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Published: August 21st 2008
Zahid and Rich
I would later find out that he is known throughout all of Pakistan...
From the border until mid afternoon in downtown Lahore, I had not grabbed much to eat. By two o’clock I sought anywhere in the downtown area with a functioning generator and preferably with a chilled dining area to offset temperatures over one hundred degrees. Within the first three minutes of scanning for an eatery on Regal Chowk I confirmed (by my own standards) that Lahore was truly the cultural capital of Pakistan. I saw the sign behind a row of trees across the median-divided boulevard. The letters were on the standard yellow background inside a brown oval. I followed each one left to right to make sure there could be no trickery at work: S-U-B-W-A-Y. I made a bee line for the front door, disregarding the deadly vehicles that simply drove around me like any other moving hazard.
“Welcome sir!” shouted the man behind the glass cases of pre-sliced meat and chopped veggies. I gazed up at the menu board and took the satisfaction of sheltering myself in a sanctuary of American casual cuisine.
I stepped to order, the only patron inside. Let’s see…Yeah, I’ll have the ham and bacon special with a cold beer. Well, maybe not.
My hopes were
Bring Your Visa Card
Actually, just get rupees with Mr. Jinnah's face on them...
about to be dashed or met with much exhilaration. I could hardly control my excitement to find out if it could really happen. I concentrated in hopes the answer would be in the affirmative. So many times I have been disappointed because so few eateries have anything that they advertise. Could it be true? Were my eyes deceiving me? Is it? Is it? “I’ll have a footlong on Honey Oat with provolone cheese, and…” I was practically jumping up in down in anticipation. And then my sandwich artist brought me down a notch.
“Sir, what is provolone? We just have normal cheese.” OK, different types of cheese for Subway haven’t made it to Pakistan. Like I care at this point.
“No problem. Do you have the”, I hesitated in prayer, “roast beef?”
“YES!!!” I threw my hands up into the air happier than having scored the winning touchdown at a backyard football game. They have beef! What India had been denying me for the better part of a month! A true cause for celebration, I skipped around the felt barriers and rattled off the rest of the toppings I wanted. I pointed in the direction of India and said
The Mark of a Pro
Zahid's equipment bag...
to my savior, “Over there, they don’t have beef, roast beef, anything at all!” The twenty-something was confused and ignored me. He finished slapping on the toppings and covered my lunch with Chipotle sauce. I pulled out a few banknotes as he started to ring me up. “Make it a meal, please. I’ll grab some chips and a drink.” I had already eyed the soda fountain. The guy gave me a cup, the size you’d use to rinse out at a dentist’s office. I walked over and pressed the rim of the waxed cup against the Coke tab. Presto! And it was cold, not the lukewarm syrupy junk I have had to tolerate for I cannot say how many weeks. The Coke confirmed it: I could live here.
I went back to the register and fiddled around with the new currency. Before he totaled the amount, he inquired, “You. What country?”
“U.S.A. And you…Hmmmm….let’s see….Pakistan? See, I am a very smart person”, and I patted myself on the back. That got all three to laugh.
But the cashier wasn’t convinced. In fact, he could not immediately come to terms with my reply.
Then came one of the better
Finesse is a necessary skill in cricket...
questions I have been asked in years about my nationality. “Are you sure?”
Hmmm. Yeah, pal. I like my chances here. I pinched my arms to feign that I was actually there, looked left and right and said, “Yes, I am American.”
He was incredulous. His eyebrows dropped and he processed the sight of the stranger in front of him.
“How you get here?”
Can I just please have my sandwich now? “I came from Amritsar.”
“At Wagah border you come?”
“Yes, no problem.”
“And now you are in Lahore.”
That was a no-brainer. “Yes.”
“At my shop.”
He still couldn’t accept me or my reasoning. The interrogation continued and I could get no closer to my lunch.
“Why you come to Pakistan?”
“To see Lahore. To see your country.” Why not?
He conferred with the other two one of whom had been sweeping. The other was arranging tables.
“So, you are from U.S.A. and come to my shop, eat here, and want to see Pakistan?”
You got it. “Yes, exactly.” Can I get my food? Pretty please?
He handed me my tray. Next to my sandwich and French cheese chips were the three one hundred rupee notes. I
I am a master in disguise...
gave them back to him.
“No.” He put up his palm, refusing them outright.
Confused, I asked why.
“You are my guest here, American friend. You do not pay today. I am proud to have you in my shop. Maybe you pay tomorrow. Not today.” He put the tray at my chest and pointed at an upholstered chair with his chain. “Go, sit and eat.”
And I did. I savored every last morsel of the gristled, tough, and discolored roast beef. When I left, the three employees rushed to the door and opened it for me. “Thank you, sir. We are happy you are here.” And I walked away astonished at what had just happened.
“Sir! No! Sir!” he cried out from the field below the busy boulevard. “Don’t go!” I had already finished recording their practice session. In fact, the entire team was involved in a semicircular drill of pepper, much like the version in baseball. This being Pakistan, the tosses and smacks of the bat to the fielders were with a flat cricket bat. Only the catcher had gloves to protect his hands. The rest went without.
