And now I have finally been to the desert.
Only briefly, so far. Like all of my adventures in Pakistan thus far, my trip to the Thar desert in southern Sindh was a whirlwind -- fast and fleeting. Yet it created such a dense bundle of memories. Probably the best way for me to recount them is simply chronological. I will try my best.
1. Road trip
We started on the road from Hyderabad, where I was staying with the family of my best buddy Inam Sheikh. Inam himself decided he needed to stay home, for various reasons, but I felt no qualms about traveling alone with two other buddies, Naz Sahito and Irfan Ansari, who likewise treat me as their beloved little sister. It took some effort to convince Papa Saeed on the phone that he could entrust me to the care of these two gentlemen, but after interviewing both of them extensively, he gave his paternal consent.
And though we missed Inam’s presence on the journey, it would be hard to find two more pleasant traveling companions than Naz and Irfan. Both of them are experienced broadcasters, having attained senior positions in their fields, and yet they both radiate a childlike energy and delight that is absolutely infectious. Throughout my trips, Naz has been a keen guide for me, eagerly sharing cultural ideas with me, overflowing with information about the history and identity of Sindh. And Irfan has that kind of rare personality that can keep any gathering of friends in constant laughter. One short anecdote can illustrate this: One evening later in my trip, when I was sitting with Inam’s family over a quiet dinner, Inam answered his cell phone and started talking as usual. But soon he started laughing, and kept laughing, and pausing for a second and then laughing more. Inam’s youngest daughter and I were both soon bursting with giggles ourselves, even though we hadn’t heard any of what caused it. Meanwhile Inam kept doubling over with increased laughter while listening to his phone. I knew very quickly that the only person who could be on the other end of that phone line was Irfan Ansari.
So my journey was guaranteed to be a pleasant one. And my companions were further ideal for this trip because of their connections to the region. Irfan was recently appointed the station manager of Radio Mithi -- Mithi being the city toward which we were headed, which is something like a capital city to the region of Thar (in more official terms, it is the headquarter city of the Tharparkar District). So, these days Irfan is very accustomed to the four-hour commute between Hyderabad (where his family still lives) and Mithi, and was well-situated to host us at our destination. Naz too has strong ties to Thar, from his career in journalism. He recounted how he used to come to report on the difficult situations in that desert region a couple decades back, before there were even proper roads connecting the major towns. Back then, he told me, all travel was done on rough and dusty tracks. The only options were open jeeps and camel caravans. I can only imagine what it must have been like for my buddy to traverse that terrain -- in sizzling summer heat -- as a young reporter in the field.
Nowadays, due to much more recent development of the city of Mithi in particular, there is a very fine new road that runs between the city of Badin and the inner desert. And as for us travelers, we paused there in Badin at a gas station, because, having already been in the car for a couple of hours, we naturally started wanting some tea! And for my Sindhi friends, this is the most normal and routine thing in the world -- but I think that my American readers will share my delight at the quaint idea of drinking tea at a gas station. As we got out of the car, I heard one of my companions saying something like “kursiyoon rakho” -- bring chairs. After a moment, some plastic chairs and a small coffee table had been produced for us -- right there on the ground next to the gas pumps. And after a few minutes more, there was our tea -- genuine mixed milk tea, served properly with china cups and saucers. At this point my Sindhi readers will be wondering why on earth I have devoted a whole paragraph to such an ordinary activity -- but I do think it’s an important observation, because this ordinary activity is practically inconceivable in America, where consumer culture and frenzied schedules have left us with little option other than the profoundly unsociable drive-thru.
As we piled back into the car, the driver told my buddies (who then translated it for me) that I had been recognized. Apparently, someone working inside the gas station and noticed me, and had told the driver, “I know her! That is Miss Emily from Facebook.” This was again amazing to me -- and flattering for sure -- that I have become well enough known in Sindh that people who happen to see me are able to identify me. And how right this fellow was -- “Miss Emily from Facebook.” For what other place could more properly claim to be my permanent residence?
But now I shall delay no longer on the arrival into the desert. And it is not difficult to mark that arrival, because there is in fact a large gate positioned over the road that tells you in no uncertain terms that you have now, indeed, arrived at the desert. Of course, nature is not quite so obedient -- there is no magic line beyond which the coastal terrain turns suddenly into an expanse of sand. Much of Sindhi terrain has hints of desert anyway, even outside of Thar; and Thar itself not a land of enormous barren sand dunes like we might picture from Lawrence of Arabia. But there is still a noticeable and quick transition into the Thari landscape soon after passing through that arched gateway.
