Photo: ix4svs / Flickr
Photo: ix4svs / Flickr

O reader, read this couplet

Inscriptions on Pakistani trucks offer a key to understanding the popular worldview on the ground, and it is different from what the world hears about Pakistan.

Seven years ago, an archaeologist named Jonathan Mark Kenoyer imported a decorated truck from Karachi into the United States. He recalled recently, "It landed in LA, and then we had to drive it across four time zones to Washington, DC, for the 2002 Smithsonian Folk Life Festival." Such an undertaking only underscores the growing scholarly interest in Pakistani trucks, in particular the well-known artwork and the lesser-known inscriptions that nearly all carry. However, the inscriptions that adorn these trucks have been less noticed. Today, Pakistanis, normally indifferent to the richness and diversity of their own country, have begun to take notice of these inscriptions. And indeed, there is much to be learned from exploring them further.

Out of all the trucks in Pakistan plying the country's nearly 247,000 km of roads, the vast majority have inscriptions written on them in any one (or more) of several languages – Arabic, Urdu, Pashto, Balochi, Brahvi, Sindhi, Punjabi and others. Inevitably, these offer fascinating windows into the worldview of the cross-section of population represented by the drivers, painters and truck owners. This worldview is not typically understood by the media, scholars and urban intelligentsia. Could it be that common Pakistanis have not actually succumbed to the militant version of Islam that has drenched parts of the country in violence? And could these truck inscriptions offer glimpses into aspects of Pakistani culture on which a tolerant, easygoing nation could be built, as the current bout of violence runs out. These, at least, were some of the questions in the mind of this writer when he began to drive the roads of Pakistan, letting his gaze linger a bit longer at this at times mesmerising form of art.

In Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Quetta, Hyderabad and Rahim Yar Khan, a total of 627 trucks were studied and the inscriptions on them divided into some dozen themes. First off were the ubiquitous advisory inscriptions, about life in general and carrying a cautionary or informative note; a good example is the Punjabi maxim, "Phal mausam da gal vele di" (The best fruit is that which is of the season, and the best saying is that which is appropriate for the occasion). Second were inscriptions that pertained to the driver's life, one of perpetual travelling, of not having a fixed home, and of the pride that he takes in his profession; for instance, the Urdu "Driver ki zindagi maut ka khel hai/ bach gaya to central jel hai" (The driver's life is a game of death/even if he survives there is the central jail). A particularly large category was fatalitism, dealing with the idea that there is a fixed, unalterable destiny; for instance, the Urdu "Nasib apna apna" (To each his/her own destiny). On what could be the flip side of that category was goodness, general goodwill and good wishes for all; for instance, the Urdu "Khair ho ap ki" (Bless you).

Then there was the significant subset on Islam, including sayings from the Quran, references to mystic Sufis, pictures of sacred places, and religious formulas; an obvious inclusion, from Arabic, was simply "Bismillah" (In the name of Allah). Although not common some years back, a sub-theme on this was Islamic fundamentalism, which refer to tabligh (proselytizing), the Taliban and general exhortations to pray; for instance, the Urdu "Dawat-e-tabligh zindabad" (Long live the invitation to proselytise). On the other hand, mysticism, also a sub-theme on the Islamic inscriptions, often referred to the shrines of reputed Sufi saints, or to Sufi ideas; for instance, the Punjabi "Malangi sakhi Shahbaz qalandar di" (I am the female devotee of the Generous Shahbaz Qalandar).

Throughout Pakistan, there are numerous inscriptions on trucks devoted to the idea of mother, pertaining to devotion, love and respect for the mother. In Punjabi: "Man di dua jannat di hawa" (Mother's blessings are like the breeze of paradise). Nationalism – for instance the very common Urdu, "Pakistan zindabad" (Long live Pakistan) – was categorised separately from patriotism, which included one's own locale; for instance, the Urdu, "Khushab mera shaher hai" (Khushab is my city). The very large category of romance dealt with all matter of romantic love, flirtation, desire, aesthetic appreciation of (female) beauty and, sometimes, the mildly erotic; for instance, the Urdu, "Rat bhar ma'shuq ko paehlu mein bitha kar/ jo kuch nahin karte kamal karte haen" (Those who spend the whole night with the beloved next to them/and still do nothing, verily perform a miracle!) And finally – and in somewhat the same vein as the last category – were those inscriptions that hailed the truck itself. Interestingly, while trucks in Pakistan are often portrayed as being feminine – as in other countries, such as the US – they are not given Muslim female names, unlike in other countries, again such as the US. Rather, they are called variations of common names, for instance, Japan ki shahzadi (Japan's princess).

