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In Pakistan, big trucks are the perfect canvas for intricate murals

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Around the world, trucks are essential everyday vehicles transporting goods from one place to another. But in Pakistan, they've long been known as canvases for very bright, colorful works of art. NPR's Hannah Bloch recently visited a truck workshop outside Islamabad and sent this postcard.

HANNAH BLOCH, BYLINE: Everything about Pakistani trucks is exuberant and over-the-top - from the colors to the splashed-out designs to the intricate wood carvings on the doors. Each one is elaborately decorated, and no two trucks are alike. Muhammad Ijaz Mughal, a lifelong truck artist who learned the trade from his father, features his own artwork at a studio in his home. He says Pakistani trucks are more than just trucks.

MUHAMMAD IJAZ MUGHAL: (Through interpreter) When we decorate it, we hope people will look at our truck with love. When a truck is decorated, we consider it to be like a bride and decorate it and take care of it.

BLOCH: He takes us to a sprawling workshop just off the main commercial road between Islamabad and Rawalpindi. There are painters, welders, metal workers, horn sellers and electricians, all busy refurbishing and decorating the vehicles parked in the yard. Every driver wants his truck to be the best, the most decorated, the most colorful and most admired vehicle on the road, says Mughal.

MUGHAL: (Through interpreter) We ensure that when a truck goes on the road, it looks beautiful. It has a variety of beauty. It should look like the most beautiful, so that's what we try to do.

BLOCH: At the truck workshop, a painter named Irfan is putting final touches on a mountain valley scene in vivid green, orange, blue and red. He's been painting trucks for 20 years now.

IRFAN: (Through interpreter) This is my passion, and I wanted to do this work. So that's why I'm into this.

BLOCH: His favorite thing to paint is peacocks.

IRFAN: (Through interpreter) Because the peacock is the most beautiful bird, so I want to paint that bird.

BLOCH: Besides peacocks, trucks carry fanciful paintings of hearts, flowers, movie stars, politicians, angels and army generals. There's mirror work, embossed metal and chains that jingle...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINS JINGLING)

BLOCH: ...As they hang off the bottom of each truck. And then there are the horns.

(SOUNDBITE Of TRUCK HORN HONKING)

BLOCH: Pakistani anthropologist and filmmaker Samar Minallah Khan says Pakistan's tradition of truck art is special, in part because it overturns assumptions about truckers.

SAMAR MINALLAH KHAN: It just celebrates their culture, their way of life. You see that they are artists. They are poets. They have a sense of humor. They are fond of nature. They are fond of, you know, so many things that need to be celebrated.

BLOCH: And thanks in part to Khan's efforts, Pakistani trucks don't only look and sound good, they also serve a social good. She helped launch a project in 2019 in which trucks carry portraits of missing children, along with a helpline number to call.

KHAN: So that if whoever sees this image and, you know, wants to reach out to this organization or helpline with any kind of information, it would be easier for them to, you know, remember the number and everything.

BLOCH: Many did reach out. Of the 20 or so missing children whose portraits were painted on trucks, Khan says at least five were found.

Hannah Bloch, NPR News, Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hannah Bloch is lead digital editor on NPR's international desk, overseeing the work of NPR correspondents and freelance journalists around the world.