On The Sleepy Streets Of Islamabad, A Late-Night Need For Speed

The broad avenues of Pakistan's capital empty out after dark and prove irresistible to young drag racers.

The broad avenues of Pakistan’s capital empty out after dark and prove irresistible to young drag racers. Asad Zaidi/Bloomberg via Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Asad Zaidi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Islamabad can seem a dull place, full of retired civil servants sipping tea in villas, and with a night scene that’s about as lively as lawn bowls. But you can at least get a good sleep.

While other Asian cities gossip, munch and rattle through the night, a hush descends on this modern government town.

In my neighborhood, dusk creeps in to a chorus of birdsong. Dawn is heralded by the rich and multilayered cadences of the call to prayer from the nearby mosques.

The hours in between are filled with silence, interrupted occasionally by lonely dogs and the quiet rumbling of generators that kick in with every power outage.

This is a fine place for a foreign correspondent to catch up on sleep lost on airplanes or in cars lurching across the benighted landscape toward yet another trouble spot.

At least, it usually is. Every now and then, this soothing soundtrack is broken by a strange sound that seems entirely out of place in this orderly metropolis.

It’s the sudden wail of souped-up car engines echoing over the rooftops and bouncing off the Margalla Hills that form Islamabad’s backdrop.

This doesn’t last long. It’s often at weekends. It’s always in the wee hours. It wakes me with a jolt, a surge of irritation — and a head full of questions.

Who’s doing it? Why? How are they getting away with it?

Pakistan is an unstable nation, blighted by insurgents. A multitude of policemen guards the capital. There are cameras, checkpoints and trucks packed with Kalashnikov-wielding anti-terrorism cops, slowly patrolling the streets.

Could it be that, despite this, some motorheads have concluded that Islamabad’s big, wide avenues are just too tempting to resist? Are there people out there defiantly gunning it through the seat of government?

The other night, I decided to find out. I left NPR’s bureau at 1 a.m. — recorder, camera and pen at the ready — and cruised the empty streets, listening intently, under a moonlit sky.

We pulled over and asked some sweepers sprucing up Islamabad’s new Metro Bus stations. Yes, they had seen cars whizzing past. Yes, these were racing. But, no, they’d seen nothing tonight.

Taxi drivers, napping at the roadside in their battered cars, said the same. They’d seen the racers many times. “They go like a bullet,” said one driver, Khawar Abassi.

We got nowhere that night. However, after rummaging around the Internet, we have finally solved the mystery.

The answer to my questions is Route 66.

We arranged to meet the lads from Route 66, named after the famous U.S. highway, by what they call their “track” — 400 yards of concrete, as wide and straight as a runway.

To everyone else, this is Seventh Avenue, one of Islamabad’s most prestigious highways. Parliament, the Supreme Court and the Prime Minister’s residence are just 10 minutes away — or two, if you travel at the speed of the Route 66 boys.

The “crew” — that’s what they call themselves — turn out to be six bright-eyed young men, united by a passion for fast cars and a willingness to break the law to feed their addiction.

“It’s [the] adrenaline,” explains their founder, Sheikh Rahim, a 19-year-old student. “It gives us a buzz and makes us happy.”

Rahim climbs into his Suzuki Swift, turns on the engine and pumps the accelerator with an air of deep satisfaction. His is a small car with an exhaust system re-engineered to make a big sound — a throaty, fuel-rich, sleep-shattering roar.

Rahim says there are at least three other crews of illegal drag racers in Islamabad — “the Bulls, the Mob, the Street Kings” — and more in Pakistan’s other big cities.

He describes how the police sometimes show up and give chase, compelling the Route 66 crew to speed off and seek refuge in one of their hiding places around town. If you’re caught, there’s a fine (usually around $10) and your wheels might be impounded for a couple of days, explains Rahim.

The only sanction that seems to worry him is the fact that, when they catch racers, the cops tell their parents. And that means Route 66 is grounded for a while.

I ask Rahim if Islamabad’s residents ever complain about the noise. “They do!” he replies. “They are too lazy to [ask us], ‘What are you guys doing?’ They just call up the police and police shows up.” He adds, smiling: “These are the elite class of Islamabad, so-called!”

Rahim wants drag racing to be legalized. He and his crew say Pakistan needs a proper track for people like them. Theirs is a legitimate hobby, they say. They post videos of their races on Facebook for other speed fiends to enjoy.

For now, though, they remain creatures of the night. What they do is noisy and probably rather dangerous. Yet it is very hard to dislike these gregarious, young enthusiasts. So I guess I’ll just have to buy earplugs.

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Songs We Love: Hayes Carll, 'The Love That We Need'

Hayes Carll, photographed in Brooklyn, NY, on December 18, 2015
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Hayes Carll, photographed in Brooklyn, NY, on December 18, 2015 Jacob Blickenstaff/courtesy of the label hide caption

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Hayes Carll, Lovers And Leavers (LabelTK/Thirty Tigers 2016)

Hayes Carll, Lovers And Leavers (LabelTK/Thirty Tigers 2016) courtesy of the label hide caption

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Failure has always been a favorite topic of Texas troubadour Hayes Carll. Much of the songwriting catalog he’s built up over the last dozen-plus years revolves around dashed dreams, doomed romance and drunken predicaments. Very often, though, he’s leavened the losing with cleverly deployed gallows humor, self-deprecation and yarn spinning, linking his work to his native state’s tradition of wryly winning musical wit, a writing trait he shares with Guy Clark, Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett and even Miranda Lambert. Some of Carll’s most beloved hits — to the extent that there is such a thing in the singer-songwriter and Americana scenes that he straddles — features situational humor and hooky punch lines delivered over shambling, down-home grooves in a fractured twang that plays up a badly sprained ego.

There was the honky-tonk lament of a newly minted Jesus freak’s jealous husband (“She Left Me For Jesus”), the fumbling flirtation of bar flies with diametrically opposed political convictions (“Another Like You”), and the talking-blues ballad of a hapless young soldier recruited by the Pentagon for a special mission (“KMAG YOYO”), among many other droll crowd-pleasers. While Carll has delved into unchecked melancholy on occasion — his eloquently self-pitying weeper “Chances Are” inspired a Lee Ann Womack cover — he’s been fairly quiet about his pensive side, until now. Carll’s first album in half a decade, the Joe Henry-produced Lovers and Leavers, strikes a heavier tone. The press release accompanying the new music includes his preemptive warning that it “isn’t funny or raucous,” that “[t]here are very few hoots and almost no hollers.”

The guy’s not kidding. “The Love That We Need,” written with Jack Ingram and Allison Moorer, sets the tone. Accompanied by fingerpicked guitar figures, soft chord changes on piano and bass, and the muffled rustling of percussion, it feels like a glimpse into an excruciatingly intimate conversation that’s been put off as long as possible, a sighing surrender to the atrophying connection between partners. Carll’s deftly plainspoken verses and deflated phrasing perfectly captures the numbing effects of being swept along by the level rhythms of habit. “You say, ‘I love you,'” he offers. “I say, ‘Me too.’ We don’t think much about it. It’s just a thing that we do.” Depicting failure of such a private, ordinary variety, without any colorful exaggeration or comic relief, is an exacting art. Turns out Carll’s excellent at it.

Lovers and Leavers is out on April 8 on Thirty Tigers.

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How A Great Teacher Cultivates Veggies (And Kids) In The Bronx — In 17 Photos

Ritz calls his classroom his National Health, Wellness, and Learning Center. It's got tower gardens, gleaming cabinets and counters, an industrial sink and a new, mobile cooking station.

Elissa Nadworny/NPR

Ritz teaches science in the nation’s

Things to know about Stephen Ritz, one of NPR’s 50 Great Teachers:

He and his students made bow ties out of Scrabble tiles.

