A particularly contentious insult utilised occasionally by some Pathan people, when challenged or insulted, is to point to one’s groin and invite them to “take it”. It is only used rarely, usually when the circumstances are heated and one is willing to back up the challenge, sometimes with their own life. An argument once broke out in the market area of Madyan, Upper Swat region of Pakistan. Clearly piqued by what had gone on before, one of the men, in a loud enough voice so that bystanders could hear, directed the other to “take it.” He didn’t and couldn’t. Turning to the witnesses around him and noting that they had heard what he had, he explained that he had no option but to seek out the transgressor in the future and kill him. And in time he was true to his word.
The Pathans have never taken kindly to being subjected to any outside rule, or, in fact, any attempt to interfere in their lives; just ask the British who were never able to subdue them until they left after Partition. Or the rookie policeman once on duty in the main street leading to and running through Madyan. A driver, well known and liked in the community, was once asked, upon entering the town, to show the policeman his registration papers. The driver was not amused, considering his status in town. Pointing to his groin, he indicated that there lay his registration. The rookie pulled him out of the vehicle and a tussle ensued. It soon developed into a free for all, the rookie soon outnumbered by the growing and angry crowd. Soon other police arrived, hoping to rescue their comrade. Unfortunately for them, they were light in numbers in comparison. With the rookie a bloody pulp on the road, the locals turned their attention to the police station, trashing it. (The station has now been moved to new quarters) As for the rookie, he was swiftly transferred to another region; his boss another casualty of the fracas, losing his job.
Madyan, once a popular haunt with hippies on their cross-Asia journeys, where up to 300 of them used to fill the town at a time (where bemused locals once wondered, upon seeing their raggedy clothes, who the poor ones actually were), is now suffering from the events that evolved directly post-9/11 and the recent scare over SARS emanating from Pakistan’s neighbour, China. Up until a few days before I arrived, the situation was made even worse with the requirement by the local police that a security guard was to be on hand to watch over all tourists, even if they wanted to take a stroll down to the market for a pack of cigarettes. Some guests at the Caravan’s Guesthouse, owned jointly by Fida, a local, and Michael (a Danish Muslim), predictably balked at this arrangement and left after an hour. This situation was especially galling for the locals, not only because it was bad for business, but also due to the implication that they were too dangerous for tourists to be around them, as they usually treat tourists extremely well.
About the only danger seemingly existent on the surface in Madyan (if one doesn’t wander into the hills unaccompanied), are some of the teachers. As luck would have it, two Czech guys and I were nabbed by a local English teacher from a private school nearby, who waltzed into our guesthouse unannounced, requesting (if requests can be forceful and consistently annoying, that is) our presence at his school to sit in at one of his classes, the nabbing taking place mid-morning.
“It will be great for the kids,” the teacher stressed. Certainly.
The next morning he arrived.
“The class is on now. I am very pleased to see you are true to your word and waiting for me.”
It took all about two minutes on our walk to the school down the hill from our guesthouse for us to dislike him, particularly his convoluted ideas on how a guest is to be treated. In these parts, a guest (foreigner or otherwise) is premium. What is mine is yours, and so on. Another aspect of being a guest is that you do what your host tells you to; for example, if it is time for a meal, you have the meal. Unfortunately our teacher took this to the extreme, practically instructing us as to what our programme would be this day and possibly in the future. Petty stuff, perhaps, but when one is a guest it is common that the host feels he is doing you a favour and not the other way around; he was part of a rare group that one finds in Pakistan who like to get over familiar with the foreigner, knowing that most will be polite or bite their tongue. But it was for the kids after all.
A strange aspect of some private schools in Pakistan is their military bearing (not that they are military institutions). It is more their routines of drilling and marching in the morning and, as we were to discover, the act of saluting by the children to the civilian teacher.
“It gives them discipline,” he assured us, as he mentally polished his imaginary insignia.
We sat down in front as he, standing at the lectern, introduced us as the foreigners who had promised that we were to attend today and observe him in action.
And what do you know, they had. Unfortunately the results were too much Beetle Bailey and too little V-Day. He read from some drab text about the origin of the phrase “the midas touch,” they listened. I read something else out. Any questions for the foreigners? None. He read out some other irrelevant text and turned to us, clearly satisfied.
“How is my teaching?”
Where is General Patton when you need him. We all joined the headmaster for tea (our teacher stoutly informing us that we had promised to do so, being good guests and all), joined soon after by a fellow teacher, Brother Number Two. Instead of telling us about his teaching or his kids, he was more interested in us. I, being from Australia, was particularly enthralling to him.
