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Pakistan - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

Pakistan - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

by Safia Haleem

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Pakistan is a land with a unique history, formed by migrating peoples who have left their footprint in its diverse cultures, languages, literature, food, dress, and folklore. The country is besieged by bad news, but despite the political turmoil the everyday life of its people is more stable, rich, and rewarding than the media headlines would lead you to believe.


Pakistan is a land with a unique history, formed by migrating peoples who have left their footprint in its diverse cultures, languages, literature, food, dress, and folklore. The country is besieged by bad news, but despite the political turmoil the everyday life of its people is more stable, rich, and rewarding than the media headlines would lead you to believe. A myriad local festivals and celebrations and a vibrant cultural life go unremarked. Pakistan has the eighth-largest standing army in the world and is the only Muslim-majority nation to possess nuclear weapons, but few know that it is also the home of two unique schools of art. This complex nation consists of various ethnic groups, each with its own individual cultures and subcultures, but which are unified by the common values of hospitality, honor, and respect for elders. Pakistani society has extremes of wealth and poverty, and daily life for most people is full of difficulties, yet everyone knows how to cope with crises. Creative and adaptable, Pakistanis are among the most self-reliant people in the world, bouncing back after major catastrophes. Culture Smart! Pakistan takes you behind the headlines and introduces you to many of the country’s little-known traditions. It describes the vitally important cultural and historical background, shows you how modern Pakistanis live today, and offers crucial advice on what to expect and how to behave in different circumstances. This is an extraordinary country of enterprising, tough, and passionate people. Earn their trust and you will be rewarded many times over.

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By Safia Haleem

Bravo Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Kuperard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85733-678-8




The name of Pakistan is heard in every news bulletin all over the world on an almost weekly basis — sadly, for all the wrong reasons. The country is described as both a victim and a culprit at the same time, yet the social and cultural reality is infinitely richer, more complex, and more nuanced than might be imagined from the news. Occupying land crisscrossed by ancient invaders, Pakistan is a young country whose history stretches back for thousands of years. It is the home of two ancient civilizations — the Indus and the Gandhara — and its culture has been shaped by invaders, nomadic tribes, clans, refugees, and preachers of various religions. It was home to some of the earliest human settlements, and the region along the eastern banks of the Indus River was a magnet to the ancient Greek and Persian empires. Numerous races came here, moved on, or settled in the fertile valleys. The flow of migration continued even in modern times, with millions entering from India at the time of Partition, from Bangladesh, and from Afghanistan at the end of the twentieth century.

"Pakistan" is a compound word, having two parts: pak (Persian, pure) and stan (Turkish, a place to live). The Muslims of India adopted the name in 1933 in their demand for a separate and independent homeland. Pakistan is in essence a multiethnic and multilingual nation that is home to people of various regional nationalities. Nation building has been a difficult process. The country has undergone a succession of traumatic sociopolitical experiences since achieving independence; but it continues to demonstrate resilience and the capacity to survive and adapt to changing circumstances.

Pakistan has a well-established infrastructure and legal system, which makes it attractive for investment. It has strong human resources, including an English-speaking workforce, cost-effective managers, and skilled technical workers. The people of Pakistan are warm and welcoming. Their great love of art can even be seen on painted trucks. Their qawwali music, performed in the shrines of famous Sufi saints in Punjab and Sindh, is unique, and attracts millions of people every year who come to make a wish or offer alms and to listen to the music and poetry recitals. The Pakistani passion for cricket is proverbial, and there is a team in every locality with aspiring young players who want to be on the national team. The cities of Lahore, Karachi, Sialkot, and Faisalabad are thriving with textile and other industries and attracting new investors for business and trade.

Pakistan offers a variety of landscapes, from the seaside in Karachi, to the glacial mountains of the north, home to the second-highest peak (K2) in the world, the valleys of Swat with ski resorts, the romantic Khyber Pass, the desert of Cholistan and the fossils of Balochistan, where a skeleton of a dinosaur was discovered a few years ago. It is a principal gateway to Central Asia and has good connections with the Middle East and South Asia. There is a growing domestic market attracting both foreign investors and the Pakistani diaspora.


