People of Pakistan

Crowds of people outside the airport entrance not only await loved ones, but also have come to bid them farewell. It turns out crowds showed up to bid me farewell also. A group of young women keep waving and smiling in my direction as I wait in my first line of the morning to enter the Benezir Bhutto Terminal at Islamabad International Airport. The crowd of young women keep waving enthusiastically, even though there seems to be no movement in my vicinity. Feeling awkward, I smile at them. Their waving grows more zealous and my smile widens as I understand, they are waving at me, if for no other reason than just to exchange smiles and mutual attention. It is strange to be treated like an exotic species or obscure celebrity. I feel embarrassed and happy at the same time, thankful to be distracted from the drabness of the airport.

For all the glares, stares, scowls that I get from men, I seem to be a magnet for women. It often happens when I walk around the markets, especially on a Saturday night, as they gain the atmosphere of a southern california mall, crawling with giggly teenage girls clad in fake gold jewelry, that these young women get very excited about my presence. It is hard to image how they would react if I were a heartthrob male movie star, because in my presence they get fluttery, giggly, bashful, and they steel glances at me and look away timidly if I meet their eyes. Eventually, a brave one in the group will toss a bold “hello!” in my direction, and keep her eyes locked on mine, to see what I will do. When I greet her back, her friends flutter and giggle even more, like small birds bathing at the edge of a puddle. And then more of them call out “hello!” and even “how are you?” and before I have a chance to say anything - “I am fine!” they call with much amusement and delight.

The women I’ve encountered at conferences seem awestruck by my height, and probably my uncovered light brown hair. Whatever they are amazed by, often they have no qualms voicing their awe. “I have been watching you all morning. You are so smart and so pretty,” they share with me by afternoon tea break. We exchange long friendly smiles and nods of respect. My favorite though, is when they compare me to Princess Diana. I am usually very embarrassed, blushing and surely trying to grow shorter, so I can be at least at a more reasonable level to have a conversation, human to human, not towering like the Eiffel over radio antenna. These encounters are very sweet and full of mutual affinity. I compliment them on their colorful clothes, their charm and their smartness as well.

When Tom and I have been at the ZOO or at a museum, places where many local tourist come for a Sunday outing, dressed in their crispest, brightest clothes, much jewelry, flashy handbags, children with kohl eyeliner, often we get asked to pose for pictures. There is always a lot of excitement about this, and arranging of people. Recently, I even had a kid shoved in my arms, he and I looking at each other in surprise, not really knowing what to do. “No, not in that arm, this one...” a young woman rearranged the kid from my left right arm to my left. The often want to know how we like Pakistan, and how we find the people, clearly aware of the reputation their country has in the world. They seem deeply satisfied when we nod and confirm that Pakistanis are “really really nice people.”

But what would we find beyond this contact. That is still a mystery to me. Often when I have conversations with women at the conferences, I find their accents hard to understand, their reasoning hard to follow, sometimes the conversation is completely incomprehensible. When we talk about basic things, like how to cook yellow dal, or how many children they have, and how their husbands feel about them working (husbands I hear about are always “cooperative”) I understand them, and presumably vice versa. But beyond that, we seldom venture. And the few times we have, I became lost, confused, losing the thread of clarity that brought us to this point. It is much easier to talk with women. They are much more accessible to me, and relating to each other is easy via food, children and husbands. With men, there is always a sizing up of sorts, a determining of where one is on the hierarchy of a grade pay scale (the determinant of your pay and position in society based on your education). When they realize I am not “Dr.” of anything, they dismiss me with a sigh of relief.

What always surprises me about conversations here, is the forwardness about religion. Often people ask out right “are you a Christian?” Which always completely stumps me, as I have no idea what the “correct” answer is. I feel like either way it’s a losing proposition. I have also been asked “What’s your method of prayer” by a crusty old chancellor from an Islamic University. I did my best to evade the question by saying “it’s kind of personal.” He nodded dismissively and asked about which language I pray in. I mumbled “not in English.” He continued his line of questioning with “how many times a day?” at which point I almost cried “Uncle!”

