x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

'Who knows where Pakistan will be?'

Last word Nasir Khan is surprised to discover that his friends and neighbours are carefully plotting their escapes

Nasir Khan is surprised to discover that his friends and neighbours are carefully plotting their escapes. Asim Malik's office sits on the ground floor of an inconspicuous brick building in Cavalry Ground, a fairly posh area of Lahore where smallish houses occasionally bump up against mansions. From the outside, the building looks as quietly refined as its neighbours. In the waiting room, however, mayhem reigns as bodies of all shapes and sizes (and smells) compete for seats and space. Most of my friends have been to see Malik or one of his partners, at least for a consultation. I have recently learnt that even high-ranking government officials are frequenting his office. Last week I was dragged there by my brother. Like many Pakistanis, he had seen Malik's television and newspaper advertisements, in which he touts himself as a messiah for those in search of dual nationality, the solution to every emigration dilemma a Pakistani might have, the path to whatever passport you desire. Rumours abound about his tendency to charge upwards of $5,000 for his services, then fail to deliver, But his popularity remains undented, and every day his office is filled with people willing to pay thousands of rupees just for a strategy meeting.

My brother was itching to obtain British passports for himself, his wife and their two-year-old son. When I asked why, he shrugged: "I think it's a good option and will make travelling easy for us. And, who knows where Pakistan will be by the time our son grows up?" Before I could answer, the door opened and in walked an old school friend of mine named Ahmed Malik. Since school, Ahmed has become an incredibly successful businessman. Today he owns a textile mill, and despite the recession, his shipments are still being sent across the ocean to big name brands like Gap and Banana Republic. I was shocked to see him here - and we both felt a little embarrassed. These awkward encounters are common in immigration offices: no one wants anyone else to know that they are looking for an escape route.

I quickly told him that I was merely accompanying my brother, then asked why he wanted another passport. "It's not me, it's my wife," he said. "She bugs me all day long because she says a Pakistani passport is no security. She wants to take the kids and settle in Canada." A fractured family separated by thousands of miles is becoming something of a norm for Pakistan's upper-middle class. The husband stays behind to earn money and maintain the family's social stature: the wife and children fly off to Canada, England or America (though US visas are becoming increasingly impossible to come by).

A friend of mine recently sent his seven-month-pregnant wife to Toronto to give birth - because children born in Canada are automatically entitled to Canadian citizenship. He hoped to get a visit visa in time for the delivery, but it didn't work out; he met his first child four months later, at the Karachi airport. Though the scheme wiped out his savings, he felt it was worth it: "Yes, I missed the important moment when our child came into the world. But I think the child will thank me for sending his mother abroad so he can have a Canadian passport."

In Malik's waiting room, my brother and I sat next to an attractive young couple poring over a pile of forms. It turned out they were both doctors who graduated from Pakistan's top medical college, completed specialised training abroad and began practicing here almost a decade ago. Now they wished to abandon their lucrative careers and relocate abroad; they were consulting the form and tallying their qualifications to see if they were eligible to emigrate to England, a country that gives preference to highly-skilled applicants.

The wife, Fareeda Saleem, explained their reasoning. "I just don't think there is much here for us to hang on to," she said, tapping her pen on the clipboard. "All the bombings and God knows what else have scared me. I am scared for the children. I don't know if stability will come here, I would rather not risk the only life I have." I was surprised to hear this. I'm used to hearing the international media obsess over Pakistan's Talibanisation and "imminent collapse"; I'm not used to hearing well-off Lahoris echo these exaggerations verbatim. In the Lahore that I know, men and women go calmly, safely and happily to their offices, coffee evenings and committee parties. Life is peaceful and cheerful. I wondered if visiting Malik's office had put me in the company of the city's most paranoid citizens.

A few days later, during a visit to the US embassy in Islamabad, I realised that, well-informed or otherwise, the desperate desire to emigrate was stronger and more widespread than I had realised. I was there for a visit visa: my wife, a graduate of Columbia University, was eager to show me Manhattan. We had no definite date in mind, and weren't even sure if we would be able to get away from work. Most importantly, we knew that it would be a holiday, nothing more - we like living in Lahore, and the visa-breaker's life does not appeal to us. As a result, we were calm and collected during our interview and our visas were approved within minutes.

The crowd outside was a different story. A woman in her seventies sobbed while waiting for her number to be called. When we asked her what was wrong, she said that her daughter was about to give birth in Virginia and she wanted to go see her. She had been fasting for a week and had promised God she would fast for another week if her visit was approved. After a while, she admitted that she had no intention of coming back. When her visa was refused, her cries and wails echoed throughout the hall. "You don't understand," she cried hysterically. "I have to go. I just have to."

On the bench behind her, a young man chewed his fingernails (he was almost down to the skin) while waiting for his number. His middle-class parents had scraped together enough money to send him to a community college in Pennsylvania, and he was eager to try his luck in greener pastures. All he needed now was a student visa. "Once I go there, my life will be made," he said, grinning from ear to ear as he envisioned it. "All I have to do is step into American and success will kiss my feet."

He asked if we had ever been to the United States. When my wife said that she had, he stared at her and wondered aloud: "Is it true that everyone who goes there and works hard and studies hard becomes a millionaire?" She laughed. "I think someone who works hard and studies hard is just as likely to become a millionaire in Pakistan." But I knew from his wide eyes and smile that he wasn't listening.

Nasir Khan is an advertising executive and freelance journalist in Pakistan.