In a country rife with extremism I saw civilized culture and a triumphant human spirit.
Pakistan is a country where militants in the idyllic Swat Valley have torched more than 130 girls' schools. Where dozens of suicide bombings (including a major one in the capital Saturday) – and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto – have rocked civilian life. Where suspected spies are publicly executed and women have very little freedom near the Taliban-infested border with Afghanistan.
It's also a country where my niece and I can don sweat pants and T-shirts and hit the treadmill at the gym. It's an upscale coed health club where men wear shorts, treadmills are outfitted with TV screens, and the trainer brings you ice water – a custom so civilized that it should be adopted worldwide.
In my first journey back to my husband's homeland in three summers, I was struck by these contradictory faces of Pakistan. An armed security guard stoically stood watch inside the gate of our family's home in Lahore, a bustling city near the border of India.
Under his watchful eye, our boys played a boisterous game of cricket with their cousins in the front yard. In the past two years, he's only shot at a crow, but his somber presence is unsettling.
"Whatever you see is the real Pakistan," says Hassan-Askari Rizvi, a relative and a political analyst who's writing a book, "Pakistan After 9/11." "Pakistan used to be a moderate, liberal country. In major urban areas, the situation is more or less like that. Women wear jeans and drive cars. In other parts of the country, you'll see schools for girls being burned. There are still people in this country who don't realize the Taliban are a threat to the existence of this state."
Emboldened, the Taliban are slowly moving from the lawless tribal region, where the militants have found a sanctuary, into the heart of the country.