Editors' Choice

Conversations on a Pakistani Bus

by Joel Carillet

The North-West Frontier is about as far away as an American can get, but you can still find some semblance of home.

It was dusk now and the bus continued its rumble west on the Grand Trunk Road. We were two hours out of Rawalpindi and still an hour from Peshawar. It was about then that Mian Mohammed, a policeman on his way home from work, leaned into me and delivered a most earnest question: “Do many people in Canada use heroin for sex?”

I was confused and ashamed: Confused because in all my years of schooling and education nobody had told me about a relationship between heroin and sex and so now I had to plead ignorance before a fellow bus passenger. Ashamed because thirty minutes earlier, in fear for my life, I lied to Mian and told him I was from Canada. Now it was too awkward to tell him the truth and so the charade continued. But so did a most interesting conversation.

“Why would a man inject heroin for sex?” I asked.

Mian was patient in his response, like a gentle teacher accustomed to students in need of remedial learning. “A normal man does sex for five or ten minutes,” he said. “A man with heroin can do sex for five, maybe six hours. Many in Saudi Arabia do this. Many here too.”

I was making my second bus journey from Rawalpindi to Peshawar and felt much more comfortable this time around. The first time, six days earlier, I had spent the morning with a bad stomach and debilitating fever, not at all wanting to be on a bus later in the day. On the way to the station, in a traffic jam, my taxi got caught behind an open-cab truck filled to the gills with just-butchered cow carcasses. At least for a moment I forgot about Islamic fundamentalism and my fever—rotting flesh in late summer heat has the potency of a stun grenade. When I finally reached the station, so weak I could barely walk, a grandfatherly security guard asked my nationality. His eyes nearly popped out of his beard when I said America. He vigorously shook his head, either in denial or as a signal for me to try again. I smiled and said Australia. He nodded happily.

The Grand Trunk Road stretches from Calcutta to Kabul, the impressive creation of a 16th century Mogul ruler of India (it has since been paved). The route from Rawalpindi to Peshawar covers some 100 miles and is shared by buses, bullock carts, chauffeured luxury cars, and pedestrians. To drive it is to witness multiple near misses. On this second journey my driver was particularly wild, and it seemed fitting to enter Pakistan’s infamously unruly North West Frontier Province with such a man at the helm. He sped and swerved with admirable fatalism. He loved his horn like others loved their guns (the province is home to an estimated 7 million Kalashnikovs).

The passengers were a rugged lot, with faces both independent and rooted. Most of the men had beards and almost everyone was Pashtun, that group of 12 million people who live along the Pakistan-Afghan border. They sat or stood quietly, unmoved even when our driver careened around other moving vehicles and brought us to within a hair’s breadth of meeting Allah. Near-death was not an event to get ruffled over. Few men spoke at all, and as I looked into their furrowed faces I began to think chatter was for the weak. When a young man gave his seat to an old man, it was done with a minimum of words, if with any at all. As the bus charged on toward Peshawar and there was nothing to do but be patient, the men simply stared. They looked not at a particular thing but rather beyond things, as if they were seeing their own thoughts and weighing them.

The bus shook incessantly, sometimes violently. I thought of a mother rocking her baby, only in this case the mother had the intent of nurturing the child’s ruggedness. I couldn’t imagine these men in a bus with comfortable seats and good suspension; it would have been too soft. Strength, I began to think, does not come from being coddled, it comes from being rattled. The seats were torn and peeling and the hot outside air blew through the open windows.

Several women sat toward the front of the bus and children played on their laps. The women were invisible beneath their burkas—expressionless, faceless, and completely unapproachable. Elsewhere to speak to a woman is natural; here it would be to risk a violent confrontation.

I remembered how on my first trip to Peshawar I had been more nervous than I was now. The sense of danger I had days earlier had not vanished—that’s why in meeting Mian Mohammed I had lied about my nationality. But it had given way to familiarity. I now had the feeling of being a little bit rugged, and with a degree of pleasure I anticipated what unexpected things the day would bring. It was in this context that Mian and I continued our conversation.

“Do you have many homosexuals in Canada?” Sex is a beloved topic of conversation in every part of the world, and Pakistan was no exception. I guessed that we in Canada had a gay population of two percent, and then I prepared for Mian’s moral chastisement for the sins of the West. But his reply caught me off guard. “That is all! In Pakistan we have 25 percent homosexuals. And we have 5 percent female homosexuals. We call them lesbians.”

