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regular-article-logo Thursday, 13 June 2024

Are those mimes spying on us? In Pakistan, it’s not a strange question

For most of Pakistan’s 76-year history, the surveillance was a routine, if slightly resented, facet of daily life

Christina Goldbaum Islamabad Published 19.05.24, 12:56 PM
One of the “golden man” mimes that perform on the streets of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, May 13, 2024. Pakistanis suspect the national intelligence agencies of being behind practically everything — even street performers working for tips in Islamabad.

One of the “golden man” mimes that perform on the streets of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, May 13, 2024. Pakistanis suspect the national intelligence agencies of being behind practically everything — even street performers working for tips in Islamabad. Saiyna Bashir/The New York Times

The street performers first appeared a few years ago along busy intersections of Islamabad. Coated head to toe in eye-catching gold paint, they stood perfectly still, leaning on glimmering canes and tipping their top hats open. Some cracked a smile or offered a slow nod when they earned tips from passersby.

Perhaps in a different place, the emergence of mimes on the street looking to earn a few dollars might go unnoticed. But this is Pakistan, where things under the security state often are not as simple as they seem. So as the number of golden performers grew, so, too, did the intrigue around them. Could they be informants for the country’s intelligence agency? Lookouts for powerful politicians? Maybe spies for the CIA?

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“In any other country, if you see a beggar, it’s clear he’s a beggar,” said Habib Kareem, 26, a lawyer in Islamabad, the capital. “But here, you see a beggar and you think to yourself, ‘He’s working for them,’” he added, referring to Pakistan’s powerful intelligence services.

Today, the “golden men” of Islamabad have been added to the ranks of the conspiracy theories sprouted, knocked down and rehashed every day across the city. In Pakistan, where the hand of the security services is seen everywhere, conspiracy theories have been embraced in the mainstream for decades, driving conversations among street vendors, politicians and everyone in between.

Suspicion has become so universal that wild tales take root after almost every news event. In the wake of catastrophic floods in 2010, people asserted that they had been caused by CIA weather-controlling technology. Media pundits claimed that an American “think tank” was behind a failed car bombing by a Pakistani American in Times Square that year, and that Osama bin Laden was actually Jewish.

An evening view of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, from the Margalla Hills, May 13, 2024

An evening view of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, from the Margalla Hills, May 13, 2024 Saiyna Bashir/The New York Times

Some trace Pakistan’s embrace of conspiratorial thinking back to the Mughal emperors of the 16th and 17th centuries, whose reigns consolidated Islam in South Asia and were full of palace intrigue. In more recent decades, fantastical notions have sprung from the mythology that has built up around the Pakistani military and the main intelligence service, the seemingly all-seeing forces guiding the country’s politics from behind the scenes.

In such a climate, everyone — even street performers — can be seen as potential tools of the state.

“Some of those guys are definitely from the agencies,” said Aqsa Batool, 24, who was sitting at an outdoor cafe with her friend Shiza Kajol, 23, on a chilly spring evening in Islamabad. They leaned back from a red plastic table while cradling cups of sweet, milky tea.

Spend enough time in the city, they explained, and you develop a trained eye to spot informants working for the primary spy service, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, and other intelligence agencies.

They have certain tells: They all wear casual shirts and pants but have on dress shoes. The cuffs of their shirts are always buttoned. Their clothes are stiff, as if properly pressed. They often hold phones to their ears but do not actually talk into them.

Visitors to Margalla Hills National Park, on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, May 13, 2024

Visitors to Margalla Hills National Park, on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, May 13, 2024 Saiyna Bashir/The New York Times

“Did you see the man who was just here?” Batool said, by way of explanation. She was referring to a man who had approached a table where I was sitting with friends a few minutes earlier. The man held a coat draped over his head and mumbled about spare change before sitting on a curb nearby.

“Yeah, yeah, that guy! He was in a very different get-up,” Kajol said.

“And he went right to your table because you’re a foreigner,” added Batool. Both agreed: He was most definitely ISI.

As for the golden men, the two young women were wary of them but less certain. On the one hand, the street performers could not really eavesdrop while standing at a busy intersection, they mused. On the other hand, they could keep tabs on the cars passing through.

“I’d have to see them doing something obvious, like taking pictures of the cars on their phones, to be sure,” Batool said.

One of the buildings in the so-called red zone, a high-security area that’s home to government ministries and diplomatic missions in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, May 13, 2024

One of the buildings in the so-called red zone, a high-security area that’s home to government ministries and diplomatic missions in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, May 13, 2024 Saiyna Bashir/The New York Times

As with many conspiracy theories, the suspicions came from kernels of truth.

Pakistan’s security services not so subtly hint at their vast powers to keep politicians and others in check.

Political scandals erupt from voice recordings or videos captured presumably from bugs inside people’s homes and then mysteriously leaked. Intelligence agents occasionally tail people of interest, sometimes overtly (and occasionally even offer a friendly hello from their cars). Ride-share drivers sometimes admit to being paid by the intelligence services.

For most of Pakistan’s 76-year history, the surveillance was a routine — if slightly resented — facet of daily life. But in recent years, frustration with the military’s role in politics has exploded, making its ever-present eyes and ears less tolerable for many people.

“With the political atmosphere being so polarized, we’re becoming more suspicious of being watched or who is listening,” said Ali Abas, 25, who was sitting outside a tea stall late one afternoon with his friend Amal, 26.

“It’s getting worse nowadays,” Amal said, referring to the surveillance. Amal, who preferred to go by his first name for fear of retribution, took a slow drag of his cigarette, fiddling with a pack in his other hand.

On the other side of Islamabad, Mustaq Ahmed, 53, stood on a grassy median of a busy intersection. His jean jacket, canvas pants, walking cane and top hat were all spray-painted gold. Gold makeup was caked onto his face and hands and smudged onto his bright green, blue and purple sunglasses.

Ahmed calls himself the Golden Thakur of Islamabad, a nod to a famous Pakistani actor and comedian known as Iftikhar Thakur whom he — slightly — resembles. Each golden man has a different repertoire of poses, each with its own name, he explained. His favorite was to extend his left heel and cane in a precarious lean — what he refers to as “London style.”

Ahmed once sold umbrellas on the side of the road, but became the Golden Thakur three years ago after he overhead another golden man saying he made up to 8,000 Pakistani rupees — or nearly $30 — each day. It was more than five times what Ahmed was taking home.

That cash has dwindled recently as the novelty of the golden men has waned, he said. When asked if he would ever supplement his income with a little side work for the intelligence agencies, he immediately replied: “No, no, no.”

Was there any chance that the other golden men in the city were earning a few extra dollars that way? He paused and shifted his cane between his hands.

“Maybe,” he said with a shrug. “It’s Pakistan.”

The New York Times News Service

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