Hashim was going to Amsterdam for only two reasons, weed and hookers. Not that he didn’t have access to both of them in London but the fact that they were legal, tolerated and could literally be bought off the counter greatly increased the allure of this strange city full of canals and houseboats.
He’d been here once before but that was with family. And Hashim’s father, a conservative Punjabi man who had never tasted alcohol or any drug would not dare allow his son to go near any of the vices Amsterdam could offer. That was eight years ago, when Hashim was only 17, and when he probably couldn’t have accessed Amsterdam’s offerings even if he tried to evade the ever encompassing gaze of his father.
Finally, the plane landed and the captain announced: “We have now arrived at Schiphol Airport”. Hashim’s adrenaline jumped, he could almost taste the Super Silver Haze he was going to smoke soon, and when night would fall, Hashim decided he would go straight to De Wallen, Amsterdam’s famous red-light district.
He could’ve taken a friend along but then thought better of including someone else in his meandering escapades. Hashim didn’t want company, he wanted Amsterdam all to himself.
There was a long line at Passport Control. To pass the time, Hashim found it wise to book a taxi so that he could arrive at the apartment he rented from Airbnb as soon as possible. With 5000 Euros to spend in a single weekend, Hashim decided that he would order a luxury sedan, it would only cost around a hundred Euros.
It took 20 minutes in the airport, Hashim didn’t have any booked luggage so he sped away to the exit as soon as his passport was stamped. Surprisingly, Hashim’s Pakistani passport wasn’t a source of discrimination like it had been during his previous trips to the US. Maybe The Netherlands was a cool place overall, Hashim remarked to himself.
At the exit, a tall man wearing a face mask and a black suit held a sign with Hashim’s name. “Mr Hashim, welcome to Amsterdam, please give me your bag, are we going to Prinsengracht?”
The way the taxi driver said Prinsengracht felt like he knew dutch, although, from the eyes and overall demeanour, Hashim could tell that the driver was Desi (someone from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh).
The driver opened the rear door of the brand new sparkling white Mercedes E Class for Hashim. “Going to Amsterdam in style! Thank you, by the way, what’s your name?”, Hashim enquired as soon as he got in the car.
“My name is Khalid”, the driver responded courteously, expressing a primary focus towards the road. Hashim suddenly felt that somehow Khalid was familiar, the voice, he knew he had heard it from somewhere but couldn’t exactly map it in his mind.
Was it rude to ask if Khalid was from Pakistan? Perhaps, but Hashim was in Amsterdam and he didn’t care too much about what a Taxi driver thought. “Are you from Pakistan Khalid? Your voice seems quite familiar”.
Khalid said he was from Pakistan, from Lahore, but didn’t say anything about his voice sounding familiar.
Hashim pressed him on. “I know it sounds silly but I think I’ve met you before, I’m from Rawalpindi but I’m studying in London now. Do you drive a cab in London as well?”
Khalid laughed, took a chewing gum from his dashboard and offered it to Hashim, before temporarily removing his face mask and thumping two gum sticks in his mouth. “I’ve never driven a cab in London, maybe you’re confusing me with someone else,” he said, in an unnecessarily firm tone.
It seemed outrageous to Hashim but he was convinced that Khalid was familiar. Where did he hear that voice? Was it on TV? TV, yes, Hashim had heard it on TV. It was one of those irritating moments when a person knew something but couldn’t appropriately place it in their brain.
Hashim kept thinking, where exactly did he hear that voice? What was the context? Khalid was a common name in Pakistan, if somehow Hashim got Khalid’s full name, he might be able to figure it out.
In an attempt not to agitate Khalid, Hashim considered doing his own research and checked his email for the receipt of the bill from the taxi company. He had already paid via his debit card and was sure that he had received an email confirmation of his taxi booking.
There it was, “Your driver is Khalid Qureshi in Vehicle Mercedes E 350”, the email stated.
Khalid Qureshi, that was familiar, but still not enough. Hashim typed the name on google frantically. As soon as the results popped up, Hashim froze for a second.
“Khalid Qureshi is the former Information Minister of Pakistan. He is a fugitive from the authorities of Pakistan and faces charges of corruption, money laundering and fraud and presently resides in The Netherlands where he has sought political asylum,” the first paragraph of Khalid’s Wikipedia page stated.
Hashim was shocked out of his mind, how could a former federal minister who was accused of massive corruption be driving a taxi in a foreign country? Hashim also recalled the first time he saw Khalid Qureshi, it was in Lahore, several years ago, at a polo match in the Lahore Polo Club, Khalid was the chief guest, he had given a trophy to Hashim in the end.
“Are you Khalid Qureshi?”, Hashim asked shyly, with a visible change in his tone and composure.
Khalid responded with a single yes, and kept driving, without paying much heed to his passenger. Hashim sat agitated in the back seat. How often was it that a former federal cabinet member drives you around Amsterdam?
