Pakistan: No, Thank You

Before I came to Pakistan I thought that being identified as an Australian might have its drawbacks, due to the war in Iraq. But, as of yet, that has not been the case. Rather, Australia’s ground breaking win in the 2003 Cricket World Cup has been quite the conversation continuer, with a western face the conversation starter.

“Ah, Australia. Congratulations on the World Cup! I must shake your hand.”

“Well, I can’t take all the credit, but thank you anyway,” I usually reply, nursing an imaginary sore bowling arm.

Pakistan is cricket mad. Nearly everyone has an opinion on the national team (mostly its deficits) as well as the state of the international game. And a day does not go by without some kind of cricket game being played outdoors. A relative lack of specialist facilities is no barrier when local parks, rubbish dumps or, in the case of a game I played in Multan, back streets will do. And it is relatively cheap, with only a bat, a ball (sometimes just a tennis ball wrapped in tape) and some spare bricks or a milk tray as the stumps.

Like tea, cricket is a holdover from the time of British rule in India. Pakistan’s first ever test match series was on their tour of the great enemy, India, over half a decade ago, which they lost 2-1. Cricket is cricket here, except when the opponent is India. Even the world-wide respected Indian batsman Sachin Tendulkar has been severely scorned by fans here. To not win the World-Cup (they last won it in 1992 under Imran Khan), while a tragedy in its own right, can eventually be forgotten, when India is defeated. Not that that is going to happen anytime soon, with political rivalry poking its ugly nose into sport, a planned tour by India of Pakistan called off recently, as well as any games in the near future.

Habitually getting lost, despite the aid of a map and the size of the town being no impediment, sometimes has its advantages, as I stumbled upon a game being set up on my way back to my hotel one afternoon and was promptly invited to join. I got my excuses in early for my inevitable poor performance: “Guys, I’m just crap.” If they didn’t quite know what I meant, they soon enough found out.

The back street in this case was squeezed in between a local park and a house. Point was a wall a metre away, square leg a tree in the park, mid-on a tea stand and (silly) slip in the middle of a road. A decent whack in any direction but to your right brought a four; if any part of a tree was not struck, a six; hitting a passerby brought laughter and sledging a passerby respect.

It seems that nearly everyone I have spoken to in Pakistan for any considerable length of time has either invited me in for a meal or to stay at their house (but not marry their daughters). As it was with the Multan Back Street Cricket Club in the living room of one of my team after a few hours play, so it also was in Bahawalpur, a couple of hours drive south from Multan. A large bazaar is the focal point of Bahawalpur, around which a number of hotels and restaurants, amongst other things, can be found. A typical bazaar in Pakistan is much like a one-level shopping mall held outdoors, albeit grubbier and without Kenny G playing on the PA system. To get around one must navigate its narrow roads, pot holes and pathways, avoiding the cars and bicycles that careen around the corners. As all shops or stands are small, the employees are practically standing on their doorsteps. This kind of environment makes it easier for them to chat with their fellow tenants, next to and across the street. And easier to spot those walking by. As did two merchants, who I’ll call Waqar and Ahmad. Ahmad immediately piqued my interest as he wanted to talk politics, and Marx was not mentioned once. Specifically, he was in the mood for government-bashing, which always warms the heart. That he bashed them (his own) because they would not just leave people to act peacefully and voluntarily, as opposed to just leaving alone the “wrong” people, was the icing. Once he got going he was difficult to stop, despite the best efforts of Waqar to get a word in. For a few hours. And for once it was not about Iraq, because I know where that can go. And then we ate, courtesy of a relative, away from the bazaar.

I had been expecting to be proselytised in Pakistan at some point, although I thought it would have come sooner and from perhaps someone less overtly Westernised. Ahmad’s relative gave Ahmad a good run for one-way express conversation. His pitch was this. Islam is for peace and the total submission to the Will of Allah. Through this comes true happiness, the kind of happiness that comes from a life lived well, a life where one treats another well. To treat someone well is to be seen as good by Allah, and being seen as good by Allah is the key to gaining immediate access to heaven once this life has come to an end. In illustrating his point, he gave as an example a man walking down a street. If a rock is in his path and you, knowing that he may walk into its path and trip, do not do something about it, then you have not done your duty as a Muslim. Similarly, as a Muslim, it is your duty to tell others about your faith, because if you do not, you have not done all in your power to put him on the right path. So when a Muslim sees a stranger, he must act with kindness, fitting in with the requirements of a good life. He summed up the way he saw it: “The reason that I am being friendly towards you and have taken you in and given you a meal is because it is my duty.” And I thought it was because of my bubbly personality. To do something out of duty has the appearance of being clinical, of going through the motions for an end; however his amiability, curiosity and warmth were genuine.