“The graph is growing,” Mian continued with a sigh. He meant that cases of sexual misconduct were on the rise. As a policeman, Mian possessed an anthology of anecdotal evidence which he proceeded to share. Just this week he had questioned a young man and woman caught having sex in a video store. When he asked them why they did this they helplessly replied, “Because we did it once and now we cannot stop. We can last a week then we must do it again.”

Everyone, he said, was having sex in his jurisdiction south of Islamabad—the pharmacist, the mechanic, the man who grills kebabs. Mian continued to offer multiple illustrations. And since I was heading to Peshawar he gave me examples from there too: Almost all the madrassas are plagued with sexual abuse. The teachers are having sex with the students and the senior students are having sex with the junior students. Mian spoke with near objectivity, but occasionally his sentences ended with a ring of disgust at the hypocrisy and unfaithfulness he saw undermining society.

A week earlier I had gone to the cinema in Lahore and saw a movie that was spilling over with sexual tension (like its Indian counterpart, Pakistani cinema excels as suggesting the act without actually doing it). I told Mian I was surprised to find these things in an Islamic nation. He chuckled at my description of Pakistani film but spoke seriously when he suggested that Pakistan’s most troubling addiction today is the pornographic VCD. They are illegal yet available everywhere, sometimes for as cheap as 40 cents. Police, he said, are always raiding video shops that sell them. They confiscate the material, fine the shop the equivalent of about 10 dollars, and then allow the business to reopen the next day.

Pakistan was perhaps the most hospitable country I would visit in Asia, but much brokenness lurked in the shadows, in its history, in its cities and villages. In the 1971 war in which East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) broke away from West Pakistan (now Pakistan), Pakistani soldiers raped an estimated 200,000 Bangladeshis. And in Lahore today there are some 10,000 trafficked women (most from Bangladesh and Burma) involved in the city’s sex industry. In addition, according to the Asian Partnership for Human Development, 15,000 child sex workers operate near the city’s train station.

In our hour together Mian and I talked about other things as well. A thick cloud of dust occasionally rolled into the bus. Once he said, “You do not have this dust in Canada, do you?” And when a man lit a cigarette near us, Mian told me, “I don’t like this smoking.” It had killed his dad, who had served under the British in both Iran and Iraq during World War II. Mian postulated that the smoke and dust along the highway contributed to the eczema in his family.

As we talked I could feel Mian’s physical strength through his shoulder, which prodded into mine since the small seat could not quite contain him. He was a big man, both tall and muscular, with a thick black moustache and a heart of gold. He felt sorry for India because it is, from his perspective, a poorer country than Pakistan. Thus, he explained, there is more rape, crime, and corruption in India.

As we neared his stop, he invited me to spend the night at his home. He married in 1995, at the age of 25, and now has four children. I would have enjoyed meeting his family, but I needed to continue on. Plus, I knew he was tired. He gets up at 4:00 each morning, jogs 5 kilometers for exercise, and then takes the 5:00 a.m. bus to work, where his shift begins at 7:00 a.m. It ends 10 hours later, and then he boards the bus for the two-hour journey home. He earns only $100 a month as a sergeant—a miserable salary, he says, but better than what many others get—and does his best to provide for his family.

Mian said goodbye and the bus continued on toward Peshawar. It was completely dark outside now. I began to think more about Peshawar and recalled the things I had read about it, among them this quote from Karl Meyer’s The Dust of Empire: “Peshawar is the hub of a thriving black market in drugs and weapons, its slums and refugee camps the recruiting ground for jihadists who would happily kill every infidel anywhere.” I thought of Osama bin Laden, who most observers believed was hiding somewhere in this border region of Pakistan. There was something mystical about a place where the world’s most wanted man could disappear, and something mysterious about the people who could hide him so.

Another man had taken Mian’s seat, and for some minutes I could see his mind churning. I waited for what it would finally spin out. He asked where I was from and I told him “America.” His mind began to churn some more. I awaited a political statement—some sort of condemnation or challenge—but I waited in vain. After a minute of small talk—his name was Munir Khan and he lived in a village outside of Peshawar—he cut to the crux of the matter, “Do you watch many sex videos in America?” He had said nothing about Bush, terrorism, or religion, and I don’t think that bin Laden was mentioned even once before we said goodbye. But he could barely hide his urge to talk about sex. He was smiling and hunched over so that others might not overhear.

