Category Archives: unpublished

10 Things not to say to someone from Pakistan

Road in Pakistan. Not photoshopped

Highway in Pakistan. Not photoshopped

I grew up in Pakistan. In my travels across the world, I have encountered many a misconception about my home-country. We’re everyone’s favourite friendly neighbourhood failed state if Fox News is to believed, and I was amazed at how shocked people were that an actual living, breathing product of the dark side of the moon was stood there talking to them. Here are some of the weirdest things people have said when they learn where I come from.

1)   Wow! Your English is really good?

This is the commonest comment anyone from Pakistan will hear the first time they have a conversation with someone. People are astonished that anyone from Pakistan, let alone a woman, can speak, read and write completely fluent English. The world expects us to either be the frothy-mouthed zealots or mini mart owners they see on TV.

English schooling systems are the main setup in Pakistan where almost the entire curriculum is taught in English and this has created generations of Pakistanis who navigate English with complete ease.

I’ll level with you, my first language is English, but I have Pakistani friends whose English is so dazzlingly competent that they make my musings sound like the workings of an epileptic monkey at a typewriter.

2)   Do you guys have TV/the internet/cell phones over there?

Even I ended up guilty of this one when I went over on a trip last year after a 6 year gap and left my smartphone behind thinking there was no point taking it.

Cue all of my cousins constantly uploading selfies on Facebook and updating their Twitter accounts like there’s no tomorrow. Meanwhile I felt like a total idiot with my trusty old regular cell phone that didn’t even have a camera. And I’m not even talking the big cities either. This was in my good old dusty village.

So yes, shocking as it may seem, we do have TV, cell phones and the internet over there. We have roads too, as well as high rise buildings and highways.

3)    Pakistani girls are so innocent.

I hate to burst your bubble but this one isn’t true either. What with all the TV, magazines, fluent English and books, life in the West isn’t a total shock. As for innocent, we get Cosmo there too, you know, and just because there is officially no dating doesn’t mean there aren’t ways around that. Go to any Pakistani university and you’ll find a dating culture to rival anything in the West.

And we have some pretty kick-ass sex education in places you’d least expect it.

4)   Did you come over in a boat?

When I’d tell people I had actually flown to the UK, their next question was what it felt like to fly for the first time, at which point I’d gently break it to them that I’ve been flying since I was little. That’s not because I’m ridiculously rich. It’s because Pakistan is quite a big country and flying, especially these days, is quite affordable and often the most trouble-free option for travel.

5)   You’re from Pakistan? I love palak paneer!

A Pakistani friend who studied in America shared this one with me. When did palak paneer become Pakistan’s official culinary mascot? That’s like meeting someone from the UK and saying “I love jellied eels!” Firstly, you’d have to be out of your mind to love jellied eels, and secondly it’s not a dish that actually features in regular daily British dining.

Pakistani cuisine is hugely diverse because the country is so diverse. Go find your local Pakistani restaurant, it probably has a name like Lahore This or Karachi Something or the Other and try a few things there. I recommend haleem and nihari as starting points.

6)   Did you parents disown you for marrying of your own choice?

I married outside of my culture, and my parents didn’t simultaneously combust into balls of fiery wrath. You’d be surprised how many of my peers back in Pakistan are now marrying of their own choice with the support of their parents.

7)   Did you ever see Osama Bin Ladin?

When you come from a crackpot nuclear nation and hot-bed of terrorism, you get asked this more often than you’d realize. The answer is no. We have a huge home-grown terrorism problem in Pakistan, that’s true, but Taliban heads don’t go on whistle-stop tours of the country like some sort of jihad loving Mick Jagger.

8)   Did you used to live in a mud hut/shanty town?

No. I used to live in an actual house made of bricks and cement. A lot of people in Pakistan do, and if you happen to know the upper Middle classes, their houses are absolutely palatial. In fact, a lot of people moving from Pakistan to the UK take one look at that country’s row upon row of cramped, badly lit cookie cutter houses and wail “How can these poor people live like this!”

9)   How come you don’t wear that dot on your forehead?

That little dot is called a bindi and you’re thinking of India, pal. Pakistani girls do wear these at weddings and parties, but for their decorative value rather than any association with chakras or the sacred third eye.

10)I’d love to visit Pakistan, but I’m too scared.

