You can be sure of this. the very first thing that
you hear when you arrive in Pakistan is: “No problem!” We
have landed at Islamabad Airport, and I am still engrossed in my own
thoughts: “I hope this won’t be a big war.” A few
minutes later, I am standing in front of several Pakistani policemen.
They are wearing immaculate light blue shirts and dark trousers. Swinging
from their shoulders are rifles which could be better described as second-hand
pump guns. Sawn-off shooting sticks, which probably found their way
here from some Western armory for good money, or perhaps they originate
from Russia. Who knows for sure? In any event, rifles should look menacing,
which in fact these do.
So I walk up to the policemen, all set to open my suitcases, empty my
pockets, and do whatever they ask me to do. What I would have labeled
as police arbitrariness earlier, appears to me today to be a fully justified
security measure. Official harassment is no more harassment, but rather
a totally welcome protection. This, too, is something the terrorists
I have hardly put down my suitcases on the floor when I notice that
the policemen are smiling in unison: “No problem, Sir!”
I still hesitate. They repeat in a friendlier tone: “No problem!
No problem!” and wave me through. Even before I have stepped out
in the square, a taxi driver is jumping up and down on my feet: “Taxi?
Taxi?” Since I am also looking for a hotel room, I ask the man:
“Do you know a hotel in Islamabad?” He grins and says: “No
problem!” In the meantime, a small group of people has surrounded
us and shouts of “Taxi! Taxi” are becoming so loud that
I decide to inquire no further and make my escape. Abbas is the name
of the good man. He carries my luggage to the car and opens the car
trunk. Inside, there is a big gas cylinder which takes up more than
two-thirds of the total storage area.
“But surely, nothing will fit in here,” I say. “No
problem,” answers Abbas, while he gives one of my three pieces
of luggage a forceful push to make it fit in between the gas cylinder
and the metal of the car.
“Please be careful!” I repeat.
“No problem,” says Abbas and pushes the bag with both hands
until it finally fits in. Something must surely have been bent out of
shape, but it does go in. The remaining luggage goes onto the car’s
backseat, at which point I realize that the vehicle is altogether too
small and Abbas has placed another suitcase there, so that mine is lying
between the two and is dangerously close to the gearbox. I look somewhat
nervously at the suitcase, which according to my own calculations could
obstruct the fourth gear. Abbas sees this: “No problem!”
And now we are on our way to the city.
The journey passes swiftly, and Abbas can in fact engage the fourth
gear, with some difficulty yes, but it does work. I am sitting silently,
thinking about world politics, the clash of civilizations, and about
whatever else that has become the subject of conversation these days
and weeks after the attacks on the United States. In the meantime, Abbas
is busy dodging wobbly donkey carts, sneaky motorcycles, agile pedestrians,
and trucks which are leaning dangerously on one side. Undoubtedly, he
is a good driver.
“Here you’ll find a room!” I look at the façade
of the Marriott Hotel emerging before my eyes.
“But it is fully booked.”
“You’ll definitely find a room here.”
“But I already phoned them.”
I figure that Abbas being a native – even more, a taxi driver
– surely knows more than I do and I let him drop me in front of
the entrance. A man in uniform greets me with a perfect military salute.
I pass through a security check. The hotel lobby is buzzing with the
world media. Even before I arrive at the reception desk, I pass at least
three faces which I recognize from television. As I had expected, no
room is available.
“No problem,” says the reception clerk. I request him to
put me on the waiting list and I go out to see Abbas. He shakes his
head when I give him the news, thinks a moment, and then says: “I
know of a better place.”
“Are you sure?”
“No problem!” And we have already sped off. I’ve completely
abandoned myself to him because I can’t think clearly, perhaps
due to fatigue or simply because the pictures of terror weigh me down
and the news reports coming out of Pakistan are baffling, what with
stories about religious fanatics, determined armed forces, hostile tribes
and corrupt politicians.
