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10 - Royalty and Cricket in Peshawar
You must go to police now! You are not valid for area!
It was not the most pleasant way to be woken up. Kathrine had returned from her foray in the west of Pakistan and had joined me on the overnight trip up to Peshawar. At an ungodly hour of the morning we had found a hotel. Just a few hours later we were being thrown out of it because I was invalid.
It was no great disappointment because the place was a complete shithole anyway. The effluence from the toilet leaked and the basin was clogged up, severely limiting any bathroom activities. It would have been better not to have a bathroom at all. And of course, the rooms were never cleaned, except at a time which was most inconvenient for sleeping residents. Resident was too strong a word. Subsisting detainee was more apt.
It reminded me of what another English cricket fan had told me he had done in his hotel room in Faisalabad. The floor was so awful he actually went out and bought a entirely brand new carpet just so he could walk from his bed to the toilet in comfort.
After a mercifully brief interrogation by a roomful of policemen, I realised that in fact, we were in the wrong area all together. On my visa it read, Not Permitted For Restricted Area.
It was more classic Pakistani logic. Dont allow anyone to stay in the (old British) cantonment area of the city where all the embassies were and people needed to get administrative things done.
The peaceful, but sterile, boulevards of the cantonment area protected the elite. Everything was quiet and well guarded. Men sat outside the front of houses with guns resting casually across their laps. It certainly felt restricted.
Kathrine had to get a visa from the embassy.
They were very strict about security. In particular, a sign warned people,
NO PENS or SMELLY FLOWERS!
What potent weapons they must have been.
She told me she spoke to an Italian man who, after a length backwards and forwards ordeal, had to obtain special permission from his embassy just to send a parcel of books home.
So eventually, on the strict insistence of the police, we had to move to the old city of Peshawar, which was a permitted area. We looked at many hotels. There was the Yossi Hotel, the Deluxe Hotel (no hot water, but billed as Your Ultimate Choice), The Relax Inn (not terribly relaxing) and the Five Star Hotel, which judging from its cramped, grubby and smelly appearance, was anything but. This was in spite of a sign, which proclaimed, Hotel Staff are Very Civilised.
We ended up at the Rose Hotel in Peshawars Old City. It had a huge WEL COME sign outside the entrance. Underneath a smaller sign read,
Right of Admission Reserved. Undesirable Persons Are Not Allowed to Occupy Rooms.
PLEASE AVOID NOISE!
This sign was surprising as there couldnt have been many more noisier places in Peshawar. The fifth floor rooftop was a splendid place to observe the frenzied energy of the city in motion below. Hardly any patches of dusty space were not being employed in one form of economic activity or another. On the rooftop of the buildings opposite, teams of men were banging and hammering away making the carpets for which the city was well known. Carpets of all colours were stretched out to dry under the warm winter sun.
A cheerful man with expressive eyes by the name of Akbar greeted us at reception. He learnt I was from England and an expression of intrigued curiosity ambushed his well groomed facial features.
Tell me Sir, something is troubling me.
After being thrown out of my last hotel, I feared the worst.
He continued, Please explain only with tongue. Nothing is ours, but time.
He wanted to know why Edward VI had abdicated in 1936. He was fascinated by Wallis Simpson.
And what was the current relationship status of Charles - He is THE MAN, no?
I felt like informing him that he was in danger of straying into a Restricted Area, but found myself succumbing into a lengthy and, at times, not altogether coherent, discourse on the last centurys history of my own countrys monarchy.
Then Akbar suddenly changed the subject completely.
Actually, you know, eighty per cent of foreigner live in my hotel. We are most popular. he proudly boasted.
Only eighty per cent, I joked, why not a hundred?
Actually, this is not possible, I think. Room occupied by guests are highly furnished and very up to date modern. Tell me Sir, what is qualification?
Yes you are Oxford doctor, no?
I temporarily revelled in the thought of being considered as something so esteemed and paused for effect.
You are Cambridge doctor then?
There was a scholarly courtesy in his tone of voice.
No. I am not a doctor.
He seemed disappointed.
So what is title?
Mister Ali from England.
Ali, religion Muslim no?
But Ali Muslim name.
Not Muslim no.
Actually, Sir, can you please tell me something. It is the word lav at ory - is this for toilet or bathroom?
What a question. Toilet. I pronounced confidently.
I deposited my luggage in my highly furnished room. Well it had a bed and a television. On the wall by the door was a hotel sign of dos and donts.
