April 12, 2012, 6:09 AM
In his great book of reportage on the revolution in Iran, Shah of Shahs, Ryszard Kapuscinski describes that mysterious tipping point when a demonstrator loses his fear of the Shah’s security forces and refuses to listen when the once all-powerful police order him to step back. Suddenly, all involved realize that the power of the state to cow people into obedience has been broken. I was reminded of that episode by the tragic January 4 murder of Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab Province, by a member of his own security detail, in a public shooting just a mile from the presidential palace in Islamabad. As with Kapuscinski’s demonstrator, the killing seemed to mark an epochal shift in the political landscape—though here the poles are reversed. In the case of modern Pakistan, it is now the tyranny of fear that is reaching into the heart of the political system. It has become extremely hard to see how anyone can pull the country’s political culture back from the brink.
It’s not just that Taseer was an advocate of a secular, pluralistic Pakistan who stood up, on a number of occasions, to the forces of intolerance—a man who was, on various occasions, imprisoned, tortured, and beaten for publicly defending the rights of minorities and the urgent need for freedom of expression. It’s not just that he was the head of Pakistan’s richest and most populous province. And it’s not just that he was an example of someone from humble origins who managed to rise to one of the highest offices in the country by dint of his own hard work.
No, what’s particularly worrisome about this case is the failure of the Pakistani political system to protect one of its own. When the state surrenders its monopoly on violence to those who stand outside of it, it can no longer be described as a functioning state. Pakistan’s political institutions are supposed to represent the many different parties and groups that participate in the country’s civic life, yet now state power is succumbing to the demands of an exclusionist view of the world that can benefit only a particular few. In the weeks and months preceding his assassination, Taseer had been courageously campaigning—in the face of direct threats—to overturn an anti-blasphemy law that had been frequently abused to condemn people of minority faiths.
Yet no one within Taseer’s own political party—the Pakistan People’s Party, whose members include the current president, Asif Ali Zardari, and which is supposedly a bulwark of this system—has defended his efforts in any meaningful way. (Zardari did not even attend his funeral.) Five hundred scholars of the Barelvi movement—the branch of Sunni Islam followed by many Pakistani muslims that has often claimed to stand for a more tolerant vision of Islam and has condemned Taliban violence in the past—have greeted his killing by praising his assassin.
As a member of Taseer’s own elite security detail, his murderer, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, was a man who decided that his oath to protect an official of the state was superseded by a “higher” oath that commanded him, instead, to kill. That Qadri had been assigned as a bodyguard to Taseer despite his dismissal several years ago from a police unit because of his extremist views raises yet further questions. All of this is why I find myself agreeing with Huma Imtiaz: “This is the end. There is no going back from here, there is no miracle cure, there is no magic wand that will one day make everything better.”
I am not a Pakistani. But I can’t help feeling that the killing of Salman Taseer is a calamity for everyone who lives in the country—including the people who are now strewing flowers at the feet of the man who allegedly pulled the trigger. Those who support the takfiri worldview don’t seem to understand that this is an ideology that cedes the definition of “true Islam” to the self-declared defenders of religion—and that these definitions shift according to the political wind, to selfish agendas and narrow factional interests, rather than to the uncorrupted dictates of faith. And that means that those who consider themselves right-minded believers today can easily find themselves on the wrong end of a Kalashnikov tomorrow.
The West, and especially the United States, should also take notice. It is time for policymakers in Washington to understand that Pakistan is not simply a vexing sideshow to the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan—populous, chaotic, and nuclear-armed—needs to be taken seriously in its own right. An imploding Pakistan promises immense pain and turmoil to itself and the world at large. Let’s hope that this realization doesn’t come too late.
This article is written by Christian Caryl and was published in The New York Times.
Reporters go to war to document the human and humanitarian tragedies that otherwise would go largely unnoticed or misunderstood: concealed by the governments that commit them, eclipsed by the battles that perpetuate them, too complex to carry cable-news appeal. Determined to tell stories from extremity, we rely on our research, our guides and our gut assessment of what is safe and what is not. Most of the time we return from assignments in one piece, and on time.