For the most part, Pakistani people, the roles of male and female, the role of religion, the relationships among the classes, are still a mystery to me. All three aspects plus the added obstacle of language, form barriers to understanding this country and its people. I glimpse as much as I can from the brief interactions and conversations I have, and from the outsider’s view I am afforded by living here, but this is still only a very small window through which to view a culture.

Sunday Lunch

There are many reasons why living in Pakistan really bites. The most biting reason for me personally is the feeling of being trapped, of not having freedom to go wherever whenever one pleases. The annoyance of always being driven somewhere by people you don’t really know, and sometimes people you may not like. Once you actually get to where you are going, you can’t really relax either, because... well, in short, because you are an American in Pakistan.

So, imagine my delight when we were invited by our friend Z to Sunday lunch at his house on the lake. We loaded up into his land cruiser along with various baggage, six cartons of Quaker Oats, and a Pakistani man introduced to us as James, who was dressed for a safari in multi-pocketed khaki attire. I imagined that for lunch we might have tandoor cheetah with a bowl of porridge.

We headed west out of Islamabad along the Grand Trunk Highway, which used to be the main road from Kabul to Delhi and is the oldest road in the region. The major highways have no lanes, and cars swerve freely like schools of fish in the pond. Despite the seeming chaos of it Tom pointed out that this is indeed the latest theory on traffic control: makes people pay attention to what’s happening, and not get complacent while driving in the safety of their white lines.

We drove through many miles of undeveloped Islamabad suburbs into an increasingly industrial area. We passed stone quarries, and turned off the major road at a railroad crossing. Pakistan is generally a dusty and gray landscape (at least what I’ve seen of it so far), but there are several areas where one can see a symphony of brilliant colors: women’s clothes, flower stands, produce stands and the jingle trucks (see Tom’s picassa photos from Pakistan trip in April). These are very heavy and tall trucks which transport most goods in Pakistan. They are covered with small painted metal plates forming colored mosaics of art: a tiger, a woman’s eyes, fishes, winged horse, fighter jets.

We slowed as we drove through the town of Taxila, which reminded me of Mexico, with its llantaras on the side of the road, and armies of colorful statues for sale outside some craft stores, disco tigers (imagine disco ball, only reincarnated as a tiger sentinel). This was the town of industry, especially stone cutters. They used local stones to carve anything from grave stones to mortar pestles, to statues.

The road narrowed and turned north. Z pointed to turn-offs leading to various Buddhist stupas dating back to King Ashoka’s power in 250 BCE. In general, people here do not know pre-Islamic history, as it has been erased from textbooks, from memory, especially in the last 30 years. I was proud to share with our friend that such knowledge, about King Ashoka the Mauryan Emperor who renounced violence and became a Buddhist (conveniently) after gaining power, is taught to all sixth graders in California. Yay! It’s nice to feel proud of what education can do well!

We veered onto an unpaved road, which turned and twisted along the foot of a mountain and dipped into river beds. This really reminded Tom and me of Mexico, specifically, Baja California. Complete with glimpses of flat silvery water to the East.

As we got our first peek of the lake, several aspects of it remind us of the lakes in southwest United States: the arid high desert landscape and the pathetically low water level. It seems to me wherever I’ve travelled in recent years, (Central America, Hawaii, Southern California or South Asia) in the countryside the evidence of water shortages is everywhere: low water levels in wells, rainfall below the normal levels, dried up rivers and streams. Those who know about the land speak sadly about dry seasons, and the threat to crops. I wonder if the sadness does not point to something deeper, not just a temporary drought. If we don’t intuitively know that we are witnessing climate change right in front of our eyes. If we do, we don’t say it. It’s easier to talk about droughts. In our collective consciousness we know and hope that droughts pass. But we don’ know about the passing of climate change, or if hoping for it is futile. As we pass over far reaching fingers of the reservoir, it’s clear that the water is 30 or 40 feet below what its regular level. What might normally be lagoons of water, have become cricket grounds, and pathways for women carrying hardwood atop their heads.

We arrived at a small green gate and drove along Z’s property on a gravel road. When we climbed over a hill away from the main road, we saw the roof of his house, and span of the reservoir. What’s most striking about the view is the simplicity Z’s house, and the flat span of terraced lawns in front. The openness of the landscape feels especially refreshing compared to the usual state of being trapped. It’s all I can do to wait a few polite minutes before removing my shoes and walking on the stubby grass barefoot. We get acquainted with the local caretake and the caretaker dog. Z shows us the house, which he has designed and built. What I love is the straightforwardness of the structure: cooking area, eating area, sitting area, all open to face the marvelous view of rural Pakistan. What Tom loves are the solid materials: wood, steel, leather, and the thoughtfulness with which they were utilized.

