Thousands of people blocked the road, swallowing the SUV in front of us. They climbed on the roof, pelted rose petals at the windshield, and tried to shake or kiss the hand of the man in sunglasses sitting calmly in the passenger seat. Some touched the car reverently, like a shrine. I knew I couldn’t just watch this from behind a car window. I had to get out and feel the love.
Wearing a black headscarf and a long red Pakistani top over jeans, I waded through the crowd to the vehicle carrying the most popular man in Pakistan. Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry was an unlikely hero, with a tendency to mumble, a prickly ego, and a lazy eye. President Pervez Musharraf, the mustachioed military ruler known for his swashbuckling promises to round up the country’s miscreants, had recently suspended Chaudhry as the country’s chief justice, largely because Musharraf feared that Chaudhry could block his impending attempt to be reelected president while remaining army chief. But Chaudhry had refused to go away quietly, becoming the first top official in Pakistan to object when Musharraf demanded a resignation. Now Chaudhry was a celebrity, the focal point for the fact that most Pakistanis wanted to throttle Musharraf and permanently end military rule. Anywhere Chaudhry set foot in the spring of 2007 quickly turned into a cross between a political rally and a concert.
Standing near the Chaudhry-mobile, I took notes—on the rose petals, the men shouting they would die for Chaudhry, the nearby goat sacrifice. And then someone grabbed my butt, squeezing a chunk of it. I spun around, but all the men, a good head shorter than me, stared ahead blankly. Pakistan, where even the tiny men seemed to have nuclear arms. Sometimes I hated it here.
“Who did that?” I demanded.
Of course, no one answered.
I turned back around and returned to taking notes. But again—someone grabbed my butt. We performed the same ritual, of me turning around, of them pretending neither me nor my butt existed.
“Fuck off,” I announced, but everyone ignored me.
This time when I turned back around, I held my left hand down by my side. I pretended that I was paying attention to all the cheering, sacrificing, and tossing of rose petals. I waited.
Soon someone pinched me. But this time I managed to grab the offending hand. I spun around. The man, who stood about five feet tall and appeared close to fifty, waved his one free hand in front of him, looked up, and pleaded, “No, no, no.”
I punched him in the face.
“Don’t you have sisters, mothers?” I said, looking at the other men.
Sometimes that argument actually worked.
In Afghanistan, this never happened. Men occasionally grazed a hip, or walked too close, or maybe tried a single pinch. But nothing in Afghanistan ever turned into an ass-grabbing free-for-all. In Pakistan, the quality of one’s rear didn’t matter, nor did a woman’s attractiveness. An ass grab was about humiliation and, of course, the feeling of some men in the country that Western women needed sex like oxygen, and that if a Pakistani man just happened to put himself in her path or pinch her when the sex urge came on, he’d get lucky. I blamed Hollywood.
That was hardly the only difference between the two countries. In Afghanistan, almost everything was on the surface. Warlords may have been corrupt, but they often admitted their corruption with a smile. Police may have demanded bribes, but they asked on street corners. Karzai may have been ineffective, but he let you watch. The spy agency may have tapped your phones, but no one followed you around. I had Farouq in Afghanistan. I understood Afghanistan, as best I could.
But Pakistan was a series of contradictions tied up in a double game. The country was born out of violence, in the wrenching partition of Pakistan from India in 1947 after the British granted the subcontinent independence. In the migration of Hindus to India and Muslims to East and West Pakistan, nearly a million people were killed, mostly by sectarian mobs. Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah—a moderate who believed that a united India would have marginalized Muslims—was unclear whether he wanted a secular state or an Islamic one. He said things that could be interpreted both ways: “I do not know what the ultimate shape of this constitution is going to be, but I am sure that it will be of a democratic type, embodying the essential principles of Islam.” Whatever that meant. Jinnah may well have had the country’s future all mapped out in his head, but he died of tuberculosis and lung cancer just over a year after Pakistan was founded, leaving Pakistanis to debate for generations to come whether he wanted the country’s national motto to be “Faith, Unity, Discipline” or “Unity, Faith, Discipline.” For many, this was not just semantics—it indicated which precept was to be most important in Pakistan, and hinted at the identity crisis over secularism and Islam that would soon eat at the soul of the nation.