“A Rope and a Prayer” is a firsthand account of one war-zone assignment gone devastatingly wrong.
In this book David Rohde, a correspondent for The New York Times, and his wife, Kristen Mulvihill, take turns recounting in meticulous detail his 7 months and 10 days in Taliban captivity in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and her harrowing negotiations for his release. Their intertwined stories reflect two intensely personal consequences of myopic, lopsided international meddling in the brutalized and neglected region that straddles the border between Central and South Asia.
On Nov. 10, 2008, Mr. Rohde, a Pulitzer Prize winner, set off to interview a Taliban commander in Afghanistan for a book he was writing about the failing American war effort. It was a fraught move, he knew. But without a Taliban commander’s voice to illustrate the movement’s resurgence, Mr. Rohde, ever thorough, believed his book — a result of seven years spent chronicling the escalating war in Afghanistan and the radicalization of Pakistan’s tribal areas — would be incomplete.
The interview was a trap. The Taliban commander who had agreed to speak to Mr. Rohde had him kidnapped. After being marched, at night, across the mountainous frontier Mr. Rohde spent the rest of his captivity in Taliban safe houses in western Pakistan. At the time of the kidnapping he and Ms. Mulvihill had been married two months.
Three main narratives converge in “A Rope and a Prayer.” Mr. Rohde’s methodical reconstruction of his confinement and escape alternates with Ms. Mulvihill’s scrupulous and often surreal account of juggling her effort to free Mr. Rohde and her work as the photography director at Cosmopolitan magazine. In one chapter Ms. Mulvihill sets up a Malibu beach photo shoot for a vegetarian actress who will be chauffeured only in an environmentally friendly car — and on the next page she composes a letter to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the commander of her husband’s kidnappers. She addresses him, at the suggestion of one of her security advisers, “Dear Brother Mujahid.”
But by far the most valuable part of this volume, for foreign-policy watchers and the general public alike, is the book Mr. Rohde had set out to write before he was kidnapped. “A Rope and a Prayer” is, above all, an important and timely resource for anyone trying to understand the trajectory of violence during the last decade in a region that has been ravaged by war almost incessantly for millennia.
In his signature studious fashion Mr. Rohde explains how “the fundamentalist Taliban state the United States purportedly toppled in 2001 is alive and thriving” in Pakistan today. Among the reasons he gives are the shortsighted support Washington extended, during the 1980s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to religious fundamentalists who later helped form the Taliban; the United States’ role in the erosion of west Pakistan’s tribal system; and its failure to recognize early on the scope of Islamic militancy along the border.
Mr. Rohde’s story exhaustively demonstrates that Pakistan, the United States’ supposed ally, turns a blind eye to Islamic extremism on its western frontier, granting sanctuary to militants (including Mr. Rohde’s captors) and thereby handicapping the stabilization of Afghanistan. The book also offers glimpses into the rarely reported life of rank-and-file Taliban fighters, who attend bomb-making classes (taught by Uzbek fighters, who have found refuge in the area), watch pickup volleyball games before sundown, use sophisticated radio equipment to converse and listen to electronic gadgets to memorize Koran verses — all precious, granular peeks at Taliban life that are largely missing from Western coverage.
Some of these insights we never would have learned had it not been for Mr. Rohde’s ordeal. But the expected human story of two people in captivity — one physically imprisoned by the Taliban, the other held emotional hostage to her husband’s kidnapping — mostly gets lost in the couple’s effort to document the minutiae of their experience.
Mr. Rohde is such an impeccable journalist that we never really find out what it is like, in trenchant psychological detail, to be a prisoner of the Taliban. His commitment to abide by the traditional newspaper rule of rigid impartiality is so rigorous that he delivers his blow-by-blow account of what probably was one of the pivotal periods of his life in an incongruously detached, impersonal manner. He relies on journalistic shorthand to describe his surroundings (“we drive through a barren mountainous area”), his physical state (“after spending nearly 24 hours straight lying in the back of the car, I am exhausted”), even his deep remorse for jeopardizing his marriage (“I have betrayed my wife and family”). It seems as though the reporter is embarrassed that he has become the subject of his own story.
