My first bribe: Pakistan brings out the worst in me

Published: March 23, 2011

I had never paid anyone any sort of bribe in my life and had no intentions of starting then.

I’ve lived in the UK most of my life and visited Pakistan last summer after five years. I was simply overwhelmed when I arrived at the airport and was smiling at everyone and everything I saw.

Unfortunately, my feelings of  joy came to an end soon enough.

Fist stop: baggage claim

I waited at the baggage claim for the last piece of my luggage -a lawnmower that that my grandfather had requested – for half an hour.

Finally, I saw the big orange box. It was sitting on a luggage trolley along with another suitcase. Standing next to it was a tall, grey-haired man in a black suit.

I walked towards the trolley and asked if I could see the box (which had my name written on it in big black letters). After I threatened to call security, he complied with my request.

The man shifted the box off his trolley, put it on the floor next to me and swiftly started to walk away.

As I tried to stop him, he turned around and said,

Beta, mujhe maaf kardo. Allah tumhara bhala karay” (“Son, please forgive me. God bless you!”).

I was shocked at his audacity!

Next stop: customs desk

A fat man with a big moustache checked our luggage. His eyes lit up when he saw the lawnmower. He gave me a price that was double the amount that I knew I should pay.

It was obvious that he was trying to make some extra cash. I tried to explain that I had done my research and he was over-charging.

The man grew indignant; he said I was accusing him of corruption.

The argument drew a crowd. One of airport officials casually asked me how many mobile phones I had with me. I did not reply.

After arguing with me for some time, the customs official realised that I wouldn’t comply with his absurd demands and told the spectators to clear out.

When they were all gone, he took me to a corner and asked me if I could “help him out”. I was confused. I had no idea what he meant at the time.

He made an unambiguous gesture, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together. He wanted a bribe.

I had never paid anyone a bribe in my life and had no intentions of starting now.

I asked the officer if I could go over the gate and speak to my mother, who had come to receive me, but he declined.

After contemplating for a while I reluctantly asked him what he wanted.

“Do you have any pounds?” he asked with a devious smile.

I felt disgusted but took out a twenty pound note from my bag and handed it over.

Before I could say anything else, he waved at two of his colleagues who hurriedly escorted us and our lawnmower past the gate and into the arrival hall.

I ended up not paying any duty on the lawnmower.

Last stop: Pakistan

As I sat in the car, I realised that airport officials are the first point of contact for everyone entering the country. Did they treat everyone like this?

Would a foreigner ever come back here after being treated like this and nearly having his luggage stolen?

I contacted the airport officials to tell them my side of the story. I was told to write a letter but it has been months and I still have received no reply.

Saad Hafeez

Saad Hafeez

A British Pakistani living and studying in London.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • aliya

    this is so true, a similar thing happened to me when i went there last time!Recommend

  • Deen Sheikh

    Im a frequent overseas traveller and something happens everytime, Ive had my
    Luggage stolen at Islamabad airport, and have been given a tough time on a few occassions at Karachi Airport’s international arrivals, its not uncommon esp if your coming from the Gulf countries.Recommend

  • Awais

    Its you not Pakistan. you just dupe yourself by committing corruption and absolving yourself of all the blames by putting it on Pakistan. its just a way of calming your conscience and ironically also for most of the people on this particular websiteRecommend

  • HJ

    Another story that has to do with airport security in Pakistan… it is not related but would like to share it anyway. I was leaving KHI airport for the US, and my bag was selected for checking. They opened it, and me being a girl (and a last minute packer) had thrown my privates on top of everything, as well as stuffing them in the suitcase pocket. The security person (he was a Pathan) touched and picked up each item slowly and as if he was relishing it. He then checked the pockets, doing the same thing, almost holding everything up, as the others were watching.
    I was embarrassed out of my mind, with all these men around, and the loader standing next to me.
    I did complain to the manager, but all he did was yell at somebody else just to show me.Recommend

  • Har Maal Do Do Rupaiyah

    Saad, you seem to be confused about your identity – Pakistani or foreigner? You write that your grandfather requested a lawnmower suggesting he lives in Pakistan and then you say your mother had to come receive you indicating that she was there already. Both of these facts suggest that you are of Pakistani descent and yet you call yourself a foreigner. I understand that felt used by the sick people at the airport and I condemn what they did but you are no foreigner and that’s why you were treated like this. Had it been a real ‘gora’ foreigner things would have been slightly different. He probably would have used some contacts to skip the entire ordeal to begin with. The people who work at the airport only harass brown people regardless of the color of their passport. Lastly, you are also to be blamed since you paid the bribe instead of paying the import duty. Two wrongs never make a right!Recommend

