The Pakistani Eton in the Age of Terror.
Aitchison is just a few minutes by car from the busy traffic circle where Islamic militants recently ambushed a bus full of Sri Lankan cricket players, wounding seven and killing six policemen and the driver of another bus. But it feels as if it’s another world. Surrounded by high walls, the 186-acre campus is a lush oasis of cricket fields, flower gardens, riding facilities, and turreted brick buildings that recall Mughal palaces. Some of the buildings date to the late 19th century, when Aitchison was established by the British to educate the future nawabs and maharajahs who would one day run the subcontinent on their behalf. Boys came with their own horses as well as groomsmen, valets, and even cooks (the subcontinent was rife with intrigue and poisoning was a genuine fear). One well-born student lived in his own private “bungalow,” an airy single-story structure with a porticoed entrance and windows in the shape of Moorish arches.
The bungalow has not been used in years, and the princes are long gone. But the musty air of privilege lives on. Today’s “Aitchisonians” are the sons of Pakistan’s contemporary ruling class — generals, politicians, landholders, industrialists, professionals — and about a third of them typically continue their education abroad, most in the United States and Britain. Not for nothing is Aitchison known as “the Pakistani Eton.”
That genteel image, of course, is wholly at odds with Pakistan’s present-day reputation as a cauldron of extremist violence — a failing state with nuclear weapons. But it also represents another side of Pakistan, one that has intrigued me since I first visited the country as a newspaper correspondent less than a year after the 9-11 attacks. Like most foreign reporters at the time, I was mainly focused on things like suicide bombings and the latest rumored sightings of Osama bin Laden. But I also was aware — as I drove the country’s modern highways, passed through its sleek new airports, or sipped tea with retired generals in air-conditioned salons in Rawalpindi or Islamabad — that Pakistan was a lot more complicated than outsiders fully appreciated. Complicated and, perhaps, durable. In particular, I was struck by the staying power of Pakistan’s elites — cultured, well-traveled, tinged with both religious nationalism and amorality — whom I came to think of as canaries in the coal mine.
Back home in Washington, D.C., I wondered how they were faring amid the country’s spiraling violence, and whether their continued presence in Pakistan was evidence of fatalism, denial, or some combination of both. Aitchison seemed like it would be a good vantage point on that story. So one day last fall, I plucked an email address from the Aitchison Web site and volunteered my services as a teacher in exchange for room and board. My query found its way to the acting head of the upper school, an amiable Scotsman who was one of the few expatriates on the staff and liked the idea of hosting a foreign journalist on campus, if only for the novelty value (“The boys are bored shitless,” he explained). I was invited to start in early January.
With no experience as a teacher, I felt like a bit of an imposter when I arrived on campus on a chilly Saturday night a few days after the start of the winter term. But my worry soon turned to wonder. Just what century had I landed in, anyway?
I was assigned to spare students’ quarters in Godley House, an upper-school dormitory and one of the oldest buildings on campus. The dorm was shaped like a horseshoe, with a lawn in the middle and a breezy arcade that gave access to the rooms. Mine was typical, with a gas fireplace — a necessity in the short Punjabi winter — and a private but unheated bathroom that flooded every time I took a shower. The dining hall was a vast baronial space hung with black-and-white photographs of “old boys” in turbans and sports gear. A cypress-lined avenue in front of the dorm led to the original school building, a temple-like structure topped with cupolas and an octagonal clock tower. It felt like Hogwarts as imagined by Rudyard Kipling.
And not just because of the architecture. Like the fictional school of wizardry, Aitchison was a world unto itself, caste-ridden and hierarchical. At its core was an army of gardeners, cooks, watchmen, clerks, sweepers, stable boys, laundrymen — everyone but Hagrid. Need a pair of pants hemmed? No problem — the campus tailor, an elderly, bespectacled man, would do it for less than 50 cents in his shop behind Godley House. Many of these workers and their families had lived on campus for generations, in a segregated area with its own school and health clinic; it was said that some of the women had never set foot outside the Aitchison walls. A banyan tree near one of the swimming pools was ringed by votive candles left by Christians on the staff who believed the tree had spiritual properties.
Of course much has changed over the years. Hindu and Sikh students left during the violent upheaval of Partition in 1947 (the old Hindu temple now houses the admissions department). And boarders now are outnumbered by day students, who arrived by the hundreds each morning in a caravan of Hondas, Toyotas, and the occasional Range Rover, parents or personal drivers at the wheel.