(Determined that his work not inflict further trauma on his family, Mr. Rohde, who had spent 10 days in Bosnian Serb detention during the war in Bosnia in 1995, disavowed war reporting after his escape from the Taliban.)
Ms. Mulvihill’s account of navigating the strange world of the F.B.I., the State Department and security firms, and taking calls from Mr. Rohde’s kidnappers while retaining her job at a glossy lifestyle magazine injects the narrative with the kind of dark humor war reporters often use to get through emotionally taxing assignments. But these interludes are written in the same restrained, inelegant prose and read like a series of news updates, a body of text that was rushed to print on stringent newspaper deadline.
Then again, kidnappings and war are inelegant. Underwhelming delivery does not negate the urgent significance of this unprecedented examination of the Taliban, obtained at a tremendous personal cost, as Afghanistan and western Pakistan plunge deeper into bloodshed, trapping millions of civilians in mass violence.
Mr. Rohde may be stingy about sharing his emotions. But he generously uses everything he has learned to inform us with the distinctive evenhandedness and honesty we have learned to expect from his journalism.
This review is written by Anna Badkhen and is published in The New York Times.
KARACHI, Pakistan — Dinner at Rabia Sultana’s house is now served over a cold silence. Her family has not spoken to her since May, when Ms. Sultana, 21, swapped her home life for a cashier’s job at McDonald’s.
Her conservative brother berated Ms. Sultana for damaging the family’s honor by taking a job in which she interacts with men — and especially one that requires her to shed her burqa in favor of a short-sleeved McDonald’s uniform.
Then he confiscated her uniform, slapped her across the face and threatened to break her legs if he saw her outside the home.
Her family may be outraged, but they are also in need. Ms. Sultana donates her $100 monthly salary to supplement the household budget for expenses that the men in her family can no longer pay for, including school fees for her younger sisters.
Ms. Sultana is part of a small but growing generation of lower-class young women here who are entering service-sector jobs to support their families, and by extension, pitting their religious and cultural traditions against economic desperation.
The women are pressed into the work force not by nascent feminism but by inflation, which has spiked to 12.7 percent from 1.4 percent in the past seven years. As a result, one salary — the man’s salary — can no longer feed a family.
“It’s not just the economic need, but need of the nation,” said Rafiq Rangoonwala, the chief executive officer of KFC Pakistan, who has challenged his managers to double the number of women in his work force by next year. “Otherwise, Pakistan will never progress. We’ll always remain a third-world country because 15 percent of the people cannot feed 85 percent of the population.”
Female employment at KFC in Pakistan has risen 125 percent in the past five years.
Several chains like McDonald’s and the supermarket behemoth Makro, where the number of women has quadrupled since 2006, have introduced free transit services for female employees to protect them from harassment and to help persuade them take jobs where they may face hostility. “We’re a society in transition,” said Zeenat Hisam, a senior researcher at the Pakistan Institute of Labor Education and Research. “Men in Pakistan haven’t changed, and they’re not changing as fast as our women. Men want to keep their power in their hand.
“The majority of the people here believe in the traditional interpretation of Islam, and they get very upset because religious leaders tell them it’s not proper for women to go out and to work and to serve strange men.”
More than 100 young women who recently entered service jobs told of continual harassment.
At work, some women spend more time deflecting abuse from customers than serving them. On the way home, they are heckled in buses and condemned by neighbors. It is so common for brothers to confiscate their uniforms that McDonald’s provides women with three sets.
“If I leave this job, everything would be O.K. at home,” Ms. Sultana said. “But then there’d be a huge impact on our house. I want to make something of myself, and for my sisters, who are at home and don’t know anything about the outside world.”
So far, the movement of women into the service sector has been largely limited to Karachi. Elsewhere across Pakistan, women are still mostly relegated to their homes, or they take jobs in traditional labor settings like women-only stitching factories or girls’ schools, where salaries can be half of those in the service industry. Even the most trailblazing of companies, like KFC, still employ 90 percent men.
