The author of more than four dozen published short stories and numerous translations, Josh Pachter has long been a valued contributor to EQMM. His stories typically have interesting settings, a result of his wide-ranging travels. In this post, he talks about the genesis of a series of stories he wrote for EQMM and AHMM several decades ago, featuring Mahboob Chaudri, a policeman in Bahrain. In addition to providing a look at how a fine series took shape, Josh’s post provides a fascinating glimpse of a country little known to many in the U.S. This month a collection of the Chaudri stories was released by Wildside in a print edition entitled The Tree of Life and as an e-book entitled The Mahboob Chaudri Mystery Megapack. Both editions are available from Amazon and from the publisher’s Web site.—Janet Hutchings
“I want you to go to Bahrain next,” my boss told me on the WATTS line connecting the University of Maryland European Division’s Heidelberg headquarters to the education office at the US Naval Station in Rota, Spain, where I was teaching during that summer of 1982.
“Bahrain?” I said. “What country is that in?”
“Bahrain’s not in a country,” David explained. “It is a country.”
The ten months I wound up spending in Bahrain changed my life in ways that ranged from small (I discovered the music of Michael Franks) to enormous (I met the woman who four years later would give birth to my daughter Becca). Among other changes, this was the year I “met” my dear friend Mahboob Chaudri.
My first published short story, written when I was sixteen years old, appeared in the December 1968 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Over the next six years—while I was graduating from high school in New York and attending and graduating from college at the University of Michigan—I wrote several dozen more stories, selling six of them to EQMM and five others to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. But then life got busy and I “retired” from writing crime fiction.
By 1980, I was living in Amsterdam and married to a Dutch woman. One morning on the tram, I spotted an ad for the UMd European Division in the International Herald Tribune, and I ultimately taught for them for four months in Germany and Greece that year and for three months in England in ’81, right as Prince Charles was getting married to Lady Diana. In ’82, Maryland sent me back to Greece, and from there to southwestern Spain, and it was while I was in Spain that I had the conversation with which I began this post and learned that my next assignment would be the island emirate of Bahrain, which is located in the Persian Gulf, right off the coast of Saudi Arabia.
I flew to the Middle East as the only passenger on a military cargo plane bringing supplies to the US Navy’s Administrative Support Unit in Manama, Bahrain’s capital (and only) city. The Department of Defense Dependent School System—which runs elementary and junior-high and high schools in locations where American servicemen and servicewomen are permitted to bring their families—had a school in Bahrain, even though assignments to ASU were in most cases what are called “unaccompanied tours.” Most of the students at the Bahrain School were the children of American and other-nation diplomats and bankers, and many of the wealthy Bahraini families also sent their kids there, since the quality of the education provided was superior to what was available on the local economy. At one point, the school had been a boarding school, but by the time I arrived it was open to day students only . . . and, as the University of Maryland’s sole faculty member in residence, I was given the dorm supervisor’s apartment in the otherwise unoccupied dormitory to live in.
Hold up your left hand, palm facing away from you, four fingers touching and thumb a little separated from the fingers. Now find that shape on a map of the Middle East, and you’ll be looking at Saudi Arabia (your hand) and Qatar (your thumb). Between your thumb and your fingers, you’ll see the blue of the Persian Gulf—and, if you look closely, you will (depending on the scale of the map) see a miniscule dot that you might easily mistake for a printing error.
That miniscule dot is Bahrain.
Actually, it’s only part of Bahrain. The country is an archipelago of several dozen islands, most of them uninhabited and too small to show up on any map showing more of the world than Bahrain alone. When I was there, in 1982, there were a total of 33 islands with a total area of just over 250 square miles; today, land reclamation projects have increased the number of islands to 84 and the total area to a little over 300 square miles. For the sake of comparison, Rhode Island is a bit over 1200 square miles in area, five times the size of Bahrain when I was there, and the city of Los Angeles, at 502 square miles, is double the size of the Bahrain I remember.
So it’s a pretty small place, and it was even smaller in 1982, and smaller still when you consider that the bottom half of Bahrain Island—the main island, the one that shows up on the maps, the one where I lived—was a military area (theirs, not ours) and off-limits to foreigners.
The population was also small, which meant that new arrivals almost automatically became celebrities. Within three weeks of my touching down, I had been interviewed on the national radio station and by both national newspapers, I had been invited to dinner at the homes of the American ambassador and the commander of the US Navy’s Middle East fleet, and I’d been asked to give a speech at the British Council. (The Bahraini who called to invite me to speak at the British Council spoke English with a heavy accent, and I was a little surprised when he told me that my audience would consist of about 100 bakers. As small as the country is, I couldn’t imagine that there would be a need for that much bread. When I arrived to give my presentation, though, I discovered that I’d misunderstood his accent, and the crowd that had gathered to hear me was in fact comprised of about 100 bankers. You might think there’d be even less need for bankers than for bakers in a country housing only about a third of a million people, but, since Bahrain doesn’t have any oil, the way it kept up with the al-Joneses was by becoming a haven for off-shore banking, and pretty much every major financial institution on the planet had a branch office there!)
It didn’t take more than a month of so for the novelty of my arrival to wear off, and once that happened there wasn’t really all that much for me to do in Bahrain. The suq—the ancient marketplace—was fascinating, and there was Sheikh’s Beach (which was for foreigners only) and the National Museum, the Suq-al-Khamis Mosque and the Al-Areen Wildlife Park and a few other sights. The State Department folks and the Bahrain School faculty had dinner parties and cookouts just about every weekend. I had my classes to teach, of course, and I became friendly with some of my students.
But by the time I’d been there for another month, I was spending a fair amount of my time bored.
