"You are going to witness the making of history... extraordinary!"
I was intrigued, but I kept quiet.
Driving towards Lahore's affluent northern suburb, Hamid asked, "Haven't you noticed the Taliban's statements have become very forceful these days?"
"Yaaaa..." I said, unsure.
"If you check out YouTube, you will find some of the speeches they have lately been making are full of wisdom. Those speeches are what the anthropologist Geertz calls thick descriptions. The impression the Taliban are uncivilized may not be very true, anymore."
I did not pay much attention to him. He was in the habit of quoting wisecracks. But I asked, "In three months you are going to Columbia. What do you care?"
"I am a respectable, working journalist."
I did not say anything. His father owned New World, a top Urdu news channel, where he had procured me a job as a reporter.
He lit a hashish-filled cigarette, took a pull, and handed it to me.
"See, you don't get properly paid as a journalist. You have to supplement your income by working as a video-maker," Hamid said.
Hamid lowered the window, threw the cigarette out, and said, "Light me another one."
I lit another, took a pull, and handed it to him.
"I want you to meet a certain type of people so you can make good money."
"Who are those people?" I asked.
"You should not be asking such a question. Your degree in English literature has not taken you anywhere. You have applied to hundreds of places and had scores of interviews, but you can not get the job of even a petty schoolteacher. You will get married eventually. You will need money to take care of your family. You need to grab whatever opportunity comes your way."
By the time the second cigarette was puffed out, we reached our destination. It turned out to be Shaakh-e-Medina, the Branch of Medina, a complex of buildings which housed a Deobandi madrassa, the headquarters of the Party of Islamic Scholars, and a hostel. At the madrassa gate we were stopped by a dozen guards carrying AK-47 riffles. In the next moment Haji Shamzai materialized and rushed to meet Hamid. A rotund man with a long beard overlaid by burgundy henna, he was the head of the madrassa and a nationally known firebrand. Hamid swiftly ejected from the car, and both of them locked each other in a prolonged embrace as I watched, holding my Sony Handi-cam.
Hamid asked me to come on out.
"He is my brother," Hamid jerked his head towards me. Haji Shamzai gave me a smirk and said welcome.
Haji Shamzai led us into a twenty-by-fifteen room where young and middle aged Taliban stood against left and right walls. The front wall was entirely covered by a mural showing a spectacle of paradise. A stream of milk was meandering. There were all kinds of vividly painted fruit on plates placed on the banks of the stream. There were angels suspended in the air, their white wings stretched, all male. The most delightful part was the presence of houris sitting in different places and in different postures. They had Caucasian features, and their dark blue eyes were looking straight out of paradise at anyone standing in the room. Although they were covered in white, drooping maxis from their shoulders down to the ankles, the curves of their bodies were very pronounced and seductive. Their bosoms were markedly conspicuous, their bellies slim and tapering down towards their pubic areas. I also noticed that, without exception, every houri's eyes had thick kohl with a sharp glint. Their lips looked like they were about to part. On the corner of the mural was a door, where a white foot with a part of a white maxi hanging over it suggested there were even more houris behind the door.
In the corner of the wall where the mural ended stood a static object. I shook my head in disbelief when I realized I had been so taken in by the life on the mural I had failed to notice someone external to the scene of paradise present there. He was dark brown and short, not more than five feet tall. The lower part of his body—from the naval down, I guess—was markedly shorter than the upper part. His face, however, was very long, his chin parallel to his chest: he could have touched his clavicle with his chin without stretching a muscle. His nose reminded me of the blade of an axe. Hairs jutted out of his nostrils like thin black wires.
I went forward, oblivious of the people around me. The man, the object, remained unmoved, despite my coming so close to him. On both sides of his nose were countless tiny craters pimples had left behind. On the right side of the nose, just above the tip, was a reddish swelling, perhaps a carbuncle. The sides of his nostrils were in constant spasms.
Someone put his hand on my shoulder. It was Hamid. "Meet this homo emptiheadicus! His wiggling nostrils," he whispered, "are actually indicative of flatulence, which results from a sudden change of diet. He has been fed with beef, dried fruit, and candies. He has eaten like a pig!"
