Zaka talks to British social worker & columnist, Chris Cork to know about his experiences in Pakistan.
1) Please tell us about yourself, your education, family, brought-up and your migration to Pakistan?
I had a typical middle-class upbringing, but contrary to my parents wishes I left school at 16 and went to be a farmer! There followed a succession of jobs ranging from dry-cleaner (having given up farming) to selling encyclopedias and working for Ford Motor Company before I eventually became a social worker in the UK in the early 1970’s.
I trained as a social worker at a college in London, and then took a variety of diploma-level academic courses relating to social work and management. I worked within local government for almost a quarter of a century and managed a wide range of social work services from childcare to the elderly and handicapped. I had a particular interest in working with substance abusers and mental health but spent the majority of my career as a manager rather than as a ‘hands on’ social worker.
I was granted a two year sabbatical in 1995 to come and be a volunteer in Pakistan, working with a small NGO in Northern Areas called Naunehal Development Organisation. In 1993 on my first visit here when I rode a bicycle from Karachi to Kunjerab, I met the women I subsequently married in 1995. We worked together for several years, I decided I did not want to return to my job in UK and I took early retirement in 1997 from my post. I have mostly worked here and Afghanistan ever since.
My wife comes from a poor village in the Punjab. She was the only member of her family to be educated when I met her – she was the principal of a school in Hunza. We have two adopted Pakistani children; one is now 22 and doing very well in the UK despite being profoundly deaf and dumb. The other has just turned four.
2) What was your childhood dream? Did you get it?
I recall that one of my earliest dreams was to go to Mount Everest. There was much celebration when it was finally climbed in 1953 and I remember it well. I fulfilled my dream by going to Mt. Everest for my 40th birthday.
3) Shed some light on your social work here in Pakistan?
Naunehal was a small organisation when I arrived, but quickly grew into a network of schools and health services in the Nagar valley north of Gilgit. Many of the schools that we set up in the 90’s are still there today. We returned to UK in late 1999 for my wife to do her Masters at the University of Central Lancashire and we bought a house in Preston, which we still have. For a while I worked with inner-city regeneration projects in the UK but then came back in this direction to work as the Director of ACBAR – the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief. I was based in Peshawar but had offices in Kabul and Jalalabad and Herat. I finished with ACBAR shortly before 9/11 and had a break from work for six months. I came back to work here full-time in October 2003, and have been here more or less ever since. First I worked for a small NGO in Cholistan, then in 2005 worked again for Naunehal for a year. I was involved in various education and health projects in Punjab, and in the aftermath of the ‘quake in 2005 worked for a Pak-UK NGO called The Abaseen Foundation. I continue to work for the AF as their in-country consultant. Most of their work is in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
4) Why you took the decision to settle in Pakistan? Was it accidental? Was it the hardest decision of your life because this is the third world country?
The decision was easy enough – I had married a Pakistani, we had adopted Pakistani children, I had work here that I enjoyed and had little interest in going back to the UK to be a social worker. I have no problem with ‘hard living’ and adapt well to most environments. I cannot pretend that summers in Bahawalpur are pleasant, but I console myself with the thought that for six months of the year it is a great place to live.
5) How did you find people of this part of the world? Is it easy to live or work here if you’re a foreigner?
I have found little or no difficulty living here as a foreigner. There are dangerous places of course, and you just don’t go there. But otherwise I travel widely, usually alone, and have never had any serious difficulty.
"I write about what I see around me, how I experience things in my own little world"
6) If you asked to identify 5 good and 5 bad things of this country, what would you like to say?
The food, everywhere
The mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan
A lively – even vibrant – media.
Winter in Cholistan and summer in Nagar.
Looking at the stars on a moonless night deep in the desert.
I find attitudes to women appalling for the most part.
A national inability to form an orderly queue for anything – apart from ATM machines.
A similar national inability to put rubbish in the bins provided. And spitting paan.
Corruption in every place I go and see.
Middle-class abdication of a place in politics, which has been taken over by a bunch of paindoo goondas.
7) Since you’re writing on current affairs and also stayed here long enough to analyze our progress as a nation, do you think we’re going forward or?
In some ways we are progressing, in others marching determinedly backwards. We have some of the fastest internet speeds in Asia and about 43% of the population is still food-insecure. Education is in many ways declining; the curriculum is years out of date. Teachers are not trained. Health services like education are massively under invested. We are not a failed state – yet; but we have the potential to fail and the rise of extremism in the last decade feeds that potential. There has been a failure of the moral compass in parts of our society that is going to be hard to fix, and the political will to do so seems absent.
8) Major reasons that hindering our development?
See my answers above, but also…an inability to handle cognitive dissonance which is the ability to hold opposing thoughts in your head at the same time but without conflict. This leads to the lack of tolerance that we see everywhere, whether it is religious or cultural. There is also a powerful culture of dishonesty, an unwillingness to tell the truth which is coupled to a lack of introspection, the ability to look at ourselves in a critical way.
9) Have you ever thought of leaving this land for any reasons?
Occasionally, but I always draw back and content myself with the realization that I am living in one of the most interesting country in the world. I never have a dull day in Pakistan. It is constantly surprising – sometimes they are good surprises at other times less so, but overall I feel a sense of commitment to Pakistan that is going to keep me here for the rest of my days.