Pakistan is located between the important regions of South Asia, Central Asia, and the greater Middle East. It has a 650-mile (1,046 km) coastline along the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman in the south. It is bordered by Afghanistan and Iran in the west, India in the east, and China in the far northeast. The main river is the Indus, which flows the length of the country and is fed by the combined waters of three of the five rivers of Punjab — the Chenab, Jhelum, and Ravi. The waters of the other two rivers, the Beas and the Sutlej, which rise in the Himalayas, are largely used for irrigation in India. Along the Indus and its tributaries are found most of Pakistan's population, its chief agricultural areas, and its major hydroelectric power stations.

The border of Pakistan's northern territory runs through the mountains of the Karakorum Range, which it shares with Afghanistan and China. Five of the fourteen highest mountain peaks in the world are in Pakistan and it is home to the second-highest mountain in the world, K2, at 28,251 feet (8,611 m).

Geologically, Pakistan overlaps both the Indian and the Eurasian tectonic plates. The northern areas lie mainly in central Asia, along the edge of the Indian plate, and are prone to violent earthquakes where the two plates collide. The most devastating earthquake happened in 2005. In the northeast is the disputed territory of Kashmir, the Pakistani part of which also borders China. The Balochistan Plateau, toward the west of the country, occupies the largest province, with an elevation between 1,000 and 3,000 feet (300–900 m) above sea level. It joins the Thar Desert and Lower Indus Valley in the south, which forms Sindh Province. The western mountains are full of natural energy resources, including gas and coal mines; the rich soil of Punjab produces the best cotton in the world.


Pakistan lies in the temperate zone, immediately above the Tropic of Cancer. Arid conditions exist in the coastal south, characterized by a monsoon season with adequate rainfall, mostly in the province of Punjab. There are wide variations of extreme temperatures between north and south. The coastal area along the Arabian Sea is usually warm, whereas the frozen ridges of the Karakorum Range and of other mountains of the far north are snowcapped most of the year and accessible by world-class climbers only for a few weeks in the summer. The hottest place in the subcontinent is Jacobabad in Sindh Province, with temperatures of nearly 130°F (54°C) in the month of June. Rainfall varies from as little as less than 10 inches to over 150 inches a year in various parts of the country.

There are four seasons: a cool, dry winter marked by mild temperatures from December through February; a hot, dry spring from March through May; the summer rainy season, or southwest monsoon period, from June through September; and the mild autumn period of October and November.


Pakistan has a multicultural and multiethnic society and hosts one of the largest refugee populations in the world, mainly from Afghanistan. This diversity is more visible along cultural and linguistic, rather than religious or genetic lines. Almost all Pakistanis belong to the Indo-Aryan ancestral groups that include Punjabis, Pashtuns, Sindhi, Balochi, Baruhi, Balti, and dozens of other smaller groups. In the northern mountains are some of the oldest Aryan peoples, the Dardic, Kashmiri, and Swati. Urdu-speaking migrants from India known as Muhajirs, mostly living in Karachi, are grouped on a linguistic rather than an ethnic basis.

The estimated population of Pakistan in 2011 was over 187 million, making it the world's sixth-most populous country. About 95 percent of its people are Muslim, with the remainder made up of small groups of Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis (Zoroastrians), Buddhists, and followers of other faiths. The majority of the Muslims are of the Sunni Hanafi branch, and others are Shia.



The oldest stone tool in the world, dating back 2.2 million years, was found at Rabat, near Islamabad. The largest hand axe found in the Soan Valley and quartz tools from a cave in Mardan date from 50,000 BCE.

The site of Mehergarh, between the cities of Quetta and Kalat in western Balochistan Province, discovered by French archaeologists in 1974, has added to our knowledge about human history in Pakistan. The earliest settlement in this small farming village dates to between 7000 BCE and 5500 BCE. Six mounds have been excavated, yielding about 32,000 artifacts, including some beautiful painted pottery. The settlement was on a travel route between Persia and India used by migrants for thousands of years and is considered more ancient than the Khyber Pass. The excavation proves that there were continuous settlements in the Indus region dating back to 7,000 BCE. There are twenty such villages exposed on the banks of the Indus, and a clear picture is emerging of the signs of human settlement in this area.

