Pursuing an Artistic Career and Feeling the Effects of Geopolitics in Pakistan
When I was young, my mother and father would say, “He will become a doctor, he’ll be something.” But my passion was art. In school, in my village near the Afghan border, I studied through matric, finishing 10th grade, and I made quite a name for myself in class with my drawing skills. But I would often skip school, and when I left school for good, this passion for painting grew. I worked as an apprentice to a painter in Quetta for almost three years. I used to do just calligraphy, but then I developed an interest in painting trucks.
In Pakistan almost all the trucks are painted or decorated. In 1998, when I was 17, I moved from Quetta to Karachi — I had been to Karachi only once before, during my childhood — and I began to paint trucks there.
At first, I faced a lot of difficulties: There wasn’t that much work, I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t have any contacts. But then I joined up with two or three friends and kept learning and got going.
We painted different kinds of trucks: containers, trailers, oil tankers. Another guy would paint the truck with a spray painter, and then we would paint designs over it. Sometimes we’d also paint the cab or the back of the tank. There were some trucks that we could paint in a day; some needed two or three days’ work. In the beginning, I would get 4,000 rupees, about $40, for a job.
Some people had requests for what to paint: People would ask for illustrations of a markhor, which is a wild goat we have here, or other animals and birds. Others who had seen my work would say, “Make whatever you want, it’s your work, you know best,” and I threw myself into it.
After about 2004, I noticed NATO convoys coming through on the way to Afghanistan. There were 200 vehicles, then 600, then 1,200, then thousands of trucks on the NATO route. There were some people who would not work for them, including some who repaired tire punctures. But maybe 5 percent were like this, and our inclination was to take those jobs.
The work just kept increasing and increasing. I started getting up to 10,000 rupees, about $100, for each truck. I made money — a lot of money. And there’s always this greed. You always want to do more. The more you earn, the more you want.
We had so much work that there was never time for anything else. These NATO drivers were mostly Pashtuns, and Pashtuns feel connected to Afghanistan, so I used to paint the Afghan flag a lot. There were also a lot of requests to paint the Khyber Pass. There were about 20 to 30 truck artists here, and I had several apprentices of my own.
All I ever did was paint trucks. With the money I made, I even married off two of my brothers.
Then around 2010 and 2011, it stopped. The big NATO convoys just ended, and most of the trucks disappeared. We stopped getting commissions. We spent our time gossiping with friends at tea stalls. Nobody could understand why it stopped, or how it stopped, but we heard it was because of events like the Salala attack. We would hear of news through the media, or through journalists who came here, or from the drivers or conductors who would say, “The route will be open today,” “It will be open tomorrow,” “It will be open on the first of next month.”
And so I spent my days clinging to hope: The work will come today. The work will come tomorrow. It was just waiting, waiting and more waiting — for years. There would be work for two days and then six days of absolutely nothing to do. Every day, the debt kept piling up.
I owed more than 100,000 rupees. We owned our old house in the village, but the house in Karachi was rented; it was very hard to make the rent or pay for food. I thought that the work would come back, but it never really did. Everyone kept telling me to get out of the business, and in 2014, it became final: This had to end. There was no other choice. This was truly a major decision in my life.
I now have a printing press and copy shop. We do design and computer graphics. But I make maybe 25 percent of what I used to. I still say that if the NATO work started again, I would go back and do it, because that work was a lot better than this.
Painting trucks was a passion; I did it with a lot of feeling. Now I can only sit and design computer graphics for maybe an hour before my head starts to ache. But what can you do? It is God’s grace that I am employed.
( Muhibullah, 34, who goes by the name Mehboob, used to paint oil tankers and trucks that plied the NATO supply routes from Pakistan to Afghanistan. His native language is Pashto, but he told his story to Saba Imtiaz in Urdu, translated here in English)