Part 3: Sindh.
There was once a time, long ago, when I did not accept Facebook friend requests from people I didn't know. (This is how my beloved and long-suffering hubby Andrew likes to start the story of my relationship with Sindh.) And it wasn't a big issue, since I only rarely received requests from strangers. But one fateful day in September 2011, a request from Pakistan caught my eye. The name was Nisar Khokhar, a journalist, and according to his bio he had worked for BBC Urdu. Being a fanatical devotee of BBC radio and news, I was inspired to respond. Cautious at first, I wrote a message to Nisar and explained that I didn't normally accept requests from strangers, but he seemed interesting and I was curious as to how he had found me. He wrote back graciously and politely, saying that he had noticed some of my comments on a BBC Facebook page, and, seeing that I also work in the media field, thought it could be nice for us to connect. I accepted the request -- my first online friend in Pakistan. I had no idea, that day, that within a couple of years I would have more than 1,000 more of them!
My friendship with Nisar developed gradually. I had a natural interest in his part of the world (see previous two posts), and so was quite fascinated when he shared pieces of his work with me (stories he had written, television specials in which he was the featured correspondent). I learned that he lived in Hyderabad, the second-largest city of Sindh province, the southernmost province in Pakistan. He works primarily in Sindhi, so I would have to ask him to explain a lot of the content to me. Responding with typical Asian enthusiasm (a trait I have found and love in most of my friends abroad), he did his best to make his culture accessible to me.
But this friendship and my association with South Asia in general remained minimal until a catastrophic series of monsoon floods hit Pakistan, battering Nisar's region especially brutally. It was the first time I remember being aware of hearing the words "Sindh Province" in the news (names of the Pakistani provinces are not too familiar to Westerners generally, and especially not to Americans). I wrote to Nisar to ask him what the situation was in Hyderabad, and what could possibly be done to help. He was pleased that an outsider was taking interest. And indeed I was interested. One photo album that I chanced upon in my feed, posted by a one of Nisar's FB friends and fellow Sindhi journalist (Altaf Pirzado - who became my second Pakistani FB friend) made a deep impression on me.
Altaf's album documented his recent coverage of the struggles of flood victims in rural Sindh. Just a handful of pictures in which he extends a microphone to a crowd of women and children. Yet such women, and such children! This was not the image of drab poverty that I had expected. Poverty it is--there is no denying the lack of privilege among this under-served community. But there was such an unusual grace and beauty among these people. Though poor and shelterless, these women are clad in all the colors of the rainbow. (I now know this style of dress to be typical of the Thar desert which extends through Sindh and across the Indian border into Rajasthan.) They are strong and stand holding infants or guiding colorful young children by the hand. Their faces are hardened but bear witness to a visible inner nobility. These are people who live in catastrophic poverty, and yet they burst from the screen with personality.
In the years since first meeting Nisar and Altaf, my group of Sindhi friends has grown exponentially. At first it was largely reporters, but gradually I also met teachers, doctors, students, shopkeepers, farmers. I was at first amazed to see how many of these new friends were also poets. The culture of poetry (reading, writing, and performing) is as alive and vibrant in Sindh (and in South Asia more broadly) as the colors of the Thari women's dupattas. Even before I started learning local languages, I realized I was going to have to learn new ways to communicate with these new friends. It wasn't purely an issue of language comprehension--though those problems do arise. More importantly I had to learn a different rhythm of ideas, a more figurative mode of expression, a very different balance of emotions from what I was used to. It has taken time, and sometimes still catches me off guard, but now on the whole I feel more comfortable communicating in the mode of my Sindhi friends. I found in them a refreshing lack of unnecessary self-consciousness and modest, a boldness in expressing opinions, and a welcoming of new ideas. That sense of WELCOME has been the most important of all. Dozens of families have extended an invitation to their homes, hundreds have expressed curiosity in me and my life. When Sindh came into my life, the size and scope of my idea of "home" increased a hundredfold.
I'm especially pleased that my friendship with Nisar has continued throughout these past years. Last March Nisar visited the US for the first time, as part of a cultural exchange program for journalists (Americans travelled to Pakistan and vice versa, meeting up with one another before and after to compare experiences). While Nisar was in New York City, my husband and I traveled up to meet him. It was a brief visit -- just long enough for dinner and chatting -- and for the exchange of a few cultural presents. Nisar brought ajraks (large printed shawls that are an ancient symbol of Sindh) for Andrew and me, embroidered with our names, as well as pieces of earthenware from Moenjo-Daro, the site of one of the world's most ancient civilizations. We gave Nisar a baseball cap, T-shirt, and a few other local items. (Unfortunately for Nisar, our offerings were far less magical than his! But he received them with great smiles.)
