Dirty Food and Dirty Games

Dirty Food and Dirty Games


I am writing this update from a dirty restaurant on the periphery of Karachi airport – it does seem to be the lot of the perpetual traveller to spend much of his life in hot, sweaty and smelly establishments, encumbered by baggage and confined simply to wait for the next stage of the journey.  However, I have grown to like them:  First comes the presentation of a long menu, which is likely to be in an incomprehensible script with the odd typically ambitious tagline thrown in; ‘Asia’s finest; ‘The best food this side of Bollywood’; ‘Fastest Gun in the West’.  If the voyager is blessed with a long wait and an English menu, there is the inevitable fun of perusing the menu’s ropey English and chuckling smugly, ever hopeful of hitting the jackpot of menu errors with an inadvertently rude piece of toilet humour or accidental image: ‘Brown Sticks’; ‘Hot Bird’; or ‘English Bums’ in the more sophisticated establishments.  There then follows the careful selection of an item on the menu, long dispensed with by the wise traveller, to protect himself from inevitable disappointment, in favour of simply asking the waiter to tell him what is actually available.  Then, after some lukewarm water and a bowl of greasy rice, the world weary voyager gazes around himself with young eyes again.  There is a satisfied twinkle of acknowledgement with a bored young waiter, if luck has it, a stilted conversation in halting grunts and the shared humour of bungled communication.  Then, you reluctantly peel your trousers from the plastic chair, and say farewell to this battle-scarred corner of a foreign land that shall be forever yours – for the smell lingers in your clothes, a proud eau-de-kebab reminder to your fellow passengers that real men eat in dirty cafés.

The final part of the filthy restaurant contract is of course the inevitable complaining (not to the waiter of course, I’m English) and the romanticised exaggeration: I have a long list of dirty haunts that tickle the edges of my mouth as the filth and the faces return – Horse-cock in Mongolia; Maize with Maize sauce under the palm leaves in the Congolese jungle; salty tea at the trucking stops in Nepal; and, the most recent addition, the Islamabad restaurant known presumptuously as ‘The’ Afghan Restaurant, where a scarfed bandit, visible occasionally through clouds of black smoke, works his way through abattoir’s-worth of cow each evening, the diner on tenterhooks all evening about whether his gun will emerge from the barbecue, get slung across his shoulder, and he will ride off to answer the fighting call of his tribesmen in the mountains.  In this case, back in Karachi, I’m looking across the parking lot, the hot wind pummelling the palms as it beats a desperate path from Mumbai’s latest cyclone, to a shiny air conditioned Golden Arches: I’ll take my chances with the ‘—Po-t —–ru–nt’ thanks very much.

Pakistan has grown on me – she likes what I like about England, and is kinder with what she doesn’t – it’s hard not to get caught up in that.  I feel the mentality of Nehru and Gandhi’s elites before Partition – Pakistan has no need for English politics, military, governance, it is too independent, too free-spirited, too full of contrasts, but it has a love for English schooling, English history, English culture without the booze.  Despite the massive corruption and economic problems (and the some unfortunate military and intelligence legacies), Pakistanis still shares with India an expectation of their own government to provide services, however inadequately: cheap university, roads, schools, healthcare, and it has a relatively free press with which to share that voice.  I was heartened by a city-wide strike in Sukkur recently against the government electricity provider – not because of the power outages, bribery, and 90% of the population connect illegally in these parts, but because the people cared that the government was not living up to its promises – as with large parts of Africa, Pakistan will be in trouble if it ever loses that care.

