July issue 2009

By | Art | Arts & Culture | Published 15 years ago

As someone who collects and studies inscriptions on Pakistani trucks, I decided to write about these inscriptions, not only to understand the world view of the drivers and painters who write them, but also explore whether they provide evidence that the common man has not succumbed to the militant version of Islam that deems such art outside the bounds of a moral society. Could these inscriptions on trucks give us a peep into our culture, on which we could hope to build a tolerant Pakistan when this terrible, nerve-wrecking war is over? There did not seem much promise in this line of inquiry, but the truck inscriptions proved so mesmerising that I could not but proceed with my research in Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Quetta, Hyderabad and Rahim Yar Khan.

The study of truck art is not a field that has gone completely unexplored. Professor Mark Kenoyer, a famous archaeologist who has been conducting field research in Pakistan for close to two decades, told me in  the autumn of 2008 how he had taken a decorated truck from Karachi to the United States.

“The funny thing is that it landed in LA and then we had to drive it across four time zones to DC for the 2002 Smithsonian Folk-life Festival.”

I was collecting inscriptions on Pakistani trucks at that time and I found that a number of people had collected truck art and even inscriptions. Jamal J. Elias, a Pakistani scholar now in an American university, is probably the foremost scholar in the field and he is writing a book on the subject. German scholars, too, had shown interest in the subject, and I saw a book by Anna Schmad in German called Die Fliegenden Pferde vom Indus (The Flying Horses of Indus) complete with pictures and details. Even Pakistanis, normally indifferent to the richness and diversity of their own country, have taken interest in these inscriptions. Sarmad Sehbai has made a film about the decorated trucks. More to the point for my work, there are two collections of truck inscriptions published by the Parco Pak-Arab Refinery, entitled Pappu Yar Tang na Kar (Do not bother me, friend Pappu) — a common humorous saying on many trucks. Part 1 consists of Urdu couplets, some with a risqué bent, along with aphorisms. Part 2 consists of the Urdu poet Ghalib’s couplets on rickshaws, taxis and trucks.

For my own study, I chose around  627 trucks registered in the NWFP, the Punjab, Sindh and Gilgit/AJK, and the inscriptions on them were noted and photographed. The inscriptions were then divided into the following themes:
Advisory: Of an advisory nature and about life in general. For example, Phal mausam da gal vele di (The best fruit is that of the season and the best saying is that which is appropriate for the occasion).

Driver’s life: Pertaining to the driver’s life of perpetual travel, of not having a fixed home and of taking pride in his profession, for instance Driver ki zindagi maut ka khel hai/Bach gaya to central jail hai (The driver’s life is a game of death/Even if he survives there is the central jail).
Fatalism: Pertaining to the idea of there being a fixed, unalterable destiny; predestination; qismat with all its variant forms, e.g. Nasib apna apna (To each his own destiny).
Goodness: General goodwill and good wishes for all, e.g. Khair ho aap ki (I wish you a blessed life).
Islam: Sayings from the Quran, references to Islamic mystics (Sufis), pictures of sacred places in Islamic culture and religious formulas e.g. Bismillah (In the name of Allah).
Islamic fundamentalism: A sub-theme of the above, these refer to tabligh (proselytising), the Taliban (Rashid, 2000) and exhortations to say one’s prayers. These were uncommon some years back and, in view of the increasing militancy misusing the name of Islam in Pakistan, these inscriptions were tabulated separately e.g. Dawat-e-tabligh zindabad (Long live the invitation to proselytise).
Islamic mysticism: Also a sub-theme of the Islamic inscriptions. These refer to some reputed Sufi shrine or idea, e.g. Malangi sakhi Shahbaz Qalandar di (I am a female devotee of the generous Shahbaz Qalandar).
Devotion to Mothers: Pertaining to love and respect for one’s mother, e.g. Man di dua jannat di hawa (A mother’s blessings are like the breeze of paradise).
Nationalism: Pertaining to Pakistani nationalism, e.g. Pakistan zindabad (Long live Pakistan).
Patriotism: Pertaining to love for one’s native area e.g. Khushab mera shaher hai (Khushab is my city).
Romance: Pertaining to romantic love, flirtation, desire, aesthetic appreciation of (almost always female) beauty and, sometimes, the mildly erotic, e.g. Rat bhar ma’shuq ko paehlu men 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!)
Trucks: Pertaining to the truck itself. The truck is often portrayed as being feminine. Trucks are given feminine names in other countries, including the US, but in Pakistan, Muslim female names are not used for trucks. Common titles such as princess (shahzadi) are used, e.g. Japan ki shahzadi [Urdu] (Japan’s princess).

