My body guards
Hey, I have an idea: what if Mutt and Jeff had a shotgun?
On the flight to D.C. my fellow passengers were Memorial Day vacationers wearing T-shirts and baseball caps. I felt like an international man of mystery, passing through their lives, a dark ship en route to an impossibly distant port. The situation was reversed on the flight to Dubai. Now my fellow travelers were beefy guys with heavy watches and camo hats. They had American flag patches on their arms and were headed to Kandahar to take up positions as "security consultants." I made the mistake of watching Zero Dark Thirty for my in-flight movie. It depicts the 2008 bombing of the Islamabad Marriott, my home for the next week or so.
The power went out while I was standing in the dismal arrival hall at Islamabad airport, waiting to get my passport stamped. The long line of bleary passengers groaned. It wasn't a "we're all gonna die!" groan, it was a "this again?" groan. Daily life in Pakistan is punctuated with power outages. The government calls it "load shedding." People don't blink when it happens. Even in elevators. My handler, Atif, was waiting for me when I finally emerged from customs into the hot, dusty 50-person-deep crowd.
The Arabs built this enormous space ship for Pakistan. Unclear why Pakistan couldn't build their own enormous space ship.
I'm in Pakistan as a small part of a State Department grant to help the Allama Iqbal Open University
. AIOU is basically a correspondence school. They send millions of packets containing books, CDs, and other course materials to remote areas of Pakistan: Khyber-Pushtu, Kashmir, the tribal areas, Swat Valley, and beyond. (Basically, the same places we're sending drones.) For many people in these areas, especially the women, AIOU is their only access to education. The courses cover topics ranging from basic hygiene to algorithm analysis. Last week, when I asked the grant administrator what my goals would be when I arrived, he waved his hand as if he were brushing my obsessive-compulsive demand for guidance away like a bothersome insect. "Just try to inspire them," he answered.
At the Marriott we were stopped at a checkpoint outside of the hotel's 20 foot blast wall. One guard walked a decrepit bomb sniffing dog around our van, while another looked under our hood. In my room I noticed a sign that read, "Relax, we'll do the worrying for you."
I had a lunch date with Ron, an officer from the U.S. embassy who was supposed to
Banquet in my honor. VC is to my right (your left). Far right is Moiz, CS Dept chair.
give me my security briefing. I knew the briefing would be light on security when he arrived at the hotel on a motorcycle. We spent the next hour wandering aimlessly around Islamabad. Ron shrugged off any questions I had about security. "Just be aware of who's following you," he finally offered. "Someone will always be following you," he explained. "Usually it's the ISI. But if it's someone who looks suspicious, give us a call," he casually advised.
The ISI is Pakistan's version of the CIA, and Ron's remark was an allusion to the Raymond Davis affair. Davis was one of those beefy "security consultants;" a couple of years ago he shot two "suspicious looking" Pakistanis who were following him. A third Pakistani was run over by the embassy SUV sent to rescue Davis from the angry mob that surrounded him. The incident was aggravated further by Obama's decision to deny that Davis was working for the CIA.
In front of a cafe we bumped into a friend of Ron's, a Pakistani diplomat who praised us for our courage to be walking around this neighborhood. Ron explained that a politician had been gunned down by his driver in the
Big Important Conference I
Surreptitious photo taken at the big important conference.
very spot we were standing. "But that was last year," he added, "nothing to worry about now."
Inside the cafe Ron opened up to me. Raised Mormon in Utah, he married a Mormon girl and produced 10 Mormon children. (They were disappointed because they wanted 12. Did I mention that Ron is only 39?) Ron eventually decided to leave the Mormon Church, his Mormon wife and his 10 Mormon kids. He likened the ordeal of discovering life after Mormonism to a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. At that point in the conversation he began to cry. (I too felt like crying, but for an entirely different reason.)
The incident reminded me of an ex-pat phenomenon I have observed many times. Friendships form fast when you are living far away from home in a dangerous place. Ex pats know that their time in any one place is brief, and so they bond quickly and a year or two later, they part just as quickly.