“But, don’t mind me asking, you’re, you’re driving a taxi and I was just wondering why, because people in Pakistan think you’re very rich,” Hashim finally blurted out.
Khalid took a moment to respond. Before answering, he offered Hashim a water bottle. “Don’t believe everything you read in the news son, I’m not rich, at least, I’m not rich now, I’m alright, I’m providing for my wife and kids, I have a beautiful family, what else do I need?”
It felt too good to be true. How could a man who was tainted as one of the most corrupt politicians in the history of Pakistan be driving a cab for spoilt rich kids in Amsterdam? Hashim wanted to get to the bottom of it but he realised that there was traffic ahead and he had time to communicate with someone who knew a lot about how countries worked.
“No but, I know you, I mean, I’ve met you, you came to Lahore Polo Club, you’ve given me a prize, I don’t know if you remember but it was in 2013 I think, yes, 2012 or 2013, it was the Juniors Polo Tournament. You had a large cavalcade of cars, multiple guards, I remember perfectly,” Hashim went on about his memory of the day.
Khalid seemed a bit distraught justifying his present circumstances to someone who just couldn’t believe he was driving a taxi at a time when he was actually driving a taxi for him.
“Listen son, I don’t know how to explain this in a way you would understand, but after the coup, they took everything from me, all my agricultural lands, all my properties, everything of mine was in Pakistan and they took it all, now it’s with those motherfuckers. You get it now?” Khalid finally responded properly, losing traces of composure as he spoke.
Hashim felt incredibly bad in his heart. Such a sad story was no way to start a weekend in Amsterdam but he couldn’t help but feel sympathetic towards someone who had been treated unfairly. And then it struck him. His father, a senior bureaucrat had been appointed to a very senior post in the new military-led government.
“Do you know Amjad Ali Khan, he’s the current interior secretary, ever heard of him?” Hashim asked, his heart beating loudly.
Khalid knew Amjad Ali Khan, in fact, Amjad was one of the bureaucrats who unfairly targeted him and was rewarded with a senior position due to his compliance to relevant quarters, however, Khalid just said yes, that he knew him, nothing else.
As a former politician, Khalid knew that information was power, and even if this was a random customer from Pakistan, he could be related to anyone, this was a time to tread carefully.
“He’s my father, in case you’re wondering,” Hashim revealed.
Khalid felt a bit awkward driving the son of a man who was partially responsible for taking over his wealth of over $15 million. He still had a hope to get it back once this government fell and his political allies were in power again but as time passed, the hope seemed to recede away.
3 years of driving a taxi in Amsterdam had also significantly diminished Khalid’s ego. As a rural politician who inherited his father’s political capital, he had lived the life of royalty in his village near Lahore for the first 37 years of his life but now, he was driving a cab, his wife was a waitress in a restaurant and the family couldn’t hire help for their children.
“Your father is a good officer. I know him a bit,” Khalid responded cautiously, feeling embarrassed at his current state. Khalid’s enemies had become federal secretaries while he was driving a taxi.
Khalid imagined how his own father would have felt if he knew his son was driving a taxi. The amount of embarrassment would probably kill him, he wouldn’t be able to show his face to anyone in his village. Khalid thanked God that his father had passed away, that he didn’t see his son in this condition.
It wasn’t a bad life. Khalid made close to 3000 Euros a month after tax which provided a decent living for the family. It helped that his wife worked part-time, all their family’s needs were taken off, but ego, an old friend crept up in Khalid’s mind once again. Khalid Qureshi, the son of Sajid Qureshi was driving a cab in Amsterdam, this was the reality and Khalid didn’t like it.
He drove faster so that the ride could end sooner and he could go back to forgetting where he came from. Khalid suddenly remembered how he skipped his bail and fled abroad to The Netherlands, it was a shameful move. “If I was my father’s son, I would have stayed in jail and faced the music,” Khalid said to himself, momentarily forgetting the directions to Runstraat, the street where Hashim’s destination was located.
After a few minutes of silence, the taxi finally reached Hashim’s destination.
“If you don’t mind, I’d love to have a coffee or a meal with you. It’s so unbelievable, your life story, I mean, who would’ve thought…” Hashim said but was interrupted by Khalid.
“Thank you but I have to work, maybe some other time,” Khalid said, and then got out to open Hashim’s door.
Hashim felt embarrassed by Khalid opening up his door but felt too shy and confused to protest against the move. “Khalid bhai, I’m sorry if anything I said offended you, I respect you much more than I did before. It was a pleasure meeting you, Khalid bhai, please take care.”
Khalid handed Hashim’s bag to him and removed his face mask.
“If you ever speak to your father about this, tell him that you met me, and the context. I can tell you in advance that he’ll insist that I am a corrupt scumbag, a crooked politician who milked my own country for my personal gain but at least you know, one Pakistani knows for sure that Khalid Qureshi isn’t corrupt. Let my poverty be the proof of my innocence,” Khalid said before getting back in his car and speeding away.