We’ve experienced the interesting phenomenon as we’ve moved eastward of being fervently warned against the terrors and the dangers of the bogeymen we are bound to encounter further east. It began as far back as Bosnia, where we were cautioned about driving through Serbia, but has been more pronounced ever since Turkey.
In Istanbul, we we were warned about traveling through Kurdistan, the easternmost part of Turkey, and a nationalist region that spills over the borders of Iran and Iraq. There, we were assured, the bloodthirsty Kurds would be lying in wait to slit our throats, steal our tires and pirate our music collection. Instead, I found cheap knockoff Nike toques, and nobody touched us or the car.
But the Turks and Kurds of eastern Turkey were in agreement about the certain fate we’d meet in Iran. Surely the trip would end there; we would be imprisoned for being foreign, forced to admit to espionage and it would take a diplomatic mission to get us out again. Of course, none of that happened. But that was only because we had not reached eastern Iran, Balochistan, which every Iranian took care to mention was a lawless place, prone to the type of bandits and brigands you’d find in an Indiana Jones movie. But in Kerman, we found out it wasn’t Iranian Balochistan we needed to be concerned about – it was Pakistani Balochistan that would be the end of us…
And so on and so on.
If I’ve learned anything traveling through this region, it’s that everyone is scared witless of their neighbours by some nightmare vision of a place edited together from sensational media reports and scenes from the beginning of Iron Man. Bad things happen in these places, to be sure: the Kurdish slaying of over 40 Turkish security personnel in August; the routine imprisonment of foreign (and domestic) journalists in Iran; the kidnapping and semi-regular bombings in Balochistan. However, I’m still surprised that the same people who are warning me against these places are the same intelligent people who would be made nauseous to write off whole cultures or ethnicities or religions because of atrocities committed by a maniac few.
There are three things totally unfair with this point of view:
1) It’s largely fed by grossly iniquitous media stories
This point is pretty much a given. You’re not going to hear stories about three Afghani Pashtuns inviting a tourist into the back of their shop for tea and a chat; only if that tourist doesn’t come back is something reported. But the former is far, far more likely than the latter, and the experience is interesting and rewarding even if they don’t speak a word of English.
2) The probability of something terrible actually happening is extraordinarily small if the right precautions are taken
I’ve read about three people being kidnapped in the past few years. By the figures here, let’s say Pakistan has had a few million tourists in the same period. Roughly speaking, by these numbers, your chances are about 1 in a million of being kidnapped.
As far as bombings go, they have been concentrated in Peshawar and places of worship (in Pakistan, anyway), which are in any case typically off-limits. If you’re smart about where you go, you hardly need worry.
3) Worst of all, it’s racist and bigoted, as the fear of these places is innately linked to a fear of the people.
Sitting next to a turbaned man on a plane and want to switch seats? Different situation, same prejudice.
I experienced one of the few shocks of the trip when an Iranian in Bam asked very sincerely if I was planning to travel to Afghanistan as well. My reaction was an instinctive no. Thinking about it more, I still wouldn’t go there right now; it is a war zone, after all. However, I’ll admit the images that flooded my mind at the initial question were not of army fatigues and war encampments, but those of masked Afghans binding me and tossing me in the back of a pick-up.
The easy thing to do, the thing that takes the smallest amount of mental effort, is to paint a place with broad strokes: evil, danger, threat. The finer details, like the three Afghans in their shop inviting me in for tea, are much harder to perceive, but are usually the true colours of a place. Those details are difficult; they confound the mind, as it’s those subtleties that jar your perspective the most, like scratches on a Barnett Newman painting, belying a more evocative work underneath.
To add some detail to your image of Iran, Pakistan and Balochistan, here are some images from the drive from Bam to Quetta. And there is also a video kicking around on YouTube, too: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JdvmHxkHjTw.
And there is also a video kicking around on YouTube, too: