In Foreign Parts: Forces of conservatism meet their match in a middle-class mother and frothy cappuccino

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The Independent Online

At Quetta's busiest traffic roundabout, a hawker stands with a hunting falcon tethered to his outstretched arm, but nobody bothers to stop and shop for birds of prey these days. The occasional tourist might snap his photo, but tourists are in very short supply now in Pakistan's south-western stronghold.

At Quetta's busiest traffic roundabout, a hawker stands with a hunting falcon tethered to his outstretched arm, but nobody bothers to stop and shop for birds of prey these days. The occasional tourist might snap his photo, but tourists are in very short supply now in Pakistan's south-western stronghold.

It is the last major city on the road to Kandahar, in Afghanistan. To reach the bazaar, we must run a gauntlet of streets, lined mostly with cyber-cafés and gunshops, all teeming with moustachioed men in spangly skull caps. Many of these fellows walk in pairs, their fingers delicately entwined.

In a dozen blocks, I see about 250 men striding about, but I manage to spot just six women, who huddle together on a kerbside, their faces veiled. I pull a big scarf over my head, as much to fend off the dust as the scrutiny, and proceed.

Most women live out their lives behind doors this very conservative garrison city, the capital of Pakistan's biggest and most sparsely populated province. Travelling salesmen regularly call in at their homes, where the women can bargain for jewellery or embroidered cloth at their leisure, chaperoned by the cook and bearer and any sons.

Vendors come by bicycle with fresh melons, persimmons and pomegranates. But every so often, no matter how well run a household might be, a woman has no option but to nip out to the shops.

Saira, a garrulous army wife who has spent only one year in Quetta, needed some extra onions last week while she was making lunch.

So she went to fetch some before her hungry children arrived home from school. She hopped into her white pick-up truck and drove to the neighbourhood vegetable stand, as usual. But when she pulled up to park, she found herself staring into the barrel of a gun.

"It was daylight robbery," she told me. "Two Taliban came up to the window with a pistol and said they wanted my car. They demanded my keys."

And how did she identify these car thieves as Taliban? "Oh, you know, the look. Kohl around the eyes, untrimmed beards, no manners. They're all over town," she explained. "These guys have not suddenly vanished. They've just changed the colour of their turbans."

But Saira is not one to relinquish her wheels without a fight. While the family's loyal servant, misleadingly called a batman, cowered in the backseat and urged memsahib to be quick with the keys, the unarmed mother gave the thieves a tongue-lashing. Most Taliban were brought up in Koranic schools, far away from their own families, and so have had little experience of being scolded by a woman. These two were so astounded to be cursed by a feisty middle-class woman that they slunk off, empty handed.

Saira still trembled with rage while she recounted her run-in. "By some fluke, you cannot summon the police from a mobile phone. So that tactic was useless. What to do. I guess it was risky, but I shouted at them. I couldn't help myself. And it worked."

Saira's bungalow is decorated with flair, and her curtains frame a view of the bare-boned Chiltan mountain. Local legend has it that a destitute couple once left their 40 sons, one by one, on its slopes to die. The ghosts of the first 39 came to collect the last brother, and disappeared into the night after frightening the parents to death. The lost boys are thought to haunt this mountain even now, luring lost travellers to death by exposure. I wondered if the refugee boys who became the fierce black-turbanned Taliban got spooked by the tale.

Shortly after we finished our chat, the local law enforcement officers came round, very apologetically, to examine Saira's pick-up. Saira doesn't suffer fools, and everyone now knows it. When she heard that an injured cyclist had just testified that the vehicle which mowed him down was identical to the one parked outside, Saira unhesitatingly invited the police to inspect it, and even offered them a coffee. She longs to live in a law-abiding community, and hopes to set an example.

I figured out why her coffee was turned down. Frothy cappuccinos are newly trendy here, and sipped with pleasure by the élite in Quetta's only five-star hotel, the Sirena. But the imported brew seems to be considered too girly an indulgence for clansmen. The foam tends to cling to their extravagant moustaches, giving them the look of a prematurely aged walrus. Dignity is everything in these parts. Better to slurp clear green tea under the whirling ceiling fans, and mutter about politics and prices as always, and leave the coffee to the ladies. Quetta is quite traditional that way.

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