  • Mariam Khan

    If u are a “GORA” then u ll be given vip treatment only…..this is the dilemma we being the citizens of this country are always mal-treated by our own ppl.Recommend

  • Ahsan

    Welcome to “Pak”istan :)Recommend

  • khan

    being a girl and travelling alone, i dread going in to the islamabad airport. every time i enter that place something has to go wrong. i kid you not once my luggage was being inspected by the woman officer and she went through my stuff…picked up my bottle of perfume and sprayed it on herself. I WAS SHOCKED!

    other times i have had to pay extra for a ticket i have bought because they wont let me board my flight though my seat is confirmed.

    unfortunately i comply with their demands as i am not a fluent urdu speaker and i would rather not waste time and get going. Recommend

  • Saad

    @ har maal, let’s not talk about identity here, please. And as for your question, I never said I was a foreigner. That was a general statement where I was talking about foreign nationals who were not Pakistani. Also, can it not be possible that my mother was already there, and she had gone before me? Recommend

  • Basit

    Thank God, I never had any bad experience at Pakistan airports… I guess I dont give much time to the people there to think, so I get through it every time :))))Recommend

  • Biryani Qorma Sheermal

    @ Saad: Read my comment again, I did say that your mother was already there. However, you write “I asked the officer if I could go over the gate and speak to my mother, who had come to receive me, but he declined.” This to me and any other reader would mean that she came to pick you up. I never assumed or said that your mother lived in Pakistan, I said your grandfather lives in Pakistan.
    Regarding your foreigner statement, you write “Would a foreigner ever come back here after being treated like this and nearly having his luggage stolen?” By your choice of words, you are somewhat implying that you are a foreigner and putting yourself in a ‘foreigner’s shoes. Also you need to get used to people commenting on your blogs, with opinions that may or may not agree with your views or opinions. Recommend

  • andrea

    While I don’t doubt that such instances of petty corruption go on at the airport, I feel that you implicitly supported it by giving the bribe. Let’s face it, sometimes it takes effort to take the moral high ground but as a people we choose the easy path and go with the flow. I have seen European Goras so the same in Pakistan when they are also harassed. Leaving aside the fact that you could have paid duty on the lawn mower which would have been more than the bribe, you also could have asked for the man’s name and the name of the staff who you felt were unprofessional.Then followed up with a few letters and calls. If anything this takes take, effort and patience. It may not amount to much but if a large number of Pakistanis, whether living abroad or at home were to adopt this policy, we would certainly improve things at our airports and customs. If we love our nation and want to make it better, we alone have to put in the effort. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that any other 3rd world country is better or worse. It’s been like this whenever I travel in Africa and Central Asia. And also let’s not delude ourselves to the level of fraud- both major and minor that Third World immigrants do in many western countries. For example, most Afghanis and Somalis in Canada live on social assistance or phoney disability which is state khayrat when they should be working legally but prefer easy money.Recommend

  • Amna

    I live in the US and I travel alone to Pakistan often. I have never had any issues, although I don’t doubt your story at all. But unfortunately hating Pakistan and hating all Pakistanis is certainly not the solution. You have to be positive, things are not going to change themselves, everyone has to make an effort. Not trying to imply that you are negative though, but I feel like most ET readers are very cynical and self hating.Recommend

  • aliya

    @Biryani Qorma Sheermal:

    ofcourse, I appreciate the comments. I was only trying to answer your question.Recommend

  • Anwar

    I travel international flights every months. Never had any problems. I always stay under the radar. Bringing a lawn mower is asking for trouble. Besides every thing is available in Pakistan at reasonable rates.Recommend

  • http://Faisalabad Mubarak

    Welcome to ‘Islamic’ republic of Bribeisthan.Recommend

  • Saad

    @andrea:

    thanks for your comment. the thing is that I was planning to pay the customs duty anyway. That’s why I carried out my research back in London so I would know how much I would have to pay. But the customs officer, after getting his bribe from me, didn’t give a damn about the customs duty. which is why he got his colleagues to hurriedly escort me out. Also, I did manage to get his name from the badge and as I have said I made a few calls to the authorities and then wrote a letter which was and has still not got a reply! unfortunately, due to the word limit on these things my highly-detailed article got cut too short (hint hint et, lol)Recommend

  • Saad

    @Amna:

    I’m sorry you got that impression, but I don’t think I implied that I hate Pakistan and all Pakistanis. I do however, highly dislike most of the people who work at airports!Recommend

