Picture Perfect Pakistan

“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.

We reach Fort Lahore by driving through old downtown. Narrow dirt roads that get more and more crowded. The roads are lined on both sides by roadside stands and merchants. Amazing things are for sale – I didn’t have enough eyes to take it all in. I spotted a boy pushing a wooden cart which had a small fire burning inside. On top he roasted nuts or popping corn. I saw cages and cages of life chickens, and hanging dead chickens. There were entire goat markets where men in long robes were selling small goats. Oxen resting along the side of the road. A stand with sugar cane stems piled high and a man cranking a metal wheel on the side of a machine to crush the cane into juice, which he sold.

Amazingly, the chauffeur maneuvered through walls of people and animals and drove us right to the gates of the historic park. There, women came to the car before we even got out, to sell us woven grass baskets and fans decorated with colored feathers. Women don’t handle money in public here so Leila’s chauffeur pays for the things we want to buy. He also guarded our shoes while we entered the mosque.
The entire day, I was the only westerner and people goggled at me everywhere. Even with a shawl around my head I stood out. Kids gaped at me and an entire school class swarmed around us (school girls all wear light blue kameez and white shawls) and giggled, saying hi! When I asked if I could take their picture, they were delighted. Their teacher told them “This visitor wants your picture. Show her how happy you are to live in Pakistan.” They all crowded around and wanted to touch me.
We walked around the grounds, saw the hall of mirrors which UNESCO is restoring. Saw the balcony where the Moghul emperor used to address the people. Blooming bougainvillea cascading over brick walls.
On the way back I noticed donkey carts loaded with golden, round milk jugs. Trucks and tractors are incredibly beautifully painted with intricate designs and bright colors. Motorbikes with at least three but often five people on them. A horse drawn wagon loaded with bags (potatoes?). And dust and people walking on bare feet. Carts loaded with piles of bright oranges and grapefruits. It seemed a medieval scene until a vendor whipped a cell phone out of a pocket of his robes.

Behind broken brick walls I saw small squares with open doorways. Many people live in very poor conditions. Buildings look like they are broken but I’m realizing they are so old that the bricks are breaking away. They simply re-use old bricks to pile into new walls and so everything looks like it is being demolished.

When we got home, Leila and I worked on our book plan: a picture book for Pakistani children to show them how libraries work and the joy of reading. Leila is working with schools, running a library program and working with Safe The Children UK on bringing literacy standards up for all children in Pakistan. “We have an oral history, not one of books,” she explained and is looking for help to show people the importance of books and reading.
As soon as we head out for the day, the sights and sounds assault us and never cease to amaze me. Honking cars and everything else that drives, is hilarious. I’m never scared because their cars are spotless and dent free. But at each intersection, three rows of traffic from four directions gets together. Whoever is boldest (and they all think they are) inches forward without hitting the bicycles, mopeds or other cars although you could not fit a sheet of paper between the bumpers. The funny thing is that all these people honk like crazy but no one raise a finger or shakes a fist. The second they get out of the car they are polite and friendly. So the honking, somehow, is not meant to ‘scorn’ the others on the road. It is simply a “watch out – I’m coming” kind of honk.

We race toward the city and see the usual donkey carts, laden with firewood, freshly cut grass, sugar cane, building supplies and anything else. Women sit on their bare feet and hunches along the dark red (silt) canal and beat their laundry with stones. Trees are hung with baseball caps for sale, towels and t-shirts.  Today Leila asked the chauffeur to stop near a corner and he handed a beggar a small package. I asked why (when I arrived I warned her that I would ask explanations of everything I did not understand and she always answers me patiently). “This week our grandson was ill. Allah made him better, so now we give thanks by sharing with this man. The package contains food which he can take home and cook.” She also gives out money at some times. The few beggars there are, hang around intersections and knock on car windows. He who drives a car has money. No sense in begging elsewhere.
We reach Alif Laila, Leila’s library project: an inner-city library building which is absolutely lovely. The round building is painted with scenes from Tales of 1001 Nights (which is what ‘Alif Laila’ means). It is in a lovely park like setting. A painted bus with sayings like “Readers are Leaders” etc., picks up children from different schools. These schools have no libraries and no books other than text books. At home these children are not exposed to reading either. Most come from very poor families. In the library they are read to, and can take books home. One class consists of about 60 children here and 2 classes come at a time. The half size school bus is thus loaded with 100-120 children!
After stories, the children go to another building which houses the offices of the Alif Laila project and has art rooms and a computer lab (with 3 languages on the keyboard!).
This is the only opportunity the children ever have to learn typing and using the internet. My friend says “Like Sheherazade of Arabian Nights, who had to save her life by finding stories, so we have to save our life all the time by finding funding and sponsors.” Save The Children from the UK is the largest sponsor of almost all projects. I wonder if learning the skills of reading and typing might not also save the lives of some of these girls.

In the library I read Emma’s Cold Day to about 120 children. Leila translated into Urdu because these are young kids just learning English, still being taught in Urdu.
We had lunch at an adobe building with palm trees in front and a man with turban and pointy shoes opening the door. One one side of the door was the seating area. On the other side was a large ‘village’ area with different food stations as you would see in small towns: a wooden cart with copper pots, a large charcoal grill with all sorts of shish kebabs. Bowls and bowls of stuff – a large orange press for juice, etc. We ate the strangest things (to me!) starting with a shredded salad with lots of chick peas, with runny yogurt poured over it. Then paper maché type, very light balls with a hole in them. Inside rattled chick peas. You had to dip them into a jar of brown liquid. They are called gol gappa. Then rice and meat. The cook, beaming with a huge smile, asked if I would like chicken kebabs without spices and proceeded to barbecue meat just for me.
Then very unusual desserts: a small flat stone bowl with rice pudding in it. It had what looked like a piece of tinfoil in it. That was real ground silver for minerals… called chandika warq.
Then there were small warm balls (looking a bit like cocktail sausages) made of a sweet rice paste and dripping in a sugar sauce, called meetha pakora. While we ate, two musicians played on small drums and a painted harmonium. The website for the restaurant says ‘five star, top in Lahore, all meals under 10.- US). On the way out there was a cart with green leaves with tiny spices, balls of anise the size of colored beads, and herbs that help with the digestive system. I should have taken some because of stomach started to rumble a bit by now…

Next we drove to the silk market where Leila tried about six stores in vain to buy wedding material for the daughters’ outfits. Each store is a small square space. Walls are lined floor to ceiling with colorful bolts of fabric. On the floor is a row of chairs facing a meter high platform that runs the length of the store. The salesmen are sitting on their hunches and bare feet on this platform. The customer sits on a chair and points at colors. He pulls the bolts down and unrolls the three that go together (pants, shirt and shawl). This goes on until there is about four feet of fabric piled high onto the platform, the salesman walking across all of it on his bare feet. And then the lady shakes her head and walks out….  After this we stopped at an Artist Cooperative. Amazing. Wooden furniture, copper pots, onyx carvings, colorful shawls and bags, carved statues of camel bone (looking just like ivory). Some things are so cheap that I don’t think they even register on the dollar scale: 20 rupee cents for a small carving. I bought gifts to take home, feeling like I was supporting the local economy. The suitcase which I had planned to leave behind, will be coming back! Tomorrow is another day! Inshallah (= God willing)!

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