After Jinnah died, it was all downhill. The international community allowed almost half the prize jewel of Kashmir, home to a Muslim majority and precious water supplies, to stay in India, a decision that would turn into the regional bugaboo, sparking wars and shadow wars and cementing Pakistan’s national identity as the perennial victim of India. Partition left other, less-obvious wounds. Pakistan now had only one institution with any sense of stability, training, and memory: the army. And so army leaders, watching incompetent civilians squabble over power and democracy, would feel compelled to step in, over and over. Every military coup would squash civilian institutions and any hope of civil society. Pakistan was supposed to be ruled by a parliamentary democracy with Islam as the state religion and guiding principle for the nation’s laws; in truth, Pakistan would be ruled by the seat of its pants, by the military and its associated intelligence agencies, either through a direct military coup, or, when demands for elected leadership grew too loud, through elections with military string-pulling in the background.
Meanwhile, neighboring India, led by the dynasty of the Nehru family, leaders who in the formative years of the country never seemed to die, had been left with most of the subcontinent’s people, land, natural resources, roads, and institutions. Democracy took hold, largely because everyone kept voting for the Nehrus’ Congress Party and its sense of stability. India had its own growing pains. But they were nothing like Pakistan’s.
Bad feelings festered, fed by continual squabbling over Kashmir. Then East Pakistan revolted. And like a mean big brother, India supported the breakaway nation, which became Bangladesh in 1971. Demoralized, depressed, and depleted, West Pakistan—now simply Pakistan—turned to a new hero to lead it forward, a civilian, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had launched the Pakistan Peoples Party and helped identify a major national priority: a nuclear bomb, to counter India. His rule was eventually marred by complaints of corruption, murder, and dictatorial tendencies, familiar complaints about most Pakistani leaders. Bhutto had named an obsequious, compliant army chief in an effort to avoid a coup, and like the other obedient army chiefs, eventually General Zia ul-Haq seized control of Pakistan, saying he was compelled to do so for the good of the nation. Bhutto was hanged in 1979 in a naked abdication of justice. In death, he became the country’s most popular leader.
Through all the instability, Pakistan could usually count on one friend: the United States. Sure, the U.S. money ebbed and flowed, depending on events, but Pakistan always knew where the United States stood in the long-running India-Pakistan dispute. America saw India as a Soviet sympathizer, as a red nation in the cold war. (India saw itself as nonaligned, but no matter.) America could count on Pakistan to be virulently anti-Soviet. And as a bonus, with Pakistan the United States often had to deal with just one strongman, a military dictator, to get things done.
Living up to Pakistan’s anti-Soviet potential, after the Soviets invaded neighboring Afghanistan in late 1979, General Zia quickly recovered from a U.S. rebuke for hanging his predecessor and signed up for the great CIA-Saudi-Islamist plan to drive out the Communists. Not only did Pakistan see Communism as bad and the Soviet Union as a threat; the country also feared being hemmed in by yet another neighbor sympathetic to India. The indoctrination started. Camps trained Afghans, then Pakistanis, and eventually anyone with a brain cell to fight. Throughout the 1980s, the United States sent textbooks to the Pakistan tribal areas, aiming to teach Afghan refugee children English using the language of jihad, and math using drawings of guns, bullets, soldiers, and mines, thus preparing a generation to fight the Soviet invaders. Shortly after the Soviets finally left Afghanistan in 1989, the United States left as well, abandoning the textbooks and the camps. Pakistan had to clean up the mess. Not only that—the United States banned most economic and military assistance to Pakistan because of its pursuit of a nuclear weapon. A generation of the Pakistani military would miss out on American training and influence, as the Islamists continued to gain favor. And meanwhile, with the collapse of the Soviet empire, America would start flirting much more with India, the world’s largest democracy and a giant potential market.
With a new sense of international isolation and the death of General Zia in a suspicious plane crash that may or may not have involved a case of exploding mangos, Pakistan refocused in the late 1980s. In theory, the civilians had taken charge, and the young, charismatic, beautiful Benazir Bhutto, the Harvard-educated daughter of Zulfikar, now ran the country. But behind the scenes, the military and the country’s intelligence agencies sidelined her. Some jihadi fighters were directed into a shadow war in Indian-controlled Kashmir, while others kept fighting in Afghanistan until the pro-Soviet government finally collapsed. For a decade Pakistan’s leadership was tossed like a football between different civilian leaders accused of corruption—from Bhutto to then military lackey Nawaz Sharif, back to Bhutto, then back to Sharif, who finally delivered that nuclear weapon.
