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Published: November 3rd 2007
I guess the excitement began in Yazd, Iran, where all and sundry warned me about the road to Pakistan. You know about the Japanese tourist abducted while walking to the Arg from his hotel in Bam? In Bam, in Iran! Now just imagine the next 24 hours or so before you get to Quetta, through the lawless desert, the Baluchi and Afghan drug smuggling tribes and across the truly awful Taftan desert. And to reach where? Quetta, singled out on the Warning Pages as exceptionally dangerous and a "definitely don't go" zone.
A little real traveling doesn't do anyone any harm, though. Especially after the past week of tourism, staying at nice hotels, eating at touristy joints, drinking tea for 1000 toman a pop, and taking taxis across town. Not that I minded it too much: it was a healthy break from my usual penny-pinching, and it was a good experience being a tourist in Iran. But now I had to repent from my folly and appease the gods of travel -- by taking a 60 toman unreliable public bus to the bus station, while running extremely late even for a taxi. It's the kind of stupid thing that makes you happy (if you pull it off) and exclaim "the Universe is with us!"
Sometime after Bam at a checkpoint one of my fellow passengers ratted on me (that dude pretending to be asleep and Iranian is neither), so I got off to join 4 japanese and a dutch guy also headed for Zahedan, chain smoking and shivering in the cold while waiting for an escort to be organized. The rest of the way our bus was escorted by two military pickups with armed soldiers, to make sure we don't make news headlines. And then after Zahedan we were taken off the bus and taken to the border in police vehicles (bouncing around from one police station to the next). I guess we ended up saving money on transportation, but the bus driver was pretty pissed off that he was 3 hours late because of us.
Once across the border... it was all as I remembered and expected. The cool Iranian efficiency, with a spacious waiting area, clean bathrooms and chilled drinking water, contrasted with the litter-strewn, reeking slimy water pool-surrounded little hut for Pakistani customs, where bored soldiers lounge around wearing blue shalwar-kameez and with no-two-alike hunting rifles that I don't think were loaded. Besides, how could any organization manage to stock all the different types of ammunition needed for such a varied arsenal. Definitely not loaded. And then the sharks trying to tell you that 50 (not 65, as you confirmed on the internet the day before) is the going rate for 1000 toman. And the guy at customs saying "vy 'no problem' yaar?" All your base are belong to us. Welcome to Pakistan!
I'm dissing them, but I've always had a soft spot for subcontinentals in general and Pakistanis in particular. Heck, my brother Devrim
is Pakistani! And I've been through before... 8 years ago, an ego-driven argumentative fool who (along with his accomplices, a brother and a good friend) raced from Istanbul to India and back in 6-7 weeks, all the while taking taxis and rickshaws and starving himself (amidst severe diarrhea, of course) to "save money". I'd like to think I've progressed since.
At Taftan I started chatting with to flowy-bearded religious students. I didn't know my Farsi was so good. It must have been adrenaline. They were clearly my brothers and very friendly and kind, but something about their demeanor and the way in which they asked if the Japenese were Muslims made me think we were walking on thin ice. And of course, the Pakistanis would never dream of providing an escort for foreigners. As if they had a functioning government and security apparatus that was capable of taking care of its own citizens... My friends told me what happened at the Red Mosque in Islamabad was because the "movement" is weak there; they wouldn't dare try anything in Karachi. We hugged and kissed in farewell. I'm not going to get kidnapped. For most of the 14-hour Flying Coach journey to Quetta I talked to people who only spoke of Islam, Musharraf, and America. I got t he impression that Bhutto's return (and the suicide blast) is a small diversion of little importance in the grand scheme of things. The battle is between Islam and pro-American sellouts, and Bhutto is clearly pro-Western, so I don't think they were much impressed, and the lines are already drawn.
Sprawled out on the back seat, thrown a foot or so into the air every time the bus went over a bump (which was pretty much all the time) I remembered the good ol' times in Ethiopia, and was glad to be alive. Although.. I wouldn't undertake Pakistan, and especially this stretch, while responsible for someone else's safety or comfort.
We arrived in Quetta at some ungodly hour and slept in the bus station spread out on the floor of some room labeled "reception" along with maybe 20 locals. I dream I'm swimming across the room and have grasped the meaning of life and am filled with an indescribable joy. The snort of someone sleeping nearby wakes me before I manage to swim out the front door. In the morning, tramping across town in search of a hotel mentioned by a Japanese traveler back in Mashhad (still no guidebook or photocopy thereof), I chuckle at how close Muslim Hotel is to the train station. We took a rickshaw last time around, and he must have driven us all over town before taking us there.