And how to describe the Thari landscape! Of course, it must look quite different, at different times of year… and I was visiting it at the mildest of times, long after the blistering summer had died down. The Thari sun in November is a purely welcoming sun. The breeze is soft and sweet. And yes, there is sand -- lots of sand -- as much as one could want in a desert. But there is also a strange fertility in this sand. I might have expected sweeping sand dunes of towering lifelessness -- but in fact it would have been hard to locate a patch of empty sand larger than a few meters. Because everywhere, interrupting the sandiness, there grow an array of bushy plants and trees of almost comical appearance. They don’t give the impression of a forest -- they do not merge to form a wood. Each one of these peculiar bushy plants stands on its own, like a prickly creature who is not a complete rebel, but likes to maintain his own space. Someday I will try to learn what all these strange plants actually were…. for now I am thinking of them simply as the prickly bushes of Thar.
After passing through the gate to Tharparkar, the drive rest of the drive to Mithi was only an hour or two. There is more desert beyond Mithi -- deeper desert, I am given to understand, where perhaps I would find some of those imagined towering sand dunes. But this journey did not extend past Mithi… which is where my traveling companions and I are arriving at this point of my story.
There is a dense urban center of Mithi, as there is in any long-established town. But at first I was not taken there, as we rode instead along wider, government-built roads and past walled structures of a more recent vintage. [Here I am recalling information from what I learned there, which may not be entirely accurate -- any reader who wishes to supply better information is welcome to let me know, and I will edit.] I believe that Mithi has become a favored place in very recent years, something akin to a resort town, and government structures and official protocols have been developing in the area, along with a variety of different rest houses and accommodations. Irfan’s radio station is located in these outskirts of the city, and so was the guest house where Naz and I were to spend the night (in separate rooms, needless to say).
2. Radio Mithi
But our first port of call was Irfan’s office at Radio Mithi. And I was quite amused to enter this space alongside my buddy Irfan, and see him in his official, leadership role. He sat down behind his large and empty desk, and almost immediately some staff person walked in with a stack of papers requiring his signature. As he examined them and applied the appropriate strokes of his pen, with a serious expression befitting a station boss, various others of his subordinates gathered around the office, waiting for his attention. Eventually, when all pressing business matters had been attended to, I told Irfan and the others that it was really quite amusing for me to see him for the first time in his Big Boss role. “Because generally,” I explained for the benefit of the others in the room, “ddingo chhokro aa!” (He’s a bit of a rascally boy.) And, hearing this, Irfan again burst into his characteristic laughter.
Around this time I learned that Mithi and Thar more broadly are famous for two things: food and music. The latter item would be demonstrated to me a little later on -- but it was already time to discover the first. I had not been expecting any elaborate spread for our lunch -- but actually, I should have been expecting it, because Sindhi meals in my experience are almost always elaborate, always consisting of more and more plates and dishes and flavors than I would have expected. Now, I must confess that I am not an avid food writer -- and although it was all delicious, I have little eagerness to go into detail about the marvelous interplay of spices, the different varieties of roti, the new twists on familiar curries that were suddenly spread before me. But I will mention my favorite part of it, a simple, paired delicacy that I have also enjoyed elsewhere in Sindh, and which will always have its own unique flavor wherever it comes from. This delightful pair of things is nothing other than butter and honey -- “makan’u maaki” as I learned to say in Sindhi. It was a fresh, rich, enticing butter (makan’u), and a honey (maaki) of indescribable depths. I am sure that I could never grow tired of the makan’u-maaki of Thar, even if I were given it every day.
Naz and Irfan were also enjoying their meal with typical gusto and appreciation, even though this sort of elaborate spread is not at all unusual to them. Naz seemed particularly pleased that I was also eating with relative gusto, and conveyed my compliments to Irfan’s chef, Mustafa. I mention his name now, because he will reappear a bit later in this story. Mustafa seemed pleased and urged forward to make sure that I had gotten as much of everything as I could possibly want.