And eventually I decided that maybe I ought to take this fascinatingly boring place where I was living and use it as the setting for a new short story, my first in ten years.
At that time, most of the members of Bahrain’s Public Security Force—the national police—were Pakistanis. Why? Well, as you probably know, Islam is divided into two sects—Sunni and Shi’a—and the members of one don’t always get on with the members of the other. The Bahraini government knew full well that a police force comprised of both Sunnis and Shi’as wouldn’t have worked well, and putting either group in charge while excluding the other would have been worse. So the Bahrainis came up with a creative solution and basically imported police officers from Pakistan, just as they imported hotel workers from Egypt and construction crews from Holland and so on.
Bahrain’s Pakistani police were all men, and many of them had wives and children back home in Pakistan. Their salaries—though low by Western standards—were high by Pakistani standards, and the men received free housing and meals, so they were able to send enough money home to make the long separations from their families economically worthwhile.
The Juffair Police Barracks housed about a hundred of these Pakistani officers, and it was located right next door to the grounds of the Bahrain School. So I got to know some of the men—not well, since they tended to be shy and private—but well enough to exchange small talk when our paths would cross.
When I decided to write a crime story set in Bahrain, I sat down with a small group of them and asked them many questions. What would be a good name for a Pakistani man? What would the names of his wife and children be? Where in Pakistan would he come from? The answers came almost faster than I could ask the questions—and I finally realized that they weren’t hypothetical answers. In fact, the men were telling me about themselves. So the Mahboob Chaudri I created for my story has the first name of one of them and the last name of another, the wife of a third, the children of a fourth, the home town of a fifth . . . and so on. When I finished my story, which I titled “The Dilmun Exchange,” I sent it off to Eleanor Sullivan, then the editor of EQMM. She bought it, and asked me to turn Mahboob into a series character. So I wrote a second Chaudri story, and a third, and I kept on writing them for a while after moving from Bahrain back up to Europe and settling in Germany.
As I’ve mentioned in this space previously, most of my stories begin with a title, and that’s what happened with my Bahrain series. During a visit to the National Museum, I got a look at the country’s most prized archeological treasure, a small carved bit of stone known as the Beer Drinkers, and that became the title of Mahboob’s second case, in which the relic is stolen from the museum while my character is right there on the scene. When I learned that legend has it that the Biblical Garden of Eden was located in Bahrain and that an old tree out in the desert is known as the Tree of Life, I put Mahboob on a camel and sent him out to discover a long-dead body buried in the sand. And so on.
Some of the stories had other origins, though. Because of my close connection to the Netherlands, for example, I decided for Mahboob’s fourth case to send him into Bahrain’s Dutch community. In 1982, a Dutch construction company was building a seven-mile causeway connecting the emirate to Saudi Arabia—the most expensive stretch of roadway anywhere in the world—so I blew it up and had Mahboob investigate the crime in a story I called “The Saudi Causeway.” (This one proved to be too long for EQMM, and Eleanor asked me to cut it down to about half of its original length. I suppose I could have done that, but I really didn’t want to, so I asked Eleanor how she’d feel about my submitting it to Cathleen Jordan at Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, which had been under independent ownership until 1975, when Davis Publications bought it and made it EQMM’s kid sister. Eleanor graciously agreed, and Cathleen also liked the story—but she was uncomfortable with the idea of my destroying an actual bridge that really existed in the real world, so she asked me to shift the causeway project to another Bahraini location. There’s only one other place where a bridge connecting Bahrain to the mainland could go, though, and that’s why the published version of the story is called “The Qatar Causeway.”)
All told, I wrote ten Chaudri stories between 1984 and 1991. Two of them (“The Dilmun Exchange” and “The Night of Power” were reprinted in Ed Hoch’s annual collections of The Year’s Best Mystery and Suspense Stories, and several others were listed in Ed’s yearly Honor Roll. Bill Pronzini reprinted “The Beer Drinkers” in his excellent The Ethnic Detectives anthology, where he called Mahboob “one of crime fiction’s most delightful new detectives.” Others were reprinted in other places.
Only one of the ten proved impossible to sell. It was called “The Sword of God,” and it pitted Mahboob and a cowboyish American senator on a diplomatic visit to the emirate against a group of Islamic fundamentalists who had kidnapped three nurses and a doctor from the Mission Hospital. Eleanor and Cathleen both liked it, but they agreed that it was too real, too torn-from-the-headlines, for their readers, who picked up EQMM and AHMM to escape from the news, not to have it rubbed in their faces. In retrospect, I think it was probably my failure to sell this one story that ultimately caused me to end the series and move on to other projects. (In 2009, British anthologist Maxim Jakubowski paid me to translate several Dutch crime stories into English for The Mammoth Book of Best International Crime, a collection he was editing. I agreed, and asked him if he’d be willing to consider one of my own stories for inclusion in the book. He agreed, I sent him “The Sword of God,” and he bought it—so it finally did appear in print, almost 20 years after I wrote it. Note to aspiring authors: Don’t ever throw anything away!)
This year, John Betancourt at Wildside Press encouraged me to collect all 10 of the Mahboob Chaudri stories into a single volume, which he’s publishing this summer in print as The Tree of Life and as an e-book titled The Mahboob Chaudri Mystery Megapack. And you can hear me read “The Night of Power” as August’s EQMM mystery podcast.
I enjoyed getting to know Mahboob Chaudri when I “met” him and wrote about him in the ’80s, and it was fun to get reacquainted with him, thirty years later, as I reread the stories while preparing the book for Wildside Press. If you should choose to listen to the podcast or read the book, I hope that you too will enjoy getting to know him—and his adopted homeland, the island emirate of Bahrain.