Wrestling with the police chief was not on my bucket list but I love my bike so was not going to give up without a fight. The pre fight warm began at the Thelichi checkpoint with some verbal jousting with an army official who told us there was no camping available, despite us camping here a couple of weeks earlier. The jousting was broken up by a guy who said we could camp in the grounds of the building opposite, ‘police station’ he said ‘no charge’. Always on the lookout for a free night, we dutifully followed him, walking straight into a dorm room, his dorm room. With police uniforms cloaking the windows we soon realised we would all be sharing a room tonight. Not the best. A free night. Hardly disastrous. Little did we know that agreeing to share his room would mean a tidal wave of attention from this guy. And it was me who got the brute force of this. And boy was it brutish.
Of all the people we have met in Pakistan, the vast majority are men. Women are not engaged in public life. You only really see them working the fields or in the fancy shopping districts in Islamabad. Majority of the time the men we meet are friendly and helpful. They go out of their way to help if we look like we are having trouble: ranging from translating for us in restaurants to taking us around town until we get what we need.
On a few occasions their behaviour can be domineering towards you. An imposition into what you want to do. They do this through a mixture of verbal stubbornness and just deciding what’s best for you: this ranges from being told to sit down and when you politely refuse they continue to insist heavily, to being forced to hand over contact details after being told you will visit their city and stay with them, being told to pose for photos, them physically entering your personal space, to decisions being overridden after being asked what you would like and being forced to eat more even when you said you are full.
Now when I say forced I do not mean a bullet to the head kinda forced, it is the kind of forced where someone imposes a new status quo and you have to decide is it worth the effort to reassert yourself. This is normally not too difficult if people listen and have respect towards what you want to do but without this their attitude blocks their ears and ascends respect. Now, when it comes to big decisions to push back is easy but it is the smaller, high frequency impositions that grate you slowly into submission: I don’t really want an extra fried egg but since it has been thrown across the table onto my plate after multiple verbal back and forths, can I be arsed to carry on pushing back knowing I will be told to eat it again and again? I can just eat it to end this.
This guy’s dominance was no different but was amplified by the macho environment of the police station, where AK-47s are worn like necklaces, and his status at the top of this macho tree as police chief. In the first wave, he started pestering us for photos, whilst we were cooking, repeatedly asking, which I kept saying after we have cooked. He soon got his photo before we had cooked and I thought he might leave us(me) alone. The photo was then followed by the ‘we are friends now’ chat. This has happened a few times where someone asks/tells you that ‘we are friends’ then wait, expectedly for confirmation. I just faked chuckled and focused on cooking.
The second wave soon hit. A pen and pad was thrust into my hand and I was told to write a letter of thanks to the Gilgit-Baltistan police. This made me nervous. For one, you don’t write a review until your experience is over and two, to write something positive about a Pakistani police force when I have no idea what they get up to around here. But the pressure on me to write one was great given we were staying there the night; I obliged to keep the harmony. So I crafted a letter to the Gilgit-Baltistan police thanking for them for the hospitality and chapati. Once I was finished I was told to add the police chief’s name to the addressee list, by the police chief.
The end, I thought, as they went inside for dinner and we sat on the porch. As they finished the dinner, out they came, led by the police chief: ‘indoors’ he said followed by something muffled about security. He grabbed my bike to move it. My bike wasn’t ready to be moved: the straps were loose, there were eggs loose and my stuff was all over the place. ‘woah, woah, wait, wait’ I shouted as I jumped towards my bike ‘I’ll move it’. He didn’t listen, circled by subordinates, his sardonic sherbet smile revealed the showman. ‘no, no’ as I grabbed my bike to stop him moving it, in the same momentum he strongly grabbed my forearm to pull me away, strong enough to leave a finger bruise. There was a standoff, he was all up in my grill, unwilling to let him win, I braced to keep my bike still, he continued to arrest my arm, surrounded by laughing subordinates, I kept calm, producing the eggs to disarm him, the disappointed child loitered and, once the bike was ready, I let the child wheel my bike in.
Once in the room, the whole friend business continued, repeatedly asking me are we friends, asking for my contact details which I kept deflecting. His desperation for affirmation of some sort of relationship was making me stressed. I thought peace could be found with a needle and thread to fix my hat. On seeing the situation the police chief came over and decided he wanted round two. In snatching my hat from my hand he insisted that he would sew my hat then tried to grab the needle and thread from my other hand. I was having none of it. We jousted like fencers: trying to grab the item out of the other’s hand whilst not giving away what’s in your hand. After a tussle the hat was soon back in my hand and I climbed into bed as if I was asleep.
The stress ruined the quality of my sleep, along with the broken tap in the adjoining bathroom that filled the room with the sound of running water all night. In the morning, as we ate breakfast, and after I kicked over a cup of tea, we started to get a typical line of questioning: ‘do you have a wife?’, ‘how many girlfriends do you have?’ When we have returned these questions we normally get answers of ‘yes married’ and 5+ girlfriends, followed by an American teen movie style hand slap in some sort of ‘high five to the brother for being such a man with all these bitches’. These wild answers about the number of girlfriends started to make us suspicious. It turns out girls they count as girlfriends can range from women whose phone number they have to women they are having extramarital affairs with. The question I think they are asking is closer to ‘how many girls do you know which are not your close relatives?’ For me, this line of questioning is just reflecting their world where men are trapped on Mars and the women trapped on Venus. Where women are chaperoned by men in public and their every need seen to. Where marriage is arranged by your parents. Where men and women are kept separate in restaurants, queues and buses. In this world ‘knowing’ a girl out of the formal structures is something to boast about.
When the questions came to me I answered zero to both, the guy who asked laughed out loud, and in an accent which I can only describe as being close to Ali G’s, shouted, ‘what’s the wrong with you? Do you not have any sex in your body?’ Laughter of the other policemen echoed after his. I have not been involved in such a cock swinging show since school. I kept my pendulum penis prisoned knowing valuable things should not be swung around so carelessly and I was close to the end of my tether. The end was reached soon after when I was forced to write another letter of thanks in which I just wrote words which I knew they would struggle to interpret about the quality of the beds. Again, once finished I was told to add the police chief’s name to the addressee list, by the police chief. With this final wave, I was finally suffocated and didn’t say one more word until we left.
This was a stressful 12 hours for me due to the inescapable intensity of this behaviour where I was consistently having to fend off impositions. Perhaps I should have been better at asserting myself, but when you feel trapped in a situation to maintain the equilibrium is the objective. It is just a photo. It is just a letter. It is just exchanging email addresses. It is just someone telling you that you have no sex. I had never really experienced this level of primitive, domineering behaviour as an adult before, but seeing and feeling it in action has hopefully made me better prepared to deal with it, better at identifying it in myself and when it is happening to others. As to be drowned by the wave of a dominant person is no fun at all, even when the accommodation is free.