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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Inside Pakistan (1)

It was 2006 and I lived in the United States.
"You are not really going to Pakistan, traveling alone? As a woman?" that was the reaction of most of my friends.
"You might not come back alive," was the reaction of one of them.
But I am writer.
And the lady who invited me to her country, her home, to be part of her family for a while - was also a booklover, a writer, a teacher. What could possibly go wrong as long as I stayed with her, a true Pakistani. I had no qualms about visiting Pakistan at all.
And so I flew from Portland to London, to Lahore. It was just getting light as the plane landed and I didn't see much. Flat and green pieces of land, farms, cut through by dirt roads. No paved roads. Then suddenly a jumble of concrete houses and streets. I realized from the air that they were mostly driving on the left although that was hard to tell, they seemed to drive mostly in the middle. That was confirmed once I sat in a car. When two cars are about to collapse, they then quickly veer left or right to just narrowly miss each other.
Passport control was quick. The officials were all uniformed women stamping the passports, some wearing shawls, some not. Leila (not her real name) was waiting and had no trouble recognizing me. Her chauffeur quickly whisked away my luggage and then drove us through the city. Well, it is all those movies make it out to be..... Broken concrete buildings, dusty dirt roads, FULL of people walking along wearing long white shirts and turbans; old old rusty cars, carts laden with freshly cut greens drawn by donkeys, crazy old motor cart, mopeds, anything else on wheels, all honking and racing at top speed. The main goal seems to be how many other bumper carts you can narrowly miss.

Leila's house was a lovely oasis in a jungle of noise. We had lunch in the large kitchen. They must have cooked outside since there was no heat from an oven. There were about ten different dishes, all very typical Pakistani food. Eaten with the fingers with a freshly baked flat bread, and served with yogurt to soothe the spicy foods.
And then there was ice cream and brownies. Very Pakistani, I'm told :-)
I am incredibly lucky: my visit coincides with a cousin's wedding and I am to join them as family for the next five days of celebrations!

Tonight is the formal asking for a blessing of Allah, praising and thanksgiving. After that it's party time. I already have two gorgeous outfits, a green satin pair of very baggy pants with a long striped top and a bright blue set - the set is called Shalwar kameez.
The actual wedding is next Saturday but there will be 4 official parts:

1] Qawali. This first one is the blessing/thanksgiving.
2] Mehndi. A festive, colorful gettogether where candles are lit in special ‘mehndi’ painted pots and bangles are given away to guests.
3] Sehra Bandi I Barat. This is the official signing of the marriage agreement and most formal part of the wedding.
4] Valima. A festive gettogether to dance and sing and celebrate.

Today's "party" - Qawali - was very interesting. Leila, her youngest daughter, daughter-in-law and I left in one car with chauffeur. As soon as you venture out of the house, you dive into a whirlpool of noise and chaos.  The bridge is, like all rickshaws and all dump trucks, elaborately painted in bright colors with intricate designs. The rickshaws sound like they all have a moped engine and are only driven at top speed. They consist of a canopy over a three-wheel motorbike and seem to be used to transport a minimum of eight people, often more - families with babies, toddlers and grandmothers all piled into one rickshaw. They are a form of public transportation, like a taxi. The driver has a natural gas tank sitting right next to him.
Anyway, as we got into downtown Lahore the traffic increased. Dusty roads full of pedestrians, mopeds, donkey carts, goats, cars - all honking and racing. And no one wears a seat belt: that would take the fun out of driving. At 80 KM/hr we miss everything else on the road by a hair.
The roads are lined by broken brick buildings, people squatting along the sidewalks, talking to each other, eating and making music. Five times a day tall towers around the city broadcast a chant that indicates prayer hour has started for a certain prayer.
I asked Leila if it would be safe for me to be here on my own. The answer from all of them was that it would be an even better experience because people would be more courteous and helpful to strangers alone, who have come to see their country. I asked if there is a lot of hostility towards Americans here and the answer was that people in general feel sorry that the Americans are so ill-informed, that they should inform themselves better about the rich history and the culture of Pakistan. They feel that people act out of misunderstanding. Today, a gentleman asked me "Why do Western governments all hate muslims but its individual people are so nice?"
The newspapers do not write terribly negative about the western world at all. One of the major news events was about a man who had converted from muslim to christian and received death threats because of it. The outcry in Pakistan was just as loud and against this injustice as it was in the west. They are just as opposed to, and abhored by, terrorism as any other person.

