The Nomenclature of Islamabad Streets

Posted on April 24, 2008
Filed Under >Mast Qalandar, Travel
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Mast Qalandar

I am looking for an address on Street No. 8 in an upscale residential area in Islamabad. The area is laid out somewhat like a rectangle. I start from one end of the longer side of the rectangle, driving slowly westward and looking out for street signs. Soon I spot the first sign that says Street 1 and then another that says Street 2. Reassured, I continue onwards in my search. The next street sign says Street 4. What happened? Did I miss Street 3? Anyway, I continue moving. Soon I see Street 5 and feel reassured again. The next sign that I see is Street 7. Did I jump a street again? Well, never mind even if I did.


The bottom right photo in the above set shows a meeting of the Commission which was designated with the task of naming Islamabad Streets. 1960.

Since the numbers I have seen so far are in ascending order, Street 8 has got to be ahead. So, I continue driving and looking for street signs a bit more watchfully. Suddenly there is Street 17! No way! I couldn’t possibly have missed eight streets in a row. Something is weird here, I tell myself. A little confused, I drive all the way to the end of the road and then swing over to the other side of the rectangle and start driving eastward. The first street I spot is 21 and then, after a while, Street 10! Since the numbers are decreasing, maybe, I will find Street 8 somewhere ahead. But then the next street sign says 5! I am totally frustrated and give up the search and go back home telling myself to come back some other day, after I have done some homework on the geography of Islamabad.

This was some years ago when I had just moved to Islamabad. Now I am a little wiser and can find an address relatively easily. Actually, there is a method in what appears to be madness in numbering the streets of Islamabad. You discover the method when you begin to walk rather than drive. (Incidentally, with all the greenery and the trees, walking in Islamabad is a pleasant experience.) The streets, particularly in the older sectors, are laid out somewhat like a tree. If you imagine the trunk of a tree to be a main road, the first branch on the trunk will be Street 1 and the little branchlets that take off from this branch will be numbered 2, 3 and 4 etc. The next main branch on the trunk will, therefore, be Street 5 and so on. In other words when you are moving along the trunk you will see Street 1 and then Street 5. That should explain the phenomenon of missing streets.

I wonder if the way we plan our cities has something to do with the Eastern mind (as opposed to the Western mind). I am not saying one is better than the other. It is just that Eastern mind thinks and visualizes things differently. While the Western mind (or the Western trained mind) thinks in rather straight lines we in the East think more in a circular fashion. Take, for example, New York (Manhattan) that was built over 150 years ago. The city was laid out on a grid, like most large cities of the US. All you have to know is the street address and the name or number of cross street, and you will find the address without much difficulty, even if you are a complete stranger. On the other hand in modern Islamabad, which is a much smaller city, one has to run in circles, literally, to find an address.

I must add, though, that the Eastern way of thinking and planning may not be as efficient but it certainly is more interesting — and can be adventurous.

By the way, the Capital Development Authority (CDA), realizing the problem that people faced in finding the streets (even the postmen and couriers had problems), has lately provided additional information on the street signs. They now also indicate if a street is a ‘closed End’ or if other streets branch off from it.

While the streets are numbered, the roads and avenues are named after people, and sometime after places. But who names them and what kind of thinking goes into the process is not clear — at least not to the citizens of Islamabad who have to live with these names.

The road names that one comes across in Islamabad suggests that they are chosen randomly depending on the social or political philosophy of the person(s) who happen to be responsible for naming the streets at a given time.

Only recently, in a hard-hitting column in Dawn, Kamran Shafi rightly questioned the apparent lack of logic in naming a newly built major avenue as Agha Shai Avenue. Why Agha Shahi, of all the people? Agha Shahi was a career civil servant who ended up as a foreign minister in Ziaul Haq‘s cabinet. Going by this criterion there were several other foreign ministers, equally competent and far more distinguished, than Agha Shahi. Aziz Ahmed, a career civil servant turned foreign minister in Bhutto’s cabinet and Chaudhry Zafrullah Khan, Jinnah’s own choice as the first foreign minister come to mind immediately.