Explicitly religious symbols, images and inscriptions in Arabic are often found on the front and top of the truck. Sometimes, inscriptions also appear either on the bumper or on the engine itself. They also appear on the back and even on the sides. However, it is on the front of the truck that the name of the sacred is found, Arabic being a sacred language for Muslims. These inscriptions are, however, commonplace among Pakistani Muslims in daily life. They are considered auspicious and are spontaneous cultural habits. They do not indicate any special religious commitment, unlike the inscriptions gathered under the theme of ‘Islamic fundamentalism.’

The ‘fundamentalist’ type of Islam denies intercession by saints and rejects mystic (Sufi) practices and folk Islam. It takes several forms such as Wahhabbism (or Ahl-i-Hadith in South Asia) and the Deobandi sub-sect, as well as the more fundamentalist and militant interpretations of the last few decades. Some trucks, for instance, carry exhortation to prayers: ‘Namaz rah-e-nijat hai’ (Prayer is the path to salvation). Jamal Elias says he noticed this development for the first time in 2003, after four years of fieldwork on Pakistani truck decoration. He goes on to link it to the inspiration of the Tableeghi Jama’at of Maulana Ilyas (1885-1944).

Such inscriptions, however, rarely appear on the top of trucks. In Pakistan, the Taliban are the most noted fundamentalists and, therefore, the inscriptions linked to fundamentalists are generally about the Taliban (Taliban zindabad or Long live the Taliban is one of the inscriptions on numerous trucks) or prayers, fasting and proselytising in order to establish the Shariah. These have appeared only in the last few years and are found more on the trucks of the NWFP than in other regions.

The mystical inscriptions are those which are specifically about Sufi saints or shrines. This sub-genre is part of the Pakistan zeitgeist. Popular poetry and songs are frowned upon by the fundamentalists, who regard it as a form of seeking intercession in wordly matters from someone other than God (shirk).
The back of the truck is for inscriptions which are meant to be read as the truck passes by other vehicles. Here one finds mostly romantic inscriptions.

Most inscriptions draw on the conventions of the ghazal, the themes of which are unrequited romantic love, appreciation of female beauty, the fickleness of life and fatalism. While there is much eroticism in the Lucknow school of poetry, it is the more idealised, ethereal and emotional style of the ghazal which prevails. While some of the couplets of the classical masters of the ghazal, such as Ghalib or Mir Taqi Mir are in circulation on trucks, most drivers choose verses from unknown poets or sometimes from modern, popular ones such as Ahmed Faraz.

The most frequently occurring inscriptions on romantic themes are as follows:
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/A poor man has written this, so please smile while reading it)
and: Anmol daam dunga ik bar muskura do (I will give you incomputable wealth if only you smile but once).
Another one of the most ubiquitous ones is: Dekh magar piyar se (Look at me, but with love).

The examples given above are not drawn from Urdu’s large body of amorous poetry, but have been written by unknown poets who do not appear to know the strict rules of versification in Urdu. However, the stance found in the ghazal — the poet supplicating to an indifferent and fickle beauty for favours — is omnipresent.

Fatalism is 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) and, at least in its more extreme forms, completely denies free will. Among ordinary people, however, the denial of free will goes hand-in-hand with a pragmatic evaluation of the importance of common sense, self-interest and effort in life. Interviews with truck drivers also confirmed a popular belief in fatalism across the country.

Inscriptions about mothers are also rife. The drivers often quote a prophetic tradition: ‘Paradise lies under the feet of the mother.’ They claim amidst much reverence and visible emotion, that their mothers’ prayers have made them successful. A typical comment, made by Gul Haseeb from Peshawar, is evidence of this mindset:
‘Sahib, if it were not for my mother’s prayers, I would be in jail. Our profession is very tough and it can send a poor driver to the graveyard or the jail while his hair is still black.’ Yet another driver compared his mother to the sun, which gives life to the earth. ‘When the mother dies, the house is cold,’ he said.
It appears that there are more inscriptions about mothers in Sindh, but it must be added that drivers in all provinces of the country showed the same respect and emotion for their mothers in their interviews.

