Detained in Pakistan – or just being Muslim on a Friday afternoon (no. ٤‎)

After that little outburst, I was told to sit back down on the cot.  The bearded cop now came back and decided to awkwardly lie all stretched out on the cot I was sitting on, while I confined myself as close to the edge as possible, adamantly trying to avoid rubbing up against his legs.  I was beginning to wonder how long this ‘verification’ process was going to take, the half an hour estimate seemed quite off by this point.  I was also wondering how exactly did they plan to verify me?  My IDs were all there, that was about all I had.  In my mind I figured they were waiting for some senior commander to arrive, as no one could make a decision without his approval.  He would come in, take one look at me and my situation, berate the other cops for wasting his time when there were real terrorists out there to catch, and let me be on my merry way.  I was waiting patiently for that man, my new savoir.

The thought of having to bribe my way out briefly crossed my mind as well, but I didn’t really have the required materials.  Back in the cab the new cops asked how much money I had on me, leading me to believe they wanted some sort of payoff to set me free.  I obliged, opening up my wallet to show them exactly how little I had (about 800 rupees total, or $10), in an attempt to portray my small time status and limited bribing power.  They asked if the first cops had known how much I had, an odd question I thought, but one that made sense if they were intent on taking it all in exchange for my release.  They then wanted to know if they first cops had taken anything also, I told them they hadn’t.  End of discussion, I still have my $10 (yay!) but was still detained (boo!).  I also still have the extra 25 cents I saved by refusing to budge from my negotiating bottom limit with the first rickshaw driver I encountered (to think all of this could’ve been avoided for a mere 25 pennies . . . but then I would be forced to blog about fake dinosaur death matches on the moon years later instead of real life battle of the wits with Pakistan security personnel).  At any rate, it seemed the new cops were being extremely honest rather than fishing for a bribe, going so far as to check up on their fellow officers.  They exhibited a distinct lack of corruptibility, which of course was to my extreme dismay, for the purposes of this situation at least.

Without the possibility of bribing my way out, and still not being allowed to use my phone, I didn’t have much to do but wait.  The bearded cop would come and leave, taking turns lying next to me on the cot in what I believe was a highly successful attempt to make me uncomfortable.  The non-bearded cop sat silently where the older man had been writing down my information, intermittently looking at pictures on my camera.  There was a lull in the action, so I again asked if I could make my one phone call, and again was rejected.  The bearded cop continued to talk Pashto to me when he was around, as if I was about to crack and reveal the true nature of my linguistic abilities.  I am fairly certain he was making fun of me the entire time – I did not appreciate him much.  I understood him saying ”Nani, Nani, Nani” in an irritating high pitched voice that was obviously an imitation of me and my  constant demands to call my grandmother.  I began to try to take up a bit more of the cot space, slowly sliding inward in a poor attempt to reassert some feigned dominance.

The bearded cop exited again once it became abundantly clear how dominant my cot position had become (not really at all, I was still occupying maybe 4 square inches of the entire thing), and I was left alone with the non-bearded cop.  I decided to retry my previously failed approach to soften him up by general, friendly conversation.  I truly think he believed me, but just couldn’t show it and had no power to act.  I asked him how many people they catch in a day.  He didn’t quite understand my intent and rather went into a small rant as to all the reasons I looked suspicious, justifying why they had taken me in.  After that finished, I asked how long he had been doing this job (3 years) and if it was dangerous (yes).  In fact, what was more than a bit disconcerting was that this was still a high-level threat alert day and I was being confined, against my will, at a police station, a definite, high-level threat target.  These days in Pakistan we would go through such lengths to avoid places that seem like obvious targets – for example I had only briefly visited the Liberty market in Lahore on this trip, where my family previously did much shopping, since the Sri Lankan cricket team had been attacked a few months ago in the vicinity.  But now I was stuck at a high profile target on a high profile day.  To that point, this police station happened to be located directly next to a Rescue 15 building (a sort of Pakistani equivalent of 911).  The buildings were adjoined to each other, or at least had been. That very Rescue 15 building on Mall Road in Lahore had been the site of a bombing just a few weeks earlier.  The entire building had been destroyed and much of the neighboring police headquarters, which I currently found myself, had also been affected.    I swear if someone came right now to finish off the job while I was there all because I wasn’t allowed to leave, I would be so freaking pissed off . . .

