Islamabad, Pakistan: Small City, Big Community
When somebody asks me what my favorite city is, my answer is undoubtedly 'Islamabad'. I have spent most of my life in Islamabad, Pakistan, therefore I am obviously biased. But I really believe there is something special about it; something that makes it stand out from the little else I have seen of the world.
The people of bigger Pakistani cities of Lahore and Karachi often joke about Islamabad being a city for boring people. But the truth is, despite not having as many restaurants and cafés as Lahore or a beach like Karachi, Islamabad has a life of its own. It is surrounded by the beautiful Margalla Hills which lie in the foothills of the Himalayas. Even if you don't want to drive or hike up to the top and visit the viewpoints or restaurants you'll still probably be awed by the beauty of driving around as the green hills surrounding the city. That being said; going to the top of the hills and visiting every Islamabadi's favorite restaurant Monal —which serves authentically Pakistani food— is a delight. Not much compares to eating the hot 'naan' and 'saalan' (curry) as you sit in the open-air restaurant taking in the breathtaking view of the city. And in summers when the 50°C heat gets too much for you or in the winter when you want to see the snowfall, a chilly weekend escape is just about two hours away in the hill stations of Murree or the other 'Galiyat', as they are known locally.
Though the hilly landscape of Islamabad and what it has to offer is a personal favorite; there is more that makes it special. As I said before Islamabad is a small city where almost everyone knows everyone. If you don’t, after a small chat, chances are that you'll get to know you have mutual friends. And I love that. I love that you can mention someone or something to someone you've just met and they know exactly what you're talking about. I love that wherever you may be in the city: driving around, at the mall or just walking around, you are likely to see a familiar face. Undoubtedly, sometimes it becomes an annoyance especially when you're trying to avoid someone, but I think it makes the city seem more comfortable. It makes places you've never stepped foot in seem familiar.
Being a small city, I also think it is easier for us Islamabadis to come together for something, be it in grief or celebration. It is no secret that Pakistan has had to face a lot of loss of life from the number of attacks that have taken place within its cities, but living in Islamabad I have never felt alone in grieving that loss. If a memorial is organized, you can count on people showing up, you can count on people mourning together, talking about it, trying to make sense of it all and eventually coming out of it stronger. Similarly, if there is any kind of celebration; be it Independence Day or a cricket match won; Islamabadis will flood the streets, chanting 'Pakistan Zindabad' (Long Live Pakistan) and setting off small fireworks. So if you happen to go out during any celebration you will see crowds of people gathered. You can yell 'Pakistan' and watch in awe as they respond with 'Zindabad' with the same vigor.
Islamabad is a paradox of solitude and company. If you visit the right spots such as the infamous Kohsar Market with its cafes and restaurants; you will find all kinds of people: women and men dressed to the nines socializing, teenagers hanging out with their friends, families out to have a nice dinner, or if you're lucky maybe even a local celebrity. But drive 15 minutes away from there to the parliament area and you will find the area rather deserted. There's something about driving there with the window down; the wind blowing on your face, the dimly lit roads, and the occasional car passing by, that completes me. You find the kind of solitude that brings with it a certain amount of peace that one often needs. When it rains in Islamabad, there's not a single soul who doesn't fall in love with the beauty of the city. The whole city looks, smells, and feels different. The hills are greener, the air is fresher, there's this crisp smell of rain, and the entire city looks spectacular. It makes you want to go out and play in the rain. Many people pair rain with gloominess; Islamabad's rain is paired with fresh starts.
So, when people ask me what my favorite city is and I say 'Islamabad', they ask me about the places I like there. But it's not the places in Islamabad that make it special, it is the experience of simply being in Islamabad: taking it in for its natural beauty, for the feeling of community it has to offer, for the company and solitude, for the way it is after a rainy day and for so much more.