Even at Godley House, the boys had plenty of contact with the wider world. On weekends they made burger runs to McDonald’s or sat down in the common room to watch bootleg DVDs of foreign hits like Slumdog Millionaire. They used a couple of dated computers in a small room off the study hall to flirt with girls on Facebook. At dinner one night, the seniors at my table began with their usual supplication — opening their palms and murmuring thanks to Allah — and then sat down to a spirited debate on the relative hotness of Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek.
In the face of this cultural assault, Aitchison struggled mightily to keep its students in line. Kite-flying was banned as “unbecoming,” and the names of boys disciplined for fighting and other “ungentlemanly” acts were posted on a bulletin board for all to see. Daily rituals bordered on the monastic. At Godley House, we were awakened every morning at 6:15 by a servant ringing a handbell. The boys pulled on their clothes and lined up outside so the house prefect, a general’s son, could inspect them for soiled ties and other crimes against the dress code. In the mess hall, no one could rise from his table until the prefect had tapped a glass with his spoon. At sunset the boys stood at attention as the school flag was lowered and a bugler played an off-key version of “the Last Post.” Then they donned long formal tunics called sherwanis and filed off to evening prayers. Dinner was followed by study hall and lights-out at 10:30.
The formality extended to the classroom block, where teachers scurried along the corridors like Cambridge dons, satchels under their arms and black robes — a requirement for men on the faculty — billowing in their wake. One of them was a retired army officer with a luxuriant white mustache and thick tufts of hair sprouting from his ears. He was fond of quoting Shakespeare and regaling boys with stories of his exploits in Indian-held Kashmir in the early 1970s. Between periods, his booming voice echoed along the corridors as he urged the boys to hurry to their next classes. “Gentlemen, don’t saunter! No sauntering!”
The principal was an especially zealous guardian of the Aitchison mystique. A chartered accountant and the author of several books on Sikh portraiture, he had started at the school just a few weeks before my arrival. But he was educated at Aitchison and in England and remained a dedicated Anglophile who displayed a photograph of former British Prime Minister John Major on his office wall. He and I had a wary relationship. He had not been involved in the decision to bring me to Aitchison and had made it clear to those who were that he did not particularly like the idea of hosting a foreign journalist on campus. He was friendly enough in person, though, and appeared to have adapted quickly to the role of Dumbledore. “Excellence in sports and academics,” he told the boys at one assembly, “is no substitute for poverty of character.”
The principal had his work cut out for him. The classes that I helped teach were intended to prepare juniors and seniors for the essay-writing portion of the A-level exams required by British universities. But it was hard to see exactly how I was supposed to do this. The first sections I attended were free-for-alls. The teacher would write some insipid discussion topic on the blackboard — “Films should cause controversy or not. Explain” — and then stand by helplessly as the boys talked about whatever they liked. That’s assuming they even bothered to show up, since the only penalty for “bunking” — or skipping — a class was a small fine assessed to their parents at the end of every month. After a few days of this it was hard to avoid the impression that Aitchison was trading on its brand.
Part of the problem was that the teachers were treated like serfs. They were poorly paid and could not leave campus during the day without securing the equivalent of a hall pass from an administrator. Until shortly before my arrival they had not been permitted a teakettle in their lounge, on the grounds that it would encourage slacking.
Moreover, the boys were keenly aware of their superior social status, which meant that the normal classroom power relationship was sometimes turned on its head. One day I watched in amazement as a fellow English teacher, a pleasant, well-meaning young woman in a headscarf, roamed the corridor for 10 minutes after the bell literally begging her students to come to class. She eventually rounded up most them, except for a tall, unshaven youth who looked a lot like Ben Affleck and insisted on giving her a hard time. She argued with him for several minutes more before he finally slouched into class with an insolent look. A geography teacher down the corridor transferred to the middle school after someone drew a penis on her chalkboard.
I once asked an administrator why teachers seemed so reluctant to stand up to their students. He explained that many of them moonlighted at cram schools called “tuition academies.” Day students, in particular, relied on these schools to fill the gaps in their Aitchison education, and teachers didn’t want to lose business by offending them or their parents. He rubbed his thumb and his fingertips in the universal gesture for money. Another longtime Aitchison official blamed the school’s disciplinary problems on students from “feudal” families whose large landholdings often dated to colonial times or even earlier. “Their parents never worked for a living and they know they won’t have to either,” he sighed. “It is difficult to bring them to the books.” He estimated that about 25 percent of Aitchison students came from feudal backgrounds.
