In Pakistan, paint jobs make a big rig

Forget vanity plates - truckers express themselves, compete for customers with expensive detailing. BY:Scott Baldauf

Like most truck drivers, Nasir Khan is not a flashy dresser. He wears the modest, long salwar kameez outfit of traditional Pakistani males.

But when it comes to his truck, Mr. Khan's tastes take a decidedly flamboyant turn. Painted on every square inch are colorful scenes from nature and fantasy: A knight in chainmail, a leopard pouncing on a gazelle, an American helicopter swooping over a rice paddy. The cab doors, made of a special hardwood, are covered with shiny, punch-pattern steel plates, trimmed with purple and green flowers. A fortresslike structure juts above the cab, painted with roses and violets. A glistening tiara hangs just above the windshield itself, draped with black flags to keep away evil spirits.

It's a veritable Persian carpet on wheels. But still, Khan is not satisfied.

"When I see other trucks on the road, and they are even more elaborate, then I want to change my truck also," says Khan, getting an oil change at a truck stop in Rawalpindi, just outside Islamabad, the capital. He just had his truck repainted last year, but already wants to have it done again. "I have been trying to keep it beautiful."

In a Muslim society that values simplicity and modesty, Pakistani trucks are a glaring - and sometimes kitschy - exception to the rule. It's a tradition that's as old as dressing up one's camel for the caravan, predating the age of the automobile and even Islam itself.

For those who earn their livelihood from driving, painting a truck, bus, or rickshaw can have many purposes. Some do it to give thanks to God for prosperity. Some do it to attract customers. Others do it to keep up with the Khans. There's not a truck in Pakistan that doesn't jingle down the road dressed for profit.

The cost of keeping up appearances can be exorbitant, particularly in a developing country like Pakistan.

Consider Javed Ahmed, a driver from the picturesque mountain town of Murree who earns up to 15,000 rupees ($256) a month. He's spending 30,000 rupees this week to get his truck repainted. To do the stem-to-stern bodywork two years ago, including hardwood doors, steel-covered wooden walls around the truck bed, and chains around the edges, Mr. Ahmed and his brother spent about 200,000 rupees. Some of the money came from savings, some from family members, the rest from a loan. Yet Ahmed considers this to be a legitimate cost of doing business. "It's my desire, it's my wish," he says. "There is no other explanation."

Drivers say the expense is well worth it. No self-respecting merchant would trust his goods in the bed of a shabby looking truck. If a driver can't afford to be garish, customers reason, maybe he's not a very good driver.

Muhammad Basir, who transports cylinders of propane, says the police also look more sternly at a poorly decorated truck. "If I could not make it colorful, I would be stopped by the police," says Mr. Basir, who just bought a previously painted truck yesterday. "If the truck is not in good condition, the police will not like my truck. They might think I'm doing something wrong."

Of course, all this might be one big rationalization for artistic expression, but for Muhammad Shafi, owner of a truck-detailing shop in Rawalpindi, it's the makings of a very good business. He employs 22 craftsmen. A few have developed a special knack in reproducing images of the latest Indian film stars, from the hunky Salman Khan to the sultry Raveena Tandon.

Some decoration serves a purpose beyond mere aesthetics. The massive jutting structure above the cab, for instance, may slow down the truck at high speeds, but it helps to hide excess goods from the prying eyes of police. Other items, such as the essential chains that dangle from underneath all four sides of the car, serve no purpose at all. "They just jingle," says Mr. Shafi.

Tastes have changed in the past 50 years, Shafi adds, running to ever-more-elaborate designs that would make a maharajah jealous. "One part of it is that drivers are competitive, and one part is that they want their truck to be colorful so that they can sell it later for a higher price," says Shafi. "The main thing … is that people pay me to make it beautiful."

Times have changed in other ways. Nasir Khan used to have Koranic verses on his truck. Now he has flowers, finches, peacocks, leopards, lions, and the occasional movie star. Asked if he worried that all this imagery was just a tad idolatrous, when Islam specifically forbids the portrayal of living things, Khan grins.

"We are Muslim, yes, but we are also Pakistani," he says. "When there are new things in the market, we will have to use them. We keep changing with the times."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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