Elissa Nadworny/NPR

His Bronx classroom, a refurbished school library, has more plants than desks.

He calls the room his National Health, Wellness, and Learning Center. It’s got tower gardens, gleaming cabinets and counters, an industrial sink and a new, mobile cooking station.

His Bronx classroom, a refurbished school library, has more plants than desks.

Elissa Nadworny/NPR

“In this class, we go from seed to tower to table to plate in 20 feet,” Ritz says.

Kale Lovin’

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Kale Lovin’

“What we’re seeing is kids coming in here, getting excited about healthy food — about vegetables. About beans. Who knew beans could be so exciting, but they are!”

Ritz founded the nonprofit Green Bronx Machine, planting community gardens all over the Bronx.

Though he’s often at school six days a week, he’s paid for just one. He says it’s his wife who makes ends meet.

Ritz calls his classroom his National Health, Wellness, and Learning Center. It's got tower gardens, gleaming cabinets and counters, an industrial sink and a new, mobile cooking station.

Elissa Nadworny/NPR

Ritz teaches science in the nation’s poorest congressional district, at Community School 55 in the South Bronx.

The neighborhood is a food desert, where Ritz says it’s easier to buy liquor than lettuce. He calls the food options a M.E.S.S. — “a manufactured, edible, synthetic substance that comes in a ziplock, hermetically sealed bag with infinite shelf life.”

Ritz’s goal: send students home with 100 bags of fresh, school-grown fruits and vegetables a week, 50 weeks a year.

In the afternoon, Ritz hosts a fourth-grade cooking class. On the menu: vegetarian chilli.

In the afternoon, Ritz hosts a fourth-grade cooking class. On the menu: vegetarian chilli.

Elissa Nadworny/NPR

Everyone gets a cooking hat, though not like Mister Ritz’s (he wears the cheesehead as a self-described “cheeseball”).

The kids are told to hold a knife like they’re shaking a hand and the pepper with their fingers curled into a bear claw.

The kids are told to hold a knife like they're shaking a hand and the pepper with their fingers curled into a bear claw.

Elissa Nadworny/NPR

Fifth-grader Ernest Fields calls Ritz “Father Nature.”

At CS55, Ritz helps other teachers, too. He pops into one classroom for a quick science lesson on owl pellets.

At CS55, Ritz helps other teachers, too. He pops into one classroom for a quick science lesson on owl pellets.

Elissa Nadworny/NPR

“You’re gonna take apart this mouth poop,” Ritz asks the class, feigning disgust, “and put it back together again and make real skeletons?”

On his way out, he asks: “How many of you like science?” When they all raise their hands, “I love it,” he says, “more nerds.” The kids chant:

Nerds!

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Nerds!

After school, Ritz hosts another cooking class, for kids and their parents.

After school, Ritz hosts another cooking class, for kids and their parents.

Elissa Nadworny/NPR

Jeffrey Haywood (far left) brings his grandson, Cori (far right), a third-grader. Haywood says he can’t believe what Ritz is trying to do here. When he was a kid, Haywood says, “we didn’t have no plants growing in no schools. If anything we was trying to get into the schools.”

Ritz got his green thumb many years ago, when teaching at a Bronx high school. Someone sent him a box of daffodil bulbs. Not knowing what to do with them, he stashed them behind a radiator.

A seed well-planted, says Ritz, can grow into something beautiful anywhere.

Elissa Nadworny/ NPR

A few weeks later, a fight broke out. Ritz says one student ran to the radiator because, he assumed, the boy’d hidden a weapon there. Instead, he found “hundreds of flowers busting out of this box. And the kid, instead of coming out to beat someone’s behind, came out with a box of flowers. The class burst out laughing.”

Ritz says he had an epiphany. He and his students went on to plant some twenty thousand bulbs across New York that year.

The lesson, Ritz says, is that a seed well-planted can grow into something beautiful anywhere.

This story was reported by Cory Turner with photographs by Elissa Nadworny.

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