Remembering Islamabad

As the capital continues to be overhauled, Foqia Sadiq Khan is feeling increasingly nostalgic for 80s Islamabad

Remembering Islamabad
While walking out of the Kabuli Restaurant in F-7, Islamabad, I mulled over writing this piece. Who remembers Islamabad? It is such a bizarre thought.

You can write about Lahore and its (fast disappearing) beautiful architecture or about Karachi, its beautiful Parsi and British architecture and pontificate on how the ‘melting pot’ of Pakistan has transformed itself in the last 40 years – I actually do keep urging a family member to write about growing up in 60s Karachi; his childhood in Soldier Bazaar and his frequent voyage to golden age of cinemas in Pakistan.
Kabuli Restaurant reminds me of a pattern in which people eat out in Islamabad

You can also write about a small village in the hills, deserts or near the shore. But how can one write about Islamabad, an artificial city which is considered 22 miles away from Pakistan?

I weighed all these arguments and still decided to write about some experiences of living in Islamabad. “I am getting old now”, I told myself. One is allowed to be nostalgic about one’s life even in Islamabad if you are in your early 40s.

Outside Kabuli Restaurant
Outside Kabuli Restaurant

Even though I grew up in Rawalpindi Cantt, I have spent most of my adult life in Islamabad since the late 80s (with a few breaks). This is the city where I spent glorious sunny days with my parents. I went to college and university here. It is where I found love.

Both my parents passed away in the last few years. However, the time spent with them is etched in my mind as I go through my day to day life. I had my last conversation with my mother when I was getting some food packed from the Kabuli Restaurant in F-7. I was on my way back from CMH, Rawalpindi. I got a call and she was put on-line and we had our last chat. She passed away after two days.

Chaat Place in F-6
Chaat Place in F-6

I have bonded with friends many times over plates of chaat

Kabuli Restaurant reminds me of another pattern in the way people eat out in Islamabad. There are high-end eateries and yuppie cafes all over (and we frequent them as well). The poor, or even lower middleclass, can perhaps not afford to eat at the Kabuli Restaurant. Still, it is one of those less pretentious places in Islamabad. I see middleclass and upper middleclass eating there in the same place. I see burqah clad women with long bearded men and I see young girls in sleeveless shirts with more formally dressed men eating there. It is a place where there’s representation from the cross-section of society.

There are some other similar avenues in Islamabad as well. The chaat and samosa joints and the Melody Food Market are a few other places where you see a broader representation of various sections of society.

Rose and Jasmine Garden
Rose and Jasmine Garden

Rose and Jasmine Garden is another place where people from all walks of life converge

Otherwise we have segregated lives. This segregation is structural. No one has told us that the rich and poor cannot eat together, as was the case with the white and black Americans before the civil rights movement. Yet, there is segregation. We go to different offices; different schools and colleges; different grocery stores and lead almost segregated lives in cities like Islamabad. “The Twain shall never meet” and it hardly meets. Places like Kabuli Restaurant offer an experience of sharing physical space with people who may belong to a different class from you.

My father used to say Islamabad looks like a dream when it rains here. He was a poet and could use his imagination to come up with strong descriptions. With green-blue Margallas and hovering clouds on the sky, when raindrops fall on the trees, it creates an amazing view. Yes, Islamabad, the dream, is different for different people. For people living in the slums or being forcibly evicted from their homes in the slums, their dreams shatter every day.

Inside Kabuli Restaurant
Inside Kabuli Restaurant

My father was an early riser and walker. He would get up and go for his early morning walk. When he was well, he would stop-over at the dhaaba in the green belt in front of our house (which has been demolished to make the new Seventh Avenue), have his paratha and chai and happily chat away with everyone having breakfast there.

My father would be emotionally overwhelmed when leaves would change their colour from pastels to red during the fall in Islamabad. It was so beautiful that it would make him cry. We used to go to see the chrysanthemum exhibition in the Rose and Jasmine Garden.

Rose and Jasmine Garden is the other place where people from all walks of life converge. My father and I had many interesting political discussions there with the infusion of personal bonding.

The author's father S.G. Sadiq Khan
The author's father
S.G. Sadiq Khan

My father used to say Islamabad looks like a dream when it rains here

In my first proper job in a research institute in Islamabad in the late 1990s, we used to all get bundled up in someone’s beaten-up car and go to Quaid-i-Azam University mud huts to eat Majeed’s daal, aaloo and qeema (fried in tons of tomatoes). A colleagues of ours used to play the role of cashier for all of us and would ask the waiter in a sorrowful voice “aaj kitna sadma hua hai” (his ironic way of asking for bill implying how much money we have to cough up) and then proudly pronounce whether the company (the lunch eating party whose cashier he was) was in “profit” or “loss” today (depending on whether he got more contribution from us and paid a little less or the other way round).

I have bonded with friends many times over plates of chaat in F-6. Some soul-searching conversation needed to deal with the ups and downs of life, some strategizing needed to handle with a difficult situation – how else to go about it than to meet at the chaat place and gulp it down with fresh juice. One of my friends would get really excited when I would tell me about my occasional trip to Karachi Company and the sounds and sights of fruit, vegetables, dry fruits, clothes and household items lying open in narrow alleys. Now when I see young people stuck with their digital devices in the yuppie cafes leading segregated lives, I just wonder about the kind of lens they will be see the world with, when they grow up.

The writer is an Islamabad-based social scientist and can be reached at