Stage 15 – Pakistan: Interlude
A little less than two years into my journey, I am entering Pakistan for the third time. I have recently abandoned a plan to cross the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Peninsula and attept to make my way to Africa, preferring to stay in Eurasia, with the nagging frustration of not yet having visited Afghanistan often on my mind. I have no wish to return to Western Europe but want a break from travelling for a few months, to experience living as well as travelling in my favourite country, to read and think, and to plan the next stages of my Odyssey. My enfatuation with Pakistan had in no way diminished over the weeks and months I had spent here in 2008 and I can think of no better place to spend a few months off, than with Aly and his family in the wonderful province of Sindh. In the months I spent here in the sweltering summer of 2009 I would soon feel very much at home; more so than I ever had in Europe, and the friends I would make and perspectives I would have into Pakistan’s vibrant culture would make a profound impression upon me, changing slightly my outlook on life and my ambitions far into the future. It would be an interlude from travelling but in no sense an interruption to the travel experience.
It’s the 21st of March 2009 as I resume my third crossing of Baluchistan on this journey, and the rugged desert reveals yet another face as a sparse carpet of fresh and short-lived grass has just sprouted from the lifeless desert. I decide to make a side-trip to the apparently ‘dangerous’ town of Kharan, to see a fort which is marked on my map. Karez Fort is a neglected nineteenth century throwback to the days of the princely state of Kharan and is in rather poor shape, but the fly-blown town is cheerful and friendly. The police soon find me, and insist on escorting me round with the courtesy that makes them the polar opposite of their equivalents in Iran and they tell me I am the first foreigner they remember being here, except perhaps for some Japanese oil explorers many years earlier.
I spend a few nights in Quetta, re-adjusting to the delights of Pakistan; the action, the colour, the chaos and the squalor exciting all one’s senses. I realise how much I have missed conversation (my own fault perhaps for speaking poor Persian); not the limited, formulaic questions in Iran, but the spontaneous and irreverent diatribes one has with complete strangers on the street; one might be approached by a man who at length professes an undying love for Princess Diana, or may have one’s ear bent for ten minutes by another describing in great detail the virtues and shortcomings of the England Cricket Team, despite my repeated appeals that I have no knowledge of, nor interest in the game. Most of all perhaps, after the malign theocratoc presence of Iran’s regressive clerical regime, I enjoy the freedom for, despite the country’s reputation, Pakistan really is a marvellously free place.
I soon slip down from the sere mountains of Balochistan through the Bolan Pass with its impressive, British-built railway, stopping at the archaeological site of Mehrgarh in an area inhabited by friendly Baloch tribesmen shouldering ancient-looking rifles. Mehrgarh is the site of the earliest known settlements in the Indian Subcontinent, dating back to the Neolithic and continuing into the Harappan-era, spanning the transition from hunter-gatherer to settled civilisation. While many artefacts have been uncovered – the site caretaker shows me a beautifully carved miniature head which I am quite sure is genuine – there is nothing like the staggering urban planning one can see at Mohenjo-Daro and the site is visually unimpressive. Continuing east, I reach the scrubby plains around the Indus and turn south to the city of Hyderabad, which becomes home.
The tremendous heat of summer is already building up, and so trips out of the city are few. Instead, I start to adjust to a sedentary life, taking up a place in Aly and Shahana’s school – something which to their immense credit they have built up themselves – as a trainer to the cohort of teachers. I suggest that mathematics would be a good subject for me to teach to their teachers, but I am shocked to find that few of them – who all have high-school diplomas – can even conceptually grasp multiplication, let alone recite a multiplication table. It’s a frustrating, though highly rewarding experience to teach to these adults what I had learnt when I was perhaps five years old. My posting is also highly unusual in that all my students – i.e. the teachers – are female, something truly irregular in this conservative and highly gender-segregated country. It’s a unique and wonderful privilege and insight into the lives of the other half of humanity in Pakistan, to have this post.
At the same time, my mechanical urges lead me to dismantle the engine in the truck in order to overhaul it (it has used rather a lot of oil ever since I have owned it), especially as the spare parts here in Pakistan are cheap, and the cost of labour truly nominal. The heat soon becomes so acute however that I’m confined to an hour or two each day in which I can work; just after sunrise and before leaving for school, and in the hour between the hellish afternoon heat and the hordes of mosquitoes which appear at sunset.
