39000 FEET ABOVE PAKISTAN, ON EMIRATES FLIGHT 516 TO NEW DELHI—And so, it begins. This is going to be my last plane trip for quite a while, if I can help it. And it marks a fundamental closure of a difficult and tumultuous chapter in my life, but it also marks the beginning of a new and exciting one.
I like clean breaks, with little collateral damage to the environment or to the people around me. I didn’t quite achieve that in this latest phase, but I did my best. However, I’m getting ahead of myself.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I said I would explain why I had to suddenly leave Pakistan. I’ve already explained why I left Reuters, but the bigger story is about what can happen to you in the Land of the Pure.
One day, in early May, representative from a Western embassy rang me. The young man, in very serious, i’m-from-the-government tones told me that my name had appeared on some kind of list that was in the possession of a guy who had “known terrorist affiliations.” I was listed as working for the US embassy, it had my current address (only a couple of months old at the time) and my current mobile number.
Questions immediately flashed through my mind, not the least was, “I wonder which group it is?” Pakistan may be short of many things: Skilled labor, enlightened rulers, any sense of responsible sovereignty, but it is not short of armed groups who want to kill a lot of people.
I was the only journalist on the list. And the fact that I was (wrongly) listed as working for the US government in a country that sees most Americans there as spies was, to say the least, worrisome.
Did I have any questions? Oh, yes. How did my information end up on this list? Don’t know. Is there an immediate threat? The embassy didn’t think so. What’s the purpose of the list? Don’t know. What’s the group? Can’t say. Who’s the guy? Can’t say. Should I call my sources at the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)? Hell, no.
Right. So. I was on a maybe-maybe not Taliban hit list. I talked with the security person at Reuters who promptly decided to get me the hell out of Pakistan and to Dubai. Fair enough. A reasonable precaution. I packed for a week.
I ended up staying a month and never returning to Pakistan.
Along the way, I resigned from Reuters—detailed in a previous post—and managed to get the most valuable of my travel kit brought to me in Dubai by a colleague. I also learned that someone from one of Pakistan’s many intelligence agencies had started sniffing around me, sending a couple of guys to another colleague’s house and asking why I was in Dubai, why I had resigned and insinuating that I was a spy. (“Don’t you know this is how they do things?” they asked. One question: Who are “they”?)
That pretty much settled my exile from my professional stomping grounds, given that Pakistan’s spies may not actively harm Westerners in Pakistan, but I’ve heard too many stories about how they hassle Pakistanis—or maybe worse. There was a real concern among managers are Reuters, which I shared, that the local staff at the Reuters bureau might pay a price if I returned.
So I had to abandon a house full of stuff, some of it of sentimental value, other parts simply valuable. I had to abandon my two cats, which are still homeless at the moment. Some good friends are trying to help, and Reuters has agreed to buy a lot of my stuff and ship some of the rest, but really, I’m down to a backpack and my computer and camera gear in terms of worldly possessions now.
There’s nothing like a forced flight in the night to abruptly and cleanly reduce the consumer clutter in one’s life. It was a bit like an amputation in that sense, and like any maiming, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t like running away from being bullied and I sure don’t like leaving behind my cats.
So now, I’m on a flight to Delhi. (By the time you read this, I’ll be in Delhi, and hopefully napping in the spare room belonging to my friend K, who has graciously allowed me to crash while she’s away.)
Why India? It’s literally an undiscovered country for me. I’ve been to Mumbai exactly twice for a weekend each and never saw anything or met many Indians. I’m very excited to be exploring Pakistan’s neighbor now, and plan to make the most of my three-month visa. After that, who knows?
Aside: I see now I’m just about to cross the border into India proper, with the little dark grey line on the Emirates Airlines map marking the frontier. Behind me lies Nawabshah and up ahead to the right, Jaipur. It’s not so neatly demarcated on the ground, as there are no natural boundaries between Pakistan and India. It is the quintessential zone of transition that’s been abstracted to a clean mark on the map. Would that life were so neat.
And so, I come to a new chapter of my life: one marked by frugality, minimalism, constant mobility and improvisation. I’ve left behind the hard journalism I’ve practiced for the last 10 years of covering various aspects of the United States’ “War on Terror” (Good luck, guys!) and moving on to what really matters to me: new things, new people, connections and finding a bit of my soul that I seem to have misplaced over the last decade. I’ve seen enough conflict and crisis to last me for a while, and I’ve watched the journalism industry change in profound ways—many of them for the worse. I’ve changed, too, becoming harder, more cynical, less open to new things. It’s time to try to recapture some sense of wonder.
Dubai was itself a zone of transition, going from the brutal primitiveness of Pakistan to a shiny, boozy metropolis in the desert and now to the emerging modernity of India. I met some really great people in Dubai (you all know who you are, and many thanks for the great times) and reconnected with old friends, but in general, washed Islamabad and the rest of that country out of my system.
Pakistan has some really brave, wonderful folks doing their best for that poor place, but honestly, it’s an uphill battle for them. The forces of reactivism are strong there and I fear for its future. I wish them the best, but I’m not hopeful. Of course, the alternative to not trying is worse, and giving into despair is simply not in most people, much less my Pakistani friends. Their efforts may not succeed, but the fact that they’re trying is reason enough to support them. In the same way the journey is the destination, sometimes the struggle is the victory.
See you in Delhi.
(Note: Previous version edited for content)