I apologize in advance for the long post…
Here’s how it came about. I went on a short roadtrip yesterday, which had me thinking about long roadtrips and that had me searching for notes I made when I spent a month teaching in Pakistan in 2006. And then I found the draft of a travelogue I wrote from the notes.
So I thought, why not change things up and post it?
Five years is a ‘long time ago’ in a conflict zone. But some of the notes seemed to speak to the cultural Tower of Babel that (I believe) makes any western security enterprise very dodgy in the long run.
This is a travelogue, not a political analysis. But I do politics so I notice them wherever I go.
Also, it’s an excuse to post some pictures.
On the way from Islamabad to Lahore, Assan – my guide, translator and general instructor in all things Pakistani – tells a story. Passing a highway exchange more than a hundred kilometers out of Lahore the road off to the left leads to Faisalabad. Assan asks “Ian, do you know how Faisalabad got its name?” Of course I don’t but I can’t say that because I don’t want to interupt the story.
“This city, it’s the second biggest in the Punjab and third in all Pakistan and it is not Faisalabad. It is Lyallpur. And one time King Faisal of Saudi Arabia – he has died, you know – visited my country.
“Saudi Arabia is very powerful towards my country and gives my country billions of rupees. So the President of Pakistan was with King Faisal and to honour King Faisal the President decided to name Lyallpur for the king and Lyallpur became, in one day, Faisalabad.”
“Was anyone expecting this?”
“Of course not, this was a spontaneous courtesy.”
Oh, it’s good to be a king.
In Lahore, we queued for CNG, the compressed natural gas that most people run their automobiles with. It’s half the price of petrol, although some cars shake like shit when they run it.
Assan says, as we wait in a line that snakes out the station entrance and back a block, “It’s not only the cost of the petrol that makes Pakistan people angry. We pay so much to the government for taxes on this petrol and there is nothing in return. Ian, did you see the road?
“I felt the road, Assan.”
Assan mulls this over then continues. “There are many petrol taxes but there is one that I must tell you about. We have what is called the East Pakistan Recovery Tax that was made when East Pakistan was devastated by very high flooding. You may remember that. I was a young boy, but you are old enough that you may recall.
“But of course you know there is no East Pakistan now. There is Bangladesh now. And although East Pakistan is gone we still pay the East Pakistan Recovery Tax on our petrol. They don’t even change the name and pretend to fool us. They have the power to be so bold.”
After gassing up – our NGO can afford real petrol – we continue into the centre of Lahore, passing an army cantonment close to the old Mogul canal that runs across the city. A high stone and plaster wall, painted white with a red stripe along the top, rings the cantonment. Neat, three-story brick townhouses where officers and their families live rise behind the wall. Past the gate ceremonial cannons flank a long tree-lined street that leads to an office building, probably the administrative centre. The lawns are green, well-watered and freshly cut.
Just in front of us an enormous black Mercedes turns right, across packed lanes of traffic and into the cantonment. Its windows are dark but we catch a glimpse of the occupants through the windshield as it turns: A woman in western dress and two kids. A Toyota Pathfinder has to hustle to stay on the Mercedes’ tail in the frenetic traffic. It pushes across a wave of motorbikes and rejoins the Mercedes as the gates open and it enters the compound.
“The bodyguards,” Assan says. “That car will have many bodyguards. I wonder where the others are?” Just then a Corolla nips across the traffic and joins the queue at the gate. The passenger seats are jammed full and bristle with gun barrels.
“See, more bodyguards. There is much for that family to fear.”
Wherever we go, there are two Pakistans. One is poor, dusty and disheveled the other prosperous, clean and neat. The first is larger than the second, much larger. Assan explains it all to me on the way to buy cds in Lahore.
“Ian, the best shop is in Fortress.”
“How far is that?”
“Fortress is in Defence. It is army.”
“We’re going to the army to buy cds?” I don’t ask this in a ‘what kind of ridiculous mission is this now?’ tone of voice. I ask it in a slightly bored, anything is possible in Pakistan tone.
“The best malls are army malls.” Assan answers with his ‘he’s a bit of a slow learner’ voice, not that he would ever say that. Assan may be the most polite man in our galaxy.
“For the army?”
“Not for. By. The best malls are owned by the army. The army is Pakistan’s largest business. They own many things. Housing estates, shopping malls, steel mills. They maintain the lucrative things for themselves. They have their own areas of the cities, the best areas.
“Everyone knows this and feels the injustice of the army. For that matter the government tells the people it will reduce the army. Do you recall the new housing estates near the airport here?”
“Yes, they looked like the houses in Surrey, near where I live in Vancouver.” Assan has no idea about Surrey so I explain.