Whilst Aly is fully occupied with his university post, and overseeing the completion of a second storey to the school, Shahana additionally seems to have become more deeply involved in her spirituality, and has made close friends with the Mursheed (Sufi spiritual teacher) of the shrine of Bodlo Shah in the town of Sehwan Sharif, a few hours north of Hyderabad. The great man’s Malangs (disciples) are frequent house guests, and we make the occasional trip into the oven-like surroundings of the shrine to watch the malangs play drums and perform whirling dervish dances in the evening.
My lifestyle is very relaxed; school in the mornings, then rest after lunch while the temperatures outside climb into the high forties, then a little car tinkering in the evening before enjoying the cool nights chatting with friends and relatives who invariably visit, or having long, deep socio-theological conversations with Aly across the dinner table. I feel absolutely at home, and revel in the Pakistani way of life. I make some good friends, such as Khaled, a tall, gentle giant of a man, a native Sindhi and a police chief in the nearby metropolis of Karachi. Khaled occasionally takes me out on his bike late at night, to his friends’ for a smoke, or maybe some gin (Khaled would never drink or smoke), confiscating a bottle from a nearby illegal liquor shop on the way. I feel that I am really putting down roots, and love the place I am living in.
As the summer reaches its peak, school is out and I take a holiday to the north of Pakistan, using public transport as the car engine is still in a jumble of pieces. I hang out in a few overlanders’ haunts; the campsite in Islamabad, the Madina Guesthouse in Gilgit, and the small town of Karimabad in the Hunza Valley. To be in the stunning mountains of northern Pakistan, meeting and making friends with the trickle of intrepid and interesting travellers whom the country’s exaggerated reputation for unrest filters out from the tourist chaff is absolute bliss, and I fancy I could spend the rest of my days admiring the mountains from a watered green garden in the Karakoram. I make friends with a British-Australian couple, Andrew and Amelia, who are driving their Toyota Landcruiser from Australia back to the UK. They are kind enough to take me along on their tour of the north, where I am glad to show them ‘my’ country. We visit the glorious, Shangri-La Valley of Shimshal, a hidden, watered oasis high in the sublime mountain wilderness of the Karakoram. We stay in the tranquil village of Shimshal, a carpet of bright green fields scattered with simple Pamiri-roofed mud-brick dwellings, inhabited by friendly, gentle Gojali Tajiks and reachable only down a long, single lane road which clings precariously to sheer cliff faces.
It is when I am back in Islamabad however that I come across a truly life-changing piece of information. At the campsite I spy a black Toyota Landcruiser, and get chatting to Hans, its Swiss owner. Hans, who works in ‘business’ (on which he doesn’t elaborate further) has driven overland from his home in Cambodia, crossing China without any state supervision (he clearly has some very good friends in the right Chinese ministries) to get to Pakistan. Far more interestingly however, he has recently been into Afghanistan. To my knowledge, the Pakistani authorities have barred foreigners from approaching the pass since March 2008, but somehow Hans managed to speak to the right people and get permission. Admittedly, he had been stopped within a few kilometres by the Afghan authorities and made to turn back on grounds of security – but I could deal with that problem when it arose. The fact was that he had crossed the border. If I could get the permission which he had obtained, and then cross Afghanistan, I would accomplish one great ambition in life.
With new direction, I start the journey south, taking the time to see a better side of Rawalpindi, which in 2003 I thought was the worst place I had ever been, not realising that I was in the foul Pir Wadhai transport junction rather than the city proper. In Lahore I also find some new places of interest, visiting (as a spectator naturally) the city’s infamous red-light district at Heera Mandi. All the time however that I am relaxing in these places, I am aware that I have rather a lot to do in the next few weeks, and so return to Hyderabad with renewed vigour for the road. Although the path ahead is clear in my mind, in reality it is littered with obstacles; my car is in pieces and far from being completed, and post-election demonstrations in Iran have lead to allegations by the Tehran regime of British complicity, meaning no visas are being issued to British Citizens. I have no visa to Afghanistan, or anywhere beyond there, meaning I am at present technically stranded. I also have to extend the customs allowance for the truck, or face having it confiscated on grounds of non-payment of customs duties. Most importantly perhaps, I have to do some real research into my next country; is it really suicide, as most people warn me, to attempt to drive across Afghanistan? This is something I will have to consider very carefully.
