The Protector

Zulfiqar Haiderali

First appeared in Dawn

Poster: The ProtectorI was given an opportunity to work abroad, so, I thought, what the heck, might as well be a nice change for a while. Got a bunch of papers from my employers, dumped them at the consulate, was given a date to collect the visa, and that was it. And soon, slowly but surely, the time came for me to get myself an airline ticket and say goodbye to my loved ones.

This is, alas, when the fun began.

An extremely competent foreign-airline-officer held my passport and smiled: "Good afternoon, sir, and how may I help you?"

"I would like to book myself a seat on the mid-day flight day after tomorrow, please." I said and summoned up my best smile.

She softly punched in a few keys on her computer, asked me some rudimentary questions about the transit, preferences etc., smiled back, then picked my passport and flicked the pages. Something caught her eyes and she raised an eyebrow…

I gave her an understanding laughter and said, "Er… obviously I was having a bad hair day when had that picture taken… hehe…", and sheepishly looked away.

"No, sir, that is fine…" she replied, "There is, however, no Seal of the Protector on your passport." She said quizzically.

"Uh… a seal of what…?" I said, "Oh… I see… no, no… ha ha… of course, I'm not a very religious man, but if you require a stamp from my respective clergy, I can write an affidavit affirming my neutrality to any extreme-religious affiliation. Always believed in the Almighty to be my ultimate protector, you see … ha ha… thanks!" I nodded and gave a confident laughter.

She looked at me with a rather confused, very unimpressed smile this time.

"Sir, I meant your passport does not bear the official stamp from the Protector of Emigrants, Ministry of Labour, Government of Pakistan. This is a statutory requirement for all individuals exiting the country for the purpose of employment abroad. Were you not informed of this mandatory?"

Was I not informed? Is that what she said? I think this is what she said, I thought. Informed by whom? The ISI? The FIA? Does the government actually employ a department to take care of people's queries! Wow… this is good governance, General!

But hold on… Shall I ask the question or risk being ignorant? Besides, where on earth will I find this Protector? Does he have a Godfather like mansion somewhere in the Margalla Hills? Will I have to meet his button-men or caporegimes in order to make an appointment? How will I look asking directions for The Protector on the streets of Karachi?

"Er... madam, would you be kind enough to guide me a little about the Protector of Emigrants?" I had a look of a guy caught red-handed by his wife while visiting a website of questionable repute.

"Sir, I'm afraid that is beyond my knowledge, but I can surely find out from one of our other clients working in the country of your destination and let you know, if you'd like?"

"I'd be most grateful, ma'am. Surely now I know why I'm paying more to fly with your airline." I genuinely paid my respects and left.

She proved true to her word. So, the next day, armed with the address of The Protector in my hand, I embarked on a journey I would not forget for a while.

"All set for the Protector's bountiful, sprawling premises! Where aspirants of a better future from all over the town flock together!" I sang. Yes, sir... where the officials have been given special instructions by the Federal Government to be as helpful to the much-needed foreign exchange earners as young men are to a young woman motorist stranded in the middle of the road with a flat tyre.

In fact, let me add apologetically — I felt a little sense of privilege — or conceit, if you may. I was, after all, in a position now to earn some real foreign exchange for my homeland. I felt I was being extra pursued by beggars at signals already! I felt I had rediscovered my patriotism. I felt I was a lucky, classy, complete man. I felt the steering wheel very comforting in Karachi traffic for the first time. I pompously smiled and took the turn before the Protector's majestic realm.

This is when I gasped and a really really bad feeling crept up my throat.

It was a run-down 8x8 feet cement-cabin with tiny broken-glass windows and half hanging tin-plated 'notice boards'. Where 18 men occupied a space for four personnel. Around nine dozen open-air photocopy stalls surrounded this office/shack as if planets orbiting the sun, with each stall manning at least three persons.

Welcome to the Realm of His Highness, The Protector of Emigrants, I whispered to myself.

I took a deep breath and approached an idly sitting officer behind a masking-taped Information window.

I knocked; he looked up from his newspaper. Said nothing. So, I began:

"Assalam Alaikum, ji… I need the Protector's stamp on my passport, please. Who shall I see for that? Thank you, ji."

The guy stared blankly at me for straight 30 seconds, said something unintelligible and sank back into his paper.

No, wait. He did point at someone or something! So, I looked towards the direction he'd pointed at. Hmm… Bin Laden Photostat. Must be a mistake. I looked around in the proximity of his pointed direction… Mullah Omar Paan Corner... nope; there was nothing that could give me a clue.

So, I knocked again. The gentleman looked up, and upon re-discovering my face, had a very unpleasant expression on his face. He then shook his chin upwards, as if asking what was my problem in the world.

I asked softlier than a marriage proposal:

"Assalam Alaikum, ji… I need the Protector's stamp on my passport, please. Who shall I see for that? Thank you, ji."

"Visit tomorrow. Dractar unavailable. Read board."

Now regardless of his behaviour, I was genuinely impressed with the crisp and compactly articulated sentence. Without wasting a single word, he aptly communicated so much. I swear he can write excellent advertising copy or news-heads. There is so much talent in our country!

My appreciation for local talent was more short-lived than green-passport holders' respect at foreign airports.

As I began reading the board, it became increasingly apparent to me that the Protector was not interested in protecting anyone but his own backside!

For one single stupid stamp, I had to fill 18 forms, had to visit three different banks for pay-orders and cash deposits. And while doing it, by the way, had to get a "voluntarily mandatory" life insurance policy, apply for a new National Identification Card, writing 5 affidavits conceding/stipulating/ affirming/denying various declarations and providing an unbelievable amount of photocopies/photographs. Plus, attestation of each from 'gazetted' officers and witnesses!

I was indeed humbled like an atom against the mighty wrath of the Protector.

At least one thing became crystal clear: the photocopy industry shall inherit the earth's fortune.

I felt I needed to sit, as I encountered this extreme emotional distress and depression. How on earth am I ever going to accomplish all this by tomorrow! Especially when Dractar was not available?

I threw my document folder on the sidewalk as I sat, and took my head in my hands.

This is when I received the most comforting shoulder-tap of my life, and heard the voice of a truest friend in need:

"Got some Protucter work, brother-ji? Agent available to serve, ji…"

For a thousand bucks, I was triumphantly displaying the Seal of The Protector to the pretty airline officer an hour later. Heck, even she was impressed!