I used to think that one of the most accurate gauges of a nation’s character was its traffic. You could tell, from the way they behaved on the road, the levels of civilisation and progress that a people had attained.

If you come to Pakistan, the chaotic and busy traffic will tell you that, in general, it’s each man for himself here. We look out for ourselves, and disregard common courtesies (such as waiting for others to go first) that would normally make driving a somewhat pleasant experience. There are a remarkable number of cars on the road in all of our cities—you’d be right in thinking that population control is an issue. While there are often clean markings on the roads and signs, you’ll frequently see cars parked right below a ‘No Parking’ sign. We’re not good with rules. If there are lines on the side of the road indicating parking spaces, no one will care. They’ll park anyhow they feel.

Cars will also stop anywhere they feel like to off-load passengers. They’ll hold up any number of cars on the road so that ‘memsahib’ can get out right in front of the store where she wants to shop. Since drivers are prolific, the concept of parking and walking to one’s destination is rare.

In Saddar, Karachi, the government, in an effort o resolve the frequent traffic issues, have converted most of the smaller lanes (built almost a century ago, they are just wide enough for two cars to stand side by side) into one-way streets. Because no one follows the rules, it’s not unusual to be driving through one of these lanes to come face-to-face with another car coming from the other side. Occasionally, this will lead to an altercation of some sort, but mostly, the cars will squeeze by each other with some deft manoeuvring, ignoring the blatant violations of laws. Almost everyone does it, so there’s rarely any indignation at finding someone else also breaking the rules. I routinely follow all the rules, which makes driving, for me, an experience peppered with anger; as it is for any polite driver. My mother often wishes she owned a gun ‘for the pleasure of taking out their tires’, particularly when cars go down a road the wrong way. Eight years ago, the city’s mayor put road spikes onto one-way streets in a heavy traffic area located within the ‘posh’ district of Defence. He was inundated with a spate of irate calls from people one would normally assume to be educated, civilised. They threatened to have him removed from office (because a well-heeled individual in Pakistan doesn’t normally strike gold without essential government contacts), to sue him, and one individual threatened to have him ‘picked up’.

‘Picked up’ is a polite euphemism for kidnapping a person and sending them to Khyber Agency, one of the outlying frontiers of Pakistan where the long arm of the law is decidedly short.Thankfully, the mayor didn’t back down. He’s still alive, safe, and has not, to my knowledge, been sued for blowing up people’s tires when they drove unsuspectingly over the road spikes.

Somehow, despite the chaos on the roads, we have far fewer accidents than you’d expect. The dismal state of the roads mean that speeds are low. And no one ever drives drunk. Those two factors mean that more injuries result from car owners punching each other out than from the accidents themselves.

The picture isn’t pretty, but it is fascinating. I am waiting for the day that Google Maps has a live satellite view of Pakistan, and I can watch as the ant-like vehicles on our roads refuse to drive in straight lines or park with any discipline.

Ads Tell Us More

Later, after four years in college and several internships in advertising agencies, I began to wonder what our advertising said about us. Our buying patterns are supposed to be driven by demand, aren’t they? Advertising should tell us what people think about, want to buy, want to be.

Our TV service provider has signed a deal with BBC Polska and Fox Poland to stream their English language channels to Pakistan. We get shows like ‘House’ in English, and The X-Files dubbed in Polish on Fox (I’m expecting to be fluent in Polish within the year). BBC Polska includes BBC Lifestyle, with some appealing shows about cooking and home renovation. I watch both these channels quite a bit.

This post was inspired by the fact that advertising on both these channels is dominated by pharmaceuticals. I don’t know if Poland has the same high cost attached to TV advertising as Pakistan does. If it does, then I understand that pharmaceutical companies have the deep pockets necessary to run incessant ads on TV (TV advertising isn’t much of a gauge. The cost of creating the ad and buying space is high, so the most oft-promoted product or service will almost always be from large corporations with deep pockets). If it doesn’t, if advertising is costly across the board, then I have to wonder what this says about Polish people: do they work very long hours?

The most common ads on Polish TV are for painkillers; for muscle pain, migraines, upset stomachs, cold and flu, even diet pills. The second most common type of ad is for time-saving packaged food products.

Based on this, I’d say Poland is obsessed with their appearance, and they all desperately need a vacation from work.

Our channels are blanketed with ads from telecom companies (mobile services are competitive here, and everyone has a cell phone) and FMCGs. So on the one hand, you’ll see creative ads for cell phone packages, or you’ll be learning all about the latest and most effective laundry detergent (keep those whites white) available on the market. Or, if it’s Ramzan and our bodies are occupied with the thought of food during daylight hours, you’ll see all kinds of ads about cooking oil, biscuits/cookies, and prepared meals and spices for iftar (the evening meal when we break our day’s fast) and sehri (the morning meal before the fast begins).

A better indicator of the nation’s preoccupations is outdoor advertising—billboards. You’ll see an inordinate amount of billboards for fabric. Pakistan’s largest export is textiles, specifically, cotton. We’re right up there with Egypt when it comes to fine cotton. Of the different grades available, the finest is known as ‘lawn’, a light and sheer fabric that is perfect for our hot summers. And we’re a nation of designers. ‘Lawn’ ads with beautiful women wearing bright, brilliant patterns are a dime a dozen here. Our women like bold colors, dramatic and bizarre combinations of designs, and they like brand names. Some of the top brands in the country include Al-Karam and Gul Ahmed, Warda, Sana Safinaz, Khaddi, Nishat Linen.

Our national dress, the shalwar kameez, consists of three pieces of clothing (for women): a shirt, trousers, and a dupatta (long scarf). Lawn designs are a dynamic mix of the three pieces. Some of them defy description, so I’ve included pictures instead. I should point out, that, with the exception of images that are listed as ‘Festive Eid’, the rest are a perfect example of daily wear for all Pakistani women. That includes what we wear to work: (Update: I lost some images when I moved servers, but I will update this once I have found replacements)

Besides clothes, there are giant billboards for shampoo and hair products, cell phone services, packaged foods and household products. These are our preoccupations, not unreasonable, I believe. We think about our stomachs, our appearance, and our entertainment (which would be the cell phone services). How accurate this picture is, I can’t really say. I guess, in conjunction with our hideous traffic, it points to a high degree of self-absorption.

There are also a huge number of ads for amils and their services, though this is generally informally advertised via graffiti and small fliers tossed into peoples homes and cars. Amils are modern-day shamans, witch doctors who claim to cure all ills, find out if you’re cursed (by other amils), and promise to bring happiness and contentment to people’s lives. So, based on our ads, along with being selfish and superficial, we’re also pretty superstitious.

Karachi has a reputation for being unsafe; Pakistan in general has a reputation for being populated by extremists, fanatics, fundamentalists. I’d say our advertising proves otherwise. Our laissez faire approach to driving certainly doesn’t point to an intolerant society, merely a self-obsessed, fake and indifferent one.