The funny Valentines of Pakistan

February 14, 2010|By Saira Khan

KARACHI, PAKISTAN — KARACHI, Pakistan--With images of bearded men forcing bombs upon brainwashed youths and delirious women shouting crazy things at their trials, it is hard to imagine that Pakistan is a country that celebrates a largely Western holiday such as Valentine's Day. In fact, the holiday is probably as big an event in Pakistan as it is in the United States. In a society that does not condone premarital relationships, let alone the expression of affection among these couples, it is interesting to see how Valentine's Day has made its way into Pakistani society.

Technology has exposed the average Pakistani to foreign media. Television shows such as "Grey's Anatomy," "Skins," "Glee" and "24" are extremely popular, and foreign fashion is visible on the streets and on the runway. Along with this influx of Western media, Pakistani youth have become increasingly independent. Girls are more willing to explore relationships and are not afraid to leave the confines of their homes, and boys do not shun girls that may have once thought "too liberal." Love marriages, as opposed to arranged marriages, are increasing at what some consider an alarming rate. Previously, these attitudes prevailed only among the minuscule, "Americanized" affluent of the country, but they now range among a large percentage of the urban population.

Along with this emerging East-meet-West culture, in the past two decades Valentine's Day has gone from being something associated with Americans to a full-blown holiday in Pakistan. Though the average shopkeeper feels that it should not be celebrated in a Muslim nation, no businessman can ignore the huge demand for Valentine's Day products.

Mehmood Ali Khan, a local stationery and gift-shop owner, spent a good two hours decorating his little shop for Valentine's Day. Though he sells the products, he certainly doesn't believe in celebrating the holiday himself. "This is an American thing that is corrupting our youth and teaching them that such relationships before marriage are OK," he says. "I only sell the stuff because it brings in a lot of money, especially for a poor shopkeeper like me. I would never let my own children participate in this corruption."

Like Mr. Khan's shop, as February approaches, Pakistan transforms into a city full of red and pink. Television channels feature romantic films, and music channels offer the chance for couples to dedicate songs to one another. In the markets, shops are overfilled with love-themed presents and gift baskets, boutiques have Valentine's Day specials, and jewelry stores see a large boost in sales. Prices for flowers also skyrocket, and street vendors and children are seen roaming around with heart-shaped balloons and single roses for sale. Similar to the United States, it is almost impossible to get even a cup of coffee, let alone lunch or dinner, without a reservation.

Valentine's Day chocolate has also become a staple in Pakistan. With a recent influx of foreign chocolatiers, such as Butler's of Ireland and Lindt of Switzerland, many women expect an expensive box of chocolate on Valentine's Day.

Sonia Ahmed, a 21-year-old teacher at a prestigious school who has been dating her boyfriend for four years, says she is expecting at least a dinner at Café Flo, one of Karachi's most expensive restaurants. "I know girls who get diamonds and gold for Valentine's Day, so really, I don't think I'm asking for a lot."

Among the elite, invitation-only parties where liquor is clandestinely served (alcohol is illegal in Pakistan for Muslims) and the dance floor is always packed are standard. Most average couples, however, tend to go out for dinner and watch a movie; some may see a play or go to a local concert to celebrate.

Not surprisingly, extremist organizations, including the Taliban, have denounced the holiday as anti-Muslim and sinful. What is surprising, though, is that not only do people refuse to relent on their celebrations, but terrorist organizations have not yet made any open movements to attack the day. Nevertheless, given that the Taliban, who two weeks ago bombed a religious procession in Karachi, is becoming widespread in Pakistan, couples are aware of the dangers of celebrating Valentine's Day and tend to avoid certain areas that could be targets. Bazaars and heavily populated areas of the city are places to steer clear. But even with the constant threat of a terrorist attack on Western franchises, Pakistanis are generally not afraid to visit places such as McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut and Domino's on Valentine's Day or any day in particular.

Call it a silent rebellion, globalism or even capitalism, but for some reason the moderates -- and even some conservatives -- of this country are willing to embrace Valentine's Day. And though the acceptance of this holiday makes no sense in a society that, overall, claims to have a strong distaste for most things Western, it is possible that a percentage of the this nation's youth is heading toward a positive and perhaps moderate attitude that may help the society in the coming years.

Unfortunately, until that day arrives, all we can really say is: Happy Valentine's Day!

Saira Khan recently graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and is now writing for Dawn, Pakistan's largest daily English-language newspaper. Her e-mail is saira1010@gmail.com.

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