After about ten minutes into our journey, Abbas abruptly applies the
brakes in front of a house which lies hidden behind a high fence. It’s
a guesthouse in a seemingly better neighborhood. This time Abbas accompanies
me. He’s really trying very hard. Although the doorman answers
in the negative, Abbas continues talking with him, totally convinced
that there must be a vacant room somewhere in the guesthouse. Perhaps
in the backyard? Or somewhere else in this sprawling villa? But there’s
nothing. Abbas doesn’t seem to be dejected at all when we go back
to our car. “I know of another place. No problem,” he says.
Since he seats himself so zestfully behind the steering wheel, and leaves
the guesthouse parking lot with such determination, I resolve to continue
putting my trust in him, and in a way to use his energy for myself since
I feel so depressed and so incapable of doing anything on my own initiative.
I’ll spare you details of what happened during the next two hours
since it’s nothing but a repetition of the same thing: all kinds
of guesthouses – ritzy, swanky, shabby – but no breakthrough.
“No problem,” Abbas would repeat continually, even though
now we were leaving – without any success – the last guesthouse
known to him. Now Abbas is really at a loss. Since he doesn’t
want to admit it, he stages a short sightseeing tour of Pakistan’s
capital city for me. “Here on the left is the National Assembly!”
A sprawling white building which lies behind a high fence. “And
here is the Supreme Court!” A wide white staircase leading up
to a huge entrance. “And here is the Presidency!” This building
is no less imposing, erected with the intent of impressing citizenry,
but it has a more playful effect, less stern than the Parliament and
Supreme Court buildings. Quite a peculiar contrast since the President
is a general: Pervez Musharraf, who took power in 1999, a man bursting
with energy, a great leader, as many people assert. “But he doesn’t
live here!” says Abbas and drives round once more so that I can
have a closer look at the spectacle of these fenced-in and people-empty
symbols of Pakistan.
“I’ve an idea,” Abbas says suddenly and makes a 180-degree
turn. Tires squeal, my suitcase edges towards the gearshift. I startle
out of a state of half-unconsciousness.
“What is it?”
“Wait, wait, No problem!”
Now Abbas starts driving out of the city. Streets are getting darker
with the dusk. A neon sign: Motel. Abbas is all excited as if we were
close to our destination. He himself opens the motel door for me. And
when the receptionist really offers me a room, Abbas says, obviously
very proud of himself: “You see, no problem!” I can only
nod. I can’t share in his triumph. I’m already thinking
about the next steps: unpacking suitcases, putting cash in the hotel
safe and then going back to the city where I shortly have an appointment.
A porter takes my luggage to the room.
“Do you have a safe?”
The receptionist looks at me, all surprised.
“Yes, it’s safe, no problem!”
“No, I mean: Do you have a safe where I can lock away my money?”
“No problem, sir. It’s safe!”
“Safe! Valuable objects! Keys! Lock away!”
“Oh, I understand,” he says. “No, we don’t have
that. The hotel is safe.”
“But I have a lot of cash with me!”
“No problem,” says the receptionist.
“No problem,” says Abbas.
I give up and hand him the address where I have a meeting in a few minutes’
time. Laughing, full of confidence, and diligently, Abbas presses the
accelerator. In the meantime, it has become pitch dark outside. After
about a kilometer, the car starts weaving to and fro: a tire has gone
flat. Only with a great deal of difficulty, Abbas manages to bring the
car to a stop on the side of the road. I glance at my watch. “We
should have been there by now!”
“No problem,” he says and gets out of the car, jumps over
the guard rail and disappears in the trees. The taxi is standing there
half on the street, without indicators or any other light signal. Trucks
are rushing past, hooting, swerving at the last moment. And a pressure
wave is blocking my ears. Suddenly, Abbas appears from behind the trees,
climbing up the road with a lot of effort. He’s carrying a heavy,
flattened stone in both his hands. He goes over to the road side where
the flat tire is and places the stone under the car.
