Pak­ista­nis defy Valen­tine’s Day ban

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - WORLD - By Mehreen Zahra-Ma­lik

IS­LAM­ABAD >> When a friend told Hus­sain Li­aquat that po­lice of­fi­cers in the Pak­istani cap­i­tal might be check­ing cars for any­thing red or heart-shaped the night be­fore Valen­tine’s Day, he de­cided to get cre­ative.

Li­aquat, 22, went to the gi­ant Saeed Book Bank in Is­lam­abad and found a poster from “House of Cards,” his girl­friend’s fa­vorite tele­vi­sion show. Then he went in search of the per­fect ro­mance novel.

“I de­cided not to buy her balloons and choco­lates, to avoid po­lice con­fis­cat­ing them,” the math­e­mat­ics stu­dent said, leaf­ing through a copy of Erich Se­gal’s “Love Story.”

“Some­one told me this is like the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ of the 20th cen­tury,” he said. “I think I’ll get it.”

Like many other cou­ples in this city of 2 mil­lion, Li­aquat and his girl­friend cel­e­brated Valen­tine’s Day be­low the radar. Last year, the Is­lam­abad High Court banned Valen­tine’s cel­e­bra­tions across Pakistan, deem­ing them “against the teach­ings of Is­lam” and a sign of grow­ing Western in­flu­ence.

So, for the sec­ond year in a row, red “I Love You” balloons and heart-shaped boxes of choco­lates were es­sen­tially con­tra­band. Po­lice of­fi­cers in Is­lam­abad searched through streets and shops in re­cent days look­ing for Valen­tine’s Day sales. A con­cert by Atif As­lam, a pop­u­lar heart­throb singer, that had been sched­uled for Wed­nes­day was post­poned.

Some restau­rant man­agers re­ported re­ceiv­ing calls from un­known num­bers ask­ing whether boys and girls had ex­changed gifts on their premises, and whether they knew of other es­tab­lish­ments that might be ob­serv­ing the hol­i­day. A num­ber of florists and gift shops in Is­lam­abad com­plained that they had lost sig­nif­i­cant busi­ness as cus­tomers stayed away.

But there were also many in Is­lam­abad who didn’t mind tak­ing a risk for love — or to make some money — in de­fi­ance of the ban.

In the af­flu­ent neigh­bor­hood F-7, where Obaid Ma­lik, a young busi­ness­man, was parked out­side a strip of flower shops, sell­ers el­bowed one an­other to show him the long-stemmed roses he had asked for. Be­fore the ban, the street had typ­i­cally been jammed the night be­fore Valen­tine’s Day, but now the shops stood quiet and sell­ers seemed more des­per­ate than usual to make a sale.

“What does Valen­tine’s Day have to do with the govern­ment? Why are they both­er­ing peo­ple?” Ma­lik said as the florists showed him dif­fer­ent types of roses. Three de­fi­antly red he­lium balloons hov­ered in the back of his car.

“Three balloons be­cause, you know, ‘I love you’ is three words,” he said.

Ma­lik said that he would not take his wife out for Valen­tine’s Day lunch or din­ner this year, but that he planned to sur­prise her by cook­ing her break­fast.

“Peo­ple are still go­ing to go out and do their thing and have fun — maybe just in dif­fer­ent ways,” he said. “You can’t ban love.”

At the Baramda cafe, the man­ager, Tariq So­hail, glanced at a ta­ble on the pave­ment out­side, where a young man and a woman sat smok­ing and laugh­ing.

“You can ban a day, but you can’t stop peo­ple from be­ing to­gether or from fall­ing in love,” he said.

Some restau­rants de­cided on­line pro­mo­tions would be safest. “We’ve got a 15 per­cent dis­count to­day, but we only ad­ver­tised it on Face­book and In­sta­gram,” said a waiter at Noc­ci­ola Cho­co­la­terie.

Sim­i­larly, a few cus­tomers said they had opted for “vir­tual dates” to avoid the au­thor­i­ties.

“My girl­friend can’t get out tonight, so I’ll be Skyp­ing with her,” a univer­sity stu­dent said over cof­fee at the up­scale Kohsar Mar­ket. His friend, a curly-haired young woman, sug­gested chang­ing Valen­tine’s Day to Friend’s Day.

“That might work bet­ter in Pakistan,” she said. A third friend, wear­ing a bright red hoodie, dis­agreed: “No. We need a Valen­tine’s Day rev­o­lu­tion here. That’s what we need.”

In an­other part of town, po­lice of­fi­cers shooed away a man who had set up a stall to sell sin­gle roses. “We are just do­ing our job,” one said when asked why they had in­ter­vened.

Bal­loon sell­ers were also on the look­out for the po­lice. Most had cho­sen not to sell heart-shaped or red balloons.

But one ven­dor, Muham­mad Akhar, was boldly sell­ing red balloons that read “You Are Mine.”

“If the peo­ple who are com­ing to buy them are not scared,” he said, “then why should I be?”

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