(This is part 8 of the series, for previous episodes, click here)
Parliamentary democracies around the world function on a basic principle. It is the system that matters and not the person who is at the head of the system. It has been argued that even if a communist became the president of the United States, things will not change drastically. That is the beauty of a system. Superficial changes do take place with every regime but the underlying system continues in the same fashion. That was why Barack Obama faced enormous challenges during his first four years of presidency and his administration failed to achieve a lot of goals that they had set during his election campaign. Hope and Change are in fact tremendous catchphrases for an election campaign but reality is not that easy to change.
Despite these obvious lessons, the mood in Washington DC on the first day after the election was upbeat. I remember walking up to a Subway shop and finding the Latin American server there telling me how proud she was because the Latino vote had helped Obama succeed in the election. We were scheduled to visit one of the most famous places in the world that morning, the White House. The White House is the official residence of the president of United States of America.
The White House is not only the official residence, but also the office space for the president and his staff. It is divided in two disparate wings known as East Wing and West Wing. The East Wing contains the living space for the president and his family, apart from historical color-coded rooms, while the west wing contains the Oval Office (office of the president), offices for his staff and meeting rooms. The ground floor of the East Wing is open to the public during the day and anyone with a ticket can visit the place. The West Wing is located at a short distance from the East Wing and is not accessible to the public. Our visit began with the tour of East Wing. After three or four different security checks, we were able to enter the White House premises. Photography was not allowed. The tour was guided and it included the Red Room, Blue Rooms, Green Room, State Dining Room, East Room, East Garden Room and China room. Following the tour, we emerged at the front entrance of the White House.
I was hoping to bump into President Obama but he was in Chicago at that time, with his family, celebrating the election victory.
In front of the white house, we saw the small camp where an Anti-nuclear peace vigil has been kept since 1981 by a lady named Concepcion Picciotto. She was not present at the spot herself at that time but another person was present there, who informed us about the vigil and its history. He told us that it used to be a 24 hour vigil but it was becoming difficult for the lady due to increasing age so she maintains the vigil for 7-8 hours daily now.
I was amazed to see that one of the most famous and iconic building in the world was open for public visits, while most of the government buildings in our part of the world remain shrouded behind mystery and the common man never gets to enter such places. I was also surprised at the simplicity of the interior of the White House. I have seen private houses in Pakistan, more palatial and baroque than the White House, which perhaps informs us about the difference in priorities between people of the two nations. Secondly, the persistence of the lady holding the vigil was awe-inspiring. In a world with decreasing attention spans, believing and working for your convictions is a rare sight.
Our next stop was the West Wing of the White House where we met Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, President’s Special Assistant and Senior Coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan. We sat in one of the many “situation rooms” in the West Wing of the White House. We asked him questions about U.S-Pakistan relations and how he sees the future of this tricky relationship. He was candid and forthcoming in his replies. It was an honor to be able to discuss these things with people at the highest levels and to be heard patiently.
Our meeting was followed by a memorable group photo with Mr.Lute on in front of the West Wing. We returned to our hotel for a brief period of time after that for some rest.
Our next destination was the Embassy of Pakistan. The first thing I noticed at the embassy was the feeling of familiarity and it felt like a home away from home. The fluttering flag of Pakistan on top of a beautiful building warmed our hearts.
Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States at that time, Amb. Sherry Rehman was on a visit to Pakistan and was expected to be back that day. We were received and later briefed about the routine of the embassy by Dr. Asad Majeed Khan, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy. After the briefing, we enjoyed some samosas (traditional Pakistani condiment) with tea.
We were about to finish tea and move on when Amb. Sherry Rehman showed up, to our utter surprise. It was a pleasure to meet her as most of us admire her for her role as a legislator in Pakistan. I was in awe of her because she was one of the first females in Pakistan to become Chief Editor of a well-respected English Magazine in the 1990s. We had a wonderful time talking to her, during which some of us were totally dumbstruck in front of such a celebrity. My lasting memory from that visit, apart from meeting Amb. Sherry Rehman was the ‘Lota’ that I found in the Embassy’s toilet.
Our final destination of the day was the office of the National Endowment of Democracy (NED). NED is a private, nonprofit foundation dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world. Each year, NED makes more than 1,000 grants to support the projects of non-governmental groups abroad who are working for democratic goals in more than 90 countries. We were scheduled to meet Mr. Wilson Lee, Program Officer, South and Southeast Asia and Dr. Fouzia Saeed, Visiting Fellow for the session 2012-13.
Dr. Saeed is director of Mehergarh, an Islamabad-based human rights and democracy center that conducts training and research on youth activism and empowerment. She talked to us about democracy is Pakistan, what it means for ordinary people and how we have the responsibility in the efficient working of the system. There were some tough questions and answers which were premised on the notion that democracy is not suitable for Pakistan. Dr. Saeed handled the situation well and explained that non-democratic forces in the country have created this charade of democracy as unsuitable for the country. The session concluded on friendlier notes though.
It was another exhausting yet enriching day of the visit.