Pakistan ranked 133rd out of the 134 countries on the 2010 Global Gender Gap Report’s list of women’s economic participation.
While there is no reliable data on the number of women who specifically enter the service sector, Pakistan’s female work force hovers around 20 percent, among the lowest of any Muslim country.
Some women, like Saima, 22, are forced to lead secret lives to earn $175 a month. Her father’s shopkeeper’s salary does not cover the family’s expenses. Without a university degree, the only job Saima could find was at a call center of a major restaurant’s delivery department. But she impressed the manger so much that he offered her a higher-paying waitress job at a branch near her home.
She reluctantly agreed, but pleaded to be sent to a restaurant two hours away so she would not be spotted by family members and neighbors.
After three years, her family still thinks she works in the basement of a call center. On several occasions, she served old friends who did not recognize her without a head scarf. Her confidence has soared, but she is overwhelmed with guilt.
“I’ve completely changed myself here,” she said in the corner booth of her restaurant before her co-workers arrived. “But honestly, I’m not happy with what I’m doing.”
The women interviewed said they had to battle stereotypes that suggested that women who work were sexually promiscuous. Sometimes men misinterpret simple acts of customer service, like a smile. Fauzia, who works as a cashier at KFC, said that last year a customer was so taken with her smile that he followed her out the door and tried to force her into his car before she escaped.
Sunila Yusuf, a saleswoman who wears pink traditional clothes at home but skintight jeans at the trendy clothing boutique in the Park Towers shopping mall, said her fiancé had offered to pay her a $100 monthly wage if she would stay at home.
“He knows that Pakistani men don’t respect women,” she said.
Hina, who works the counter at KFC, said her brothers, who also work fast-food jobs, worried that she had become “too sharp and too exposed.”
“They can look at other people’s girls,” Hina said with a grimace. “But they want their own girls hidden.”
Mr. Rangoonwala, the KFC Pakistan executive, said: “Unfortunately, our society is a hypocritical society. We have two sets of rules, one for males and one for females.”
For Fauzia, the hardest part of the day is the 15-minute walk through the narrow alleys to reach her home. She wears a burqa to conceal her uniform, but word of mouth about her job has spread. Neighbors shout, “What kind of job is this?” as she briskly walks by with her head down.
As a solution, some companies spend up to $8,000 a month to transport their female workers in minivans.
A federal law, citing safety concerns, prohibits women from working after 10 p.m. It was extended from a 7 p.m. deadline last year.
Most companies, however, are unwilling to absorb the extra cost of employing women. Even most stores that sell purses, dresses, perfumes and jewelry do not employ women.
Kamil Aziz, who owns Espresso, the city’s most popular coffee chain, said he made it a point not to hire “the other gender” because women could not work the late shift and the turnover rate among women was higher. He said he also did not want to invest in separate changing rooms.
Nearly all of the 100 women interviewed said marriage would end to their careers. But many of them saw benefits along with the hazards.
Most women said that they had never left the house before taking a job. Many spent the first five months missing buses and getting lost. When they first arrived at work, they stuttered nervously in the presence of men.
Now they know better.
“I’ve learned never to take what husbands say at face value,” said Sana Raja Haroon, a saleswoman at Labels, a clothing boutique where men sometimes slide her their business card.
But the employed women are also approached by admiring young women who want to follow their lead.
“Girls envy us,” said Bushra, a KFC worker. “We are considered the men of the house, and that feels good.”
In the spring of 1997, the literary quarterly Granta published an issue devoted to India’s Golden Jubilee. The tone was cautious but celebratory: on the cover, the country’s name was printed in bright red letters, followed by an exclamation point. Fifty years after partition, an independent India was rapidly establishing itself as an international power. The issue, which consisted largely of contributions from native Indians writing in English, was a testament both to the country’s extraordinary intellectual and artistic richness, and to one of the few legacies of British colonialism that could be unequivocally celebrated by readers in South Asia and the West: a common language. Seventeen years after Salman Rushdie’s shot across the bow with “Midnight’s Children,” a new generation of Indian writers was, in Granta’s words, “matching India’s new vibrancy with their own.”
