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I stopped the car by the side of the road.  There was no fruit at the bazaar; the festival of Eid means that everything shuts down and there are as few supplies in the shops as there would be on Christmas Day in England.  The fruit-seller at the end of our street somehow had his cart piled with apples, peaches, bananas, and the last of the summer mangoes.

He greeted me warmly.  We chatted about prices for a while and then he started to put fruit into the set of scales on one end of his cart: first crisp red apples, then peaches, then mangoes which he said would be the last this year; they seem to disappear with the summer heat.  A kilo of each, plus a dozen bananas, came to about £4.

My daughter, five years old, climbed out of the car and came to stand by my side.  She watched the fruit-seller closely, then whispered in my ear:

“Why is his arm broken?”.

I hadn’t noticed, but his left arm ended below the elbow.  I asked him what had happened.  He told me how he was born in Kashmir near the Line of Control.  One day, as a child, he found a round, metallic object in a field near his house.  He picked it up, and it – a landmine, perhaps, or a bomb dropped from the air – exploded, taking off his left hand.  He told all of these things in the painfully straightforward, unemotional manner in which Pakistanis seem to relate extraordinarily tragic and painful things.

I translated for my daughter and she looked at him, wide-eyed.  He smiled and tickled her on the cheek.

“Praise God, you have wonderful children” he said, smiling.

We drove home in silence.  We stopped outside our house and I turned off the engine.  My son’s voice broke the silence.

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a war-stopper” he said.

10

It’s summer in Pakistan.  This is a time of the year that most people dread, for the simple and entirely predictable reason that It’s Very Hot.  The temperatures in our city don’t go much above 42 Celsius but further south it’s more like 45, and sometimes over 50 Celsius if you live in Multan or Sibi.  That is hot, especially for someone like me from England, where anything over 20 Celsius is considered hot and anything over 30 is usually sufficient to melt roads, stop trains, and cause everyone to moan.

Summer has one advantage, though: fruit.

You just can’t believe how good Pakistani fruit is.  Really, you can’t.  Comparing Pakistani fruit to the kind of fruit you buy in a Western supermarket is like comparing Monet’s paintings to the crayon scrawls of my one year old daughter.  My personal favourite are the peaches – but cherries could also be considered, and mangoes, and apricots, and I’d better stop here lest this blog turn into a shopping list.

Watermelons are good too.  People here seem to go crazy for them.  Fruit-sellers in the bazaar are usually a restrained bunch, but once the watermelons arrive they walk around shouting “Watermelons!  Fresh from the field!” and even grab your arm to convince you to buy one, as one did to me this Tuesday.

How they make any money from them is a mystery to me.  Currently they’re selling for 25 rupees a kilo, which means that a decent-sized melon of 3kg can be had for 50p.  Entire trucks filled with nothing but watermelons, dark-green globules of deliciousness, cross Pakistan from top to bottom, loaded down with a commodity with a retail price of 15p a kilo.

To put that in perspective, a litre of milk (roughly 1kg) sells for 115 rupees.  A kilo of flour costs 40 rupees.  A litre of oil is probably 80 rupees.  A kilo of lentils costs 120 rupees.  Watermelons are worth less than half of the cheapest comestible I can think of.  And that final selling price of 25 rupees a kilo is the final stage of the supply line: in order to get the watermelon from the field to the bazaar involves buying seeds, watering the plants, paying someone to harvest them, paying someone else to load them onto a truck, paying the truck driver, paying for fuel for the truck, and paying someone else to unload them – and then the salesman in the bazaar will want his cut as well to make it worth his while.

So what’s my point?  Simply this: poverty is cruel.  If any of the people in the supply line were earning anything close to a living wage, enabling them to educate their kids and buy medicine and live in a decent home and eat well and save for the future, the price of watermelons – the price of everything – would be higher.  Much higher.  But since so many people in Pakistan live perilously close to the poverty line, desperate for any kind of work that will keep the wolf from the door, they can’t afford to ask for better wages.  If they did, someone else, equally desperate, would take their job.

It’s a sad realisation that poverty actually benefits me personally.

Pakistan has some of the most fertile farmland on earth.  A combination of frequent rainfall, warm temperatures, and a varied topography means that huge amounts of crops grow here.  Many areas get two crops of wheat a year, while fruit and vegetables of just about every description are able to flourish somewhere or other in this varied land.

,As a small illustration of the fertility of this country’s land I took a brief tour of just one garden, belonging to friends of ours.  In this small garden alone there are the following fruit trees:

Lemon

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Orange

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Guava

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Papaya

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And that’s without mentioning the peaches of the Swat Valley, the grapes of Baluchistan, the lush watermelons that grow in the Punjab so plentifully that they are practically given away during the summer months, the mangoes of northern Sindh, the cherries of Gilgit, the walnuts of Hunza, the apples, the grapefruit…