I wish I had made a sound recording from my first morning waking up in Larkana. Or really from any morning there, as it is always the same -- but on the first morning it was astonishing to me because of its newness. First off there was the rooster, who starts his morning devotional at about 4 AM, though there was nothing especially new to me about that, because of course I have heard roosters often enough in America. Having fallen asleep in a jet-lagged daze quite early the night before, I did start to wake up at the time of the rooster’s first crowings. But I must have dozed off again for a while, because the sound that I really woke up to was the call to prayer. And that was completely and utterly new to me.
And how to describe this sound! It was as if the sky itself were waking up, and not in one place, but in many. Not all at exactly the same second, but over the span of a prolonged moment as the different muezzins (cantors) of the different mosques throughout the city approached their loudspeakers. Some were close by, some farther away. All beginning to chant, not together, but with the same purpose, announcing that it was time for fajr, the sunrise prayer. The sound coming from even the closest speakers was hazy to my ears, blurring one Arabic word into the next like wet paint on a canvas. The combined effect was like an out-of-focus panorama, with a few voices standing out vividly in the foreground and many others of all sizes populating the middle and receding into the background.
And at this same time it seemed that the city itself was waking up, too. Presumably hundreds or thousands were actually performing their namaz, reciting their fajr prayer. But I observed over my weeks in Sindh that while religion is a constant companion of most Pakistanis, the more obvious rituals (like the performing of prayers, or the attending of mosques on Fridays) are often not strictly observed. At least, not “observed” in the kind of way I am used to as an American who grew up in the Christian church. In my home culture, “church” was a very specific thing, a segregated part of the week, for which you dressed differently, and which, though not unpleasant, was always a bit jarring, a bit out of step with the rest of life. (And that in itself is not a criticism of church--because a change of pace is often a welcome thing, especially with the harried schedules of the Western world.) But what I noticed in the predominantly Islamic space of Sindh was a presence of religion that was far more fluid in people’s lives, and yet in a strange way, less intrusive.
This is a big topic worthy of much deeper consideration, and already I am tempted to go on a tangent that would keep us from starting my day in Larkana for many paragraphs to come. But I will save those thoughts for a later entry, and for now finish off this soundscape that I am trying to create. The morning chanting came from every direction, a warm and enlivening sound, and it occurred to me that many people (not only here but all over the Muslim world) must have heard these sounds either in their morning slumbers or upon awakening for every day of their lives. The only comparable sound in the Christian culture is church bells, which do serve a similar purpose, if one happens to live close enough to a church to hear the bells, and if the bells are still in working order. Perhaps centuries ago one would have been able to hear a collage of church bells in the morning, coming from multiple churches in a town, covering the same kind of aural space as these many chantings of muezzins. But even then the sound would have a different quality, because what I was hearing this morning in Larkana was of course not just music but voices. And as they drew near to the end of their chants, it seemed that many other sounds had awoken as well. It was as if all the wheels of the city were slowly spinning into motion. Things began to whir and grind and clatter. Traces of laughter and conversation and calling and murmuring seemed to mix in. And the sounds of many animals, moving about, bleating and neighing, tweeting and chirping. The sound of papa Saeed’s peahen, a magnificent honk, punctuating the air at various intervals.
All this seemed to come to life, around 6 AM, on that morning. A Sindhi morning--just like any other, but my first.
Once awake, I was better able to take in my immediate surroundings than I had been the previous night in my sleepiness. Papa Saeed had placed us in the biggest bedroom of the house -- a room that takes up the whole third floor of his large house. This room had originally been the master suite, we learned later, but Papa and Ammi had moved themselves to the first-floor bedroom when Ammi’s sciatica had started making stair-climbing unpleasant. When they moved out of that room, my second sister Moomal moved in -- but we actually were not told this until much later, because no one wanted us to worry that we were displacing Moomal from her room. We were under the impression that this was a guest suite now.
And what a suite it was! An enormous bed and vanity and wardrobe occupied only about a third of the space, next to the bathroom, which we also had to ourselves. The rest of the expanse was all open, big enough for two other rooms. Two plush armchairs and a coffee table rested in the other far end, nearer to the door, close to the curved wall of windows. Papa had himself designed this house and had it built to his own specifications (something he shares in common with my American dad, who designed his own house too), but I had assumed upon first seeing this mansion that it must be quite old, because it seems a classic, and its materials are so fine. The defining feature of the Sangi house is a cylindrical portion at the back which extends up all three floors, and is plated with windows all the way up. They are cleverly designed one-way mirror windows, so that light reflects from them (useful especially in the sweltering Larkana summers), and no one can see in from outside. One whole wall of our bedroom suite was part of this curved window structure.
The previous night, as we were getting settled, all our belongings were brought up to us by a series of people, some of them servants, some of them new cousins and brothers, some of them we wouldn’t ever be able to identify. Our six bouquets of roses had been stacked on the coffee table. An electric keyboard had been left on a chair for Andrew (who is a musician), as well as a tamboora (see previous entry for explanation of that), which Papa had found somewhere or other. We had also been brought a tray with dishes of pasta in the evening, which had amazed us, because we were not used to being served food in our room. But that turned out to be only a minor surprise compared to what awaited us in the morning.