“What are you doing?” I ask him across the open window.
“Five minutes, no problem!”
I get out of the car and stand by the engine hood because I feel safer
there and also because I can watch Abbas at his work. In the headlights
of oncoming traffic I see how he puts a damaged car jack on the flat
stone and starts lifting up the car. The car staggers dangerously. Suddenly
a huge truck comes in our direction. It drones, it hisses, it whizzes.
Abbas notices it at the last moment, stands up, and presses himself
flush against the car. The monster misses him by a centimeter. The car
jack slips from the stone with a bang. The wheel suspension snaps and
falls on the asphalt. Abbas looks at all this but in the darkness I
can’t make out if he’s frightened or not. He comes toward
“We’ll be late. I’m sorry,” he says.
“No problem,” I reply.
Later, much later, I’m lying in my bed, staring at the rotating
fan. I see Abbas saying goodbye, his ample white shirt a bit smeared
with grease. I see him smiling, and see how he’s steering his
jolting car back on the road. I see all this and I think: so when is
this war of cultures, this famous clash of civilizations really going
About the Author
He can differentiate between mountains, writes ULRICH LADURNER
in one of his “Letters” from Pakistan, namely between
those which uplift humans and those which bear them down. So he lets
his eyes wander over mountain ridges, and examines color shades, rocks,
trees, shrubbery, and concludes: “The mountains of Chakoti don’t
cast a shadow on the human heart.”
In South Tyrol, in Meran to be exact – where the reporter was
born – the method worked; but here in Kashmir, on the “Line
of Control,” the most dangerous border of the world, where two
antagonists, India and Pakistan, both possessing atomic bombs, stalk
each other; here at the nuclear flashpoint right in the middle of
magnificent nature, he is led to modify his analytical method for
So it is always, in these utmost foreign parts into which Ulrich Ladurner
plunged for two months; so it is also, with people and the circumstances
in which they live. What you know, you can forget, you must look afresh,
let yourself be irritated, and tell stories. Again and again, over
and over. Ladurner has been doing this for many years. Because it’s
out of his passion for travel and story-telling that his profession
His first reports dealt with petty crooks. He wrote them at the desk
of a Maresciallo in the Italian province. To escape military service,
he served as a policeman. But even during this time, he studied history
and political science attending the university in Innsbruck. The policemen,
simple folks with not much education, helped him whenever they could
by making it possible for him to combine his service with his studies;
they were proud of “their” student. And in those 80s,
he felt more attached to them than to his fellow students.
He finished his studies with a Masters and began learning the ropes
of journalism at the once splendid newspaper, “Arbeiterzeitung.”
For the ORF television, he wrote a historical feature on the “march
of death” from the Hungarian concentration camps across Austria
to Mauthausen in the winter of 1944-45. The feature was awarded Austria’s
most respected prize for journalism. At the magazine profil, a counterpoint
to Spiegel, and at facts, the Swiss variety of the German newsmagazine,
he worked as a reporter for many years. For a period spanning nine
years, he traveled regularly to the Balkans – from the beginning
of the Bosnian War up to the recent crisis in Macedonia. When the
war in Kosovo began, he was one of the very few journalists present
on the spot, and it’s from there that he wrote his first reports
for us, for the ZEIT magazine.
He joined the magazine’s politics department in September 1999
as a regular associate. He moved from Rome to Hamburg – but
of course we rarely see him. He is in South America – Chile,
Panama, Peru, Argentina – or once again in the Balkans or in
Pakistan, right there, where world politics is seeking a center stage
to enact its dramas. For the readers of the ZEIT, he has been for
a long time a name, which stands for knowledgeable and sensitive analysis
and reporting. He has only recently discovered the Internet as a medium
for story-telling. This has turned into a success story which is worth
preserving in the less fleeting medium of the printed word.
Hamburg, November 2001