Detained in Pakistan – or just being Muslim on a Friday afternoon (a lengthy, final five spot)

I made contact with my grandmother again.  I started yelling in the phone again, and the non-bearded cop came over to take away my phone/offer to talk to her himself.  I relented, but told him he had to speak really loud.  He ignored me, so I said it again once he started talking, to which he impatiently waved at me to sit back down.   I guess he doesn’t like taking orders from his suspects.

What I learned later was that Tali Hali had been asleep.  My grandmother was reading downstairs, her day helper nurse type person was also asleep (which was just typical and peachy).  My grandmother couldn’t understand the conversation on the phone, but did manage to pick out the word ‘police,’ and since she was talking to a voice she had never heard before, she naturally went into worry overdrive.  She cannot walk all that well, but can move around on her own.  However she cannot climb stairs and thus has not been on the second floor of her house in years.  Unfortunately that’s where Tali Hali was sleeping, with the door closed.  Her voice isn’t that strong either, all factors working against her.  She did manage to get out of bed though, to the bottom of the stairs, and yell for Tali Hali to come down (more power to her!).  During this laborious process, the police station was on hold.  The cop told me she was going to get someone else.  I was relieved that at least now my grandmother realized something was afoot, but concerned about how long this would take.  My phone was under a prepaid system and I didn’t have that much credit left.  It would not be favorable to be left at the police station without any phone credit, as I do not think it was part of the typical inmate welcome package.

My grandmother did not return after sometime.  Sensing my exact fears, the non-bearded cop inquired as to whether he should hang up, asking how much credit I had left.  I told him I wasn’t sure, but not too much.  Being the decisive non-bearded cop that he was, he hung up, confidently saying they would call back shortly.  I think upon hearing the voice of the oft referenced  Nani, he relaxed a bit.  We waited patiently, but suspensefully for what was probably no more than eight minutes, but seemed like an eternity and then some.

The phone rang again.  I discreetly rejoiced, while the non-bearded cop answered.  From the onset of his conversation, I knew it was Tali Hali.  He was speaking Urdu rather quickly, but I caught most of it.  He explained to her why they had taken me off the street, told her my version of my identity, and asked her to confirm.  She thankfully decide not to haze me, and indeed confirmed that I was an American student of Pakistani descent on vacation traveling around by myself, but currently residing with my grandmother in Gulberg III, Lahore (even though more technically I wasn’t a student at the time but an unemployed drifter up to no good, it was close enough).  Blissfully, he then passed the phone over to me.  I didn’t know what to say, I wasn’t sure if I should be embarrassed, overjoyed, sad or what.  I just nonchalantly said “hello,” in as cool a voice as I could.  I thought I should’ve had some great movie one liner ready, but alas the last time I had been in a play was 5th grade, and even then I got booed off stage.  I really did not want to get booed off the phone right now.  Luckily Tali Hali had no want for such Hollywood theatrics, and simply asked me if I was ok.  She said she’d be coming right away to retrieve me.  This was all nearing an end.

My identity as a non-terrorist had been confirmed, mostly.  I believe they would’ve freed me right then and there, but Tali Hali told me and them not to move.  That put us in the awkward spot of detaining me further, while I was knowingly acknowledged as innocent.  Soon after the phone call I found myself sandwiched on the cot between the bearded cop and a new, even larger cop, with a new, even larger gun.  I was literally being squeezed to such an extent that my shoulders were now touching each other.  I assumed it was to intimidate me further and keep me in line despite the recent revelations; the bearded cop could have easily moved over but I didn’t care too much.  I was soon to be free!

After the successful phone call the mood was considerably lighter.  Police kept coming and going, and it would take Tali Hali another 45 minutes to arrive (she did not know the exact location and was going through many a police checkpoints), so I was still there for a while.  I found myself alone with the non-bearded cop at one point.  Initially I was angry with him putting me in this scenario, but decided that I should rise above that, and now that we both knew I was in the clear, to break the ice with him.  We chatted a bit in terms that were becoming more of equal buddies rather than captor and guard.  An older chief randomly came in without saying anything and sat in the desk, forcing him to get up.  By this time I think the entire station had heard about the erroneously arrested American, and many policemen were peeking in their heads to check out what was going on.  It was a jovial, joking mood and after my initial reluctance/hesitation, I joined in the fun as well.  They asked many questions about America, to which I politely entertained:

How many people study Urdu there? Only 1, me

Do you go to dance clubs often? No, I tend to stay away from overly loud noises (like bombs, you fools!)

Do Americans like Pakistanis? Not after I tell them what happened today

How much did my digital camera cost? Equivalent of 300 rotis (bread)

Why can’t I drive a car in Pakistan (i.e. why on earth was I walking around by myself when I could clearly afford not to)? Because I am rather dumb, and don’t know how to drive  stick shift

Would I change places with the chief and become a police officer in Pakistan? If I get to fire a gun.  And then arrest him.

And so on.  The other officers made fun of the non-bearded cop for not liking music, calling him the Taliban.  Nice that they had a sense of humor about their profession.  They asked some questions about my family and what they did.  Luckily describing my family was indeed one of the Urdu language units I recalled well.  There was much joking going around, the cops were like a tight knit group of friends making fun of each other as much as they were inquiring about me.  The atmosphere was light, and I dare to say I was almost even having a good time, getting a chance to experience a sector of society that I most decidedly never would had otherwise.

The chief asked to switch places at multiple times.  I was also asked if X-ray glasses exist in America, and despite my response to the contrary, they demanded that I send some over.  At first I thought they were no more than routine perverts, but then they explained they wanted them not to look at girls in this conservative society, but to see if people had suicide vests underneath their clothing, a noble goal indeed which may also have to include checking women for suicide vests as well, an added perk.  They also said my ‘touti phoue’ (broken) Urdu was like their broken English.  I was sandwiched on the cot again, but it was ok.  In fact, I saw this as a good photo opportunity and decided to try my luck and snap a great future facebook profile, on the cot in this run down room between these two large cops with large guns in my best terrorist attire.  My request was intriguing but politely declined after some laughter, and they asked me if I was going to use it to target them afterwards.  They said not today, maybe if I come back tomorrow.  I replied and said I was never coming back, to some amusement.

An older cop with a smattering of English came in, but he could speak less than my Urdu.  They said had he been there they wouldn’t have had to take me in because I could’ve explained everything in English to him.  Considering when they told him to speak to me in English he started off his sentence with two English words before switching into Urdu, I highly doubted it.  I told them about my travels in Pakistan and all the places I had gone, including the sights of Lahore I had seen this morning.  They were a bit confused and enthralled as to why exactly I would want to do all this, and even more confused that my family did not care enough to send someone with me.  They asked me which was better, America or Pakistan.  I replied “before today Pakistan was up there.”

Even the bearded cop had lightened up a bit after he asked how I spoke to my grandmother – I said some English, some Urdu.  Then he asked me if I really spoke English, to which I replied in English “of course I speak English, I am from and live in America.”  After that he laughed so hard and extended his hand for a Pakistani high-five.  I still harbored some resentment towards him and didn’t much feel like reciprocating, but if I had cracked the steely exterior of the bearded cop and gained his approval I was doing well, so best not to upset that balance.

This was the atmosphere Tali Hail found when she arrived, a drastic change from the way things began.  The joking stopped as soon as she came in though, as the cops had put their game face on so to speak.  Tali Hali turned to me upon entering, and softly inquired in English if I had been roughed up, letting out a huge sigh of relief when I said no.  In this small room now, there were about eight cops in total.  They suddenly were serious again, and explained all the reasons they had taken me in, emphasizing my gora (white) face, lack of Urdu skills, attire, pictures on my camera, ect.  They then took some of Tali Hali’s information down by hand, and told me I shouldn’t walk around alone.  I protested that I had no friends, and the group offered the non-bearded cop to come around with me next time.

