It’s with great regret that I begin any story this way, but here we go: Thomas Friedman once posited that no two countries that had McDonald’s would go to war. Deemed the “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention,” Friedman’s column, now over two decades old, explained how globalization might be a force powerful enough to shape foreign policy, that an appetite for Big Macs entrenches a country’s place in the global market such that it restricts its “capacity for troublemaking,” as Friedman put it.
Twenty years later, my troublemaking homeland Pakistan is home to countless McDonald’s. Upon exiting customs in Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport, named after Pakistan’s revered founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the first sight you see (after the throngs of families waiting to shower their family members with flower necklaces) is a giant McDonald’s. There’s a branch inside the airport as well, next to the international boarding gates.
That’s a pretty standard set-up, when it comes to airport McDonald’s, perfect for impulsive pre-boarding purchases. The first time I saw Karachi’s gate-side McD’s I was pretty thrilled about eating some of those extra-salty fries everyone thinks they must sprinkle with crack, since I was in a rush on a work trip and hadn’t eaten much at the hotel breakfast. The cashier sighed: “We’re out of fries.” “But it’s a McDonald’s,” I reasoned. “How could you be out of fries?” He gestured to his workspace behind the counter. “We don’t have a fryer, so the next order will come in the hour if you want to wait.”
I peered over. Indeed, this was more of a Girl Scout cookie booth than a full-fledged McDonald’s. No burgers under heat lamps, no sizzling buckets of reused oil, no sandwich assembly line. Instead, a few McDonald’s-branded lunchboxes and a fridge full of bottled water and Coca Cola cans. The lackadaisical employee, already exhausted by my questioning, explained that the hot food is shuttled over from the McDonald’s across the street. Someone runs along with hot packs of Big Macs and chicken nuggets and apple pies—if you’re lucky.
That sounds hilariously inefficient, until you realize that Pakistan’s cheapest commodity is human beings. Paying a couple guys to run across the street and through security, all day every day, laden with Big Macs and fries for years on end, is still cheaper than buying a fryer for the outpost inside the airport. Some suit must’ve calculated that cost, thus condemning the McDonald’s employees of Jinnah International to a permanent sentence of fry-transport. The suit probably knew, too, that customers here have little by way of choice, trapped at the airport, so they’ll be willing to accept soggy, lukewarm fries over nothing.
You’ll find the same half-assed commitment to making the airport a modern and comfortable one throughout. The duty-free has the dusty, half-stocked shelves you’d expect from somewhere suffering international sanctions, or a war. The kind of place where Thomas Friedman might guess you wouldn’t find the golden arches. Expired tins of “Quality Street” chocolates and off-brand cigarette cartons have been pushed to the front, as if commuters can’t tell there’s nothing else behind them. The only other international chain with a storefront in the airport is the Dunkin Donuts, which features a stale-looking collection of pastries also likely shuttled in long ago from somewhere outside the airport.
These conditions might be acceptable if Jinnah International were a small-town, regional hub, but Karachi’s airport is busy as ever. It’s the departure point for millions, including religious pilgrims on their way to Mecca, in their all-white, towel-y garb milling around in the early hours of the morning, counting prayer beads as they wait to board their flight to Saudi Arabia for their mandated visit to the Kaaba. It’s also where the bulk of Pakistan’s economic migrants depart for the Gulf, in the uneasy labor trade that built half of the region’s gaudy towers, replete with gold toilets and tennis courts in the sky or whatever. Remember, human beings are our cheapest commodity, and thus one of our most valuable exports. When the same migrants get kicked out of those Gulf countries, for overstaying their visas or petty crime, or when they’re no longer useful to their Arab employers, they’re sent back to Karachi, too. You can see the men at immigration in their prison-issued uniforms holding their worldly belongings in prison-issued plastic bags.
There’s just a handful of airlines that still make it to Pakistan, so even the wealthiest of Jinnah International’s patrons have limited options. British Airways, the airline of our colonizers, as it were, stopped service to Pakistan after one of the major hotel chains was bombed in 2008.
“Pussies,” I remember thinking. “It’s their mess too.”
But then, a few years later, Karachi’s airport was attacked by the Pakistani Taliban: They scaled a side wall, started a massive fire in the cargo hangar, and had the whole place under siege for close to five hours. Passengers in planes on the tarmac watched part of the attack from their seats. The airport reopened to passengers the next day, and then everything went back to usual. That’s how things work here.
Nowadays the airport is under the highest levels of security, by which I mean that some young guys in fatigues vigilantly check every car with bomb detectors. Only the bomb detectors are the kind that were proven to be a sham, essentially car antennas with a handle attached to the end, a glorified golf ball finder. The guy who peddled them during the Iraq War is in jail now. Somehow Pakistan’s military, one of the biggest standing armies in the world, didn’t get the memo.
Anyway, they’re vigilant, nonetheless. They look you in the eye when they firmly ask you where you’re going, wave the car antenna bomb detector thing around the car, then get back to chatting with their friends, smoking cigarettes and idly toying with their machine guns. If you’re a young woman like me, they’ll even wave you through without checking at all.
There hasn’t been a “big” terrorist attack in Karachi since the airport siege, but British Airways and the other Western airlines haven’t returned. Arab carriers have filled the gap, mostly Emirates and Etihad, from the UAE, and Gulf Air, from Bahrain.* Cute girls from Australia and rural England are hired as “air hostesses”—they still have measurement requirements and good looks are genuine criteria. You can tell the Emirates ones used to be the hottest girls in their high school, and that being an air hostess was maybe a glamorous step above the local beauty salon.
Watching them serve the hordes of Pakistani migrant laborers is a special privilege. My countrymen, often returning to Pakistan after many years of back-breaking work at places like the Atlantis Resort in Dubai, don’t really care if they’re hot girls or not. They throw their trash on the ground, share jokes in loud dialect, switch seats to sit with their friends and rarely wear their seatbelts. The air hostesses frown as they pick up the trays, telling every single row to put their seats upright before landing, growing angrier with each one.
Sometimes I overhear them mocking the hostesses’ polite but firm instructions. “Wan bai wan,” they giggle to each other, while some young British woman tries to cajole them into forming an orderly line, one of the legacies of British colonialism that never stuck in Pakistan. By the time we’re landing at Jinnah International, the former-small-town-beauty-queens-turned-air-hostesses make no attempt to hide their contempt for their passengers, the unwashed masses who probably built their fancy apartment buildings in Dubai.
Instead of feeling embarrassed or ashamed that Pakistanis like them could be ruining our collective national reputation, as it were, I find this oddly satisfying. White people won’t even take our business anymore, so may as well show them why on a brief flight. Really lean into it.
After customs, where entire extended families wait for their young men to get off the plane, the scene is like a busted version of the slow-motion “families and lovers greeting each other at the airport” montages they put in films and advertisements. Veiled women yell at crying children, upset from being awake in the early morning, and the floor is littered with trash and cigarette butts. But tearful hugs and laughter fill the terminal too. A lot of the times, when the laborer guys finally see their families, the ones they’ve been sending checks back to for years, they treat them to those dollar soft serve cones at the McDonald’s across the street.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story erroneously identified Etihad Airways as a Qatari company. Etihad is based in the United Arab Emirates.