Category Archives: Pakistan

Adventurous then, impossible now: my journey along the Khyber Pass

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Edited version published in The Weekend Independent Magazine on 10 December 2010

Striking the standard tourist pose on The Khyber Pass

I stifled a gulp and feigned casual abandon as I signed the consent form to enter the Khyber Pass.  The government of Pakistan was not to be held responsible for death or difficulties encountered along the way.  My guide beamed at me and said, “Now we collect the armed guard.”

Little did anyone know that the summer of 2007 would prove to be a comparably carefree one for the Khyber Agency, which had been ruled by fiercely independent Pathan tribes for centuries.  According to Ahmed Rashid, author of Descent into Chaos, the Pakistani Taliban had taken control of it by the following year.  Although it is believed that the Taliban is itself mostly comprised of Pathans, travellers ought to take note of one very important difference between the two groups: whilst the Pathans are exceptionally hospitable and enforce collective tribal punishments on those who commit crimes against travellers, the Taliban prefer to annihilate them.  And as the Khyber Pass is the most important supply route for NATO forces fighting in neighbouring Afghanistan, the Taliban attacks convoys and kidnaps commuters with brutal regularity.  Pakistan has attempted to clear the area by launching numerous military offensives, but justifiably condemned NATO air strikes for killing Pakistani troops.  All this combined has turned the ancient gateway between Pakistan and Afghanistan into one of the world’s most dangerous places.  Needless to say, the “Enter at your own risk” form no longer exists: the Khyber Pass is closed to travellers indefinitely.  From time to time, the government of Pakistan seals it off altogether.

I sweated in the battered red hatchback as it lay idle in front of the Khyber Guards police station.  To be honest, I was a bit disappointed with the vehicle.  When booking the trip the day before, I’d imagined traversing the route made legendary by the likes of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Marco Polo in something more sturdy and racy.  Tinted windows would have satisfied me, I thought grumpily.

My 15-year-old armed guard at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border

And when the guard appeared, I was somewhat taken aback by his appearance.  Despite possessing a thick beard, solemnity and an AK-47, his features were undeniably baby-faced.  Sensing my confusion, the guide informed me that our escort was 15 years old and had recently joined the service after his father was killed in action.  “How recently?” I wondered.  As the guard slid into the front seat without acknowledging our presence, his black woollen uniform made me wince.  The only concession to the scorching heat was a pair of open-toed leather sandals.  A garment resembling a sawn-off apron was fastened to his chest.  It contained three plump pouches, presumably containing bullets.  He barely spoke for the next five hours and I never saw him smile.  The only glimpse of his personality he afforded us was to accept a few tokes on a joint pre-rolled by the driver.  Fortunately, he seemed seasoned enough for it not to induce paranoia.

My travel companion and I were reminded of a few simple rules.  It would be pointless to request stops for photographs – such opportunities were few and pre-designated.  And while the car was moving, we were to refrain from drawing attention to ourselves (naturally).  Finally, as a male, Mark was warned against gazing in the direction of females, should any be wandering freely.  The Pathans are fiercely protective of their womenfolk and would shoot without warning if he were caught gawking.  “As Oscar Wilde said, ‘I can resist everything but temptation,’” I joked in dubious taste.

We chugged along to our first stop, the Khyber Gate, which marks the official border with the tribal lands from the rest of Pakistan.   A granite sign describes the area as “a beautiful and fertile valley surrounded by an unbroken girdle in the shape of a Roman amphitheatre.”  It was soon apparent that the Khyber Pass itself is anything but fertile and thus too stark to be beautiful.  Like much of Tibet, vegetation is sparse and exclusively limited to the base of grey and brown mountains.  Its inhabitants live in almost uniformly unpainted clay fortresses, with slit windows and protruding rifles.  Aside from an azure sky, the main source of colour was the plentiful cargo trucks, which were covered in hand-painted designs and every manner of truck-bling possible, including criss-crossed silver chains dangling from the bumper.  Our guide reeled off the most common forms of contraband freighted between the border: weapons, drugs, plane parts and counterfeit cash.