Papa Saeed, before going to sleep, perhaps at 2 AM after the wanwah celebration, had sent us a text message saying that he knew we would likely wake very early, so we would find breakfast outside our room. And there indeed, to our amazement, was another tray and a huge assortment of items that had been gathered for us. A loaf of bread, a toaster, some apple jelly, two teacups and saucers and spoons, teabags and instant coffee, a carton of Nestle milk, an electric water boiler, packages of biscuits (cookies, in American terminology), and probably more things that I can’t remember. All this had been left for us as we slept through the party we were supposed to be attending, so that we would not be hungry or experience any discomfort at all in the morning. Remembering this, I feel the same warm emotions welling up in me that I had that first day, and that I continued to have throughout my time in Sindh. So much care was given to us at each moment -- so much love in everything. I hope I can convey to all my readers how special this is.
By the way, this first morning in Larkana also happened to be Christmas morning. And it is the only Christmas I have spent away from my home country, though I was not too sentimental about that. Still my Sangi family were sensitive to it, and had not forgotten our holiday. My youngest sister, Mehak, and her fiancé, Daniyal, had decorated our room for us. Outside the door, in the hallway, they had pinned up a glittery garland to spell out MERRY CHRISTMAS in large red and green letters. Inside they had placed a small potted tree, some sort of conifer, which was decorated with lights and Christmas ornaments. (Later in the day, several of our younger new cousins came up to the room and sang some Christmas carols with us. They all knew the chorus of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and sang it with great gusto. We sang the verses for them, and explained how it is mostly about demanding free food, and they laughed with us and sang some more.)
So Andrew and I enjoyed our tea and breakfast that Christmas morning in the sunlight from the curved windows and the blinking lights of our little Christmas tree and the fragrance still emanating from all our rose bouquets. We sent Papa a text to let him know that we were awake, because he had also requested that. But we figured he would need to sleep a while longer, having partied so late the night before. Soon after this, however, we got a knock on the door, and there was Papa. I gave him a hug and apologized again for not coming to last night’s party. It was clear that we had been missed, and many people had asked about us, but Papa did not make us feel bad. He said he knew that if we had gone to sleep there was no way we would get back up for the party. And he giggled his patented, world-brightening giggle. And all was well.
“Come on, I take you on a tour of my house,” he said. And then he quickly corrected himself, “YOUR house, Sweet EM, and yours too, Andrew, son-in-law.” We followed him through the hallways of this airy house, which was still new to us, but which would soon feel like we had spent our lives there. Papa’s posture was that of a classic South Asian lord-of-the-manor: his chin high, his hands linked behind his back except when gesticulating towards his various rooms and possessions. And we observed with due admiration the home that he has built for himself over the past decades, all the product of his own merit and hard work. Now, I don’t know if the Sangis themselves would consider their home to be all that big or grand, compared to others of the same status. Because Sindhi families tend to be large and close-knit, it is not uncommon for homes to be big and accommodate many people, and it is common for families of the middle class and higher to have servants. (More about servants in a later entry, since that is one of the very big cultural differences between America and Sindh.) But to us, it certainly seemed so.
Despite the spaciousness of the house, though, it soon became clear to us that not everyone had the kind of kingly accommodations that we had been given. In fact, all the other bedrooms seemed to be packed with people, at least two each, and in many cases it seemed there were more like four or five, some sleeping in beds, some on couches, and some on the floor. It was probably 8 AM at this time, and apart from us and a couple of servants, the whole house was still asleep. Andrew and I would of course have happily waited to have our tour of the house when people were awake, not wanting to disturb them, but Papa was unconcerned. He ceremoniously opened each bedroom door, most of them creaking audibly under his hand, and described each scene in his uncontrollably booming voice: “THERE - PEOPLE SLEEPING ……. AND HERE…. MORE PEOPLE SLEEPING….” (Those who know Papa only via his Facebook profile will be pleased to learn that his characteristic all-capital style of typing suits not only his giant personality, but also his voice, which is deep and resounding even when he tries to speak softly.)
In each room we peeked in dutifully, but also tried to minimize the disturbance of the sleeping relatives by urging Papa back out into the hallway. “OKAY,” he said, smiling, “YOU WANT TO GO SEE LARKANA?” And we agreed that this was a wiser plan.
But this blog entry has already reached a substantial length, so I shall pause here. The next entry will share with you what we saw on that morning in Larkana, and the mehandi celebrations later in the day.
Countless stories are still waiting to be told.
The Hyderabad that we were leaving, now in the mid-morning, was a bustling and congested place, transformed from the sleeping city we had entered. But no amount of traffic could contend with our muscularly armed escort, which Andrew and I continued to watch in amazement as we continued on the highway north toward the shrine of Shah Latif.
To enter a Sindhi town, even by car, is to be enveloped by it. Depending on your mood, it might feel that you are being embraced or that you are being swallowed. Leaving the highway deposits you onto a narrower road, which nonetheless bears streams of traffic in different directions. Storefronts and houses cling close to the side of the road, and against them vendors and stalls cram themselves, filling all possible space. At times your car moves freely, but just as often you are sharing the road with a herd of water buffaloes, and they won’t easily yield the right of way.
And so it was as we entered Bhit Shah. The street that leads toward the shrine is itself a marketplace, full of village treats, carts full of nuts and sugary brittles and salty snacks that looked like popcorn but must have been something different. Banners were strung to form a loose canopy overhead. Half of these were red banners with the axe-logo of the Sindhi Nationalists, who want to separate from Pakistan and form their own country. But intermixed with those were the red-black-and-green banners of the Pakistan People’s Party, the party of the Bhuttos, which had at one point been Sindh’s deepest stake in the federation of Pakistan. One banner represents a hatred of the state of Pakistan, and the other represents a wish to rule within that united state. It seems at least to my still-learning mind that these forces are fundamentally opposed. But here in Bhit Shah, strings of these two banners hung together as if there were no political tension in between them.