It is spacious and quite. Falcons and kites glide on invisible gusts of wind. Voices of people on the other shores are carried effortlessly over the surface of the water.

Tom and I take a walk around one drying finger of the reservoir, toward the brightness of mustard fields. A family of peasants is collecting mustard greens on the other side of the lake. We hear voices of women talking and children bantering. At the water’s edge, I notice the kids have climbed on rocks on the other side, and quieted, watching us. I wave. One of them looks away and the other half hides in the shadow of a boulder. We watch each other across the water. I wave again. One of them reflexively lifts his arm, in what’s not quite a wave. Even from here, they seem bashful, but curious. I wave one more time, before walking away from the water’s edge. I hear a loud splash and when I turn around to see what kind of fish might make so much noise, I realize one of them had thrown a rock into the water to regain my attention. Now they were motionless again, waiting to see what I would do. I walked toward Tom who was taking pictures of the mustard field trying to capture it’s bee-buzzing, goat-herding, central Asia-feeling wonder.

When we returned to the house, carpets and pillows had been laid out on the grass terrace, waiting for the arrival of small sized harem. While we wait to find out who the harem will be composed of, we admire the handmade furniture, the free standing fireplace, the most delicious blood oranges, and the Quaker Oats installation art. One would confidently bet that Z was maybe born in Argentina, or had lived for 15 years in the US, but to our surprise we find out that he’s never taken more than a month’s vacation abroad, that he misses Pakistan on long sojourns away. One suspects there might be more to this story, but the overwhelming impression of Z is of a good natured teddy bear, who wants to host people he finds endearing or interesting, in truest Pakistani hospitality.

When the other guests arrive, the silence of the landscape is broken. Several vehicles pull up almost simultaneously, and out pour a dozen or so people, loud as only a group of city slickers arriving in the country can be. They include some of Zs Pakistani friends, and three Ambassadors of certain Latin American countries, their wives, kids, and nephews. They all introduce themselves to us, not by title, but by name, it is up to us to match the ambassador with his respective country. 

The picnickers brought not only cheer and noise, but also delicious food: homemade pizza, empanadas, fresh tossed salad. Zulfikar had Pakistani food made by a local woman, and James made the most delicious quiche (much preferred to roasted cheetah). There was wine and beer and cigars, and lots of chatters and laughing, and story telling.

Here is my favorite, told by a flirtatious Brazilian woman (imagine a buzzed Portuguese accent), now living in Pakistan, which is where the story takes place:

My father died and we needed to prepare the church for his funeral. But there were still Christmas decorations up. I told them they have to take the decorations down, because it’s after January 6th, and having them up after the Three Kings would bring bad luck to my father's funeral. But they didn’t do it. So I sent my guys down there to clean up. When they arrived at the church they all took off their shoes, and I had to convince them that it’s OK to wear shoes inside. So they come into the church, and they just kind of stop and stare at the crucifix with Jesus, with their mouths open. At the service we sang Catholic hymns and it was shocking because all the Pakistanis there knew the words! It turns out they had all be educated at missionary schools or convents, so they knew how to sing in Latin!

To appreciate this story you have really pull yourself out of the Christian culture, and imagine that in your religion depiction of God in any form is forbidden. Shoes are removed before entering mosques. Showing bare arms in public is improper. And here you are faced with not only a crucifix, but Jesus, nailed on it, probably bleeding brownish blood from his open wounds, wearing nothing but a ribbon over his privates. I would stop and stare with my mouth open, and someone would have to do more than snap their fingers to get my attention on cleaning the Christmas decorations.

The afternoon passed, and I took advantage of the free flowing, self-sustaining conversations to sit on the carpets and draw. Being barefoot, and bare-shouldered for the first time in months, felt so good and freeing, it was easy to enjoy the simple pleasure of drawing the land scape. There are many moments of brightness and delight in Pakistan, and one has to really suck the marrow of them.