The Khyber Pass

We sped past the curiously named Khyber Model School seemingly just as the bell rang.  Smiling boys in blue punjabis ran out from underneath its arched sign as I frantically tried to capture the rare glimpse of “normal” life.  It’s unlikely that the school still stands today, as the Taliban have blown up the majority.

We made a hurried call to nature by a shallow stream that was 100 metres or so away from the disused Khyber Railway tunnel, which was built by the British for strategic reasons following World War I.  When we pulled over at the 1072 metre summit in Landi Kotal, the guard patiently handed over his semi-automatic weapon to us while we posed for photographs that would justify a raised eyebrow from Interpol.

I was pleased to pick up a bargain at the Afghan border.  For less than five dollars I’d acquired a complete set of Taliban-issued currency.  One of the notes featured charging warriors on horseback; the others were mostly agricultural scenes.  I bought the expired currency from a green-eyed Afghan teenager who spoke excellent English.  We sat cross-legged against a wall decorated with love-heart graffiti as I gazed longingly at the view of Afghanistan.

“Some day,” I muttered to myself, before hopping back into the rust bucket.

Fortress homes

I  was surprised when our guide announced that we were stopping for a traditional Pathan lunch.  Mark and I were ushered up a flight of steps above a carvanserai, or roadside inn.  I accumulated about 20 stares in half as many seconds, before the door was shut swiftly behind me.  The room was bare aside from a stack of blankets.  When Mark peered out of the slit window for a view of other houses with slit windows, he was promptly told to move away.  We sat on charpoys in hungry silence before a plate of chabli kebabs and flatbread arrived.  The meat reminded me of my mother’s homemade rissoles – it was curious to be reminded of Australia at a time when I’d never felt so far from it.

A red pillar perched on the final bend bodes travellers a farewell from the Khyber Rifles, an irregular corps of militia recruited from the tribes of the Khyber Agency.  The other side of the pillar read, “Raised Nov 1878.”  Later, when studying my photos, I noticed that the pillar’s margin contained not one etching of graffiti, but two, by some joker called “Wasim.” I smiled at the seemingly limitless nature of human cheekiness.

Khyber Model School

And so it seemed that our trip had passed without incident.  I tapped my feet along to the blaring Urdu pop cassette while eagerly anticipating a trip to an internet café where I would share my photographs via email attachments (oblivious as I was to the greater pride afforded by Facebook).  But then our guide announced that we were making a stop, and before providing a reason, he’d leapt out of the car and into a crowded bazaar.  I was chewing my fingernails within seconds.  Perhaps it was this ungainly habit that caught the attention of a wild-eyed man, who strode over for a closer look.  His hair was unkempt and he was sweating profusely – he was either high or disturbed – or both.  He stabbed a finger in the air and began shouting, which resulted in a crowd forming around the car.  The guard seemed mysteriously unmoved.  The terms of the consent form flashed through my mind – this time I couldn’t stifle the gulp.  I almost cried with relief when the guide re-emerged to shoo away the crowd with a guilty grin.  We drove back to his office in Peshawar in huffy silence.

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An evening with Dhaka’s famous palmist

Published in The Weekend Independent Magazine, May 2010

"Only God knows better" - palm reading in Muree, Pakistan

When I first allowed someone to test their psychic powers on me I was in the southern Chinese city of Guilin. It was 2006. The fortune teller was very old, completely blind and his left arm was severed at the elbow. Communicating the predictions was a team effort – the fortune teller spoke the local dialect, which was translated by his assistant into “city” Cantonese, and my Chinese student friend whispered it into my ear in English. It felt more like a game of Chinese Whispers than anything else and I was thoroughly amused. I was told that I would become a professor, which wasn’t something I’d specifically written off. In fact I was secretly quite pleased, though far less convinced than I would have been if I wasn’t in the city’s university grounds at the time.