In the ensuing years, the American appetite for Indian culture has only grown. Many of the writers who arrived on the scene in the 1980s and ’90s — Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy (whose wildly successful novel “The God of Small Things” was first serialized in Granta), Amit Chaudhuri — continued to publish fiction and reportage, and a new wave of novelists, including Kiran Desai and Aravind Adiga, went on to write prize-winning, best-selling books. Readers of Roy, Desai or Adiga — not to mention the viewers who flocked to “Slumdog Millionaire” — have not been spared portraits of Indian life’s miseries (caste-based discrimination, horrific poverty). But the folkloric and redemptive aspects of the stories, already familiar thanks to Rushdie’s magic realism and the more romantic understandings of Hinduism associated with the Kama Sutra, have merely solidified Westerners’ rosy vision of India. These books and films have also complemented the work of writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, who was born in London and raised in Rhode Island and has written vividly about Indian-Americans. The Indian experience, however foreign, has become part of the American experience.
Now, Granta has assembled another well-timed issue devoted to the subcontinent, but this time the subject is Pakistan, partition’s other child (GRANTA 112: Pakistan, $16.99). In the past few years, several Pakistani writers — including Mohammed Hanif, Nadeem Aslam, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Kamila Shamsie, contributors to the Granta project — have been praised for their fiction. “I think everyone has been waiting for Pakistani literature to burst out,” Fatima Bhutto, another Granta contributor (and a niece and granddaughter of Pakistani prime ministers), told me recently. “It’s always been there, and yet it has been untapped.”
But there is no exclamation point on this colorfully designed Granta cover (inspired by Pakistan’s painted buses and trucks), and the collection lacks the whimsy that Americans simplistically identify with India. Granta’s Pakistan is a country of jihadists, anti-Americanism and increasingly misogynistic and brutal forms of Islam. Mohsin Hamid’s terse short story, for example, is a first-person tale of being beheaded; it ends with the narrator describing “the sound of my blood rushing out.”
Such subject matter will hardly surprise American audiences. It’s almost impossible to pick up a newspaper without reading about Pakistan’s war with fundamentalists, its corruption and its willingness (or unwillingness) to help the American military in Afghanistan. “We are getting attention. It’s a Pakistani moment,” Daniyal Mueenuddin, whose story collection garnered raves last year, said to me. But more than news reports, this issue of Granta forces an uncomfortably close confrontation with American foreign policy and the resentment it rightly or wrongly engenders.
The collection also reflects debates over the degree to which Muslims can and want to assimilate to the West, debates that have crossed the Atlantic with the controversy over the planned Islamic center near ground zero. While Indian immigrants are thought to arrive in the United States with vibrant traditions, Americans, post-9/11, worry that transplanted Pakistanis hold dangerous religious and ideological beliefs. It is to the credit of Granta’s contributors that they do not skirt these realities. But how eager will American readers be to really confront them?
Indian writers like Roy and Rushdie can hardly be accused of whitewashing the status of women in India. But the Pakistani contributors to Granta are particularly attuned to the misogyny that has been so central to recent debates over Islam. The longest entry, “Leila in the Wilderness,” a novella by Nadeem Aslam, concerns a Pakistani whose husband physically and mentally abuses her because she is unable to give birth to a male child. Mohammed Hanif’s story “Butt and Bhatti” is also unsparing in its portrayal of gender relations, with a male protagonist who is unable to divorce romance from violence. “The Sins of the Mother,” by Jamil Ahmad, is even more squirm-inducing: his story recounts the attempts of a couple to escape their families, and the gruesome stoning that follows.