“That’s interesting Ian, but this is not Surrey. It is army. These estates are army, big houses for retired officers. To reduce the army the government took the cost of these houses away from the army funds and paid for them out of the social ministry funds. The army budget now looks smaller. And army gets its houses for its officers.”
“We call that a shell game.” I mimic a street shark shuffling shells about, one of the universal games.
Assan laughs, more of a giggle. “We have that game. It is a good name. I will say that now.”
After we settled into our highly air conditioned Holiday Inn, I got restless and went to check out the Mall before sunset. The Mall is Lahore’s main street and is dominated by the crumbling commercial and public buildings of the Raj.
Bad move. I turn right out of the hotel, which was wrong and ended up walking away from the Mall and into a nameless, seedy looking market. Lahore’s not as unkind to lone white boys as Karachi is rumoured to be, but I like to be on the mark when it comes to directions and the mistake unnerved me unaccountably.
I studied my incomprehensible map, self-corrected and picked an alley that I prayed would take me in the right direction. I re-joined the Mall a kilometer east of the hotel, directly across from the KFC. The colonel’s face looming large on the freshly painted, nasty mustard yellow building was a joy to see. A banner across the storefront proclaimed, “Now open.”
The next day I said to Assan, “I saw the new KFC on the Mall. You’d think the barbeque vendors would have the chicken market pretty well cornered, but never underestimate the colonel. It was crowded.”
Assan agreed. “Yes, KFC everywhere is very popular. In Lahore also.” But that wasn’t the real story.
“This is an important opening for Lahore. Did you see the other shops on that block Ian?”
I told Assan that not only did see the shops; I had taken note of them. “It was a pretty run down block, one of those ones where nothing seems finished and that made the KFC look like an urban renewal project. It should be good for the area.”
“The other buildings are not finished because there is not as much money for them as there is for KFC, but all were burned in the riots and all are being rebuilt.”
“What riots, Assan?” I thought riots were more a feature of Karachi, not Lahore.
“Do you remember the cartoons, the Danish cartoons? They made riots in Lahore. Karachi too, I believe. In Lahore they burnt the KFC and the shops nearby caught fire also.”
“But KFC isn’t Danish?”
“KFC is not Danish. Nothing is Danish in Lahore. But KFC is unislamic and the cartoons made the fundamentalists very angry at things that are unislamic” Assan shrugged. “It is good that the unislamic things are now being repaired.”
“Didn’t I tell you at lunch?” Bruce says. “A bomb’s gone off in town.”
It’s five, my workshop is over and Bruce, Assan and I are debating whether to get a car and driver, leave the hotel and cross the river into Queeta for dinner. It’s more than a week since Lahore.
“It’s probably not such a good idea to go into town, even if it’s safer after the bomb’s gone off with all the police and army types swarming around. I don’t think we’ll be going.”
We agree and settle for dinner by the pool instead. There’s traditional afghan music to go with the traditional Bar-B-Q in the traditionally styled Serena, which is owned by a sheik from Dubai. It also has a nice health club with what is probably Queeta’s only Swiss ball, so I head off to do some stomach crunches before dinner.
It’s Friday, the religious day and the bomb went off just after noon in the market during the last minute shopping scramble.
As the bomb went off I was just reaching the part of the workshop where I talk about an environmental group and its battle against a mine proposal in Alaska. I use the group’s video as a teaching tool, because it’s such a good example of how to reach an audience. Plus it helps that the video is visually powerful and I usually don’t need to have the message translated into Urdu or Baloch, although some participants in Queeta didn’t really catch on.
None of the women buying meat and fruit for their families, the men selling it or the street urchins hanging about died but fourteen were injured including a student who had the bad luck to maneuver his motorbike around a parked truck and ended up next to the car holding the bomb, a battered old Mehran.
The picture on the front page of Saturday’s Balochistan Times looks like dozens I’ve seen in the Globe and Mail: Narrow street in a poor section of town, twisted skeleton of a car, its paint burned off, broken glass everywhere. In the foreground there’s the scattered debris from the day’s shopping and in the background some shocked observers stand outside the official cordon watching the police gather evidence that will never be used because the bombers threaten the police, prosecutors and judiciary with similar fates.
I’m in Queeta to teach political parties about communications. But I’ve been out-taught. This bomb went off just a few blocks from my hotel, not on the other side of the world. The bomb, the picture, their message needs no translation.
Two days later I window-shopped down a market street four blocks from the bombing. Everyone wanted to shake my hand. Some saw the camera hanging from my shoulder and asked for a picture. “Where from, sir?” they asked, especially the students.
As I shook hands and took pictures, I kept looking at the cars parked two abreast next to the shops. Would the explosion send me through the shop window? Would the force of the blast kill me immediately or would I bleed to death from an artery in my neck sliced open by shrapnel?
