Back home some family friends teasingly called me “professor.”
Despite the burgeoning depression, I got excellent grades in the first semester and made a positive impression on professors. However, in the second half of the first year, my health deteriorated. I almost failed a class. My grief and fear over not doing enough left me miserable. I needed help. That was what brought me to the colonel’s office in the military’s Defense Headquarters. He was a family friend and a gentleman. Many students from the farthest areas of Pakistan like myself had such family friends and acquaintances. We brought them gifts for the network and help in the new city.
The bus ride there in scorching July heat was paralyzing. During our meeting, I was shy, lost and hopeless. He said, “You can not read everything that is out in the world. Do not tax yourself, son.” It was later that day in the dorm that I learned about the meaning of the word “tax” as a verb.
His life compared to my misery made me feel even worse. I thought about his kids and their lives and the opportunities available to them which I did not have: however, his advice soothed me. With hope, I left his office for the bus stop in the sweltering afternoon sun. By the time I reached there, I had lost it all. Waiting there, I felt depressed, lonely and directionless.
Years went by. I suffered but recovered with time, therapy and family’s support. While I was going through depression, I was also gradually becoming aware that things were getting better. The company of good friends, the maturity of age and my achievements helped me gain sight of the favorable prospects of life. Later on, I won three scholarship awards including Fulbright for my MA at the University of San Diego.
I attended a one-semester non-degree academic program as an exchange student in the University of Nebraska—Kearney in 2011. In 2013, I joined the University of San Diego for a master’s degree in Peace and Justice Studies. My experience of academe in the U.S. fundamentally changed my life, thanks to the U.S. government and the American people.
I might be out of that phase of despair, but there are millions trapped others who like me have big dreams and ambitions but don’t have the means for their realization. As of today, the picture in Pakistan seems rather gloomier. Pakistan may be a nuclear power but half of its population—a hundred million people— almost the size of the population of California, Texas, Florida and North Carolina combined, are uneducated.
Corruption and elitism in government, military authoritarianism, education crisis, conflict and disproportionate defense spending have made life miserable for the country’s poor. Reports on poverty in Pakistan show that as much as 40 percent of the population—roughly the size of the population of Germany—live beneath the poverty line.
Grinding poverty fuels child labor, illiteracy, religious extremism, deteriorating health care and endless conflicts. As a result, hundreds of thousands of children are out of school. The expected years of schooling are 8.1, which are among the lowest in the world. The good news is that poverty in Pakistan has decreased by 15 percent in the past decade, however, given the overall grim lows, this figure is less than encouraging.
A nation prospers by educating its youth. It flourishes by taking along those who have been left behind for decades. This requires giving employment opportunities, establishing universities and libraries in the entire country and prioritizing the underprivileged regions such as Balochistan, former Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Gilgit Baltistan. Without reading culture and quality education for all across the board, changing the fate of a country is impossible.
When I look back and wonder about my journey, I conclude that I did not have to go through all this. If I had better opportunities in my hometown, I would not have moved, at least not so precariously. If my early education had equipped me with the necessary knowledge and skills for higher education, it would have saved me a lot of pain. But of course, there is no way of changing what had passed. What one can, however, do is persevere and rise above their limitations.
To all the young men and women who have been or are in my shoes, I have a simple, one-word message: Persevere. It will not be easy but if you dare to continue rising above the limits of your perception and the perceptions of society about you, things will change. It will be a slow process, but change will come. While you persevere, read. My life has been touched by stories and words in ways that would not be possible if I had not read. Lastly, if you are sad, tell your good friend or family member. You deserve better.