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We sat in the restaurant having breakfast.  This is one of my favourite meals of the day when done in proper Pakistani fashion: delicious parathas, fried circles of dough enriched with ghee, and puris, deep-fried dough puffs as light as air, with spicy omelettes and chickpea curry.  Everything was fresh and hot and we washed it all down with sweet yoghurt lassi and Kashmiri tea.

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Then I looked out of the window and saw three girls watching us through the plate glass.  With their pale skin and piercing eyes they had to be Afghans.  Their dupattas were wrapped tightly around their heads and they stood in silence, unmoving, watching steadily as I helped our daughter finish her drink, holding the straw so she could sip the last bits of lassi from the glass.  They looked similar enough to be sisters, aged perhaps 5, 7 and 9.  The oldest held a scruffy sack over her shoulder.  They would spend the day scavenging through the bazaars of Islamabad, collecting old bottles and rags to sell for a few rupees.  The restaurant’s cook, seeing them staring at us, started to shoo them away.  Perhaps he thought they would put us off our breakfast – and besides, Afghans are not popular in Pakistan.

I beckoned the waiter over and asked him to send breakfast out to the girls.  He nodded, smiling, and called to the cook to start preparing food for them.  A few minutes later a package of food was pressed into their hands and they were shooed away.  I had assumed they would eat it themselves but no, it was safely stowed away to be taken home for the family.  One of them, the oldest, smiled shyly as she skipped away.

Later, when we left, I saw the girls scampering away from our car in the car park.  I looked, surprised, and saw three stars which they had drawn in the dust of the rear windscreen.  Three stars scrawled in the dirt, a tiny fragment of beauty in a world in profound need of restoration.  The girls skipped away laughing, and, rounding a corner, were gone.

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I rolled up to the traffic light and stopped.  The engine rumbled quietly as it idled.  By the side of the road a beggar girl was waiting: a small, thin waif, perhaps four or five years of age – exactly the same age as my own daughter whom I had just dropped off at school.  My daughter was probably playing in the garden by now, or inside learning the alphabet, or singing songs, or painting, while this little soul was standing bereft by the side of the road.  She, and hundreds of girls and boys like her, spends her days tapping on car windows in the hope of receiving a few rupees which they can take back to their parents, or to the avaricious gang leaders who run begging cartels like some ghastly business of destitution and deceit.

She saw my car and came walking over.  I rooted around the floor of the car.  As a rule we try to avoid giving money to these kids since it goes straight into the hands of the gang bosses who organise beggars.  Instead, we try to keep a stock of food items inside the car to hand out – packets of milk, juice boxes, individual packets of biscuits, that kind of thing.  The rule seems to be that money goes to their bosses but anything else can be kept – and it is both heartening and soul-destroying to see how a five rupee pack of biscuits can make the faces of these precious kids light up.  A packet of biscuits or a small juice box is really a drop in the ocean, quenching their thirst or sating their hunger for a couple of minutes, but what else can we do?  We have six jobs between us as it is and simply cannot do anything more for them except hand over a bit of food and a few kind words.

But not this time.  We were out of food: no milk, no biscuits, no juice boxes, nothing.  Not even any small banknotes; anything larger than 50 rupees would be noticed by someone else and it would be taken from her.  I looked at her with sorrow in my eyes.  Then, suddenly, I noticed something on the floor of the car: a cheap plastic toy from a Happy Meal that one of my kids had enjoyed the previous day.  I picked it up and handed it to her.

Her eyes lit up and a smile creased her face in two.  She looked at it with joy and then back at me, before tucking it into a fold of her clothing.  It occurred to me that this tiny, cheap plastic trinket, toyed with for a few seconds and then lazily dismissed by my own kids, was probably the first toy she had ever owned in her life.

Then the light turned green, the car behind me beeped irritably, and the beggar girl receded into my rear view mirror.

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 Daily Life

The taxi rattled over the rutted road.  It lurched and lunged, bouncing from side to side, creaking as if it were on the point of falling apart completely.  It was a beautiful autumn day in Islamabad with a bright sun and a mild chill in the air.  In the nicer parts of the city trees were starting to change colour, their leaves fading to red and yellow, but this was not a nice part of the city.  We were driving down a road which passes one of the largest slums in Islamabad, a place of mud huts and ramshackle roofs and filth-rimmed ditches and unemployment and hopelessness.  As we rattled down the road I looked out at the slum with despair in my heart

Scenes caught my eye as they flicked past, tiny snapshots of life lived at the fringe of society.  An elderly man was hauling a cow through the streets, tugging and shouting as the obstinate animal dug in its heels.  A younger man, perhaps my own age, was pushing a wooden trolley piled high with bananas.  Two boys were using sticks to roll bicycle tyres along the side of the road.  Tiny girls, surely not more than three or four years old, carried plastic bags stuffed with something indistinguishable, stumbling along as their tiny sandals flipped and flopped in the dust.  Another girl, maybe six or seven, sat by the side of the road, twirling her hair absent-mindedly as the cars clattered past.  The gesture reminded me of my own daughter – but I am wealthy, and so my daughter goes to school, and eats three meals a day, and sleeps in a house, and has the unimaginable luxury of being able to choose what she wants to wear on a particular day, and the inequality of this situation makes me feel like weeping.

