Thursday, January 24, 2008

the Mujahideen squatters of Sahiwal

We're in Rawalpindi since midnight -yup, the place where Bhutto....-, after a lot of travelling by bus since Sunday, making a near mathematical 270 degree tour around the Punjab state of Pakistan. Just 90 degrees to go to make the full 360 circle back at Lahore. Mathematics on wheels, our backpacks on roofs, floors and in trunks. Calculation style travelling does take a lot out of your energy and we are both still recovering from our accumulated colds. Sniffs and coughs alike in the cold northern mountains of Punjab.

On Sunday we took a bus down to Sahiwal, the village neaby the archeological Harappa site. Little did we know that we could have stayed on the same bus towards Multan and gotten off at Harappa to see the museum and excavated grounds in one afternoon. Instead we wasted a day and got out at Sahiwal and took a long walk to find a hotel while crowds of youngsters were following us. All settled and well tired, we rested for a while in the room, zapping the Pakistani channels on the tv. Bizarre ads, movies and news broadcasts flashed by. We catched a voting awareness ad for the Pakistani Youth on the Pakistani music channel and it was very well put together with modern styled phrasing with a clever courtesy of choice message in it. Far better than any western election ad I've ever seen directed at young adults. Also there was a political discussion going on between a interviewer and a former minister that went very deep, with the interviewer asking totally direct and cheeky insinuating questions that would make many politicians of our own countries choke. Apparently this is the way that political interviews in Pakistan are carried out, right in front of the viewer without any of that clean, pre-discussed format which western tv is plagued with. It was about darkening of funds and spionage practises that the minister was accused of and he had to swallow a lot of humble pie through the fair and verocious stance that the interviewer used to unlock him. Never a dull moment in televised political debates and discussions then.

During dinner we met the same nice fella -forgot his name- whom I had spoken to earlier outside the hotel and he told us that he was a painter. He invited us for chai in a shop full of old men who gazed at our looks and afterwards we went to his place and he showed us a mural that he had painted, with Urdu symbols on it. A painted billboard on stone, so to speak. He asked us many things about our country and was explaining us things about Islam, since he was a dedicated follower. It soon proved what kind of painter and follower he was, as on the many by him painted banners I saw Urdu texts with rifle guns painted next to it. "Do you know what a Mujaheddin is?" he openly asked us while awaiting our response with keen interest. "We kinda do", we answered, not really knowing what he wanted to hear. "I am a Muhajideen" he said and explained that his cause was the Kashmir cause and that he had been on the front at the Pakistan - Indian border, though it was unclear whether he joined in combat or not. "When Muslim brothers are in trouble, then I should help them", with these words he refered to the state of Kashmir being a Muslim state according to his beliefs.
The whole thing with the Kashmir struggle is that most people living there are indeed Muslims and the partition should have secured Pakistan with all the Muslim states but not Kashmir. Since then fights have been on and off, either between the armies of Pakistan, India, China and Russia. Not to forget the self-employing army of Mujahideen who still fight there as rebels posted in the mountains.
Back to our man. He lived in quite a big room though it looked a bit in shambles so we asked him how much he paid for rent. "No rent, for free". So our man turned out to be a squatter Mujaheddin, living with a few other friends in the bare building. Them having a more direct political aim within their country than the establishment fighting squatters in the west might lend themselves too.

Next morning we took a mini bus to the Harappa site. Late morning traffic, donkey and ox carts filled the roads and we passed many chai shops, some showing nothing but static on their tv's. From the mini buses you really get to see the most of Pakistani life as you bump ride through little villages and the smaller roads than unveil households and affairs of locals.