Guest Are Not Allowed to Get Food. Other Than Food From This Hotel.
Not Any Responsibility Is Taken For Food Brought Into Hotel From Outside Which Is Undesirable And Not Considered Fit For Health.
I noticed that the room service menu list included prayer mats.
Bizarrely continuing the neglected royal theme, a man by the name of Mr. Prince introduced himself to me at reception with exemplary suavity.
I see you at cricket. he told me with great certainty. I am friend of Hussein.
Pleasure to meet you. I put my hand out to shake his hand
You know, you have face like Nasser Hussein.
Yes. I think you are batsman too?
Occasionally, yes, I said, and occasionally no.
I was pleased to announce that, since leaving Lahore, my runs had dried up.
Tell me, Mister Ali, what is the name of your village in England?
Birmingham. It is a very big village.
Yes I think I know. It has many canals like Venice. A very romantic city I think.
I didnt wish to disappoint him.
Mr. Prince insisted on Hussein taking us to one of Peshawars good restaurants for some lunch. Like most of Peshawars best secrets, the establishment was implausibly tucked away up some obscure stairs off a hidden back alley. The food was delicious. At the end of my meal, I noticed an old man hovering in the corner, felt sorry for him and gave him my left over bread.
Actually, Hussein mentioned, he is here to collect the chairs.
Another man came up to aggressively offer his services to me.
I can service your time for you. he stopped me with purpose in mid-walk.
Actually, I can service my time myself, thank you very much. I replied.
Rather randomly, as we tried to leave this man behind us, another man waved up to us with great energy from the street below.
I have four wives. Five children. I am very happy! he beamed.
We smiled back to cheerfully acknowledge him. Two more contrasting men in the space of a few seconds I could not have wished to meet.
Actually, these people are bad people, the annoying man interjected again, if you come with me, I keep you away from them.
Go and service their time for them. I concluded, before quickening my pace sufficiently to leave him behind.
We soon learnt that Mr Prince had an incredibly infuriating knack of starting to tell stories without ever finishing them. I was never quite sure where the fact and fiction converged in some of his stories, but it didnt matter too much as he never got around to finishing most of them.
He took us to listen to some traditional Sufi music. I was dreading a repeat of the Lahore experience, but it was totally different and much calmer, a form of music named rabab, which came from Afghanistan. The musician was named Tahmash Khan.
This man very talented. Hussein whispered to me. He is like Eric Clapton, no?
No. But very good though.
He seemed to do everything - plucking away skilfully on the rabab, which was like a skeletal guitar, tapping some drums and playing a wooden flute thing called a bansari, sometimes all at once. I struggled to believe that this was really the same Sufi music (aka hashish night) as I had uncomfortably sat through in Lahore.
By Allah, did we drink a lot of tea as we listened. It did nothing for my co-ordination though, as we sat there attempting to clap along to tunes we didnt know. The noise was like that of having two fly-catchers in the room. It didnt matter much though. Everyone just kept nodding their heads. Some of the men added backing vocals with some very high pitched singing.
For some reason the rabab was passed to me and a very unfetching pink garland installed itself around my neck. I only knew two guitar cords, neither of which I could competently produce, while tea swelled my bladder. Enough was enough.
Another day in Peshawar. Another question on my involuntary chosen Mastermind subject, the UK monarchy, at reception. My time started straight away. Akbar had started and I had to finish.
You are Britisher, Mister Ali. Your Queen Elizabeth, she always wears a crown and travels in a carriage everywhere with a horse? Does she not have a car?
It was easy to underestimate just how far enthusiastic tentacles of knowledge could penetrate into some of the obscurer traditions of my own country.
Yes. The carriage is only for very special occasions.
And she also has many horses.
Yes. The horses are for racing.
She races on her horses with her crown on. This is exceptional.
Well she doesnt actually&.yes she is an exceptional woman.
Mister Ali. Charles, the man. He has two brothers. Andrew and Edward. Tell me, Edward can really become King even with same name as the man who didnt want to be King before with Wallis Simpson. This is possible?
Yes, but a lot of people have to die before Edward becomes King.
And you can become King one day Mister Ali?
Only if Id managed to marry Princess Anne, but I had missed the boat there.
No. Can I change some money with you please?
Of course. You have American dollars. Abraham Lincoln. This man Jackson Jesse, he was president in America, no?
Not to my knowledge, no.