I also told them I was shaving immediately after this and never wearing shalvar kameez again, mostly in a joking but somewhat serious manner.  I believe they took that more seriously than as a joke and said it wasn’t necessary, assuming that I had decided to end any explorations into Pakistani culture, not their intent at all.  I believe they were genuinely understanding about the mix up from my perspective, but not necessarily sorry or ready to apologize, for it was their job to be on the lookout for suspicious people, and they doing just that.  Tali Hali name dropped a random uncle (my mother’s first cousin) who just so happened to be the chief of police in Lahore (a fact I was unaware of at the time, and in retrospect could’ve saved me much trouble).  Backs straightened a bit at that and I’m sure it came as a shock to them, though the reaction was not as worrisome as one might’ve guessed when you realize you just innocently arrested your boss’s foreign nephew.

But at that I was already being let go.  I got up from the cot, and they made sure I had everything I came in with.  I shook hands with each cops, said an awkward ‘shukria’ (what exactly was I thanking them for?), and goodbye.  Especially to the non-bearded cop, he dealt with me the most and was in the room almost the entire time after the exonerating phone call, I felt we had developed a bit of a connection.  I had seen him go from menacing scowls to sheepish grins, and I was the catalyst behind those changes.

As we exited the station multiple guards that I did not recognize said good-bye and asked us if everything was allright.  I had become a sort of celebrity there, the whole station knew about me and my situation.  In the end I was unharmed and with all of my possessions (I even saved some money on my trip budget since I didn’t pay for a rickshaw on the way home).  It was not an overly bad ordeal, apart from the initial bouts of scariness and uneasiness.  I cannot truly fault the cops either as they were completely honest and just doing their job.  I had many suspicious qualities about me, I might’ve taken myself into the station had I seen me walking.  I still maintain it should’ve been fairly obvious from the first encounter and my multiple ID’s/photos that I was in fact American, but the confusion led to doubt and doubt led to over-reactive measures.  Perhaps they were just following protocol, I don’t know.   Regardless, the fact that the cops were actively looking for terrorists was a telling sign that something was working in Pakistan at least, and a point used as a personal defense that the state was absolutely not failed at all (though I suppose some might convincingly argue  a “failing” component).  It all worked out, and I gained an insight into one of the front lines of Pakistan’s war on terror – though the cops did well to avoid talking overtly about their work and giving too much away.  I guess they had been trained up decently also.

Tali Hali and I decided not to worry my grandmother further and fill her in on the details.  She was already sobbing by the time I got home because it had taken so long.  Our story to her was that traffic was heavy and I was unable to get a rickshaw.  I asked a traffic warden how to get home and he told me to call for a ride.  Because my phone wasn’t working properly, he called for me (explaining the police officer my grandmother spoke with on the phone).  She bought the story at the time but I suspected she had serious doubts, just choosing not to question it for fear of the truth.  I came out looking rather incompetent in our made up tale, but that’s ok (I pretty much was/am).   She wondered how I could go to all the places I mentioned during the day and then not be able to get home, but her inquisitions didn’t continue much further.  We decided not to tell my parents also, at least that is until after I shaved my beard and left Pakistan.

All in all though I came out of this experience feeling good.  So much has been made, about the lack of willingness to fight terrorism in Pakistan, and how much of a fertile ground the nation is.  Both those assertions may still be quite true, with a weak government dithering and radical Islam preying on rural youth without access to alternative sources of education.  But this day I saw that something was being done about it, terrorism was being fought by low-level grunt work as this.  It may not make the nightly news, but it was being done.  The Taliban and their value system had no room within the views of these police officers, it was decidedly a foreign way of life to them.  Though they are not the most at risk, it was gratifying to see their aversion to such practices, proving them alien to the history and traditions of the land.  If this one incident was a microcosm for how Pakistan was going to fare in its battle against religious fanaticism, I think with more cops like the ones I met today, the nation will be all right.

(p.s. small editorial – nearly 3 years later, I’m not sure any of that is enough to make up for weak, incompetent, and unwilling leadership.)


On second thought, I would've "arrested" me too