I was driving through Islamabad recently when a traffic policeman pulled me over.  As a moderately  conscientious motorist who has never received a ticket or fine nor been in any kind of significant accident my brushes with traffic policemen are infrequent.  In fact in Pakistan the only reason I ever have to speak with one is either because they are bored and want someone to chat to, or, as happened to me recently, they want to borrow a pencil.

I didn’t have one.  He seemed confused.

“If you don’t have a pencil, how do you write?” he asked.

I attempted to respond that although I liked writing I tended to do so with a computer, and, either way, that I tended not to do any kind of writing while driving, but he laughed and waved me on.

Anyway, on this particular day the policeman seemed moderately irate.  This is odd, because in my experience Pakistani traffic policemen are courtesy itself.  I greeted him and asked him what the matter was.

“You were talking on your phone” he said.  This was undeniable.  A friend had called about a meeting later in the day and I had answered.  Though illegal in the West I had no idea that such a thing was also illegal in Pakistan.

I told him that I was terribly sorry and that I had no idea such a law existed.  He flipped to the appropriate page in his book of fines and showed me the small print.  There it was – “talking on mobile, 300 rupee fine”.  Bang to rights.  Caught red handed.  Busted.

“I’m so sorry, sir” I replied.  “You’re quite right.  I ask for your forgiveness”.

He seemed dumbstruck.  He scratched his head in confusion.

“You know I have to give you a ticket, right?” he said.

“Of course, you are quite right.  It is your job.  I am sorry to have caused you such bother”.

He didn’t know what to do.  People in Pakistan generally argue in this kind of situation.  Minor infractions lead to major disagreements, with lots of gesticulating, shouting, and usually bystanders getting involved for no apparent reason other than their love of a good show.  Nobody ever apologises, and certainly nobody ever asks for forgiveness.

Nobody.  Ever.

“Ok, next time” he said, with a confused face and perhaps the hint of a smile.  “Don’t do it again”.


Introducing the all-new dieting craze that is taking Pakistan by storm, we are proud to present the Dodgy Kebab Weight-Loss Diet!

This revolutionary new concept in weight loss, developed as a partnership between companies in India, Pakistan, and in specialised dieting centres known as Fast-Food Outlets Of Dubious Hygiene (FFOODH) around the world, the Dodgy Kebab Weight Loss Diet enables you to lose weight rapidly, dramatically, and with only a minimum of violent illness!  This phenomenon is taking South Asia by storm, enabling many people, mostly foreigners with puny immune systems, to achieve that fashionable thin-as-a-rake look!

Here’s how it works:

1. First, go to a vendor of dodgy kebabs.  In Pakistan these can be found in any kind of settlement and come in a variety of types.  Minced beef will either be shaped onto a skewer or slapped flat, before being dunked in Cooking Oil Of Dubious Cleanliness, cooked, and served to you on bread with a knowing wink from the kebab salesman.

2. Next, eat the kebab.  This will be pleasant, since they are always tasty.

3. Now comes the difficult part: waiting.  It can be frustrating to wait, knowing that a sylph-like figure is just around the corner, but have patience!  The moment will come.  And when it does, your body will tell you.

4. Finally, rush to the toilet frantically, clutching at your backside, and let nature take its course.

You may need to repeat steps three and four.  You may need to repeat them many, many times.  But don’t worry; every time you repeat the steps you will get a little bit thinner!  After only a few days your body will be slim and ready to fit into any kind of clothing you can think of.

But don’t just take it from us, read some testimonies from satisfied customers of the Dodgy Kebab Weight-Loss Diet!

 “I couldn’t believe how easy it was to lose four kilos of body weight!  Admittedly I couldn’t move more than five metres away from a toilet for a whole week, but that’s a small price to pay” – Danish, Karachi.

“Forget about the Atkins Diet, regular exercise, or pills – just eat a dodgy kebab and you’ll lose pounds and pounds in a single day!  Do you have any toilet paper I could borrow?” – Irfan, Abbottabad.

 “I really would recommend the Dodgy Kebab Weight-Loss Diet.  It really helped me to – oh dear, excuse me, I have to dash to the bathroom…” – Mohammed, Rawalpindi.


Here’s a confession: I have been to Lahore a total of five times and only recently, on my fifth trip there, did I get round to visiting the Badshahi Mosque.  This is strange, seeing as it is one of the premier historical attractions of Pakistan and I am keenly interested in history.

Never mind, though – despite my tardiness I eventually got around to visiting it, and I wasn’t disappointed.  Its size alone makes it stand out – it is vast, with a courtyard large enough to accommodate some 95,000 worshippers.  It was the largest mosque in the world for over 300 years, until it was overtaken by the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad.

