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Jamie Stiehm
Past and Present
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A Pilgrimage: America in the Eyes of Others

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I thought I knew all about you, America.

I saw this land anew through the eyes of others — four visitors from Pakistan, whom I helped cover the presidential election. We went on a two-week jaunt in the heartland, ending on Election Night at the Foreign Press Center in Washington, D.C.

In Chicago, we visited the vibrant Pakistani community, news to me, somewhere I have never been.

The group, led by the director general of Radio Pakistan, Murtaza Solangi, a remarkable journalist, sent batches of dispatches home daily — tweets, too. The trip was paid for by the U.S. State Department to advance knowledge of American democracy. Journalists are like the messengers of democracy. Pakistan, a fragile ally we'd like to keep close, will soon have parliamentary elections.

Traveling a thousand miles or two through the 2012 battleground states gave us a fix on the country at a crossroads. We first covered the third presidential debate in a speck of a school in Florida. Last stop was the Sept. 11 memorial by the lonely, snowy field in Pennsylvania where the United 93 flight fell and smashed to smithereens. That plane was bound for the Capitol, taken down by a passenger revolt.

At the debate, a carnival-like mood prevailed before the show got started. In the tightly wound press room, I noticed the word "drones" making Murtaza's face tighten. Drones are a new feature of our foreign policy, but we don't talk much about them.

Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger, spoke of Pakistan only in terms of its nuclear warhead capacity. "We don't want it to be a failed state," he said. President Obama spoke with more nuance about Pakistan, admitting that if he sought permission for the Osama bin Laden raid, he would not have gotten it.

But he pronounced "Pakistan" correctly, Murtaza noted. So few leaders do.

It's a troubled nation of 180 million people, ruled mostly by military dictatorships since its birth in 1947. Murtaza spoke of his friend Benazir Bhutto, the prime minister who died by assassination. He never directly said so, but his work furthers her unfinished mission. He has seen far more than I of what the world can do.

In Wisconsin, we attended a women's rally for Paul Ryan's opponent in his race for re-election for Congress. One woman and her dog were decked out in Green Bay Packer regalia — how to explain to those back home in Pakistan? Women assembling to assert their place in the political process — something like that.

Our stop in Johnstown, Pa., was marked by the question from an eighth-grader in a civics class: "Do you have McDonald's in Pakistan?" Murtaza's answer: yes. He did not tell them about "Malala," a 14-year-old girl known by her first name, shot on a school bus for standing up for education for girls. That might be a bit much.

On the bleak field where United 93 crashed, Murtaza did a sober stand-up, saying Pakistan's deaths due to terrorism are a higher toll than in the U.S. This I didn't know.

Finally, when we went to my voting precinct in Washington, Murtaza zeroed in on a bowl of candy as an image to send to the other end of the earth. The candy symbolized the civility that struck them. So did the absence of argument, turmoil and weapons. The refreshing free speech expressed in interviews were commonplace to me, but out of the ordinary to my Pakistani friends.

One woman told us voting is a privilege. How right she was. After a pilgrimage crossing over land, I can write home that our American democracy truly is something to be thankful for.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm, and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2012 CREATORS.COM



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