8. Second Arrival
When I began writing this, my intention was to get quickly to the point and share my experience of visiting the Mir tombs in Hyderabad, after just a quick preface explaining how I got to that point. But as I was reliving those prefatory experiences, I realized that they are a story unto themselves--but a more internal one. The photo-adventures will return in the next blog post--but for now, I invite you to make the night-time journey across the world with me once again.
This was the beginning of my second trip to Sindh. If you read my first travelogue entry, you’ll already know what it felt like for me to arrive in Karachi and breathe the air and see the strange new landscapes of my Sindh for the first time. And now, less than two months after my first trip, I was already making my return. (The reason for that good fortune was the marriage of my second Sangi sister, Moomal--an event significant enough to justify a second trip in such a short time.) The second trip would naturally have a different feel from the first. This time I would be retracing my recent steps, revisiting instead of discovering. I was grateful for the opportunity to have a second go at all the traveling procedures that had seemed stressful the first time. This time I knew exactly how to procure my Visa, how long the lines would be at JFK airport, how the Dubai airport was configured, and what to expect when I reached Karachi. So my excitement for this trip was tempered this time with that particular calm that is the mark of the more experienced traveler. And this time even more than the last, it was a feeling that I was simply returning home.
The other difference this second time around was that I was on my own. Andrew (my husband) had been with me for my first arrival in Sindh, and he had stayed for most of that first trip, as many days as he had been able to get away from the various facets of his work in the US. That first trip had also coincided with winter vacations at the university where he works; but now it was February and his teaching semester and concert season were in full swing. So there was no way for him to escape with me for a second adventure across the world. And he was sad to miss this second set of festivities, having become very fond of all our Sangi relatives during his previous short stay in Larkana. But it is a testament to the extremely good care that was given to us when we were there the first time that he had no fears about allowing me to go back again, on my own. He knew that I would be fully protected, from beginning to end. And he got very used to explaining to people here why he was home alone for a few weeks--which would invariably be met with amazement: “she went back?? already?!”
And yes, I was going back, already, and once again was brimming with excitement. I found myself once again floating bleary-eyed down the long and shiny corridors of the Dubai airport, where all Emirates flights to Pakistan have their layover. I must not have been covering my head yet, though I had my dupatta at the ready and was planning to put it on soon and reacquaint myself with that now-comfortable feeling of hijab. I was more concerned with finding some kind of food that would be palatable to me in my excited state and keep me sated for these last hours of travel. Dubai is a consumer paradise, with ranks upon ranks of offerings of all nationalities and flavors, so the trouble is one of too much choice rather than not enough. All the glitz of the Dubai airport has a deeply impersonal feel, though, despite the friendly service and ease of navigation. I was already looking forward to landing in Karachi, where the corridors are not shiny but have a warmth of use, of being lived in, where the walls and designs, though perhaps faded, have a uniqueness, and a sense that they have a story to tell.
Though I was already longing for that special feel of Sindh, I did have the good sense to take advantage of the luxury of Dubai for this moment. I bought myself a tremendously tangy pomegranate-flavored frozen yogurt from a very fancy stand that offered a spectrum of toppings in every color, berries and kiwi-fruit wedges and mango cubelets and other sweet delights. And it was genuinely delicious. I sat down at a little table near the vendor and soon became quite absorbed in this tango of flavors. Which made it all the more surprising to hear someone say my name.
“Excuse me--Miss Emily?”
I looked up. There was a trio of gentlemen standing there, three travelers with smiling and curious faces. I must have been wide-eyed with surprise. “Yes?”
“Excuse me, but I think I know you,” said the one of them who had spoken before. “Are you Dr. Saeed Sangi’s daughter, from Larkana?”
And now I had to smile. “Yes indeed I am,” I said, and then a bit sheepishly, “Did I meet you during my last trip?”
