An unusual friendship between a Pakistani camel cart driver and an American president

The cart driver introduced himself in whatever little English he knew and the president invited him to the White House

Almas Akhtar January 26, 2014
I don’t know if many people are aware about the unusual friendship between former United States President Lyndon B Johnson and a camel cart driver from Karachi, Pakistan.

The friendship can be traced back to the early 1960s when, during an official visit to Pakistan, Lyndon Johnson – vice president at the time – saw a man standing on the street in Karachi with his camel, waving at the vice-presidential motorcade.

Johnson asked a Pakistani government official to introduce him to the ‘camel guy’. The camel cart driver, Bashir Sarban, was extremely excited to shake hands with the vice president. He introduced himself in whatever little English he knew. In what came as a surprise to the mere camel cart driver, Johnson invited him to his ranch in Texas and to the White House.

Bashir, probably thought that the president was joking. In this age of cynics and betrayal, we would probably brush off the meeting as a mere encounter that we would tell our grandchildren about one day. But we would believe that the president was just being kind and that he had too many things to think about, he would definitely not have time to think about us, or a mere camel cart driver in Pakistan.

Besides that, haven’t we all heard of promises that never really come true? Mere words and no action? At best it was just a friendly encounter, nothing more.

But this wasn’t just a friendly mention that would soon be forgotten...

A few months later, as guest of the US government, Bashir Sarban flew to Washington DC. He was seen beaming with happiness at the airport. He was received as an official guest of the president and Johnson himself was present at the airport for him. He was given a tour of the White House, Capitol Hill and other monuments.

Bashir Sarban with Preseident Lyndon B Johnson

Later on, he went to the Johnson Ranch in Texas, where he enjoyed a ride in the Johnson’s truck and it was followed by a barbecue lunch feast. Bashir visited and gave a short speech at a local school in Washington DC through an interpreter, along with Ms Johnson and her daughter. Bashir was also presented a truck by the Ford Motor Company as a gift on his visit.

On the day of his return, Bashir received a telegram from the US government that they have arranged for him to visit Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah (pilgrimage) to the holy city of Makkah.
Allah o Akbar!” (God is great) the camel cart driver had exclaimed.

Bashir Sarban in Texas, United States, visiting the Johnson Ranch.

He had tears in his eyes and his expressions showed how amazed he was by the hospitality of the US government and people.

My mother had told me this story of Bashir Sarban when I was a little girl. Later on, I did my own research and read about this story in the LifeTime and Readers Digest magazines.

Jackie Kennedy visiting Pakistan in 1963 and having a photo session with Bashir.

This act had helped in bringing the people of Pakistan and USA closer at that time.

Many leading Pakistani newspapers had covered this story and highlighted it on their front pages. Both Bashir Ahmed and President Johnson passed away in the mid 70s – leaving behind a legacy of friendship between an American premiere and a Pakistani camel cart driver.

Sometimes, such gestures of goodwill soften tense diplomatic relationships amongst two countries. Neither President Johnson nor Bashir Sarban is alive anymore but, to this day people, in Karachi and in Washington DC, talk of this unique friendship and echoes of this kindness still vibrate in the air.

Even the smallest of deeds can create a long-lasting mark in history, and this incident is a testimony to that.

Picture courtsey: Life Magazine
Almas Akhtar The writer is a blogger, author, an ardent cricket fan, a movie buff, and an avid traveler. Her latest novella “The Fearful Lion” won an honourable mention at the 2018 New York Book Festival.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Imran Khan | 5 years ago | Reply Amazing story of a US President and his camel rider friend in Pakistan.
Rizwan | 6 years ago | Reply Actually, Lyndon was amazed to see camels and he wanted to take a camel back to US with him. For some reason, he didn't bring the camel but asked the cart driver to come with him. According to people, Bashir, the cart driver, might be excited but at the same time, he was quite worried about this proposal. I read this from Ashfaq Ahmad's book "Zavia".
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