Pakistan: known to Americans as Osama bin Laden’s last hide-out. I visited in 2010 with a colleague keen on meeting the Kalash, a unique religious and ethnic minority in the Hindu Kush mountain range along the Afghan border, a region now garnering attention as a flashpoint on the frontlines of climate change. Our trek in Pakistan to visit the Kalash began in Lahore, the home of my friend, attorney, and environmental activist Ahmad “Rafay” Alam, whose wife, Aysha Raja, opened the bookstore, The Last Word, in Lahore in 2007.
Lahore is Pakistan’s second largest city, a bustling and historic metropolis of over eleven million people and a center of culture and education, with, as Aysha and Rafay point out, a legacy of being relatively progressive. Still, from the confiscation of alcohol upon arrival to the attire of some people to the multiple, simultaneous calls to prayer echoing five times per day, there is little doubt in the mind of a foreign visitor that one is in an Islamic republic. This sense is reinforced if one enters Pakistan from India at an entry point near Lahore and witnesses the passionate displays of national pride at the daily closing of the Wagah border crossing.
The several years preceding our visit in 2010 seemed like less than safe and stable time. Parts of the country had been under militant control, and terror attacks, including in Islamabad and Lahore, had claimed thousands of lives. In 2009 alone, over 2,500 attacks resulted in over 3,000 deaths in Pakistan. During our visit in 2010, a political party aligned with religious militants held a very open and public political march in Lahore’s center.
Given this context, even in cosmopolitan and progressive Lahore, owning and holding events in a bookstore with secular and progressive literature, including foreign titles from the West, seemed, at least to an outsider, like a risky activity.
Aysha decides she wants The Last Word
When I asked Aysha what motivated her to open a bookstore, she explained, “I couldn’t find any books I wanted to read and resented having to leave town to stock up on books.” This frustration, coupled with the fact that she was a new mother and her multinational employer was unwilling to offer her a flexible schedule or workplace childcare facilities, helped convince Aysha that the time was right for her to satisfy her own needs, and those of others in her area, for everything that a bookstore can offer a community.
Although she had enough of her own funds to get started and could avoid taking loans, Aysha recalled that there were, “a lot of people in the book business deterring me from joining,” and some went so far as to describe her idea as a “doomed enterprise.”
While not explicit, some of the discouragement and the adversity that Aysha encountered could well have been rooted in bias against her as a woman entrepreneur.
What was it like when you were starting?
Aysha recalled a period of time in her first location during which she was threatened and bullied by “a landlord who had his own business on the same premises which didn’t do too well.” Aysha described that, “at one point I was physically assaulted before I was able to get a restraining order of sorts. He still never quite left me alone until my lease was up.”
Someone outside of Pakistan may wonder: why didn’t a bookstore with Western titles provoke a reaction from militant extremists?
The answer lies partly in the means through which Aysha attracted new clientele. New customers learned about The Last Word through word-of-mouth.
When asked if she was ever concerned about a risk of attracting a protest or attack, Aysha replied: “at one point, when I did an event on blasphemy, yes.” But overall, because of their reliance on word-of-mouth promotion, the bookstore “didn’t attract unsavory people.”
A surprising insight (for outsiders, at least): some fundamentalists turned out to be fans.
The most surprising insight about society in Lahore emerged when we continued discussing the topic of fear in a context in which ideological disagreements can turn violent. Aysha explains:
“As for fundamentalists, I have many customers who appear conservative. They wear beards and shalwar kurta [a traditional combination of loose trousers and shirt, variations of which are sometimes referred to as shalwar kameez or salwar kurta] but they’re never irked by me. Also there are full veil women who have been very appreciative of our efforts.”
A community finds pride in their bookstore.
In other words, I asked, do some very religious people in Pakistan appreciate a bookstore with literature (and therefore ideas) that may be secular or progressive and clearly not associated with Islam?
“Yeah, I have one bearded and capped fellow who regularly brings his daughter to our story time. Loves it,” Aysha said, adding that “by and large the community is very appreciative and protective of the business. For some, it’s a source of pride for the city.”
What was Aysha’s toughest obstacle, and how did she overcome it?
As it turns out, Aysha’s toughest hurdle was not related to protests by fundamentalists or attacks by militants, but to fairly generic dishonesty. And she overcame this hurdle thanks to the loyalty and support of the community described immediately above.
As Aysha explained: “Exactly a year ago I was evicted from my second premises. As luck would have it, my new landlord (the middleman) absconded without paying the landowner. The entire community went out of their way to buy books from my house. The community made sure I had enough for security. Some who knew the landowner, who resided in Karachi, gave references and a guarantee that we were good people who were just caught in the middle of a horrible fraud. We managed to re-enter a contract with the building owner in Karachi (who is also a woman) and have been happily conducting business.”
There are a few take-away lessons. One would be that, even with a contract in place, sometimes people break their word. As illustrated in other stories in this collection, when the rule-of-law or an enforceable agreement are absent, it seems that reputation and—most importantly—relationships are key to the ability to continue functioning.
If that was the toughest obstacle, what was Aysha’s toughest decision?
A crisis like the one described above may clarify what must be done, while tough decision points may arise when there is a lack of a clear emergency. As Aysha describes: “The Last Word has been around for more than ten years and the toughest decision for me was three years ago when I closed down the ‘concessions.’ Concessions were more like wall displays at other places of business and for value addition. So I didn’t pay rent. I closed them to open what I call the ‘flagship’ store, which frankly is the only shop.” Moving back to a single store model has meant “putting in more hours and the risk was greater now.” Aysha explains that “raising the stakes has been the toughest decision I made, but what made the risk worth it was that I had established a loyal clientele and reputation, so word of mouth spread fast.”
What lessons would you pass on to your daughter (or any businessperson)?
Aysha’s wisdom for aspiring entrepreneurs is to preserve their personal lives away from work: “It is hard, but try to put some space between yourself and your business. With such extreme highs and lows, it really messes with your mental health and sense of self-worth.” Specifically, Aysha takes the following steps: “I no longer go into work every day but have an office at home which is a more tranquil space. All this is as an effort to turn down some of the pressure that can take a toll on your daily life and relationships.” She quickly added: “I do, however, read to kids on a weekly basis and I would not miss that for the world.”
The Last Word’s books and events can be further explored at its website: https://thelastwordbks.com/