The taxi driver saw me staring at the slum and tried to explain.  This was government land, so the people here are squatting illegally.  At some point the government will come through and clear them out, and they know this, and so they do not bother building proper houses.  They will be forced to leave, and they will find somewhere else to live, and will rebuild their pathetic dwellings of sticks and mouldy canvas, and when it rains they will get sick, and many of their children will die young, and they accept all of this with resignation.

“Their life is so difficult” said the driver.  “There is no purpose to their existence.  They may as well not have been born”.  He spoke not with malice but with sympathy.

The phrase stuck in my mind.  As a Christian I firmly believe that life has a purpose, that we were created with love and for a reason, and that every human being is precious and individual and worth something.  And yet here in this slum, and in countless millions of other slums that dot the developing world like cancer cells, life literally has no purpose.  It is a matter of scratching together enough food for the day and hoping to do the same tomorrow.  They cannot afford school fees so their children will never study and learn and so will remain poor, and thus poverty is propagated and institutionalised and the rich gift of existence is reduced to penury and wretchedness.

As we drove away the slum receded into the rear-view mirror. Soon it was gone from sight – and yet it lingers in my mind, dark and hopeless, and I do not know what to do to help.

Our son woke us at 4am.  He was obviously distressed, coughing and gasping, clutching at his throat.  Despite this he was quite calm as he informed us, in a matter-of-fact manner, that he had a coin stuck in his throat.

Bad dream?  No.  He was insistent, and clearly awake.  He had thought that the cool metal would soothe the sore throat from which he had been suffering for a couple of days.  I bundled him into the car and took off for the hospital.

Contrary to what you might expect, excellent medical care is widely available in Pakistan.  Many hospitals here offer superb services and are staffed by Western-trained professionals.  We were attended to quickly and courteously.  Once they had ascertained that the coin was lodged in the oesophagus and not the trachea – in other words, that my son was not about to suffocate to death – we were sent to the front desk to register.

I walked up to the desk and signed the requisite forms.  The man behind the desk glanced up at me with the kind of bleary-eyed brusqueness that one tends to get from hospital clerks who are forced to work at 4am.

“50,000 rupees” he snapped, before glancing back at his computer.  In Pakistan you pay for medical treatment before you receive it.

I had come prepared.  With one swipe of my credit card the bill was paid.  I signed the receipt and was about to walk off when I heard the person behind me exclaim, in panic:

“50,000 rupees?  I don’t have that kind of money!”.

It was an middle-aged man, accompanied by his wife and their child, a girl with vomit all down the front of her sweater.  The clerk yawned and pointed to a sign above his desk which read “Advance Payment Required Before Treatment Offered”.  He shrugged.

The man sighed, turned round, and headed for the exit.  He walked out into the night, followed by his wife and daughter.  I turned back, my receipt safely in my hand, and walked back to my son.

CNG-STATION-queue

The taxi creaked as it rattled over the rutted road.  The driver looked sideways at me and smiled appreciately.

“You look good in that shalwar kameez.  You’re practically Pakistani!”.

“ I like Pakistan” I replied.  “It is a wonderful country in many ways”.

He sighed.

“Everything here is corrupt.  This country has everything: coal, gas, oil, fruit, wheat, and yet people are hungry and poor.  This country will never get better”.

We drove past a CNG filling station.  Compressed Natural Gas is the fuel of choice for Pakistani taxi drivers simply because it is cheap, yet because of shortages it is only available for two days a week.

“Look at that line of cars!” he said as we drove past a queue of battered taxis several hundred metres long.  “They’ll be waiting for five, maybe six hours just to get enough gas for the day’s work.  Most of them probably got up at 4am to start queueing.  They are poor, and their children will be poor, and their children’s children will be poor, and nothing will change”.

I sat in silence.  The taxi swerved around a pothole, then swerved back again to avoid another.  The road was corrugated and cracked like the cover of an antique book.

“And look at the roads!  Nobody fixes them, and this is not some tiny village, this is one of the biggest cities in Pakistan.  Even village roads in your country are probably better than these”.

I didn’t say anything.  He was right; they are.  His voice was not angry or bitter.  It was worse than that: it was numb, as though despondency had anaesthetised his ability to care.

Struggling to make him think more positively, I asked what he thought should be done to improve things in Pakistan.  He sat quietly for what felt like an age, then said:

“I don’t know”.

I bumped into an old acquaintance the other day.  He’s a guy from the tribal areas of Pakistan who drives a taxi for a living.  Like most Pakistani taxis, his is old, clunky, slow, and seemingly held together by little more than duct tape and force of habit.  Like most Pakistani taxi drivers, he overcomes these shortcomings with a solid sense of humour, a total disregard for safety, and a lot of prayer.  Every time he starts the engine, turns a corner or changes a gear he says the simple prayer “Bismillah” (“in the name of God”).  I’m not quite sure if this habit is charming or worrying.

Anyway, I asked him how he was, how his family was, and how he spent Eid.  For once his customarily cheerful face fell.  He shrugged his shoulders.

“I’m a poor man.  I couldn’t afford to sacrifice an animal.  What kind of Eid is there for someone like me?”.