We were stuck in traffic in Abbottabad. We had turned off the main road onto a side street barely wide enough for two cars to pass. A van was parked on the left hand side and when we pulled out to pass it, another van headed straight for us. He screeched to a halt in front of us. As I prepared to back up, another van pulled up behind us, and another behind him. The van in front of us attempted to back up, but two more vans pulled up behind him. We gazed at each other through our respective windscreens. The engine idled away. In the car seat behind me our infant son started to whimper.
It had been a bad week. The attack in Lahore had shocked us deeply, dragging us into a familiar mood of anger, sorrow, and desperation. The same evening there was a riot in Islamabad. Schools were shut, the buses were cancelled, and the city ground to a halt. We needed a holiday, so we loaded up the car and drove north through the green hills of Hazara District. And now, a few metres after turning off the Karakoram Highway, we were stuck.
The crucial thing, I knew, was not to lose my temper. But this is easier said than done when there are four small children in your car who have already driven for four hours, and when your nerves are frayed to breaking point from the stress of driving up one of the most stressful stretches of road in the country. Pedestrians were filtering through the traffic jam, glaring at us as they squeezed past our car as though we were personally responsible.
There is something about being glared at by a succession of bearded Pakistani men which makes one reconsider one’s life options. What a peculiar circumstance to find oneself in! Stuck in traffic in a town four thousand miles away from my own country, eight thousand miles from my wife’s own country, in the town famous for being the final dwelling place of Osama bin Laden. The men passing our car looked fierce, warlike, with turbans, straggly beards, and default facial expressions of profound grumpiness, as though I had wronged them in a past life.
Surrounded by seemingly hostile people I was struck with a profound sense of not wanting to be there. Of not wanting to be in Pakistan at all, really. A sincere desire to be somewhere, anywhere, else, preferably somewhere with a beach and a succession of cold drinks with little umbrellas in. I couldn’t take it any more. The heat, the traffic, the unrelenting stream of bombs and protests and overwhelming public anger, the caustic and abrasive daily grind of Pakistani life.
Suddenly the driver of the van in front of us clambered out of his vehicle and came to my window. He looked angry. The crowd paused to see what would happen. I took a deep breath, prayed briefly, and opened the window.
He thrust his hand into our car and shook mine warmly.
“I am most sorry for inconvenience” he said, smiling gently. “Perhaps if you move car back just a little bit, we will be able to make progress”.
He moved to the back of our car and encouraged the vans behind us to shuffle backwards. One by one they did, opening up space for us to reverse into. Once his path was clear he got back into his van and drove off. As he passed our car he stopped, held his hand out to shake mine, and thanked me warmly.
“Thank you so much, sir” he said with a simple smile. “Welcome to Pakistan”.