When Geo TV, a thrusting new channel, ran a teaser campaign this year declaring that “George” was coming to Pakistan, the Islamabad government might have worried.
Why did the Americans not tell them their president was visiting? Was Air Force One circling overhead? Should President Musharraf pull a fresh al-Qaida arrest from his hat?
But there was no reason to worry. Instead of the anti-terror Texan, viewers found George Fulton, a burly and amiable Englishman who became a national celebrity as the star of George ka Pakistan (George’s Pakistan), the nation’s first reality TV show.more
The premise was simple: could a Gora (white man) become a Pakistani? Over 13 weeks, Fulton, a 27-year-old former public schoolboy, traveled the country to find out.
He sampled Pakistan’s many delights – moseying through the tribal areas, dancing at slick Karachi parties, speaking bad Urdu and arguing with his electricity company.
“The little things were the most testing,” Fulton mused over the phone from Karachi. “Like finding a bus stop in this city, because there are none. Or even a street sign.”
The Wirral man was used to challenges – he was the campaign manager for a failed Conservative candidate in the 2001 election – and viewers flooded the station with advice on how to negotiate Pakistan’s myriad complexities.
Many were thrilled to see a white man step outside the air-conditioned bubble inhabited by most expatriates and into the noisy chaos of everyday life. Armed with a modest budget and a repertoire of comic faces, Fulton squeezed into tiny taxis, milked a buffalo and tried on a dhoti – a Pakistani male skirt.
The show also probed elements of Pakistan’s contested national identity, and came up with some surprises. During a visit to a madrasa (Islamic seminary), for example, Fulton was told that conversion to Islam was not obligatory to become a Pakistani.
And despite the country’s associations with military coups, nuclear bombs and international terrorists, safety was never an issue. The closest call came in frontier province, Fulton recalled sheepishly, when Kalashnikov-wielding tribesmen opened fire, sending him diving to the ground. “Then I realized they were firing in the air, and this was a traditional greeting for a stranger,” he said.
If viewers chuckled, Fulton – who first came to Pakistan as a producer for the BBC show HardTalk – also learned much about them. Pakistan is a far richer country than suggested by its media image, he said. “There’s a lot that we in the west don’t see, like the Pakistan of my producer – a young, confident and urban woman. Scratch beneath the surface and things are very complex.”
Not everyone enjoyed the show. Some viewers complained the material was too predictable and cheesy, while others were annoyed at the red carpet treatment given to a Gora when Pakistanis can have such difficulty getting a visa for Britain.
However, the reaction was mostly favourable. During filming, Fulton received hundreds of positive emails and six marriage proposals (he politely refused them all). Then, in the final episode, the prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, received him in Islamabad and the show’s producers polled viewers about whether “George Sahib” had succeeded in becoming a Pakistani. Sixty-five per cent said yes.
An unexpected twist came two weeks later. The ministry of the interior was so impressed with Fulton’s efforts that it offered him Pakistani citizenship. Fulton, now working as a producer with Geo TV, initially mulled over the offer.
The downsides included the potential of being be conscripted into the Pakistani army in the event of war with, for example, India. But now, he says: “I’m going through with it”.
There is an ulterior motive. It turns out that warm hospitality and hot curry were not the only attractions for Fulton: he has fallen in love with a Pakistani woman, also a TV producer, and they plan to get married next November.