I looked around. Everyone was staring at me.
"Let's get ready!" shouted Hamid. Two of the young Taliban rushed out and returned with a sizeable satchel. Haji Shamzai opened it and took out a rug and handed it to a young Talib, who with the help of an elderly colleague, nailed it to the side wall. On the rug was carved a collage of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the Jamia Mosque of Delhi, and the Cordova Mosque of Spain. All of them were wrapped in barbed wire. Meanwhile Haji Shamzai produced a checkered bandana, a dagger, a little vial, and a copy of the Koran from the satchel. He went up to the short man and kissed his forehead, reciting Koranic verses. He opened the vial. A pungent smell hit my nostrils. He sprayed the perfume all over the man's torso, saying, "It was bought in Mecca, and the bottle was touched with the Ka'aba to bless the martyr who will wear this perfume." Then he wrapped the bandana around the man's head, put the dagger in his left hand, and thrust the Koran in his right. He gently pushed him in front of the rug and said, "Get ready in the name of Allah. This is your time to..." he pointed towards the mural, "start your journey to paradise, where Allah's bounties are waiting for you. Just look at them!"
The man remained without an expression, casting a deep look at the mural. I now could see he was wearing a dark brown suicide vest over a dress of the same color.
"This martyr," Haji Shamzai told Hamid while pointing his index finger at the man, "flew in a plane last night. He was just below the stars, but inshallah he will be above the stars in a while. It is in Allah's power who is blessed, when and where!"
"His first and last flight yesterday!" Hamid whispered to me.
"My dear Hamid, you can ask your friend to start filming," said Haji Shamzai. My camera was ready. I turned it on.
"Islam," the martyr began, "is at a crossroads. The enemies of Islam have flooded Pakistan just like a swarm of loci. But they will never be able to overcome us because it is said in the Koran, we will defeat the enemies of Allah, His Prophet, and the blessed companions of the Prophet. The world is suffering from an extremely malignant cancer, and that cancer is the Shias. They are worse than the Jews and the Hindus. It is time I make my humble contribution. I hereby declare my participation in the jihad against the evil known as the Shias. In a few moments I will kill Hasan Turabi, who is the leader of the Shias of Lahore. I am doing so on my own, and no one has forced me to do it. Tonight inshallah two journeys will be made. An infidel will go to hell, and I..." he turned his neck to his left and took a hard look at the mural for about five seconds, "will go home! We the Muslims have a choice. Either we live like cowards or die like fearless warriors. It is better to have one day's life of a lion than a hundred-year long life of a jackal!"
"He was supposed only to look into the camera and not towards the mural. Bloody fool!" Hamid whispered to me as he took my camera, removed the cassette, and put it in his pocket.
Everyone patted the man's head and shouted "Mubarik! Congratulations!" At that point someone announced the jeeps were ready. Haji Shamzai kissed the man's forehead and said, "Say my salaam to the Prophet Muhammad and his companions and wives! Intercede with Allah for us so we also find a home near your household and become your neighbors in paradise."
At that everyone began to call out, "Mashallah! Allah o Akbar!" But the man did not move. He seemed a bit engrossed. There, was no expression on his face.
"What happened, my son?" Haji Shamzai shook his shoulder gently. The man shook his head and grinned, exposing very yellowish brown teeth. He turned around and took a few steps towards the mural, gazed at it for a few seconds, turned back, and walked towards the exit where people were waiting to take him away. He passed by me without paying any attention to his surroundings. His face was red. There was a strange shine in his eyes.
After the suicide bomber left, Hamid said he must leave to keep an appointment. Haji Shamzai hugged him, kissed his hand, and thanked him for being helpful. A Talib handed me an envelope.
Back at the office, Hamid went to see his father. I went to the toilet, where I opened the envelope. It contained five hundred American dollars. It was far in excess of my one month's salary and earnings as a video-maker. I went the cafeteria and ordered tea. After a while, I sensed a commotion outside. I rushed to the newsroom, where TVs were blurting "Breaking News!" Hasan Turabi and scores of worshippers had been killed as a result of a suicide bombing. The news was followed by condemnations from the president, the prime minister, and the rest of the high-ranking ministers. "No Muslim can carry out such an attack," the presidential statement said.