The Indus

The Indus River, sometimes known as "the Lion River" or "Abasin" ("the father of rivers"), is a lifeline for the many communities living along its banks. In the seventh millennium BCE, the Early Bronze Age culture emerged in villages of Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. It is this social and cultural change that led to the rise of the famous cities of Mohenjodaro and Harappa along the banks of the mighty river. They were inhabited by the largest concentrations of population, including artisans, craftsmen, businessmen, and rulers. This culminated in the peak of the Indus civilization, which was primarily based on intensive irrigated agriculture and overseas trade and contact with Persia, the Gulf States, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. A picture of this time is frozen at the city of Mohenjodaro, the first planned city in the world, in which streets are aligned straight and parallel, with others crossing at right angles. It was the first literate civilization of the subcontinent, which lasted for nearly five hundred years and flourished up to 1750 BCE.

The Aryans

Around 1500 BCE there was an influx of nomadic tribes from Central Asia, caused by climate change and the need to search for water. This steady stream of new people reached the banks of the rivers flowing into the Indus Valley. Known to historians as Aryans, their legacy is the body of thousands of hymns called Vedas. These hymns are celebrations of nature, and almost all the main rivers of Pakistan are mentioned in them.

The Indus civilization, based on trade and industry, saw the arrival of horse-riding pastoralists who barely understood the system of irrigated agriculture and the value of dams. The Aryans developed their own religion, practiced animal sacrifice, and gradually built up tribal kingdoms along the Indus Valley. The most prominent of these was the Gandhara, with capitals at Pushkalavati (modern Charsadda) and Taxila. The Aryan tribes are known from the large number of their graves and from their village settlements all over Swat, Dir, and Bajaur, up to Taxila, and from the rock carvings they left along the Karakorum Highway.

The Persians

The city of Taxila began to grow from around the sixth century BCE, when the Achaemenian kings Cyrus and Darius sent expeditions to the Indus. Excavations show the use of iron technology in that period to produce tools, weapons, and other objects for daily use. Above all, a new form of writing known as Kharoshti was developed here. At the same time the world's oldest university was founded at Taxila. It was here that the future ruler of India, Chandra Gupta Maurya, who later founded the first subcontinental empire in South Asia, received his education. His grandson, Ashoka, introduced Buddhism into Gandhara and built the first Buddhist monastery at Taxila.

The Bactrian Greeks

The Persian Achaemenian Empire collapsed under the onslaught of Alexander of Macedonia in the fourth century BCE. He crossed the Indus at Swabi and came to Taxila in 326 BCE, to be welcomed by the local king, Ambhi, in his palace at Bhir mound. Alexander then moved on to the Jhelum River, fought with Raja Porus on its banks, and conquered Multan. His exhausted army refused to go beyond the Beas River and he had to turn back to the Makran coast to head home.

He left behind in Central Asia a number of Greeks, who founded the Greco-Bactrian kingdom of Gandhara. It lasted more than five hundred years, ruled by thirteen Greek kings and queens, and its art and religion had considerable influence on the development of the region. This civilization was the result of the interaction of several peoples who followed the Greeks — Scythians, Parthians, and Kushans — who came one after the other from Central Asia by various routes and integrated into the local society. It is under their patronage that Buddhism evolved here into its new Mahayana form, and this became the religion of the contemporary people in Pakistan. Under their encouragement Buddhist monks moved freely along the "Silk Road," the great transcontinental trade route, and carried their religion to central Asia, China, Korea, and Japan. Trade along the Silk Road was controlled mainly by the Kushana emperors, who built a mighty empire with Peshawar as their capital. The Kushana period, from the first to the third centures, was the golden age of Pakistan, with the Silk Road trade bringing unparalleled prosperity to the area.

