From car bombs in Karachi to exploding toilets in NY


AFP correspondent Jennie Matthew recently switched assignments, moving from Pakistan to New York. As you might imagine, it's been quite a culture shock.


Broadway, July 2011 (AFP / Getty / Ramin Talaie)

By Jennie Matthew


After 10 years with AFP reporting and editing news in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, I was exhausted by the unrelenting violence, cycles of pessimism and religious hatred.

Sickened by suicide attacks, fed up with the naked corruption of elected politicians and shaken by a short stint in Syria, I longed for the films, catwalks and courtroom dramas of New York.A

I knew nothing of America apart from TV shows, embeds with soldiers in Iraq and briefings with overworked diplomats.

It was scant preparation for the most fabled of US cities, where the energy, the crush of people from all over the world, the anonymity and a go-it-alone individualism are intoxicating.

The culture shock is immense; the choice overwhelming. Where lunch used to be rice and mutton, it has become a paralysing choice of sushi, Chinese, bagels, paninis and sandwiches.


A street tea seller in Rawalpindi, October 2013 (AFP Photo / Farooq Naeem)

On a street in Brooklyn, June 2013 (AFP / Getty / Spencer Platt)

Gone are the late-night calls about bomb attacks and the morning wake-ups about ex-leaders being dragged before court.

There are no checkpoints, no blast-wall barriers. The cloying stink of hand sanitizer has replaced the smell of stale sweat.

At a dinner party, I jumped out of my seat at what I stupidly thought was the crackle of gunfire in well-heeled Brooklyn.

"Relax," said my host. "It's the dish washer."

Almost a year to the day after cowering from an air strike in Syria, heart pounding in fear and throat choked with dust, I was swept up in the exuberance of the New York marathon.


A checkpoint in Karachi, March 2013. (AFP Photo / Rizwan Tabassum)

During the annual SantaCon bar crawl event in Tompkins Square Park, New York, December 2013 (AFP / Getty / Kena Betancur)

"Anonymity brings relief"


Watching gay men dancing the night away at a party dressed in body stockings reminded me of the gay couple I wrote about in Pakistan too nervous to be photographed for fear of reprisals.

No longer do you choose a restaurant based on whether they serve alcohol or good food. No longer do I gawp endlessly at women drinking cocktails, wearing short skirts or plunging necklines.

Anonymity brings relief. Gone are the stares in the street if your T-shirt is too tight, or as in Najaf, if your abaya is last season and you thought 49 degrees too hot for gloves.

When you're English but half the city comes from overseas it's nothing special. Unless it's a cheery late-night bus driver reminiscing about bangers in Hackney.


Fast food workers demonstrate during a strike. Times Square. December 2013. (AFP Photo / Stan Honda)

An anti-American demonstration in Lahore. June 2012. (AFP Photo / Arif Ali)

Without waiting for something to blow up, a reporter in New York has a staggering array of potential stories.

Exploding toilets, diplomats charged with fraud, dog custody battles, film previews, art auctions, lawsuits on behalf of chimpanzees, celebrity stalkers and train wrecks are just a few.

The beat requires a new vocabularly and a new versatility. Just as I was clueless the first time I went to a bomb site in Baghdad in 2004, I'm now tugging on the sleeves of new friends at launch parties and court cases.

"Who's that?" "What song's that?" "What does that mean?"

While parts of New York also suffer from incredible levels of poverty, the sense of perspective is off the charts.

The day the United Nations called for $301 million in aid for Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, auction house Christie's sold nearly $700 million worth of art in 90 minutes.

Out came the whisky and the canapes. The contemporary art market was booming, British painter Francis Bacon had set a new world record and that was top international headline news.

Last week's shock was the 29-year-old millionaire founder of Instagram announcing a new direct photo messaging service.

"Relax, write it up afterwards," I thought, my laptop low on battery, it's a nice gimick in time for Christmas.

But around me dozens of tech and business journalists went into feverish overdrive, live-reporting an event that will probably touch a greater number of lives than most others I've covered.


Pakistani shiites pray in a road in Karachi. November 2013. (AFP Photo / Rizwan Tabassum)

 Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees, is given a standing ovation by the crowd during a march against theTampa Bay Rays, September 2013 in New York (AFP / Getty / Al Bello)


And the US drone strike that killed Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, the story I jealously poured over on Twitter a month afer leaving Islamabad? New York didn't even notice.

Odder still is the world of celebrity news. The hacks who clap Lady Gaga at the end of a press conference. The reporters who stalk the red carpet looking for a quote about kids and romance.

Like a ball raising $4 million to give 60,000 people in Malawi clean drinking water, where moderately famous people puckered up for pictures in front of yellow jerry cans.



In a market in Peshawar, July 2013. (AFP Photo / A. Majeed)


Times Square, August 2013 (AFP / Getty / Mario Tama)


I interviewed a TV actress, dressed in a strapless mermaid gown about walking 64 feet carrying 40lbs of water to raise $1,000 for the charity. She was pleased, but surprised.

Normally she's asked about diets and horoscopes. For the magazine reporter next to me, a scoop would be which celebrities dance to the songs of twerking queen Miley Cyrus.

No wonder people in New York are often stunned when you tell them you've spent the last five years in Pakistan.

"What's it like?" they ask.

"Nothing like you imagine," I say, remembering the wonderful food, the hospitality and the vibrancy but knowing they're going to ask about Osama bin Laden. Then move on and forget.


A bus in Karachi, September 2013 (AFP Photo / Asif Hassan)

A promotional event for New York tourist buses. October 2013. AFP / Getty / Craig Barritt)

From car bombs in Karachi to exploding toilets in NY