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The Commons
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Voices / Memoir

Touching danger

When we narrowly missed a car bomb in Pakistan, my father became human to me

Diana Whitney is a freelance writer and yoga instructor, where she writes with a focus on parenting, sexuality, and feminism. Her first book, Wanting It, became an indie bestseller in 2014 and won the Rubery Book Award in poetry. She’s the poetry critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, and her essays have appeared in Glamour, The Washington Post, Salon, The Boston Globe, Ms., and many other publications, including The Commons. This piece first appeared at Longform.org.

Originally published in The Commons issue #420 (Wednesday, August 9, 2017). This story appeared on page D1.



Afterward, I wondered whether my father understood there was danger at the Afghan border.

My father thrived on adventure. He had joined the Merchant Marine at age 16 and later driven his blue Alfa Romeo across Europe and a battered VW bus through the Serengeti. He was famous for making ill-considered decisions and delighted in emerging untouched from disaster. When I was a baby in England, he’d taken my mother out in a tiny sailboat and nearly capsized in a storm off the Cornish coast.

My father brought me with him to Pakistan in 1987, when I was 13, deeming me old enough to experience the developing world.

He dashed off to his World Bank meetings while I sunbathed poolside in a raspberry colored tank-suit, sipping fizzy lemonade at our gated hotel. If I raised a hand, a silent waiter brought me sweet-and-sour chicken. Deep in my teenage cocoon, I listened to Madonna on my Walkman, applied Coppertone oil SPF 2, and spoke to no one. By the third day I had a sunburn and cried myself to sleep slathered in aloe.

It feels important that I’m the only one left who knows the bomb story. My dad is dead, and my mom has dementia and can’t remember or articulate the past.

Now the keepers of my childhood are gone; all I have is my own chinked memory, with imaginative caulking to fill in the gaps.

* * *

Islamabad’s tree-lined boulevards were eerily quiet. My father forbade me to go jogging, so instead I did the Jane Fonda workout daily in our hotel room: syncopated leg lifts and side bends, arm circles, and sit-ups. Homesick, I was pained to be missing Katie Blair’s co-ed birthday party, where my friends would play flashlight tag in the woods and spin-the-bottle in the hayloft.

Our government hosts tried to discourage us from visiting Peshawar, the ancient walled city to our north, built at the foot of — here my father paused for effect — the Khyber Pass.

Once a main trading center on the ancient Silk Road, Peshawar had been conquered and re-conquered for millennia and was still a crossroads of cultures in 1987.

Every morning over sliced mango and yogurt, my father said the words “Khyber Pass” with a kind of reverence, and I knew he would not desist until we went there.

He told me these travels to this gateway to the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan would be a journey out of Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great.

Suffering from adolescent myopia, I knew nothing of the region’s political turmoil, how at the end of the Soviet occupation, the city teemed like an overcrowded Casablanca with Afghan refugees, Soviet spies, and foreign journalists.

* * *

With his trim mustache and sweater vests, my father was blusterous, good-natured, perennially optimistic — a mix of the absent-minded professor and dogged international economist.

Exactly what work was he doing with the World Bank in Pakistan? I didn’t know then, and I still don’t. Recently, I tracked down one of his colleagues to see if she’d answer some questions, but to be truthful, I’m afraid of what I might learn.

Once, my father told me people sometimes asked if he was in the CIA.

“There’s no response to that question,” he said sharply.

Back then, I felt his anger was slightly suspicious. If he wasn’t in the CIA, couldn’t he just laugh it off?

The name Peshawar comes from the Moghul era and means “frontier town,” an accurate distinction. According to the BBC, the rugged city is “regarded by many as al-Qaeda’s birthplace,” the gathering point from which Osama bin Laden led his mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Peshawar was also the hub of the CIA’s and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence’s covert war on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

I want badly to believe my father didn’t know any of this at the time.

* * *

On our last day in Islamabad, my father’s charm and persistence won out, as they often did.

The Pakistanis grudgingly granted us permission to go to Peshawar, although they insisted we travel in an unmarked car and depart right after breakfast.

At the whim of forces beyond my control, I had to skip my Jane Fonda, and I fell into a sullen mood. I squeezed myself against the sedan’s back door, as far from my father as possible. The capital’s wide streets gave way to hills and shacks, men huddled by roadside fires, steaming pots of food, chickens stacked in plastic crates.

I could tell that Dad wanted this to be a bonding experience; stubbornly refusing to engage in conversation, I cranked the volume on my Walkman and closed my eyes.

Our driver sped over ruts and whipped around corners, delivering us to Peshawar in barely three hours, where he immediately tried to sell us a black-market radio. But my father wanted a Persian rug and handmade silver jewelry for my mother. He wanted to tour the Afghan refugee camps, the tent city surrounding Peshawar, a vast landscape of cloth and bodies stretching as far as I could see.

“Must be back before dark,” the driver urged as he parked.

“Yes, yes,” my father agreed. And, as if into a waking dream, we wandered into the Casbah — the walled bazaar at the city’s heart, a maze of alleyways lined with vendors selling fabric, lanterns, lapis lazuli, piles of nuts and fruits. Strange meats hung skinned in butchers’ stalls, and I smelled blood, spices, incense, and garbage.

