This is an adaption of the opening address I delivered to the 2nd Lahore International Conference on Culture in Pakistan on 3 October 2017. You can view a video of the speech at the end of this page or download a transcript by clicking here.
People came up to me and they said to me “Why do you want to go to Pakistan? It’s full of Arabs, it’s only a desert. Everyone is shooting everyone. There’s nothing to see there.”
And of course, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
I took the bold step to go to Pakistan last year for the first time, and on the way, in Bangkok, someone said to me “You’re going to Pakistan? What job is it that you do?”.
My father thinks that I’m a spy. He’s 89 and he goes, “Everyone is asking questions about you!”
But the truth is that Pakistan stands deep in culture – more than any other part of the world that I know. I don’t just look at the history of civilizations and the history of worldviews that have come to Pakistan, but at what is happening in modern day times too. Because when we talk about culture, we’re not only talking about archaeological sites, we’re not just talking about music, but we’re talking about the deep aspects of culture – how we relate to each other, the values, the ethics. This is culture!
Pakistan had a great human being, Abdul Sattar Edhi, who passed away in July 2016. He was one of the greatest humanitarians of the 20th and 21st centuries, and the truth is, that for anyone to achieve what he achieved, it would not have been possible if there wasn’t a nation of people who embodied and reflected his values.
There is a reason why they call Pakistan, Pakistan – the land of the pure. When I go to Pakistan, there’s generosity and hospitality. I’m of Greek heritage and although we talk about Greeks being hospitable, the people of Pakistan are even more hospitable (and I don’t say this lightly!).
When the people of Pakistan talk about themselves and the nation of Pakistan, I suggest focusing on the positives, especially the positive cultural aspects. I can tell you stories about my country and my heritage, and people from every country can do the same. I was in Bosnia earlier this year. There was a war there in the former Yugoslavia, and there is more fragmentation today than there was before the war. But do you think that stops the people there from reaching out to the world today? Do you think it stops them from taking their culture to the rest of the world? They turned the country around, and tourism is booming. Thailand has 35 million tourists. Cambodia had the Killing Fields but now welcomes 5 million tourists a year, whilst Pakistan has only 130,000.
When considering tourism in Pakistan, I suggest that those involved shouldn’t think of it in purely dollar terms – dollars will come later. Rather, there are many opportunities, so think of the advantages. Think of how to build bridges towards a culture of peace. Think of tourism as intercultural understanding. This is very important. Think of the great things that come naturally to Pakistan, things Pakistan doesn’t need to work hard at, such as being generous and hospitable. These natural attributes will go a long way, and people will come back again and again to explore the nation’s culture, to be part of it, and take the culture to the rest of the world.
I have connections at the United Nations and WISE (the World Innovation Summit for Education). Those people want to build bridges with Pakistan. Don’t think for a moment they don’t. But it’s important for people in Pakistan to only focus on the positives when building these bridges. Don’t feel sorry for yourselves, feel proud of yourselves!
If you think of something like the Badshahi Mosque, there wasn’t one culture that contributed solely to its existence. Study the history of it, and you’ll find its Hindu-Parthian, Arab, Mongol and Greek influences.
There was an Indo-Greek king called Menandros, a fierce general, and he heard a story of a Sage, Nagasena. Menandros was scared of Nagasena, but eventually he went to visit him in Sagala (modern Sialkot) with his chariot and 500 horsemen. He conversed with Nagasena, who was a little old man, and the conversation changed history! King Menandros became a Buddhist and the book that stemmed from the conversation is called Questions of Milinda, which is often referred to as Milinda Panha; it’s the second most important book after the Tripitaka, which all Theravada Buddhists from Laos, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Sri Lanka use.
When I tell my Sri Lankan friends, “You know your book Malinda Panha? That’s a Greek book”, they laugh hysterically, “Everything you say is Greek!” they say.
The point I’m trying to make is that we all exist because of each other.
Go to the Lahore museum, one of the great museums in the world. They recently opened a new wing there, and a good friend of mine, one of the few Greco Buddhist coin scholars in the world, told me they have a coin which is very special. It’s the first bilingual coin in the world; on one side it’s Greek, it says the words ‘King Demetrius the Invincible’, and on the other side, it has the Kharosthi translation, an Aramaic script that was used for one of the Sanskrit dialects.
This is one of many, many stories Pakistan can share with the rest of the world. Not only ancient stories, but modern stories too. There are lots of archeologists who want to explore Pakistan, and I know young people who want to visit. My son, who’s 16 years of age, has a book full of poetry, is influenced by a lot of mystics from Pakistan, and has a big interest in Sufi poetry. I’ve also introduced him to the teachings and sayings of Edhi.
Think of those deep aspects of culture, and focus on the positives. You can look at the glass any way you want. You can look at it in an empty way, or you can see it as an opportunity to turn things around.
When Alexander the Great arrived in around 328 BC, he described the region we know as Pakistan today, as being the connector to the world between the East and the West, but something was in his way. When he went to the Khewra mountain range, which I visited on my previous trip, he said “We’re not going any further”. He’d heard stories of China, and he wanted to go to China but he couldn’t. He knew if he conquered that, he would connect the world.
Today, there’s a big project that’s happening in Pakistan; China’s One Belt One Road initiative, which will see one of six economic corridors slice through the heart of Pakistan. In doing so, China will achieve something that many an empire has tried to achieve, and it’s going to be up to Pakistan to take advantage of that.
Pakistan is going to use its culture because culture is a great enabler of sustainability. It’s an enabler of building peaceful and socially cohesive communities. It’s a great enabler of reducing poverty. It’s a great enabler of education. Last of all, it’s a great enabler of innovation, because knowledge is the diversification of ideas.
When we diversify, we grow, and when we bring ideas together, we create something new.