The Daily Grind in Islamabad


A driver employed by my employer comes to pick me up in the morning. First though, around 8:15 or 8:30 I call the dispatcher, Usama, to let him know I am ready. Usually he says something like, “OK, I send car.” From then it could be five minutes or half hour before a car comes - because why should anything be predictable in Pakistan? When a car beeps in front of the house, Tom or I peek out the window to check whose driver is here, which amuses Tom and makes me a little edgy.

I come downstairs, carrying a bag and briefcase with a loaned computer. The guard who just started his day shift says hello. I always feel like his years of military training make him inclined to click his heals and salute me, but since I am a woman, it would be weird so he waves his hand limply in the direction of his forehead. Our project has 8 drivers, and I never know who will take me to and from work. Sometimes another person is already in the car being brought in from another neighborhood. It feels awkward, and I miss Janniaz and Alam Gir, the Pashtun drivers I became so fond of in the first days in Islamabad.

We drive east along the northern-most road, Margalla Road. On our left, naked trees, a cricket field, an army post, a bike path with a yellow sign that says “Cycle” and a has a picture of a family of bikers, reminding people of Islamabad from more care-free days. We meandering through concrete road blocks, passing through two checkpoints. Sometimes I talk to the driver, sometimes just watch the brownish landscape.

We get make our way into a neighborhood in F-6, and as we approach our office, the driver beeps twice. At the end of the street, a metal gate opens and two guards get ready to help get stuff out of the car. I sign in, and say “As-sallam-aleikum” several times to everyone monitoring the the driveway. I walk into the three story house (which was probably a residence at some point) and say hello to Marie, a very sweet receptionist. She loves to talk with me and practice her English, but says “Madam” at the end of every sentence which makes me feel stiff and old.

I go to my temporary “office,” a teeny-tiny cubicle in one of the five downstairs rooms. I greet Foize, Noor and Mahid with whom I share this space. The small gas heater has already been turned on full blast, and has sucked at least 1/3 of the oxygen from the room. Everyone is fully bundled up and smiles at me over their warm cup of tea. I unpack, plug-in, turn on the computer and start to work. So far it has been writing, editing, laying out brochures, reading about education in Pakistan (a very depressing topic!) and organizations involved in “fixing” it. Soon, Shahzad, one of the two tea boys (that is their actual job title!) comes by to say hello and ask “Would you like coffee or tea, Ma’am?” He is very sweet, and most likely Christian, though he hasn’t blessed me from all sides yet, as all the local Christians like to do. He will continue to check with me and everyone else in the office every hour or two. God forbid the sahibs should actually get up and make their own tea.

I have to get up and take breaks, because the air in the room is terrible. Hot, dry and oxygen deprived. I walk out the metal gate, let the guards know I am just going for a walk. I stroll up and down the street. The two or thee guards parked outside each house, stop talking and stare at me as I walk past them. I usually bring a document to "read" so I can seem busy. I usually make two laps, which takes me maybe 10 minutes. It’s a nice break. I can hear birds and sometimes the calls to prayer from distant mosques.

Around 2:00 p.m. people start to assemble in the kitchen for lunch. It’s a long rectangular room, with an equally long and rectangular table down the middle. Bowls of food are placed in the center and water pitchers at the end. Usually there is a salad of iceberg lettuce, white radishes, cucumber, carrots or tomato. The hot dishes are usually a dal (lentil dish), potatoes, rice, beef stew, or spinach stew. There is always yogurt or raita (savory yogurt with spices) and nan or chapatti (round flat bread of various thickness). It's usually quite god, but very spicy and oily. OK right now in the winter, but I hope the menu changes in the coming warm months. The cost for each employee to partake in this feast is 1,500 rupees for the month (about $18).

Everyone stands around (there are no chairs), while they eat from their plates with their hands. It’s quite a skill. Holding a plate with one hand and scooping soupy dal, and grainy rice with a swath of bread in the other. Conversation is usually in Urdu, as there are only 2 or 3 native English speakers present. I just watch, eat and listen. I squirm a little thinking of all the unwashed hands that pass over the food, handing things back and forth and into their mouths.

Usually there is desert too. Something very interesting like short vermicelli noodles in a sweet coffee flavored cream. Or vanilla pudding with cubes of fruity jello of various colors, and chunks of sweet bread floating in it. Or sweet rice infused with yellow, green and red dye. I haven’t yet dared to try that one.

In the afternoon people are back in their cubicles and work continues. From what I’ve noticed there are two speeds and tempos of productivity. The Pakistanis do not seem to work too hard. They often meet up to chat with each other, they laugh, they speak really loudly, sometimes it seems like they yell at each other. The few expats who "run" the project are much more manic, their brows more furrowed. Around 4 someone usually sends a driver out to bring a sweet. Ice cream, or cake or pastries. Everyone gathers around these treats, and visits some more.

I usually have to go for another walk. Sometimes I head out through a back pedestrian path and head to a market nearby. There I can get a real coffee (not Nestle instant). But it’s not about the coffee. It’s about the walk. About getting out of my cage. About defiance and having moments of sanity and connection to something familiar. Walking. Breathing. Being outside.

It’s been getting dark around 5:45 now and the office begins to clear around that time. By 6 pm it feels late. I call Usama to arrange for a ride. Usually I get home around 6:30. It’s dark. The guard welcomes me, and makes lots of clumsy effort to help with my bags. He smells like someone who bathes once a week and has only two sets of clothes. He seems quite old, hard to say his age, but his skin is wrinkly thin and dark, his hair is white.

With work, in the big picture, I am not quite sure what my role is yet. I’ve had varied tasks. Some I have been very proud of, and have felt really good about. Some have been really challenging and I learned new things.

Am I making any difference? I don’t know. I don’t really think about it. I just try to do the best work that I can. That’s all any of us can do.

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