OVER A COFFEE: From Slovenia with love —Dr Haider Shah
It is not that we were not given mountains like Slovenia. We, however, decided to use them for housing jihadis and their training camps
I am writing these lines over a coffee in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, where I am attending a research conference. Two factors prompted me to write about Slovenia. First, the surreal environment of this small South Central European country is so compelling that I can’t help writing about it. Second, in the city castle, the famous photograph of an Afghan girl, Sharbat Gula by Steve McCurry greeted me at the entrance gate, which pointed towards an exhibition of photographs about the effects of the Afghan war on the Afghan and Pakistani people. Like Virginia Woolfe’s novels, I travelled through streams of consciousness between two worlds — Slovenia and Pakistan.
Slovenia is one of the most war-battered nations of the world. A small nation of about two million, it faced the Italy in World War I and the Nazism of Germany in World War II, when the powerful neighbours broke it into pieces. The country has seen bloodstained civil wars against fascist occupiers in the early decades of the 20th century. As a part of Yugoslavia, it prospered under President Tito and was much more liberal and tolerant than its counterparts in Eastern Europe. In the 1980s, a movement for Slovenian independence was launched and in 1991, it became independent. Since then it has become not only a member of the EU but also the OECD, which is an organisation of advanced nations.
What surprised me most was the happy, fun loving atmosphere of the enterprising young country. No scars of the ravages of war can be noticed even upon very close scrutiny. Whether it is day or night, the country appears in a festive mood. In the city centre of Ljubljana, there are hundreds of busy open-air cafes and bars and one feels that the favourite pastime of Slovenians is to socialise over a cup of coffee or a drink. In the backdrop of these eating and drinking places, a lot of other funfair, sports and charity activities can be seen all day long. In my childhood days, I would read about the wonderland called koh-qaaf. I now have a feeling that I am in that surreal world where everyone seems happy for no reason. If there are any poverty or deprivation issues, those are concealed so well that a casual tourist cannot notice them.
A small castle in the middle of the city centre is one of the main tourist attractions. Its history is symbolic of the nation itself as it has remained under the occupation of various rulers from the Romans to Napoleon to the German Nazis. With the changing rulers, its fate also kept changing as besides a fort, it had been used as a prison, stable, and hospital. Now it is a national heritage centre used as a tourist attraction and for cultural promotion. Viewing the castle, I thought that we also had splendid castles in Pakistan. But while Attock Fort has earned its name for incarcerating political leaders or revolutionary poets, the Peshawar Qila Bala Hisaar is permanently occupied by the Frontier Corps. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, its nationalist credentials notwithstanding, cannot get the historical castle back from the men in khaki so that it could be used as a cultural heritage centre for the benefit of the entertainment-starved people of Peshawar.
About an hour’s drive from Ljubljana is the lake town of Bled. Travelling to this tourist paradise, one crosses a number of small hilly towns. God has been generous in bestowing beauty upon these areas. But God is just in his dealings with all human groups. He has given three things to every society. First, people, who form a society. Second, physical resources, like land, water, mountains and minerals. And lastly, brains, with which people agree with one another on how best to use these resources.
No wonder the Slovenian mountains attract tourists while our mountains attract jihadis from all over the world. We also have a picturesque Swat valley with abundance of natural beauty. But we decided to make it a hotbed of the Shariat movement. While women in the Slovenian mountains add beauty to the environment, we flogged them in public for talking to strangers. We also have Gilgit-Baltistan but it comes in the headlines not for its unspoilt beauty but for Shia-Sunni sporadic killings and curfews.
The conference was held at the University of Ljubljana where I strolled through alleys to enjoy the calm and peace of campus life. Groups of young students could be seen sitting in cafes or on benches relaxing through social discourse. Energetic female students strutted around, unencumbered by any sense of insecurity or low esteem. The enabling environment stood in stark contrast to our campuses in Pakistan where student outfits affiliated with certain religious parties deem it their divine duty to enforce their brand of suffocating morality upon all students and where activists belonging to various political parties thrash teachers and principals when stopped from cheating in examinations.
At the airport, I sat outside the arrival gate sipping coffee as I awaited my family that joined me a day later. Soon I was in the midst of an entertaining scene as a young group of men and women greeted their guests by playing traditional Slovenian music with harmoniums and other instruments. For about 10 minutes, the arrival hall was abuzz with loud music and crackers. Not in my wildest dreams could I imagine this happening outside an airport. Slovenian people have taught me one lesson: how to remain happy and welcoming. Perhaps our leaders and policymakers need to spend a few days in Ljubljana as we seem to have forgotten how to be happy.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org