The news said it was the worst bombing in recent years, twenty-two dead and over a hundred wounded. Bodies were flying everywhere, it said, bodies were flying at the height of twenty to twenty-five feet.
That morning we waited for our guests in a reception hall at the Capital’s most plush and fortified hotel, half-an-hour from the open-air market that was the site of the blast. Eighty-five had registered and confirmed, but seventy-plus were no-shows. The plush room was surreally empty, the exquisite buffet nearly untouched. During the seminar most of the few in attendance unstealthily sneaked out, so by midday I was presenting to only three, each one seated at their own table laid out for ten.
The event’s organizers were on and off phones and hurrying in and out all morning, yet they couldn’t explain the apparent failure. More likely, they chose to protect the information from the foreigner. Secrecy feigns control and order.
The quietude of our room stood in stark contrast to the rackety lobby, which functioned more as a luxury mall than a hotel’s reception. It also served as a hotspot for photographing wedding parties and a meeting point for VIPs allowed entry to the otherwise fortress. There were various ranks of armed security positioned about, which gave the sense that your sole presence was at all times being observed and tracked.
Once a cluster of secret police crossed the promenade. They were towering, muscular men wearing dark fatigues and military boots and all armed with AK-47s. Their sheer, navy t-shirts had the words No Fear in emboldened white lettering on the backs.
It wasn’t until the next afternoon after landing in Urumqi, China when I learned the news from a Dubai colleague. After our call, I phoned my other foreign colleague still in Islamabad. The bombing had been kept surprising and unneedfully hushed.
He overtly downplayed the tragedy. It was not something to be discussed—or at least not over an open line—but in reality never at all. “These sorts of things happen all the time and you never hear about them. Nobody hears about them.”
A bomb kills twenty-two and that is that.
Of the hundreds of people I met in Pakistan, most were eager to ask whether I felt safe there as an American. This was at first off-putting, but it soon became an expected icebreaker, along with other, more innocuous, questions like whether I ate spicy food or liked their country. To the safety gambit, I half-jokingly replied: “I felt much safer before everyone kept asking.” This proved the perfect reprieve to cease further small talk.
My safety was discussed so often, however, that sometimes I needed to engage in earnest on the topic. All I knew were the dribs and drabs I had half-digested from the Western media. But I didn’t feel there was one thing I could point a finger at and say that that was the issue. Admittedly, I might be the most naïve American to have ever been granted a Pakistani visa.
Interestingly, though, no one could, or at least would, relay any solid information. When I once asked the only American working at the international school in Lahore as to the source of all the perceived danger, she curtly retorted, “Are you kidding me?” So much for that. And so, my uncertainty—perpetuated by the constant queries into my well-being—lead my overly worked imagination to run wild with terrorist scenarios.
One dinner in Karachi was on the open-air terrace of a famous kebab shop. Even the short walk in and out of the dark parking area made me uneasy: met by intent stares of huddled loiterers dressed in traditional shalwar kameez and the filthy food vendors who dotted the near-vacant lot.
While eating, I drifted in and out of the table chatter, periodically entertaining visions of a grenade or Molotov cocktail being lunged onto our patio from the manic streets a stone’s throw below, where the unlit main thoroughfare blared with cacophonous traffic.
The next night my foreign colleague and I flew to Lahore where we were met by an unmarked hotel car. Ten minutes en route from the airport we were pulled over at a makeshift military checkpoint where two men with machine guns slung over their shoulders took our passports. They also took the driver, and the three of them slowly walked off the black road and into a distant, temporarily fixed trailer.
We waited in near-silence for five minutes, then another five. My colleague had been to Lahore many times but uneasily confessed that this was irregular. We exited the taxi and lightly paced about the area, each double-burning two cigarettes and periodically looking out towards the quiet office container, our ghostly white countenances only illuminated by the headlights of the odd-passing vehicle. After an unprecedented twenty-five minutes and with no explanation, we were again safely on our way.
The next day we held a seminar at an alcohol-free bar, where around bar stools the mixologists proudly shook up virgin cocktails concocted from juice. It felt as natural as a vegetarian restaurant that simulates meat dishes.
Because the event was publically advertised and there was no security preventing anyone from wandering in off the street, I naturally daydreamed about armed bandits bursting through the threshold and littering the room in a blaze of bullets. I even went so far as to identify the optimal places to seek cover and considered all possible escape routes. But this fantasy left me deflated, as I sadly concluded that the place was a venerable deathtrap. And so I regained consciousness, the guests still deep in conversation, and lounging around me on plush pastel sofas slurping virgin Piña Coladas.
But my paranoia was not abated when, after the day, colleagues advised against going downstairs and outside to wait for our hotel driver, instead insisting we remained perched in single file on the broiling, narrow second floor stairwell in anticipation of his call.
The next night we dined with clients at another open-air restaurant, this one atop a narrow and confined historic walk-up that once functioned as a brothel. The overly decorated small entrance way and crammed corridors featured erotic pictures, statuettes, handicrafts and paintings of prostitutes. The roof offered exquisite unobstructed views of the twinkling Badshahi Mosque, Pakistan’s largest house of prayer.
During the meal there was a power outage. With a snap of a finger the entire landscape went black, rendering a rooftop packed with diners, the world’s seventh largest mosque, and a labyrinth of ancient cobblestone streets all in instant darkness. It gave one the eerie and majestic sense of how civilization existed for so long in the absence of electricity. Restaurant attendants frantically placed candles about the terrace and then shined flashlights onto our invisible plates, piled pell-mell with a mélange of charcoaled meats draped in mouth-singeing gravies.
After dinner we strolled the ancient alleyways once home to Lahore’s red light district. I was told there were still brothels in operation, so it was naturally half-jokingly suggested that we explore some of these options. Such a notion made me giggle with dread. I could easily envision getting raided at a Pakistani whorehouse and the inevitably catastrophic results with all their humiliations and near, or not-so-near, death experiences. So, to this repeated proposal, which I insisted interpreting as jest, I dismissed the bulging white eyes and impish grins of our hosts without a whiff of interest.
The next afternoon we made the four-hour drive from Lahore to our hotel in Islamabad, a smooth open highway along magnificent mountainous countryside without checkpoints or other obstructions. The drive revealed the vast extent of the open border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which put me on guard when we stopped to refuel. Here I was met by the unfriendly stares of travelers from aboard trucks and buses, leaving my mind reeling with images of dread. But of course, yet again, I was absolutely fine.
Pakistan was at once fascinating and as equally unsettling. I was deeply moved—as I often am when I travel—by people’s kindness and hospitality. I had the pleasure of visiting three families’ homes and enjoying their incredible home-cooked feasts. I met hundreds of lovely people. Many have since kept in touch via Skype; so many in fact, that a good half of all my contacts are from the trip, which I’m sure is much to the chagrin of the NSA. While my fear wasn’t constant, it was still—however helpful or not—a most loyal companion.
I think Jiddu Krishnamurti says it well:
Fear is never an actuality; it is either before or after the active present. When there is fear in the active present, is it fear? It is there and there is no escape from it, no evasion possible. There, at that actual moment, there is total attention at the moment of danger, physical or psychological. When there is complete attention there is no fear. But the actual fact of inattention breeds fear; fear arises when there is an avoidance of the fact, a flight; then the very escape itself is fear.
And so, I can’t wait to one day again escape back to Pakistan.