The languages used for inscriptions on trucks are Arabic, Urdu, Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi, Brahvi and English. English is generally used only as part of the registration formula, e.g. Peshawar 12345 and sometimes, but very rarely, for the name of the company on the sides — which is normally English but written in the Urdu script — or phrases like ‘good luck.’ Balochi and Brahvi are used to express all sorts of themes, but they are so rare that I had to make a special effort to find even nine trucks in Balochistan which had inscriptions in these languages. In Sindh, Sindhi is used, but less than Urdu.

The writing in Arabic does not reflect any conscious choice, as it is the language of Islam and all formulaic, liturgical writing in Islamic societies makes use of it; thus it is always present as an icon of Islam. However, the other languages of Pakistan offer choices for the writer of the inscriptions. To the questions about who decides which language to use for inscriptions and on what basis, most drivers and painters replied that they had jointly decided this and the basis was intelligibility. The language, they said, had to be intelligible to them and to the people they came across during their perennial travels up and down the country. Some workshops have diaries or scrapbooks with couplets, which the drivers can choose from. The present author saw several of such books. One owner of a workshop commented on his scrapbook: “These are the most popular couplets in the last 30 years. When I show them to the drivers, they want them all but are limited by the space available.”

Most of the inscriptions are in Urdu, though there were Pashto ones too. The Pashto inscriptions were found even in Rawalpindi, otherwise a Punjabi and Urdu-speaking city. This was explained by painters who referred to the large number of Pashto-speaking truck drivers in all provinces of Pakistan. “We have to cater for the drivers,” said painter Abdul Ghani, while painting a truck near Pirwadhai 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.” However, as Urdu is used in all the urban trade centres of Pakistan, and is the most common language of communication in the country, it is the major language of inscriptions in the country and can be read, understood and enjoyed by most Pakistanis.

Pashto follows Urdu not because it is understood all over the country — indeed, it is not even taught formally in the Pashto-speaking areas for the most part — but because the drivers are mostly Pashtuns and consider it part of their Pashtun identity. They identify with it and carry it with them as a symbol of their Pashtun roots. However, there are significant differences between the provinces/regions in the use of Urdu inscriptions on the back of trucks. These differences seem to occur mainly in the NWFP, where Pashto is used along with Urdu, whereas other provinces/regions of Pakistan do not use the local languages so often. If the NWFP were to be removed from the data, there would be no significant differences in the use of Urdu on trucks in Pakistan.

Punjabi is not taught formally in most educational institutions though, like Pashto, it is an optional language in some government schools. Yet it does feature on the trucks, as it is regarded as a language of intimacy, jokes and risqué male, in-group bonding. Thus the following inscription: Rul te gayean/par chas bari ayi (I am ruined/But I really enjoyed myself).

It is found on many trucks and hints at sexual adventurism and its consequences. Yet another line, this one hinting at the lover’s frustration with the inability of his beloved to meet him, goes as follows:
Aag lavan teri majburian nun (I feel like burning your constraints). Innuendoes like this are enjoyed by the majority of people, especially men, in Pakistan. Thus, trucks are often a source of diversion on the otherwise frustratingly congested and often pock-marked and cratered roads of Pakistan.

Despite the threat of ‘Talibanisation,’ the inscriptions on the trucks suggest that the world view of truckers (drivers, painters, apprentices and owners of trucks) remains easy-going, romantic, fatalistic, superstitious and appreciative of beauty and pleasure. To call it ‘liberal’ may be misleading, as it does not respect women’s rights or political liberalism. It draws upon a folk Islam, and not the puritanical, misogynist, strict and anti-pleasure variety of Islam which is associated with the Taliban.

Thus, while the extremist interpretation of Islam prohibits amorous literature or the description of female beauty for the gratification of men, South Asian high culture has always valued romantic verse. The inscriptions on trucks operate within the familiar paradigm of South Asian culture in which poetry, especially romantic poetry, is much in demand. The pandering to the ritualistic aspect of religion, as evidenced by the ritualistic inscriptions on the top of trucks, reflects Muslim popular culture in South Asia. Fatalism, a prominent theme of inscriptions, is also a part of the same world view.

