Lifestyle & Belief

Sweeping a Dusty Market in Search of Gold

At six in the morning, the only thing can that can be heard in Sarafa Bazaar, the largest gold market in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, is the sound of bristles on pavement.

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Afsiroon Naqas arrives in the labyrinthine market long before it fills with braying donkeys, rumbling rickshaws and men hawking everything from slices of coconut to lightbulbs.

On hands and knees, he painstakingly sweeps every inch of the street with an old shoe brush. But he and his young son Asad aren't collecting trash. They're looking for gold dust that blows out of the jewellery shops around them.

"Along these streets are teeny tiny bits of gold," says the gaunt 45-year-old, "Like dust or sand."

Naqas makes a living separating the precious metal from heaps of dust. But he refuses to explain the process.

"If you want to know," he says with a shy smile, "You'll have to come to my shop at noon and I'll show you."

A dark, narrow staircase leads up to Naqas' makeshift lab. It isn't a "lab" in any serious way, but that doesn't mean he isn't working through some serious – and dangerous – chemical procedures.

His first task is to sift through the sediment he's collected for rocks and other bits of debris.

Naqas then ladles up burbling acid from a white canister and pours it over the dirt.

Set over heat, the acid mixture coughs up a caustic cloud of mustard yellow smoke that soon turns emerald green and then a deep blue.

The blue smoke lets Naqas know that its time drop a glistening ball of mercury into the mix.

"All the other material is left outside," he explains. "The mercury holds in all the gold."

The only thing that's left to do is push the silvery ball through some cheesecloth. With that, he's left with a pea-sized ball of pure gold: the result of three days of sweeping and hours of extracting.

Naqas' son, Asad, who's about 10 years old, silently watches his father from the corner.

"I don't let him sit next to me when I'm working with chemicals," Afsiroon says, "I send him out. He's a kid. He can't handle the smoke."

Naqas fully realizes that his business is a dangerous one, and he'd rather that his son didn't get involved.

"I'm stuck here because of some personal difficulties, and I'd prefer that my son not get trapped in this work. I think he'd be better off he would study and eventually start a business or get a job. A lot of people have died from using these chemicals. The smoke makes you weak. It tears at your insides," he says.

For now, Naqas accepts the hazards.

He hands the gold he's collected to a dealer and earns what averages out to be about eight dollars a day. Naqas says the amount is barely enough to put food on the table and pay tuition for the three of his eight kids who're in school.

But the street alchemist doesn't want to take up a different line of work. Sometimes, he says, he gets lucky and finds diamonds or even a whole ring. As wedding season comes to a peak across Pakistan, Afsiroon Naqas is hoping he'll sweep up a small treasure.

  • IMG_0447-e1357231132608.jpg

    Afsiroon Naqas pulls a smoldering ball of mercury from a mixture he uses to extract gold dust from heaps of dirt in a market in Rawalpindi, Pakistan (Photo: Beenish Ahmed)

  • IMG_0424-e1357232545494.jpg

    Afsiroon Naqas rises before Rawalpindi's gold market opens to sweep the streets. He extracts gold from the dirt he collects through a dangerous chemical process (Photo: Beenish Ahmed)

  • IMG_0441-e1357232712756.jpg

    Asad Afsiroon, who is about 10 years old, sweeps the steps outside of jewelery shops. His father uses a chemical process to extract gold dust from the dirt the two of them collect in Rawalpindi, Pakistan (Photo: Beenish Ahmed)