Ah, one other thing about this meal is worthy of note, which is that its curries contained a lot of meat. In itself that is not notable at all -- Pakistanis are mostly Muslims, and mostly meat-eaters, and that suits my own tastes as well. But Mithi is unlike other Pakistani towns, in that Muslims are not in the majority, but rather significantly in the minority. According to one statistic I read, Mithi’s population is 80% Hindu. So when Irfan invited his engineer, Dileep Aamer, to have some lunch, Dileep at first shrugged and gestured to the meat, and said he couldn’t. Fortunately there were a few dishes on the table that were meatless (some daal and some rice, and of course the makan’u - maaki), so he did find enough to eat after all.
The religious demographics are not all that distinguishes Thar from the rest of Sindh. In many ways it feels like a completely different province--so different, in fact, that many Thari people do not think of themselves as Sindhi at all. The local language is not Sindhi, but rather Dhatki -- and although Dhatki belongs to the same enormous category of Indo-Aryan languages that also includes Sindhi, I think there is enough difference between them that they are not mutually comprehensible. So, although Sindhi is widely spoken within the boundaries of Mithi, it becomes quickly less familiar in the outer desert communities, where the language is Dhatki and the lifestyle is Rajasthani. Culturally, the Thar desert is continuous with the Indian region of Rajasthan -- the border of Pakistan and India having been placed in the middle of this territory only recently in history.
These were all things that I was learning from Naz, Irfan, and now also Dileep, as we finished up our meal.
Before we set out again, Irfan gave me a tour of the radio station. My readers may not know that I also have worked briefly in radio, for a few of years (though very much part-time) serving as a production assistant for a live radio program at WHYY-FM, Philadelphia’s public broadcasting station. So I was particularly interested to see how Irfan’s station operations compared to what I was used to. I don’t think that Irfan will mind my saying that it is a rather humble building: only one studio and control booth on one side of the complex and simple hallway with a few offices on the other side, connected by a small and sun-soaked exterior courtyard. But despite its tininess, Radio Mithi does contain all the life and spark that is necessary to keep a broadcasting station vibrant. We met one of Irfan’s news reporters (or perhaps there is only one of them?) as we passed by the tiny room marked “News Section.” In the technical part of the building, I was shown the transmitter room, which contains only a few boxy-looking machines, and yet is responsible for keeping that radio signal alive and well. Next to that was the control booth, containing an old-fashioned fader board (but I must note that old-fashioned is not a bad thing when it comes to audio technology, because in many cases audio devices used to be made far more solidly and elegantly than they are today) as well as a computer interface for airing content that isn’t being immediately produced in the neighboring studio.
On the other side of the glass, in the aforementioned studio, a young man was reading in Dhatki from a script in front of him. I must admit that I have absolutely no idea what the content of this program was--presumably some information of local interest, though I believe poetry was also involved. I can say that the young man displayed admirable focus on his task, because he must have been surprised to see his station director appear on the other side of the glass along with a host of others (for a group of people had gathered along with us, as always happens when I am shown around any facility), including an obviously foreign female. A look of nervousness did appear in his eyes, but you would not have been able to hear it in his voice as he continued his narration. After a moment, Dileep signalled him to stop, and used the computer interface to switch the program to some music (which is probably also a very typical part of this broadcast), and we all barged in on the poor radio announcer in his studio, and took the photos that you see here. As we left, I told the announcer that he was doing a very good job -- though I don’t know if he could understand me.
Because of my previous job, I’ve spent a lot of time in radio control booths, and radio listening (in the form of the BBC) is still an extremely important part of my life, so I was interested to compare what I found in Mithi to what I’ve known before. My former workplace, although desperately underfunded by American standards (because our public broadcasting is funding in the majority by free will donations from its small listenership), nonetheless had a beautifully renovated building, full of what now seems to me to have been very shiny new equipment. The equipment available at Radio Mithi is, by comparison, extremely minimal. However, the population of Mithi is also minute in comparison to Philadelphia, so any comparison of the two radio stations is difficult to achieve meaningfully. It would not be as difficult, however, to compare the roles and effectiveness of the two countries’ public broadcasting systems on the whole -- and I am tempted to start doing that here -- but I sense that my readers might be quite eager at this point to get on to the more picturesque aspects of this Thari voyage, which are still to come, in great abundance. So for now I will simply say that it seems to me that Radio Pakistan on the whole, despite a lack of up-to-date resources, is nonetheless a varied and integral part of the broadcasting life of the country, and that it is more appreciated and far more alive than its American counterpart. It is also more essential in Pakistan, a country in which dozens of languages are spoken by regional communities, and in which the nation’s official languages (Urdu and English) cannot be expected to communicate deeply with the entire population. Programs at Radio Mithi go out in both Sindhi and Dhatki (though perhaps some programs are carried from higher-up station affiliates in Urdu). In a country that is so linguistically diverse, surely radio must be a crucial way of keeping citizens connected, in a way that Americans can hardly fathom.