If these tales are excruciating, the contributors’ critique of American foreign policy may make some readers uncomfortable in an entirely different way. Many of the writers describe the harm done to Pakistan in the 1980s, when the American-backed dictator Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq financed the Afghan mujahedeen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. The secular ideals of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (evoked in “Portrait of Jinnah,” an essay by the New York Times correspondent Jane Perlez), vanished in Zia’s increasingly Islamicized country. Even the sympathetic characters here are full of rage at America. “A country demoralized and humiliated by its myriad problems could either turn reflective, or it could simply blame everyone else,” the novelist Kamila Shamsie writes in “Pop Idols,” her essay about growing up in Karachi immersed in John Hughes movies and Madonna records. Many characters in these stories have chosen blame.
While Arundhati Roy and others have fiercely criticized American foreign policy, those tensions tend not to be at the center of Indian fiction. But perhaps the starkest difference between this collection and the Indian diaspora literature of recent decades is the depiction of immigrant life. Pakistani immigrants, especially in the years since the Sept. 11 attacks, face challenges completely different from those of their Hindu counterparts from India. (Of course India has a huge Muslim population, but the country is seen as a victim rather than a perpetrator of terrorism.) “Restless,” Aamer Hussein’s account of his formative years in London, and Sarfraz Manzoor’s “White Girls,” a rumination on interracial romance, are funny and poignant. But the most famous Pakistani immigrant in America, and the one whose story is told at length here in a piece of reportage by the American novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lorraine Adams and the Pakistani journalist Ayesha Nasir, is Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber. The essay somewhat glibly presents his radicalism as a result of American foreign policy, but it does highlight some of the harsher realities confronting Pakistani-Americans. Shahzad’s inability to fit in — a theme treated with delicate melancholy in the immigrant tales of writers like Jhumpa Lahiri — is less melancholy than terrifying.
For all the violence and brutality in this collection, the reader does get glimpses of a less visible Pakistan. (In a humorous touch, the photographer-protagonist of Uzma Aslam Khan’s story “Ice, Mating” is rebuked for not taking war photographs, and is told that his more artistic snapshots lack “authenticity.”) The great value of Granta’s compilation is that it shows us this side of the country while never ignoring the crueler, more vicious aspects of Pakistani society. If cross-cultural interaction can play a part in minimizing animosities and encouraging amity, this collection is a good place to start.
I arrived in Pakistan in late September 1969, three weeks after setting out from Chamonix with my climbing friend Claude Jaccoux and his wife in a Land Rover Dormobile. We had driven across Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan, and now I was supposed to take up a visiting professorship at the University of Islamabad. But there were unexpected developments.
The day after we arrived, I called Riazuddin, the head of the theoretical physics department. He had some surprising news to report. There had been riots in Pakistan against Ayub Khan, the second president of Pakistan. A new martial law government had been installed under Yahya Khan. The army was essentially running the country. Since university students had participated in the unrest, Khan had closed the University of Islamabad until November. There would be no classes and no one for me to teach. Riazuddin was very apologetic and suggested that I use the month to visit Pakistan. I did not tell him that seeing the mountains had been the object of the exercise in the first place. I then told the Jaccoux and we began serious planning.
The first thing we did was to study the map of the North-West Frontier Province. We decided that we would travel first to Skardu in the east, which is close to the disputed Kashmir boundary with India, but we would have to fly because the road situation was dicey to non-existent. Someone I met in the hotel had told me that that summer the Pakistani government, having gotten tired of the antics of the tribesmen in these so-called “Tribal Regions”—which included the murder of some tourists— had sent in the army to take control. This meant that visits to these places was supposed to now be safer. Then there was the matter of when the flights left ‘Pindi. These were very difficult mountain flights that required absolutely perfect visibility; to improve the chances, they left at five or six in the morning. When we got to the airport, we joined a small group of frontiersmen and an even smaller group of women dressed in burkas who were to be our fellow passengers.
It was the most beautiful mountain flight I have ever been on. At one point we flew close to Nanga Parbat, the western anchor of the Himalayan chain, which had long been on my list. From the air it looked very tranquil but many alpinists have been killed trying to climb it. Its height is 26,658 feet and the plane was flying at least 8,000 feet below the summit.