This truckers have much reverence for Sufis and their ideas. Proof of this are the inscriptions which refer to popular Sufis and their shrines in Pakistan: Bari Imam (Islamabad), Data Sahib (Lahore), Pir Baba (Buner), Baba Farid (Pakpattan), Shahbaz Qalandar (Sehwan), etc. Other inscriptions on Sufi themes reference unity (wahdat-ul-wujud) and the omnipresence of the deity.

It appears that ordinary people do not object to the romantic inscriptions, but do take offence at paintings of the human figure, which are considered sinful. However, somewhat surprisingly, in response to a question about whether drivers painted women or got someone to do it for them, most drivers replied that they got a painter to paint a woman for them, while some admitted that they first tried themselves and once unsuccessful, turned to the painters. Most painters said it was their favourite hobby. Only one painter who used to paint women has left because he now considers it a sin. Driver Gul Khan, originally from Swat, said: “I tried to paint women. I like Aishwarya Rai a lot, and tried to copy a picture of her. But it turned out funny — [laughing] it was not like her at all. So I gave up and had painters do it for me.” Painter Haseeb Ullah from Rawalpindi told me he liked painting women in tight trousers — often in a police uniform — but since people objected to these, he gave up. “He was forced to give up,” said an apprentice. “His women revealed too much.” Everybody laughed. As for boys — defined as adolescents between the ages of 14 and 18 or so — only a few drivers (15%) said they got painters to paint them, but most denied having done it. Yet, 70% of the painters confessed to painting boys, though one has left doing so on account of it being a sinful activity.

Painter Amanullah from Rawalpindi revealed that many drivers do want boys painted. He tells me that he used pictures of boys in books and magazines for this, and used to like it. Then he adds: “But I heard the story of the Prophet Lut in the Quran, and I never did it again.” Children, however, are liked by everybody. Some said they had greater “emotion” in them than other human figures. It became clear that these children — pre-pubescent boys between the ages of 3-10 — were the sons (daughters are not painted) of the owners or, in some cases, the painter himself. Most drivers complained that they would like to get their children painted on the truck they drive but the owner does not allow them, as they have their own children on them. “I want my sons to be with me but the child here is the owner’s son. Anyway, all children are innocent,” is driver Irfanullah’s comment, a reflection of the general sentiment.

One painter from Peshawar said he did not care for the Taliban and would not listen to them even if they destroyed his shop. A driver reported that he knew of trucks that sported pictures of women being stopped by the Taliban, who warned the driver to remove them.

The Taliban even object to romantic verses, calling poetry itself sinful but they [the Taliban] have generally left them unharmed. Most of them object to human figures, calling them a grave violation of the Shariah. Driver Mahabbat Khan from Mansehra had this to say: “My elders often told me not to paint people or animals. The mullah must have told them about it being a sin. But I still get beautiful poetry written on the truck!” For this reason, some drivers who used to get actresses painted are now replacing them with national leaders. Several drivers from Quetta reported that a police officer who had helped truck drivers many a time, had become so popular that his picture still adorned many trucks from Balochistan. President Ayub Khan was also very popular with the truck drivers, but his picture seems to have gone out of fashion. Most drivers and painters still prefer actresses and actors to anything else. However, Professor Martin Sokefeld, a German scholar who has written on truck art among other cultural phenomena of Pakistan, and has been doing field work in Pakistan since the 1990s, notes that on the sides, portraits of women have become very common. “This can be explained in two ways. Either the drivers’ and painters’ memories go back only to the last two or three years, when Talibanisation began to spread in society, and by this time the trend of making womens’ pictures was already on the rise. Or, perhaps the pictures of women have been moved from the backs of the trucks, where they are more prominent, to the sides.

Going by the inscriptions on the trucks it is heartening to note that the world view of people associated with trucks — mainly drivers but also their assistants, painters and owners — has not shifted to radical or militant Islam yet. It still remains rooted in popular culture, which adheres to low church beliefs and practices. However, this popular culture is undergoing a metamorphosis and may be transformed further as Talibanisation increases but, as of now, it offers the hope that some of the core values of Pakistani culture, which made this country hospitable and lively, may be more resilient than the headlines about suicide bombers, the burning of CD shops and the suppression of the arts might have led us to believe.