Fear is a physical thing. My throat tightened as I considered the kind of cars bombers pick to carry their bombs. I told myself that none of the cars on this street looked the part. Then I told myself that’s exactly the point: if I were planting a bomb would I pick a car that looked the part? After ten minutes I gave up and hightailed it back to my car and driver.
Two days later and still no group was claiming responsibility. But everyone knew who did it. ‘The Taliban, they are the bombers.’ ‘No, it’s the security service, the ISI.’ ‘It’s the government.’ ‘It’s the Afghans.’ In other words it was all and none of them, the usual suspects on both sides who disappear in the usual way. Queeta is full of them because Queeta is in Balochistan, Balochistan is next to Afghanistan and Khandahar is the nearest city. For the purposes of this battle, the border, like the bombers, has also disappeared.
I want to see some Sufis. Together Assan and Mazar take up the challenge. “We will go out near Gulberg. To Baba Shah Jamal. It is the most famous in Pakistan,” says Assan. “Yes, but there is also Lawrence Gardens, perhaps before dinner,” adds Mazar.
“Mazar is fond of Lawrence Gardens in the evening. In the day it is for children. In the evening it is for romance,” says Assan. They both laugh and I believe they both blush.
We call the driver and head towars Gulberg and the suburbs, where the narrow residential streets are lined with eight-foot cement brick walls topped with broken glass, punctuated with one or two strong steel gates. Behind the walls are the big houses of Lahore’s elite. The Sufi shrine is a small circle of chaos grafted onto the neighbourhood. We leave our car just off the main arterial and walk the last couple of blocks. Donkey carts drop worshippers next to the food vendors clustered around the entrance. Motorcycles swerve around the carts and vendors while stray cars clog up the remaining space. There is no room for pedestrians but that doesn’t stop them. The alley is full to brimming.
At the Shrine entrance a set of dirty white stairs rises up to the main pavilion on the second floor. Courtyards flank the stairs and a large billboard is plastered with the face and name of a famous Qawwalli drummer who will make an appearance tonight. The courtyards are filling in anticipation. It’s nine PM, it’s Thursday night and it’s the hottest ticket in Lahore, maybe in all of Pakistan.
The three of us push past the crowd on the stairs to join another crowd in the main pavilion. There’s no room left to sit, so we lean up against a wall to wait. The aging backpackers got here early and are already sharing hashish-laced cigarettes on a comfortable marble step next to the main shrine. Bearers schlep big blocks of ice up the stairs and over to the far corner where a vendor breaks it into chunks for sale. Everyone is sweating. We wait some more.
At about ten, the crowd stirs as a trashy red satin flag is danced in, raised over our heads and planted on the tile roof of the main shrine. We go back to waiting.
At ten thirty, Mazar suggests dinner. “I thought we were going to wait for the Qawwalli music and the dancing.” I’m dripping with sweat and only partially convinced by my own statement. “It won’t be till 1 am, maybe not till two, we can come back after dinner,” says Mazar. We all know we will never be back. We leave for dinner.
“Here, we are passing Lawrence Gardens.” Mazar tugs on the driver’s arm, signaling him to stop. “Ha, we are back to where Mazar made romance,” says Assan. The gardens are beautiful in the warm night air and couples sit on benches talking intimately without any obvious chaperones. This is a different Pakistan.
Walking through the park, Mazar searches for an old bandstand. He leads us through formal gardens, past late night joggers, around a construction site and across a patch of bare land that serves the gardeners as a marshalling point. There’s a small building, lights and music in the trees on the other side of the bare patch.
“Qawwalli, Ian,” says Mazar. “Sufis”, says Assan. “It is a shrine.” The first thing I hear is the tabla, then the harmonium and then the singer joins, a high keening voice over the rhythm. Assan translates; the song is about God and love, a rather sexy kind of love the way he explains it, the kind Al Green would sing about if he could sing in Urdu. Out here in the garden, in the dark heat it is amazing.
And there are dancers. “Modern Sufi,” Assan says. “They don’t just spin, they dance.” And they do. It reminds me of folkfest dancing or maybe even a bar in the Castro. “Assan, is that a drag queen?” I point to a large woman with no breasts wearing a denim shirt over salwar kamiz pants. “We say eunuch. I think maybe a eunuch. Sufis are Muslim but fundamentalists say they are unislamic. Fundamentalists do not like eunuchs, Sufis don’t care.”
She had moved from the edge of the dancers to the middle. She was hunched over, high on her toes, shaking her booty and flipping her long, curled and hennaed hair back and forth. Her hands waved at the end of long extended arms. The other dancers formed a bit of a circle around her. Some started to clap. She looked up, the hair fell back off her face and she smiled. She was gorgeous, unislamic but gorgeous.