“You know, according to their history,” he opened to the two Czech guys, “there were no people on Australia when the first settlers arrived.”
“Actually, that was legally until…”
He waived this away with a flick of his hand.
“It was called terra wallis.”
“Nullis. And was.”
“And you know, they poisoned the Aborigines there and slaughtered them,” he added, a self-satisfied grin spreading all over his face. Hilarious stuff. Imagine if I had mentioned my South African connection, I mused; he’d be rolling all over the floor.
“It’s called irony,” was his afterthought. Really. Sensing my irritation, he leaned back.
“I like to talk about politics. It’s all about sharing our different histories and experiences.”
He turned away from me.
“So we are you two from?”
“The Czech Republic.”
“So what is life like know there in Czechoslovakia, after the fall of Communism? Do you remember Communism?”
“We were kids then, so yes. We have more freedom now.”
“But there are poor people there.” Unlike under communism.
“Yes, but for instance, we can travel.”
“If you have money.” History obviously wasn’t this teacher’s strong point.
“Socialism. I like the idea,” he remarked, a dreamy look appearing on his face. Talk about irony. He missed it completely.
We emerged from the clutches of the teachers a little later and walked with the much more agreeable headmaster who we had had the chance to chat with before. He had explained the hardships of his position and the lack of funds for the school; very real problems in a town like Madyan, where once the residents of a potholed and filthy pathway leading onto the main street were asked to pay 500 rupees (less than US$8) for its upkeep like the rest of the town had done and weren’t able to be persuaded to do so; a town where so many pharmacies exist partly due to the fact that its streets and drains are cluttered with waste that is rarely cleared, ensuing health problems hardly a huge surprise. And one must feel sorry for the teachers in private schools who do work their guts out for poor pay and minimal reward in a system that educates by rote; but not for those who spend some of their time allotted to teaching their kids, running up to seek out foreigners to boost their own self-importance.
A few hours north of Madyan, on a less than adequate road, is the popular tourist destination of Kalam, in the Swat Kohistan region. Even further north is Lake Mahodand, with reportedly great views of Mt Falaksair, which reaches nearly 6000 metres. At the time I was there, the road to the lake was unfortunately obstructed by a snow landslide. Together with two Swedish journalists I had met earlier in Lahore, Carl Godani and Daniel Wilby (www.logiks.com/carl/index.htm), and an acquaintance of theirs from Lahore, Bilal, we hired a 4WD to drive as far as we could.
The less said about Kalam the better, it merely being a town where a multitude of hotels had been dropped from the sky alongside Swat River. The only excitement we witnessed in the town was a few bus loads of students from Rawalpindi, choosing to sit on top of the bus instead of inside, shouting out excitedly to all and sundry. They were on a Spring Break of sorts, except for the girls, booze and Spring. Driving alongside tall mountains on either side, their peaks covered in snow and ice flows on their sides, the temperature dropped. It wasn’t too cold though for a string of kids who sat on the side of the road (there and back), waiting to either sell you pieces of wood, attempt to throw stones at us in the back of the 4WD, or chase after us and jump on the back. Once they managed to get on they were quite unsure of what to do next. Our Pathan driver, after stopping, provided them with some options. Passing the small village of Ushu we came across the end of the road, a huge mound of snow preventing us from going any further. Getting out of the car, Carl made his way up the rock-strewn hill to at least glimpse a sight of the glacier, which turned out to be rather unspectacular. Oh well.
Up in these parts one used to be able to pay locals to fire their weaponsfor a fee. Once, according to a story told to me by Michael, a group of Punjabis on holiday stopped on the side of the road in this region where some Kohistanis were sitting, Kalashnikovs at their sides. The tourists inquired whether they would be permitted to fire one of the weapons. They would, but it would cost them ten rupees a bullet. No problem, one of them replied. He only wanted four bullets. Taking the gun, he aimed and then pulled the trigger. The Kalashnikov kicked him back as a multitude of rounds sprayed up and in front of him. Shaken, he handed back the gun. That will be 300 rupees, was the response of the Kohistani; he had put it on rapid fire.
Coming down the hill from the direction of the glacier we saw a lone Kohistani man, his body and head wrapped in a blanket, a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. The practice of shooting weapons has now been disallowed and all they can do is allow you to take pictures of your and your friends with the gun, which we did. I asked the man whether I could take a picture of him with his gun. He shook his head shyly. I’m willing to pay, I told Bilal to inform him. He seemed reluctant. Well then, how much does he want? Peering out from under the blanket, he asked us what we were going to do with the picture. We couldn’t come up with a good enough answer.