Pakistan’s soldiers, Pakistan’s army fathers, you carry my name
The delicious bread – Peshawari naan – was longer than I was tall. Seven-years-old, in a sundress and an oversized sunhat, I was a very British child in Peshawar. Hairpin roads, every pothole palpable in our Ford Transit, we lurched into 1975 Pakistan through the Khyber Pass.
Descending the Hindu Kush, we finally entered the dusty, garrison town. At the end of the 7,000 miles drive from England, my Pakistani parents, younger then than I am as I write this now, navigated toward our final destination. From my window, I struggled to pronounce the English signposts – for a long time “Pesh-ware” was the best I could do. Traffic, chaotic even to the eyes of a little girl, snarled our progress – I hear the rickshaws and motor horns of Peshawar gridlock still, sounds I wouldn’t revisit until adulthood.
Returning to the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) from my New York home, a full four decades later (to visit Sabaoon, in Malakand, a school rehabilitating former child Taliban operatives) déjà vu stopped me in my tracks. In place of my father, it was now Captain Mehrab who drove me along the same roads, leading the military convoy assigned to my protection. Looking grimly at me, from the Pakistan Army Chevy ahead, were Pakistan’s bravest – Rangers of the Frontiers Corps. Helmeted, armaments at the ready, one Ranger manned the turreted machine gun on the roof of the truck while five others flanked him, each trained on the invisible Taliban who might strike on our mission.
Captain Mehrab was hard of hearing, which he more than made up for with his booming, ‘parade-ground’ voice. A ready smile bristled his impressive moustache, a bronchitis cough betrayed off-duty chain-smoking. Wherever we went, children raced to cheer our convoy. They knew their protectors – still able to remember the ‘Pak Fauj’ had liberated them from the Taliban three years earlier in 2009. As soon as they were old enough to stand, boys and girls stopped their business of play to wave as the army sped by. I was surprised to see the green highlands of the Swat Valley peppered with quite so many schoolgirls. In red chadars, so many red riding hoods, scurrying to class, they captivated me, mere months before Malala Yousafzai would be shot in their midst.
By day, as the officers guarded my colleagues and I from meters away, I spent my time observing psychotherapy sessions for schoolboys at Sabaoon. Each boy, aged between 10 and 20, once an instrument of the Taliban, was now proudly wearing an emblazoned bottle green uniform. Clean-shaven, shorthaired, discarding Islamism, these boys were gaining a new Muslim identity, entering a new relationship with Islam. In place of martyrdom through jihad, they were now contemplating a healthy, vocational future. By evening, after intense days of observation and treatment, I would return to the barracks at Malakand Fort, beloved to Churchill himself, escorted by the loyal Frontier corpsmen assigned to my protection. There, in the officer’s mess, I was served tea by the ‘beara’ as I warmed my bones at the kerosene heater. My overheated New York home had left me ill prepared for the March elements of the North West Frontier. Sleepy in the radiant warmth of the heater, lulled by its slow tick-tick-tick, heady from kerosene fumes, I was almost dozing when there was a knock at the door.
Still uniformed, it was Captain Mehrab, with him, a tender boy of four. A timid kitten, the child melted my heart immediately. His downy skin was milk white, his eyes dancing pools of indigo – a portrait of perfection. As lithe as was his father muscled, the two wove a gorgeous fabric of fatherhood and boyhood. Distracted by such beauty of father and son, it was moments before I noticed that Captain Mehrab, undeterred in the face of the Taliban, now looked sufficiently anxious to trigger the physician’s worry that lies eternally latent within every doctor. Close to 10 at night, this child should have been long asleep, I thought to myself. Perhaps the boy had an ailment, a serious illness that the Captain seeks to ask me about? Fully alert in the way only a veteran physician can be, I was roused from my encroaching slumber.
Taking the chair next to me, the Captain assumed his seat, a battle-worn king returning to his throne. A sharp and gorgeous contrast to his masculine father, the coltish son squirmed in shyness, hiding behind his father’s fatigues, peeking towards me from his sheltered vantage. Seeing the boy from closer, I was quickly reassured. His was the unmistakable bloom of vibrant, healthy childhood. Within minutes, his cheeks glowed rose in the kerosene umbra. Long lashed and liquid, his navy eyes gazed with curiosity at me, but each time evading my attempts to steal a look back. Studying his father, I found Captain Mehrab of the morning patrol gone, in his place a worried father.
“I don’t know what to do, Dr Sahib,” he addressed me, using the honorific male title, “Sahib” (Sir) to recognise my absolute authority as a doctor even though I am a woman.
