The Pathan

Recently I read Frederick Forsyth’s new book titled ‘Afghan’. Reading it makes me feel that this once great author has lost his touch. It is a thriller alright, but nowhere in the league of his other books, books like Odessa File, Day of the Jackal etc where the author had carried out meticulous research and understood the place, people, time & the game. He is lost when it comes to places like South Asia & the Middle East, not really understanding the people or their psyche. The book has no real soul actually, and the author for good measure, has even included four Malayali’s as obscure, no name ‘extra’ side villains. Really, is it not obvious, if you have seen burly fierce looking Pathan’s, you know that no Brit or American can pass off as an Indian, let alone a Pathan, ever? The last quarter of the book meanders along, somewhat lost, like a cow in a British pasture, when it should be galloping like an Arab stead (The hero Martin, incidentally was the main character in Forsyth’s ‘Fist of God’ another so-so book).

But then this is not a critique of ‘Afghan’ the book (It is also NOT about our great cricketer Irfan Pathan), but about an Afghan Pathan who we had the good fortune to meet, many years ago, in the year 1988.

There is another Afghan who is now giving me a great insight to life in Afghanistan of the 80’s and that is Khaled Hossieni with his brilliant book
Kite Runner. But then this is not about Khaled H, my story is about a nameless Pathan, one I should be thankful to…

This was many years ago – a number of Afghans landed up in Saudi Arabia those days, painfully eking out a living doing tasks that are the most difficult, the most unwanted, working on roads and sites, moving stones, concreting and the such – working under the burning desert sun, sometimes miles away from the cities. The rule in Saudi is that if the temperature hits 50deg C (122deg F) all work outdoors should cease for safety reasons. I can assure you that it does not officially hit that level often, but always stays just under and I know that even if it does, Pathan’s would always work on gamely ….Most of the other Pathan’s, slightly higher in the class hierarchy maybe, drove trucks. It was one of them whom we came across in the burning deserts of Saudi Arabia.Even today, when I remember the incident, I thank that nameless Pathan and think, where is he now? Fighting somebody? Or dead? Still driving perhaps? Or living happily off his savings from Arabia, now tending his sheep and family?? I don’t know!!!

The outdoors of Arabia then was no place for a woman or a child. The place was full of expatriate men, working hard to make that country more livable for its future generations. Some of the more well to do expats had their families out there, and the living rules were always strict. The women were to go out only with their men folk, covered in an Abaya, and this was strictly administered.

The excellent road taking one from Riyadh to Dammam in the East coast is about 400 KM (~300 miles), with four tracks on either side. The up and down roads are separated by a central guttery portion. On either side of the road, it was white sandy desert – stretching many miles to the horizon both ways and when the winds raged on some days, the air was thick with twirling sand and visibility quite low. As you drove you saw the shimmering on the surface due to the heat.The wind whipped sand everywhere. If you were out, it got into your eyes, nose & ears. If you were driving, the paint on the car bonnet or for that matter even the windscreen got pitted sometimes. The windows were always up and the AC running. On this particular day, we had decided to drive for the first time, to Dammam in order to spend the weekend with friends out there. The sand storm had subsided and my elder son all of two years old (now a young man) who was quietly playing or sleeping was insistent on attending to natures call, and it had become very urgent. There were no gas stations for miles, so we had no choice but to pull over…I looked, the median seemed OK and clear and without any further ado, we quickly pulled over and walked over. Later, when I got back to the car, after a couple of minutes, I was alarmed, the tires were half covered with sand, and the car had simply sunk. Soon the alarm turned to terror when I saw that the car was sinking further. I jumped in, and tried to drive out, only making the situation worse. The car sank in deep and the tires just spun in-situ.

All kinds of fears came to my mind, I got my wife (all covered up in her black gown – Abaya) and son out of the car and we stood out in the burning sun, abandoning my car, the Isuzu Gemini that you can see in this picture. I tried waving frantically to motorists speeding by, but nobody stopped. While at it, I was wondering - what if some car with the wrong kind of persons stopped, this was a totally remote place with nothing other than desert on either side. Fast losing hope, with not a kindred soul stopping, I scanned the roads in desperation. There were no mobile phones then, nor were there any emergency call phones on the roadside. All we could do was wait & hope. Vehicles were speeding both ways at speeds exceeding 120kmph, drivers concentrating on the road ahead through the slight dusty gloom & catching up on lost time after the storm.