But now I shall speed up the tape a little so that we can finally get outside and into the desert. Our next destination was actually our guest house, where I was given quite a large and elegant room to myself. Naz took the room next to it (and only later did I see how much smaller his room was), wanting to make sure that I felt safe, with someone I knew close at hand at all times. After the requisite settling into these rooms, and of course, some tea (served out in the lobby area), the afternoon had already advanced considerably. It was past four o’clock, and the sun was falling low in the sky. Seeing this, I got a bit panicky, knowing that there was very little time left for good photography before night would fall. So I urged my buddies back into our vehicle so we could head towards what I most wanted to see: a true Thari village.
3 - Dry Venice, and a City made of Pottery
On our way to this village, however, I also got my only decent glimpse of the inner city of Mithi. And I wish I had had time to take photographs (at the time I didn’t want to waste the sunlight, so didn’t ask to stop the car), because it is fascinating to look at. Though buildings seemed to be made of similar materials and on similar patterns to others that I have known in Pakistan, they all seemed to be a bit smaller and a bit more delicate, a bit more ornate, more intricately interwoven with one another. The impression I got was something similar to Venice -- a city which is certainly a part of Italy and yet feels at a deep level intensely different; more luxurious without being richer, more ornate without being more ostentatious, and somehow possessing a very different imagination from its wider context. My companions were surprised at my naming of Mithi as the “Dry Venice,” but I think that they were nonetheless convinced by it when I explained.
At one point, in one of these dusty and decorative streets, the car stopped for just long enough to allow another gentleman to climb into the back seat of our car, where Irfan and Naz were already sitting. This was Khatau Jani, a new face and name for me, but an old friend of both my traveling buddies, a fellow journalist and a native of Mithi. He is a pleasant, quiet fellow with curly hair and a slim physique, and he became my third traveling buddy for the rest of this short trip. Khatau had arranged for someone belonging to one of the local villages to guide us out of the city, which I only realized as I noticed that we had begun following this person on his motorcycle. And the process of actually reaching the village was prolonged yet more because our motorcyclist was also having difficulty getting his vehicle to move.
By the time we reached this village, the sun had just fully set, so my entire visit to this extraordinary place was colored in the strange shades of twilight. The low light levels made photography a bit difficult, but the experience was magical. Though I cannot ignore the extreme poverty of the people who live in these villages -- their lives are full of harsh realities that are obscured by the gentle mistiness of this twilight -- I also feel called to celebrate the beauty of these people and their surroundings and their simple way of life. Because what I saw in this brief visit was so beautiful as scarcely to be believed.
The village seems to grow organically out of its peculiar terrain, which is a sloping hillside of sand dune, dotted with those same comical bushy plants as I mentioned earlier. At this time of evening, sky and sand merge into the same color, and there seems to be no clear border between the grainy, unsolid ground and the dust-clouded sky. Shadows also are gentle and nebulous, having no edge or form. And on this blurry canvas arises a series of walls and huts and courtyards that seems to have come out of a fairy tale. The phrase “mud hut” might accurately describe these houses on one level, but those dull-sounding words do not convey the fineness of the structures. They do not seem to me to be “mud” but rather pottery. The village seems sculpted of a soft sandy clay; all edges are smoothed and rounded by the atmosphere, and yet all the architectural lines are clean and pure. The mud-village and the sand and the sky are all one single color and entity, varying only in degrees of solidity and contour.
And on top of that mesmerizingly colorless structure is laid so much color -- in the form of rillies (traditional quilts) lying on wooden cots in the courtyards and in the colors of the women’s dresses and long veils, which they typically hold up in such a way as to hide their faces completely from view. And the other source of color are the fabled peacocks, which run and dance in the wild here, and in great numbers. Who can describe the sight of a peacock strolling through its native land with such confidence? My camera has failed to do it justice, and my words will fail as well.