Soon we arrived at our destination and entered a long, low house in Moroccan style. Huge entree, many rooms and curved staircases. They use much marble for floors and stairs. In the main room, a huge square Persian rug was covered with white cloth and full of colorful round pillows made of Chinese silk. This was the groom's home. His parents welcomed us and everyone keeps telling me that I am part of the family. I wore green silk baggy pants and a striped long top with my own purple silk shawl. We sat on settee's and floor pillows. More and more relatives came, probably fifty people in total of all ages.
When the ceremony started, we all covered our heads with shawls and one of the elder women chanted a long, looooonnnnnnggggg prayer from the Koran, sometimes the other joined in. After my 24 hour flights and busy day it was hard not to fall asleep. Incense burned somewhere and we were all given a paper flower from a basket that had jasmine scent on it.
Two musicians came and played a small drum and clay pot.
After the prayer part it was time to eat. Everyone kissed everyone else and then descended on the kitchen where a table groaned under the weight of many dishes: rice with beef, curries, salads, corn, Nan bread and a flat bread called roti like pancakes, yogurt, and much else. A separate table held cakes, chocolate things, sweet noodles, etc. No alcohol in this nation. Just small glass bottles of coke and orange pop.

After the food I thought we'd go home to go to bed but, as our car dove back into the traffic, it became clear that we were not headed home yet. Instead we went to the Basaar, where I was to buy cloth. It was late but still as busy as if it was mid day. Piles and piles of colorful fabric were piled high in each stall. A big open air market just with cloth, nothing else. I bought 3 or 4 shawls for gifts. They are woven and gorgeous. There is no bartering at all, which seems strange in such a noisy outdoor market. But much more respectable than the bartering that happens in Mexico. "You pay what it is worth, not more but also not less," was the sensible explanation given to me.
I had to choose fabric for another outfit for the wedding. The fabric comes in sets of three: one plain color makes the pants, one is for the top, the third makes the shawl. You cannot mix and match your own choices, you select a set. The fabric was measured by arm length and cut. Then you give it to a seamstress and will see it back as an outfit in your size.
The next morning I had grapefruits, toast and dark, sweet tea for breakfast. Sunday does not seem to be a day off. Construction in the new subdivision behind the house is in full swing and cars on the road are all happily honking. A man walked by herding his goats.
Today we visit the extended family: sisters with their husbands, grown children and grandchildren. One brother was a kind, impressive man with a huge white beard and booming voice, reminding me of Tevje in Fiddler on the Roof. He wore baggy white pants, a long white shirt topped with a dark vest. "When you go back to America," he said, "tell people there that we hate terrorists more than they do."
The table was laden with rice, vegetable dishes, prawns, beef, and different kinds of breads. Dessert was lovely scooped out oranges with a leaf still on the cap, filled with creamy fruit salad. We drank thick, brown fresh apple juice.
We had an interesting discussion about politics and war and generally they concluded "Maybe (misunderstanding) is our own fault because we haven't shared enough with the rest of the world of what we believe in." My friend explained that the muslim faith includes many parts of Christianity, including Jesus as a disciple of God and that the Koran includes parts of the Bible. "Our religion is very tolerant and excepting," she said. The women at lunch talked like mothers everywhere: about dieting, kids and the dangers of drugs.

We visited ancient Lahore Fort with many gardens, mosques and other ancient buildings from Moghul times; saw the Badshahi Mosque and the Sish Mahal.

 More in my next blog entry. Stay tuned!

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Margriet! Are you going to turn these international entries into a book for adult readers? I think you should. I would buy the book.