Kidnapped in Alipur
I find it ironic, and embarrassingly hypocritical, that not even a week after I ranted about how you should never get into cars with strangers, I turned around and did exactly that.
It was noon, and the heat of June shimmered across the arid plains of the Punjab, as Raquel and I stood on the side of a lonely highway, looking confused, sweaty, and very out of place.
A beat-up, white jalopy puttered to a stop, and a face poked out of the window—a grinning, older man with a mustache almost as thick as his accent.
“I am Baba Akhtar!” he announced. “Get in my car!”
To which I thought, yeah, why not.
Perhaps all the autorickshaw fumes had gone to our heads, because Raquel and I hopped in, and Baba Akhtar revved his engine.
It wasn’t until we lurched forward that I noticed my mother’s voice shrieking in the back of my head, along with the voices of all my friends and family who had warned me against coming to Pakistan.
“Idiot!!” they were saying, or something to similar effect.
“They hate us over there!”
“They’re all terrorists.”
“Give me a shout out in your ransom video.”
To such warnings, I shrugged. Of course I knew Pakistan wasn’t the land of the Teletubbies, but I choose never to let sensational fears prevent me from leading a full, exploratory life. So far, it seemed, my gamble had paid off. For five incredible weeks, I haggled in the colorful bazaars of Lahore, trawled the archeological treasures of the Punjab, and pigged out on kebabs amidst craggy mountain peaks in the Hindu Kush. Instead of hostility, I was met with unrelenting hospitality and curiosity. Complete strangers invited me into their homes, took me out to dinners, bestowed me with gifts, paid for my cab fares. Whenever I offered them money in gratitude, they would shake their heads and laugh.
“We’re Pakistani,” they’d say, as if that was explanation enough.
But then I’d lie in bed at night, listening to the crackle of distant gunfire, and suddenly remember the less postcard-worthy face of Pakistan. I’d suddenly remember the security checkpoints, the armed escorts, the police interrogations, and the news reports of foreigner kidnappings. As the weeks crept by, and alarmist e-mails from friends flooded my inbox, their contagious sense of dread made me start to question my gracious hosts. I started to wonder if they really were so selfless, or if there was something else—perhaps something darker—lurking beneath the overwhelmingly friendly veneer.
I finally got my answer to this question when I stepped into Baba Akhtar’s fateful jalopy…
For the sake of complete disclosure, I need to inform you that this total stranger hadn’t stumbled upon us by chance. Raquel and I had called him.
Our sojourn to this far-flung corner of the Punjab was to attend a small Sufi festival. But when our bus driver cheerily dropped us off in the middle of nowhere, and we found ourselves quite stranded, Raquel miraculously produced a phone number given to her by a staff member at our guesthouse. The number belonged to one of the guesthouse owner’s old co-workers, who lived near the area of the festival. The assumption was that he could hopefully give us directions, if need be.
Instead, the boisterous, estranged coworker hung up on us abruptly, and then appeared a few minutes later to lure us into his car.
“Get in my car!” he exclaimed again, and we piled in his backseat. Baba Akhtar was riding with two other male passengers who remained quiet, frowning slightly over magnificent, white beards—the kind of beard reserved strictly for wizards and jihadist radicals.
I watched Raquel smile as we drove in silence, past brown, withering fields and coarse-looking farmers in turbans, burdened beneath heavy sacks of grain. Baba Akhtar cleared his throat and put down his cellphone, after a good ten minutes of frantic text messaging. “Which country!” he shouted.
“Spain,” chimed Raquel, and Baba Akhtar lit up.
“Ahhh, Spain! This is very good country, yes!” He turned to me. “And you, sir?”
“America,” I said.
“America…” he repeated flatly.
I smirked. “Yeah, you’ve heard of it?”
“I think so,” he nodded, and averted his gaze to the road.
The village of Patookie appeared around us as the jalopy snaked through a warren of stark, concrete alleys. Eventually, we came to a stop in front of a gated house, where Baba Akhtar jumped out and flung open my door.
“Get out,” he sang.
There was no festival.
Sensing our sudden panic, Akhtar burst into laughter. “My friends, it is too early for festival!” he boomed.
Raquel raised an eyebrow. “The festival started this morning.”
Akhtar smiled even wider. “It is too early for festival!”
A moment later, we were sitting on a bed in his terrorist lair, drinking warm Pepsi and quietly watching him text every contact in his phone.
“Relax! Be easy!” he would occasionally bellow, throwing his arms up in the air, which only made us more nervous.
Three or so hours later, the two bearded men reappeared and Baba Akhtar ushered us back in the car. I’m not sure what the two men had been doing for all this time, but there was now a large bag in the front seat, containing what appeared to be a bulky object wrapped in green cloth.