The evening news informed us, the suicide bomber's head had been found, but it was too disfigured to be recognizable. It wasn't until two days later when New World beat all our competitor channels with an exclusive scoop: our newscaster announced someone had broken the lock of a New World reporter's car boot and placed a video in it. All day our channel ran the speech I had filmed in the madrassa.
In a few hours the speech was available on YouTube. This changed the entire scenario. Now began a rat race between the channels to identify the suicide bomber and get hold of his family. Hamid picked me up from my home and took me to the airport, where I was put on a plane to Karachi. Two New World journalists received me. We drove straight to Lyari Town.
Lyari Town was visible from some distance. The entire area was wrapped in a cloud of dust, and as we approached, we found all the houses were single-story and dilapidated. On every roof was fluttering a flag signifying a political or denominational outfit. We formally entered Lyari when the concrete road gave way to a mud track. There were stray dogs, domestic fowls, cows, goats, and donkeys everywhere, and in between them were half naked and scrawny children playing with whatever objects they could find. Hardened animal droppings seemed to be an integral part of the sporting landscape. We drove on and saw rows of people to one side of the street. They were barricaded by containers of every size, shape, and material. As we drove past, one of my hosts told me those people were lined up to get water from the three or four public water taps catering to Lyari's population of over ten thousand. Across from the taps was a row of small cabins, a constant gush of stench emanating from them. I was told those cabins contained the pits that were the only toilets in Lyari.
Abdul Karim's house stood on a narrow, filthy lane. Outside the nearby homes elderly men and women sat on cots or the muddy ground, busy in conversation. Dampness had vanquished everything there. The stench was only matched by people's indifference to it. One of our companions led us into Abdul Karim's home. It was a one-room shack where he used to live with five brothers and six sisters. Inside it was almost dark, though it was a sunny, July afternoon. The door of the tiny house was open, and a woman was sitting on a dirty mat, oblivious to her surroundings.
Abdul Karim's mother was hunch-backed. Her job was to wash the bodies of dead women. She told us her son was an innocent person who had been kidnapped by someone, and the suicide bomber who was shown in the video must have been an actor posing as Abdul Karim. "When he turned eighteen, I told him I would marry him to the most beautiful girl in Lyari. He turned red whenever I told him so. He was such a shy boy. How could he kill anyone?"
An extremely frail woman, she could not continue and began to cry. We left her and looked for her husband and children. None of them were available at the time, but the neighbors were more than happy to stand in front of the camera and speak. They said Abdul Karim was too cowardly to kill anyone. We were told Abdul Karim's father was a vendor who sold cheap toys and returned home late in the evening. We also found out Abdul Karim's brothers worked as car washers, and his sisters worked as house cleaners outside Lyari.
At that we left Abdul Karim's lane and walked towards the commercial area dotted with stalls and small shops. More people surrounded us there. We learned Abdul Karim was a Bengali whose parents migrated to Pakistan when East Pakistan became independent Bangladesh in 1971. We also learned Abdul Karim was 25 years of age and the eldest of his siblings, the youngest being twelve.
A well-built man wearing a very neat, white shalwar-kameez and a huge moustache came forward. He asked everyone to shut up. He introduced himself as the "elected councilor" of the area. He said Abdul Karim's last job had been in his cowshed.
"Let me tell you. If you had come a few days earlier and asked for Abdul Karim, no one would have been able to tell you who he was. It is only now we know his name. Everyone called him a lizard. He was the most harmless person. Wherever he would go, people would shout "O, Kirlay!" at him. Even in his absence he was referred to as Kirla. He never talked back. He was a nobody. But Abdul Karim was doing fine in my cowshed. He would spend hours cleaning it up. I thought he had found a job where no one could make fun of him. Then he began to visit the mosque to pray. I thought it would do him good. A month ago he disappeared."
There was no prospect of interviewing Abdul Karim's father or siblings. Whatever information we had was good enough for another scoop, so we decided to send our material to the head office immediately. I flew back to Lahore that evening.
