2

day

2011

year

Author: Michael Champion

I am woken up by Waheed, my guide, at 6am and get up for breakfast. Today Nadeem and I will be travelling to the Indian border city of Lahore. Nadeem tells me the British were very proud of Lahore and they produced in the city the world’s largest network of canals.

Apperently the journey to Lahore takes three hours, but because we are taking the toll road (called the M1) there is little to no traffic and I have to say the road is as good as any English one.

Half way we stop at a service station. They are quite disimilar to the UK ones, firstly they resemble a 1970s housing estate row of shops; concrete, unsophistcated signage etc. However there are also a few stalls littered around; people who stop here tend to be more wealthy because the toll road is considered expensive. It is dusty, the sun is overhead and the temperature is almost 30C, there are no clouds. Nadeem and I sit down at a plastic table to order food, there are many, many flies.

All of the shop keepers here are in traditional Pakistani clothing (called sharwal kameez). All people working are male and almost all have a beard of some design and are wearing a hat (called Topi). One of the shop keepers asks Nadeem, in Urdu, if I am a Muslim. I don’t need the translation because he’s been staring at me for two minutes and I hear the word “Muslim”. Staring is not uncommon here, I have a beard and my skin colour is similar to Pushtoun Pakistanis – many people have commented if it weren’t for my clothes I would look exactly as if I had come from the North West Frontier or Baluchistan.

I go to the toilet and although it looks like a standard gents bog, the smell is unbearable, and there is a forboding sound of drip drip dripping echoing around the place. I hold my breath. I then convince myself that the food I have just eaten is definately going to make me ill and I remember the dirty, stained napkin they provided.

As we leave I notice an elderly white woman, she is dressed in all white robes with a scarf and has a large necklace with a wooden cross about three inches in length. Nadeem thinks she must be a missionary or a nun; Pakistan’s population is 1.6% Christian, almost three million people, and the white part of the Pakistani flag represents the non-Muslim population and the role they have to play in the country. Green is a traditional colour of Islam.

Like Islamabad, Lahore has many road blocks. A typical road block in Pakistan will involve the following: We drive up and slow down to a bottle neck. There is a concrete wall about three feet high, or a steel barrier. There are about a dozen armed police, mainly with shot guns, sometimes they have AK-47s and now and again they have what look like Heckler and Koch MP5s. The busier roads have sandbag bunkers with army personnel wearing helmets and carrying assault rifles. A policeman with a holstered pistol will look into the car at the passengers, more often than not they wave you through, and sometimes they ask you a question or two about what you’re doing and where you’re going. You chicane past two more barriers and continue on your way. Pakistan is on high security alert.

There are some sriking differences between Lahore and Islamabad. Lahore is what most Westerners imagine a city in the Indian subcontinent to be like: cars sharing a three laned road five abreast, cattle on the roadside, tens of thousands of people squashed onto the pavement, spilling into the road, men wash themselves in the canals, and there is a repetitious sounding of car horns in the air. Beggars with children or heinous injuries have mastered, totally mastered, the art of pulling a face which in turn pulls at your heart strings. They knock at the car window when you stop at the traffic lights. You do your best to ignore them.

Unlike Lahore, Islamabad is modern (conceived in the late 1960s), is an organised grid system of roads like Manhattan or Washington. Rickshaws and cattle are banned from the town centre, and it is far cleaner. Despite this, at the moment I prefer Lahore, I prefer it because it is what I imagined Pakistan would be like. It offers no surprises and I am comfortable with this.

We pull into the Pearl Continental 5-star hotel. There is a 10ft wall surrounding the perimeter of the hotel and rolls of barbed wire crest the top. Hundreds of concrete bollards are lined evenly infront of the wall to stop cars ramming through. The front gate has many police, all armed. They stop us, check inside the bonnet and boot of the car for bombs and wheel a mirror around all sides of the car to check the underneath. We are waved through.

Nadeem and I then go through airport style security scanners and go into the lobby of what is a very fine hotel. This is where most of the upper and business classes meet, there are white businessmen too and Pakistanis often wear suits. If one sees a Pakistani in sharwal kameez, they are well pressed and trimmed with gold thread or diamond cufflinks. Nadeem conducts business, and we drive on to see a solicitor friend of his.

Some solicitors in the UK own their own practice and so does Umar Mahmud Kasuri, but few own their own tower. Kasuri and Associates is based on the ground floor of Kasuri Tower. Actually its no more than eight stories high but its in the city centre and Umar, I am told, is one of Lahore’s top legal practitioners and corporate and tax consultants. We then visit the house Nadeem is securing for his friend, he takes the keys from a housekeeper who sleeps outside the front door on a mattress and we leave again for the Pearl Continental.

It takes three hours to return to Islamabad, the roadblocks are more thorough at night and the police shine torches into the car. After seven hours in the car I am ready for bed. It is midnight and tomorrow I leave early for a fourteen hour round trip to Noon Bagla!

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