At a certain point the road simply seemed to end, at least as far as motor vehicles were concerned. I realized then that we had arrived at the shrine itself. As we left the car, our security guards gracefully fanned out around us in a formation so as to leave none of our corners unprotected. One of them, who seemed to be their leader, judging from his dignified bearing, stayed with us, talking with Faisli in Sindhi. We walked up a few stairs and then paused to take off our shoes. I checked to make sure that my dupatta was wrapped firmly over my head.
A few steps further inward and we were in an entirely different space, where that busy marketplace at the bottom of the stairs seemed foreign. The inside of the shrine is its own world, a surreal place, bright and yet hushed and calm. Outside the door of the tomb sit a group of sufi musicians, who devote their day to singing songs written by their saint, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. On this morning there were five of these musicians, each sitting in a lotus position. Each musician’s lap cradled the round belly of a tamboora, whose long neck extended up over the musician’s left shoulder. The tamboora is a plucked string instrument, a kind of lute, and it is notable for being the instrument of Shah Latif himself, even invented by him, according to legend.
And who is this Shah Latif? My Sindhi readers will know the name as if it were their own grandfather, or something more than that, their Shakespeare, their guide, their role model. But Westerners, particularly Americans, will not have even heard of him. And for those readers, I can only give you a faint sense of how important this poet-saint is for Sindh. He was the first great poet of the Sindhi language in a time before the Sindhi language had been formally codified in writing. He lived from 1689 - 1752, which, incidentally, makes him an almost exact contemporary of the composer J. S. Bach. Latif was a learned man, a traveler, and is remembered to have been highly virtuous as well as ascetic. His great epic, the “Shah jo Risalo” (translated in one print edition as “The Message of Shah”), recounts the ancient legends of Sindh, many of them tragic romances focused on their heroines, in poetic form. And I have been told by many of my most educated and well-read Sindhi friends that Latif’s poetic excellence is no less than Shakespeare himself. My own grasp of Sindhi is still far too weak to make that judgment for myself, but I can attest that Latif’s words flow more deeply in the hearts of Sindhi people than I have ever observed anywhere else, with any other master of verse.
So that is the man whose tomb is enshrined in Bhit Shah, with this mystical checkered courtyard and finely painted pillars and mood of utter quiet. I don’t know how it is possible that I could have a sense of silence in this place, when in fact the five musicians were raising their voices in ecstasy almost without interruption. Somehow both things exist at once there: silence and sound.
And a beautiful sound it was. A plaintive solo voice would intone a verse and then be joined by the ensemble in a united chorus. I knelt down and sat with them for a few minutes. Andrew placed some rupees on their blanket as an offering, and received a black string bracelet in return, along with a heaping handful of small round candies, rose-flavored.
We paid our respects to the tomb of the saint and let the atmosphere surround us for only a moment -- though I would gladly have spent the day there.
But it was time to go. Faisli reminded us of the schedule. And from this point we also had expected our security guards to leave us, since they had only agreed to escort us as far as Bhit Shah, from which point they could easily drive back to their home base in Nawabshah. The head guard was still talking to Faisli, though; they were discussing something. As we got back in the car, Faisli told us that the guards would stay with us all the way to Larkana. It was quite a long way out of their way -- many hours out of their way, in fact -- but they wanted to stay with us. Perhaps they had been moved by the way we admired the shrine, I’m not sure. Perhaps they were surprised by the wonder on our faces. But something had moved them to stay with us, and I was beginning to feel a kind of emotional connection to them. A kind of kinship. This is something that happens in Sindh--kinships are created of all kinds. They simply happen. It happened to me even across 8000 miles, from which distances I had made all my Sindhi Facebook friends to begin with. And in Sindh itself, it happens at every turn. And it isn’t just me -- Andrew also found that he very quickly bonded with people in Sindh, especially our Sangi relatives, in a genuine way of the heart. On this first day, it was already happening on different levels, with our Sangi brothers, with our guards, with people we saw just for moments.
But back to the schedule. Our vehicles again nudged their way out of the arms of Bhit Shah and back onto the highway, now headed toward the town of Sehwan. We had divided Andrew’s rose candies amongst ourselves. Then Faisli reached down to a bag at his feet and revealed that papa Saeed had sent along a bundle of food for us to munch on during the drive. “He couldn’t let his beti go hungry!” smiled Faisli. In truth we were not hungry, but we at least contemplated the bag's contents as we continued down the road. Meanwhile, of the four bouquets of roses that had been stuffed behind our heads scented the air, occasionally reminding me of their sweetness when the fragrance caught the breeze.
After a while we again left the highway, and our car was elbowing its way into the narrow streets of the town of Sehwan (pronounced in a way very similar to the number ‘seven’). Our police escort naturally attracted attention, and many curious eyes were peeping into the windows of the car to try to figure out who we were. Andrew was sitting in the front seat, partially disguised by his mustache (grown specially for this trip to blend in with the locals), and some of the townspeople saluted him, thinking perhaps that he was a dignitary or wadera (landlord). Those who saw me in the backseat probably figured out that we were foreigners, but their attitude was never hostile--only curious.
It was sunny and sandy at the spot where the car parked, near the shrine of St. Qalander. Flies buzzed in the air. Once again our guards fanned out into their practiced constellation around us, and we stepped onto the marble floor of the expansive courtyard outside the shrine. It was a little after noon, the brightest time of day, and the shrine’s golden dome was gleaming opulently.
