Cynthia D Ritchie is a freelance director, producer and communications consultant who currently lives in Islamabad.
GVS: You have described yourself as a global citizen what has inspired you to think of yourself in such a way; when throughout the world, people, it seems are reverting to their narrow identities?
Cynthia Ritchie: This comes with a combination of nature and nurture, my parents encouraged me from a very early age to explore the world, and to never be afraid to talk to people who look different or sound different. They always wanted me to meet people from different ethnicities, and would actually get upset if I had too many friends who looked like me.
This is something I grew up with; even coming from a conservative southern part of the United States, we were encouraged to have friends from all over the world and learn the simpler words of other languages like ‘please’ or ‘hello’ or whatever customary greetings are common. And I believe now more than ever it is important to think outside the box, to put ourselves aside, and learn new things through education and travel.
GVS: When I scrolled down your Facebook timeline, it seems most of the news is related to Pakistan, why this fascination with Pakistan.
Cynthia Ritchie: Well, Pakistan was introduced to me by Pakistani Americans. I would have probably never come to Pakistan, if it wasn’t for my friends in the U.S. telling me to travel to Pakistan. And as a consequence, Pakistan became my Egypt. My childhood dream was to be the Indiana Jones of Egyptian archeology.
When I came here, I was so fascinated by a variety of things. So I tell people, “Look, Pakistan has its challenges, so you will be frustrated, you might even be frightened, but you will always be FASCINATED”. So those are the 3Fs I use to simply define Pakistan.
That’s the thing about this country, just when you think you know what’s going on, something else unveils itself like a multi-layered onion. That is one of the things I love about the country, as there are so many cultural nuances and microcosms in the society that you can never be bored exploring this nation.
GVS: What misconceptions do people in the U.S. have of Pakistan, and how do you wish to change them?
Cynthia Ritchie: Well the pervasive narrative about Pakistan has been that it’s a nation that harbours terrorism, and due to this people tend to think that because a few bad guys have been caught in the country, the others will be the same, which is certainly untrue. If we apply that to the United States, then we would end up thinking that about ourselves too.
So my goal is to showcase how much the people here have in common with the ones in the United States, and there are more things common than we may think there are. I am not interested in replacing massive amount of propaganda, with more propaganda, but rather highlight the sense of normalcy in the nation, which mean we have far more common than differences.
Pakistan’s curry is America’s Cajun spices. People are people, and it is up to us as individuals how to be good guests in whatever homes we are invited into, on a macro or micro level, and represent our country’s better.
GVS: You have seen a lot of Pakistan, which place do you wish to revisit the most? And why?
Cynthia Ritchie: I cannot name one place in specific, but I am a mountain girl. If anybody asks me do you like the beaches or the mountains, I would always say mountains. I love the Northern Areas, which have quite thankfully become much easier to travel in recent years.
So I am more intrigued to discover the mountain ranges of Sindh and Baluchistan; and my goal is, that if I can travel through the country, then why can’t the locals? The locals can become good ambassadors to their own country, by highlighting different aspects of it through social media, which should eventually encourage more internationals to travel to Pakistan.
GVS: People often remember you as ‘the American Batting for Pakistan’, is that the right depiction of what you’re doing?
Cynthia Ritchie: Aside from the fact that I practically know nothing about cricket, I am flattered that people think of me in such a way. Everyone’s perception is their own reality, so I guess that where the title comes from. I would like for my role here to be more long-term and permanent, and I know I always consider myself as a friend of Pakistan.
Being a friend, I would not always say that everything is perfect because that’s not the case. True friends, help one another when they stumble. So if one of my friends, comes out of the bathroom, and his/her shalwar kameez isn’t adjusted properly, I would tell them. Same way, if someone says to me “hey Cynthie, your dupatta is trailing away”, I would fix it, because that’s what friends do.
I hope to also separate people from policy, and portray Pakistani people for what they truly are to the global community.
GVS: Do you have a funny travel story to share with us from your time here?
Cynthia Ritchie: Oh there are many funny stories, I am beginning to write my memoirs and the stories keep coming up in my head. So while I was struggling learning Urdu, I asked someone “apka ki naam hai? (What’s your name)” and the person replied “name”. And so I said “yes, name, what’s your name?” And so that went on for a while, before my friend comes up to me and says “Cynthia, Naeem is his name”.
So for me that is a very simple story, and yet tell a lot about what my experiences are like. We were both saying the same thing. I was asking a question, he understood and gave me an answer, and yet we couldn’t understand each other because of a misinterpretation.
GVS: Your family has also visited Pakistan many times, how have their experiences been?