The mystical quickly gives way to other things. We spoke about pornography, morality, and family values. Munir was shocked to hear that some people in the West actually do wait until they are married to have sex. “This is good news!” he said. Yet I wasn’t convinced he really thought so—at least not his dirtier side. He was anxious to hear stories of perversion, as if he needed to live vicariously through them.

I asked if he had ever had sex before he was married—no. I asked if he would ever have sex with someone other than his wife—no. And why not? “I am a good Muslim,” he told me.

We talked about veiling women. Sometimes his wife wears the veil, sometimes not. He asked what I thought. “I respect many of our differences,” I said, “but I would not want to live in a place where the women are covered. The face of a woman is beautiful. It is like veiling a mountain, a sunrise, or a singing bird. It is suppressing beauty made by Allah. Who are we to do this?”

His reply was unexpected: “Ah, but you are an educated writer. Most men cannot see the way you do.” He was implying that I was mature, that veiling is for weak men. Perhaps he was sincere. At the least, he was artfully diplomatic.

The bus swung south of the highway to run through the center of Nowshera, a town on the Kabul River. We dropped off several passengers in front of a string of gun shops that bristled with automatic weaponry. I felt far from home, but happily so. The trip from Rawalpindi to Peshawar would take a little more than three hours—about the same amount of time it would take to watch, say, Titanic—and cost less than a dollar. Not a bad deal.

Looking at the guns glaring under fluorescent light, I thought back to history. One of the most fascinating non-violent movements of the twentieth century originated here in the North-West Frontier Province. Beginning in the 1920s, the most popular Pashtun leader in the struggle against British rule was Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a pacifist. His non-violent principles were derived from his concept of jihad and it stirred the imagination of other Pashtuns. In this land of rugged mountaineers so wedded to their guns, Ghaffar Khan raised a nonviolent army of 100,000 men that excelled in acts of civil disobedience.

As the bus again picked up the main road and began the final stretch to Peshawar, the land around me, hidden by the night, once again seemed mystical. Here was a region so famous for its fighting, yet hidden in its furrowed hills and faces was this historical fact of Gandhi-like social activism. This was not something the media referred to at all when it tried to explain this region to Western viewers after the September 11 attacks. But I saw the people differently knowing that pacifism, and not just violence, was a part of their history, something they were capable of.

My pupils were still dilated from the sight of gun shops and my mind still imagining the great Pashtun pacifist when Munir began to moan about my safety. “Joel, this is not good. Not good at all. You are alone. You have no mama, no wife, no friend. What if you are alone at night and get fever? Who will heal you? Oh, Joel, this is not good at all.”

Munir spoke as if he were on the verge of tears. The curiosity about sex videos when we first met had firmly given way to a concern for my well-being now that we were preparing to say goodbye. I assured him I would be back in America in ten weeks where I would be well fed and looked after. He moaned some more that this was an unnatural state of affairs. I liked that he did not seem worried about al-Qaeda or the Taliban, only about that simpler and more ubiquitous threat called fever.

We arrived in Peshawar and together stepped off the bus into the dirt lot and chaos of the province’s largest bus station. I had the sensation of being born again. It was as if the bus had released me from its womb and Peshawar now held me in her arms. They were not the smoothest or safest of arms, but there was no doubt that they held me, that it felt right to be here. The horns and exhaust, the beards and burkas, the movement of people upon solid ground—how wonderful it was to be alive and walk in such a world. We weren’t meant to be only in the womb.

I retrieved my backpack from the cargo hold. Munir, anxious to catch a connecting bus to his home, came up beside me, his eyes filled with compassion. “Brother,” he said, and then silently pointed through the crowd, showing me the way I should go.


Joel Carillet has a master’s degree in Church History and has spent much of the past six years working overseas. He taught at a college in Ukraine, worked for a study abroad program in Egypt, did human rights work in the West Bank, and spent fourteen months traveling overland from Beijing to Istanbul. Among his memorable experiences traveling was listening to Henry Kissinger talk politics with a White House official as they all stood before their respective urinals in a Washington, D.C. hotel.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




Read more from Editors' Choice, Joel Carillet

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