Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Out of One's Depth

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For close to seventeen years, a Peanuts comic strip has been taped to the wood panelling in my study. I just love it. It shows Frieda, the curly-haired girl, come running to Snoopy’s doghouse shouting ‘Awake, awake!’ In the second panel she says to Snoopy lying on his back on top of his doghouse, ‘There’s a herd of rabbits heading this way!’

And then, with Snoopy now on his stomach looking at her, Frieda with her hands folded in front begs, ‘You’re the only one in the world who can save us!’ And Snoopy, the one person in the world who knows what he is and what he can do or not do, turns around on his back and, the very picture of nonchalance, says, ‘We’re in trouble.’

That’s it.

Snoopy has no illusions about his capabilities and he’s not the one to fool either himself or little Frieda about it. If only we in Pakistan had a few good men possessed of the same gumption as Snoopy the Beagle as created by the good Charles Shultz, this country would have been in a much better shape.

Alas, we only have post tortoises.

This reminds me of an incident many years ago that warrants a telling. Aamer Ahmed Khan was Editor Herald and my dear %$@#*&^ friend Saquib Hanif the features editor. Aside: I had to go %$@#*&^ because if I don’t go %$@#*&^ first, Saquib does it! And with him there’s no stopping either.

That was when I wrote a monthly travel piece for Herald. So, one day I get a call from Saquib saying I should do a profile of Ahmed Rashid. Now, it was a fluke of chance that I was in those very days reading Ahmed’s book Taliban. But that did not equip me to interview a man way above me in intellect. There was no way I could do justice to him having just read one of his several works.

As well as that, I was well aware of my own handicap in not being sufficiently informed on matters that Ahmed was an expert at. It was simply not my line. I told Saquib I could not do it. And there flowed a barrage of choice cuss words. When he shut up, I said despite his encouragement, I still could not do it. Another barrage ensued.

I remained adamant. Intellectually I was simply not equipped to interview an expert and author like Ahmed Rashid. More cuss words exploded and I told Saquib to bugger off and hung up.

A few minutes later the phone rang again. It was Aamer this time. ‘Oye, hero!’ That was how he always began with me and it was the same thing again: to interview Ahmed Rashid. We argued for several minutes. I told him I had read many of Ahmed’s articles and it was only a chance that I was just then finishing Taliban. But to interview a man of his stature I needed to know more of his work. Besides, to make the write-up meaningful, I needed to be informed on his area of expertise. And I knew Zero on Afghanistan, Central Asia and our foreign policy.

Aamer would not give up. At last I blurted out, ‘Aamer, I’ll be out of my depth here!’ A moment of complete silence and then laughter like I have never heard anyone laugh. The crash I heard was Aamer falling off his chair laughing.

Oye, hero! Tu nay bhee hud he kar di’, he said laughing. ‘no one in Pakistan says they’re out of their depth! You must be the first, last and only person to do it!’

Not to be taken that this phrase is unknown in Pakistan. It is only that we use it but never ever for our own selves. We abuse it for others and in the most liberal, prolific way too. Even intellectually disadvantaged persons, like most of our civil and military politicians, are known to fling it around to disparage their detractors. But never has anyone noted how utterly unsuitable they are for the job they pretend to be executing.

If like Snoopy we as individuals knew our capacity and restricted ourselves to what we were good at without filling our stupid heads with illusions, we would not have got to the bottom of the heap among nations. If only men of unimpeachable character, courage, good sense and integrity had risen to lead us, we could have made something of what we got in 1947. Seven decades are a very long time to get this right. Sadly, there is no sign of the light of self-knowledge shining upon our so-called elite.

Postscript: Aamer and Saquib forced me to go have a talk with Ahmed. So, one day in early March, I was there with the good man in his study lined with full bookshelves. I was meeting him for the first time, but it was as if we’d been friends all our lives. Among my friends I can boast of some possessed of great eloquence and I think Ahmed ranks near the top. We talked for a very long time and I got to know a great deal of his work.

I came home to write the profile that was published the following month. It was nothing that had come off my keyboard. I had written crap. Aamer Ahmed Khan had not just re-written my rubbish. He had simply written from scratch a profile that was fitting. It told of Ahmed Rashid what I with my limited intellect had not been able to discover.

I called Ahmed to tell him I had nothing to do with the piece. Ahmed waxed appreciative. I told him he should call Aamer and thank him because even though it carried my by-line, the profile had been written in its entirety by Aamer.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 1:02 PM,

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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days