My second mystic experience occurred several months later, in Muree, Pakistan. I dropped in off the street to see a palmist, whose back wall had a sign that claimed, “Only God Knows Better.” The most specific thing he said was that I would be suited to computer studies or business administration. Not on my life!

And yet it seems I’m becoming something of a mystic tourist, because I opted for another encounter last week. A number of my friends here in Dhaka read their daily horoscopes with a sense of compulsion and I know others who visit palmists. Several do both. I have one friend in particular who extols the wisdom of both practices most frequently, and his parents engage a family palmist rather than a family doctor. My friend was recently advised that he “wouldn’t last the year as a bachelor.” Naturally (perhaps), I wondered what such a person might tell me.

So I spent last Tuesday night in the home of Dhaka’s best known palmist, Kausar Ahmed Chaudhury. Kauser began studying astrology as a 10-year-old, and over the decades he has expanded his repertoire to include numerology, physiognomy (judging a character based on a person’s figure, gait and facial features), palmistry, graphology (the study of a person’s handwriting to judge character), Greek zodiac signs, and even ESP (extra-sensory perception). Kausar has been Prothom Alo’s psychic columnist, as well the author of its daily horoscopes, for the last 11 years. According to his daughter-in-law who trawled the internet, his predictions are republished in many countries around the world. I was confident that my palms were in good hands.

Business was brisk that evening – when I arrived I was third in line. I sat in his small living-room-cum-waiting-room and stared at a pair of stuffed toy dogs. On either side of a window leading to a balcony are portraits of Che Guevara and the palmist himself. Kauser, wearing a green beret and sporting facial hair and a deadly serious expression, looks remarkably like the Cuban revolutionary. I had a chat with my friend Kabir, whose contacts had allowed me to see the palmist who does not advertise his services. Kabir, 26, prefers only to be known by his first name, because his father is “extremely religious” and would not permit him to visit a palmist. However Kabir’s faith in palmistry is strong – he measured it for me as a “seven or eight out of ten.” He said, “I visit a palmist once or twice a year – when something bothers me and I need clarification.” Kabir’s faith in palmistry has developed over time. He reeled off the predictions that have come true: he did not become a doctor or an engineer, he did not go abroad to study, and a specific female friend fell in love with him. Kabir said, “You want to believe the positive stuff and not so much the negative stuff. I do believe strongly. But I also think there are things that we can’t control.” When I asked Kabir whether he believes that palmists have special powers, he said, “I don’t know whether it’s that rather than dedication and hard work. Of course, anyone can read a book about palm reading and then come up with some sort of conclusion. But having said that, there are some people who are really good at it. Palmistry can be like a gift.” Kabir also said that palmistry offers him some sort of consolation and a sense of optimism that good things will come his way. Who would want to deny that to anyone?

I knew it was nearly my turn and I became conscious of the fact that I was anxious. Coincidentally, my palms sweat when I’m in such a state. I’m not a spiritual or superstitious person, so why was this so? I wondered whether Kauser would tell me something awful, even though I’d decided to resist any (unlikely) attempt to tell me when I might die. But even if he was to say something mildly negative, I knew I’d have to battle to expel the statement from my consciousness. And why was I simultaneously looking forward to it? I thought of the saying, “Doctors will always be popular because humans love hearing something about themselves.” Perhaps this applies equally to palmists (and hairdressers).

At any rate, here are the best bits of my palm reading, which Kauser relayed to me in his throaty voice, no doubt all the deeper and more authoritative due to the numerous cigarettes he puffs while predicting:

Kauser: Who died in your family last year?

Jessica: My aunt.

Kauser: Do you have a problem with one of your legs?

Jessica: I hurt my leg many years ago. It’s fine now.

Kauser: You were in a big confusion about your marriage.

Jessica: I’m not married.

