Detained in Pakistan – or just being Muslim on a Friday afternoon (دوسرا حصہ)

I decided this had gone far enough and I was going to be a bit more proactive.  I speak some Urdu, and understand even more, but my (Austrian) accent is regrettably somewhat pitiful.  I started saying “main tourist houn,” which translates into “I am a tourist.”  However with them compensating for my weak accent, it apparently sounded more to them like “main terrorist houn,” or “I am a terrorist.”    That was the best I could do in Urdu to explain my predicament quickly while maintaining grammatical correctness – it did not help my cause.  Thus not realizing at the time how it might’ve sounded to them, I incessantly repeated it over and over, only to garner quizzical expressions from these three policemen, who must’ve been wondering why I had abruptly decided to confess all my terrorist sins.

These guys obviously weren’t letting me go after such repeated statements, and the camera inspector was still looking through every photo, going so far as to start asking who specific family members were.  As I tried to talk to the second cop (who for his credit was kind of listening, I just really couldn’t convincingly explain in a way he would understand), the third had gone back to the car to get on his radio, ostensibly relaying that he had fulfilled his monthly quota by catching a self-confessed terrorist by the Governor’s House on Mall road (I had no idea I was there).  Soon another cop car pulled up.  This one was an extended cab pickup truck, with long benches along the sides in the back and a covered bed.  The type of car that carries a bunch of cops around to a situation, where they are able to quickly dismount from the back in a flurry.  You can guess what happened next.

Two large(r) cops with real rifles hopped out, while two guys in the front remaining seated with the engine on.  There were now seven cops focused on me.  During a day of heightened terror alerts throughout the city of Lahore, who knows how many terrorists were running free because I was distracting whatever ungodly percent of today’s active police force.  Perhaps the cops were overzealous because it was a heightened terror alert day, meaning that someone decided today was a day when terrorists were likely to do things tourists do not.  The prime reason behind such thought patterns was that today was jummah, or Friday, when most Muslims go to the mosque to pray.  I also happened to be in Lahore on this jummah, a special place since the previous Friday, exactly one week ago, suicide bombers had attacked a masjid right after Friday prayers, killing a prominent cleric who had been so bold as to declare suicide bombing haram, or against Islam.  Those actual terrorists had broken sacred laws by first of all attacking a mosque, secondly killing a scholar of Islam, and thirdly taking their battle away from one with the Pakistani state, but into the realm of neutralizing opposition voices.  Thus the entire city was on edge – this was probably one of the worst of days to go out for a leisurely stroll through the old city.  So there was understandably extra police forces patrolling around, being extra vigilant and profiling extra hard in order to round up some extra terrorists.  Regardless of the fact that by now jummah has passed throughout the city peacefully (as far I knew), cops were still out in droves, with a drove still surrounding me.

Back to the seven cops, the original three were now explaining to the four new cops their take on the situation, while I was concurrently trying to do the same, assuming these new cops to be more important as they had been called in specifically to deal with the international menace that was me.  I continued with my useless but incriminating phrases, main tourist houn and main Amerika say houn (I am from America), presupposing that these new cops would sympathize with such first grade level statements.  There was added confusion over my multiple IDs and masjid filled camera, which had been handed to the two cops who refused to exit their vehicle (that actually hurt me a bit, was I not important enough to warrant getting off their asses?).  These new cops were taking their time I thought, was it really not so obvious that I wasn’t a terrorist, but just a really bad tourist?

This continued, me stupidly trying to out-talk the original cops, while they continued to explain their thoughts in better Urdu than I could.  I’m surprised they put up with me that well actually, I was literally trying to push and shout out the old cops to get my version heard – in retrospect I was not exactly cooperative to say the least.  Every now and then the new, seated cops would call me over to explain a picture.  This was almost getting comical, if witnessed by a bystander walking along the sidewalk.  There was me, dressed as locally as I could and shouting and flailing just nearly as much, the three old cops, two of which were just kind of staring at me in confusion by now, while the other was trying to get his point across to the two large new cops with guns, who were standing and listening rather patiently, while we were all huddled around the pickup truck where the two seated cops kept interrupting my attempts at verbal self defense to hastily demand why I had taken such and such picture.

This tragicomic scene went on for some minutes.  Finally the new cops patience waned, they looked at me and said ‘chello,’ as in, ‘let’s go, you’re coming with us.’  The non-bearded of the two large new cops with guns tried to gently lead me towards to the back of his vehicle.  I was quite taken aback, I had not even considered that the resolution of this mix up would continue at a location other than where it had began.  I refused to move, saying ‘niehn yar, main-ne kya kiya,’ or roughly “no way man, what did I do?”  Another thing I have learned, luckily not from firsthand experience, but in general, is to never ever get into cop cars in the numerically not-so-first world, unless you absolutely, truly, without a doubt had to.  I saw no reason why I absolutely, truly, without a doubt had to in this instance, and thus refused (as a side note, furthering emboldening my stance was a story I had read in the newspaper on the bus back to Lahore detailing the tale of two innocent civilians in the north, where the theatre of war was very apparent, who had been burned alive in boiling water by security forces under the suspicion of being terrorists – I was not going anywhere with these guys).  My response was clearly unexpected and not much appreciated.  Their faces instantly transformed from cheeky smiles with hints of amusement into menacing, snarly scowls.  The non-bearded new cop slapped me on the back, grabbed my arm, and began pulling me towards the back of the car, while the others surrounding me reached for their guns.  I decided then that this was probably rapidly developing one of those had ‘absolutely, truly, without a doubt had to’ situations.

I followed orders this time around and got into the truck.  I was beginning to realize by this point that the situation was a bit more serious than I had initially thought, and no quick fix was forthcoming.  I had been so caught up adamantly explaining myself earlier that I hadn’t even stopped to think about the possibility that I would not be on my way home to grandma’s in an economically appropriate rickshaw shortly.  My heart was sinking, a feeling of general despair overcame me.  I was being held against my will, led to a location unbeknownst to me, in a foreign country where I couldn’t communicate well, with my family not knowing where I was, and worst of all I had no idea if this next step was going to take half an hour or half a week.

I was sitting on one of the long benches in the back of the cab, the bearded cop across from me, smirking (he was clearly amused at my expense), with the non-bearded cop in between me and the exit of the cab.  I asked them where we were going;  he quickly replied to the station.  I inquired as to why exactly, he said they needed to do some verification.  I complained as to what verification exactly, they already have seen all three of my IDs.  The original cops seated at the front were still discussing said IDs with the seated officers when they called me out from the back of the car to ask me a question.  My spirits rose as I interpreted that as a sign of imminent release.  Those same spirits sunk right back down when they motioned for me to get back in after 30 seconds.  We started driving off, leaving the original three cops who had so thoughtfully organized this mess, behind.  As a final goodbye, I yelled out the cab to ensure they had handed over all my IDs and camera with incriminating pictures to the new cops, which they confirmed.

to be continued  . . .

Data Durbar Shrine in Lahore. Given the heightened security that day I wasn't able to take a picture in front of the building, but rather had to climb up an overpass across the street and quickly snatch a shot - did not help my cause with the photographically inquisitive coppers (sidenote: this complex was actually attacked by suicide bombers a year later)