  • Saad

    @Anwar:

    thanks for the comment. Believe me, that was my first reaction too when I was told about the lawnmower! But we still have a mindset that says “baahir ka maal” is better than Pakistani standards, which isnt always true.Recommend

  • http://[email protected] deedee

    very good article! more people should bring issues likes these in print….so that some action should be taken.
    these things happen all the time to lots of people…had u known someone high-up..something cud have been done about it.
    But i agree incidents like these puts one off to coming to Pakistan again!! so i don’t blame you for being disgusted!Recommend

  • Ammar Zafarullah

    @HJ:

    What is the relevance of the security offical being a “Pathan”, perversion has no ethnic linkages! Recommend

  • Silent Spectator

    I’m confused by reading some of the comments above. Har Maal = Biryani Qorma while Saad = Aliya; if I read the comments correctly. Does somebody else also see this correlation or am I imagining things?Recommend

  • Hassan

    Standard practise at Pakistani airports since i first traveled there in 1976, It was very low scale then, beilieve it or not customs officials would try to scrounge decent writing pens in those days ! Don’t worry a out it, you’ll get used to it.Recommend

  • andrea

    @Saad: I understand your frustration Saad and believe me, I too have had to deal with underhanded customs and officials- not only in Pakistan but throughout my travels in the Third World. An Indian friend from Goa told me that the moment you arrive in Bombay and get on the road, the police there stop you and ask for your liquor permit. Even if you have one, they tear it up and make you pay a fine which they then pocket. Apparently some expatriate Indians are laminating the permits as soon as they get it, to prevent this practice of the Indian police! Getting back to Pakistan, I’m glad to hear that you have tried to follow up on the the bad behaviour of the bad eggs in customs you came into contact with. Regardless of unpleasant experiences, I make a point of trying to improve things because I remain convinced that if enough Pakistanis start to speak up and try to make a change, it will happen in due course. Let’s face it, no one lives in a bubble and even in Pakistan, people know that a great number of Muslim immigrants in the UK and North America are involved in much bigger corruption when they abuse the insurance, welfare and employment systems. Yes there is petty corruption at the low level in Pakistan, but Muslim immigrants in Western countries all know about the corruption of our co religionists in Western countries which shames any petty corruption done by a customs officer. I know of entire families in the UK who live on the dole claiming they are disabled while they work illegally under the table to make “tax free” money. Sadly some of these people make big claims about business and talk big when they visit relatives in Pakistan. We al have a duty to change the mentality of Muslim peoples everywhere, whether it’s in the UK or in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Saad

    @andrea:
    I agree with you, the point of this article was to make people do something about this. As you obviously know, a large amount of people have to put up with this but no one complains or does anything. We all have an attitude which says, “this is how Pakistan is and will always be”. I tried to do something about it by making phone calls and then writing a letter but obviously didnt get a reply, understandably because what difference does it make to the officials if one person complains out of thousands of people.

    Also, getting to your point about Pakistanis living abroad and claiming false benefits. I couldn’t agree more, even I know a lot of people and whole families who make all their money from benefits and go back to Pakistan and build mansions and the likes. And the same people complain at the behaviour of corrupt Pakistanis, even though they are no different from them. But they like to think their actions are justified because they’re claiming benefits from “gora’s”, which is supposed to make it right somehow.Recommend

  • Hassan

    @andrea:
    Beautifuly Spoken
    Recommend

  • Salam

    My experience is opposite. Whenever I visit Pakistan I try to buy things from Pakistan (they are not very valuable though).

    I am stopped at ‘Customs’ in Pakistan and they ask me to pay the bribe for ordinary things that I have bought from Pakistan. The whole world has custom when you bring something in, in Pakistan they do the opposite!! So I stopped spending my money in Pakistan. Why buy something in Pakistan when you are bullied at (in my case) Lahore airport!!

    Can any one tell me why there is a ‘duty’ (bribe) to take things out of Pakistan? After all, they are not norcotics. My niece is studying fine arts and she made a small painting for my house in London. Custom official said that you will sell it in Bazaar in London. I found his comments so cheap!!!Recommend

