Our Man in Islamabad

There aren’t a lot of travel guides to Pakistan. My favorite is a slim volume called Culture Shock! Pakistan, A Guide to Customs and Etiquette. A section on “How Pakistanis see the foreigner” has this to say about Germans: “You cannot have better credentials than when you can tell that you are a German. For most Pakistanis, Hitler is the greatest hero.” During World War II, “everybody listened into the German radio network and prayed for Hitler’s advance through the Khyber Pass.”

Can this be true? A German war correspondent swears it is. When an Islamabad taxi driver found out her nationality, she says, he asked her – just between friends – if she didn’t agree that what the Jews did to the World Trade Center was horrible.

Among some segments of the population here, this is not considered a crackpot question. Whatever strides it has made with the government of Pakistan, the U.S. has been less successful in making its case to poor and working-class Pakistanis. The day after the air strikes began, Maulana Haideri, a leader of JUI – Pakistan’s largest and most powerful Islamic political party – told thousands of screaming supporters in Karachi that Jews sold their shares in United and American Airlines before September 11, and that the 4,000 Jews who worked in the WTC didn’t show up that day. The plot was vast and diabolical, Haideri said, and it may even have included a former presidential candidate: “Al Gore, a die-hard Jew, might have taken revenge for his defeat.”

For some Pakistanis, news of Gore’s involvement was the last straw. At a rally in Islamabad, the head of the Pakistan-Afghan Defense Council declared: “We have given the Americans two days to leave Pakistan, if they value their lives.”

I value my life, but over at the colonial-style Islamabad Club, things didn’t seem quite so dire. At 2 p.m., the dining room was packed with the people who run Pakistan. None of the women wore veils, and only the waiters had beards. I ate with a businessman who has close ties to the West. Every morning, he flips on The O’Reilly Factor on Fox. He knows the details of the Gary Condit saga.

Still, he has hostile feelings toward America (and not just because of Bill O’Reilly). Over dessert, he blamed the disintegration of Afghanistan on the U.S., saying it funded resistance to the Soviets, then left the scene. (I refrained from pointing out that it was Pakistan that funded the Taliban all these years.)

At least one place in town is greeting Americans with open arms: the Marriott. Every Third World country in crisis seems to support an overpriced hotel that serves as a social club for journalists and diplomats, and as an oasis of edible burgers and decent phone lines. In Managua, it was the Intercontinental. In Islamabad, it’s the Marriott, which also has one of the city’s only bars – making it especially offensive to fundamentalists. This may account for the White House-like security: Shotgun-toting soldiers ring the perimeter. The manager, though, couldn’t have been less concerned about an attack: He’s currently renting plywood cubicles behind the pool with no plumbing and curtain doors for $150 a night.

Our Man in Islamabad