MIDNIGHT DEADLINES: A Reporter Abroad
The Fixer and the Carpet Comber
This happened more than a decade years ago, but I remember it clearly, still.
I was sitting the lobby inside a western hotel in downtown Karachi, Pakistan, waiting to meet the bespectacled man who would serve as my guide, my journalistic fixer, in a country where journalists were targets.
He was himself a local reporter, a father of two daughters, and he was taking a risk to work with me. But he cared about freedom of expression in his homeland and decided that his conditions were worth the risk of working with a foreign correspondent. And the pay was good, considering the risk.
It was a sunny winter morning in 2008 and the lobby was bustling with activity: men in business suits and Shalwar Kameez, the flowing uniform of most Pakistani men. The furnishings were ornate, expensive carpets and furniture — all of it recently installed after the hotel had been bombed the prior year. I felt uneasy about staying at a place that had so recently been the scene to such violence, but in Pakistan, it was hard to find any hotel western hotel that hadn’t been targeted in some way by extremists.
You took your chances where you had to. For me, it was like standing a spot that had recently been struck by lightning — could it strike again so soon?
Like a lot of western journalists in Pakistan at the time, I grew a scraggly beard that came in red and gray, as if that was enough of a disguise.
I was a target, if anyone wanted me to be one.
I had come to Pakistan in the aftermath of the assassination of Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto. That year, 2008, there was to be presidential election back home and I wanted to tag along with a politician from Bhutto’s party as he went on the stump, to experience the fear and loathing of campaigning amid such terrorism and violence.
I remember flying into Islamabad airport a few weeks before and making my way through the teeming crowds. I was afraid of making eye contact, perhaps for fear of upsetting someone with my westernness. When I did catch someone’s attention, always a male, (I never, ever, looked twice at a Pakistani woman) he watched me with coal black eyes, with a gaze so intense, so piercing, that it still makes me shiver to recollect it. Met with that glare, I always averted my eyes.
I took whatever precautions I could in Karachi, and everywhere else.
The fixer was known to the newspaper, and had worked with the regular correspondent who covered the region. She has returned home on leave, and I flew in to fill the gap.
In a way, I felt like a babysitter, watching over a colleague’s children. I wanted to make sure that nothing serious happened in my watch. If it did, I would call right away, break up a dinner, or get her out of a movie, just to make sure I was giving junior the right medication the right time.
Journalism beats are like that. They’re like children, groomed by their reporters. I didn’t want to fuck up.
I had one story idea that I though would work well. In Karachi, the city where journalist Daniel Pearl had been updated and murdered in 2002, there was a mullah who had washed Pearl’s body in the Muslim tradition, even though he had been Jewish.
It was a gesture of respect, and the mullah had given interviews. I wanted to talk to him about the newest rash of violence. But the reporter whose beat I was covering decided it wasn’t a good idea.
So, I backed off. I’d have to find another story.
Waiting that morning in the hotel lobby, I didn’t know what my fixer looked like, other than a brief description he’d given me over the phone. And so I was hyper-watchful, eyeing everyone who crossed the space in front of me.
And that’s when I saw him, someone else: This older man in his Shalwar Kameez, who skittered across the floor crablike, on a particular mission.
Each time a guest or waiter or anyone else walked across the expensive lobby carpet, he would rush over and use a small comb to straighten out the fringe, the sometimes unruly ends that come with many Pakistani carpets.
He worked quickly — comb, comb, comb — making sure the threads were straight.
And then he skittered back to his corner, like a ball boy in a tennis tournament.
Then someone would walk past and upset a few strands. And he’d be back.
Comb, comb, comb.
My fixer finally entered the lobby. We worked together for more than a week, and he was nice man who continued to send me emails for years afterwards.
I tried to be ever-so-cautious in Karachi — and everywhere else in Pakistan.
Once, when I arranged to have dinner with my fixer, I took a taxi three blocks to the restaurant, and paid the driver to wait for the return ride, rather than walk there and set myself up to become the latest journalist kidnapped and killed in that dangerous city.
One day, when we went out of town on a story, we needed to hire a car.
This was a major issue. Western journalists were schooled to never do business with strangers, for fear of the worst.
Months later, a colleague at the newspaper, told me that he had once broken that rule and almost didn’t live to regret it. He had flown into Kabul not long after the 9/11 terrorist attack to cover the invasion of Afghanistan that everyone knew was coming.
He didn’t have a fixer and he didn’t have a driver, and he needed to travel to Jalalabad, so he took a grievous chance: He hired both off the street.
The trio left Kabul and, once in the desert, their car suffered a flat tire. My colleague told the others he was going to walk off for a moment, to take a leak.
He came back ten minutes later and the tire was fixed. They were ready to go.
He never saw the driver again, but continued to work with the fixer. They were a good team. One night, months later, over dinner, the fixer turned to the journalist, and said “You know, I don’t know if i should tell you this, but remember that first trip we took together to Jalalabad?”
It had been so long before, many stories under the bridge, but the journalist remembered.
“Well,” the fixer said, “remember when you walked away for a bit As soon as you were out of earshot, the driver turned to me and said, ‘Let’s kill this guy. I know a mullah who would pay a pretty price for his head.’”
The fixer shook his head, and said No.
The driver shrugged and said OK, and went on fixing the tire. Just like that. The cost of life for a shrug.
I still remember how that story scared me, how we all perhaps come so close to death and never even know it.
That day in Karachi, the fixer and I hired a stranger to drive us. When the regular reporter found out what I’d done, she scolded me.
Never take risks, she warned. They could get you killed.
I’ll always remember that lesson, that perhaps-close-call.
And I will also never forget that old man in the Shalwar Kameez who hurried across the carpet of that western hotel to comb out that frayed carpet fringe.
It was a simple gesture, a bit of imposed order in a violent, chaotic, disorderly world.