One of the most beautiful roads in Islamabad, passing along the foot of the Margalla hills is officially called Khayaban-e-Iqbal. No quibbles with naming a road after Iqbal, the Poet of the East and one of the founding fathers of Pakistan, except that the name does not easily stick in people’s mind. They call it Margalla Road, which was probably its original name. It was a descriptive name, too, and rolls over a Potoahri tongue more easily. Ask any taxi driver to take you to
Margalla Road and you will be there. But if you ask him to take you to Khayaban-e-Iqbal be prepared to tour the whole city.

Then we have the mandatory Jinnah Avenue and a Shaheed-e-Millat Road. No problem with that, but I never understood when a road qualifies to be an Avenue and when does it become a Khayaban. Is it that the word Avenue sounds good with persons like Jinnah while the Persian word Khayaban is more appropriate for the ‘Poet of the East’? I guess Ataturk Avenue was named an avenue following the same logic.

I think it was Karachi’s Defense Society (now Housing Authority) that started using the term Khayaban extensively for its major roads. And, it made sure that the names leave no doubt in anyone’s mind to whom the Society belonged — Khayaban-e- (Mujahid, Muhafiz, Shamsheer, Shujaat, Momin, Tauheed, Hilal, and so on).

Back to Islamabad, we also have some interesting and non-conventional names such as Marvi Road. It is named after the heroine of famous Sindhi love legend ‘Umar and Marvi’. I wonder whose idea was it? And, why not also a road named after Heer, Sohni or Sahiban? (They have a road named Warish Shah, though.) Imagine a Khayaban-e-Heer, a Sohni-Mahinwal Avenue, or a Mirza-Sahiban Road winding past the Lok Virsa buildings. They all have nice ring to their names. And I bet, these names would stick in people’s mind far more easily than, say, Justice Sir Abdul Rashid Road.

Yes, we have a road named Justice Sir Abdul Rashid Road. I asked a woman teacher, who teaches in a private school located on the same avenue, who Justice Abdul Rashid was. Her answer was,

“no idea, koi judge vudge ho ga.”

My guess is that nine out of ten people in Islamabad do not know who Justice Abdul Rashid was or what was he known for. I wonder how many people on ATP would know. On the other hand, far more people have heard of Justice Cornelius, Justice Kiyani and Justice Hamoodur Rehman.

We also have a road named after the now famous glacier in the Himalayas — Siachen Road. It must have been named when we lost the glacier to Indians, as if to compensate for the loss. By the same token we should also have a kargil Road.

Then we have a road named Ismail Zabeeh Road. Does anyone know who Mr. Zabeeh was?

Then there is a well-known road with this odd name ‘I. J. Principal Road’. I was not able to figure out who or what I. J. Principal is or was.

We also have a road named after the Mughal king Aurangzeb. I wonder why do we ignore Babar, Akbar and Shah Jahan. Omitting Jahangir is understable because he remained too drunk and involved with women most of the time.

To my pleasant surprise, I recently found that there is also a road named after Parveen Shakir. It’s a service road that joins the ‘Margalla Road’ near Faisal Mosque. Perveen Shakir died in a car crash at about this spot — at age 42. She would pass this spot almost daily while going to her office. The road sign that says Parveen Shakir Raod stands, like a tombstone, as a poignant reminder of the untimely death of the young popular poet.

Aks-i-khushboo hoon, bikharnay say na rokay koi
Aur bikhar jaayoon tau mujh ko na samaitay koi
Ab tau is raah say woh shakhs guzarta bhi nahin
Ab kis ummeed kay darwaazay say jhankay koi

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36 responses to “The Nomenclature of Islamabad Streets”

  1. S A Baqar says:

    What I learnt from the one of the senior officials of RDA, while I was working on different city road projects of Rawalpindi and Islamabad in 2001 was that when capital was moved to its present location from Karachi in President Ayub’s era, the city of Rawalpindi was made part of Islamabad and was named as ‘J’ Sector of Islamabad. If you look at the map of Islamabad on one side of IJP Road is Rawalpindi while on the other side is all ‘I’s ie I8, I9, I10 etc. Thus this road got its name from being the principal (here ‘principal’ means ‘main’) sectorial road between ‘I’ and ‘J’ of Islamabad. Hope that is the correct explanation. That is, at least, how it was explained to me.
    Later, the decision of making Rawalpindi a part of Islamabad was reverted when ONE UNIT was done away with ie West Pakistan was divided into four provinces (Balochistan, KPK then NWFP, Punjab and Sindh) and the province of Punjab did not want to part with one of its major cities ie Rawalpindi. But the road retained its name of IJP Road.