A few of my staff are fine examples of what Pakistan, and Islam, can achieve – intelligent, dedicated, humorous and honest individual, with an integrity and discipline that is rare to meet in any country.  Abrar, who literally fell into aid in his home Kashmir after breaking his leg in the 2005 earthquake, is a fine example – of course, cricketing is a good metaphor for his character, for he is a high-performing all-rounder, with a tactical nouse and wisdom beyond his years to lead his teams – he has, I believe, captained the People Cricket Club team for many years, which is no small achievement.  Abrar is also a talented footballer, always in an England shirt, and he is very much a product of an older education – schooled in Shakespeare, Wordsworth and the King James Bible. The other day, clearly oblivious to any irony involved in teaching an Englishmen about the etiquette of tea consumption, he advised me that one does not ‘drink’ tea, but one ‘takes’ tea.  He is a devout Muslim, assuming there is no rule against water fighting, but more versed in the bible that myself, and deeply knowledgeable of the historic links between Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as well as the detailed histories of the intertwined evolution of the Abrahamic languages.  I have had many long philosophical and religious conversations with Abrar, not veiling my understandings as I have got used to doing in places where a lack of holy code is not easily accepted – he has a rare gift of being a truly open-minded and curious believer.  He has devoutly begun to school myself and my thumping ice-hockey playing Canadian colleague in the Koran, which has proved to be a very interesting read – for one, it has cleaned my conscience over the issue of illegal fornication with slave girls.

Abrar has also been acting as coach to the slugging arm of the aforementioned Canadian baseballer, and, in the continuation of my international sports career.  Taking a short break since my glorious heyday in the U14 D team, I relaunched with some impressive statistics: 1 over bowled, with 10 balls and 4 wickets.  Batting: 1st appearance, clean bowled first ball; 2nd appearance, clean bowled first ball; 3rd appearance, forward drive straight into the opposite wicket.  During my long spells on the sidelines where the spectators sit (deceivingly right in the middle of the pitch, spread between slip and mid-wicket), I undertook the challenge to explain how, at the age of 16, I had marched out on the hallowed turf at Lords during an England-Pakistan match wearing a leopard-skin. I am still searching for the courage to take a football to the cricket pitch and play 5-aside.

Like many, my family tree contains a section where entire generations travelled across the water for years in military or administrative service, in regiments with such colourful institutional and political histories as the Dogras or the Gurkhas.  It is a far more impressive undertaking than for the young aid worker today: a long sail; potential years without contact from home and far longer periods of isolation; and, without medical experience or acclimatisation, a far greater risk of dying from tropical diseases.  Then there is the heat of a Sindhi summer: completely all-consuming, without respite.  The very name Sindh exudes heat: Sizzling, Searing, the hellish firey punishment for those who have Sinned.  Recently topping out at 51°C, one gets accustomed to it, but never to the point of normality – you can never move, work or think at a normal pace, and the rare release to an air-conditioned room or a flight to cooler climes is as if being released from a prison of body and mind.  John Masters, in his brilliant descriptions of the pre-war Gurkhas in India, describes the dispiriting ‘Heatstroke Express’ train that bumbled across the desert from Karachi to Peshawar, still running today, and defines the ‘Sloth Belt’, the area of India and Pakistan crippled annually by the summer heat, where business grinds on as a secondary priority to finding shade, cold water and a horizontal state.

Our own slightly ill-conceived attempt to escape the sloth-belt, was a Sunday visit to Moenjodaro, one of the major cities of the Indus Valley civilisation, which led the world in agricultural and urban development over 4000 years ago.  Of course, one of Pakistan’s largest archaeological sites is entirely outside, and devotion to the lessons of our ancestors demands the inevitable sacrifice of an afternoon under the full mercy of the Sindhi sun.  It is nonetheless humbling to see the sophisticated urban designs of 4000 years ago, to stand on a mound where crowds of townsmen used to congregate for worship, and to follow to the horizon the thousands of irrigation channels, the veins and arteries of this arid agricultural heartland, and to imagine that people have probably been maintaining some of those channels in the same way from then until now.  Another unanswerable human conundrum is illustrated by Moenjodaro’s drainage systems – 4000 years ago, at the cutting edge of the world’s technological advances, the city was organised with a system of public water supply and underground drainage channels – not so far away, in modern day Kandhkot, the town reeks of sewage running down the street and pooling in the open spaces.

