Dispatches From Pakistan
America sounds like a dangerous place. I don't know for sure, because I was in Macedonia when the World Trade Center was attacked, and I have been in Pakistan since then. But friends in New York, where I live, have e-mailed me about gas masks being scooped up like truffles and antidotes to anthrax becoming popular, too. I have heard about a guy who bought an inflatable raft so that if Manhattan is attacked he can paddle to safety across the Hudson River.
It is easy, from the great distance in miles and affluence that separates Peshawar from Manhattan, to regard this behavior as an overreaction by a pampered society. But I did not inhale burning steel on Sept. 11, I did not see people jumping to their deaths from 100 floors high, and I did not need to fear that perhaps another plane was heading toward the building in which I stood. The America I know—land of comfort and abundance and security—will not be the America I return to.
It therefore feels odd to be warned by friends and family that I am in a dangerous place and should come home. The e-mails and phone calls have been constant because, it seems, there's a belief that if America has become a much more dangerous place, the rest of the world, and especially countries that are at the center of America's war on terrorism, must be exponentially more dangerous.
But life has not become appreciably more perilous for Pakistanis, just harder, because business is bad for all but the translators and hotels whose services are under great demand by the army of foreign journalists that has invaded. Nobody is stocking up on whatever defenses might be available against germ or chemical warfare; there is no need to, and no money for it. Osama Bin Laden's men are not waging a jihad against Pakistan, after all; for some of them, if news reports are correct, Pakistan is a refuge rather than a target.
When people look over their shoulder here, it's because they're worried about being run over by an out-of-control taxi. If I get on a Pakistan International Airline flight filled with Muslims, I feel no fear and have no cause for fear, other than the food. But I saw on CNN that passengers on a commercial flight in America refused to board unless several Arab passengers were barred from the plane. That's fear.
Of course there are new dangers here; perhaps the Taliban will make good on its threat to attack Pakistan if it supports a U.S. offensive, or perhaps anti-government protests will get out of hand and some people will get killed in the crossfire. But these dangers are quite small compared to the everyday dangers that already exist. Even for me, the ordinary hazards of working in Pakistan feel much greater than whatever new hazards I might face as an American journalist in a Muslim nation that is none too happy with America's campaign against the mullahs in Kabul.
Let me offer an example. As I write these words, I am in considerable peril. I am in the backseat of a Honda sedan that has a cracked windshield and no seatbelts and a driver who is tired, as the masses tend to be here, because they must work long hours to earn enough to survive. We are driving from Islamabad to Peshawar. It is a three-hour trip, and is our return journey after a 6 a.m. start in Peshawar, and we are on a frightfully imperfect road without a hard shoulder or, in most places, a soft one. We must pass overcrowded buses whose worn tires are a pebble away from bursting. There are donkey carts that take up road space, too, and motorized rickshaws and pedestrians darting across our path like hares on a plain (Pakistan is too poor for overpasses or crosswalks on most roads).
Accidents are beyond frequent. If the unfortunate event occurs, there is no emergency medical team to deliver lifesaving treatment before rushing you to a nearby hospital; you will be thrown into another car and driven to a hospital that is unlikely to be nearby, and unlikely to save your life, and perhaps the car that is taking you there will get into an accident, too. It happens.
A few minutes after I wrote the lines you have just read, my car passed one of those overcrowded buses I mentioned before, though this one had jackknifed and was lying on its side, splayed across the road like a metal carcass. I have no idea how many people were killed or injured, and I am unlikely to read about it in tomorrow's paper, because an accident of that sort is too ordinary. It is not news; it is life.
That's just the beginning of the everyday dangers of life in Pakistan or any country that shares its impoverished lot. Hepatitis contracted from food; tuberculosis from the infected man who coughs as you talk with him, HIV from recycled needles at clinics, cancer or other diseases caused by the immense and incredible amounts of pollution in the air and in the earth and in the water. You don't inhale smog in Peshawar as much as you chew it, cancerous particle by cancerous particle.
So is it dangerous for an American journalist here? Yes, but not much more dangerous than three weeks ago or three years ago. It's entirely possible that anti-American riots will break out if the United States attacks Afghanistan, but I don't plan on getting too close to that; there is other work to do, other dangers to worry about.
Peter Maass, a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, is working on a book about oil that will be published in 2009.