My softening up tactics only went so far.  The non-bearded cop got distracted and the bearded cop returned.  It was no use trying to talk to him.  But then a chaiwala (literally a tea guy) brought in three cups of tea, one for each of the cops, with the third ostensibly for me.  Perhaps my soft approach was working after all.  I gladly took the tea when offered, even though it was after 4:00pm and I’d probably be up all night (in a dark Pakistani cell at this point).  I chose to interpret this gesture as a very positive sign in favor of my innocence, rather than simply a perfunctory courtesy engrained in Pakistani culture.  I drank my tea in silence, while the bearded cop left and the non-bearded one was still fiddling with my camera.

No one had come in the room for a while.  Randomly the non-bearded cop looked up at me and said I could now make a phone call.  I was stunned!  It seemed he had made that decision completely on his own, without consulting with any superiors.  That was kind of odd, but I didn’t give him a second chance to think it through.  I immediately grabbed my cell phone and dialed Tali Hali’s number.  She didn’t answer.  My face went white.  The cop told me specifically I could make ‘a’ call, not multiple.  I quickly redialed, attempting to do so before he noticed I was on my second call.  Again no answer, what the hell was going on?  At this point he looked at me and must’ve realized what had happened.  He said, ‘don’t worry, they’ll call back.’  Reassuring he was not; I worried.  I insisted I try again, and briefly thought about writing a text message, but decided that would take too much time and look a bit suspicious.  I dialed the house of my grandmother, surely someone would pick up there.  Again no answer, but I hit the redial button before I could even think about it.  This wasn’t looking good.  I thought about who else I could call, relatives in Islamabad perhaps?  But what was the point of calling someone in another city, I had told these guys I was living in Gulberg III this whole time, I had to prove it now.

The phone rang and rang on – I was not going to hang up.  I had very little phone credit and was worried it would give out as soon as someone picked up, but I had to try and hope they would call back.  Suddenly, I heard a faint and high pitched ‘hello.’  Success! It was my grandmother, I had made contact with the outside world.  That was very encouraging and all, but then I remembered my grandmother’s hearing had been in rapid decline in recent years.  In addition, she did not believe that her hearing had been in rapid decline, but more subscribed to the theory put forth by a few prominent but equally old scientists, that the entire world was getting quieter the further we entered into the 21st century.  For this reason she never wore the expensive hearing aid her children had so thoughtfully bought for her, and our conversations together typically consisted of yelling matches.  Talking on the phone was no better.  In fact I had written off the whole practice, and rarely, if ever, participated in phone conversations with her.  However that was all I had right now, so I began to yell.  Our conversation went a little like this:

(me) “Hello Nani Amma, it’s Omar.”

(Nani) “Hello?”

(me) “Hello Nani Amma, can you hear me?”

(Nani) “Hello? Is anyone there?”

(me) “Nani Amma! It’s Omar! I’ve been detained by the police, you have to go get Tali Hali!”

(Nani) “ . . . . who is this?”

(me) “Hello (even louder) Nani Amma, it’s me Omar, this is important!!!”

(Nani) “ . . . Hello?”

End call.  I froze, my back stiffened.  I looked up, multiple police officers had come into the room and were staring at me now, ostensibly wondering what all the commotion was about.  I realized I had been yelling into the phone quite loudly, perhaps even somewhat angrily, in a foreign language.  That did not look suspicious at all.  I had built my entire defense around the prospect of being allowed to make one, single phone call to resolve this entire mess.  Now I had made my call, looked crazy and frustrated during it, and nothing had been resolved.  I think at that moment some of the police officers began to consider me suspicious again, perhaps I had just called in a hit to the police station.  I again didn’t let them think about it for too long, I called right back before anyone could instruct me not to.

