Here’s an extract from Bilal Ghafoor’s novel Locked in Amber: Travels in Pakistan…
Another day, another bus. I was not paying attention or I would have avoided it, but I sat down next to a man who seemed at first to be an American.
He smiled his clean teeth at me and I nodded at him, relieved that there was here an outsider, more strange and out of place than I was. He wore a blue, checkered shirt and posh, Gore-tex trousers. The only thing that I liked about him was that he, like me, carried very little luggage.
‘Khunjerab? How far is it? How long?’ he asked me in slow English.
I was loath to answer him, to reveal myself to him and to the other passengers that crowded into this minbus, generating a tepid mass of heat that was a slight barrier against the cold.
‘Khunjerab?’ he asked again, looking less hopeful.
‘I am not sure. I am a traveller here too,’ I finally replied.
He looked as if he did not understand.
‘English?’ he asked.
I nodded glumly.
‘Wow, cool. Are you really English?’
I nodded again. I did not feel like lying this time.
‘Man, can you help me out? I haven’t had an answer that I can understand for days.’ He looked relieved and the frown that had been floating under his golden beard disappeared.
‘What do you want to know?’ I asked, feeling the shock of English again. It had only been six days since I had spoken it last, in Abbotabad. A couple of heads turned in our direction, so I lowered my voice.
‘Man, is this the right bus to Tashkurgham?’
‘I am not sure where that is. This goes to Khunjerab then I suppose that we will have to change buses at the border,’ I whispered. One head turned and would not turn back. I was being stared at by a Pakistani. I hated it and almost wanted to reach out and push him away.
‘Thanks a lot. Where are you going?’ he asked me.
‘Just to the border.’
‘Home,’ I replied before realising with a start that I had referred to Karachi as ‘home’. Despite everything.
Others in the bus were beginning to tune into our conversation and more of them must have been wondering why I was dressed so badly when I was clearly either educated and therefore rich enough to speak English or that I was a foreigner. I ignored them. Then I realised that they were not at all hostile; they must have assumed that I was playing the same role to this white man as the driver of the jeep in Abbotabad must have been for the Spaniard couple.
Like a scab which heals inside faster than on the outside, stretching the wound in different directions, I had been pulled into an odd shape. For the first time, it felt as if the outside and the inside were beginning to match slightly, that there was some sort of equilibrium. With this, I fell into a dreamless sleep, to the growl of the diesel engine and the chatter of my new companion.
I awoke with a start under a darkening sky. Several hands were grabbing at me and shaking. The bus had stopped. I looked out but there was no cafe, no stopping point of any kind, lanterns casting yellow light out, just the far off, thin purple line at the horizon of a sun sinking away.
I turned to the three men standing over me.
‘Teach this white man some respect,’ one of them screamed.
I could hardly see them in this light and was not sure what was happening. I thought, irrationally, for several minutes that the white man was me.
‘What has happened?’ I asked into the darkness.
The thin air crackled with anger as several angry voices came back at me. Then there was a flare of light as someone lit a cigarette and the fragrance poured over the plaintiffs and they were subdued.
A single voice came at me: ‘Your man here, he has been whistling at the women in the villages by the road.’
‘Who has?’ I asked, still dazed, a faraway slice of my brain sharpened by the danger.
‘This man who is with you. The foreigner.’
‘Who?’ I asked again, wondering desperately if my snoring had been high-pitched enough to be misinterpreted as whistles.
‘Your white man, the foreigner,’ came the voice before a cold hand was put to the side of my face and pushed very firmly to the left. Then I saw the frozen outline of the American.
‘What the hell have you been doing?’ I demanded of him in my default plummy English.
‘Who? Me?’ he asked indignantly. ‘These guys are mad at you, not me.’
‘No, they are saying that you have been whistling at their women folk.’
‘I wasn’t whi…’ he stopped. ‘I did let out a couple of whistles, but that was half an hour ago. It was at some kids. They were waving at us when we drove by.’
‘Oh shit,’ I said. ‘Haven’t you read the Dos and Don’t from the Lonely Planet Guide? You Americans are all the same.’
‘I’m Canadian. From Regina. And no, I haven’t fucking read it.’
‘Well, you should have done. Whistling is bad.’ I turned back to the black shadows standing in front of me and switched back to Urdu. ‘He didn’t know,’ I protested. ‘He says that he was whistling to the children.’
There was a pause at this, then, ‘that may be. But it is your job to explain to our guest that he cannot do such things here.’ Most of the passionate anger was gone but he, whoever he was, was still irritated.
I switched back to English. ‘Ok, theyre mad at me. It is my fault as your ‘guide’, it seems. You are forgiven as you are a foreigner and cannot be expected to know the customs. But I am in the shit. Apparently I should have told you not to whistle.’ I kept my voice controlled and neutral, mostly because I had no idea who I was supposed to be annoyed with.
‘Youre kidding,’ came back ‘my foreigner’.
Back into Urdu: ‘Look, I am not with this man. I got onto the bus well after he did. I got on at Passu.’
Eventually, the indignant bus driver started the engine again and we moved off slowly, but that was only after I had spent ten more minutes trying, unsuccessfully, I think, to persuade the crowd that I was no guide and that if they were so offended by this man whistling, that I would interpret but not be held responsible.
In the morning, when the bus stopped for the final time on our way north, just past a huge sign proclaiming that we were at 16,000 feet above sea level and that China was 2km ahead, I tried to catch the eye of my accuser but all the faces were full of smiles and the only person annoyed with me, it seemed, was the Canadian, who perhaps might have thought that I was trying to inveigle my way into a job as his guide. We had passed a couple of white people cycling the route, crouched over the handlebars of their mountain bikes, laden with paniers, but here, so near to the roof of the world, there did not really seem to be anyone who could quite quite understand both sides of the story.