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Picturing Pakistan's Past: The Beatles, Booze And Bikinis

Western tourists smoke hashish on the roof of a hotel in Peshawar in 1972. Pakistan was an important destination along the "hippie trail," a popular route for young Western backpackers that ran across Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, usually ending in Nepal. (Courtesy of Nadeem F. Paracha)

Pakistan today is a conservative, Islamic country, but it was a far different place in its younger days.

In the 1960s and '70s, Pakistan's elite, many of them educated in the West, could publicly indulge in more liberal acts, including drinking alcohol. Pakistan was also part of the "hippie trail," from Turkey to India, which young Westerners traveled.

Once a major stop on the backpacking route, Western tourists don't exist in the Peshawar that I have come to know through my visits to family in the northwest corner of Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan.

If my parents saw "hippies" around hashish shops on their city's streets, they never mentioned them to me. The only Western women I've come by in Peshawar are in ads for talcum powder or maxi pads — their bodies often draped in an ominous shroud of black paint. Turns out this experience is common among millennials in Pakistan.

"Most of the stories about a more open and liberal Pakistan have come down to the young, post-'80s generations of Pakistan from their parents as oral anecdotes," Nadeem F. Paracha tells me in an e-mail. "But since most young Pakistanis have only known a more troubled and repressed Pakistan, they were incapable of picturing it."

Paracha, a columnist for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, spent two years scouring newspaper libraries and the personal photo collections of family, friends and acquaintances for images that reveal a more open society. The pictures he found make Pakistan's past seem like a completely foreign place.

What caused this great divide? Paracha offers one explanation: "We as a people and state began to crumble inwards."

According to Paracha, beginning in the 1970s, a deep suspicion of foreign powers and minority faiths began to set in that gave way to a more subtle, Islamic version of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution.

From the images Paracha collected, it's clear that a lot has changed for Pakistanis in the past few decades.

In a four-part Web series called Also Pakistan, Paracha includes a newspaper clipping that describes how The Beatles' Paul McCartney was engulfed in a frenzy of fans at an airport bar in Karachi.

In today's Pakistan, alcohol is officially banned except by permit for non-Muslims, and it's hard to imagine that any global music sensation would pass through the country if he could avoid it.

While the pendulum might not swing back anytime soon, Paracha says presenting these photos has sparked optimism among young Pakistanis.

"It has given them a sense of pride, and more so, hope," he tells me, "that if Pakistan had deep roots in things like religious extremism, military rule and corruption, there was still an important part of the country's history that radiated a more confident, progressive, tolerant and joyous Pakistan."

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