(to be continued – once, maybe twice more only I swear.  Clearing your name in Pakistan takes some time!)

Detained in Pakistan – or just being Muslim on a Friday afternoon (v.3)

Me, the bearded cop, and the non-bearded were stuck in the back.  Or at least I was stuck with them.  We started driving off, and I began to worry about how far we would be going.  The entire time I had been telling anyone who cared to listen that I was currently residing with my Nani Amma (mother’s mother) in Gulberg III.  Now I was pleading with the non-bearded cop to call her, explaining in all honesty that she would be very worried that I had not reached back home by now.  He told me to wait, the station was close and we wouldn’t be more than half an hour.  That was a positive development as he gave me a time frame, and a short one at that, but I didn’t put too much stock into it.  I continued to insist I had to call now, repeating the same few phrases over and over again (I was getting some language practice in at the very least, to help me the next time I’m in such a scenario).

This non-bearded cop could be the friendly sort, but he had quite an angry face that I had experienced earlier when I refused to get in the car.  He was a good cop/bad cop/big cop all in one, and that face got me to do whatever he wanted.  As I continued to plead, his facial expressions slowly began to change as I’m sure his annoyance levels went up.  He eventually was in full scowl, and I had my cell phone out in my hand asking again to call.  He suddenly raised his beefy hand as if to hit me if I asked one more time.  Taking a not-so subtle hint, I promptly shut up and put the phone back in my bag.  That wasn’t good enough for him now, so he took the entire sabzi tela away.  This piqued his curiosity as to the other contents, which I enthusiastically endorsed, believing it would help my cause.  I had him pull out the lonely planet guidebook and showed him the Lahore map and all the touristy sites I had marked to visit, just as I had uselessly showed the original cops (I guess the markings could have also looked like all the places I intended to ‘target’).  If that had any effect on him, it went by unnoticed.

After taking my possessions and I quieted down for a bit, thinking about that scowling face of his.  I was getting quite distraught by this point, in my view all aspects of my defense had been logical and clear, what more could they want?  What more did I need to do to prove I wasn’t a terrorist, and how exactly was I going to get that change at the station?  My basic hope at this point was someone, namely Tali Hali (my aunt), would call to check up on me, at which point I could tell her “no I’m not fine, I’ve been abducted by the police.”  Unfortunately though, she most likely thought I was perturbed by all this needless monitoring after she had called me twice earlier in the day, and likely wasn’t going to bother me again.   Too bad for me, as I was in need of some serious monitoring right now.

We were driving around real slow, about 10km an hour, ostensibly looking for other terrorists to pick up.  I was not-so-secretly hoping we didn’t actually find any other ones – being seated and detained amongst real, live terrorists who might not be so enthralled by my “I’m an American defense” would not exactly have made me more comfortable.  After a brief respite, I started talking again, saying anything I could at all that supported my story.  We passed by the zoo, and I excitedly remembered I still had my entrance ticket and proudly produced it from my pocket, waving it frantically to prove that I had indeed just been there.  Terrorists don’t go to the zoo, they hate animals!  I went further to say there were pictures of animals on my camera as even more irrefutable proof.  The non-bearded cop looked at my ticket for a moment before losing interest.  One of the front seated policemen turned around to ask a question to another of the cops, I started pointing to the zoo and showing him my ticket through the glass, to little effect.