My story with Sindh extends far beyond these few threads of narrative I've braided together here. The number of deep friendships I have made and individuals worth naming is vast. But now I have at least established the basis of my adventures in Sindh, and in Pakistan more broadly, and in South Asia on the whole.
One final item for this page. A few months ago I received a package containing a gift from a friend of mine from Karachi. He had been telling me about "thari bangles" and asking if I knew how to wear them.... I thought, of course, who doesn't know how to wear bangles? But when they arrived I was surprised to see how many of them there were, of a variety of sizes. It takes quite an effort even to arrange them on the arms. Also in the package was a green and red dupatta: bold, yet graceful in its folds. Putting it all together, I realized what was exciting about these items: they were very similar to the attire of those extraordinary women of the Sindhi plains who were interviewed by my friend Altaf after the floods. These were bits of that culture that first attracted me to the region. Realizing this, I felt especially honored to decorate myself with them.
Part 2: The Magic Box.
Actually, this is the real Part I. This is the farthest-back point in my history of discovering South Asia. And for the first two decades of my life, it would have seemed an outlier. But whenever someone asks me how I first became interested in that part of the world, in my heart I want to mention this. Usually there is no time for such flights of nostalgia. But here I will indulge, and those who are not interested can move on.
My grandmother told me that her brother had brought this box back for her as a souvenir from India, where he had worked for some time. She told me the box came from the same place as the Taj Mahal -- this was my first time ever hearing of such a place -- and she showed me a picture. Since that moment I have thought that this had to be the most beautiful work of human craftsmanship in the world. The form and outline of this palace was so refined, so beautifully balanced, so serenely graceful.
But my grandmother then told me something yet more extraordinary: that the walls of the Taj were not blank, but inlaid throughout with jewels just like the ones on her box. This bit of magic that seemed impossible even in a tiny size -- this level of ornamentation could cover vast walls in the most beautiful building on earth.
For many years after this first discovery, my ideas of the subcontinent remained hazy, but also romantic, beautiful. The seed of curiosity had been planted deeply in my psyche, but it was dormant for many years. Further entries to this blog will attempt to describe the circumstances of its re-awakening.
My grandmother has passed away, and the box is now mine. It still carries for me all the magic that it did when I was a wide-eyed child. And I am still amazed at the grace and refinement of Mughal architecture. I haven't yet made my way to Agra to see the Taj in person, but it will happen someday. And I am discovering it anew all the time. Imagine my enchantment upon seeing the film Mughal-e-azam -- particularly the extraordinary sequence "Pyaar kiya to darna kya," a song and dance in honor of fearless love, performed in a ballroom that is itself a grand version of my jeweled box. With that song I shall end these reminiscences...
Part 1: Surprises
I love to surprise new South Asian friends with a greeting in Urdu (or Hindi). Even better, responding in Urdu to a comment I was not expected to understand in the first place.
It is a strange thing for an American girl to be learning Asian languages -- especially for a girl with no Asian heritage, who has to date never traveled farther East than Rome. But the element of surprise works both ways. As I learn more about the wider world, especially the Muslim world, I am more and more amazed at how little I knew previously. How little I was taught in school. How little of Islam is present in the American consciousness.
Here's something that particularly surprises me: until a few years ago when I began taking a focused interest in South Asia, I had no idea that Pakistan was once part of India. I had never heard the name of Pakistan's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who was just as deeply involved in the independence movement as were Gandhi and Nehru (and those are figures that any American schoolchild can name). Shocking enough that I didn't know these crucial elements of world history, despite being a highly educated person who has lived her almost entire life in towns devoted primarily to higher education. Even more shocking, though, is that I am not a fluke. I have made it a regular point of conversation to ask others around me if they know who Jinnah was. And not just asking flighty teenagers or confirmed couch potatoes. I am asking college professors, people with multiple degrees, people who frequently impress me with the breadth and depth of their knowledge, sometimes even in the field of HISTORY. And yet almost NONE of these intelligent Americans has ever heard of Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
But I have heard of Jinnah now. And daily I am coming to know more of the country he founded. Many of my American friends were initially surprised (some still are) when I started to immerse myself in things Pakistani, asking if it was just a phase. A few years have passed now, and I can assure them without doubt that it is no phase.
The more I learn, the more paths of inquiry I discover. I have been blessed with a journey.
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.