Harappa is one of the oldest civilization sites of the Indus Valley stretch that goes back over 3000 years BC and therefore matching the prime times of the Mesopotamia, Nile and Chinese civilizations. The Moenjodaro site is actually older and bigger, but as that was still a hefty 500 km's more west, we could not make it there timewise.
The site has a small museum which has many old artefacts of pottery, tools and jewelry. Also a lot of nice small statues of men and women that were very much sensual and erotic in a way that made us wonder how the Pakistani tourists take this in. The site of Harappa is perhaps not as overwhelming as any other famous site would be, but we very much enjoyed walking around on the old grouds and seeing the stone structures and forms of the ancient town. We encountered local kids sliding off a limestone hill with the use of plastic bottles or sheets. Ofcourse we also had to try it, so we did too ;) It made the kids laugh and they started doing more sliding tricks in front of Maarten camera. Most of the kids were poor and lived in a nearby tent camp and Maarten went with them to see their homes while I sat down with a shepherd and his two kids who were collecting firewood. The shepherd inspected every content of my bag and asked which I could give, which was none of it. After his inspection, my pocketknife was missing but I'm sure that he will make much better use of it than I did (which was hardly any use). Thievery can be fair.

We wanted to take a bus to Bahawalpur, but instead we got a lift in a police jeep from some kind highway patrol officers. We had to put our bags in the back and pushed their Chinese made machineguns aside. Kinda bizarre, moving guns away by hand to make space for your own stuff as if it's normal. Seeing arms everywhere in Pakistan is not a strange thing and you do get used to it. All the officers chatted to us in quite good English and they fed us with pakora and sweet stuff. Pakistani hospitality even reaches into the authorities. They took us to their newly built station, about which I joked to them that it got built with American terrorism money given to Musharraf, which they didn't like too much. It was a joke after all, with an underlying ironic truth or not. Who really knows, neither me nor they. There was a volleybal court in front of the station and we played with the officers, smashing balls to the other side and acting like a bunch of sportive folks in highway patrol uniforms. Volleybal is a much loved and respected sport in the Pakistani army and police, perhaps for teambuilding? We drank chai in their garden, ate all their cookies. Only having to pay back the hospitality by writing in their register book in which many positive message were written by foreigners and nationals. Also they had gotten any kind of help from them and repaid it with a kind scribble. So I scribbled a text filled with lush poetry and high praise. Just as I expected they would like. We joked about them writing a note to our mothers about our good behaviour but they took it serious and wrote a big page full of equally praising words in our book. Wow. After that they even dropped us off at the next town, Chichawali, from where our bus to Bahawalpur via Multan would leave. Not before the patrol officers also paid for 2 sandwiches and perhaps our bus tickets too. Can't even remember anymore other than them being utterly generous and helpfull to us.

On the grim and dark outskirts of Multan, we had a quick curry dinner at a chilly truckstop cafe (or *tuckstop* as the Pakistani's like to miscall it), filled with scrawny stray cats looking for chicken bones to gnaw on. Time to get to Bahawalpur.
We got there late but luckily found a decent hotel soon enough. Out into the dark street, everything was closed except for many street vendors selling food and a few shops. In one sweet shop, just like in India where you can find any kind of moisty and sugary pastries, we again got some free stuff to eat while the owner and locals talked and joked with us. Being a foreigner in a non tourist place is always more fun than on the beaten track.
Bahawalpur lies on the edge of the Choli desert that borders with the Indian Thar desert where we had been over a month ago. Cholistan is the original name of this Pakistani desert region and is one that shares a lot with Rajasthan's nomadic culture. In this region and actually in the whole southern half of Pakistani Punjab up to the middle, the people in this part have a distinct language, called Saraiki, which is a Sindh language. Music shops are filled with a variety of Saraiki folk cassettes. Kinda like how in western India you can find Rajasthani folk cassettes everywhere.

We didn't stay long in Bahawalpur and the next morning we took a mini bus to the small town of Uch Sharif. The town is famous for its old mosques and shrines. Also legend has it that Alexander the Great spent a day there though that can be nothing but mythical talk. At least it is sure that Muhammad Bin Qasim took the city in 710 AD and turned it into an Islamic centre for pilgrims and students in Asia. His conquest could be seem as the beginning of Islam in this region and most of Pakistan, which has remained so in the country to present day.
Uch, dusty and filled with goats and caged chickens. Men with longer and thicker beards and females dressed more in burqa's than on other cities. The natural adaptation for a holy town. We walked through the narrow streets, stepping aside for many donkey and man pulled street carts. Soon a little schoolboy offered to take us around. Not that we asked or needed it, but he didn't stress us like most so we let him be and he took us on a nice route through the maze of the bazaar. At a little shop of a retired army officer we sat down by his request and had some chai. He was from Chitral (the rural mountain area where the Kalasha tribes still live) and sold plastic toys in his shop. Like imitation Miffy stuff and so on. Imitation is the standard for any brand of anything. After leaving our bags there, the boy took us to the old site where was saw the mosque, shrines, tombs and graveyards. All in aquarian blue and indigo, the mozaique art was amazing and still intact. The mosque and tombs were quite damaged, halfed, by the hand of ancient floodings and earthquakes but still were beautiful in their crumbled state.

