Our man Jamil


We’re still not sure whether to be incredibly grateful for Jamil’s hospitality, or a little irked and possibly offended by it.

Jamil found us on a Gilgit kerbside, loaded up with big packs and with only a vague sense of directions to the hostel we wanted to stay in. He knew the way, he said, and so he took us there. We weren’t really sure who this guy was when he helped us check in, ordered up cups of green tea and deposited himself on what was to be our bed in our hotel room. He lapped up every detail we could convey about our lives. We exhausted all the normal pleasantries within that first hour and then our conversations turned circular. When silence struck Jamil would say something like “I am your friend?” we’d nod agreeably and then he’d smile.

Jamil had an interesting conversational style. He was a forty something lawyer for a local transport company he said, and had the ID cards to prove it, but we struggled to believe that his clumsy English was what he actually used in court. When he didn’t understand the question we were asking he would veer the conversation off in a quite unexpected direction instead. Some highlights:

  • On why he studied law: Elders said you have very good language, killer mind. So I go law school.
  • On whether he’d have more children: My wife and I have not gathered for past six years.
  • On New Zealand not having a state religion: So, you have no customs and no traditions.
  • On Fiona: Why are you so silent? You have very weak voice. He very good company.*
  • On the restaurant we ate in: This restaurant very like Fiona. Why? Because silent.
  • On potential sleeping arrangements: You honour me with invite to sleep in your hotel room.
  • On everything else: Inshallah.

Jamil was not content with meeting us only once. “What is your programme?” he inquired. We agreed he’d return that evening and take us to visit his family but they turned out to have other plans, so instead we went out for chapal kebab – like a deep fried, lightly spiced beef patty to be picked apart with chapattis. Then we all retired to our hotel room again for more green tea and interrogation about our planned programme for the next day.

Jamil was building a house, so the next morning he took us to visit the construction site and loaded us up with tea at his big brother’s place. That evening he agreed it would be acceptable for us to pay for dinner, so he took us to a tikka place out of town on a bluff overlooking the river. This was the kind of place that had toothpicks that were specially shaped, rather than just offcuts of wood. Classy.

We were tired when dinner ended, already anticipating the early start next morning and the cramped jeep ride to follow. But Jamil’s enthusiasm was unquenchable. Again we retired to our hotel room. Jamil sang us a local song and I mumbled through some Crowded House. Grasping for less talent driven entertainment I fired up the laptop to show some of our wedding photos. Jamil couldn’t believe how few clothes everyone was wearing and that there were photos of us, wait for it, kissing, on our wedding day. He ended up with a slightly giddy smile. His request to dance with Fiona was probably a little too insistent and his grip a little too tight when she did.

I gave Jamil some chocolates, hoping the idea of a gift would seal the evening and send him home. He responded with rings for Fiona and I, an even broader smile, and no apparent interest in leaving. I stood and hovered for an uncomfortable period of time in the hope he’d get the message. Then I sat down again. Our circular pleasantries continued until Jamil leapt up and departed with scarcely time for a handshake. We were left relieved, bemused, and unsure what to make of our Gilgit host.

Jamil enjoyed trying on our sunglasses.

With a little more time we’ve come to see Jamil as a somewhat tragic figure, awed and craving for the kinds of freedoms we have. The fact we never got to see his family – the very first thing most hosts want to show us – seems more significant in hindsight. He has an arranged marriage and hinted it had ups and downs. Would we pray for him to have a love marriage, he asked?

It’s an easy give to tell our various hosts that they’re welcome in our New Zealand home. For one thing, we don’t have one, but even when we do they’re unlikely to have the means to be able to visit. But there was something in Jamil’s eyes that said he really, really wanted to. We’ll send him some photos, and that might have to do. Sadly, I fear he will treasure them much more than we will the plastic rings he ceremoniously slipped on to our fingers before he disappeared off to his family home.

* For the record Fiona spoke an entirely appropriate amount, and with her normally strong voice.

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