It is a larger and more ornate shrine than the one at Bhit Shah, and despite similar architecture it is a completely different experience. At Qalander one is more aware of the uneasy cohabitation of luxury and poverty. The building itself is gorgeous, with that glowing gold dome, and an interior glittering with thousands of inlaid mirror tiles that radiate out from the words “YA ALLAH” at the center of the ceiling. My pictures from inside the shrine, taken all too hurriedly, cannot do justice to that awe-inspiring space.
The boy followed us at a distance of maybe ten paces, still smiling at us like a cherub. We scrounged in our pockets for a bit of money to give him, and he trotted off contentedly. I wish I had stopped long enough to ask him his name, which is one of the few Sindhi phrases I could have actually managed at the time.
We were nearly at the car, and for the most part the guards had been able to discourage more beggars from approaching us. One woman was more persistent though, and she has imprinted herself on my memory. She was small and of thin frame, carrying a big, naked baby who seemed to be half her size. Her tactic for begging was not charm but intimidation. I couldn’t help but meet her eyes as we passed, piercing eyes, full of anger and deprivation. I couldn’t understand any of the words she spoke, so I couldn’t tell if she was just lamenting her need or actively cursing me for my privilege. It certainly felt like the latter. As we drove away, at a snail’s pace due to the congested roads, this woman followed us, slapping her palm against my window. Faisli could sense that I was distressed. “If you gave her money,” he said, “then all the other beggars would be doing the same.” And he was right -- yet I could understand that woman’s anger as well, and I will not forget her.
Eventually we rolled out of Sehwan and back onto the highway. We were now done with the day’s sightseeing, and what remained was the long road to Larkana. Faisali and Fahadi soon slumped into a sleepy heap on their side of the back seat and dozed the rest of the way. Andrew and I were awake for a lot of the journey, still charged with excitement and amazement at our surroundings. We marveled at the scenery, the dusty deserts, and the surprising chalky mountain range that materialized at our left side. Eventually I did close my eyes, but rest still eluded me.
After a few hours my phone rang--not my American phone, but a special Pakistani phone that Faisli had given me first thing at the airport. Periodically papa Saeed had been calling and texting to this number already. Now he was calling to find out how close we were to Larkana. I woke Faisal up and put him on the phone, and after shaking the drowsiness out of his head he was able to report that we were just half an hour out of the city now. Hanging up, he told us that Papa was coming in his car to meet us outside the city. And sure enough, after a few more minutes, our taxi pulled over to the side of the road, and there was the familiar shape of Papa-plus-camera: his enormous zoom lens extending from his face, having already documented our arrival with photos.
As Andrew and I got out of the car, papa handed the camera off to someone--maybe one of the guards--and rushed towards us with another bouquet of roses for each of us -- making bouquets # 5 and 6 for the day. And he also had two long strands of roses, garlands, which he proceeded to drape over our shoulders, while photos were snapped. And he gave us great bear-hugs of the sort that only papas can give, and welcomed us to our home. This was our papa whom we were meeting in person for the first time in our lives -- and our home in which we had not yet ever set foot -- but it was a true homecoming.
“Now you are coming in MY car!” said Papa, assuring us also that all our bags would be brought in from the other car by someone else. I was so tired at this point in the journey that my memory becomes blurred. It was late-afternoon, nearing sundown. As we drove those last minutes into Larkana and toward the Sangi house, papa was cheerfully pointing this out in the scenery--mostly birds. “There! .. is a dove…. and you see sweet EM… there is the bee-eater…” and giggling. And Papa’s giggling is infectious, even when you’re exhausted.
When we reached the Sangi house, Papa honked his horn several times, and the black iron gate was opened. Inside were a throng of Sangis, at least a dozen smiling faces, many of them unfamiliar to me. I did recognize my immediate Sangi siblings right away, as well as Ammi (our mother), but there were many more people here, too. Over the coming days I would get to know all of them and rapidly come to feel close to many of them--but on this first day I wasn’t able to absorb much else.
After this smiling chaos of introductions we were brought to our room, which I will describe more in the next blog entry. Our intention was just to rest for a couple of hours and then come down to the first of my sister Marvi’s pre-wedding celebrations, a big party called a “wanwah.” And indeed I had every desire to revive myself for that party--but my feeble constitution would not allow it. After washing myself up a bit and then shivering inside a blanket (houses are not heated in southern Pakistan, because there’s hardly any need, but this means that winter nights can become chilly), I could tell that I had reached the end of my energies, and needed much more time to recover. So we apologized profusely to the many celebrating Sangis, vowing to be our full selves for the other three celebrations yet to come.
And that was the end of what was possibly the fullest day of my life.
But each day that followed brought new and different adventures, which I am eager to share with you. The next entry will begin again in the early morning, with sound of Sindh as it wakes for prayer.
Below is a slideshow of my photographs, some of which are duplicates of the above,
plus some additional ones that help to tell the story.
The four of us (Andrew, Faisli, Fahadi, and I) stuffed ourselves back into the car, chilled from the wind over the Indus river bed. The sun blurred its way upward in those dusty skies and soon it was a bright winter morning.
We were approaching Hyderabad, where we were scheduled to stop for breakfast at the Indus Hotel with my friend and adi (sister) Shagufta Shah. It is perhaps because the ideas of “food” and “hospitality” are so closely linked in Sindh that restaurants seem to occur most frequently in hotel settings. Many times my Sindhi friends have referred to eating “hotel food,” which I have taken to be roughly the same as when an American says he’s “eating out” (or “ordering in,” if the food is coming to you).