But the women who walk through the villages of Thar are just as beautiful as the peacocks, and just as colorful. I actually give credit to these women for inspiring me to learn about Sindh in the very beginning -- they are in some ways the reason that my whole adventure began. (Explanation for that can be seen HERE.) The Thari women have a rare kind of beauty, a royal and elegant quality that comes not from wealth or status, but somehow radiates from their inner humanity. They have a strength and a worldliness in their bearing, and a feminine grace that refuses to be dimmed by the harshness of their deprivation. They wear long dresses of the brightest colors, and long veils that often descend to their ankles. The dresses are often sleeveless, but their arms are never bare: they are instead covered by thick white bangles. Modesty is extremely important to these women, who rarely show their faces -- a rule which applies not only to strangers but even to men in their near-immediate family. It was explained to me at one point, for example, that the reason a particular woman was holding her veil over her face with left hand was that her father-in-law was presently standing somewhere to her left, and even he was not supposed to see her. Similarly, passing women typically covered their faces even from my view.
But I was never made to feel alien among these beautiful people. The villagers welcomed us warmly as their guests, and if I seemed a strange creature to them, they certainly didn’t reveal it. I was delighted to be invited into one of the huts, the domain of the young wife of a man who was speaking with my travel buddies. This woman gestured for me to come in and sit down, first spreading a thick quilt for me to sit on. And she was one of these fine Thari beauties that I had long expected -- a pure and natural radiance veiled in deep colors. I am grateful that she allowed me to take her photograph. She was hesitant in this, but when her husband gave permission, she allowed me a quick smile to catch her beauty and share it in this gentle way with you all.
She and I couldn’t speak a word together -- a Dhatki speaker, she couldn’t understand my still-terrible Sindhi. So I spent these few moments simply in observation, trying to absorb my surroundings and imagine what her life must be like. The hut was maybe fifteen feet in diameter, with very little inside except for cooking pots and a rustic stove, on which something or other was simmering.
There was a basket of fruits there which seem to be a local delicacy -- I can’t name them -- but can recognize them now by their faintly putrid smell. And there was a pile of mats for sitting, and little else. After a minute or two, an older woman, probably the mother of the young wife, came in and tended to the stove. But despite this fascinating glimpse inside the home, I am still largely at a loss to imagine what the rest of their lives must look like.
When I re-emerged from the hut, I found my buddies talking with a large group of men gathered in the courtyard around a large quilt that had been laid on the ground. “Come, sit sit!” Naz called to me, and pointed to the quilt. The men all moved a few steps away from it, keeping a respectable distance as I took off my shoes and folded my legs into a sitting position there, not sure what was going to happen.
“They would like to offer you peacock feathers!” Naz explained. And sure enough, there was a man holding a large bundle of those bright feathers, fanning out in all directions like a full tail of the peacock itself. And he proceeded to hand me the entire bundle. I handed my camera to Irfan so that he could take pictures of the beautiful gift. We didn’t actually take all of them with us, but only a small handful -- and what happened to that handful, I’m afraid I do not know. As a result, it feels a bit like these feathers might not even exist outside of that village -- like objects in fantasy stories that instantly vanish when you take them away from their enchanted place of origin, the only place they belong. The feathers were real enough -- I held them softly against my face -- but only there in Thar.
It was too short a visit to take in even a small fraction of what was going on around me in that village, though I kept my camera in hand to catch details that my eyes could not notice. Children gathered around, which is always one of my favorite parts of village visits in Sindh -- the children always follow their curiosity and stay as near to me as they can. My photos reveal to me that there were a couple of children in particular who stayed close by, like small curious angels -- a gentle-looking boy in an olive-colored shalwar and a girl with a quizzical expression and a lime-green veil. If I ever get a chance to return, I'll try to find them and ask their names.
Evening was growing darker, and soon we were again on our way…. I will stop my narrative here for the moment, but soon will follow up with Part 2, in which there is much more to come…. Mithi at night, sung prayers in a Hindu temple, a different village in the light of day…. for now, wari milandaseen, dosto.
complete photo gallery for Thar: Part 1 ....
Image at top left is a digital
portrait by Pakistani artist
Imran Zaib, based on one of my own photographic self-portraits in Thari dress.