“We are here to reclaim the space we had lost to fear and insecurity. We are here to be proud, again, of our rich cultural heritage, our cities, our streets, our monuments, our food and our traditions. We are here to celebrate Pakistan. And we want the world to see what we truly are, contrary to how they perceive us, mostly through mass media.”

This is, more or less, the mission statement of a tour company, Super Savari Express, that started operations in Karachi just a few months ago and that plans to unearth the many hidden cultural jewels of Pakistan – one city at a time. Last week, on Sunday, accompanied by an eclectic mix of people on the inaugural tour in Lahore, it was heart warming to flavor the nationalistic fervor of two bright-eyed tour operators as they welcomed us in a parking lot adjacent to Minar-e-Pakistan.

The designated tour guide for Lahore, Muhammad Murtaza, was a maverick in more than one sense of the word. A sophomore student at LUMS, he perceived popular monuments like Badshahi Mosque as a symbol of Mughal supremacy – a massive building with the purpose to simply stamp Mughal authority in the subcontinent – and insisted that the art, or the ‘labor of architectural love’ in the era before ours was in fact hiding in some of the less known, less frequented landmarks within the walled city, like the Wazir Khan mosque. Refreshingly, Murtaza wielded his narrative prowess to paint modern day Lahore in brush strokes that were not inspired by record keeping historians but by residents who had dedicated the rest of their days to the preservation of Lahore’s architectural heritage, otherwise growing dull and dim in the face of indifference.

Kamil Khan Mumtaz, the founding member of Lahore Conservation Society, was amongst us on the inaugural journey and by the end of the tour it became clear how he had contributed to the Super Savari Express narrative of not neglecting the ‘orphans’ of our heritage. Special permissions were sought by Super Savari Express to take tourists to places of worship, including Gurdwaras that typically remained closed to outsiders. The residents of the walled city, who were only just beginning to rise and ramble onto the streets in the early hours of day, looked at us with surprise. We were a bunch of local tourists in not very touristy places.

As we meandered through the narrow streets of the old city, our group stretched and broke in some places because different people had different points of interest. While Murtaza led a bunch of eager explorers at the helm of the entourage, the co-founder of Super Savari Express, Atif bin Arif, anchored the trek, making sure no one missed out on the finer details of what the walled city had in store for us.  

As we progressed, by far the most amusing and frustrating phrase we heard was when someone inquired about the next landmark and Atif – on cue each time – said, ‘we cannot disclose the details of our next site for your security and the security of this tour’. This phrase carried the weight of a ponderous full stop that sat like an impenetrable bulwark between the guide and the tourist. Since Atif said this with an enormous smile each time it was as though he had endlessly practiced the art of politely confiscating lollypops from the firm clutches of candy crushing youth. And that was another reason why the experience of walking through a mosaic of historical anecdotes was so fascinating – it was well thought out, and clinically organized. Proof of this came as a pleasant surprise when the tour ended and the tourists were reluctant to leave. We were all singing along with a talented guitarist/vocalist on board, who volunteered to entertain us at the end of the tour, and that is one reason why the inertia set in. When the brief, informal gig ended, new bonds had already been forged and our group was finding it difficult to dissipate. Levitating in the aftermath of a scrumptious halwa-puri-anda-paratha brunch and an unusual ‘culture high’, we decided not to pay any heed to the official end of the tour and ventured deeper into the old city with Murtaza.

I suppose the best way to sum up the experience – and I hope this is not misconstrued in anyway – is to add that when the cyber comedian wonder, Ali T Zaid, briefly graced the tour with his presence, we ended up lifting his spirits despite his immense potential to lift ours.

Anyway, this is just the light-hearted aspect of a burgeoning tour trade reclaiming the streets of Lahore. The darker side has more to do with the rehabilitation of the ‘Royal Trail’ that dissects the old city and the nascent concern amongst conservationists about the prospects of gentrification – ‘urban renewal that inevitably leads to the displacement of the occupying demographic’. In Lahore’s walled city, gentrification is an outcome that may be difficult to predict at this point in time but certainly not something we can ignore; not amidst real estate magnates, often hovering and plotting over new potential ‘conquests’.

So while we reclaim Pakistan through new, brave businesses, eager to venture out in the face of a myriad security risks, we must ensure we do not expunge the locals we ought to benefit from this trade. Showcasing Pakistan in a positive light is a noble endeavor and it must be applauded but it cannot come at the cost of the de facto guardians of our heritage – those who have inherited the streets, the mosques, the museums, the food and the culture we all revel in and flock to. 

Besides Atif bin Arif, Super Savari Express is fully backed and co-founded by an established businessman from Karachi, the Honorary Consul General of Austria, Babar Tajammul. As an entrepreneur, he has persevered in Karachi in the face of death threats and other equally disturbing obstacles that have threatened his businesses. Today, as Super Savari Express ‘reclaims’ one city after another, we can only hope its founding members fight for its progress with the same tenacity they are known for and that probably brought them together.