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.
My brother Fawad drove us that particular afternoon to Papa Saeed’s clinic--a short drive across town through the now-familiar streets of Larkana. Because he is protective of my safety, Fawad wanted me to sit in the backseat of the car, where I would be less visible. In general I had grown quite used to wearing covering my head with my dupatta whenever I rode in a car, but when riding with Papa alone I always rode happily in the front and didn’t mind the inquisitive stares of Larkanians who so rarely see pale-faced visitors to their city. But it is not unusual for women to ride in the back, completely covered, as a matter of routine. Dark window shades a common feature of many cars in Pakistan, serving to protect the women inside both from the harsh rays of the sun and the roaming gaze of men on the street. We didn’t have those screens up in the windows, but I kept myself well veiled as I sat in the backseat with Papa, while our guard, Hajji Mehmoud, sat in the front.
Papa’s clinic is situated near the mouth of a long alleyway that was already quite familiar to me from his photographs. I love alleyway views like this one, with their different surfaces and angles, with light bouncing in unusual directions as it ricochets down the narrow passage. And there were extra reflective surfaces for that light on this particular afternoon, mirrors of leftover rainfall from the previous day--a rare occurrence in arid Larkana.
The office was already open and alive with patients when we arrived. Papa’s assistant had already triaged several patients, early arrivals, who were now hovering about the small waiting room. We squeezed through this room and turned right to enter Papa’s inner office, which is not much bigger than the waiting room.
“Not many patients today, SWEET EM!” said Papa as he rounded the corner of his desk and sat down. “Maybe because it is Saturday. You want some tea? And cookies?” And he motioned for the assistant to go and fulfill that order. As usual I have no idea where the tea came from, but after a while it did materialize as always, along with a plate stacked high with crumbly butter cookies.
But within moments the “not many patients” started streaming into the room. They do not set up appointments in advance--they simply know what hours Papa usually comes in, and they come, and they wait their turn. Sort of. While Papa tends one patient, the next patient or two is already in the room. And most patients are accompanied by a small swarm of relatives, so the room fills quickly, but the mood is kept buoyant by Papa’s joyful banter and impish giggles.
This busy scene, a doctor’s inner office brimming with simultaneous visitors, came as a genuine surprise to me. In America, a doctor’s office is a quiet sanctum of privacy and confidentiality--not just by choice, but by law. The Western legal system protects medical information with iron-clad injunctions, and a person’s medical condition is considered extremely personal information, to be divulged only with the most trusted friends and associates. The Western attitude is so extreme, in fact, that one can easily find oneself in an awkward situation around the simple question “how are you”--because if the answer is anything other than “fine,” then careful tiptoeing must often ensue if the inquirer wants to ascertain the source of the other person’s ailments, even if he merely wants to be compassionate. And there are further complications to medical etiquette in the Western setting. Health matters are not only considered private and sensitive to the person in question, but a potential burden to the hearer. Someone who is genuinely suffering from some illness, through no fault of his own, will feel uncomfortable telling others about it, in fear that it will burden or discomfort them. And even more frequently, Westerners will keep their ailments secret for fear of being judged, for being considered ‘weak’ or ‘unfit’ for whatever essential work they are supposed to be doing with their lives.
Coming from this context, it has often amazed me -- but in a refreshing way -- when my Pakistani friends announce their illnesses in public statuses, share images of their surgical wounds, and even upload images of themselves in hospital beds, connected to IV drip fluids. I myself have had to spend what felt like interminable stretches of time lying wretched in a hospital bed attached to such a drip, and feeling so ashamed of my potentially perceived ‘weakness’ that I didn’t even want visitors--and I would have been mortified if anyone had shared a picture of me in that situation. But for many of my Pakistani friends, this is not something to be ashamed of at all. It is a normal thing, to go through health woes, to ask for prayers, and to recover. On the whole, that strikes me as a much healthier attitude. Westerners, on the whole, try to conceal illness and forget about it. I think that we in the West actually tends to give the impression that we are never ill and never suffer -- which is both egregiously untrue and unhelpful for our own psyches and our appearance to the world. From what I have observed in the East, illness is far less stigmatized, more present, more normalized.