Three-dimensional canvas
For many of these categories, there are also conventions in terms of where on the truck the inscriptions generally appear. Most importantly, the explicitly religious symbols, images and inscriptions are nearly always found on the top of the truck at the very front. Others will also appear on the front but farther down, either on the bumper or on the engine itself. However, it is the forward-leaning overhang, the part of the truck that precedes the rest, that carries the name of the sacred, and always in Arabic. While this placement is indeed an act of homage, it is not necessarily one reflecting deep commitment. This is quite consistent with Muslim culture everywhere, insofar as most activities – business, education, eating, drinking, marriages, deaths, births, festivities – begin with religious rituals and formulaic Arabic utterances. Likewise, these inscriptions are ritualistic utterances that are commonly used among Pakistani Muslims in daily life; they are considered auspicious and are spontaneous cultural habits.

On the other hand, the inscriptions under the theme of 'religious fundamentalism' indicate just such a commitment. The 'fundamentalist' type of Islam denies intercession by saints, and rejects mystic (Sufi) practices and 'folk' Islam. Along these lines, some trucks today carry exhortations to prayer, such as "Namaz rah-e-nijat hai" (Prayer is the path to salvation). This is relatively new, however, and interviewees suggest that they first noticed these types of inscriptions around 2003. In Pakistan, the Taliban is today the most noted fundamentalist group, and therefore most such inscriptions are either specifically about the Taliban ("Taliban zindabad", for instance) or more generally about prayers, fasting and proselytizing for the establishment of Sharia law. These are found more often in NWFP than in other regions. Interestingly, in direct contradiction to other religion-related truck art, Islamist-type inscriptions rarely appear on the top of trucks, but instead are placed where fellow-travellers can easily see them, on the backs and sides.

The back of the truck is reserved for inscriptions that are meant to be read, as the slow-moving truck exposes itself to the gaze of travellers and pedestrians. Fundamentalist-type exhortations aside, more often than not it is here that one finds romantic inscriptions. Though their frequency of occurrence varies from province to province, there is no statistically significant difference between parts of Pakistan as far as the prevalence of romantic themes on trucks is concerned. Most romantic inscriptions draw on the conventions of the ghazal, the themes of which have always centred on unrequited love, the appreciation of female beauty, the fickleness of life and general fatalism. While there is much eroticism in, for instance, the Lucknow school of poetry, it is the more idealised, ethereal and emotional style of the ghazal which prevails in today's truck art in Pakistan. While some couplets composed by the classical ghazal masters – such as Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib or Mir Taqi Mir – are in circulation, most drivers choose verses from unknown poets or, sometimes from modern popular poets, such as Ahmed Faraz.

Two of the most frequently occurring inscriptions on romantic themes are from unknown poets: "Ae sher parhne wale zara chehre se zulfen hata ke parhna/Gharib ne ro kar likha hai zara muskura ke parhna" (O reader, read this couplet after removing the tresses of hair from your face/the poor man has wept as he writes this, so please smile while reading) and "Anmol daam dunga ik bar muskura do" (I will give you incomputable wealth if only you smile but once). Another of the most common is, "Dekh magar pyar se" (Look at me, but with love). Although most of these romantic outpourings are in Urdu, none come from the language's large corpus of amorous poetry. However, the worldview of the ghazal – the poet supplicating an indifferent and fickle beauty for favours – remains ubiquitous.

