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Pakistan capital's beauty enshrines nation's wealth disparity

Seen from the courtyard of the Faisal Mosque, the towers of Centaurus soar above the skyline of Islambad. The $350 million mixed-use project will include a luxury hotel, shopping mall and 400 apartments. The project is meant to be a symbol of modern Pakistan.

Photos by MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Seen from the courtyard of the Faisal Mosque, the towers of Centaurus soar above the skyline of Islambad. The $350 million mixed-use project will include a luxury hotel, shopping mall and 400 apartments. The project is meant to be a symbol of modern Pakistan.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — At sunset, thousands of people ride into the Margalla Hills to gaze down on a fairy-tale vision of Pakistan.

Built in the 1960s as a new capital for a new nation, Islamabad is everything other Pakistani cities aren't — well planned, well laid out, well maintained. Almost a third of the city is green space and parks, where families picnic on emerald lawns and stroll along paths edged by orange and gold marigolds.

But nowhere in Pakistan is the contrast so great between rich and poor.

Just off the Islamabad Expressway, in the capital's twin city of Rawalpindi, sit tent camps as squalid as any in the world. Children run naked. Flies cover soggy bags of rice. There is no running water, no place to go to the bathroom except in a garbage-strewn patch ankle deep in mud during the summer monsoon season.

This is home to entire families of beggars, like Nasim Khokhar and her 10 children.

Every morning, she and her six oldest daughters walk three miles to a busy intersection. There, each can get 300 or 400 rupees a day — about $4.50. They have little education; they are among the 41 percent of Pakistani girls who never finish primary school.

The future is not much brighter for Khokhar's three sons. They are still in school and may some day work as cleaners or push-cart drivers. But to other Pakistanis they will forever be "Pakhi Wass'' — a permanent gypsy-like underclass.

For the upper class in Islamabad, life is good and soon to be better.

Five minutes from where Khokar and her girls wash their clothes in muddy water, a Saudi-Pakistani partnership is building Centaurus, the largest mixed-use real estate development in Pakistan. Soaring far above Islamabad's white government buildings are three towers and a sail-shaped luxury hotel, designed by the architects of Dubai's famed Burj Al Arab.

At the base of the corporate tower will be a five-level shopping mall with cineplex, fine dining, high-end retailers and Pakistan's first catwalk for designer fashion shows. The two residential towers will include gyms, squash courts and 400 apartments, ranging from studios to penthouses, one of which has already sold for $2.8 million.

"This is an iconic project for Pakistan,'' says sales director Saiyed Ali Ameer.

Due to open in stages starting this year, the $350-million Centaurus will have state-of-the-art security and is designed to withstand a category 9 earthquake. That's stronger than the three major earthquakes that have hit Pakistan since 2005, leaving more than 3 million homeless.

Once the project is complete, it will cement the income disparity of a nation where most people make less in a year than it will cost to rent a small studio apartment at Centaurus for a month.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

Pakistan capital's beauty enshrines nation's wealth disparity 08/13/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 13, 2011 7:27pm]
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