Long before she became headline news in Pakistan, Cynthia Dawn Ritchie was simply a tourist. In 2009, Ritchie, an American woman living in Houston, Texas, took a trip to Karachi, the sprawling megacity in southern Pakistan. At the time, Pakistan was beset by terrorist violence, and the travel advice of most western countries could be summarised as “don’t go”. But Ritchie had been persuaded by friends who knew the city. “My Pakistani friends said: ‘Cynthia, you’ve travelled much of the world, but you haven’t been to Pakistan, why not come?’ I was like: ‘Sure, why not?’,” Ritchie told me.
After a couple of weeks eating seafood and sightseeing, Ritchie went back to Houston, where she worked in communications and other roles for local government. The next year, she made a few more trips to Pakistan, funded by various Pakistani-American organisations. Houston is twinned with Karachi, and Ritchie told me that back then she “represented the city as an informal goodwill ambassador”. As foreigners in Pakistan often are, she was immediately offered exciting opportunities – working with local NGOs, advising the health department about social media, giving lectures. That year, she decided to move to Pakistan permanently. “I just felt a kinship here, that I belonged here and had a sense of purpose,” she said when we first spoke earlier this year. She settled in the leafy, relatively secure capital city, Islamabad, where most westerners in Pakistan – diplomats, journalists, aid workers – also lived.
Ritchie had no problem making friends and contacts. She has a supremely confident manner, and speaks as if she already knows that you’re going to agree with her. At first, she worked in development, consulting for government agencies and NGOs. A few years after moving, she started work on a documentary series that would showcase Pakistan’s natural beauty and cultural riches. Later, there would be some claims on social media that Pakistan’s powerful military had some involvement in the project, but Ritchie insists that it was entirely self-funded. In October 2015, she posted a short trailer on her YouTube channel and Facebook page. “Living abroad, one often hears of Pakistan in myopic and prejudiced terms,” she announces in the voiceover. “But my time in Pakistan has taught me the world can be wrong about many things.” Over the next three-and-a-half minutes, we see shots of bustling markets, jagged mountain ranges, and Ritchie, a tall, attractive woman, in various street scenes – playing with children, driving a rickshaw. “Join me,” Ritchie says, “as we show a side of Pakistan rarely seen in the international media.”
Ritchie didn’t have much of a following, but the video became a hit on Pakistani social media. To date, it has been watched more than 2m times. “I received overwhelmingly positive responses,” she said. Pakistan’s population has lived through two grim decades of political instability, terrorist violence and military crackdowns, and many people are acutely aware of their country’s negative image abroad. Ritchie’s video offered something different: here was an American