I don’t want to add much more – if you want to learn about it, head over to Wikipedia in the first instance – but I can confirm that it is large, beautiful, a remarkable piece of Moghul engineering, and that we were welcomed warmly when we visited.  Hopefully the above photo will speak for itself…

We were talking to a friend the other week who works down in the Punjab.  Among other things, he casually mentioned that there was going to be a Literary Festival in Lahore in a couple of weeks.

 “Oh” he added.  “And William Dalrymple is going to be there”.

 That was it, we were going.  For my wife and me, people who are interested in Asia, Christianity, travelling and history, hearing William Dalrymple speak is about as exciting as things get.  His book From the Holy Mountain is just about my favourite book ever, and his other ones are excellent too – In Xanadu, City of Djinns, and his history book The Last Moghul is one of the best I’ve ever read.  And as if that wasn’t enough, excellent Pakistani authors were going to be there too – Mohammed Hanif, Mohsin Hamid, Bapsi Sidhwa, for example.

 If you haven’t heard of those three authors, you need to.  Get thee to Amazon, gentle reader, and start buying!

 Well, it was excellent.  Well organised, with interesting topics, and the turnout was incredible – hundreds and hundreds of enthusiastic young bibliophiles (that’s Latin for “book nerds”) packing the auditorium and applauding their literary heroes enthusiastically.  Some sessions were so popular that they had to shut the doors to stop people crowding in.


And that, I think, is the abiding memory I’ll take from it.  Living in Pakistan we see one side of life very frequently – the poor, dusty, messy side, with beggars at traffic intersections and trash in the streets.  What we don’t often get a chance to see is what we saw at the Lahore Literary Festival – the huge number of Pakistanis who are intelligent, well-informed, passionate about their country and eager to make it better.  They were full of questions, asking Mohammed Hanif about the role of satire in modern Pakistani literature, applauding Ahmed Rashid when he criticised the Pakistani government, listening attentively to recitals of Urdu and Punjabi poetry.  What a country could be built by people like these!

 The silent majority of Pakistanis are informed, educated, and take an interest in world affairs.  This was the first time that I’ve seen them make their voice heard.  Long may it continue.

 Oh, and William Dalrymple wasn’t bad, either.

 A wise man once said that the whole point of travel is not to set foot on foreign land, it is to at last set foot on one’s own country as if it were foreign land.  After a couple of years of living in Pakistan, together with a couple of trips back to my home country, that feels about right.

 We enjoy being in Pakistan, but we look forward to going back to the UK for a break.  We think that it will be familiar, comprehensible, somehow easier.  We look forward to coffee shops and country pubs and not being stared at when we go outside.  And those things are nice.  But what I didn’t expect is that the UK doesn’t really feel like home any more.  Wandering around my home town it felt odd that people didn’t greet each other politely like they do in Pakistan.  They seemed too busy rushing from place to place, towing their children behind them like suitcases.  The weather felt odd, the roads felt odd, people seemed to behave oddly.  Nobody honked their horns, nobody argued, nobody waved at us across the street and shouted “salaam aleikum!”.

 Then we came back to Pakistan, and it doesn’t really feel like home either.  It’s dusty and noisy and everyone looks different from us and, despite our best efforts, our Urdu is still not good enough to make ourselves understood perfectly.  People here are friendly and polite and welcoming, but it’s still foreign.

 Everywhere’s foreign now.  If that’s the point of travelling, then we’ve achieved it.  Great.  But we still feel like aliens.  Maybe that’s a good thing for a Christian.  After all, everywhere on earth is a temporary residence for a Christian.  Perhaps we won’t ever feel truly at home until we get there.

“Ok, now that we’ve covered all of the basics of driving in Pakistan, here’s the positive news.  If you’ve ever driven in a Western country you will find it very liberating to drive here, because you can do anything you like and nobody will complain.

“What’s that?  You’re from the UK?  Good country, good country.  My cousin lives in Bradford, do you know him?  No?  How about my uncle’s brother’s wife’s son in Glasgow?  Not him either?  Wow, you don’t know anyone.

“Well, compared to the UK driving here is a lot of fun.  No speed cameras, no numberplate recognition cameras, nobody giving you a ticket if you decide to do a U-turn in a busy main road and going back the way you came.  Honestly, as long as you do manoeuvres slowly and don’t smash into anyone you can get away with just about anything.

“Sometimes you come across speed cameras, on the motorways for example.  But when you think that a speeding ticket costs the equivalent of £3 it’s not too big a deal.  Just view it as a toll and continue driving as fast as you like.  That’s what most people here do.  Wonderfully liberating, isn’t it?  The other good thing is that car repairs are incredibly cheap; you can replace a head gasket for £12 and brake pads for £20.  No more huge repair bills like you get in the UK.

“Ok, that concludes our driving course.  Now, could you possibly give me a lift back home?  Just watch out for that army truck reversing down the middle of the road at high speed, and try not to hit that donkey that’s by the…oh.  Oh dear.  Oh dear me, that really is very messy.  Oh dear, here comes the owner, and he doesn’t seem very happy.

