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Train Ride Through Pakistan Takes Us Beyond The Headlines


Our colleague Philip Reeves climbed aboard a train. He's been traveling through Pakistan, a country he knows better than most outsiders after years of reporting there. The train ride was a way to hear the worries and dreams of people in what is one of the most populous nations on Earth, and it's also fun for the rest of us to ride along. Our journey began yesterday in the north in the city of Rawalpindi. And we're now more than halfway to the destination, the city of Karachi.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Shouting in foreign language).

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: South Asia's railway stations make their own music. There's a choir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Shouting in foreign language).

REEVES: Our train has just pulled in. It's 3 in the morning. The choir is trying to wake everyone up to sell us breakfast.


REEVES: The percussion is a man checking our wheels with a hammer.


REEVES: The horns are from another train whose arrival inspires the choir to deliver another chorus.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Shouting in foreign language).

REEVES: We've reached a railway junction outside the city of Sukkur in southern Pakistan. The Indus River flows close by, winding down from the mountains of Tibet to the Arabian Sea. Breakfast looks appetizing.

So tell me, what is this? This is - what is the name of this?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Shami kebab, shami kebab.

REEVES: Shami kebab - and this.



REEVES: And in here. Beans - so breakfast.

The shami kebab's like a mini beef burger, but the people on our trade remain stubbornly asleep. After all, who eats burgers and beans at this time of day? After a couple of hours, we stop at a country station. A middle-aged man climbs aboard. Mohammad Aslam Rao is going to a cousin's funeral. He says family duties consume all his spare hours. He has 11 children. In his world, there's no such thing as personal time.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Foreign language spoken).

RAO: (Foreign language spoken).


Rao runs a small business repairing farm equipment. He has to cope with constant power outages. He says he can't get access to government officials without paying a middleman. At 48, Rao has lost all faith in the institutions of state.

RAO: (Through interpreter) I don't have any trust anymore.

REEVES: Politicians do nothing to tackle corruption, says Rao.

RAO: (Through interpreter) If they don't want to do it, what can you do? They're involved in corruption. In fact, they're making it worse.

REEVES: So you don't have a lot of hope for the future of your country then.

RAO: (Through interpreter) No, we have no hope of any kind.

REEVES: I've heard Pakistanis say this many times. Look at education, they say. At many government-run schools, teachers don't even show up for work. So struggling parents must pay to educate kids privately. That includes Rao. Seven of his 11 children, though, of girls. He'll allow the girls an education but not a career.

RAO: (Through interpreter) It doesn't even enter our thoughts that they'd get a job. We don't even want girls to get educated. But that's the trend these days, so we let them study up to 10th grade and that's it.

REEVES: In Rao's world, daughters marry and do the housework.

RAO: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: "It's God's will," he says.

And you believe that God wants women to stay inside the house.

RAO: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: Rao is from rural Pakistan where tradition and conservative Islam have deep roots. Zaman Saeed, another passenger, is rearing his three sons in the big city also in private schools. He's an anti-narcotics officer in Karachi, a relatively westernized metropolis. He doesn't want his boys, who are all under 10, to be led astray. They won't be allowed online until they're 16, he says. Meanwhile, he keeps them busy.

ZAMAN SAEED: (Through interpreter) They go to school in the morning. Then, in the afternoon, they recite the Holy Quran. After that there's tuition and then there's food and sleep.

REEVES: Outside our train window, the sun has risen. This railway was built 160 years ago by the British when this landscape was part of their Indian Empire. The safety record is poor. A few weeks back, at least 20 people were killed on this line when one train rear-ended another.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: This doesn't appear to bother Mohammed Junaid and his family. They're in business class, eating potato chips...


DJ BRAVO: (Singing) Everybody knows - say Bravo a champion.

REEVES: ...And listening to their favorite traveling song on a mobile phone.


BRAVO: (Singing) Don't forget, Michael Jordan, Obama - a champion. Mandela - a champion.

REEVES: They're heading home to Karachi after a vacation in the Himalayas. Junaid's a cook in his family's catering business. He's 27. He says he was offered a job in the U.S. a while back, but his father wouldn't let him go.

What did you say to your father when he said no?

MOHAMMED JUNAID: (Through interpreter) I accepted it. He's my father. And in the Quran, God tells me to respect him.

REEVES: Families here come with rules. Junaid's sister, Fauzia Kanwal, works part time at home, giving private math and English lessons to small children. She says, in Pakistan, attitudes are changing. She and her husband will let their kids make up their own minds about what to do with their lives, she says.

FAUZIA KANWAL: (Through interpreter) If we force them to do something, they won't become what we want them to be, and they won't be able to become what they want to be.

REEVES: Then I Kanwal a question about Pakistani politics.

KANWAL: I don't like (laughter).

REEVES: And brother Junaid butts in.

JUNAID: (Through interpreter) Pakistani women are busy doing housework. They don't know about the outside world. They only watch TV soaps and stay home and look after the kids.

REEVES: Fauzia Kanwal's right. In Pakistan, some attitudes are changing, others are not. Philip Reeves, NPR News, on the train to Karachi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.