Fatalism is also very much a part of Pakistani folk belief. In Islamic philosophy, it is called masala-e-jabr-o-qadr, loosely translated as 'predestination and free will'. At least in its more extreme forms, the fatalistic inscription completely denies free will. Among ordinary people, however, the denial of free will goes along with a notably pragmatic valuation of the place of common sense, self-interest and effort in life. Inscriptions about belief in some form of fatalism are thus found in trucks from all the regions of Pakistan, with the highest (nearly 30 percent, according to this study) being found in Gilgit and Azad Kashmir. Other examples are: "Nasib apna apna" (To each his/her destiny), "Sab muqaddaran de ked haen" (Life is a game of destiny), and "Likhe ko kaun mita sakta hae" (Who can wash away that which is written?).

Inscriptions about the mother are also very common, with by far the highest percentage (30) being found in Sindh – nearly twice as often as in any other province. Drivers regularly quote a prophetic tradition to this effect – "Paradise lies under the feet of the mother" – and claim with much reverence and often-visible emotion that their mothers' prayers have made them successful. "Sahib, but for my mother's prayers I would be in jail," said Gul Haseeb, a driver from Peshawar, whose truck boasts the inscription: "Our profession is very tough, and it can send a poor driver to the graveyard or the jail when his hair is still black." Yet another driver compared the mother to the sun, which he noted gives life to the earth. "When the mother dies, the house is cold," he said. Yet, despite inscriptions about the mother being present on trucks from all regions of Pakistan, there are significant differences between the frequencies of their occurrence on the backs of trucks. Inscriptions about the mother are most ubiquitous in Sindh. Incidentally, in interviews, drivers in all provinces showed the same emotion for the mother.

As interesting as what is being said in these inscriptions is the language that is used. Beyond Arabic, Urdu, Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi, and Brahvi, English is also used, mostly when giving registration information, and sometimes for the name of the company or phrases such as 'Good Luck'. This writer has been particularly interested by the local languages that are deployed. Who decides which language to use, and on what basis? Most drivers and painters reported that they jointly decide on the matter, with an eye primarily to intelligibility. The language, they said, had to be intelligible both to them and to the common people on the roads and highways. Some workshops offer diaries or scrapbooks with couplets, from which the driver can choose. These, one workshop owner commented, are very popular: "When I show them to the drivers they want them all, but we only have limited space to work with."

The majority of inscriptions on trucks in Pakistan today are in Urdu. A significant proportion, though, are in Pashto, even in Rawalpindi, which is otherwise a Punjabi- and Urdu-speaking city. This was explained by painters as being due to the large number of Pashtun truck drivers throughout Pakistan. "We have to cater to the drivers," said painter Abdul Ghani, while working on a truck near the Pirwadhai neighbourhood in Rawalpindi. "If they like Pashto, so be it. Besides, we painters can write in Pashto as well as in Urdu – even in English. Actually, English is the easiest."

Punjabi is not taught formally in most educational institutions, though, like Pashto, it is an optional language in some government Urdu-medium schools. Yet it features prominently on the trucks, since it is regarded as a language of intimacy, jokes and risqué male, in-group bonding. Thus the inscription, "Rul te gaye an/par chas bari ayi" (I am ruined/but I really enjoyed myself), which is found on many trucks, hints at the possibility of sexual adventurism and its consequences. Yet another one hints at the lover's frustration with the inability of his beloved to meet him: "Ag lavan teri majburian nun" (I feel like selling fire to your constraints). Such innuendo is enjoyed by people – men certainly, and perhaps also not a few women – throughout Pakistan. Thus the trucks and their inscriptions tend to be a source of diversion on the otherwise frustratingly congested and often cratered roads of Pakistan.

Folk Islam
Despite the much-discussed threat of the 'Talibanisation' of Pakistan, the inscriptions on the country's trucks today suggest that the worldview of their drivers – as well as the painters, apprentices and owners of the trucks – remains easygoing, romantic, fatalist, superstitious and appreciative of beauty and pleasure. To call this general view 'liberal' may be misleading, as it does not particularly respect political liberalism and could not be termed gender sensitive. But historically, the ordinary people of Pakistan have voted pragmatically even while their outlook has been largely Islamic. This is 'folk' Islam, however, and not the puritanical, misogynist, anti-pleasure variety that is associated with, say, the Taliban.