Egregious offenders — like the politician’s son who came to class one day with brass knuckles in the pocket of his blazer — sometimes were expelled. But even that could be reversed. An administrator complained to me that the school was often forced to readmit such students, sometimes in the middle of the academic year, under pressure from well-connected parents and politicians.
But I don’t want to give the wrong impression. As an alumnus had advised me early in my tenure, “At Aitchison you’ll find some of the dumbest boys in Pakistan, and also some of the smartest.” And it was true — many of them were smart, and also funny and well-mannered. My classes started improving after I realized that the boys would respond enthusiastically to material that actually interested them (duh). In collaboration with the teachers, I took to circulating copies of opinion pieces from the New York Times on subjects relating to Pakistan and the Muslim world. I used the columns to talk about writing — the use of examples and so forth — but inevitably the discussions spilled over into content. A Nicholas Kristof piece accusing Israel of overreacting to Hamas rocket attacks by invading Gaza was particularly well-received, except by one student who was offended by the mere mention of Israel, which is not recognized by Pakistan. “We can’t accept this,” he said dismissively. I was OK with that. At least I had his attention.
Sometimes the boys asked me to critique their college-application essays. This could be tedious — “I have always been fascinated by the field of accounting and finance” — but it also could be revealing. One of my brightest students was the son of a jewelry exporter from central Punjab. His older brother had gone to college in the United States and was on his way to law school there. In his essay, my student wrote of his yearning to follow his brother to America and free himself from Pakistan’s “backward and rigid society.” When I told him I was surprised by the harshness of his language, he thought a moment and then said he thought it was fine the way it was.
I could understand his desire for escape, and not just because of the dismal economy or the daily blackouts — known as “load-shedding” — that plagued Lahore and other major cities (backup generators kept the lights on at Aitchison). The Taliban was expanding its reach from the tribal areas into Pakistan proper. Over the last two years, the group had been linked to several big bombings in Lahore, including one that showered debris on the Aitchison campus, and had even taken over the Swat Valley, a once-popular tourist area barely 100 miles from Islamabad.
In the face of all this, I was surprised to find that Lahore’s cosmopolitan traditions had remained more or less intact. Pakistan’s second-largest city and the capital of its Punjabi heartland has long been home to its best universities, ablest writers, and liveliest art and music scene, to say nothing of the raffish homegrown movie industry known as Lollywood. Alcohol is readily available from Christian bootleggers, who as non-Muslims are permitted to buy it from special stores. One Sunday afternoon I accompanied friends to a match at the Lahore Polo Club. The announcer gave the play-by-play in perfect English (“There’s a melee on the field!”) and loudspeakers blasted American hip-hop in between “chukkers.” The crowd in the viewing stand — men in wraparound sunglasses, women in embroidered tunics and tight jeans — would have looked right at home in Palm Beach.
But well-to-do Lahoris were getting nervous in their gated compounds. One night I was invited into the home of a young professional whom I will call Masood. Bright and charming, Masood had attended Aitchison and an Ivy League university and had a rewarding career in the design field. He poured me a vodka and tonic and summoned a servant for crackers spread with foie gras and caramelized onions. Languidly puffing on a joint, Masood gestured to the artwork that covered his walls, including a larger-than-life canvas of a young woman in a bikini. “I keep looking at all my paintings and thinking, how am I going to roll them up when the Taliban come?” he said.
The boys at Aitchison had similar worries. A senior in my dormitory came from the Swat capital of Mingora, where his father had a law practice. The previous summer, the youth had witnessed a suicide bombing that killed a dozen soldiers. Of course that didn’t stop his friends from joking about the situation in my presence one night. “He’s a terrorist,” said one. “He’s from Swat. He’s a suicide bomber.” The kid smiled weakly. Not long ago I contacted him on Facebook. He told me that his family had evacuated to Islamabad and that he was looking forward to attending a university in England in the fall.
The immediacy of the terrorist threat did not mean that the boys saw it the same way I did. One night at dinner I got into a conversation with a senior on the subject of 9-11. “Do you think Osama bin Laden is a terrorist?” asked the senior, a strapping, self-confident young man who had traveled frequently to the United States and wanted to go to Georgetown.
