Category Archives: Pakistan

Welcome to Pakistan

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It had been a very long day. Actually, it had been almost two days. I looked to my left and across the aisle I could see the twilight spreading across Multan below our airplane. It’s that hazy blue and orange, the light scattering from the dust in the air to create soft edges on everything, even the light itself. I don’t know if this dusk exists in other places too. I saw thousands of these dusks and never gave them a second thought until I couldn’t watch them on a whim any more.

An hour later, we’d arrived. The plane bumped onto the tarmac in the city where Alexander the Great is said to have met his fate with a poisoned arrow, and I turn to my kids who were prodding at the inflight entertainment screens and said “Welcome to Pakistan!”

The plan had come together spontaneously as most good plans do. I realised that my kids were now old enough for them to remember this trip, which happened at a time when I was getting really fed up with the kind of things I heard about Pakistan from the average Greek who had formed their opinions on the country based entirely on hysterical news reports and Europe’s growing Islamophobia.

Part of me wondered if it was me who was crazy and if I should go back and double check that the country really was so awful and I just didn’t know it. Faced with thoughtless comments about Pakistanis which were sometimes made in the presence of my children, I realised no matter what my own slightly confused relationship was with Pakistan, I alone was responsible for helping my children become acquainted with the other half of their heritage. “We’ll be gone for a couple of weeks,” I told my youngest son’s nursery teacher. “We’re going to Pakistan.”

She looked at me in alarm. Of course she would, Pakistan never makes it into Greek news unless something terrible happens there.

But she didn’t know about the winter evenings nestled under thick cotton blankets eating pine nuts still hot from the vendor’s cart, or the taste of sour village butter, or my hometown on the edge of a desert, the capital of a once-princely state ruled by nawabs, or the sticky, hot curls of jalebis that you couldn’t wait to taste as you peeled them off folds of newspaper.

It’s strange, because I’m not overly sentimental about the place I grew up. When my parents said we were moving to the UK, I was the only one of my sisters who was thrilled. I’ve moved countries twice now and don’t really feel like I belong anywhere, but having children and watching them reach an age where they ask their father about the places he went as a child and the things he did made me want to do the same. I found myself thinking of showing my own children the street where I used to play and the school I went to, so when the opportunity presented itself to take my kids to Pakistan, I took it.

What follows are some of the things we saw, experienced and tasted, because beyond the terrorism and the frightening geopolitics there is a country where people still live, where the people who knew me as a little girl now wait to see that little girl’s children, people who I remember as towering giants are now shorter than me. They clasp their hands and exclaim “Mashallah!” that the stubborn little girl who told everyone who would listen that she would become a journalist actually went through with her childhood plan, and is still just as stubborn.

A place where everything has changed and still nothing has changed. The hand-painted signs have been replaced with LED lights, but the hot jalebis still taste as good.

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Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

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There’s a game I sometimes like to play when people ask me where I’m from. I’ll challenge them to guess, and shake my head at all their wrong answers. Egypt? Brazil? Israel? Spain? Lebanon? Mexico? Barbados? No, no and no. So far, no one has ever got it right, and I’ve been playing this game for over a decade now. I really should start bringing money into the equation.

I don’t look like enough of any one thing to be easily placed. I don’t look like enough of an ethnic minority. Dressing the way I do and acting the way I do automatically excludes me from almost every narrative of muslim women that the mainstream media uses. You won’t find me with a national flag wrapped around my head like a hijab when out protesting. Even though I still lose sleep over the same issues that affect immigrant women everywhere, I don’t make a powerful front-page photograph.

I don’t wear my religion on my sleeve, by which, of course, I do not mean to criticise those who choose to express their religion in a more obvious way. I see and feel all the fallout from the rising tide of anti-muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe, but those dialogues rarely see me because I choose not to make myself seen.

When the current US President signed his executive order banning entry t the US from seven predominantly muslim countries, it hurt me in a way I didn’t think it would. I am not a hijab wearing woman being constantly targeted because of her religion. I am not from one of the seven banned countries. I’m not even American. Why did I find it so distressing?