In any event, the patients who poured into Papa’s office on this Saturday afternoon did not seem at all bothered by my presence during their visits, even though I was not only an outsider, but an outsider with a camera. All were pleased to greet me and have their picture taken, even as they were being examined. Of course, they were all introduced to me as Papa’s daughter from America--so not really an outsider. But still, their unabashed openness, not only with me but also in view of a handful of other strangers who were waiting to be seen by the doctor, was remarkable to me.
The first patient was a woman with a gentle smile, who was accompanied by a man, probably her husband, but perhaps even her father or some other relation. The woman sat up on the examining table, and Papa's standard cardiological dialogue ensued.
“Dey khabar. Dil men soor aathey?” asked Papa. (“Tell me what’s new. Any pain in your heart?”)
She shook her head.
Papa raised his stethoscope to her back.
“Saah khann,” he instructed. (“Take a breath.")
She breathed. “Drigho saah khann,” he said. (“Take a deep breath.”)
This particular patient didn’t speak much, letting her companion do most of the talking. He had a businesslike manner and a stately appearance, with a bright white beard and a weathered underneath the coils of an ajrak turban, and he wore a blazer over his shalwar kameez. He brought with him a bag full of the woman’s medicines, which he presented to Papa Saeed and discussed them with him in some detail. And this was also a striking contrast to what I am used to: not only medical information but medicines themselves are strictly regulated in the West, especially in America. For any drug more powerful than a simple Tylenol (paracetamol), a patient must get a prescription from the doctor to present to the pharmacist, who then passes it through elaborate insurance bureaucracy before eventually printing up a specially labeled bottle with dosage instructions as well as the patient’s and doctor’s contact information, and often an additional small file of papers that include every possible side effect that has ever been experienced with the drug in question. (I am not kidding.) In Pakistan, there are no such regulations in place. Drugs are bought without prescription and without insurance (and prices for drugs, fortunately, are only a tiny fraction of what they are in America). A doctor is needed to give the crucial advice about what to take and in what dose, but after that it is up to the patient to buy the right medicine and remember his dose. Conscientious patients and their caretakers, like this gentlemen in the ajrak turban, are wise to bring the medicines themselves to the doctor and make sure that they are being used properly.
Around this time, Papa’s assistant, who had been busy in the anteroom, reached back in through the doorway to lay a small wad of paper slips into a slot on Papa’s desk. Papa unfolded one of these narrow strips to its full length of perhaps a yard; it was printed with a fine red grid overlaid with a jagged black line--the printout of an EKG. [Note: yes, admittedly, the acronym “ECG” makes more sense as an abbreviation of Electrocardiogram. But EKG is also an accepted version of this, and it’s what we usually say in America. In any case, it’s the same thing.] As I would soon learn, every patient receives an EKG during triage, before his or her visit with Papa, and the results reliably appeared upon his desk in time for him to peruse them. Like other doctors’ offices that I have seen in Sindh, nothing here was computerized. There was no computer on Papa’s desk, and no clicking of a mouse to check into medical records. This medical system is analogue, physical, unmediated.
Payment is treated likewise in a simple and unmediated way. Before leaving, each patient pays the same fee, in cash -- 500 rupees, which translates to roughly $5. This amount can buy much more in Pakistan than it can in America, as food and most other products are much cheaper. To poorer Sindhi patients, 500 rupees is a significant amount, but still it is not overwhelming. For Papa, it is essential income and spending money for his family.
Many more patients came through the door in these few hours I spent at the clinic. Some came from nearby villages, others from within the city, and some had even traveled dozens of miles to come to Papa specifically. One such patient was a formidable-looking Baloch gentleman wearing a Sindhi topi over his immense and impressively coifed beard and mustache. That aspect of severity fled quickly from his face when asked by Papa Saeed to smile for the camera--an irresistible entreaty, as anyone who is familiar with Papa will already know.