I stepped down to the unmowed field of dirt tracks
A Great Halloween Costume
At Mr. Hanif's. But I seriously believe there is no trick-or-treating in Lahore...
and discarded packaging. The coach beamed at me and threw out his right hand to meet mine. “How are you?” Usually I recoil at such behavior I often find staged for my benefit or the economic benefit of someone else. But there was no pretense in the man.
Zahid, the coach of the team, continued gave out instructions to line up for batting practice at a cleverly designed cage. His players queued up in a long line. The first one started to sprint and delivered his first pitch to the batter in pads encased behind the netting supported by tall, bamboo staffs. The forty-year-old turned to me and introduced himself as if we had known each other for the better part of our lives. He was in full national uniform. Green and gold decorated his white top. His helmet carried his last name emblazoned on the back: MALIK.
The professional athlete pulled up a chair, the only one, for me to sit. As far as he was concerned, if I was going to observe his team, it would be done close-up instead of casually. All I wanted was a quick snapshot of Lahori recreation in the late afternoon. I
Marks of Success
Zahid's very modest collection of trophies...
had no idea what was to be in store for me.
“You from?” he inquired.
“U.S.A.” On the Subcontinent, I have learned to identify my country by those three letters as opposed to saying “United States” or “America”. U.S.A. leaves no doubt. It often provokes quite a reaction, in my case, thankfully, always positive. Sometimes it has been overwhelming.
“Wow! You know Lahore well?”
“No, but I want to.”
“Good!” In the next twenty minutes, Zahid introduced me to every member of his team regardless if they could speak English. He offered me a bat and I went into the cage, this time without hesitation to make a fool out of myself.
“Richard! You know how to play cricket?”
No, not really. But I goofed around enough in India to at least put the bat on the ball and not be put out in three minutes. “Poorly” was all I could muster.
Zahid ordered his best bowler at me. I nervously gripped the bat too tightly and followed the gait of his sprint as he dashed forward at me. His release was with a whip of the arm and I placed my bat on his pitch, sending the ball slightly
Entrance to Badshahi Mosque
Among the largest in the world...
off the ground ten yards behind him. Applause came from the team, Zahid, and the hundred or so watching at street level. For a private moment I fantasized that the gathering public had come to see me bat. But Zahid was suiting up and next to enter the cage. I sheepishly deferred to the main event.
Zahid smacked each pitch with precision and power. He smashed fours and sixes by spinning, twirling, and pushing each bounced bowl at his will. To the right and in front of the cage, the red minarets and white domes of the Badshahi Mosque shone in the waning afternoon sun. The gap between the novice American wannabe and the pro did not escape the other players on the club or the crowd leaning against the steel barred fence. In the field, one of them came up to me, “Our coach, very good batsman. Once voted best cricketer in Pakistan!”
After he batted, he came over to talk more. He offered me his own plush towel to dry the rivers pouring off my head from an imaginary garden hose open at full throttle. Every now and then he would interrupt his own sentence by barking out
Lahore Fort still retains some splendor...
instructions to his team. One of his players would politely sneak by to gain access to the water jug; he’d dip the communal steel cup in, take a chug, and then go back to his position in the field. In no time, it was clear to conclude that Zahid had no agenda at all; he was being an exceedingly friendly guy. I cancelled my planned walk through the Old City and decided to stay on in the park to see where the evening might lead.
His questions were of the same category I would be hit with throughout Lahore, but they were questions of wonderment and curiosity. It is not every day an American shows up to his practice willing to be part of the team for the hell of it. He, like me, wanted to take full advantage.
“What do you think about Pakistan?”
“Zahid, I have been in your country four hours. That is not a fair question.” But I thought about his question a little more. From the bus attendant at the border to my rickshaw driver to the hotel, and now Zahid…they have all made the same query. They all have been deeply concerned with my
Once proud, now fading in many areas...
take on their country. They very much want to hear that all is well and are willing to go to great lengths to remedy any dissatisfaction.
He went on to ask me if I thought all Pakistanis were terrorists and what I thought as an American about Islam. No, of course none of you here are a threat to anyone. Zahid seemed surprisingly relieved. Not even a full day in, I deferred the other answer I very much craved to articulate for another time. There is a time and a place for everything. This was not it, but I knew I could express it.
My feeling is that Lahore is an open city, one where its people can exercise a liberal exchange of ideas. Having earlier perused three bookstores in the city center, I found a wide range of titles available in areas of literature, philosophy, languages, current events, the sciences, and politics. While several editions of the Koran were displayed, I could also have chosen books of Biblical analysis and Sikh dogma. In the geo-political arena, several titles were clearly critical of radical Islam and the current regime in Islamabad. While Noam Chomsky was more prominently displayed than releases
The inability to bargain is a sign of weakness...
from American neo-cons, I left pleased that the literary marketplace is not a closed shop for a singular way of thinking.