Because the mere fact that one person in power could reduce whole populations to just one aspect of who they are upset me to the point that I lost sleep over it. I’m a woman – I know what it feels like to be stripped of every aspect of who you are until you’re regarded as just one thing. All women know this feeling. It’s our deeply unpleasant initiation into womanhood, often before we’re even the age where we’d be considered women. I didn’t need to be American, or a hijab wearing muslim woman to appreciate some of the deep pain that this executive order caused. It’s easy to feel the hatred of anti-muslim sentiments when it manifests in actions like these, and it’s easy to start taking it personally.

“But you don’t look muslim” is something I hear all the time, as if there is only one particular way of being anything. The hijab has become such an iconic image and such a flashpoint for debate that the narrative around it has unknowingly managed to exclude every other type of muslim woman. It’s become shorthand for a group that’s pitied and reviled in equal measure.

Since I live in Greece, my frame of reference for my experience as an immigrant and muslim woman is going to be Greek society, but practically all of what I have experienced could apply to any country in Europe right now.

As a rough estimate, I’d say over half of the people I interact with who don’t know I’m a foreigner or muslim will have an anti-immigrant or anti-muslim statement to make. It normally starts quite innocently – I’ll be sat in the back of a taxi, quietly trying to gauge the nature of the taxi driver. Do I see religious icons adorning the dashboard? What radio station is he listening to? This being Greece, even on the shortest drive we’ll usually pass a church. If the driver doesn’t cross himself three times, Orthodox fashion, it usually means I don’t have to brace myself for prying questions about my faith, or lack thereof.

If the driver crosses himself, I get ready for what is most likely to follow. Sometimes it’s genuine curiosity – Greeks are in general very friendly, talkative and curious by nature. Usually we’ll have a nice, interactive chat about our parts of the world, their differences, problems and the things they have in common. Other times, it’s either a lecture on all the damage that Islam has caused the world, or questions about why groups like ISIS do what they do in the name of Islam. If I knew the answer to that, I would have shipped out my knowledge to the highest bidder years ago. It’s like thinking that listening to a couple of U2 songs when I was a teenager is supposed to make me have an answer as to why Bono has turned out the way he has.

Sometimes revealing my religion and status as an immigrant makes the other person demand answers from me. Why is there so much crime where immigrants go (not the good type of immigrants, the expats from the north, the bad type with dark skin)? Why do Pakistanis attack foreign women? Why don’t they respect women? And why don’t your women respect themselves? Why the hijab? But this is your religion and your culture, surely you must have an answer to all these aspects which are not in your control? It’s startling the ease with which people make such sweeping statements about peoples and cultures, when in most cases I’m sure I’m the first muslim or the demonised type of immigrant they actually had a face to face conversation with.

We’re living in a Europe where people have latched on to quick fixes and easy answers, and a Europe which is decisively swinging to the right. Brexit and the fact that Golden Dawn still remain Greece’s third most popular party are some examples of that. I’ve been in conversations with people who make casually racist statements about Pakistanis without realising my origins, then look taken aback and say “But you don’t look Pakistani.” I don’t know whether it’s the light or something else, because I sure looked Pakistani enough in the UK to have racist slurs yelled at me in the street a few times.

In some ways my invisibility gives me a truer picture of what people are thinking right now – in the absence of a hijab, no one self-censors around me. If they don’t know me at all, the speak even more freely, sometimes looking at me for back up. “Am I right?” the barista might say after his little speech about how immigrants are ruining the country, even though you didn’t order your morning coffee with an extra shot of racist rhetoric. And I’ll sigh and feel myself deflate a little, because I know that once again I have to defend my position. I’ll admit there are times when it’s just too much trouble to do, and I’ll try to get them to drop the subject by saying “It’s a free country, you’re allowed to believe whatever you like.”

The last time this happened, I was at a pharmacy in Kavala in the firing line of a chain-smoking pharmacist, who, as she took her time to ring up the medication I was buying, began to ask the usual questions. Where was I from? Athens, I replied. No, where are you originally from, she asked.

So I told her. She shook her head and took a drag of her cigarette. “Muslims are terrible people. They are the worst people in the world. Everywhere they go, they cause trouble. You are lucky you married a Greek and escaped all that.”

This line of how lucky I am to have escaped whatever horrible life I would be living otherwise (commuting on the Tube and paying London rents under grey British skies, I assume, which okay, it does sound nightmarish) by marrying a Greek is one I’ve heard a couple of times now. I always correct the person with what a loving and progressive family I grew up with. I was brought up with my own set of wings, I didn’t need a man to come along and help me fly out of a cage I was never locked in in the first place. That’s often rejected if it doesn’t fit into the other person’s narrative.

