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

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