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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

President's purges: how the attempted Turkey coup changed Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

President Erdoğan was once feted by European leaders. Now he calls them Nazis. 

On the evening of Friday 15 July 2016, tanks began rolling into Istanbul. The state broadcaster announced a coup was underway.  Turkey’s irascible president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was on a post-Ramadan holiday in the resort of Marmaris. Government ministers in the capital, Ankara, tried to prepare themselves for what they expected to be the last night of their lives. 

Then, at 12.37am, an anchor on CNN Turk News held up a smartphone. The camera zoomed in, to reveal Erdoğan on a Facetime video. His face was blurry, and behind him was a plain, white curtain, but his message was clear. “I urge the Turkish people to convene at public squares and airports,” he told watchers. “I never believed in a power higher than the power of the people.”

Erdoğan made a gamble that the army would not fire on the crowds. For the most part, it worked. Other politicians echoed his statement. Opposition parties condemned the coup, and demonstrators took to the street. Above Istanbul, a plane circled – the president, having escaped the army in Marmaris, was coming home to the city which made his career. 

The democratic moment swiftly faded.  Days later, Erdoğan banned all academics from leaving Turkey. More than 58,000 public sector workers were estimated to be kicked out of jobs, and 1,577 university deans were forced to resign. 

A year on from the coup, Erdoğan has succeeded in giving himself new constitutional powers. Freedom of the press is all but dead. He is increasingly characterised as an authoritarian abroad. Unsurprisingly, he sees himself differently.  “I don’t care if they call me dictator or whatever else,” he told university students in November. “It goes in one ear, out the other. What matters is what my people call me.”

Erdoğan was born in 1954, in Istanbul. Educated at a religious school, and from a working-class background, his early passion for football was eclipsed by politics.  As a religious conservative in a militantly secular state, he saw the limits of Turkey’s liberalism first hand.  In 1997, three years after he was elected mayor of Istanbul, his decision to read out an Ottoman poem comparing believers to soldiers earned him 10 months in prison for inciting religious hatred (in 2016, he sought a prosecution of his own against a German comedian who read out an offensive poem about him). 

Erdoğan, though, was pragmatic as well as radical. Building on his record as an effective mayor, he established the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001 and won the first of many elections the following year. He presided over an economic boom. Fatefully, he struck up an alliance with Fethullah Gülen, the leader of an Islamic social and education movement, who shared his antipathy to the secular elite and the military. With Gülen’s help, Erdoğan took on the “deep state” in a way previous democratic leaders had failed to do. Meanwhile, he was feted by world leaders as an example of a moderate, Islamic, democratic politician. His wife took tea with Laura Bush. Pundits started to talk of “Erdoğanism”. 

The years of Erdoğan the Magnificent could not last. Turkey’s economy wobbled, and in 2013, a year marked by mass protests, Erdoğan accused Gulen of trying to bring down the government. By 2016, the year of the coup, he was increasingly isolated from his traditional Western allies. In March, he told local politicians that phrases like democracy and freedom have “absolutely no value any longer”. 

Western newspapers increasingly caricatured Erdoğan as an Ottoman Vladimir Putin, but his country was also being rocked by forces outside presidential control. The Syrian revolution, welcomed by Erdoğan, had warped into a nightmarish conflict. An estimated 2.7 million Syrians had sought refuge in Turkey. The war, in turn, had exacerbated tensions with Turkey’s Kurds, and fed terrorism. After Erdoğan’s comments about democracy, he continued: “Those who stand on our side in the fight against terrorism are our friend. Those on the opposite side, are our enemy.”

After Erdoğan re-established control in the early hours of 16 July 2016, he quickly blamed the usual fifth column, the Gülenists  (Gülen, exiled in Pennsylvania, US, said his philosophy was “antithetical to armed rebellion”).  But he also attacked the West for failing to support his purges.  “This coup attempt has actors inside Turkey, but its script was written outside,” he told a group of multinationals operating in Turkey in early August

On 29 September, six weeks after the attempted coup, Erdoğan extended Turkey’s state of emergency by a further three months (the state of emergency is still in place, and is due to expire on 19 July 2017). By November,  he was preparing the ground for a further consolidation of power – a referendum on the constitution which would abolish the role of prime minister and give the president more executive powers. 

Meanwhile, civil society was feeling the effects of the coup. After the summer, children returned to schools to find their teachers fired and a new course about Erdoğan’s heroic defence of Turkey on the curriculum. The firing of public sector workers continued - dismissals were announced in the Turkish government’s law newsletter, the Official Gazette. In December, a cafeteria boss was detained after telling police officers he would not serve the president a cup of tea.

Erdoğan’s crackdown might have slipped from the world’s attention, if not for his determination that the world should take note. While in its early years, the AKP prioritised good diplomatic relations, by the spring of 2017 Erdoğan was accusing Germany of “fascist actions”, and the Dutch of being “Nazi remnants”. The backdrop to this dispute was the decision of European authorities to ban rallies designed to win over the three million Turkish voters based overseas

In April, after a campaign criticised by election monitors, Erdoğan won the referendum by a Brexit-style margin– 51 per cent to 49 per cent. Despite his victory, the result was seen as a backlash against the heavy-handed president. Erdoğan responded by blocking Wikipedia

Read more: A year after the failed coup, the purge goes on

One year after unarmed Turks stood in front of tanks in the name of democracy, around 150 journalists are in jail (Erdoğan told the BBC: “No one is jailed because of journalism here.”) But perhaps the best illustration of the Turkish president's new confidence was his trip to visit another outspoken populist in Washington DC, Donald Trump. A group of protestors gathered outside the Turkish embassy. Erdoğan’s bodyguards beat them up. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496