Snake Charmers – Pakistan

 (Part 4)

The wedding parties I am fortunate enough to experience during my visit to Pakistan, are not so much “just parties” to celebrate a wedding – they are all integral parts of the wedding. There was the thanksgiving, then the traditional singing evening. Tonight was a festival of song and dance, more festive and formal than the previous ones. First of all, it was THE occasion for the best and most glamorous outfits. The family dresses like royalty in long outfits of brocade and gold. These outfits look like long gowns but are actually pants with legs, but have huge puffy ruffles from the knees down. They date back to Moghul times. Many of the ladies wear headpieces with an ornament on the forehead, reminding me of Sheherazade.
We gathered at the groom’s parents house and then boarded a bus to drive to the girl’s parents house. Young couples do not live together here! On the bus, the ladies sang. The groom’s sister was one of the most ornately dressed women there, all in gold and glitter. Very, very beautiful. I commented to her how gorgeous she looked and she grinned “Oh, my husband says I look like a Christmas tree.”
There were a few other westerners tonight, a young girl from Germany who teaches in an inner city school here as a volunteer, and some people from England. They had all had the same experience: everyone had warned them against going to Pakistan and they all marveled at how safe and wonderful it really is. They mostly blame the media.
An older lady came and introduced herself to me. She and her husband had spent some years in Germany and lived in many places. He was a doctor. Now they had chosen to move back to Pakistan. She said “It is too bad there is such a difference between rich and poor.” I agree, especially tonight with all the richness and glitter, that difference was very obvious. We drove, dressed in our finest, past poor people working along the streets. “It is a vicious circle,” the lady sighed, “the rich have few children who get a good education and inherit their parents’ wealth in addition to having good work.” BUT, the rich seem to do a lot more here than they do elsewhere to bridge the cap. My friend Leila runs a library program full time and gives every day to the poor. This lady said that her husband now runs a clinic free of charge and she runs an orphanage. And most of the rich seem to do things like that – working full time in community service work. The rich also employ people. My friend’s family has ten people working, providing for their shelter, food and children’s education. Despite the poverty I have not seen street people. “People live with their families,” I am told when I ask about the homeless.The bride’s parents lived about a half hour outside Lahore. When we arrived, tall white cloth candles lined the length of the property. Everyone (a few hundred people) waited outside the entrance, on the road. Then the mehndi got unloaded: round stone pots, hand painted and decorated with glass and glitter. They had candles inside. Also small square tables and a paisley shaped table with decorations and candles on them. There were baskets filled with bangles (bracelets) for all the women. These were carried in by the women of the family while everyone chanted and sang. We all filed in through an archway decorated with flowers and walked into the tent. There the groom’s family waited and hung flower garlands (yellow flowers) around our necks. There was a stage decorated with flowers. A large couch awaited the bride and groom. 
As soon as we got to the main area, the dancing started. The women danced folk dances in a circle, typical Arabian dances, waving their arms and turning in and out.
The groom was escorted to the couch under a canopy, by his friends all wearing long tunics and long yellow shawls. The bride was escorted by her family under a canopy and with candles.
They both sat on the couch for the rest of the night while all their relatives came up on the stage and did three things: they smeared a little dab of henna on either the girl or the boy’s hand (depending who was their relative), put some sugarcoated anise seeds on their tongue and waved money bills around their heads, then dropped them by their feet. This was all to bless them and to ward off bad spirits. Again, all the money is for charity and must be quite a bit by now.

Pakistan seems a country of contradictions to me. Rich – poor, dusty – glamourous, slow – fast, ancient – modern. It remains a strange sight to see women in long birka’s riding sideways on the back of a motorbike; a man on bare feet standing straight up while riding his donkey cart, a donkey cart piled high with about 50 wheelbarrows (8 high). I saw a regular sized van today, with about 40 people in it, no kidding.

Leila and I spent a day at the office of Alif Laila, the library project, and got a lot of planning done: work on an international project between kids in schools here and there; work on the book, on a magazine they are planning.
We drove to a few stores for things, including meat. The meat market was in a narrow street among many other shops. Each shop is a three walled square with a shopkeeper squatting inside, facing the street. Some shops have a wooden bed frame with ropes in front, where the shop keeper can rest if it is quiet.
There are strange eating things outside, baskets with bakings and sweets, herbs, nuts and what not. Some shops have cages full of life chickens piled up outside. Today we saw a shop with wooden bird cages full of birds. We had also passed some bicycles with huge bird cages on the back. The cages are made out of wicker.  I asked about the little birds, wondering if people ate them? And was told ‘No, you pay him money for a bird and then release it. It will help your wishes come true….’ So if someone is very ill, you ‘buy’ a bird, wish for good health and release the bird.

There are so many street vendors, it makes me feel like I’m in the Middle Ages. I needed some elastic to put in the waist of my new pants (shalwar). ‘OK’, said Leila, ‘we will buy some.’ I thought we’d go to a shop but drove around until they spotted the roaming vendor. He had a long stick horizontally across his shoulder (and baggy pants, long shirt, droopy turban so there already was a general clutter). From the stick were hanging rows and rows of dangling things: laces, brushes, cloth, safety pins, sewing supplies, scissors and much much more. They were pinned to his coat and hanging four rows deep. He dug up packages of elastic and, when we paid, he had no change so gave her a bundle of safety pins instead.

Suddenly Leila cried “Quick Margriet, go look!” and behind our car a tall, old man had appeared out of nowhere: a snake charmer! He carried a large bag and a flute. He asked me if I want to see the snake dance and I said yes! I grabbed some money and he untied the cloth lid of a small stone jar. Out came a little snake which he put in the driveway and started to play. The snake only made attempts at freedom and swore each time the man grabbed it again. The flute sounded cool and it was a neat experience! They all tell me that snake charmers are very rare these days (which I believe, have you seen one lately?) so I was very lucky!

After all this excitement we got home just in time to change for the wedding. This next part was to be the official marriage ceremony. To my astonishment, the men close to the groom all wore red turbans with those fancy combs. The groom’s father was in full moghul costume – with narrow tights and a long waistcoat. The groom himself was wearing a heavy curtain of white flowers and red roses in front of his face. He couldn’t see a thing nor do much breathing either… The groom had to sit on a couch with this heavy screen in front of his face. People came and went, sat down, walked around and visited. Suddenly I noticed that the groom was signing papers. Leila told me that the groom and bride were each asked three questions. If they said ‘yes’ they signed the papers to the marriage agreement. Once the bride had signed, friends would come out of the house (the bride was in the house, while the groom was in full view outside), carrying baskets with small red and gold pouches which held nuts and candies. That was the sign that they had both said yes and signed and were now married. No announcement was made, no speeches at all. I asked why they were not together and was told that this way, if one of them wanted out when asked the questions, they would feel free to say no. Strange but kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? Especially since marriages were often arranged.
So once we had our little bags of nuts, the bride was escorted outside and the parents gave the children to each other. No clapping or cheering. Just once that was done, relatives started kissing and congratulating each other.

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