Kauser: But the question of marriage – to do it or not to do it, that was the question. That has all passed.

Jessica: Yes.

Kauser: What I see in your face is that you are going to be an international figure. It may be the Pulitzer Prize.

Me: Righto.

Kauser: In the future, freedom may be the only barrier in your career. Freedom from your family or your husband.

He concluded by advising me to drink at least two glasses of water before breakfast. Would I like to believe all this? Of course – and no doubt Kauser would like me to. But though it’s tempting, I can’t. I am simply encouraged that Dhaka’s most famous palmist didn’t take one look at me and pronounce me a loser destined for misery and mediocrity. Yet somehow that was never an option – I have a sneaking suspicion that palmists flatter us.

However another client that evening was downright disappointed by her experience. The 28-year-old marketing consultant had come to the palmist with very specific and important questions, and frankly, she felt short-changed of her Tk 1,000. In a honey-soaked voice, Laila said, “I fight with my husband often, so I asked Kauser about the future of my marriage. I also told him that I have changed jobs too many times in the last five months, so I asked him what my career would be like.” Kauser asked for the date of Laila’s birthday, her full name, the names of her family members, plus her husband’s birthday and her house number. He jotted it all down and then did a calculation. Laila quoted Kauser as saying, “You will be successful in your career and your marriage will be okay. No couple is perfect.” Laila said, “It was a very general finding. I was looking for a specific answer but I didn’t get one and I’m not fully satisfied. I wouldn’t come back.”

I promised Kauser that I would print the following statement from him, “This is not science.” Indeed, had he said it was, I’d have to argue the case for fraud. It was a fun and interesting experience, but like Laila, I wouldn’t return. But I don’t doubt for a second that there are many who will.

Investigating youth – nationwide surveys in Pakistan and Bangladesh

Published in The Weekend Independent on 18 June 2010

Pahela Boishakh 1417 - New Year's Eve 2010, Fine Arts Institute, Dhaka, Bangladesh

The first nationwide survey of Bangladeshi youth was published last Saturday by the British Council.  Towards the end of the launching ceremony, a young member of the audience raised her hand to ask a question to members of the panel.

She said, “How can we compare the findings of this survey with young people in the rest of the world?”

Her question was a good one.  “Bangladesh: the Next Generation” focuses on the perceptions and aspirations of Bangladeshi youth and it contains many useful statistics and percentage point indicators.  It makes for very interesting reading and it is, as British High Commissioner Stephen Evans said during the launch, “rich food for thought.”  However the findings are ultimately most illuminating whenever comparisons can be made, particularly as this survey does not contain any qualitative data.  As an American professor Aaron Levenstein once famously said, “Statistics are like bikinis.  What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”  Regardless of the faith—or suspicion—one has in statistics, it is also important to place this survey in its full context.

Pahela Boishakh 1417 - New Year's Eve 2010, Fine Arts Institute, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Though it is the biggest survey of youth ever conducted in Bangladesh and the 2,167 respondents were drawn from each of the seven administrative districts, it is worth highlighting (as the survey itself does) that there are 55 million people between the ages of 15 and 30 in Bangladesh – each with a potentially unique view of the world.  For example, whilst it is fascinating to learn that 88 percent of young people in Bangladesh are either happy or very happy and only 1.6 percent described themselves as “very unhappy,” notions of happiness are extremely subjective and arguably justify deeper examination.

Fortunately, the British Council has also undertaken a Next Generation survey in Pakistan and the report was published in November 2009.  Plans are also underway to carry out the survey in Nigeria.  Although the two existing surveys are far from identical in terms of questions and content, many themes of youth are shared.  Without wishing to draw crude or superficial comparisons, I will attempt to present the most significant.

One of the major findings of both surveys was the disengagement of youth from national politics.  In Bangladesh, 76 percent of the young people interviewed believe they have little or no influence over government decisions or were unsure of their capacity to influence.  Likewise, 76 percent of young people reported having no interest in politics.  Speaking at the launch, Chief Guest Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said that she attributes the low levels of political engagement to a lack of awareness about how to get involved.