In any case, the Indus Hotel was our current destination. My impressions of Hyderabad from that first morning are at once vivid and unreliable, since I was tremendously underslept and dizzy with the newness of my surroundings. But what I recall seeing as we entered the city was a multi-layered infrastructure of beautiful, dusty-clay colored slums. “Beautiful slums” is not a phrase I would have expected possible before coming to Pakistan. And I write now with caution, knowing this is a sensitive topic. I never wish to glorify the inhumane conditions in which so many people live in Pakistan. This has to remain an active tension throughout my writings here, and I don’t expect it to be resolved. There is miserable poverty, and there is joy and beauty, and these separate forces coexist in the most peculiar and fascinating ways.
And yet these slums are beautiful. There is something in the way the buildings rise out of the earth, many of them crumbling to the state of ruin, though they are in continuous use. The topography of the city, despite walled areas, seems more open than a western city. More fluidity between interiors and exteriors. And there is something lovely in the way the colorful signs on shop windows have been worn and faded by the bright sun and dust storms. The same faded colors, especially the green and red of the Pakistan People’s Party, are visible in thousands of political ads painted on buildings or posted on pillars. Vivid colors are also there, however, in the form of laundry hanging on lines from balconies--the marvelous spectrum of bold colors that are worn by Sindhi women.
Some of my readers will object to such a dreamy account of my impressions of Hyderabad, but I have already admitted a certain unreliability due to my sleepless brain upon arrival. Still I am being honest: beauty was my first impression. But the second impression, which overlapped with the first, was of garbage. This is another theme to which I will return later in this travelogue. Trash removal is nearly non-existent in much of Sindh. Garbage litters most streets and alleys, garbage of all sorts. Stagnant waste-water filled with garbage pools up in many open spaces. Hovering around these pools are always dozens of birds, hawks and scavengers, circling in on the refuse in swarms. This preponderance of waste products is one of the main blemishes on the beautiful face of Sindh.
At this early hour -- it wasn’t quite 7 AM -- most of the city had not yet awoken. The streets, which would soon be teeming with carts and rickshaws and cars and water buffaloes, were still mostly empty. We entered the city via a tree-lined street as the first of the morning’s traffic was starting to move. Though it was probably one of Hyderabad’s major thoroughfares, the road felt quite narrow to me, perhaps because the buildings on our left side were situated so close to the road, and many of them guarded from by high walls.
The Indus Hotel, it turned out, was one of these buildings, and it seemed to appear out of nowhere. It was protected by a heavy iron gate, outside of which there stood two uniformed and heavily bearded guards, with their rifles strapped across their chests. This is a far cry from American hotels, which are typically surrounded by enormous open parking lots, or else direct visitors to a publicly accessible garage, which will open for anyone at the press of a button. But this was Pakistan.
Our driver nudged the car up on the pavement in front of the gate, and Faisli dutifully sprung out of the car to talk to the guards. He told them that we were expected, and named some people who would be meeting us for breakfast. The guards seemed suspicious, or perhaps just curious in a muted way, but in any case they opened the gates for us with no argument.
Inside the gate was a small parking lot and a courtyard, with many more notes of comfort, if not luxury, than I had seen thus far. Potted plants, scrolled ironwork, whimsical sculptures and a fountain marked this as a place of relative privilege. The interior was ornate, in old-world European style. We were led to the dining room, where two of papa Saeed’s friends, smiling gentlemen both, were ready to receive us. It was an odd meeting because we did not know them and they knew almost nothing about us, and furthermore they couldn't speak much more English than I could Sindhi. But such things seemed irrelevant to them. They welcomed us not only with smiles but with two large bouquets of roses. And we all sat down around the large table, drinking mango juice and attempting conversation, usually requiring Faisli’s skills as translator, until adi Shagufta arrived.
And after a short wait, she did arrive, wearing a dark dress with a silky sea-green dupatta. With her was also our mutual friend Asma. Both greeted me with warm hugs, which, as is the tradition in Sindh, are followed by handshakes. (It took me quite some time to get used to that order of operations, since a handshake seems so much less personal than a hug, so it is rather anti-climactic. But soon I became accustomed to it.) The hug-and-handshake is the typical greeting, but only between members of the same sex. Men and women do not hug one another in Sindh, and indeed in many cases they do not even shake hands. My Sindhi friends are often shocked to learn that a light hug is a very typical greeting and farewell in America, regardless of gender. Fortunately I was well prepared for this, and had fairly effectively programmed my American habits out of myself.
So Shagufta and Asma greeted me with hugs and Andrew with warm smiles, and then they also presented us with beautiful bouquets of roses. We piled the bouquets on the table in a giant mound of fragrant colors. And then it was time to eat.
We were not yet hungry. Our stomachs were confused, of course, due to the new time zone and the lack of sleep and very strange meal schedule on the planes before. But it was again time to eat, so we dutifully approached the buffet and filled our plates with Sindhi breakfast foods. I will need to have Shagufta remind me of the names of some of these dishes -- one was qeema, which I involved some finely minced meat in a flavorful and oily sauce. The flatbread, which I believe is called paratha, was also a rich and oily affair. I was intimidated by the richness of these foods on my feeble appetite -- but still I savored every bite that I ate that morning. In fact, this particular breakfast may have been the most delicious meal out of many delicious meals that I enjoyed during the trip. I long to return there with a better appetite. The flavors still linger in my memory, though I am not yet able to name them precisely.