“Ok, time for a practical lesson in evasive driving.  Let’s be off, shall we?

“Great, well done for parking correctly.  You managed to leave a whole three feet between your car and the kerb which is ideal.  As your parallel parking skills are already perfect I think we should move on to the rules of driving in Pakistan.

“There aren’t any.

“Ok, next topic.  Let’s talk about…what’s that?  You don’t believe that there aren’t any rules?  Of course it may seem strange to hand driving licences and car keys to millions of people, enabling them to hurtle around the place in heavy metal boxes at implausible velocities without any kind of oversight or regulation, but just imagine how much work it would be to operate speed cameras, to enforce lane discipline and make seat belts mandatory and check that people replaced their car tyres when they were worn down!  Too much work, that’s how much.  Much easier to leave people to their own devices.

“Anyway, let’s do a quick quiz.  Which of these is not a common hazard on Pakistani roads?  Dogs, donkeys, flocks of goats, camels, potholes big enough to contain a couple of watermelons, police roadblocks, army roadblocks, or lorries having a wheel changed right in the middle of a busy main road?  Any ideas?  No?  Well, trick question!  They’re all a hazard.  Might want to bear that in mind the next time you drive home in the middle of the night.  Oh, and there aren’t any street lights either, before you ask.

“Right, let’s summarise what we’ve learned.  Firstly, there are no rules.  Secondly, try not to drive into a camel.  Ok, having completed our course in Pakistani driving theory, let’s move on.  Why don’t you pull out and drive away?  Just try not to drive into that flock of goats.  Getting goat hair out of the radiator is a nightmare, believe me.

Salaam aleikum, and welcome to my driving school, Sohail’s School of Improbable Motoring.  Ok, here are the keys.  Feel free to drive off whenever you like.

“Very good, I note that you pulled away from the kerb and drove off without checking in your mirrors.  See, in Pakistan, it’s the responsibility of the person behind you to stop, so if you pull out rashly and they smash into you, it’s their fault.  Checking in the mirrors before driving off is a waste of time, so well done there.  Right, if you could just swerve dangerously around that pothole, we’ll be on our way.

“Notice anything?  No?  Not even that motorcyclist behind us, waving furiously and making rude hand gestures?  You almost hit him when you swerved, but it doesn’t matter, a motorbike’s smaller than a car so it’s his problem.


“Ok, now that we’ve got to the end of the road I can’t help but notice that your driving is flawed.  Your clutch control, steering, gear changes and speed are all perfect, but you haven’t beeped your horn once.  Not once!  Do you know how dangerous that is?  Without beeping your horn how will people be able to see you?  They’ll never look, so it’s up to you to make yourself visible by leaning on the horn.  Also you may need to say hello to friends, or to tell a rickshaw to move over, or to tell someone that their boot just popped open and all of their luggage is strewn across the road.  Believe me, your horn is the single most important part of your car.

“Splendid, you found it.  No, you need to lean on it more.  No, more.  There, that’s it.  If a crow in a tree six hundred metres away flies away in alarm you’re getting the hang of it.  Oops, swerve around that camel, won’t you?  Oh dear, you clipped its leg and broke one of your wing mirrors.  Doesn’t matter, nobody uses them anyway.

“Right, if you could just park here we’ll move on to your second driving lesson.  Might need to beep the horn a bit to get that donkey to get out of the way.

Nobody likes air travel.  Unless you can afford to fly in business or first class, of course, but since the price of a business-class ticket is more or less the same as our family’s annual food budget, that’s not really within our reach.  Flying economy class seems to be universally scorned: the seats are cramped, the food is bad, you generally spend eight hours with the kid in the row behind kicking your seat and screaming when the change in pressure makes his ears hurt.

Not much fun, you might think.

But when I stop to think about it, even cattle-class air travel is pretty remarkable.  Think about it: you pay £500 or so to fly from London to Toronto, a journey of eight hours.  During those eight hours you sit in a cushioned seat, are brought a choice of meals which are served in front of you, are able to choose from an entire trolleyful of beverages, and are entertained with pretty much any film, TV programme, or music that you care to play, through your own personal headphones.  And as if that wasn’t enough you even have a button which you can press to have someone dash over and respond to your every whim.  And as if THAT wasn’t enough, at the end of the trip you emerge from the plane to discover that you have arrived on the other side of the world, in the beautiful and pleasant country known as Canada.

I know I may be swimming against the tide here – I’ve had a few unpleasant flights myself, including one from Cyprus to London which featured a fist-fight in the check-in queue and one from Toronto to London during which my beloved son screamed for six hours straight – but can you think of any other form of transport which takes you across the world for what is still a relatively modest cost and waits on you hand and foot all the way?

Air travel still seems pretty miraculous to me.  Then again I have two children, so the thought of spending eight hours watching films and drinking ginger ale seems like paradise at the moment…