Cynthia Ritchie: I have had loved ones visit me here. My sister approved of her oldest child to come to visit me here, which was a huge deal. And a lot of my friends and family members have been watching my travels throughout Pakistan through social media, and initially, most of them thought I was losing my mind, while the others were simply fascinated.
Its 2018, the US is suffering from a lot of the same things Pakistan is suffering from. We have a poor media image, gender-role typing; we haven’t even had a female presidnet yet, whihc is one of the saddest things.
So my friends who were adventure travellers; people for example who have climbed the K2 after 3 attempts amazed me, and I could not fathom do what they do (unless it was a matter of life or death of course). My life in comparison is much simpler, if I’m bored and stuck at home, that is the worst thing ever. I want to always be challenged, and so my friends and family have watched me over the years and do not understand what is going on with me.
So they thought it would be a good experience if they’re child (my niece) would come and stay with me here for a while. For me, this was a great honor because when any parent trusts me firstly with their child, and secondly to send their kid in a region that is not favourably known as safe.
To show people around Islamabad or Lahore is easy, but if they stay for a longer period, I would want to take them to places like military hospitals where people are suffering, acid-attack female victims etc. There are so many elements here, that people truly need to appreciate.
They also need to appreciate the contributions of all the uniform services, for the sacrifices they have made to establish the current sense of security in the country. I come from a military family, so we have always had a great deal of respect for every individual who puts on a uniform with honor and integrity to serve his/her country.
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GVS: You often highlight the role of women in Pakistani society, any stories , in particular, you would want to share?
Cynthia Ritchie: My first Masters is in education, so I have always appreciated female educators. In Pakistan, women often opt for a career in the education and health care sectors, which we should be enormously grateful for. Having said that; I try to highlight the role of women in ways that are not highlighted, for example, law enforcement.
Even in my country, I believe women are not highlighted as much as they should be; and I do not say this because of a female bias, but because I think roles should be highlighted based on individual contributions, regardless of their gender. It is 2018, the U.S. is suffering from a lot of the same things Pakistan is suffering from. We have a poor media image, gender-role typing; we haven’t even had a female president yet, which is one of the saddest things.
For the record, I would not have voted for Hilary or Trump, but rather Bernie Sanders. Coming back to Pakistan, the women in the armed forces, who I also had a chance to train with, are remarkable individuals. They had to fight the entire society to pursue their dreams. The female fighter pilots I spent time with, I assumed were from a similar background, but that was not always the case.
Many of them had to convince their parents, their communities. In Pakistan, young women can either be single or married. There is no in-between; so if you want to be a fighter pilot, you have to be single because of all the training you have to do to, and so you cannot be married.
Some of them may be born with this drive and ambition and some must have been inspired by other women; but all of them were so driven to achieve their goals even after battling families and cultures, to do something greater than their individual selves.
GVS: Do you think the image of Pakistan abroad will become more positive by the different tourism initiatives, this new Government is taking?
Cynthia Ritchie: Well obviously, tourism initiatives are very important. Some of these initiatives may create a backlash, but you cannot expect to keep everybody happy at the same time. The bigger issue from my humble observation is how to make Pakistan a more stable and secure state.
So my goal is to showcase how much the people here have in common with the ones in the United States, and there are more things common than we may think there are.
That requires a more robust security apparatus. This will require more correlation between military and law enforcement. Terrorism I think has more to do with law enforcement than anything else.
I do not mean all law enforcement; I have met many professionals from within the law enforcement in KPK, Balochistan etc, who work very hard. However, Pakistan needs a more synergistic approach to combat security threats, and that requires to take some of the most elite professionals in the country; and help train them and rotate them across provinces, so the provinces do not work individually but collectively.
So if I as a foreigner or an investor, do not deem Pakistan as physically or fiscally safe, I would not invest here. So if I invest my money in any part of Pakistan, and I get conned, there should be a proper financial tracking, the financial crimes division should do a proper investigation, which the country does not have.
Pakistan needs to be receptive to trusted internationals to come in, and help improve the institutions here. So from financial security to physical security, the correct mechanisms need to be put in place. I have worked across multiple domains in this country, and have come across some excellent professionals (like the special branch police), but a lot needs to be done. I also feel like there is too much inter-provincial competition.
Pakistan is like a house, in which each room has been designed by a different architect. Would anybody want to buy a house, within which each room has a different foundation? No. Nobody in their right mind would. So the best of the best of Pakistan need to make the country fiscally and physically safe, stick with that consistency, bring in internationals for long-term to help train people.
GVS: What is that one thing that brings you back to your second home, Pakistan every time?
Cynthia Ritchie: My love for the people