When Matthew Vaughan shows friends pictures from his trips to places with scenic mountain beauty, he asks them to guess where they were taken. The answer usually is somewhere like Austria, Switzerland or Canada.
“You tell them it is Pakistan and they just refuse to believe you,” he says. “They just can’t believe that somewhere that beautiful exists in a place like Pakistan.”
The photographs are taken in spots like Kaghan, Hunza and the northern areas of Pakistan. “I think it is really a kind of best kept secret of world tourism — the northern areas of Pakistan,” he tells Weekend Review
In 2011, Vaughan, his wife and young son left Britain to start a new life in Pakistan. The flow of immigrants between the two countries has mostly been the other way round, with over a million British citizens now claiming to be of Pakistani origin.
So why Pakistan?
Vaughan’s wife lived there for the first 12 years of her life. She was the daughter of a school teacher from Canada who came out to work in Islamabad. After getting married, Vaughan and his wife moved to Luton, just north of London, which has a large Pakistani community.
“We knew a good bunch of guys in all the best Pakistani restaurants in Luton,” Vaughan explains. “We were already embracing that part of the culture, I guess.”
He had previously travelled to a lot of countries and first visited Pakistan in 2009. They flew first to India and then came across overland from the Wagah border into Lahore. He was just surprised by how much he liked Pakistan from the start. “The people were just really friendly and hospitable right from the start.”
When they decided to move there, it was to serve the church. But they were also interested in building peace at a grass-roots level. “We just felt that these days the world is getting quite divided and there is a lot of fear and suspicion of people — especially from different religious backgrounds. We really wanted to do what we could to build peace. Especially with people from different faiths.”
When they told friends and family they were moving to Pakistan, the reaction was one of surprise. “Pakistan has a bad reputation as you know. The media really only shows the negative side of life in Pakistan, so that is all they [had] heard about.”
Their friends made a joke about how they weren’t going to be visiting anytime soon. “They found it quite hard to understand why we would do that,” he says. “We just graduated from Oxford University. All my friends are going into banking, civil service and stuff like that. And we were taking a minimum wage-like job in a place like Pakistan.”
His parents, however, were proud of their efforts to promote peace.
Now, after five years of living there, Vaughan has written a book, Notes from a Sacred Land, to try and show a more positive side of life in the country. “People are just so kind in this country. They are just so hospitable.”
Vaughan had visited various book shops in Islamabad, Lahore and other places where he found many books on Pakistan. “They are all negative,” he says. “They are all about terrorism, corruption and violence, political problems or whatever it is. And there was really not one positive book on Pakistan I could find.”
On arriving in Pakistan, he discovered one of the perks of living there was that people offered goods or services for free after learning that he was British. In the first two or three years in Pakistan, the family lived in the city of Rawalpindi. Once, coming home late at night, he got into a taxi. As they chatted, the driver was surprised to find out that Vaughan was from the United Kingdom.
“I was speaking Urdu and we had a really nice conversation about Pakistan and how much we liked it and how kind everyone was. When we got to my house I asked how much it is going to be. I think it was maybe Rs200 or something like that. He just refused to take it. [According to him] I was a guest in Pakistan. I insisted three or four times and he was just resolute that he wasn’t going to take my money.”
Vaughan was touched. “He needed the Rs200 much more than I did. His hospitality or his national pride, or religion — whatever it was — inspired him to be generous like that.”
But this is not the case everywhere. Vaughan has become accustomed to haggling in the bazaar. “I am pretty sure we overpay for stuff sometimes because they see a gora [white man] coming. Some people see it as an opportunity to earn more money.”
He spent the first two years learning Urdu and is pretty fluent in the language now. He studied French and Spanish at university and didn’t find learning Urdu that hard. His wife was fluent already, having grown up in Pakistan. “There was one time I was buying some broccoli and the guy said it was like Rs400 or something. You have got a sign written in Urdu with prices on. I can read. It said ‘Broccoli Rs200’ and he said Rs400 to me.” He told him in Urdu the price and the vendor was embarrassed. “That was just fun having some banter with this guy.”
He has also learnt some proverbs in Urdu such as jiski lathi uski bhains [whoever owns the stick, owns the buffalo] and jaisa des vaisa bhes [in Rome do as the Romans do] which he uses when people comment on his wearing a shalwar kameez.