No no, he reassured me--he simply knew of me from Facebook, so did not expect me to recognize him. He explained that he and his friends were from Larkana, and now they were traveling somewhere else, and what a nice surprise that they had found me here. Looking at them now I could recognize that same quality of welcome that was now so familiar to me from Sindh. And when they asked me very politely if they could have their picture taken with me, I was happy to oblige, despite being frazzled from travel. And so the phones came out and photos were snapped, and soon the three travelers when on their way, giggling with the pleasure that usually ensues when I venture enough Sindhi to say “Wari milandaaseen!” (See you again.)
And I finished up my yogurt, pondering with amazement that I could be recognized even out here in the Middle East, many thousands of miles from my American home and another thousand miles from my Larkana home. But it is not so unusual really, because of that fragrance of Sindh that now follows me wherever I am, something that unites all people who love Sindh, whether they were born there or not. And so even as I had been enjoying my deluxe international Emirati frozen yogurt, a bit of Sindh was able to find me.
But before moving on toward my gate, I did pull my shawl up over my head, and began to assume a more demure attitude. Being recognized was lovely, but now I wanted to blend in--at least, not to appear obviously American. Fortunately that is not so difficult for me. Though my skin tone and eye color are unusual in Pakistan, there isn’t much in my general look or manner that betrays my Americanness. I have been asked a few times, to my great pleasure, if I was perhaps a Pathan. In those cases, depending on the circumstances, I either respond that I’m American or that “muhnjo wasto Larkaney saan aahey” -- I’m from Larkana.
As I put the dupatta over my head, I was conjuring again my Asian identity, and it was a comfort to me. Actually, probably at least half of the women who were gathering for this flight from Dubai to Karachi were not covering their heads, which I noted with interest as I walked along rows of seats to find a place to wait. Almost everyone there appeared to be of Asian/Pakistani origin, except for one notably white American businessman, who looked just like such men always do, with their square frame and white shirt and tie and briefcase full of certainly very important documents. It was a quiet confirmation of that general stereotype that no one comes to Pakistan just to visit and to appreciate the country--the only foreign faces that Pakistanis usually get to see are people who are there on business. As I passed by that man I could sense his curiosity, because I did not fit that pattern, yet clearly I was taking the same flight.
I sat near a weary-looking woman who was feeding a bright-eyed toddler in a stroller. The mother was wearing a traditional shalwar kameez and was also covering her head. Soon after I sat down, she asked me if I could look after the baby for a moment while she went to the bathroom. I said of course, and I was happy to watch this energetic little guy as he arranged and rearranged the lid of his sippy cup in several different positions while occasionally exclaiming some one-syllable word of triumph. I wondered if she would have been as quick to trust me if I hadn’t had my own head covered. Perhaps she would have. Still there is something fascinating about the different statements we can make with our clothes. In my case, I wasn’t actually saying that I am a practicing Muslim -- because I am not -- though it could have been read that way. But I was genuinely saying that I cared about Muslim culture and social practice, and that is probably what was suggested to the travel-weary mother that she could trust me for these moments with her child.
When I landed in Karachi, I sent a text to my younger Sangi brother Faisal, who again had been assigned to meet me there, and once again in the middle of the night (2:30 AM, I think). And I proceeded down the now-familiar hallways of Jinnah Airport towards the customs and immigration. I was still discreetly veiled as I greeted the customs official with a friendly “Assalaam-o-alaikum,” but of course the American passport I was handing him undercut my illusion.
This was a very different gentleman from the one who had welcomed me and Andrew with open arms on our last arrival--but he was just as memorable to me. He had a stern, austere look, but kindness hiding a bit deeper in his eyes. “Walaikum-assalaam,” he said with some surprise, at first hardly glancing at the passport before saying, “You are already dressed as a Pakistani woman!”
“Ji haan,” I nodded, wishing in this moment that I could come up with some more impressive Urdu to surprise him with in this moment. But it wasn’t coming. So I just said, “I’ve been here before, and recently.”
“Ji haan! You know some Urdu,” he said with yet greater surprise. And then in a graver tone, “You must know about the situation in our country.”