In 1999, another obedient army chief decided it was his turn to run Pakistan. Pervez Musharraf, promoted by Sharif, deposed Sharif. As both president and army chief, Musharraf soon grew popular for a rebounding economy he had nothing much to do with, and for slightly more liberal policies, at least in the cities. After the September 11 attacks, the love affair with America reignited. The Bush administration repeatedly praised Musharraf as a key partner in the war on terror, a bulwark against Islamic extremists.
But by the time I arrived in Pakistan this trip, he had lost considerable popularity, largely because of his professed support for America, his refusal to step down as army chief, and his aggressive megalomania. The removal of the country’s chief justice in March 2007 was close to the final straw. In the West, especially in the Bush administration, Musharraf still enjoyed almost universal support. But some senior officials had started to doubt Pakistan’s actual intentions. They privately worried that Musharraf and the country’s powerful intelligence agencies were playing a double game—taking Western money and hunting Al-Qaeda, while doing little against their old friends, the Taliban. There was a running joke that whenever a finger-wagging U.S. official visited Islamabad and berated officials to do more, the number-three leader of Al-Qaeda would suddenly be killed or captured somewhere in the tribal areas. (Not only a joke; this happened several times.) The numbers backed the doubters—although more than seven hundred Al-Qaeda suspects had allegedly been arrested in Pakistan, few senior Taliban leaders had been captured. Several top militants had mysteriously escaped custody or been released.
The contradictions created by sixty years of obfuscation in Pakistan played out on a daily basis, in the continual whiplash between secularism and extremism, the contorted attempts to hold this fracturing nation together with Scotch tape and honeyed tongues. Islamic clerics forced me to wear a black abaya showing only my eyes, but then privately asked to see my face and hair. One province banned females on billboards, but a subversive drag queen ran one of the country’s top talk shows. The tribal areas—officially the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, seven tribal agencies and six frontier regions—were theoretically part of Pakistan, but the laws of Pakistan didn’t apply. Islamic militants roamed freely there, but very un-Islamic drugs were sold along the roads, advertised with animal pelts. Alcohol was illegal for Muslims, but most Pakistani men I knew tossed back Johnnie Walker Black Label like eighteen-year-olds at their first college party. The Pakistani military and the three major intelligence agencies, referred to simply as “the agencies,” had run the country directly or indirectly for its entire existence and helped form powerful militant groups, which they now disavowed. And, in a particularly brilliant contradiction, Pakistan was still run by a military dictator, who despite seizing power almost eight years earlier and holding on to it through sham elections, had somehow convinced the West that he was setting up a democracy.
A mother and son holding hands at the Karachi airport summed up Pakistan for me. She wore a black abaya and heavy eyeliner. He wore jeans and a T-shirt proclaiming NO MONEY, NO HONEY.
Given my new penchant for punching at rallies, I knew Pakistan had shortened my fuse. What little restraint I had acquired elsewhere had evaporated, largely over issues of personal space. (I was still a Montanan at heart—preferring few people, lots of open range, and boundary lines meant to be respected.) But I knew I needed to dive into the country. I had to stop resisting Pakistan’s pull, because Afghanistan and Pakistan fed into each other, and I needed to understand how. It would not be easy. Reporting a story here was like trying to find a specific needle in a stack of needles using a needle, an endless attempt at sorting through anonymous quotes from anonymous intelligence sources and anonymous diplomats. Most terrorist plots in the West traced somehow back to Pakistan—as many as three-quarters, according to some estimates. After a plot was linked to someone in Pakistan, journalists like myself predictably converged on the alleged militant’s home village in the middle of nowhere, where the most powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), tried to convince us that what we had been told was wrong, and that this was not the village we were looking for, and that there was no way any terrorist would ever come from Pakistan. Wrong town, wrong country. We weren’t allowed to go to the tribal areas where many militants had supposedly trained, we weren’t supposed to roam free, and we were told that this was all for our safety. The subterfuge here was an art that had been institutionalized.
I blamed India. Everyone here did. To understand Pakistan, India was the key. Why did Pakistan direct its militant groups toward disputed Kashmir instead of disbanding them after the Soviet Union left Afghanistan? India. Why did Pakistan support the Taliban regime in Afghanistan? India. Why did Pakistan develop a nuclear weapon? India. Why did Musharraf support the country’s homegrown militant groups even as he arrested Al-Qaeda’s alleged number three at any given time? India. And why did Pakistan continually give me such a crappy visa? India.
