Each week on Scrolling Scribe, editors will select their favorite archived articles and repost them for your reading pleasure. You’re welcome.
By Adeeb Khan
It’s funny how one’s mind can pause and focus on something simplistic at a time of chaos. It happens everyday — to a young man who finds himself in love for the first time and can only hear the song of the birds, to the mother who stares blankly at the cracks in the linoleum of the hospital floor as the doctor dares to speak the ill-fate of her son. My moment of clarity came when my legs were soaked in mud. My knees had just entered the chilly, brownie-mix soil and the moisture quickly soaked through the thin material that made my pants. If I were in blue jeans none of this would have happened. Sure the pants would have gotten wet, but my legs would not be soaked. The Pakistani dishdasha may have been extremely comfortable, but sometimes it was just a little too thin for my taste. These were the thoughts running through my head. I wasn’t even thinking about the bullet that was soon going to take their place. Granted it was only for a split second, but time stood still. A slow but firm push from a cold metal rod pressed right into the dip below the bottom of the back of my skull, right at the top of the neck — the spinal root. It is right here where the central nervous system connects to the brain, which amplified the feeling of friction between my vertebrae and the steel, a sensation appalling enough to make you gag. The weight of the barrel placed on my neck led me to the conclusion that the AK-47′s these guards were holding were definitely real, a new experience for someone who had only encountered them in video games. We used to call them Kalashnikovs. I looked over at my eldest brother, he was crying, and my thoughts quickly jumped back to reality. The gun became the predominant object of focus, and it soon grew to be the only thought that resided in my mind. The events that unfolded that night forced me to deal with issues I had never come across before, issues with an AK-47.
“…I had finally become of age to venture off into the cultural playground of Pakistan.”
As a sophomore in high school, I spent Christmas vacation visiting Pakistan with my family. It had been one of the few times that year that my entire family was able to convene. My three older brothers had journeyed across the country for careers and colleges, and the distance made it difficult to see the family fully intact. As exciting as it was to reunite, I was even more jubilant that I had finally become of age to venture off into the cultural playground of Pakistan. On previous visits I had been a child afraid of the idea of being left alone. Now, along with my adult brothers, I could take in the Pakistani culture devoid of my parents’ instruction. However, soon after we had arrived in Pakistan I knew that this would not be the trip that I had anticipated. Pakistan has always been an extremely vibrant and lively nation, one filled with different ideas, customs, and people unlike any in the rest of the world. A journey here usually constitutes an overload of cultural knowledge that soothes this Wyoming boy’s craving for adventure. On this occasion, the holy Islamic month of Ramadan transpired during the entirety of our trip. Due to the fasting that is accompanied with Ramadan, the Pakistani towns shut down. Pulsating bazaars were only busy around sunset, and most people slept throughout the day, making life a little more dull than usual. So, as boredom quickly set in, two of my older brothers and I began to find ways to make the days more interesting. We dressed in our Pakistani dishdashas, the garments adorned by almost every other male in the country, and set out with our driver to neighboring towns and villages. It was on one of these journeys that we encountered “Pataka,” the Pakistani word for fireworks.
The only thing was, these were not your typical, run-of-the-mill Roman Candles. No, these were more like homemade artillery shells. The villager who possessed the Pataka fashioned the items in his own home, and he only made two different types. One was a rocket that shot into the air and pathetically attempted to blast into a colorful array. The other was a wad of gunpowder, wrapped tightly by yarn into a 4×4 inch cube. They were basically concussion grenades without the shrapnel and with a fuse instead of a clip. One could not find fireworks like these in the United States. We bought three dozen of each; the extreme modesty in the pricing allowed us to do so. As we arrived home, our father immediately saw the two enormous bags in our hands and inquired about their contents. After we showed him our purchases, he scorned the idea and let us pass only after he clarified his disapproval. He told us to have fun, but to be smart and careful. It took only an hour for “smart and careful” to fly out the window. My brother Shahid, the one closest to me in both age and kinship, had fired one the rockets off our balcony, and the untested missile made a direct hit on a neighbor who was hanging her clothes to dry. This was the result of independence. The neighbors yelled in the streets at our front door, and our parents had to apologize for the mess. This was reason enough for our father to take the Pataka away and spoil our fun. However, as the days went by and boredom sunk in again, my brothers approached me with a proposition. It was one of our last days in Pakistan and the gigantic bag of fireworks had barely been used. Aftab, my eldest brother, had found the bag and wanted to leave that night to launch them in a nearby field. This was when logic was supposed to set in. Ignoring my screaming conscience I jumped at the opportunity, and my brothers and I set out that night carrying only a box of matches and the bag of illegal explosives.
