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If You Want to Understand Pakistan, Talk to its Bus and Ambulance Drivers

11/06/2014 15:33 BST | Updated 10/08/2014 10:59 BST

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"There is no place in our country where one can live peacefully," says Zahir. "People are dying and there are no jobs."

Every day, Zahir braves the bedlam of Karachi's bustling streets, driving one of the city's iconic technicolour busses bedecked with peacocks and Urdu scrawlings. His concerns about the country he's living in and what can be done to fix it are among those told by Asad Anees of the University of Karachi.

The short film, showcased by the RSA Pakistan Calling project, sets out with the simple premise: if you want to understand a city, talk to its bus drivers.

A common theme among the bus drivers interviewed is joblessness. Even the highly educated in Pakistan are turning to fruit selling or bus conducting to make ends meet. They have come to Karachi in search of work, but have found a city gripped by police corruption, crime and violence.

"If there are jobs available and poverty comes to an end, people will stop stealing," says Rameez. "There will be no robberies and everything will get better. It is a jobless man who steals from people."

Rameez is worried that no one gives money, which makes his boss angry. But there are worse dangers in the daily life of a Karachi bus driver.

"Sometimes they burn the license of the bus, take all our money and even beat up the conductor."

The men interviewed talk frankly about what they would do if they were Prime Minister for a day and what they think are the major problems facing Pakistan. But listening to the troubles they discuss, it's hard to imagine any Prime Minister solving such problems in a day.

The lack of willingness or ability among the political class to tackle Pakistan's myriad challenges is one reason Pakistan Calling exists. Launched a year ago by the RSA and The Samosa's Anwar Akhtar, the project seeks to tell the stories of ordinary Pakistanis through indigenous filmmaking and galvanise civil society in both Pakistan and Britain to address the problems that threaten to make Pakistan a failed state.

"The most important thing for a country is to speak and be heard," Akhtar says.

Karachi's bus drivers are not the only ones willing to speak out. Sharing the roads with them are the city's unsung heroes: its ambulance drivers. It's an unenviable task in any world city, but Karachi's traffic jams make saving lives that much harder amid the endemic violence.

"I remember collecting dead bodies from a bomb blast near Nagan Chowrangi," says Nazim. "I felt very uneasy doing that. At this point terrorism is the only big issue anyone can think of."

In their film, Maira Khan and Ammar Zafar, also of the University of Karachi, hear from one ambulance driver how he had to take the corpses of four kidnapped children to hospital. They'd been blindfolded, their hands and feet tied, and their bodies were riddled with bullets.

One would expect people performing such a vital service in such difficult conditions to be hailed as heroes. One surprising point the film exposes is that ambulance drivers are often looked down upon by people in Karachi. At best ambulances are a nuisance to drivers, at worst they are something to be feared.

"People don't even like sitting in an ambulance," explains Nazim. "Even the relatives of patients lying in the ambulance are not willing to sit in the ambulance. They say they are scared of ambulances."

Like the bus drivers, the ambulance drivers are worried about who runs the country and who is going to tackle its many problems.

None of them have been to Britain, but bus and ambulance drivers alike marvel at the social and relative economic security enjoyed by British citizens.

Yet Pakistanis in Britain are facing their own challenges with the EDL seeking to stir tensions among the community. In a third film showcased by Pakistan Calling, Oliver Perry of Luton 6th Form College, speaks to his Pakistani classmates to find out if they are really all that different from white students like himself.

The students Perry speaks to are concerned about media stereotyping. They reject perceptions of being "typical Asians". They want to see all people becoming more open-minded. They're all ordinary British people who often support England in sport. They care about community and family.

In some senses it's a film that sets out with its liberal, inclusivity-driven conclusions already drawn. "Apart from the colour of our skin, we're not really that different," says Perry. "We're all students and we're all people." But the fact that evidence of what young people from white and Pakistani backgrounds have plenty in common needs spelling out at all is testament to our divisive political climate.

Tackling divisions, both among communities in Britain and between nations, lies at the heart of the Pakistan Calling project.

"Pakistan Calling is about building positive connections and awareness between those working to improve society in Pakistan with people in Britain, including the British Pakistani community," says Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA. "People trying to improve society in Britain have actually got a lot in common with those people working to do the same in Pakistan."

"What happens in Lahore and Karachi affects Manchester, London and Bradford," adds Akhtar. "But the media narrative is all wrong. We shouldn't just be focusing on the small number of British Pakistanis involved in nefarious activities. We shouldn't ignore the 95% of the British Pakistani community whose relationship with Pakistan is about sending money to charity, family, cultural, business and emotional links."

As such, these three films - among the dozens already being showcased by the RSA, provide an excellent insight into Pakistan Calling's mission. It's a project that's unafraid to expose, in the words of ordinary people, exactly what is wrong with Pakistani society. But it's also a project that inspires hope, that draws on the same DIY civic traditions that spawned the Edhi Foundation of a resilient people determined to save nation their nation. It might just work.

Salman Shaheen is Editor-in-Chief of The World Weekly and a freelance journalist who has written for the Guardian, New Statesman and Times of India. All the films from the RSA Pakistan Calling project can be viewed here.