She said, “I don’t believe that youth have no capacity to influence decision-making.  It was their decision to elect this government after all.”

Pahela Boishakh 1417 - New Year's Eve 2010, Fine Arts Institute, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Currently, only one percent of the Bangladeshis interviewed belong to a political party.  In Pakistan, that number is doubled… to a mere two percent.  Pakistan’s Next Generation report states, “The disillusionment with democracy is pronounced.”  Only 10 percent of Pakistani respondents said that they have a great deal of confidence in national or local government, and half are not on the voters’ list.

The majority of young people in Pakistan believe that the government is failing on all levels.  One Pakistani respondent said, “Government should provide windows for the engagement of youth in the decision-making process.  No decision about us, without us.”  In Pakistan, the most trusted public institution is the military.

Both groups of youths also appear wary of student politics.  In Bangladesh, 36 percent of respondents said that student politics have a detrimental effect on educational institutions and more than 30 percent believe that they should definitely not become involved.  In Pakistan, several focus group participants reported problems at universities, where student groups, “were taken over and corrupted by political parties and are often more interested in violent feuds than student affairs.”  Anecdotally, I have heard many similar sentiments expressed by young Bangladeshis.

My friend Shumo

In terms of attending school classes, the situation for both nations has improved but remains grave.  In Bangladesh, 71 percent of young men and 73 percent of women are literate.  In Pakistan, 64 percent of women between 18 – 29 years are literate as are 80% of men, but only half of Pakistan’s children attend primary school and just five percent obtain a degree in higher education.

Unsurprisingly, 92% of Pakistani youth believe that improving the education system is an important issue.  In Bangladesh, more than 20 percent of respondents expressed their desire to study more or to seek higher education and 41 percent wish to live abroad.  The three main reasons for this latter position were: to earn more money, to study and due to the scarcity of jobs in Bangladesh.

When it comes to self-identity, young Bangladeshi women said that the two most important defining factors are family and nationality.  Young men listed their nationality and occupation as being the single most important factors.  Interestingly, in Pakistan, three quarters of respondents identified themselves as Muslims, and 14 percent define themselves primarily as citizens of Pakistan.

Youth in both countries are gravely aware of the threat of corruption.  Only four percent of respondents believe that corruption in Pakistan is low, whilst in Bangladesh, 60 percent fear that corruption will worsen over the next five years, and over a third believe that corruption damage’s Bangladesh’s image abroad.  In Pakistan, youth are more concerned that violent attacks harm their nation’s image most.

First day of Spring, Fine Arts Institute, Dhaka, 2010

The British Council hopes that by presenting the information to the public, a debate will be sparked about the role of youth in societies across the world.  Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar, country director of Hunger Project eloquently expresses why it is so important to harness the potential of a nation’s youth in his opening commentary of the Bangladesh report.  He writes, “Our youth have not yet become ‘prisoners’ of what we call ‘reality.’  They have not boxed in their thinking, dreaming or exploring by the walls of cynicism.  They have not become stuck to a reality or resigned themselves to the status quo.  They have the courage of their convictions along with the mental and physical capacity to pursue them – and thus they dare to break out of perceived reality… They have the ability to create a ‘new’ reality that is shaped not by what is easy but by what is right.”

Studies such as these ought to be welcomed – and moreover, widely disseminated and discussed.  Both nations have around 55 million people aged between 15 and 30 and forecasters predict an ever greater burgeoning of the population in the years ahead.  As Charles Nuttall OBE, director of the British Council, writes in the commentary of the Bangladesh report, “We can view each successive generation as a problem – or as a unique opportunity: how we use this “youth dividend” will be critical to our future development.”  The Next Generation surveys are a call to action – when the stakes are this high, one hopes the response will be swift.