Skardu, the principal town of Baltistan, was a desolate place with a thin line of vegetation near the Indus. We were greeted by a representative of the airline who was very surprised to see us. Eventually we were driven by jeep to the government rest house. It was full with official people—just what they were doing in this remote region we would discover later. We slept in the tents we had brought with us.
The next day we hired a jeep and driver to take us north over some hair-raising roads to the town of Khaplu, where we spent the night. There was a river nearby and we hired a boatman to give us a scenic ride on a raft of wooden logs over an inflated goatskin. Before dinner we climbed as high as we could get, hoping to be able to see some of the great peaks of the Karakoram range. But K2, the greatest of these—and the elusive number two on my list—is very difficult to see and involves a serious trek which we had neither the time, permission, nor the equipment to carry out.
That was soon remedied on our spectacular flight to Gilgit, some 150 miles to the northwest of Skardu. The pilot invited us to come up to the cabin to better take in the view. At one point he asked us if we would like to see K2. We said very much and he took the plane up a thousand feet or so. Suddenly on the horizon there appeared an unbelievable black pyramid piercing the sky-the second highest mountain in the world. You could stand one Matterhorn on top of another and still not reach the summit. As we were looking, open-mouthed, a stewardess came back and said one of the passengers was fainting—the plane was not pressurized. The pilot lowered the altitude and the mountain vanished.
Gilgit was a former hill station set up by the British at the turn-of-the-century to counter Russian influence in India. Like Skardu, it was now part of Pakistani Kashmir. Indeed we were close to the disputed boundary, which had been the cause of a major conflict between India and Pakistan three years earlier. There was a substantial outpost of soldiers, and we learned that some of the officials we had seen earlier were military.
We also had a bit of luck. Jaccoux had met a young Pakistani living in Gilgit. He had come from a rich land-owning family in Sind but had broken with them over his liberal views. His wife, a doctor, was expected to practice purdah which would have meant that she could not work in medicine. So they had moved to Gilgit, she as a doctor and he as an entrepreneur who was attempting to create tourism for the area. He told Jaccoux that when we came to Gilgit we should accept his hospitality, which included a jeep and a driver.
We took advantage of this offer and drove north past the mountainous Hunza Valley on what was the nascent highway that would eventually lead from China to central Pakistan. For this reason we could not get permission to actually visit Hunza where, it had long been rumored that the people remained unnaturally youthful. The doctor wife of our host said that this was nonsense: their ruddy complexions had to do with exposure to the elements. The next day we returned to Gilgit for a polo match between the Gilgit Scouts and a team from a nearby town. The local version of the game was very rough. Mallets are swung wildly and horses are never changed. You can pick someone who has grabbed the ball off his horse and ride to his goal to score. I was struck by the fact that at the entrance to the field there were lines by one J.K. Stephen that read
Let other people play at other things
The king of games is still the game of kings
We were reluctant to return to ‘Pindi.
The rest of our travels were by Land Rover. After a short trip to the Naran Valley, where we hoped to do a modest climb—the weather turned bad—we headed for Swat. This was the most touristic place on the North West Frontier and the roads and guest houses were excellent. I was struck here, as I was struck everywhere we went, that all the men were armed. When we went for our little walk in Khaplu we were given an armed escort. I could never figure out the reason for this but one simply got used to it. I recall one gas station in Swat where a luxurious car stopped and a very heavily armed bodyguard got out to pump gas.
Our last and most difficult drive was to Chitral. Dir and Chitral border Swat, but as soon as we hit the boundary of Dir the roads became nightmarish. We had been warned not to drive at night-–the reason was never exactly explained, but we were relieved to see a large presence of the Pakistan army. We decided to spend the night in the Land Rover and to cook our dinner and breakfast in the same. Getting to the top of the Lowari Pass was not too difficult. Getting down was another matter. We counted over forty very tight hairpin turns before we reached the bottom. Most of the year the pass is closed and air transport is sporadic, which means that for a great deal of time Chitral is cut off from the outside world.
