Trust In Meat

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Pakistan  ,
Saturday, May 26, 2007

Fortunately I had a good idea what to expect crossing the border from India to Pakistan, since I knew four people who'd crossed in the last month. Everyone had agreed that things change for the better when you get to Pakistan. This border is famous for the ceremony that occurs every day an hour before sunset, in which the border is officially closed. Soldiers from each country stomp up to the border and back in a theatrical attempt to out-bravado each other, while baying crowds on each side shout for 'Hindustan!' or 'Pakistan' respectively. Palin filmed it. What no one had mentioned was the, possibly even sillier, ceremony that takes place throughout the day. On the Indian side fifty or more coolies in blue shalwar suits run to the border with boxes of tomatos, radishes and the like, where they exchange them for boxes of dried fruit and nuts with Pakistani runners in red or green suits. All this is repeated, daily, presumably at some expense, to symbolise their reciprocal love and trade. It is necessary, one can't help but notice, only because there isn't any actual love or trade crossing the border. So, by day they celebrate their current peace, and at sunset they glory in their ongoing enmity.

All my friends who'd already crossed into Pakistan had commented on how friendly and generous they'd found the people, and, though I try and avoid national stereotypes like the Scots avoid baths, I have to admit to being on the receiving end of numerous random acts of kindness in my first three days in Pakistan. Within 1km of the border I'd been invited to drink some water in a man's garden, within 2km I'd been invited to play in a canal with some kids. I took them up on this offer, which involved jumping from a moderately high wall into what turned out to be extremely shallow water. Broken legs were narrowly avoided mainly because there was an extremely powerful undertow which ripped your ankles forward just before they made shattering contact with the concrete. Strong swimmers then hope to escape drowning by grabbing onto the slick brick bank and scrambling back up. Naturally this was such a stupid thing to do I had to do it again with a photographer. While riding into Lahore a white van pulled alongside me. The passenger wound down their window, and held out a bottle of mineral water.
-This is a gift for you!
-(taking it) Oh, erm, thank you very much! Wh-
And they sped off again.  

I made it to the Regale internet inn, which had been recommended. There I found a lot of impressive beards, most of them with a joint protuding. (Cannabis is ubiquitous in Pakistan, in the form of 'charas', a dark solid cake you char with a lighter and then crumble with tobacco in a joint. I'm afraid I'm insufficiently 'street' to give it it's London slang name.) The only beardless face was a 20year old blonde Swiss girl named Franchesca, who later accompanied me to the border closing ceremony.

I say that. To the end of the ceremony. Somehow it took buses 90minutes to cover 30km, so we missed all but the final descent of the flags and a bit of stomping. The bus rides themselves, however, were almost interesting enough to make the trip worthwhile. To begin with, I was unprepared for segregated buses. The men sit in the back and the women in the front. So infact we only nominally accompanied each other to a ceremony we only nominally witnessed.  We took our seats in the bus for the return journey, and a moment later a middle-aged Pakistani came and sat next to me; there were plenty of empty seat on the bus, so I was on my guard, expecting he would work some kind of angle.
I'm very rarely overtly rude to anyone, even if they are clearly trying to take me for some kind of ride, and answer most questions honestly, if sometimes a little abruptly to indicate I'd appreciate being left alone. More often, however, I simply play out these disingenuous conversations, in which neither participant is truly interested. Since my interlocuter's english is normally limited, I maintain my dubious sanity by adding stage whisper asides in rapid slang or hifalutin language for my own benefit, which go unnoticed. for example
-You are from london?
-Yes well, from Kent actually  
-You like Pakistan?
-Absolutely, but being quizzed by randoms with their own agenda can annoy...

In this case, the conversation began according to form:
-Which country?
-You are travelling with wife or sister?
-Sister. (speaking toward the wire divide between me and Franchesca) Hope you don't mind, I thought 'wife' might be a bit forward. 'friend' would presumably irredeemably undermine your honour.
-What's your sister's name?
-Franchesca. Your angle may be becoming clear
At this point the conducter interrupted the conversation wanting my fare.
-I pay for you!
-No, really, I have money.
-I insist
-Seriously, here, I can pay the fare. I don't want to be morally obliged to continue this conversation
-[Grabbing my forearm and squeezing. Too hard.] You are a guest!
-Okay okay. [shamefully ungrateful.] Great. Now I'm a guest I have to be on my best behaviour.
-What qualification?
-What? Why do you want to know that?
-[laughing] I don't know! What qualification?
-Philosophy and politics, BA. hons dunelm. You?
-I am engineer.
Suddenly he caught sight of something from the window and gestured,
-Here there was a great battle in '64. India and Pak have fought three wars. In '71 Pakistan was divided into Pakistan and Bangladesh. Here was where Naik Muhammed Mahfooz was killed in '71. He was hero.

As it happened, I had visited the Lahore museum that morning, which had a section giving the stories of the 10 recipients of Nishan-e-Haider, Pakistan's highest award for bravery. (It is not, apparently, an exclusively posthumous award, it is merely coincidence that the only 10 people to have received it did so for terminal acts of bravery) So I already knew the following:

Born 25 October 1944 in Pind Malikan (now Mahfuzabad), Rawalpindi district.
Enlisted in the Army on 25 October 1962.

Serving in 'A' Company of 15 Punjab Regiment when war broke out in 1971, Lance Naik Mohammad Mahfuz was deployed on the Wagha-Attari Sector in East Pakistan (I think this should be 'east West Pakistan', technically) where his company was pinned down by unceasing frontal and crossfire from automatic weapons.

Although his machine gun was destroyed by an enemy shell, Mahfuz advanced towards an enemy bunker whose automatic fire had inflicted heavy casualties. Even though wounded in both legs by shell splinters, when he reached the bunker he stood up and pounced on the enemy, but was hit.

Although unarmed, he caught hold of one enemy was slowly strangling him when another bayoneted him to death during the night on 17 December 1971. He was 27 years old.

What I was surprised by was that this random engineer, not from the area and not, at least not currently, militarily employed, should know his story. I asked him
-So is this why you came all this way to the border ceremony?
-[smiling happily] Yes. India is our enemy!
The bus finally arrived back at the Lahore terminal, so the time had come for us to part company.
-So, will you introduce me to you sister?

In Lahore the main attractions were the museum, the fort and the mosque. The museum I had recently read about in Kipling's 'Kim', which turned out to be largely set in Pakistan and north India. Kim's lama is blown away by the Buddhist artefacts in the museum, and the knowledgability of the curator. Unfortunately the curator didn't give me a guided tour, but their were some pretty impressive statues, including a famous, evocative image of the fasting Buddha, with hollow eyes and veins protuding on skeletal frame. The mosque was impressive, looking very similar to the Jama Masjid in Delhi, and I suspect built by the same person. The fort I missed in my ill-fated attempt to get to the Wagah border in time for the border-closing ceremony.

The best part of arriving in Lahore, from my personal perspective, was the sudden availability of meat in general and beef in particular. Schwarma, kebab, biryani, karahi, chablis. Every different kind of meat and spicy goodness. I even found a tin of tahina in the supermarket next to the guesthouse, so my first lunch in Pakistan was frozen beef koftas cooked over the Regale's bunsen burner, with fried egg and tahina, wrapped in naan. Francesca, who turned out to be vegetarian, watched me devour this mess with a look of disgust that would have put a less hungry man off his lunch.
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