A to B: Cars like tanks

Travel through Pakistan is intimately segregated by class, writes Samira Shackle. If you're rich, you just keep driving.

We are driving along the highway, a big, multi-laned road that could be in any major European country, when we realise we’ve missed the turn for Attock. There is nowhere to turn off the highway for miles; by the time we finally manage to get off the road and drive back the way we came, it is getting dark. I tweet an inane joke about being lost in north-western Pakistan. A response comes back: “I’m not sure you want to be roaming around that area at this time of night.”

Now we are on the Grand Trunk (GT) Road, one of the oldest roads in South Asia, which stretches from Bangladesh across northern India and Pakistan, and up to Afghanistan. In Pakistan it spans the most populous province of Punjab, from Lahore in the south, through Islamabad and up to the north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). It pre-dates the highway and you can tell; the road is more uneven, there are pedestrians walking on dusty pavements, and the motorbikes which are an ever-present feature of driving in Pakistan’s cities – thankfully absent from the highway – are back in force.

Not only are we lost, we are lost in a militarised zone, Kamra. The site of a large airbase, and cantonment, the town was attacked by militants a few years previously. Pakistan’s atomic assets are stored nearby. The authorities are jumpy about foreigners being in the area.

We pull up near the pavement, and in broken Urdu, I ask a man the way to Attock, where we are visiting friends. He gestures up ahead, and tells us to take the next left. “Isn’t that the airbase?” I ask. He nods. “You’ll need your ID cards.” “We’re foreigners,” I say, “we don’t have ID cards, but we have passports.” He shrugs. “You can try.”

In front of the airbase is a huge statue of an eagle, reminiscent of the Third Reich. We drive up to the toll booth. This was an error: the guard is unimpressed to say the least. “Who are you? What are you doing?” We’re trying to go to Attock, to visit a friend, I explain, thrusting our passports at him. He looks suspiciously into the car, taking in the box of cherries, the discarded sunglasses, the printed out Google maps. We can almost see him register that we are idiots rather than spies, and that this isn’t a fight worth fighting. Wearily, he tells us foreigners are not permitted to drive through the airbase, and sends us back on our way. Eventually, we get there. Our host’s first question: “Have you been followed?”

Travelling around Pakistan, one of the main priorities is to “keep a low profile”. You don’t want to attract the attention of the security services, terrorists, or, perhaps the highest risk, local criminals. In the face of poor law and order enforcement, foreigners and those with means – those most likely to face a threat – take steps to ensure their own security.

The road trip from Islamabad to Attock and nearby village Shadi Khan, on the border of Punjab and KPK, was one of many I took while living in Pakistan’s capital city. The network of highways allows easy travel around the province, and the relatively stable security situation – Punjab is one of the safer parts of Pakistan, and the National Highway Police well-respected – means it’s possible to travel around the province by road. This was a shock after living in the southern port city of Karachi, where the very idea of a road trip was unthinkable. The city, Pakistan’s economic hub, is volatile and dangerous, a melting pot of ethnic and sectarian tension, intense poverty and ostentatious wealth, and warring gangs and mafias vying for control. During the months I lived there, numerous work trips were cancelled due to law and order problems on the roads: a running gun battle here, an explosion there.

Across this intensely class-bound country, your means of transportation is a marker of status. One measure is that if you are rich, you have a car but do not drive it yourself (a driver does that), if you are middle class, you drive your own car, and if you are poor, you cannot afford a car at all. At the bottom end of the spectrum are the private minibuses which rocket around with passengers clinging to the sides and the roof, or the auto-rickshaws which buzz around the city. Those who can manage it may invest in a motorbike. It is hair-raising to see a family of five crammed onto a single motorbike, babies and all, the women riding side-saddle to preserve their modesty, weaving in and out of traffic.

Islamabad, the capital, is a planned city, built on grid system with greenery everywhere. As in many other countries, foreigners often break the norms, riding motorbikes or bicycles or even – gasp – walking. In Karachi, a sprawling megalopolis, this would be unthinkable. A functioning, business-like city, it has huge roads with five lanes of traffic, which fast descend into insane jams, particularly given the frequent road blocks and security alerts. Many of the wealthy always travel with a driver or even an armed guard, to give at least the semblance of extra security. An air-conditioned car feels like a small tank against the chaos outside, but in fact, you are not really protected at all. Muggings at gun point, which are so routine in the city that many people carry two phones so they can give one over to robbers without much inconvenience, mostly happen in queues of traffic: a man on a motorbike drives up to your window and points a gun at you. There is not much a driver can do in that situation. Kidnapping, the other main threat, can also happen while you are enclosed in the apparent safety of a car. A family friend was kidnapped by terrorists on his way to work; gunmen surrounded the car and knocked out the driver.

Like the highways across Punjab, the main roads in Karachi are wide, freshly tarmac-ed, and highly functional. But despite the self-contained bubbles, the cars which the wealthy always travel in, safety is still a concern. Driving to the beach on the outskirts of the city one day, we had to pass through Lyari, a particularly dangerous part of town. My friend, driving the car, explained: “It’s fine, but you don’t stop the car for anyone or anything. Even if someone smashes into the back, you just keep driving.”

There is something strange about never really walking on the street. I lived in Pakistan for the best part of a year but never got the smell of the place, the feel of it, except for walking between car and destination. But you can see plenty from behind the windows of a car. It is a beautiful country, with varied terrain and people with remarkable fortitude. You just keep driving.

This post is part of A to B, the New Statesman's themed week of posts on transport and travel.

Two men celebrate Pakistan's Independence Day in Karachi. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt