A woman walks through a congested alley in old Lahore | M Arif, White Star
A woman walks through a congested alley in old Lahore | M Arif, White Star

In the 2008 elections, this writer had the opportunity to work as a local interpreter for a team of European election observers in Lahore. This event came to mark the beginning of the period now being described as the latest, and perhaps the ‘deepest’, decade of democracy and democratisation in Pakistan.

This is a diary-like account of some of the incidents and impressions that stand out in memory from those few days before and after the elections as the election observers team visited candidates, political meetings, polling stations, judicial staff, courtrooms, journalists and civil society activists.

Memory is seldom exact, but the record below has tried to reproduce the conversations and their sequence as faithfully as possible.

Midday. At the corner meeting of a political party’s candidate.

A European election observers mission has sent out a number of teams in Lahore and the rest of the country. The team I am interpreting for has two members – a Scandinavian judge in her fifties or sixties, and an Eastern European humanitarian worker in his thirties or forties.

I interpret for them where required as they converse with the politicians. The candidate whose meeting we are attending today answers our queries calmly and carefully. His manner towards the foreign members of the team is polite and affable. His manner towards the local interpreter seems to be underlaid with an unstated curiosity. Yet it remains decorous and professional, maintaining the reserve that is expected in meetings between locals who are strangers to each other.

As the local member of the team, I discover that I am sometimes obliged to give out my personal cell phone number to people in the field who need to keep in touch with the observers. I find myself wishing I had had the foresight to arrange an alternative number for this particular assignment. The foreigners will fly off soon enough. We interpreters, however, would remain right here in the country.

Later that day, or perhaps another day.

We have fulfilled our daily rota of meetings with candidates and visits to locations where the electoral exercise will unfold. We check out polling stations under preparation and courtrooms where final results will be tallied.

Travelling in the car, the observers also strive to elicit my views as a young college student on various aspects of Pakistan’s society and politics. They are discreetly careful not to air their personal opinions about local politics and to maintain a policy of stringent neutrality. Yet human beings are human beings and it is possible to discern the impressions various candidates and parties are leaving on them from the shifting expressions on their faces as they talk to and of the specific individuals we are meeting.

Studying at a university in Lahore, I am away from my home city of Karachi. Hence, I cannot cast my vote and there is no real need for me to decide which party I should vote for. Yet it is still amusing to have foreigners meeting you for the first time trying to guess from your demeanour and personality which party you would be likely to favour if you had the chance to vote.

The foreign observers make one observation I find interesting. They are rather struck by how interested the average citizen they have encountered in Pakistan is in politics, even to knowing names of the members of various politicians’ families. Apparently, such interest is seldom seen in Europe.

Midday. At the office of some civil society activists.

We visit a representative of a local organisation observing the elections. It should be a useful exercise to find out what local observers are making of the general electoral climate and the arrangements made for election day.

As we walk in, the representative shakes hands with the European gentleman and lady. When it comes to my turn, his hand lifts slightly and then falls to his side when I seem not to notice or react to the slight movement. I make nothing of it and soon forget it.

I have been making the rounds of places teeming with bureaucrats and political workers over the past few days. No one I can remember thinks to shake hands with a local female. It was just not expected. In fact, it was something that we were simply not in the habit of doing in any domain of life up till now. Neither at school or university nor in the family. Men shook hands in greeting in Pakistan. Women nodded. No serious decision had ever needed to be made. It was only later in professional life that we consciously registered that in certain, restricted circles within Pakistan, everyone, regardless of gender, was in the habit of shaking hands.

We take our place before the activist’s desk and commence the discussion. His conversation addresses the elections from time to time but keeps drifting into a history of economic relations and social movements in Pakistan since the 1960s and 1970s up till now. His English is fluent. I have no real need to translate. He twirls the ends of his rather distinctive moustache as he speaks. I think he is enjoying holding forth about his views and vision before this team of foreigners.

It is eventually time to leave, and we politely thank him and say goodbye. He catches me by surprise when he suddenly makes a remark intended for my ears alone.

“I saw what you did right there, avoiding my handshake. I’ll tell you right now. You’re still young at the moment, but you won’t get very far in professional life with that sort of attitude.”

Surprise must have rendered me speechless as I later couldn’t remember making any sort of reply to this.

As we travel back in the car, I think aloud to the foreign observers.

“I think he might be a socialist.”

“I would say that was fairly obvious,” remarked the Eastern European with an ironic, somewhat amused smile.

Mulling over that incident later, I remember feeling no regret at all about evading that particular handshake. Whether or not it had been a conscious decision.

Early evening. Near a shopping area.

One of the foreigners in our team is having trouble with the charger for one of his devices. He wishes to look for an alternate option in the local market. We park the car near a shopping area and the police escort follows suit.

The observer disembarks and walks towards the shops. I think I must have accompanied him. Either he instructs the police to stay put in their car while he quickly runs his errand, or we walk too fast for the escort to keep pace with us. All I remember is some moments of panic caused by the police’s evident anxiety that the observer should be strolling about unaccompanied in an unguarded public area.

It must be very restricting for this observer to be forever hemmed about by security in Pakistan, I concede. His experiences in other developing countries have possibly been much less restrictive than this. Yet, there is such an atmosphere of threat and insecurity around this election that you are naturally reluctant to take even the slightest risk when it comes to the security of a foreigner. Besides the human factor, the international repercussions are too drastic to imagine. It is brave of this team to venture out to Pakistan at such a time.

It could only have taken a few minutes, but the police and I exchange some anxious words as I promise to communicate their concern. We all breathe a sigh of relief once the observer is safely back in the car.

Early morning. Election day.

We head to the ladies’ section of a polling station. The PMLN’s women polling agents are sitting here. In all their glory. Such a cacophony of colours and lavish use of bright cosmetics. It is a sight to stare at for a moment or two until you recall yourself to your actual duties here. Not to gape at the polling agents, but to observe the elections and listen to the conversation.

Midday. Inside a polling station.

A number of men are seated on some chairs, waiting their turn to cast a vote. The main candidates in this election for Lahore are from PMLN, PPP, and PMLQ. The JI and PTI have both boycotted this election so they are nowhere on the map.

A voter emerges after casting his ballot and speaks about the PMLQ.

“This time we will not let this Qaatal-League win!”, he booms out, addressing the audience at large.

I become a little tense, waiting for the reaction. In Karachi, we are used to words spoken out loud quickly being followed by violence by hand, stick or bullets.

But this is Lahore. Here, it seems, it is much more common to speak harsh and boisterous words before a crowd without expecting it to be followed by some kind of physical violence.

Late evening. At a polling station in Mozang.

In this area of Lahore, all the conversation is in Punjabi. I am glad to be able to follow it. It is a mere coincidence that I happen to have had just enough prior exposure to this language in my childhood. The interviewers had never asked me this when they hired me as their interpreter. All they knew was that I was from Karachi.

As the ballots are being sorted for the count, I lean closer to see one piece of paper. The stamp mark seems to be on the kite symbol. Could this be possible? Has someone in this city actually voted for the kite? Probably this stamp is a mistake... The (reformed?) MQM says they are determined to make some inroads into Punjab in this election, but I doubt it.

For a while, it seems that an argument is about to break out among the polling agents. I quickly try to size up the situation in case I need to translate. Yet the matter quickly resolves itself, and the votes are counted.

Late night. In a hallway inside the courthouse.

We are waiting for the ballot papers from different polling stations to arrive. A sizeable crowd of people are just standing there, milling about, waiting. Waiting and staring. At anything and everything.

What can anyone really do? Here is a public space you would normally have breezed through in a matter of seconds, but tonight there is no choice but to remain here standing still.

Long minutes pass. The dupatta becomes a chaadar. The chaadar becomes a niqaab. Nowhere to go from here. Just eyes seen gazing impersonally into the distance. Trying not to connect with any other eyes, even by accident.

Sometime later. In some narrow streets outside the court building.

There seems to be a delay and we have stepped outside the court building. Though not quite devoid of people and voices, the alleys are dark and dimly lit. It should be expected and familiar. Yet the constant reports of bomb explosions in the news and all the threats surrounding this election communicate a heavy sense of fear, even foreboding to the atmosphere. It affects your nerves, even as a local.

Years later, when people would write about this period, they would speak of it as a particularly violent and fearful one in the history of Pakistan. We would be able to tell on a graph when the carnage really peaked and when things became significantly better.

But at this moment in 2008, it is difficult to separate today from yesterday or tomorrow. It almost feels like we had been here forever and would always remain here. Every day in fresh memory had been like this. Every day in future would be like this. With fear living and breathing all around us, the sense of threat palpable.

On election night especially, as we walk in the streets near the court building, the air seems to have a quiet menace, a tense waiting. If I feel like this as a lifelong resident of Karachi and Pakistan, how must these foreigners be feeling?

The judge from Scandinavia has been very brave. But it is late and tiring. She is not young anymore and she is a woman. It would be a marvel if her nerves would not start to fray a little at such a time.

We are in search of a restroom but, as expected, it is not easy to find a satisfactory option around these parts. We stumble across a small inn serving an all-male population of what appear to be workmen of various kinds. Her male counterpart suggests its restroom as an option. She is vexed and indignant. How can she as a woman venture into a space so thoroughly dominated by men? She sees it to be an insensitive suggestion.

There is a somewhat tense exchange of words, and I hear what I recognise to be some standard Western European insults about the work culture and mentality of Eastern Europeans.

Sometime later. Finally, in the courtroom.

We return to the court building and are inside the courtroom where the sacks containing the tallied ballot papers and their accompanying forms have finally arrived. Now we must wait for the final sum-up.

The judge makes an appearance, looking fresh and vigorous unlike the rest of us who have started to wilt by now. This was the second time that day that we are seeing him, in addition to some prior meetings. He greets us pleasantly.

“You’ve changed (your dress),” the Scandinavian judge observes.

“Yes, I believe it raises the morale and promotes an air of efficiency,” he pronounces.

We settle down to observe the lengthy process. Soon another person arrives, also evidently freshly changed and perfumed for the grand occasion. He is a nominee for the National Assembly.

The results for this candidate’s seat are yet to be tallied and announced. He summons a policeman and sends him away with some instructions. The policeman returns shortly, bringing him a paper plate with some samosas and chatni.

Someone seems set to beguile the hours.

Another politician strolls towards our team. He is in a mood to chat. He proudly announces that he has been a Member of the Provincial Assembly. We are to be suitably impressed. He speaks of his international travels and experiences. Apparently, he spent some years in Spain in self-exile during the Musharraf era and is now back. I drift off as he chats with the Eastern European observer. There seems to be no dire need for translation.

“What is he saying?” The observer’s question suddenly recalls my attention. I ask the politician to repeat his comment.

“I was saying. It is like ‘__________’.”

I remain mystified. “But this is not Urdu at all,” I stress to the observer.

“Of course not! It is Chinese,” clarifies the politician.

We look at him in bafflement. Why he should expect an Eastern European in Pakistan to comprehend an obscure Chinese saying in the middle of an English conversation, I have no idea.

The conversation dwindles and I subside to a chair to wait out the time. After some time, the politician crosses over to take up a post besides this chair. He begins his inquisition.

“How much do they pay you per day for this job?

“2000 rupees.”

“2000 only!” His eyes twinkle with assumed astonishment.

“It’s quite sufficient for me. I’m just a college student.”

“Hmm.” He looks unconvinced.

I have to remind myself not to be abrupt with him, but civil.

He throws another sudden question at me.

“What do you have in your bag?”


“No camera?” he exclaims.


“No laptop?!”


