Monday, June 8, 2009

Police Encounter

Late on Friday night, my friends and I were headed to the Sindh Club, but we took a wrong turn, hitting a dead end.  As we turned around in the dark lane, a policeman suddenly came into view, blocking our car, with a huge gun strapped across his chest.  My friend, surprised, swerved a bit before stopping.

I had an immediate flash back.  When I was in fifth grade, my family lived in Karachi.  A policeman stopped my mom, saying that she tried to hit him.  He asked for money and she had to give it to him.  If she didn’t, he would take her license to the police station, where they would demand an even bigger bribe.

But that was during the day, at a major intersection.  It was now very late at night, in an isolated area, my Pakistani-British friend didn’t speak Urdu, and did I mention we had two American white guys in our back seat?

A policeman questioned my friend roughly: “Where are you going?  Why are you here?  Why didn’t you stop?  Show me your license.  Open the trunk.  Get out of the car.”

I immediately started making phone calls for back-up, but couldn't explain where we were.  I knew the cops just wanted money, but with edgy officers in a dark lane, anything could happen.  I didn’t know exactly what, but this is Karachi, and they didn’t need a reason. 

The officers were looking into the car.  “These are my friends,” I tried to explain in Urdu, because western faces are very unusual in Pakistan.  One of them calls himself Plato (to disguise his real name) in Pakistan.  They are both interning in Karachi for the summer. 

The officers ignored me.  “Get out of the car,” they said to the Plato and his friend.

They were searching the guys, asking for IDs, pulling out wallets.  My American instincts were to get out of the car and yell at them, but my Pakistani sensibilities told me to stay quiet.  As a woman, it would be inappropriate for the officers to even talk to me, and it was best not invite interaction.

Then my friend came back to the car, and the police let Plato and his friend back in too.  Suddenly they became friendly, offering directions to the Sheraton.  It was over.  They were letting us go. 

I yelled at them in Urdu, fully within my privileges as an irate, educated woman. “Why were you trying to scare us like that??  These guys are visiting Pakistan, and they are our guests.”

“There are bomb blasts happening in this country, don’t you know?  Bomb blasts,” a senior officer said in the we’re-just-doing-our-jobs tone.

I almost thought there was a fraction of sincerity in what he said.  But as we pulled away, Plato informed us, “They pulled a 1000 rupee note out of my wallet.” 

When I told my family the next day what had happened, they confirmed that things could have gotten much worse.  It’s normal for police to stop people for bribes, but in our circumstances, there are many other ways that they could have made money off us.  The stories they told me are too scary, twisted, and obscene to repeat. 

The incident left me with a lasting sense of insecurity.  It is so easy to get comfortable and have a good time in Karachi.  It’s not until a guy shows up with a gun and you feel a loss of control that you realize how quickly things can change.

The next night, I was eager to get home early.  I had tried to defy the culture and stay out late at night, but I realized how much safer and more comfortable I felt at home.  I suddenly understood why women in Pakistan tend to stay at home, or other private spaces, and always escorted.  It is not so much because of cultural or religious conservatism, which is what I always assumed, but because of the lack of security and protection, and the culture of exploitation, on the streets outside.  


  1. Sounds like a particularly shady encounter. I'm jut happy all of you got out safely, if only a bit poorer. :)

  2. Scary, yeah? But Nadia, life goes on. We Karachiites are tough people. It takes more than police encounters to jilt us ;)