The Chitral valley was formed by the Kunar river which veers off into neighboring Afghanistan. Looming over the town of Chitral is Tirich Mir, which at 25,230 feet is the highest mountain in the Hindu Kush range. We went in search of the local ruler Prince Bhirhanudin, to whom we had somehow obtained a letter of introduction. We had been told that he had an extraordinary wine cellar. We found him at the airport trying unsuccessfully to persuade a Pakistan Airlines pilot to ignore the cloud cover and to come to Chitral to pick him up. He was too busy to pay any serious attention to us.
A persistent story about this part of the world is that remnants of Alexander the Great’s army remained and founded a population that is now known as the Kalash Kafirs. They lived, a couple of thousand of them, in three valleys Birit, Rumbur, and Bumboret. The valleys are so well-concealed that even though we knew essentially where they were, we could not see their entrance from across the Kunar river as we drove in. The Kafirs had a bad reputation in Pakistan. They had a totemistic religion that included the drinking of wine which they manufactured from their own grapes. They looked Mediterranean and the women wore remarkable costumes and did special dances.
We drove the Land Rover to the town of Ayun, where the trail to the valleys began, and hired an armed guard to look after it. The walk up the Birit valley was lovely and at the end of it was a rest house where we could spend the night. No sooner had we landed there then we were offered the local wine—highly sweetened. Some of the Kafir ladies came to dance for a small fee. On the way we passed a cemetery in which the Kalash bury their dead in wooden coffins above ground. We returned to Ayun and the next day walked up the trail to the Bumboret valley. It was a beautiful; made more beautiful by the sight of a Kalash girl playing a wooden flute as she tended her flock of animals. This walk took us within miles of the Aghan border, which meant that we had now traversed the entire frontier from Skardu in Pakistani Kashmir to the Aghan border. I was now ready to begin my class in Islamabad.
In the fairly brief time I was there I did not get to know my students at all well so I do not know what became of them. We got a late December break at the university. I decided to use it to take a short trip to Nepal. On the flight to Kathmandu I finally saw Kanchenjunga—the last of my ten mountains.
Of course the Pakistan I saw has changed irrevocably since 1969. Our exploration of the North-West Frontier would now be impossible. It is alive with military activity and the recent floods destroyed much of the infrastructure of Swat. On a personal level, I was completely surprised to learn that Riazuddin, who was one of the most gentle and unworldly of all the theoretical physicists I have known, went on to lead the theoretical group that designed the first Pakistani atomic bomb.
This is the second installment of Jeremy Bernstein’s road trip to see the tallest mountains in the world. In the first installment he recounted his experiences driving from France to Pakistan, via Iran and Afghanistan.
September 24, 2010 3 p.m.
This article was published on The New York Times Blog.
As you’ve probably heard by now, Jonathan Franzen is on the cover of this week’s Time magazine, the first living novelist in a decade to be so honored.
“He’s not the richest or most famous,” runs the teaser copy for Lev Grossman’s profile. “His characters don’t solve mysteries, have magical powers or live in the future. But in his new novel, ‘Freedom,’ Jonathan Franzen shows us the way we live now.”
As it turns out, Franzen himself has had some salty words to say about the role of money and fame in Time’s selection of literary cover boys (and, occasionally, girls). One commenter to the Arts Beat blog noted this passage from Franzen’s 1996 essay “Perchance to Dream,” commonly known as “the Harper’s essay”:
“The only mainstream American household I know well is the one I grew up in, and I can report that my father, who was not a reader, nevertheless had some acquaintance with James Baldwin and John Cheever, because Time magazine put them on its cover and Time, for my father, was the ultimate cultural authority. In the last decade, the magazine whose red border twice enclosed the face of James Joyce has devoted covers to Scott Turow and Stephen King. These are honorable writers; but no one doubts it was the size of their contracts that won them covers. The dollar is now the yardstick of cultural authority, and an organ like Time, which not long ago aspired to shape the national taste, now serves mainly to reflect it.”
(For a wonderfully comprehensive look at the 83 literary figures to appear on the cover of Time, check out Craig Fehrman’s article for The Millions.)
This article was published on The New York Times Blog.