The afternoon was coming to an end and we quickly wanted to get to Panjnad Head before sunset, where the 5 big rivers of Punjab merg together into one river. We didn't see the Indus as that river only gets merged more south of the state at Mithankot. We got off at the beginning of the bridge, a long one of nearly one km. It's not allowed in Pakistan to take any pictures when standing on bridges, whether you just want to photograph the water or something else other than the bridge itself. Just a defensive and security rule as ordered by Pakistani law. But we did, photographing and filming, a few 100 metres down on the bridge on a dam ridge. The guards didn't seem to mind either. Many farm trucks and tractors were passing by on the bridge, with sugarcane reeds stacked 5 metres high while kids were running after them. Pulling sugarcanes loose by the plenty, the slow pace of the wagons allowing them to take their beloved sweet sticks. Kids walked with bundles of them, chewing the juice out of the raw cane flesh. Soon enough I got my own sugarcane too, pulling the strong bamboo strips off with my teeth. Mhhhh, sugarcane juice. Back at the beginning of the bridge we visited the many fish-only shops. Fresh river fish from the Punjab rivers. Mostly trouts and other fishes that we hadn't seen before. In my pescatarian hunger, as I do like to eat fish now and then, I ordered some trout. The way they make it here is slicing them up in flat slices, but batter and massala herbs on them and throw them in the frying pan. A more exotic way of how it's made in the UK. And way more tasty too. We even got the fish for free as a gift, another sweet gesture of hospitality that we encounter here day by day. At least we gave the owner and his kids some chocolate cookies in return for it.

As it was dark by then but still early in the evening, we opted to take a ride to Muzzafargarh instead of big size Multan, as Muzzafargarh was further on the route that we wanted to take the next day. We got pushed and helped into yet another bus, bouncy ride again though we slumbered into small naps. Quite a day full, travelling in bumpy buses, walking with backpacks and taking in new experiences with all our senses. Muzzafargarh was not even in the lonely planet guide, which is why we liked to spend a night there and experience the unwritten. The city seemed more like a transportation hub for long haul trucks going up north, or going down south. Endless caravans of brightly red and wooden colored Pakistan trucks, painted allover with symbols, animals and whatnot decorative signs. Also a long convoy of army trucks went by, filled with soldiers and equipment. We weren't sure whether they were going up north to the Afghani (Khyber) border (as local tribesmen were blocking roads on the Khyber route in rage of fluctuating food prices, a result of the upcoming elections and unstable government now). Or to Kashmir. or perhaps came from either destination. In Muzzafargarh, all we wanted was a good enough sleep as we would wake early at 6am to cath a bus up north. The trucks drove all night on the main road, where our hotel was. The flimsy door and thin windows allowing us all the road rumble. ;)

Next part of the northern trip into rural places in a few days, when we're back in Lahore. We're leaving (Rawalpindi today, hope there's enough buses to Lahore.

Oh yeah, new pics uploaded! You can already sneak peek our further trip to Mianwali, Kalabagh, the Indus river and Taxila. (click on above link ey!)

here some:
Bhutto billboard at Sahiwal

Harappa site

Kids sliding off the limestone hill

the friendly highway patrol post

albino local in snack shop, Bahawalpur

Uch Sharif





tailor shop with election posters

tame bird (woodpecker we think), I held it too

Panjnad head, river at sunset

side canal

2 comments:

Ashraf Ali said...

i am a project manager of uchsharif.com and i want post your blog entry on my site, can i do

SebCatLitter said...

hi there,
yes you can use the entry, we'd be happy to share it.
what is the address of your site?