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Thoughts of home

Published Apr 29, 2011 07:29pm

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“IF we worked as hard at home as we do here, we’d be so successful there,” the young taxi driver told me with a tinge of sadness. “But there is no justice in Pakistan, not for the poor at least. So those of us who can leave.” Having tired of walking almost all day in a sun-bathed Barcelona, we finally decided to hail a cab in Las Ramblas, the throbbing heart of the beautiful Catalan capital, which is flocked by tourists at all hours.

Catalans are great nationalists and grudgingly speak Castellano (Spanish to the rest of the world), preferring instead to use their own language. But of course everyone is truly bilingual. So my wife told the cabbie where to go in Spanish.

He must have overheard me saying something to my daughters in Urdu because as I slipped into the seat beside him, he asked me if I could speak Hindi. He was pleased to hear that I could speak Urdu as well as Punjabi.

This pleasant and exceedingly polite man in his late 20s started chatting. He told us he was from a village near Jhelum and had been living in Spain for eight years. “We are actually craftsmen and make Chinioti furniture back home.”

In Spain he had tried his hand at being a carpenter and an electrician but then the economic downturn meant there were fewer and fewer property refurbishments happening. This was his mainstay so he had to diversify and came to be a taxi driver.

Admirable tenacity. An ability to innovate, to continue to make an honest living. Haath, paoon marna, a lovely Urdu phrase to depict this struggle. These thoughts were going through my mind when he sighed and made his comment about justice or more appropriately the lack of it in Pakistan.

We didn’t have a long way to go and soon our journey was over. “No hace falta,” (There’s no need) he told my wife in chaste Spanish when she tried to settle the fare. I intervened. He was pleasant yet determined.

He refused to take the money, saying it was a delight to meet us, quickly got in the car and drove off. The only thing that bound us together was a Pakistan several thousand miles away that we both had to leave, admittedly, for different reasons. And that this separation saddened us both.

As I saw the taxi disappear round Plaza Tetuan, I was still standing there rather stupidly clutching a 20 euro note in my hand and reminding myself how often generosity and kindness had so little to do with wealth.

There is a large community of Pakistanis in Barcelona mainly from central Punjab and in particular from around Gujrat. They run most of the convenience stores, tourist souvenir shops, do different jobs from driving delivery trucks to selling flowers.

They may have started on the lowest rung of the ladder as one witnessed in the early 1990s but have steadily climbed through sheer dint of hard work and resilience. Some have now been able to bring their families over too.

El Raval, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city, has been rechristened Rawalpindi, given the size of the community.

These young men (and a handful of women) are widely regarded as industrious, honest people who have never done a dodgy thing, apart from getting to Spain perhaps illegally. Most of them speak Spanish.

The Chaudhries are said to have taken a keen interest in finding opportunities for their constituents abroad and even facilitating their (often visa-free) journeys. Unlike their PPP ally Rehman Malik, it isn’t clear if the Chaudhries have properties and investments in Spain but they certainly have a constituency.

As a journalist one is also entitled to a break, to enjoy the sights and sounds of different parts of the world. But the Internet somehow never lets you put distance between yourself and the ‘ground reality’ in your patch which seems to follow you tenaciously.

You may be in the picturesque Dordogne valley in France but you aren’t far from the intricacies of the solitary dissenting judge’s (of the three-member bench) verdict in the Mukhtar Mai case. One sees the Qatil League (PPP co-chairman Asif Zardari’s words, not mine) morphing into ‘Qabil-i-Ittehad’ League.

The taxi driver did have a point about justice in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

The governing party believes it has to test for itself the system administering justice or it wouldn’t ask the Supreme Court to re-examine Z.A. Bhutto’s case. Wouldn’t winning more elections than any other party since Mr Bhutto’s execution normally be vindication enough for the current PPP leadership?

But then it is a question of politics and not one of justice. And Pakistan is not alone in letting politics take precedence over everything else. Funny, you happen to be in France where a burka and veil ban has been introduced to ostensibly uphold French cultural values.

Whatever happened to equality and liberty? Has the ban really been introduced because the French culture was under threat by a handful of burka-clad women or is Sarkozy, who has slipped dramatically in approval ratings, trying to mop up the ultra-nationalist vote?

As for your columnist, one must concede one was tempted to drive through Sarkozy’s France if not in a burka then certainly in a Zorro mask to try and make a point. But I am not a liberal extremist. And the thought of a 150 euro fine was enough for a moderate liberal to be dissuaded from making a point rather rashly.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

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