The Huns

In the third century CE, waves of Hephthlites, sometimes known as Hunas, or white Huns, appeared throughout Central Asia, setting up a new system of rule based on tribal allegiance. They established themselves by the first half of the fifth century in the northwest, then pushed toward the east, causing the Gupta Empire of India to disintegrate, and made their capital at present-day Sialkot, in Punjab, under their emperor, Mihirakula. They were driven out eventually, and little is recorded about them in the historical accounts, but they created a new form of land management that has lasted until today. The tribes have fused into an agricultural society, but their brotherhoods have survived and they have given a permanent character to northern Pakistan. There are conflicting views among historians as to whether they were the ancestors of the Turks or the Pashtuns.

The Arabs

In 711 CE, the Ummayad dynasty of the Arab Caliphate sent an army led by Mohammad bin Qasim against the ruler of Sindh, Raja Dahir. This powerful Raja had captured some Arab ships and imprisoned the sailors and their families, and the Arab governor of Iraq wanted revenge. The Muslim army was repulsed in its first three attempts, but was later successful, conquering the northwestern part of the Indus Valley. The arrival of the Muslim Arabs in Sindh led to the creation of the kingdom of Mansura, near present-day Hyderabad, as part of the Caliphate, though with local autonomy to the ruler. The Arabs also swept over the land of Afghanistan, and in the tenth century Mahmud, the Turkic king of Ghazni in Afghanistan, conquered Peshawar and set up his second capital at Chota-Lahure, near Swabi, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

The Afghans

The foundations of a Muslim state in South Asia were firmly laid when the Ghori Sultans made the Indus country their springboard for the onward conquest of India, setting the stage for the religious boundaries that would lead to the development of the modern state of Pakistan. With the influx of Muslims, Sufi saints preached the word of God and their monumental tombs attracted people from all over the country. A succession of Afghan dynasties ruled the region through 1526, when the area was conquered by Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire.

The Mughals

The Mughals controlled the region from 1526 until 1739, making Lahore their favorite city. In the middle of the eighteenth century Ahmad Shah Abdali, the founder of Afghanistan, moved his forces several times to India and gained control of Punjab. But his weak successors lost the territory to the Sikhs. Ranjit Singh, a Sikh explorer, took control of a large portion of Punjab and fought with the Afghan rulers to control Peshawar. However, his successors could not hold on to power and Britain took over the area.

The British Raj

In the eighteenth century the Mughal Empire in India collapsed and the enormous British mercantile combine known as the East India Company began to expand its influence over the area, effectively governing it on behalf of the British Crown. During the period of British rule, the North West Frontier was administered as part of Punjab. The Indian Rebellion of 1857, also known as the Sepoy Mutiny, was the region's last major armed struggle against the British Raj (raj, Hindi, reign), and ironically it was crushed with the help of soldiers recruited from Punjab. After the suppression of the Rebellion, the East India Company was abolished and the administration of India was transferred to London. British rule consisted of areas directly administered by Westminster ("British India") as well as the princely states ruled by individual rulers under the suzerainty of the British Crown. In 1876 Queen Victoria was proclaimed "Empress of India."


Excerpted from Pakistan by Safia Haleem. Copyright © 2013 Kuperard. Excerpted by permission of Bravo Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Safia Haleem was born and grew up in Peshawar, northwestern Pakistan, and graduated from Peshawar University with an M.A. in English Literature. She worked as a teacher trainer in all the main cities of Pakistan before winning a British Council scholarship to study in Scotland. After gaining a post-graduate degree in Linguistics from the University of Edinburgh, she returned to Pakistan and co-authored the book Visuals for Language Teachers. In 1987 she moved to London and joined the BBC. Her work as a journalist has taken her to India, Iran, China, Afghanistan, and all over Pakistan. In 2004, she was project director for the BBC World Service Trust in Afghanistan. She is currently developing educational material for the Afghan Medical Association, whose work benefits people on both sides of the Afghan–Pakistan border. Safia is an established writer in Pashto, her first language, and has published several novels and short stories in the language.

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