Friday, October 29, 2010

Pakistan cricket and a bicycle built for three

Three of us were crammed into the back seat of a Toyota Yaris, grumbling good-naturedly about our discomfort as we navigated the confusing highways and dusty roads that lead to the cricket ground on the outskirts of town.

Then we saw the bicycle.

A middle-aged Pakistani man stood upright in the pedals, slowly weaving toward the bright lights of the stadium.

On the seat behind him sat one friend.

On the handlebars in front of him sat another.

A good 10 or 15 kilometers from town, they clung to their perches and seemed not at all distressed by the situation. Their countrymen were playing a cricket match, and their destination was finally in sight.

You may have heard about the Pakistan national cricket team this summer – a spot-fixing scandal during their tour of England, three star players suspended, allegations of more matches being fixed, and on-going spats between players, coaches and the national cricket board. All this for a team that has not played a home match since March 2009, when the Sri Lankan team bus was attacked by gunmen before a series in Lahore.

You might think such a serious mess would dampen the fans' enthusiasm.

But no.

Pakistan is playing a month-long series against South Africa in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and with 1.2 million Pakistanis in the country, the team has received lots of support. The cheapest tickets – 30 dirhams, about $8 – are pricey by Pakistan standards, but even those who could not afford tickets showed up on this night, happy to stand outside the stadium and catch a glimpse of the field or the scoreboard.

Inside Sheik Zayed Stadium, in the stands and along the grassy banks that surround the field, fans were cheering and chanting and banging on chairs, having a good time despite the team's tattered reputation, depleted lineup and lackluster showing.

South Africa won easily, but as we left the stadium, the Pakistan fans did not seem any more disappointed by the result than they were deterred by the scandal. Corruption, one cab driver told me, is a way of life in Pakistan. They regret the scandal, but they are not overly surprised by it. They still love cricket, and they still love their team.

Many of the Pakistanis here are laborers and taxi drivers who work long hours for low pay and don't have a lot of entertainment options. So a chance to see their beloved team was more than enough to draw them to the stadium on the outskirts of town, even if it took a few hours perched on a set of handlebars to get there.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A cab driver's perspective on America

Out of the blue, my taxi driver said to me the other day, "There are no Muslims in America, right?"

Dammika asks me a lot about America. Where I live, what my house looks like, how many days a week people work, why my children don't live at home while they're in college, whether it's hot or cold, how far it is from New York to Los Angeles, if the streets look the same as in Abu Dhabi ... he's a sincere and caring and curious guy.

He's from Sri Lanka, and a Buddhist, which I could have guessed by the way he panics whenever a butterfly flits into the path of the cab. We're going to die one of these days because he's afraid of killing a wayward moth.

He seems pretty smart about the ways of the world. But he was astounded when I told him that, yes, there are Muslims in America.

"But there are no mosques, right?" he asked. "Where do they worship?"

I thought this was all coming from the Ground Zero mosque controversy, but when I asked about that, he didn't seem to know what i was talking about. He said he just assumed that after 9/11, mosques and Muslims were banned from America.

So he was perplexed when I told him there are millions of Muslims in America, and thousands of mosques, and plenty of Buddhists, too, and that while there are extremists who cause problems, people are, for the most, free to do as they please when it comes to religion. And then I started telling him about America being founded on, among other things, freedom of religion.

He shook his head in wonderment.

"America ..." he said. "It sounds like a very good place."