And then we were brought tea. This would be the first of hundreds of times throughout my three weeks that I would be served tea. Tea in Pakistan is the essential ingredient of hospitality, and I will return later to the social meaning that it has. In a restaurant setting, of course, the social value is less pronounced. But this first Pakistani tea still made a deep impression on me, simply because it was so delicious. Knowing that Pakistan was a land of tea, I had been preparing myself mentally for a life without coffee for three weeks, expecting that I would miss it very much. In America I’m always a coffee drinker, and I like my coffee to be strong and dark and mixed with rich cream. So typically I scoff at the kind of tea that we drink here, which is not much more exciting than hot flavored water (though those flavors may be quite varied and nuanced), and almost always taken without milk.
But Pakistani tea! This is a different matter. Pakistani tea is every bit as rich and indulgent as my coffee, especially when it is made the old-fashioned way, as it was this morning in the Indus Hotel. It was brewed strong and boiled with some very rich kind of milk, producing a dense orange-brown color in the teacup. It is no weak or watery affair. Never has a cup of tea been a more welcome boost to my nervous system than on this morning, when the lack of sleep was threatening to make me quite grouchy. Drinking my rich tea, I was suddenly content.
And at this time we were all enjoying conversation about the exchange of our cultures, the miracle of social media, and special joys and challenges of the Sindhi language. Adi Shagufta is a well-known writer in Sindhi (among many other talents), so it was a joy to get to chat to her in person about all this, though briefly, on this morning. Fortified by my tea, I felt I could have stayed there for hours among my friends.
But this is where the “being good and cooperating” thing came in. Faisli was eyeing his watch. It was time to get moving. The stop in Hyderabad, it turned out, was only the first of three stops we would be making before reaching our home in Larkana. I had been hoping that we could skip the other two stops and go straight home, not sure how much longer I could make it without sleep. (I am, admittedly, rather delicate in this way.) But now I was feeling reinvigorated, and the adventurous spirit was rekindled.
There was one more surprise in store for me, though, before even leaving the hotel parking lot. That was the arrival of our security detail. (!!) Papa had mentioned something to me about security in his communications before the trip, but I hadn’t known what he meant. But now I found that he meant serious security. An armed police escort. On this first day, papa had arranged with our friend Jamal Mustafa Syed (who is the Commissioner of Shaheed Benazirabad, and who will reappear later in my travelogue) for Jamal Mustafa’s own guards--no less than five of them!-- to meet us in Hyderabad and take us as far as Bhit Shah, which was to be our first stop.
“Do you want to say hello to them?” Faisli asked Andrew, and the two of them went outside the hotel gates for a moment. Andrew returned wide-eyed but smiling, telling me that he had managed to greet them in Urdu, but the language barrier had prevented any other communication apart from smiles and handshakes. Still I think the guards were charmed by Andrew, and he was charmed by them as well. “But wait till you see them in their vehicle!” he told me.
As we bade farewell to Shagufta and Asma, and our taxi driver was stuffing the four bouquets of roses in the space behind the back seat of the car, against the windshield.
And we piled back into the car and left the hotel, now following behind the narrow black police jeep that was our new escort. One of the guards, wearing a black helmet, emerged from the sunroof of the vehicle and stood imposingly with his gun, signalling with his hands for the other traffic to get out of our way. Two of the others remained outside the jeep at first, preferring to climb in through the open back of the car when it was already moving, in action-movie style. Those two then took their posts at the back of the jeep, pointing their Kalashnikovs out almost directly at us in our taxi. This became a routine sight for me in Pakistan, but on this first day I was flabbergasted. So much show of force, all in the name of protecting us. “I feel less safe now,” Fahadi quipped from the seat beside me.
After that initial surprise, though--and I did watch these guys in utter astonishment for the next hour or so--I felt deeply honored that these five men had been charged with the task of protecting us.
That is where I will end this second installment, though only a couple more hours have been covered in all this text. The next installment will bring us finally to the shrines of the great poet-saints Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai and Qalander before we finally reach our home in Larkana.
I do wish I could offer you a cup of tea.
I wonder if anyone, especially any Westerner, has ever been so excited about a first trip to Pakistan as I was. Most Americans have only a hazy understanding of what Pakistan is, and no particular desire to travel there. But for me there could be no more desirable destination. And the experience I had during this three-week introduction to Pakistan’s southern province of Sindh fulfilled and exceeded all my expectations. There were surprises and wonders everywhere. I’ll try to bring as much of my experience to life in this blog, and perhaps if my compatriots take the the time to read it, they also will want to visit or at least learn more about my favorite country.
I’ll avoid any extensive explanation here of how I became interested in Pakistan and Sindh, since that can be found in earlier entries to my blog. Suffice it to say that, at the time of this first journey, I had been immersing myself in all things Pakistani for about three years. In a mental sense, I was already living in Sindh; this was the place where I felt my thoughts were at home. I was possessed of a great longing to travel there, a feeling much deeper than a simple interest or restlessness or urge for adventure. Somehow I had come to feel that this was the place where I would discover my own usefulness.
But I had not actually yet seen my Sindh or breathed its air or walked on its dusty soil. So I was bubbling with glee and anticipation throughout the long plane journey from New York City to Karachi on 23/24 December 2014.
It’s about 14 hours of in-flight time between those two points on the globe (with additional layover time in Dubai). Due to the timing of the flight and the crossing of so many time zones, the experience is that of an exceptionally long night. We had left New York a little before midnight, and it was still completely dark as our second plane approached Karachi, although a calendar day had passed in the meantime. As the plane started to lean into its descent, I set the screen in front of me to display the forward camera view. I watched the city lights, which glowed orange like embers, smoldering, arranged haphazardly against the coastline, as they grew larger in the frame until we touched down.