Being based in New Delhi did not help my attempts to cover Pakistan. India-based journalists were usually given two-week visas. We were only supposed to go to Islamabad, Lahore, or Karachi, and we were automatically assumed to be spies. As soon as I checked into a hotel, the ISI knew where I was. My phone was tapped. The driver from the Marriott Hotel reported back whom I had talked to and what I had said. Or so I was told. Covering Pakistan was an excuse to let my paranoia run wild. It was like starring in The Benny Hill Show, trying to run slightly faster than that creepy old man. If Pakistan had a soundtrack, it would be “Flight of the Bumblebee.” If it suffered from a psychological disorder, it would be bipolar.
But the chief-justice controversy was a relatively easy way to dig into Pakistan—obvious, messy, and important. This spat between the judiciary and the presidency was the biggest threat Musharraf had ever faced, bigger than the assassination attempts, the Islamic extremists, the squabbling with Pakistan’s neighbors. It could influence the country’s presidential elections and the country’s future. It was that big.
After the suspended chief justice Chaudhry refused to step down, the lawyers nationwide rose to defend him, saying that the country needed rule of law and the judiciary needed to be independent from the messed-up executive branch. Wearing their uniforms of black suits and white shirts, the lawyers held demonstrations, picking fights with police, who retaliated with tear gas. Some lawyers beat a supposed spy with their shoes right in front of me, even ripping off his tie. Momentum built. Lawyer protests grew into anti-Musharraf protests. Every few days, people met in Islamabad, shouting catchy slogans such as “Go Musharraf go,” which meant he should step down, not run for a touchdown, and, my personal favorite, “Musharraf doggie, son of Bush.”
Chaudhry’s legal team decided to take the chief justice on the road, on a speaking tour to various cities. But the goal was not speeches, as Chaudhry was no orator. The goal was a forever journey, a slow ride. Like all political campaigns in Pakistan, these road trips aimed to yank people out onto the streets to prevent the chief justice’s vehicle from moving much at all. The team’s top lawyer even drove, at times slower than he probably needed to, and always with the goal of creating drama. Lawyers vied to ride on top of the Chaudhry-mobile, a white 1994 Mitsubishi Pajero on its last wheels. The roof was dented and covered with black shoe marks from the lawyers who had stood there. The sunroof was broken. The running boards had been removed to prevent too many fans from hitching a ride.
In two months, Chaudhry had given six speeches. Each road trip was slower and longer than the one before because of the crowds and occasional stops for spontaneous lawyer speeches. It took about nine hours to drive the hundred miles from Islamabad to Peshawar, and twenty-six hours to drive the hundred and seventy miles from Islamabad to Lahore.
Musharraf wanted none of this. In the seaport of Karachi, Chaudhry’s speech was preempted by riots and gun battles sparked mainly by a thug-led pro-Musharraf party—at least forty-one people were killed. TV stations were eventually stopped from broadcasting the road trips live. Hundreds of Musharraf’s political opponents were rounded up. Public gatherings of more than five people in Islamabad needed government approval. Musharraf appeared increasingly under siege, paranoid and suspicious. He railed against members of his ruling coalition for failing to support him.
“I bluntly say you always leave me alone in time of trial and tribulation,” said Musharraf, a fan of colonial-era English like much of the elite.
The chief justice’s team then decided to take the show to the town of Abbottabad, in the North-West Frontier Province. Like every other journalist, I begged to ride in the suspended chief justice’s car. I was told no—he did not do ride-alongs, or interviews, or any meetings with the media. A few of us did the next best thing—we rode in the vehicle just behind the Chaudhry-mobile, with the wife of Chaudhry’s top lawyer. My good friend Tammy, a glamorous Pakistani lawyer and talk-show host prone to heat stroke, diamond bling, and citrus-scented facial wipes, was close to the lawyer’s family. In Pakistan, such connections were the only way to cut through the British red-tape hangover.
Unfortunately I had gotten out to stretch my legs. So now, just after punching an older man with a comb-over, yards away from the chief justice, I watched a window roll down on his vehicle.
“Is something wrong?” shouted one of the lawyers inside.
“Yeah, something’s wrong. These guys keep grabbing me.”
He sighed and whispered something to lawyers outside the Pajero. Half a dozen then walked over to me, surrounding my rear flank, trying to protect it. But they were as effective as the country’s legal system. The hands kept poking holes in their defenses. I kept spinning around, screaming, gesturing like I was conducting an orchestra on speed, randomly catching hands mid-pinch and then hitting the offenders.