Let me be honest here. You should be scared. Because trying to get a visa from the Pakistani embassy is such a Kafkaesque nightmare that even I left the building screaming “I’m not doing this again!” after trying to arrange paperwork for my foreign husband and child.

The line of questioning involved such valuable information towards my application as whether my husband had converted to Islam or not, and what sort of religious environment my child was exposed to at home, the answer to which is of course “None of your God damned business”.They made it so hard and complicated that you’d think Pakistan was the world’s premier holiday destination and therefore only the truly dedicated should be allowed to go.

Then once we got there, because we had foreigners in our party, my family got daily phone calls from the local police to make sure said foreigners were still in our possession and weren’t being given an impromptu tour of Waziristan courtesy of our good friends in the Taliban.

But seriously, if you can get past the hellish ordeal of actually securing yourself a visa, tourists in Pakistan are such a rarity that they are treated like royalty. If you keep a low key and observe the customs, you’ll experience a beautiful country as yet untouched by mass tourism.

UPDATE: I’ve changed the pic to one which I own since this post is soon to be featured in Freshly Pressed!

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June 19, 2014 · 2:37 pm

Two Songs

Image

Emotions are a funny thing. Sometimes all it takes is a taste or smell to bring back a memory. And suddenly it’s like you’re there again, reliving every moment.

After my son was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy last year, my world view went within a few seconds from being positive and rosy to realizing just how infinitely cruel life could be. I went through the opposite process I had gone through when I had fallen in love as my heart broke into pieces so tiny I don’t know if I’ll ever be done picking them all up again. Songs began to make sense, and listening to them would hurt so much I would be left in tears.

In the immediate months after Hermes was diagnosed, there were two songs I couldn’t bring myself to listen to. The first was a Greek song, called Pio Psila (Higher). Listening to it, you wouldn’t think there was anything offensive about it. It’s an upbeat song about two young people falling in love. But this is the song I listened to on a loop with my son, trying to get him to nap just before we ended up in hospital.

When we came out and had a new world to face, it was almost a year before I could listen to it without feeling like I’d been stabbed in the heart. The reason was these lyrics:

The world around us is now changing

I’m not afraid, it doesn’t scare me

I won’t waste a single second

Whatever you want, I will do it for you

Our only enemy is time

In your arms, the pain goes away

Don’t leave me, hold me, embrace me, love me

The world around me had changed. And I was terrified. I ran around like a headless chicken trying to find anything, any shred of hope, any piece of wildcard research, something to get me out of bed every morning when all I could think was “100% fatal.”

But the line that killed me was that time is our only enemy, because it’s so true. We are happy, in our day to day lives we almost forget that somewhere a clock is ticking and it’s ticking against us. I so often look at my son and wish I could freeze time to now, that he would never get older than 2 years old, that he would always stay small enough for me to carry anywhere so that he wouldn’t feel his disability manifest, and that I could spare him the deterioration I know is coming.

The second song was People Help the People by Birdy. I always thought it was a beautiful song and once again I used to play it to my son trying to get him fall asleep. Even now, I can barely listen to it:

God knows what is hiding in those weak and sunken eyes
Fiery thrones of muted angels
Giving love but getting nothing back

People help the people
And if you’re homesick, give me your hand and I’ll hold it

I would wonder as I was stuck in traffic – how many of these cars contain parents who have lost a child? How many people did I walk past today who have a child that’s suffering? Are we the heroes? I’m told so often how brave I am but I don’t feel it. I’m just a mother that gets up every morning and tries to keep her family’s life rolling as best as she can, hoping for the best and planning for the worst. Is it brave when you are learning to live with the fear of the future, like a constant dull pain?

And yes, I am terribly homesick for a place that I know I can’t ever go back to. So homesick that I cry from frustration thinking about the alternative path I should have been walking, in a perfect world with a healthy child and such a simple future to plan.

But it’s the help of friends and family, the other people that helped me that gets me through. We can’t ever go back, but we can go forward, and maybe what’s around the corner won’t be as terrifying as the monster I imagine in my head.  They have held my hand as I’ve cried and emerged from the shadows with their own stories to give me courage. I think, in the end, they are the heroes because every day, they save me.

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New Pipeline set to Tap Greece’s Potential

Hot on the heels of the news of this year’s expected tourism boom in Greece comes another piece of good news. The decision to run the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) through Greece is being celebrated in the country.

