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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