Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Cameras Not Allowed

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“Tourist resort in Nagarparkar opens” reads a Dawn news item (August 21, 2017). The news item is topped by an image of a cluster of red pitched-roof buildings under a cloud-dappled sky. There would be few Sindhis who would not know of the magical Nagarparkar and its nearby Karoonjhar Hills of pink granite. And there would be only marginally more from the rest of Pakistan who would be unaware of this fascinating part of the Thar desert.

Named after the redoubtable freedom fighter Rooplo Kohli of Nagarparkar who was hanged by British authorities in the late 1850s, the resort, so the report says, will promote tourism. I have serious reservations on the issue, however.

Until about the middle of the past decade, travel to this area was free and easy. I have been a periodic visitor to Thar since 1984 and have ranged freely nearly everywhere one would wish to go in the desert. In January 2000 a British friend and I were in Nagarparkar walking around photographing the oh-so-distinctive town whose pitched roofs give it the aura of some mountain town. Our cameras out of the bags, we were clicking away at everything moving or stationary.

Is Nagarparkar’s new tourist resort doomed to fail?

We went on to Chhachro and eventually made our way to Umarkot and its famous mediaeval fort. It was here that a lunatic in Ray-Bans from some ‘agency’ told us we could not photograph the fort. Since we had already done that, we innocently said we didn’t intend to. We also told him the secret of the fort was anyway out since the Insight Guide to Pakistan had an image of the structure housing, allegedly, our nuclear weapons. I showed him the picture and the man tut-tutted it away. “Ehdi hore gull ae! [This is of no consequence!],” he said to me.

I did not argue, for who can survive an argument with our dreadful and almighty intelligence agents.
Sometime around the middle of the last decade, the establishment seems to have moved its nuclear arsenal closer to the Indian border. Or the birdie who told me is a freaking liar. Who knows if from this proximity we might be planning to deliver our attacks on India by donkey cart or something even less obtrusive? To me this seems to be the only reason that all of a sudden from Virawah eastward, one cannot take a camera. Indeed, the Virawah rangers checkpost has a large sign which forbids cameras, video cameras and foreigners beyond.

In 2007 or a year or so after, I returned to Nagarparkar after several years. At that time I was travelling as a guest of the Sindh Rangers in an official vehicle. At the Virawah checkpost they were waiting for me with tea and fauji pakoras. Except for one or two, the men at the post were all Punjabis and our conversation was in our mother tongue. I jokingly asked about the foolishness of not permitting cameras to Nagarparkar which, in my view, was the most photogenic town in all of Tharparkar.

It was an order, said one. But why, I persisted, and there came a deluge of the most idiotic illogic about enemy activities that endangered our very existence. The drivel was a winner for its lack of imagination of which clearly the man mouthing it was himself not convinced.

I asked that if Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras were prohibited, what of the cell-phone cameras that they were not checking. Uncannily the response was ‘Ohdi hore gull ae.’ I suspect the training academy drills this sentence into the head of every ranger as the masterfully confounding artifice that cannot be argued with. I spared the poor ignorant man the agony of knowing about Google Earth and other applications.

However, as guest of a general I was immune so I did not relent. How, I asked, did the phone camera not matter? How could an image from a phone camera not compromise the security of our nuclear assets hidden in Nagarparkar town but one shot from an SLR camera could?

Not one to realise the foolishness of the order they were enforcing, the man continued to blather on. His last attempt was informing me that this was “border area”. In which case, I retorted, the entire city of Lahore, being so close to India, was border area. That shut him up but only because I was a general’s guest.

Later I asked an officer, a lieutenant colonel who incidentally was from my regiment, and he admitted it was a rather irrational issue to enforce. But there was nothing to do for it.

Two or three years ago I wrote a letter to the Director General Sindh Rangers. This worthy man has since been promoted and now holds an important seat in GHQ. I requested him to review this meaningless order because, I implied rather slyly in couched words, it only makes men in uniform appear extremely stupid. I received neither acknowledgement nor response. I naturally took it to mean that men in khaki are perfectly happy looking idiotic.

Since 2010 I have returned to Nagarparkar quite frequently only to discover the rangers at Virawah and Nagarparkar have become increasingly paranoid: all outsiders are now required to register at the checkposts. Such is the degree of suspicion that even as one checks into a guest house in Mithi (the district headquarters), over a 100 kilometres from the border, one receives a visit from a spook. Perish the thought of a foreigner, especially a Westerner, prowling about Thar.

This must surely mean that the defenders of Pakistan’s ideological frontiers are up to something very sinister in Nagarparkar. My birdie insists they have moved their entire nuclear arsenal — fuses, warheads, deliver systems, everything — to the Karoonjhar Hills.

So, with all the restrictions on travel to this super-secret region, the brave effort of the Sindh government to earn revenue from its Rooplo Kohli motel in Nagarparkar is doomed.

It may not fail entirely because every visitor will make their videos and photos of our secret installations with their cell phones to sell to neighbouring enemy countries. Revenues will, however, remain low because thousands of unpatriotic professional photographers will never go to Nagarparkar knowing their X-ray equipment will be confiscated at the Virawah checkpost. Nobody tell the Sindh Rangers that cell phone cameras now often have the same image quality as SLR cameras.

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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

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