I argued. She kept smoking, and kept going back to the same line of how terrible all muslims are. “If you walked around like you are now, with your head uncovered, don’t tell me they wouldn’t kill you in your home country.”

I looked at my jeans, trainers and baggy sweater dress. “They wouldn’t” I replied. “They would,” she insisted. She once more fell back to her line of how terrible muslims were. My words made no difference, so I threw my “it’s a free country” line at her, paid and left. I would go home to tell the story of the racist, chain-smoking pharmacist in Kavala, and she would probably go home to tell the story of the muslim woman who didn’t even know how oppressed she was.

My invisibility is most definitely a privilege, too. I don’t have the dramatic immigrant story to tell. I cross borders without problems thanks to that coveted dark red passport (soon to change back to black, I’m sure). I can sit within earshot of a xenophobic conversation and know that it’s not likely I’ll be dragged into it.

The flipside is that my invisibility is a problem for the other side of the argument too. I’m not muslim enough, so how could I understand the dilemma of the hijab-wearing muslim woman? I vanish on the streets, so how could I know what it feels like to be the Pakistani woman in traditional clothes being yelled at by the native shopkeeper for touching the vegetables on display? I’m not eastern enough for the east or the west, which leaves me in a kind of limbo.

I can do a disappearing act if I want to by just blending in, or declare my origins with how I dress, although this was something I stopped doing after Golden Dawn’s 2012 victory in Greece. Emboldened, people became openly racist, and I escaped into neutrality by just not wearing traditional clothes outside the house. I went back to wearing whatever I wanted two years ago, because allowing fascists to censor part of who I am is not a lesson I want to pass to my children, and there’s nothing better than Gul Ahmad lawn in a Greek summer.

So I’m left with quite an attractive option, which is to embrace the fluidity I possess, all the while being aware that I will not be able to stop defending aspects of who I am to people who insist on sticking me inside a narrative which suits them, and that includes the one of the successfully integrated immigrant, rather than just me being me. Nothing in this life comes for free.

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Did you go to Pakistan? It only counts if you went to Pakistan

Last week, courtesy of one of the companies I’m currently freelancing with in Athens, I got to attend the Europe edition of TBEX 2014.

It was another event that made me feel my age and the fact that I was firmly on the wrong side of 25. Not so long ago, I was asked at an interview why I didn’t have an Instagram account. At the risk of shooting myself in the foot here in case the person who asked me this is reading (hi!) the real reason I didn’t have an Instagram account until recently is because I have no time. The average selfie takes 16 minutes to perfect. If I had 16 free minutes lying around, I can think of a lot of other things I would be doing with them.

Anyway, suitably chastened, I now have an Instagram account. What I don’t have is a MacBook. I was absolutely surrounded by these at TBEX, while I bashed away at my trusty old Toshiba. It’s nearly 10 years old now. It’s not stylish and weighs a lot, but it gets the job done.

 

Me and my lemon in an orchard of Apples

For those of you who don’t know, TBEX is the world’s largest travel blogger exchange. I admit, I had no idea it was beforehand. It was a strange experience finding myself among so many bloggers, and it had me wondering – at what point will the travel market become saturated? How many more accounts of twenty somethings travelling the globe does the blogosphere still have room for?

Plenty, it would seem. I’ve always loved talking to the well-travelled and picking their brains about their experiences. At TBEX, I met people who had been all over the world, and heard outlandish figures like 3o countries in two years, 100 countries before I turn 30, and so on.

I listened with interest, and the question I found myself asking again and again was “So have you been to Pakistan?” The reply I kept getting again and again was “No”. The only person who responded in the affirmative was a Turkish doctor who had not only been to Pakistan, but had spent a month in my God forsaken hometown of Bahawalpur in 1990. By even more freakish odds, he had studied medicine at Nishtar college, Multan, the very same college that my own father studied at. I couldn’t get over it. There are seven billion of us on this planet, but sometimes it feels so small.

Back to my question, I was sitting at one point with Laurence of Finding the Universe fame, and I asked my standard question. He hadn’t been to Pakistan either. He asked me “Is it beautiful?” I answered truthfully “It’s stunning. It’s one of the most beautiful places I have ever lived in.” Because terrorism, corruption and general misery aside, I honestly have not lived anywhere more beautiful than Pakistan.

