WAGAH BORDER CROSSING, PAKISTAN/INDIA—The first indication that Pakistan is a mass of internal contradictions occurs at the airport. In the arrivals area, there are two passport lines—one for men, the other for "unaccompanied women and children." It's appalling at first glance, but women love this manifestation of gender segregation. "The women's line moves a lot faster," an American woman who lives in Pakistan told me.
Moving fast was a good idea. Islamist leaders of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) and its affiliated Jamia Hafsa madrassah were locked in a Branch Davidian-type standoff with Pakistani security forces. After months of Taliban-style vigilantism, including the kidnapping of 10 Chinese nationals they accused of working in a bordello masquerading as a massage parlor, and seizing control of a children's library, government troops had surrounded the complex.
The Red Mosque crisis symbolizes the devil's bargain Pakistan's ruling elites have struck with Islamic radicals since independence from Britain, a tacit understanding that has turned this nuclear-armed state into a terrifying cauldron of instability. Cracking down on the fundies could lead to civil war. Doing nothing, the government's usual approach, almost certainly will.
Pakistan is a military dictatorship with a wild, freewheeling press, ruled by an antidemocratic despot who respects many democratic institutions. A graduate of a Catholic high school and a Presbyterian college, General Pervez Musharraf came to power by allying himself with radical Islamist political parties who convinced him to invite Afghanistan's Taliban militia into Pakistan to fight India. Most Pakistanis are secular and favor modernization, yet watch their nation's Talibanization in passive silence.
If your head is spinning, congrats—you're Pakistani for 1,000 words.
Musharraf is playing a dangerous game, balancing the hopes and fears of educated liberals to the left against radical Muslim clerics on the right. Most leaders who deploy a strategy of reverse triangulation end up with no support at all. Because Musharraf has transformed the Pakistani political system into the personification of his policies, Pakistan itself could follow suit.
The biggest clash in Pakistani society, however, is common to the Third World: a widening gap between the lives of a few well-off individuals and millions of everyone elses. Frustrated at the toll that the dismal condition of Pakistani highways took on its bus lines, South Korea's Daewoo conglomerate decided to spend $375 million to build its own. The privatized six-lane toll road of immaculate asphalt allows elite motorists to zip through the impoverished wasteland separating Islamabad and the Punjabi capital of Lahore in a mere four hours. If you're Jamal Schmo, it costs 12 hours and the occasional broken axle.
After weeks of high-altitude trekking through Tajikistan—bad food, bed bugs, bathing in icy rivers fed by fresh snowmelt—I decided to treat myself to the four-star Pearl Continental Hotel, guarded by towering Sikh soldiers brandishing automatic weapons. They searched beneath my taxi with a mirror attached to a long pole, patted me down and ran my luggage through a metal detector. It was worth it, for it wasn't Pakistan inside.
Pakistani women rarely venture outdoors. When they do, they cover themselves—with headscarves in the cities and burqas in the countryside. Inside the Pearl Continental, however, it's a different world. Pakistani and foreign women flaunted skirts and sleeveless shirts next to tables occupied by glaring male traditionalists wearing long beards. Bikinis were de rigeur poolside. Hotel workers gawked.
Three decades after partition from India, 97 percent Muslim Pakistan banned alcoholic beverages in 1977. Drinkers face 20 lashes and three years in prison. If you're a wealthy Muslim with a taste for booze, however, prohibition is fictional. Rich Pakistanis purchase "infidel licenses"—liquor purchase permits—from religious minorities such as Hindus, Christians and Zoroastrians. Even in the four-star hotel bubble, discretion is a must: My can of Murree Beer, brewed in Rawalpindi, came via room service and arrived double-bagged in plastic.
"Officially, Muslims may only imbibe alcohol on pain of punishment, but unofficially, it's easy for Muslims to acquire it," says Minoo Bhandara, CEO of the Murree Brewery. "Ninety-nine percent of our customers are Muslim." A few years ago, Pakistani parliament quickly withdrew a call to enforce prohibition after Bhandara threatened to cut off deliveries to the parliamentarians who sponsored the legislation.
"Laws," a Pakistani friend notes, "don't apply to the ruling class." Indeed, Taliban ally Musharraf is known to kick back with a scotch now and then.
The Lahore Museum, notable for its Fasting Buddha statue and sauna-hot browsing conditions, displayed a map of cultural anthropological sites. Pakistan's neighbors—Afghanistan, Iran, Nepal, even tiny Bhutan—were clearly labeled. There to the east, however, was a large, familiarly shaped nation that the museum director had evidently chosen not to identify. It was a perfectly obvious fiction. It was perfectly Pakistani.
The next morning, I drove to the famed Wagah border crossing with the country whose name may not be mentioned. It was 120 degrees and humid and the monsoon was at least a week away, the most miserable time of the year in South Asia. Grim-faced Pakistani customs clerks, passport control officers and policemen shunted me the few hundred yards to a yellow line painted on the road. I stepped across and handed my passport to a middle-aged Indian military officer. Sweat poured down my face, spotting my visa. "It's too cold," he said, smiling.
It was the first joke I'd heard since I'd entered Pakistan.
Ted Rall is the author of the new book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.