“Come! He hopped on his motorbike and pointed to the open back of the seat for me with his chin. “I want to show you something!” I secured my daypack to each shoulder, managed to get each foot on the pedestals, and we were off. I examined him closely from behind. At forty, he was in perfect physical condition, about my height and has a waist line a foot shorter than mine. If not for our similarly thin and disappearing hairlines, Zahid could easily pass for fifteen years younger. I did not envy him, but conceded that his was the result of maintaining his job and wanting to play the game at the highest level possible. He is contemplating retirement.
We zipped across both flowing and opposing traffic to much larger open parkland abutting the city’s main bus station where men numbering in the hundreds had set up sandlot cricket matches. But in Pakistan, like India, there was no order. Cricket grounds overlapped each other; there was no way to tell who was playing at which match. Some fielders
Whoever invented Food Street should get their own country...
faced each other while participating in two separate matches; their respective bowlers and wickets several yards apart and at different angles. The whole park was a mishmash of flying cricket balls, arguments, dashes and sprints. There were no lines, boundaries, or any way to figure out which game started and ended. It’s just how things are done here.
Zahid and I motored and circled around all the matches in play. We waved hello to some of the more notable players he pointed out to me. We came across three professionals to whom I was introduced as his friend. So affable, I could not doubt Zahid’s sincerity that after less than two hours, he did consider me his friend. From when we first met, he had given me no reason to question that assessment. My appearance in the cricket ground had altered his day. Zahid spent several minutes between cricket drills to call up colleagues and family on his cell phone to tell them about me. Part of the routine was for me to chat with them although I had no idea what would make sense: Gee, I was walking around and decide to video your cousin’s practice. Now, I am the guest of the club, have batted, and am the center of a gathering crowd of onlookers above at street level. That is the best I could come up with for each conversation, and it was more than enough. When I finished talking, all of them concluded with the same sentiments as I handed the phone to back Zahid: Thank you for coming to my country.
It was getting dark. “Come!” he said. I remounted the motorcycle and grabbed a hold of his hips. “You must be thirsty. I know a good place. Best drinks in all of Lahore!” He accelerated from a dead stop so quickly that the rear wheel dug into the earth before we sped away. Our exit was as dramatic and unruly as our arrival. We swerved around batters and dodged men running after batted balls. A batted ball smashed against the rear wheel of the motorcycle. Though I did not mention it to Zahid, it occurred to me that there had to be over a thousand players in this park, easily. I scanned the expanse of rocky green fields and dirt to realize there was not a single woman or girl among them.
Five hundred yards away at a junction with a main thoroughfare, Zahid pulled over behind the choking exhaust of four city buses. I followed him through the slop and mud to a stand, no more than an open folding table, Behind the table was a man of about fifty-five. Atop the table sat a large pail about thirty inches in circumference and eight inches deep. In the center of the receptacle was a rusting steel can, a base for a hefty block of dripping ice. The drops from the ice fell into the pail to form a pool of cold water just below freezing, a rarity in Lahore. As the man inserted his bare hands, Zahid introduced me to him. “This man makes the best lemon water in Pakistan!” Zahid radiantly boasted. He then told the vendor what he had just said in Urdu, at which the vendor shyly gave an aw-shucks reaction. But he was impressed when Zahid told him my nationality. He instantly shook my hand, smelling of citrus fragrances. He went right back into the pool of cloudy, chilled water. Lemon halves floated, which he grabbed and firmly squeezed.
“Richard, now you try!” Zahid ordered a cup for me. The man took one of the three glasses he uses to sell drinks all day, gave it a superficial wash from another bucket, and poured me a full serving of his potion. Internally, I would have preferred to decline. But it was still over ninety degrees at dusk. My water bottle had been empty for an hour and I was parched. These are the times when it is handy to make believe that microorganisms in Pakistan do not exist. I downed the bitterly cold drink it is was an instant reviver, just fantastic. I ordered second and finished it just as quickly. Though we could not speak to each other, my smile and expression of relief told the story.
It was time to get back to practice. Bats fluttered among the tree tops. I put down a twenty rupee note, about thirty cents. The man refused it and shoved it deeply back into my front shorts pocket. He uttered something to me in Urdu, the translation of which I quickly asked for.
“Richard, he say, ‘I am happy to have you in Pakistan. You are good to come to my country from yours. You are welcome here always. Your money is no good with me.’”
“Would you like to go Food Street tonight?” My idea was met with immediate approval. My new friend, as that is what he had become, was all for it. It was also how I dodged the question about Islam. Whenever in doubt, start taking about food. It is the easiest way to get people, especially men, easily and permanently diverted.
Zahid took to his cell phone and called a friend, Imran, to join us. The set time was nine thirty, in about ninety minutes. Though there might be a few hiccups and setbacks, dinner was set, and I wouldn’t have to seek it out.
