Thanks to a Lost Dog, a Reporter Digs Deeper Into the Soul of a City
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- I almost missed her at first, a small dusty dog curled up under a taxi in a crowded airport. But when I whistled, she poked her head out and looked up with a faintly hopeful expression. She had a slender face and huge brown eyes, like a doe.
I had just landed after a long flight from the States, tired and harried, but I bought her a chicken sandwich near the taxi stand and watched her gulp it down. As I started to walk away, pushing a trolley full of luggage, she raced after me and clung to my legs like a child. It was an act of rash, desperate trust I could not bear to reject.
And so this tiny, graceful creature came out of the void and into my life. Within a few days we were inseparable. She was a slim white-and-brown hound, perhaps 2 years old. I named her Ahu, which means "deer" in Afghan Dari.
I had rescued other dogs in other foreign lands, but Ahu seemed more like a long-lost friend. She was grateful for a bath and unfazed by a trip to the vet. When I came in the gate of my rented home, she leapt up and pirouetted for joy. When I worked at my desk, she rested her muzzle on my lap. When I went to bed, she curled up nearby.
Islamabad has long been an intermittent base for me between reporting assignments in more volatile and impoverished places in South Asia. It is an orderly, modern city, and over the years I had become familiar with its ministerial offices and diplomatic compounds, its political parlors and bookshops and fashionable restaurants. But it had always been a safe and antiseptic way station, a place with ATMs and hot showers. I had never engaged with it as a real city, with real inhabitants who struggled to make ends meet. They appeared in the manicured enclaves I frequented to cut grass or sell mangoes, then retreated to a gritty world on the fringes of the capital that seemed remote and invisible.
Until I lost Ahu. I was on another trip to Afghanistan and left the dog in the care of my redoubtable housekeeper. I assumed Ahu would be there waiting patiently, like Argus, when I returned. Instead, I learned later, she had howled disconsolately in the yard all day. I had seduced and abandoned her, and she had no way of knowing I would be back. One morning when the gate was left open, she bolted down the street. The guards chased her for almost a mile, but she vanished into the city.
When a colleague called with the news, I was in a rural Afghan province covering a rally for a presidential candidate. I felt sick with guilt. I knew Ahu was looking for me, and I imagined her wandering and lost and hungry.
The next morning I caught the daily flight to Islamabad, and that afternoon I started out to search, accompanied by my housekeeper and her husband. We began in the affluent neighborhood where Ahu had been last seen. Uniformed guards were stationed outside every residence, and we handed them fliers with her photograph, a reward offer of $100 and a phone number. Some greeted us with suspicious looks or incredulous stares, but others seemed sympathetic. One older man was sure Ahu had spent a night curled up next to his booth, but he said she had moved on.
Islamabad is a city of many pet owners but few animal lovers. Affluent families dote on imported Persian and Siamese cats and retired officers walk their German shepherds or stout yellow labs, but I have rarely seen anyone express concern or affection for a street dog. The snobbery of the elite is passed down to the servant class. Ahu looked like a hundred other homeless dogs, and the guards and sweepers and drivers we met in our search regarded her as having no value. If we were looking for a local stray, they told us with looks of faint distaste, we should try the nearby "Christian Colony."
This turned out to be a warren of alleys and shacks, hidden behind a wall and inhabited by several hundred families of garbage scavengers. Christians are a small, mostly impoverished minority in Muslim Pakistan, popularly disparaged as thieves and drunks. The colony filled a designated economic niche, like a community of "untouchables" in India. In every alley, boys delivered bulging sacks and men weighed piles of glass and cardboard for resale.
The inhabitants were astonished and amused to see us, but they were neither rude nor threatening. Dirt-streaked boys surrounded us and eagerly took the fliers; shopkeepers listened politely to our story. "Madam, do not worry, we find your dog," one old man selling a pile of eggplants promised gallantly.
There were indeed many dogs living in the colony. The community had a reputation for stealing them, but it seemed to me they were treated more as co-inhabitants at the margins of society, neither pampered nor shunned. After several visits, we recognized most of the regulars, and they trotted up wagging their tails. As we broadened our search, scouring parks and vacant lots and garbage pits, we came to know the dogs that lived there, too. After dark they huddled in groups of three or four near the Dumpsters, waiting their turn after the crows and scavenger boys.
Several looked like Ahu, and I kept thinking sadly that they were no less deserving of a better life.
On the second day, we peered into more corners of the city. We marched into police stations, passing grimy prisoners in manacles, where desk officers rolled their eyes but dutifully took notes and promised to alert their patrols. We poked into smoky tea shops where jobless men passed their days snoozing on string beds. We crisscrossed overgrown parks where squatters slept in cardboard tents or grazed a few goats. For the first time in more than a decade of visiting this polished international capital, I discovered its human soul.
As the hours passed, I began to lose hope. Back at the office I tried to finish writing an overdue article, but the words would not come. I had no appetite and I slept fitfully. I had to return to Afghanistan in a few days, and I was beginning to believe I would never see Ahu again.
But out in the city, word was spreading. Ahu's photograph was taped on market stalls and utility poles and taxi windows, and strangers started calling the number on the flier. Each time it turned out to be a false alarm, but each time I met someone who cared. In a bookshop window I saw a photo I thought was Ahu's, but it had been put up by a woman seeking a home for another stray. A man called to say he had found her, and he was cradling a similar little hound in his arms when I arrived. We had a long talk and parted feeling like kindred souls. My impression of Pakistani callousness toward animals began to soften.
The search also led to unexpected reconnections in a city where I had many professional acquaintances but no close friends. By happenstance, a U.N. worker I had known a decade before e-mailed to say hello, wondering if I was in the country. She turned out to live in the precise neighborhood where Ahu had vanished, and promised to be on the lookout.
Then I ran into a Pakistani journalist and former traveling companion whom I had not seen in years. He instantly vowed to find her, re-energizing my flagging hopes. Together we combed the city again, passing out more photos and expanding the network of people who knew about our search.
In the end, the crucial connection came from yet another obscure subculture in the capital. My journalist friend knew an extended family of clothes washers, men who laundered sheets and towels in steamy outdoor baths each morning and delivered them on motorbikes to guest houses and dry cleaners each evening. At 7 a.m. on the fourth day of the search, my friend passed out fliers at the baths. At 6 p.m., two of the laundrymen called him from a tea shop. They had a flier in their hands, and they were certain they had found Ahu.
Half an hour later, she was delivered to my door, dirty but unharmed, and delirious to see me. I was overwhelmed with relief. I gave the laundrymen the reward money and admonished the guards to be more careful about leaving the gate open. But I was also grateful to this little dog for leading me into the hidden human corners of a city that had long seemed artificial and inhuman to me.
Blissfully unaware of the harrowing but instructive odyssey she had launched, Ahu strolled into my room and curled up at the foot of the bed for a good nap.
Constable reports from Pakistan and Afghanistan for The Post.