Maintaining this air of pained amazement, he seems to be searching for another topic of conversation. I close my eyes and pretend to nap, hoping he would go away.

Some minutes later, I wake up with a start realising that I really had dozed off. It has been a long and tiring day. The advantage of being a 23-year old college student, I suppose, is that the foreign observers seem to find it rather endearing that you should slip into sleep like that in the middle of a bustling courtroom. I am less impressed myself with this display of unprofessionalism.

It seems the moment is getting close. The officials should be done compiling the result any time now. The National Assembly candidate is clearly getting impatient, striving ineffectively to mask his stress and excitement. His tongue almost hanging out in anticipation, this future minister clambers over the sacks of ballot papers surrounding the judge’s desk and tries to peer at what the officials are doing.

“Why, he’s like a little boy!” exclaims the Scandinavian election observer.

“Yes, he is, isn’t he,” I think to myself as I watch him. In a little while, we witness the announcement of his victory.

Democracy does require such a strong stomach sometimes. We have to just grit our teeth and bear it as all kinds of inexplicable individuals take the helm. In contexts like Pakistan’s, we are told, a true democratic transition requires that we watch and endure all this with patience. We as a nation have been impatient too many times already and there are few positive results to show for it. We must give democracy some time.

Later that night. Outside the court building.

The task of observing the tallying of the vote for the constituency is finally over. Tired but satisfied that our job has been completed for the present, we exit the courthouse. The result for most constituencies in the province is being announced by now.

As we emerge into the cool winter air of the night, we are greeted with loud sounds of jubilation as supporters and party workers celebrate the victory of their favoured candidates. A group of PML-N supporters passes near us, laughing, smiling, beating a drum, and dancing energetically. One enthusiastic celebrator steps close to the foreign observers and yells into their face:

“The LOIN has won!!!”

The observers look to me questioningly.

“They mean their electoral symbol. Sometimes in our country, that’s how we end up pronouncing this word. What they mean is that the lion has won.”

The lion has won. Indeed, it has.

Here, most definitely, the lion has won.

Early hours of the morning. In a police car.

I generally make my way to and fro from my college hostel in Defence to the Gulberg guesthouse where the European delegation is staying by riksha. Tonight work has gone on so late that the riksha is not a practical option. The observers’ team offers me use of their police escort to travel back to college in the early hours of the morning.

There is some casual conversation with the policemen as I travel to my hostel in their car. Completely out of the blue, one of them asks me a question:

“What is your caste?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think I have one.”

They look mystified. “How can that be possible?

“No, I’m telling you. I don’t have a caste. We don’t believe in them.”

They look at me for a baffled moment. One of them turns to his colleagues and says, “I tell you what. She must be from the ____ caste. They often make such arguments.”

“I don’t think so,” I insist. “I haven’t grown up hearing any such thing.”

But the policemen are confident they have solved the puzzle and assert that it must be so.

Some months later, I come across some government papers at home documenting my birth and domicile. Sure enough, in answer to the ‘caste’ question, it is stated ____. Just as that policeman had been saying.

Daytime. Back at the courthouse after election day.

The election is over and we have finally been able to take the opportunity to lie in and rest and recuperate a little. Bright-eyed and crisply dressed, we make our way back to the courthouse in quite a different mood from when we had last left it.

The judge is looking dapper as usual. He greets his fellow judge in the elections observers team with elaborate civility. As we take our seats and discuss the proceedings we had witnessed, the Scandinavian judge compliments him on the great efficiency with which everything had been executed.

Pleased no end to hear this, he implies in his exuberance that it was the presence of the observers team that provided him the incentive to make sure everything remained shipshape.

“For as they say, ‘When the peacock danced in the jungle, who was there to see it?’”

When the peacock danced...? For a second, I am confused.

“Oh, I see! Jangal men mor naacha, kis ne dekha,” it becomes clear in my head.

There seems no real call to explain this one to the foreigners. Sometimes we hear familiar proverbs quoted in totally surprising contexts.

The writer is a literary translator and a researcher in History.