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Article published on Oct. 17, 2014
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Article published on Oct. 17, 2014

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Moving on up in Islamabad : « Everybody wants protocole » 

Islamabad main road towards Rawalpindi. The flow of cars proceeds undisturbed on the perfectly smooth macadam large road. The few men walking on the side of the road stuck their phone to their ear and their frowning signals they do not indulge in "timepass". Their gaze is fixed either on the ground or on some specific point right in front of them. The women, wearing full abaya, keep an eye on the children and make sure everybody stays close to each other.

On the five-lane road, the density of the traffic increases as the traffic light comes up ahead. A turn right and not even three minutes later, the cars abandon the clean-cut roads, broad parks and the organised traffic system. Suddenly, houses spring out of the beige dust, some not yet finished. Still, entire families pile up in small cement huts, eyes glued to their TV sets. Small toyshops and fruit and vegetable stalls share the sides of the road with the already fully-built houses. The drivers on the road miss the scenes though, too busy concentrating on avoiding the enormous holes on the narrow and bumpy concrete road leading to Rawalpindi.

Hills of dry mud have replaced the slick and smooth flat outskirts of Islamabad. Soon, one of the cars stops. One of the vehicles, fully loaded, carries a family (and their friends) from Islamabad whose members recently decided to build a new house in Gulberg. The house, currently under construction, could remain so for years. Therefore, soon after making up their minds, they purchased a house in Rawalpindi, a couple of streets away from their new plot. And they regularly visit the construction plot.

Abdullah's excitement about the future house leads him to show the site to anyone who visits him. After a quick tea at his current house in Rawalpindi, he and his friends get back in the car, heading towards the plot. When they reach the place, it rains. This does not slow down Abdullah's enthusiasm despite the now red mud. The driver navigates with difficulty around the endless fields of red clay that lay ahead of the passengers. Not one building or even one brick has yet been laid. "Insh'Allah, the roads and infrastructure will be ready by 2015", Abdullah starts. "This project is huge! Telenor and the IB (writer's note: Intelligence Bureau) sponsor it. So they have to build all the infrastructure before anyone starts building their house on the private plots."

In the Summer, Pakistanis regularly spend up to 14 hours a day without electrity and most of the population just suffers through, unable to afford a generator. But the guide says the government has promised the loadshedding would not affect these plots. "A power station is under construction for nine billion. It will be really protected, with walls of concrete and security at all times. But it won't be just any security. The guards will be IB retired agents." Only one entrance will allow the future owners to get into their 'ultra-select' neighbourhood. "We will only be able to go through one bridge, the Qaid-e-Azam bridge, which costs two billion to build."

The whole compound should host 40 000 people, include a university, a school, a shopping center, appartment buildings as well as separate houses, lakes, a swimming pool... For now though, no one lives in the only building already standing. Four guards sit by the glass doors of its single entrance. And inside, a huge scale model of what the entire project would look like takes centre stage, only surrounded by a couple of chairs and prestinely clean and big public toilets. Abdullah points out to his friends the exact location of his future house and expands a bit more on the numerous facilities that he dreams his family will soon enjoy. As they step outside, four-feet-tall rococo-style flower pots with bushes trimmed in the shape of spirals catch the visitors' eyes. Standing alone in the fields of empty land, for the excited guide, they represent the promise of the lavish lifestyle the project managers advertise. "Beautiful, isn't it?", Abdullah says, smiling from ear to ear.

Later, as he is driving his friends past the Supreme Court, Abdullah points out a building and says: "Here is our President's residence. It was built during the last presidency." Dozens of families could easily find room to cohabit in the gigantic palace, as big as the Supreme Court building if not bigger. Abdullah pauses for a few seconds and then concludes: "Everybody in Pakistan wants status and 'protocole'..."