A few days later, Hamid called me up and asked to have dinner with him in his home. After the dinner, we went to his bedroom to smoke hashish.
"I have decided to fly to New York to get settled before joining Columbia. I am leaving in a week's time. You should be fine here. I have spoken to my father," he said.
"Haji Shamzai will continue to hire your services. He will pay well. Just do your job and keep quiet. You will be fine. I have spoken to him."
"Great! Thanks." I did not have to work too hard to feign gratitude. Truthfully, I needed the money.
We did not speak for a while, slowly getting high. I lit another cigarette.
"What will happen to Pakistan?" I said.
Hamid looked at me for a few seconds as if trying to read my mind. "Has anyone ever understood what Pakistan is? We have over sixty channels and almost one hundred newspapers and countless analysts and experts, but no one has ever identified what Pakistan is."
He continued, "Pakistan is an amazing, nonstop cartoon movie. You know in the cartoons, the characters fall from skyscrapers, are smashed and crushed and lose limbs, but in the very next scene they are back in action. In Pakistan, one morning people are killed and maimed, but within hours life becomes as if nothing ever happened."
He was warming to his speech. "Let me give you the example of the wildebeests: there is a lot of chaos and madness when the lionesses chase them. After one wildebeest has been hunted down and is being eaten, the rest of the wildebeests go about their routine as if nothing has happened, as if the ultimate violence of a few minutes before never took place. This normality goes on till the next hunt starts. You look at a suicide bombing scene in Pakistan. Dozens of people die. Limbs fly in the air. People wail and cry, begging for help. You look at them and say these are the most helpless, miserable, pitiable, and more-sinned-against-than-sinning people in the world. But hours later these same people strut about like peacocks, over-brimming with arrogance and looking for real or imagined enemies to hunt down. These very people vow to conquer and crush the entire world in Allah's cause. They sound so confident, you would think they can move mountains just by raising an eyebrow.
We anxiously await aid packages from the Unites States, the IMF and the World Bank. Intense lobbying is done and a great propaganda campaign is mounted to prove our loyalty to the West so these packages come through smoothly. But once the packages are approved, the entire nation goes into a collective hysterical fury over the conditions these packages stipulate because they undermine our national honor and our Islamic identity! We tell the world we are no ordinary people, we have nuclear bombs! Imagine a band of beggars with bowls in one hand and Kalashnikovs in the other, barking out the terms of payment as if they are doing great a favor by accepting the alms! Unchallenged, we are more Pharaonic than the great Pharaohs in our arrogance, but when confronted, we cringe like mice hiding in a hole surrounded by cats..." He could not go on. He was trying to restrain himself from bursting into laughter. His face had turned red.
"What you are laughing at can be called a national tragedy," I said.
"Come on yaar, my friend. Don't you know Pakistan is both a great tragedy and a great comedy at the same time?"
"But the situation you have described is pure tragedy," I said.
"No..." He was almost choking with amusement. "Just imagine Pakistan existing on the one side of the wall and you are watching from the other side. And you, God, are looking at women clad in burqas head-to-foot and dragging their little kids with one hand while balancing toddlers in the other arm. And what are these women doing? Jumping in front of a bloody train! Hahahaha! Depressed men forcing poison down the gullets of their wives and children and then gulping it themselves... And you see Allah-fearing mullahs slashing people who belong to a different sect!"
"Yes," I said. "I suppose Pakistan is a comedy—of the darkest, blackest sort—if you take the view of an observer, an outsider. But Pakistan is all tragedy if you feel it. Breadwinners lose their lives, women are widowed, children orphaned, and the overall societal abuse..."
"No," Hamid cut me short. He produced another cigarette from the packet and said, "Take this. This is pure beauty! There is more hashish than tobacco. Burn it!"
As I lit the cigarette and took a pull, I did indeed feel an almost instant boost to my high. Before crashing through the ceiling and getting lost in the space above it, I heard Hamid's words: "The tragedy is that a useless, ugly, harmless, deformed, and undernourished lizard gets transformed into a lion..."