The pipeline, which will carry natural gas from Azerbaijan via Albania and Greece to Italy and on into Western Europe, represents a EUR 1.5 billion investment and the direct creation of 2,000 jobs in Greece, with indirect jobs over the next few years expected at around 10,000. In a country experiencing its sixth consecutive year of recession and with unemployment at over 27%, this news could not come soon enough.

Compared to other forms of energy, natural gas is relatively cheap in Greece, but pretty unpopular. Greeks tend to be wary of doing things differently. There is an old story about how the potato was introduced to the country after its independence. A starving population was indifferent to the new vegetable until a governer, knowing the Greek mentality, ordered round-the-clock guards to be placed prominently next to the pile and turn a blind eye to stealing. Pretty soon, the public decided that something so carefully guarded must be worth having, and helped themselves.

Greeks have managed fine with electricity from the country’s only provider, the clunking, loss-making DEH, and seem happy enough with that.

Besides, my Greek husband is adamant that the widespread use of natural gas in Greece will lead to nothing but trouble.

“If Greeks all get natural gas,” he insists “They’ll be blowing up their houses left, right and centre. We don’t know how to use it.”

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Greece Expecting Record Tourism in 2013

It’s not often that you hear good news coming out of Greece, so it’s nice to hear that the country is this year expecting a record 17 million tourists. This could be the kiss of life so desperately needed in a country where roughly 20% of the economy relies on tourism.

Each year, Greece receives an estimated 10 million tourists, thus temporarily doubling the country’s population. The last few years, however, have seen a drop due to the unstable economy, the media image of Greece portrayed overseas and of course the strikes, some of which heavily impacted the tourist industry when port employees took part.

Strikes are so common in Greece that there is even a dedicated online portal letting users know who is striking where and on what day.

But the recent crisis seems to be forcing the tourist industry to up its game. Greece has long been famous as a sun and sea destination, opening a tiny 3 month window of opportunity for the tourism industry in the summer months, but then leaving the same tourist destinations empty and bereft of income once all the tourists pour back out.

Not only has Greece needed to reformulate its tourist industry for a long time now, but the country also needs to start promoting itself as an all-year destination. For example, few outside of Greece know of the country’s many and beautiful mountain resorts that provide a refreshing alternative for locals in the summer. Fewer still know of Greece’s ski resorts.

Yes, that’s right. You can go skiing in Greece. And there is much more to Greek cuisine than souvlaki and moussaka – Samonthraki island’s stuffed goat, for example, or Astypalia’s lobsters that are small but packed with flavour. With a local cuisine that is immensely varied, abundant wildlife and an enormous variety of types of holiday to be had in Greece, here’s hoping that the Ministry of Tourism takes advantage of this year’s renewed interest in the country and secures visitors that will be back for more long after the sun has set on the summer season.

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Living with a Disability

When you’ve been through a traumatic experience, it doesn’t take much to transport you back to that time. For me, it was a trip back from London to Athens. I arrived with my two year-old son running a high fever. Just before we put him to bed, my husband and I tried to give him something to bring it down. In his distress, he vomitted all over himself, the bed, our bed and us.

As I wiped him down and my husband collected the spoilt sheets, we were silent and grim-faced. It wasn’t as much to do with our son, who was now sitting happily chatting as I cleaned him. The scenario was too close to the bone for both of us and transported us back to the start of our own personal nightmare.

Just over one year ago, we were watching over our son in similar circumstances, only this time the vomitting wouldn’t stop, and our son’s cries produced no tears. Alarmed, we rushed our son to hospital and found ourselves trapped in a spiral of endless tests and rounds of doctors.

We went into hospital with something quite straightforward. Our son had contracted rotavirus, like most of the other children on the ward during that time of the year. The difference was that unlike all the other children who eventually got better and left, the doctors kept returning to us with furrowed brows, flipping through our son’s records and unable to get his bloodwork to normalise.

Nine days later, having run out of ideas and with only a genetic test left to run, they discharged us. Three days after that, we received a diagnosis that turned our world upside down – Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.

A year later, the highs and lows I go through are less intense. The pain has not lessened, but my ability to bear it has improved. There are still little things that remind me of the future we face when I play with my little boy, the fact that he can’t climb the stairs of the slides, or how he can’t jump like the other two year olds that pogo-stick dance nearby. And of course, writing about it helps me cope.

