There is a general signboard on rusting iron gates, emblazoned on bronze plaques, even hung from dilapidated trees as old as Islamabad itself. Whatever the mode of communication, the cold-shouldered message designed to send trespassers fleeing with their tails between their legs is essentially the same: Beware of Dog.
Long before there were security guards and sophisticated alarm systems installed in every alternate house and bungalow in Islamabad, the ultimate precautionary measure taken by wary homeowners was to hang the sign somewhere on the threshold of their property, thus conjuring up images of snarling, savage Rottweilers in the minds of unsuspecting passers-by. Funnily enough, in true Stepford fashion, the reality would often be a loving greyhound or an energetic, but friendly Labrador masquerading as the ultimate night watchdog. But the meta-narrative here goes beyond the unseen dog behind the gate, and in fact relates to how this city has come to accept the transforming relationship between security and danger without letting it interfere with daily lives.
Security comes in many forms and guises. Security guards, dressed in navy blue with their weapon securely slung over their shoulder, have become a standard imprint in residential sectors and outside stately homes loyally protecting the families inside. Other neighbourhoods collectively employ a night watchman who cycles around the block after midnight, periodically blowing on his whistle to send a clear warning to would-be rule-breakers. And then on Eid and long weekends when the city empties and the streets become uncharacteristically quiet, faithful neighbours step up to the mantle and keep an eye out for the safety of the house next-door, even if that means flipping the espionage switch and employing the use of a pair of binoculars.
The idea of neighbourhood surveillance, safety and protection partly stems from the idea that the sole occupants of large sprawling manor houses in Islamabad were once elderly couples and thus attractive targets for unsolicited strangers with pockets to fill. More recently, however, the demographic and the socio-political climate of the city has undergone an evolution; today there are more youngsters growing up in these same streets than ever before, which again is a security concern for working parents who like to know that their houses, families and tricycle-riding toddlers are safe while they are away at work. Unsurprisingly, seasonal comic book bad-guys have evolved with the ages too and are not as taken in by the ‘Beware of Dog mantra’ as they once were: in an unprecedented role reversal of sorts, increased cases of “dog napping” mean that man’s best friend is no longer the caped crusader it was once made out to be.
But the sign will continue to hang, and for a simple reason: nothing says “Stay off my property” quite as well as a simple but deft warning. In recent years we Islamabadis have seen a wave of security threats expunge any notion of safety that we might once have harboured. Extremism, militancy, drugs and street crime are just a few of the add-ons that city dwellers of this green metropolis have become accustomed to. But the storm has always been weathered with a fair measure of resilience. Sure, the gates are now doubly locked at night and the boundary walls are a lot higher than they used to be, but that too is a sign that times have changed and people adamantly refuse to be easy pickings for robbers and miscreants.
And the common denominator throughout the security ups and downs and safety breaches has been the metaphor of the faithful canine as a means to ward of unwanted intruders.
So let’s not go cold turkey on our gatepost plaques just yet. Sometimes, a ‘Beware of Dog’ sign is a small price to pay for a safe neighbourhood, even if that means that the dog in question isn’t the uber-protective watchdog its made out to be — or worse still, a cat.
The writer is a staffer at The News; he tweets @fahd3701