“I just can’t get my son to eat. I bring him everything, all kinds of fruit, all kinds of delicious breads and vegetables, everything that God provides. By the Grace of God there is no shortage in my household. But this child won’t eat any of it – all he will eat is candy, and soda. My wife makes delicious food, but he never finishes his plate. When I am on duty, he gives his mother a terrible time.”
My ‘patient’ listening to his father, was coy. Smiling his candied grin broadly, from behind his back, he flaunted his lollipop, the bribe with which his father had cajoled him here, to me.
“We are very worried. Is there something wrong with my boy? He is so thin. We want him to gain weight! He needs some meat!” Captain Mehrab wrung his meaty hands together.
Coaxing the cub towards me, under his father’s protective eye, I studied my beguiling charge. I watched his dancing eyes, as I listened with my warmed stethoscope, his sparrow chest rising and falling cooperatively to my instruction. A reassuring hand on his tummy confirmed my suspicions, as the boy finally allowed a smile in my direction. I gave him a parting tickle as I covered him up and he returned, laughing, to the shelter of his father’s knee.
All was well, I began to explain. The diagnosis was evident. An only child, arrived after much anticipation, the child was the apple of his father’s eye, the darling of his dignified mother. Indulged by doting parents, the first-born boy-cub was yet to learn his boundaries, mealtime just another example of well-intentioned spoiling. The relief on the Captain’s face was visible. His moustache began to relax, and he finally allowed himself a wheezy chortle.
So a year after the Army Public School attacks in Peshawar, it is to Captain Mehrab and his darling son, that my thoughts continually return. I know those slain boys. I know their devastated fathers. I know the men who mourn their fallen sons. These are the fathers who ruffled the hair of their firstborns before sending them to school that fateful day. These are the boy-cubs they now grieve, the tender kittens they miss while they are on deployment, the sons for whom they provide all kinds of vegetables, breads and fruits in their humble homes. These are the fathers still pitted in the agony of loss as Peshawar buries and blesses its tiny dead, the funeral coffins unbearably small, and in their smallness, unbearably heavy.
Pakistan continues to grieve as a nation, laments these bereaved boyhoods, yet to the world at large, it’s these men, Pakistan’s uniformed fathers, who remain ever unacknowledged. Then and now dear officers, dear foot-soldiers, we see your sorrow, soldier-fathers of Pakistan. We see your sleeplessness, your despair borne of broken, battered hearts, a despair which travels even to here, to my New York home, 10,000 miles West.
Pakistan’s soldiers, Pakistan’s army fathers, you carry my name, the names of my family. Pakistan’s soldiers, you take bullets and bombs for my Islamic beliefs, as you confront the Islamist Taliban that would extinguish me and Muslims like me. At this moment of your loss, I feel extraordinarily indebted, profoundly related. Pak Fauj, you are my flesh and blood; your loss, my flesh wound; your bloodshed, my slaughter.
And you are the fathers whom, after the last child was returned to Allah, enfolded in earth, bid farewell to your lollipop kittens and returned to battle the Taliban. It is the Pakistan Army that has been the battered, brave and bloodied shield between the Taliban and our Muslim Zion. It is the Pak Fauj’s bravery, selflessness that have gone unacknowledged by the world in the last 14 years. Though the last Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'un long faded into silence, it’s time to honour the Pak Fauj’s suffering, console their hearts, and remember they too are aggrieved fathers, tender weeping brave hearts.
Here in New York, the city is ablaze with Christmas glitter, magnifying the darkness submerging Pakistan. In that Peshawari auditorium, in those Peshawari classrooms, in that Peshawari principal’s office, victory of the righteous over the heinous was extinguished. As an observant Muslim woman, my despair feels permanent. Amid the brightness of Manhattan’s megawatt smile, my desolation tonight trains east.
In the North West Frontier, it is chilly this time of the year. A young boy now, I imagine, Captain Mehrab’s son studies by the flicker of a gas lamp. A kerosene heater toasts him, as he thinks of the brave boys of the Army Public School. Just a little more reading before bed, he decides, pushing himself to do even better. I wonder if I will see Captain Mehrab and his son again.
It was Pablo Neruda who said,
“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep the spring from coming.”
Though too many slain flowers have been laid to rest, spring remains far from Peshawar. I am console myself with one certainty – that only our lionhearted Pak Fauj can shelter our children’s blossoming once more, and, through their ferocious protection of our Muslim Zion, ensure the Taliban will never keep our spring from coming.
Pak Fauj Zindabaad.