Then he asked me “Is it safe?” I tried to reassure him that if you stick to the right places, it’s perfectly safe. Someone with blue eyes and waist length blonde dreadlocks would be best off avoiding the less well-trodden tracks of the land. Did I succeed in convincing him? I’m not sure, though he did say he likes a challenge, in answer to which I told him to Google the Kalash tribe of Pakistan. Not only are they a photographer’s dream come true, they are located in an area that is hard enough to get to even for Pakistanis, let alone foreigners. So, you want a challenge? There you go.

Here, I did it for you

It is a little sad. Back in the day, Pakistan formed a trinity of countries that had to be visited along the hippie trail – Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. At TBEX, practically everyone had been to India, and no one had been to Pakistan, at least no one I met.

I’m not saying you’re not a true traveller if you haven’t been to Pakistan. I’d place the country somewhere in between North Korea and Syria. Travellers get major brownie points for having a North Korean stamp in their passport, but you would have to be mad to want to visit Syria at the moment. Somewhere along this compass of major street cred and absolute insanity would lie a visit to Pakistan.

There’s a Greek presenter called Mayia Tsokli. She used to present a travel show on the now-defunct ERT TV channel. She used to go absolutely everywhere – she even did one show from Afghanistan. A travel show. For Afghanistan. Who does that? No one except her, probably. But even she didn’t go to Pakistan. We’re like the South Asian travel arc’s booby prize – nobody wants us.

If travel is all about broadening horizons and pushing boundaries, then travel bloggers reading this, you should go to Pakistan. Seriously, email me if you want to find out more. If you can get past the hell of getting a visa, it’s totally worth it.

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Blurred Lines

I just finished reading a fascinating book by Jenny Nordberg, The Underground Girls of Kabul. This was one of those rare books that makes your heart ache when you come to the end of it, hoping against hope for a happy ending, but knowing that the reality is probably a lot bleaker.

Nordberg stumbled across the phenomenon of Afghanistan’s bacha posh by accident. These are girls that are dressed up and passed off as boys, sometimes as an act of rebellion by their family, sometimes out of necessity in a patriarchal country where the demand for a male child is absolute and all consuming, and sometimes for the magical properties that having even a pretend son can instill – after a streak of girls, a pretend son is thought to induce an actual son to be born.

The book was often hard to read, and it made me reflect on all the parallels I experienced growing up in a patriarchal society.

Let me start by saying that Pakistan is nowhere near as bad as Afghanistan when it comes to this sort of thing, but it is still pretty bad. I am one of four girls. I spent my childhood watching people commiserate with my parents. “Four girls?,” they would say, genuinely upset for us “Don’t lose heart. The next one might be a boy.” It’s only by sheer good luck that I was born into a family that invested in its female children and cared about their future to the point that they made the extremely difficult decision to move to the UK just so that we would have a fair shot at an education and a career.

In doing so my father sacrificed his own career and position as a professor of surgery at a respected medical school – literally a lifetime’s effort – and it’s a decision I am grateful for every time I walk out of the front door without a second thought.

Growing up in an extremely patriarchal society is not easy if you have been born into the wrong gender. Boys in Pakistan are prized above all else. Even extremely educated women will not rest until they have a son. It’s their one and only goal in life. When a boy is born, much celebration goes on. Sweets are distributed and the mother is smothered with love, attention and praise.

When a girl is born, absolutely none of this occurs. Children are extremely perceptive, and I was aware from very early on that I didn’t belong to the ‘better’ gender. I saw it in the faces of the new mothers we would visit in hospital, sitting morose next to their unwanted female children. It made me angry. I heard it in the condolences to my parents about only having female children. I saw it in the little boys who were trained from the moment of their birth to have an enormous sense of entitlement. No matter how much of a front I put on, it used to burn me to my core when I’d hear them chide “You can’t do that, you’re just a girl.” Their obnoxious and inflated egos were fueled and encouraged by their obsessed mothers.

In turn, the girls were groomed from early on to be pliable and manageable future wives. Their personalities were squashed and smothered, not allowed to develop. They were not allowed to have opinions, laugh loudly, shout or fight. They were to be presented to the world as blank canvases. Needless to say, they were very boring.

