Future Friendships Start In The Past

One of the greatest benefits of being a TCK is the ability it affords one to travel. I have fully encashed that, reaping benefits of all sorts, benefits which function more like an annuity than a chance jackpot or dividend.

My greatest gain has been the access to people from different walks of life. My interaction with these individuals has inevitably started with ‘where I am from’. To answer them, I have learnt over the years to adopt a ‘horses for courses’ approach: my birth country of Pakistan (also my current residence) could be one answer, with my adopted country, Australia, being the other potential one. I tended to choose the one which would give me the most convenient access to the warmth and hospitality from the country I was travelling in.

I first travelled to Sri Lanka about 5 years ago. The capital, Colombo, just like my city of birth Karachi, is a bustling port city and one of the major stops along the east-west trade routes of earlier centuries. Cities like Dambulla and Kandy have strong remnants of colonialism; the architecture, the abundance of tea plantations and single yellow road markings reminded me of our shared history of British colonialism. However it wasn’t these shared experiences that fostered strong conversations, intimate questions and lasting friendships. It was the historical bilateral relationship between Sri Lanka and Pakistan which did the trick.

The government of Pakistan, through the Pakistan army, provided the Sri Lankan army and military equipment, among other assistance, in the civil war against the Tamil Tigers. Once the war came to an end, students across Sri Lanka were taught this in schools, and Pakistan as a nation became a great ally, resulting in a very warm and hospitable welcome when we visited them. My Pakistani friends travelling through Turkey have had similar experiences. Many Pakistanis served with the Turkish military during the 1974 Cyprus war, and for that many Turks feel indebted to us.

On a more recent trip overseas, I was in Shanghai to try and make sense of the great leap forward and everything since. It is the norm in Shanghai for young students and professionals from other provinces to come and stay in hostels whilst looking for opportunities that the burgeoning metropolis provides.

There was one particular person sharing the bunk beside me who I got to talking to. Upon hearing that I came from Pakistan, he insisted on becoming my impromptu tour guide, spending the next 24 hours familiarising me with the sights and tastes Shanghai had to offer. This was an extremely warm gesture considering he himself wasn’t from Shanghai and was there for work, not pleasure. Nonetheless, once we got chatting he told me that Pakistan’s economic ties, both past (Pakistan played a role in many of China’s previous 5 year plans) and present (the current China Pakistan Economic corridor has resulted in a sharp surge in trade routes and physical trade), render me a natural ally and friend, whom he must show gratitude and respect through his hospitality. I certainly wasn’t complaining.

On an even more recent trip I was in Oman, where I had the opportunity to see Muscat, along with driving through some of the fishing villages which dotted the Gulf of Oman. I was extremely uninformed about Oman’s history when making the trip and had few expectations, apart from probable animosity and isolation which have sometimes been the norm from locals in some of the other Gulf countries I had visited. This trip was probably the most surprising when it came to a gracious and hospitable reception. I left Oman feeling like I would definitely come back. This was not just down to the sights, but to the amicable forthcoming nature of many of the locals towards me.

I couldn’t wrap my head around this until an Omani contextualised this welcome for me. Gwadar, the port city on the Southwest coast of Pakistan, was owned by Oman until 1958, when Pakistan bought it from them. Before the purchase, there was a free flow of people over the 200 nautical miles through which the Gulf of Oman, which separated the two land masses. Even today, many of the locals who live in Gwadar can travel relatively freely between Pakistan and Oman.

Furthermore, when I first landed in Muscat, I noticed that the topography of the area was very similar to that of Southwest Pakistan.  For this, my new friend gave me the answer. Many years ago, the Gulf of Oman didn’t exist, and modern day Oman and Southwest Pakistan were connected through land, which is why the landscape (everything from the mountains, valleys, and the soil itself) is strikingly similar. He told me that we share the same piece of land, and the same group of people, so I’m Omani and he’s Pakistani. This was very touching.

I have had the blessings of relatively extensive travel, and being welcomed with warmth and generosity from the locals during my journey. I am sure if I had stated I was Australian in all three places above, I would have still been treated well. However, it is the shared histories that certain countries and cultures have which inextricably bind them and which bring out an ever greater element of warmth and kindness between strangers—as old as our shared histories but still fresh, alive and thriving today.