"Standing in the snow at the top of Kunjerab pass and having the border guard take my photo. I was holding the bicycle I had ridden, alone, from Karachi, across the deserts of Sindh and the fields of Punjab, then up the Karakoram Highway and into the wonderland of mountains that I fell in love with immediately I saw them. I did not know it then but it was a life-changing moment"
10) When you’ve started writing, any specific inspiration?
My inspiration as a writer comes from daily life. I write about what I see around me, how I experience things in my own little world. I mostly write from a ‘grassroots’ perspective, and am not one of the heavyweight political analysts that populate the media. Just a simple man writing about a complicated place. I have just started to write fiction, and am working on a science-fiction novella set in a village in the desert. This is a new excursion for me, and I do not find writing fiction easy – so watch this space, I may just surprise myself and you, but it will all depend on finding a publisher.
11) With the social networking phenomenon, Modern day gadgets and technological tools, how do you see today’s life, is it become easier? Difficult? Too machinist? how well you adopted the changes?
I have embraced the social networking phenomena wholeheartedly. Facebook runs in the background right through my working day and for me it is a vital tool. I get to hear what other people in Pakistan and elsewhere are thinking, I get pointed towards articles of interest and stay in touch with my scattered family. I tried Twitter for a few months but eventually found it more of an irritation than an asset, so discontinued. Social networking is now a vital and important part of my life, and as computer literacy grows here is becoming so for more and more of us. Too mechanistic? I don’t think so. Constant change, as the saying goes, is here to stay. I am delighted that it is.
12) You wish you had known?
I wish I had known how to get very rich very quickly – but legally. As it is I remain poor, but reasonably happy. You will never get rich as a freelance writer in Pakistan!
13) What has been the most memorable and unforgettable moment in your life?
Standing in the snow at the top of Kunjerab pass and having the border guard take my photo. I was holding the bicycle I had ridden, alone, from Karachi, across the deserts of Sindh and the fields of Punjab, then up the Karakoram Highway and into the wonderland of mountains that I fell in love with immediately I saw them. I did not know it then but it was a life-changing moment. I had by then met the woman I married two years later and was on course to be where I am today. Yes, that truly was memorable and unforgettable.
14) Your hobbies, what you do in your spare time?
There are four – books, films bikes and models. I have a lifelong addiction to the printed word. I read on average one book a week and buy on average about the same. I read widely, fiction and non-fiction and have a vast library that is a constant source of pleasure to me. A similar addiction is to film, which was started by my mother who took me to the cinema as a child. So I watch about three films a week, not always in English. Bikes have been a passion for the last twenty-five years. I have ridden my bikes in some very interesting and unusual places other than Pakistan. I have crossed the Sahara solo by bicycle, for instance. Next year I am planning to cycle across the Nullarbor desert in Australia to celebrate my 65th birthday. And lastly – model aeroplanes. Since I was a kid I have built little plastic models of ‘planes, and as I go into my old age I am still hard at it. My collection of unbuilt kits recently arrived here from the UK, and I have enough to keep me going even if I live to be a hundred!
"In some ways we are progressing, in others marching determinedly backwards. We have some of the fastest internet speeds in Asia and about 43% of the population is still food-insecure. Education is in many ways declining; the curriculum is years out of date. We are not a failed state – yet; but we have the potential. There has been a failure of the moral compass in parts of our society that is going to be hard to fix, and the political will to do so seems absent"
15) You detested most? And which living person do you most despise?
One name came immediately to mind – Margaret Thatcher. I detested her for what she did to the poor people of my country. I detested her then and I detest her still, it has not diminished over the years. I think I would prefer to keep to myself the identity of the living person I most despise, but will say that they are not Pakistani.
16) What do you most dislike about your appearance?
The fact that I have put on weight in the last two years as a result of not getting enough exercise chained as I am to a keyboard and monitor for 12 hours a day.
17) To whom would you most like to say sorry, and why?
Sorry, that is just far too close and personal to put in a public newspaper. I know who I owe apologies to, and I will make my peace with them all in good time. But I am a great believer in privacy - not something that one sees in life here very much with everybody wanting to know where you have been, who you have seen and what was said – so you will have to be satisfied with me leaving that unanswered.
18) Your favorite hangout place in Pakistan?
This is a tough one. There is a particular rock that my wife and I like to sit on and look up at Rakaposhi, but I also have a fondness for a couple of places near Bhurban. And there is a café in Khosar markaz in Islamabad that I like for its cosmopolitan feel.
19) What would you have done different, if you had a chance to live again?
Thought a bit more carefully before pressing the ‘send’ button.
20) What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Always have two things close to hand – a book and a toilet roll.
21) Any message you would like to give to the youth of Pakistan?
Get off your backsides, stop whining about how it is everybody else’s fault that we are in the mess we are in today, learn to live with disagreement without lynching whoever it is you disagree with, use clocks as timepieces which allow you to manage time rather than as mere decoration, understand that most conspiracies theories are the work of fantasists who would rather look elsewhere than inwards, take every educational opportunity that comes your way and then use it for the betterment of our country rather than running off abroad; and lastly take a pride in your country that transcends shallow nationalism and populism and can be used as the engine of change that carries us all – even me – to a brighter future.