Day 12: Telling Techniques

Islamabad, April 3, 12:02 am

Today Mal and I went to the Pakistan visa office to extend our visas for fifteen days. We stood outside on the corner waiting for the arrival of our fixer Adil. In Pakistan there is preemptive honking. Each time cars came around the corner they honked. They were small, four-cylinder Suzukis that sounded like lawn mowers with high-beeping horns. Even though I was on the sidewalk, I stepped up on an elevated concrete wall to make sure I was further out of the way.

It was hot and bright and people were looking at me. A man crossed the street carrying a plate of fried eggs and a tea setting. He was bringing it to some bureaucrat in the passport office. He stopped near us to talk to two men who were doing yardwork. One of the yard workers looked hard at the eggs. They were over easy, and greasy. They shone in the direct sunlight. I thought he was going to take something, but he held off.

There were two yardworkers. They were working on a small patch of green grass out in front of the passport office. Their work consisted of picking up twigs or leaves on the grass. They carried out this work while squatting down on their haunches, gathering the twigs with their hands. One yardworker had a small clear plastic garbage bag. The other yard worker had nothing.

The leaves and twigs just accumulated in his hand. When they moved across the grass they didn't stand up, but took side-to-side strides while squatting. Their arms stretched out in front of them, partially resting on their thighs, sort of like apes move, but not quite as gracefully. They were in no rush. The man without the bag threw his handful of twigs in the street. Then it was time for a break. They ape-walked slowly into a shady portion of the grass, next to a hedge, and began discussing something. While they squatted, the man with the plastic bag made a few animated points with his right hand, but then continued to pick up a few stray twigs with his left hand, just the ones within reach. He was working through his break.

Mal and I moved closer to the building to wait in the shade. "This is the glamorous side of the job," Mal said, "waiting for visas everywhere."

Near the building there was a man working with a pick. He also maintained a squatting position. I had never seen a man work with a pick from the squatting position, but this man was doing it. He was throwing up small piles of dirt. It was not clear to me what the goal was. His Shalwar Kameez was dirty. Since he was squatting, just a few feet away, and I was standing up, maybe it seemed like I was looking down on him.

He had a moustache and looked at me with dislike. Then he did a half-ape turn to turn his back to me and took a few more feeble whacks with the pick. Then he took some strands of straw tied together and swept the dirt he had loosened away – sweeping from the squatting position.

In front of him on a chair sat an older man in a blue uniform with a rifle across his knees, sitting so calmly and still that the rifle was not worrisome, at least not to me. It seemed in every building and on every floor, there was a man with a rifle sitting in a chair and doing nothing else. When you get out of the elevator –  there he is – the kind old man with the rifle across his knees. Silent and still – the Pakistani concierge. This man's hand played with the leather shoulder strap of the rifle as if he were fingering prayer beads.

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