Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Up in the Air

We, my wife and I, were able to make a dash for Manhattan and spend a couple hours around Times Square on the bitterly cold evening of Wednesday because there was that heavy fog in Lahore. How come?

Well, on our return journey from the United States, we took an early morning flight from Los Angeles to JFK airport in New York, en route to Karachi on a PIA flight that was scheduled to depart around eight in the evening. But the PIA flight that was to leave from Lahore just before seven in the morning was delayed by fog.

So, the late arrival of the plane delayed our flight by about four hours. We, thus, had nearly eight hours to spend at the airport. Almost instinctively, we made the bold decision of taking a trip to Manhattan. A bold decision it was because the temperature was well below freezing, with a wind chill warning. And coming from Southern California, we were not adequately dressed.

Still, the opportunity was very exciting, given my love affair with Manhattan. It was truly an adventure. When we landed at the 42nd Street stop of the E subway train, linked with the vast Port Authority bus terminal, we could buy woollen caps and mufflers from a Nepalese vendor. Venturing out on the streets, though the rush of pedestrians was invigorating, was a challenge. We would walk for a minute or two and then dive into some restaurant or shop and with this ‘pub crawl’, we managed to return to the airport in good shape.

In a sense, this column is a sequel to the one I wrote two weeks ago, recounting how we were stranded at the JFK Airport when we landed in the US on December 19 and how our daughters rescued us with the help of modern technology. Now that I am writing these words on a Saturday forenoon in Karachi, it may also be a sequel to my last week’s column: ‘A taste of anarchy’. That was my response to events that followed the Ashura bombing in Karachi from the other side of this globe. With the brief time that I have had to share thoughts with friends and fellow journalists, I feel more deeply affected by a tragedy that is becoming difficult to explain. Add to that the fearful spate of target killings on Thursday and Friday.

But first, I still feel weighed down by the long air journey at a time when airport security has become a flaming issue in America. We were there on Christmas Day when a Nigerian allegedly attempted a terror attack on a US-bound airliner. Its impact was colossal. President Obama saw this as a serious breach of security and a number of measures were announced to beef it up. Obviously, these measures would make passengers holding Pakistani passports even more insecure. Other countries have also been identified whose citizens are to be fully screened on their arrival in the States.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani expressed his reservations on Friday on these security measures that call for the screening of Pakistani nationals. He said that such policies would cause consternation and anxiety among the people of Pakistan and their continuity could negatively impact our bilateral relations.

However, the level of scare that the attempt of bringing down a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit has created can be judged from an incident at the Newark airport last Sunday. It was discovered that a man had walked the wrong way through a security checkpoint. Immediately, the terminal was closed and thousands of passengers were stuck for several hours. Later, a video footage suggested that he was just a man in love, looking for a few more minutes with his departing sweetheart. What can sometimes be the cost of a kiss!

Even though leaving the US is not so problematic, we could see how stringent the exercise has now become. Passing through security takes so much more time and it has surely taken a lot of fun out of international air travel. Meanwhile, passengers handled by major airports have vastly increased.

Another personal aspect of our long journey — it took us nearly 33 hours from leaving our daughter’s house in Long Beach, CA, and reaching our apartment in Karachi — is that I could not decide when my birthday began and where it ended. It was on January 7, Thursday. Even though I do not celebrate my birthdays, some loved ones remember to call at midnight. Since we were travelling through time zones, it was really confusing as to where that imaginary turning of a page could be located.

When it was midnight in Pakistan, we were up in the air, between Lost Angeles and New York. When it was midnight where we were, we were in the PIA aircraft, waiting to take off. Finally, when we landed in Lahore, it was a little after midnight. In this entire process, I did not have any specific sense of spending my birthday. Yes, the stretched (or constricted) time has left me with the familiar melancholy thoughts that attend my birthdays.

In spite of the garish distractions of an airport or aircraft cabin, our thoughts were dominated by events in Karachi. Jet lagged though I am, I have eagerly sought some friends and colleagues to ask questions about what had happened and how the well-informed analysts are looking at it.

Indeed, as soon as we landed in Karachi in the wee hours of Friday, I wanted to know if something had happened during the previous about 30 hours. To my dismay, there were reports about the killings in Lyari and the overall precarious law-and-order situation in the city. On Friday, there was more bad news. At least eight people died in fresh violence.

One question everyone is posing now is: what do you think will happen now? I have noticed that astrologers and soothsayers are very much in supply and their prognostications are apparently more plausible than the estimations of our talk show panellists. Perhaps this is only a seasonal offering because a new year and a new decade have just begun. This is normally the time when we are inclined to look before and after.

If it were not for Karachi, the safe bet would be that the coming year cannot be as bad as the one that has expired. But in this second week of January, Karachi is ringing alarm bells. Consider the implication of Friday’s explosion in Baldia town in which six terrorists are said to have been killed before they could launch their attack. Is this the negation of that argument that the Taliban will not strike here because it is their source of funding and a sanctuary for rest and recreation and medical treatment? Or is it that no arguments, whatsoever, can be valid in our present circumstances?


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