Dinner that first night was a banquet in my honor at the newly constructed Officer's Club, a cavernous, charm-free room with neon lighting. Atif guided me to a tiny couch—the room's only
Big Important Conference III
Surreptitious self portrait taken at the big important conference. (Minutes later I was on TV giving an impromptu speech.)
furnishing (although soon the room would feature a ping pong table, I was told). He begged me to sit. Wave after wave of AIOU staff members were presented to me. After I shook each person's hand, they hovered over me in an awkward silence. At last the Vice Chancellor arrived. He sat next to me on the cramped love seat. Out of nowhere photographers appeared and cameras began flashing. I had a mostly unintelligible conversation with the VC. Finally we were led to a banquet table and served delicious Pakistani food (which is basically the same as Indian food.) It seemed odd that as fancy as the meal was, our only provided eating implement was a spoon. I tried to cut a piece of chicken with the side of my spoon, but it scuttled across the table and into the VC's lap. I'm sure it was all caught on film.
That night was my first contact with a bed since last Friday night in Santa Cruz!
As the Improbability Drive reaches infinite improbability, it passes through every conceivable point in every conceivable universe almost simultaneously. In other words, you're never sure where you'll end up or even what species you'll be when you get there. It's therefore important to dress accordingly.
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
I would add that it's also important not to look surprised.
My travel experience, especially in the Third World,
can often be described as lurching inexplicably from one random event to another. It's as if I keep accidentally hitting the button on my improbability drive. My Pakistani entourage—Atif and several Computer Science faculty members—heighten the effect by providing me with a daily schedule that bears little or no correspondence to my actual activities. The Tuesday morning discussion about the AIOU curriculum occurred as scheduled. It was followed by an unscheduled awkward silence. Then Atif and the others suddenly stood up and said it was time to go to the conference. I scanned the schedule. Conference? What conference?
A few minutes later I was led into a brightly lit room filled with TV cameras. Important looking men in business suits sat around a huge mahogany table. I guessed they were politicians. A dense crowd of onlookers surrounded the table. I headed for the back of the crowd. But no, apparently my presence was required at the table. A lesser personage was forced to give me his seat. I sat down to the applause of camera shutters and flash bulbs. The meeting was mostly in Urdu, so I had no fucking idea what was going on. Here's a sample:
????? nuclear weapons ????? madrassa ????? travel advisory ????? Jon Pearce ?????
For the ladies
Sign at the Faisal Mosque
I got bored after a while, so I took out my iPhone and started playing with it. Suddenly the lights intensified. I looked up. TV cameras were pointing at my face. Apparently it was my turn to say something. I remembered not to look surprised. In a confident tone I said that the US government thought everyone here was doing a good job or else I wouldn't be here.
Story in Wednesday's paper: the newly elected MPs are to be sworn in today. Unfortunately, the MPs who lost their elections are refusing to vacate their government subsidized apartments. The police have cut the power to drive them out. (Not a big hardship since the power cuts itself off every twenty minutes.)
My big Wednesday lecture to the AIOU faculty was to be from 10:00 to 11:00. But the lecture was delayed because the Vice Chancellor was in an important meeting. The audience and I sat in awkward silence watching my precious time tick away. At 10:30 a messenger arrived to say that the VC wouldn't be coming after all and I should start, but that I should still finish by 11:00 so I could
Me 'n' Atif
In addition to body guards, I also have Atif, my life style manager. Here we are at the Faisal Mosque
keep my scheduled meeting with the VC (not on my schedule.) Insha Allah, I said bitterly, and started to rise; but a hand gently pulled me back into my seat. First there had to be a reading from the Holy Koran. A faculty member stood up and beautifully sang several Arabic verses. Later I learned that no one speaks Arabic nor has any idea what is being recited. Maybe it means "eat a big one, Pakistan" I muttered inaudibly.
I rushed through my slides skipping over every other one. My audience members' eyes spun like slot machine wheels. But by the will of Allah, I finished by 11:00. I was then taken back to my waiting room. I'm getting pretty familiar with this routine. They store me in this room until the Vice Chancellor is ready to see me. But he always has something more important to do, so I end up just sitting, sometimes for an hour. To prevent me from doing any work, I am supplied with a conversation partner. We struggle to find topics. How do I like Pakistan? Was my home destroyed by the tornado? An awkward silence and then again, how do
Interesting architecture, but give me the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
I like Pakistan?
Finally the VC is ready to see me. But it's soon clear that he's not really interested in my recommendations. He talks about his ideas for a while, then he proposes a "partnership" with San Jose State where we pay AIOU to offer online Urdu courses. Finally he asks me a question. But as I start answering, he casually picks up his phone and makes a call!
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