Imagine being blindfolded, hands tied behind your back and pushed to the ground by the barrel of a gun in the small of your back. I found myself held hostage for what seemed like an interminable amount of time, disorientated, intimidated and waiting – until I was dragged up and hauled into a dark room with a single light and interrogated. The gun was not loaded and the purpose of the exercise was to prepare me for filming on location in a “hostile territory.”
And, so it was, in the heat of July, I found myself with a group of media journalists in a leafy enclave of suburban New York, being trained by British Army Special Forces, on handling kidnap, interrogation and conflict resolution. These were lessons to prepare me for filming on location in Pakistan. I learned when to run and when not to run, like, for instance, when you find yourself in a mine-field. I learned when to negotiate and when to keep quiet — good advice in the case of being taken hostage.
It was a surreal but useful experience. The likelihood of any of these things happening to me remained small but it gave me a new sense of self-awareness about how to handle myself in a potentially difficult environment. I have now returned from nearly two months filming on location in Pakistan and India for a three-part television series called Treasures of the Indus – a BBC arts documentary with a travelogue type feel in which I covered 3,000 kilometers, beginning my journey in northern Pakistan and traveling right down through to the southern tip of India.
Having spent 20 years studying the arts of India, I now jumped at the chance to explore Pakistan, a name we hear so frequently and yet which remains relatively obscure to most of us. It’s a place that seems to evoke a heady mixture of fear, anxiety and terror. Many people are not exactly sure where it is: perhaps somewhere near Afghanistan? But what I found in Pakistan were warm, welcoming, curious people – delighted that we were there with a film crew and eager to share the riches of their culture (and famous hospitality) at every turn.
Lahore is the cultural hub of the city, the setting for Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, a city of tree-lined colonial boulevards and elegant Islamic architecture. Lahore has a buzzing contemporary art scene. The vibrant Lahore Fashion Week had just closed when we arrived and the city was gearing up for its Literary Festival on the eve of our departure.
Pakistan is a place of contradiction and a treasure trove. It is a young nation with a long and rich past that stretches back more than 4,000 thousand years. A rich landscape of ancient history and modern complexity, this land has cities for up to 80,000 people built on a grid system all along the banks of the mighty River Indus: houses built of brick, many with bathrooms and indoor plumbing. Cities in Europe would not reach anything like this scale or sophistication for several thousand years. Water buffalo originated in the Indus Valley before migrating westward into Europe. So next time you bite into your favorite pizza, take a moment to pause where the buffalo had its origins!
With its northern reaches sitting at the crossroads of Asia some 2,000 years ago, today’s Islamic Republic of Pakistan used to a Buddhist heartland and it was from Pakistan that the teaching of the Buddha traveled to China, Japan and Korea through the Silk Road.
Today the area is desolate and there is an eerie elegiac feel to the landscape. Here up near the troubled lands that border Afghanistan, we were followed by the Pakistan Secret Service “for our own protection.” It was here too I realized I would make a terrible spy as they extracted information from me almost without me realizing as I gave up my story to the colonel thinking we were enjoying a friendly chat.
The 4,000 year old figurine known as the Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro has all the poise of Degas’ little dancer and the attitude of an impudent teenager. Her confident stance completely counters the impression we have of women in Pakistan today.
India was frantic, busy, bureaucratic and intoxicating. We faced far more challenges at historic sites in India – like when the local police decided that we could only film from a distance at the Taj Mahal — than in neighboring Pakistan and relied heavily on our wonderful Indian crew of fixers to open doors and get permissions granted.
The Taj Mahal is perhaps the world’s greatest monument to love. Built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century following the death of his beloved wife, it sits like a “tear drop on the cheek of time” – grand, majestic and imposing.
In the midday sun, the white of the marble is dazzling – laid out in a formal garden that was Islam’s recreation of Paradise on Earth for departed souls. This sums up all the pomp and grandeur of the Mughal court translated into stone. The irony for me is that it is a grand Islamic monument that has become the brand identity (Taj Hotel, Taj tea, Taj anything confers quality and an indisputable Indian stamp).
As it turned out, the conflict resolution from my “hostile territory” training was perhaps better deployed in the India I know so well than in Pakistan…
Editor’s Note: The three-part series Treasures of the Indus began airing on BBC4 on Aug. 31 and can be streamed online if you’re in the UK. The series will soon be made available in the US through PBS and plans are being made to screen it at PEM this winter. We’ll keep you posted.