My mother was white and my father was brown, my mother Dutch, my father Pakistani. If she’d had a choice, she would have been brown. She tried, sitting near swimming pools during short summers in Vienna and long ones in Islamabad, but her attempts came to a full stop with basal cell carcinoma, when sunscreen replaced sun as her best friend. My father’s brown was constant, except that when he grew older and gray, in the right light and on the right part of him, his color lightened. I, on the other hand, am in between. I pretended I didn’t know I was brown until we moved from Austria to Pakistan and I saw it all around and made it mine. But the truth is that it took leaving behind Pakistan to claim the country and color as my own.
Color is a fact, a given, for my American-born children. We didn’t wake up one morning and decide our children were ready for the news: You’re brown. Almost as soon as they could talk, they put their little arms next to mine and decided they were darker. They were always right, because when summer came and my color deepened, so did theirs and our skin tones never matched. Next to their father’s, their arms and legs were not a match, but close enough. “That’s okay,” my sons said about my outsider status and patted my arm because they must have thought I needed comforting. Soon enough, they asked, “Where are we from?” I’d say, “You are from where we are from, Pakistan. And also from where you were born, here.” Naeem, my husband, would remember my mother and add, “Also from Holland, where Nani is from.” There is no flag for their combination and, anyway, the white in that equation, the one-fourth of them that is my mother, was ignored even then. “She’s the brownest person we know,” I heard them say once, as if they knew all along that color is a state of mind, not pigment.
Afterward, I wondered whether my father understood there was danger at the Afghan border. He thrived on adventure, had joined the Merchant Marine at age 16 and later driven his blue Alfa Romeo across Europe and a battered VW bus through the Serengeti. He was famous for making ill-considered decisions and delighted in emerging untouched from disaster. When I was a baby in England, he’d taken my mother out in a tiny sailboat and nearly capsized in a storm off the Cornish coast.
My father brought me with him to Pakistan in 1987, when I was 13, deeming me old enough to experience the developing world. He dashed off to his World Bank meetings while I sunbathed poolside in a raspberry colored tank-suit, sipping fizzy lemonade at our gated hotel. If I raised a hand, a silent waiter brought me sweet-and-sour chicken. Deep in my teenage cocoon, I listened to Madonna on my Walkman, applied Coppertone oil SPF 2, and spoke to no one. By the third day I had a sunburn and cried myself to sleep slathered in aloe.
It feels important that I’m the only one left who knows the bomb story. My dad is dead and my mom has dementia and can’t remember or articulate the past. Now the keepers of my childhood are gone, all I have is my own chinked memory, with imaginative caulking to fill in the gaps.
At The Guardian, Samira Shackle profiles Muhammad Safdar, an ambulance driver in Karachi, Pakistan, where religious violence, workplace disasters, and multiple explosions are just another day on the job. The Edhi Foundation’s ambulance service, which refuses state money and donations from businesses it deems unethical, is funded largely by donations from “the common man.” Standard work shifts run between 18 and 36 hours, and drivers earn about $1.30 US per day.
The impact of the explosion sent Muhammad Safdar flying backwards. He looked up from where he had landed and saw that the windows of his parked ambulance had shattered. As he tried to pick himself back up, fellow volunteer drivers working for the Edhi ambulance service gathered around him; it looked as if Safdar was bleeding. But he had not suffered any external injuries. “Human flesh got stuck to me,” he recalls now, as we sit in the ambulance control centre in downtown Karachi. “My friends were checking me for injuries, but it was pieces of other people. I was trembling hard and I couldn’t hear my own voice when I spoke. It sounded juddering. I could only hear whistles.”
Sporting red T-shirts emblazoned with bold white letters reading “EDHI”, these workers are a familiar sight at Pakistan’s all-too-common disaster scenes. Here in Karachi, a megalopolis of around 20 million people, there is no state ambulance service.
Like other Edhi ambulance drivers, Safdar is technically a volunteer and works for a basic salary of 4,300 Pakistani rupees a month (£33). A private driver would earn 10,000–15,000 rupees. This basic salary covers the high-risk rescue work; the easier “patient services” jobs – moving people between hospitals and transporting corpses – incur a small fee, so drivers receive a commission of around 100 rupees (76p) per trip. Sometimes patients tip. But clearly, money is not the motivating factor.
In trying to prove that the ISI knew of Bin Laden’s whereabouts and protected him, I struggled for more than two years to piece together something other than circumstantial evidence and suppositions from sources with no direct knowledge. Only one man, a former ISI chief and retired general, Ziauddin Butt, told me that he thought Musharraf had arranged to hide Bin Laden in Abbottabad. But he had no proof and, under pressure, claimed in the Pakistani press that he’d been misunderstood. Finally, on a winter evening in 2012, I got the confirmation I was looking for. According to one inside source, the ISI actually ran a special desk assigned to handle Bin Laden. It was operated independently, led by an officer who made his own decisions and did not report to a superior. He handled only one person: Bin Laden. I was sitting at an outdoor cafe when I learned this, and I remember gasping, though quietly so as not to draw attention. (Two former senior American officials later told me that the information was consistent with their own conclusions.) This was what Afghans knew, and Taliban fighters had told me, but finally someone on the inside was admitting it. The desk was wholly deniable by virtually everyone at the ISI — such is how supersecret intelligence units operate — but the top military bosses knew about it, I was told.
If you survey informed Americans, you will hear Pakistanis described as duplicitous, paranoid, self-pitying and generally infuriating. In turn, Pakistanis describe us as fickle, arrogant, shortsighted and chronically unreliable.
Neither country’s caricature of the other is entirely wrong, and it makes for a relationship that is less in need of diplomacy than couples therapy, which customarily starts by trying to see things from the other point of view. While the Pakistanis have hardly been innocent, they have a point when they say America has not been the easiest of partners.