He was recently invited on a show on state television to talk about his book. He was the only one wearing a shalwar kameez while the three Pakistanis in the programme were all in western attire. “I find shalwar kameez really comfortable in this hot weather,” he says. “I guess it helps me blend in.”
The Vaughans are raising their children in Pakistan. “The family structure is very strong here, which is something I think we have lost in the UK, in the west in general. We took our kids to restaurants early on. You know in the UK if a kid is making noise in a restaurant you feel embarrassed and you want them to be quiet. And so, we were trying to tell Sam to sit down and be quiet. And he wasn’t doing it. And the waiters were just so kind. They came over and said koi baat nahi — it’s no issue. We will take care of him. So he played with him with a ball and had fun with him while we sat and ate.”
It took Vaughan two or three years to write the book as he juggled between work and four children, three of whom were born in Pakistan. But when he approached publishers, he was told there was no market for a positive book on the country. “If you want to sell copies you have to write about terrorism, you have got to write about the oppression of women because those topics will sell books. Nobody wants to read a positive book on Pakistan. There is no such thing.”
Undeterred, Vaughan decided to publish it himself. He printed a thousand copies which have nearly sold out in two months. Vaughan did all the publicity and design himself in his spare time. He is now working on a second edition. The book is also available on Kindle.
“I was actually speaking in the US embassy in Islamabad the other day about the book. And they have a tough time because those guys really can’t go out... So, they can’t see Pakistan at all. And one lady who works there, she got a copy of the book and she was kind of semi-joking and saying ‘I was reading this book, and I have got to stop reading it because it is making me think positively about Pakistan and it is getting harder to do my job.’ I hope it is kind of changing her mind as well, but all she sees is security guards and barbed wire and everything.”
Vaughan’s book includes interactions with ordinary people of Pakistan such as vegetable sellers, bread sellers, the laundry men and the tailor. It is not completely positive because there are challenges in Pakistan. He does mention poverty and terrorism -related incidents. “I don’t want to pretend that everything is okay because there are difficulties here,” he says. “But it is showing just the basic kindness of people, and just the generous humanity of people in Pakistan. It really doesn’t seem to get covered.”
He talks about a Pashtun man who comes and takes the garbage away at his office.
“He is a really polite, really lovely guy. I always greet him in the morning and he always has a son with him who helps him as he works. This boy is like seven- or eight-years old. He is the same age as my boy, Sam. Sam is going to a good school in Islamabad because we can afford to pay the fees. He is learning different languages. And this kid is just collecting garbage every day of the week. It just breaks my heart...
He likes the strong sense of community in Pakistan.
“We don’t really have this in the UK so much anymore,” he says. “It has become quite individualistic and quite private in a sense. In Pakistan, there is still a very strong idea of community....”
When Daniel, their youngest son was born one incident sticks in Vaughan’s mind. “Someone rang our doorbell a day or two later,” he says. “It was just a guy, didn’t even know him, never seen him in my life, just a random guy from the neighbourhood, and he just walked down the road and rang our bell to say ‘I have heard that you have had a son — may God bless him and give him a long life’ — and he shook my hand and walked away. It was just a beautiful thing to do. You know, it doesn’t really happen in the West. People are very private. We kind of keep ourselves to ourselves.”
He has been surprised by how welcoming people are towards the British. “When you look at history, and when you look at what Britain has done in this part of the world, under the negative effects of colonialism — especially with partition, which was really caused by British negligence to be honest — you would think they would be angry about it all or they would be finding it hard to forgive. It was not the case at all. People have been very kind. They love talking about cricket; they love talking about Winston Churchill or whatever else.
“Whenever we have friends visit from the UK or Canada, we always ask them afterwards how they are finding it, and it is always the same story — that they find it much better than they expected.”
Many educated Pakistanis leave the country in search of better prospects.
“I don’t want to criticise people because they need to do what they think is right for them and especially for their kids,” he says. “It is hard to criticise them for doing that because there are opportunities I guess in the West you would not necessarily get in Pakistan. But when you see all these really gifted men and women grow up in Pakistan, and they are going overseas, it does make you wonder who is going to work for the benefit of Pakistan.”
So, what does he miss about his life in the UK? “I miss the rain,” he answers. “I know that sounds crazy because it rains every day in the UK.”
Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.