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to the green cloth, but the men just stared forward, as the speakers crackled with an old, Lo-Fi recording of a woman’s voice, singing in Urdu to a sad symphony of sarangi strings.
The village of Patookie faded behind us, and we rolled into the vast, empty plains.
Wheat fields passed.
Then more wheat fields.
And more fields.
“I didn’t realize the festival was so far,” I finally said. “I thought the festival was in Patookie.”
Baba Akhtar laughed, “Relax! Be easy!” and began to fumble around the center console for a tape cassette. “Here,” he said, jamming it into the tape deck, and the woman’s singing gave way to a familiar voice—a voice which you’ll hear in all corners of Pakistan, most every day.
It was Justin Bieber.
Baba Akhtar smiled, cranking the volume as Raquel and I winced. The fidelity of the tape was horrific, degraded after years of heavy, repeated playback, and Bieber’s voice had been reduced to a distorted warble. It was insufferable torture. I would have preferred if they’d just gone ahead and rigged a car battery to my testicles.
“Justin Bieber zindabad!” cried Baba Akhtar. Long live Justin Bieber.
Suddenly we pulled up to a shallow pit in front of a brick wall, in which a dead goat lied rotting in the mud, mouth and eyes frozen agape, swarming with a hundred flies.
“Festival,” he said, and I sank in my seat.
All the fears instilled in me—of Pakistan, of the enemies—were now confirmed. This was their endgame. I was going to die in a muddy pit, next to a goat, and the last thing I would ever hear would be Ludacris selling out.
But when Baba Akhtar opened my door, I heard something different: A man shouting, pitched against a chorus of chants.
We nervously stepped out of the car, and Baba Akhtar led us around the end of the wall, to a massive crowd of Punjabi men singing qawwali on a carpet. They were dressed in white salwars, and some of the young boys held plastic, toy AK-47s and combat rifles. A few men moved towards us and the music came to a stop.
“Salaam alaykum,” I offered, as the men took my hand and led Raquel and I to the carpet.
“You sit there,” ordered Baba Akhtar, and slipped away into the crowd.
We nervously sat in the middle of the carpet, across from a clean-shaven man in a turban. “Where are you from?” he grilled.
“Um, I, um,” I fumbled. “America?”
The crowd murmured.
“Justin Bieber,” someone said.
The clean-shaven man nodded. “Near Belgium?”
“Uh… Relatively, sure,” I offered, and the man smiled.
“You are our brother,” he abruptly concluded, before turning to shout something in Punjabi, and the Harmonium players resumed their melody.
Baba Akhtar returned a few minutes later to find us sitting between the musicians and the crowd, as several men rained twenty-rupee notes over our heads.
In his hand was the mystery-object, concealed in green fabric. “You must come now,” Baba Akhtar smiled, and I held my breath as he grabbed a corner of the cloth, flinging it forth to reveal:
The cloth was merely a large, green flag, glittering with beautifully ornate, golden calligraphy from the Quran.
“Come with me,” he smiled, beckoning us forth with his hand. We hesitantly stood, as he handed us each corners and instructed us to lift the flag high overhead. Instantly, the crowd swelled around us, sweeping us up in grand procession down a path, past a sea of tents, past old men smoking sheesha, past an odd cobra charmer and rickety, man-powered carnival rides, to where a humble fairground stretched out before us.
“Hello, welcome!” “Where are you from?” shouted voices from the throng, as anonymous palms appeared for me to shake with my free hand.
The parade stopped in front of the local shrine, where a band of drummers awaited. The crowd fell silent as a wispy-bearded Imam appeared from the entrance, and with great ceremony, he motioned Raquel and I inside, where we placed the flag on the local saint’s tomb. Drums sounded as the Imam led us back out, to the cheers of the crowd.
“What on earth is happening?” whispered Raquel.
Before I could speculate, the crowd swarmed us again and we were hustled across the fairground, into the walled courtyard of the clan’s main hut.
We were suddenly amongst the women, adorned in colorful veils and sitting around on charpais. A few presided over steaming, copper cauldrons of haleem, perfuming the air with the smell of chicken and lentils. Their heads all turned as the mob poured in from the streets, following us like some post-modern Salt March. It was as if the President had arrived, or perhaps even Justin Bieber himself. The women rushed forth, shouting introductions and a hundred starry-eyed questions.
Suddenly, a husky woman stepped in our path, sporting a flowing, white veil and a scowl that could cancel birthdays.
“Jaoung!” she barked, and the crowd backed off. She then turned to us, pointed a finger at her chest, and grinned. “Fatima.”
Late in her fifties, Fatima (or as I referred to her, Fatimama) was the iron matriarch of Akhtar’s clan, with the sweet face of a grandmother and the heart of a fearsome Mughal warlord.