You occasionally get some moments and conversations where you’d like nothing better than to pause them, replay them a few times, chuckle for a few minutes and then press play again. One of them was during my conversation with Ahmad’s relative. It centred on his perceptions of the drinking habits of Westerners, some of them quite accurate. Of course, as a diligent Muslim, he did not drink; the corollary being that a Muslim who does drink is a “bad Muslim.” Not only that, but he told me that one of the teachings of Muhammad is that if even a drop of drink is to fall on your shirt, you are to get rid of that shirt. As it happened, a few hours later I was to be joining Ahmad in a little spot of illegal drinking; the Ahmad who was sitting behind his relative and a few degrees to the right of my eyeline. It was akin to that scene out of Seinfeld where Jerry and George are in the apartment of the NBC executive and the executive’s lovely daughter is in the room and leans over; you can’t help but look. Indeed, you have to look. I bit my lip.

The penalties for the consumption of liquor by a Muslim in Pakistan are strict. Non-Muslims can officially drink in certain designated areas, usually top-range hotels. But there are those Muslims who choose to risk buying alcohol from the black market and consume it illegally. One of these gettable alcoholic drinks is a local-made whiskey, which comes in a white container, much like one can buy vinegar in back home. Ahmad mixed it with water and coca-cola, and we drank it out of tea cups, over a couple of hours. The best thing one could say about its taste and quality is that the consequences of being caught drinking it outweighed the consequences of drinking too much of it. The night had a certain weirdness to it all, my friends seemingly unperturbed by the risks they were taking. But it was good, although a little melancholy in retrospect, drinking with men essentially treated like boys.

One of the troubles of being a tourist in Pakistan, particularly when visiting holy sites, is that one can easily turn into being the attraction itself. It can be fun, for a few minutes, when everyone turns to look and stare as if you are a rock star, but then rock stars have a paid entourage, with limos and fawning female fans, not a dissheveled bag with warm drinking water in it; besides, I prefer jazz. About 75km out of Bahawalpur is the town of Uch Sharif. Like Multan, it is an old town, pre-dating the arrival of Islam, and also popular among pilgrims and ordinary Muslims alike, although some of its impressive structures are crumbling.
Most of its most important shrines are found in a fort-like structure away from the town, next to some sketchy homes and farmlands. The day I was there coincided with the excursion of a bus-load of families from Multan, including one Haasnain, with his three kids from two marriages (one arranged marriage and one “love” marriage). After inspecting a couple of the shrines (one with a wooden ceiling and dank interior, the other with an intricately engraved ceiling complete with concrete tombs surrounding a grand shrine, mostly encased in glass where pilgrims touched the cloth covering the tomb), I made my way out to the smoothly stoned courtyard and sat on the edge of its wall. Haasnain came over and introduced himself. A pleasant and earnest man, with a bushy black beard, he was chiefly concerned with making me feel welcome. He even went so far as to, after looking at my sunglasses and gasping at their expense (ten dollars is a lot of money to a Pakistani), to give me his pair, explaining, with much embarrassment, that it was all he had to give me. That this was really necessary, I decided not to directly question; that the genuine hospitality I have experienced thus far is at times heartbreaking is not under any doubt. That I had nothing to give him was even more embarrassing. And then he asked me if we acted the same in the West. Would we, for instance, care for a sick neighbour?

The best answer that I could give is that it differs from individual to individual, circumstance to circumstance. If one is to generalise, close to yes, but hardly quite on the same scale. The trouble with generalisations though is that they sweep apparent exceptions under the easy conclusion carpet. A case in point was an hour into a conversation I had whilst down in southern Punjab. For the first hour the conversation was brimming with curiousity, friendliness, insight and humour. After the hour mark I was asked by this person what religion I was.

“Israel?” He meant Jewish.

“Well, I’m….”

“Jews are bad people. Muslims and Christians are friends. Not Jews and Muslims. Not friends.”

And there it was. A conversation of an hour, brimming with curiousity, friendliness, insight and humour, would remain so, if my answer was in the negative. If, however, my answer was in the affirmative, presumably it would be rendered, in retrospect, not so; a fiction and a figment of our imaginations. Strange.

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