“Richard, if you don’t mind” is the way Zahid to a fault politely phrases his requests, “but I would like you to come back with me to my home. I can show you where I live and you can meet my family.” Essentially, he wanted to show me off. Great, I’ll be able to see something more than the inside of a hotel room. I gladly accepted, which pleased Zahid even more. “Fantastic! Jump on!” I straddled the back part of the motorcycle seat and Zahid roared the accelerator. We reached the street and he made a hard left into swirling traffic.
The only way to truly appreciate a ride on the back of a motorcycle through Lahore is to have risked your own life doing just that. The most important ad viceis to show no fear. I swallowed the harrowing screams that needed to be released and instead held my breath and shut my eyes through the mist of erupting exhaust fumes from the autorickshaws. Traffic in each direction lined up side by side at for at least seven vehicles, including vans, rickshaws, bicycles, and compact cars.
Zahid yelled into my ear, “The air in Lahore, very bad. Much pollution.” Momentarily distracted by having spoken to me, he did not take notice of the white Volvo tourist coach about to body check us into a pickup truck. But Zahid did not panic; we simply pushed off the side of the bus at twenty miles per hour to give it more room as if we were launching a dinghy from a dock at lakeside. Zahid found gaps in the traffic where he sped up only to be cut off without warning. When he hit the breaks, he sent my chest into his back and chin over his left shoulder. His body prevented me from being projected onto the asphalt like a slingshot. I wanted to close my eyes, but then I wouldn’t be able to provide the proper details to the officer when I filed the collision report from my hospital bed. We leaned around potholes and craters. While stopped in traffic up, I chatted with other motorists and waved to babies in their mothers’ arms. Several minutes after we passed the parts of Lahore I was familiar with, traffic lessened a bit and we cruised pretty much unimpeded into the dark suburbs. As with the rest of the city, the power had been cut off in intervals. The motorcycle headlight barely sufficed, but Zahid knew where he was going. It then occurred to me: It’s a good thing Pakistanis do not imbibe. Could you imagine the carnage on the road if they did?
“Richard, if you don’t mind, I want to stop and you can meet someone. A friend. OK?” I suppressed my hunger. What was I going to say? No?
“Sure, that would be great.” With my approval, we leaned into the road for a sharp left turn and came to a stop at a building across from a general store and a shop for wiring and tubing. The road had melted into rubble. There was no electricity in the neighborhood. “Come!” called Zahid. Just then the lights from the streetlamps came back on with a few fluttering waves.
Zahid furnished few details as we climbed the unlit, musty concrete steps. I looked up to see the flight led to a dimly lit room on the left. He entered first to be greeted by his friend (a man closer to my parents’ age) with a big hug.
“Richard, this is Mohammed Hanif, and he is very talented. He works in the film business.” Mohammed made us feel as much as possible at home in his depressing two-room flat. His charpoy, a popular type of cot of woven fabric, served as his sofa during the day and on his TV screen was a Pakistani film dating back to the early ‘50’s. Mohammed sent his son off for drinks and biscuits. I stared at the movie as the two conversed for a few minutes. It was of a quality no better than a black-and-white backyard camcorder effort with the sound muffled. I watched with a piquing interest to see if the acting and cinematography could get any worse. Then the protagonist took a wide swing at the villain, his fist not coming with a foot of his adversary’s chin. This sent the man in black flying through the desert, knocked out cold. The world was now safe.
“Ah, Richard! You like this movie? Big Pakistani classic.”
“Zahid, this is horrible.” I had to be honest.
“No, no, no! Big, popular movie with my parents! Everyone has seen this.”
“It’s horrible, Zahid.”
Zahid interpreted for Mohammed what I had said, to which my host did not react. Following a long pause and watching the next scene, a scripted chase through the high desert on horseback, Zahid conceded. “Yes, it is not a good movie.” But he was smiling when he said it.
You see here, Richard, Mohammed makes weehs. He is an expert! That is what I want to show you.
“Weehs?” What is a we-”
“Wheehs!” the cricketer insisted. You know, for your head!”
“Huh?” Zahid covered his balding crown and receding hairline with interlocking fingers.
“You know, weehs, hair, artificial.”
“Oh, you mean wigs!” I corrected him from the charpoy.
“Yes, like I said, weehs!”
Mohammed had a collection of handmade models. His current project, all weaved by hand from horse hair or long clippings from beauty salons, is for an historical docudrama set back in the nineteenth century. He had already tossed them on the ground in no particular order. To me they were motionless, faceless furry pets that needed to be fed until the costume designer held one up to show me how they are attached to the back of the actress’ head.
This inspired Zahid. And he has little tact in English. “Richard, you need a weeh very badly. I will get one for you, very beautiful. Zahid disappeared. Mohammed’s son returned with a cold bottle of Pepsi and biscuits about which I was delighted. Nine thirty. My opening course for dinner had arrived. I helped myself to half the box of treats.