Karachi is the second-most populous city in the world (after Shanghai), home to as many as 24 million people. I was expecting its airport, Jinnah International, to be similarly vast, if not well-appointed -- perhaps a large but bare-bones warehouse of a place, filled elbow-to-elbow with world travelers. What I found instead was a small and sleepy airport, decorated in warm brown hues recalling the 1970s. I wondered how it was possible that this quaint place could serve such an enormous population. Though I don’t still know any official answer to that, I presume it must be because only a very small proportion of the population actually has the means or the opportunity to travel anywhere by air.
The mood in that airport was calm and friendly, despite the startling presence of policemen posted throughout the corridors with Kalashnikovs strapped across their chests. Over the next few weeks I would become quite used to the sight of such guards; you can spot them outside private homes, grocery stores, pharmacies, offices, and any other place whose occupant has the means to hire them. The Kalashnikov appears to be the weapon of choice among security forces, and it does make a big statement in its appearance. (By contrast, American cops typically carry only a handgun, which rests secure in its holster almost all the time.) I remain largely opposed to guns and gun culture, but I did develop a more nuanced attitude toward them over these few weeks, as I spent much of the time under the protection of such armed guards. My reaction to the sight of the big guns became far less visceral, mainly because I never felt that their bearers seemed trigger-happy. There seemed to be an unspoken sentiment among the cops and guards that their arms were a necessity and a reality for a country in turmoil, but none seemed eager to intimidate or frighten people with them. I have seen American cops who were far less heavily armed, yet far more intimidating in their attitudes to the general public than these Pakistani guards, who seemed alert but gentle at heart. Not once did I witness or hear the firing of one of these guns--except in celebratory fire (at New Year’s and later after a small-town wedding).
But enough of guns for the moment. The topic of security will arise again soon enough. The mood in the airport was a placid and friendly one.
Having read the government’s policies about customs, we had prepared ourselves for close examination of our bags and had resigned ourselves to paying duty on all the gifts we had brought. But as it turned out, there was no such ordeal, and in fact the entirely of our customs experience was a quick chat with a jocular officer who seemed excited about our arrival and not at all concerned with our luggage.
“Sir, what is your profession?” he asked my husband.
“I’m a musician,” Andrew answered, and he explained his job in just a few more words as the officer started smiling and his trimly bearded face took on a charming, impish expression.
“How wonderful!” said the officer with genuine delight. “And you, madam?”
I explained that I am a photographer, and that we were coming to Pakistan and particularly to the city of Larkana to visit many of my friends, including one who was getting married.
But it was clear from his expression that this explanation was not necessary, and I was just making conversation rather than being inspected. His arms had opened in a magnanimous gesture.
“Welcome to Pakistan!” he grinned. And that was the extent of the customs inspection.
Outside on the verandah the air was cool, but not wintry. The golden arches of a big MacDonald’s looked on from across the street, as if to shelter us Americans from any too-sudden culture shock. And soon we found my brother Faisal, who had been sent to pick us up.
I should quickly explain here about my family. I am lucky enough to have two families: the biologically-related one that raised me, very lovingly, in America, and the Sindhi family that adopted me in a spiritual sense, just a little more than a year ago. That adoption was led by Dr. Saeed Sangi, who, not long after meeting me on Facebook, proclaimed himself my papa. And the beautiful thing about this was that the feeling was mutual. Papa Saeed was sharing my communications also with his wife (known to him and many of our friends as “Boss,” though I have come to call her “Ammi” (mom) like the other Sangi kids), and she also seemed eager to have a parental role in my life. And within a few months from that first meeting with papa Saeed, I also came to know and love each of my five Sangi siblings -- Marvi, Moomal, Fawad, Faisal, and Mehak -- who welcomed me into the family with just as much love and warmth as Papa and Ammi. Marvi is three years younger than I am, so I became the eldest daughter of the family.
My Sangi family has been conscious of not trying to “steal” me too literally from my American family, but this informal adoption is no joke. The family treats me (and Andrew as well) with every bit as much love and care as they do the creations from their biological production line (papa’s term). And for my part I have felt a genuine member of the family for quite some time. So although I had not yet met Faisal in person, there was no doubt in my mind that I was meeting my true brother there at the airport.
And not just one brother, as it turned out. My experience in Sindh was that there was always more of a good thing than expected. So at the airport we were greeted not only by my brother Faisal, who had flown down from Larkana in order to accompany us back up, but also by two new Sangi faces: Fahad, a 14-year-old cousin, and Nisar, Fahad’s father. All three of them greeted us with warm smiles, even though it was 4:30 AM and the sky still completely dark. They helped us get our suitcases into the cab, and we waved goodbye to Nisar (whom we would get to see again soon, at the wedding).
Between us, Andrew and I had two big suitcases and one little one, which had fit comfortably in the trunk of our own small car. This taxi seemed comparable in size to our own car, but the trunk was much smaller, and we could only one of the big suitcases along with the little one in there. The other big suitcase had to come in the back seat, where Faisal, Fahad, and I squeezed ourselves alongside it.
I reached around blindly for the latch in which to buckle my seatbelt--an American habit which turned out to be completely out of synch with Pakistani attitudes. The only seatbelt rule in Pak applies to the driver, and only when he is out on a major highway. At all other times, seatbelts remain completely ignored, if not actively removed. In this cab, the reason I wasn’t finding the buckle latch was that it actually wasn’t there.