It took a good half hour of waiting before a huge & fully laden truck speeding towards Riyadh on the other side of the motorway suddenly screeched to a halt. I looked and saw that it had some Pathans inside and our terror multiplied many fold. I had of course heard from childhood days that these were fierce people and was wondering what was in store for us, when this truck simply took a wide U turn over the shallow median and came to a shuddering stop behind us, but on the edge of the road. The driver, a tall swarthy man with a flowing beard, hooked nose & piercing eyes, dressed in typical Afghan garb – (salwar kameez and turban) came towards us and the car and took in the situation. He smiled and asked in heavy accented Urdu – “Hindustani?? Salaam aleikum, ki hallu? Gheddi kyon rukka idhar? Gadbad hogaye?” he affirmed then that we had made a blunder of stopping and parking on this median which was all quicksand. He looked again, squatted down near the tires and saw that the car had sunk quite a bit. He felt around the back and found what he was looking for and went back to his truck, screamed to his assistant who was still dozing and together they came out with a bulky metal chain…Hooking the metal chain to the car (he had found the tow eyes under the bumper) he quickly & adeptly pulled the car out and on to the road with his truck. He then asked us to start the car and when we restarted the car, sand gushed out of the silencer, but the engine caught and purred as though nothing had ever happened.

Soon with a ‘Khuda hafiz’ and a stern ‘Be careful in future – don’t do silly things like this- you have a family to look after’ warning in Urdu, he swung back to the other side of the road and was gone, heading for Riyadh.

That was the one and only time I came across one of those majestic Pashtuns – I hope someday I will see Kabul and meet many more – who knows when, but until then, thank you my dost…I don’t know what made you feel like helping us, but you did and we will remember it.

It was also the first and last time we traveled alone long distance as a family on Saudi roads. After that we were always a convoy of two or more cars. But I guess things have changed out there – and are more expatriate friendly, I don’t know for sure though, all my old friends who worked there have moved on, gone back or settled in other lands


The Pathans (or Pushtun) are mountain people living in the eastern regions of Afghanistan. Most scholars believe that they probably arose from an intermingling of ancient Aryans with subsequent invaders. Pathans are known for their physical strength. They are tall, light-colored and handsome, good soldiers and for the most part bear arms from a young age. They are diligent and intelligent, faithful to an exemplary degree and are known in the world as outstanding hosts. They wear unique turbans, which have the cloths tied in such a way that indicates tribal identity.

The Sabkhah surface in the Saudi desert is not akin to quicksand, but its danger lies in the inability of the traveler to recognize its nature in time to avoid sinking into a morass. Global security suggests the following (not that it would have helped us) A car or truck can be freed from soft sand by letting about one fourth of the air out of the trapped tires (so how do you find the air valve or a shovel??). Winching out a stuck vehicle has proven to be the most effective means of recovery (You need to meet that elusive & nice Pathan!!). Another extrication procedure applicable to light vehicles stuck in very fine sand is the "rocking method." Pile sand around all four tires. Three to four men (where to find them??) then violently "rock" the vehicle from side to side, forcing the vehicle to bounce as high as possible. As the vehicle's weight shifts from side to side, the piled sand will flow under the tires of the vehicle as it is rocked. Eventually, the vehicle will be raised back to the level surface.

Pic of Pathan - Courtsey AOL group site, & thanks to others who posted the sand dune & storm pics

Comments

Naveen said…
i've had an experience with an afghan too ... a young pathan who believed that his purpose in life was to avenge the "attrocities" he was made to believe were being committed against muslims ..... it was during an interrogation procedure ..what struck me was the sincerity and conviction of the guy .... & was prepared to die for his "cause" ...his simplicity was what made th task of indoctrination easier for his "tutors" ...
Nanditha Prabhu said…
what an experience!and you have weaved your story in an interesting way!
narendra shenoy said…
Nicely narrated, Maddy. You have the gift for storytelling.

My two bits worth...

In Bombay, Pathans used to be known as Shylocks. They used to lend money to small street vendors and use violence to effect recovery.

And Tagore's "Kabuliwala" brought tears to my eyes. The Pathan there is a seller of dryfruits and forms a bond with a young girl because she reminds him of his daughter back home.. I guess everyone knows the story.
Hey, nice story, brought back my Middle East days. I was chuckling when you mentioned the 50 degrees funda - somehow, it would always go to 49.9, but never cross 50.

BPSK
Happy Kitten said…
Middle East too.. Maddy.. tell me which country is left for u..

but what an amazing narration.. brought tears to my eyes..

Yes we have Pathans in our company too and they are the Gate Keepers.. very faithful and fearless.. I have always respected them.. dont know why.. they look rugged but take a closer look and u know they r decent souls.
Happy Kitten said…
nd for ut info now the temp goes to even 60 degrees. and in Kuwait they have changed the working hours for those who work in the hot sun...which is a consolation
Maddy said…
Naveen, yes, you are right, some of these guys are easily convinced by the wrong causes...

Thanks Nanditha, Narendra & BPSK Actually another blog is on the way regarding the kabuluwalah...

HK - thanks a lot. wow 60deg would be awful. Actually I have been to Kuwait & that I will narrate someday. It is the most incredible of the stories.