When Zahid got back he slapped a wig on me without any warning. It trapped the heat in the stuffy apartment where the temperature was already stifling. It felt fibrous and itchy, none too pleasing. It did not matter to the three others. They got a good laugh at my expense and I could only truly understand when Mohammed put a mirror in front of my face. I looked ridiculous, an Inspector Clouseau whose initial visit to the Hair Club for Men turned out all wrong. Zahid added an adhesive mustache that took poorly on my moist upper lip. When it finally stuck, the digital cameras could not have come out quickly enough. The three took several shots in between chuckles and pointing fingers at the gullible American.
Similar to his run for refreshments, Mohammed’s son again disappeared. He came back no more than five minutes later, but waited at the entrance to his father’s living room/bedroom/workshop to grab the others’ attention. Zahid’s eyes flew open wide at the sight of him, but I could not see him behind the sharp angle of the door to the exit.
“Richard! You will love this! This is Mr. Hanif’s masterpiece. Zahid waved him, or it, in.
With a reproduced roar, I was greeted by his son in a full size black bear costume. He put his paws up in the air for an attack pose. Save the zoo, he had to be the only bear in Lahore, certainly the only one with a white diagonal stripe across its chest. The tamed animal crawled on the ground for me and made a feeble attempt at rolling around with Zahid to simulate an attack.
Hunger also had crept upon Zahid. He wanted to get back, clean up, meet Imran, and go to dinner. It was still going to be at least an hour until I saw real nourishment.
I thanked Mohammed for having me in his home. He thanked me much more for coming and spoke to me in Urdu through Zahid. “You have come to Pakistan. You have made me happy to see you. All guests are gifts. You, Richard are a gift from Allah.”
I was touched, especially at the thought of informing my family, my mother specifically, that I, Richard Jr., have been seen as a bestowal from the Almighty himself. I seriously doubt she will share the same opinion.
“Come! We go!” Zahid and I descended the steps. Mohammed and son bid us farewell. The trip to Zahid’s suburban home was short, safe, and slow.
We got off the motorcycle in the far reaching, desolate, and unpaved suburbs of Lahore. The athlete’s home does not live up to his professional accomplishments as a cricket player. Struggling to keep up with the middle class, he shares the single level apartment with his new wife and mother-in-law. As a forty-year-old man, I find him very brave to tough it out with that situation and not have a place of his own, but circumstances dictate this arrangement works best for them.
He unlocked the gate and showed me to the modest living room with a very high ceiling. He offered me a faded photo album. It and his trophies are all he has to highlight his career achievements. Across the room on an end table no more than four square feet, were crammed awards, plaques, and other commendations for excellence in his sport. One read:
Pakistan Cricket Board
Awarded to Zahid Malik
General Tauquir Zia
In the West, he would be revered and on SportsCenter every night, and certainly not in an apartment in Lahore’s far-reaching and muddy neighborhoods.
“Richard, if you don’t mind, I will have a wash. My wife, she will make something for us before we can go. I have called Imran and he is coming. Is this OK?” He has desperately requested my approval at every step of the way. But whether he was aware of it or not, I am not exactly in a position to decline. Moreover, his wife is cooking something for me. So of course I’ll stick it out.
“Fine, no problem.” I washed my hands in the tiny bathroom. Though I am accustomed to it, the toilet is not Western, just a ceramic hole in the ground with a water tank secured into the wall. While finishing in the bathroom, someone has placed an air cooler in front of where I was sitting in the living room. I peered into the kitchen and made out a figure of a woman, well covered and a veil across her nose. Both wife and mother-in-law were aware of my presence, but did not come to say hello. Instincts kept me out of the kitchen and convinced me to wait for Zahid to return. Perhaps I would get to meet them, perhaps not.
After freshening up Zahid appeared again in the living room with folding TV trays. He held up a bottle fragrance and sprayed his shirt and offered me the bottle. “Do you want some perfume for you?” he asked. I needed a little something to mask the perspiration caked onto my skin and hair.
“Yes, Zahid. Thank you. I took the bottle and applied a few squirts where they were most needed. “But Zahid…”
“In English, for men, we say cologne. For women, it is perfume, even if it is the same liquid inside.”
He took note of the distinction. Constantly and annoyingly apologetic for what I consider to be very passable English, he was grateful for the tip. “Richard, maybe one day you should try to be a teacher. You could be good at it.”
“Yes, Zahid, maybe I’ll think about it.”
Dinner arrived, roasted capsicum in oil with naan bread. Zahid and I conversed very little and concentrated on the pick-me-up needed before we went out for dinner.
“Zahid, do I get to meet your wife?”
“Yes, I will arrange this” he answered in a tone that implied a few phone calls would have to be made. “She is shy.” Frankly, I do not care if she is legally insane. I just want to say hello and thank her for the meal. And that is when Zahid informed me of where I was. It was a necessary, though embarrassing lesson of which I should have been aware. In retrospect, I should never have been so insistent.
