Friday, May 27, 2011

The day LB Johnson invited Bashir Sarban (the camel cart driver) to the USA

Many in Pakistan and the USA today would not know who Bashir Sarban – the camel cart driver was and why I am writing about a camel driver. But for the people of my age, Bashir Ahmed aka Bashir Sarban, as he came to be known, was an instant celebrity of his time. I still remember the then issues of the LIFE and Time magazines carried detailed coverage of Bashir Sarban, as we subscribed to the former. For those who knew him and have since forgotten and those who are curious to know, here is something that made an ordinary camel cart driver of Karachi an instant celebrity and took to the USA on the invitation of the US government.
Bashir (left) - LB Johnson (right)

Till May 1961, Bashir Ahmed was an ordinary camel cart driver of Karachi, living an impoverished life, like that of countless camel cart drivers, and lived in the slums of Karachi. Then fate smiled on him when in May 1961 Lyndon B Johnson, the US vice president visited Pakistan on a good will visit. During his motorcade drive from airport to the state guest house in Karachi, he noticed a camel overlooking the crowd gathered to cheer him. He stopped and went over to meet the poor camel cart driver and to show his good will gesture to the people of Pakistan. He patted the camel and in his usual friendly tone asked the camel man, "You all come to Washington and see us sometime." 

The day in life of Bashir Ahmed - from an ordinary camel driver, he became an instant celebrity

That man happened to be Bashir Ahmed, who instantly accepted the offer and it was from here that he became an instant celebrity. No one knew at that time that he would one day actually embark upon a journey on the personal invitation of the US vice president. But for the time being he was making headlines in local newspapers for having spoken to and shaking hands with the visiting dignitary.

Bashir going for Texas sightseeing

Later in October the same year, Bashir Sarban was invited to visit the USA as the common guest of the US president and the Reader's Digest. And then the day came when Johnson was personally present at the New York airport to receive his Pakistani guest. The Time magazine reports, “Wearing a jaunty karakul cap, a trimly tailored frock coat and a 500-watt smile, the camel driver accepted the onslaught of press and public with the nonchalance of a Mogul prince. Nervously, Johnson apologized for the chilly weather. Replied Bashir: "It is not the cold; it is the warmth of the people's hearts that matters." 

In response to L.B.J.'s welcoming speech, the camel driver responded in his native Urdu: "Since I had the honor and good fortune of meeting you. I prayed to Allah for two things: One, for the good health of the American Vice President, and two, that I be allowed to come to America. Allah, as you see, has fulfilled both wishes." Bashir recalled that when scoffers back home had predicted he would die of a heart attack in the excitement of his first jet ride, he had replied: "Then I will have died while going to see a friend."

Bashir with LB Johnson

From then on, Bashir embarked upon the tour of the USA and was greeted by crowds everywhere he went. Fate smiled on him as he posed on cover pages of international magazines. The Time magazine reports that everywhere that Bashir went; his fluent comments flowed like a Rubaiyat. In Kansas City, Harry Truman was so flabbergasted that he referred to the camel driver as "His Excellency." At a barbecue on the L.B.J. ranch in Texas, Bashir remarked that his little daughter was his favorite child (only four of his eleven children are living) because "a daughter in a family is like spring among the seasons." Asked about his camel (who was reported to be pining away for him back home), Bashir thought a moment, then opined: "A camel is like a woman—you never know what it is going to do next." 

During his week long stay, Bashir was also taken to Washington D.C., where he was taken to the Lincoln Memorial, Senate Floor and President Kennedy's office. In the Lincoln Memorial, gazing up at the statue of Abraham Lincoln, Bashir said: "When a person sacrifices his life for his country, the country appreciates his services and makes a monument like this that will last forever." Escorted by Lady Bird Johnson and Luci Baines Johnson, Bashir Ahmed visited James Madison High School in the Washington suburb of Vienna, Virginia and was cheered by hundreds of students as he addressed them through an interpreter.

Finally, just as he was about to depart from the U.S. on his jet-propelled magic carpet ride back to Pakistan, Bashir got a telegram from Lyndon Johnson that moved him to tears. Wired L.B.J.: "Since your return to Pakistan takes you so close to Mecca, arrangements have been made through the People-to-People program for you to visit there." This act of friendship brought tears to the eyes of the destitute camel driver who cried out: "Allah-o-Akbar (Allah be praised!)"

Bashir returned home with precious gifts and love form his American hosts to cherish that one shake hand at Karachi, which made him a headlines both home and aboard. 

1961 Ford Econoline Pick-Up gifted to Bashir [Photo courtesy: Scarlett Madison]

Back in Pakistan, Bashir was a welcome man everywhere. He was also gifted a Ford Truck by the Ford Company during his visit to the plant in Dallas.

Bashir Ahmad rides his Ford Econoline Pick-Up In Truck in Karachi [Photo: My Historical Pakistan]

As reported by the LIFE magazine, he had his own visiting card which read, “Bashir Ahmed Sarban, President City Railway Special Welfare Organization, Bashir Chowk.” Chowk means square, and it referred to the small patch of pale dust outside Bashir’s hut. The residential address read, “Near Block 238, City Railway Colony, Karachi – Pakistan.”

US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (centre) and her sister, Princess Lee Radziwill of Poland (right), meet Bashir Ahmad (left of Mrs. Kennedy) and his family at the residence of President Mohammad Ayub Khan in ‎Karachi (above and below)

But that was not the end. He was invited to the Rose Garden of the presidency in Rawalpindi when Jacky Kennedy visited Pakistan in 1963. Bashir dressed in the traditional national dress brought his camel along, and Mrs Kennedy had a photo session with Bashir and his camel (below).

This is the story of Bashir Ahmed Sarban who once lived in headlines and brought people of Pakistan and USA closer. Bashir passed away in the 70s, leaving behind him a legacy of friendship LBJ had extended to him, and in fact to the people of Pakistan. Sometimes miracles happen to change the life and destiny of ordinary people, and the visit of LBJ to Pakistan did change the life of an ordinary camel cart driver - Bashir Ahmed Sarban.

Updated 23 November 2015: Today I came across a rare video of Bashir and his friendship tour to the USA. The video is shared on Facebook by the US Consulate General, Karachi. This video brings back the nostalgia of my childhood memories and I am sharing it for its immense historic value:

One never knows how a lifelong #friendship can begin. How many of you remember Bashir Ahmed Sarban - the Pakistani camel cart man? Yes, the same person who managed to win over Vice President #LyndonJohnson with his kind heartedness and happy go lucky nature. Let us take you back to the time it all started. Nostalgia alert!
Posted by U.S. Consulate General Karachi on Friday, November 20, 2015

Rubaiyat of Bashir Ahmad (Time 27 October 1961)
What a camel man leaned about fame (LIFE 20 April 1962)
Photos courtesy: The LIFE Magazine

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Dixon L. Creasey, Jr. said...

It is astonishing how much good will can spring from one random act.
May we all find our 'handshake' moment, across the world.

Jalal HB said...

I sincerely hope so and pray, Dixon

lovers said...

Hello Mr. Jalal i know one of Mr. Bashir sarban son!
if you like to give them a coverage or write an articular about them

lovers said...

Helo Mr. Jala,

I know one of Mr. Bashir Sarban son, if you could write an articular of about there current living.

Jalal HB said...

Thanks for the info, Lovers!! Yes I would very much like to write about him - please send me address / email

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