November 16, 2018

My Great Quetta Adventure

At the Quetta Press Club's cavernous general secretary's room a relaxed senior reporter SZ explains how they actually like to kill people there:

“You see, we have a counter at the airport arrivals lounge,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “And as soon as you enter we check out if you LOOK Punjabi, pull the gun out of the drawer and… ” He cocks his thumb and fires his index finger.

“No… no… wait!” interjects another senior reporter SS. “We don't wait till they come into the arrival lounge, we pick them off as soon as they get OFF the plane.”

A round of guffaws circles the room.

I am more than familiar with the dark humour that develops over time in a city that the outside world has given a reputation more soiled than a brothel bed sheet. (Please note that I did not say 'earned' a reputation). The jokes highlight the absurdity of the way Quetta is perceived.

SZ had launched into the airport joke as he was telling us about an outsider Punjabi reporter who had refused to come to Quetta for a meeting of journalists because he thought that he would be instantly killed. As someone from Karachi, which has a reputation that competes with Quetta's as a bloody city, I am more than familiar with people's irrational fears about their security.

It was thus with great pleasure that I went on a romp to discover the real Quetta this Wednesday and Thursday.

Women, what women?
I was invited by the Women Media Center's Fauzia Shaheen to help give young Quetta women journalists and mass communication students some tips on how to cover an election. Yes, I know what you are thinking: women journalists and Balochistan cannot be used in the same sentence. Indeed, there are only two women reporters working in television channels in all of Balochistan: Seema Kanwal (Dunya) and Saadia Jehangir (SAMAA TV). But there are plenty of other women in print and many aspiring reporters. The only problem is that they are not necessarily that visible as they work in the Urdu or vernacular press, which excludes them from the mainstream English-medium visibility. Indeed as we got into our session I had invited reporter ZB from my newspaper, The Express Tribune, to come have a chat with them and Hashim Kakar from The News was also present. Both men remarked that they had never seen so many women journalists and mass communication students in one place before.

And thus it was delightful for me to be able to go around the city and actually get a first person feel for the place. I went with an open mind and was rewarded. Naturally, just like any city in the world Quetta has its troubled spots and yes, I do not want to suggest for a second that it is not faced with some extreme challenges from terrorists and death squads. I do not want to belittle the grief of the Hazaras of Quetta. That is a reality and sadly now a part of the city's history, but so is Abbas Town in Karachi. But living in Karachi has taught me one thing: you cannot and should not write off an entire city, its history, culture and people because of the small groups that want to destroy precisely that – its spirit.

And so, I thought I would write about what I saw and heard in Quetta to tell you of the absolutely wonderful time I had there in two days and that I would return there whenever I get a chance and no matter how dangerous it becomes.

Peaceful Quetta
Quetta is a 1.5-hour tiny plane ride from Karachi and the service is kind of erratic. As soon as I landed and walked out of the small terminal I was stunned by the quiet peacefulness of the airport that is ringed on one side by the hills. When you exit the Karachi airport, for example, you are instantly hit by the frenzy of the city at the intersection on to Shahrah-e-Faisal. But in Quetta as we trundled down airport road and turned on to Shahrah-e-Zarghun all I could see were dreamy hills in the distance, mud walls the colour of crème caramel and men whizzing by on motorcycles with mittens (more on that later).

Two check posts later I was deposited at the Serena Hotel, which is built like a mud fortress (no large windows) and gives you an unnatural insulation from the outside world. I was warned that it was haunted and should not take a room that overlooks the swimming pool. Fortunately I was on the ground floor.

The entire day was spent with the young women at the Lourdes Hotel on Staff College Road (built by a Britisher, owned once by a Parsi and named after the French, according to the man at the front desk). They still use an old black telephone in the reception area and the tea is cardamom-laced and soul stirring.

Once free from work, my newspaper's reporter ZB took me around to see Quetta. I was told that the Yaseenzais, Kasis and Kurds and Shahwanis were the original tribes of the city and that Quetta – the name – is, according to Robert Jackson, a variation of the Afghan word kot, meaning court-house or fort. I think that Sir Charles Napier was a scoundrel and a racist and ethnicist and imperialist but it was interesting to read that he once bitterly said that when God made the world He shot all the rubbish into Balochistan because the landscape is wild, stony and infertile.

Liaquat bazaar: earthquakes and mandirs
Back outside in Liaquat bazaar we wove in and out of the streets. It is here that you can see the old houses of Quetta with their clever ventilation systems. “They help with the smell from the gas heaters as well,” ZB explained. “But a lot of these old houses are empty now and this is prime property.” Negotiations are going on these days between the owners and shopping plaza builders. Soon this heritage will disappear.

For the most part in this area the old houses are limited to the ground floor. This rule was made after the 1935 earthquake which has been written about in detail by Robert Jackson in his book 'Thirty Seconds at Quetta; the story of an earthquake' (published by Sohail Ahmad and Rohail Ahmad, 2002). Thirty thousand people died that day in what was then the largest garrison town in India with 12,000 soldiers.

Later in the Express News office, which is also old style, the reporters joked about how if there were an earthquake again they would all die because the old style of architecture has gone. “The houses used to be made of gatta and teen,” said senior reporter IR. “So if there was a quake and the roof fell it wouldn't crush you.” Not like the anti-seismic cement and concrete and girder system used today.

Motorcycle mittens
Green balls
A city
I was told that Quetta was built for 50,000 people but now has 2.5 million inhabitants. The 1980s brought an influx of Afghan refugees and that put pressure on the housing market. The telltale signs of a city straining at the seams are beginning to show – the first being its car population. There is no proper parking system in Quetta.

But I was delighted to note that whoever built its footpaths knew what they were talking about. On main Jinnah Road especially, I noticed that they were just the right height and sloped at the end to enable wheelchair access. And just in case you were wondering, of whatever I saw of Quetta, I have to say it is a superbly clean city. I didn't see a lot of people wearing trousers but I have to say the men look much more handsome in their full-pleated shalwars and headgear; it gives them much more character.

Dinner – the Lehri magic
It takes 3.5 hours for Sajji to cook and damn it tastes fine afterwards. Meet Kamran Lehri, one of the brothers Lehri, who own Quetta's best Sajji joint. His father Haji Amanullah Lehri started the business in 1973 and they are looking to expand today. “We just rub salt in,” he told me in the Prince Road original outlet when I asked him what made their sajji the best.
Before I left Quetta I blew a month's salary on a Balochi frock and embroidered neck pieces. Much of my enthusiasm can be misplaced, I understand, for I am not that stupid to assume that I can know Quetta in just 24 hours. But doesn't it say something about the city that it won me over in less than a day despite everything I had heard and read about it?