As a child I have memories of sobbing my heart out at the weddings of vivacious cousins I was particularly fond of, knowing I was about to lose them. I knew the drill well enough. Very few of them came back out on the other side of marriage with their personalities intact. The majority did what they had to to survive the marital home and joint family system and disappeared into a featureless mask of neutral emotions and expressions.

The injustice of the system used to drive me to fits of rage. It didn’t matter that I was a wanted child by my family. Society had made it clear that I would always be second best.

The bacha posh of Afghanistan existed in Pakistan too. From time to time, you would come across a female child dressed as a boy and encouraged to have male mannerisms. Here’s a secret I never shared with another soul until I put Nordberg’s book down yesterday:

“Do you know,” I said to my husband “That until I was around seven or eight, I thought I would grow up to be a boy?” I used to use that thought to console myself. Don’t get me wrong, being a natural born drama queen, I was quite fond of all the trimmings that came with being a girl.

But I also hated being reminded of my weakness as a female. So I used to think to myself that it was okay, because one day I would be a boy and then I’d get to see what it was like on the other side. The realisation that this wouldn’t happen wasn’t gradual. It was sudden. One day, just like that, I realised the notion was ridiculous, impossible, and then it felt even more unfair that I was born a girl.

Coming from that sort of society to the UK was positively paradise. It was also hard. When the opposite gender are gradually separated from you, you learn very little of them. I was 14 when we moved to the UK and went to a co-ed school after my convent-run all girl’s school.

On my first day, the teacher searched the class for a spare seat and found one next to a boy. I crammed myself into my chair as far as I physically could to put as much distance between the two of us as I could – heaven forbid we should touch. I was mortified and on the brink of tears when a girl offered a spare seat next to herself, which I gratefully accepted. Those types of reactions make me realise what a sick and messed up system it is to segregate genders so severely that when you finally meet, it’s so upsetting you freak out.

In a segregated society like Pakistan, where girls and boys are kept so strictly apart, strange things can happen. On one of my trips back when I was 17, I met up with my old school friends in their college. They were updating me on their lives, and showing me pictures of a recent stage show the college had put on. Each class had to present something. Several of my friends had dressed up as the Backstreet Boys. We laughed over the pictures of them in men’s clothes, the exaggerated poses and the goaties drawn on with kohl pencils.

One of my friends then told me that during the show, some of the other girls had become obsessed with her. They wrote her love notes and sent her presents, asked her to pose in photos with them while she was in costume with her arms around them. It seems that where the natural teenage impulse to meet and flirt with the opposite sex is so heavily repressed, even a fake teenage boy is better than no teenage boy at which to direct these feelings. This friend continued to receive notes and presents well after the show.

When I read Nordberg’s book, I realised that beyond a certain age I had never stepped out of the house alone. I had grown up subconsciously trained to avert my eyes, walk less tall and shrink my form. I automatically and seamlessly slip into this mode on visits to Pakistan. I even do it outside of Pakistan every time I walk past a group of young men. Don’t attract attention, eyes down, head down. It happens without me even thinking, and at 32, I wonder if I can train myself out of it.

Moving freely in the world is a privilege and a gift you aren’t aware of unless you have not had it before. Moving away for university was ridiculously exciting, and I still remember my first unaccompanied train journey. I knew that it was the thinnest of turns in destiny that separated me from my present life and the alternative.

As I have grown, however, I’ve once again began to feel the weight of my gender. As a woman, I can expect to be paid less and my opinions not given as much weight in my professional life. I can be expected to put my career on the back burner while I raise a family. I will get asked about my childcare arrangements at job interviews – it happens every time. Nordberg very eloquently points out that even in the West, women in the arena of men must dress, act and talk like men. She must wipe out her femininity to succeed.

Finishing the book was hard. It’s one of those books that you can’t walk away from. It will be on my mind for days and weeks as I wonder about the protagonists. Meanwhile, the world over, little girls are being born and tears of sorrow are being shed at their arrival. I have two sons of my own now and I am raising them as best as I can to consider all people, male and female, as equals. One day I may have a daughter. I wonder if she too will still be pondering these same issues further down the line?

UPDATE: I tweeted this blog post to Jenny Nordberg, author or Underground Girls of Kabul and she tweeted back! She has forwarded my story to the main character of her book, Azita. I am so touched that she reached out to me and shared my story on her own twitter feed. Please drop by www.bachaposh.com to learn more.

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