“If you don’t mind, Richard, my wife and her mother will stay in the other room. That is where they belong. Women do not come out and show themselves to other guests, men guests. This is Islam.” I still didn’t care and explained to him that it is common courtesy in our culture to show appreciation for those who labor on our behalf. A compromise was met, but it was uneasy. I made sure not to get too close, and I did not try to shake their hands or make any physical contact. First came the mother-in-law. She offered me a smile and sat as far away from me as possible. Zahid interpreted the small talk between English and Urdu. After three minutes, she was gone. Next up to bat was his wife. On the chunky side, she was visibly pregnant, seven months according to Zahid.
“This is good news of course!” I exclaimed.
“Yes, Allah has been blessing us.” With no English, all she could do was exhale small giggles and sit at the corner of the sofa until her husband dismissed her back to where she would be much more in her element. She removed the orange veil from across her nose. She was not too pretty, but she satisfied Zahid’s needs as a husband in his world. I tried to formulate innocuous questions to keep her in the living room longer.
“Does she like cricket? Does she go to your matches?”
Zahid was aghast! “Oh, no! Never! She wants nothing of cricket. She likes to stay home.”
“Does she go out, maybe go to the movies?”
He took the question devoid of logic. “No, never.”
Oh, OK then. What about hobbies? What does she do in her spare time?” I thought this a decent question…I could go out and buy her and her mother something the next day.
Without a pause, “She very much likes to pray and read the Koran.” replied Zahid. I swallowed the rest of my questions on her take of music, vacation destinations, and whether she prefers vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce and a maraschino cherry on top. “My wife will be a good home person. That is what she wants to do and what she will do.” End of story.
Imran was running late, as does about everything in Pakistan. Zahid and I took a walk through the puddles, slop, excrement, piles of strewn bricks, and pocket-sized shops of his neighborhood. The stares demonstrated how removed were we from the open society of central Lahore. Flocks of children followed us just to get a look at me. The power went out, rendering the entire quarter black until shopkeepers and housewives lit propane lanterns or started up their generators with tugs on a long cord. Some of the steps I took sent my feet into the saturated earth. Unless with children in tow, no women walked the streets. Teens brave enough to try their English jumped in front of me with much excitement. “Which country?”
“U.S.A.” A high-frequency wave of murmuring spread throughout the neighborhood. An American was here. Very quietly, I asked Zahid how often foreigners venture to this part of Lahore. He thought about it and answered after a prolonged pause. Women craned their necks over balconies of air drying laundry to see what the commotion was all about. “Never. You are the first I know.”
Zahid’s cell phone went off and he answered. I kept my flashlight on the ground as we walked back to his home. It was Imran. He had arrived. We picked up our pace.
At Zahid’s front gate was the thirty-year-old. After introductions, a plan was devised on where to go to dinner. I chimed up, “Food Street!!!”
There were no objections. Food Street it was. “Richard,” Zahid interjected, “if you don’t mind, we will make a change.” OK with me as long as there are no check points or road blocks between here and dinner. “We will go in Imran’s car. It is better, more comfortable, and safer.” Anything is safer than on the back of Zahid’s motorcycle without a full life insurance policy. “Also, he has AC in his car.” I made sure I grabbed the front seat next to the vents.
Imran explained to me how he had been in Canada for a few weeks, in March. It was Toronto, in fact, so at least he knows what cold is. He is the oldest man I have come across in either Pakistan or India who was single. And he has no plans in the near future. The vent pumped out arctic air that made me uncomfortably, but happily cold at the same time. With the comfort was a trade off, though. No longer exposed to being bumped by traffic or rear-ended by livestock while at a turn, Imran’s car lacked a feature hard to overlook in my book: his headlights did not work. Thankfully, he is just as insane as the rest of the drivers in Lahore and took no extra precautions, so we fit right in with the rest. To make matters more tantalizing, electrical power had not been restored. So the trip into downtown depended on the red tail lights of the vehicles in front of us, when there were any. At police checkpoints, cops waved us through unconcerned with our measly shortcomings.
Whoever invented the concept of Lahore’s Food Street (it actually goes by that name), thank you. A pedestrian thoroughfare approximately three hundred yards long, it is crammed with restaurants whose fiery grills and tables for patrons spill out into the street. Staff at each establishment cajole diners to join them, and there is not much difference from one to the other. Imran debated way too long on which one would be best suited for me without asking me what I thought. I would have simply told them to out me at a table where the food could come quickly and in plentiful portions. They ordered spicy beef, chicken, and mutton from skewers or roasted in ovens in ceramic pots. The meats came infused with peppery spices, doused in a light oil, and garlic. The sausage was memorable. As in India, utensils were optional. The three of us clawed at the meat with naan bread and only I asked for napkins to keep my fingers clean. The rest of Lahore forgoes napkins and washes up afterwards. All the while both men kept a watchful eye on me and intermittently confirmed I was OK. It was crucial that I, their guest, be happy. For them it was a badge of honor, one they wore proudly. The bill for the superb meal was a pittance and I tried in vain to pay. My insistence aroused their anger and I relented. For them, the five hundred rupees (a little over seven dollars) was a sizeable chunk of money, but miniscule when gauged against their pride. “No, Richard. You are our guest in our country. You cannot pay. It cannot happen. It cannot happen while you are here. And you cannot say thank you to us because we do not do this as something for you. You have come for us, from Allah. So now we thank you.” I sat down and quietly finished my Pepsi.