The reason for the smaller trunk also soon became clear, when we stopped outside of Karachi for fuel. This car, like many in Pakistan, was run not on gasoline but on CNG--Compressed Natural Gas, an environmentally-friendly and cost-effective alternative (though trunk space has to be sacrificed for the necessary converter). CNG was an entirely new concept for me, and I don’t yet know why it’s not a common alternative fuel in America. It seems to be the fuel of choice in Pakistan, and the filling stations that appear along the highway tend to have laudatory names like “Mashallah CNG” and “SubhanAllah CNG.” When we stopped at Mashallah CNG, a couple of cloaked men, draped completely against the night air such that only their eyes were visible, sprung up from the cot where they had been sitting and approached to fill the tank. They were fast-moving, shadowy figures, or at least, so they seemed to me on this first early morning in Pakistan.
The dawning of this day brought with it a gradual immersion into the foreignness of this country. Of course I was prepared for many things; I’ve seen pictures, video footage, read books and poetry, heard songs about this land. But still I was surprised by beauty of the place. The vast expanses of sand and dust have a gentle and blurred quality, and dust merges with the road and the sky in a subtle palette of pink and beige and lavender and grey. Those sandy expanses seemed as foreign to me as the surface of the moon. But they were only certain stretches of the scenery. In other parts, especially as we traveled north toward Larkana, the land proved itself tremendously fertile. The roads were often flanked with large and neatly bordered green wheat fields, strewn with enormous mounds of threshed hay. And all the different trees -- shapes of trees that I never see in my home country. Beautiful date palms, rising high. Squat and jaunty banana trees. Strangely twisted and leaning trees (I don’t yet know what kind they were) that stand in lines and seem to be in a state of constant genuflection. And between these fields I could catch many glimpses of dirt roads that connect different farm plots, roads lined on each side with trees that form a graceful canopy. [I’ll insert photos here to illustrate these kinds of roads once I have sorted through all the hundreds I took during the trip.]
Throughout the drive, Faisli and Fahadi were helpfully explaining the scenery to us. It was a great relief to us that they both speak excellent English (as many young Sindhis do), and they seemed to know instinctively what things would surprise us and what wouldn’t. Meanwhile Faisli was often taking phone calls from papa Saeed and conferring about our schedule ahead. This schedule had been created completely without our knowing, and I was still unclear of the details, but it was clear from Faisli’s side of the conversation that we had a full day ahead of us.
“Don’t worry,” said Faisli in his friendly tone. “As long as you both cooperate, we’ll still get to Larkana by mid-afternoon.” I was charmed by this matter-of-fact exhortation to ‘cooperate,’ even though I had no idea what was about to happen.
But let me say a few more words about the scenery, which was so exciting to me on this first morning. The fancifully painted freight trucks on the highway were a surprise to Andrew, but I knew to expect them. Still they are a delight to the eye, if also something of a terror to the newly arrived American unused to seeing them barreling down the road towards you in a near head-on collision. (Traffic rules are nearly non-existent in Pakistan, and the general attitude of a driver is to pass slower vehicles from any direction possible, often including the oncoming traffic lane.) As we got further from Karachi, many other kinds of vehicles mixed in with the trucks and less exotic trucks and vans. Soon there were donkey carts, laden with enormous stacks of crops. There were tractor-like vehicles with open beds stacked to the sky with sacks of heavy grains, all looking like they might topple over at any moment, yet somehow maintaining balance. Often there were people riding aloft those sacks, not concerned about the speed on the highway or any potential of falling off. Soon there were also water buffaloes inhabiting the streets, though only as we passed by towns, where there were also a copious array of colorful motor rickshaws. There were shepherds leading goats and sheep. And my favorite of all -- the camels, leading carts of carrying passengers, the stately and eccentric “ship of the desert.”
But I am getting ahead of myself, because most of these are common sights in more inland Sindh, but relatively infrequent between Karachi and Hyderabad, which was our current destination on this early morning. We were scheduled to have breakfast at the Indus Hotel in Hyderabad, along with my dear adi (sister) Shagufta Shah and a few other friends who were ready to welcome us. (Adi Shagufta is another part of my extended Sindhi family, which includes not just Sangis, but many people who have brought me into their loving familial embrace.)
But we were about an hour ahead of schedule, and there was no point going to the hotel before it even opened. So someone, probably papa on the phone, had the idea of taking us to some place where we could see the Indus at sunrise. This seemed to me the perfect first location for my photography, so I eagerly agreed. Dawn had already broken by the time we made it to a bridge over the Indus near Jamshoro, but it wasn’t long past daybreak when we got out of the car at the side of the road.
The Indus itself was nearly dry at this part--dammed up for the winter, Faisli told me, but in the summer the waters are high. I snapped some quick photos of the river bank in the early morning light, and then Andrew and I followed Faisli and Fahadi who had started to wander down a narrow walkway on the bridge, beside the traffic of trucks and tractors. It felt a strange dream, on a narrow bridge over the Indus with my new brothers, in the chill of the morning.
That cool air had seemed tolerable at first, but it became windy within moments of our being outside, and soon we were chilled to the bone. Having ventured only a short distance across this bridge, the four of us quickly found ourselves rushing back to the car and shivering.
That was my first introduction to the land of the Indus. And it is only the tiniest piece of the story I have to tell. Next up: a brief but wonderful moment in Hyderabad, more road adventures, and visits to two sufi shrines, all before reaching my Sangi home in Larkana. (Coming soon.)
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.