  • Waleed Khan

    Welcome to ‘People’s Party’ PakistanRecommend

  • andrea

    @Waleed Khan: It’s sad that people like you can’t see the bigger picture but instead you are trying to score political points for no reason. I have travelled to and from Pakistan for over three decades and irrespective of whatever democratic government is in power or whatever dictator has assumed power, the fundamental problems of petty corruption remains. This is what you see in all Third World countries (it’s probably worse in most African and Arab nations) and my experiences have shown me that it is not unique to Pakistan. And yes there is a lot of corruption in Western society and a lot of corruption being done by Muslim immigrants in these very Western countries where they live. This is just another aside. The question we are debating is how best to remedy the problem of petty corruption at the airport. It’s the first port of entry and last point of exit so it matters to all of us. Since we all have a collective responsibility to Pakistan, how best to build a better society? I can appreciate Saad’s frustration on getting little or no feedback from his complaints to Airport Officials but this is the only way forward. Plod ahead despite the indifference of officials. If enough young educated Pakistanis make an effort, we can force the change and strengthen the institutions of our state. It can’t be mandated or ordered by a dictator but the change has to come from within us. Let’s face it, I make calls, write letters to the editor and register my concerns about issues which affect me in North America. The majority of these aren’t taken seriously by authorities here but I see it as my civic duty to do my bit. Again if every Pakistani were to do his or her civic duty, we could turn the nation around in one generation.Recommend

  • Alias

    I was about to face something similar on my way back to Karachi from Sydney. However, since I am a female, I got away by acting dumb and pretending I din’t understand what the officer wanted.

    Scary.Recommend

  • pax

    @waleed,

    This has nothing to do with any political party! It has been common practice at airports since decades!Recommend

  • Ali

    And to you getting a lawn-mower in for your grand-dad was more important than not bribing? How can you point fingers at others when your non-essential needs won over your own principles?

    You were just as guilty paying the bribe as you saw this as the easier option out of the situation. If you were really so adverse to bribes, you should have done the honourable thing. I would have paid the duty they were quoting with a receipt. If you think they were over-charging, you would have had documentary evidence. Also simply asking for a receipt could have scared them into obedience. I say this because have done this in the past.

    One gets a sneaking suspicion your first was not you last.Recommend

  • Saad

    @Ali:
    Shouldn’t one consider the fact that it was the first time I was ever in this situation and didn’t know what to do? Nevertheless, I appreciate your comments and will definitely follow your tips if I am ever in a similar situation again!Recommend

  • Ali

    @Saad:
    Good on you bro! Apologies for my seemingly harsh tone earlier.

    All the best in the future :)Recommend

  • Zuhaib

    you had the option NOT to pay 30 bucks and face them head-on, but you opt for the second and more easiest one…you had your calculations for duty that you had to pay and they asked you double the amount and finally you ended up paying just 30 bucks…who GAINED most from this situation? everyone knows the answer….!Recommend

  • http://tariq-aziz.blogspot.com Tariq

    I hereby apologize for what all you encountered…………..but it will take some time to see a change which you are dreaming for ..Recommend

  • ba ha

    The fault Dear Brutus lies not in the stars but in our very own mothers. Marry a foreign woman for the sake of your kids. Good advise is also rare. And the DNA mix will produce Super kidsRecommend

  • qurban

    i think everyone should start up a facebook revolution….?
    you can not change anything by just discusing issue on here..?
    can we just change the Corruption at Islamabad Airport i dont thing so its time we had a revolution like eygpt and other countrys in pakistan until than we can carry on paying bribes .. pakistan is corrupted from top to bottom starting from president to common person….?Recommend

  • qurban

    i went to pakistan last year and took my two daughters who r 10 & 11 so they can see pakistan and learn about their culture and religion and told them they would enjoy pakistan becoz it is a great country…
    WELL i was wrong what they seen when we landed at islamabad airport and to kashmir.. than back from kashmir to islamabad airport which they will never 4get. my daughters turned around said to me dad we prefer to stay british were we get treated with respect u keep ur country and ur culture we will just keep our religion and our britishness..
    it made think one thing why have i always supported kashmir should come part of pakistan. . . kashmir would be better off independent than part of pakistan. becoz pakistan will never change becoz im 36 and its still the same corrupt as it was when i traveled when i was small… unless people of pakistan stand up and get rid of this illness there will be NO PAKISTAN…?

    may allah save pakistanRecommend

  • Murad Khan

    Well you don’t have to be Kashmiri or anything else , All you have to do is arrive at the Islamabad Airport and see what happens .
    last year in June of 2010 i went to Pakistan i arrived at the airport and was told to get my luggage and come to the customs department (which didn’t even exist) anyway i asked why ? Then he told Bhai hamara bhi kuch karo na ( take care of us ) i was like okey ……..How much would you want ?
    he said minimum $20 or he won’t let me go and make me stay an other 4 hours While my parents are waiting outside for me .
    so finally i ended up paying $39 altogether . and THIS IS PAKISTAN
    Indians do have corruption but i bet not at the airports .
    EVERYONE OF THEM IS FILTHY DOG AT THE ISB AIRPORT MAY ALLAH DAMN THEM ALL .Recommend