Food For Thought

An Unlikely State Guest in the US: The Incredible Story of Bashir Ahmad

After coming out of the second session (in which I was a panelist with famous Pakistani scientist and author, Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy), I was met by three young men, one of who wanted me to sign a copy of my book, End of the Past that he had bought at the festival.


As more young folks approached me with their copies of the book, one of the three young men kept saying: ‘Sir, I am relative of Bashir Ahmed.’


I kept glancing over my shoulder to see who on earth was constantly repeating these words on the right of me: ‘Sir, I am relative of Bashir Ahmad….’


Finally, I turned around to ask who Bashir Ahmad was. The young man, in a simple white shirt and a faded pair of denims, got a tad louder after finally getting my attention: ‘Sir, Bashir Ahmad, camel man….’


As I was trying to figure out who this ‘camel man’ was, and at the same time, signing copies of my book, the two men who were with him excitedly announced: ‘Boss, Bashir Ahmad, camel driver, who go to America….’


As it turned out, standing there with me with a wide smile was a young relative of Bashir Ahmad – the poor Pakistani camel cart driver who, in 1961, had ended up as a state guest of the US Vice President in Washington!


Not many people remember him today. And yet, back in the day, for many months, he was constantly mentioned in newspapers across Pakistan and the United States.


At the time, Bashir Ahmad lived in a rundown house made of dried mud in a shanty town in Karachi’s Railway Colony. According to his relative (who was actually the son of one of Ahmad’s cousins), Bashir was making Rs. 2 a day carrying goods for small traders on his camel cart, when, in 1961, his cart got stuck on Karachi’s Drigh Road (present-day Shahrah-e-Faisal).


This happened due to a large number of people who had gathered there to watch the motorcade of the visiting American President, Lyndon B. Johnson. Bashir was going towards the Saddar area when his journey was halted and he (and his camel), eventually became part of the gathering.

 

As Johnson’s motorcade slowly drove by, Jonson noticed a camel’s neck and face hovering over the cheering crowd. He immediately asked the chauffeur to stop the car.


This was 1961 and security protocols for VIPs were a lot lax than what they became decades later.
Famous Urdu author and columnist, Ibrahim Jalees, was also there. In a column of his, he explained how Johnson hurried out from the open-top limousine and began to swiftly move towards the camel.


He was followed by three Pakistani policemen, two American security agents (in suits), and at least half a dozen American and Pakistani reporters who were accompanying the motorcade. 
The gathered people began to clap and Johnson waved back as he continued to walk towards the camel. The people blocking Bashir’s view parted when Johnson reached the spot.


It is only at this point that Bashir came to know what was transpiring. With the help of a few onlookers, Johnson conversed with Bashir. According to Jalees, after exchanging pleasantries with Bashir, and admiring his camel, Johnson said to the people gathered there: ‘you all come to Washington and see us there….’
To Johnson’s surprise, Bashir enthusiastically replied: ‘Yes, yes, I come, meet you.’

 

Johnson flung open his arms (as if wanting to embrace Bashir) and exclaimed, ‘wonderful!’ Then he zeroed-in on him and both had a 10-minute chat, facilitated by some Pakistani reporters who became on-the-spot interpreters for the Vice President. 
The next day, photographs of Johnson speaking to a camel cart driver named Bashir appeared in Pakistani and American newspapers. But the story began to fade away after a month or so.


Two months later, Ibrahim Jalees wrote another column in which he urged the US government to invite Bashir to Washington so that ‘a true people-to-people contact’ can be established between the US and Pakistan.
After his unprompted bump-in with Johnson, Bashir had gone back to driving his camel cart. However, about four months later, he received an official invite from Johnson and the Readers Digest magazine to visit the US. He was stunned. He had never been on a plane and didn’t even have a passport!


The government of Field Marshal Ayub Khan encouraged the initiative and immediately prepared Bashir’s passport on urgent basis. The government then provided him with an airline ticket paid for by the American Embassy. 
Bashir spent four weeks in the US. There he met the US Vice President and his wife. While attending a state dinner thrown in his honour, Bashir was urged to make a speech. He agreed and made a speech (in Urdu).


He told the guests at the White House: ‘my friends in Karachi thought I would die of a heart-attack when travelling on a plane. Well, even if I had died, I would have passed away on my journey to meet a good friend.’ 
America’s LIFE magazine reported that during the state dinner, Bashir opted to have rice the way he did back home: with his hands. Seeing this, the guests at the dinner also decided to put aside their spoons and forks, and used their hands to dig into their plates of rice.


Bashir also visited Johnson’s ranch in Texas where he was gifted a pick-up van by Ford Motors. Bashir’s visit was extensively covered by the US and Pakistani media.
On his return to Karachi, Bashir retired his camel and began to use the truck to conduct his business. 
When Jacqueline Kennedy, wife of American President John F. Kennedy, visited Pakistan in early 1963, Bashir was invited by Ayub Khan to a lunch he was hosting for the American first lady at his residence in Karachi.


Bashir arrived wearing a smart sherwani and a Jinnah cap. He also brought with him his then retired camel!
The camel was tugged in and parked in one corner of the vast garden of the residence. Here, the US first lady was given a ride on Bashir’s camel.


By 1965, Bashir’s celebrity status had eventually begun to fade. He vanished from the pages of the newspapers. But he did manage to earn a bit more money with his truck, even though (according to the young relative of his that I met in Karachi), Bashir continued to reside in his mud house in Railway Colony, though the relative also hinted that Bashir did move to a ‘better place’ in the early 1970s. 
However, he also informed me that the fame which Bashir had received created tensions between his relatives and him and when (in 1973), he fell upon hard times, he sold off his Ford truck.


By now the Ayub regime had fallen, and Bashir’s pleas for assistance fell on deaf ears. Even the press which had once turned Bashir into a ‘people’s diplomat,’ ignored him.


According to the relative, Bashir passed away in 1977 and with him, so did a remarkable episode of spontaneous public diplomacy. 
Later in the evening at the Karachi Literature Festival, I wanted to invite the relative for a cup of tea. But amidst the dozen or so young men and women around me, I suddenly lost sight of him.


I asked a friend to find him, but he just wasn’t there anymore. A man joked he must have gone out to get his camel. But a young woman immediately put him in his place by saying: ‘I am sure that camel certainly has more humanity and intelligence than you will ever have!’


The writer is a Pakistani journalist, cultural critic and satirist. He is the author of a detailed book on Pakistan’s ideological, political & social history, called ‘End of the Past.’

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