It had rained earlier that evening, turning the walk through the field into a battle to keep my feet dry while trekking in sandals. Even though we were inside a town, there were virtually no streetlights, and since intelligence seemed to be missing that day no one had the bright idea to bring a flashlight. So, we navigated our way about a hundred yards into the field by the glow of the moon. Once we had reached the arbitrary point of mutual satisfaction, we began launching the fireworks off one by one. We would ignite the cubes of yarn in our hands and then toss them into the pitch-black unknown. After a few seconds of anticipation a boom that vibrated throughout my entire body would echo out into the night. It seemed like only a few minutes had passed when my brother spotted a pair of lights coming in our direction. The erratic behavior of each light along with the increasingly recognizable high-pitched hum of Pakistani engines quickly registered as motorcycles in all three of our minds. They were driving through a muddy field in the middle of the night — not a good sign. We were in trouble. Soon after this thought occurred in my head, I heard by brother Aftab shout “Run!” I stood there in disbelief as I watched Shahid and Aftab attempt to flee only to slip and fall right in front of me. It was too late. They were only a few feet away. I had no idea who they were or what they wanted, but seconds later I found out. The men were Pakistani military guards and they wanted to shoot us, or as he so eloquently put it, “Lahu meyn haath rangna.” My broken understanding of the Urdu language suddenly became acute as my hands shot into the air, my automatic response of innocence. The two officers, whose faces were eclipsed by the intense lights of their motorcycles, quickly began shouting for us to get down on our knees as they held their weapons firmly with both hands. Obeying their orders, I fell to my knees, and it was at this moment that I longed for blue jeans, recognizing the discomfort of wet, cold mud.
As I transcended in thought and feeling, one of the officers asked permission to shoot. My brothers and I sat there in the middle of the dark, overcome by silence, sitting on our knees with our hands behind our heads. Aftab was crying, and Shahid was trying to plead with the officers in his stammering Urdu. I was calm. The fear had numbed my emotions and I soaked in the information as it unfolded before me. A gun pressed into the back of my neck. As the volume and intensity began to escalate in the voices of the officers, acceptance of my fate briefly set in. A second passed and my eyes shifted again to see one of the soldiers hammer Shahid with the butt of his gun. Although he made an effort to shield his head, he took the hit in the face and his nose began to bleed substantially. His blood further dampened that Pakistani soil, leaving what may have been the last mark of our existence. We were brought to our feet, being pushed and pointed to walk out of the field. As we stumbled through the muddy terrain with our hands in the air, we began to hear footsteps and voices rapidly coming in our direction. My brothers and I hit the ground before we realized what had happened, but we soon found ourselves in the middle of a group beating as a dozen locals from the nearby mosque decided to take out their rage on us. They were shouting profanity in Urdu and personifying them with kicks to our flanks. The guards quickly broke up the fray and brought our mud soaked bodies once again to our feet. The men continued to push until finally we reached the road, where an open Bazaar store became our holding cell. Soon after we sat down, our fears of death and imprisonment were cured as our frightened and angry father, who heard the fireworks and came searching for us, heroically arrived.
We eventually were informed that the fireworks were mistaken for gunfire. Earlier in the week there had been a shooting at a mosque in a neighboring village, and security was on high alert. The guards thought we were terrorists, as did the dozen men that jumped us. However, after the bags of Pataka were revealed, my father had to go through the tedious process of bringing in some of his highest connections to vouch for us. A few bribes later, and we were free. My father did not punish us for our actions. He knew that the experience was enough to keep us from doing it again.
The days passed and my brothers and I were quick to laugh about the whole situation. It was strange, but on my flight home I began to realize the severity of the event. Life in Pakistan has always been an experience of enormous sensation. As I reflected on the intensity of that night I remember thinking it was a product of a cultural clash. However, I began to realize that I was wrong. The extreme sensation I felt had nothing to do with the language barrier, cultural differences, the abnormally dark town, or Pakistani rule-of-law. No, what I felt dealt specifically with the fact that my life was not in my own control anymore. It was under the influence of a complete stranger whose only empowerment came from a machine with the power to eliminate existence. The gun has created a world of hierarchy that has never been seen before. It was not a gun that the man was holding, not an AK-47 nor a Kalashnikov. It was the power of God. I kneeled in that dark, cold field in Pakistan entirely helpless as to whether or not the person I had assembled over the past sixteen years would make it another minute. The guard could choose between life and death. So I just sat there, helpless and virtually not focusing on it. Perhaps that is why our minds have the ability to retreat into a zone at times. They realize that the reality of the situation is something that will take years to fully understand. People merely are put in a place of comfort and high sensitivity until it is all over. The AK-47 had a profound impact on me as I sat frozen, transgressing reality in Pakistan. And while this unbelievable experience certainly introduced me to the deplorable sensation of helplessness, it also demonstrated how the human mind has the ability momentarily to overcome the existing evils of the world, if only by making me long for blue jeans.