  2. Zain ul Abedin Abid says:

    What “IJ” stands in IJ principal road Islamabad

  3. Zain ul Abedin Abid says:

    What “IJ” stands for in IJPrincipal road

  4. azeem says:

    the IJ in ‘I. J. Principal Road’, anyone, please. It’s been years….

  5. Ammar says:

    Agha Shahi was one of the ablest diplomats produced by South Asia. Any one who wants to know what Mr. Shahi’s contribution to Pakistan is- should read the following story. I am sure you would agree that a patriot like him deserves more than an avenue named after him…..

    From The News International (Jang Group)- 13 May 2001

    The Chinese Veto that foiled India’s design on Kashmir


    Nasim Zehra

    ISLAMABAD: It was around end July 1972. Agha Shahi, Pakistan’s newly appointed ambassador to China, had been recalled for consultations to Islamabad. As he entered his first “port of call”, Foreign Secretary Iftikhar Ali’s office, a Reuters report was handed to him. According to report datelined Delhi, in the Indian parliament the opposition leader AB Vajpayee had criticised Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for vacating Pakistani territory, occupied during the 1971 war, since he argued an appropriate quid pro quo for the territory would have been the settlement of the Kashmir issue on India’s terms. For the foreign secretary, the Indian prime minister’s reported response was the issue of real concern for Pakistan.

    Indira Gandhi had assured Vajpayee that Pakistan’s 93,000 POWs held in Indian custody would not be released unless Pakistan agreed to an Indian formula for the Kashmir issue. True to the Indian government character, India was violating the international law by not releasing the Pakistani POWs. According to the Geneva Convention, signatories of a cease-fire accord were obliged to release all POWs.

    A divided and defeated Pakistan was in no position to force India to comply with international law. The sympathy of most dominant members for the newly-created Bangladesh, their awe of India and their generalised criticism of Pakistan Army’s role in East Pakistan, enabled India to flagrantly violate international law on the POWs. Bangladesh’s application for UN membership too was expected to receive international support.

    Earlier in the month, the Simla Accord had already been signed, but without addressing the issue of the POWs. The Accord only referred to ongoing Pak-India negotiations on the issue. It was in her response to Vajpayee that the Indian prime minister had revealed her “hand”. India was to use the POWs card to settle Kashmir on its own terms. That was the leverage Delhi had retained. And by violating international law.

    A worried Shahi questioned the foreign secretary on the Pakistani response to the Indian “Kashmir via the POWs” game plan. Cognizant of the pressures the Bhutto government was confronted with on the home front as families of 93,000 POWs demanded the return of their sons, husbands and fathers, he admitted that the government of Pakistan was on a weak wicket. Kashmir settlement on Indian terms as a quid pro quo for the release of Pakistani POWs could not be ruled out.

    Shahi listened carefully. But he had other ideas. So entirely confident of the Chinese leaderships’ support for Pakistan and its indebtedness for single-handed spearheading communist China’s demand that it replaces Chiang Kai-sheik “nationalist” government as the rightful Chinese representative in the UN Security Council, he convinced the foreign secretary of the “China card” that Islamabad could play.

    Shahi was to meet Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto later in the day. His foreign secretary allowed Shahi to raise the issue in his meeting with Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Shahi convinced Bhutto that a Chinese veto of Bangladesh’s membership of the UN would force the Bangladeshis and pressurise India to settle the POWs issue.

    The newly-independent Bangladesh was extremely eager to have its independent and sovereign status be acknowledged and underwritten international through its UN membership. For entry into the UN support from two-thirds of the General Assembly members and unanimous support of all permanent Security Council members was required.

    China could be convinced to veto Bangladesh membership application on the plea that Bangladesh, which was seen as a party along with India to the holding of POWs, could not become a member of the international community unless it ended violation of the articles of the Geneva Convention relating to release of prisoners.