The bearded cop seated across from me was clearly enjoying this situation, and that was only pissing me off.  He kept saying things to me that I did not understand in the least.  Even if I can’t get the entire sentence, I’ll usually pick up a few words here or there to gain a general understanding.  But with this guy, no matter how hard I concentrated, I couldn’t understand him at all – it must’ve been his accent or he was speaking slang or something like that.  The non-bearded cop I understood fine, although I understood his facial expressions a lot better than his words.  The bearded cop continued talking and I kept trying to decipher it.  I kept telling him I was just learning Urdu, I don’t know it all that well just yet.  I was getting annoyed, and finally I flat out declared to him “I have no idea what you’re saying.”  He replied (in Urdu), as smug as ever, “that’s because I’m speaking Pashto – and by the way you do understand me.”  I was momentarily confused, but then I understood.  Many of the homegrown terrorizers tended to be from the Northern Areas of Pakistan, and belong to the Pasthun ethnicity, correspondingly speaking Pashto.  This cop was testing me, to see if I really understood the language or not, and thus determine if I was actually who I said I was.  I think it was clear I wasn’t just faking stupidity (that comes naturally), but as with many things thus far, what was crystal clear to me wasn’t necessarily seen in the same light by my captors.

We arrived at the police station, after passing many a check points.  The car was in full view of the outside world, so my presence elicited quite a few stares, as if they had finally caught a real live terrorist and I happened to know the exact location of Osama bin Laden (update: two years later in May 2011, I actually did).  I got out of the back of the car, closely escorted by the non-bearded cop.  The car drove off and we waited there a while, in the courtyard of the station.  In the car ride I came to understand that whatever incident involving me had probably been called in, and these guys had no choice now but to take me to the station regardless of whether they thought I was innocent or not.  At that point I had meekly decided to try a different approach and chat them up a little bit (or at least the non-bearded cop, the bearded one was constantly whispering poetic Pashto sweet nothings in my ear – it really became an awkward ride).  I got as far as a generic question about where they were born, and it didn’t really work.  But I did feel like I established somewhat of a rapport with the non-bearded cop, and he was beginning to believe me, as my story added up every which way.  While we were standing there I decided to turn to him and ask straight up if that was the case.  He ignored my question. He had been pretty good about not answering sensitive questions, he had obviously done his “how not converse with suspected terrorists” training well.  He instead smiled and put his hand on my back multiple times, that beefy hand that was, which simultaneously reassured me while reminding me of the potential consequences of not following his instructions.

We stood out there a bit longer, ostensibly waiting for something but I wasn’t quite sure what.  I had some time to ponder this predicament.  I imagined there would be points in my life where I would stand accused of being a terrorist because of my name or ethnic appearance, but most of those situations involved airports.  And America.  Never once did I think the same would happen in Pakistan.  Ridiculous, I went there trying to blend in and in doing so blended right into a stereotype.

I was led back around the corner to a spartan room with a desk and a cot type bed perpendicular to it.  I sat on the cot and waited, alone.  The bearded cop, my companion throughout all of this, had suddenly left me, and now I didn’t even have a familiar face around.  An older man came in.  He was very direct and began asking me questions immediately (didn’t even buy me dinner first).  I moved to stand in front of his desk as he noted all I was saying, about my address, my stay in Pakistan, when I arrived, when I was to leave, ect., then left.

Non-bearded cop returned, and while he was killing time waiting for something to happen next, he decided it was his turn to inspect the bevy of evidence on my camera.  He pulled up a picture of myself, in shlvar kameez again, with an uncle and cousins, demanding to know them all.  I thought I was fingering my own family, and they would soon be joining me in this room (at least I would have some familiar faces around then).  He flipped through some more pictures when he suddenly leapt from his chair burst out bluntly, as if he had identified a head terror ringleader, “yeh kon hai?!!” or “who is this?”  It was a picture of my 90 year old grandmother eating her daily half box of ice cream.  I explained, with as much emotion as his outburst, that that was my aforementioned grandmother (“voh nani yar!”), taking the opportunity to remind him that she was still worried about me, and probably not even able to eat her ice cream right now.   At the same time I was trying to process what on earth about that picture (below) made him think that sweet old lady looked anything like a criminal mastermind.

to be continued (and continued and continued) . . .

The mastermind herself, plotting away during ice cream time!