Zerky in Rawalpindi

December 13, 1967
Rawalpindi, West Pakistan

Dear Zerky,

We know we must be in Pakistan because of all the guns. Guns are everywhere. They are the defining image of Pakistan. Upon our arrival to Pakistan, we were greeted at the customs station by an official Pakistan Department of Tourism travel poster with a picture of a Pakistani soldier with an AK 47 slung across his chest. “Welcome to Pakistan,” it said.

Approaching Pakistan from the West, the Khyber Pass itself is hard to discern due to its low vertical profile against the sky. On its eastern slope, however, a notch in the hills widens out progressively as it falls off into an ever-deepening canyon, accelerating downwards all the way to the city of Peshawar. Beyond, the oncoming Indian Plain gradually absorbs the ever-widening valley. What is generally referred to as the Khyber Pass is barely a pass at all but rather an inverted funnel down which violence has poured over the centuries. “The Khyber” is the general area where the barren highlands of Western Asia collide with the fertile lowlands of the Indian subcontinent. At the top of the pass, and in places along its eastern canyon, are ancient fortresses testifying to the many armies of invaders that have flooded down the Khyber, strewing death and destruction in their wake.

In the third century BC, down came the Aryans on their way to remaking the racial complexion of India. Alexander the Great’s footsore legions also tramped down it in 327 BC on their own empire-building march to redraw the maps of Europe and Asia. Between 1000 and 1024 AD, Mahamud of Ghazni’s army came down through the pass ten times, carrying the word of Mohammed to the Buddhist and Hindu infidels on the hot plains below. In 1220 AD, Genghis Khan sent his Golden Horde down the Khyber in an orgy of slaughter and destruction that is perhaps the biggest bloodbath in history. In 1398 came Tamerlane, who also left India drenched in blood. Bahar Khan then followed in 1518, conquering India and founding the Mogul Dynasty that ruled India until the coming of the British. Then in 1756, the Afghans themselves poured down the Khyber on their way to conquering Kashmir and converting it to Islam. And then finally, throughout the nineteenth century when the Khyber served as the British Empire’s northwest frontier, the bloodletting continued. Stories of fierce, hard-riding Pathans, fanatically committed to the destruction of the British, sniping, ambushing and laying siege to their fortifications; these are the images of the Khyber that were immortalized by Rudyard Kipling. Thus it was very much to our surprise that we discovered that the excitement of the Khyber Pass exists more in the dimension of time than in the dimension of space. Books. Without them, the pass’s puny physical dimensions would have been a great disappointment. It was not the power of the pass that drew us halfway around the world but rather the power of the Khyber Pass’s history.

We very much wanted to get a picture of you, Zerky, standing there bravely atop the Khyber Pass, but what with all the soldiers and concrete tank barriers, and with our road permit forbidding us from stopping beside the road, we decided that taking photographs of you in such a sensitive area would be a mistake. So we did not stop up at the top, not even to buy one of the famous Khyber rifles that are widely displayed and for sale along the road. The Pathans hawk them to nearly everyone who drives by. More than a century ago they were hand-making them in nearby hidden factories under the very noses of their British occupiers. Now they are making them for tourists, adventurers, mercenaries, revolutionaries and anyone else who can come up with the money.

Our descent through the northern part of West Pakistan marks the beginning of a new world. Crossing the Indus River and all the way down to the Pakistani capital of Rawalpindi, there is a big drop in elevation and a corresponding change in environment. The climate is becoming warmer, the food hotter, the smell of curry is in the air. Already we sense the lush semitropical vegetation of India. For months now, even though we are now further south than the southernmost tip of Europe, the elevation and season have conspired to rob us of the warmth we feel entitled to by virtue of our latitude.

Before driving into Rawalpindi yesterday, while we were passing through a small village we saw a sign advertising tires for sale. The tire shop had a thatched roof and hundreds of worn out old tires piled up around the shop. If they had managed to take all those old tires off cars and to replace them with new ones, I figured they must really know how to do a good job. So we stopped, and within seconds a crowd began gathering.

I dragged our flat tire down off the rack on top of the bus and rolled it over to the shack where they apparently did business. “Can you fix? I inquired in my best pigeon English. “Is tubeless, T-U-B-L-E-S-S,” my finger tracing the English letters on the side of the tire casing. “No tube!” I added emphatically. Tubeless tires are uncommon in this part of the world. As the man began examining our tire, carefully rotating it slowly through his fingers, the crowd started multiplying at an alarming rate. What to us was a predicament, to them seemed to be turning into a major social event for an ever-growing audience, all of whom were men, laughing and chatting amongst themselves. Soon the suggestions began flowing in, in Urdu. By then I had not heard a single word of English in response to my question, “can you fix?” So I tried again. This time the guy smiled back at me. I suppose a smile is better than a shrug, but the tire examination still continued. When the man whom I believed to have been the owner finally finished looking at my tire, he passed it on to one of the older men in the crowd who examined it further and in turn passed it on to the guy next to him who examined it further and further and further. In an atmosphere of somber intent laced with a large jolt of joviality, my deflated tire slowly made the rounds as each of the men examined it thoroughly in turn and then discussed it thoroughly in turn with the man next to him before passing it on to the man next to him. “If they can’t fix it, then why the hell don’t they just say so, so we can get the hell out of here,” I said to myself very quietly. A rapt, unintelligible discussion in Urdu continued to engage the crowd, which seemed more and more to be enjoying all the commotion. Nevertheless, I was reluctant to grab my tire and run, because I did not want to be a spoilsport and pick up my ball and go home. Our reading about India stresses that patience is the key to traveling in this part of the world.

Eventually, after everyone in the crowd had had his opportunity to examine our flat tire, it finally found its way back to the man I had originally shown it to. Then there was some more spirited discussion amongst all the men surrounding him. Although there still seemed to be a difference of opinion, gradually a consensus seemed to be emerging. In the end, one of the men finally returned my tire to me and pronounced the well-considered judgment of the crowd: “No fix. Is tubeless!” There was triumph in his voice. Greatly enlightened as to this strange new land we are getting into, I was glad to be on my way again. Throwing my still flat tire back into the back of the bus, I waved goodbye to the happy crowd. Somehow, I was happy too.

December 13, 1967, Rawalpindi, West Pakistan: Dear Zerky, we have a beautiful campsite tonight outside a civil rest house beyond Rawalpindi. The toilet is a clean wooden throne with a removable chamber pot. It is great to see all the greenery and women’s faces and their beautiful saris again. Along the road today, we saw many monuments to the Pakistani army’s various battalions and brigades.

—Excerpted from Letters to Zerky


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