I was creating a scene. This time, the door of the Pajero popped open.
“Kim. Get in,” the lawyer said.
This was unexpected. Every journalist I knew had been trying to get inside this vehicle for months. None had. But somehow, where skills, talent, and perseverance had failed, my unremarkable ass had delivered. I climbed into the backseat as another lawyer jumped out of the vehicle to make room for me. I sat quietly.
“Just sit there. Don’t say a word,” the top lawyer told me, glaring at me in the rearview mirror. “You can stay in here through the worst of the crowds. Do not talk to the chief justice. Do not try to interview the chief justice.”
I waited for a beat.
“But what if the chief justice wants to talk to me?”
Chaudhry laughed. I was in. And pretty soon, Tammy and another friend were in the car as well, because once I had breached the car, the others couldn’t be kept out. Especially Tammy, who as a minor celebrity had a Wonder Woman ability to make men talk, even without the lasso. As soon as the top lawyer stepped out of the SUV to make a speech, the chief justice, his minder gone, started gushing to Tammy.
“I’m quite happy, you yourself can imagine,” Chaudhry said, adding that he felt “wonderful.” He said he never would have imagined such a scene before being suspended. “Never, being a judge and a lawyer. Never.”
The top lawyer stepped back into the SUV, looking suspiciously from the judge to the backseat. All of us sat quietly.
At points the convoy reached speeds of sixty miles per hour. But whenever we hit a town, or even an intersection, crowds swarmed, bringing traffic to a standstill. People ran through the maze of cars, clutching handfuls of rose petals, trying to find Chaudhry, whom they called “chief.” At times it seemed like the SUV would be buried in petals or people. Supporters pounded on the windows so insistently that it occasionally felt like a zombie movie. They shook the vehicle. Stickers and posters showed Chaudhry superimposed over crowds of thousands like a political leader, or Chaudhry and the words “My Hero.” Our soundtrack veered between cheering crowds and loudspeakers, blaring a new hit song that repetitively asked army chief Musharraf, “Hey, man, why don’t you take off your uniform?”
We reached Abbottabad at a ludicrous 11 PM—driving seventy miles in fourteen hours, meaning an average speed of five miles an hour. A crowd of ten thousand people, mainly lawyers in their black suits and white shirts, had waited in front of a stage since the afternoon. Rebellion was everywhere. A moderator announced that the head of the youth wing of Musharraf’s ruling party had quit to join the chief justice’s movement. The mayor of Abbottabad, a military town, gave Chaudhry a key to the city. The head of the courts for the province said the government had asked him to stay away from the rally, but he decided to come anyway.
Onstage various people gave speeches, but the highlight of the night was definitely the lawyers, who sporadically burst into dancing conga lines, tossing rose petals in the air. This felt like a party, but no one was drunk.
Chaudhry finally took the stage at 2 AM. He looked at his notes, gave five minutes of thank-yous, and said he would make no political statements. Instead he put on his glasses and diligently read a fifteen-minute speech about the value of an independent judiciary and the equality of law. He looked down at his notes and occasionally seemed close to whispering. He reminded me of Andy Kaufman’s character Latka on the sitcom Taxi, avoiding the hand-waving theatrics essential to any popular Pakistani speaker.
It didn’t matter. The crowd roared.
This had been the longest day I had ever spent in Pakistan. It felt like one of the longest days of my life. But despite the assault on my rear flank, I had never had more fun here. Never before had I actually felt that strange rising-up sensation in my chest about Pakistan—not indigestion but hope. After Afghanistan, I had vowed not to get too attached to a country. And here I was, falling in love again. I was such a chick, endlessly fooling myself that this time a country would be for keeps. Maybe the NATO guy was right: Maybe I was just naïve.
Despite all the noise, U.S. diplomats were predictably quiet. In any other country such an obvious slap in the face of democracy like suspending the chief justice would lead to some level of censure, some comment by the U.S. administration. In any other country, such a spontaneous movement for an independent judiciary would draw praise. But in Pakistan, the United States still banked on Musharraf, one-stop shopping for support in their war on terror. Complaints about Musharraf’s behavior were muted, halfhearted, vague. One top U.S. diplomat said he brought a message to Pakistan of “strong friendship” and “excellent partnership.” All our eggs remained in the same basket, with Musharraf, who had just shot himself in the foot and was bleeding all over the place.