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.