In order to stock up on new parts for the engine, I make several trips to Karachi, two hours away by bus. By this point in my stay in Pakistan I am completely at home, wearing the native shalwaar kameez (it would be miserable to wear jeans in such a climate, and shorts are frowned upon in Pakistan) and more importantly, moving like a local. Karachi in August is a breath of fresh air compared to the scorching heat of Hyderabad, and I move around the city as if it was my own. Getting off the coach from Hyderabad at the chaotic traffic junction on the city’s eastern edge, I jump onto a city bus, a very ancient Bedford jalopy, riotously decorated in every imaginable colour and draped in exuberant polished metalwork. A Pashtun ticket boy leans out of the door, swishing at flies with a rag on a stick, whilst the driver jerks the clutch repeatedly to give the impression of imminent departure, until we finally move off in a cloud of smoke to fly down the choked streets of Karachi, scattering pedestrians and cyclists. The windows thankfully don’t have any glass in them and give a wonderful and constant breeze, and I smoke Korean cigarettes as we move towards the centre. Reaching the commercial district of Saddar, I jump off with local savvy and proceed to go shopping.
Cheap, tax-free Toyota parts come from a cavernous shop in Tibet Plaza, which has the smell of new fan belts, the aroma of car-parts shops the world over. I befriend the shop-owner who fulfils my every wish, sending a boy out to get new pistons, rings, bearings, hoses, gaskets and any other thing I need. A little further into the bazaar I know a tool emporium which has every accoutrement for engine building. It’s wonderful to know one’s way around such a metropolis like a local. I think Pakistan is the first time I’ve ever really loved the place I live in.
Shortly after returning from the north it is the urs (anniversary) of Bodlo Shah in the pilgrim town of Sehwan Sharif, and we head up to what is Pakistan’s greatest mela (festival). It’s by no means the first time we’ve been to the shrine, but this time we are sleeping in the house of the Mursheed of Bodlo Shah, an almost unthinkable privilege, as many would regard this man of something just short of a God. Sehwan Sharif has the look of an ancient place, clearly a centre of worship for centuries in this desolate spot where the Kirthars meet the Indus and the great plains of the Subcontinent. Oven-like winds of temperatures approaching 50ºC whip up from the filthy open sewers all manner of foul smells and clouds of pestilent flies and dust. Despite the heat and squalor, this is clearly a nerve-centre of Sindhi dargahs (shrines). Bhit Shah, closer to Hyderabad and on the other side of the Indus may be the intellectual centre of spiritualism in Sindh, but here one certainly finds the devotional centre.
On these festival days the town is packed with people; petitioners, beggars, holy men, vagrants, pickpockets, police, curious visitors, photographers, charm sellers, religious leaders, prostitues and drug addicts, all drawn to this place at this time. Approaching the shrine, the frenzy reaches a maximum, as a crowd which has pushed, squeezed and shoved its way along the dirty and broken streets of the town, as if fleeing a blazing building, reaches the threshold of the dargah. Overtaken at this point by the power of the experience, visitors fall into a series of ancient rituals, which must have been rooted in the psyche of these people for millennia. They violently hit bells which are suspended from a bar across the courtyard threshold, calling on the deity or saint inside. Next stop is a small altar where hundreds of incense sticks smoulder, giving off a voluminous plume of smoke which twists around the courtyard of the shrine, driven by the currents of hundreds of hot, sweating worshippers who anoint themselves on the forehead with a finger dipped in lamp oil. At the steps to the shrine itself, they prostrate themselves and kiss the door-frame as they enter, moving straight to the main shrine wherein lies the the tomb of Bodlo Shah, surrounded by a brass trellis which is polished to chrome by pilgrim fingers, some of whom throw rose petals onto the grave. Some men may start to pound their chests as during the ritual of Ashura, though most are content with a moments thought or prayer, or maybe a photograph with relatives on this auspicious occasion.
The crowd processes anti-clockwise around the tomb, and women head off to a corner where there are festooned some kind of fertility idols in the shape of miniature baby cradles. The women swat nervously at the cradles like cats, maybe throwing in ten rupees and saying a prayer for abundant offspring. All the time, outside the shrine, musicians wander, their drumming a constant onslaught of rhythm which drives the crowds forward in their ecstatic ritual, helped along by frequent shouts of ‘Ya Ali!‘ from within.
