My fears diminished; I am often late for the theatre anyway.
Unlike many expats in Islamabad, I lived between the layers of Pakistani society. My colleagues, with whom I shared a small house, were middle-class professionals from provincial cities – maybe the Hello! readers of the future. Socially, thanks to some introductions from my friend, I was lucky to find myself on the fringes of a scene that was erudite, glamorous and remarkably diverse.
At one party, I found myself talking to “Pakistan’s most famous female-impersonator chat show host” – there is more than one – when we were joined by an Iranian diplomat who was surprised to find himself harangued by a 6ft man with fabulous hair and rather shapely calves. A consummate pro – one hopes he is moving to Washington DC soon – he artfully moved the conversation to cricket.
I was often advised to steer clear of religion and politics – advice that the Hello! editors will no doubt be happy to follow. They will find no shortage of other subjects. The fashion industry in Pakistan is booming, with competing fashion weeks in Lahore and Karachi. Indeed, my fiancée had her wedding dress made by a Pakistani dress-maker with the diva instincts of Jean Paul Gaultier.
In larger international hotels, beauty spas often serve three generations of chic ladies. And the men are just as image-conscious: Islamabad appears to be the hair-replacement capital of the world. Every time I returned to Britain, I would receive surreptitious shopping lists from Pakistani friends looking for the latest lotions.
And, of course, if Hello! ever finds itself short of stories, it can always tell its readers what their cricket heroes had for breakfast. If you thought sportspeople in Britain were overly venerated, you’ve seen nothing until you’ve been to Pakistan. Sportsmen (and they are only men) are beyond reproach. Colourfully decorated trucks that, in keeping with Islamic law, bear no images of people or animals, make an exception for Imran Khan, the former cricket captain. So when some cricketers took bribes for match-fixing, the communal shame was palpable.
A similar deference is rarely applied to other areas of national life. If there is one thing apart from cricket that unites a fractured country, it is gossip. Pakistan has a surprisingly vibrant and independent media that feeds a voracious appetite for controversy. There are at least seven 24-hour news channels in Urdu. Footage of suicide attacks creates a sense of fear and powerlessness, but if you really want to put the cat among the pigeons, you broadcast pictures of the president’s extravagant interior decoration or racy photos of Bollywood actress Veena Malik.
Many of the Western stereotypes about Pakistan are grounded in reality. When I first arrived, I naively mistook distant gunfire for fireworks. And there were times – for instance, when an American CIA contractor shot two people in Lahore – when people would eye me suspiciously if I ventured out of areas frequented by foreigners. Security is a constant concern. When protests erupted it was safer to stay at home, and relying on a driver to get around is more inconvenient than glamorous.
But for the most part Islamabad is an international city with the sleepy feel of a purpose-built capital. No one will argue that life is easy. But the country’s capacity for paradox, its appetite for heroes, villains and gossip, is how it deals with the difficult political realities.
Hello! will not achieve world peace, but it has a place in this complex discourse – and it brings an opportunity to show the world a more glitzy side of Pakistan that is overlooked by the world’s media.