Zahid and I agreed to meet once again, but his wife fell ill and was taken to the hospital. I have been calling Zahid for updates, thinking her hospitalization might be related to her pregnancy. After the third attempt at failing to reach him, I let it go. I need to come back through Lahore to leave Pakistan. I will check on him then.
There’s something about Lahore the city that just works for me. I have taken an instant liking to its setup and rhythm. Cleaner than Amritsar (though not by much), there is order in the chaos. Lahore is commercially segregated by commodity. During rickshaw rides and walks through the back streets, I zoom past stores specializing in one particular product or service. For a few hundred yards, it’s mirrors, then there appears a row of bicycle shops, followed by rubber tubing and office furniture. A whole street is named for cameras. By the time I stumble upon the market for live animals and fresh meat (one and the same) I see very nervous chickens hopping around their coops in view of their former cage mates now hanging on hooks for sale. A portly man calls to me from his scooter and strikes up a conversation in the middle of the road. Once clear that I am American, he asks questions about film, CNN, and my president. I was unable to convince him that my Commander-in-chief does not get up every morning and spear newborn babies in the Rose Garden for fun. The man is nevertheless thanks me for my time and speeds off. Next to Subway is KFC, where the American chain employees the deaf and mute. Instead of calling out my order, just a soft drink, I point to a laminated à-la-carte menu and he runs to get my refreshment. While refuse dumps in Lahore are as vomit-inducing as anywhere, the city has managed to cover their waste water and run it underneath the pavement and pedestrian areas.
Lahore sports a fort in the same architectural style as the Red Fort in Delhi, but most takes after the one in Agra. The Lahore Fort could be a distant cousin of Amber Fort in Jaipur minus the beige stage front and trimmings of castellated ramparts in the hills. This one is in need of immediate attention and repair. Both time and neglect have eroded much of its splendor. The garrison’s art, color, and visual power have all been dimmed by time. Families picnic in open patches of green. Once they spot me, they send a young man over from the group to approach me out of curiosity, which leads me to a compulsory sit-down visit with a half dozen or so for a glass of water or a snack. Two classmates, a teen boy and girl, draw under archways to record in pencil and eraser the fine details of the floral trim. I remember the renovations taking place at Amber Fort at the time of my visit. When complete, they should come to Lahore where they would have a decade-long assignment to bring this place back to its former magnificence.
Across from Lahore Fort is the adjoining Badshahi Mosque. I tried to pop in the day before but I was in shorts and had nothing to cover my legs. Widely understood as one of the largest mosques in the world, it is reputed to hold over 100,000 worshippers within its confines. It is almost an exact replica of the Jasma Masjid in Delhi. Finished under Aurangzeb, it was the Mughal Empire’s last monument. Its three massive marble domes stand between tapered minarets of great girth. Today only a few dozen people, mostly visitors, explore its bare, open red sandstone courtyard. Unlike in the Indian capital, no one objects to my presence. I pass by a group of Spaniards on a packaged tour by the empty central pool and am contented that it is not just Americans who say the stupidest things while abroad. “It looks just like what we saw in India” exclaims one middle-aged woman in her native language. I dropped my chin and covered my face with my hand. At least the guide couldn’t understand her sophomoric comment. I wanted to go up to her and swing her around by the fanny pack or the camera strung over her shoulder. Hey lady, sixty years ago, this was India, or did you not get the email?
A tour guide who was hounding me for the better part of five minutes at the entrance found me again by a side gallery in the courtyard. Having surrendered any efforts to secure me as a client he sat down to chat with me. He was clearly bored out of his skull. I directed the conversation in and out about Lahore and the modest amount I had studied about the mosque and he unwittingly volunteered much of the information he would have delivered if we toured it together.
The university graduate sat down next to me in the shade. By eleven in the morning, shade is crucial to anyone in Lahore. “There have been three groups all morning. Two or three years ago, there were many more.”
“Has work been slow?” I asked. I knew the answer before he spoke up. Anyway, he had just about forgiven me for not hiring him.
“Dead. I think I will have to try to find another job. The tourists don’t visit Lahore.”
I took this as an opportunity to deliver some necessarily harsh news. “Look, I don’t like to be the one to tell you this, but I have just crossed from Amritsar”, where most tourists enter Pakistan. I was the only Westerner, “and there were no tourists making the trip with me. And there weren’t any planning to come to Pakistan. From Amritsar, foreigners head for Delhi, Haridwar, or Kashmir. They do not cross into Pakistan. Amritsar is as far west as they go.”
“We see maybe two or three small groups in a day at the mosque and Fort.”
