I purchase an Emirates ticket to fly me to Multan, Punjab, Pakistan. Emirates gives me a seat on their partner airline, Flydubai because they do not fly to Multan. Flydubai reassigns my seat to a vague airline, Smartwings, an airline based in the Czech. Rather confusing but here I am flying in a squeezed seat and being served by bulky all-male flight crew who look like they belong as bouncers at a bar, rather than serving super-hot, decade-old chicken biryani that I discard after a first mouthful.
At Multan airport, the immigration officer gapes at me when he sees the immigration stamps on my passport from my Indian visits. He prods a fellow officer and shows him the offensive stamps. They both get embroiled in turning the pages in with much pain while the queue behind me gets longer; protests begin. So, I am relegated for secondary inspection to a confused intelligence officer who takes a picture of my passport, the visa, and me, and then shoos me away.
But this is only the start. My host, Syed Zaidi, a Pakistani from Birmingham gets a total of nine calls from the Pakistani intelligence agency, ISI, asking about me and my whereabouts. One comes when we are relishing a sumptuous dinner at Bundu Khan. Zaidi’s face goes from savoring a Bihari kabab to that of concern as he glances at me, speaking to whoever is on the other line in Punjabi. He assures me it’s a routine call afterward, nothing to worry about, but I can sense he has lost some of the delights from the earlier gastronomic exercise. I get one call, late in the night, from a Raza, who wants to meet me. I decline. He says he is from the intelligence and wants to know what my business is in Multan. I still decline to meet him, so he hangs up. I am now a bit rattled. Where did he get my USA number from? What in the world is going on? The government has already done a background check on me and deemed me safe to issue the visa, so what is this high-pressure harassment? It takes a call to the upper echelons the next day to assure me that the ISI is simply concerned about my safety which is prompting all the scrutiny. I relax a bit but I am still bothered.
My manzil is a village deep in the Punjab province of the country, Seetpoor, about a two-hour drive from Multan proper. It is a typical village anywhere in rural South Asia. Populated by farmers and casual laborers, the village has seen very little development in the last 100 years except perhaps the adoption of the cellphone as a means of communication. Syed Zaid got a few donors from the UK to build a three-classroom school for girls a couple of years ago. After much coaxing, the farming fathers and the all-important landlord grudgingly agreed to let girls get some basic education. I am here for due diligence about extending the school to add six additional classrooms, a library, and a computer lab, resources any school is incomplete without. This insha’Allah will happen if Zaidi and company play their cards right.
We stop to pray zohrain at a makeshift mosque. The lane leading to it is littered with goat poop. I try to avoid stepping on them but it soon looks like I am doing a medieval dance, which is much entertainment to the welcome party so I stop in embarrassment. I console myself that the poop will cleanse itself from my shoes and it is not najis. Kids play cricket in the dirt with the stuff and they seem healthy, so I’ll be okay, I reckon. The kids take me for a novelty and try and converse in Saraiki (a Punjabi dialect) but this is lost on me so we settle on a group photo instead.
The people in and around Seetpoor owe their livelihoods and level of happiness to doe-eyed Habeeb Bulbul (an alias, of course). He is a feudal landowner who owns approximately 700 acres of ancestorial agricultural land that he rents to the poor peasants of Seetpoor. In return, he receives a portion of the harvest from their labors (wheat, sugarcane, mustard seeds, cotton), in addition to cash rent. He approves the names of newborn babies born in his land, his blessings are a prerequisite for new matrimonial unions and he determines if his ‘subjects’ get permission to build a place of worship or a school for the kids. In all his life, the people who labored his land never disagreed with him, never raised their voices when talking to him, never made eye contact, and never ever sat on the same level as him. This appalling, rotten inequity endured in all the years of him being a regular namazi, fasting in Ramadhan, attending lectures in Muharram, and lamenting for Aba Abdullah (a). Until recently, he was adamant that secular education for girls was not appropriate in his realm. But creeping old age and coaxing from a soft-spoken clergyman had some effect, thus the approval of a new school for girls. My level of sadness has no bounds at this history and I am relieved when it is time to return to Multan and meet with the architect and contractor for the new school extension.
I have to travel by road to Islamabad for a meeting with the respected Shaykh Anwar Najafi, the CEO of Al Kauthar University whose NGO Jabir Bin Hayaan Trust will oversee all future CAI projects. This Seetpoor school, a college in Kohat, and medical projects in Parachinar are in the works. The road from Multan to Islamabad is one of the finest I have seen in a ‘third-world’ country and I am much impressed. The highway has no potholes, is clearly marked, and is smooth and spotless, I arrive in Islamabad in one piece.
I fly to Karachi the next day where I have compliance meetings that are uneventful. When the Emirates flight takes off for Dubai and onward home in Dar, I am relieved to depart. The intelligence called Zaidi again last night, asking about me and my whereabouts. I am not used to so much scrutiny about my whereabouts and activities.