“Welcome!” she roared, sweeping her arms and shooing us into the hut. In the dim light, she commanded us to sit on a threadbare couch, as a few of her girl-minions appeared to literally sweep the ground beneath our sneakers.
“What’s going on?” Raquel whispered again, before Fatimama handed us glasses of fragrant rose water, and—“Ek minute!”—hurried out the door.
Slowly, the villagers filed into the hut, led by Baba Akhtar who translated their endless queries.
“What are your names?” “What village are you from?” “Are you married?” “Do you have family?” “How many brothers?” “And sisters?” “Will they come to Pakistan too?”
The door smashed open.
“Chalo!” cried Fatimama and the villagers scattered, leaving only us, Baba Akhtar, and a few elders. Fatimama strode forth, laden with heaping platters of chapatti, creamy haleem, rich biryani, and sweetened, yellow rice. She placed the feast before us, before barking, “Wait,” and hurrying off again.
As soon as she disappeared, the villagers crept back in.
“How do you like Pakistan?” “How are Pakistani people?” “I’m sorry our festival is small.” “Will you stay tonight?” “Amrika is good people.” “Are we friends?” Then—
“CHALO!” Fatimama screamed, smacking a few heads as they fled. At this, she howled with laughter and plopped a mound of hashish on the table, as the elders began officiously rolling joints. “Eat, eat!” she grinned.
An hour later, we were sprawled out with bloated stomachs and bloodshot eyes, listening to Baba Akhtar telling us about his family—when the door clattered open and a boy rushed in, shouting in Urdu. From what I could gather, he said Raquel and I needed to leave. Something was happening.
“What’s going on?” I stammered.
The boy shouted something else and Baba Akhtar turned to me, very serious.
“The horse is dancing,” he said.
“The horse is dancing!” screamed the boy.
I stared for a minute, before suspiciously gazing to the mound of hashish, then to Baba Akhtar, then to the boy, and then long and hard at the hashish again.
“We must go see,” added Baba Akhtar, and started for the door.
Fatimama caught us in the courtyard and tugged at my wrist. “Where are you go?” she snapped.
“The horse is dancing,” I informed her.
“Ah,” she nodded understandably. “Yes, go.”
We arrived at the fair grounds to find a large crowd sitting around a field, gazing mesmerized at the saddest-looking pony in the world, who’s owner had apparently trained it to awkwardly jump in place to the shrieking of a clarinet. Judging from the poor animal’s expression, this was a fate far worse than glue.
The crowd parted like the Red Sea and smiling men leapt up to offer Raquel and I their chairs. A wandering vendor passed, and someone bought us glasses of sweet, cardamom-scented Badam milk.
“Take photo! Take photo!” the villagers clamored, and Raquel angled her camera at the miserable horse.
Before the shutter clicked, a booming announcer’s voice exclaimed over megaphone, “Great photo!”
Just when the horse was about to turn on the clarinet player, Baba Akhtar shook our shoulders and informed us it was time to go.
Back in Fatimama’s courtyard, the clan was waiting to say goodbye. As the women whisked off Raquel for a giggly photo shoot, the teenage boys pulled me aside conspiratorially. One of the oldest boys, Raqeel, was holding something in his fist.
“This is so you remember your friends in Alipur,” he said, and lifted up a small, silver chain.
The boys watched eagerly as Raqeel placed it in my hands. It was a dog tag, appended with an intricately carved ‘S.’ I nodded in gratitude and the boys lit up with excitement.
“’S’ is for Steve,” Raqeel added, before I quietly thanked them.
The sun faded into the wheat fields as Baba Akhtar’s jalopy drove from Alipur, and by the time we reached our bus stop, it was dark.
“You are relaxed? You are easy?” he smiled. “You have good festival?”
“The best festival.” Raquel and I agreed.
Baba Akhtar beamed excitedly. “Then you are coming back next year?”
“Maybe,” I grinned, “But I think maybe you should come to America.”
“Insha’allah,” he muttered, Allah willing, and he waved us off as we boarded our bus.
Twilight in Lahore. Stepping off the bus, we asked a man for directions and he stopped everything he was doing to walk us ten minutes to the nearest rickshaw stand.
At dinner that same night, the server gave me a double order of chicken tikka without charging me for it.
“You are guest,” he said.
I wonder what would happen if Baba Akhtar did come to America. I wonder what would happen if he wandered into a small town festival, and what kind of welcome he’d receive.
Take a closer look at the cultures of Pakistan and Afghanistan in the illuminating Photo Travelogue “The Way of the Pashtunwali“
Or, for a less friendly misadventure in Pakistan, check out the time my first CIA showdown in “Detained in Bahawalpur”
(The second CIA incident occurred in Laos).