The most loving smiles that I received on this day, though, were from a pair of women who arrived together, one wearing a full burqa and the other also elaborately covered, both of whom soon lifted their veils to reveal their gentle faces. Papa Saeed explained to them that I was his American daughter, but he might as well have said that I was their own daughter, from the warmth of the hugs and greetings that they both gave me. And there was something especially poignant to me about this warmth coming from women who wear burqas. Burqas are not uncommon in Pakistan, but I have had very few interactions with their wearers--most Pakistani women I have spent time with wear a simple dupatta as a hijab, or else none at all. But the few times I have spoken with burqa-clad women, after they have lifted that front panel and revealed their smiling faces, I have been particularly struck by their kind spirits. Now, probably they were no more kind than the other women I met in many other situations, who on the whole can also be characterized by beautiful smiles and welcoming spirits. More likely it is simply a remnant of a Western fear of the burqa, which is an understandable if unjustified fear, simply because it is a marker of mystery -- we feel uncomfortable if a face is concealed from us; we feel that this person must be unapproachable. And when the face beneath is revealed as being full of love and grace--it is a memorable thing. I will always remember the grace of these two women, who kindly allowed me to take their portrait.
When another bundle of EKG-slips materialized on Papa’s desk, I asked if I could go see their source.
“OF COURSE SWEETIE,” said Papa, who then summoned the assistant, who, in turn, motioned for me to follow him. There connected to the waiting room was another, even smaller and sparer room, where a young girl in green embroidery was lying on a table. Standing beside her was a man who was clearly a relation. “Tawhanjee ddee aahey?” I asked him in my very halting Sindhi. (“Is she your daughter?”) He shook his head and told me in his own hesitant English that the girl was his niece.
As the assistant started positioning nodes for the EKG reading, I asked the uncle in some combination of Sindhi and English if it would be okay for me to take pictures. The girl seemed a bit timid, but also curious, and they both indicated that they didn’t mind.
Back in the inner office, I learned that this girl is named Tasveera, age 10, and she has been a patient of Papa’s for most of her life. She suffers from a congenital condition that causes an enlarged heart, and as her heart continues to grow in size, it shrinks in function. She seems a typically healthy girl from the outside--normal in build, bubbly and energetic. “With careful treatment, we have been able to keep her symptom-free, for now,” said Papa.
Tasveera sat on the table and was instructed to “Saah khann.” Then Papa asked her to lie back and rest her head on the pillow.
“You see, SWEET EM!” he said, beckoning for me to come closer. “This is how large her heart is.” With a pointed finger hovering an inch above Tasveera’s chest, he traced an outline of a shape that was at least the size of a typical lung.
“If you promise not to cry,” said Papa Saeed, in a soft tone that I have rarely otherwise heard from his voice, “if you promise just to smile, then I’ll tell you what her heart function is.”
“Her heart is currently functioning at 20 percent,” he told me.
I nodded again, hiding any reaction while Tasveera sat up and then bounced off of the examining table and sat down in the chair in front of the desk. Watching this lovely, smiling girl, it was impossible not to be bruised by the irony of her suffering, caused by too big a heart.
The next patient was even younger -- a baby in fact, a cute little fellow with a hat on his round head, sitting on his mother’s lap. I asked with trepidation, “Is he all right?”
Papa was already engaged in jubilant interaction with this little fellow and didn’t hear me at first. So I said again, “Will he be okay?”
“OH YES EM!” he replied. “This one is in good shape. See here? Doesn’t he look happy? See, I can make any baby smile. See?” And Papa proceeded to make a number of whimsical sounds in the baby’s general direction, and then offered the little guy a cookie from the plate.
Soon after this, I was once again ferried away in a car and delivered safely back home. Papa Saeed carried on for some hours longer, as he does each day, with smiles and laughter, treating the ailing hearts of Larkana.
heart clinic: photo gallery.
The same images as above (which you can see here at higher resolution), plus some extras.
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.