Sunday, April 27, 2014

My Pakistan Diaries: Stranger at the Sangeet

In March of 2013, I was invited to attend a wedding in Pakistan. I spent two  weeks in Karachi, Hyderabad, Lahore, and Islamabad. This is the account of my real experience there.  Out of respect for the privacy of my friends, I have not named anyone, and I will not be posting pictures of their faces, or providing details which may reveal their identities or locations. Read more about my diaries here

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013 
Karachi, Pakistan

I woke up in the aqua room at 9:30am. Feeling that I must have slept in, I hurried out to the dining room to find only the bride and her mother had awoken. Everyone else was still sleeping soundly. The bride told me to go back to bed, said we would have a long night and I might as well sleep while I can. So I returned to bed, where the room was dark and hot, and the fan shredded the air above me at an alarming speed, so fast that I worried obsessively whether it would unhinge itself from the ceiling and descend on my sleeping person.
At around 10:30am it became impossible to sleep anymore. Already several relatives were awake and walking around the room as though I could sleep through noise like a cat, so I got up and took my turn at the queue for a shower. With only one bathroom and several women, planning a shower was like orchestrating a small production. As each girl got her turn the washroom became wetter and steamier. By the end of the day it was impossible to dry oneself without stepping outside the house.
Breakfast - as they called it  - was served at 11:30 am. It consisted of one roti, and one papar, which were eaten together by breaking off a piece of each with one's hands. I was dressed and ready to leave within an hour of waking up, and was told to hurry because we were leaving for the mall soon, however, when it became obvious that I was the only one making haste, I sat on the orange leather sofa and skyped with my family back home. As there was no private room for me to enter, I had that conversation while alternating between the orange couch in the living room and the balcony, where the children were not too loud and the adults were not too mischievous. The very idea of having a private conversation in this circumstance did not seem achievable, so I settled with a semi-private conversation, which involved me speaking to only one person in a crowded room full of curious onlookers.
Just after 12:30 five of the girls got into the white car with the mustachioed driver, and in what is typical of Pakistani fashion, took the longest and circuitous route to the mall. We dropped off the youngest sister at the bazaar, where she would run errands alone. When I saw that little girl get out of the car and enter the dark alley on her own I felt a sense of panic, as though it was the last time I would see her. Then I realized why crimes are so terrible, because nobody expects them. No one would expect the youngest sister of the bride to go missing in a crowded bazaar. Pakistanis, even knowing they live with the treat of constant danger, never expect this sort of thing. I watched her disappear into the crumbling walls as our car sped off to the mall. 
Karachi's nicest mall 
When one pulls into the Karachi mall the first order to business is to be escorted to the entrance. Uniformed guards open the passenger doors like valet. They never open the driver’s door, because he is a driver, after all, not a customer. This would feel like an elaborate service, if it were not for the fact that the uniformed men carry rifles. The entrance is only a few feet away from the circular driveway, where more armed guards carry rifles and hold the door open for us as we walk in. Inside the building, women and men separate to either side, put their purses and possessions on an x-ray belt, walk through a metal detector, and pick them up on the other side. After that step through the security checkpoint the mall looks like a mall in any other country: shiny and cold consumer heaven. The food court is on the top floor, like the malls in America. The center of the mall is an open atrium where one can see all levels. Most shops are jewelry, rug, or clothing stores. I was most interested in the clothing stores, but too shy to go in by myself. Perhaps because it felt so similar to home, or perhaps because of the elaborate security,  I felt safe in the mall. I felt like I could walk away alone and be fine, like I could enjoy a cup of coffee and not worry about how I was going to get through my day. The mall was far less crowded than the streets. Here no one stared at me or caused me to feel out of place. It was surreal to think that just outside the glittering walls men were riding donkeys and selling oranges from wheel barrels.
However, at the mall I did not have control over my time. We were on a hunt for a present for the groom. He wanted to a watch, and had given specific descriptions to the bride, yet in every shop it seemed they had a watch with the right color but wrong dimension, or the wrong color but right wrist band style. Nothing was exactly perfect. I followed the bride and her cousins around every store until I could no longer feign interest in men’s watches. 
While walking from one watch store to the other, I kept myself entertained with small talk. I learned that there is no Starbucks in Pakistan, but for some time they were considering opening a store, though the plan fell through. I learned that this mall, the Dolmen Mall, was the newest and finest mall in Karachi, and I believed it. After the resolution that our watch journey would not conclude successfully, we wondered into a clothing shop and I felt instantly at home. Thankfully I fit into a size large at most stores, and that I could generally afford local designer brands from boutiques.
By the time we returned home it was well past 3:00 o’clock, but lunch was waiting all the same. The older relatives had already eaten, so I was left with the morning’s rotis, and some delicious vegetable curry. After eating I was told to take a nap. Although I had slept in late, the heat of the day exhausted me, and I knew we would be having a late night. Besides, there was nothing much for me to do but sit on the orange leather couch and watch others watch me, so I was thankful for the opportunity to pass some time.
Around 5:00 the cousin came into my dark room and said that it was time to get ready. I was already awake because the siring of voices had elevated in the last hour, so I knew intuitively that more guests had arrived and that the women were anxiously preparing for the ceremony. Although we all had our outfits planned, it took over one hour to get changed, as there was only one bathroom for six girls, and much time was spent queuing in front of the mirror or waiting for the toilet. This was my first experience with the way Pakistani women get ready. Everything takes longer than imagined. 
Although I had initially tied my satin orange sari by myself, the women laughed at my poor attempt, and one cousin - whose school uniform is a navy blue saree - re-draped mine to perfection. The pleats on my should were crisp, and the skirt was wrapped around my waist, tight like a doll. I felt beautiful.
Stairway to the roof
Tonight's ceremony was the Sangeet, and it was being held on the roof of their apartment. When all the women had finished adorning themselves, we went outside and climbed the white concrete stairs towards the roof. A flashback came to my mind and I was at once transported back to Puerto Vallarta, where the white stairs of my hotel room glistened in the Mexican sun. But this was Karachi. The sun was already below the horizon, but the white stairs, embellished with red rose petals, evoked the same magical feeling.
On the roof, the stairs lead not to an open platform, but to a door with enclosed walls like a room in a Pakistani home, only the sky was the ceiling. A long white hallway stretched out before me, obscured by hundreds of shoes that clung to the sides of the wall. Beyond the hallway was another door, and I could hear a lively chanting from the other side. I removed my shoes and lay them on top of the pile of others that had accumulated, uncertain of how anyone would be able to match with the right pair of shoes a the end of the night. The door opened revealed a sea of women glowing in yellow light, their black hair,  bright smiles and colorful clothing radiated joy against a back drop of the Karachi night sky.
Walls of yellow cloth had been erected around the perimeter of the balcony to enclose the guests in a private space. Apart from the womens’ black hair, all other colors in view were bursting with brilliance. Reds, golds, oranges, and blues.
They clapped in unison as a group of women near the stage chanted a tune, reminiscent of a folk dance. As I tiptoed around the sitting women, following the bride towards the stage, her mother pulled me by the arm and placed me at the seat right next to her on the stage. I kept refusing, partly out of the humility as I knew that sitting on a chair on stage was an honor, and partly out of embarrassment: I wanted to blend in with the crowd of black-haired women, not be on a pedestal for all to observe me. At her insistence, I sat on the stage and was horrified to see that the only other two women on the stage were the bride’s mother and grandmother. Surely I was not deserving of such an honored seat. I immediately felt shame that I was sitting on a chair when not even the bride herself was. However, I couldn’t very well get up and sit on the floor, so I smiled shyly and clapped my hands in unison with the women. 
Sangeet at dusk
When I felt no one was watching, I whispered in the bride’s ear, Who are these women?”
“I have no idea,” she laughed.
The chanting soon subsided into one woman singing. She was reading from an old, wrinkled leaflet. I guessed it was a traditional wedding song, and that the leaflet was probably only brought out and used for such occasions. It was a long song, lasting almost a half hour. Somehow, the other women knew which parts to sing along in, and which parts were meant to be unaccompanied. I was given a tambourine, and I watched closely at the other tambourine-holder for the cue to start playing.
When the songs ended, the plays began. The play consisted of four middle-aged women, acting in the same tiny spaces they were sitting, with props of only hats, jackets, and brooms. Though I could understand nothing of the language being spoken, I noticed that two women were dressed in manly clothes, their voices lowered, and their demeanor masculine. They were playing male roles in the play, while the other two woman held brooms and pans, playing the same roles they held in real life, as wives and mothers. I couldn’t help but thinking how, with my western eyes, instead of seeing a wedding ritual that predates modern history, I saw it a drag show instead.
The colorful ceremony concluded with dancing. The melody was the same one to which we were greeted in the beginning. First the women in the play, who were obviously veterans of such wedding festivities, got up and danced. They held hands and bounced their hips from side to side. If there was room, they would make a circle. The bride joined in, then brought her sisters and cousins into the circle. Sure enough I was pulled in as well, though I felt self-conscience dancing while so many strangers sat around me.
Women at the sangeet
When the ceremony ended, the bride and her family remained on the roof while the other women left in a slow moving herd to collect their shoes and be taken to their house for dinner. When the rooftop cleared I could see the floor for the first time. It was decorated with exquisitely beautiful rugs. Along the edges of the wall I also noticed ornate purple chairs had been placed to accommodate women who could not sit on the floor.  Suddenly being greeted with a burst of free space, the cousins and I eagerly walked around and photographed each other in our Sangeet ensembles. We posed against the tapestry backdrop in pairs, singles, and large groups.
When the photographing commenced, the bride suggested that we all go to the panipuri cart for dinner. The guests had eaten most of the food already, so it was best that we family members find a meal on our own. Although I loved the delicious home cooking, I was so excited at the prospect of eating outside the house. What started as the journey of the bride and a few people, quickly turned into 16 siblings and cousins driving three cars to the panipuri place.
I rode in the car with the second eldest sister, and I learned that driving in Karachi did not have to be as terrifying as the family driver led me to belive. The road from her house to the pani puri cart was unlit and unpaved. The darkness was only penetrated by our headlights, and an occasional small fire of burning trash in the distance. Lone men would walk grimly on the sides of the roads. I could understand clearly why a woman would not want to be walking along these roads in the darkness of night. As soon as we parked at the cart, a young girl of six or seven approached our car asking for change. She was persistent and would not leave the group until finally one of the bride’s older male cousins shoed her away like a street animal.
the pani puri cart
When the men at the pani puri cart saw our large group, they hurried to put tables and chairs together. The result was a long, uneven concoction of plastic tables of different heights. On the uneven ground some of the tables were slanted and wobbled, but no one seemed to notice. We were sequestered in our own little dark enclave, surrounded by tall buildings, and shielded from the street by the panipuri cart. The menu was hand-written on paper, which had the wrinkled texture of being wet and dried many times. Not one item on the menu was more than $1. I ordered the cheekoo shake, because I had never heard of a cheekoo. The bride ordered orange juice was squeezed fresh and served with a hint of salt. Our drinks were served to us in huge glass pitchers, while the food arrived within minutes on thin paper plates. Many orders of pani puri and chaat were passed around. We shared every dish, though there was enough for each person to have their own.
The alley was so dark I could scarcely make out the faces of my friends. We ranged in age from ten to thiry-one. Men and women. Most of us - except me - where close relatives of the bride. I had been using the words “them” and “they” the whole time in Pakistan, forever secluding myself from the inner circle of the people I encountered. 
But for that moment, the word “us” seemed more appropriate than any other.

We returned from the pani puri cart around 10:30pm, but it was not time for bed yet. The sisters were busy rehearsing their dances for the mehndi, and I stayed up dancing with them for a little exercise. Sleep did not come until past 1:30 am

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

My Pakistan Diaries: Welcome to Karachi

In March of 2013, I was invited to attend a wedding in Pakistan. I spent two  weeks in Karachi, Hyderabad, Lahore, and Islamabad. This is the account of my real experience there.  Out of respect for the privacy of my friends, I have not named anyone, and I will not be posting pictures of their faces, or providing details which may reveal their identities or locations. Read more about my diaries here

Monday, March 25th, 2013 
Karachi, Pakistan

I arrived in Pakistan on a dusty Monday at high noon. The air was potent with humanity and all of its grime and glamour.
The plane ride had been an illusion. I flew over from Dubai’s crystalline airport on an empty plane populated by me, the crew, and a few young women wearing silk dresses and sweating diamonds. My eyes fixated on a young Pakistani girl with long straight brown hair and large jewels hanging from her ears, wrists, and neck. She wore a dress with contrasting fabric, sheer long billowy sleeves mismatched to a fitted opaque bodice. The dress hung to her mid-calves, a popular length, compared to the second-hand kameez which was too short – just above my thighs. [Author’s note: I only later appreciated this style to be of the latest trends in shalwar kameez fashion.It didn’t occur to me at that time, but it was not possible that this woman bought the dress ready-made. Dresses with such extraordinary detail and fit could only be custom-made.] Amidst feelings of embarrassment at my frumpy, second-hand imitations, I made a note to myself to look for the woman’s dress at a shopping trip.
On the opposite side of the plane, between rows of empty seats, I noticed a 20-something couple (Pakistani girl and Caucasian boy) from Britain (heavy English accents), and a few silent men. There were hardly any passengers on Emirates flight from Dubai to Karachi, which was surprising, given their close geographic proximity and the fact that Dubai is full of Pakistanis, but Emirates was the most expensive airline flying to Karachi, so I was riding with the elite.
When I stepped off the plane, the elegance deteriorated rapidly.  There was one large hall which connected all the gates. Long rows of benches had been built into the floor, and plastic folding chairs were propped against the wall for use. A 1980s box television played a static-laced version of the local news, barely audible or visible. I scanned the hall for restaurants or shops, but from my view into the terminal I could see only a coffee shop and a kiosk selling packaged snacks and fruit. And it was hot. Unreasonably hot. The air was still and sticky. No air-conditioning, no fans. I took mental note of the details in the terminal, since I would be back in this airport five days, and I proceeded to immigration and baggage claim.
Karachi International Airport
At the immigration area people self-divided into three lanes: men, families, and “unaccompanied ladies and children.” I went to the latter lane, where there was no one waiting. As I approached the immigration desk the officer, in a forest green uniform and beret, did not seem the slightest bit surprised to see an unaccompanied white woman in his lane. He took my passport, eyeballed the visa, and asked if I had ever been in Pakistan before. I replied that I had not, and when he asked what I was doing here I told him that I had come to attend a wedding. “Ok, ok” he say, as if no other explanation was needed. Weddings are a big deal.
By the time I reached baggage claim the Islamic call to prayer, azan, sounded through an intercom. In Dubai I had heard the azan many times from mosques on the street, but never in the airport, or any other place frequented by foreigners.  But come to think of it, for being an international airport, Karachi hardly had any foreigners.  I looked around to see if anyone was reacting to the call, dropping to their knees, putting their bags down, but instead all the staff and passengers carried on in the normal awkward way people do at an airport. Crowds waited to the side of the conveyor belt for their luggage, people took turns pulling it off the belt and heading to the exit. My suitcase arrived quickly and in perfect condition, and with a huge sign of relief I pulled the red shiny beast off the belt and hauled it with both hands toward the exit.
As I proceeded to the exit, the crowds thickened, and the rumbling sound of chanting echoed in the distance. These were not the shouts of a few people waiting to greet their loved ones, I thought. It’s a much larger crowd. The voices sound angry. Suddenly I became aware of two uniformed guards to both sides of me. They were not airport security guards, they wore the military camouflage uniforms of various blues, and were carrying enormous guns. And they were not leaving my side. Without looking at me, or speaking to me, we exited the sliding glass doors to the International Arrivals platform. The platform was outside the airport, completely exposed to the street and traffic. I had expected to see crowds of diverse peoples waiving and crying trying to grab the attention of loved ones. 
This was not what I saw. I was thrust into a mod of men in white tunics, shouting in unison and waving flags of thick red, yellow, and green stripes. At once I thought I made a mistake, that I had exited through the wrong door and now I couldn’t get back inside the airport where it was safe.
I stoically marched through the crowd while distracting myself with these thoughts:
I am the only woman out here.
That is not the flag of Pakistan.
What are they saying?
I huddled close to the military guards who had not left my side and were instead pushing back men in the crowd, trying to contain them to one pool of human madness. I could not understand if the shouts were angry protests or joyful exclamations. I understood, however, that their energy was not directed at me. Instead of being the spectacle I thought I would become in a mob of tunic-clad men, I was swallowed into the commotion and hardly noticed.
Outside the airport on the day of the rally
[Author’s note: After five years in exile, the former president of Pakistan, Perez Musharraf, returned to Karachi on an Emirates flight on March 24, 2013. I flew in one day later, on a plane that carried several other politicians. What I witnessed was a political demonstration which consisted of his supporters. This was the reason for the extra security and omnipresence of guards.  I knew nothing of this at the time, and only later did I receive a text from the U.S. embassy informing me of the political demonstrations in Karachi.]
At the moment that I began to panic two small, happy figures emerged from the crowd. The bespectacled man in a white tunic waved at me with instant recognition, and a pretty women at his side ran to me and clasped my hand.
They were my host family, the parents of the bride whose wedding was my sole reason for being in Pakistan. Having spotted me right away as I emerged from the airport, they watched in innocent humor as I stared wild-eyed at the crowd around the platform. The two guards backed off as inconspicuously as they had approached me, and the crowd simultaneously began to disperse.
              My hosts hurriedly took me to a white car pulled over on the side of the road. There was a man at the driver’s side with a handlebar mustache, so I assumed that we had entered a taxi.  Though it was unmarked and had no meter, I knew that in many countries people with cars operate like private taxis, hauling people around for fees. However, as I had time to look inside the car during the drive, I found empty water bottles and traces of food wrappers. Surely a cab driver would not be so careless not to clean the trash left my previous customers.
              [Author’s note: It was only much later that I learned, with no real explanation, that this man and this car belong to my hosts. In fact, they were only one of three cars and three drivers belonging to this family of eight.  As I came to understand, almost all families, middle class and up, have private drivers. The drivers are basically domestic staff of the family. They are paid wages, though I am unsure if they are paid by the hour, or with a set salary, and they are also provided meals and board. Our driver had been employed by my hosts for eight months.]
              I tried to lean back in the seat and recover from my initial shock at the airport, and the sensory overload I had experienced, but I quickly realized that Pakistan was not about to ease up on its surprises. It sent one whirling image after another my way.  
              After half an hour the car crossed a bridge that loomed over a dried-up river bed. In our short pauses between traffic, I got to relish the details of the city I was so unprepared to enter.  Graffiti in Urdu and roman letters covered every visible wall and sign. Garbage, old and new, dotted the dusty yellow ground, on which nothing-not a tree or bush-seemed to grow. On the streets solitary men or groups of men sauntered in the heat, wearing loose white tunics and pants, and matching  white turbans. In the wind, they resembled moving fabric rolls.
A man and his fruit
Unexpectedly, we stopped the car on the side of the rode in an unremarkable place. My hosts explained that we would be getting fruit for tonight’s dinner. Having passed so many fruit stands along the way, I could not help but wonder why we had stopped at this particular one. My host father got out of the car, and began selecting oranges from a grey-haired man sitting under a tent made from a sheet and sticks of bamboo. Through the window of the car, I counted the flies buzzing over the oranges.
Another stand ahead us was making juices. Fresh fruit hung out the window and smiling customers walked away with paper cups. Three women approached the stand and leaned against the counter in a manner I could only describe as graceful. All of them wore shalwar kameez with their dupattas covering their faces. The dupatta is a long scarf, almost twice the length of one’s body, and wide enough to be used as a blanket.. For hiding the face and body, the dupatta is draped around the neck, brought over the head, then wrapped around once more to cover the face, with the fringe either pinned or tied behind the head. It is an easy and simple style.
In what may be an element of self expression, each of the women had different way of covering her face. The woman on the left wore a yellow dupatta with large green and pink cartoonish flowers that clashed with her dusty brown dress. Her friend leaned beside her, with her hand suggestively on her hip, wore a smart black and red dupatta which matched her black abaya perfectly. The woman on the right, also with arms at her hips, wore a dupatta with a checkered pink and navy blue pattern. The fabric of her dupatta was so sheer I could see through it to the other side of the juice cart, which provided a bright aqua-blue background to showcase these expressive women.
The juice cart, these three friends, and the colors and patterns of this scene glistened in such a beautiful, purposeful, and so uniquely Pakistani way.
It occurred to me at that moment that no one in the scene realized its beauty. They could have all been posed for a stunning portrait and they didn’t even know it. Now a stranger, sitting behind the glass window of an inconspicuous white car was delighting in this simple scene as though it were a paining on the wall of a museum.
When my host father returned with a bag of oranges in his hand, the driver took off toward their flat. It was only another ten minutes or so before we arrived at a large white compound, five stories high, and surrounded by a bleached brick wall with spirals of barbed white. Compared to the other buildings I had seen on the streets of Karachi, this building was practically shimmering with cleanliness.
After a loud honk from our vehicle, the gate was opened for us by a bearded guard who took his post on a plastic chair all day opening and closing the gate for the compounds residents. Of course, he knew every person who lived in the building, and which cars they drove (or rather, which cars they were driven in) so a quick glance was all he needed to wave us past. We parked the car in a tight spot in the parking lot, which occupied the entire ground floor.
Once parked, I was led into a rickety elevator, barely able to hold the weight of my suitcase and myself. I stood in the tight metallic box with my host parents, my suitcase, and the driver, who, in his ever-changing role, had become a luggage porter. The elevator door closed, then creaked, ascended a foot, stopped, creaked again, and then a long silence ensued before it groaned and finally rose, at the pace of a tired climber, to the third floor. Everyone acted as if this was normal. I made a mental note to take the stairs next time.
When I stepped out of the elevator I saw that each floor of the building housed only two flats, one to each side of the elevator. The hallway, which connected both units was open air, so that when I peered over the balcony I could glimpse at the world beyond the great white wall. We turned right and entered through a wide door which had been propped open. The foyer of the family home boasted a small fountain with running water for hand washing, and to the left was what I would call a “living room”, though it actually seemed to serve as a parlor for greeting guests. Thick embroidered curtains hung in front of every window, and ceiling fans were in every room. The main room of the house had a dining room table, six chairs, a bulging leather sofa, and television. To the right was a tiny kitchen where two round, toothless woman squatted on the floor stirring pots of vegetables and lentils for the night’s dinner. The kitchen floor was incredibly dirty with food remnants, and I was told not to enter the kitchen without shoes. In fact, I noticed that all my hosts wore shoes in the house. I guessed this was to keep their feet from getting dirty, and soon my hypothesis was confirmed. After walking around the house for a few hours barefoot the soles of my feet turned black as a chimney.
The house had three bedrooms for its eight inhabitants. One master bedroom to the far right, which was for the parents, one bedroom just in front of the kitchen, which was shared by the two eldest sisters, and one bedroom to the far left of the house, which was shared by the three youngest children, a boy of eight, and two teenage girls. Each bedroom had one bathroom and one king-sized bed, on which all the children slept on at night. I put my luggage in the middle room, a pale aqua green palace.
At this point, I had still not seen my friend – the bride, or her sisters, who supposedly spoke fluent English. This residence, which normally housed many people, was a quiet and serene place.
Almost immediately after I set down my luggage I was asked by my host family if I wanted to go with them to the jewelry store. I was hesitate to get into the car again and face traffic, but staying at the flat alone with the servants would have been an equally awkward alternative. Furthermore, I may miss out on the opportunity to see something interesting, so I accepted their offer.
the bazaar
I got back in the car and was driven to a bazaar, which I was told was the oldest in Karachi. To my great relief the drive did not take more than twenty minutes, though all twenty of them were terror-filled as we weaved through cars on the road like a water snake through the currents of a stream. The bazaar itself was a market born in the cracks of old dilapidated buildings, on a street where garbage paved the roads. Here, women covered their heads, so I did the same to avoid attention. I was led through a dark corridor in between dust-colored buildings and on the left side, amidst the ancient ruble and horribly out of place, was a sliding glass door. We had to be buzzed in by the jeweler, who at once recognized my hosts and welcomed them into his shimmering store, a place that was truly like a diamond in a coal mine.
[Author’s note: The jeweler and his wife - who wore a pink burqa - are worth writing about on their own. My hosts told me about their sect of Islam, but sadly after returning to the U.S. I have not been able to find any information about it online. In retrospect, I regret not listening harder and asking more questions, because this was my own encounter with these interesting and wonderful people. Sometimes we only have one chance to really get to know someone.]
The cases glittered with jewels as colorful as the women I had seen on the streets.  Much of the jewelry was too flashy or large for me, but it suited the women in Pakistan. I imagined his store was a popular place though we were the only customers at the moment. My host mother and I took seats the glass counter, and were promptly treated to tea and biscuits brought out by the jeweler’s brother.
I learned that this tea was typical of Pakistan, a combination of strong black tea and milk, which are boiled together to produce a creamy, oil-like drink with a sticky layer of milk skin floating on the top. The tea was piping hot, as though it had been boiled in anticipation for our arrival. The biscuits were a sweet shortbread that we ate only after dipping into the tea. I normally don’t dip bread or cookies into tea, because I hate getting soggy crumbles into my drink, but this time I indulged.
While innocently relishing my tea, the host father discussed the jewelry order for his daughter’s wedding, and the host mother pulled out a case of rings and began trying them on and admiring herself. After coaxing me to look around at the jewelry, I humored her by trying rings on as well. I was very nervous at this because I had no intention of buying jewelry and I had very little money to spend anyway. But the more rings I tried on the more excited they seemed to get. Asking me which one I liked, and so finally just as I had guilted myself into buying a ring, the host father exchanged a few words with the jeweler, and the ring was purchased for me! I was shocked beyond decorum that my hosts had just given me such an spontaneous and extraordinary gift. From the onset they had no intention of letting me buy the ring myself. Had I understood this gesture earlier, I would have been more resistant to trying on jewelry, so as not to burden my hosts with the expense. This was my first exposure to Pakistan extraordinary gift-giving culture.
view from the flat
While the remainder of the transaction was being sorted out between my host father and the jeweler, I stared at myself in the mirror of the jewelry store. I was wearing a blue and black shalwar kameez, albeit an unfashionable one, but with the dupatta loosely draped over my head and a cup of thick tea in front of me, it seemed I had inserted myself into another world. Everything around me, everything about me, was entirely changed.
I left the jewelry store with the glittering gold ring on my figure and sat in the backseat of the car as it pushed and shoved its way home through the mob of traffic. When we arrived at the flat, I found the house in a more lively state of affairs. The bride’s three sisters had returned, though the bride herself was still at a dress fitting. The second oldest was a serious and studious young woman. She had a way of explaining the world that made you think she studied it in depth. The third sister was quiet enviously the popular middle sister, with outstanding good looks and a bubbly character. The youngest sister had a humorous and welcoming character. Although she was over a decade younger than me, I bonded with her the fastest. She was the easiest friend to make. The youngest brother and only boy in the family was eight years old, grown enough to act mature, but young enough to want to be a child. He was very shy and stayed away from me. He spent much of his time either playing with his friends or throwing a pouting fit.
Night falls on Karachi just before 7:00 pm. In a city where women cannot leave the house after dark, the days are miserably short. At night the bride’s cousins from India arrived, and I found them markedly different than their Pakistani relatives. The cousins wore no traditional clothing, and came with suitcases filled with Zara and make up from Sephora. They were as foreign as I was in Pakistan. They both spoke English more fluently than anyone, and were closer to my age at 22 and 24 respectively. Five, sometimes six of us lay on the large lavender bed in the aqua-painted room and talked. Most of the time, the conversation was in Sindhi – the local dialect, and I laid back and listed, at times catching on to the conversation, then giving it up completely to mystery, like a lucid dream.
Outside the bedroom the scene was much the same. In the living room several men stretched across the couches talking, and in the dining room the mother, aunts, and other female relatives talked in the same volume as the girls, only their voices had deepened with age.

Throughout the night the scene would change, sisters, cousins, and friends of the bride would enter and leave, but always were there several girls lounging on the bed, always were they talking, and this continued long into the night until I was resigned to sleeping with the lights on, in a room filled with voices.

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