Rural Sindh is best described as forgotten.  It is a land of transit, where trucks and buses steam through to Karachi, where the games of power, politics and development are played out in three or four major towns.  In the rural heartlands, far below these lofty games, each village feels like an island – rising on a shallow mound from the dusty plains, always distant from its neighbours, and visible for miles, reliant on the rare ships that pass their way on the cracked roads.  The floods have destroyed these villages, increasingly frequent and increasingly catastrophic in recent years (in 2007, again in 2010, and likely again this year).  In most villages, even on the shallow mounds, the waterline sits high on the buildings, and only by looking at it, by looking at the fields that provide the only means of income, and that were left covered in 7 inches of clay, and by looking at the wells that provide the water of life in this hard environment, does one begin to realise the impact of the flood.  In almost all the villages, a large proportion of the community are living in twisted open-sided sculptures of contorted, weather-beaten branches and threadbare tarpaulins.  It is only upon noticing the hand pumps, drawing clean water from a high water-table under the river delta, that existence even seems possible.  Many of these water pumps were destroyed by the floods, old, unsealed, and contaminated with flood water.

The aid agencies have only recently started to notice Sindh – that is of course what brings me here, but it is the scale is incredible – Sindh has most of Pakistan’s 170 million people, 20 million of which are reported to have lost their homes in the flood. I dislike dealing in aid stereotypes, to paint pictures of places where people eke out a desperate survival, in need of the arrival of some being with a golden wand and a superior understanding of the facts of life.  But I can’t hide the overriding images that in these communities, that people are merely surviving, apparent slaves to the whims of nature and their political powerlessness. Even accepting the inadequacy of the industry statistics, our various interventions will cover a matter of tens of thousands, on a hopelessly temporary basis.

Sindh’s rural communities do not have the urgency and the raw desperation of refugee camps, their residents keep a hardened, determined, and resigned look about them. But, long documented in tribal Pakistan, there is also a ruthless and proud streak.  We are buffeted from all sides by small family feuds and tribal conflicts – I frequently have to grant leave granted so a member of staff can go home and sort out some sort of family feud, internal or external, ranging from kidnap to home takeovers to closing off access routes to villages.  In the communities, working with leaders for the organisation of labour, production of mud bricks, distributions of materials, is always fraught with internal power struggles.  It is a constant battle to keep politics away from work – recently, we employed a senior local coordinator, who has been involved in every dubious activity you can imagine, until finally, we heard he had ended up in jail with 3 other staff.  It turns out that the whole mess was an entirely engineered fabrication – he had wanted to set up another one of our team, so had arranged for a truck to drive away from the warehouse with our stock in it.  He was then to receive a ‘tip-off’, to follow the driver and accost him, and the driver was to conveniently identify the name of the guilty party.  However, our criminal mastermind followed the wrong lorry, despite being the one who had set it up.  What then ensued was an innocent and angry driver, and an ensuing fight with his defensive tribal community and the local police.

Eventually, the gentleman’s family paid a whopping 200,000 rupees (nearly £2000) to the police for his release, embarrassed by his exploits, whilst we spent a lot of energy negotiating the free release of the remaining, and equally guilty, accomplices from a police station that was essentially at the mercy of a tribal consortium.  Contract terminations and the inevitable death threats ensued – although, with the availability of guns and willingness of application all across Pakistan, the risk here is a more serious one than in central Congo.  Beneath all this, there is a strong undercurrent of Sindhi independence, and, with many the only sufficiently experienced staff in Pakistan coming in from the North (having learned their trade in the earthquake response), the historical hang-ups of Sindhis, as Pakistan’s forgotten and frustrated provincials, continued to threaten the tranquillity of our project operations.  Time and proper management are always the most important factor – I don’t believe there is politics that cannot be avoided by good planning and the growth and management of projects at the right pace – in this instant, unfortunately, we were papering the cracks as a young organisation bit off more than it could chew in a volatile area.  On a more positive note, we were finally seeing some good progress in quite a few of the projects, successful deliveries of agricultural inputs and some shelters beginning to go up at a fast pace, as well as the rewarding position, always a few months into a project, of finally seeing a leap in efficiency and staff capacity.  For this tired aid worker, incarcerated in Pakistan’s solar prison, it is those gentle advances in the heat of battle that enable the nerves to steel themselves against the next onslaught from the schoolyard.