“Yes,” I said, not sure what he was getting at. “Don’t you?”
“So…America attacked itself?”
He nodded. “They did it so they could take over the Muslim world, for the oil.”
That kind of thinking, of course, is common in Muslim communities the world over, and I soon came to realize that Aitchison was no exception. Why should it have been? Religion has played an ever-more important role in Pakistan since the late 1970s, when the military regime of Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq began to reshape laws and institutions to bring them into line with his conservative brand of Islam. At Aitchison, the legacy of “Islamization” was subtle but unmistakable — in the several hours a week devoted to Islamic studies, for example, or the strong sense of Muslim identity and, at times, grievance among boys who in other ways were not particularly observant. As elsewhere in Pakistan, there was a deep reluctance to acknowledge the gravity of the challenge posed by home-grown extremists. For example, the boys in my classes seemed much angrier about U.S. drone attacks on Al Qaeda and Taliban militants than they did about the presence of those militants on Pakistani soil. “I think we ought to shoot them down,” one said. The ambush of the Sri Lankan cricketers in early March occurred shortly after I left Pakistan. For days afterward, the Facebook pages of my Aitchison friends lit up with angry (and absurd) charges that India was behind the attack.
Once I circulated a piece by Thomas Friedman on last fall’s rampage by Pakistani terrorists in Mumbai. He asked why Pakistanis were not marching in protest of the attacks, as they had a few years earlier when a Danish newspaper published cartoons mocking the Prophet. Some boys accepted his argument. Others suggested that it was Friedman, and not their countrymen, who had missed the point. “You can’t expect Pakistanis to march against their religion,” one said.
By introducing such topics into the classroom, I knew I was treading on sensitive ground. But I didn’t realize how sensitive until I got a call one afternoon from the head of campus security, after I had been teaching at Aitchison for about a month. He told me I was wanted in the principal’s office.
It was clear from the moment I walked in that this was not going to be a social call. Greeting me without smiling, the principal sent a servant to fetch tea, then got right to the point. “We have our customs here and you must respect them.”
I was baffled, but not for long. “It’s my understanding you have an obsession with Gaza,” the principal said. Ah, so that’s what this was about. Feeling a bit like an errant schoolboy, I tried to defend myself. I said I assumed he was referring to the Kristof piece, and explained that I had merely circulated it as a model of persuasive writing, which was at least partially true. But the principal wasn’t buying it. Without providing any more specifics, he made it clear that volatile political subjects had no place in a writing class and that he was worried about possible repercussions. “I’m answerable to my board,” he said in that familiar clipped style.
Politely but firmly, he informed me that my teaching days at Aitchison were over, although I was welcome to remain at Godley House for a while if I chose. We shook hands and I left.
At first I was angry, but then I realized that I couldn’t really blame the guy for showing me the door. Maybe some parent had complained. Or perhaps some of the teachers had been irritated by the presence of an unqualified foreigner in their classrooms. In any case, I was a guest at Aitchison. Who was I to rock the boat?
The boys were touchingly supportive when they found out I’d been canned. “We like the way you teach,” said the jewelry exporter’s son. But most of the teachers treated me as if I was radioactive and I had no desire to stick around under the circumstances.
I’ll never forget my last night at Godley House. The boys were throwing a party to celebrate their victory in a cross country race. Couches had been dragged onto the lawn, a caterer and a DJ hired. It was a balmy spring evening, and the absence of girls — this was Pakistan after all — did nothing to dampen the festive mood. Wearing sherwanis over freshly laundered white trousers, the boys heaped their plates with biryanis, kebabs, and halwa, a dessert made from shredded carrots. After dinner, the deejay cranked up the volume, sending waves of American club music pulsing across the campus. As if on cue, everyone but me leapt to their feet and started dancing, waving their arms and shaking their hips. “Do you want to dance?” one yelled to me without a trace of irony. I tried to demur, gesturing to my cup of tea, but the boys were not taking excuses. “Dance with us!” another commanded. It would have seemed churlish to say no, so I set down my cup and joined the mass of heaving bodies on a paved area next to the lawn. Red and green lasers played on the walls, and a strobe light froze our movements.
For a moment, the Taliban seemed very far away. • 26 June 2009
John Lancaster is a former South Asia correspondent for the Washington Post and a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.