I originally wrote about my son’s diagnosis on a separate blog. I share that post below with you:

There are moments  when your foundations are shaken to the core. Moments when you realize how frivolous your life up until now has been. In those moments you yearn to go back to the yesterday you so recently complained about, where your biggest problem was unpaid bills, or how you never managed to get through your pile of ironing. Those moments humble you. They come at a terrible cost, but the only way to keep going, the only way to not just fall on the floor and wish you could simply evaporate, are to believe that you’ll come out on the other side. Somehow.

For me that moment came just over a year ago sitting in a chair of a docto’rs office, and I wished I could run away back to the previous week where my biggest heartbreak had been listening to my son scream in terror outside the room where he had had his blood taken every day for nearly nine days. I was not allowed to be with him. Standard practice to stop hysterical parents from interfering with important procedures I suppose. I stood outside that door and wept, every fibre in my body screaming to be with my child.

It should have been so ordinary, so routine. He had a stomach bug. He kept nothing down. We grew afraid and raced him in the middle of the night to Paidon hospital in Athens’ centre. One day passed. Two days. Three. Children around us came and went. We remained. One aspect of a blood test was wildly out of the normal range. They tried various things. Blood was tested daily. They wouldn’t let us leave. “It’s probably nothing” everyone told us.

We all hoped and waited. My son played with his toys, annoyed by the drip in his hand. It’s probably nothing. Armies of paediatricians visited. They poked and prodded. When students appeared alongside the doctors, I grew increasingly worried. Make him stand, make him sit. Does he walk? When did he crawl?

It’s probably nothing…

By the seventh day, I was growing hysterical. I walked the corridors endlessly with my son in his pushchair, singing to him as I tried to get him to sleep. I still have dreams where I’m back there walking those corridors, trapped and unable to leave. When the cardiologist refused to give consent to discharge us, saying we were free to do so at our own risk, I don’t remember how I got outside, but outside I fell to the floor and howled in terror.

The hysteria passed, but each doctor who visited looked over the blood tests, frowned and advised staying put. I clawed at my arms. They ended up covered in red welts. I dug my nails into my scalp. I was losing it.

The stomach flu passed. We were still there. Finally, with no change in the blood results, we were allowed to go home. And there I enjoyed three days of bliss. Those were the last three days of life as we knew it. Something inside me sensed it. I kept saying “It’s probably nothing. The rest of the tests will come back fine.” Something in me didn’t believe it.

On a sunny Monday morning, I sat opposite a grey haired geneticist, a kindly man. I was there to hear good news. I felt sorry for how many times this man had to tell parents something terrible.

“I’m afraid the news I have for you is not good.”

My stomach plummets. I get a strange sensation I’ve never felt before. I feel like I am falling into myself.

Stop the ride. I want to get off. I don’t want to hear the next sentence. I want his mouth to stay shut. I want to pick up my son, thank him for his time and walk out of there. I don’t want to know. Normal slides away, and I have no choice but to watch it slip from my hands in the next few seconds.

My son has Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy. I don’t know what this means. I don’t dare ask. I stare at the doctor. “What will his life be like?”

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you.”

We often hear people say their heart broke, or their world collapsed. You don’t know what those words mean until it really does happen to you. I was in pain, my chest crushing in on itself. I wondered how my heart still beat. I wept in the doctor’s chair. The future I had imagined for my son vanished. I was left with nothing, just a big question mark, darkness and questions I was too petrified to ask. My tears didn’t last very long. Shock took over and they dried. “Pick up your son” the doctor gently advised.

I went to him, this precious, perfect, wonderful creature. I lifted him up. I looked at his beautiful puzzled face. I hugged him and breathed in his delicious smell. This was the creature I loved more than I could ever imagine, so much that  a lifetime with him was not going to be enough. Now, I am probably not even going to get that one lifetime. He couldn’t say it, but his expression asked all the questions. Why are you crying? What’s wrong? I’m bored.

My sweet angel. The little soul that had given me the gift of motherhood. I had wanted everything for him. I would have done anything. But no money in the world could buy him a new set of genetics. I kissed him. Save me, I silently, ridiculously, begged my little boy. Save me.

