Christmas? What Christmas?

Spending Christmas in another country can be a fantastic experience. But what happens when there is no Christmas to be celebrated? ANDREW WEBSTER, a former Longsands College pupil, writes about his life in Pakistan, and how he will cope this year without

Spending Christmas in another country can be a fantastic experience. But what happens when there is no Christmas to be celebrated? ANDREW WEBSTER, a former Longsands College pupil, writes about his life in Pakistan, and how he will cope this year without his family in St Neots, and even forgo the Christmas turkey

FOR the past 23 years, Christmas has been the one consistent thing in my yearly calendar.

Regardless of whether I have been at school, working in London or studying in Birmingham, Christmas has always been spent with my mum, dad, twin brother and late grandmother, and on most occasions, in my hometown, St Neots.

But this year is different, this year I will be spending my Christmas in Karachi, Pakistan.

A place in which I have no family, a place in which Christmas isn't recognised as an official holiday, and a place in which there is currently a declared state of emergency.

With this considered, I suppose a good place to start would be 'why am I here?'

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Good question. Many a local has asked the very same thing often pointing out that I have somehow got my wires crossed and that it is in fact Pakistanis who want to come to the UK and not the other way round.

But I'm afraid this is a myth I have to dispel. I have actually chosen to be here in Pakistan.

As a graduate in international studies and political science and someone who has spent the last year setting up work experience placements in the UK for international students I wanted to gain some first-hand work experience in a country completely different to my own and they don't come much more different than Pakistan.

With its culture, religion, food and climate, Pakistan is a contrast to the UK. Add to this the role Pakistan is playing in the war on terror as well as the political instability the country is currently facing and I can't think of a more interesting place to be in the world right now.

I arrived at the beginning of September to work in the communications department of a large financial services company and plan to be here for another year at least. I am having a fantastic time.

But Christmas is an exceptional time of year. It is the one time I would probably give up all of the diverse experiences I am having here in Pakistan in return for just a few homely pleasures.

For a start, Christmas isn't even celebrated in Pakistan because of the country's Islamic status. I have not seen one Christmas tree, one card, or even a reference to Santa Claus in the newspaper, on the television or in the street.

Whereas in the UK you could not mistake it for anything but Christmas at this time of year, in Pakistan you would be hard pushed to notice anything different.

And why should you or would you? The only relevance of December 25 for the Muslim citizens of Pakistan is that it is the birthday of the country's founder Ali Jinnah.

It's been quite a shock for me, but I guess it would be quite a shock for the local Pakistanis to see the British going crazy over a fat man with a white beard dressed in red.

What people are excited about here is Eid-ul-Adha - a celebration on December 21 to commemorate the Prophet Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his son according to Allah's wishes.

As far as the story goes Prophet Ibrahim was not requested to go through with the sacrifice and so he sacrificed a goat instead.

So to recognise the occasion, each year Muslim families with the means to do so, sacrifice an animal for almighty Allah.

This is usually a goat or a cow, but in some cases can even be a camel.

A large proportion of the meat is then given to the poor, before the family sits down and has a joyous celebration.

If I can't have Christmas then this is certainly something to look forward to.

With the Pakistani welcoming nature especially strong this time of year, there are already a number of offers on the table, and although not the traditional celebration I would be used too in late December, it's a celebration none the less and a celebration I am quite intrigued to see.

I think the highlight of Christmas for me as I get older is the food. Christmas dinner especially is something I start looking forward to in about mid-November. The combination of turkey and ham with those sausages wrapped in bacon is enough to make anyone's mouth water.

But in Pakistan the concept of eating turkey is unheard of. Furthermore, it is prohibited for Muslims to eat pork. All of this has left me in dire straits when it comes to Christmas dinner.

However, it might not be as bad as I first thought as the food is one thing I have come to love in Pakistan.

With its rich blend of spices and sauces along with its heavy emphasis on meat, eating has become more exciting for me. Although it didn't agree with me at first, I've become such a fan of the food that I am now disappointed when we don't eat Pakistani.

Therefore, if the turkey doesn't come through, I will probably settle for some chicken tikka, kufta and naan, which won't be such a bad thing after all.

At home in St Neots, Christmas dinner is always timed to perfection. We finish eating dessert at 2.55pm before gathering around the television for the Queen's speech. No one in my family is much of a monarchist but still it is somewhat of a tradition.

Again in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, there isn't a queen let alone a queen's speech. However there is a president, and he has been making quite a lot of speeches in recent weeks.

As you may have heard in the news Pakistan has been in a state of emergency since November 3.

At first I was quite concerned about this. I was anticipating riots on the street and worried that my stay might be cut short due to the unstable situation.

However, in reality life has continued as normal for the majority of people, including me. This is a fact that might not be so obvious from recent media coverage.

Although many people have been angered by the emergency and the seeming infringement on their human rights, they have been little more than spectators in their reaction.

What is more, in a decision I do not believe to be connected to Christmas, the state of emergency is due to be lifted within the next couple of days.

This means Christmas could be quite a mundane affair for me, far from the image of spending it ducking for cover in an emergency torn country governed by extremists which is the impression some of my family and friends seem to have.

Thinking again, maybe Christmas won't be too bad. Admittedly, there won't be my family, the turkey or the Queen's speech.

But what there will be is pleasant weather, welcoming hosts and exciting food in a relatively stable environment. Maybe one Christmas away won't do much harm.

They say that variety is the spice of life after all.

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