“Of course, because they fear coming here from the information that is easily available to them. And with the exception of the Northern Areas, India will be good enough for them.”
Though he kept a polite tone, he became a bit indignant. “But it is safe to visit here in Lahore!” We are not all terrorists!” he pleaded. Your media-”
“Whoa, whoa.” This is where Sayed needed a harsh dose of reality. “It is your media that feeds you trash about what the West feels about Pakistan. No politician considers Pakistanis a threat to anyone. But,” and I paused to articulate what I was to say very clearly, “let’s put it this way. We have an expression in English: Perception is reality. Have you ever heard of it?”
“We have something similar in Urdu.”
“Good. The perception in the West is that Pakistan is out of control. By and large, for a visitor, that is not true. There are no major issues to come to Lahore. Agreed?”
“OK. But you have significant chunks of your country outside of Islamabad’s control. Even today, the Swat valley is heavily militarized by your army because it is under Taliban threat. The Northwest Frontier province rules itself with tacit approval from Islamabad. And the Northern Areas…”
“Yes, yes, I understand.”
“So the average foreigner will conclude that it is not stable here and simply not come. The only exception will be your hardcore trekkers that will penetrate any area no matter how risky to climb a famous mountain or glacier.” I offered him a similar situation in Colombia where tourism could be a major revenue generator. But travelers will opt for Peru and Ecuador first because there is an appearance of order.
“Let me ask you something.” My commentary dejected him, but he also knew my points were as sound as they were simple. “Do you think anyone at all will put his hand on me when I go north?”
“No, I can tell you that won’t happen.”
“But what if I go to the Khyber Pass?” The renown gap in the mountains hugs the Afghan border
“You should not go there.”
“Have there been explosions in Lahore and folks targeted in Islamabad?”
“Yes, but not tourists!”
“It doesn’t matter! People will not come with that kind of news. It is not that we think you are terrorists, but there are some here, and we will take our vacations elsewhere. Oh, and there is one more thing.” He was getting perturbed with my justifications. “Until your country subdues or eliminates its radical element, you will never, ever see foreigners come here in big numbers. They will stay in India.”
The young man’s eyes lit up. He had been watching the news. He jumped of the stair on which he was sitting to make his argument. “But just a few days ago, there were terrorist attacks in India!!!”
“There were two, in fact.” One in Bangalore and a more murderous one in Ahmedabad.
“So, you see? India, too, has problems.”
“Yes, but do you see the Indian government under threat of being toppled? Is their democracy going to disappear?”
“Right, it won’t happen. On the other hand, can you guarantee me that Musharraf will be in power in six months and that the Taliban will not invade Peshawar?”
The poor guy stood silent.
“Until these matters are resolved, do not expect a mass influx of foreigners to come to Pakistan.”
While ordering lunch, I grabbed the knot of his necktie and pinched the French cuffs of his finely starched white dress shirt. The commercial banker jumped at my initial abruptness but came to ease when he saw my non-Pakistani face and I asked him, “How do you do it? That suit and tie in the Lahorian summer?”
“He smiled at me. Ah, we have air-conditioning in the office.”
It was well over one hundred degrees outside. “But not between here and the office!”
Having learned my nationality and purpose for coming to Pakistan, he like so many others paid for my lunch. We dined together and agreed to have dinner the next night. My only condition was that it be Food Street. God Bless Food Street.
That evening, he collected me along with a bank colleague who doubles as tour guide in the Northern Areas. Zahid, Mohammed, and I feasted on a variety of grilled treats and mounds of hot chapatti bread. Though late, I suggested another spot in Lahore where they could take me for an after-dinner drink. For them, this means a shake or some other type of frozen drink. Mohammed suggested we hop into Zahid’s car for a quick drive to a café, which turns out has been closed for quite some time. Down a well lit nearby street, we fought our way through a mini bazaar with a setup similar to that of Food Street. Many of the stalls served frozen drinks and other refreshments. Many Lahorian families were out and about at night to make up for the quiet, listless hours of the scorching afternoons. As a newcomer, I often stopped at the stalls to view the clothing and other articles for sale. While rifling through some second-hand t-shirts on a large wheeled cart I lost track of both men who had continued ahead of me in search of an expert in mango shakes. I could only see the tops of their heads among the scores of others coming and going. Dreading I would soon lose them, I called out to Zahid’s workmate, Hey Mohammed!” in a restrained voice. Their heads did not turn back and the distance between us increased. I was at the point where I was going to lose them. I made one last attempt to reel them in with my vocal chords, this time at full blast: “Hey! Mohammed!” I screamed. I did manage to stop both men. But as I looked around my immediate vicinity, a peculiar occurrence had taken place. About fifteen random men had also turned to face me in the same manner as the other two, all with an equal expression of expectation on their faces. What did I want, is what their cheeks and wide open eyes read. Then I realized that in a crowd in this part of the world, the name Mohammed is more common than slot machines in Las Vegas.
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