People flock here from across the region, seeking… something. What exactly is happening here, I am not sure. Perhaps some come for real reasons of religious piety, some perhaps in the hope of personal spiritual reward. Many seem to come for reasons of pure hedonism, but maybe there is something more subtle, beyond my understanding. Perhaps its a conceit of my rational Western mind to wish to answer such a question simply with words. The crowds consist largely of the lower classes; farmers, peasants, small businessmen and traders, people of the towns and villages of the interior. I don’t believe they are coming here to worship the ancient mendicants who are buried here; Bodlo Shah, for instance, is not a very well known figure. Perhaps however in the absence of a tangible god, people need an outlet for devotion – Bhakti in the ancient language of the Subcontinent – be it a stone idol, a sacred relic or the tomb of a deceased person.
People come here and enjoy themselves, but is there really a religious element to it? Certainly, seeing a group of women cross-legged on the floor, eyes rolled back into their skulls and heads drenched in sweat, with long, glossy black hair cascading over their faces, rocking and swaying rhythmically in the manner of the possessed, seems more like West African Voodoo than anything that might be called Islam. As for the reason why this place is chosen, this must be long lost in the depths of time, perhaps as far back as the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation which grew up exactly around this region. The mela is a truly fascinating, puzzling and human insight into the region’s spiritualism, this amorphous band of devotees who may be referred to as Sufis, who worship in the shrines of the holy men, polymaths and poets who wandered Central Asia centuries ago, and like so many, settled in the Subcontinent. Another fascinating and unique experience in this wonderful country I have started to call home.
As much as I love Pakistan however, I am not blind to reality. The country is a basket case of problems, which has been verging on being a failed state since its creation. As much as anything, my six months of sedentary life have given me a chance to think and to read, and to speak to some very interesting people, some of my favourite activities in life. One cannot live in a country of such pressing poverty and social strife without thinking as to why humanity still has to live like this.
Without doubt, I am convinced that until the population of a country is freed from the yoke of poverty, with its ugly siblings of ignorance, social inequality, communal violence and crime, and until said population can be emancipated from superstition and blind faith in organised religion, that country will never be freed from exploitation by an elite for whom it is all too easy and favourable to maintain these conditions. The qualities of greed, megalomania, nepotism, selfishness and so on, thrive in these conditions, though it would be absolutely wrong to assume that such qualities exist only in the undeveloped world – it is after all the developed nations who support such people – but the forces and fruits of social and cultural evolution are hard to resist.
A population who can question – through education, knowledge of the outside world, and religious, cultural and ideological ecumenism – is far less likely to stand for such an exploitative elite, be they installed and maintained by false religious legitimacy, such as the Ayatollahs of Iran, by sheer fear and repression of individual though as in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, or by the crushing force of poverty, ignorance and powerlessness as here in Pakistan. It is these opressors who are the greatest perpetrators of ill to humankind, along with those powers whose hands are often – openly or discreetly – behind such regimes.
More universally, I have seen the shortcomings of human nature – inherent in us all – but all the more obvious in those in power, whose influence almost invariably magnifies these flaws. Is the future of mankind to live together in peace, with respect for diversity and individual differences? Are we to be expected to evolve in sufficient time before the crush becomes too great to bear? Are the fine distinctions which may differentiate human society from any of the other fauna of this Earth an indication of an uncontrollable outcome of a distant genetic mutation, which will ultimately make us in-viable for life on Earth? This journey has taken me into many of the areas in which it seems humankind transgressed from living basically as animals – as small bands of hunter gatherers – to some sort of organised civilisation where man could begin to gain some degree of security in life from famine or attack. But in my mind, it seems that a new ‘Axial Age’ is required – one in which humans start to deeply – truly – think about each other instead of themselves and their immediate kin. I myself certainly cannot admit to being imbued with such qualities.
Eventually, the time comes to move on. My feet are itching to travel again, see new countries and meet new people. I finish rebuilding the car engine, have a route through Afghanistan in mind, and say a sad farewell to the teachers at the school knowing that I will most likely never have an experience like this again. I also must leave my adoptive family, who have taken me in without question for over five months. I feel I am closing a wonderful chapter in my life, but another is opening; one in which, I hope, to fulfil a long-standing dream.