Your currency is the British pound. This is a good currency, I think. And your Queen has her face on every note and coin because the money belongs to her. England is a most excellent country. Akbar pronounced in a conclusive, satisfactory manner.
Tell me, Sir, do you know Mister Bean. He is from England. He is very funny man.
When my new money had eventually been counted and I had explained, in a very inadequate and basic way, the American presidential system, and my limited recollections of Mr. Bean, I was asked to do a task.
Mister Ali. I would like you to write letter for me.
I didnt actually have to write a letter for Akbar, only help him spell correctly some words he had written down. For some reason, two of the words happened to be earning and commission.
When I had completed my homework, Akbar came back with something to show me. It was a neatly knitted red jumper with Golf Club of Great Britain stitched onto the breast. He was extremely proud of this clothing item. How it had come to reach him in Peshawar, I could not guess. But then as he had reminded me, eighty per cent of foreigners did live in his hotel and I was from a most excellent country.
To my surprise, there was a working internet place in Peshawar, more than one in fact. As I sat down, preparing myself for a the waiting marathon of going from one page to another, a sign caught my wandering eye.
DO NOT USE WICKED WEBSITES HERE!
As deterrents go, it was probably about as effective as a Pakistani policeman with a stick trying to stop a bomb exploding.
I sat in the hotel restaurant, not daring to take any of my food anywhere near the hotel, especially the food not considered fit for health, as if my long suffering stomach had been digesting any other sort solidly for the past few weeks.
The old man and his son, who were on the opposite side of the spacious room, came over to speak to me. Their English was very difficult to understand, but they just wanted to sincerely welcome me. I was starting to really like Peshawar. In the right places it was a city that really appreciated foreigners.
Sure, it was busy, noisy, dirty and smelly like Lahore, but there was a softer, more gentle charm, a hospitable friendliness. It was now feeling more like a city which opened its arms to visitors like myself. And I guessed a large part of the reason for this may have been the significant proportion of Afghans in the city and their influence.
We went off for lunch in the carpet shop of Husseins friend. It was like greeting old friends I had never had the pleasure of meeting. Peshawars delectable green tea was instantaneously wheeled out and immediate consumption actively encouraged.
Is your household flourishing?
Are you healthy?
Mr. Princes magazine, which with ambitious optimism, was entitled The World Problems, had a section for high profile interviews with important people and tourists, as if the two could never be the same.
He told me the aim of the magazine was to encourage more tourism to Pakistan after 9/11. I flicked through the magazine and arrived at a page which announced,
An Interview With Rashid Hussein.
The first question was, What is Your Name?
What is Job?
I am writer for World Problems magazine.
What is article?
This article is interview with me, Rashid Hussein for World Problems magazine.
And so it went on.
You should like to fill out questionnaire? Mr. Prince enquired.
It was crammed with the usual, familiar questions I had become accustomed to.
What is Mother Country?
Your Fathers Nick Name?
Please Express Your Feeling For Pakistan?
Do you like Pakistan?
I love Pakistan. There are not enough words to for me to write here how much I love it. was my written answer.
Mr. Prince showed me a rather implausible, but authentic, picture of him dancing with President Musharaff.
As was his way, he completely changed the subject. I feared the onset of another unfinished story, but his chosen subject was far more serious.
You know, actually, I am looking for wife now.
Kathrine nearly choked on her food, as she looked up, being the only woman in the room.
Mr. Prince had a serious, earnest look on his face.
You are looking for a wife now, today? I tried to seek some clarity.
Every day I am looking for wife. My family has booked the wedding and everything. All I need to find now is a woman to marry.
As wedding plans go, a bride was usually a fairly essential component. He was talking about it as if it a wife was something that could be purchased at a local supermarket or more appropriately, the dusty local Pick and Choose Store.
Do you think sex before marriage is a good thing?
Another missile of a verbal query. I was becoming well used to being spoken to candidly.
It is usually better if you have a woman to be married to after your marriage. I replied
Yes. I must find wife soon.
Mr. Prince started to tell another story, which of course did not quite finish. Somehow I couldnt help wondering if the same process would be repeated with his wedding plans. And as for his wedding speech, well if he ever got that far, who could say how many of his guests would remain to the end?
After lunch, I was on my way to play another game of cricket. This time it was, by Pakistani standards at least, an organised affair. And again I did not have any box protection with me.
It was a predictably chaotic passage to reach the playing location, hidden away in one of Peshawars sprawling suburbs. It turned out to be another dustbowl. A large crowd of boys swarmed to greet us, particularly me. Some introductions were made.
