KARACHI, Pakistan — Recently, I was in a car with my driver when we hit a huge patch of traffic. I was running late for an appointment and the air conditioner was busted. I sighed audibly, frustrated that we were once again stuck in one of Karachi's notorious jams.
My driver, however, had a back-up plan. He pulled the car into reverse, maneuvered it deftly, and made an illegal U-turn, heading the wrong way down a one-lane road. It was a bad plan for many reasons, but I wasn't going to say anything until I noticed a police van rumbling toward us. I opened my mouth, but my driver was quicker — he backed up a little and pulled to the side, giving the police van room to pass. Pass us they did, and we continued without incident.
I couldn't help but laugh. We had done something dangerous, reckless and without regard to traffic laws. A vehicle carrying seven armed policemen had witnessed it and none of them bothered to stop us.
"They probably just assumed we wouldn't be able to bribe all seven of them so they didn't even bother," my driver said when I mentioned the absurdity.
He was tickled enough by my concern that he began cracking a whole slew of police jokes. Most weren't actually funny, but they did highlight his obvious disregard for law enforcement, considered widely to be incompetent.
"Why did the police officer stop the [ambulance] for running a red light?" he asked. I shrugged. "Because his wife was the patient in that ambulance." That one went right over my head.
"Why are there three police officers at the traffic circle?" he asked another day. The answer: there's "one to watch the cars, one to ask his supervisor what the laws are, and the third to chase [the cars] down."
My driver isn't the only one prone to joking about the country's abysmal law and order situation. Others will often point to the traffic police — most of whom are stereotyped as tragicomically overweight, with large handlebar mustaches. My friends who drive will keep a running score of how many times they witness a police officer willfully ignore traffic laws in just one outing.
After the Abottabad commission — a judicial inquiry to investigate exactly how Pakistan had failed to realize that Osama bin Laden, public enemy number one, was residing a stone's throw away from the country's capital — was leaked, my driver had a field day. While the news didn't exactly make waves in Pakistan, one anecdote from the report kept popping up in conversation.
A traffic officer had reportedly pulled bin Laden over for speeding, the wife of one of his advisers said during the investigation. It's unclear whether the cop simply didn't recognize one of the most famous faces of Islamic jihad, or whether the bin Ladens paid a bribe worthy of his silence.
But the story prompted many in Karachi to share their own anecdotes of gross incompetence by police. The stories were always told with a good dose of humor; no one expected the situation to change, nor was furious that it continued. As with many realities in Pakistan, most accepted the troubled system with a sense of resignation.
Out of all the police forces, traffic cops seemed to bear the brunt of the criticism.
"How did a traffic officer fail to recognize Osama while handing him a speeding ticket?" my driver asked the day after the news broke.
Without waiting for an answer he exclaimed, delightedly, "Who even knows! Maybe he was blind! Maybe he only saw the money! Maybe he couldn't tell one Mullah apart from another! Maybe he forgot that Osama bin Laden was dangerous!"
There was no real punch line — my driver thought any possible reason for bin Laden getting away was hilarious.
Ten minutes later, after we'd switched subjects, he added a more sober afterthought. "Seriously though. Is anyone even remotely surprised that with these morons in charge we let him stay in a house in our country for so long." He shook his head. "We should pay [police] more."
His rare show of compassion for the cops was short-lived. The very next day, he was ready with a new batch of anecdotes about not just the police and traffic police, but paramilitary forces and "desk riders" (officers who never patrol), too.
My own favorite joke about the authorities goes beyond traffic-cop fare and involves a test between three different security groups. It's a common joke in Pakistan, though the three security groups in question are determined by each teller. For example, sometimes the joke takes on the Indian police force, other times the Israeli. In some versions of the bit, all three groups are Pakistani forces. The punch line is almost always the same, however: the Pakistani police are always the worst and most corrupt.
Here's an example:
Pakistan's police force wanted to prove to their country that they were more talented than both the CIA and the FBI. They decided to hold a competition, releasing a rabbit into the woods. The first organization to locate the rabbit would win. The CIA trained animal informants to act as spies in the woods. They questioned all the plants and the rest of the wildlife, trying very hard to locate the rabbit. After a three month search, they decided that the rabbit did not exist. The FBI chose a more destructive path — after two weeks in which their agents did their best to find the rabbit, they burned down the entire forest, hoping the fire would kill the rabbit, too. The Pakistani police force, however, found the rabbit within 24 hours. When the judge asked to see the culprit, he was presented with a large bear being beaten by the police officers. "It's true!" yelled the bear. "I am the rabbit! I surrender."