A US pilot's tale: The gauntlet of goodwill
I’m a UH-60 Black Hawk pilot with Task Force Denali, a US Army aviation battalion sent from Alaska to provide flood relief to Northern Pakistan. I blogged about my first impressions of Pakistan nearly two months ago, and I’d like to share some more thoughts about my new friends here.
Surrounding our barracks and the control tower, hangars, airfield, and base itself are Pakistani military guards and commandos - tough, well-trained men armed with assault rifles and pistols tasked with maintaining security 24 hours a day.
I didn’t know what to make of these guys when I first saw them. Take, for example, the sturdily built sergeant (whom I now know as Ishaq) with a graying beard and long mustache whose appearance alone made him perfect to work for security.
“Where is your card?” He demanded one night as I waited by the control tower. I had ventured outside without my security badge affixed to my jacket. “Kidr ja rahe ho? (Where are you going?)” He continued sternly. “Here, sit down. Speak to my officer.” He motioned toward a chair and a gentleman wearing civilian clothes.
I produced the card from one of my cargo pockets, thankfully, and was able to excuse myself to the barracks, but Ishaq had made an impression. I vowed never to go anywhere without my security badge prominently displayed.
I mentioned the incident to some of my fellows, and they shared similar stories of this tough-looking sergeant. So the next time I saw him, I gave him some distance. Surprisingly, Ishaq called out to me. “How are you?” he asked, smiling, and we made small talk for a few minutes. The time after that, he gave me a hug and a handshake, and we chatted as if we were old friends. Within a few days, I had progressed from stranger to brother.
Working closely with Pakistanis for the past three months, I have seen that gestures of friendship like Ishaq’s are commonplace. They usually stand when someone enters the room, hug him, shake his hand, and offer chai. They love conversation and want to hear about each other’s families and speak about their own. Even people in far-flung villages will ply us with tea and food, inviting us to try our best at Urdu. This interaction is called “gupshup”, and as another commando friend told me today, “Zindagee sirf gupshup hay.” Life is just chitchat.
As I am writing this, I hear my American friends bantering outside the barracks. Some are playing a spirited game of dominoes. Others are telling jokes and laughing. Gupshup is not unique to Pakistan, but somehow Pakistan’s gupshup is unique. It’s in-your-face. I find myself unable to maintain a demure affect because everyone is so curious and welcoming. “Bockmann!” I hear as I walk to the washroom or hangar. “Assalamu aleikum! Keah hal hay? (Peace be with you! How are you?)"
Suffice to say, there is practically no way to go anywhere without saying hello to everyone, once they know you. I call it the “Gauntlet of Goodwill.” Friends, strangers, soldiers, and civilians - everyone greets us warmly. My friend Naeem calls me “brother” and asks how our family in America is doing. This makes me feel at home.
I hardly imagined Pakistanis would treat us so well! They are often critical of our government and society - as well as their own - but they see the good as well, and they are among the most courteous, genuine, and caring people I have ever met.
My American friends and colleagues can attest to this. Fellow pilots CW2 Denoncour, CPT Powers, and even our battalion commander, LTC Knightstep, have shared plenty of “doodh patii” (milk tea) with our hosts. CW2 Jenkins and PFC Mahadeo are regulars in the afternoon cricket matches. Several Pakistani friends have brought gifts for our families, as we bring stuffed animals for children in the villages. We have celebrated Eid and comforted each other in times of loss. Surely, this is not just flood relief but friendship.
Henry David Thoreau insisted that “No exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another,” but I disagree. I’m glad we travelled from America to fly our humanitarian missions here because not only are we filling a profound need, but meaningful friendships are being made. Indeed, our gupshup and chai have brought minds “much nearer to one another” on topics ranging from politics and cricket to religion and movies.
After three months in Pakistan, I have come to appreciate this country for its breathtaking landscape and mouth-watering food. But more than these, I love it for its people, my friends: Ishaq, Naeem, and all the rest of the “Gauntlet of Goodwill”.