While the extremist interpretations of Islam prohibit amorous literature or the description of female beauty, Southasian high culture has always valued love poetry. Thus, the inscriptions on Pakistani trucks seem clearly operating within the familiar paradigm of Southasian culture – in which poetry, especially romantic poetry, is accepted. The genuflection to religion as ritual, as evidenced by the ritualistic inscriptions on the top of trucks, is also part of Muslim popular culture in the region, and the widespread expression of fatalism is also part and parcel of this worldview. Interestingly, romance and fatalism are very much a part of the mystical Sufi strain, as evidenced by inscriptions that refer to popular Sufi saints and their shrines in Pakistan: Bari Imam (Islamabad), Data Sahib (Lahore), Pir Baba (Buner), Baba Farid (Pakpattan), Shahbaz Qalandar (Sehwan), etc. Meanwhile, other inscriptions on Sufi themes appeal to fate, unityism (wahdat ul wujud) and the omnipresence of the deity.

It appears that ordinary people do not generally object to the romantic inscriptions, though many do object to the paintings of the human figure, which is considered sinful. The painters, however, say that painting women is a favourite part of their vocation. Only one painter with whom this writer spoke to has stopped painting women on the trucks because he now considers it a sin. Some of the drivers themselves were found to have tried their hand at painting female figures on their trucks. Driver Gul Khan, originally from Swat, said: "I like the pictures of Aishwarya Rai a lot, and tried to copy them. But I ended up with something funny, it was not like her at all. So I gave up and got a painter to do it for me." Painter Haseeb Ullah from Rawalpindi said he liked painting women in tight trousers – often in police uniforms – but since people objected to these he had stopped doing so. "He was forced to leave off," said an apprentice of Haseeb Ullah who was standing to the side, to general laughter. "His women revealed too much."

Still, women are not the only human figures that go up on the sides of trucks. About 70 percent of painters say that they have painted boys (there is a cult of the beautiful adolescent boy in parts of the country), though they admit that many see it, likewise, as a sinful activity. Children, however, are liked by everybody, with some saying that such illustrations have greater 'emotion' in them than adult human figures. Often the infants depicted are the sons (daughters are not painted) of the owners or, in a few cases, of the painter himself. Many drivers complain that while they would like to have their own children painted onto their trucks, but that the owners do not allow it, preferring images of their own children.

Regardless of the acceptability of the human form, the fact that some clerics are continuing to emphasise the sinfulness of painting the human figure means that both drivers and painters have to beware. For every painter – such as one with whom this writer spoke, from Peshawar – who says that he does not care for the Taliban, and would not listen to them even if they destroyed his shop, many drivers report of trucks bearing images of women being stopped by the Taliban, with the driver being warned to quickly have them removed. The Taliban also object to the romantic verses, though they have generally left such work unharmed. "My elders often told me not to paint living beings. The mullah must have told them about the sin in it," said driver Mahabbat Khan, from Mansehra. "But I cannot think of erasing this beautiful poetry written on the side of my truck!"

Due to the conservative trend, however, those who used to get actresses painted on their trucks are now replacing them with national leaders. A particular police officer from Quetta, who had in the past been helpful to truck drivers, had become so popular that his picture still adorned many trucks from Balochistan. Once President Ayub Khan used to be popular with the truck drivers, but his image has gone out of fashion with the passage of time. Still, most drivers and painters continue to tend towards actresses and actors. Interestingly, Martin Sökefeld, a German scholar who has written on Pakistani truck art since the 1990s, reports that portraits of women have become particularly common on the sides of trucks. "This can be explained in two ways," he suggests. "Either that the drivers' and painters' memory goes back only to the last two or three years since Talibanisation spread in society … or maybe the pictures of women have been displaced from the backs of the trucks where they are more prominent to the sides."

In the end, inscriptions on Pakistani trucks today suggests the conclusion that the worldview of those involved in plying the country's roads has not shifted towards radical or militant Islam, but instead remains rooted in popular culture. This popular culture is in transition, and may yet be transformed due to an increase in Islamist militancy. But at the moment, it offers the hope that some of the core values of Pakistani culture may be more resilient than we would be led to believe by the headlines trumpeting suicide bombers, the burning of music shops, and the suppression of the arts and civil rights.

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