The months since that awful day have passed slowly. We have educated ourselves and began an aggressive round of visits to doctors in Greece and the UK. It’s not easy, because our son has developed a terrible fear of doctors after his nine days in Paidon. We fight on. We fire off emails. Friends trawl the internet for leads of new therapies. It sometimes feels like a search for a figment of our imagination. My husband and I make light of what’s happening. We push each other on.

As time moves on, we really do have more good days than bad days. But when the bad days strike, I feel exhausted already and we’re only at the start of the road. I feel tired. I feel so so old. I cry like a wounded animal. I cry for my child and what his future does or doesn’t hold. I cry tears of panic – I can’t do this, I’m not strong enough, I can’t raise a child I will most likely lose if no cure is found in the next years. I cry because a mother’s first job is to protect her child, and I couldn’t save him from this.

I get selfish and weep angry tears. Why him? Why my child? Why us? Weren’t we good enough? Haven’t we always been decent people? Haven’t we always helped the needy? Why, why, why? I torture myself with these questions, knowing that they’ll lead to nothing.

In the end, there is no answer to this question. In our case, the why will never be known. My son’s case of Duchenne’s was down to a random mutation. I am not a carrier, which is a relief because I have three sisters, and Duchenne’s carries down from the mother. When the news was broken to us, my older sister had just got pregnant after many years of agonized failed attempts. I was immediately sent for testing to see if I was a carrier based solely on my sister’s pregnancy. My test was pushed to the top of the pile and the results rushed through, in case she too would need testing.  Luckily, I was clear, which is a blessing because she is expecting a boy.

Amongst the darkness though, there are rays of light. I found a strength I never knew existed in me before. I have said it before. I’ve had an easy life. Nothing has really ever tried me. The first time I was in hospital was to give birth, the second was with my child. I’ve always been shielded from the harshness of life. I never imagined I would still be standing after this. The crushing pain in my chest is not there anymore when I wake up each morning. We check where we are on a grotesque ladder of genetic conditions, and morbidly console ourselves saying at least it’s not this or that.

I try to exude positivity. Some very promising therapies are being worked on right now. This disease may affect my son’s body, but his mind will remain intact. He can still use his intellect to be anything he wants. I found a drive I never possessed before. I retook and finally passed a mathematics-laden financial exam my office had been badgering me about for years and which I had convinced myself was too hard to pass.

My huband and I work hard at untangling our messy heads. We never imagined this would be the path our life would be on eight years ago when we met under the blazing Athenian sun. He is my rock, and every day I thank God that I have him in my life. There is no one else I would rather have next to me in this battlefield. We talk and make action plans. We fuel each other’s positivity in the face of impossible statistics. There are no miraculous getting out of the wheelchair and walking moments with this disease. There are no “I beat Duchenne’s” T-shirts.

But most of all I get my strength from my son. He gives me endless joy and hope for the future. I know he has a strong spirit that will see him through, because in the end the ultimate trial is his, not ours. When I watch him sleeping, his beautiful limbs sprawled out like a starfish, I want to kiss him endlessly. I rub his hard muscles, the early sign of this syndrome. I hope he is not in pain. I wait for the morning when he rolls out of his cot onto me with a smile and a delighted “Mama!” as if returning to me after years away. I try to remind myself of how precious our time together is when he has a tantrum or insists on chocolate for breakfast.

This post has been hard for me to write. I have cried and relived moments that still cause me enormous pain. I have been composing it in my head for months, I just couldn’t bring myself to write it.

I hope you don’t think it was oversharing. Writing this has helped me order my chaotic thoughts. But most importantly, I wanted to make people familiar with the name of the disease. This is what I always ask of friends when they want to help – make noise, donate, raise awareness. The more people know, the more funds are raised, the faster we get to a cure.

Throughout our journey to this point, we have been cared for incredibly well by the Greek public healthcare system. We have been treated with great care. Every procedure followed met the current recommended international standard. We were from the start treated with a lot of kindness and patience. The doctors working in the Greek public system are heroes. They do an excellent job with limited resources. Even after being awake all night and dealing with the madness of overnight admissions that often overflowed into the corridor, they were still ready to patiently answer the questions we had about our son’s progress.

We are now primarily in the care of the Muscular Dystrophy Association of Greece. Once again, we have been treated very well and with a great deal of sensitivity. This organization runs on donations alone. I give their site below. Donating even one euro will make a difference.

http://www.mdahellas.gr/

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