Then follow 5 days of bliss. I wandered around the streets, lost and mesmerized by the other-worldliness of the place. It's like a kind of Afghanistan (indeed, they're all Afghans) where you don't feel apologetic for being white. Turbans, beards, vests, rickshaws, rings, shiny Baluchi hats, Afghan shawls, all so normal and taken for granted, along with the sewage canals, the dust, the people squatting to piss by the side of the road, and the government offices that frustratingly close at 3pm, and 12pm on Fridays, and remain closed all Saturday and Sunday. That's the most fascinating thing about a 3rd world country: it all seems normal and taken for granted.
My first day... I got lost. Totally and helplessly lost, always hoping the dusty little street I was following would imminently give way to a broader avenue and I'd be spared the humiliation of having to backtrack. But the houses gradually became little mud dwellings, the shops disappeared, and the little girl children started to appear with clothes unlike anything I had expected, with their embroidered fronts and kohl in their eyes and henna in their hair. I naturally acted like I lived right around the corner, and was walking these streets for the millionth time, while inwardly squirming. Don't make eye contact. Eye contact is a subconscious plea for confirmation and justification. The just don't make eye contact but are lost in thought. I relaxed when I found the railway tracks, and in my triumph took refuge with a man with a nice face, with whom we conversed in Farsi and then Arabic (me confusing the two), spitting /noswar/ and talking politics (what else?). Karzai good. Me, Karzai same tribe. Karzai very good. Sophisticated politics.
I spent a whole afternoon with some dudes who on my first day had called out "hey what are you doing here you f*cking man?" I had naturally gone up to them to chat, and we became friends and they apologised profusely for "that word"... "There are a lot of secret agents around making trouble, so we thought maybe you are American or British." One told me his stories of sneaking into the UK and trying to apply for refugee status. Really friendly people. But I'd skip Pakistan altogether on a US passport, and seriously think twice with a UK one. Either that, or don't at all mingle with the locals.
At an internet cafe I met a long-bearded dude who turned out to be a Palestinian from Gaza! A medical student in Baluchistan, he had completed his studies and was now worried about how he'd get home since Israel has closed the borders. Said he'd shave off his (long) beard but they'd probably cart him away because he'd be suspicious coming from Pakistan. Said people usually hang out in front of the Erez crossing waiting for it to open, sometimes for up to a month. We chain-smoked and he humored me by speaking simple Fusha, as we talked about everything from Hamas to the history of the Ottoman Empire. He said he's against violence as a tool, and so denounced Hamas (for killing policemen), and the Taliban/Al-Qaeda (for taking innocent lives). I was a little surprised when he said he's Salafi, since I'd been in the habit of bad-mouthing them. But aren't the Taliban also Salafi? No, they say they are, but their behavior doesn't follow the /sunnah/ of the Prophet. Nice argument, and totally true. An invader is one thing, but jihad shouldn't extend to kidnapping innocent aid workers and *definitely* not travelers. That's not the way of the Prophet. OK? Repent.
I was like a kid in a candy shop. All I had to do was to reach out and accept someone's invitation for tea, and I could talk for hours with people whose world view is completely radically different than what's taken for granted in the West. And they were all extremely friendly and courteous, and how often do you get to spend whole afternoons hanging out with complete strangers talking politics or about the situation back in Afghanistan, all from the point of view of the /oppressed/? Usually you end up killing time at an internet cafe (see author), or reading a book, or hanging out with other white people (if you can find them). Quetta rocked.
The conclusion I've come to is that Karzai is doomed. And the Taliban will take control again. Because the only thing these people care about is Islam, and that's what the Taliban is offering them. Orwell would have loved it: Islam good, non-Muslim bad. But that's the way it works. America is obviously hated for the obvious reasons, but to spell it out: look at the map; see where is America and where is Afghanistan. America come all this way to attack my people. They are enemy of Islam. Even now every day they are bomb villages, they are kill people, they want destroy our country. We have war 30 years, and now they still don't give us peace. Always fighting, killing bombing. And they say Muslim are terrorist. Muslim are not terrorist. We want to live in peace. They say they attack because Osama bin Laden was in Afghanistan. This is a lie. (Plus, no-one really doubts that 9/11 was a conspiracy... right?)
And Musharraf is doomed too. As someone was explaining to me: Pakistan is living a contradiction. It was created to be a Muslim country ("a country for Muslims" some of my smart-ass friends might point out), yet founded on quasi-Islamic quasi-secular ideals. That is, on contradictions. And what is Musharraf promising? To keep Pakistan secular? To keep the extremists at bay? Why would you create an Islamic State if it isn't to be Islamic? It's the only country (apart from Israel) that was created on the basis of religion. So... the only options that make sense to me are: Sharia law (ie, Taliban), or re-union with India. But neither are likely to happen, so Pakistan is headed for more convulsions and suffering.
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