A Long Way From Home
SOURCE: The Atlantic, August 26, 1998
One sizzler of an afternoon in Istanbul, I met a man from Pakistan. It had been a couple of weeks since his country and mine had, as antagonists, barged their way into the nuclear club. It was an awkward meeting.
Earlier that afternoon I had boarded a train in the city’s outlying Atakoy district, with the intention of making my way to the historical center of Sultanahmet. Pressed into a corner, I shared a carriage with what seemed like the entire population of Istanbul. Oxygen was in short supply; the rancid smell of sweat floated in the air like some noxious gas. I felt faint.
Relief came sooner than expected, in the form of a sudden stop, a low Turkish mumble over the public announcement system, and a sudden rush for the exits. “Bomb, bomb, terrorist. Very dangerous!” a young man explained to me. “No train,” he added — and, indeed, even as I stood bewildered on the rapidly depopulating platform, the train began to pull away, its carriages empty.
Standing on that platform — unsure of my location, being jostled by a crowd of unconcerned passersby — I was confused and disoriented. So it was not without some comfort that I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard a familiar accent asking for directions. I turned around and found a small man in a baseball hat, clutching a tattered map. The man looked as bewildered as I felt; his face glistened under a film of sweat. The features of that shiny face, like his accent, were unmistakably from home.
“I am a tourist also,” I said to him. “I am from your country. Two Indians lost in Istanbul,” I laughed. “What do we do now?”
“I am Pakistani,” he said, and there followed a silence. His name was Javed, and he was in Turkey for an interview at the Canadian embassy. He wanted to go to Toronto, where he planned to work as an accountant. Like me, he had been on his way to Sultanahmet, and after our initial awkwardness we decided to share a taxi.
At first we exchanged pleasantries about cricket, food, and Turkish women. Then I broke the ice. “Our countries have had some problems recently, haven’t they?” I asked.
Javed’s response surprised me. “It’s for reasons like this that I want to go to Canada,” he said. “In my country, opportunities are not so good. Now they will be spoiled even more.”
At the time, opinion polls in Pakistan and India were suggesting near total-support for the tests. In the past week I had read article after article about the celebrations in Pakistan, and about the rising aggressiveness toward Indians that had accompanied those celebrations.
“I have always wanted to visit Pakistan,” I told him, “but now I am frightened.” Just the week before, I added, an Indian citizen had been attacked and badly beaten in Karachi, Javed’s hometown. “If I visited, I would not trust anyone,” I said. “And I do not think that anyone would trust me.”
“Not true, not true,” Javed said, raising his high-pitched voice and leaning forward excitedly in his seat. “Everyone in Pakistan will treat you very well if you come. We are all very hospitable. American, Indian, Turkish — it doesn’t matter who you are. What do you think? We will treat you very well.”
Javed seemed offended. There was an uncomfortable silence in the taxi. And as we rode along the waterfront — past the shirtless men gripping their fishing rods, and through the crumbling Byzantine city walls — I began to regret steering the discussion in this direction. Why disagree about substance, I thought, when one can find common ground in banalities?
Then Javed spoke up. “And how do you think a Pakistani is treated in India?” he asked. I asked if he had ever visited India. He hadn’t, but he had long wanted to go to the state of Rajasthan, to see his relatives. “I have an aunt, an uncle, and many cousins in Jaipur,” he said, referring to the state capital. Now he was afraid to visit there.
My family was originally from Pakistan; my grandparents fled the northern province of Peshawar at independence, joining the millions of migrants uprooted by the British partition of India. I told this to Javed. I pointed out to him that we were both scared to visit countries that, under different circumstances, we might have called home. To me this was a poignant indication that we had much to talk about. But Javed seemed unimpressed. “Yes, yes,” he said, and stared vacantly out of the window. “One day I will visit. One day.”
Our taxi wound a final half kilometer through narrow, crowded streets. Javed and I didn’t speak much. The tension had eased, but the uncomfortable silence remained. It was like a surrender; we had so much to say that we ended by having nothing to say. “Have you ever been to Montreal?” Javed asked, his face still turned away toward the bustling streets and the harried-looking men and women outside. “I hear there is a lot of snow.”
We alighted in front of the Hagia Sophia, once the world’s greatest church, then a great mosque, now a stunning museum. I asked Javed if he had been inside. He hadn’t, but he said he would. I gave Javed my address. I wrote it on a crumpled napkin, stained by the slippery tripe soup I had eaten at lunch. “If you come to India,” I said, “you can contact me.”
He shook my hand and started to walk away. I hesitated for a moment, and then, running after him on the well-manicured lawns, asked for his address. Javed did not look up from the grass. I think I heard him let out a sigh. “Anyway, God willing, I will be moving to Canada,” he said. “What’s the use?”