Name is Ali. Religion is Muslim no?
But Ali Muslim name.
Not Muslim no.
My team, containing the contrasting, but equally entertaining talents of Hussein and Mr. Prince, had the honour of fielding first. It was a suitably gentle introduction, as I stood in the covers watching Mr. Prince turn his arm over.
His action was theatrical and peculiarly dubious, but surprisingly effective. There must have been at least twenty other boys fielding next to me in the covers. This was fine for fielding, but rather off-putting when my turn inevitably came around to bowl.
King Ali, he turned to me, it is your turn to bowl.
I got the yips. That is to say a complete and embarrassing inability to send the ball down anywhere remotely near where it was supposed to go.
And when the ball did gently lob its way down, it was deservedly returned with great velocity towards the other side of the dustbowl. It was help yourself buffet bowling.
When it came to batting, there was no need to take guard. The pitch in front of me looked awfully rough, even by the extreme standards of Shahid Afridis Strictly Come Dancing cheating efforts.
It was impossible to survey the field because there were too many of them. I wanted to do some pitch prodding and gardening with my bat like all the good batsmen did to waste some time. But there was no time for such extravagances as the first young tearaway bowler was impatiently waiting to hurl a white taped object at me.
I kept trying to tell myself I was Freddie Flintoff and could hit the ball wherever I wanted to. The first ball whistled rapidly past me into the wicket keeper behind. There were plenty of Ooohs and Aaahhs. I was certain I was on the receiving end of some sledging in Urdu.
Somehow, with great miss-control, I managed to squeeze a four down to third man where thirty pairs of hands all competed to do the fielding.
Then, with Mr. Prince at the other end, I struck the ball away into the on-side for a potential three runs. It felt like no less than twenty enthusiastic boys were simultaneously charging after it. As we crossed each other running between the wickets, I got slightly distracted by Mr. Princes hilarious and eccentric running action, like a human windmill about to become airborne, which ate up valuable seconds of my own running.
It was going to be a tight finish for me to reach the bowlers end in time before the ball was thrown in hard by the fielder. Everything felt like it had gone into slow motion. I could see the crease and desperately stretched my bat out as the ball flew in sync into the same area. My bat slid in. But then my lunging body frame also uncontrollably slid in behind it. A large muddy puddle suddenly loomed unexpectedly large on my left hand side. My balance had deserted me and in I careered.
The crowd and the fielders (there was little distinction between the two) went into hysterics, applauding my commitment and laughing at the consequences. As I gathered what little was left of my muddy composure to stand up, I didnt realise a button on my trousers had broken off. I did the hand motion for a TV replay, but it was too late. The umpires decision had been made. I was nobly upholding the unfortunate traditional early departures from the crease of my fellow cricketing countrymen and had already been given out.
Somehow it was all somewhat of an anticlimax after that moment. Mr. Prince continued to whirl his arms away to great eccentric effect and we won the game. Or I thought we had won, but the swelling crowd invaded the pitch to mob me and play had to be abandoned. Everything I did seemed to make them excitable. It was like playing to a intimate gallery.
In the end, Hussein had to move our vehicle and someone else do a decoy, just so we could make a getaway escape. Now I could appreciate why those police sticks were so effective. There was no other way to be safely evacuated. With great haste I was bundled into the back of the small car and we accelerated away.
On the way back, after he stopped telling me for the fourth time about his batting heroics, Mr. Prince informed me that we would be passing the residence of his family. Slightly to my disappointment, there was no elegant royal palace, just a run-down garage and water pump repair business.
We took a detour to another Sufi place. I instantly feared the worst. But this was apparently a special place where the water had remarkable powers to wash away diseases as well as muddy cricket wounds. What I couldnt wash away was the incredible passion for cricket which I had just witnessed first hand.
For me, the importance of cricket in Pakistan was symbolised by the large advertising billboard I had seen outside Lahores Gaddaffi stadium:
GRASS ROOT IS OUR ORIGINAL FUTURE - INTERNATIONAL CRICKET ACADEMY FOR BOYS AND GIRLS
GREAT FUTURE CAN BE -
SAVE YOUR KIDS FROM EVIL SOCIETY!
In a country with very few and meagre ways out of poverty, cricket was one. It was also a rare source of incredible pleasure and enjoyment for millions Not many other things could influence and change lives, but cricket could.Purchase 'Batting for Pakistan'