* * *

Time slowed as we explored the market, Dad sampling delicacies, examining jewels. At the end of a dim passageway, we happened upon a second-floor carpet shop, crimson rugs hanging enticingly from the balcony. The windows glowed from within like a den of rubies. Whenever my father told the story later, this was the scene he would thrill to, the lyric moment of discovery.

“Welcome, friends!”

The rug merchant beckoned to us, plump and beaming, clad in a white tunic and cap. I followed my father up the unlit back stairs, then stood awkwardly to the side as the man poured us glasses of dark tea.

Rugs covered the shop’s floors and walls in a lush tapestry of reds. I sat down on a rolled carpet and laid my head on my knees, already weary of this expedition.

I sensed my father would take his time here and, indeed, he and the merchant sipped their tea over a low table and exchanged ritual pleasantries for what felt like hours.

Rug after rug was unrolled for my father’s inspection, all of them hand-woven in tones of garnet and wine, velvety to the touch, intricate tribal histories spun into their patterns.

“This one is wool and silk,” boasted the merchant, smiling.

“Magnificent,” said my father.

He looked at me. “What do you think?”

I shrugged. “It’s nice.” All the carpets had blurred into a sea of crimson knots.

I closed my eyes as the men began to barter, thinking about the junior high world I’d left behind, the short yet mysterious Jason Ware and our brief kiss at Gremlins only a week before.

I drifted into a reverie as the haggling rose in tone and urgency, their male voices thrumming a bass line that lulled me to sleep.

* * *

When I woke, our driver stood in the doorway shouting. The room blinked back into focus: shop windows now faded blue-black, a vague premonition passing like a shadow across my chest.

My father brushed the driver off while the merchant rolled his new rug and wrapped it with brown paper and twine. The driver grabbed the package furiously, running to the car as we followed.

Our car raced out of the city at dusk, past blocks of lit-up buildings, past the refugee camps rushing by in a ghostly montage.

As we merged onto the main road to the south, an explosion roared to our left with a horrific whoosh, fear surging along every synapse.

An immense wall of flame rose higher than a house. The car slowed, then stopped, the driver frozen before the inferno.

My father reached forward and seized the man’s shoulder.

“Keep going! Keep going!” he shouted, shaking him.

He grabbed my hand as the driver came to life and the vehicle swerved, jolted up onto the median, a wave of heat penetrating metal. Was the car on fire? My eyelashes prickled, skin seared as if by a furnace blast.

Then it was over, cool again — it was over, and we were beyond it, speeding through darkness back to Islamabad.

“A car bomb,” said my father.

He pulled me to him, and I didn’t resist, resting on his warm shoulder until we reached the hotel.

When I was little and he left on his trips, I sometimes hid in the closet to smell the shirts he’d left behind, breathing their distinctive trace of salt and musk, wire hangers clinking around my body.

In sleep that night, I could hear the steady bulldozer of his snoring. I could feel the imprint of the fire behind my eyelids.

* * *

The morning papers said the bomb had been set near a gas pipeline — hence, the three-story tower of flames. They said the car had been empty, but I didn’t know whether it was true or if we’d just witnessed people being burned alive.

“Lucky there were no Soviet gunmen,” my father commented to a diplomat at the hotel, his eyes animated, a tremor of excitement in his voice.

Now that we’d escaped unscathed, he could exult in the peril, and I watched him spin my terror into adventure over the tropical fruit breakfast buffet. Pink with embarrassment, I already sensed that he’d made a mistake, that we never should have left Islamabad in the first place.

At 13, my main goal on that trip had been to return home with a tan and maybe a whiff of international mystery. I didn’t understand or care about the Cold War conflict we’d blundered into, how the U.S. had backed Pakistan with money and weapons after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, how Peshawar had become the epicenter of anti-Soviet activity, and how as Americans we’d been potential targets.

Our hosts had known the risks, but my father in his optimism assumed that they were minimal and that his gamble had paid off.

We boarded our flight to London with the crimson carpet rolled in the hold, a pair of silver and lapis earrings for my mother wrapped in newspaper.

I wore lapis earrings too, but what my father cherished was the story — another chapter in his life’s work, told and retold to family and friends despite my mother’s fear, her anger at his implacable hopefulness.

* * *

For years, my father and I held the threads of this dramatic narrative loosely between us, and I never corrected his version of our trip. But the bomb was the moment he became human to me, the first time I questioned his judgment or bravado.

After he died of a sudden heart attack 18 years later, I could no longer ask him to decipher the complex alliances and wars in Pakistan, or to explain what was happening near the Khyber Pass.

That Persian carpet still lies over beige wall-to-wall in my mother’s front hall, its rich color now drained to a thin rosé. Faded by decades of footsteps and sunlight, it possesses no magic, no impulse toward flight, no hint of its origin in a Peshawar rug den. There are many old carpets in my mother’s house. I’m not even sure this is the one my father chose.

But the rug was never the point.

The point was the journey, how we briefly touched danger, witnessed history together in the late 1980s when terrorism still seemed like a rare foreign dialect, removed from our safe Western lives.

Now it’s a twisted language we all speak, and I can’t decipher our own ignorance and privilege, their role in the past and the future.

How I wish I could call my dad now to talk about world news!

How I miss his bear hugs, his appetite for risk, his false promises that everything would turn out fine.

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