Lee met Haider Ali on Facebook a few years back. It was through her old camel connections, although Haider himself is not a camel handler.
Haider is a Pakistani truck artist. He started as a young boy under his father’s tutelage and has grown up to be a world famous truck painter, with exhibits at the Smithsonian, the Olympics, and in the Islamabad Airport.
Lots of articles have been written about Haider painting “jingle trucks” throughout Pakistan and the region (here, here, and here) as well as how he’s passing on the craft through teaching at the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture.
My favorite story about Haider’s art progression is that before he could paint a truck his father made him paint straight vertical lines for 6 months, ingraining in the fine muscle memory of his wrist and hand what a brush needs in order to leave a perfect straight and vertical line.
Then it was horizontal lines for 6 months. Then diagonal. As he progressed, perfection became automatic for him.
When I first saw him paint, I wondered at how he worked so quickly and deftly. Once I read the story of the lines, I knew that what I was seeing in a half second paintbrush stroke was a reflection of almost forty years of painting. It was beautiful.
Haider travels with 2 massive pieces of luggage but only needs one small case to work on a truck. It’s a weathered canvas toiletry bag covered with paint and oil wear marks that a hipster would die to be seen carrying around. For Haider, it’s just his work gear.
We picked Haider up at the airport on my 40th birthday, and almost as soon as we’d gotten the introductions out of the way he started talking about painting one of our vehicles.
There was room for me to be nervous about it. As a former military man I “should” be wary of anything Pakistan-related. Driving around San Diego, a big Navy and Marine Corps town, in a Pakistani-styled truck didn’t seem like a great idea.
Still, biases and beliefs are something that art challenges, and if there’s anything I like less than a good challenge to my beliefs I haven’t found it yet. With a bit of trepidation at having the only jingle truck in San Diego as my daily driver, off we went to Home Depot for paint.
I expected to spend a small fortune; I had seen Haider’s work online and knew that he used an incredible variety of colors to create everything from snow capped mountains to bright-eyed peacocks. For us non-artists (I count myself fairly firmly in that camp), it’s always a surprise to see how little a master needs to do their work.
In Haider’s case, he needed little beyond what any primary school child knows you need: 6 colors. Black, white, blue, red, green, and yellow.
Haider spent the next 7 days painting almost every day. Starting with my truck, which gradually progressed from the classic nondescript Southern California silver Toyota Tacoma to a full-on Pakistani jingle truck complete with matching Pakistan and US flags on the tailgate, Haider splashed beauty throughout our world.
He worked for 3 days with Lee and her art partner, Carla Naden, on 2 separate ManRabbit pieces.
He left sketches of eagles and rabbits fluttering in the breeze of our office, and everywhere we went I’d see his head cock a little and his eyes take in all the art around him.
Fueled by sugary sweet coffee, cookies for breakfast and pastries for lunch, he tolerated our “healthy” dinners well, although he was adamant about making sure to get in a few McDonald’s runs.
We introduced him to In ’N Out and made sure he got a taste of home at a local Himalayan restaurant, where, even if it wasn’t food from his hometown of Karachi he got to chatter away happily in Hindi with the staff.
By the time he left he had, as almost every guest does, become a part of our extended family. It was yet another confirmation that, while various countries may not get along, when you get down to the human-to-human level there are almost never insurmountable differences.
During our long talks around meals or in between painting sessions or on a day long driving tour of San Diego and Imperial counties, Haider showed us the very best of what another culture looks like; not the distinguishing marks that separate us, but the universal actions that make us all human: Kindness, joy, a care for beauty, a love of family and friends, and a dedication to a profession.
When we put Haider on the bus to his next stop in Los Angeles, it was with a renewed dedication to be better humans ourselves, to follow the example he had set for us, and to continue to make the world an ever more beautiful and joyful place.
To beauty and joy, my friends!
First, all of the beautiful photos were by Bruce R Stanley Photography. Bruce stopped by one day out of the blue and did his magic. As you can see, he is VERY good.
Second, I’ve been driving my jingle truck now for a while and I’m amazed at the amount of positive comments I receive. Despite my fears of a broken windshield or a keyed panel or angry drivers incensed by a Pakistani flag, I’ve encountered none of that, only joy and wonder at the addition of beauty to San Diego. It was a double confirmation to always take a risk in order to bring more beauty to the world, and to seek out those corners of my mind that are stiff and fearful and massage them into a little more openness and pliability.
Too much reading...
How about dessert?