    An excited Bhutto immediately saw wisdom in Shahi’s argument. Patting his thigh, he virtually screeched “You have still not lost your brilliant touch, Shahi.” And Bhutto was right. Shahi’s brainwave was to save Pakistan from surrendering Kashmir and the Kashmiri right to self-determination because no government would have withstood the pressure of 93,000 families whose men were POWs in India. Bhutto ordered his immediate return to Beijing. He was to convince the Chinese leadership of the necessity for Beijing to invoke, what was to be the first veto ever cast by the Chinese, in order to prevent Pakistan’s surrender on the Kashmir issue.

    Upon arrival in Beijing, Shahi sought an urgent meeting with Premier Chou En Lai. It was granted that very day. Bhutto was seen as a great China friend and Shahi was tipped the “crusader” for the China cause at the UN. In his meeting, which lasted from 10:00 pm to 1:00 am in the morning, Shahi presented his proposal to the Chinese premier. He pleaded Pakistan’s case, explained how India wanted to violate international law, keep the Pakistani POWs and dictate a settlement on Kashmir. The Pakistani ambassador candidly spoke of Pakistan’s dilemma of having fallen in a pit, with a divided and defeated country. He spoke of the need for “China to throw us a rope so we could climb out of this pit.”

    There was also something in it for China, Shahi argued. By far the most competent and committed diplomats that Pakistan has produced to this day, Shahi explained to the premier that China’s exercise of its veto will set a new trend in the Security Council. Unlike all other permanent members who cast their veto mostly for imperialistic designs and to support their allies to violate international justice, the Chinese veto would be to uphold international law, to force Bangladesh to comply with the Geneva Conventions.

    Chou En Lai gave Shahi a patient hearing. “Go tell Bhutto China will support Pakistan up to even vetoing against Bangladesh,” recalled the teary-eyed Shahi. He had won his case. The premier, however, added “What are you doing here, I will be your ambassador here, you should go to the UN and help our delegation to implement this plan.” The Chinese delegation had been at the UNSC for barely a year and needed help on procedures etc.

    Shahi immediately reported the outcome of his meeting to Bhutto. An ecstatic Bhutto responded with orders that Shahi comply with his hosts request to help the Chinese delegation at the UN. However, Shahi had no available flight to bring him to Islamabad en route to New York. He apprised the Chinese premier of the situation. Two hours later, he was requested to go to the airport where a 140-seater Chinese plane was waiting to fly a single passenger to Haan in Sinkiang! In Haan, after an overnight stay, Shahi left with the Chinese delegation and flew with them to New York via Islamabad. Chinese Vice-Premier Chou Kuan Hua led the Chinese delegation.

    In August 1972 to the utter surprise of the international community, China vetoed Bangladesh’s entry into the UN. Bangladesh was convinced, it had the votes it needed in the General Assembly, that many of those who had voted for Pakistan’s unity and integrity in 1971 would now vote in favour of Bangladesh. The British had concluded that communist China would not sully its image by casting a veto in less than a year of its entry into the UN and that too for a defeated and divided Pakistan.

    China came through for Pakistan as Pakistan had for China in its battle for entry into the UN. The Chinese veto forced Delhi and Dhaka to review the viability of the Indira Gandhi plan to withhold the POWs and hold public trial in India of 195 Pakistani officers as war criminals. Under the August 1973 Delhi Agreement, the return of Pakistani POWs began. Chinese veto had tied the issue of release to Bangladesh’s admission to the UN. It was only under the threat of another Chinese veto that Delhi followed the Geneva Convention on the POWs. It was unable to extract a compromise from Pakistan on Kashmir.

    This is merely one insight into the many behind-the-scene crucial events that laid the foundations of a lasting and dynamic Pak-China friendship. It is indeed in the fitness of things that 50 years of Pakistan-China friendship be celebrated with reiteration at the highest levels of a continuing commitment to enriching, enhancing and extending this relationship to all spheres of national life, including commerce, development and defence. An expanded Pak-China friendship will further strengthen this relationship, which, contrary to all deliberately circulated misgivings, has remained a constant and will remain a constant against the backdrop of major regional and global changing geo-strategic scenarios.

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