“Yes, I know a great deal about it,” I started to assure him, though I sensed that this wasn’t going to become a long conversation as he was already stamping my passport or whatever it was his job to do at this station. “I won’t be traveling alone. I’m staying with a family.”
“Just be very careful. Take care of yourself.” And he handed me back my passport with a look that spoke volumes to me, though it lasted only a fraction of a second. It was a look of concern, of sincere humanity, tempered with the necessity of his official job. He was not prying nor controlling, and being cautious to maintain the impartiality required of him. But there was an unmistakable note of compassion for me in his few words. He had not asked me anything about my purposes, and was not treating me with suspicion the way an American official would treat a foreigner. Instead he had entreated me to protect myself. That touch of humanity is unforgettable to me. And all this was mixed with the strains of deep lament for Pakistan, a melody of sadness that will be familiar to all those who love this troubled country in their hearts.
I would have liked to prolong that moment and tell him some of the many reasons I love his country, but there was a line behind me and his attentions had already shifted. So I thanked him and went on to gather my bags and was soon outside on the platform where Faisal was waiting for me. He greeted me with his usual cheeriness and took me to where the hired driver was waiting to take us to Hyderabad, which was my destination this time. Instead of the seven-hour drive to Larkana and a day packed with sightseeing, this time I was just going to be ferried the short distance to Hyderabad, where I would be received by my dear friend Inam Sheikh, and where I knew I would be allowed to rest a while before all the new adventures began.
Faisal chattered charmingly to me in the car as we drove into the night on the Karachi-Hyderabad Superhighway. At first he was reassuming his role as tour guide and offering to tell me more about the things we were passing and explain more unusual Pakistani customs that I might not know about. Gradually the conversation shifted to zanier things, like UFOs and the potentials of alien life forms having already made contact with us on this planet. I soon came to understand that Faisal had also recently taken a motion-sickness medicine that was making him a bit loopy as he also became increasingly sleepy. I told him he was welcome to go ahead and fall asleep there in the car, but he was very determined to stay awake until he had dropped me off in Hyderabad. “Emily, why don’t you come on to Larkana now--without you we will get boooored,” he drawled sweetly. His conversation became more and more adorably incoherent until, perhaps fifteen minutes before we arrived, he could no longer prevent his own slipping into the oblivion of sleep.
I had to wake him up, reluctantly, so that he could help the driver locate Inam’s house. This did not prove difficult, and when we turned down the correct street, I immediately recognized the familiar slim frame of Inam himself, where he was waiting outside to welcome me, even though it was 4:30 in the morning, and the rest of his household was still sleeping. My bags were unloaded and Faisal got back in the car to be taken the rest of the way to Larkana, presumably in a state of deep sleep.
Meanwhile, dear Inam showed no evidence of being tired at his own early wakeup call to meet me here. Such is the hospitality of Sindh. He brought me inside and offered me some juice and cookies, and we chatted for a few minutes about the itinerary for my next couple of days in Hyderabad before I retired to my guest room. The evening schedule had already been set -- a dinner with many of the leading intellectuals of Hyderabad awaited me that night, and the following night a slightly different gathering of similarly impressive friends over a concert of traditional Sindhi music. We decided that we’d save the visits to sites outside of Hyderabad for my second day, Makli and Thatta, and that we’d explore a little bit of the city itself on this first day--after an attempt on my part to sleep off a bit of my jet lag. (And those friends who were with me for these days in Hyderabad know that I wasn’t very successful! And was continuously fighting off that sleepiness on both subsequent days. But not to the detriment of my enjoyment of the many beautiful things that awaited me there.)
So I will stop this entry here in the hope that I will follow up very soon with the next entry, a more typical photo-documented episode, from this first day in Hyderabad. Namely, my visit to the tombs of the Talpur Mir emperors, which have been falling into ruin for the last centuries, but are now being meticulously restored. I have already begun to share photos from that visit on my Facebook page…. but soon I will write up the experience here in detail.
Until then: wari milandaaseen.
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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.